Day Nine: Open Country
- August 27: Cottonwood Springs Lake Campground to municipal campground, Edgewood, S.D.
- Miles: 24 miles
- Elevation gain: 400 feet
It was surprisingly chilly when I woke the next morning. I donned a Merino-wool long-sleeved shirt and rain shell, but still shivered as I started down the paved road at 5:50 a.m. I soon turned right to follow dirt Erskine Road west-northwest, uphill and past alternating patches of forest, mini-canyons and pastures dotted with distant cattle.
High, patchy clouds reflected the rising sun as I hustled along, making good time and stopping only to look at a small cemetery. I turned south on Valley Road and was soon continuing my shoulder-walk along Highway 18. At 8:20, I reached the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rails-to-trail, gravel path between Deadwood and Edgemont, used mostly by bicyclists.
Stopping at the Minnekahta Trailhead, I was pleased to discover that the Mickelson features cisterns filled with drinking water at regular intervals, from April 30 to Oct. 1. That meant I could offload some heavy water for the 16-mile walk to Edgemont and fill up at the Sheep Canyon cistern in about 10 miles.
I reveled in the flat, even surface as I headed south and the day began to warm. Heading down the long valley known as Chilson Canyon was pleasant and easy. Soon the trail turned west and crossed under Highway 18S, snaking between two beautiful, dry Deadhorse and Sheep canyons. I stopped at the cistern to fill a water bottle and switch out my Altras for sandals in an effort to relieve my feet, which were hot and sore after the first 17 miles of my day.
After a short, gradual climb under hot blue skies, I could see the glittering telltales of my destination off to the southwest, looking tantalizingly close. Alas, the trail veered off to northwest, dragging me two miles away from Edgemont before turning south to descend the mesa and parallel follow Highway 18.
Cruddy approach to town, I grumbled in my journal. Junky shit yards and abandoned rail cars for literally a mile and a half.
By the time I got to Edgemont, I was beat. Hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. I followed 2nd Avenue to the southern terminus of the Mickelson trail in a humble little park, where I sat for a minute to sort myself out. The municipal campground lay just a couple blocks to the south, but I was ravenously hungry and needed a resupply. I hoisted my pack and walked into the small, free local museum. The woman behind the counter was thrilled to have a customer, then disappointed when I asked her for directions to a restaurant or anywhere to buy food. I promised I’d come back after I’d eaten and made camp.
Walking nearly a mile back through town, I passed through neighborhoods where small, occupied houses stood next to boarded-up mansions. Edgemont had seen better days.
I was most grateful to find a restaurant, micro-casino and gas station that also had a small grocery store. Before shopping, I drank about 70 ounces of icy Coke and mowed through a grilled cheese, fries and salad. Among the items I bought while shopping were two mini bottles of tequila and some strawberry Gatorade, which would make for a possibly disgusting cocktail.
I trudged back to the campground, where a note had been posted instructing prospective guests to call a local number. I left a message, then set up my tent on a grassy lawn across from a small cluster of pickups and large camp trailers, temporary homesteads for employees of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Then, I kept my promise and returned to the museum.
Edgemont was born a railroad town, it seems, and fought mightily to convince the BNSF to continue using it as a major yard for coal trains between Montana, Wyoming and points south. And from 1942 to 1967, the Black Hills Ordnance Depot south of town provided many jobs, but it was now a ghost town. The town was now very much in decline, with many houses and businesses mournfully boarded up and abandoned.
Back at my tent, I had to zip myself in to fend off clouds of aggressive mosquitoes. It seemed odd, here in such dry country, but the buggers were everywhere.
Toward sundown, an SUV pulled up next to my tent and the camp host rolled down her window to confirm I was the camper who had called. I told her I’d put my $10 in an envelope up at the shower and restroom building, which also doubled as a community theater space. She said the bathroom was now unlocked, so I headed up the hill and enjoyed a long, hot shower.
Although it was tattered and a little sad, I liked Edgemont. Hikers were virtually unheard of, but they had welcomed Mickelson cyclists with open arms and there were just enough amenities to make for a good resupply and rest point.
Clean and walled off from mosquitoes, I lay back in my tent and drank my faux strawberry margarita, which wasn’t as gross as I’d imagined. Several people had warned me about the racket made by trains, but I found the clacking of steel wheels and lonesome whistles a pleasant lullaby as I fell asleep.