On the Tuesday before Labor Day weekend 2016, I made a spontaneous decision. It had been a month since my last wild adventure and I was ready to make a spontaneous, perhaps even reckless, decision.
I was drawn towards Medora, ND to hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. All summer long I had been bombarded with pictures of every single one of my Facebook friends in the badlands and hearing how TRNP was one of the highest underrated and most beautiful National Parks in the country. I wanted to have that big, picture worthy moment of fully realizing its beauty too! The FOMO was real and I would do whatever it took to achieve that big moment.
I had a rare three days off from my full time and part time jobs and was not about to waste them. Since all my friends had plans for their Labor Day weekend, I decided to camp and hike out west by myself. Yes, it was quite possibly the most spontaneous, reckless decision a 22-year-old could fathom.
I set to work gathering my camping supplies – my childhood sleeping bag, essential oil bug spray I was gifted, and a carton of eggs. Acknowledging I might need more than that to remain alive, I borrowed a tent and other necessities from my neighbor two doors down the hall. Shockingly enough, my mom and other people who loved me tried to talk me out of going alone. Actually, I thought it was weird my dad didn’t speak up more, but I later learned he didn’t realize I was making the trip solo.
So, on Labor Day weekend, after an eight hour serving shift at a downtown Fargo, ND bar, I hit the road wondering,
“What could possibly be west of West Fargo, ND?”
It was a 5 hour drive and two hours in my phone GPS stopped working because it was an iPhone 4s, aka: archaic. Luckily, the campground was a direct straight shot on Interstate 94. Literally, there was not one single turn I made.
It was 11:00 pm and pitch black when I found my campsite, #16, and proceeded to sit in my car completely unsure of my next immediate action.
“Logistically, how will I put this tent up by myself in the dark?”
I got out of my car and pulled the tent out, but the flashlight I borrowed from my neighbor was extremely subpar and I still couldn’t see well. So, I got back into my car and wondered for the first of many times that weekend, “What have I gotten myself into?” I forced myself to get out of my car again to do something, anything. Standing at my trunk, I had almost resigned to sleeping in my car when a man from the adjacent tentsite sauntered towards me.
I simultaneously hoped he would offer to help me and that he wouldn’t try to abduct me. It turns out Leonard is one of the good guys! He helped me set up my tent and I answered his questions directly.
“Yes, I am by myself (obviously). Yes, I got here pretty late and, you’re right, it is dark out. No, I’ve never set up this tent before. No, I don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”
Essentially, I knew nothing except that I was brave and making the big moment happen.
Waking up at 7am, I was still excited despite the fact that it had rained the entire night, it was still raining, and puddles filled the road to the bathrooms. In the bathroom, I met an older woman who couldn’t believe I was camping alone. I said,
“Yes, my name is Alexis—wild and brave. I am a strong, independent woman who is unafraid of camping alone and hiking unknown trails.”
I hurried to drive the 5 minutes to the park entrance, paid my way in, got a map from the ranger manning the entrance, and picked out the trail I wanted to hike. I opted for the longest trail because it was the longest trail. Go big or go home, you know? It was 15.5 miles long and estimated to take about 8-10 hours of time. I threw random items into my backpack I thought I might need: my journal, four pens, water, snacks, a pocket knife. Things I did not bring: toilet paper, a compass, lighter. I guess I was mainly hoping to find a nice rock to sit on and journal for a few hours.
I praised God for the walking stick someone left at the Trail Register and debated writing next to my name, “Has anyone seen the bathroom out here?” Things were going so well, I sent my mom a video of myself and the gray muddiness of the badlands. I knew she would love it.
Right after I sent that video, I noticed another one of my many crucial mistakes. The fine print of my map read, “This basic map is inadequate for the trails. Hikers should acquire a more detailed, suitable trail map at the visitors center.” I could not believe I had overlooked that warning and rolled my eyes back into my brain so hard it hurt. When I rolled them out again, I decided that I was fine and that everything would be totally fine.
Despite the map’s ominous warning, for the first few hours I was connecting to the correct trails and trail posts easily. At each post, I paused dramatically in a power stance, looked around, and waited expectantly for the big moment to happen. It kept not happening and I was starting to get impatient, but then I got distracted by the fact that I could not see the next trail post.
I thought that was weird, but figured I’d come across it pretty quickly. I mean, I’d come across all the other trail posts pretty quickly, right? I also told myself I could always turn around at any point. I knew I wouldn’t though, because that would mean admitting failure, which I have always had an unhealthy fundamental issue with.
