“The rain seems to have stopped,” Henry noticed. “I think the weather’s supposed to clear today. I wonder if we can switch our first night in the North Unit for another night here. The campground’s not full, by any means.” Actually, it was a small campground with only twelve spots, half of which, like ours, were by reservation only, but the other half were first-come, first-served and usually full all summer, but as far as I could tell, only two of them were in use at the moment.
Laughing, I replied, “The rain might have something to do with that, but it’d be nice not to have to break camp when everything’s still so wet. Let’s see what we can do.”
Throwing on some clothes, I headed first to the restroom to empty my bladder and then to the camp office to see if I could change our reservation. It turned out our campsite was reserved by someone else that night, but the ranger saw no reason why we couldn’t move to the adjacent, unreserved spot. The situation with the Juniper Campground in the North Unit was less predictable, with only nine spaces total, all of them first-come, first-served. We were limited to fourteen days total in the park, but we’d only used three so far and were in no danger of using up the rest. With so much time lost, I formulated a plan and paid the ranger for the next two nights in the adjacent space. If nothing else, it was the bird in hand.
When I got back to our tent, Henry had a frittata, turkey bacon and toast waiting for each of us. He made the frittata with ground turkey; sliced, diced and fried potatoes; diced bell peppers; eggs and cheese. I got back just in time to make the coffee. Camp coffee is usually pretty awful, but we were both picky when it came to our coffee. During my worldly travels, good coffee wasn’t always available, either, so I’d done my research and purchased a couple of implements that made it easier to make good coffee on the road. One was a hand-crank burr grinder, and the other was an Aeropress Go, which worked like a French press but was more efficient, much more compact, and self-cleaning. Pushing the plunger through when done ejected the grounds and biodegradable filter, leaving nothing to wash but the plunger itself. I’d bought the travel version from Applazon, which included a large mug and was fully self-contained. The only downside was that it made only one mug at a time, so I’d bought two of them. I had fresh-ground coffee ready for both of us in no time.
Handing Henry his mug and taking a plate of food from him, I reported, “I checked, and the only way we can stay here another night is if we move to one of the unreserved spots.”
“Looks like the one next to us is free,” my boyfriend replied. “Maybe you should pay up front for the spot before someone else grabs it.”
“Already done,” I responded.
“Great!” Henry continued, “Hopefully, by the time we break camp, our stuff’ll be dry. I know the trails’ll all be muddy, but I think we should plan on hiking today. We can pack a picnic lunch and make a circuit. We should leave the scenic drive for tomorrow morning after we pack up the car. We can do the scenic drives in both parks tomorrow.”
“That’s pretty much what I’d planned, but there’s a hitch,” I replied. “Juniper Campground in the North Unit has only nine spaces, and they’re all first come, first served. That wasn’t supposed to be a problem, as we’d planned to go straight there, but you know, maybe we could still do that. We’d planned to spend a day and a half in Minneapolis-St. Paul, but that’s not nearly enough time to do them justice. We can visit anytime; in fact, we’ll probably visit there many times in the future on business or for a conference, so let’s bypass the Twin Cities and go straight to Duluth. We can use those two nights here and then continue as we’d planned.”
“We were gonna visit the George Floyd memorial site,” Henry reminded me.
“And we will, just not this year,” I said. “Instead, we’ll spend more time here in ‘Teddy’s Place’.”
“Teddy’s Place?” Henry asked with a bemused expression.
“You know, Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” I clarified. “Roosevelt hated being called ‘Teddy’, by the way, but like many nicknames, it stuck with him all his life.”
“What if there’s more rain?” Henry asked.
“We can always drive directly to Bismarck instead of taking the scenic route along the Missouri River. That would give us nearly an extra full day in the park, but the reports are for nice weather for at least the next week.”
“We already charged the car, so that saves us the time we would’ve spent in Dickinson,” Henry pointed out.
“True, we could do the scenic loop instead, but the way the ranger talked, getting a campsite in the North Unit is iffy at best, particularly now that the weather’s cleared. There’s still the CCC camp outside the park as our backup, but that means driving in each day. Let’s get there as soon as we can in the morning and hope we can get a space just as someone else is leaving.
“So, we’re gonna do the scenic loop drive today?” Henry asked.
Nodding my head, I responded, “There are two major hikes we’ll be doing here and two in the North Unit as well as a bunch of shorter hikes off the scenic drives. In both units, there’s an eighteen-mile hike that’ll take an entire day, and a shorter eleven-mile hike that we can combine with the scenic loop drives.”
“Fuck, eighteen sounds like a lot. Can we even do eighteen miles in one day?” Henry asked.
