Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 292-297: Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota

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July 18-23, 2013

(The Big Trip is over for us . . . but not for you! I am still putting together blog entries that cover the rest of our sabbatical adventure. I hope you enjoy this continued travelogue.)

We arrived late in the afternoon from Wall, SD, and took a campsite near where we had camped the week before. Although it was also hot here, the weather was slightly milder than the blast furnace of the Badlands and the campground offered some shade.

We had first seen Bear Butte when we drove south from North Dakota. The sun was nearing the horizon; dramatic clouds from a large storm system adorned the sky. A partial rainbow developed and we stopped frequently, photographing it at different angles with changing scenery. As we got closer to Bear Butte so did the rainbow. It split into two and the ribbons of color seemed to emanate up from the Butte itself. The crepuscular scene was magnificent leaving no doubt that this was one powerful place.

Bear Butte dominates the otherwise flat landscape of green farms and prairie. It actually is not a butte but a volcanic laccolith, an intrusion of magma that uplifted the sedimentary layers above it. These layers eventually eroded away and left the hard volcanic rock. It looks like a cinder cone although it originally never completely broke the earth’s surface to become a volcano. I found I could not keep my eyes off the mountain as its appearance changed throughout the day.

The other feature that dominated our view was the big sky. More than anywhere we had been so far, the cloud formations, the enormous storm cells, the waxing moon, the endless play of light and colors created an ever-shifting wondrous display. The time before sunset was particularly remarkable. Almost every evening I could be found wandering the campground staring upward with my camera. Storms came and went with rapidity, releasing short-lived torrents of rain and lightning bolts.

The small Bear Butte Lake added to the beauty of the place with Bear Butte reflected serenely in its waters. Unfortunately the murky bottom and deep black mud of stinking decomposing debris made swimming unappealing. But I did enjoy kayaking in it when the wind wasn’t blowing too hard.

I also recommend that you go to my Soundscapes page and listen to the recording of our neighbors across the road, a herd of cows. Each day, they ambled to and from the pasture, hollering, bellowing, lowing, mooing, shrieking, in a most amusing way. (Look for “Get Along Little Dogies”.)

Bear Butte is central to the history of the Cheyenne nation. Many centuries ago, a Cheyenne warrior named Sweet Medicine went into self-exile after committing a regretted act of violence. He traveled to the Black Hills and eventually found his way to Bear Butte. On the mountain, over several years, he received teachings and information from spiritual beings on how to help the Cheyenne people. He returned to the tribe with elaborate systems of organization to keep peace and insure that the tribes flourish. These structures are used to this day.

The prophet Sweet Medicine lived long before Europeans arrived on this continent. His prediction of what was to come has been passed down through the centuries:

“I have seen in my mind that some time after I am dead…light-skinned bearded men will arrive with sticks spitting fire. They will conquer the land and drive you before them. They will kill the animals who give you their flesh that you may live, and they will bring strange animals for you to ride and eat. They will introduce war and evil, strange sickness and death. They will try and make you forget Maheo, the Creator, and the things I have taught you, and will impose their own ways. They will take your land little by little, until there is nothing left for you. I do not like to tell you this, but you must know. You must be strong because you are the perpetuators of life and if you weaken, the Cheyenne will cease to be.”

Today Bear Butte is considered a holy place, a place of pilgrimage for Native Americans, especially for the Cheyenne and Lakota. Many American Indians see it as a place where the creator has chosen to communicate with them through visions and prayer. The first time we stopped at the visitor’s center where the trailhead is, there were Native American families, children and adults, walking up the trail. Inside the center were displays of Native history and way of life including artifacts and sacred objects. Mato Paha or “Bear Mountain” is the Lakota name given to this site. To the Cheyenne, it is “Noahvose.”

Chris and I were pleased to be back at Bear Butte because we had wanted to make the pilgrimage to the top. We planned for an early start to avoid the hottest time of day. After having a leisurely breakfast (by this point in the trip, that is the only way we knew how to have breakfast) we drove the short distance to the trailhead, also looked for the small herd of bison that roam the base of the mountain. It was a little after 8 am. The morning was sunny, bright and the air still pleasantly cool. A few cars were in the parking lot but the visitor’s center had not yet opened. There were signs giving instructions on how to climb the mountain in a respectful way.

A man with binoculars stood watching the early-bird hikers come down the mountain. He was a park volunteer whose job was to monitor the rattlesnakes. He told us that we might see some on the trail, shared a few stories of recent sightings, and gave us suggestions on what to do if we did saw one. He also mentioned that there was a Native American encampment currently on the mountain. Later, part way up the trail, we could see a gathering of tipis and tents tucked on a small hidden valley. We saw no one stirring, although many cars were parked in the lot nearby.

