Day Six: Close Encounters
- August 24: Campsite south of Sheridan Lake to Grace Coolidge Creek, Custer State Park
- Miles: 17.5
- Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
I woke to cool, cloudy weather and, unusually for me, spent much of the day “dawdling” — or as normal people probably see it, doing interesting things instead of just racking up miles.
From the saddle where I camped, the CT climbed another 500 feet or so toward the summit of Samelius Peak, rising through ponderosa forests that reminded me very much of the foothills and mountains in Boulder, where I had grown up. At several points along the way I could see Rapid City off in the distance, backlit by a pink rising sun.
The trail skirts below the summit of the peak, but I soon reached the 5,833-foot high point of the Centennial Trail. Descending the other side, I ran headlong into a gathering of about 30 cow-calf pairs. Unaware of my approach, they were fooling around in the middle of the trail, calves heat-butting playfully, cows scratching themselves on tree trunks. I tried to approach slowly and calmly, but when they noticed me at last, it was all lollipop-tails and bolting down the jeep track.
Passing the Samelius Peak Trailhead, I followed the trail for less than a quarter of a mile to a foot tunnel beneath busy Highway 16. On the other side, the CT failed Signage 101 once again, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that had I been northbound, the route would have been clear, but yet another sudden lack of markers forced this SOBO to waste time.
The terrain was pleasantly varied for the next few miles as the trail meandered through forests and open areas past rock outcroppings and finally crossed tiny Battle Creek (into which some unhelpful person had tossed a CT sign) and the tracks for the Hill City-Keystone tourist train. Crossing Old Keystone Road, I stopped to warm up beneath a hazy sun and switch my soaked trail runners for sandals. My Altras were beginning to split out at the sides. I’d used this pair pretty hard, and doubted they’d make it to the end of this hike.
After a short, steep climb, I crossed Highway 244 and soon came to the Big Pine Trailhead. From here, the official GPT route leaves the Centennial Trail for a few miles, so hikers can climb Black Elk Peak, South Dakota’s high point. I had planned to follow the route until I realized that if I continued on the CT, I’d pass right by Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
I’d seen it as a young scout on that first backpacking trip in the early ‘70s and felt no great desire to see it again. But I felt a burning desire at the thought of chow; at minimum, there would be a gift shop where I could buy a Coke, Snickers and Doritos, and given the site’s immense popularity, surely there was a cafeteria or restaurant. At the cost of missing Harney Peak, a mile-long detour, and a few hundred feet of climbing, I chose to break up my day and indulge my growing hiker hunger. I marched off into the Black Elk Wilderness, beaming at visions of stuffing my face. Sorry, South Dakota’s high point; I was on a mission.
The trail through the wilderness rolled up and down over loose rock and dirt and mud churned by horse hooves. But it was beautiful, the weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, and I dawdled shamelessly to pluck raspberries like a hungry bear.
Alas, what I call “town miles” — the distance to town or a hostel or a restaurant you’re looking forward to — are maddeningly “longer” than regular miles, and by the time I reached the Rushmore spur, I was cranky. The hike up to the memorial was somewhat steep and felt longer than a half mile, and I grumbled the whole way.
But then, I was there. I crossed the road and flowed into a crowd of hundreds across a plaza and into the main viewing area, feeling like an alien trying to pass in a strange, sudden sea of humanity. And then — hallelujah! — I stumbled through the doors of the enormous cafeteria I just knew would be there.
In my “synthetic life” — what some insist on calling “the real world” — I eat virtually no meat. But often on trail, my body yearns for dense protein and salt, and against this craving my vegetarian ethics stood little chance. I ordered the pot roast special, which came with gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables and a roll, and a huge, refillable cup of Coke with tons of ice. Ahhhhh….
Amid swarms of tourists from all over the world, speaking many tongues, I was fortunate enough to score a table in the shade on the outside patio, where I had a perfect view of the four stony presidential visages above. I slammed 20 ounces of freezing Coke straight off, then tore into the food. Now that I was not moving, my hiker stench was evident even to my own olfactory detectors, and I hoped the families nearby didn’t think I was some homeless bum.
I headed back down the hill feeling very happy about my decision. I was full, hydrated and even a tad cleaner, having dodged into the bathroom to scrub my face and neck. After dunking my head in Grizzly Bear Creek, I continued south on the CT.
The next four miles were pleasant enough, highlighted by a sighting of several turkeys, lowlighted by yet another sign snafu. I’ve done trail maintenance, and I know how difficult it is to keep a trail open for the public. And I’m aware that there is no Centennial Trail Conservancy or anything like that. But seriously, I hope someone — anyone — will take a good look at signage on the CT and at least set markers at junctions where there currently are none. Last bitch about the signage on the CT, promise.
As good as I’d felt after gorging myself in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, I became increasingly impatient as the afternoon wore on. As I approached Iron Creek Horse Camp I was surprised to pass a dozen or so people riding mules. I moved to the side of the trail and stood stock still to let them past, but one was especially skittish.
“I don’t know what his problem is,” said his lady rider. “Maybe your poles. Would you mind moving a bit further off?”
The camp itself was quite pleasant, but it was intended for horse (and mule) people and would have cost me $24 for the privilege of setting up my wee tent. So, I decided to fill my water bottles in the stock tank and head on.
“You know you can’t drink that water, don’t you?” said an old guy with a face fenced in by wild, gray hair.
“Yes, sir. I’m treating it,” I said.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“No, I mean, where you off to?”
“Oh, well, I’ll wind up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska when I’m through.”
He stood there blinking behind his dusty spectacles for a minute.
