This is about returning a family heirloom, an artifact from Little Big Horn, to the Oglala Sioux.

7/3/11

To The Descendants

Northern Plains Indian War Club
War Club From Little Big Horn

One of the reasons we are going out west is to hand over to its rightful owners an Indian war club.  It has been in my family’s possession for a few generations.  I first remember holding it as a young child – a long, leather-wrapped handle attached to a smooth, sharply oval white stone about 7 inches wide.  As I thwacked into my palm, it had a spring to it, and I could easily imagine its power as a weapon.  The story from my father was that it came from his grandfather who was a surveyor for a while.  He worked on a job at Little Big Horn, where he found the club.  A lot of family information is unreliable, but I know that it’s possible that the story is true.  As I learned about the battle and the history of the Native Americans, the artifact’s beauty became even more powerful, and it seemed strange to me that it was in our hands.  A few years before he died, my father asked me if I would like to have it, and I said yes, very much.  It was a true treasure.  But it was also a story that begged resolution.  When I told him that I would like to give it back to the Indians, he said that I would have to wait to do that.  After he died, his wife gave it to me.

It’s been a meaningful experience for me to hold it over the years, to gradually connect to the people who made it long ago, and to realize that there are people alive now for whom the club is a family heirloom with a deep and important history.  The Northern Plains tribes fought long and valiantly to hold on to their homeland and way of life. This may be one of the weapons used in a rare and great victory.  It was at the Battle of Little Big Horn that they defeated an enemy hell-bent on wiping them out – Custer and the U.S. Cavalry.  For the sons and daughters of its makers this club may be an inspiring reminder of their tribes’ fierce resistance to injustice and annihilation.

This trip started as a longing to return to Montana where my mother’s father had a ranch, but I soon realized that going to that area would bring me very close to Little Big Horn.  I could personally hand the club over to its rightful heirs.  We took pictures of it and tried contacting the Peabody Museum at Harvard, aware that they had organized a massive repatriation of artifacts from their collection to some western tribes.  No reponse.  We started doing our own research.  Looking on line, it was evident that the club could have been made a number of tribes – Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho – who were present at the battle.  We decided to contact tribal representatives ourselves. We have contacted a tribal representative of the Oglala Sioux and hope to set up the return.

7/12/11

Pine Ridge Reservation, The Home of the Oglala Lakota of the Sioux Nation

Pine Ridge Reservation, The Oglala Lakota Sioux

Pine Ridge Reservation, The Oglala Lakota Sioux

After an early morning walk out into the sere landscape of the Badlands, we started our drive to the visitors’ center at White River on the Pine Ridge Reservation to begin the process of handing over the War Club.  It was a small building with a tepee set up outside, and the flag of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation flew overhead.  To the attending ranger inside I explained what I had – the War Club from the battle of Little Big Horn (the Greasy Grass), and asked where we should take it.  The ranger, Sally O’Rourke, directed me to another ranger, M. J. Bull Bear, explaining that he was the son of a chief, and that they were officials of the tribe, with connections to the Oglala College and Heritage Center.  We brought it into their office, where they had carefully cleared one of the desks and brought out latex gloves in order to handle it.  A third ranger joined us while Mr. Bull Bear opened the box and lifted it out.  One of them noted that the stone was most likely Black Hills Alabaster.  I was quietly brimming over with emotion.  This was a treasured piece of identification that may link the club more certainly to the area tribes.  The rangers were very quiet, very curious, respectful.  As they looked it over, one chuckled, asking if there was any blood on it.  There was a small terra cotta colored line on it – they said it might be iron oxide, which had been used for paint back in the day.

The skull cracker: Black Hills Alabaster, with a smudge of red

The skull cracker: Black Hills Alabaster, with a smudge of red

They asked me to write a brief explanation of what I knew about it – my great-grandfather found it while on a surveying job on the Little Big Horn battleground; it must have been sometime around 1885; it stayed with our family until I inherited it; and here it is, offered humbly to its rightful owners.  We printed it out, and they asked me to sign it, which I did.

Sally O’Rourke spoke movingly of how rare it is, to get something back like this.  She described a recent Pow Wow where a descendant of one of the U.S. cavalry survivors of Little Big Horn presented the assembly with the medals the army had awarded his ancestor for that battle, saying that those medals weren’t deserved.  M. J. said that since the the repatriation act, many objects have trickled in and are now on display at the college and used to educate tribespeople and the general public about native history and culture.  I was very glad that we’d brought the War Club here.

I told them that the club had been very important to me, as I learned more about it, about the culture of the Indians, and the their battle for survival.   Sally said it was an odd feeling, to have this come back.  She welled up, as did I.  We took pictures and traded contact information.

The War Club comes home.

The War Club comes home.

Mark and I walked out of the office to look around and when we came back M.J. was holding the club like a baby, a living and fragile thing, as Sally was wreathing it with the smoke of some sage smoldering in a shallow stone bowl.  She approached us as we stood in the doorway and fanned smoke around us, too.  They said they were smudging the club.  Its owner was a spirit, and he had been looking for it.  They were purifying it for him.  They purified all of us there.

They wondered if my great grandfather had been a surveyor for the railroad.  They showed us an 1890 map of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud area produced by the Army Corps of Engineers which showed the F E and M Y RR snaking up around the Little Big Horn.  I’ll do some more research on my ancestor with that in mind.  He might have been in the army corps of engineers, for all I know.  The rangers said that so many German and Irish  immigrants joined the army to get a leg up in those days – not so different from many families now.  On my father’s side, my ancestors came over in that same wave, from Denmark and Britain, and spent some years on the northern plains.

The third ranger gave us a lot of very interesting information as he showed us around the many photos and displays .  We saw pictures of many of the men we have read and heard about, including Sitting Bull and Spotted Eagle.  There are no photos of Crazy Horse – just vivid stories of his brilliant leadership, tactical and moral.  He never signed a treaty with the U.S.  A treaty stems from a mutual recognition of conflicting rights.  There was no conflict in Crazy Horse’s mind.  The Indians’ territory was theirs, always had been and always will be.  The U.S. army lured him to one of their forts under the pretext of talks, a truce, and stabbed him in the back.  He was dead at age 30.  The ranger said that the Sioux were the only nation that ever defeated the U.S.  Crazy Horse and the northern plains nations were formidable warriors.

As they talked, the theme of betrayals and hostility as a matter of United States policy sounded again and again – the  annihilation of the buffalo, the Sioux economic base; Sioux couldn’t vote and their religion was illegal until very recently; and alcohol, brought in by whites, demoralized, destabilized and shredded the social fiber.