The volunteer (a white guy) also told us that the kids from the encampments regularly climb all over the rocks and never get bitten by snakes. He shrugged his shoulder and smiled, indicating we shouldn’t try this, also indicating that we weren’t protected in the same mysterious way.

Along the path to the summit, prayer ribbons and tobacco bundles had been tied to tree branches, adding to the festive and ceremonial feel of the hike. The strips of cloth flapping in the wind reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags with a similar array of colors: red, blue, white, yellow, green.

I suggested to Chris that we use this time to ask for guidance, to walk with an important question, to consider what we might need help with. This was a special opportunity to hike mindfully, enjoy the silence and take in the expansive views.

Beginning our ascent, we were uncomfortably aware of the potential for poisonous snakes and I looked for them everywhere. The sun beat down and I almost immediately felt hot and sweaty. Familiar flowers lined the trail although I couldn’t remember all their names. Sunflowers, asters, toadflax, purple coneflower, and lots of bergamot. I saw a new flower, a pretty three petaled purple-blue bloom. When we returned down the mountain these blossoms had disappeared, completely withered in the hot sun. (Prairie spiderwort)

As we got higher, many of the plants and the top soil disappeared. The broken basalt base showed through and the chunks of basalt clinked and clanked, striking each other musically as we tread on them. The trail took us through rocky outcroppings and along many switchbacks and curves. We could see how much of the mountain was barren of trees from a wild fire in 1996; most had not regrown. Below us, the green earth spread out like a giant meadow and was dotted with small ponds; we saw our camper and Bear Butte Lake in the distance. Farther still were the Black Hills.

Eventually I made it to the platform on the summit where Chris was waiting, sitting in the only tiny spot of shade. More ribbons are attached to the scraggly trees on the summit ridge. Between the arrival of other hikers we meditated and offered tobacco, making wishes for peace and harmony, wisdom, love and all that good stuff for all.

After about an hour on top we headed down again. When we got to the craggy section,
a man had set up a prayer area off the trail in a natural rocky alcove. He played a Native American flute. The delicate melody followed us down the path and then disappeared into the wind. We saw no snakes and reported that to the rattler wrangler when we saw him below.

May all people who come here respect the mountain as a holy place and find solace.

Contrasting the pilgrimage experience was the town of Sturgis about four miles away. Sturgis is famous for its annual August motorcycle rally. 2013 was it’s 73rd year. This week-long event is what has put Sturgis on the map and is what keeps its economy going. Although the rally wouldn’t officially start for two weeks, people were beginning to arrive and many preparations were being made. Large white tents were being assembled and filled with paraphernalia to sell, mostly T-shirts. We (a little belatedly) discovered that the town had a great indoor public swimming pool and we went there to enjoy the refreshing exercise and get a much-needed shower.

As we ate lunch in a restaurant, a film crew from the Food Channel was interviewing the staff about what it is like serving the vast crowds that would soon converge there. Sturgis has about 6000 residents and as many as 600,000 come to the rally.  Although it would have been a unique experience to see this leather-clad gathering, I was glad we left before the cycling hordes descended on the area. Some Native Americans are unhappy that this (rather unholy) event happens so close their sacred mountain.

On our last evening there a thunderstorm swept through. In its aftermath, a rainbow bloomed across the sky, set ablaze by the setting sun.

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth as wild. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded by the blessings of the Great Mystery.”
– Luther Standing Bear (on a sign at Bear Butte State Park)

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Yesterday while walking along Capitola Beach, my eyes caught two unusual birds at water’s edge sitting among a large flock of herring gulls. A western grebe couple (they are monogamous, mating for life). They looked strange there and I set up my camera and tripod. These birds were busily preening themselves, a time-consuming activity for most birds, especially water fowl. Their red eyes would spark like rubies in the sunlight. Every once in a while, one of the grebes would stand up clumsily, take a few awkward steps forward and flop down again. This action was so difficult for them that at first I thought that they must be wounded or sick. Then I recalled, with all the grebes I have seen (several species), I have never seen one on land before. Grebes even build their nests and lay eggs on floating debris in water. They simply are not built to be land animals.

