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
A Mammoth Adventure
Mothers, Fathers, Death, Essence, Passion. The Woolly Mammoths have had many distinct themes, year long emphasis that guide our monthly meetings (to such extent as Woolly’s can receive and follow guidance).
None has changed the group or affected individuals as much as this year’s theme of pilgrimage.
Perhaps it is that pilgrimage is the central topic as men reach middle age, then saunter past it into the graying. Pilgrimage defines the passage from a mid-life focus on family and achievement to a later life focus on the interior path, friends, and spouses. Thus, it catches us where we are.
Pilgrimage also captures the final journey; the one whose end we know: death, yet, and here is also a reason for its fascination, also a journey whose next bend lies hidden from us, just beyond our finite sight.
The spiritual quest, a pilgrimage qua pilgrimage, has also begun to dominate the tone and tenor of Woolly meetings, so much so that the Woolly’s could be the Cult of the Woolly Mammoth or the clan of the sacred Woolly Mammoth.
In that regard the journey to Hot Springs allowed us a glimpse at the bones of our totem, the remains of our ancestors.
This serious, yet not serious, sense of the Woolly Mammoth’s purpose confounds those we encounter and who ask us, “Are you hunters?” Well, yes, but we hunt the ancient trail traveled by the Mammoth; we hunt not with gun and lure but with our hearts. We lead with our hearts, let them go out ahead like hunting dogs, sniffing, pointing, even retrieving.
We often said, “We’re a men’s group.” As if people already had an image of men’s groups and could say, “Oh, yes. I see. A men’s group.” when, in reality, they might wonder if we’re the Men’s Chorus or the Lambda Acrobats or men whose wives wanted the house for some arcane reason and had shoved us out into a motor home and said, “Get thee hence for five days in late September.”
Of course, their speculations are curiosities, nothing more. We traveled, still who we were, just guys trying to be here now, even if now moved past at 80 miles per hour.
Think of the individual journeys framed or reframed, at least considered in the pilgrimage ethos: Paul’s trek to Syria. Tom and Roxann’s journey to Glastonbury and Cornwall and London. My journey to Southeast Asia. Paul’s journey to South Africa. Jimmy’s long path as cowboy & artist. Perhaps, too, Mark’s journey to Macchu Picchu and Frank’s to Ireland. Scott’s cracking the wealth code.
Not to mention the inner path, the interior ancient trail, trodden by many, many before us, yet always traveled alone and without a guide, no Virgil here or Beatrice, more likely a Hades trying to capture our Persephone.
Hmmm...maybe this is not quite right; we do have our inner guides, but their presence comes and goes, even their identities.
Jesus the Messiah for some; Yahweh or Spirit or Gitchee Manido or Wakantanka for others. Dante goes below, down and in, as do poets like Frost and Eliot and Oliver. Still, they are not always there, and they are always only guides, at best ones who acknowledge your journey; they cannot take your journey for you or tell you, for sure, which way to go.
Pilgrimage can also redefine, reframe melancholy. When seen as a trip to your interior, perhaps to parts of that inner cavern where the lights either no longer work or do not yet work, melancholy can introduce you, often again, to parts of your Self in need of healing, nourishing, light.
The collegian mentioned earlier in these diary entries surfaced during the period of melancholy, and he needed attention. Demanded it. And got it. The price paid for his attention was a journey to the underworld, unpleasant, yes, but rich, too.
Kate’s whole 60th birthday. Party. Purple garden. The self assessment, and resulting change. A pilgrimage au deux. The garden’s transformation presaged and assisted the inner work we both had to do.
This too has come. The arc of life taken as a pilgrimage, a journey, as we’ve said, where we know the final destination.
More on the Mammoth Adventure in detail, later.
Warren asked about images. The moon, the Hunter’s Moon, hung in a dark blue sky over the jagged peaks of the Badlands. Looking down a silo at the pale green tip where, not so long ago, a real nuclear warhead sat, aimed already for some city, perhaps Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, or Baru. Cowboy Ron poking an arthritic finger at the Badlands identifying peaks, valleys, places of note. His belly straining the fabric of his shirt, his Stetson riding high on his head. Bear Butte, alone on a vast plain, colorful flags dotting its trees, Tibetan in their persistence. The claw marks, so high up the tree, of the Great Short-Faced Bear, and his paws, so big.