Just before we left, M.J. said good bye and walked out, gingerly carrying the club, repacked and sealed up.  Sally recommended a good route through the rez.  The other ranger pointed to the map and said, “That road is holy.”  He looked slyly at me.  “Full of holes.”  Since we were continuing down to Wounded Knee, Sally suggested that we stop in for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen.  She told us that Bette operated a nice lunch place.  And that she was Black Elk’s great-granddaughter.

Bette's Kitchen

Bette’s Kitchen

Bette’s place was perched on a grassy hill with a big kitchen garden and tables under pine-bough covered arbor.

Mark peruses the menu at Bette’s Kitchen

It was hot, so she had us come inside to have our meal of buffalo burgers and fries – delicious.

Tasty buffalo burger and fries

Tasty buffalo burger and fries

Her youthful grandson graciously waited on us, and Bette came over mid-way through to have us sign her guest book.  A dozen or more people had signed just the day before.  She makes very good food and does a good business.  She was a slight, elderly woman with a long and narrow face.  Her hair was curled and long.

All over the walls, were family pictures, many in traditional dress, many on horseback, many in military uniform.  On a little table to the side was a collection of books about Black Elk.

Bette’s walls were covered with family photos

As we finished our burgers, Bette came over and gave us some fresh carrot cake, on the house.  It was high and tender, not too sweet, with a strong taste of clove.  Again, very nice.

While we were there a young woman came in, chatting with the family as her children played outside.  She and the little ones spoke what I assume was Lakota. The children’s faces were as broad as little moons.  We glimpsed her again a couple of days later at the trail head at Harney Peak in the Black Hills, the sacred center of the Lakota universe, where Black Elk had his life-changing vision.

We went on to Wounded Knee – let the pictures suffice for an incredibly moving experience –

Mark at the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial

Mark at the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial

Offerings to the dead of Wounded Knee

Offerings to the dead of Wounded Knee

Leonard Peletier, Imprisoned Hero of Pine Ridge

“War Hero” – Leonard Peletier, Imprisoned Hero of Pine Ridge

You will never be forgotten

“You will never be forgotten”

As we drove back a huge cloud mounted up ahead of us in the otherwise crystal blue sky.  We could see the dark sheet of rain beneath it.  When we got back, the wind had dragged kettles off the table, and even turned our stove sideways.  Still, in the distance, stood the magnificent cloud, glowing more and more in the evening light.  I couldn’t help but think of another time a cloud like that presented itself.  We were at Black Lake in our kayaks, watching the eastern sky.  There it was, a monumental cloud reflecting the intensifying light from the west.  It really struck a deep chord.  I remember saying to Mark that it made me think of gratitude – how it wells up inside, and is really a reflection of somebody else’s light.  A couple of days later, I got word that my father was dying.  I spoke of that bright cloud, that gratitude at his funeral.  As I watched that cloud after our day in Pine Ridge, I thought again of gratitude.

I am thankful for the turn of events that brought me to this point, and honored to be the one to carry out a simple return of a simple, yet very important object.  It was a very big wheel that had to turn to get to this point, and I think many people helped to turn it.  I thank the Oglala Sioux for their continuous struggle for the dignity of human beings who live on, and of this earth.  I may live a very different life, but I am certain that their well-being is fundamental to mine.  I am deeply grateful to them.

The cloud appeared as we left the rez

The cloud appeared as we left the rez

The Cloud lit from within

The Cloud lit from within

That night the wind blew so hard that the tent was almost flat on top of us.  In the distance I saw the cloud, still in the same place, lightening flashing unceasingly beneath it.  It didn’t rain.  Black Elk described the Thunder Beings visiting him when he finally carried out his vision, enacting it with his tribe.  The cloud visited him with lightening and a great, purifying wind.  He wasn’t afraid of the cloud anymore.

The rangers said they would let us know what happens with the club, and we said that we’d send the pictures, and whatever else we learn about how it was found.  After spending a couple of wondrous days in the Black Hills – I’ll write about that later – we visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield.  There, in a display case in the visitors’ center was a war club, the twin of the one I had just brought back:

As we drove toward Wounded Knee, I realized with a clear jolt something should have been plain all along:  I gave them back their war club.  I want them to keep fighting.  However they choose to do it,  I want them to stay strong and keep going.  For our human dignity.

Sioux horses at Pine Ridge Reservation

Sioux horses at Pine Ridge Reservation

Next Up:  The Black Hills, The Center of the World

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Our joy ride had a life of its own.

We left Chicago and powered through the rust belt.  We slid into home, to Cambridge, but couldn’t stop…the game had changed and they didn’t tell us…we were waved on…heck, the brakes wouldn’t hold!  Despite all our intentions, we kept going east, only stopping when we got to the farthest reach of land curling into the Atlantic.  And then, we ran out of the car and jumped into the water.

And so it was that we skittered through Cambridge and on to Cape Cod.  Somebody said, “That was good thinking,” congratulating us on our wisdom in keeping our grand hippy honeymoon alive.  I had to demur – thinking was not at all a factor.  No thinking, no wisdom except that of our bodies that said, keep going, keep sleeping outside, the ocean is near, the tender beauty of Cape Cod is only the skip of a stone away.  It wasn’t my intellect working as I took out my laptop within hours of opening our front door to try to nail down a couple of nights at the state campground in Brewster.

Jeremy Point


The Cape is where I was partly raised.  Every summer from the time I was five, my family went down to Wellfleet.  We stayed on Pleasant Point for a few summers, until my father bought land across Loagy Bay on Lieutenant’s Island, and built a house (a comic masterpiece), which we owned until I was nineteen.

Great Island, on the bay side, forms Wellfleet harbor

The pale sandy shoreline changes shape with every storm and tide, every winter completely transforming; the fragrant scrub woods of oak and pine and blueberries and bayberries and sweet pepper trees hold the hills together; and the waters are a miraculous convergence:  the peaceful bay, the powerful Atlantic, and the sweetwater glacial ponds. I don’t remember learning to swim.  I was always in the water.

The coastline is in constant flux

We ate steamers and oysters from the flats in front of our house, and the flounder we caught there and in Orleans.  Every Wednesday night, we drove in for the square dances in the Wellfleet town parking lot. Like everybody down there, our days were shaped by the tides, and we had our tiny local newsprint chart taped by the door, three columns, two rows: bay side/ocean side/phase of the moon, and high/low.  Low tide coming in was the best for the ocean, for the long waves good for body surfing. As the tide went out on the bay side we dug our clams and played endlessly on the flats.  Lieutenant’s Island road was underwater at high tide, posing a logistical challenge which we often did not meet.  We’d get stuck on the funky wooden bridge over the marsh channel coming back from the drive-in movies, with all of us kids laid out like sardines in sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon.  When my only-child father was especially crazed and restless and feeling trapped in a large and unfortunately noisy family of his own making, he grimly herded all of us into his fantasy boat, a big used wooden dory, painted orange.  Mostly he was up in town working, which was fine, while my mother took us kids for most of every summer, except for those years of our western adventures.

