A cold night, a long hike, a good story.

I went to the Badlands for a microadventure Friday Nov 7. I needed a change of scenery and a chance to clear my mind. The weather predictions called for chilly temps (overnight low of 27°) but no precip nor high winds. Since I have a cot and 20°F rated sleeping bag, not to mention performance base layer tights and a stove to boil water, I was good to go.

I got out of Pierre later than I intended, around 3:30pm central time. It takes two solid hours to get to Sage Creek Wilderness campground. I knew local Pierre sunset was around 5:30 CST. Surely sunset at the Badlands National Park would be a little later, closer to 6 central.

It wasn’t. The official sunset time, as it turned out, for Friday Nov 7 at Badlands National Park was 4:35 MST (5:35 Central).  As I drove, I watched the sinking sun and doing the “how many fingers between the sun and horizon” math, I realized I was in a race with sunset.   I drove to Wall, stopping for doughnuts (there is always time for doughnuts) and entered the park through the Pinnacles entrance.

Aside: I have an annual national park pass. I also have an annual state park pass. Parks are underfunded but give you some of the best recreation value you can get for the money. Stop trying to sneak into parks without paying. Buy the damn pass.

The sun had dropped below the highest ridges when I turned onto Sage Creek Rim Road. I passed by Hay Butte overlook. The basin below was a cold gray of twilight. The golden sunset still lit the upper reaches of the basin along the road which is why I suppose there was so much wildlife to be seen there.

The Sage Creek Rim Road is washboard gravel. You don’t speed even if you aren’t looking at scenery or wildlife.  This was a good thing because just As I passed the Hay Butte overlook I saw a large animal in the road. What was it? It wasn’t a bison. I didn’t think there were elk in the park. I slowed to a crawl. Closer, closer… it was a big horn sheep.

I stopped the car to let the bighorn approach me and pass. The sheep glanced at me as it neared. For one tiny nanosecond, I thought it was going to drop its head and charge. I’m amazed by what can flit through your mind in such a short amount of time; images of airbags and crumpled grills, trying to explain to a body shop. Happily the sheep veered off the road and trotted around me.

A little further along the road, there were bison. Lots and lots of bison. Bison, in my opinion, are the original FU animals. They just don’t care and if you annoy them for reasons known only to them, they are perfectly ok ramming into you. I have never heard of a bison actually ramming a car.… Wait. I just googled this. Apparently bison do ram cars. I’m not surprised, not surprised at all.

Fortunately, I did not have to navigate the bison jam alone. I pulled up behind another car so I let him take the lead and the ramming risk in clearing the bison from the road. They trudged off and in two memorable cases trudged back on the road (see? they don’t care) but I made it through without incident. So many bison congregated in one spot made me hopeful that this meant that most of the bison would be up on the road rather than in the campground.

The Sage Creek Wilderness area campground is not really a campground by most people’s standards. A side gravel road leads you a mile off the main gravel road to an oval approximately a quarter mile round with about a ten picnic tables in the center, and a few more off to one side for the horse area. There are pit toilets at either end along with trash receptacles and an announcement board warning of bison and rattlesnakes. There are no electrical hooks up, water spigots, lights, campfire rings (in fact, campfires are prohibited) or designated spots. It’s first come, first serve, according to the literature. I’ve been there on Labor Day weekend and while there were a lot of tents, it could hardly be called full.

Google Maps satellite photo of Sage Creek Campground.

Every time I’ve been to the Sage Creek campground, either for camping or hiking, I’ve seen bison nearby. They wander through the campground regularly as the numerous bison pies that dot the interior of the loop attest. My last visit I had a too close for comfort encounter so I’m very happy with bison being someplace else if I’m there. I suppose they feel same way so we make an uneasy peace. Well, I make the uneasy peace. The bison, being the FU animals, don’t care and will continue to do as they please

I followed the car into the turn off to the campground where we navigated another herd standing in the road. When we pulled up to the loop, we pulled over, me passing and parking in front of him far enough to give us both “elbow room”. I hopped out of my car and ran back to thank him for taking the lead. I didn’t get his name. He was British by accent and had been there once before in February (February!). I told him I was from Pierre.

