Tag Archives: The Long Road Home

A Sacred Place Is Where You Find It

Surprisingly enough, although I have been to Rapid City and its environs before, I had never heard of Devil’s Tower. I only stumbled across it this time because it was featured on a throwaway tourist map of the area that was forced upon me by some motel. Devil’s Tower! I thought excitedly. I love landmarks named Devil! Consider, for example, The Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley – if it was named after you-know-who, you know it’s going to be worth seeing.

Of course, as readers have reminded me since, Devil’s Tower is the destination featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given its fame and the way it sticks up out of the ground like a veritable stairway to the heavens, it is rather difficult to imagine how I could have missed a landmark like this on my prior trips through Wyoming, particularly when it’s visible from miles and miles away:

Devil's Tower from a Distance

I suppose I can’t be blamed too much for overlooking it. As you can plainly see, It’s plunk out in the middle of nowhere. Have no fear about your morning java, though. The lonely road to Devil’s Tower is proof positive that you really can get a cappuccino literally anywhere in the United States:

Coffee Shop Nowhere

Contrary to its name, Devil’s Tower was not traditionally perceived as a haven for the Dark Lord, but rather as a holy place that featured prominently in both Native American lore and in the traditions of white settlers of the region.

Devil's Tower Sign I

Indeed, some of the Native tribes still visit the tower for religious purposes, as is evidenced by the prayer cloths and bundles scattered all about the wood that surrounds the tower:

Devil's Tower Sign II Cropped

I myself am not a very spiritual person. But when you’re standing in the shadow of this unusually designed and seemingly inexplicable 900-foot monolith, it’s hard not to be moved.

Devil's Tower Closeup II

But as permanent and everlasting as it seems, the tower, of course, will not live forever. All about its feet lies abundant proof that it, too, is slowly self-destructing, that the days of its existence may be numbered to but a moment in geologic time. For while the igneous rock of which the tower is formed is far tougher and less subject to the forces of erosion than the sedimentary rock that once surrounded it, it also cannot survive indefinitely. One by one, the columns of which the tower is constructed will break off and crumple in heaps all around it, creating a field of giant stones in the midst of this quiet and peaceful wood.

Broken Columns

It will be a lengthy process. It has been a hundred years since the last column collapsed, and in the meantime, the tower continues to grow taller as more sediment is eroded from the plain. The tower itself also stands immune to one of the direst natural calamities of the region – the wildfire.

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These blackened trees appear to present evidence of just such a calamity. Fires are a natural part of the western ecology, and, left to their own devices, help to renew the forest floor without causing excessive damage to established trees. But, as is often the case when people interfere with nature, fires have become more devastating to our vast areas of forest in the last hundred years. This is because human efforts to suppress wildfires have caused buildups of fuel in wooded areas – which means that when fires do burn, they burn much hotter and are far more destructive.

It’s a lesson for all of us. Every year our skies are darkened by the smoke and soot of wildfires; every year our fire fighters risk their lives attempting to control these blazes in an effort to spare our homes and other places we hold dear. It’s only natural that in our approach to the world, we put humans first. But at what cost? Do we really derive any long-term benefit from interfering with the natural ebb and flow of our forest ecologies? Or are we merely postponing the inevitable and, in the process, causing greater harm than good?

It is human nature to develop attachment to the land. The land in which we are born, the land in which we grow up, the lands in which we experience our first love, our first adventure, our first taste of freedom; the land in which we choose to grow old and die. Places form a large part of how we define ourselves, of how we comprehend our position in the world. Who among us has not gone out of our way to drive past a house we lived in as a child? Who among us does not remember “where we were” during important events in history, such as the John F. Kennedy assassination, or 9/11? Who among us does not imagine the chapters of our lives as beginning and ending with the places we have lived, because every new place is, in our minds, distinctly different from the last, even if the move was only across a state or down the block?

The Native Americans understood this. Many of their origin stories are centered around the land, around the gifts of land, the gifts of places that were granted to their people by their god or gods. It is perhaps one of the reasons why the shift to reservations was so painful, so intolerable to the Native tribes. You cannot simply remove a people from one land to another and expect them to be satisfied, even if the trade were, on paper, fair and equal. The land does not represent merely a way of life, a means of earning a living. It is the very essence of a people.

