Magical and inspirational places

We all had so much fun exploring the Black Hills!
We all had so much fun exploring the Black Hills!

We experienced two of South Dakota’s best known mountains today. One must see is, of course, Mount Rushmore, where we took our German exchange students for the essential photo ops. While their command of English is quite good, they were pleased to find a good selection of the monument’s brochures in German, which made it nice for souvenirs for friends and family back home. Besides the famous faces, our students took almost as many pictures of the stray mountain goat that wandered into the parking lot.

I’ve been to Mount Rushmore many many times. Seeing it through the eyes of visitors for the first time helps make it a magical and inspirational place.

In contrast with Mount Rushmore’s huge gifts store, cafeteria and all the amenities, Harney Peak is in the Black Elk wilderness area, accessible only by a long hike. We carried water and snacks in our back packs. Atop the 7,400 foot peak, the highest point east of the Rockies, stands a fire watch tower. It was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Core, and staffed until the early 80’s. From the peak you can see about 50 miles in every direction. Spectacular! The Lakota holy man Black Elk spoke of his vision quest in this very area.

The hike was strenuous, with about a thousand foot climb up 3 miles of trail. For me coming back down was harder in spots than going up. The loop took us about four hours. We staggered our group of 18, and let everyone go at their own pace. We had a bus key at the end in case anyone got tired, but I was most impressed that everyone completed the pilgrimage.

I couldn’t keep up with most of the high school students. When they reached the top some still had energy to burn and explored the rocks and ledges surrounding the peak. I had some time with hiking companions, but more time alone, and that time was prayerful and meditative. When the going got tough, I thought of what it must have been like for Jesus to carry his cross along a rocky road, in far more difficult circumstances. I also remembered the people I’ve climbed the trail with in previous years, and lifted them up in prayer.

When we got back to Rapid City, we finished the evening at a buffet restaurant, where the tired but satisfied group refueled and recounted their adventures along the trail. Tomorrow I’ll head back to Chamberlain, while the group heads further west to experience Devil’s Tower.

Guest Blogger: Claire

Lakota girls posing for a picture.
The girls had a great time on their trip!

Hello again!  Only a few short weeks ago, I was writing about the upcoming Cultural Trip with the incoming eighth-grade girls.  I was very excited, because we had been planning for months, and I was eager to get on the road!

As the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.  The morning we left, we experienced a change in staff, kids, itinerary and vehicles.  Yikes!  We repacked our gear, reprinted our route, piled onto the mini-bus and headed out for a week of winging it.  This turned out to be a blessing.

Uncertainty is a great prioritizer.  Instead of focusing on where we were going to be and when, we shifted more towards how we were going to be and why.  Our first evening together, we did not do anything on our itinerary.  The world did not come to an end.

Instead of hurrying to get somewhere, we stopped to celebrate Cassidy’s birthday at the Golden Corral.  As luck would have it, Fr. Steve was able to join us.  Of course, we waited until he left the table to practice a Pinger Home birthday tradition: whipped cream in the face.  What, who, us?

We got to our campsite early, and spent the evening making prayer ties/prayer flags.  April guided the girls through the process, explaining the use of sage and tobacco and the connections between colors and directions.  Since Fr. Steve wasn’t able to join is for this, the girls decided they would each make him a prayer flag, that way he would have prayers for climbing Bear Butte too.  Praying together in this way built a sense of belonging, both to each other and to something bigger.  This was a very positive way to start of our journey together, talking about hopes and dreams, prayers and intentions.

Two girls and Fr. Steve at the top of Bear Butte.
“We made it to the top!”

Letting go of expectations and just being in the moment was an ongoing theme for the week.  The morning we met Fr. Steve at Bear Butte, it was so foggy that we actually drove past the mountain without seeing it.  The trails were wet and visibility was low, and we weren’t sure if we should attempt the climb in these conditions.

We just decided to carry our prayer ties and hike for however long we needed to.  Some of the girls got as far as the third switchback and had enough.  A few more kept on for quite a ways longer and then headed back as well.  Some girls just kept going.  A little further.  And then a little further.   Finally, we just committed to making it to the top.   There wasn’t much to see in the fog—no scenic overlooks, no way to trace the path ahead or behind.  What seemed disappointing at first turned out to be a gift. The fog actually made it easier to stay in the moment.  Having to focus on each step along the way meant not being distracted by what was “way over there.”   Not “having to” make it to the summit made it easier to enjoy the process of getting there.

We had similar experiences the following day at Mato Tipila, more commonly known as Devil’s Tower. The girls said “Let’s walk the long trail!”  (Is this ever a good idea?)   But it was sunny and bright, and it seemed like a lovely day to take the long road.  So off we went, pausing every so often to pose for pictures, pick sage or sniff the trees. (The pine trees smell like cinnamon rolls.  I kid you not.)

Hiking group at Devil's Tower.
We had a beautiful day at Devil’s Tower.

After about two hours, I admit I started to get a bit nervous.  It was hot, we hadn’t seen any other hikers for quite some time, and it seemed like we were not anywhere close to being done.  Ellie and I had just crested ANOTHER long hill, when a soft breeze picked up.  Ellie looked at me and said, “I think Grandfather is looking out for us.”  A minute later, two hikers passed us going in the opposite direction and assured us cheerfully that we were “almost there.”  Bless you, Ellie.

Sometimes setbacks opened up into opportunities: our dinner plans with friends of April’s fell through.  Instead, we were invited to an inipi  – sweat lodge.  Three girls who were nervous about trying something new decided to take a leap of faith and take part in the ceremony.

Other times, opportunities for learning and sharing arose spontaneously. While out walking, several of the girls started to ask about Lakota/Dakota names for the animals.  They shared phrases that they had learned from their grandmothers, or asked April, “How do you say….”

While touring United Tribes Technical College, one girl said,

“I hadn’t even thought about college before, but I can really see myself going here.”

Although we had times of being prayerful and serious, we rarely missed an opportunity to get silly—lip-syncing at passing traffic on the bus, setting marshmallows on fire, falling down on the trails, incessantly shouting “Inkpaduta!!”  Inkpaduta is the name of one of the quarries at Pipestone National Monument.  It really caught on.

I asked the girls what their favorite moments on the trip were.  Several responses involved someone falling on their behinds while hiking – they are eighth graders, after all. Other girls mentioned that they liked having a chance to participate in ceremony (inipi, prayer ties, sacred pipe).  Others liked seeing new places, especially Devil’s Tower.

For me, I needed the reminder that it was ok to let go and trust.  I could have faith that God would guide April and I, and that everything would work out the way it needed to.  I also needed to be reminded that we weren’t going this alone, that we had support from staff, family, friends and donors.  I’m already planning on going again next year … knock on wood!