“Where’d you come from?
“Bear Butte, up by Sturgis.”
“And you’re walking the whole way?
His expression didn’t change, but he exuded incredulity.
“Never heard of anybody doing that,” he said.
“Well, that’s the plan.”
He shook his head, mystified, before ambling off to sit in his camp chair next to an RV.
Once I’d watered up, I headed out.
“Here you go,” said the old guy as I walked past, standing to hand me a dripping, cold can of Pepsi. “You look like you could use this.”
“Oh, man, thank you!” I said. I popped it open and in four long swigs drank the whole thing. He reached out for the empty.
“Now, you know you got to watch out for buffalo down through Custer State Park, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I’m looking forward to seeing a few.”
“They’re not like cattle, you know.”
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said, feeling a small swell of pride. “I worked as a cowboy for a bunch of years. Didn’t really work around bison except in a feedlot in California, but they were plenty ornery.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Well, you just be sure to give ‘em a wide berth if you see any. Every year seems like some tourist from back east decides to waltz right up and take a snapshot of a big bull who don’t take too kindly to it.”
“I will. Thanks again for the Pepsi.”
The trail crossed into Custer State Park almost immediately and soon crossed Highway 87. I’d only come 17 miles, but it was almost 4 p.m. Grace Coolidge Creek was more like a bog, thanks to frequent trampling by hooves. Cattle or bison, I couldn’t tell.
“Hello!” someone shouted as I squatted there trying to collect water. I looked up to see a neatly dressed couple approaching from the south. “Are you hiking the whole trail?”
“Yes,” I said, “then heading west and south into Nebraska. How about you?”
They were knocking off that summer’s “state parks challenge,” in which people hike to a set of designated trail markers to check off their list. One of this year’s designated markers was just down the trail.
These were the first people I’d seen in 100 miles that I would actually call hikers. Trail riders and people poking around near trailheads, sure, but nobody who seemed to have any inkling that people like me did things like hike 300 miles — or 500 or 3,000. These two did.
“Have you enjoyed it so far?”
“It’s been beautiful and really interesting,” I said. “I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a single backpacker.”
“Welcome to South Dakota,” the woman said. “Outdoor recreation in this part of the world is all about ORVs. We hikers are a minority!”
They said goodbye and headed on.
I climbed a small hillock above the bog, where I found a good spot to pitch my tent, between a scraggly pine and a small wedge of sharp rocks. I laid my sodden, salty clothes on the rocks to dry and set my solar charger in the slanting sunlight.
Dressed only in boxer briefs, I kept hearing a faint grunting sound off to the west. I put on my sandals and decided to see if I could find the source. I first climbed atop a large, granite mound crowning the high point, where I turned 360 degrees to scan the sparsely forested area. I then came upon a huge downed tree on which someone had carefully placed straight, dry limbs and trunks of small trees to form an enclosure that looked to me like a South African kraal.
While poking around the odd structure, I heard the grunt again; it sounded like a brushed-up bull. Bulls, despite their fearsome reputations, are generally very lazy unless stirred by the scent of estrus from a cow or challenged by another male. Many shirk their duties as breeders, preferring to chill out in some cushy bull-cave — ideally, surrounded by easy-to-reach grass, close to a watering hole, far enough from cows that they aren’t disturbed by olfactory compulsions and hidden from the prying eyes of meddlesome cowboys.
Doing my best to echo-locate, I descended the hillock and picked my way through a small grove of aspens before emerging in the grassy drainage, where I could make out a faint trail of trampled grass heading toward the boggy crossing. I stood there for a minute, straining to hear, but was soon chased back to my tent by a frenzy of mosquitoes, obviously thrilled by arrival of a half-naked human, manna from the mosquito gods.
Hours later, I was stirred out of sleep by the same animal noises, only this time much nearer. Grunting, growling, snorting, it was a voice emanating from a very deep cavern indeed. Lying in the dark with heart rate climbing, I thought this is what an ogre would sound like. And it was coming closer.
I knew it wasn’t a bear. Bears don’t sound like that, and sadly, there haven’t been bears in the Black Hills for decades (though some biologists believe that’s changing). And it didn’t sound quite like a bull … at least not a domestic bull.
Holy shit! I thought. Must be a bison.
I strapped on my headlamp and quietly unzipped the tent. Creeping out into the cool, early-morning air, I peered over the small rock outcropping. In the frosty light of a quarter moon, I squinted in the dark to see the bog, half expecting to see red-hot igneous eyes and clouds of sulfurous steam rising from a vast, slow-moving shadow, a figment out of some mythical tale told by cowboys around a campfire at the edges of a great wilderness, long ago … like in the old cowboy song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”:
An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
Plowing through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cries.
Just then, a small voice in my head hissed, Wait! I felt safe on my little promontory, but I didn’t know for sure that a big bison bull, ambling down to the crick for a midnight drink, wouldn’t be enraged by the red beam of my headlamp. My poor wife considers me one of the more reckless people on the planet, but for once in my life, I bowed to caution. Without ever seeing the beast in my backyard, I slunk back to the tent, where I dozed uneasily for a couple of hours, wakened periodically by the creature’s long conversation with itself.
Finally — finally — the sounds of giant hooves sucking mud and the gradually decreasing volume of the beast’s chesty chuffing convinced me that he — I was never in doubt that it was a he, a him, a very large male with a massive, curly ogre’s head — had departed, without ever knowing I was there. Though maybe he lingered so long because in the deep, dim reaches of his primordial brain, he had half-sensed an alien in his midst….
I slept, at last.