Coyotes don’t majestically howl at the moon, they yip and high pitch bark in an annoying cadence. That’s what woke me up in the middle of the North Dakota Badlands blackness, laying completely still on my stomach inside my orange North Face sleeping bag, cocooned in my one-person ultra light tent.
I was scared. Listen, I don’t even like typing that, OK? I know we have coyotes in Ohio and they don’t attack people and no one is scared of them and I’ve camped with them plenty of times and my friend B one time chased a coyote in a UTV and jumped off and tackled it into a river and drowned it.
“Yip, yip, yip, bark, bark.”
OK, they are far away. Why did I not bring my heavier bag? I’m freezing, low 40s is super cold coming from 80s Ohio. Save 2 pounds so dumb and oh god my bladder is pushing against my stomach lining.
Rookie mistake, I didn’t bring a pee bottle. No worries, it’s not that cold, I’ll just got outside, be chilly for a second and—
“Yip, yip, yip!”
That’s from the other side of my tent! I’m surrounded by feral packs of carcass-craving coyotes! And I reak of fear and like the Uruk-hai they can sense it for miles. Are the yips getting closer? They are closing in…
Turns out the cute little prairie puppies didn’t eat me. When I unzipped the rust-colored nylon tent, and poked my head out past the rain fly, there was no trace of wildlife at dawn, just some small columnar junipers, growing despite the dust. Light washed away fear and brought back reality: I’m in North Dakota on a highpoint hiking mission.
My super early Saturday morning Delta flight from Columbus to Bismarck (what’s up with the “ck” in the name??) got canceled at 3 a.m. so it was a longer travel day on a new flight which put me behind, which meant night hiking alone in the soulless nothingness of the badlands, in a state I’d never visited before.
Yes, South Dakota has Badlands National Park, but North Dakota has even badder Badlands – more remote, more square miles and more brutal. Why? Because North Dakota is the least forested state, so when the winds come pushing through the rolling plains from neighboring Canada, they’re unobstructed.
The rental car kiosk was 10 feet from the baggage carousel, shiny sheets of metal folded into each other in an endless oval loop as I grabbed my massive sable travel tote.
“Super excited to be here. First time. I’m here as a tourist to see the sights,” I told the young Budget rental car agent.
“To Bismarck?” he asked, confused.
Sliding glass airplane arrivals doors slid open and I only had a two-minute walk to my silver Toyota Tacoma TRD off-road vehicle.
Folded the gray felt seats down in the back and started unloading my tote, like the pre-surgery tool layout on the metal pans.
Two hours west on I-94 from Bismarck to U.S. Route 85 south, which would be the last paved road I’d see for a bit. Windmill farms beyond the passing semis on the opposite side of the highway, the general pale nature of the landscape, without trees nor tons of corn and wheat fields.
Foreigner’s “I want to know what love is” came on the radio as I cruised and every time I looked at the sun I hoped it hung in that exact position a little longer, but dusk was inevitable.
The highest point in North Dakota, White Butte, was on private land so there wasn’t a whole lot you could do in terms of a harder route nor was there any sheer rock face.
But, the hill was surrounded by Little Missouri National Grassland, 1,033,271 acres of mostly uninhabited, wind and water eroded dirt, mounds and little streams – the Badlands, where survival, especially in winter, was truly a feat.
From U.S. Route 85, there were several dark red dirt roads that lead me further into the moon-like landscape. It was barely wide enough for two cars, but only one set of tracks, smashed cream-colored stripes through a maroon path.
Finally at the trailhead, I stood on one leg outside the Tacoma, swapping my orangesicle Jordan 1s for On Cloudmonster black running shoes with reflective racing strips, and slid them over compression socks with a lower gauge tightness.
I bent over and pulled the socks up to my knees. While still leaned over, I ran my index and middle fingers under the back of my shirt, and traced the scar on my lower vertebrates.
Nice and easy, first hike back since Rainier a year ago. Can’t have nerve spasms in this human desert, they will only find your skull, eye sockets empty from a crow’s snack.
My quick-dry pants were two shades of blue, light and ultra faded, as they unzipped at the knees and I wore down the shorts a lot more.
Runners, climbers, campers – everyone steals new gear design ideas and recently bass fisherman have pioneered super lightweight base layers that have hoods, to block sun and keep in warmth or keep you cool, depending.
On so many mountains around the U.S., you see all kinds of different gear, the colors, the trends, the thousands of versions of puffy coats. There’s gear envy that develops and I’ve wanted a hooded base layer for years.
Finally, I was wearing a navy long-sleeved one from a boat school in northern Michigan.
In my pack were the usual “essentials,” plastic flat compass with grid numbers for navigating, pink Nalgene with white cap, vanilla power gels, peanut butter cliff bar, paprika-colored Bear Grylls official knife with paracord, cherry-and-vanilla bean-colored headlamp, extra batteries for headlamp, and hiking poles.
