One Last Hike

I’ve been so sore for the last few days that I could barely move, but that’s probably because I conquered the world last week.

Sunday Gulch Trail is one of the park’s most diverse and beautiful journeys, but I still hadn’t walked it. I had to, however, to collect GPS points for my job, so I set out on a cool and breezy day thinking the hike would be mildly difficult, but definitely doable in a couple hours.

The trail immediately corrected my thinking by revealing the railings on either side of the trail that continued down a massive hill of boulders. The railings should have clued me in, but I hopped, skipped and jumped from boulder to boulder while taking in the amazing scenery. I was traveling next to a dainty waterfall that slowly began to encroach more and more on my walking path, but I figured it would go away soon.

It didn’t. In fact, it got much worse. I soon found myself tiptoeing on the points of rocks that jutted out of the flowing creek I was now supposed to travel in. Not even halfway down the hill, I had to surrender to the fact that I was going to get wet because I encountered this:



After nearly sliding down on my rear end, I made it down the steep climb with everything soaked up to my knees.
That isn't stairs, it's a man-made waterfall.

That isn’t stairs, it’s a man-made waterfall.

But to be honest, the water was cool in the warm sun and it all kind of felt good – until I realized that the soles of my hiking shoes were now permanently slippery and that I had tripled my chances of slipping and falling like one of the three stooges on a banana peel.
At least there were railings to hold on to.

At least there were railings to hold on to.

After that, the trip was fairly easy for about a mile. The trail winds through a beautiful, lush forest with lots of tiny creek crossings and tons of towering Ponderosa Pines flanked by amazing rock formations.
Breathtaking...and really really difficult.

Breathtaking…and really really difficult.

But then, I came upon a legitimate river. Seriously, the little wandering creek I had been following turned into this wide, fast-flowing river where my trail was supposed to go, so I was left with no choice but to scale the rocks flanking it. They were steep and moist from all the water, but I made it around by clinging for my life. I did accidentally lose my green water bottle, and as it fell back down to the ground behind me, I wished it well and kept going because there was no way I was climbing that again. I hope whoever finds it gives it a happy home.
Notice I have no photo here because I was busy clinging for my life.

Notice I have no photo here because I was busy clinging for my life.

After skirting the river, I thought I was home-free. The trail opened up on this steep, flat piece of granite that shot into the air and was glowing with lime green algae – very beautiful and very strange.
Worth it.

Worth it.

That’s when I realized there was nowhere else for me to go; the river dropped off into a waterfall that cascaded down about 40 feet and the rocks were too flat to climb on either side. Why had nobody warned me about this? Was this trail supposed to be closed?
Rushing rushing rushing water...down down down to my ultimate clumsy demise.

Rushing rushing rushing water…down down down to my ultimate clumsy demise.

But then it hit me; I was going to have to jump over the waterfall. If I had done it at that moment, I don’t think I would have gotten as scared and it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but as I watched the drops rise up in the air after splashing down into the depths at the bottom of the falls, I began to panic. There was no way I was going to make this 4-foot jump and I was going to slip, fall, and end up in the water with a broken ankle.

Somehow, I made it (after perilously balancing on several small rocks and shaking like an idiot.)

I was freaked out, but like a true professional, I still took a picture of the waterfall through my legs right before I took one last leap.

I was freaked out, but like a true professional, I still took a picture of the waterfall through my legs right before I took one last leap.

Once past the waterfall, the trek was surprisingly less grandiose. The trail abruptly began to look less rocky and scenic and I followed the road back toward where I had started. I encountered a family who asked me, “How far do we have left to go?”

“Oh, quite a bit farther,” was my reply, to which they all began to squawk about how that just wasn’t possible.

I pulled out my GPS and saw that, in fact, as the crow flies, we didn’t actually have that much further to go – so, after admitting my mistake, we headed off separately.

That’s when I began to get hot and sweaty as the climb got increasingly more vertical. The trail looped around and around and around until I realized that sadly, my first reply to the family had indeed been correct.

An hour later, I came off the end of the trail and abruptly ran into Sylvan Lake. My feet were still soaked and I was hot and sweaty, so I headed off to grab a late lunch at the Sylvan Lake General Store before heading back to my blessedly cool (and still smelly) office. The bikers from the motorcycle rally were still filtering through the park at that point and a rowdy group of them actually picked one of their friends up and threw him in one of the giant troughs that contained ice water to keep the sodas cold. While the resort employees laughed and the bikers clapped each other on the back, the poor guy gasped and struggled his way out of the giant metal bucked full of ice water…and I wanted nothing more than to jump into it myself.


