Day Eleven: Strolling the Savannah
- August 29: Forest Service Road 930, Oglala National Grasslands, to Toadstool Geologic Park
- Miles: 27 (including error)
- Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
Well, another death march, I wrote in my journal at the end of the next day, another second consecutive long, hot slog across the sun-blasted plains of northwestern Nebraska.
I woke early, as usual, feeling refreshed, also as usual. I’ve gone to bed on long hikes feeling down and discouraged, but never once awakened feeling anything but renewed and ready to go.
The sky was partly cloudy as I started south on Edgemont Road, and, much to my relief, a substantial breeze was blowing. With luck, this day wouldn’t be as blistering as the day before. I strode along happily, descending a miles-long, gradual hill from my campsite, following the straight, undulating road that led to the small town of Harrison, county seat of Sioux County.
Over the next three-and-a-half miles, just three vehicles blasted past, roiling up clouds of white dust, each one a pickup driven by a mom with kids, presumably on the way to school. At one point, in need of a privy, I dodged down a small incline into some tall weeds. While squatting over my cathole, I watched a pair of pronghorn antelope, a mother and fawn, prance up a hill to the west.
I turned left on dirt Montrose Road after about an hour and a half of easy walking. Not as relentlessly straight as Edgemont, it curved up, over and around slight grassy prominences. As I approached the top of the first small hillock, I noticed a gray pickup creeping slowly across a grassy swale a couple hundred yards south. It came in and out of view as I continued east and I couldn’t stop my mind from spinning over what it could possibly be up to.
It wasn’t a Forest Service vehicle (does everyone have a pretty keen radar for “official” vehicles? I seem to) and, for whatever reason, my imagination kept straying to vaguely nefarious purposes. Who would be out here this early, nosing around? At best, maybe kids smoking weed; at worst, some criminal. I found myself wondering how I’d get away if the truck approached, but there was no place to hide out there.
Thankfully, it never did, though it continued to slowly criss-cross the grasslands as I walked the road. Then, much to my surprise, as I rounded a corner and started down a small hill I saw a lone figure walking toward me on the road, maybe a half mile away. Oddly, my brain didn’t associate the walker with the truck, and I began to wonder if, in this most unexpected of places, here was a fellow hiker.
As we approached one another, the mystery was solved: It was a guy in his 20s, dressed in camo and carrying a hunting bow.
“How’s it going?” he said when we met.
He asked what I was doing and I explained. “Antelope bow season?” I asked.
“Uh-huh. Been out here since dawn, but haven’t taken a shot.”
I asked if he’d seen the pickup meandering around to the south.
“Oh, yeah, that’s my buddy,” he said. “Where was he? He’s probably looking for me.”
Mystery two, solved.
We parted, two lone wanderers, and continued in opposite directions. But I would see him again.
The hunter may not have gotten any shots, but I saw plenty of antelope, in groups large and small. My experience with pronghorn while working as a cowboy has always been, they see you, and they are gone, rocketing away at 70 mph over the next hill, out of sight. But on this windy, increasingly warm morning, antelope that spied me stopped to gawk before running on a bit, gawking, and finally disappearing over a rise.
I wondered if that was due to the fact that, lone hunter notwithstanding, a human on foot was an anomaly in this landscape. Vehicles, cars, trucks, tractors, no doubt a few people on horseback, but nobody was nutty enough to be walking way the hell out here, so far from the town. Supporting my guess was the unusual behavior of cattle and horses I passed.
One bunch of about 20 horses tossed manes and barreled down a hill, where they stood snorting and alert, eyeing the suspicious biped in their midst. Later, some 60 endearingly curious Angus heifers couldn’t make up their mind whether to run away, tails lollipopped, or follow me through their open pasture. In the end, they trailed after me about 20 yards back until I stepped over a cattle guard and left them blinking in puzzlement. Might have been the wind, too; in my experience, moving air often stirs up livestock.
Some 12 miles into my day, I reached the empty, remarkably well-kept Immaculate Conception Catholic church, with its barren, snake-infested (according to a sign) cemetery just after 10 a.m., feeling good about my progress. I dutifully marched a quarter mile north on a faint track to visit the Warbonnet Battlefield and Cody-Yellow Hair Monument, commemorating a battle between the U.S. Fifth Cavalry and Cheyenne Indians on nearby Warbonnet Creek on July 17, 1876.
Steve had kindly stashed two more wet, wonderful gallons of water for me just inside the fence on the monument trail, and I felt like a sultan as I settled onto the cement stoop of the church for an early lunch. There had been stock tanks along Montrose Road, but they were pretty far off, and Warbonnet Creek was muddy, so it was nice knowing I had this bounty of water waiting.
After eating tuna and peanut butter on whole-wheat tortillas (not at the same time; some hikers can do stuff like that, but I can’t) and glugging down nearly half a gallon of water, I signed the church register. It apparently still hosted Masses with visiting celebrants from nearby Harrison. After filling my bottles, I poured out the excess, crushed the gallon jugs and stuffed them into my pack.