“The Park Service recommends ten-to-twelve hours for each of them,” I replied. “Besides which, unless you can get a ride between spots, the only way to do them is as a loop. Maybe I should send you back for the car and you can pick me up,” I suggested. Henry had a full mouth and responded with his middle finger.
“The one in the South Unit is supposed to be mostly level, but with a number of stream crossings – and we have to cross the Little Missouri River to get to the trail and again to return, so we’ll have to start the day and end it getting our feet wet,” I said. “Because the ground’s still so wet from all the rain and the river’s undoubtedly full, we probably should wait until tomorrow for that one, so we’ll spend today on the scenic loop drive and on the shorter hike.
“Tomorrow, we’ll be sure to get an early start and maybe pack both breakfast and lunch to take with us on the hike so as to save time. Ditto for the long hike in the North Unit, which is much more difficult.”
“Jesus,” Henry replied.
“There are several steep climbs with an elevation change of over a thousand feet, and there are river crossings, too,” I added as Henry was slack-jawed. “Still, the Park Service recommends ten to twelve hours for it, and we’re in good shape, so we’ll just be sure to get an early start. They actually recommend starting out at daybreak so you can watch the sunrise. We’ll plan on it.”
“I’ll definitely pack both breakfast and lunch. Damn, you’re gonna give me sore muscles for sure,” Henry replied. “Speaking of which, we’d better get moving.”
It was already warming up, so before breaking camp, we changed into more appropriate, summer hiking gear with shorts and hoodies that would probably be removed by mid-morning. After cleaning up the campsite, moving our tent to the next lot over, hanging out our sleeping bags to dry, taking a quick shower, brushing our teeth and applying fresh sunscreen, we were on our way. Getting in the Tesla, Henry got behind the wheel, and we turned left out of the Cottonwood Campground and then right onto the scenic loop drive. We drove through the first of many prairie-dog towns in the park. Sure enough, Henry and I spotted several prairie dogs in the vicinity.
We stopped at several overlooks, including the Scoria Point Overlook and the Badlands Overlook. We’d driven the same drive and hiked the same short trails in the rain, but it was as if we’d seen it in black and white before, and now we were seeing it in color. These were different Badlands, with fantastic rock formations, deep canyons and towering ridges. We hiked the Ridgeline Nature Trail, the Coal Vein Trail and the Buck Hill Trail, all of which had spectacular views. It wasn’t long before we pulled off our hoodies and left them in the car.
We hiked the Baicourt Trail and stopped at the Baicourt Overlook, then continued along the scenic loop drive until it met East River Road, where we turned left. After a few more stops, we returned to the campsite and parked the car. Henry roasted turkey hot dogs for lunch, which we ate with spicy brown mustard and relish.
Packing up my camera gear and refilling our canteens, we set out directly from the campsite, hiking a loop consisting of the Jones, Lower Talkington and Lower Paddock Trails. Much of the route followed a normally dry creek bed that was far from dry, and we slogged our way through a lot of mud. It might have looked dorky to wear hiking boots with only shorts, but a twisted ankle would have been disastrous on a trip like that. They were low-rise, GoreTex hiking boots that were waterproof and breathable and, coupled with no-show, hiking ankle socks, looked more like high-top sneakers.
The sky was blue with scarcely a cloud to be seen, and as much as we sweated, we had to reapply sunscreen often. The scenery was spectacular, and I ended up shooting hundreds of photos, filling up yet another memory card in the process. I must have shot hundreds of closeups of all the prairie dogs alone and even more of my adorable, sexy boyfriend. The terrain was more rugged than I’d expected, fully earning the hike’s designation as moderate to strenuous. By the time we got back to the campsite, the sun was low on the horizon, and without shirts, it was downright chilly. On top of that, we were starved.
Donning our hoodies, Henry got busy right away making dinner. He grilled a whole chicken that was already cut up and boneless. It tasted heavenly. While I ground and brewed coffee and filled a thermos that I hoped would keep it hot, Henry fried up turkey bacon for our breakfast. He made bacon-tomato-and-cream-cheese-on-bagel sandwiches for breakfast, and peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-banana-nut bread for lunch, with carrots, apples and a half-dozen caribou- oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies for dessert. Getting everything ready for the morning and setting the alarm on both our phones for 5:00, we took our showers and settled for satisfying ourselves with a quick 69. Much as we wanted to do more, there just wasn’t enough time.
<> <> <>
There was an annoying sound that wouldn’t stop. I felt more than heard my boyfriend groan, and then he said, “You’ve gotta fuckin’ be kiddin’ me. It can’t be five o-fuckin’ clock in the fuckin’ morning.” And the annoying sound wouldn’t stop. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t let me go back to sleep.
