Lost and Found on the Centennial Trail
When a hiking trip goes wrong, assuming the worst about people does no one any good
I’d loaded my pack and set out on a hike into the Black Hills to clear my head. I was 955 miles into that spiritual journey when I got lost.
Granted, I’d spent 950 of those miles driving from Chicago to South Dakota, but it certainly sounds better than admitting that I managed to get lost five miles into a 100-mile hike.
The plan had been to spend two weeks backpacking alone on the Centennial Trail — one of many trails nationwide of the same name. But this one was both long enough to be a real challenge to complete and short enough that I felt confident I could finish the entire length.
Last year, I turned 50 years old, so I decided to travel in celebration. Las Vegas. San Francisco. Cabo San Lucas. The Bahamas. But by April, Covid-19 restrictions and the travel ban had reduced most of those plans to ashes.
I felt trapped. Then I read an article about the Centennial Trail. It seemed to be the inspiration I needed: A 120-mile trail meandering through rolling hills and grassy plains in America’s heartland sounded like the answer to my wanderlust.
Friends asked why I wanted to go it alone. I had several answers; the biggest was that I just wanted to challenge myself. And that’s why, on only the second day of my trip, I wore a 55-pound pack in 90-degree heat. It seemed to be going well until I realized I had walked more than seven miles off my intended path.
I decided that I wasn’t going to make up a story about why they didn’t offer to help. Hell, maybe they saw in me the hardcore bastard I was trying to be.
I’d started the day in good spirits. I’d climbed out of my hammock in time to see the sun rising between two hills. As I grabbed my phone to take a picture, I saw a lone buffalo staring at me from 50 yards away.
I took him as a sign.
After filling my water bottles from a creek at the trailhead, I headed out on a gravel road. I presumed it was the trail, as it was bordered on both sides by…