Since the light was getting fainter that was as far as our conversation got. I was curious about what brought him there in February but the looming dark meant that I needed to get my tent up and dinner on. It was also a little chilly for a casual chat.

I have an REI half dome tent which is easy to put up. Five minutes, claim the advertisements and I can do it in just about that amount of time, even in low light, cold conditions. Tent up; cot, sleeping bag and liner (darn, I forgot my sleeping pad) into the tent along with a few other bags and it was time to make dinner.

My stove of choice is a biolite stove which uses twigs as its fuel source. It’s as much for emergency preparedness as camping since fuel is plentiful and free. I start mine with a firestarter stick lit by a butane lighter. The stove creates a nice flame (another benefit when camping and you can’t have a campfire) which heats things quickly. A disadvantage is I only know how to get one setting, roaring, which makes cooking tricky.

I heated up the beans and corn stew with tortilla almost without incident. The tortilla got a little black in spots but I’m casual about burned food. I think char adds a nice smoky note to almost any dish.

I ate, had a glass of wine, did some low level clean up, spent a few moments gazing at the night sky (spectacular with no moon and no light pollution) and then retired to my tent before 7:30pm central. I sat on my cot, toes buried in my sleeping bag, reading and hearing the occasional coyote howl.

It did not take long before even that, with my multiple layers of clothes (3 below the waist, five above including a Patagonia nanopuff) was not enough. I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm and promptly fell asleep.

I woke up intermittently through the night, partly because of coyote howls, partly because a flair up of chronic aches and pains. Around 4am I tweeted “Don’t coyotes ever sleep?”. I was as dyspeptic as I sounded. I was buried deep in my sleeping bag but when I stuck my nose out the night air felt sharp and cold. What a cold wimp I had become over the summer, I thought.

The next time I woke up it was about 7am central and it was almost sunrise. I disentangled myself from bag, remarking to myself – again – on the cold.

My morning was … challenging. My fingers, despite my cotton gloves, got painfully cold. It took me longer than it should have to get a flame off the butane lighter to start the fire for my coffee. The twigs I had for fuel were too long which made heating the coffee difficult and in fact, the pot tipped over and I lost half my coffee. (I know, right?). And my toes got colder and colder, past pain to numbness.

Good sense finally prevailed over a tough-it-out attitude and once I had a cup of coffee I got in the car to warm my feet and to defrost the car which had a solid crust of ice on it.

When I took my shoes off my feet were the waxy white with bluish tinge of mild frostbite.  I’ve had mild frostbite before and previous history is a risk factor for it happening again. As a wilderness first responder I know the symptoms, I know the risk factors.  Knowing all this didn’t help with prevention, though.

I warmed my feet up; the pain level for such is about a 3, a smidge too high to distract myself with a book or even my phone so I watched the sunrise light move down the ridges into the little valley and ached.

Once the worst passed I ate the doughnuts. As a wilderness first responder I also know that when you eat your metabolism revs up so I was, technically, administering first aid. Plus, it was doughnuts.

After about 40 minutes both the car and I were defrosted. I decided to break down camp and head into Wall for more coffee. I noticed that the car of the guy who had led me into the campground was gone but his tent was still there. I like to imagine he was researcher of some sort.

As I packed up, I saw the half full gallon jug of water I had put in my tent was slushy. And the tent fly interior was rimed with ice, frozen condensation from breathing. Wow, I thought, 27° weather is harsher than I thought.<

I got into a conversation with one of the other five, widely dispersed sets of campers (elbow room, it’s a thing). He had an REI quarter dome and I wanted his opinion on it. We chatted at length the way you do when an extrovert is part of the conversation (not me). He was from Colorado. He was camping with his daughter to do some hiking. I gave him some recommendations. We both commented on the cold and he said that his thermometer read 16° that morning.

16°. Well, that explained a lot. I made a note to buy a good pair of warm boots for next time.

I sat on the picnic bench in my camp chair in the sun enjoying being in the light. The coffee I had spilled earlier had frozen into a a half inch thick rim of ice on the table and sparkled. That it wasn’t melting right away even in the sun told me that it was still plenty cold out. But the sun made it feel warmer. I’m aware this might have been due more to psychology than physics.

