In which Katie overestimates the amount of daylight she has left and underestimates the spiritual healing powers of horses and their people.
Today marks two years since my grandmother died.
…okay, yesterday did. I fell asleep in my truck cocoon before I could finish writing this post. Pretend it’s still Tuesday.
I knew today would be a standout day on this journey, simply because it would be marked by memories of my Grammie and her seemingly bottomless well of support for my dreams. From as far back as I can remember, she loved my far-fetched ideas. Not only would she listen to them, but she’d turn into a sounding board, making suggestions and asking clarifying questions about process and logistics. When I wanted to fly to Peru by myself to go hike a mountainous trail for 4 days with strangers, she was on board, asking how she could help. This trip would have been no different.
I woke up at a campground in Badlands National Park after eight cozy hours of rest and got moving quickly. I wanted to get out and explore a bit before hitting the road to Nebraska, my next multi-day stopping point. I climbed up the slick silt and clay of the Saddle Pass trail with my coffee and my cameras, just in time to watch sun break through and shine on the rock formations. Dramatic shadows spread across the landscape to remind observers that the rock formations were indeed three-dimensional.
I sat down overlooking a twisting network of small canyons and braced the morning wind, feeling Grammie’s presence. I thanked her for a safe journey so far. I asked her to keep watching out for me as I carried on, and for a sign that she was around. I do this a lot, and she always manages to deliver. A butterfly or a single wildflower bloom would have absolutely sufficed. But nothing caught my eye as I got back on the road. I had to make it to a campsite on a private farm in the Platte River valley in Nebraska, six and a half hours to the southeast.
Hipcamp is an amazing resource for road trippers. It functions exactly like AirBnb, but is for campsites instead of home stays. Landowners can offer everything from dispersed camping to full RV hookups and private indoor bathrooms on their properties. The prices usually range from $15-$50 a night, and the fees are almost nonexistent, making it a much cheaper option than normal rentals. I was bearing down on a working ranch that offered open fields and a private bathroom in the house, an incredible deal for the $20 it cost me.
The miles I covered to get there were some of the loneliest of my entire life.
Route 83 slices through prairie grasslands and gentle rolling hills of crops that go on as far as the eye can see. Nothing interrupts the line of vision except for power lines, old-fashioned windmills, cows, fences and the occasional small body of water. I stopped at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a little writing in the sunshine when I thought I was about halfway done with the trip, but in fact, I still had about two thirds to go.
My sweet and communicative host was expecting me around 7:30, but the reality quickly dawned on me that I was going to be driving well past dark. I explained this to her apologetically, put on George Strait’s live album from the Houston Astrodome, and cowgirled up. I tried to enjoy the sunset and ignore the sinking feeling that I was still an hour from my destination.
For those who are generally unfamiliar with the agricultural industry, it is currently peak harvest season, which means the roads are dominated by semi trucks hauling everything from corn to cattle. It also means that deer trick-or-treat on the waste crops, shooting across the roads even more than usual, prompting every vehicle to leave their high-beams on at all times. When combined with my weary road-tired eyes, these circumstances made safe passage even trickier.
I said a small prayer every time I approached another car, slowing down to well below the 65 MPH speed limit. The dotted yellow line separating me from oncoming traffic faded in and out, a mere suggestion in some places. Every now and then, I’d turn down a signless dirt road, reminiscent of my summers spent working in the Bighorns in Wyoming. But those dirt roads were familiar, even encroaching on “second home” status. These dirt roads were completely foreign to me.
I made my final turn onto my last dirt road and plunged headfirst into what was undoubtedly going to be an adventure; driving up to a stranger’s farm in the dark, miles from the nearest town, preparing to spend the night sleeping out in their fields. Stephen King took inspiration from situations like this one. I put my undying faith in the Hipcamp verification process and the good reviews the place received and turned down the driveway.
An unmistakeable silhouette is created when a horse is backlit by floodlights, saddled and tied to a fence, blowing clouds of warm air into a cold dusty night. That silhouette is a sign of a day not yet over, contrary to what my dreadful sunset-induced loneliness had told me an hour prior. This was Grammie’s sign. I had waited all day for it, and now here it was, as alive as the swishing tail illuminated by my headlights.
My randomly selected Hipcamp location just happened to be part cattle farm, part horse and dog rescue, and 100% exactly where I was supposed to be. Jennifer, the host, was coaching a rider and her paint mare on flying lead changes in a small ring, the duo’s intensity and focus glaring under the floodlights like rival football teams facing off on a Friday night. Chesapeake Bay retrievers ran up and introduced themselves loudly, followed closely by Jennifer, who carried a small puppy as if it were a baby. She introduced me to the recently rescued mustang who stood saddled and tied to the fence, the outline of whom had rescued me from panic just minutes prior.
I showered the day of stress and emotional wear-and-tear away and dressed for another night of truck sleep. Jennifer showed me out to a field behind the house, and I parked with my headlights aiming north, knowing the sunrise would hit the eastern-facing window above my head the next morning. I fixed myself a headlamp-lit dinner of spinach salad and cold leftover pasta, hopped up on my tailgate to the tune of old country music, uncorked a bottle of red wine and held it to the moon and stars, toasting my Grammie. She had done it again, helping me safely run down yet another dream. And she dialed up the equine powers that be for backup.