It’s clear and cool, near 50, with a few puddles left from showers last night as we skirt downtown Tulsa and go west. Since leaving the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina six days ago, we’ve traveled lands of abundant forest and plentiful rain. That’s all fading on Oklahoma 51, our lonely route to the Texas border, pavement fissured by oil and gas trucks and convoys carrying oversize pylons for windmills. Judy warns: “We’re going to have to get off this road if it doesn’t get better. It’s bouncing my tits off.” Central Oklahoma is transition country, not east but not west. Wheat is taking hold in fields of black, not red soil, and golden prairie grass is in retreat. We do a speed walk, one hour, at a high school track of asphalt in Canton, along the North Canadian (river). Judy and I travel past miles of windmills atop ridges and patches of snow east of Arnett, Oklahoma. We stop at a signpost near the 100th meridian. A plaque and post commemorate the Great Western Trail, the last route opened for cattle driven from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, and points north. Settlers with barbed wire, quarantines to protect northern herds from Texas cattle fever and the arrival of railroads and refrigerated cars led to the demise of the Great Western Trail in the early 1890s. A compacted, eroded U-shaped portion of the hillside is evidence of more than 2 million cattle driven through here. Entering the Texas Panhandle, Judy and I agree we are getting close to our home, the West. Early evening shadows lengthen on U.S. 60 as we climb and dip through hills and folds. Snow is a few inches deep in wooded bottoms. We flatten out on the Llano Estacado before entering Pampa, Texas.
Judy and I are on a scouting mission in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. We want to include water travel in our wandering next year. The Buffalo River, designated as America’s first scenic river in 1972, is on our bucket list. We want to float in mountain country to see bluffs of sandstone and limestone and look for basswood, Pawpaw, blue ash, witch hazel and spring flowers. Our challenge is to figure out how to synchronize our annual trip through the South to visit my sister Ronda and family in South Carolina with water flows on the Buffalo River, which peak in spring. Judy and I talked to a ranger at Tyler Bend Visitor Center near St. Joe, Arkansas. She gave us information on kayak and canoe rentals for the middle portion of the Buffalo River, from Carver to South Maumee. It’s the stretch of 120-mile river that fits our skill level: beginner. Judy is in for this adventure, as long as we float before the sweltering Arkansas summer.
I was ready to blow off Paducah, Kentucky, a once dominant ship and rail hub on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, now a backwater, like so many historic places we poke around. My thoughts were fixed on 1,500 miles of road ahead and a medical appointment in Arizona in less than a week. We stopped last night for German food and drink at Paducah Beer Works, a converted bus station on the edge of downtown. Instead of retreating to the Walmart on the outskirts of town, we ventured for ice cream on dimly lit Broadway, Paducah’s commercial center at the riverfront. Neither of us were impressed with downtown, but Judy saw a sign for the National Quilting Museum as we were leaving to overnight. We decided to check out the museum today, even though we should be driving for eight hours or so. We discover more merit in downtown in morning light. You can see the Ohio River and a mural of Paducah’s history. It’s a mighty social and economic narrative of a town that thrived in an era of steam ships and locomotives and faded with the triumph of the auto and airplane in the 20th century. It’s the best community mural we’ve seen in five years. One of the panels depicts the massive flood on the Ohio River in 1937, which left 95 percent of Paducah under water, and led to construction of a miles-long river barrier protecting the community. The National Quilting Museum, is a fabulous collection of contemporary quilting, global in scope. Never judge a town in the dark. That’s why I’ll always remember Paducah.
Hard rain and winds whip The Epic Van at Walmart in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the forecast calls for no letup all day. We’re reduced to our least favorite option for getting in 10,000 steps a day, the Walmart walk. Raincoats will be cumbersome indoors, so we dash to the entrance. Under fluorescent sky, we begin our walk through blue and yellow signage with constant reminders of Everyday Low Price! (The tariff war with China must be making a lot of this stuff more expensive.) We’ve tried spicing up the walking routine, which we’ve done several dozen times over the years, by going Pac-Man, gobbling every aisle in a store. It’s dizzying. Gets old fast. The Spearfish store has an unobstructed perimeter walk around the box, old-school Walmart design. Updated stores are partitioned to funnel shoppers into the maw. We take a drive in the rain, scouting a section of the Michelson rail trail near Lead, South Dakota, and seek wi-fi at a Pilot truck stop in Rapid City to watch the Democratic presidential debate and camp.
As we cruise toward a rail trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sun shines brightly for the first time since Idaho, eight days ago. Judy and I are doing our first shuttle hike, on the Mickelson Trail, a 108-mile biking and hiking route between Edgemont and Deadwood. If you are looking for ease of travel through steep terrain, nothing beats the gradual up-and-down gradient of a rail line. (This rail trail features smooth, fine gravel, though not all do.)
I start at Dumont trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and head north toward Lead, South Dakota, while Judy parks at the Sugarloaf Trailhead and hikes south toward Englewood to meet me. I stroll in a sweatshirt at 5,000 feet, climbing gently through Ponderosa pine, aspen and birch, dotted with slopes of knee-high emerald grass. I pass through open valley at Englewood, a railroad ghost town once named Ten Mile. In 1890, the town was a bustling junction for three lines: the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Black Hills & Ft. Pierre Railroad, and the Spearfish line, popular with tourists.
I meet Judy on mile seven, just before noon as temperatures warm up in the valley. In a half-mile or so we’re back under cover of the Black Hills forest for our return to The Epic Van. Our half-day shuttle hike worked perfectly. We’ll do it again.