I realized I would have to move eventually if I wanted to get any hiking in. Time to leave. First stop, Wall for coffee.

But it’s hard to make a beeline trip  through the Badlands. The basin stretched out below which had been gray the previous night was bright in the late morning sun. I had to stop.

I was not the only one who was called to pull over. I passed a car on the shoulder. A photographer with a large camera that implied money and skill was at work about 50 feet off the road.

I use my phone for all my pictures. I do this as my own personal challenge. How good can I make my pictures with equipment that is within reach of most people? (I use a low end phone and a low end phone service too.) I do this out of conviction that almost anyone can add beauty and discovery and adventure into their lives.

I confess that I have camera envy and sometimes when a picture doesn’t come out well I give serious thought about buying a better quality camera.

But I don’t. I’m already creeping up in cost of my outdoor gear and that feels like I’m cheating.

Unfortunately, I have yet to get a really good picture of the Badlands with my phone. There is a series of red and yellow paleosols that when juxtaposed with the sage green of the grass makes me wish I could paint the world or at least a room in those colors. Can I capture them with my camera? Not yet.

But there is plenty I can record to my satisfaction. (Please note that I said satisfaction. I know I’m not a professional photographer for many reasons, the camera being the least of them).

The signs in this part of the park are surrounded by stout wooden poles. I don’t know for sure but I suspect this is to keep the bison and perhaps the bighorn sheep from using the signs as scratching posts. The life of a bison must be an itchy one because if bison are in proximity to a post you will often see one scratching itself.

At the Sage Creek Basin overlook, there is a tree below the overlook.

I walked down and noted that one of the branches was polished smooth.

There were bison tracks and even a tuft of bison hair on the ground below the tree.

Plus nearby “bison pie.” I will spare you the pictures.

I’m certain that this tree branch is a favorite scratching post. But when I was there, there were no bison in the vicinity.

The trip into Wall took longer than I intended. It’s only 8 miles from the Pinnacles entrance so I expected to be back into the park in less than 45 minutes.

But there was a delay because of road construction.Then once in Wall I went and looked at camping supplies (because camping supplies) and I needed to use the restroom. You know how it goes…<

I dillydallied longer than I intended to. I decided to cut back into the park via Big Foot Road  to avoid construction. Big Foot Road, alternatively spelled Big Foote Road, leads through the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and brings you into the park east of where I entered the previous night.  I headed for the more developed part of the park with the scenic loop and visitor center with gift shop and flush toilets; the part of the park with the marked trails.

I was not feeling overly adventurous.A moderate hike, five-ish miles, would do. I wasn’t up for forging my own trail in the park’s back country. After the morning’s challenges I wanted a marked path.

Badlands National Park allows you to go off trail into the backcountry. As of this writing, you don’t need a permit but it’s a good idea to register at one of the trailheads even if going for “just” a day hike. A sprained ankle can happen just as easily on a three mile hike as it can on a three day trek. I also recommend carrying a day pack (see below).

I’d done variations of the Castle trail, a popular, marked trail, so I decided I would do the same again. I pulled off into the trailhead parking lot. I had a bite of lunch – how did it get to be so late? – and went across the highway to the trailhead for the Castle trail.

The signage was confusing. The distances to Medicine Root, Castle and Saddle Pass trails were marked. Or was that the length of the trail? Was Saddle Pass 0.2 miles or 2 miles from where I was? Two signs each said something different or at least that is how I read it at the time.

The day by this time had warmed nicely into the 50’s. I pulled off the nanopuff, tied it around my waist and rolled up my pant legs. I struck out around 1:30pm, my toes still tender from that morning’s deep chill. I texted my husband to let him know where I was going.  I was ready. I had my camera/phone with intermittent service and my day pack which had my full kit: headlamp, 2 liter water bladder, first aid kit, granola bar, whistle, rain poncho.

I am one of those that carries a well equipped–one might even say robustly equipped–day pack even on outings that are more walk than hike.  I’ve heard one too many stories about Hikes Gone Bad. In Wilderness First Responder training you learn quickly to never be without a first aid kit. Obviously, I paid more attention to that lesson than the one about preventing frostbite.

