A Pilgrimís Year, 2004:  Week 14

 
 
 

Woolly Home

Intro

Week 1, 2, 3,

Week 4, 5, 6

Week 7, 8, 9

Week 10, 11, 12

Week 13, 14, 15

Week 16, 17, 18

Week 19, 20, 21

Week 22, 23, 24

Week 25, 26, 27

Week 28, 29, 30

Week 31, 32, 33

Week 34, 35   Sermon

Week 36, 37,    Sermon

Week 38, 39

   Singapore1

  Singapore2

  Bangkok

  Siem Reap

Week 44, 45, 46

Week 47, 48, 49

  Slowness

Week 50, 51, 52

 

Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme:  pilgrimage.  It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along.  It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis

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A brief version to keep my weekly schedule intact.

Back from the High Plains.  This was not a pilgrimage though it had aspects of one.  I delivered family legacy items:  furniture, china, silver, table linens, and candle holders to Jon and Jen, who will wed on Lughnasa, August 1st, in a Jewish ceremony performed by a Jewish psychotherapist.

I went to their wedding site, Chief Hosa lodge, a wonderful field stone and timber building owned by the city of Denver and located not too far up the Front Range.

Though I went with this family purpose as the motive for the trip, I really needed to get out of Dodge and see different territory.  So, as I do, I set out some destinations, and a sort of theme.  I ended up with two themes, or three, though I suspect they interrelate.

The first theme focuses on the cold war.  I have begun to develop this notion of the cold war as a Midwestern/Plains phenomenon; this idea came to me two years ago when I visited the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.  While there I realized Harry Trumanís Library was less than a 150 miles due east, and LBJís due south.  I had stopped on my very first trip out to Denver, when I helped Jon move, at the SAC museum outside Omaha, Nebraska.  I noticed at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., a water tower with the legend, US War Fighting Center.  As I drove through the Badlands National Park, I learned of a brand new National Historic Site,  US Minuteman Missile Silo located near Wall, South Dakota.

If you think about it, in terms of political and military leadership of the cold war, the Midwest/Plains region has way more than its share.  Iím still noodling this one, but itís hard to believe coincidence alone explains the three most significant cold war Presidents coming from the same region of the US.  When you throw in SAC H.Q., the missile silos, and other military installations, like Cheyenne Mountain, some geographical influence suggests itself.

What is it?  Iím not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with a definite sense of right and wrong, a sense of manifest destiny ingrained during pioneer days and in the period of state formation soon after the frontier had pushed further west, and a macho-male individualist ethos.  More on this later.

Second theme.  The West.  Iíve not traveled much in the West, at least not by car, and Iíve not visited many of the old West sites.  A reason for traveling for me, which has a clear pilgrimage analog, lies in being there, being physically where things happened.  Until I traveled Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota, I never realized the depth of cold war history here.

Now, Ft. Laramie means something to me.  Before it was a movie title, and a cheesy movie at that.  Now I know Ft. Laramie was a key, if not the key, to the western expansion of the US. (whether a good thing or a bad thing depends on more thorough analysis than Iím capable of at this hour.)  Troops from Ft. Laramie defended the telegraph and, later, the stream of pioneers headed west.  Ironically, the troops at Ft. Laramie were first dispatched to the Black Hills to enforce the 1858? treaty and to keep prospectors out. 

As time wore on, the clarity of their mission got murkier and murkier.  Washington began to back off their strong support of the treaty.  You know the rest.  Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation and Rosebud.

 

The land itself cries for your attention here.  The vast expanses of scrub grass, the massive sky, mountains, long lines of electrical transmission snake off into infinity...and the wind.  I asked a teenage clerk at a gas station outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming if it was always this windy.

ďYeah,Ē  she said, ďand it sucks.Ē

In Guernsey, Wyoming there are trail ruts from the wagons of pioneers dug so deep in the earth that they remain to this day.  Also, a charming piece of memorabilia called Register Cliff.  To register there was the equivalent of mid-19th century tagging, names and pictures etched into the soft sandstone.

I wondered while on these long, long flat plains whether they felt liberating after the density and difficulty of travel through the Big Woods.  They would have felt so to me, I think.  I learned later many were of the opinion that this was the great American desert, treeless and without available water for long stretches.  I donít know how they could have missed the beauty and liveliness of the prairie and plains, but apparently they did, eyes fixed on distant goals.

This was the third theme:  natural history.  As I drove across Kansas and its undulating, flat-topped hills, then into Colorado where the snow-covered Front Range came into view, it was impossible to ignore the country-side; contrary to stereotypes (my own included) of this land, it is neither boring nor repetitive, not if you watch it with the eyes of a geologist or geographer or historian or anthropologist or phenologist or poetónot, I guess the point is, if you watch it.

In Goodland, Kansas near the Colorado border I stopped in at the museum of the High Plains.  This is an unprepossessing affair housed in a corrugated metal building and staffed by a woman turned out of the local library after 20 years service because, ď...my hearing was going. But Iím still working for the city.Ē

It was a good stop.  The exhibits have an interesting layoutófrom the  history of  barbed wire (geez they tried a lot of different versions) to a sodhouse and windmill.  There were also amazing photographs from the dust bowl days (when my father lived only a couple hundred miles due south); one of a huge, boiling mass of dust five to seven times higher than the tallest building bearing down on Goodland itself.  Of course, the irony here is, and they admit it in the exhibits, that the farmers produced the dustbowl, carving away the 6 to ten feet of top soil laid down over the millennia by prairie plants, fires, and buffalo grazing, the leaving the land without cover.

