A long term goal of ours has always been to backpack long distance trails. We aren’t interested in dropping everything for 6 months and doing a cross-country trek like the Appalachian Trail, instead we’ve set our sights on relatively shorter trails such as the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, and Hayduke Trail. But since we can’t just take 2-3 months off right now to live out those dreams, we’re doing what we can now to prepare ourselves for the physical and mental discipline that it takes to backpack, as well as researching all the other details that go along with long distance hikes. Prior to this year, the longest we’ve ever backpacked was 4 days, 3 nights on Mauna Loa. The natural progression towards our goals seemed to be to take on a longer trail, one that would take about 1-2 weeks. Enter: The Centennial Trail!
Back in 2015, I visited South Dakota with my family while Curtis was in OCS. During that time, I learned about the Centennial Trail, a ~120 mile trail that traversed the Black Hills region from Wind Cave National Park in the South to Bear Butte State Park to the North. Back then I was unsure of whether I really wanted to backpack, but I made a note of this one because it seemed like an easy way to start.
Fast forward to 2020, as soon as we found out that we were moving to Nebraska, the Centennial Trail was one of the first things we talked about doing. I bought the National Geographic maps for the region as a “Welcome back to land” present for Curtis when he returned from his long underway last spring, and our planning officially began. After we moved and got settled into our work schedules and Curtis’ master’s program, we tentatively scheduled our hike for the end of April during his week off between classes.
The Centennial (named not for being 100 miles long, but for the Centennial anniversary of South Dakota statehood in 1989) was an excellent ‘next step’ for us. It was relatively short and close to home, but not so far West or so high in elevation that early May would be non-ideal. And, despite it being over 30 years old, it is still relatively unknown (only a hundred or so people thru-hike the entire trail each year, though this number is growing).
Throughout the winter, we stayed active by walking daily. When spring arrived, we started carrying our backpacking packs partially filled to get used to the weight. We dehydrated fruits and veggies, made trail snacks and planned light-weight meals for dinners. Curtis studied the maps and made rough plans for how far we could walk and where we could camp each day. We started camping early in the spring to be adjusted to the chilly evenings and mornings outside. My parents agreed to watch Charlotte and we made arrangements to meet them before to pass her on. As the end of April drew near, we were growing more and more excited. We had high expectations, and were seeing this as not only a way to practice and hone our backpacking skills, but also as a way to ‘reset’. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to disconnect from phones and media, to take a step back and evaluate our lives, break bad habits, get out of ruts, to come out the other side with new perspectives.
On the morning of April 20, my mom called with the worst news. My Poppa, her dad, had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was very healthy and active and we were all so sure we’d have another 10 years together. We were all shocked and heartbroken.
I felt lost and helpless at home in Omaha, waiting for plans to be made. This happened a week before we had planned to leave, and now I was unsure of whether I even wanted to go. All of a sudden being further away from family and out of cell service didn’t seem as appealing — I wanted to be more connected to everyone.
After Curtis got off work on Friday afternoon, we left for my grandparent’s farm in central Iowa. We shared bittersweet reunions with most of my family, my mom’s brother’s family, and Nanna. Their farm has always been a constant in my life, a place of comfort and happy memories, but now it just didn’t feel as complete.
I will always remember Poppa for his commitment to loving and serving everyone around him. He was always looking out for us, making sure our plates were full, always ready to help anytime he saw a need.
When I was growing up, he and Nanna were very present and active in their roles as grandparents. Poppa did so much driving between their farm and our home, and they were there for most of my dance recitals, softball games, piano recitals, musicals, and orchestra concerts. Not only that, they made frequent visits to spend the day with us. Every time they visited, Poppa would always go out and get pizza for lunch. I’ll never forget when they visited for my 15th birthday and I was learning to drive with a permit. I asked if I could drive his truck with him to get the pizza, and he let me.
I have very fond memories of when Nanna and Poppa made the long drive out to Arizona to visit me after I moved away. We spent a day at my apartment and driving around Tucson Mountain Park. Another day I enjoyed sitting with them at their hotel pool all day, and hearing story after story from him and Nanna — several of which ended with the phrase, “Don’t tell your mom or Uncle Mike that.” This took place a few weeks before Nanna’s birthday. I remember him looking at me with a smirk on his face and joking, “Can you imagine that? Me married to an 80 year old?”
I learned so much from Poppa. He would recite for me the presidents of the US – but only through the year 1949 when he graduated. He also taught me a poem to remember how many days are in each month: “Thirty days hath September; April, June, and November; All the rest I can’t remember.” But most of all, I learned through his example the value or hard work, generosity, looking out for the needs of others, and saw a perfect example of unconditional love and support.
His funeral was on Sunday afternoon. My uncle (Dad’s brother, a pastor) gave a beautiful message at the funeral, and many came to express sympathies and share memories. That evening, we had dinner at the farm with family, the closeness and conversations were a bright spot in an otherwise emotional weekend. The burial was on Monday morning, with full Military honors.
We were prepared to change our plans to a shorter trip and take Charlotte with us, but my mom convinced me that it was alright to proceed with our plans. It still didn’t feel like the right time to be hiking, but I realized that my fears wouldn’t keep me safe, and holding people closer wouldn’t keep them from slipping away. I made plans to spend more time with family after the hike was over. My sisters took Charlotte back to my parent’s house, and Curtis and I left early on Tuesday morning, after he completed his final for his class on Monday night.
We drove up to US-20 and drove it all the way through Iowa, across the Missouri and almost entirely across Nebraska all the way to Rushville, then went North on NE-87 to US-18. Along the way, we stopped to see courthouses in Hardin and Hamilton Counties in Iowa; Holt, Rock, Brown, and Sheridan counties in Nebraska; and Fall River County in South Dakota. We finally made it to Wind Cave National Park just before sunset where we planned to camp for the evening.
Driving into the park, we spotted our first bison of the trip along the road. We claimed a spot in the quiet campsite, then went on a short walk near the visitor center to see the natural entrance to the cave. Despite it being the seventh largest cave in the world, Wind Cave’s only known natural entrance is smaller than a basketball. It was quickly apparent why it was called Wind Cave though, as a constant wind came up out of the small hole. Unfortunately, we simply didn’t have the time to see the cave itself this trip. The real highlight of the day was back at our campsite where we spotted a basset hound at a nearby campsite, and as soon as she noticed us she dragged her owner over to see us.
We settled into our tent for a cold night. The idea that we were going to spend the next ~8 days hiking still hadn’t set in, and we struggled to shut off our minds and fall asleep.