We begin our morning in Wall, South Dakota, parked on motel row on Main Street. Our plan was to camp last night in Badlands National Park at Sage Campground, but it was full. At least we drove out of the park under the glow of the harvest moon. After laundering and shopping (fixings for buffalo stew), we roll back to Badlands park. On the way, we stop at Prairie Homestead, one of the best-preserved sod houses in the United States. You can walk inside to examine earthen walls, cottonwood beams and a precious few milled planks used to build it in 1909. This was one of the last stretches of the Great Plains opened to the plow. Homesteaders, relying on about 13 inches of rain a year, said: “The government bet you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on the land five years.” The signs for hundreds of miles along South Dakota highways should lead to Prairie Homestead, instead of the drug store back in Wall. Later, we take a short, steep hike up to Saddle Pass, on the Badlands Wall, a 50-mile barrier that separates upper mixed-grass prairie from lower prairie to the southwest. I looked toward the White River bluffs in the distance, thinking about how grasshoppers, prairie fire, hail, sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and social isolation crushed homesteaders, forcing 80 to 90 percent of them to abandon their dreams in the Badlands.
We peek at steam rising from Kirkham Hot Springs before leaving for Stanley, Idaho, a likely spot for an RV dump and groceries. At noon, we rush to fill our water tanks at Redfish Lake under a sprinkle and depart as thunderstorm clouds bulge. Pounding rain and hail strike as we travel north on Idaho 75. Wind gusts of 40-50 mph tug at the Epic Van as two Lodgepole pines, about 30 feet tall, snap and fall in front of our vehicle. We skirt them and decide to wait out the storm in Stanley. There’s a flash flood warning and red flag (high-wind warning) until 6 p.m. on the road to Salmon, according to Judy’s weather app. We decide to stay at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness tonight. We tour the visitor center at Redfish Lake, site of the world’s longest, 900 miles, and highest, 7,200 feet, spawning route to the Pacific for Chinook salmon. Less than 100 natural Chinook, and a few hundred hatchery Chinook, made it back to Redfish Lake last month. Once, thousands of spawning Chinook gave the lake its name. On an interpretive nature walk, we walk along a terminal moraine, an indicator of glaciers that formed the lake. A boardwalk leads over marshy terrain, flush with willows and beaver dams. In the distance, 57 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 10,000 feet. We end our afternoon with a short hike along Fishhook Creek trail, amid Rocky Mountain fir, lodgepole pine and sagebrush. A couple from Idaho Falls leads us to a pocket of calm water on roaring Fishhook Creek, pointing to native fish idling. At 6 p.m., we find a spot at nearby Sunny Gulch Campground. Overnight low is forecast at 37. The furnace is set for the first time this summer, 55 degrees, our sleep comfort number.
Today we’ll be tracing the first 100 miles or so of the Chinook migration route north to Salmon, Idaho, on pavement. At 8 a.m., Judy and I begin a gentle descent in morning fog along the Salmon River. Judy reads the first chapter of The Enchanted Hour, the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. We see a man with coffee mug lounging in a hot spring. We agree that this stretch of Idaho 75 is among the most scenic we’ve wandered in five years. We stop at Sunbeam Dam, the only one ever built on the Salmon. It was partially demolished in the 1930s to reopen salmon travel. We leave conifers, dipping under the cloud layer to a soft brown contours and green fields, then stop at a buffalo jump, a ledge used by Shoshone hunters. (Bighorn sheep also live here on rocky cliffs.) There’s a sign for a farmers’ market in Challis. We grab squash, green beans and fresh eggs. We leave Idaho 75 in Salmon for the road through the Bitterroot Mountains and Lost Pass. At 4 p.m., we arrive at Indian Trees campground, near Sula, Mont., for chair time. On a tall, tilted Ponderosa pine at site 10, there’s evidence of Bitterroot Salish. In spring, as pine sap flows, they stripped away portions of bark, using the tree’s cambium layer for food. Many wide Ponderosa pines in the campground were peeled from 1835 to 1890.
We depart camp near U.S. 93 on the sanitized thoroughfare to Lost Pass, but seek hiking and history on the ancestral route of Nez Perce. I rely on Forest Service ranger stations for local maps, but none were available. We look for road signs on U.S. 93 for the Nez Perce or Lewis and Clark hiking trails. At a trailhead, a map shows where the Nez Perce trail overlaps with a parking spot. We begin our hike at Chief Joseph Pass campground, at 7,200 feet. It’s cloudy and about 60 degrees. We hike on the Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain firs and lodge pole pines, past a network of cross-country ski trails. We reach Gibbon Pass Road, one of the most historic paths in Montana, tread by animals, aboriginals, explorers, fur trappers and pioneers. At an overlook, we gaze toward Indian Trees camp and the road to Sula below. Back at the trailhead, we say hello to Terry, a hunter in camouflage from nearby Darby, Montana. I ask if anyone hunts around the ski area. He nods yes. Judy and I will be buying something bright orange to hike during hunting season. We spend an hour or so at Big Hole National Battlefield, which honors between 60 and 90 Nez Perce killed in 1877, many of them children and women, in an attack by U.S. soldiers and volunteers led by Col. John Gibbon. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died in two days of fighting. We travel east on Montana 43 along the Big Hole River toward Butte. Our day ends under steady rain just off Interstate 90, at Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks, Montana.