When Emily Chen-Newton moved to Nebraska, she was worried she’d miss her Kentucky mountains. But then she walked a long section of the new Great Plains Trail and realized her new home was a more magical place than she gave it credit for. And not so flat either.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
You might have looked to see what our episode was about this time and had a reflex reaction, like, “The Great Plains? That’s not the American West! These guys don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.”
But hear me out. In my humble opinion, the wide-open expanses of prairie to the east of the Rocky Mountains are part of the West. I haven’t always felt this way. But over the years, I’ve learned some things that convinced me. For one, many tribes lived in both the mountains and the plains. The Arapaho tribe, for instance, called the Front Range of the Rockies their homeland but they also laid claim to the plains as far out as the mountains cast a shadow. And the animals once felt that mountain-prairie connection too. Bears didn’t used to be exclusively mountain creatures; they roamed out onto the plains for food too. Same with elk. And in the story of westward expansion, the pioneers crossing the Great Plains strained their eyes for that first glimpse of the mountains.
But for lots of us Westerners, we reject the prairie like it’s a weird cousin. “Hey, no relation to me, man!” And the idea of doing a long-distance hike across the plains? It might sound ludicrous. Especially if you’re a Pacific Crest through hiker or dreamed of bagging the Continental Divide Trail.
But in these crazy times of global pandemic, the Great Plains Trail might be just what we all need a good dose of. A few years ago, prairie lovers build this 2,200-mile footpath from the bottom of Texas up through New Mexico, then across eastern Colorado, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, to the top of Montana.
You might be thinking, “There’s no trees out there! And it’s flat!” But just for a minute, try channeling Little House on the Prairie…
“There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie, there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.”
Now, that’s true social distancing.
Reporter Emily Chen-Newton was one of those prairie skeptics when she moved to Nebraska for her husband’s career too. But then, she came across a photograph of the Great Plains Trail and her inner Laura Ingalls Wilder came surging forth.
The Ginger Avenger
Emily wasn’t a natural fit to be a through hiker on the Great Plains Trail.
“Yeah, well, that is kind of a funny story,” she says with an infectious laugh. “And it begins with the fact that I am a somewhat displaced rock climber. I had moved to Nebraska, from Kentucky where we have wonderful rocks to climb, but my husband is here in Nebraska. So I moved here somewhat begrudgingly and missing the rocks that I’m used to climbing back home.
“And so, I was in the airport, as I was flying out here and I saw a magazine, Backpacker Magazine, and it had these amazing photographs on the front. And I was just kind of in the process of deciding that I’m not going to be a climber out here in the Great Plains, so I’m going to try to get into something else, maybe this through hiking thing. So I see this magazine and I never buy magazines in airports because who does? That’s ridiculous, right? But it was just gorgeous. And so I opened it up and it looks like Australia. But lo and behold, it’s this Great Plains Trail.”
It reminded Emily of her younger self years before.
“I backpacked across Australia, a large section of it,” she says.
When she got settled, she reached out to the organizers building the trail, to see how she could help. At first, she was thinking about volunteering to post signs or collect data or something. But then she got a job as a reporter at KIOS, the public radio station in Omaha, and thought, “Wait a minute, I could do something even bigger for this trail. I’ll produce some radio stories about hiking it.”
After all, a decade earlier, she’d hiked across Australia.
“And I think I was thinking of that version of myself when I agreed to hike this many miles, like, ‘Oh, of course, I can do that.'”
Emily pitched the idea to her boss and got everybody on board. She arranged to bring along a filmmaker and the two of them started getting their gear together to walk a three-day stretch of the Great Plains Trail where it cuts through Nebraska. But it was the middle of summer and like 99 degrees on the prairie.
“I’m a ginger myself,” Emily admits. “It was decided that my trail name is something like the Ginger Avenger perhaps. So the amount of sun protection that I needed, Melodie, to be on this trail was ridiculous. I had a hat with UV protection like woven into the hat. I had zinc just caked on my face and I also had a trail umbrella. If y’all don’t know what those are, you should research them, get yourself one. I mean you look ridiculous, but it was amazing. It’s covered with this reflective material so it really, it did an awesome job. I did not get sunburned.”
So, decked out with all the sun protection she could get her hands on, Emily-aka Ginger Avenger– hit the trail. Here’s the first story she produced for Omaha Public Radio.
2,000 Feet Of Elevation Gain
Only one person has completed the Great Plains Trail. But the second person to hike along section has just made his way through Nebraska and we met up with Clay Evans in Crawford, Nebraska, where he had already been hiking for two weeks. So spending the night in a small town with a laundry and a small grocery store was quite a welcome break, even if we were camping in a city park.
Still, Clay is philosophical.
“This trip that I’ve been on has just been such a solo endeavor,” Clay says.
