The cattle rancher in the dented red truck laughed when I told him I was looking for someplace new to hike. We had both taken a rugged gravel road, beset by mudholes so deep they made me contemplate crashing asteroids, into the southwestern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest on a toasty day in early July. He was checking the water tanks for a small band of stock roaming the rims of several interlocking canyons, the same land I was looking to walk—if only I could find a path. Leaning from his window, he spread his hands wide and scanned the horizon slowly before turning back to me with a knowing grin. If you’re walking it, he seemed to say silently, it’s all a trail.
This, of course, was right: a trail is just a reductive word for someplace other people have already walked, and no one was really going to tell me where not to roam among most of the Black Hills National Forest’s 1.2 million public acres, an area about twice as big as Rhode Island. Go, and you might find something worth checking out. I have been remembering this (or, perhaps, learning it for the first time) during a summer of ceaseless day hikes in South Dakota, my unexpected home for the season.
During a pause from traveling one of the United States’ iconic long trails or another while moving 20 miles or so per day, I have been hiking the way most folks do: an hour or three at the time, in search of a little exercise and maybe someplace I’ve never been. As a thru-hiker, after living out of a backpack for months on end, it has been a refreshing return to basics, a way to rediscover the delight and surprise of walking through an unbroken landscape without the pressure of heading toward Canada or Maine or anywhere specific at all. The humble day hike has reminded me of the endless joys of exploring for the hell of it. Everyone always talks about how thru-hiking changes your life—day hikes, I like to joke, are now repairing some of their damage.
I thought I’d be crossing the country again this summer, perhaps grabbing the final jewel of a Triple Crown or brushing against the Canadian border for 1,200 miles and three states via the Pacific Northwest Trail. But by early March, when my wife, Tina, and I emerged from the swamps and sands of the Florida Trail, inflation was already at a 40-year high, with talk of recession rising in a commensurate rush. Rather than blow our savings on hostels and postage for resupply boxes, we decided to settle down for a few months and save money.
We sold our cabin in North Carolina, piled our family of pets into a van, and sprinted across the country, leaving the South for South Dakota, so she could guide paying tourists through federally protected caves in the Black Hills. While she’s been underground, I’ve been overhead on most days, looking for my next half-day adventure, with our dog, Alice, at my side and a little Nathan water-toting backpack buckled across my chest.
I mostly cherish the wonderful absurdity of an extremely long hike, the way you decide on day one of your excursion to forgo the comforts of civilized society and indulge pain and filth and hunger, then repeat said decision for, say, six months. But stepping away for this spell has offered a welcomed jolt of refreshing perspective, too, highlighting some downsides I tend to ignore when I’m in the thick of the thing, pushing as many miles as I can stand.
Thru-hiking, for instance, indulges our inclination to always pursue something bigger and better, to seem like an indomitable hero conquering some impossible endeavor. And then there’s the prevailing notion that thru-hikes should be shared, whether by YouTube channels vying for subscribers, or on Instagram stories vying for chuckles or awe. Maybe these dual impulses are just our human nature at work, functions of our quests for self-improvement and community, but it’s hard not to see them as extensions of rank capitalism, too—creating a brand and broadcasting it, the antithesis of disappearing into the woods to craft an epic of and for yourself.
And given the political turmoil of recent years and the unlikelihood that it will soon abate, escaping into California’s Sierra Nevada or Wyoming’s Wind River Range—sans cell-phone service, news updates, and the like—can sometimes feel like shirking the responsibility of democracy. I have friends who went sober (and stayed that way) during the Trump era so they could pay attention, be present; I, on the other hand, often disappeared into the woods, an ostrich wandering among the trees.
There’s no competitive or completist pressure, no need to see every white blaze or to keep up with anyone.
Day hikes, meanwhile, bring none of these conflicts. Vanishing from the vortex of bad news and screen time for two hours is productive and restorative in a way that a six-month hiatus isn’t—a pause for sanity, not a retreat for selfishness. And I find it hard not to contemplate 500 years worth of current events while traveling in the Black Hills, land the United States government stole for gold despite multiple treaties and that the Sioux still rightfully want honored.
There’s no competitive or completist pressure during a shorter outing, no need to see every white blaze or to keep up with anyone. This is, I think, what it means to actually hike your own hike. And aside from telling Tina vaguely where I might go for safety’s sake, I don’t feel compelled to share most of what I see, to capitalize on personal experience as professional content. Instead, I simply relish in the small surprises and little wonders I’ve encountered while sauntering down the semi-permanent scars of forest service roads or faint wildlife traces, while skittering up limestone cliffs or among ponderosa pines beneath great granite spires.
Such surprises have proven endless. There was, for instance, the peace sign carved into the verdant valley floor below the rim of the Stratobowl, where scientists launched observation balloons into the stratosphere nearly a century ago. There was the clutch of pronghorn—that is, “the South Dakota antelope”—I startled alongside a spring while following a footpath so faint I had to squint to find it. (I soon turned around, for fear of a mountain lion lurking in the brush.) And there was the complete bison skeleton at the base of a gulch in Wind Cave National Park, so freshly mauled by one such wildcat that the bones remained moist with sinew.
I’d forgotten that the primary point of it all was to have an adventure, to be delighted by the unexpected encounters of the outdoors.
On the day that I met the cattle rancher checking his water tanks, I wandered up and down a series of ridges for hours, eventually cutting across a creek toward a short limestone pillar that looked like a giant’s surreal pillow. When I finally returned to the car, his cows were lying beside and grazing around it, as if my vehicle had joined their herd. Alice and I stood among them for a quarter-hour, reveling in the little spell of wonder into which I’d walked.
Last summer, as I neared the halfway point of the Pacific Crest Trail, I encountered two perpetually baked dudes, who not only gifted me fruit-flavored rolling papers, but also added extra miles to their thru-hike by taking, it seemed, most every side trail they crossed. They paused their northward progression repeatedly to walk most of the 170-mile Tahoe Rim Trail or sneak into Yosemite Valley and journey up its famed waterfalls. I worried needlessly about them: What if they got hurt on one of these excursions and had to bail on the PCT? What if they ran out of time to reach Washington before snow hit the Cascades hard? What if they, as their journey crossed the 3,000-mile mark, got tired of hiking, of making the daily decision to press on?
I’m realizing now, strolling the limestone-strewn canyons and creekbeds of the Black Hills, that they had it right. In my overzealousness to complete the task at hand, to check the box of “2021 PCT Thru-Hike,” I’d forgotten that the primary point of it all was to have an adventure, to be delighted by the unexpected encounters of the outdoors. It’s hard to be surprised when you’re staring at a map or an app, heading forever in the same orderly direction as your peers. That footloose pair was adding day hikes to their thru-hike because they wanted to have more fun. The true trail led wherever they happened to be walking.
With a little money hopefully pocketed, we aim to return to thru-hiking later this year, with the Arizona Trail on deck in the fall and the Continental Divide Trail in the spring. The temptation to churn through miles and get it done will of course return on such long journeys. But I like to think that this season of side trails has taught me to slow down and just enjoy hiking again—something nice to do, not something epic that has to be done. I hope that lesson outlasts my time in South Dakota.