We will always fight to protect our sacred places, whether they be a stretch of coastline on the eastern seaboard, a beloved old elm in our own front yard, or a four-block neighborhood in the city of Cleveland. Places move and inspire us. We cannot bear to see them altered or destroyed. But of course, eventually they must be. Even a monument like Devil’s Tower cannot stand forever. Nothing can.

But perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that this particular landmark will continue to stand, for as long as we ourselves are living, and for many generations after us. It is, for all human intents and purposes, an essential and everlasting part of the landscape. It is land at its very best. Permanent. Indestructible. Sacred.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Devil’s Tower: Imposing, But Not Really Evil

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If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Buffalo Jump!

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “Buffalo Jump,” of course, but in all my travels, I had never actually seen the site of one before. After spending a dark and stormy night outside of Rapid City, I decided to duck over to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower. It wasn’t long after dawn when I spotted signs on the highway directing me to this noteworthy landmark:

Buffalo Jump

Very thorough explanation, isn’t it? But what, you may be wondering, as I was, does the buffalo jump actually look like? After considerable searching in the early morning light, I finally realized that it lay in an unmarked field just across the road:

Buffalo Jump 2

That’s one heck of a sinkhole, but it doesn’t seem as though buffalo could become effectively trapped in it, does it? Perhaps not – but it was a sinkhole, after all, that was responsible for creating one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world today – Mammoth!

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

They Call It Rapid City Because If You Don’t Hurry, You Might Miss Something

It never fails to come as a surprise. The midwestern states always seem like vast stretches of nothing until, wham! They hit you with something truly spectacular. Or, in the case of Rapid City, with many things truly spectacular.

It doesn’t seem like much at first. A good-sized town tucked away in the northeast corner of South Dakota, not far from Sturgis of “Sturgis Raw!” fame, which fans of The History Channel will recognize in an instant as the site of one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.

Knucklehead

They call this area The Black Hills. But it is perhaps best known for one rather grayish-tan hill:

Mount Rushmore

Every day, thousands of people flock to Mount Rushmore, to this ultimate homage to dead presidents. It is so cheesy, yet so reassuring. It reminds us that in fifty years currently popular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Pitbull will be long forgotten – yet these four presidents will live on in the American imagination. Not because of their principles, not because of their achievements, but because some sculptor thought it would be really cool to memorialize their heads on the side of a mountain.

And you know what? It actually is really cool. And what’s even cooler is that they livened up that dull, colorless mountain by turning the entrance to it into an Avenue of Flags containing the banners of each of the fifty states:

Avenue of Flags

The whole monument is so cool, in fact, that another sculptor – with entirely different motives – decided to attempt a similar gambit some twenty miles to the south:

Crazy Horse Monument II

Any guess what famous figure that’s supposed to be? Maybe this will help:

Crazy Horse Model

That’s right; this mountain is – or is going to be – a monument to Crazy Horse, the famed Indian warrior who inspired such fear and admiration in the spirits of white men, and who, a century and a half later, remains an icon of the Plains Indian to both red and white men alike. This massive project – which, if completed, may be the largest sculpture in the world – receives no federal funding and has been a work-in-progress since 1948. However, I think it’s safe to say that even if the project is never finished, it has ensured that Crazy Horse will enjoy a permanent place in American history.

It is perhaps ironic that not far south of the Crazy Horse Mountain lies Custer State Park, named for the cocky yet ill-fated Indian fighter who met his doom on a Montana battlefield which I hope to see again later in my trip. It is perhaps fitting that General Custer and his outmoded ways of thinking have been commemorated by an equally antiquated theme park, which has been constructed in the city that also bears his name:

That’s right – in Custer you can order food from the Flintstones drive-in…

Flintstones Theme Park II

… or make a call from the Bedrock phone booth, which can be really handy if, like me, you have a third-rate cell service provider and your phone hasn’t worked in a week.

Flintstones Theme Park III

Yes, Rapid City has an abundance of special charms that you won’t want to miss. You don’t have to worry about hurrying down to nearby Hot Springs, though – this guy definitely isn’t going anywhere:

Mammoth

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

With a Name Like Badlands, It Has to Be Good!

Join me, if you will, on a journey through one of the most forbidding destinations in the Great Plains. But I warn you – there’s danger in them thar hills, dire and perhaps deadly danger!

Unless, of course, you’re driving around comfortably in your car, as I was. Just play along, people!