Also here was an early version of the helicopter, one which looked a lot like Da Vinciís drawings.  By aid of a button and an electric motor you can witness its huffing and puffing as it tries to grab enough air to fly.  In its one and only flight this helicopter destroyed itself and a grain elevator nearby.  Made me think of the Wizard of Oz.

Throughout the High Plains I had a sense of exhilaration. You can see for miles and miles.

When I drove into Wyoming I had a weird experience.  At the Wyoming tourist information center I stopped.  I went over to sign their book because the sign asked me to and I thought, well, Iím bet Iím the only from Andover, Minnesota through here today, probably this month.  Hmmm.  I wouldíve lost that bet.   Only four names above mine was a couple from 132nd Street, Andover, Minnesota.  Stopped me in my tracks.  One of those law of large number things, I suppose, but still...

I was able at this point to leave the freeways and take off into the countryside, heading to Ft. Laramie only because Iíd noticed it on the map and it was on my way to Hot Springs.  The minute I left the Federal Highway the countryside became more intimate. 

All along the way I stopped from time to time, took out my sketch book and tried to draw what I saw.  This discipline pleased me, made me feel part of the landscape, the scenes I tried to capture, as opposed to the impersonality I had begun to feel with the camera and the snap, snap, snap of you where there shots. 

I have a really long way to go before I can share my drawings with too many people, but the act of drawing soothed me, slowed me down, and forced an attention to detail and nuance.

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In Hot Springs I did make a stop at the Woolly Mammoth shrine, or, I should say, the Mammoth shrine, since most of the remains are Columbian Mammoths, way bigger than their northern hairy cousins.  The site, discovered when a bulldozer began to clear land for a housing development and instead found many mammoth bones, is an ancient sinkhole.

Turns out the sinkhole is a cautionary tale about male teen-age rebellion.  All of the remains found in the sinkhole are male and all are teen-agers.  Like elephants, mammoth society was matriarchal {which, I suppose, might give us pause. Perhaps this alpha-female idea has more to it than we realized.} and the young males, once they reached adolescence got forced out of the herd.  With more pheromones than common sense these youngsters came to the sinkhole, had no mommy to protect them as the adolescent females did, and a few slipped over the edge into the water.  Teen angel, the mammoth version.

The next day I went up to Wind Cave National Park where I spent a lot of time sketching buffalo, prairie dogs, and coyote.  I ate lunch in Custer and visited Antler, Claw and Hide.  This unique shop is a retail shop for, well, antlers, claws, and hides and skulls, pipestone, semi-precious stones, native arts and lots of stuff Iíve never seen on sale before.

I was after skulls.  I canít quite say why skulls fascinate me though I imagine it relates to my interest in HP Lovecraft and writing dark fantasy.  I bought a beaver, black bear, and mule deer skull to draw.  I have this fascination with drawing skulls.  Turns out Iím not the only one.  Lot of good artists liked to draw them, too.  So, see...

Custer is an odd little town.  Like its namesake its upscale shops (think 50th and France) seem like an invasion of the white upper-middle class.  Antler, Claw and Hide  www.clawantlerhide.com was an interesting exception.  Run by a local I notice in a web search that it also has a following among neo-pagans.

After lunch I went to Wind Cave.  Iíd been there quite a while back, but I love caves.  I know that seems strange for an old claustrophobic like me, but its small confined spaces that get me (sweat lodges, the elevator at the Soudan mine) not caves.

While in the cave the ranger did the usual cave guide thing of turning off the lights.  I found myself in love with the total blackness.  I wanted to stay and meditate.  See the thing above about skulls and Lovecraft.

The next morning I got up, took off for the Badlands.  I drove through Custer State Park where I saw a herd of mule deer and Bighorn Sheep, hundreds of buffalo and many wild turkeys. 

I chose not to go to Mt. Rushmore, little interest and not enough time.  I missed Deadwood and Lead, which I wanted to see, but not enough time.  

The Badlands Loop was spectacular, again, something Iíd done a long time ago, but the beauty and the starkness of the land made me wonder why the French called it the badlands to travel through.  The word they used was mauvais which conveys the sense of bad as in difficult; difficult land to travel through is the full French phrase, shortened to Badlands.

At the end of it, as I said above, I found the project center for the year old National Historic Site of the Minuteman Missile Silo.  Hmmm....  and again, Hmmm....  and, then again, Yeah!  Good to see it historic rather than contemporary.

My last stop, after many miles, crossing the wide Missouri, not finding the physical demarcation between the High Plains and the Interior Lowlands, and making it back to Minnesota, was Pipestone. 

Pipestone integrated the themes of the trip.   In terms of natural history it represents a deposit of unusually clear, soft red pipestone covered over by a very hard rock, Sioux Quartzite.  In terms of the cold war, the pipestone quarries have long been a protected, sacred site where no weapons and no fighting were allowed.  The Creator gave the pipestone as a resource to all the Indian people.  In fact, there is evidence pipestone was in the possession of Mississipian era nations, perhaps as long ago as 1,500 years.  Material made it out to the Old West, the Old East, the Old North, and the very Old South.

Then, home to art class Friday morning, and a group of kindergarten through adults from Prairie Island Dakota band for the Plains Shirt display.  A very integrated end to the trip. 

This is the end for the week.  I missed writing each day and look forward to going back to that pattern now that Iím home.

Blessed be.  As I say.

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