I setup camp in the dark.
The campsite’s previous tenant had left behind a few pieces of firewood, but the wood was green and my efforts to get a fire going only resulted in a pyramid of burnt twigs and a campsite filled with smoke. That and becoming acquainted with an adventurous moth who somehow managed to fly up my pant leg while I was hunched over the fire ring.
So I sat in the dark, listening to crickets and the distant whistles of elk. There are worse ways to spend your time.
The darkness also offered an opportunity to take pictures of the stars and an approaching storm front moved in slowly enough that I was able to capture a few decent shots before the sky was obscured by clouds.
Eventually the storm arrived, riding on a cold wind that gave me a good excuse to climb into my tent.
I set my alarm with the intention of taking pictures as the sun rose, but it was still raining at seven a.m., so I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the rain patter against the tent for another hour.
Convinced that it was probably going to rain all day, I bundled up in my rain coat and tried to light my camp stove, which I had accidentally left out the night before. It refused to cooperate—no hot oatmeal for me.
I packed up my soggy campsite and drove into the park.
On the way to the trailhead I found a few buffalo grazing beside the road and stopped to take pictures.
I realize that buffalo are basically furry cows, but I like them. (I also like those furry Scottish cows.) Maybe because I’m so used to seeing them standing alone, I associate buffalo with melancholy—these giant solitary wanderers looking for herds that are long gone. If I knew they wouldn’t stomp me to death, I’d try to give them a hug.
Feeling a bit guilty for being a voyeur to the buffalos’ meal, I continued on and found the trailhead to start the aptly named Buffalo Trail. The rain shifted back into “downpour” mode as I pulled into the parking lot, which was unsurprisingly empty.
I waterproofed myself as best as I could and set off into the blackjack oaks and cedars, almost immediately encountering a dozen turkeys huddling a few feet off the trail. They seemed unconcerned with me until I pulled my camera up, then they were gone too fast to get a shot.
A half-mile in, the forest gave way to the rocky grasslands that make up the majority of the park and the trail meandered off into the distance, hardly more than a cow path. Within a few minutes my pants were soaked through below the knee, and would remain so for the rest of the hike.
If you ever visit the Buffalo Trail at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, be prepared to hike the worst marked trail in the U.S. At several points I had to backtrack and re-find the trail where it crossed expanses of rock and intersected actual cow paths (a herd of longhorns roams the park) that were better defined than the man-made trail.
My feeling of being lost wasn’t helped by the rain or the elk that seemed to be following me just beyond the tree line. Every time I’d start to relax he would start his creepy elk whistle.
It was only when I was four miles in and came upon one of the lakes I had seen on the park map that I was certain I was on the right trail.
About the same time the rain let up and I started noticing more of the weird vegetation around me. Several of the plants reminded me of sci-fi artists’ depictions of plants on other planets—only smaller.
The remainder of the trail passed through fields of wildflowers and dense, tall grasses that were surprisingly pretty, for being grass. Time seemed to pass more quickly with a clear path ahead of me and the final four miles of the trail felt much quicker than the first four.
Soon enough I was back at my car, feeling a little sad that the hike was over, although my wet feet felt differently. I set off for the park exit and the long drive home. I waved at the buffalo as I passed them.
I hope they find their herd.