Heading down the river

 Clay Jenkinson and Mom
Clay with his Mom before the hike

Writer and broadcaster Clay Jenkinson is to go totally off-grid for 17 days before he gets too set in his ways – he would have preferred longer:

My mother will drive me to Marmarth. We will have a meal at the Pastime restaurant. Then we’ll drive to the bridge over the Little Missouri River, I’ll shoulder a 55-pound pack and walk north (downriver) a couple of miles and camp.

I’m writing this so I cannot weasel out of it at the last minute.

My plan is to walk the Little Missouri from Marmarth to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I need hardly say this will be a solo journey.


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The Little Missouri River starts at Oshoto, Wyo., near Devils Tower. It slides along the northwestern edge of the Black Hills. Just north of Marmarth it starts to flow through Badlands. By the time it gets to the north unit it has cut what can be plausibly called the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri. In other words, the scenery will become more dramatic every mile I walk. My increasing debilitude and spiritual exhaustion will unfold in ever more sublime landscapes. In its total run of 560 river miles, the Little Missouri passes through the villages of Oshoto, Wyo., Alzada and Albion, Mont., Camp Crook, S.D., and Marmarth and Medora. The largest of these towns is Medora, with a population of about 100. There are far more cattle than humans in the Little Missouri River Valley. Medora now has a Starbucks.

This camping trip has been three years in the making. I conceived it as undertaking a homecoming adventure in the part of North Dakota I love best. That’s why the trek has to start in Marmarth. The hardest challenge was to carve out 17 days of free time. I would have preferred 30. I took what I could get.

One of my purposes in doing the hike is to declare war on the insane pace of our lives, my life. When we were young, we could slip into adventure mode more or less at will. As we grow older and start buying insurance, we take less and less time and engage in steadily tamer and more cautious jaunts. Then one weekend we realize we are watching the bowling channel from a La-Z-Boy recliner and wondering if we have the strength to find a phone to order a pizza.

It’s now or never time. This may not be, as Roosevelt explained his South America rivers expedition in 1913, “my last chance to be a boy,” but on a good day, when my left shoulder is hurting and I find myself sleepwalking through my life, I can almost, just about, see darkness at the end of the tunnel.

I want to walk off the grid, if only for a couple of weeks. I don’t really even know who I am any more. I certainly don’t know what I am capable of. It has been a very long time since I tested my body and soul against anything that wasn’t climate controlled. My spiritual being has been so thoroughly neglected that it is a mostly-spent ember that I am hoping the winds of the Dakota plains will make glow again.

Seventeen days is not enough to bring on the metamorphosis I’m talking about. But it is a start. Nor, by big wilderness adventure standards, is this much more than a stroll. The gear is now so marvelous that it is almost lightweight enough for me to carry it 250 miles along the banks of the Little Missouri. In my imagination, this feels like a raw back-to-nature trek, so low-tech as to be a little alarming, but by any rational analysis I am only able to make the journey because I am carrying equipment produced at the apex of the vast industrial pyramid. I may feel self-sufficient, but I’m not really walking off the grid at all. Rather, I’m taking a kind of synthetic portable grid with me. I refuse to take a cell phone (sorry, mom), but I am taking a GPS unit (for later mapping the route). I’m not carrying an iPod, but my Leatherman knife is so amazing that Jim Bridger would have gathered furs for a whole year to get one. My tent weighs 2 pounds because it is made of oil. And the freeze-dried food Sesame beef with shallots and slow-cooked curried chicken with red potatoes – I don’t really even want to know.

As the trip approaches, I feel more and more anxiety in the pit of my stomach. My equipment is spread out all over my living room floor. In June I made 28 pounds of beef jerky, in different flavors. Thirty-four foils of freeze-dried food are distributed into four provisions boxes. Packets of Kool-Aid and Crystal Lite wait for their moment of trying to flavor the dubious waters of the flowing wells I’ll encounter. Water is the biggest issue on this journey. Patti Perry says you can drink right from the Little Mo – if you get thirsty enough. Right.

I’ve been getting ready by walking 5-10 miles per day in my new high-tech boots, which will permit me to walk through the river 10 to 20 times per day and drain dry when I am back on land. North Dakota’s remarkable triathlete Melanie Carvell has been my trainer. That’s like getting Mozart to give your child piano lessons. Carvell starts her day at first light with a 30-50-mile bicycle ride, then works all day at the Women’s Health Center at Medcenter One, breaking only to swim across the noon hour, then goes home to cook oppressively healthy food for her husband and children, and then – as a kind of postprandial saunter – walks me into the ground! It’s perfectly absurd for me to train with such a master. She’s BMW, I’m a Ford Fiesta. She’s titanium alloy. I’m Mr. Schwinn. She goes home and reads Ben Hur. I go home and read the directions on the back of Bengay.

My plan is to walk about 20 miles per day. That should get me to Medora around the 10th of August, to the Elkhorn on the 14th and to the north unit on the 16th. Not much can go wrong on a trek like this. There are no predators except possibly the species pricklius landownerus – and I’m carrying a laminated card in which Patti Perry and my rancher friend Merle Clark declare that I’m just a harmless nitwit hiking the river for literary reasons, but that I represent no threat to livestock and I don’t carry a gun or leave fences open.

I did this once before, in 1985, and that time I walked the entire Little Missouri River from its source all the way out. It took six weeks. It was without question the greatest adventure of my life. I actually saw God north of Camp Crook, S.D. Who would have thought? When I reached the campground at the north unit on an October morning in 1985, I knew I could walk on to the North Pole if necessary.

The Greek presocratic philosopher Heraclitus declared that you can never walk into the same river twice. That’s the proposition I’m testing. This is my Heraclitus trek. The Little Missouri has changed. It essentially has been dammed twice in North Dakota with low water concrete crossings, one south of Marmarth and the other at the 3V Ranch near Amidon.

The oil business has not only extracted crude through the whole river valley in North Dakota, but also a fair amount of Badlands aesthetics. I’m told there is a golf course out there somewhere, and irrigation circles are not uncommon.

My plan is to appear in New Town beaming with pride and renewal, having triumphed over the “mighty and heretofore deemed endless (Little) Missouri River,” as Captain Lewis might have put it, but between you and me, I’ll be glad to be able to walk around town on my own recognizance.

A native of North Dakota, Clay Jenkinson is author of six books, including Message On the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains, and the host of a nationally syndicated radio program, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and of a weekly television book review program. He has appeared on the Today show, Politically Incorrect, and CNN.

His web site: www.th-jefferson.org – email Jeffysage@aol.com

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