More. The clear skies over the arid lands west of the Missouri; the cloudy sky over the humid north, east of the Missouri and the split in place over the river too thick to drink and too thin to plow. Jimmy standing by the Corn Palace, white Stetson, black suit with vest, cowboy boots. Jimmy, hair down, chest bared climbing Bear Butte.
Elizabeth Rose, Beth to her customers, pert and intelligent in her talk. Her walk, with a determined twist, back into the kitchen. Chef Louie’s interior, like a Western decorated bawdy house. The rock at the Braun’s Hotel, a rock so stubborn they had to build the restaurant around it. The guy at Wall Drug, approaching us with a box of donuts and his political analysis “in a state without professional sports.”
Charles Harsgen illustrations. Oscar Howe’s feverish, modern, traditional paintings. The Bodmer prints. The cowboy at the Western Heritage Center, huge and white.
The Bismarck paper from July 6, 1876 reporting the Battle of Little Bighorn in which the “red devils killed at their pleasure.” Pipestone Creek flowing muddy gray, curved over the rock, awaiting, as Bill said, a fall of leaves to finish the picture.
Mark suggested an adventure in South Dakota, long ago. Then, the dogsled trip. Now, the South Dakota notion again, a decision by Tom to get the RV, and the encouragement of each Woolly and another trip lays stored in the memories of nine Woollies: Tom, Frank, Bill, Scott, Charlie E., Jimmy, Paul, Mark, and Warren.
This just in: We had all talked and mused about the gas mileage we may have gotten on the MSP (mammoth site pilgrimage). The numbers are in and show that we covered just about exactly 1500 miles with an overall gas mileage of 5.92mpg. Now don’t let that dismay your environmentally sensitive Woolly souls, for in dealing with larger vehicles it is appropriate consider person-miles per gallon. On that basis, given the nine of us who made the trip, our overall average person-miles per gallon was 53.3. Acceptable.
Source: Crane Forensic Bus-Driving
"Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction." President Eisenhower, January 1961
We went by Suncruiser to the land of the Sun Dance, stopping first at the Minuteman National Historic Site Project Office, located, curiously, far, far away from either the Launch Control Facility for Delta Flight, and, from Delta 9, one of Delta flight’s ten charges, loaded in its silo, aimed on the north star, and ready to rock and roll.
Mark Hershberger, a ranger there, took advantage of our curiosity at this not yet open site, and we drove 12 miles up Highway 90, in the direction of our travel, to Delta 9. The Delta 9 site lay in a lonely high plains field, as did most of the 1,000 such sites, surrounded often by private land.
A ten-foot chain link fence with razor wire defined a square:
and within the square the missile silo itself sank over 80 feet below ground, a back-up generator, a ten-foot tall, slender motion detector (tested Ranger Hershberger said, by locals, who would shoot rifle bullets through the compound and watch when the flight’s armed response team would come, dispatched from the Launch Control Facility), an antenna prepared to shoot up from the ground if triggering the launch by radio signal became necessary due to severing of the normal conduit, a thick electrical cable tucked far away under the ground (over 1,800 miles of such cable lay around and within the silo sites near Ellsworth Air Force Base), and massive stabilizers, used once, to hold firm the missile delivery vehicle when the missile lowered into position.
Two things stood out here. The first was the ingenuity, careful planning, and redundancy used to ensure a launch could not stop. There were no self-destruct mechanisms, no way to alter the missile’s flight path after launch. The missileers, as the guys with their fingers on the buttons were called, had to act on orders with no thought for the consequences. There were multiple systems to get the launch order to the silo. All of this reveals a psychic pattern we could call sociopathic, one with total disregard for feelings and lives, either of the missileers and their support system, or of the millions certain to die. It screams premeditated murder.
Second was the fascination, the riveted attention of these 50’s kids the duck and cover generation, raised with mushroom clouds and civil defense shelters, perhaps even bomb shelters in the backyard. A generation for whom nuclear came to equal dangerous (unfair in that nuclear itself is neutral.), sort of the chemical world’s equivalent of cancer. We stood in the Delta 9 enclosure and realized this was our childhood; nuclear weapons and the cold war they maintained were a not-so-silent backdrop for everything we did.