He speaks as the sun sets over Crawford, and we’re huddled around our camp stove.
“I’ve seen zero backpackers until you two today,” he says. “Today I saw my first backpacker.”
Clay says through-hiking is usually much more communal. In fact, most through-hikers have trail names honored by the community. Clay’s trail name is Pony because, once on the trail, he was trying to explain his walking style to a fellow hiker, and he said, “I am like a little mountain pack pony. And I thought that seems like a perfect name for me. So I just said Pony because I put my head down and I go and I can carry stuff and I can go a long way.”
Earlier that day, we put our heads down one foot in front of the other on the Nebraska section of the newly-formed Great Plains Trail, making our way through the silver sagebrush of the Ogallala grasslands, dodging cow pies in the federal grazing areas, then to Toadstool Geological Park. Hills have eroded volcanic ash, and chunks of sandstone seem to balance on their own, leading some to say it’s like being on another planet. Something Pony points out when giving directions to the trail.
“You just follow that around that corner, you will get to the really cool moonscape.”
From Toadstool, we follow the Bison Trail, which guides you straight to an active dig site. The Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed.
“As you can see, everything’s kind of jumbled together [and] broken apart. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the bones,” Aaron Shanna Wolf, our tour guide at the bonebed, tells us.
Ranchers Albert Meng and Bill Hudson discovered the nearly 10,000-year- old bones in the 50s, but it took another 20 years for the site to be officially excavated. Now a mobile building stands on top of the dig inside. We look down into the large echoing pit. Aaron points down in.
“So this is just one small portion of what was uncovered in the 1970s,” he says. “If you look over here, this is their sitemap. This red indicates what you’re seeing there. So that’s just one small portion of the total bones.”
The Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center is the largest Alberta culture bison kill site in the world. And Aaron tells us the bonebed is so immense that Pony and I would have crossed over it earlier, without even knowing.
“Pretty much when you came in, you were standing on top of bones,” Aaron says.
Even though it’s called a bison kill site, the actual origins of the bones are still unknown.
“There’s two theories,” Aaron explains. “One is that it was a natural event, either through a flood, or fire, a lightning strike, or that this was a human event. And there’s kind of two theories on the human event. And that’s that this was a one-time thing, a major kill before the winter.”
And the other idea: carbon dating of the remains reveals a huge age difference among them, suggesting Paleo-Americans would have come here to hunt, year after year. And despite the years of study, researchers also don’t know what happened to all the skulls in the bonebed.
“That’s one of the other mysteries about this place…” Aaron says.
“Where did all the heads go?” Pony says, finishing Aaron’s thought
Aaron tells us they’re looking for another researcher or archaeology graduate student to continue working on some of the mysteries of their bonebed.
When we left the bonebed, we picked up our trekking poles again and began walking to Crawford, where we set up camp that night.
Sunrises and Moonrises
I asked Emily what surprised her about the Great Plains.
“For one, it is not as flat as I thought it would be. I got my ass kicked to be honest.” Emily laughs.
“Really?” I ask. Because I’ll admit, I was thinking the trail would be easy going.
“Yes,” Emily says. “I thought, ‘Okay, 50 miles a day, on average, I can do that. It’s going to be flat. I’m over 30 now, but it’s going to be flat. It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.’ But it was not flat. We did around 2,000 feet of elevation.
“And just the views that you get,” Emily continues. “It’s difficult to deal with some of these vast open spaces. [They’re] mentally pretty tough when you’re walking along cornfields for, say 10-plus miles. But the views and the sunset and the moon rises, I mean, that is amazing. Something that’s really impressed upon my memory are the sunrises and moonrises along the fields.”
But the unexpected magic of sun and moon rises weren’t the only kind Emily encounters on her long walk.
The Real World and the Synthetic World
Every summer as a kid, my mom would load us into our big old station wagon and we’d drive away from our mountain town, out across Nebraska to Iowa where my grandmother lived. At gas stations, I’d get out and the humidity would hit my lungs and the sound of crickets and the smell of strange flowers and I’d think, “I don’t think we’re in the mountains anymore, Toto.” The great North Platte River shimmered under that hot sun. Gorgeous shore birds flapped overhead. It made me wonder, “What’s this place hiding?”
Because here’s the thing, mountain dwellers reject our weird cousin the prairie, but weird cousins are often the most interesting to talk to at family reunions. And that’s what Emily was discovering on her journey along the Great Plains Trail.
Here’s her second story from her trip:
“There are some bugs,” Emily says.
Pony nods. “There are bugs.”
