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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