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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 59: Holed up in South Dakota

I feel like I am in a giant orange balloon being tossed in a tempestuous sky. But I am only in South Dakota, on the ground, somewhere in cow country, next to a murky lake.

There is a storm outside that the Weather Channel calls “Brutus.” My tent flutters violently, pounded by 25 mph winds. I listen to the pitter-patter of freezing rain all day. And the cold–a tolerable 30 F now–will drop to as low as 8 F before the storm dissipates. All the sides of my tent shake, except the one nearest my head, which is solid, frozen inside by my exhalations, and outside, by the freezing rain. I push against it every now and then, and with enough force, I’ll hear a loud crack, and the ice outside will come crashing down to the ground.

Despite the storm outside, I am cozy in my tent, maybe more so because of it. I think mostly hopeful, happy thoughts. I look forward to the days and the years to come. I eat as much in the tent as I do when I’m on the move, and I eagerly read the third installment of Edmund Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt biography, Colonel Roosevelt. Normally I would resent being stuck like this, but I’d just walked 15 days straight, doing about between 15 and 25 miles a day, and I see the need for a good, long rest.

I wake up the second day without any expectation of hiking. The forecast–which I’ve been able to check on my iPad (whose battery is beginning to run disconcertingly low)–says the weather is going to get worse: colder, snowier, and with stronger winds. I put on all my clothes: thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, five layers of shirts, plus my rain suit, a beanie, a faux-fur hat, and a pair of gloves. I go outside, fill up my water bottles from the cow pond, and hammer in my tent stakes as deep into the ground as they’ll go.

I ration my iPad usage so I can read throughout the day and night, take a 3-hour nap, and consume an inexcusable amount of food. The freezing rain stops momentarily right before sunset, so I get out to use the bathroom, and to climb a hill to see if I could spot a road, a house, or some sanctum of safety, if just for precautionary reasons. But I can’t see anything except a herd of curious deer, who’d caught sight of me, by the cow pond. The sky, though, on its western end, looks like it’s on fire. It’s a brilliant orange, with big blue dark clouds passing over.

A few days before, I was in Buffalo, South Dakota, sitting at a kitchen table of a family who offered to give me a place to stay for the night. “For someone with a college education, what you’re doing is pretty stupid,” said the woman of the house. “I mean, it’s really stupid.” She was, and had been, laying on the criticism pretty thickly, but I was stupidly content, as I was eating the eighth pancake she’d made me, slathered in butter, and dripping with blueberry syrup. We’d had this discussion, it seemed, a half-dozen times, and I’d long ago given up trying to justify my trip, neglecting to parry her attacks with fresh retorts. “These pancakes are excellent,” I said.

But constantly being called “crazy” and “insane” does have its impact. As I walked out of Buffalo, down the road, I wondered, “Am I crazy? Maybe I shouldn’t be traveling cross-country? Is what I’m doing… wrong?”

Such thoughts are like burrs stuck to my pant leg, prickling me once every few strides. It’s not until I get out onto the open prairie, or into canyon country, or under a ceiling of stars that I’m finally able to shake them off. There is a wild joy that swells in my chest. Every day there is a new trial. There’s something new to learn; something new to see with every step, every turn, every drop into a canyon labyrinth. It’s an infusion of newness! And when immersed in this constant newness–when every step is exploratory, every interaction, novel, and every day, completely different from the previous–it’s hard to think of going back again to the dullness of the normal, the expected, the planned.

Staring at this orange sky now–whose color probably portends a more vicious stage of the storm–I am dazzled. It has nothing to do with being at the mercy of weatherly extremes or “pushing my limits.” Rather, I feel the presence of something spectacular–sinister, perhaps, but no less spectacular–and it occurs to me that there are great truths bound in beauty, truths I cannot comprehend, but truths that are there, pregnant with mysterious meaning.

Worried that these clouds will bring a fog or blizzard that might impair my visibility–perhaps so much that I won’t be able to find my tent–I run back to my tent as quickly as I can. The grass and cacti and thistles are frozen over, plump with ice coating their contours, forming a field of brittle, glistening stalagmites. As I run, the ground shatters, tinkling like a shaken Christmas tree.

I sleep restlessly. The cold is too cold, and my sleeping bag, over the past several nights, has accumulated moisture, and is no longer living up to its 5F degree promise. My iPad is dead, and my digital library, gone, but I’d taken note of the forecast and saw that tomorrow would be as cold and windy, though clearer.

In the morning, I pack my things with numb fingers and head southeast. Less than an hour into my hike, I see the forecast was mistaken. The sun, which was bright and blinding moments before, is now lost behind a encroaching plume of dark cloud. Snow begins to fall, and I can only see a mile in the distance. I do see, however, an abandoned barn, which becomes my new destination–my new “hole” for the day and night–where I’ll build a fire, make a warm meal, dry my sleeping bag, and sink into a comfortable slumber even in the midst of this terrible, beautiful cold.

This is Mud Butte, where I currently am. More specifically, I’m in the town of Mud Butte, in a Catholic Church, where I’m charging up my electronics, which are hard to live without, during these long nights especially.

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