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Monday, 14 March 2011

I'm still learning about uploading photos. On the left is a typical of a stretch of Sandhills range, below it a shot of the Niobrara, just a mile or so from where I'll be staying. The contrast between the two is really quite astonishing. From above the river what you see, extending for mile after mile is... grass, grass and sky. Drop down a hundred feet, perhaps two, to the river and you're in a different world. I'll post more pictures later.

It’s now 23 days until my departure, and I have started packing.

I’m fairly well used to preparing for a western trip. As I said before, I think this is my fifteenth. I usually take very little in the way clothing, which I pack in a medium sized suitcase along with any books, maps and papers, and plenty of foul-weather gear. I take a full set of camping equipment: tent, sleeping bag, stove, axe, mug and spoon, water containers, my collapsible three-legged stool and a soft, black, satiny pillow from Black’s. These I put in a general purpose hiker’s back-pack. Then I add a few odds and ends such as rope, water purifiers, my handy little flint and steel, a plastic tub with a bit of birch-bark or resin in it, and a few matches. I have a mild obsession with lighting fires with a flint, and a sense of failure every time I use matches. But then I’ve always been fascinated by fire. One day, when I’m running out of things to write about, I dare say I’ll relay a few stories from my mis-spent youth.

I used to pack a nifty little Mora knife, a present from a Swedish friend which accompanied me on hikes and bike-rides for thirty years. On my carborundum block I could work up a razor-sharp edge which would keep for weeks. Then one day a couple of years ago as I boarded a train to Paris, the Eurostar security people declared its four-inch blade illegal and confiscated it. I’ll buy something in a hardware store when I fly into Rapid City. Americans are perhaps too laid-back about knives - you can buy some huge ugly things in the shops over there - but we Brits surely veer the other way, towards neuroticism. What do the authorities think a sixty-year-old writer is going to do with a knife, other than cut a little kindling, slice his way through the odd steak - and defend himself against thieving security guards.

Although I’ll be staying in the hunting lodge I expect to sleep out in the open as often as I can. The ranch I am staying at comprises 6100 acres, spread along several miles of the river, so I’m not short of places to build a fire and bed down for the night. I’ll be packing a lightweight tent, but I doubt I’ll use it much. I often sleep out when I’m hiking, and have grown to prefer it: you can travel a lot lighter that way, you can bring your day’s walk to an end when you feel like it, rather than having to plod on to the nearest hotel; and your experience of the night, the sky, the air, the sunrise - and, yes, the weather - is that much more elemental. If I do get a good soaking, I’ll rarely be so far from base that I can’t get home in two or three hours, and I’ll have a bivvy bag with me.

People have been asking, am I not worried about wild animals? To tell the truth I’ll be more worried about the cattle. Around May time the heifers will be turned out onto the open pasture with their youngsters, and if my experiences back home are anything to go by, the calves will most likely be (a) curious and (b) skittish. But the range is divided by several barbed-wire fences for better management of the fragile grass cover, so I should be okay if I keep a note of where the herd is grazing from week to week.

The only other critter that might bother me is the brown and white horse that seems to wander freely about the ranch. I don’t know its name yet, but he - or she - showed some interest in me when I was visiting last year, until I offered it a carrot, whereupon it tossed its mane, snorted, and took off. Horses know damned well when you’re unsure of them - although a spell amongst the veteran rodeo riders of Utah and Nevada a few years ago gave me a little more confidence in that area. As to any rattle-snakes that may lie in wait for me under tree-stumps or rocks - well, to quote an old joke, I guess they’ll just have to take their chances. When I first met the ranchers they offered me the use of .22. I instinctively declined, but may change my mind - not because I am scared of sidewinders, rather that it might make for a better story if I accepted. Besides, I have fired a .303, back in my sixth-form days, and rather enjoyed it. I got a pretty decent grouping, as I recall.

Well, I am slowly getting the hang of this. I’m going to try to update this every few days before I go, and fill in a little more background on how I came to be enamoured of the Sandhills. Tomorrow I’m off to Leeds where my son is going to explain to me how to make best use of a blog, and how to exploit Facebook to my advantage. I am also going to grit my teeth, swallow my pride and request an introductory course on twittering. I have it on good authority that that’s the way forward. I can hardly wait.

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