In the first photo below, you can see a profile of one grebe standing near a few herring gulls. They have a completely different build, upright with legs at the very back. More like a dog trying to walk on two legs than a bird. They were consistently being taunted by a juvenile gull who seemed to be trying to pull out feathers. The grebes would lunge with their snake-like necks and sharp bills, squawking menacing. They did not seem frightened by the gull, just annoyed. Was this a teenage prank on the gull’s part?

The western grebe has one of the most marvelous courtship displays in the bird world. They dance across the top of water in unison, neither swimming nor flying, as if by magic, seemingly in a rush to get to the chapel on time. I have never seen this in person but I hope to some day. I recommend you watch this Youtube video.

A group of grebes is collectively know as a “water dance of grebes.”


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RE-ENTRY: Davenport, CA

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Today I pretend to be on The Big Trip. It is easy. The sun shines unobstructed and the wind is light. In less than 25 minutes from home I am at one of the many beautiful spots along coastal Highway One. This is my first view of the Pacific Ocean in over a year.

The temperature is exceedingly pleasant. Sometimes I leave perfectly glorious weather in the Santa Cruz Mountains to find cold, fog, fierce wind, and even drizzle, along the shore. Davenport is an oft-visited area for me so it’s beauty is familiar and therefore lacks the enlivening shock to the senses that previously unseen landscapes have. But it’s familiarity brought a warm friendly feeling and memories of previous visits.

What does it mean to pretend I’m on The Big Trip? It means I find a place to wander. It means I walk slowly – at the speed of life – to see what nature has to offer, what the universe is revealing right now. It means I walk without intent to get anywhere but with the intent to be aware of seeing, listening, smelling, feeling. My mind is still, without preoccupations; inside I feel relaxed and content. No fulfilling obligations, completing lists or making plans.

Carrying my camera turns me into a tracker.  And being a tracker enhances all my senses, it brings me alive in my whole body. I become immersed – a part of –  the environment around me. What do I track? The Now. Life. Reality. I track sights, wildflowers, animals, surprise, beauty, colors, the sky, sensations, emotions, movement, texture, patterns, light and shadow. Tracking requires walking with grace and quiet, watching and observing with full attention.

What is here? High cliffs that drop vertically into blue, agitated waters, ocean swells that push against the land and explode into foam. A lone snowy egret stands on a low flat outcropping as the waves wash over the rock. This is the only egret I have ever seen here. Sometimes seals, see lions, whales or sea otters break the water’s surface but not today. There are bird calls, the sound of the persistent surf, rustling of dried grasses, traffic on Highway One.  A farmworker arrives and begins guiding his tractor through the nearby fields.

Then waves of pelicans come again and again like the swells of the sea. Most are heading south towards Santa Cruz. Some are in small groups of about five while others create long shifting zigzag lines, moving in and out of orderly procession. One moment they form a recognizable “V” and in the next, a haphazard uneven stroke across the sky. Feeling warmed by the sun with the solid earth beneath I sit and lean back, watching them fly close by, directly overhead. Three gulls suddenly lift up above the cliff top heading north as a large flock of pelicans speeds toward them. The gulls quickly make evasive maneuvers with much fluttering of wings. The pelicans continue unwavering like beaked and feathered missiles.

I love the feeling of the air moving around me with it’s pulse of life and energy. It strokes my skin and carries the rich odors of nature. The breeze seeks contact with everything. On The Big Trip, most of everyday was spent outdoors. Only during at night, long drives or inclement weather were we not outside in what I called “our great room”. But the cab of the truck and the camper felt barely indoors, unlike the multi-room, thick-walled, temperature-controlled structure called home. The air in buildings now seems static without the animation of nature. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the simple movement and fragrance of fresh air.

The wind smells of living, dried, and decomposing plants mixed with salty water and sea life. The flat tops of the cliffs are covered with farmland. The crops change over the seasons and years, but most often, at least in part of the fields, are artichokes. Today there are only the dried-up remains of a few artichoke stems and leaves on barren dirt. Beyond them are acres of robust brussels sprouts and beyond that a mix of kale and other greens. Wildflowers grow along the cliff edges and persist in some of the fallow rows. I spot a few thriving artichoke plants blended in with other crops as if these ones ran and hid while their brethren were cut down.

My camera battery soon goes dead and I do not have the charged spare with me. On The Big Trip I never once was caught without my an extra battery ready to exchange at a moments notice. This reveals how I’ve dropped my focus on photography and how the other details of life crowd my mind at home.

Today I cannot “sacrifice the bloom of the present moment for any work, whether of hand or head*.” Today I am living with “a broad margin*.” There’s nothing missing in the great space of simple presence. I smile. The Big Trip is within me.

* from Walden by Thoreau

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