Camping, Conveniently

Relief to be living outside again

Our campsite was pretty and private and flat.  But it hardly mattered where in the campground we ended up, because it is close to everything that is good in life.  The ponds on the campground are as beautiful as any on the Cape.  No need to ever get in the car –  the Cape Cod bike trail touches on the campground boundary, and takes you quickly up to Nauset Beach on the ocean side. A five minute ride gets you to an exquisite bay side beach.  We had our lunches at a great burger joint run by nice people virtually next to the campground.

Civilization at its peak on the bay

Horseshoe crab in the shallows of low tide

Makeshift lee

We watched the tide turn at the marsh channel. The flow never pauses at the moment of change, like water sloshing side to side in a bucket.

We collected pebbles, as usual.

Catch and release pebble collection

Joy Can Lift A Whale Out Of The Water

One morning in March years ago I stood on a dune 300 feet over the ocean at Lecount Hollow in Wellfleet.   The summer cottages were still boarded up, and nobody was on the beach or on the path through the beach grass, anywhere.  I was alone.  The sky and the water were clear.  Light and wind played, and the ocean responded with sparkling immediacy, in huge sweeps – shivers and thrills of love.  Colors shifted, dark, light, blues and greens, over the timeless depths and distances. About a quarter mile up the coast and offshore only about 100 yards out I saw a puff of white – a spout! – and just under the surface, the massive shape of a whale swimming down the shore. It was so big that I had to reset my perspective again and again to comprehend the distance as it swam toward me.  For almost an hour I watched as the creature leapt up and out of the water again and again, twisting and flopping and crashing down and splashing in every way imaginable.  I was incredulous, and looked around for somebody to affirm this as real.   The whale moved with amazing speed and acrobatic grace, yet so impossibly huge!  I was alone but for this one fellow creature, and I stood watching as it danced with joy in the magnanimity of the ocean.  Nothing to do but let the reality sink in.

Letting it sink in

On The Road, Upwind

Our nomadic life of the previous six weeks had scoured away many extraneous concerns, like whether my hair was a greasy mess or my trousers splattered with mud.  A daily shower was a priority that I didn’t even notice dropping away. If I thought about it, I liked the idea of not smelling foul, but I couldn’t really tell until it was too late.  And Mark, in a unique position to know, was glad for my company and wasn’t talking.  So I arbitrarily drew the line at around five days for the full scrub. That timing also worked well with needing to go to a motel for wifi, to pay my bills and write my brains out. Being clean was a special treat, sort of like the lollipop that you get at the doctor’s office after a shot – the painful part being stuck inside a motel room for hours on end.  It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that hygiene was relative.  It took a cheerfully oblivious Pepe LePew.

Adieu, crapola!

Our little station wagon was piled high with stuff.  We had to place things carefully so we had an open alley for the rear view mirror to work.  There were things I thought I would need that just settled and sank lower and lower in the pile as we drove on, weighted by their uselessness.  Near the doors and back hatch, close to the top, were the things that we did need – whatever got us where we were going, and hiking without discomfort.  Food was easy to get to, right at the back hatch.  Boots and walking sticks were tucked just behind the seats.   And then there was “the hole”, a bag, low in the dead center, lightly covered, an arm’s reach beyond the cooler, that held the valuables that we needed in town – the laptop, for instance, and the carefully chosen maps arranged in order for our long itinerary.  The current maps, the ipod and all the chargers lived up front with a jumble of dark glasses, reading glasses, and a bag of chips.

Essentials at the ready

My tea kit floated to the top, but my watercolors sank and never came up for air.  The washcloth (A Modicum of Cleanliness, Gromit!), my tiny camera, thin wool socks – thumbs up.  Campstove, air mattress (when it worked) – –  Love you!  The thick synthetic socks, the novel, the extra pillow, the hat that couldn’t roll up into a ball, the $17 stainless steel travel mug, hair conditioner  – no, no, no, no, no and wha???  Mark says the guitar might have been a mistake, but for those half-dozen times that he took it out and played, it was heaven.

That old first-world “material” problem – too many things – shook down and settled in our funkmobile.  On the road to glory, you need only the bare essentials.  That goes for the road to Chicago, too.

The Chicago Manual Of Style

The Chicagoans we encountered downtown dressed with spare elegance, and well-tailored practicality. The one and only chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style was  “Let’s not get too fussy.  There’s life to be lived, for cryin’ out loud.” From the lovely, churchy outfit a spotted on one side of the downtown intersection…

Pulled together, snappy style

…To the perfectly tailored, sleek fellow on the other side…

Chic, cool, urbane

…we saw the under-the-radar confidence of Chicago.

Less is more.

Innocent Question In The Clouds

Years ago, at a particularly heated and formative moment for my generation’s political and sexual identity, I read Joan Didion’s essay about Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, “The Sky Above The Clouds”, and I wanted to love it. With airless precision (I wouldn’t want to live in her migraine-plagued head) Didion discussed the equation of style and character, and O’Keeffe’s singular courage and stature as a woman artist.  The essay led me to her work, for which I am very grateful.  Didion said it was a picture of glory – I liked that, and it stuck with me.  I thought about how important the apprehension of glory is to people, particularly people whose lives are pushed down, constricted and shoved around by social definitions and hierarchies.

Glory – The expansive power of something you sense to fill and stretch your being. The young are good at finding it because they are inevitably drawn to experiences that help them grow in mind and spirit.  That draw is part of what makes us human, it’s there from the get-go, and stays, if you let it, until your dying day.  Don’t you always yearn to cut loose find the pure glory of this world, and unbind the limitations of your self?

When I saw the painting in person at the Art Institute, I did like it.  A big broad canvas:  little clouds floating below, the viewer is a titan standing above it all.  The great distance is a sight to ponder, and it draws you in, and way, way out.

It’s a didactic painting, about the power of perspective, on where you may stand to get a view of the world.  Really it’s about the perspective of power itself.  O’Keeffe claimed an exalted vantage point as an artist, one usually reserved for men.  And in this painting, she spelled it out:  I am fully human, with an imagination as powerful as any.  Behold my realm!  The bold, essential feminist manifesto.

