Every step Susan Campo takes along the 111-mile Centennial Trail this month will be a victory and a party. She's celebrating her upcoming milestone 70th birthday and her successful quest to walk again after back surgery.
From Sept. 13 to Sept. 28, she'll hike a different consecutive section of the Centennial Trail. To avoid overtaxing her body, Campo will go home each night, and she'll take one day off per week to rest. Friends will join her on some, if not all, of the hikes. Her shortest daily hike will be 4.9 miles; the longest hikes will be 12.8 miles.
"My goal is to start at the beginning with Wind Cave and go in order until I get to Bear Butte," Campo said before she started the trek. "The Centennial Trail fits me perfectly. My challenge has to be something that's possible for me. ... I want something hard for me but not too hard."
As Campo's birthday approaches on Oct. 5, she's joyfully marking the end of one of the most physically challenging years of her life. After enduring painkillers for years and suffering an incapacitating fall, Campo went through a six-hour back surgery at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in September 2017. The surgery was to relieve problems including scoliosis and a sideways vertebrae. Campo was told the surgery might leave her unable to walk, or only able to walk with a walker.
Campo, a Rapid City native and almost lifelong hiker, was determined to regain an active a lifestyle as possible. She'd grown up hiking and camping with her parents and grandparents in the Black Hills. She's hiked the Centennial Trail, Black Elk Peak and biked Mickelson Trail many times. After moving to the Los Angeles area where she taught for 34 years, Campo took up skiing as well as hiking and backpacking.
Back surgery left Campo with eight screws in her body and hard work ahead. She started a regimen of physical-therapy sessions four times a day. After two weeks, she could slowly climb stairs. "When I left (physical therapy), they said, 'Now remember, the more you walk, the better you'll be,'" Campo said.
Campo proved that to be true. Her first goal after physical therapy was to walk to and from a park a mile away. In her first attempts, she could only walk half a block. She persisted and two months later, Campo was able to get to the park, walk around the park and walk the mile to return, resting as needed.
By January 2018, Campo had regained enough strength and mobility to take a cruise to see the Northern Lights in Norway. Earlier this summer, Campo visited Iceland with a group of older travelers; they hiked to waterfalls and around a national park. During the week of Labor Day, Campo and another group took a mule pack to the Cottonwood Lakes area of California, where the elevation topped 11,000 feet. She spent several days camping and hiking.
"The longest hike was 12 miles up to this peak. Then I stayed in my tent flat on my back for 13 hours. I keep continually trying; I keep pushing what I can do," Campo said.
Campo's Centennial Trail hike will be her own spiritual pilgrimage, as well as a physical test, she said. Campo loves the Black Hills, so the trail that ends at the sacred Native American site Bear Butte seemed the ideal place for her pilgrimage.
"Wind Cave was first discovered by Native Americans. The wind blowing into and out of the cave was thought to be the breath of the Great Spirit that gives life to all. The trail ends at Bear Butte, another spiritual and unique mountain where young men were given a special name after having a vision quest," Campo said.
"I can spend some time thinking about what does is mean to turn 70? ... I think 70 is the beginning of a stage of life," Campo said. "I want this to be the beginning of a new stage in my life. I think part of that is getting to see what your body tells you you can do."