Day Eighteen: End of the Trail
- September 5-6: Lake Minatare to Scottsbluff National Monument; Scottsbluff
- Miles: 21.5 (including walk back into town)
- Elevation gain: 200 feet
I woke early and headed off around the western end of Lake Minatare, seeking to avoid the roadwalk advised by the databook. For once, a shortcut turned out OK, and I was happy to have walked through the woods — where piles signs of the spring’s flooding were still evident — rather than on pavement. The day ahead was going to have plenty of pavement as it was.
Ugh. 10 miles of roadwalking at least, tomorrow, I wrote in my journal the night before.
Once out of the cottonwoods, I bushwhacked through a short stretch of long grass to Lake Minatare Road, which the databook indicated I should follow for six miles. There wasn’t much of a shoulder, but it was just after 6 a.m., so there wasn’t much traffic, either. But after a couple of miles, the morning commuters had begun to whiz by.
When I came to dirt County Road 27 I wondered if it might not offer an alternate route. Most rural agricultural counties are laid out in grids, so it seemed possible that I could follow the dirt road south until reaching an east-west farm road, and make my way into town that way. The map function on my phone confirmed that I could, with the slight caveat that I would be adding about a mile of distance where a county road skirted around the regional airport.
It turned out to be a good choice. With no wind blowing, walking on dirt made my battered feet slightly happier than asphalt and I was dusted by just handful of trucks. The landscapes were pleasantly open, if unexceptional, and I found myself feeling grateful that I had bailed on 40 miles of this from Alliance to Lake Minatare.
By 10 a.m. I was sauntering down 27th Street toward the Capri Motel on the west side of Scottsbluff. It was a dive, but also relatively inexpensive. I dumped my pack on the bed, sorely tempted to quit, but decided to stick to my plan to slack-pack — hike without gear and hitch back to the motel — through town to Scottsbluff National Monument, the “official” end of the pilot trail.
I downed a quart of Gatorade, filled a water bottle, put on my sandals and headed out. It was only about six miles to the monument, then less than a mile to the top. I felt surprisingly fresh as I crossed the North Platte River and skirted along the west side of the bluff to reach the visitor’s center right at 1 p.m. The views on top were great, but suddenly ravenous, I didn’t linger.
Fortunately, I didn’t wait long at the bottom before a guy in a pickup said I could ride in back. He dropped me off just across the bridge, which meant my hunger had to put up with another two miles of streetwalking back to the hotel, where I gathered my reeking clothes. I tossed my Altra Timps, which had blown out at the sides after more than 500 miles and walked to the laundromat.
I devoured three bean burritos at Taco Bell and once more indulged the thoroughly out-of-character craving that had dogged me for nearly 300 miles, a big, icy Pepsi (I’m a Coke man, but in a pinch….)
Ready to eat again a couple hours later, I was disappointed to find that the authentic-looking Mexican place near the motel was closed due to a family emergency. I was deeply underwhelmed by the fare at the other “Mexican” place up the street, staffed by surly teens and featuring a lily-white Nebraskan idea of what Mexican food should be. The “hot sauce” resembled watered-down ketchup and the margarita tasted (no, really) like a feedlot.
The ride home took about three hours, including stops in Cheyenne and Fort Collins. The cranky woman driving slightly warmed up to me when she heard me singing quietly along to the America tunes she was playing, which she then turned up way too loud.
Waiting for Jody to pick me up at the McDonald’s just off I-25 east of Longmont I talked to a guy who had a backpack, cooler and other gear strapped to a set of wheels. He said he’d been on the road for 17 years and was headed back to Minnesota to spend time with his family.
And then, quite suddenly, I was back in the “synthetic world,” as famous thru-hiker Dixie calls it, burned, scabby, sore and 10 pounds lighter.
“Well,” I said, quoting Samwise Gamgee from “The Lord of the Rings” (as I always do upon coming home after a hike), “I’m back.”
I wanted to hike the pilot trail to do my small part in continuing to educate the public about the Great Plains Trail and its potential. In late October, I was thrilled to listen to the stories Emily had created from our three days together on KIOS and, a month later, see Josh’s video interpretation of the experience. So, mission accomplished; thanks, you guys.
I also wanted to see for myself whether a self-supported hike of pilot trail is viable. Although I bailed out on two extremely long days into and out of Alliance, I think the route is viable — but only for experienced hikers capable of racking up 30 or 40 miles.
The limiting factor is the distance between public land, private campgrounds or motels where hikers can spend the night in Nebraska. My three long, hot days (four, if you count the 23-mile day into Edgemont, S.D.) across the “savannah” were certainly challenging, but would have been less intense without the late-summer heat.
Once in the Ogalala National Grasslands, there were plenty of stock tanks and ponds and a couple of creeks along the route (likely not the case in a dry year). And a careful researcher probably could determine the exact locations of public lands on the public/private checkerboard of the grasslands, potentially opening up new possibilities for camping sites to break up some long days.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge of the pilot trail is the roughly 120 miles of highway and dirt-road walking from Nebraska National Forest to Scottsbluff. It’s hard to know how to break that up, other than to suggest that, as on parts of the GPT in New Mexico and Colorado, hikers have vehicle support. On a bike, the pilot trail is eminently doable.