In this regard there is the sobering and strange implication of the Midwest in the cold war. Truman from Independence, Missouri. Eisenhower from Abilene, Kansas. Lyndon Johnson from College Station, Texas. SAC command in Omaha, Nebraska. Hundreds of missile silos dot the landscape of North and South Dakota, poisonous steel sown like dragon’s teeth among the cattle grazing lands and wheat fields of America’s breadbasket. Ft. Riley, Kansas is called the U.S. Warfighting Center. Cheyenne Mountain is in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
We are not the flyover; we are the cold metallic heart of our nation’s most lethal dreams. It is the not the midwest of the imagination, this is not Willa Cather’s midwest, nor is it James Whitcomb Riley’s or Booth Tarkington. It might be the midwest of Sinclair Lewis and Frank Norris, both of whom knew the underbelly here: Babbitry, Elmer Gantry religion, slaughterhouses and packing plants filled with cruelty and disease.
Thorstein Veblien knew us. So did the dead of the Spoon River Anthology and Carl Sandburg, “Hogbutcher for the world.” Henry Ford played a role, mechanization and depersonalization fit into bed with the freedom of personal transportation and the start of dependency on oversea’s oil. The Range and the Upper Peninsula had a role, too. The angry cuts into mother earth to supply hematite and copper. The slaying of the White Pine forests, the stripping of the topsoil, the subjugation of those who lived here first.
All this, this shadow here in the land of the family farm and the small town and Garrison Keillor.
After the Minutemen, we drove onto Hot Springs, to the Mammoth Site. The site itself, and the late hour, combined to create a compressed visit. We learned the tale of adolescent mammoths, possibly shunned by a sexist matriarchal society, forced to fend for themselves, seduced by green grass on a cold winter plain, grass kept warm by the hot spring in the sinkhole. A quick bite, then, oh my tusk, woolly butt over tea kettle, and splash! Some frantic attempts to climb, exhaustion. Death.
Then. Resurrection. Skeletal resurrection at any rate.
There was also the humerus bone (maybe) of an American lion, four feet high at the shoulder, six inches taller than Tor, the red Irish Wolfhound who lives in Andover, and 900 pounds, 700 pounds more than Tor. This was one big cat, and a relative, not of the mountain lion, but of the African lion.
Most of us paid some attention to the Great Short-Faced Bear with his gigantic paw and the marks it could make at the height of 15 feet, or the second-story window of your house. He had a large mouth, too, the better to eat you with my dear, and “flesh-shearing” teeth. Gosh. Flesh-shearing. You would not want to be on the receiving end of this bad-boy’s predatorial instincts.
Black hats were bought, a plastic Woolly, and some books, too.
This is a place which reveals itself slowly, as any good pilgrimage destination does. There are details here not available to a quick tour; there is the whole arena of paleontology and its examination of the Black Hills in general and the Woolly Site in particular, and, there is the question of our totem animal, considered as a totem. What characteristics did our clan totem have? What does the Woolly Mammoth share with us that we honor in honoring the animal? Are we a clan with a totem animal?
St. Jerome’s Saint Day: September 30, 2004
In his sermons: censorious spirit against authority, sympathy for the poor which reaches the point of hostility against the rich. In his letters the temperament of St. Jerome is most clearly seen: his waywardness, his love of extremes, his exceeding sensitiveness; how he was in turn exquisitely dainty and bitterly satirical, unsparingly outspoken concerning others and equally frank about himself.
Another opinion: St. Jerome is the patron saint of curmudgeons and therefore one to whom writers and clergy of a certain type must often pray.
Frank and Charlie stayed in the RV at the Holiday Inn Express in Hot Springs, the rest went in and spent the night, as we had in Mitchell, though Mark stayed out, too in Mitchell.
Which, in a roundabout manner, loops us back to Mitchell where Jimmy stood in the parking lot of the Corn Palace, tall in a black suit with vest and Stetson, white, and parked close by the red Cadillac he rode in on. After hugs all around, the Woollies visited the Corn Palace, a gymnasium and museum of itself, with color photos of the Corn Palace in its two buildings since 1892? and of each year’s design, made from colors which occur in corn as it grows, the ears are not painted or otherwise modified, except sawn in half to get nailed to the wall, or cut in smaller pieces to form elements of the design.
