GPT Pilot Trail – Episode 15

The fifteenth in a series from Clay Bonnyman Evans on his thru hike of the GPT Pilot Trail in August of 2019. I will be doling out the episodes here, but if you absolutely can’t wait to read on, you can at his website:

Great Plains Trail Pilot Trail: Episode 15

Day Fifteen: Replay

  • September 2: Toadstool Geologic Park to Cottonwood Road
  • Miles: 12
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet

Three phone alarms went off at 5 a.m. the next morning and we rose in the dark, reminding me of the dim and distant days when I’d spent six years cowboying on ranches around the West. Jean had been the one to suggest we eat breakfast early, so we packed up and eagerly awaited the arrival of coffee and whatever edible delights she had prepared for us.

Outside, a strange, warm fog had descended over the land, dampening the fur of the herding collie puppies who barreled toward us from the ranch house. Jean and her son arrived with trays of great-smelling chow at 6:30. We ate quickly, loaded up, and headed north on Toadstool Road.

toadstool nebraska bonnyman
Forest Service sign I’d missed before. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

This was going to be a little redo for me, following the intended route. We crept along Orella Road in Josh’s car as the fog lifted into a low, gray ceiling and I peered out the window to find the Forest Service road that I’d missed before. The odometer indicated it was 2.7 miles from Toadstool Road; no wonder I’d been grumpy that afternoon….

With memories of my searing walk across the Great Nebraska Savannah, I was pleased that the temperature was lurking somewhere in the 60s and tiny droplets pricked my cheeks. It should make for pleasant walking.

Emily and I headed south on FS918 at 7:30. Josh tailed us for a short while, capturing video, before turning back to drive to Toadstool. Emily and I were, indeed, like trail family from the start, as we quizzed one another and slowly revealed our lives. She grew up in Kentucky and was a one-time “climber girl,” sleeping in her car and hanging with dirtbags for fun. She’d traveled extensively overseas, including a train-and-trail trek across the Australian Outback. And she’d been a performer, a singer, even a clown.

emily chen-newton great plains trail clay bonnyman evans
Emily Chen-Newton. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

In no time, we reached the GPT sign and turned east to walk to the campground. Once again, the mosquitoes were on the attack, so we spent little time there with Josh before heading out to jump on the Bison Trail south.

The southbound trail drew us into a steep-sided draw which, to my great surprise, was flowing with recent rainfall.

Bison Trail follows wash, which was muddy! A frog! Many toads! I wrote later.

The air remained pleasantly cool as we splashed along the slowly rising gulley, emerging on the rim of a grassy plateau and crossing FS918 after some three miles.

Emily is extraordinarily sensitive to poison ivy, and I knew we would be crossing a couple of gullies where the three-leafed menace might be growing. I’d already picked up the rash around my ankles somewhere along the trail and kept my eyes peeled as we made our way across the plateau.

We reached the Hudson-Meng site at mid-morning on Labor Day, the final day of the interpretive center’s season. There was no fee for the tour of the site, a rich “bonebed” where the remains of more than 600 prehistoric bison had been discovered (my friend Steve Cassells had helped to develop it in the early days). Evidently, subsurface imaging indicates that the bonebed extends far beyond the current site, a task for future archaeologists.

Pony, Toadstool Geologic Park. Those nifty blue poles are Emily’s. Emily Chen-Newton photo.

While we toured the site, the morning clouds burned away and I knew we were in for a hot afternoon. I changed into sandals and slugged down two free bottles of water.

Emily, who as a ginger is also sun-sensitive, busted out her shiny silver sun umbrella, donned a broad, floppy-brimmed hat and slathered herself with sunscreen. I bought a Six Moon Designs sun umbrella specifically for this walk, but in (yet another) dumb decision, had decided to leave it at home. Now I tucked a bandana beneath my cap and applied sunscreen and lip balm.

It was interesting walking the same lonely roads, this time with company. The miles rolled by swiftly, lubricated by our near-constant, and never-dull, conversation. We saw lots of cattle, including herds of curious steers, a few deer and several pronghorns.

great plains trail clay bonnyman emily chen-newton
Still-life with Emily and steers. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

But our moist, cool morning had turned into a blazing hot afternoon, with the temperature in the mid-90s when we met Josh on Cottonwood Road around 3 p.m. I was happy to “yellow blaze” — hitching a ride to skip miles, in hiker parlance — those long, hot, dusty roads into town, having already served that sentence, and Emily had already put in a good first day.

Per the plan I’d devised, we drove back to Crawford and pitched our tents for $10 each in the shade of tall trees in the city park. I called Jody and my mother, then the three of us sat around cooking and eating dinner and talking until after dark.

About greatplainstrail

Building the Great Plains Trail.
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