I love O’Keeffe’s body of work, and she is a cultural champion, in my book. But this painting has an evenness, a flatness that leaves me standing at the station, waving as the banner goes flying by. You go, Georgia!  It’s a portrait of a political notion, essentially a graphic, a poster. The only objects in the painting are the clouds, and they are reductive ideas of clouds, useful for describing a lofty viewpoint.  She’s claiming power, not describing the overwhelming beauty of clouds, the sky, the setting.  I think she misses the glory.

That’s ok, because her other works have glory to spare. 

She took such joy in her simple subjects, set buoyantly, spaciously on the canvas.  There is a thrilling question implicit in her flowers and New Mexican landscapes, adobes, and skulls – how can this be this so beautiful? That curiosity drove her in and around her subjects, relentlessly turning them in her mind as she came to understand them, never relinquishing the happiness she found in them.  Her work was a wedding of youthful, crazy love, unburdened by assumptions, and a mature and demanding eye that would not let her off easy in their depiction.  

The other O'Keeffes, the ones that move me, are deeply committed attempts to answer a very pure and human question: how come this object is so beautiful?

There is glory in those paintings, in both the subjects and settings, but also in the painter’s eyes.

The feminist manifesto is the claim that women are fully human.  Inherently women have no limits to their capacity, for instance, to be moved by joy and beauty, thrilled by glory, curious and connected to this world.  The innocent questions driving hard at the core of O’Keeffe’s best work are asked in order to understand nature, out there – what is this thing that moves me? – and within – what does this beauty, this glory look like to me?  Asked with enough commitment the answer yields something about the scope of our humanity.  She abandoned the question in the clouds, giving up, for the moment, a little bit of her enormous capacity as an artist, as a human, ironically in service to the politics of being fully human.

Would I see it differently if I’d never seen her wild and truthful, intensely modeled images of flowers and New Mexico? Maybe I would have expected less in terms of art and appreciated “The Sky Above The Clouds” more in terms of politics.  Instead, I wanted it all.  Great art and great politics.  My innocent question:  Why not?

So, thinking about style, let’s turn to fashion.  Down the hall in the Art Institute, there was a nice exhibit of Soviet posters.  They were fun.  Can we leave it at that?

Soviet Poster from the 40's: STYLE IS CHARACTER, BUSTER!

The Sage Of Allston

How can I think of art without missing my dear friend Bill Shea, who seemed to be able to wrap his head around this stuff so comprehensively, so easily casting such a wide intellectual net, with so much fun?  Some day, maybe, if I can come to terms with him being gone, I’ll gather up the story of the Sage of Allston.  No one individual of his many, many friends has the whole, grand story of Bill.  No one individual could keep up with his restless, expansive mind, though all of us, his crazily diverse network of friends and family, got a huge kick out of him.  He gave us so much, illuminated parts of life and parts of himself and ourselves with his brilliance.  He was extraordinary and I miss him, again and again and again.

What would he have said about O’Keeffe and Didion?  I’m sure he would have had me laughing…thinking…making all sorts of unexpected connections…laughing again.

Feathers On the Water, Clouds In The Sky

These huge swans were only 25 feet away from my kayak when they took flight. The big whooshing, beating sound of their wings alerted me to them.

Up at our place in northern New York this summer we paddled way, way out into the wild on the Black Creek.  A pair of huge snowy white swans took off in front of my kayak. One of their feathers floated down to the water beside me.

A souvenir from the wilds of Black Creek.

From a child’s perspective the magnificence of the world stretches out from wherever you might be.  My son made up a poem  – a song, he called it – when he was about to turn six.  We were out on the lake, and he was rowing our tubby little boat.  The twenty-mile stretch of water was still and reflective.  He looked up at the white clouds floating low over us:

The sky is the lake

And the lake is the sky

With clouds

like stepping stones to forever.

Like the swan’s feather I picked it up, and when we got back to the cottage, I wrote it down.

The Lake Is The Sky

Shining City

As I drove east into the maw of civilization, Mark was madly flipping through our AAA guidebook for places to stay in Chicago, dialing our old-school cell phone, and getting a lot of bad news.  Within the hour, he had gotten us the reservations we needed.  We got a great rate, with free parking (very rare), at a good hotel right on a direct subway line to downtown.  The city came into view, and we were about to take the experiences of the last six weeks and turn them inside out.  In Chicago, it is the work of people, not nature, that makes your jaw drop.

The glass, steel and concrete canyons of Chicago are the centerpiece of a proud city.  World over, architects compete to build their masterpieces there. In extravagant and meticulously planned display, the downtown is crowded with fabulous buildings.  Walking among them I was struck by how open it was, how inviting, despite the monumental scale.  Gorgeous parks amid the the massive structures lead to the sweeping shoreline of Lake Michigan.

We checked in and before I knew it, the unthinkable happened:

Call 911! Mark's ironing!

Mark prepared to Enter The City, like a matador donning his suit of lights, like a supplicant approaching the shrine.   Without a word, he found the iron and ironing board in the hotel room.  He took out his shirt, which had been jammed into a tight ball in the bottom of his duffle for six weeks, and pressed it.

When I came to, we set out to the urban trail head.

It was a hot and peaceful summer Sunday in the big city.  We threaded our way through downtown to Millennium Park.  The clouds, which had tracked us all the way from North Dakota, wrung out their sprinkles and downpours on families gathered in the splash pool.  Everybody was grateful for the cool – smiling, laughing, relaxed. As we walked towards the shore of Lake Michigan, we realized that a huge music festival was happening, right there in Grant Park, directly beside us.  Lollapalooza was going on – we passed three (I think there was a total of six) rocking stages.  Close to 300,000 fans stretched as far as we could see down the streets to our south.  It was utterly wondrous to us that Chicago could host such an enormous event, and easily accommodate a peaceful urban outdoor family scene, side by side.

In cities we live the collective life, the public life.  There personal identity blends with a kind of cultural self-awareness, openness and curiosity that defines cosmopolitanism. Here in Chicago public life has proud and central place.  The way that art – the play of imagination with environment – is woven into Chicago’s downtown is powerful and delightful.  It was best kind of sculpture park, really.  At the crux of all that design was the invitation to people – everybody – to come an play in it.  Making it all the more miraculous was the towering scale of it all.

Summer day, big city

The public art pulls you in...

Mark getting sucked into an alternate universe

A bloom of steel: Looking to downtown from Millennium Park

A giant marble run for people coming out of the city

A course through playful steel

Water spewed out of the image's mouth when it pursed its lips

Pa-tooey!

The next morning, we took a boat tour of the dramatic downtown canyons.  Chicago’s downtown is a whole, a unified piece of architecture made up of hundreds of buildings designed by at least as many architects, constructed over 150 years.   A beautiful collaboration that continues to grow and move and change.

Coming in from the lake, a grand and formal invitation

Craning up to take in the shoulder to shoulder spires

Sheer, gleaming heights

Dizzy double daisies: Somebody thought, "why not?"

