It's amazing what some people do in the woods.
The Black Hills National Forest is a multiple-use area, and on a shirt-sleeve warm Sunday afternoon in November it was certainly being used.
We were out there on serious business having to do with geology. Well, one of us was. The other, while willing to keep an eye out for the occasional outcrop or carry the rock hammer now and then, was just there for the hiking.
Pretty much everybody else was out on ATV's. We saw several family parties—Mom and Dad on the front seat of a four-wheeler, with two or three little kids squeezed into the back. There were a few hunters, in blaze orange caps and vests, with gun cases across their laps. There were a few hot-rodders whose goals seemed to be speeding over the bone-rattling trails as fast as they could go.
With all these vehicles buzzing up and down the narrow gravel road and dirt trails, walking in the woods wasn't exactly a deep wilderness experience. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we didn't see a single deer all day. We did meet one hunter, though, walking alertly through the trees with her rifle at the ready. She was obviously an optimist; in the unlikely event she did see a deer in the crowded woods, we hoped she was also an accurate shot.
Then there were the intrepid hill climbers on mud-spattered ATVs, with winches and ropes and tire repair kits. A group of them came up behind us in a narrow canyon, announcing their presence with a low rumble that increased to an ominous growl as they came closer.
We moved to the side of the trail, which suddenly seemed much too narrow. I alternated between apprehensive glances over my shoulder and checking the sides of the canyon for possible places to climb out.
But they were the ones looking for a place to climb. They stopped at the bottom of a slope that was almost a staircase of rocks. The lead rider, on his ATV painted with skull designs, took off his menacing full-face helmet and turned into a polite young Air Force sergeant. He pointed out to us the exact rock he had landed on when he had tried this climb earlier in the day and flipped his vehicle.
He made it this time, and so did his friends. Each four-wheeler crawled up onto the first ledge at just the right spot to avoid getting hung up on the big rock in the middle, jumped sideways at just the right angle to make it to the second level, then growled on up between rocks that a mountain mule might have balked at. It was impressive. It was amazing to watch. Personally, though, I'd feel safer on a mule.
We went out again the following Sunday, not in shirtsleeves this time but in warm coats, heavy gloves, and long underwear. It was 31 degrees and snowing. Oddly enough, we had the silent, peaceful woods to ourselves.