Badlands: The Walk thru Mordor

Badlands- the name sparks curiosity. I’ve always been fascinated by the Badlands in South Dakota.  The area is in many ways like a desert but its home to the United States largest protected area of mixed grass prairie. It seems devoid of life. Yet it is home to 329 animal species and over 400 plant species. The extreme temperatures, the empty feeling, and how limited water is made it a “bad lands to travel through.” I love French- American trappers, that phrase came from “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” when it comes to naming things though the Lakota had it right: “mako sica,” or “land, bad,” hence the “Badlands.”

In honor of throwback Thursday, here is a story of adventure, trial and error, and companionship.

Badlands3August 2015:

I decided to go camping in the Badlands to kick off the end of my work season (sort of) in mid-August. Originally, it was only going to be my boyfriend (now husband- I’m working on the honeymoon blog) and myself. However, we invited some additional friends. I should have told them up front I was boring- I wanted to hike, spend time in the visitor center, drool over the paleontology lab, and listen to park rangers give programs. They were expecting more camping activities, campfires, and fun times. I really can’t blame for finding my trip planning lacking. I’m still boring, I’m just not in charge of the trips anymore…

The camping wasn’t too bad but it could have been a little more fun. Especially since you can’t have campfires in Badlands NP. I should have brought some more camping games than just a frisbee and cards. Hindsight is 20/20. We still had a lot of fun the first night- cooking, playing frisbee, and sitting around shooting the breeze. I and one of my friends went to the evening program about astronomy I think…it’s been three years…

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Blurry photo of the frisbee players

After the program and wandering back to the campsite admiring the beautiful night sky- one thing I truly like about rural Nebraska and South Dakota, the night sky is unbelievable. We sat around the lantern playing cards and talking before we climbed into our tents. Tomorrow was going to be a big day!

Little did we know what we would be getting ourselves into…

The morning was glorious, the sun rising over the buttes and pinnacles casting marvelous shadows over the mixed grass prairie. We reconvened at the grill and picnic table to figure out where we were going to hike.  Busting out the maps, guides, and other materials that I dragged along with me. We got down to business.

Since, Wade, Kris, and the others had been to various points of interest before and it was still fairly crowded at most of the shorter, more popular trails. The group decided to do the Castle Trail. In hindsight, I wished we had done the Medicine Root Loop- it was only 4 miles round trip. The Castle Trail on the other hand was 10 miles…

We thought we had planned well for it taking extra water, snacks, and other essentials. I made the dreaded mistake every hiker makes at least once- I assumed there would be water at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead- since it was a popular place and lots of people were coming and going. This assumption would be what made me kick myself; it’s also the reason I go on long tirades about having enough water and carrying more than you need.

The hike started out pleasantly enough. We left the parking area in high spirits, signing the log book, and talking joyfully. Kris made a comparison to Lord of Rings, which got a laugh from me. It was going to be a good day.

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We made it to the first grouping of pinnacles and buttes. They were so cool up close and me being drawn to heights led me to climb up to the top of one- I’m pretty sure this waste of water and energy would come back to haunt me later but it was worth it for the view.

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Do you see the people?

Once I returned to the bottom, Wade was relieved- he just knew I was going to fall and break something (he does have a point, my track record with stairs hasn’t been great but I’m good on mountains, buttes, and ledges). The trail meandered around to the back side of the butte we climbed around and broke into mixed grass prairie, highlighted by blue sky.

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Wade took this photo of me climbing up to the top of the butte- he was zooming in…

The trail kind of followed the butte and as we came around the edge we saw Bighorn Sheep- I was in nerd heaven. Mixed grass prairie, geological formations, AND bighorn sheep, what a day! They kept a close eye on us as we made our way past them into Badlands. We would see more throughout the day.

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“What are you looking at?”

Hiking through the open prairie broken by smaller buttes was fun, we found some cool photo opportunities as we wandering along the trail. The day was starting to heat up and I was drinking more water. As I look back at this I keep kicking myself- literally. I just knew that I would be fine with just two 32oz water bottles. I wasn’t. I should have brought double that on this hike.

Word of advice- you are essentially in a desert in Badlands National Park, it’s a dry heat, and you’re exposed to sun nearly everywhere you go. Wear appropriate clothing, carry more water than you think you will need, try not to hike at midday, and don’t assume that every popular trailhead will have water.

