Day Seven: Three Bulls
- August 25: Grace Coolidge Creek, Custer State Park, to Hot Springs, S.D., via Wind Cave National Park; end of Centennial Trail
- Miles: 31 miles
- Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
I woke with a big smile on my face, remembering my nightly visitor, now regretting that I hadn’t taken the chance of turning on my headlamp, if only for one fleeting glimpse. I was off by 6:30, a little later than usual. Ten minutes later, I passed the small brass medallion “collected” by the state park challenge hikers I’d met.
My feet were instantly soaked by dew-heavy foliage bowing. Crossing Grace Coolidge Creek I laughed: Here was excellent, freely-flowing water just minutes away from the muck where I’d tried to fill a bottle. I dumped the floater-contaminated stuff and stocked up before walking on.
The trail climbed to a plateau where the state or some other entity had been thinning trees for fire mitigation. That meant long, lovely views of the surrounding Black Hills, faintly crimson in the light of the rising sun.
Humming along happily an hour later, I came up over a small rise and stopped dead in my tracks. There, perhaps 25 yards off, a hulking bison bull lay in a dust wallow in the middle of the trail. This was, I knew, as close as one was supposed to get to these majestic, powerful and unpredictable creatures, so I slowly stepped off trail to the right and began angling up a steep hillside into a cluster of ponderosa striplings.
As soon as he saw me, the bull stood up, switching his tail and swinging his horns ever so slightly, a fair and decent warning. But he seemed not at all perturbed that I was watching him from up the hill.
Seeming in no hurry to move on, he began slowly working up the trail, breaking his fast on the lush grasses to either side. I scooted along the hillside in the other direction until I had put sufficient distance between us, then dropped back down and continued on my way.
Was this my night-time visitor? Doubtful. I had come some five miles from where I camped, and last I heard, my ghost bull had been headed north. But who knows what lies in the hearts of such noble creatures? It was a great start to what would turn out to be a long day.
When I’m backpacking, I always settle on a “minimum destination” for the day and unless something unusual occurs — illness, injury, side trip — I rarely miss a personal target, and often hike past my daily minimum. On this day, I’d set my sights on French Creek Horse Camp, a roughly 22-mile day.
The CT through Custer State Park features a lot of PUDs — pointless ups and downs, the most wearying kind of hiking — and passes through extensive areas ravaged by recent fires. On top of that, there were a couple short, but surprisingly steep — steeper than I’d ask a horse or mule to carry me up — sections. All this would add up to a hot, sweaty day by the time I was finished.
I spilled out onto Highway 16 quite early, expecting to see Legion Lake Lodge and its eponymous water source, but didn’t even see a sign. Continuing on, I came upon signs pointing north and east back to the lodge. But by then, my faint hopes of scoring a hot breakfast had been overcome by the desire to keep moving.
I found myself mired in regrets for foolish things I’d done in my younger days as I walked along and, as if to prove a point about mindfulness, my preoccupations crowded out any significant impressions I had of the passing terrain. It was a long seven or eight miles before I came to fast-flowing French Creek, where two thigh-high crossings forced me back into the present.
French Creek, like Iron Creek, is designed for horse- or mule-mounted trail users. I stopped to fill water bottles and ate a tortilla with peanut butter before moving on. Most of the campers were out with their mounts on the trail, but as I headed out, I saw a teenage girl reading a book next to a camper trailer.
“Hello,” I called. “This may seem like a weird question, but might you have a soda pop you’d sell me?”
She very kindly said she had plenty to spare, and handed me a cold can of Pepsi. As I rummaged in my hiker wallet (aka Ziploc bag), she waved me off.
“No, no, really,” she said. “We have like, a thousand of these. Just take it.”
I followed the reverse of the NOBO instructions in the guidebook, walking along the dirt road out of camp. When I saw no signs for the CT I bushwhacked across a grassy meadow. I forded the creek, scrambled up a steep embankment, and sure enough, there was the trail, cutting up the hill. Once again, where the trail would be obvious to a NOBO, a clear marker at the horse camp would have been helpful to this dumb SOBO.
Although there was only about 1,300 feet of climbing, the nine miles from French Creek to Highland Creek Trailhead were long and tiring. Huge swaths of the area are naked of trees, thanks to wildfires, and in places the trail is poorly marked and the tread faces to nothing.
The trail is often not a trail at all, fainter than bison tracks. Overgrown. You must look back and around you very often. So easy to get off track, I wrote later in my journal.
The final miles up and over a couple of beautiful, open hillsides and ridges were long and hot, and by the time I staggered across the small plank bridge over Highland Creek, I was hammered. I stripped down to my boxer briefs and parked my butt in the cool water, then cameled up and took on a couple of liters.
