Backpacker

Walking on the Horizon

THE ROLLING GRASSLANDS of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, in Nebraska, slope down to the Niobrara River. It’s a quiet park, where most visitors come to see the fossils of ancient mammals like Menoceras, a pint-size rhino, or Palaeocastor, a beaver that dug corkscrewing tunnels. Steve Myers hopes Agate will draw a new type of visitor in future years: thru-hikers looking for a place to pitch a tent for the night. Those trekkers would be on the Great Plains Trail, a 2,200-mile work in progress that has all but consumed Myers for the last six years.

Myers and I arrive at the monument on a sunny March day, at the start of a 100-mile hike along his proposed route. Trim and tall, he combines the sun-weathered handsomeness of a Marlboro model with the easygoing vibe of a California surfer. He’ll need to be tough, charming, and chill to sell his vision for a long trail across what are routinely dismissed as the flyover states, and where public land is scarce. First task this week: secure permission for hikers to camp on the monument grounds.

“I was thinking about the worn-out thru-hiker who might come through,” Myers says to a ranger we encounter. “Can you imagine a way that Agate would be able to let that person camp here?”

“Not officially,” the ranger replies, apologetically. “There’s an expectation of a certain level of safety. Liability and all of that.”

Myers thanks the ranger, though the rejection means that on this section of trail there won’t be another potential public camping spot for more than 20 miles. The ranger’s response (later confirmed by higherups) is a letdown, but Myers doesn’t betray his disappointment, even though the episode underscores his gravest concerns: Will government agencies sign on? Where will hikers camp, go to the bathroom, or get water? Is the Great Plains Trail logistically possible?

“It’s ridiculous that they won’t allow a tent here,” I venture to Myers as we walk away.

“Something to solve down the line,” he mutters in response. He’s right. It’s a momentary setback, but in the evolution of a long trail, establishing the overall route comes before worrying about individual campsites. You have to take the long view.

Still, carving out a route will be more difficult in the plains states than elsewhere. The national grasslands, parks, and monuments here are few and far between; most land is private. Myers’s vision is a proper footpath across wild prairie, but for now, much of the Great Plains Trail relies on roads. As with

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