Day Two: Overdoing It
- August 20: Bear Butte Reservoir to campsite above Bulldog Gulch
- Miles: 17
- Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
As usual when I’m starting a hike, my sleep was erratic. I finally gave up around 5:30 a.m. and started my morning routine: put in contact lenses, eat something, brush teeth, pack.
By 6 a.m., I was walking west on the campground road when I should have been retracing my steps to the highway to rejoin the Centennial Trail at the southeast corner of the lake. In the first of many such inexcusable instances on this trip, I didn’t bother to check Steve’s “databook” or “Hiking Centennial Trail: A Guide to Hiking South Dakota’s Centennial Trail” by local residents Cheryl Whetham and Jukka Huhtiniemi.
I spoke to a couple of early-rising locals in the parking lot at the main camping area who told me about the woman I’d seen on butte.
“She works at the visitor center and runs up every night after work,” the woman said.
Tramping around the west side of the lake, I followed a distinct trail across a dike, then turned left into a small picnic area. I used the privy, hoisted my pack, and confidently walked back to the “trail,” which promptly disappeared into thick grass.
Finally, after walking in circles in search of the trail, I pulled out the guidebook and realized that I should have gone back out to the road and picked up the trail on the other side of the lake. Now, I could either follow the paved road east to the parking area, or bushwhack a short distance through heavy grass and sedge.
“Shortcuts” and bushwhacks on trail seldom go well, and I usually avoid them, no matter how tempting. This time, I ignored that bit of wisdom and found myself wading through dense, sharp hummocks of grass. Though annoying, my choice was not disastrous, and after climbing a barbed-wire fence, I was back on the CT.
Steve’s directions had warned that some route-finding might be necessary over the next five miles or so, as the trail headed southwest toward Old Fort Meade. Many of the flexible brown fiberglass posts sporting a CT bison-skull silhouette and “89” had been knocked flat by cattle, who no doubt found them excellent scratching posts.
It was a spectacular morning, warm and sunny with a few clouds and a slight breeze. I love walking over open ground, and thanks to a rainy summer, the pastures were still green. The trail was often less distinct than countless cattle tracks leading to stock ponds or salt licks.
And, of course, there were the cattle themselves, all black Angus (the breed also comes in red). Contrary to myth, domestic cattle are, by and large, timid creatures, despite their size. You don’t want to come between a cow and her newborn calf or anywhere near fighting bulls, but cattle usually spook easily and turn tail. These cattle were especially skittish. The first bunch of around 100 I passed began running up and over the next swale even though I was a good football field away. When I came around the swale, they spooked again, bolting down the hill and away to the northeast.
Just past the pond, I climbed over a stile and followed the barely visible CT up through a shallow canyon, then turned west upon reaching the plateau. I passed stock tanks that would make good water sources, so long as you treat or filter.
I made good time across the prairie and soon crossed Bear Butte Creek, emerging onto the concrete Sturgis Bike Path. I scurried across Highway 79 and stopped on dirt Cemetery Road, west of Old Fort Meade State Recreation Area. Here, once again, common sense failed me.
Neither the databook nor “Hiking Centennial Trail” was specific about where to pick up the CT. But the guidebook mentioned that the trail followed the Dakota Hogback to the west, so despite the lack of a marker, I started up a trail heading west. I’d climbed about a half a mile when I came to a post with several faint numbers carved into the side, none of them “89.”
Unwilling to accept that my climb had been in vain (look up “sunk cost fallacy”), I continued on as the trail dipped into a small, lush draw and ambled up the other side to a lookout. Pulling out my phone, I saw that I was now considerably west of Fort Meade, and was on a trail leading back to Sturgis.
Irritated at myself, but also at the lack of clear signage, I jogged back down to the dirt road and started walking south. According to the Nat Geo map, the road should intersect with the trail not too far south.
This would not be the last time I was frustrated with signage on the CT. In many places where the route was obvious, the trail was extraordinarily well-signed — albeit with at least five different styles of markers. But often when I could have used a hint, no sign was visible. I was only when I looked that I realized I should have picked up the trail at an unmarked trailhead parking area.
After bushwhacking about 50 yards back to the trail, I passed a refurbished stone stable and the old fort cemetery before turning southeast-east, along an open ridge offering spectacular views of Bear Butte.
The day had warmed quickly, and I realized I needed to do some chafe prevention. Atop the ridge, I slathered my nether regions first with a coat of Vagisil — a true miracle cure for chafe — then several swipes of Body Glide. I strapped on my new Xero Z-Trail minimalist sandals to air out my feet for the next 10 miles or so.