To cut an excruciatingly long story short, I did not come across the next trail post. I did, however, choose to simply keep walking on what I hoped was a trail flattened down by other people and not by elk or deer or wild rabbits. To my right was a little river running parallel to the “trail” I was walking on. It was nice and I sort of liked the company. My inadequate map informed me that the trail I needed to be on ran parallel to a river so I thought I was in the clear. It had not occurred to me that there might be more than one small river in the vastness that is Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Nonetheless, I continued onward following the river. It was fine to follow except I had to keep weaving in and out as other narrow streams joined the main river. While I weaved, I periodically checked my basic map and tried to convince myself I was going the right way. Confirmation bias: that’s how you use a map, right?
Soon enough, I noticed the river making a big bend (which direction; I don’t know, I didn’t bring a compass remember?!) and it just felt wrong in my gut to continue following it. Then I realized I was standing in the middle of the convergence point of four rivers and physically could not go forward.
I paused long enough to curse loudly before sprinting to the edges of the embankment that fenced the rivers. Everything looked the same—muddy badlands for miles and miles in every direction with no sign of any other human life. In my brazen panic, I thought it would be a better idea to cross the river rather than head back, i.e. fundamental issue with failure, perceived or otherwise.
Adrenaline more or less became my compass as I ungracefully skidded down the mud on my butt/heels/hands to cross the river. After I drenched my hiking boots and crawled up the other side, rationale finally hit. I honestly don’t know what took it so long. A million thoughts surged my brain and each one worked to convince me that dying in TRNP was real possibility.
“You cocky little thing, Alexis. You can’t sleep out here – you’ll get hypothermia. Is this even the same river as the one on the map? Your phone is now at 1%. Will Park Rangers look for you when (IF!) they notice your parked car? Does 911 apply out here?”
After I realized how absurd it was to have crossed a river alone in a national park, I finally decided to turn around. Failure as it may be, I was lost with no compass, no map, and no means of reliable communication. I was cringing just thinking about what my dad would say had he been there. Man, those parent voices in your head are sure hard to shut off!
Thus began my frantic fast-walking and intermittent jogging back the way I had come. I didn’t cry because I told myself there was no time for tears, but I did keep my eye out for a nice rock in case I wanted to sit and journal for a few hours. There was probably time for that.
I spotted where I crossed the river, but pressed on sure I’d find a better, smoother spot to cross. I think I crossed a few more rivers, but frankly all I can remember is that some crossings were more challenging than others as I waded up to mid shin, grasping wheat colored grass and small trees to pull myself up the embankments. I felt horrible for veering off the trail and disrupting the ecosystem of the park—the burdens I carried in those moments of being lost were immense.
In the movies, the lost people always head to a high vantage point, so that’s what I did too! Once I climbed to the highest hill in the correct approximate direction, I could hear and see Interstate 94 off in the distance. That informed my new goal which was to make it to I-94. I thought I could casually hop the fence of a national park, hitchhike on an interstate, pay my way back into the park, and walk several miles to the trailhead. Yes, completely foolproof.
Alas, I eventually made it. I found I-94 and with it, I found a trail post. Somewhat blindly calculating that there were enough daylight hours for the remaining 6 miles, I vetoed hitchhiking. Hitchhiking is dangerous anyway. I was finding all the trail posts and felt like a million dollars. It was still raining and I couldn’t stop thinking about warm clothes, a blazing campfire and, honestly, beer.
On the trail I finally came across signs of human life! Two sets of footprints had also braved their way out into the wilderness—oh, the camaraderie. I abruptly came to a point on the trail where I could not, again, see the next tail post and the path wasn’t clear. I looked for the pair of footprints because they were probably more direction savvy than me. I turned around to see if the footprints had veered to the right.
I can’t remember when exactly I burst into tears—if it was immediately when I turned around or after I tracked the footprints a little bit. The scene was this: the sun was shining through the gray hazy clouds, rain falling softly in the most friendly way, elk making elk noises in the background, and my baby blues gazing upon the most beautiful sight they had ever witnessed.
I was looking at a rainbow. It was the kind of rainbow where each shade shone brilliantly and distinctly in a way that commanded awe. Its ends were tucked slightly behind two hills of slippery badland mud and its arch covered the entire expanse of the prairie.
This was the big, picture worthy moment. It was too bad my phone had already died. Wouldn’t you agree that God has a stellar sense of humor? I like to think that’s where I get my humor from. It was as if He was saying,
“See? Trust me. I promise I’ll take care of you—you just have to let me. Look at this rainbow. What more do you need?”
In those moments, I did not feel wild and brave. Instead, I felt small and grateful for something to trust in bigger than myself. I had made so many poor, thoughtless choices on that solo trip running headlong into adventure without taking time to pause, plan, or trust. It made me realize that no matter what choices I make in life, God ultimately always is making sure I find the next trail post so that I can see the rainbow.
My guess is that He’s also probably hoping I’ll learn from my crazy adventures so you better believe that I’m bring a compass next time. And toilet paper!
Originally written for Windrose.
Picture credit: me, Alexis Swenson!