We stopped for lunch and water around noon we were about the trail tie in to the Medicine Root Trail. We actually debated turning around there and heading back to the parking area. We should have- it might not have turned into a trek thru Mordor if we had. We decided to tough it out and put this 10 mile trail under our belts! I will take a lot of the responsibility for this- again I based my vote on there being water at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead and everyone agreed with me.

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It started getting hotter, we were still a ways till the Fossil Exhibit area and I started rationing water- probably the best decision I had made all morning. We were still in awe of the scenery but were getting a little tired.

We came over the hill to the Fossil Exhibit and were so excited, we were halfway done and water lay ahead.

*screech*

There was no water. Just a bathroom, the fossil exhibit, and a parking lot.  We debated again. We decided to take a long break and head back. It would have been shorter to do that than hike the highway back to the parking lot and none of us wanted to give up and hitchhike for a ride.

Once that was established we sat down in a shady spot and relaxed. I got bored after a bit and wondering along the fossil trail reading the waysides and witnessing people trying to get photos of a rattlesnake…while screaming “There is a snake, get it away from me!” *snap, snap, snap*

All too soon we decided to get a leg up and head back. I was doing pretty well until we got the mid-point. It was really hot, we were all tired, and water was getting low. We stopped every 20 minutes or so and found shade and tried to recharge. I was limiting water but after each sip I would feel about ten times better. It was hard rationing it.

Like Kris, I made a remark about how we were now walking through Mordor- I got a tired chuckle from him, a moan and an eye roll from Wade.

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Walk. Start to feel bad. Think how adventure novels never talk about how much it sucks to walk through extreme climates. Tough it out till everyone else needed to stop. Stop. Find Shade. Sip. Repeat.

I was slowing down. Wade stayed with me and once he realized I was down to one last sip, gave me his water bottle. Apparently, I was dating a camel. He took maybe three drinks and was fine (once we got back to camp with more water, I did make him drink a whole bottle full to be on the safe side).

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Wade on his rock…

After what seemed like forever, we were back in sight of the parking lot. That last little chunk was the worst. I was so tired, out of shape, and thirsty. I was slowing everyone else down and I hated it. I finally told them to go on ahead, get the A/C running and I would drag myself there. Wade rolled his eyes at me, sent the rest ahead, made me drink the last of his water, and walked with me to get back to the truck.

We survived walking through Mordor…

Once in the truck, we wanted water, cool air, and a place to sit for a bit. I still wanted to see the VC. We went to Ben Reifel. It’s a really nice visitor center, A/C, water bottle refill station, chairs. We were in heaven. I bored everyone walking around the exhibits and bookstore.

After an hour or so enjoying the A/C and water, we headed back to camp. I was ready to eat and go to sleep. However, the group was hot, bored, and a little tired of the Badlands. We packed up and went home. I can’t say I wasn’t unhappy about that- I was very happy to get back to my own bed with a/c and water. But I was a little sad that we wouldn’t be hitting the other shorter trails the next day like I had planned.

All in all it was a good trip, besides the lack of planning.

Since, I only live a couple hours from the Badlands I try to make it up there a few times a year. I also take extra water now!

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Rocky Mountains and Gallbladder Pains

Winter has hit Nebraska; a major winter storm blew through Saturday night. Today I spent most of the day washing laundry, catching up on emails, and finally sitting down to work on my blog. After a week of fun in the sun and a week of Thanksgiving joy, I’m ready to get back to my regular work week. Other than work I have nothing else popping up in the foreseeable future, which I’m excited about honestly.

However, I’m so tired- I think it has to do with the weather. I think nature is telling me to hibernate until winter is over. Shaking off those pessimistic thoughts, I do have some tentative winter plans in mind though; binge-watching all my favorite shows and starting a workout regimen. I need to lose about fifteen pounds if I want to be comfortable backpacking next spring. I’m going to hit Badlands as soon as the weather clears up and the snow melts. Although, I do have it on good authority I will be getting snow pants this Christmas- which means there might be a winter hike in the future…

Anyways, my plan for this post was to catch you all up on what happened during August and September.

Let me backtrack a little before this- I had been having troubles with my stomach off and on for the last two years. I changed my diet, changed it again, and swore off greasy foods. It would get better for a while but it always came back. In June it came back, worse than ever. I went into my regular doctor twice and got referred to a gastroenterologist in July. It was getting to the point I could barely eat, it was bad. I was also just drinking water at that point.