We settle into our campsite making a dinner of dehydrated eggs and beans over our camp stove
“The beans didn’t really hydrate fully so they’re crunchy because it’s burning on the bottom,” Pony says. “I don’t know, man,
It’s another 90-degree day of 13 miles and 1000 surprising feet of elevation. In the Nebraska National Forest, Pony talks about how trail culture is rooted in pulling toward a common goal together, and that hikers help each other out, doing favors for one another in a way that’s just different from life off the trail.
“On the trail, that sort of stuff happens all the time,” says Pony. “And it’s so encouraging. All the weird differences fall away. You all are out there pulling in the same direction on something that’s pretty hard.”
It’s hard, but Pony says it’s a good world to be in because it feels so authentic and real. In fact, some through-hikers refer to life off the trail as the synthetic world.
“The hiking world is the real world and everything else is this synthetic world,” Pony explains. “I love that phrase. I didn’t make it up, but I think it’s apt.”
A through hiker who’s become famous on YouTube–trail name Dixie–coined the term. And in this very real world of muddy boots, long days and funny names, you can also find magic right when you really need it.
But Pony says this so-called trail magic really isn’t so mystical.
“Any unanticipated favor done for a hiker, anything at all, somebody at a road crossing gives you a Band-Aid, you know, that’s magic,” says Pony. “The guy at the hotel gave me an incredible deal. I didn’t beg for it or ask for it. He just gave it to me. That’s magic.”
The people who make the magic happen are called Trail Angels. Earlier in the day, we met two of these angels. Just about a mile off the trail, they opened the door to their home and welcomed us in.
Tom and Carol Foster run the Schoolhouse Bed and Breakfast, bordering the Nebraska National Forest. They’re excited to get involved with the trail, possibly renting tired hikers a room or a bed. Tom and Carol renovated the 1920 schoolhouse themselves, but they didn’t change everything. The old potbelly stove is still there with the original chalkboards hanging on all four walls of the schoolhouse.
“They were real dirty when we were remodeling,” Tom tells me. “So we got some chalkboard paint, but it’s the original chalkboard.”
Carol then tells us we need to take a look at their barn. She says they can hang hammocks for hikers to sleep in. But, for now, Christmas lights are strung between the high beams of the barn. They’re set up for the free annual barn dance they host for the community. The original hayloft lit with twinkle lights is furnished with old red and green restaurant-style booths.
Tom tells us where he got the vintage seating: “It was Pizza Hut, yeah.”
The Pizza Hut booths are set up so that people can have conversations in small groups, or they can face the stage area where the live band plays after a shared meal.
“We have a supper before, outside, and then the band sets up down there.”
As generous as they’ve been, our angels have one more gift to offer: their expertise as locals familiar with the roads and trails.
We’re standing in their front lawn when Tom asks Pony, “What road do you take when you come out of the East Ash [Road]?”
Pony starts to explain but Tom looks skeptical. He has a better way. He knows these roads, and there’s too much traffic and dust on that one. So he gives us another route. And this is the way that things go in the early years of building a new long-distance trail like the Great Plains Trail. You establish the trail and then you make modifications based on the experience of hikers and the knowledge of local people.
After Tom explains the alternate route, Pony says, “Excellent. I’ll pass this on to Steve. Thank you so much.”
The “Steve” Pony is referring to is Steve Myers, the guy who began dreaming up and building this trail nearly a decade ago. At the end of every day, Pony writes in a notebook his thoughts and details about the trail for Steve. He tracks where trail markers need to be added, where water sources can be found, and occasionally suggest changes to the route, and Pony says, “That’s magic.”
Tomorrow, we’ll see how Tom’s new route goes.
I knew what Emily and Pony meant about trail magic. I’ve done a lot of backpacking over the years. My husband and I once found an ancient spring deep in a canyon in Utah just when we’d run out of water. And a trail angel once gave me a ride in a boat across a wide lake, saving me miles of hiking.
But as Emily found out, trail angels and trail magic, they make long-distance trails like this one possible. She talks about that in the third installment of her reporting:
“It’s Been A Revelation”
So after walking Tom’s suggested route and finishing the Nebraska section we set out to hike, we’re back in the car with tired legs, bug bites and blisters, driving towards the bus station.
Pony reflects on the path we’ve walked.
“So we headed down the route that Tom suggested today. It was a windy, dusty day, but seeing all the terrain between where we camped last night, all the way to Box Butte Reservoir, I think it’s really interesting,” Pony says. “A lot of it is nice. There’s some trees, there’s some varied terrain. And I think it’s a really interesting, viable alternative. And so what I’ll do is I’ll report back and say, ‘Hey, you know, maybe you already considered this but I wanted you to know that we’ve traveled that route and I think it’s a possible interesting alternative for these reasons.'”