I’d already walked 23 miles on a hot day, frequently pounded by full sun. I thought about putting up my tent; at least there was a reliable, clean water source. In the morning, I could cross into Wind Cave National Park and hike six miles to the southern terminus of the CT. Or, I thought as I sat drying in the sun, I could keep going. It was only 3 p.m., after all.
The lack of cover made up my mind, though in hindsight I don’t know why that seemed important. I had imagined I’d find trees or rocks to shield me from prying eyes on the dirt road (not that I’d seen even a single car), and for whatever reason — brain boiled by too much sun, body trashed by too many miles? — I decided to keep walking.
I’m glad I did, though it was a long couple of hours to the end of the trail. End-of-day miles, like town miles, always feel “longer” than regular miles, to me.
Crossing into the park, I followed signs marked CT/#89 and #6, for the park trail system. The sturdy posts were obviously built to be bison resistant, as indeed they appeared to be.
I love walking through wide-open spaces (though I would soon learn it’s not quite as fun in extreme heat), and I drank in the long vistas as I followed the trail up and over gentle hills, spying herds of bison in the distance.
After a few miles, I began eyeing a vast thunderhead that had been piling up to the north all afternoon. It seemed likely that I would have rain, maybe even hail, before my day was through. The bruised and menacing storm clouds were moving a lot faster than I was as I hurried along the edge of Curley Canyon, then turned due west. I pulled up to squint at what appeared to be a large, brown rock off to the right of the trail, ringed by vultures. Curious, I veered cautiously off the trail, spooking the scavengers into flight.
Dead bison, I thought. Big bull.
Then the “dead” bison moved, ever so slightly. He was upright, but unable to stand, and the dark hair had fallen out, or had been pulled out, exposing pink, mottled skin. I grimaced at the huge animal’s ordeal, glancing at the circling buzzards. I backed away, trying not to judge nature’s cruelty. He was dying, this monarch of the plains, and the buzzards were just out to make a living. Maybe I’d call the park rangers’ office when I got to the road….
Sobered by my utter inability to ease his suffering, I turned away and kept walking. The rain finally broke, but the storm saved most of its fury for the hills to my north, spraying me with cool droplets as the sun continued to blaze from blue sky to the west. I crossed Beaver Creek and coming up over a small rise, ran smack into another bison bull, standing in the trail and grazing nonchalantly. I circled far out into the grass, but the bull was utterly indifferent to such a puny intruder. The last couple miles I followed Beaver Creek as cliff walls to the north continually changed color as the sun slipped down like a melting pat of butter in a vast, blue skillet.
After a short climb, I emerged at the southern terminus to find a sign and empty parking area. It was 5 p.m. on a Sunday. I was dead tired and suddenly emotionally drained after nearly 30 miles of tough, hot hiking. I took a couple of lousy selfies at the sign.
I walked a half mile on paved Highway 87 to Highway 385, but even that busy road was all but empty of traffic. It felt like the end of the world and I was the last human alive. I walked south on the road to the sign for park headquarters and Elk Creek Campground, where I thought I would camp. Though exhausted, I yearned for the comfort of real food and a real bed. Just then, I heard the peeling hiss of the first car I’d seen. I put out my thumb, testing the universe. If the car didn’t stop, well, I’d head into the campground….
But it did. The guy, messy, bearded and grinning, rolled down his window, releasing a cloud of pungent marijuana smoke.
“Where you headed, man?”
“Uh,” I said. “I guess Hot Springs.” I would miss about five miles of trail to the park’s southern borders, but also a 10-mile roadwalk into town.
“I’m going that way. Hop in.”
The man was chatty and lubed up, but seemed safe enough behind the wheel. He offered me a can of Coors, but I declined. A minute later, I reconsidered and he handed me the beer.
“Where do you wanna go?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe a cheap motel somewhere in the middle of town?”
“Coo, coo,” he said, laughing. “Drink up, man!”
I popped the beer and took a long swig.
I grew up drinking Coors, but for the most part, I only drink craft beer now. Call me snooty, but that’s what I like, and price isn’t a big deal, because I’m never drinking more than one, two at most. But sitting in that weed-scented, crummy old car, rolling down the empty highway, exhausted but feeling good about my 125-mile walk through the Black Hills, that beer tasted pretty damned good. In fact, I hadn’t had a better one since the Coors a woman gave me on July 4, 2015, the third day of my first thru-hike, on the Colorado Trail.
I got a room at the luxurious America’s Best Value Inn, where my door wouldn’t lock, ate pizza, and fell asleep, the first stage of my journey at an end.