At the end of July, I went to talk to my gastroenterologist after the initial visit and testing- it was during this appointment that my previous two years of diet changes and outright stubbornness failed to change the inevitable. I had to have surgery with general anesthesia.  The sooner the better, according to my doctor.

This threw a wrench into my plans, my bachelorette party was coming up right around the same time he was thinking I should have the surgery.

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I didn’t want to give this up!

A weekend of friendship and hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park- I had been looking forward to it since early spring. Now, it looked like it would be canceled for  the benefit of my health.

I got lucky (or unlucky depending on how you want to view it). The doctor couldn’t get me in until the Tuesday after the weekend getaway. I was still going to the Rockies. I just wouldn’t be able to eat anything tasty or imbibe any spirits- but it would still a blast.

Originally, we had planned on camping- but since I wasn’t sure if everyone would get the time off until about a month before the weekend, I lost out on getting a reserved campsite, much to the happiness of my friends and sister. I got us a lovely cabin in Estes Park. Seriously, the Stone Brook Resort is where it’s at!

After a busy week at work, finding out about the surgery, and getting tired of wedding planning I was so ready for the weekend! The misfortune struck- my sister wouldn’t be able to make it. We still had fun without her (we still love you PJ).

I drove to Denver to pick up my besties, Grace and Liz, and we headed to Estes Park. We got in late. We explored the cabin- highly amused at the Jacuzzi tub in the living room. We turned in around 2, only to get up and head out around 10ish.

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Seriously, a Jacuzzi tub in the living room next to the window- the river in the background is nice.

After a delightful breakfast at the Mountain Home Café, we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a ten minute drive. It was beautiful.

*Parkie advice* If you go to any NPS (or other federal lands) site that charges an entrance fee, more than three or four times a year, invest in the annual pass. It’s $80 bucks up front but if you go to a park that charges a $20 entrance fee it will pay for itself fairly quickly. Besides RMNP, I use it at Badlands quite a bit. Want other options besides this pass, there is the Senior Annual Pass $20, Senior Lifetime Pass $80, and Access Pass (free disability). Plus if you are current US Military you can get the annual pass free for you and your dependents. If you like volunteering and are close to a federal site (National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, etc.) if you contribute 250 or more hours you get one for free (I did that a couple of times!) Finally, if you have a 4th grader, they also get a free annual pass with a valid printed voucher from Every Kid in a Park website.  You can buy them at most federal sites or online for an additional handling fee. For more information go to https://store.usgs.gov/pass

We spent a little time at the Fall River Visitor Center, looking over the exhibits, talking to the volunteers and staff, and doing a little shopping- in my case buying books, everyone else water bottles (they forgot to bring one and I’m a stickler for hydration, especially at altitude.

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Grace took this awesome photo of me!

Since we had limited time and various fitness levels we decided to stick with day hikes, we picked the Bear Lake Area. As well drove through the park to get to Bear Lake we were in awe of the mountains. We pulled over and stopped for photos quite a bit before we made it the lower/bus parking area.

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Grace and Liz!

 

Word of advice Bear Lake is super busy- unless you’re planning on being there at 5 am or after 6 pm, use the bus and park away from the actual area. It will still be crowded but at least parking is easier. The bus is free of charge.

We got there around one pm- it was busy.  People everywhere…around Bear Lake. We decided to check out the left hand path instead of going to Bear Lake. We only made it to Dream Lake- taking into account our time limit (only drawback to taking the bus) and as previously mentioned skill level.

Hiking up from Bear Lake we passed Nymph Lake- again since it was fairly close to the trailhead it was slightly crowded. Making the elk cow grazing near the water’s edge a commodity that people wanted to be photographed with. Luckily, she didn’t seem to mind until people starting yelling at her to look up- then she wandered into the forest.

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Nymph Lake

Most people didn’t go pass Nymph Lake. For the most part we had the trail heading up to Dream Lake to ourselves. Passing various visitors and rock bouldering enthusiasts carrying their mats. It was after about the third group of bouldering folks passed us and another group that someone asked why they were carrying mats. I grew up bouldering without the mats but now that I’m older and looking at getting back into it the mats look nice. Since I had the background knowledge, I was able to provide an answer and for the next mile I was the other group’s tour guide…

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They stopped and turned around at a high point before the trail plateaus off for Dream Lake. We paused for a few moments to take some photos before heading on to Dream Lake. I really enjoyed the area just before we go to the lake, it was a beautiful little area with a babbling brook trickling through.

