Over the years of my childhood, my dad, Allen Spencer would tell my sisters and me a story about his walk to and from school as a kid. He always said that he and his siblings, Bill and Ruth had to walk five miles through the snow to get to school, and it was uphill both ways. Of course, my sisters and I didn’t believe Dad’s stories…then. And my sisters still might not believe it, but I’m here to tell you that there are certain conditions in which such a journey might actually be uphill both ways, or at least seem like it.
On Saturday, Bob and I headed up to Hot Springs, South Dakota to do some hiking. Our plan was to finish the last 13 miles (26 miles, since we would hike out and back, thereby doing the 13 miles twice) of the Mickelson Trail. The Mickelson Trail is 109 miles one way, and with this last leg of the hike, we will have hiked the entire trail twice, for a total of 218 miles, because of the walk out and back.
Saturday turned out to be the hottest day of the three days we hiked…well over 80. To top it off, we didn’t get started until 1:30 pm, because of our drive over. Well into the heat of the day. We were hiking a five mile stretch, or ten miles total. As we walked, we were thankful that since we were going uphill the whole way over, we would be going down hill the on the way back…or so we thought. It was very hot all day, and several times we thought the trail ahead looked like a down hill slope, only to find that it was not. As the day grew hotter, we started back…noticing as we did, that we were still going uphill. My thoughts drifted back to all those times when my dad had told us his famous story about walking those 5 miles to school on the snow, uphill both ways. I think I now understand that while it couldn’t have been uphill both ways, to a kid walking to school, it could certainly seem like it was uphill both ways. Our hike on Saturday, couldn’t have been uphill both ways either, but somehow in the heat of the day, the trail caused an optical illusion that made it seem like it was uphill on the way over, when in fact it was downhill a good portion of it. Now we were faced with an unexpected uphill hike back.
The hike Sunday and the one today were far more pleasant, and the really good news is that as of 10:00 this morning, Bob and I can say that we have hiked the entire Mickelson Trail, from Edgemont to Deadwood…twice. It is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment that we have today. It took us a few years…about 15, I would say, but since we don’t live in the area, that’s not too bad. There were beautiful sections, where we walked for hours through the trees, and boring times, when we found ourselves hiking along the highway, but all in all it was a great journey. Would I do it again? Hmmmm, maybe some sections. Others…well, I don’t think so. Nevertheless, if there was another trail like it, I might consider it. Call me crazy.
Last Sunday, while on a trip to Hot Springs, South Dakota to hike the Mickelson Trail, Bob and I found ourselves sidelined due to rain. We sat around the hotel for several hours…until Bob decided that he had cabin fever. So we decided to go for a drive. I had driven this road on my trip to Wisconsin with my mom and sister, Cheryl. The road took us out the east side of Hot Springs, and then toward Rapid City. We went a ways and then turned toward Custer. The drive was beautiful with all the fall colors. It would eventually connect us with Custer State Park, but since we weren’t going to the Needles or the Wildlife Loop, we didn’t have to pay the fee.
As I said, the drive was nice, even in the rain and the scenery was beautiful, but one thing we started to notice…over and over, was a lot of turkeys. It felt like we had stumbled upon Turkey Central. They were in the farmers fields, by the side of the road, and even walking down the road. And they weren’t one bit afraid of our car either. In fact, they completely ignored us and our car. They moved only when they wanted to move. It occurs to me that these turkeys are quite used to all this traffic, and they might even like it. It also occurs to me that these turkeys are most likely bound for Thanksgiving and Christmas tables in the area. As we drove, we slowly went beyond all the turkeys, but it was too late by then, because I had already decided that we had just traveled through Turkey Central. It was as if they owned that stretch of road…or at least thought they did.
The rest of our drive was fairly void of wildlife, and I went back to looking at the beautiful colors. My only wish would be that our area might have a few more red fall colors than it currently has…and that there might be a few more of the various kinds of wildlife. We did happen to see a few buffalo, but they were on someone’s ranch, so I suppose they aren’t wild…not that I intend to find out. For me, the turkeys were really the highlight of the drive. They just acted so bold and brave…never even taking notice of us at all. I think it was a very interesting drive through Turkey Central, indeed.
Sometimes, something we want can be almost within our grasp, but still slightly beyond our reach. That is such a frustrating place to be. Yesterday, Bob and I planned to hike Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and we did…in a way. The hike is 3.4 miles each way, and a lot of it takes you up some serious hills. We have not hiked like we used to in a couple of years, because we were very busy taking care of Bob’s parents, my mom, and Bob’s sister. We have been trying to get ready for hiking in the Black Hills this year, but we haven’t really reached a place where we feel like we are ready.
We hiked two really long sections of the Mickelson Trail the first two days of our trip, and yesterday was for Harney Peak. I think we both knew we weren’t really ready, but we thought we could do it…even if it took us a bit longer. Believe me, a bit was not even close to reality. We probably stopped triple the amount of times as normal. And breathing for me was…well, let’s just say I was gasping for air at times. I couldn’t believe I was that out of shape. But, the last time we dared take on Harney Peak was in 2011.
Nevertheless, we headed out…still tired from the day before, but hopeful that the day would bring success our way. It was a really tough go. I knew we were out of shape, but hoped that I was wrong about how bad it really was. As we walked and struggled, the truth was obvious. The one thing I can say, is that it was one of the hottest days here, so far this summer…but that is really the only excuse I have…and the one Bob agreed on and said we should use.