Harney Peak

We six women stood in a hot parking lot with the breeze blowing through our hair and pondered our future. We could turn back – we could certainly find other things to do. I could go work with photos at work and they could all go lounge on the beach and throw back a few cocktails. But we knew we had to do this. We knew we could do this. But we really didn’t want to. Nonetheless, we began our journey up Harney Peak.

Harney Peak is the highest point in the state, and I’m pretty sure it’s the highest point for a very long distance, but I don’t know the specifics. It’s a beautiful area and for a lot of the 3ish-hour hike I felt like I was on the set of ‘Twilight.’ The trek was actually pretty uneventful for the first ten minutes until I heard a voice behind me.

“Hey Anna,” my friend Abby called out to me. She was hanging pretty far behind the group and didn’t look as if she was enjoying herself.
“Oh come on, think about how many calories you’re burning!” I coached her, “Think about how this can be like your workout for the month.”
“I don’t know why I agreed to do this,” she moaned, but kept walking.

But five minutes later, she called out again. She had decided she hated it and had no desire to do it, so she was going to go lay out at the lake…or something.

The rest of us fought onward. The tail winds upward for the first mile at an unimposing angle. The second mile makes you think you’re just that in shape because it takes a turn downhill for a while. Then, when you’re most confident about your hiking skills, everything gets rocky and you’re forced to climb up, up, upward to the high point on the mountain.

We all felt like death. Our calves burned and our legs ached. Our knees cried out to stop. But we kept walking-and sometimes almost crawling. When we finally did reach the top, we were met with a series of small steps. These were the absolute worst part because they were spaced so closely together that it forced you to this kind of hop-skip-jump thing as you climbed, which only made your calves scream louder.

But once you’re up there it’s beautiful.

Not my photo. Sadly.

Not my photo. Sadly.

It’s like being on top of the biggest rock in the world and it’s hard to believe that they managed to build a small fortress up there. We had lost a friend, but most of us had made it and it felt amazing to stand there and let the wind tickle your sweaty cheeks. The land stretched outward as far as you could see and the clouds were…

Dark. Brooding, dark, dreary, awful, and a little apocalyptic. We didn’t know where they had come from or why they were there, but we weren’t going to let them ruin this previously sunny and gloriously painful hike. We took pictures, answered questions for tourists, and had a jolly good time while this thick black cloud hung heavily in the air mere inches from our heads.

Maybe it was our optimism and maybe it was something in the atmosphere, but the cloud just hung there and never did anything. It never rained and it never hailed – which is a nice change from what the weather has been doing here lately. We left the top without incident and made the trek down with a group of very attractive German (or Dutch) guys and had a rousing conversation about the ‘Lord of the Rings.’ We were mid-flirt when my left toe caught on a rock, my knees gave out and I suddenly found myself on all fours in the dirt. Gravity can be really mean.

I wasn’t scraped up very badly, but I was super embarrassed so all conversation ceased. Except for one of the girls (Jess) having to stop and pee in the woods, that was really everything that happened. It was hard, but it felt good mentally to know we had done it. On the other side of things, it didn’t feel good physically at all and even as I sit here, I ache all over. I make old man noises when I sit and stand and people are looking at me strangely, but I don’t care because I did it. I hiked Harney.

Cathedral Spires Trail

It rained a lot on Needles Highway yesterday, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from doing my job. I had planned to walk Cathedral Spires Trail and collect GPS points for the app we’re helping develop, and so by golly, I wasn’t going to let a little sprinkle stop me.

I drove all the way to the trail head (which takes about half an hour if you’re coming from the office and happen to get behind a slow caravan of cars that stop every time they see a bird) and parked in the lot. It was sprinkling still, so I reached back to get my coat – only to realize that I had forgotten it.

But no matter! I am resilient! I am young! I can do this!

So, I got out in my work shorts and button-up collared shirt and proceeded to walk the trail. It wasn’t too bad at first; it was merely misty out and it made everything look green, luscious and beautiful. But then it started to rain a little harder. And harder. And harder.

