Lost and Found on the Centennial Trail

When a hiking trip goes wrong, assuming the worst about people does no one any good

A sign on the Centennial trail that reads: Do Not Enter, Dangerous Overlook.

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 nothing but prairie. A sensible person — or their hiking companion — would have remembered that the guidebook noted there would be trees of all kinds on both sides of the trail and described the path itself as “gently ascending.” It was, in all ways, totally different from the one that I was on.

But lulled by high spirits and — I stand by this! — a misleading sign early on the trail, I had allowed the shadeless, gently descending road to carry me along. There were so few trees on my path that I usually had something to say to the ones I passed. Really. I said to one tree, “Good morning, brother tree!” and I wasn’t even embarrassed about it.

Like I said, high spirits.

Even after I realized my stupid error, I didn’t beat myself up too badly. I decided that other than the lost time and energy, going the wrong way was no big deal. I wasn’t lost — I just needed to reverse direction and return to the trailhead where I’d made my wrong turn.

But my real problem was my lack of water. I’d expected to be at a horse camp with plenty of it. Instead, I was miles away from the last water I’d seen; I only had one liter left.

And it was hot.

Within a mile or so of the return trip, I struggled badly. The road had little traffic. Every 15 minutes or so, a car would cruise slowly by, the occupants gawking at the waving fields of grass on either side, in air-conditioned comfort.

Usually, the drivers would give me a half-hearted wave; I’d give them the same. So I knew that if things got bad, I could probably get help from someone, though that seemed to go against the spirit of what I had set out to do in the first place.

How could I accept help on the second day of a two-week trip?

Around the ninth mile, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I sipped my water and tried to make it last, but it didn’t help much. The rule is that the water you’re carrying does you no good, that you should drink what you have. But psychologically, I needed the few ounces that I had left, if only to wet my lips.

I kept running little tests in my head about my condition as I began to worry about heatstroke. Yes, my mouth was dry, and I was sweating heavily, and I was working on a small headache. But I wasn’t dizzy, and I wasn’t nauseous or cramping. That was good news.

But I also couldn’t walk more than 30 feet without stopping to rest. My backpack was so heavy I wouldn’t take it off when I stopped; I didn’t want to have to struggle to get it on again.

At one point, I stepped off the trail to look for water. Maybe the tall grass hid a creek or a small pool. But after only a few feet, I returned to the road and angrily told myself not to do that again.

If I face-planted on the side of the road, someone would probably see me and help — but if I passed out even 10 feet off the road, it might be weeks before anyone found my desiccated husk in the tall grass.

A few minutes later, a middle-aged couple in a banana yellow mini-SUV with tinted windows slowed down and then stopped. The man asked me how I was doing. I said okay, but then shamed myself by explaining how I’d made a wrong turn and was overheated and how I was nearly out of water. I didn’t ask for help, though.

He asked where I was headed. I said back to the trailhead, back to the cold, cold creek and its water. I don’t think I whined.

He was incredulous. He asked, “All the way up there? In this heat?” He shook his head. “You’ve got a hard row to hoe, buddy!” Then they drove off. I watched them go like those people you see on Facebook who arrive at the dock just as their cruise ship pulls off.

It would’ve taken them 10 minutes to give me a ride. Meanwhile, at the rate I was moving, it would take me two hours to hike there.

I was now stopping to rest every 20 feet.

Finally, I came to a tree and stopped to stand under its shade for a minute. I rested against it as another middle-aged couple drove up and pulled over. A window rolled down, and the man inside said, “We stopped because it looks like you’re trying to hold up that tree. Are you okay?”

I almost laughed. At first, I said I was, but then I came clean and shared my mistake.

After a moment’s hesitation, I said yes when the couple asked if I wanted a ride. They got the car turned around on the narrow road, and we started moving. I breathed so hard I could hear myself. As we drove those last few miles, I decided that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made that trip under my own power.

The couple dropped me off at the creek at the trailhead. They gave me their number and told me I could call if I needed anything — they didn’t live far away.

It took all of my strength to fill my water bottles. It was only about three in the afternoon, but I knew I was done hiking for the day. Eventually, I managed to drag my gear up a bluff and into the tree line to set up camp and recuperate.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought about my trail angels and how it had been clear to them that I needed help, maybe clearer than it had been to me. And I thought of how I was grateful and pleased with myself that I had been smart enough to take it.

On the other hand, I still wondered why the first couple hadn’t offered me help. Yes, I wrestled with why I hadn’t asked for it, but I already knew the answer to that. Pride. Ego. Embarrassment. Fear of rejection, maybe.

But why hadn’t they offered?

Then it occurred to me that their reasoning wasn’t my business. We all have interactions with people, often casual and fleeting, where we create stories around why the other person reacted in a way we find problematic.

Why didn’t that person speak to me when they came in the room? Why did this person not hold the door for me? Why did they cut me off in traffic? And we rarely come up with a reason favorable to the other person. We rarely decide that they were distracted or oblivious or flustered.

Instead, we declare them rude, careless, or worse.

Why are we so quick to presume the worst about others? More importantly, why do we hurt ourselves by creating those negative stories, since often the only result is our own anger or disgust or disappointment in our fellow man?

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. Perhaps they didn’t want my cooties or thought I could do it alone, too. Maybe they didn’t want to insult me.

I should probably work on the one person in that interaction who I know should’ve done better: Me.

That night, I slept well. But the story doesn’t end there.

On the trail the next morning, I could feel the lingering effects of the day before. But it was a good day for a hike, and I felt fine. A couple of miles from the horse camp that I should have reached the day before, I crossed a four-lane blacktop road. As I stopped to take a breath and look at another trail marker pointing up a hill in front of me, I heard a horn and voices from a car on the road behind me.

I turned around to see the same banana-yellow SUV from the day before. They had pulled over to the side of the road to talk to me. The woman yelled, “We’re so glad you’re okay!”

I just stared.

The man said, “We wanted to give you a ride yesterday! But we had our dogs in the back, and there was nowhere for you to sit!” That made sense, though I hadn’t seen any dogs.

The woman said, “We talked about you after we got home and thought about driving back to get you! We’re so glad you’re okay!”

It took a moment before I said, “I’m glad I’m okay, too!” and laughed. “And I’m glad you thought about me! Take care!”

A few seconds later, they were gone. I was glad that I hadn’t written a story in my mind about them. Because the only person who would have been toting that burden up the hill was me.

I write about masculinity, fatherhood, family, and relationships.

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