Gradually I became aware of the surroundings and that I wasn’t home in bed in Omaha or New York. I was cuddled up with Henry, and we were in what? A sleeping bag? Suddenly my eyes flew open as I remembered our plans for an eighteen-mile hike today. Not only was getting an early start essential, but if we didn’t hit the trail now, we’d miss seeing the sunrise.
Henry was already out of the zipped-together sleeping bags by the time I crawled out. The tent was supposedly big enough to sleep four, but it seemed barely adequate for two, if even that. God, I ached all over from yesterday’s hiking, but I wasn’t about to let that stop us. Throwing on briefs, a hoodie and flip-flops, I opened the tent flap, only for the cold to hit me like a slap in the face. I heard Henry say, “Jesus,” as I noticed the frost on the ground. Fuck, how was I supposed to dress for frost and eighty- or ninety-degree heat in the same day?
Closing the tent flap, the rational part of my brain kicked into gear; I certainly knew how to layer. The shorts had to stay ’cause we had to wade through water, but I could compensate by wearing a t-shirt under the hoodie and a down vest over it. I actually roasted in that until I went back out into the cold. Henry followed, and we headed to the primitive facilities, where we quickly emptied our bladders and brushed our teeth. Grabbing our backpacks and hiking boots and socks, which we carried, and ditching our flip-flops, we secured the campsite and walked carefully and barefoot to the bank of the Little Missouri River.
I stuck my foot into the water; fuck, it was cold! I heard Henry exclaim, “Jesus”, as he did the same. Wading into the water, it came up to mid-thigh on us, even though we were tall! With all the rain we’d had, the river was deeper than usual. Once on the other side, I used my hands as a squeegee to wipe the ice-cold water off of me before donning my wool hiking socks and hiking boots.
Seeing the bluff in front of us as if noticing it for the first time, I realized we were going to have to climb up on top of it to see the sunrise above the walls of the canyon behind us. This was supposed to be a level hike? Then noticing the trail stretching out to the right, I realized there probably was an easier way than scrambling up the face of a bluff. Sure enough, the trail took us up a more gradual, yet steep, slope. Once on top, my boyfriend suggested, “Let’s find a spot where we can sit and eat our breakfast while we watch the sunrise.” I nodded in response. That sounded good to me.
The ground was hilly but flat, without even a rock to sit on. It was still a bit muddy, though. Taking off my backpack, I reached inside and pulled out a small pack that contained a silvery Mylar emergency blanket. It was paper thin, but strong, and it would have to do as a makeshift picnic blanket. “Great idea,” Henry said. Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out the thermos of coffee, pushed the button on top that let me pour from it and filled a pair of spill-proof mugs. The rising steam showed me the thermos had done its job.
Henry handed me a Ziplock bag with two bagels in it, but as I prepared to open it, the sky across the river from us grew fiery red, and breakfast was quickly forgotten for the time being as I grabbed my camera, switched to the telephoto zoom and began shooting picture after picture as the sun slowly made its appearance. After maybe a half hour of shooting photos, my hunger hit me full force, and I set my camera aside and dug in. The taste of bacon and tomato mixed with cream cheese on a multigrain bagel was heavenly, and I couldn’t believe how fresh the coffee was. After we’d both finished our two bagels and our mugs of coffee, we put everything away, including the blanket, and after a quick kiss, we were on our way.
We had a long, moderately strenuous hike planned for the day, consisting of the Petrified Forest Loop Trail, the Lone Tree Loop and part of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The hike took us deep into the park’s wilderness area; there were no facilities anywhere along the trail. Needless to say, we carried an ample supply of water with us, consisting of a two-quart canteen and a two-liter bottle in our backpacks for each of us.
I couldn’t help but wonder what female hikers did when it came to going to the bathroom, though. As it was, there was absolutely no privacy when whipping out our dicks to urinate, but then it was always possible to face away from where anyone could see us.
Although reported to be mostly level, the trail was surprisingly hilly as we often climbed over ridges only to drop down into the adjacent canyons before climbing back up. The temperature rose rapidly, and the down vests came off almost immediately after finishing breakfast, followed an hour later by the hoodies, and an hour after that, by our t-shirts. We brought plenty of sunscreen and needed to reapply it frequently. As sexy as Henry looked, particularly as I could smell his faint, musky odor, it was hard waiting for the night to make love to him, pun intended. At least there was the scenery and my photography to distract me.