We did technically hike up Harney Peak, but when it came time to go up the 300 stairs, I has no more “up” in me. Bob could have made it, but he would not go without me. I was so hot and so tired that is wasn’t sure, at that moment, that I could make it back to the car, but I had to…there was no other way back, aside from life flight, and I wasn’t going there. We headed back and while it took us a while, we did make it back. We both agreed that we probably shouldn’t have attempted it, but in the end it was a successful failure. We did technically make it, we just didn’t go up the stairs to the very top. Does that make me feel better…no, but it is all I have.
For a number of years now, Bob and I have walked the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Most is the time the trail seems like just that…a trail, but when it travels through an old cut where the trains went through a hillside, without having to go over it, I am reminded again that it really was a railroad. As we walk through those cuts, I can almost imagine a train coming through there. Bob can too, because he jokingly asked if we should watch out for the train. It is like we can see the trains, like a ghost train or an echo train.
It’s strange to walk where only trains have traveled prior, but with the Rails to Trails program, many more people are doing just that. Since the trains are no longer using those tracks, it has become a great way to reclaim the space, and for people to be able to see the countryside on a trail that is a little easier that some of the backwoods trails that seasoned hikers take. Bob and I love our backwoods trails too, but trails like the Mickelson Trail and the neighborhood trail that we walk at home make for a good place to get some exercise without having to go to the gym, and neither of us likes going to the gym anyway.
The cuts in the Mickelson remind me a lot of our travels on the 1880 Train, between Hill City, South Dakota and Keystone, South Dakota. That train goes through a lot of those same cuts, and maybe that is why we can both almost hear and see the echo trains. It’s a place we have been before…a lot. We love to ride the 1880 Train. It is usually the highlight of our annual trip to the Black Hills…other than our hike up Harney Peak, which is our favorite hike of all the hiking we do.
As we move on past the cut in the Mickelson Trail, my thoughts move back into the reverie I always feel when I am out on the trail…any trail. There is such peacefulness there, and it’s so quiet most of the time. I can just lose myself in thought, which is probably why we don’t talk much on the trail. We are simply enjoying the scenery, and going where trains have traveled.
For a number of years now, Bob and I have been walking the Mickelson Trail that runs from Edgemont, South Dakota to Deadwood, South Dakota. It is 109 miles long, and when we are done, we will actually walk the trail more that two times from one end to the other. I say more than twice, because there are some areas we have walked several times. We did not start at one end and work our way to the other end, but rather we started in the middle, and then realized how much we liked the trail, so we made the decision to keep track of where we had walked and work toward walking the entire trail. It has taken us a long time, because we only come to the Black Hills once a year on the average year.
This year, however, we decided to make a second trip. The lower section of the trail has areas of fewer trees, and is a little warmer climate, so it is very hot to walk in the full heat of summer. We decided that the long Columbus Day weekend would be perfect for three days of hiking…and on a normal year, it probably would have been. However, this was not a normal year. It was not a total loss, but we did get rained out today, which was disappointing. The six mile hike we had planned for today will have to be added on to the rest of the lower section, leaving us with 18.5 miles to the south and 10 miles to the north. Two hundred and eighteen miles at an average of six to eleven miles a day completed one week in the summer really takes a while. Still, it is with a sense of accomplishment that we mark of each new section on our map. While the Mickleson Trail is not a difficult trail, when it is taken in nine to eleven mile chunks, it take a toll on your body for sure, at least for that day. In the long run, it is one of the best things you can do for your body…low impact, hard work…yep great exercise, for sure.
While our last day of hiking was cancelled, the other two days were wonderful. The first day, we were treated to flock after flock of geese flying over on their way south. It was an amazing sight to see, and the air was filled with their calls back and forth, as they happily headed to their southern home for the winter. The second day brought deer into my camera view…both white tail and mule deer, which was a bit surprising in that we have not seen mule deer in the Black Hills before…of course, we are on the southern section of the trail, so it could be just that this area has them. The weather those first two days was just perfect for our hikes. We had to wear our jackets, it was not really cold. Our extra time in the Black Hills this year was wonderful…and it has inspired us to do this again next year.
Friday was our last full day in the Black Hills, and while the hike for the day was the longest we did this trip, at 7 miles, we felt the best of all the hikes. I’m sure there are a couple of reasons for that. First, our muscles finally got used to being worked like they used to. Second and possibly the most important, it was cloudy and cool. While I prefer warm weather, most of the time, when hiking, cool weather is much better. The clouds kept the sun off, and while it was cool, it did not rain. Don’t get me wrong, I was tired when we were done, and truth be told…before we were done, but we made it. I have found something out about myself during this time…it isn’t just about finishing a hike…it’s about that something inside me that…that sense of accomplishment. I made it, even though it hurt, and made me tired, and many people would think I was crazy for walking 7 miles just to say I did.
The hike of Friday moved us to the 51.9 mark one way on the Mickelson Trail, which for us is 103.8 since we do each section twice. That is something I can feel good about. My hope for next years is that we will continue to stay in the necessary shape for the tougher hikes. We lost Harney Peak for this year, because we just weren’t in shape for it. That saddens me because Harney Peak is my favorite hike, but it also makes me more determined to be able to take that hike next year. Still, every hike is an accomplishment, and I am happy that we got to go.
The afternoon brought another of our favorite things to do in the Black Hills…riding the 1880 Train. Now I suppose many people would think that is kind of a little kid thing to do, but since I get sick on merry-go-rounds, and the carnival rides have the same effect, I’ll stick to the 1880 Train, thank you. It always allows me to imagine what it would be like to travel in the Old West…or even when my Dad was a kid riding the trains his dad worked on. I don’t think I’ll every outgrow the train rides. And riding the train in the beauty of the Black Hills is the perfect end to a lovely vacation.