Upon entering the park south of Wall, South Dakota, your first view is of this, the Pinnacles formation. It’s hard to convey in a single photograph just how massive this is – these formations literally go on for as far as the eye can see. How daunting it must have been to early settlers of the region, not knowing when – or if – the Badlands would ever end.

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The soil colors are caused by the decomposition of different plants at various points in the area’s geologic history. The layers became fossilized and were thus preserved in the “rainbow” arrangement we see today.

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This section almost reminds me of Arizona’s Native American cliff dwellings – except that no rational, civilized people would build a home here when they had a nice, comparatively comfortable desert available to them.

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There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of wildlife here, either, except for insects, and, of course, these lovely fellows.

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Notice the teeny little  structure up top – then imagine trying to climb your way up the sides of this enormous crevasse.

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I’m pretty sure this is what Tolkien had in mind when he pictured the land of Mordor. Let’s hope Sauron isn’t still hanging out in here somewhere.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

“Les terres mauvais à traverser” – Badlands National Park

Take a look and see if you can guess why French-Canadian fur trappers called this section of the South Dakota prairie “bad lands to cross.”

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If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

South Dakota – No Place I’d Rather Be

I have been awoken by lightning. Great, powerful flashes of it, flickering in an asynchronous beat all around me, in every imaginable rhythm, in every possible direction. It is as if the heavens have decided to let down their giant disco ball and are twirling it around the gods’ roller rink in celebration of summer.

I am sleeping in the parking lot of a casino just over the border of South Dakota. Technically I am on Sioux land; the flag flying in the wind by the casino door tells me so.

The sky was threatening to storm, all day, it seemed, not because of storm clouds gathering, or because of darkness overhead, but because of the heaviness in the air. You can feel a thunderstorm brewing long before you can see it. It assails the subconscious long before the senses.

The rain washes in torrents down my truck window. I have to go to the bathroom, but I’ll wait. That is the beauty of thunderstorms; what seems to differentiate them from ordinary rainstorms, which can last all day; the way they release their tension, and then travel down the road, to threaten some other town, or some other open prairie. They are like motorists, in that way; you rarely have to wait long for them to pass.

It has been about ten minutes now, and the rain has settled into a drizzle. The lightning flashes have grown fainter, and farther away; the party has moved on to another scene, another venue.

I climb out of the truck and walk down the road a ways to the nearby truck stop. It’s warm outside, very warm. It smells wonderful, like fresh rain on fresh grass. It smells like New England. It feels like New England, too; that heat of summer that never seems to let go, even in the night. It clings to your body, your bed, your home. To the earth itself.

It’s one of the aspects of the Bay Area to which I’ve never grown accustomed. How cold it is at night, even in summer. It never feels natural to me, the chill that descends in the evening, making you question whether it’s really July or August or September. How I’ve missed those warm, sometimes even scorching summer nights. How, even all these years later, I still long for them.

This heat, this midnight warmth speaks to me. The rain speaks to me. The lightning, yes, even the thunder and the lightning speak to me. They speak to me of home, of security, of comfort. My heart – in spite of itself – speaks back.

I am walking back across the parking lot to my truck. I feel as wonderful as the air smells. It is one-thirty in the morning, local time. I have slept for about three hours. I am almost tempted to move on, I feel so awake, so alive now.

But I won’t. I feel at home here, in the back of my truck, in the parking lot of an American Indian casino, in a largely uninhabited portion of South Dakota. It feels natural to me, being here, cuddling up in my little bed and sleeping here. This is where I wanted to be all along. I knew it, without knowing why. I still don’t know why. I only know that it suits my mood. It suits me.

I almost wish I could stay here for a while. I wouldn’t mind finding a little place to hole up in, and enjoying the rest of a truly rural, truly traditional – to my mind – summer, while it lasts. There would be plenty for me to do, plenty for me to enjoy. I could sit and watch the rain, then watch the sun dry it up. Sit and smell the grass; smell the rain feeding it, the sun feeding it, too. Let them feed my soul and feed my spirit, the sun and the rain. Let them fill me up, too; let them warm and wet me, watch me revive under their nourishment, watch me grow.

But I know I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’ve got to be moving on. While there’s still time.

Here there doesn’t seem to be any time. Only the sun, and the rain, and the never-ending growth of new grass.

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