On the outside of the Corn Palace men on scissor lifts used nail guns to affix half-corn ears to what looked from the ground like landscape cloth with chalked in designs and little letters indicating: yellow, blue, light brown, sort of paint-by-corn.
Signs outside Mitchell advertised the Corn Palace: From Ear to Eternity and Ears to You.
At Chef Louie’s Mark and Warren shared a buffalo rib eye as did Scott and Bill?. The food was solid midwestern meat and potatoes, made near where the beef roams on the hoof.
In Hot Springs we ate in the Braun Hotel’s restaurant which had, in addition to a delicious peach and berry-berrry custard desert called a kooken? a huge rock with theater-style roping. It looked out of place and the floor around it fit with some reluctance.
When asked, Bob, our waiter said, “Oh, yes. In the 1960’s when they built the restaurant, they tried to get rid of the rock, but gave up and just built the restaurant around it.” Later, on examination, it was obvious where attempts had been made to reduce the rock, but there it stood, a bumpy tan monument to the immovable force of mother earth.
The next day. Crazy Horse. A rock face, another mountain carved. For equity. Yet, a question remains. Aren’t mountains enough, in themselves? No. Mark and Jimmy said, making art is always its own justification, and sufficient. Always. Still. A mountain, up thrust by mother earth.
Even so. “Never forget your dreams.” The powerful message of Korzscak and his family. (though what ever happened to those three, the ones who haven’t continued?) The image and heritage of Crazy Horse, a symbol of native resistance to an encroaching imperial power. Deserving of a monument surely as much as “those guys,” as Joseph called the Mt. Rushmore 4 when he was 4 and frightened of them.
Then, Rapid City airport, a mysterious disappearing presence to a pair of Northwest Airline’s finest. (Just who do they put on the Rapid City run anyhow?) Paul flying away from our mobile home to plan his journey to South Africa. A Woolly Circle with Paul in the middle, a salute. Good byes.
Deadwood. Nope, rock concert. No room at the inn(s). Lead? Nope. Rock concert spillover. So. Spearfish. With an “unobtrusive downtown” according to the guide. Located in beautiful Spearfish Canyon.
The Harvest Festival was just winding up as we pulled into Spearfish. Some of us bought corn roasted in the shucks, t-shirts for our purple and red wives, a bouncy spiny mushy green thing, a campaign button or two. Blockaded, mainstreet, had a series of booths, a band. The Great Wheel turns in Spearfish and Deadwood and Lead.
A lovely old building contained Roma’s. We ate with a tornado looming over Spearfish and a herd of buffalos, one with his tongue stuck out. The food, cream sauce rich, was over the top; the service under the table, but we did discover the three white guys: Bill, Mark, and Warren.
Then onto the All American Inn, another parking lot for Charlie and Frank. Scott and Bill roamed where the buffalo were, and the longhorn cattle are now, but wisely stayed outside of the fence—which kept the predators out, as the builder designed it. They found the Western Heritage Center, had a chat with the birthday guys, and made a discovery which resulted in a good morning start the next day.
The ancient trail winds on through the Western Heritage Center, Sturgis, the Badlands, Pipestone, and onto Crane Forensic’s parking lot next week.
This Friday is wet and cold, looked like sleet outside today, as if, leaving September behind, the weather wished to say, “Just kidding. Fall’s really here.” The garden gets a haircut after the freeze tonight, a careful removal of debris helps avoid spread of disease, especially among the hemerocallis.
Perhaps tomorrow, the hunt begins for marsh hay, the less seedy variety than alfalfa or timothy or oats. This will go over the zone 4/5 perennials like Sweet Kate and mums. As the newspaper confirmed, those of you in the city have a growing season 2 weeks longer than those of us in the outlying suburbs.
A hundred bulbs: tulips, daffodils, crocii, et al are here to plant. This is a small amount by prior fall plantings, but getting done before the trip to Southeast Asia took precedence this year.
Leaves have begun to brown and fall, the sky is gray. The season of transition is upon us. Soon Samain will come, bringing trick or treaters unaware of their mimicing the thin veil between us and the otherworld, often dressed as otherworld characters like pixies and faieries and demons (republicans).
This goes out today so trip planning, dethaching, and son wound-healing can proceed.