I walked as I always do, sometimes looking at the ground, sometimes the sky, listening to the wind and the birds. There is almost always wind in the Badlands, but at this time of year there weren’t many vocalizing birds.

When I look at the ground, I am watching the footing but also for rattlesnakes. I’m also looking for tracks and scat.  Trackwise, I saw the hooved prints of deer or antelope. Scatwise, I saw their pelleted poop. Experts can tell the difference or so they say. I’m no expert.

I also saw a lot of canid looking scat which I assume came from coyotes. On two different samples, I saw large orange and black insects crawling over scat. They turned out to be burying beetles; not American burying beetles which are endangered (how cool would that have been) but some other species. I spent about 20 minutes observing, taking pictures.

Apologies to the squeamish.

I came to Saddle Pass (FYI, it wasn’t 0.2 miles) which was also the intersection of Medicine Root and Castle trail. On a whim, just because, I decided to follow Medicine Root trail.

Future Me, here’s a reminder. Study a trail map before embarking on a new trail. Otherwise you will get all turned around. Fortunately, if you stay on the trail, you will be fine mostly.

I thought the Medicine Loop trail brought me back towards my start. It didn’t. It paralleled the Castle trail going forward. It wasn’t till it intersected again 2 miles plus along with the Castle trail that I started the loop back. My trip would have been a lot more comfortable emotionally had I this mental picture in my mind.

It was halfway through the Medicine Loop trail that I began to worry about time. By then, it was mid afternoon. I could tell I wasn’t headed back to the trailhead but wasn’t sure exactly where I was in relationship to my start. I finally caved and brought up a Google map to see where I was. Yikes, I was further away from the trailhead than I realized. Would it be better to turn around or go on? Go on, I thought.

I almost always will choose go on. I don’t know if this a strength or a weakness.

I eventually reached the point where the Medicine Root and Castle trails intersected just by the Old Northeast Road. I checked the time, checked the sun. I did some quick and dirty computations and realized that once again I would be coming in close to sunset. I had my headlamp and I could re-layer my clothes so I would be ok evening hiking but I was not relishing trying to navigate the trail in the dark.

In the Badlands, trails don’t always have clearly worn paths. Such is the reality of a hiking in a highly erodible landscape. The official trails are marked with colored poles placed at distances of about a tenth of a mile apart. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to see the marking poles, you had to scan the distance to find the next one.

Right. I had to be straight away about getting back.

The return trip was no-nonsense. I didn’t stop for a prolonged time to look at bugs on poop. The sun was low enough in the sky that the chill had returned to the air so I put the nanopuff back on. I still made a point of savoring the view. The Badlands are beautiful at any time but especially in the late afternoon golden hours.

I made it back to my car in good order. I arrived at the trailhead with about half an hour of light left. I hit the vault toilet, stretched out some tight spots and even got a few last pictures.

Not surprisingly my feet were sore. I checked the map again and tallied up the miles. I hiked eight when I meant to hike five.

One of the many reasons I hike is that I collect interesting experiences which are the mother of stories. When you do something, anything, that is an experience. Most of our experiences are safe and predictable which make things physically and emotionally comfortable, but not particularly interesting. If you try to make a story out of your comfortable experience you will sound like you are whining.

If your experience isn’t safe or predictable that is when it becomes the source for an interesting story. Honestly, it won’t be interesting to everyone. It probably won’t even be interesting to most people. But it will be interesting to some and above all, it will be interesting to you.

I collect experiences because first and foremost they are for myself. They make my internal life deeper and more textured.

But I like to share some of my stories from these experiences with others partly because I hope I inspire or instruct (even a bad example shows you want not to do) and partly because I just like to tell stories. Stories are part of what makes us human.

I try to be thoughtful about when and what to share from an experience, even an interesting one. It does not take much to sound full of yourself even if you throw in some self deprecation. Humblebrag is a thing, after all.

A hot dinner, a glass of wine, and comfy chair were about two hours in my future from that parking lot by trailhead. It was time to go home.

So I went.