I travel a lot for my job. I work with my parents leading bicycling vacations for folks all around the United States. (PAC (Pacific Atlantic Cycling) Tour ) This week my family and I left Wisconsin to start a trip on the west coast. We are Seattle bound.
Driving Interstate 90 through Minnesota and South Dakota always makes me feel a little funny. Between the billboards for Wall Drug and Petrified Forests, between barbed wire fences and munching cattle, between exit ramps and entrance ramps and gas stations and rest areas, I can’t stop imagining life on the plains for people and creatures of the past. Not long ago were these rolling hills covered with prairies and the cultures that thrived upon it. I suppose a different culture is still thriving on its fertile grounds, but I am nostalgic for a time when the land was respected and worshiped, recognized as a great giver and given back to with thanks and praise.
I took a class on American Indian Studies when I was a senior in college that turned my worldview on its head. It introduced me to Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota scholar and writer, who described a world where people talk to rocks and plants… where animals are relatives… In addition to learning about cultural and literal genocide, disease, massacres, and prejudice, I learned about the hope within native communities in upholding their traditions and refusing to become archives and artifacts on the shelves of history. After 500 years of destruction and devastation, indigenous people in our country are still alive and active, and continue to teach respect, peace, and equality to those of us who are able to listen.
I slept next to the Missouri river last night, thinking about Louis and Clark in their months spent creeping across the rivers of the western frontier. I covered 700 miles in one day with my minivan and a cooler full of vegetables. Today I zoomed past the exit to the Badlands, sending my prayers to the souls of those who perished in the cold winter of 1890 at Wounded Knee. I saw the exit to Pine Ridge Reservation and recalled my teacher telling us about the extreme poverty faced on the res. I made a resolution to come back here and spend some time on Pine Ridge. The closest I got was with my radio. I discovered a Lakota FM station and listened to a woman talking about the role of women in her community, encouraging values such as hospitality, kindness, busyness (not being lazy), and sacrifice. She spoke in both English and Lakota and gave many hellos to her family and her elders. I cried out of gratitude for this woman sharing her story, language and heritage, for the radio station for broadcasting such beautiful words, for common people defiantly embracing language of love and peace.
I made it to the Black Hills. I know these hills are sacred and the battle over land rights continues to this day. I was blessed to find myself among the pine forests and rocky cliffs. A man at a visitor center recommended I go to Spearfish Canyon to stretch my legs in the wilderness, to soothe my mind after hours of driving. I picked a trail on a map and wandered down a potholed forest road to find the trailhead. Gradually my footsteps led me further and further from the sounds of cars crunching on gravel. In the next moment, the only sound around me was wind, birds, trees, squirrels, Black Hills.
A line from the radio program jumped out at me. The woman was talking about humility and letting go of the “I” – “I did this, I did that…” I remembered the night before when a girl at the campground was distracted by a bracelet on my wrist and remarked at its beauty. “I made it.” I cringed at the memory of taking credit for the set of miraculous circumstances which included a whole group of people who organized a retreat I had attended, my teacher who had selected and purchased the beads and explained what a Mala bracelet was, and all of the teachers who came before her who had explained the significance of how to use and make a Mala bracelet. I decided to let go of “my” beautiful Mala creation as an offering to the Black Hills, to its people and to our future.
I heard thunder in the distance and recalled my mom telling me on the phone earlier that big storms were coming later in the afternoon. I waited until I was sure that the thunder was indeed getting louder before deciding to turn back. I looked around for an altar on which to make my offering. A large stone set off of the path facing the oncoming storm and proved to be a perfect place to leave my gift. I set my bracelet on the stone and said my prayers to my grandmother rock, to my ancestors, to all beings in the Black Hills, to all beings everywhere, and to the entire Earth. I offered some water to the rock and to the moss growing upon the rock and took some water for myself. I ran back down the trail as the thunderhead approached and made it back to the road just as the rain started to fall. I came across a car with a man, woman, and a dog and asked them if they were going my way – would they be able to give me a ride to my car, a mile further down the road? “How badly do you need to get there?” the man asked. “Well, it’s only raining…” I responded. The man climbed in his backseat with his dog and the woman drove us back down the hill to my car. The man told me to be careful 3 times as we said goodbye and I thanked them for their generosity.
I am so grateful today to know there are beautiful forests and beautiful people in this world. I am hopeful that with more generosity and love, the world will continue to grow and flourish. Thank you to my mother and father for giving me the greatest gift of all – life, as well as the gifts of kindness, education, and opportunity to travel and learn from so many people and lands I have met in my lifetime. Thank you to my grandparents and all of my elders who teach me patience and joy and remind me that every day is a gift. Thank you to my cousins and friends for offering me brotherly and sisterly love that I would not trade for the world. I also thank myself for allowing the time to reflect on these feelings and experiences and committing to writing them down.
A line from a prayer at my most recent retreat comes back to me often when I am walking, “Oh, that I might be a light unto the world.”