As we hiked, we discussed the area’s slow recovery from the pandemic. Although the Dakotas and Nebraska had been especially hard hit, few states were harder hit than South Dakota. The governors of all three had resisted the call to mandate social distancing, crowd restrictions and mask-wearing. Schools remained open, as did restaurants and bars. As might have been expected, Omaha was the exception, but then it was the only major city in the region. South Dakota made headlines early on, however, when 247 employees at a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant became symptomatic and tested positive for Covid-19. Eventually, 1294 employees tested positive for Covid-19 out of a workforce of over 3,600. The overwhelming majority of those had symptomatic infection and a number were hospitalized.
An additional 664 family members and others with connections to the facility also contracted the illness, and four of the employees ultimately died. It was the single largest outbreak at the time. The incident tarnished the reputation of the CDC, as it was later shown that the administration had pressured the agency into watering down their recommendations. The President himself intervened, declaring meat processing plant employees to be essential workers. Although Henry and I generally saw eye-to-eye when it came to science and politics, it was on this issue where we disagreed. It started when I stated flatly that meat processing was not an essential service.
“What do you mean it’s not an essential service?” Henry asked.
“I mean exactly that,” I replied. “There’s no need for people to eat meat; therefore, why should thousands of workers have been exposed to the coronavirus unnecessarily? Why did people have to die, so that we could have burgers with our fries?”
“For the sake of argument, what would have happened if we’d closed down all the meat processing plants in the U.S.?” my boyfriend asked. “It’s not like all of the livestock in America could have been placed in stasis for the duration. They still had to be fed, so what were the farmers supposed to use to feed them, and how were they supposed to pay for it? It’s not like they had a magic, endless source of grain on hand. They’d have had to buy more at whatever price the market would have borne. It’s not like their livestock would’ve appreciated in value, either. Cattle are not like fine wines; they don’t improve with age. Poultry, in particular, have a limited lifespan, so even if the farmers held onto them and fed them, they would’ve died in the interim, creating an untold health hazard. Farmers would’ve had to choose between feeding or slaughtering their livestock, with no hope of recouping their losses.
“A lot of farmers would’ve gone out of business, threatening the entire food supply, and it’s not like there were alternate sources of protein for people to substitute in place of meat, either. It’s not like people could eat the livestock feed. It takes time to plant and grow crops of soybeans, lentils and other legumes. You can argue all you want about the long-term merits of switching to synthetic meats or a vegan diet, but the bottom line is that in the here and now, meat processing really is an essential function. It’s one of the few things on which I agreed with Trump.”
“But what about all the people that worked in the meat processing plants that died of Covid-19?
“Out of 3,600 employees, only four died of Covid-19 at that one plant. That’s only about a tenth of a percent. Like healthcare workers, they saved lives. I realize they didn’t sign up for hazard pay when they took their jobs, but they kept the nation fed during the pandemic.”
“But the industry did nothing to protect them,” I challenged.
“Not true, J.J.,” my boyfriend countered. “They put up protective barriers, they required their workers to wear masks, and they tested them frequently. Perhaps they could’ve done more, but the plants weren’t designed for social distancing and there wasn’t time to rebuild them. Pardon the pun, but it’s food for thought, right?”
Begrudgingly, I admitted, “I see your point.”
The discussion went on and on from there, with strong disagreement on just how far the government could go in monitoring vaccinations and tracking people’s movements. Henry insisted that lockdowns only served to hurt those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder while doing little to prevent spread of the virus, and I countered that people in New York City certainly didn’t see it that way. I’d witnessed both the effects of the virus and of lockdowns all over the globe and I was convinced that China had proven the effectiveness of lockdowns, albeit using methods that were unacceptable in a free society. About the only thing Henry and I could agree on was that lockdowns are devastating to the economy and should be used only as a last resort. We also agreed that South Dakota had proven that natural herd immunity was a myth.
As might be expected with trails that took us in and out of canyons where it had recently rained, we spent a fair bit of the hike slogging through mud. The spectacular scenery more than made up for it, but what was supposed to be a ten-to-twelve-hour hike took closer to fourteen hours, including stops for photographs, rest breaks and lunch. All pretense of the hike being mostly level went out the window when we came to the first of the two petrified forests. We stopped there for lunch before proceeding down the steep descent into the canyon and the steep ascent a short time later, only to do so again about an hour after that. The fossilized forests were well worth seeing, and the canyons were beautiful, nevertheless. Still, if this was considered mostly level, I hated to imagine what awaited us in the North Unit.
