A trip worth making for the surge of creativity one experiences, says K.V. Krishnan on his visit to some mystic destinations in the US.
I was on sacred territory stretching for hundreds of miles. Here, native chiefs and war heroes alike would have drifted to solitary lakes and towering mounds following Nature's mystic cues to perform rituals to realise life's true meaning. This was an ideal setting for such a mission — here loom majestic buttes and secret forests, surreal wastelands of cretaceous origins and vast plains where once roamed Oligocene behemoths, ancient mammoths and thundering herds of buffalo.
One summer morning, we drove from the bustle of Denver towards northeast Wyoming. I could make out the weird stump of Devils Tower from a distance. An odd formation geologically known as a laccolith, 1,267 feet of angry stone had been pushed up from the bowels of the earth millions of years ago. The megalith of grayish stone called phonolite porphyry clumped into huge columns loomed vertically over the Belle Fourche River amid a forest of spruce and ponderosa pine.
Revered by several native tribes over generations, legend has it that a brother and seven sisters were once playing on the prairie. Suddenly the boy was transformed into a fearsome bear that chased the sisters who started scrambling atop a tree. The animal relentlessly clawed its way up in pursuit and miracles of miracles, the tree soared up to the skies, turning into a stony behemoth reaching for the heavens. Wise old men say that the seven sisters are the Pleiades that glimmer down Devils Tower — known as Mato Tipila or the Bear Lodge — from the night sky. Stories run of arcane vision quests and Sun Dances when tribes congregated at the base of the mountain, and embarked on a voyage of self-introspection and spiritual journey.
“What is there on the top?” is always a curious question. Popularised by Steven Spielberg's “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, the flat summit is apparently the size of a football field shared by chipmunks, mice and the occasional snake that seems to have no problems slithering to the top. I could see a few climbers dangling their way up the vertical cliffs on their way up above. An average climb takes about five hours, a feat surpassed by one Todd Skinner in 1980, who manoeuvred his way to the summit using bare hands and feet in 18 minutes!
A three-hour drive brought us back to Rapid City in South Dakota. The following afternoon we drove 23 miles north to hallowed Bear Butte. We passed Sturgis, home of the world-famous motorcycle rally where every July the roar of Harley Davidson bikes rumble through town. The skies loomed ominously dark gray as we neared the hump-like formation, and we soon spotted the bison herd that roams the plains below the mountain. Legend goes that the bear of Devils Tower took rest here, sleeping on its side after its fruitless pursuit. A shower of hail quickly dismissed any hopes of doing the 90-minute climb to the 1200-ft summit. I saw a descending group of pilgrims with prayer ribbons, tying cloth bundles to the branches as a mark of worship.
Artifacts dating to over 10,000 years ago have been found scattered in this area. Legends run of an ancient Cheyenne chief, Sweet Medicine, who received divine commandments and four arrows at the summit of this mountain. In a later convention of the Indian Nations in 1857, the Sioux chief Crazy Horse is said to have incited a major revolt against the occupying US forces in a bid to reclaim sacred Indian lands.
A 45-minute drive east of Rapid City brought us to a sight I wasn't mentally prepared for — here the mighty rawness of Mother Nature exposes a rugged beauty that changes by the moment. The Badlands National Park spreads over 244,000 acres of harsh landscape with spires, pinnacles and buttes jutting from an endless prairie — this could have been Mars or the Moon for all I cared. Every changing ray of the sun seemed to light up a different smile to those curious formations awash with blues, purples, yellows, and reds.
Over 60 millions of years ago these lands were covered by a vast ocean that had dried up over the eons, leaving layers of rich fossil sandwiched between shale and other deposits. Lush tropical rainforests that had taken the place of these waters too vanished with time letting wind, water and the elements sculpt rocks into inconceivably eerie formations. Evidenced by fossils that keep cropping up here, ancient monsters walked upon these lands where today only stark barrenness abounds. Ancient Paleo-Indians, the Arikara and the Sioux looked on in perplexed awe at the dreaded Badlands or the Mako Sica — this timeless miracle of Nature where tribes performed their hamblechia or vision quests by several sacred buttes. Not far from the Badlands is Wounded Knee, and its horrific memories of the 1890 carnage when the US Cavalry butchered over 300 men, women and children who were being moved to another reservation against their will.