An early urban homesteading project that helped revitalize the riverside

Darth Vader wants his HQ in Chicago, on the river. Any objections?

After our architectural boat tour, we started off to the Chicago Art Institute.  On our way we were treated to a free concert by two soulful bluesmen at the outdoor theater in Millennium Park.  The acoustics were great, as were the chops.

Great acoustics, great chops

Did everything good come out of Chicago?  In short, yes.

Chicago is like the college town that everybody wants to stay in because it nurtures all the good things about grown up life, city life.  Think of comedy, and the lingering allegiance of the greatest, smartest funnypeople of the last many years, starting with the Second City crowd (a big, rowdy, jostling crowd, at that).  Think of journalism, science, educational philosophy, and my favorite kind of theater, corrupt politics.  Who brought us that household word, “Blagojevich“?  None other than Chicago.

There Will Be A Next Time

Our next trip to Chicago will be a blues pilgrimage.  I can’t think of Chicago without a piercing, heart-stopping jolt of love of the music that came out of it.

For The Love Of A Wolf

When I first heard of Howlin’ Wolf it was 1965. I was talking to a couple of boys at a party about the Rolling Stones, who at that time were basically a very hot hybrid blues cover band.   I’d seen them that year in Worcester, Mass. where they’d done a great version of “Little Red Rooster” .  The guys said that if I was into the Stones, I would love Howlin’ Wolf.  They’d just been to his show, and were red-hot excited about him.  I remember feeling a shiver at that magical, scary name.   A fifteen year old white girl living a suburban cocoon, I doubted if I was ready to handle going to see somebody who stalked the full moon, for real.  I found Howlin’ Wolf’s music eventually, but sadly, never did get to see him.  I did see Muddy Waters, I did see Willie Dixon, but no Howlin’ Wolf.

Wolf was a big man, a lion with a sharp, eerie growl. He claimed his songs, many written by Willie Dixon, in a chilling rasp.  He was an all-out performer, who’d get down on his hands and knees to make his point to you.  Check this out:  “Smokestack Lightnin’”.

He was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910  in Mississippi.  Wolf boasted that he was the only one of the legendary Chicago blues cohort – including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, et al – to drive up from the south to the city at the wheel of his own car.   He’d already made the big time as a performer on the Delta blues circuit when he came to Chicago to record for Chess.

He was also an attentive and tender-hearted husband and father to two step-daughters, and a boss who found a way to provide a decent wage and even benefits to his band.  Chicago made room for this big man, this cultural giant.  More than that, Chicago invited him in and gave him a home, a stage, a microphone, and a community of performers that took American music up a notch.  Howlin’ Wolf died on January 10, 1976.  He’s buried in Chicago.

There will be a next time.

A city that turns to face you, at every angle

(I Can’t Get No)…

We were taking Interstate 90 all the way home now.  A thousand miles to go and it became apparent that getting something to eat was going to be grim.

A crow has to bring provisions to cross this 1000 mile stretch.

Did it start with the Romans in Carthage, or was it Sherman, on his march to the sea, who devised the “scorched earth policy”?  It’s a particularly shameful scheme in the ugly business of war:  Fighting a populace on their own land, you strip the resources – salt the land, slaughter the livestock, and burn the barns to cinders – in order to deprive the folk, or really, any creature at all, of the ability to find sustenance there.  They must move on to survive.  The invader empties the land and claims it, and gets to set the terms.  Stark and irresistible logic.

With fiendish thoroughness, the corporate behemoths of the food industry have bought up the corridor along the interstate, and scoured it of anything local, or interesting, or good.   It’s a no-man’s land of soulless kitchens, a lifeless artery that runs through some of the most fertile and beautiful farmland we’d seen.  Off every exit is a strip of food chains, malls and gas stations –all the same food chains, malls and gas stations – that sell bland, unhealthy, horrible food.  Nowhere to be seen are the small joints with somebody’s crazy idea of a burrito and homemade rice crispy bars.   I’m sure they exist, but too far off the path for us.  We were hostages of the road, stuck with Arby’s, Texas Roadhouse, McDonald’s, Denny’s, etc, etc, etc.

Interstate desert of lifeless food.

We couldn’t take the chance of driving down the road to find something good.  Who knows how far we would have to go?  We might have found ourselves 25 miles out on a lonely tangent, and still hungry.  We needed a Drinking Gourd Guide To Eating On The Interstate. (Maybe, dear readers, we should compile one.)  Instead we settled on the least familiar looking places we could find, hoping against hope that it was some local enterprise with something not-bad on the menu.  We were sadly mistaken every time.  We often ended up at Starbucks, where we would grab some burned coffee and drive our sorry, jittery selves on down the line.

Hapless travelers need gas, they need to pee, and they need food.   You need gas, you get gas.  A restroom can be clean or dirty.  Some have writing on the walls that might bring you down or lift you up on your quick (hopefully) way to relief.  Food is very different.  It can satisfy.  Or not.

Simple Expectations

We were spoiled, but maybe that’s not the right word.  Our expectations had been lifted to simple food, made with whatever ingredients we could find that seemed fresh, prepared in a kitchen that fit on one end of a picnic table.  Sometimes we were lucky to have a bear-box larder that served as pantry and kitchen counter.  We cooked with a thought to eating down our leftovers to the last bite.

Creekside table for two in Ennis. Handcrafted spoon!

Bearbox kitchen at Rock Creek campground

Simple, flavorful, sumptuous

Leftovers in a very cold refrigerator in the Bitteroot

Before we hit the big highway, when we ate on the road we usually found places that served up nothing fancy, but it was real, made right there, all the way.  No pre-packaged, premeasured, hyper-processed shredded suggestion of something that used to grow…somewhere…maybe.

Ontario lakeside breakfast joint - homemade bread, and real tea.

One rest room stood out.  In fact, of all the rooms, four-walls-and-a-roof-type places, my favorite was the women’s room in the Lake Superior Brewing Company.

Upper Peninsula chat room

Peace in the middle east

"Life's too short to be pissed off all the time - it's just not worth it"

"I love you with all my heart..."

Next up:  The Shining City

From a promontory over the Little Missouri River

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park is a rolling prairie where the Little Missouri River winds and cuts its way through the sage and red earth.  It is both an intimate and vast landscape, depending on the tilt of your gaze.  Close by, small hills and shallow bowls form little theaters where clusters of feral horses and bison graze.  Standing on a little promontory nearby we could see the undulating land stretch out to the horizon.

