We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
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.