You know what they say about all work and no play. With my work done in Little Missouri State Park, North Dakota it was time to explore my favorite place: America.
Leaving the park on July 23, I drove south a few hours and then completed a four-mile hike up the highest peak in North Dakota: 3,506-foot White Butte. I had the mountain all to myself save for the ranchers far, far below me – looking like little ants – who were herding their cattle in a broad, green field.
Done with White Butte I drove towards my next state highpoint: 7,244-foot Harney Peak, the crown of South Dakota and the Black Hills, a land I had not visited since 2004. Pulling into the Black Hills region at dusk, I found a rough dirt road that dead ended at a Forest Service forest thinning project. Sleeping at 5,200 feet at the end of the road was good acclimation for the 14,000-foot peaks I’d be on in just a few days.
I awoke early the next morning and entered Custer State Park. On the Harney Peak Trail by 8:00 a.m., I climbed steadily and smoothly to the top, which hosts a stone observation tower that is on the National Register of Historic Places. To get away from the crowds I hiked down the backside a little, headed off trail, and relaxed in a beautiful, hidden forest, laying out my sleeping pad, digging out my three quarts of water, and finding my book. The plan was to spend all day at 7,100 feet to additionally acclimate.
The air didn’t feel thin and overall I felt great. The hike was a piece of cake after seven weeks of manual labor. I felt so good and so free that before I knew it I had what seemed like a good idea (but was a bad idea since all my ideas that “seem” like good ideas turn out to be bad ideas): naked sun tanning. Like a hippie I stripped down to nothing and lay prone on my sleeping pad. No ticks, no poison ivy, no snakes, and no storms, a cool breeze blew as the sun shone down on all of naked me. Soft, white billowing clouds smoothly eased across the horizon. It was an intoxicating setting that soon put me to sleep.
An hour later I awoke. You couldn’t buy a nap that good. I arose, stood on my sleeping pad, and decided it was time to put my hippie tendencies away, in addition to my unmentionables. I went to slip my shorts on but felt tinges of sharp pain on my backside. I thought that I must have some biting ants on me. I turned my head and looked below my lower back. Immediately I saw why my naked sun tanning idea was a bad idea. The sunburn I saw on my ass was as red and as loud as a fire engine. Easing my shorts on I knew I had done wrong. Big time.
By the time I returned to the Harney Peak trailhead I walked bow-legged, like a rode a horse too long. With pain creasing my face, I felt like, no pun intended, a complete ass. At the trailhead I got more water and then drove back to my 5,200-foot campsite. After dinner and sunset I lay in my sleeping bag in notable pain despite taking Tylenol and coating my sunburn with aloe.
I awoke the following morning after a fitful night. It felt like I had a hundred hypodermic needles stuck in my butt. I could not escape the pain no matter what I did. I eased myself into my car like an old man and drove south towards my next state highpoint: 5,424-foot Panorama Point, the highest plateau in Nebraska. I ran the mile up and back, despite signs warning people to not walk in the area due to herds of ornery Bison. Done, I gently got back in my car and continued south.
I entered Colorado through the southeast corner of Wyoming and drove to the outskirts of Leadville, setting up camp at 10,200 feet. Concerning acclimation, I still felt fine despite my newest campsite being 5,000 feet higher than the prior one. The next day entailed a short drive to my next campsite: Roadside camping near the trailheads of 14,440-foot Mount Elbert and 14,428-foot Mount Massive, the highest and second highest peaks in Colorado. To help further acclimate I hiked up to 11,200 feet, then descended back to camp.
Now it was time to see if my acclimation plan worked. By 7:00 a.m. on July 27 I was already at 11,000 feet on the Mount Elbert trail. My sunburn was nearly healed by this hike and I thanked God for his mercy. I thought I was the first one up the trail but soon I started passing piles of sidelined hikers who climbed too high too fast. One despondent woman sitting on the trail looked at me and simply uttered, “This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.” Before I knew it I was on top of Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains. Being a loner at heart, I descended the backside of the summit to get away from the crowds and hang with the yellow-bellied marmots instead. I seemed like the only one on the mountain not on a cell phone, besides the marmots. After spending an hour on top I descended before one of Colorado’s afternoon thunderstorms arrived.
Elbert may be the highest, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. The next morning I explored what may be the coolest peak I have ever summited: Mount Massive. Aptly named, Mount Massive has more area above 14,000 feet than any other peak in the Lower 48. It is everything and anything except small. The beginning of the Mount Massive trail meandered through open evergreen forests while above 12,000 feet it was only dirt and sky. The final scramble to the tiny summit was just right: exposed but not dangerous, beautiful but not tame. On this summit I sat in the distance alone. A few picas kept me company. I admired them for being so resilient and living in such a beautiful place.
I had enough wild man, solo hiking and driving. For the rest of my trip my fiancée would explore America with me. We met in Denver, and then traveled to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. Being the straightest, longest range in the contiguous United States, and hosting more than a dozen 13,000-foot peaks, it was a fitting introduction for her. We hung around camp, caught up, and managed a hike to 12,000 feet. But, what we had in our minds was New Mexico, a place we had explored separately; her in Sedona, me along the Borderland.
We tackled the highest peak in New Mexico, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak. On this enormous mountain we hiked with picas, marmots, and mountain sheep. It was her first time above 12,000 feet and I was immensely proud of her. We lounged on top for a half hour, and got chased down the mountain by another of the West’s afternoon thunderstorms.
All good things must come to an end though: It was time to go home. We stretched the trip back home as far as we could, hiking the highest peak in Oklahoma, 4,973-foot Black Mesa, despite it being 99 degrees in the shade that day. We then visited the highpoint of Indiana, Hoosier Hill at a measly 1,257 feet, and Ohio’s highpoint of Campbell Hill, which measured a modest 1,550 feet.
On August 11 we pulled into our driveway. After building 18,000 feet of trail, sleeping in a tent for 66 nights, visiting eight state highpoints, and driving 7,000 miles (bringing my Toyota Camry up to a proud 340,000 miles), my return home seemed abrupt. Summer was over. But, home is where one’s heart is. I went to bed that night and fell into a deep, deep sleep under clean, white sheets.