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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 70: Stampede in South Dakota

When a cow attacks you, he’s gonna use his head to push you to the ground. Once he gets you down, he’s going to trample you to death. — Advice from Mormon missionary and Idaho cattle rancher at the beginning of my trip.

As I crossed the White River in southern South Dakota, I held my trekking poles in one hand and my hiking boots in the other. While my feet have toughened, for some reason they are more sensitive than ever to cold water. It felt like each foot was a rod into which the shallow river channeled its lightning-hot charge. I screamed and cursed the whole way across.

I cleaned my feet that were coated with sand with a thatch of grass. I put on my boots and climbed a steep embankment, where I reentered prairie country. There was something strange in the air. It was cool, yet stuffy at the same time. Something was afoot.

The prairie was as desolate as ever. I couldn’t see any homes, and it was only once every few miles that I’d cross a rarely-traveled gravel road. I hopped a barb wire fence into a cow pasture, and casually walked up to a herd of Black Angus cows.

At this point of the trip, my fear of cows had vanished. I’ve interacted with thousands of cows, and I’ve come to appreciate that they are, except for the oddball curious son-of-a gun, a bunch of scaredy cats, always fleeing in droves upon catching sight of me. At the beginning of my hike, I took long detours around cows, and sometimes carried my bear spray in case of an attack. But now the cows were of little more consequence to me than a field of fire hydrants.

These cows, though, I was shocked to observe, weren’t running away at all. I yelled “Get outta here cows!!!” and waved my poles in the air, trying to freak them out, but they only moved a few yards to the left and right. It was all a bluff of course. I am no threat to the cows, as any one of them could out-run and overpower me.

The land in front of me was flat, except for a gentle downward slope into a creek that had dried up. I walked down the slope, and in the grassy creek bed there were another dozen cows staring at me. The cows that I had just passed had gathered and were following me down the hill. I had moving cows behind me and standing-still cows in front of me. I was experiencing all the typical symptoms of panic: I had an accelerated heart rate, I was unseasonably sweaty, and my eyes were wide open and full of fear. I was floating on a sea of adrenaline: all pains and sores that I had been walking with were completely forgotten, as I now had one and only one aim: I need to get away from these cows now!

I was surrounded by cows. And then I heard it. It was a rolling thunder, the sort of gurgle from the skies that would bring a family out to the front porch to watch a summer thunderstorm. I looked back and saw that the herd was storming down the hill, coming directly at me. I only looked back for a second, catching a glimpse of wild-eyed cows launching tufts of grass and dirt into the air with each stride. I wasn’t sure how many there were. It could have been six; it could have been 20. (I submit this as a new proverb: “When you’re not sure how many cows are chasing you, don’t stop to count.”)

At this point, I was no longer acting under conscious thought. Something in me decided that the best thing to do was to run as fast as I could toward the cows staring at me in the creek bed. I sprinted down the hill. I was wearing my standard get-up: my khaki pants, two wool shirts, a black baseball cap, an orange hunting vest, and I had my 35 lbs pack on my back.

The cows in front of me scattered. I looked back at the stampede once more and saw that the tidal wave of black muscle was now just 10 yards behind me. I needed to run as fast as I could. I ran along the creek bed and tossed my trekking poles to the side. I unbuckled my waist belt buckle of my pack. The ground was shaking so much I worried it would knock me off balance. I brought up my hands to do unbuckle the top buckle, but the weight of the pack had made it difficult to undo this last buckle.

“C’mon!” I growled through clenched teeth, struggling to unbuckle it. The cows were getting closer.


Finally, it came undone, and the pack fell off of me. It thudded to the ground, and I had no chance to think that I’d just dropped $2,000 worth of gear to possibly be trampled by the herd.

I stopped running along the dry creek and began to mount the opposite, gently sloped hill. My arms pumped furiously, my toes dug into the ground, my leg muscles rocketing me forward. I flung off my hunting vest in mid-stride.

I climbed the hill and was now running over flatland. I could see another barb wire fence ahead. If someone was in front of me, he would have thought I was a madman. My face was a bright, wrinkled red, my eyes were squinted, and I was running for my life with the single-minded determination of a kick-off returner. I was running all by myself in the field. But then, my observer would see the herd emerge from the creek bed behind me, mounting the hill running side by side, their flanks brushing one another’s.

Before I made the fence, they got tired and relented. I, unable to control my rapid breaths, ducked under the wire and lay on the ground, exhausted. The cows sauntered over and stood face to face with me, separated by the fence.

It was about an hour before sunset, and I knew I needed to get my pack, which of course held my tent and clothes and sleeping bag. I ducked under the fence and walked toward the herd, screaming like a maniac. They stepped back a few yards, but then started walking toward me again. I walked back to the fence. I couldn’t bluff any more; they knew that it was me who was the coward.

I walked the perimeter of the fence, seeking a cow-free route to get my stuff. I told myself, “Just do it, Ken,” ducked under the fence, and made my way toward the creek. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the pack, but there it was, un-trampled, sitting on its side. A black cow with a white face climbed down the hill and trotted behind me, so I ran along the creek shouldering my pack, forgetting about the search for my dear trekking poles. The creek bed here was muck, so my feet and ankles got sucked into the earth. I escaped that cow, set my back outside the fence, and commenced another (successful) mission to find my poles.

The prairie gave way to canyon, and I set up my tent at the bottom, next to another dry creek bed. As I lay in my sleeping bag, staring at my tent ceiling, I thought about calling it quits. Shin splints, freezing rain, raging stampedes, crazy Montanans: it’s been a trip fraught with danger and discomfort. But just as quickly, I dismissed the thought. I thought that a goal is a sacred object, and one that must be handled delicately. And however ridiculous the goal, the goal must be cared for as if it is a vital piece of you. To give up on a goal is not only to give up on one goal, but it is to put in jeopardy all forthcoming goals. It is to make one’s promise worthless, and one’s identity, flimsy. But to reach that final destination, even if the destination is ultimately meaningless, is to nurture a sense of consistency, of constancy, of wild-eyed perseverance. I told myself that I will not quit from pain or soreness or cold or even a stampede of cows. I will make it to the Gulf Coast unless death is imminent.

I heard footsteps nearby and then a deep moan. A thin gauze of clouds sat in front of a crescent moon, bright but fuzzy. I unzipped my tent door and could vaguely see the bodies of black cows walking along the creek: black ghouls, mostly harmless yet terrifying, floating across the grass. In the morning, I reached another barb wire fence into a cow pasture. I ducked under the wire and continued on, screaming and waving my poles over my head.

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