My first shock was the realization that Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where I was to meet with Vincent Blackfeather, the medicine man, is south of the Badlands, and that it is 3 hours and 100 miles back there from Rockerville, where I have stopped for dinner. I’ve missed it utterly, and the realization has put me in a panic.
I head into town and call my friend Jim to ask his advice, and reach only his answering machine.
It’s dark now. What do I do? I’m very near Mount Rushmore; do I visit it in the morning, or now? Do I camp in the forest somewhere, or find a comfy-but-cheap bed in a motel? Do I go back to Kyle after doing the Black Hills circuit?
I feel like such a coward whenever I think of Vincent Blackfeather and the Ceremonial. I’m feeling stymied by the Unknown; it’s as if all my Christian upbringing is reasserting itself in the face of this rampant “paganism” I’m being drawn toward. But if I don’t see him, what will I miss? If I travel back all that way and go to the reservation, will Vincent even be there, since he’s not expecting me? Should I try and call him in the morning? If I’m able to talk to Jim after all, will he have the proper discernment for me, since my intuition seems to be on the blink? Should I throw an I Ching hexagram? Do a tarot spread? Pray?
So I have dinner at the Old West Town Saloon. It jarring how fakey it all is, like a tourist’s idea of an what an Old West town saloon might look like, but apparently it’s the only restaurant in town, since it’s filled with regulars now that the tourists have left for the season.
I eat my first buffalo burger. (It’s extremely lean and very dry and quite gamey. Not to my taste.) I journal a bit. Folks hereabouts uniformly wear plaid flannel shirts, jeans, and boots. People are totally western now; all trace of a midwest accent is gone. Two women chat about starting the truck in the spring, only to find that a mouse had carried dog kibble into the carburetor during the winter and it wouldn’t turn over; one of the women looked like Doris Day as Calamity Jane. I eat a slice of Granny’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie for dessert. (Learned there’s a real Granny, she lives in Platte, and she’s actually a grandmother.) And I try Jim again.
He’s there, hallelujah, and his intuition seems to be ticking along very well indeed. His sense is that I am to go on, continue in the direction I was already going—that is, not go back to see Vincent. It was good to talk to him. I felt so far away.
It’s only 8:45, and it’s pitch black. Part of that is because there are no lights around here; part of it is because the Black Hills really are black: very densely wooded, they’re described as “an island of trees in a sea of grass.” They cover some 6,000 square miles in southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming.
Native Americans have inhabited the area since at least 7000 BCE. The Arikara arrived by 1500 CE, followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Pawnee. The Lakota arrived from Minnesota in the eighteenth century and drove out the other tribes, claiming the land; they’re the ones who called the area Paha Sapa, “hills that are black.” For the Lakota, the Paha Sapa is the center of the world, the omphalos, the place of the gods; it is where the warriors would make their Vision Quests.
The moon is very bright. I am unexplainably nervous. And I haven’t found a place to sleep yet.
The second shock, and the one that set everything else in motion, was the visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The nighttime view was dramatic, I’ll give it that. And at 10 p.m., the crowds were manageable. But I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense that this was a desecration, as if stealing the land wasn’t enough, we had to carve four of our presidents’ faces into the mountain just to make a point. Now they stand eternal guard over the spoils of war, betrayal, and theft.
The feeling of the violation of sacred space continues to haunt me as I leave the park and head further and further up the mountain. The moon is no help at all; there are no lights anywhere except from my own car (I rarely meet another vehicle on the road), and even the high beams seem to be swallowed up by the inky night. The road is absurdly steep and narrow, and it winds around crazily in the darkness only to double back on itself without really getting anywhere. I try retracing my steps, to get back down the mountain, but I just keep going higher and higher. And I get utterly and sickeningly lost.
I start feeling a tremendous sense of vertigo, the kind I used to have in my fever dreams, when I’d climb a ladder into the night skies, and suddenly it would twist and sway, and I’d scream to keep from falling. The nose of my car is pointed up in the air and I have no frame of reference and I’m disoriented and I’m dizzy and I’m starting to hyperventilate.
Now, I am not someone who is prone to nameless terrors. I tend to be the one who keeps his head when all about me are losing theirs, as Kipling might put it. But this night I experience a panic that practically engulfs me. For two hours I feel as if I am going insane, pursued by irrational fears, buffeted by dread. It feels like I’m having a nightmare from which I cannot wake up.
On the tape I am crying, praying, gulping for air, speaking gibberish. At one point I say, “It’s too bright, it’s too bright,” even though the darkness is impenetrable. I remember seeing something (a building?) where some intense light was being generated, as if someone were welding (but at midnight?); the color was a cesium blue and a blinding white, with an eerie green glow, and it hurts my eyes, even though all I want is a little light. Perhaps it’s so bright that I’m blinded. Perhaps I’m having a UFO encounter, and this is a screen memory. Or perhaps my mind couldn’t take the contradiction and irony.
So lost, so desperate. No place to camp or stop for the night, no feeling of safety (but there was certainly no danger that I could identify). Where was I? I look at a map and see names like Iron Mountain Road. Cemetery Road. Holy Terror Trail (I kid you not). I discover that I have climbed to nearly 7200 feet. I drive on, wandering like a blind man. On the tape I am screaming now. It’s very hard to listen to.
Somehow—I don’t remember how, exactly, it’s something of a blur—I stumble upon a road that leads me down the mountain, and suddenly, after two hours of madness, I’m in ugly, bustling, touristy Rapid City, where there are no campgrounds available and no hotel or motel vacancies, a fact which, in my exhaustion, provokes its own (albeit more rational) feelings of panic and anxiety. I finally find what is apparently the last room available in the entire city, and have to pay dearly for the privilege. But I never wanted anything more in my life: it is safe, and rational, and out of those horrible hills.
Turns out the reason all the rooms were booked is that this is the weekend the Worldwide Church of God comes to town. They hold their convention here every year, and descend on Rapid City like 6,000 hungry locusts.
I sleep the sleep of the dead.
And tomorrow, in the daylight, I will head back into the Black Hills again.
Next episode: Custer and the Devil’s Tower