I plodded along the snaking line of the Little Missouri, its rock walls and cottonwoods telling me water was there even though I couldn’t see it. This was almost 100 miles into a 150 mile backpacking trip through badlands. A yearslong dream now come to fruition. My feet ached. Calves cramped. Skin showed the color of a near-ripe tomato. Too much sun had scorched me.
Earlier in the day I trudged to the only town along the whole trail for hot food and aspirin. In an unflattering gas station mirror I was surprised at what stood before me. This burnt up man. Sweat and grime filled or poured from every pore. To the tourists I must’ve looked a monster. I fried a plastic wrapped burger then scarfed it outside to take in the day, to see families ambling for fun and ice cream. Once finished I walked the mile and a half back to my trail. The strip of dirt on which over the past week I’d seen less than five people.
I unstashed my pack from a bush. Set it to sore shoulders. Five minutes later came across a rattlesnake who stood to shoo me off. I scurried but felt no fear. I’d already had bison stampede at my presence. Wild horses view me askew. Found a legion of ticks feeding beneath the cloth of my socks. At this point a lazy snake induced no worry. Plus there was only fifty miles left. Two or three more days in this healing bath of nature. I needed to squeeze memory from every second. My body was torched but soul so alive.
My goal was to make the five miles to the final river crossing of this trip. From there set up camp somewhere fortified from the coming storm. The trail made this harder. Turned from flat, dry grass to rolling earth and muck. A storm had struck just hours earlier.
I used poles but skidded in mud, each step heavier than the last as globs of earth glued to shoes. In time I crested one hill to find a long vista of all the coming dips and rises. A familiar strip tattooed itself across them all. My trail. Each coming challenge sat so clear before me. I felt prepared. Took a moment to take this all in. Breathe its beauty.
Before me lay painted mounds of clay. Beyond that rocky hills of bleached dirt and stone. Each was marked with swaths of green on its side, a vibrant crest of red splashed across an uneven top. Every formation held a unique layer of life and death, of muted hues and explosions of color. As the sun lowered this palette only brightened. Turned all more grandiose. Made big hills into small mountains. I thought of the long life of this land. This gateway to the west. Of all who stepped this spot before me.
I arrived to the river at the dying light of day. Just before earth blew out its bulb with a whisper. Lit a lamp in its stead. I found the river split to two channels by a gravel bar down in its middle. The whole crossing seemed to be no more than a hundred feet. I knew this to be deceptive given the current and heavy pack on my back. Still, the river was gorgeous, its middle peppered with red rock. I crossed the first channel with ease. Hoped the same for the second.
I scouted spots with poles but sans pack or shoes. Stepped barefoot on the gravel bar while poking a pole at the extremes of my reach. Then I stepped in. All seemed good so I strapped my pack. Stepped a high gravel ridge that rode the bottom. It formed an invisible path beneath the muddy waters but soon sifted into nothing. This brought water over my hips. Melted the pills in my pocket. Caused my unhooked pack to pull its immense weight down and with the current.
I scouted more but found the same all over. Then one path just off the bar seemed fine so I tested it. A few feet out I couldn’t place my pole due to current so took a blind step. My body dropped down a hole. Rushing water now crashed above my chest. Sprayed my face. Then the current beneath swept out my feet. Started to take me.
I kept calm as best I could. Grabbed a thicket of weeds on a spot of earth the size of a basketball. One weed came out so I grabbed another, digging my hand into its thorny surface. With this I steadied myself as the roiling current tried to rip me downstream. In slow, deliberate moves I drug my body back on the sandbar, now soaked and losing light. The earth cooled and I shivered. Goosebumps filled what skin wasn’t coated in the rusted muck of wet gravel.
In time I scored a crossing that only licked thigh high. The current did its best to eat me up but I made it. Now stood safe in victory along the banks of this river. A few steps more and I was to the only shower of my 150 mile journey. This saving grace sat in a state park. I’d only sleep in the backcountry but couldn’t resist a cascade of hot water.
In the stall I pulled the bandage off my foot. Searched every inch of body for ticks. Admired the dividing line of red and white where clothing stopped and sunburn started. I had no shampoo so pumped the sink’s soap into a bag to form a makeshift de-greaser.
The shower floor turned red and black as the days of tramping dirt trickled off me. I enjoyed each second as I knew my future self would fill with envy in thinking back. Would wish it could be so warm as it sat in a wet tent assaulted by a storm.
Freshly washed I donned my headlamp then set into night. During my time indoors dusk had turned to dark. Those late afternoon hours so hungry for the light of day had seemed to take their fill then settle down. Skyward the moon now filled its shift. I spotted no stars for each seemed masked by the murk of clouds. Still, that celestial night orb, that tide tilting beacon of power, lit its earth in ambiance.
With each step of night I rose from flatlands to high hills towering over all. I followed an old cow path, its dirt a broken floor. Each piece seemed trampled and chewed by hooves. After a series of circling switchbacks I hit the ridgeline. It peered down on the river, now just a winding ribbon of black lit soft by moonlight. It looked so calm from up high. But I knew this view belied its true power. A force so strong it ate through earth in order to live. To flow. To shake away the scabs of stagnation.
For ninety minutes I hiked into a harvest moon slung low over the horizon. It gave the impression a glowing god whose face turned orange in slumber. A pumpkin coated in gold. A faded mirror of the twin that took its place in day. The moon radiated such a strong ocher hue I hardly needed a headlamp. Just followed the ribbon unearthed before me.
In the distance heat lightning made the earth flash. Ghosts of an imminent future. Soon bolts flicked the land like a snake tongue. Carried forth the buzzing roar of thunder. I needed a sleep spot to fend off the coming rain. Avoid the killing shot of electric arrows. But for now I bathed in beauty. The glowing moon that beckoned all. This was a dream but I was awake. Now finally ready to strike the final miles from my trek. So into this orb I stepped, my silhouette a spirit slipping ‘long the ridgeline.