Wild horses grazing in a dip between hills

Mark walks out into the undulating land of Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Teddy Roosevelt fell in love with the area on a hunting trip in 1883, and and bought a spread.  For the next few years he raised livestock and hunted there.  He was a passionate naturalist, whose commitment to preserving the wild brought the conservation movement to the national stage.  It’s a beautiful piece of territory where prairie wildlife thrives.

The sky lets loose

The rain we brought with us

As we drove in from the west, we seemed to be towing a heavy curtain of rain from our tailgate.  Being at the edge of sun and rain, rainbows shimmered beside us for miles.  Sometimes we got caught in the skirts and had to stop to let the clouds get ahead of us again, so we could see the road ahead.

A traveling double rainbow

The campground of the South Unit of the park was a soggy mess.  We managed to get our tent up in a brief dry interval.  We watched our brave neighbors at the campsite somehow sticking it out – a family with three very young children, one of whom wasn’t quite walking yet.  Boots, strollers, umbrellas, sojourns into town – they had to pull out all the stops.  Their tent was in a lake.

Our site was relatively dry

We decided to drive the Loop Road around the park.  It was raining buckets.  Several times, we had to stop because we could see no road in front of us, just a sheet of water.  At one point a ranger drove up beside us and asked if we were ok.  He had heard there was a disabled vehicle on the road.  That would be us, I guess.  Blinded by the fire hoses aimed down at us from the sky.

We watched the hills eroding, melting in the deluge.  Muddy water flowed down the turrets of rock, into churning creeks, turning them a thick, light yellow under the dark grey clouds.  The streams overflowed their banks, up to the roads and out onto the pastures.  The topography was similar to the arid, pale badlands of South Dakota.  Here everything was soggy and the colors were deep and vivid.

Red mud streams down the hillside

We realized that this was the first time on our trip that we’d actually been drenched.   Only once before, on our first hike in the Beartooth, had we been rained on.  It lasted about an hour or so as we walked out of the trail, and we were dry by the time we reached our camp.  The sky had been saving up, apparently.

We got back to our camp and started making dinner under the screen tent.   The sky upped the ante and started hurling water balloons, which exploded through the screen.  Incredibly, the intensity increased, and we were pounded by hail.  We started laughing giddily.  Hail was threatening to rip through the tents, and mini pingpong balls of ice merrily bounced all over the ground.  We broke out the Grolier of beer we bought in Wibaux, and kept cooking.

May the buffalo always roam

The sound shook the hills - and me

A couple of hours later, some patches of blue opened and we hopped in the car again to have another go-round on the Loop.  It was good that we did.  This time we saw a couple of small herds of feral horses, and hundreds of prairie dogs.  And then we found ourselves right in the midst of a large group of buffalo.

The buffalo set the pace

Crossing paths with the buffalo was utterly amazing.  Seeing them up close, realizing their hulking size, took me aback.  Our little Honda station wagon, Nellie, was puny compared to the bulls.  Keeping a safe distance we got out, and the huge, deep, rumbling sound of the beasts –  a combination of thunder and a growl – made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  More than anything I’d ever seen or heard, the sensation was ominous.   The sun was setting as we inched our way through a herd that crowded across the road.   The bulls strutted their stuff – pissing and pawing and rolling in the dirt, sidling up to cows with calves pushing them along in one direction or the other, and coming head to head with other large bulls and curling their long black tongues upward.  We thought about Black Elk’s story of killing a buffalo on his own, without firearms, one devastatingly cold and hungry winter.  It seemed impossible.

We moved slowly beside this powerful creature, only about eight or ten feet away

These were the creatures whose near extinction inspired Roosevelt’s mission to preserve and protect the wild.

Looking into the face of thunder

It was still drizzling and misty the next morning, but we’d gotten through the night nice and dry.  Before leaving we drove out to an overlook at an oxbow of the Little Missouri, and my soggy heart overflowed.  We were about to cross the wide Missouri, as the song goes, and head back to civilization.  We were all packed up.  Next stop, Chicago.

…But, baby, how sad can you be when you know you’re going to Chicago?

Next:  Trekking the canyons of a great city

 

 


Looking back at Glacier from the Blackfoot Reservation

 

The Original Stewards

The Blackfeet Nation abuts Glacier all along the eastern border.  With the Flatheads, they were the primary stewards of those mountains from time immemorial, until the United States government hoodwinked it away from them in 1855 and 1895.  Today their entitlement to their ancestral home amounts to free admission to the park.

The mountains are entwined with their own natural history, and sacred to the Blackfeet.  The peaks and ridges that run along the continental divide from Two Medicine northward are the “backbone of the world”, logically enough.  The string of creeks and lakes form the belly, the digestive guts of the living earth.

In recent centuries, both the Flatheads and Blackfeet went to the mountains for ceremonial periods of renewal.  As the story goes, they each would designate a respected tribeswoman to go on vision quests to find the right location to build the medicine lodge.  One year the Blackfoot medicine woman came back knowing that it should be along the lake, and that the Flatheads should join them, and build their medicine lodge there too.   During that ceremony the tribes came to a concord that divided their hunting territory roughly along the continental divide, the backbone.  Two Medicine Lake and the surrounding area takes its name from that event.

A Story Woven Into A Belt

Horsehair, leather and silver

Before we started out on this grand tour I’d decided to get myself a western belt when we were in Montana.  Both sides of my family have roots there, and it’s nice to wear a little bit of family culture.  Right before we got to my grandparents’ ranch in ’61, my mother took us kids in to Bozeman to get outfitted with some western duds. She wanted us to be correctly attired for our arrival.  When she died I inherited a good cowboy-style belt from her that was now falling apart. As the trip unfolded, it seemed right to look for a belt on one of the reservations that we would visit.  A belt proudly crafted and fairly traded from a northern plains tribe would be an appropriate memento of the return of the war club and my family’s long connection to the area.

I looked in a number of shops in Missoula, where one would think such a thing would be easy to find, but no dice.  Mass-produced, made-in-China goods glutted the stores.  We happened to meet a woman there, a Blackfoot, who recommended stopping in Browning in the Blackfoot reservation as we headed eastward out of Glacier.  She gave us the name of a large trading post that carried all sorts of crafts made by area Native Americans.

The shop was huge, and we found medicinal red cedar bark, a bundle of sweet grass, a children’s book of a Native origins myth, and a shell in which to burn our sage.   I circuited the entire store but could not find one belt.  As I was looking at the very last display case, I saw two tucked away, each exquisitely decorated with dyed and woven horsehair.  The belts had been put aside because had they had given up trying to sell them.  They were an odd size – my size, as luck would have it – and mismarked.  I uncoiled one.  On the tag was the maker’s name, Armin Gallagher, who, the clerk told me, was Blackfoot.  It didn’t have a buckle, but it was perfect.   As we drove away, Mark told me he had a Navaho buckle that he’d gotten in the southwest years ago before we met, and that I should have it.