We packed our bags and moved to quaint Keystone — there were a lot more of the Black Hills to explore from a different vantage point. A mere ten-minute drive away is the world-renowned Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Four Presidential faces — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — have been immortalised for posterity upon the faces of the mountain by Gutzon Borglum and his handy 400-man crew. Between 1927 and 1941 these workers blasted away at the rocks, creating these majestic 60 foot-high carvings depicting the first 150 years of American history. Evidenced by the model preserved in the Sculptor's Studio I realised that the work of art was never completed because of insufficient funds. A little known fact is that this mountain once known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota Sioux was a landmark in the spiritual quest of the shaman Black Elk that took him all the way to nearby Harney Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota.
The Crazy Horse Memorial, dedicated to the Sioux spiritual chief and warrior by the same name is a bolder venture just a 30-minute drive away. Considered the largest sculpture in the world, only the face has been partially worked into the mountain face. One day, the ranger added it will be transformed into an oversized warrior gallantly astride his steed, pointing his hand at all those lands snatched away from the Indian Nations.
The glimmering secrets of nearby Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park are but a short drive from these lands. At 150 explored miles and counting, Jewel Cave today ranks as the second-longest cave in the world. Here lies secreted a world deep in the earth's womb, glittering with calcite crystal formations known as popcorns, flowstones and delicate strands of gypsum. Accidentally discovered by brothers who stumbled upon the natural entrance at Hell Canyon in 1905, it has now been charted beyond the one-mile trail to what it is today.
After the one-hour cave trail, it felt good to come up to the surface. The call of the prairie was far too bewitching to ignore and we headed out to nearby Custer State Park. At over 71,000 acres, this place was teeming with natural beauty — from the vast plains where buffalo thunder in large herd, the gait of the fleet-footed pronghorn antelope, the loom of the Needles — vertical slabs of granite that loom in the landscape or the quiet beauty of Sylvan Lake, where Chief Crazy Horse followed a magical red-tailed hawk on his vision quest. The squeaky bark of prairie dogs darting in and out of underground burrows in their large colonies was interspersed by the caw of a stray raven as we did the un-missable 18-mile Wildlife Loop around the park. Not native to this area, wild burros — almost, since their forefathers were busy lugging visitors atop Harney Peak — are often seen here stopping cars, begging for food, so relentlessly that one bolder beast tried to chew through my car window to get at the luscious carrots my daughter had saved for the next feeding frenzy.
I was too wearied to climb up the hallowed summit of Harney Peak — someone warned me that it would be only a moderate seven-hour climb. From atop one takes in the landscape as far as the eye can see — rolling prairie, lush forests and rugged lands. Black Hills was so called because the dense mottle of the trees gave a dark tint to the mountains, viewed from afar. Ancient Paleo-Indians walked these lands followed by the Arikara and several other tribes till they were driven out by the Sioux. The quest for gold was really started by General George Armstrong Custer in the late 1800s, which led to a massive gold rush, trampling over native sentiments through trickery, treachery and greed, till these lands were eventually taken over by the US government. A recent ruling in 1980 offered a monetary reparation to the Lakota, which to date they haven't accepted since they believe these were their sacred lands in the first place, and that is the only thing they want in return.
It was a packed week as I took a flight out of Rapid City back home. Peering out from my window seat, I noticed we had just passed those grassy plains and lush forests and were drifting into the stark expanse of the Badlands all around.
I had realised Sacred Paha Sapa or hallowed Black Hills indeed was a land of contradictions. With the touristy bustle of Wall by the quietude of Badlands, or the jingle-jangle of the Deadwood casinos and the roar of motorcycles by the muted prayers in Bear Butte, or those Presidential faces looking down from once-hallowed mountains, these Hills seem to be steeped in contrast, even as those dark trees upon these mountains.
Little known to General Custer and his hordes who ravaged these lands in quest of yellow metal, shamans and the ancient peoples before them had cherished not the endless lodes of gold that seeped from Earth's innards, but that sacred throb that let them continually relish an indescribable world beyond.
I drove 400 miles up from Denver (which was the most convenient base), approximately 6-1/2 hours to Devils Tower in Wyoming. From Devils Tower I drove 120 miles to Keystone, stopping at Vore Buffalo Jump and Mammoth Discovery Site before winding down for the evening. Though there are some low-budget motels here, vacation rentals are the best option in Keystone or Hill City while Rapid City has an assortment of hotels one could choose from.