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Dream Lake was memorable, mountain tops in the distance (I believe we were looking at Flattop Mtn.), high ridges surrounding us, and very few people. By this point, the folks passing us were speed hiking to Emerald Lake or heading back down to Bear Lake. We spent a little time taking photos before starting back down ourselves. I wish we had gotten there earlier in the day so I didn’t have sun flare in the photos.

We made it about halfway down before the ravenous hunger set in- we started talking about what we wanted to eat. I about cried a little bit because all I wanted was a cheeseburger, fires, and apple pie but my stomach wouldn’t be able to handle all the greasy goodness.

Before leaving the area we decided to check out Bear Lake- by this point there wasn’t very many people hanging out there. It’s also very pretty.

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Although, we had talked about going by the store and getting stuff for dinner- none of us wanted to cook and the closest restaurant was the Trailhead Restaurant.

At this point, I decided to get one last meal regardless of my stomachs ability to handle it- I was having surgery in three days and I didn’t want my (possible) last meal to be a salad with not dressing.

I got the Trailhead Buffalo Burger. It. Was. Amazing. I don’t know if it was the lean meat type, fate smiling on me, or what but I didn’t have any upset stomach problems after the fact and was able to have a glass of wine with my besties!

Relaxing in the cabin! I had that class of wine in the Jacuzzi tub (I was wearing a bathing suit).

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My glass of wine in the Jacuzzi tub!

The next day we headed out to explore Estes Park a little more- having breakfast at the Mountain Home Café again. Then wondering around seeing the sites, did a little shopping, and driving by the epic hotel from the Shining.

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Enjoying my morning coffee on our deck overlooking Fall River

Since I have smart friends, we had most of the day to kill and we went to Boulder. Free parking on the weekends, score! Boulder is a lovely town, my favorite store was the Boulder Book Store (who would have guessed?), followed by the Savannah Bee Company. Love me some honey, plus I’m a big fan of their Save the Bees campaign. Check out the Bee Cause Project at http://thebeecause.org/

All too soon we had to head south, Grace and Liz’s flights would be leaving that evening and I needed to head back to prepare for surgery.

After a lot of hugs, we were all on our way. Well I was on my way, Grace and Liz would have some downtime at the airport before their flights would actually leave.

It was a six hour drive for me and when I got home I was exhausted. My fiancée, Wade, was happy to see me and cooked me dinner (and kept it warm for me) making a perfect midnight snack.

It was a wanderful trip!

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Lead up to Gallbladder Surgery:

The next day, I cleaned the house up, did all my laundry, made sure my will was up to date and got ready for the surgery.

Now, when I had the appointment to talk about options and we decided on surgery. I asked if I could be awake during the surgery. The doctor thought I was joking. I wasn’t. Hence my making sure the will was up to date. Wade thought I was overthinking it- I was but hey we all have issues with certain things- mines being knocked out and cut open.

Wade and I decided to stay the night in North Platte where my surgery was taking place. I being the overthinking, overachiever showered three times using Dial soap (twice the night before and once the morning of). I went into the hospital at 5:30 am, took me back around 6 to do all the prep. The poor nurse had a hard time getting the IV in and had to call back up. My surgeon came by to check on me and let me know some of the after effects of the surgery would be- mainly air bubbles. Around 7:30 the anesthesiologist came to talk to me and Wade.

After hearing the plan, I told her not to tell me when they gave me the shot.

They didn’t.

The nurse came back a little while later with my shot of antibiotics (and the happy shot) the world go a little hazy after that.

Other than hearing the nurse telling Wade he should give me a kiss before they take me back I have no idea what happened until I started waking up in recovery to the worse pain ever.

A darn air bubble in my shoulder of all places.

That kind of surprised the nurse but it wasn’t uncommon; she thought the surgery site would be bothering me more since my gallbladder was twice the normal size and they had to widen the top incision a little more. Really the incisions didn’t bother me until I had to sit up on the couch at home or if I wore pants with a belt (like I have to do for work).

I was still on the gallbladder diet- no grease, no apples or pears (I was so sad), or any tasty food for a few weeks.

My recovery went really well. I’m now able to eat some of my old favorites (apples and pears) and I’m working back up to adding some of the tasty stuff like deep fried chicken back into my diet. I have four scars from the incisions, three on my right side in a diagonal line and one in my belly button. I look like I was in a knife fight with an OCD person.