The belt clasps together a big, nourishing belly-full of notions of family and place and history and culture.  It’s beautiful, and keeps my jeans from drooping.

In my native costume

Howdy, Cowgirl!

Montana’s Lively Brew

Good beer could be hoppy or malty, light or dark, but the best is local and fresh.  Mark and I had scant hope that we would find much out west.  How pleasantly surprised we were!

Dark, chocolate-y Belgian style ale from New Belgium Brewery in Colorado

Out of Kalamazoo, MI, Bell's Amber Ale

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, our first camping stop, surprised us with a good selection of beer we hadn’t seen before, (Bell’s, New Belgium, and more), and a really good small brewery.  In Grand Marais we had dinner at the Lake Superior Brewery, a very convivial place with stupendous ale and stout.

Easygoing, family friendly UP brewpub

The Upper Peninsula did well, but Montana turned out to be a champion of microbreweries.  Starting with the Red Lodge Brew House on the eastern side of the Beartooth Wilderness, we began to see more and more local brews.   We noticed that even the gas station convenience stores carried a selection of Montana beers – often more than four types.  Across the state we found very good brews – Madison River, Bitter Root Brewing, and Harvest Moon.  Missoula alone is home three great breweries:  Bayern, Big Sky and Kettle House, whose delicious Cold Smoke Scotch Ale persuaded us that it was worth drinking beer from a can from time to time.  At the eastern edge of the state we stopped for gas in Wibaux (pop. about 480).  At the smaller of the tiny town’s two crossroads, was Beaver Creek Brewery, where we got a grolier for our dinner at camp in North Dakota. The ale was delicious.

Beaver Creek Brewery, Wibaux, Montana

How were we to know that Montana ranks #2 in the country for microbreweries per capita?  A good local brew is a thing of beauty.  Let’s raise a glass to Montana.

Hoppin' brewhouse in Hamilton, MT

Next:  Teddy Roosevelt and a close encounter with bison.

Turning Towards Home

It was hard to pack up camp that last morning in Glacier.  Every detail seemed laden with the special beauty of our whole trip.  The view of the mountains from our campsite would be the last view of the mountains from our campsite, and so on and on.  Many years ago, my friend Harvey was showing us slides of his backpacking trip around Montana.  He got to a close-up of a tree trunk.  He hadn’t mentioned where they were at that point, but I thought, “This is Ennis.”  I was right.  The bark, the colors, the moss all told a distinctive story to me, one that had taken hold a long time ago and stayed.  The details of Glacier were still sparkling with life, and taking root in me.

Fireweed in an aspen grove

The unfurling green of the spring that comes in late July

Flower among the ferns

Colors in the wet rock

From our campsite at dawn

I imagine we will come back.  We met many, many people there who are lifers.  One hiker, 80 years old, had started coming in the ’40s.  Generations of his family were with him.  His great-grandson, a college student who was walking beside his grandmother,  knew the park like the back of his hand.  On the trail to Iceberg Lake where we met them, flowers sprouted from the layered walls beside us.  As a plant wends its roots into the rock for nurturance,  people do, too.

Blue profusion of flowers

There is a place ingrained in us, in our minds and in our bodies, in our families and our communities, which requires a connection to the natural world.  It is a matter of survival.  Even as I sit in my kitchen in a crowded town very far away, in some very real sense, I am still there, and there is still in me.

Rooting myself in Glacier


The Waters of St. Mary’s

St. Mary’s Lake

Long, deep lakes were gouged out by the glaciers as they moved downward from the mountains.  On a roughly southwest/northeast axis, they form fingers stretching out from either side of the continental divide that runs along the north-south spine of mountains through the middle of Glacier National Park.  As we explored the east side of the park, we’d walked by the string of Two Medicine lakes to our south and the lakes coming from Swift Current Creek in Many Glacier to our north.  Our campground, Sun Rise, was between the two, next to St. Mary’s Lake.  St. Mary’s is almost ten miles long, and 300 feet deep, and the water, like in the other lakes of Glacier, is bright and opaque from the till that washes into it.

We took the trail that hugged the northern shore of the lake to Virginia and St. Mary’s falls.  It is a very popular hike – with many access points right along the heavily-traveled Going-To-The-Sun Road.  Here we encountered more of the drive-through visitors who craved a little taste of the nature they had been seeing go by their car windows.  The mood was merry and the walking was easy.  The moment the trail to the higher falls started to ascend, the crowds thinned out.  It was more peaceful – and the falls were more dramatic up there.

Ascending the falls

Virginia Falls: A wide and graceful veil of water

After seeing the falls, we headed back for dinner – a feast of pork chops, salad and fabulous Montana brew (best microbrews in the U. S. of A., no lie).  In the morning, were we going to Piegan Pass, our last hike in Glacier.

The Perspective From Peigan Pass  

Piegan Pass climbs up into the central point among three other hikes we’d taken:  It looks at the back of the rocky blade of the Garden Wall, on the other side of the High Line Trail;  It rounds Going-To-The Sun and Matahpi Peaks, which we saw from the Sunrift Gorge trail on the other side; and points toward Mount Gould and Mount Grinnell to the north, where we climbed the Grinnell Glacier trail.  We were going to a midpoint, a highpoint, to survey the amazing turf we had been climbing all around for the last week.

The walk started with a brief climb into the flat meadows of Preston Park.  Many of the hikers who’d gone there before us had been disappointed – the snow hadn’t melted, and the wildflower show was late, it was a slog through mud where the snow had gone.  By the time we got there, spring had come at last.

Preston Park

Forget-me-nots

Glacier lilies coming up 

The trail went on up.  We traversed snowfields and scree, but after the High Line trail, I was not easily rattled by vertigo.  I was offered an opportunity to appear to be a normal hiker, unafraid of falling – as big a victory as I could ever expect – by an encounter with a college student.  He told us that crossing the snowfields was really hard for him.  My heart went out to him, and inwardly I felt such relief that I was not, at that moment at least, in complete terror, and that I wasn’t the only one who grappled with such fears.

It was important to put fear aside and forge ahead on the high trails.  A good lofty vantage point can help you see where you’ve been and where you’re going.  Perspective is key to having a handle on your place in the world, in more ways than one.  It is a primal organizing principle for Mark.  Even in the middle of the huge swamp at Black Lake, he manages to find the tiniest foothold in the water and the muck to stand on for a look around.

Mark finds a patch of semi-solid footing in the huge Black Creek swamp in New York.

Mark wanted to go up to Piegan Pass to see  how our Glacier treks all fit together in a magnificent whole.  And being up high is thrilling in and of itself.