We spent a lot of the time talking about science denial, but we never did figure out how to counter religious fundamentalism or science revisionism. How can one reason with someone who is unwilling to reason or who has no understanding of basic logic? How could people deny we went to the moon and then make use of even more advanced technology when reading a Facebook post on their phone? In the era of the deep fake, they couldn’t conceive of a time when the most advanced computers in the world weren’t as powerful as the ones that now powered their toaster, or that it was far easier to go to the moon than to fake it with the best technology available at the time. To them, rocket science represented the ultimate in complexity, yet compared to the solid-state physics underlying even a simple transistor, it was trivial. An advanced, high school student could calculate the trajectories for a trip to the moon.
The one thing we didn’t bring up was the story of my killing Alan Farmer and escaping from Indiana. It was a nice reprieve, but I knew we weren’t done. There was still a lot to discuss before I’d get past the trauma that underlay my PTSD. I needed to integrate all of the events of my youth, growing up with an abusive pedophile who kidnapped me and then pretended to be my father. I needed to accept that I killed him in true self-defense and that, although my actions to cover up the murder were justifiable in the mind of a kid who’d just turned thirteen, they still constituted a crime by themselves. I would forever carry the burden of that crime and of the crime of identity theft the rest of my days, but it was the murder itself that would always haunt me. Only by accepting all of those events as an integral part of who I was would I ever get past the PTSD – past the nightmares.
We were pretty well pooped by the time we got back to the campsite, and Henry got busy grilling a couple of turkey cheeseburgers for each of us, with ketchup, spicy mustard and sliced tomatoes. They were beyond delicious. As we ate, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d be up to more than sleep tonight. We were, and the acrid scent of the day’s sweat turned out to be a major turn-on for both of us.
<> <> <>
Although the day had been packed with hiking, eating and making love, we’d gotten started at 5:00 AM, so we actually got to sleep at a decent hour, by 10:00 PM, and were well-rested when we got up at 6:00 AM the next morning. After going to the bathroom, taking our showers, applying fresh deodorant and brushing our teeth, we got dressed for the day in shorts and hoodies, ate a quick breakfast of apple fritters and iced coffee, and broke camp. We were on the road by 7:00.
This time I was at the wheel for the one-hour drive between the Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit and the Juniper Campground in the North Unit. Henry got out his phone and looked at it as I drove, but after a while he suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve got it!”
“You’ve got what?” I asked.
“I’ve got a most excellent solution to the hiking problem,” he replied. Well, that told me a lot.
“What the fuck kind of hiking problem are you talking about?” I asked.
“Well for one thing, I don’t want to do another eighteen-mile hike again if I can help it. That was too much, and the Achenbach Trail is supposed to be much harder. For another, it’s way more than eighteen miles.” Then showing me the map on his phone, he continued, “If you actually add up the mileages on the trail, you’ll see that eighteen miles is from one end to the other, but that doesn’t bring you back to the starting point. There’s still a couple of miles to go walking on the road, or two-and-a-half miles minimum if you take a connecting trail. That makes it more than a twenty-mile hike. That’s too much!”
Putting the car on autopilot, I looked at the figures and realized he was right. How could the Park Service claim it was doable as a day hike? “Fuck, you’re right!” I exclaimed.
“So, here’s what we can do,” Henry continued. “Notice that the South Achenbach Trail begins at the Juniper Campground and connects to the parking lot at the Oxbow Overlook at the end of the scenic loop. It then continues as the North Achenbach Trail, ending at the Caprock Coulee Trail, which runs into the Buckhorn Trail. So instead of starting out from the campsite, let’s park the car at the end of the scenic drive, at the Oxbow Overlook parking lot. We can take our time viewing the scenery along the way. Today, we’ll park at Oxbow and hike the ten miles on the South Achenbach Trail back to Juniper Campground, where we’ll stay the night.”
“We’ll leave the Tesla at the overlook overnight?” I asked for confirmation.
“It’s a remote place in a remote national park,” Henry pointed out. “Besides, it’s capable of defending itself against theft quite well on its own.” That much was true. Even if someone managed to bypass all the security features and drive the car away, as soon as it got a signal, it would send out a distress message with tracking information on its location. Even if it were vandalized, it would record the entire event. The Tesla would be safe there.
“Then tomorrow, we’ll start out on the Buckhorn Trail from the campsite and take it nearly the entire way around to where it intersects the Caprock Coulee Trail, and we’ll take that to North Achenbach Trail back to the Oxbow Overlook parking lot. That adds up to just about fifteen miles of hiking, which is a hell of a lot better than twenty.”
I had to agree. It was a much better plan. “Henry, you’re a genius!” I exclaimed.
“And don’t you forget it,” my boyfriend replied, earning a one-fingered gesture of endearment.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.