This is the story of how I almost died.
In September 2016 I had a North Country Trail Celebration to attend in Fargo, North Dakota. I took the opportunity to drive across the state and hike the Maah Daah Hey Trail.
September 18, 2016
Today I unexpectedly began my Maah Daah Hey Trail hike. When I arrived in Medora I stopped into Dakota Cyclery to talk with Jen, the person who arranged my shuttle tomorrow. She offered to drive me down to Sully Creek today so I could walk back into Medora and not have to store my car at the park. Swell.
Within two minutes of hiking, I came to my first crossing of the Little Missouri River. It was very wide but not fast or dangerous. I was happy to have that off my to-do list.
The trail climbed but I made great time, lured on by phenomenal views. I couldn’t believe the five miles went by so quickly; every turn felt like a surprise awaited me.
I hiked 1.5 miles into town on a bike path where I was reunited with my car. I drove out to Cottonwood Campground seeking a place to sleep but it was booked up. I ended up in a place that left a lot to be desired, but it didn’t ‘t matter — tomorrow I would be on the trail.
September 19, 2016
My shuttle got me to the CCC northern terminus around 10:30. On the way to the northern end, we dropped off several bikers and I cached some water.
For the first several miles of the hike, I had my jaw wide open in wonder at the unique scenery around me. I had a long climb up to a grassy plateau. When I walked along the plateau I realized that the view was below me: the wide trenches of colorful badlands opened up below me.
Once in awhile the trail popped into forests of full-on fall, but then in grassy or open areas it was summer: sky so blue it’ll break a heart.
After awhile the trail arrived at the Teddy Roosevelt National Park boundary, with a “welcoming” giant chain link fence. It was a bit disconcerting to walk into that, knowing it was a bison-heavy area and signage was not reliable within the park. This is a designated wilderness area, and I was upset to see bike tracks, but their tracks did make it easier for me to find the way. I was simultaneously grateful and annoyed.
I walked past amazing petrified wood and soon after, I too was petrified as I descended a supremely narrow and steep section of trail. I don’t know how bikers or horses navigate it: one tiny wrong move, and that would be it.
I managed to get water at Bennett Creek and hiked through some formations I can only call sand monuments. My National Geographic map was wrong about the location of the Chinese wall. I often smile when I discover that reality and maps differ.
I passed the spur trail to Bennett Campground and carried on a bit further. I camped in grass above Cottonwood Creek, only five miles from my water cache. That should be nothing: on this day, despite the late start, I hiked over seventeen.
September 20, 2016
It was a lovely, clear, restful night. I saw a shooting star and lights in the sky from Watford City or from oil?
This morning I walked through grasslands, marvelous grasslands that I shared with cows and a rainbow. I came quickly to my water cache and enjoyed the clear, clean water that I’d hidden.
From there the terrain got more challenging: it usually does when you just filled up with water and your pack is its maximum weight. I hiked through some gumbo flatlands in blazing heat, then more grasslands without shade. I baked, and because I was so sizzling it was hard to bask in the landscape around me.
I diverted to Magpie Campground for a drink and to rest, then I carried on past creepy oil wells and through a cow field. There was no escape from the cows.
Finally I found a bluff away from the cows and set up my tent under a lovely tree on the edge of a cliff. I hiked over 25 miles so sleep was in the forecast. So, apparently, was rain.
September 21, 2016
This is the day I legitimately almost died.
Had I pushed one mile further the day before, the story would be entirely different. But I didn’t. And so I nearly met my end.
I woke up after a night of insistent wind and very light rain and heavy mooing. It wasn’t a restful night. I was happy to greet the day. I’d been told that the Bentonite clay makes the trail a little sticky when it’s wet, so I stepped with caution onto the trail that morning. It was a little clumpy, sticking a bit to my feet, but it was no big deal. I was soon looking back on where I’d slept the night before: the yellow tree below kept me company all night.
I arrived at Devil’s Pass, took an obligatory photo, and carried on my way.
And on. And on. I was sliding and I could not stop. I slid and I slid, out of control, sitting down in the clay to stop my descent. I clawed my hands into the soil trying to stop, which I finally did, three feet from the edge of a very big drop-off. A cliff.
I tried to stand up and could not; I simply slipped closer to the edge. I tried to get onto my knees, but I slipped closer to the edge. I looked across Devil’s Pass: a narrow strip of land connecting two grassy highlands. I knew instantly that I was never going to get across it in conditions like this.
Over the next half an hour I inched my way to a wall of clay on my right-hand side. I heaved my body at it and crawled, dripping with sweat and clay, up the slope until I was back at the Devil’s Pass sign where it had all began. There was no way across. I lay in the grass shaking.
There was nothing else to do: I had to commence bail-out. I retraced my steps back to a road, and decided to road-walk around Devil’s Pass. It added, oh, seven miles or so to what was going to already be a long day.
Finally I arrived on the other side of Devil’s Pass where the Maah Daah Hey crosses a road. I optimistically got back on the trail
Soon I was inching my way across sloped sidehill with large drop-offs on one side. It wasn’t a large enough drop-off to kill someone like Devil’s Pass was — but I was out there alone, with no reliable cell service. With shaking legs I got through a short section of trail and retreated to the road. It was okay though because even the road had a ford of the Little Missouri River! No lack of excitement.