Since I was laid up for a while I got to looking at dehydrated foods for backpacking. I’m looking at building a menu of foods for backpacking that go along with the gallbladder diet (or the no- gallbladder diet at this point). If you have some recipe ideas let me know!

Two days after my surgery on Friday another exciting event happened. My braces came off! After nearly two years of orthodontic work I now have a fairly straight smile compared to what I use to have. My original plan to celebrate the braces coming off was a big bag of popcorn, due to the surgery I had to settle for soup…

Once I returned to work  I found out my boss (the best boss ever) would be leaving for a new job near her fiancee- I can’t blame her but I cried. It got busy at work, since I was going to be taking off a lot of time in October and November. Pretty much all my time was spent in the office or thinking about stuff in the office. It’s finally starting to slow down and kind of return to normal.

 

Next time: The Wedding and Honeymoon Cruise!

Keep wandering,

BJ

I’m alive… I think…

In belated Halloween fashion I’m channeling Young Frankenstein of all things. Yes, I’m alive- just tired and ready for a vacation from my vacation- which won’t happen until sometime next year. The photo with this post is from the honeymoon cruise- I didn’t want to leave the window- it was perfect for reading. Read the entire Dresden Files on my cruise down time- where is Peace Talks!

I would like to say sorry for letting the blog lapse over the last couple of months- I will do better in the future. In theory, now that the wedding, honeymoon, classes, and gallbladder surgery are all over and done with, I shouldn’t be stretched as thin on time. However, I won’t guarantee weekly or daily updates on the blog just yet. The way its going I’ll be lucky to do one a month. I do have some post planned out for the coming week that will feature some of the hikes I did before and after gallbladder surgery back in August. I will talk about hiking in Costa Maya and Belize, plus all the other fun stuff you can do there. I also plan on doing a throwback Thursday post about a previous adventure into the Badlands- since the way things worked out this year I didn’t get to do the overnight…yet.

So for now here is a brief recap-
August: visited and hiked Rocky Mountain National Park, had gallbladder surgery.
September: Work swamped me after taking the week off for gallbladder surgery and recovery.
October: Wedding! I did not realize how much planning would actually go into this…
November: Honeymoon and catching up on the Dresden Files – come on Peace Talks!

Stay tuned,

BJ,
The Wannabebackpacker

The Cowboy Trail

Hi all! It’s been another busy week here in Nebraska.  I had two fun days off; well except for the eye appointment I had. As I let all my Facebook friends know I had some trouble with my right eye. I apparently scratched it at some point. Did you know that the material in your eye is similar to skin and when it is scratched it also scabs over?

I didn’t. I wore my contacts.

Guess what happens when you wear your contacts all day and take them out when you have a scratch?

Pain, a lot of cussing, followed by hours of swelling, irritation, and borderline insanity. Talk about a fun Friday night. The contact acts like a band-aid and once the scab has fused to the contact you rip the the scab off when you take out the contact. Unlike the band-aid and regular scab, it hurts for hours and you think you’re going blind. Or that that spoon you used for ice cream looks like a excellent way to remove the eye…

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It’s a little tough hiking around without sunglasses…

Luckily, I’m fine and wearing my glasses until the eye finishes healing up. I think I’m going to invest in Lasik after this go around though. Tomorrow on my next day off (Tuesday) I’m heading back to the eye doctor. Fingers crossed my eye has healed up!

Anyways, that little trip to North Platte was fun, other than the stop into the eye doctor. On my “Sunday,” and everyone else’s Tuesday, I got in a little training on the Cowboy Trail. It was hot- good practice for Badlands.

 

 

I had a hiking buddy for this little jaunt, my best friend on four legs, Princess! She loves getting out and about- but doesn’t like 100 degree heat. I do not blame her in the slightest.  We keep the hike a short one, only about a mile and a half. I could have kept going but Princess was trying to swim in her water dish. A 70-pound lab mix trying to swim in a five inch collapsible bowl is adorable to watch.

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I want to believe she’s thinking, “You’re an odd human.”

I probably won’t take her on high heat training days from now on, unless it’s under a mile or along the river.

This particular hike is over the river, the Niobrara River, in case you were wondering. We parked at the little trail head and started out. For the most part there is no elevation gain or lost (to me, but I’m also from Missouri and still think Nebraska doesn’t have real hills), along this little section of the trail. On the way back there is a slight incline from the bridge to the parking lot; usually I only notice it though if I’m carrying a pack to prep for the arduous Wildland Firefighter test.