I knew I was trapped because I had already walked about a mile down the trail and there was no turning back. I tried to take cover under a pathetic little Aspen tree, but it didn’t do much good. It was starting to look like I had entered a wet t-shirt contest and my hair so wet it was dripping, so I knew it was time to move.

And speaking of my hair, my friends at the park and I had dyed it a nice auburn red the night before. If you’re a girl reading this, you know that means I was in danger of having rivers of blood-colored rain flowing down my face like Carrie if I had missed any of the excess dye on my skull when I washed my hair the night before. And I always miss excess dye.

Ok, maybe this is a little dramatic, but sometimes hair dye runs! Also; great movie.

Ok, maybe this is a little dramatic, but sometimes hair dye runs! Also; great movie.

Not wanting to terrify any tourists, I took off running toward a group of giant rocks. They were slightly slanted, so I thought I might be able to hole up against one and stay dry. I was right; there was a wide sliver between two rocks where I was able to wait out the rain.
Simply breathtaking.

Simply breathtaking.

As I sat there and examined the beauty around me, I heard a faint whistle in the distance. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I shook it off.

But then it happened again.

Somebody in the park was doing the Hunger Games whistle repeatedly, and it was epic.

For those of you who don’t know, the Hunger Games are a series of young adult books about kids killing each other that got made into movies. In that process, a whistle-theme was developed, and it sounds like this:

It’s haunting, slow, simple, and beautiful – and it was perfect for that moment as I sat wedged between two enormous rock formations. I felt like I was in Ireland or Scotland and the moors were giving off mist in the distance as the rain fell and the fairies danced just out of sight.

This park’s beauty just takes you by surprise sometimes, and it’s magical.

Walking to work

The path I walk to work on winds along next to highway 16A just far enough away from the road so that you feel like nobody would be able to see it if a mountain lion attacked you. Because of this, it’s a little unnerving to hear things (animals, plants, murderers, rhinos?) rustle in the grass as you walk by.

Two days ago it was a snake – I don’t know what kind. Today at lunch it was three small birds that were eerily silent as they flew out of the grass inches from my foot. And this isn’t short, manicured grass. This is nature. When I began work, the blades were up to my knee at the highest, but now, they’re nearly to my chin in places. It’s like going on a mini safari four times a day.

And yes, I do jump sometimes when animals fly/crawl/hang-glide out of nowhere. A couple of times I have even squealed. As a result, I’ve taken to humming or quietly singing to myself as I walk along so that the animals hear me coming sooner and fly out ahead of me, instead of at me. This makes me appear mildly crazy to the tourists who pass me by, but I don’t care. I’m tired of being constantly on guard going to and from work. I can’t imagine living in those third world countries where you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings and I now accept that I probably wouldn’t survive a zombie apocalypse because they would be able to hide in the tall grass and get me.

And there are still two deer who like to hide in the grass until I’m nearly upon them before they decide to run away – usually in the direction of the main highway so that they can stand in front of cars (I swear, they enjoy doing that).

All I’m saying is that it’s never a boring day at Custer State Park.

Remember when it rained

After I got off work two days ago, I thought it would be a good idea to go on a walk. (Have to keep those love handles under control, you know?) It was my luck that after a mild, sunny day, it began to sprinkle the minute I got home.

But that wasn’t going to stop me.

Cody, who lives in the cabins by the dorms, can ride a unicycle like it’s nobody’s business. He even goes to national competitions, and he needed to practice, so he offered to come with. That began a string of “I’m coming!” “No wait, it’s raining, are you sure?”

Eventually, it ended up being me, Cody, and another girl, walking Lovers Leap trail as the rain lightly fell on our shoulders. It was cool, calming and beautiful – the rain felt like it was washing away every stress and bad thought in my head.

And then it started to rain harder.

And harder.

And harder. While I felt like I looked like this:
I’m pretty sure I actually looked more like this: Squish squish mutter mutter
We kept walking though awhile Cody rode his unicycle through the increasingly muddy and rutted trail. While the mud slopped up onto my legs and my sweatshirt got completely soaked through, I still couldn’t help but think about how happy I was.

By the time we went back to the dorms, my long hair was soaked through along with my sweatshirt and jeans. The girl who had come along with me was also pretty wet, even though she was wearing a rain-repelling jacket. Cody and his unicycle abandoned ship toward the end of our hike and booked it back to his house to shower.

And I have to admit, when I did get back, that hot shower felt really good.