Really, you could hike to the top of White Butte in flip flops and a tank top, but there was no way I was going to end up being the dumb lost unprepared hiker I’ve mocked in my sleep, so I over prepared.
The plan was to make the summit at dusk and then down hike in the dark and head towards the Maah Daah Hey Trail / Burning Coal Vein area, night hike and eventually set up camp.
The Maah Daah Trail is 142 miles of pure wilderness and a hidden gem for mountain bikers across America. My awesome co-worker Marge sent me info on the trail so I wanted to explore some of it after White Butte.
It was a super easy jaunt up a pretty clearly established trail to the summit at 3,506 ft. The sun finally set behind the salt mounds of dirt as I reached the top of the state, and I let out a little celebratory scream. The 48th was a significant number in the highpointing world.
If you’re at 48, no matter what, you’ve climbed some crazy mountains.
The fear started on the descent. Again, the trail was wide with no drop offs more than 5-to-10 feet, beautiful weather in the 60s, probably only a mile to my car when all of a sudden I was convinced a cougar was stalking me. I got my little knife out, jogged a bit but then realized that would only entice the mountain lion.
The closest cougar was probably 200 miles away but it was a fun night walk back and I laugh now at how quickly I lost control of my mind on the simplest of hikes.
At the bottom, I felt how much colder my stomach and love handles were than the rest of my skin – burning fat at an incredible rate. Still so out of shape, still dealing with nerve issues and my baseline conditioning was an absolute joke by my own mountaineering standards.
It’s 48 highpoints, but still not in the elite 48 completers club. As of the Spring 2023 issue of the hightpointing and climbing magazine, “Apex to Zenith,” there have been 701 people on planet Earth that are “48 U.S. state finishers.”
That generally refers to those that have conquered the continental United States and I have not. Texas remains.
The dawn escape from the wilderness was so enchanting, the water vapor fog lined the plains and valleys, burnt orange horizons, black cows with exaggerated side-of-their-head diamond pointy ears, the vastness with little signs of settlement, encroachment, human construction or destruction.
I stopped by Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the way back to Bismarck. Normally, there would be an inserted rant here. Something about how there’s over a million, A MILLION square miles of vast wonderful wilderness, and yet everyone is crammed into a park loop road.
So I will spare you the horror I saw of the drive-by nature enthusiasts (the prairie dogs were cute, especially the two that were standing on their hind legs and either hugging or were secret sports fans chest bumping), ‘cus really, it’s none of my business how people want to interact with the wild. Plus I gotta fit in my snake story here at the end.
There was an hour to kill before my late Sunday night flight. It’s impossible to know what time it is here – you land in the Central Time Zone, drive west into Mountain, but it’s right on the line so the cell phone constantly switches, the car clock was set to middle of the Atlantic Ocean time. Apparently, Roosevelt National is in both time zones depending where you are, it’s madness).
At this point I stopped at Pioneer Park along the mighty Missouri River in Bismarck. Really had to pee so I walked about 20 yards from my car and dipped into the wood line. There was a giant snake slithering over a pale log and I jumped back.
Only me, on one of the easiest highpoints, would get bit by a snake at a metro park in the capital city.
I continued down another 20 yards and was happy to come across most likely the only snake around and just about stepped on the head of another snake! This one was black with a yellow stripe down both sides.
OK, screw this, I’ll go find a bathroom, just make it back to the car without dying!
Aggressively looking for snakes, it was easier to spot the third one in the open grass and avoid it.
A Subaru pulled into the parking lot beside me and an older man and his dachshund mix got out of the car to go for a walk.
“Hey dude, be careful over there, I just saw like 3 snakes,” I advised the man.
“What color were they, what’d they look like?” he asked, heavy northern accent, hard on the As and vowels.
“Dark like black with some yellow on the side,” I said.
“Ya, here in North Dakota we don’t really get scared of garter snakes,” he said as he walked towards the grass.
Wait, what? Those were garter snakes? They are different colors in different states?! What the heck, if I would have known that I would have picked it up!
“Oh, well, I had no–” I started to say.
“Sometimes when you got out in nature, you will see nature,” the man said, walking off.
A climb team of Austin Blocksidge and San Diego Hauser has been assembled for an October attempt of Guadalupe Peak in Texas, which will hopefully wrap up this odyssey.
Getting to 49 has always been the goal for me from the start of this U.S. state highpointing obsession over 11 years ago.
The cellmate and I agreed I couldn’t even think about Denali in Alaska until both our boys were in college, which is still many years away.
With the unknowns that continue to surround my back and overall body mechanics, I’m not sure I’ll ever even consider that mountain.
But I know me and Texas got a date next month… “don’t mess with Texas.” All you’re doing with that state motto is begging me to find out…