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Heading west on the Cowboy Trail. On the right, in the distance is Borman Bridge- the official start of the Niobrara NSR. 

This is similar to many of the trails I’ll be tackling at Badlands- the Castle Trail for example, the one myself and friends fondly refer to as the “trek to Mordor.” We decided to hike it a few years ago, in August, midday, with only a few water-bottles between us.  Ten miles. We assumed there would be water at the Fossil Exhibit Trail head, we were wrong. Yeah, we weren’t that bright. We did survive- I now take more water than one person should be able to drink whenever I go to Badlands. Since it’s only a couple of hours from where I live now, I should be going up there more than once every few months.

Anyways, back to the Cowboy Trail. The Cowboy Trail, if it’s ever completed, will be the longest Rails to Trails unit. It crosses the Niobrara, near Valentine, NE. The bridge is amazing and has been featured in a lot of publications, video footage, and photos from the area. For more information check out these websites:

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One of my favorite shots- no I was not climbing over the railing to get it…

http://outdoornebraska.gov/cowboytrail/

https://www.traillink.com/trail/cowboy-recreation-and-nature-trail/

In fact the photo header for the Trail Link website is the bridge I’m talking about.

The walk we took, I like I said was a short one. It only lasted about an hour, about ten minutes of that was Princess and I sitting in the shade. We spent it trying to empty my water bottle- mainly over Princess.

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I have Badlands on my mind… and water bottle. 

I’ve walked over it several times in the last four and a half years that I’ve been living in Nebraska. It’s one of the amazing highlights of the Niobrara River Valley in my opinion. I decided to highlight the actual river in a future post (I’ll be doing a overnight floating trip soon). Sadly, it will not focus as much on backpacking or hiking since public land is limited and the hiking trails are usually under a mile.

Next practice hike on the agenda for my upcoming “weekend”- a trip to the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Princess will attend because she can hop in the river!

Keep rambling!

Looking Downstream from Cowboy Bridge
The Niobrara River, a neat contrast to the surrounding prairie. 

Is it summer yet?

Sorry it’s been awhile folks. I’ve been drowning in Grad school, internships, work, and life in general. After some crazy weather and a blizzard in April, I’m finally out and about. It’s a glorious (late) spring edging into summer now. The prairie flowers are beginning to bud, the grass is growing, and the trees are green. I’ve been getting out and playing on the Niobrara and taking photos of the river valley.

And I’m almost ready to wander…into the Badlands.

After my last post and what fleeting time I could spare to planning trips, preparing gear, planning a wedding, and trying to sleep. I came to the conclusion that I might have to do a few overnights and put off a three day trip until later in the year or even more sadly next year. I’m still planning on doing a two night trip into the Black Elk Wilderness this year.

So during the little planning I was able to spare for backpacking, and a growing nostalgia for the desert, I came to the conclusion to tackle Badlands. I’m going to do a series of weekends meandering along the trails and hopefully seeing Bighorn sheep. Another overnight at Custer and then I will traverse the Black Elk Wilderness.

Since, I now have time once more to enjoy my days off. I hope to keep to a far more regular schedule with my blogging. Although, I did decide to take a few writing classes (one this summer, two in the fall, and one more in the spring) to help polish my skills and also get a Professional Writing Certificate. The good news is one of the classes is on creative writing and I get to use some of the stuff I’ve already done! Yay!

Return to the Rim

Aggghhh! Time has gotten away from me; between the New Year, graduate school, and work I’ve been swamped. I feel so bad I haven’t posted the last installment of the Grand Canyon adventure! Here is the final part of the story…

6’ish… I wasn’t paying to much attention to time…

Cold. Blissful cold. If you like that sort of thing. I wanted nothing more than to burrow down deeper into my mummy bag and wait for the sun to rise and warm up the canyon. However, that never seems to work for me when I’m camping.

I’ll usually wake up early; if I’m camping with friends I’ll feign sleep. So I can stay in my tent and read or just relax enjoying the sounds of nature interrupted by the sounds of camp cookware clanking and low voices. I tend to do the same when I’m camping by myself. It’s odd when I’m home in civilization I’m a night owl that hates getting up in the morning and I’ll sleep in on weekends. Camping, my clock reset’s itself, I should camp more often.