Feeling renewed, I followed the ridge, then headed down into a shallow valley — where, again, the signage was iffy. But after only a couple hundred “sideways” (i.e. wasted) yards on a cow trail, I turned back. Where a clear sign was needed most, at the intersection, there was none, but as soon as I was clearly on the CT, there were signs aplenty. I was already getting hep to this trail’s signage quirks.
After crossing the road again, the trail headed uphill into open pine-oak forest, gaining about 600 feet over the next mile and a half. From the ridgetop, you can see Sturgis off to the northwest and hear the roaring hiss of traffic on I-90.
I like to think I’ve gotten smarter, or at least less impulsive, in the outdoors since I was a young man. But I’m still susceptible to immature impatience. Planning this walk, I’d assumed I would be able to jump right into 20-mile days. Now, after hitting the 10-mile mark atop the Dakota Hogback, I was already feeling a little beat. The descent toward the Alkali Creek Trailhead was arduous and hot. When I got there, I shucked off my pack, peeled off my sandals, and stuck my head under a water faucet before parking in the shade to eat peanut butter and tortillas.
Steve’s databook had this as the stopping point for the first day, but it was only 11 a.m. I was hot and tired, but there was no way I was going to pull up after just 12 miles with that kind of daylight left. But I did unfold my trusty Z Lite sleeping pad — No inflating! No deflating! No leaks! — and, defying an impulse to go-go-go, allowed myself the luxury of an hour-long break.
A woman and her dog Eddie emerged from an RV near where I was relaxing. She had retired early to travel the country in freedom, and was fascinated by the idea of walking 300 miles. She gave me a Ziploc full of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, one of my go-to salty snacks. It was the first of many small instances of truly unexpected trail magic — the best kind — I would encounter over the next couple of weeks.
Believing I might have as long as a 25-mile water carry, I cameled up (i.e. drank as much as I could stomach), then filled up my bottles and reservoir with more than four liters. After washing my feet, I strapped on my sandals and headed off. Heading west on Old Stone Road, as described in the databook, I soon crossed beneath I-90 to the entrance of the Black Hills National Cemetery. Following the railroad tracks north, I saw no signs of the trail.
“What the hell?” I grumbled.
Assuming another CT signage glitch, I followed a faint track over a rickety stile then continued along a dry creek bed, not at all certain I was on the right track. By the time I reached the back fence of the cemetery, I was sure I was not.
I pulled out all my sources and determined that the trail was at least a half mile north of where I stood. Instead of heading west on Old Stone Road to I-90, I should have picked up the CT right where I’d left it, then followed Alkali Creek, which passed under the highway about six-tenths of a mile north of the cemetery.
Rather than hike a half mile or more to the road, then at least that much north, I decided to bushwhack for a half mile or so back to the CT. My shortcut was certainly shorter, but it was also more aggravating. After marching through tangles of high, unmown grass and scratchy undergrowth, my shins were bleeding, but I finally spied a CT sign.
For the next three-and-a-half miles or so, the trail was well-marked as it climbed some 1,500 feet through dry ponderosa-pine forest. A pair of mountain bikers came rattling down the hill, the first people I’d seen on the trail.
I topped out on a ridgeline at about 1:30. I was hot, tired and my feet were throbbing. I had walked only about 16 miles, but I was ready for food, water and rest. Anyway, because I’d climbed Bear Butte the night before, I was about four miles ahead of schedule for the first day.
A word on schedules, spreadsheets and planning for long-distance hikes: While planning can be fun, it rarely squares with reality (in my case, I usually hike farther than I’ve planned). I advise new hikers not to assume their plans will hold up once their feet hit trail dirt.
But on this hike, I had a real deadline: Meeting Emily in Crawford on Sept. 1. I could hitch or otherwise bail out if I got behind, but that felt like cheating. So having four miles in my “plus” column on day one felt good.
Just after I crossed trail #139, which leads west to Sturgis Reservoir, the CT began its descent from the ridgetop. I started looking for campsites and soon settled on a patch of silky, green-yellow grass in open ponderosa forest. After inspecting the trees for widowmakers — branches that might snap off and crush me — and clearing away a few dozen pine cones, I made camp.
After eating, drinking and hanging my sweaty shorts and shirt from nearby limbs, I lay down on my pad and promptly fell asleep. I am not a day sleeper, but clearly I needed the rest.
It had been a much harder day than I’d expected. That was my fault, on a number of counts. Still, counting Bear Butte, I’d walked 22 miles in less than 24 hours (not counting my various bushwhacking adventures).
Dang, I wrote in my journal. Am I really that old and feeble? Hope I feel stronger tomorrow.