Saturday, June 27, 2009

South Dakota, Part One - Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Rapid City, Chamberlain, Kyle, Red Cloud Indian School

"But Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness. And his ‘criminality’ was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, and ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming …” (7).

“… I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West” (11).

“He was out to get back everything he’d lost; there was no end to his loss; this thing would drag on forever” (63).

“The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sight and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die?” (115).

(The monument directly above is Chief Big Foot's grave, Wounded Knee)

“Whitside told Big Foot that he had orders to take him to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek. The Minneconjou chief replied that he was going in that direction; he was taking his people to Pine Ridge for safety” (440) Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

"Twilight was falling when the column crawled over the last rise in the land and began descending the slope toward Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee. The wintry dusk and the tiny crystals of ice dancing in the dying light added a supernatural quality to the somber landscape. Somewhere along this frozen stream the heart of Crazy Horse lay in a secret place, and the Ghost Dancers believed that his disembodied spirit was waiting impatiently for the new earth that would surely come with the first green grass of spring." (440-41) Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

“It made me think that everything was about to arrive—the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever” (119).

“But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” (126).

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” (146).

“It was sad to see his tall figure receding in the dark as we drove away, just like the other figures in New York and New Orleans: they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies, and everything about them is drowned. Where go? what do? what for?—sleep. But this foolish gang was bending onward” (155).

“‘… the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE’” (197).

“I could feel the road some twenty inches beneath me, unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel. When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. When I opened them I saw flashing shadows of trees vibrating on the floor of the car. There was no escaping it. I resigned myself to all.” (222)

(Drove right into this storm, which wasn't as bad as it looks.)

“'What’s your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?’” (239)

“Now, Sal, we’re leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. All the years and troubles and kicks—and now this! So that we can safely think of nothing else and just go on ahead with our faces stuck out like this, you see, and understanding the world as, really and genuinely speaking, other Americans haven’t done before us they were here, weren’t they?” (264).

“The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in the big dust cloud over the American Night.” (5)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (49) Denis Johnson, “Dundun,” Jesus’ Son

“… under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God…” (105). Denis Johnson, “The Other Man,” Jesus’ Son

(Crazy Horse Memorial, along with the bluest skies I've ever seen. Somewhere in the Plains and Black Hills, South Dakota)

(She's a wolf. I took this when I visited a Lakota Medicine Man one day, somewhere out in the middle of the Pine Ridge Reservation.)

(Ghost town on the edge of the badlands--the only real ghost town I've been to--it's not some commercialized tourist trap, as you can plainly see. The end building used to be a hostel, but those days are passed).

(It was over a hundred degrees that day. I wish I would have taken this before I did that Pine Ridge charity drive in high school--it's a lot harder to be apathetic when your fellow humans spend their lives like this, then end them in ditches from malnourishment, or die from exposure because the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to condemn their FEMA shelters.)

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South Dakota was by far the most interesting and enlightening experience I’ve had so far on this trip. I was coming from the south (up through Nebraska), so fresh from the diverse beauty of sand hills, ranches, and plains dotted with cattle, rolls of hay, and old wooden fences I was struck with the absolute desolation as I crossed a border town that fit the very definition of “ghost town,” yet was populated. There must have been about fifty Native Americans laying around abandoned storefronts, under the shade of trees, and pretty much anywhere out of reach from the oppressive sun of the plains.

I then headed east to Pine Ridge, which was equally depressing and looked exactly as I had seen it five years ago. Then it was Wounded Knee, stained with history and sparsely populated with Native American vendors selling homemade items like necklaces, dream catchers, and drums (drums representing the heartbeat of the Lakota nation). Thankfully this time there was no bus full of Christian missionary kids running around the cemetery, leaving behind candy bar wrappers and other trash. Likewise, I didn’t notice any plastic bottle caps placed disrespectfully on the graves; where things like rocks and flowers were placed on memorials, I personally witnessed some bastards who, last time I was there, paid their “respects” by arranging garbage on the stone of Chief Big Foot.

I spent a few hours on the reservation, and dragged it with me when I left. Not an easy day. I arrived in Rapid City later that night, having more reasons to feel weary than I’ve had since Indiana. Fortunately, when I arrived at the place of my host Chris, there were five other guests that night; a girl and her uncle from Germany, a biker (road bike racing) from Florida, and two guys from Seattle. We spent the evening together wandering around downtown Rapid, checking out the shops, art scene, and concert that was being held that night in a street. This was the first night that I’ve had an actual place to stay since I left Pennsylvania, and I felt energized from the recent release from the slight but steady monotony of driving, as well as from the impending rest I was going to get. I had traveled 2,253 miles in four days, and this was the first night that I had an actual, arranged place to stay. I felt rejuvenated, and I hadn’t even relaxed yet; one good night like this would be enough to get me to the pacific coast.

With my host Chris’s enthusiastic permission, I decided to stay for a few days and experience Rapid, the first city I’ve really come to that I had spent more than six hours in. A day digging the western feel of the place, its people, the awesome climate (described as a “mountain climate” according to an acquaintance I made in a coffee shop), and its close proximity to the ominous, enigmatic Black Hills was the kind of engagement with the land I so sorely needed after passing most of it by at seventy-to-eighty miles an hour (see Wendell Berry’s essay “An Entrance to the Woods” ).

A day of that got me ready to travel again, only this time east, and over the comparatively insignificant distance of two hundred miles. Within two and a half hours I was pulling up to a farmhouse on the edge of the Missouri, under a red blanket of dusk and through the slight invisible fog of river-born humidity. I talked for a few hours with a person who held the extreme opposite of my views on practically every aspect I can imagine, save travel. So we agreed on travel, and two hitchhikers from Minnesota who were also staying there that night agreed upon its sublimity.

The next day I stopped by Chamberlain, a place I wouldn’t have gone had I not been curious about a string of coincidences that have been set in motion months ago. I had been looking for a Medicine Man, asking around the reservations and anyone I thought who might know one. While in Chamberlain, I asked somebody who worked with Saint Joseph’s Indian School if he knew of any, and he said he knows lots of people who call themselves medicine men, but only one true Medicine Man—the only thing is he lives two hundred miles away. I got his number, called him, and he agreed to meet with me later that afternoon at his home tucked away on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He told me to bring some tobacco so that we can sit out by a tree, smoke a pipe, and talk.

So the meeting with the Medicine Man was the only real experience I’ve had thus far on my trip; I’ve found everything to be what I expected it to be, and that is some stylized, commercialized vision of the west as some tourist trap, much like the Wild Bill shows held a century ago. My meeting with him lasted for a few hours, and it wasn’t at all like I anticipated a meeting with a Medicine Man to be for the first hour (save for the fact that he had a wolf for a pet and lived at the foot of a burial mound), but as we kept talking he became more and more enlightening and everything he said grew in importance. I won’t go into the details of our conversation, but by the end of it he gave me his blessing in Lakota and offered for me to come back before the summer’s over so that he can assist me in a vision quest once his sweat lodge is built—the details of which are complicated and personal. He told me what I’m doing now is a vision quest.

That was the most important experience I’ve had thus far, and the only thing that’s proven to be authentic. What’s more, it furthered my growing realization—a realization everyone innately has but maybe doesn’t exceed the rank of ‘suspicion’ in some—that all preconceived notions of people, places, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, are absolutely meaningless in the face of genuine experience.

1 comment:

  1. The last paragraph in itself is beautiful, almost an exerpt from a spiritual autobiography. I think that description really says it all. It's the kind of realization you should be having on a trip like this. Kudos on this post...

    As for the Wendell Berry reference, does that mean you've read it!?!