And this is the way long-distance trails are built. Adjustments are made to the route for years after the flexible framework is first established. And for Pony, that also one of the great appeals of through hiking. It’s always changing. There’s always a new challenge
“The environment out here, it isn’t necessarily easy,” he says. “And when you start doing something like this, you know that you might have a hot day. If you go to a different time of year, you might have a cold, windy day and snow and so forth and it makes it really interesting. Because this long-distance hiking stuff, one of the appeals for me is I think it’s really good training for flexibility and ingenuity on how you are going to adapt to whatever you’re facing on a given day. Whether that’s a big blister between your toes, or a sore knee that day or whatever’s going on. You have an opportunity because you know, you have to keep walking forward.”
And Pony says the small towns along these long-distance trails are an essential part of helping hikers to keep walking forward and, in return, hikers boost the local economies when they cross through these towns.
“I know on the well-known trails, the Appalachian Trail, I mean, there are towns that count on that income. People come in, they buy groceries, they eat in restaurants.”
Pony and others working on this trail project say the response from farmers, ranchers and small town governments has been overwhelmingly positive. Like the town of Crawford, for example, “Crawford’s an old railroad town and it’s a really nice little town, but they’re very interested because something like this, if it really gets established and it becomes a thing, like, hey, you know, people are gonna start walking this thing. It really does make a difference,” says Pony. Tom Foster says he would love to have more tourists coming through,
“Anytime that this area can get in more people to come through and see it because, there’s [even] people in eastern Nebraska that haven’t been down here.”
Both Tom and Pony say that it’s a shame that so many people miss out on the beauty that this region has to offer. But maybe this trail could change that.
“People think of Nebraska as interstate, cornfields and Platte River. ‘Well, what is Nebraska? Oh, it’s corn and the interstate.’ No, it’s not,” Pony says.
“I mean, we have the pine trees and rolling hills and there’s turkey,” says Tom.
“But here’s the thing,” adds Pony. “Everything that I’ve seen in Nebraska walking through this part has been a revelation. I didn’t know that there were like African savannah-like stretches for 50 miles that I walked across. Just really, really beautiful. Toadstool and the geology and that history, all of that. It’s been great. It’s really cool.”
I ask Emily what it is about through trails like this one that makes them so valuable to people?
“When we think about the small towns that so many of these trails cross through, they literally bring commerce, they bring through-hikers who may look like bums, but they actually have money,” Emily says. “These are people who are able to quit their jobs and hike for months. So they may not have a lot, but they have enough that they’re going to come to town, they’re going to do laundry, they’re going to get a beer, they’re going to get food at the grocery store, they might stay in a hotel if they haven’t slept in a bed or taking a real shower for a while. So I mean, it literally does bring commerce to these small towns, when these trails do get more established in those towns. And,” she says, “I think it might have something to do with crossing borders and having these national treasures that are these really important geographical threads that can connect different regions. Because they’re massive, right? Like these through hiking trails are huge. They cross through different states, they cross through different regions, but they are the singular through-line. I don’t know, there’s some metaphor there,” she says with a chuckle.
“Yeah,. it just seems like when you live in a country which has that ability to walk hundreds of miles, then you know that you still have that sort of open space. And so being able to do that seems like it’s worth somehow protecting,” I say.
Emily agrees. “You can choose to walk thousands of miles, but you can also just walk a couple miles. And I think that is part of the draw for trails. And sometimes these become through hiking trails. But when I think about outdoor sports or doing any kind of outdoor extreme sports, there can be a little bit of an elitist element to it because a lot of it costs a lot of money. And it costs so much money that you don’t often have the ability to just dip your toe into it. You can’t just dip your toe into snowboarding. You have to be able to get all the gear, go to a resort, or go to wherever the environment is that you can actually do this sport. But when you have a through-hiking trail, you don’t have to be hiking the Appalachian Trail to walk a part of it. And I think that inherently makes the activity and the trail more accessible to everyone,” Emily says.
Dipping A Toe
Emily really got me thinking about my feelings for the prairie. The last time I made that trip to my grandmother’s across Nebraska was for her funeral. I drove out with my dad and my twin daughters, who were only toddlers then. We stopped to stay the night at a small town near a wildlife refuge on the North Platte River. It’s a river that starts as melted snow in the mountains of my home in Colorado. Even the rivers connect mountains and plains.
It was almost dark, but we put on coats and hiked along a little trail to the water’s edge. We heard the eerie warble of sandhill cranes. We saw wild turkeys grazing in a meadow. Frog calls throbbed in our ears. Would the mountains be as majestic without the vast expanse of plains? I wondered. Would the plains feel so vast without the height of those mountains? They are connected at their geologic heart.
That evening, I wanted to keep walking and walking-even my kids didn’t want to turn back– but it got too dark to see so we headed back to the car.
Maybe that was us putting a toe in on the Great Plains Trail.
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