If a human can lust after land, then Mark and I were weak-kneed and breathless over Buffalo Gap.
Mark’s a man of high mountains, and I, too, share a fondness for things alpine. But we were both at a station in life when complications were the norm and patience was as thin as a moth’s wing. We needed a trip to a passive, soothing place where cares would fear to tread. We settled on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota, with its amber waves, its seductive, undulating hills melting into the horizon, its wide open spaces where two confused men could chase down answers without fear of bumping into anything–perfect.
At the trailhead, we saw parked pickups, some with oily straps dangling in the beds, one or two with flatbed trailers attached to the rear. I studied the maze of tire treads in the dust, and then, off in the distance, heard the answer to my unspoken question: ORVers. When they eventually stopped before us, an old man with a young boy explained that the national grassland, being multi-use by federal declaration, was popular with the off-road crowd. “Lots of trails out there!” he exclaimed, both Mark and I realizing he wasn’t talking about the kind preferred by pack-toting wanderers in search of solace.
We hiked in anyway, pitched our tent on a trackless, bare spot surrounded by golden grass, rode out an intense late-afternoon storm, and debated whether to stay.
At sunrise, we headed to the trailhead, twice as frustrated as when we arrived. We pulled out the Rand McNally, realizing our dream trip was circling the drain, and that’s when we spotted Wind Cave nestled between Custer State Park and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Neither of us had heard of the national park, but we had a handful of days left and decided to take a chance.
After getting a backcountry permit and learning we would be the only two-leggeds in the park’s hinterlands, we headed down a trail called Sanctuary and found silence deep and profound. The trail wound gently up and around the kind of rolling hills we had originally sought, occasionally dipping into ponderosa pine forests where shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy in that sacred manner usually reserved for cathedrals. That evening, coyote pups ran playful rings around our tent, and two elk stood on hills to our north and south, bugling the star-spangled night away. The next morning, a golden sunrise warmed our camp. As we ate breakfast, Mark mumbled something about “sanctuary,” and I replied with a comment about “finding the Promised Land.”
We spent 3 more blissful days in Wind Cave, piecing together various trails that looped us throughout the park. We hiked through prairie dog towns the size of two city blocks and watched the residents tumble and play. We ate lunches on hilltops while buffalo grazed below like furry, humped mountains, hurrying for no one and oblivious to anything but a good patch of green.
And it never rained a drop, nor did we encounter a sign of another human. The only “problems” we faced were the occasional bison lying in our way and missing trail markers, downed by buffalo looking to scratch an itch. When you can see and hike almost forever, though, it’s easy to cope with such things.
Eventually, we headed back to the car and loaded up for home. On the way out, while waiting for a small herd to cross the road, we talked about how the back-home stressors that had worn us down like cheap pencil erasers didn’t stand a chance against the tranquillity of the plains. And we talked about how, in the end, we did find the perfect trip, simply because we didn’t go searching for it.