By the time I reached Elkhorn Campground, I was beat. I was broken. I was having flashbacks to the near-death experience I’d just endured. I was a wreck.
And then my entire hike changed for the better. The only other group of hikers in the campground invited me over to share their meal and talk trail. They filled me up — not just my stomach but my mind and heart. Theirs was the act of kindness I so needed. I may never have needed such an act more than I did that day.
After an evening of camaraderie and great food, I fell asleep in my tent. The view wasn’t bad.
September 22, 2016
I awoke to eggs and bacon and orange juice. Never was a breakfast better. It was suggested that I camp with the crew another night — they were all heading down to Wannagan to do 13 miles to another road crossing, then coming back. I would start at Wannagan and come all the way back — 22 miles. It sounded like a good plan — I was still shaky from yesterday, so having people around had been really nice. I accepted the ride to Wannagan with the guys, but I carried my pack and everything with me, just in case I didn’t make it.
With my pack, I couldn’t keep up with Elliott and Brian who zoomed on ahead but I caught up around lunchtime. It was mighty tempting to call it a day and take a ride back to camp with them — but the forecast was bad, and I wanted to knock out as many miles as I could while the trail was dry.
How those last nine miles dragged.
I ended up timing my miles by taking pictures of the mileage posts. I had a 20-minute mile but most were just under 30 because I was dragging. I kept looking for Elkhorn Campground in the distant lowland but it never seemed to come. I did see an antelope at least.
Finally I arrived — and at the exact moment when supper was being served. Ribs and corn are the best food I’ve ever eaten. This trip will conclude tomorrow — sometime tomorrow I’ll be in my car headed east — and what I will remember most will be the kindness I found from Ron, Dan, Brian, and Elliott.
September 23, 2016
It rained all night, but I awoke to even more food prepared by the guys. I wish I had something other than twizzlers to contribute. After breakfast Ron drove me down to Wannagan so I could continue hiking south. He dropped me off at the campground and then waited at the nearby road crossing so I could check out trail conditions and learn whether or not the trail was passable. It seemed okay.
I only had 12 miles left of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and it should have been a quick and easy day. The Wannagan ford was deep and brown, but that didn’t worry me so much as the flashes of lightning that were increasingly frequent. I’d been hiking uphill all day towards a huge plateau and I knew I couldn’t ascend any further. The rain was pouring down in buckets when I gave up and pulled over to set up my tent. But my tent, too, was soaked – nothing could stay dry in a downpour like that. I huddled in my tent and worried. If the storm didn’t blow through, I wasn’t sure I could stay there: it was frigid and I was shaking with cold with puddles of water in my tent. Behind me was a series of now-slick ridges. Ahead of me was a plateau.
Luckily, the storm passed in about an hour or an hour and a half. I packed up my dripping tent, glad to not have to sleep in it that evening. Much of the trail was now a Bentonightmare and I frequently inched along, unable to hike normally. Finally I reached the gates of Teddy Roosevelt National Park and the plateau, which was blissfully grassy so I could escape the clay.
The rain had fizzled away and I was just below the clouds. My time on the plateau was marvelous, a physical and mental break from slick trail.
It couldn’t last, of course: I had to descend the plateau eventually. And that meant sitting down and sliding down the trail, sometimes on my rear and sometimes skiing down on my knees. At one small hill I could not manage to ascend: I kept slipping backwards. I eventually crawled up it. But at least I saw an elk.
When I came to Knutson Creek, I was heartbroken. There was no way across. It was deep and muddy, moving incredibly quickly. I looked at my map and concluded there was no real viable way around. Maybe I would have to sleep in my sopping tent after all. But I decided to try. I took a step into the engorged creek and was shocked — my feet touched a sunken timber. Able to balance on the sunken wood, I inched my way across.
The trail got much harder soon, with slippery footing. Under normal conditions it would have been a delight, but after the downpour we’d just endured, it wasn’t fun. It was a slick, slow journey back to Medora and finishing hardly felt like an accomplishment.
On the Maah Daah Hey Trail, my soul cracked open in a way that hadn’t happened in previous adventures, at least not for a long time. The Badlands felt like coming home. I felt whole, competent, and like I’d truly had an adventure. The more time I had to process, the more I wanted to go back.
In July 2017, I took my mother on a roadtrip to Medora, where we stayed at Cottonwood Campground. Fun fact: everyone in Cottonwood Campground loses their mind when a snake is found in the campground. My mother enjoyed watching people freak out.
My friend Phil happened to be passing through Medora on his way home from Montana so the three of us made a daytrip out to Devil’s Pass. I had unfinished business out there.
We drove as close to Devil’s Pass as possible – much of the route I’d walked during my walk-around. Soon we were at the pass. Crossing the pass on a clear, dry day was amazing. It’s a magical place.
I found the crack where I’d hauled myself up away from the edge.
I found the place where I almost went over the edge.
And I admired how far I would have fallen, if I had gone over.
But the best part was just sharing it with two of my favorite people.