Getting up high at Piegan Pass

We rose to a close-up view of the mighty Garden Wall

Mark – the dot in the lower right – at the big saddle

Gould and Grinnell in the distance, Sunrift is far below us

I Didn’t Get Here On My Own

The what and the where stretched out around us.  It’s time to talk about the how, which is to say, the who.  For me, the trip took shape out of nostalgia for my grandparents’ ranch in Montana, a long desire to see Glacier, and the mission to return the war club.  For Mark, it was a chance to get back out west and into some wilderness.  He was a serious backpacker in the days before arthritis and frugal, kid-friendly vacations.  When I first met him, he was headed out west for a couple of months of hiking.  Such trips were a regular part of his life.  Thirty-plus years later, he has two new titanium hips, our sons are grown, and his teaching schedule gives him the summer.

Generosity

All winter he enthusiastically researched an itinerary that would work for us.  He had really dug in, so we always had alternatives when trails were closed for snow or bear, or a campground was full.  Or, when something was particularly wondrous, he knew other hikes, more ways to get in and enjoy it.  He has been the consummate guide, and the most considerate and fun traveling partner a person could ask for.  As magnificent as the territory is that we covered, our experience with each other made the journey immeasurably richer.

Every time a friend tells me of their love of a place, my own connection to nature is enhanced.  My friends have given me more to love about this world, and more interest and curiosity about it.  Over the years, I been very lucky to know an amazing cadre of committed hikers and defenders of nature based in Cambridge.  Their passion has spanned decades and taken them all over the world.  One of them is my neighbor, my dear friend, Bud.  Through him, through his words and photos, I’ve gone places I could have never seen for myself.  Bud encouraged us all along the way, gave us tips, and allowed us to feel ok about being away for so long, which is no small thing.

Another of the group of serious trekkers who gave us invaluable support is Harvey Halpern.   He is a wilderness photographer, a carpenter, and an indefatigable environmental activist.  The love of his life is Southern Utah, but he’s also explored Montana quite extensively.  Many times this past year Harvey brought over maps and information he’d carefully filed away from trips he’d made.  The best was the evening he brought over the journals from his treks in Glacier and read them aloud.  His well-crafted descriptions were very helpful in getting a feel for the places.  They were also simply beautiful.

Mark and I each have siblings who live in the west – his sister and husband live in Salt Lake City, my brother and his wife are in Albuquerque.  They all have refined the craft of car camping, and taken us along to stupendous places.  We took our inspiration and countless great ideas, from them.  They’d worked out the kinks of car camping so we didn’t have to.

Our wonderful sons held down the fort for us.  I wanted to see them so much as the weeks wore on.   Many times throughout the days I would think of them, seeing something I wanted them to see, or wanting to hear their take on what was happening.  I called them when I could, and each time my heart got stronger.

There were so many people who effectively put out their hands and helped me onto this trail.  I suppose I had to figure out on my own how to put the last of my insecurities aside when things got steep, after all was said and done.  But for everything else, from inspiration to the smallest practical detail, I got help.    I was lifted onto this expedition of a lifetime, and up to this high vantage point, by my extraordinary friends and family.

Sharing A Last Look

We lingered at the top of Piegan Pass.  We ate our lunch in the company of hoary marmots who scampered about, chasing each other and giving us the hairy eyeball.

This hoary marmot was 2 – 3 feet from tip to tip

As we turned to go, we stopped to watch a family of mountain goats climb the snowy mountain top beside us. In front of us, only twenty feet away, a mother ptarmigan and a couple of chicks dawdled on the rocks.  We stood there for fifteen minutes or so.  Mark was putting the binoculars back into his pack which was leaned up against some  dense, wind-flattened spruces.  From the dark hollow inside the trees came a huge, low, full-throated growl.  This was extremely close, and whoever it was, was very big.  Mark, true to his ever-inquistive, death-defying nature, leaned in closer.  As urgently and quietly as I could, I told him to pick up his pack and move out of there.  I am multi-lingual.  That growl meant, “Get out of my face, puny human.”

As we moved hurriedly down the trail we figured we had disturbed a mountain lion, by the sound of it.  We happened to have stopped to observe just what the lion was likely to have been watching, and maybe even tracking:  the mountain goats (with kids in tow) and the ptarmigan family.  We were in the way of its vantage point.

A mountain lion’s view of goats at Piegan Pass

Next:  Teddy Roosevelt in North Dakota

Beaver Pond/Red Eagle Trail 

Back at our campground, we had found a friend.  Robin is a biologist, a university teacher, who has had a decades-long relationship with Glacier.  She loves to hike on her own, yet avidly shares her discoveries and delights with the folks she encounters on the way.  Over dinner we traded recommendations: we told her to get herself over to the High Line Trail, and she urged us to take a wildflower hike down along St. Mary’s Lake.  After going to Grinnell, we decided to take her advice and go on the Beaver Pond – Red Eagle Trail for a feast of flowers.

A walk into the flowers

The trail started close by our campground at an old rangers’ station down by the St. Mary’s park entrance .  It wended through a forest burned years ago in a huge fire.  We were used to seeing a dense growth of lodgepole pines in post-fire environments, but for some reason, the forest floor remained open, and the flowers had taken over.

Pink Indian paintbrush

Fireweed, of course, and many, many other varieties grew in profusion.

The flowers almost seemed to group themselves by color.  On stretches of the path, magenta fireweed and Indian paintbrush grew together;  yellow alpine buttercup, asters and blanket flower mingled; and harebell mixed with the purple asters, lupine, and other purple and blues.  It was dazzling.

A blue bouquet

Purple asters and clover

The peak was just about to end and we were glad we to have gotten here when we did.  Some of the flowers had gone to seed – another phase of beauty.

Striped seeds

Gone to seed

But some of the white giants, the cow parsnip, elk thistle, and huge queen anne’s lace-like flowers were just opening up.

This flower was about four feet high

Mark walks through a stand of giants

Almost as tall as me

We rounded a small beaver pond, and came to an open field, where we sat for a while, taking it in.  We thought we had seen the maximum gorgeousness the trail could offer.  We decided to turn around.  We had planned on going on another hike, to St. Mary’s and Virginia Falls that day, and we thought we should keep moving.  When we saw Robin again she shook her head when we told her where we turned around.  “It gets better,” she said with a rueful smile.

Lolling in a field of flowers

Just so my to-do list remains endless, I intend to put together an album of the flowers we saw with the actual names.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Needless to say, the bear sign was utterly everywhere and as fresh as the morning dew.  So much bear-yummy food around here!  It is amazing how close you can be without seeing them at all.

Psst...we are not alone