This chilly morning in February, I got up with my hiking partner, the other guy had already been up for a while. After the usual morning ablutions, we had breakfast. For me that was one of the hard-boiled eggs and two granola bars. I kept hoping it would magically turn into bacon, tomatoes, fresh bread, and hot tea but alas no magical hobbits were running about cooking breakfast. However, at the time it was filling. Looking back now, I should have had about twice the amount of calories. I thought I had planned for the deficit, but I underestimated what I would need for the hike back up.

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Near the Rim; the geology was impressive.

After breaking camp, I took a few moments to fill up all my water bottles and the now empty Gatorade bottle. We took one last look around Indian Gardens and set off for the return trip up the Rim. My legs were only a little sore and each step seemed to loosen them up.

As we left the green valley of the garden, I looked back towards our resting place, the canyon beyond, and the invisible Colorado River; one day I will come back and explore this place far more. I adjusted the pack, once again better fitting because of the jacket and kept hiking.

We hit the switchbacks right away; for me these, and the switchbacks the last mile up, were the worst. Although, the ones at the bottom, in comparison to the last little bit, were easy. I was enlivened by my experience in the canyon, it was a new day and a new me.

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Indian Garden is behind my head…and a ways back down.

I honestly don’t remember as much on the first few switchbacks up. I do remember when at the last two in this section I wanted to find the person that made backpacks (or in the more likely the person that bought them in bulk for the training folks) and find out what his or her problem with short people was, because that pack was getting ridiculous. Did they just not assume short people hiked?

Overall, the trip back up wasn’t as exciting as going down; if we had gone on down to Phantom Ranch and back up the South Kaibab Trail or up to the North Rim it would have been more fun for me. However, we were doing a down and back on the Bright Angel Trail. I still loved it, but I had seen most of the views on the way down. I will say the view heading up was impressive. The Rim a huge wall just towering above you, it’s daunting but when you make it to the top it makes you feel invincible. The other reason I don’t think I enjoyed it as much was the impressive amount of people that clogged the last two miles of trail.

It was inspiring to look back up that canyon wall and think, by the end of the day I will be standing on top of that, not even the end of the day 2 pm at most. By the time 2 pm rolled around I was thinking, I’ve never wanted to push someone off a cliff but if one more person with a selfie stick whacks me their getting an up close shot of the canyon floor. In hindsight I really wish I had used my trekking poles as swords, at least it would have been entertaining.

The thing about the Grand Canyon is your essentially backpacking a mountain in reverse. Most people go up the mountain and then back down, at the Grand Canyon you go down first and then back up. It takes about twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down. I firmly believe at least forty five minutes of that time is just dealing with traffic jams, usually involving a selfie stick.

I kind of view people the way I view wildlife…from a distance. My job is interacting with people, it’s very outgoing and while I love it by the end of the day people just wear you down. It took many years for me to realize I’m an introvert. However, I do like talking to people and helping them out. The amount of people who visit the Grand Canyon made me rethink how people process information, especially in written form. So for the average day hiker, who only hike a mile or two down, really should pause and read the bulletin boards; especially hiking 101.

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Important trekking equipment for the Grand Canyon in winter; trekking poles and crampons.
  • Mules have right away; don’t jump in front of them to take a cool picture, you’re holding up the mule train and the rest of the hikers.
  • Also yelling and jumping because you’ve seen a mule “in the wild” while said mule is plodding by you, is a great way to scare both the mule and the person riding said mule. It also scares all the hikers who are waiting quietly while the mules pass, especially when the mule decides to jump sideways and almost takes out five people.
  • Take water. Even though it’s February, and the rest houses every mile and a half have water, if you’re not used to arid conditions you’ll need more water. Puking by the side of the trail is not a fun morning activity.
  • While it’s only a “courtesy” on both the website and the bulletin board; please give the uphill hikers the right of way. You won’t realize it until you’re coming back up but once you get in a groove of walking, especially uphill, you don’t want to stop.
  • It is a good sign if you can carry a conversation while you’re walking and not be out of breath. That said I don’t care what you had for lunch last Thursday and when you walk two abreast I can’t pass you; especially, when you either ignore or didn’t hear the “passing on right.” Talking is great, however, pay attention to your surroundings; not only the other people on the trail there is a whole canyon over there.
  • Keep the selfie sticks on the rim; the trail isn’t that wide and there are tons of people coming down or up that will be happy to take a photo for you. I got whacked twice by people who were trying to get that perfect shot and weren’t paying attention. (I did try to dodge, but when there are people behind, in front, and to the side of you, it’s hard to go anywhere.)
  • Last but not least; don’t wear flip flops. Surprisingly, several people thought this was great footwear. It’s February, there is ice on the rim even though it’s a desert area. I didn’t get to see any broken bones but odds are high that something might happen.