The signage at the three-way intersection in front of the church seemed to conflict with the databook instructions, so I initially set out east on Hat Creek Road. When the road took a hard left and headed north, I turned back, grumbling about “sideways miles,” and backtracked.
As I walked along, I saw a couple of signs warning that the U.S. government, in a truly appalling, wasteful use of taxpayers’ money, had set out explosive cyanide in piles of rotting meat in an effort to “control” coyote populations, a lost and foolish cause if there ever was one.
I suddenly realized that might explain for the heap of putrid offal I’d found near my water stash at Forest Service Road 930. I’d considered moving the stinking mess so I wouldn’t have to suffer it all night long — what if it had been a cyanide trap?
Jesus, I wrote later. Talk about dangerous. Go, coyotes, go!
It was 20 degrees cooler than the day before and breezy, but I felt increasingly parched and prickly beneath the relentless sun. I loved this wide-open country, but my feet were hot and sore and my lips were cracked and painful. At Orella Road, I put on sandals and headed east.
This next dusty dirt track also less relentlessly straight than Edgemont Road, and I walked past numerous unfenced stock ponds and tanks where I could have watered up, had I needed to. Four or five miles down the road, the landscape transitioned from rolling grasslands and occasional creeks shaded by cottonwoods into a mix of prairie, shallow canyons and badlands studded with moon-colored humps and teetering toadstools that instantly reminded me of the opening scenes of the 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes.”
Hot, tired and getting antsy to wrap up another long day, this new, varied landscape cheered me up a bit. I’d been to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park years before, and this was pretty much the same thing, on a smaller scale. I was also tickled to see many more hardy leopard frogs sunbathing next to murky puddles.
Desert/badlands frargs in surprisingly small pools — where do they go in winter when it dries? I pondered later in my journal (using a non-traditional spelling we use at our house).
Then I pulled yet another “duh” move. I’d briefly glanced at the databook instructions in the morning and got it into my head that the route followed Orella Road to the BNSF tracks before turning south on Toadstool Road toward Toadstool Geologic Park. So that’s what I did.
Afternoon was a long, hot slog down Orella Road, I wrote in my journal. I don’t believe it’s only six miles. According to Apple maps it’s 7.2 — seems closer, for sure.
It was, I would later learn, closer to seven-and-a-half miles to Toadstool Road, then another two-and-a-half miles to the Toadstool campground. I got there at 2:30 p.m., dumped my pack, and staggered over to the sod house, where Steve had stashed the last two of six very welcome gallons of water for my Great Savannah Crossing. I assumed it was Steve who also had left a Nature’s Valley bar and a banana atop the jugs, but he later said it wasn’t him; thank you, unknown trail angel — you’re the best kind!
I was hot, exhausted and footsore, but couldn’t take even a minute to rest. Despite the seeming lack of open water or even dampness nearby, the campground was swarming with aggressive mosquitoes. I smeared myself with the last of the Deepwoods Off! wipes I had and swiftly put up the tent to escape. As I lay there, glad to be on my back, a gray truck pulled in to the site two spots over and out climbed the antelope hunters I’d seen that morning.
“You beat us here,” the one I talked to said later when I went over to say hello. They’d seen plenty of antelope, he said, but taken no shots. They gave me a couple of Gatorades before packing up and driving back to Omaha.
I hunted when I was younger, and I’m OK with hunting if the hunter uses what he’s taken; trophy-hunting is inexcusable, in my book. Honestly? I’m always secretly thrilled when I learn that animals have outwitted heavily-armed pursuers to live another day.
I emerged from the tent and rummaged around a garbage can in search of a can of discarded bug spray, but had no luck. Donning long-johns and -sleeves, I wandered through the gate leading to the toadstool formations, trying to figure out where I was headed the next morning. In a tenth of a mile or less, I stopped to puzzle over a new Forest Service sign.
With GREAT PLAINS TRAIL on top, I assumed this was the sign referred to in the databook.
“What the hell?” I said aloud. I could see my tent in the campground a few hundred yards away and what the hell was “918 ROAD”? I took a photo and went back to my tent, where I discovered I had cell coverage.
Where is the trail to Hudson-Meng (Education and Research Center, an archaeological site south of Toadstool)? I texted Steve. Is it the same as the guided trail? Signage isn’t clear.
Just head generally southish and you should be fine, he replied. It mostly follows the main wash south from the CG. Be sure to follow the brown posts.
That just confused me more. Maybe I had sunstroke.
Sunburned lips. Shiny, burnt, scabby homeless legs with a million skeeter bites, I wrote in my journal. Guess I should have brought pants.
After eating and cleaning up, I lay motionless as the sun disappeared and the eastern sky turned purple, then black. I was burnt to a crisp in more ways than one after grinding out nearly 50 miles of exposed, sun-blasted savannah in two days. But I was happy, shielded from marauding insects and fat with good, clean water, in a beautiful place. And just one more day to town.
May or may not slog 20+ all the way to Crawford, I wrote before falling asleep. Certainly willing to hitch if I can. I’m absolutely beat.