Sorry for the rant; but some things bear repeating. This is the part of the story I think my friend enjoyed so much; watching me rant and rave about selfie sticks seemed awful funny to him at the time. Like I said I still enjoyed the hike for the most part; I just would change the time we came back up.

I think hiking up at 4 am would have missed most of the people or at least put us near the rim with the first surge of people. Or waiting until about three hours before nightfall. All in all though, if you are thinking about taking a backpacking trip into the canyon, weather permitting, February or March is the time to go. Fewer people, pleasant temperatures in the Inner Canyon, and an icy finish.

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Remember: nice in the Inner Canyon, icy at the top in February.

After plodding along we reached the mid-point a stone rest house and met up with our driver and hiking companion from the previous day. She brought along another hiker to join our party. We ate a quick lunch; for me that was the other hardboiled egg, a couple of peanut butter bites, and an energy bar. Afew miles later I had the shakes; not from exhaustion or overexertion but because I wasn’t consuming enough calories. I ate the remaining four energy bars and most of the bag of peanut butter bites at a switchback near the top. Our fearless leader felt bad for not catching on that I hadn’t eaten enough, I felt like a dumbass because as an EMT and knowledgeable ranger I didn’t account for the larger calorie burn.

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One of the little rest areas along the trail… I was more interested in the geology behind it…

Craving a cheeseburger, fries, and a whole apple pie, we resumed the last leg of our journey. It was here I got a little annoyed with some of the members of the group, I’m all for conversation but I was in the “get to the top” eat a burger mindset. I was still in the rear of the group and each time the conversation struck up we would bog down. I started to stop and wait, let them get ahead and catch up. Once we broached the top of the trail, and dodged the selfie sticks, we on good terms again. I remember stopping at the big bulletin board with large stones; perfect for sitting down and removing crampons. Soon as I had the crampons off, I looked up at the trail head sign for Bright Angel.

I had made it. I survived my first backpacking trip.

I wanted to go again.

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Exploring Grand Canyon

Epilogue

After we finished are trip, the fearless leader and I went and dropped money (in my case a lot of money) in the Grand Canyon Bookstore. Soon as we returned to our lodgings, I ate a quick snack and jumped in the shower. I sighed in pleasure as I lavished each tooth with a healthy dose of toothpaste. Once hygiene had been reestablished, I checked on my online classes. Then I cracked open the first book on my reading list; it was the Emerald Mile. It is a great read about the fastest speed run down the Colorado.

Laying the bed and reading had a calming effect, i.e. I took an unplanned nap. I awoke to some messages about a Superbowl Party where mass quantities of pizza would be available. I felt like Toot-Toot from the Dresden Files; I hustled down the stairs to the commons. I inhaled a lot of pizza, still recovering from the deficit. The Superbowl was okay, surprisingly I liked Lady Gaga’s halftime show, and I once again fell asleep, this time on the floor. I was awoken by someone who was very excited about the winning team; I groggily made my way back to my room. I still don’t recall who won. I was going up the stairs when I felt the first twinges of pain in my calves.

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Hopi Point; worth the hike on sore legs to get there, even on an overcast day!

The next day I was sore but it wasn’t too bad, I took my time walking places. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the real pain set in; I woke up with a muscle cramp in my left leg. I took a warm bath and that seemed to help. After a long day of training, checking out some cool stuff too, I was once again heading up those stairs. It was so painful, that I fully implemented a plan for the world’s shoddiest rope sling elevator by the time I reached my door. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to realize my plan since I didn’t have any rope. A hot bath, two beers, and a couple of low dose pain pills later I was comfortable. I was on the phone with my mom and dad telling them about the trip and the late onset pain. My mom asked, “Was it worth it?”

Without missing a beat, “Hell Yes!”

I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact I’m trying to convince my fiancée to take a combined rafting/backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon for our honeymoon. He gets to pick the honeymoon since I picked were we’re getting married. I keep dropping hints. I’ll keep you’ll posted.