The Big Trip

The Big Trip: Jesus is Lord on the Crow Reservation


The woman who ran the campground was a coal miner. She and her husband both were. There are a lot of coal miners around Gillette. Low-sulfur, I think, is what she called the mines, since “those don’t need special scrubbers.” Because of the Clean Air Act, all coal-producing plants and most of the electrical power plants in the area that are powered by coal must use these special scrubbers, but if your coal has low enough sulfur levels, you don’t need the scrubbers. Oil is very big here, too, nearly as big as in Texas, she told me. “Though here, the egos aren’t quite as large.”

Politically they’re very conservative but somewhat cynical, as it is widely understood that you can get whatever you want politically by buying it, and many politicians won’t do anything for you without a campaign contribution. A city council member (and campaign worker for a mayoral candidate) in Gillette out-and-out told her that if she wanted something changed she should make a contribution to the candidate’s campaign—the council member said she was sure he’d be elected because she had gotten a vast number of senior citizens registered and would personally be driving them to the polls on election day.

Gillette, Buffalo, Sheridan: wonderful, wide-open Wyoming vistas, with lots of cowboys, and oil rigs, and coal mines, and hunters. The hunters, actually, have descended upon the area just this weekend, packing into the hotels and motels and campgrounds for the opening of antelope season. Motel signs are offering them special discounts; the 7-Eleven is giving them a free bag of ice with purchase. (The hunters, not the antelopes.)

I plan to go west on I-90, which swings north into Montana and continues west through Billings and on to Bozeman and Helena. To my left are little mounds that rise unexpectedly from this very gently rolling place: small, sudden, peaky hills—small breasts with nipples everywhere you look: nipple, nipple, nipple, nipple, nipple. Which of course reminds me that Grand Tetons (the mountain range south of Yellowstone here in Wyoming) is French for “Big Tits.” Really. Continue reading

Categories: Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, The Big Trip, The Medicine Wheel | 4 Comments

The Big Trip: Custer and the Devils Tower


Last night I swore I’d never again set foot in the Black Hills. Today I feel pulled back there, if for no reason than to see what they look like in the cold, rational light of day. mtrushmore.jpgThough I’ll happily skip Mount Rushmore this time. (If you’ve watched Kids in the Hall, you can just hear “I’m crushing your head!” when you look at the picture to the right.)

In the Black Hills National Forest, on the road leading to Custer State Park, was a sign that said, simply, “Grizzly.” I couldn’t tell if it was a warning or an advertisement.

All sorts of roads are closed up here. I don’t know what highway I’m on anymore (my, doesn’t that sound familiar?), but I’m snaking through the woods at about 15 miles per hour, going straight uphill. I’m not entirely sure my car will make it. I can’t help but wonder if I’m on the back side of Mount Rushmore; I’m at the top of Iron Mountain, apparently.

The man on the radio says he’s picking porcupine quills out of his coat from this morning’s encounter. How intriguing! Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Earth-based Religions, Nature, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 6 Comments

The Big Trip: Terror in the Black Hills


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. black-hills.jpgI’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. Continue reading

Categories: Dreams, Nature, Psychology, Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 5 Comments

The Big Trip: The Badlands


The wind is so high, it’s causing dust devils all over the place—pink-brown whirlwinds of dust, dancing like small tornadoes, dancing against the blue sky. In one place, the dust devil was the width of an entire field, and was so thick it looked like a dust storm, albeit a stationary and tornadic one.

There were other signs I was entering the Real West as well. Leaves and husks from dried corn would blow across the road as if they were birds, skittering across like animals, but lifeless ones. Small tumbleweeds are appearing. Buffalo burgers are served at all the rest stops. And there are actual signs, too: Lakota Museum. Lower Brule Tribal Headquarters. Week’s Ponderosa Café—We Still Cook! Map of the Black Hills—Wall Drug.

Women in these parts drive trucks, wear jeans and flannel, sport short-cropped hair, and have tough, masculine personas. You might call them heterosexual lesbians. An actual lesbian couple I ran into at a gas station were an older couple from Michigan, one very butch and the other very femme, heading to Mount Rushmore and then down to Atlanta. They’ve allowed themselves six weeks for the journey.

Kadoka, South Dakota, holds an International Outhouse Race each year: two people carrying a real privy, with a third person inside. I’m so sorry I missed it! (This should not be confused with the Great Klondike International Outhouse Race held annually in Dawson City in the Yukon.)

The land itself is changing now. Continue reading

Categories: Nature, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 4 Comments

The Big Trip: The Marvelous Corn Palace


As I leave Pipestone, I say on the tape, “Ever since St. Paul I thought that everything was new and it was all beginning. It’s getting even newer as I, in a few minutes, cross into South Dakota. All the other states, I’ve been in or driven through before. This is new. This is brand new. I’m going where I feel no one has ever gone, yet it’s only me. I need to know what is true in me, I need to understand what it is I believe, and know what is eternal about what I believe—to know a little bit about the Red Road and know where my own road crosses it.”

The signs for Wall Drug are coming fast and furious now.

  • “Wall Drug of South Dakota—Then Mount Rushmore.”
  • “Horse ‘Twitches’—Wall Drug.” (I never did learn what horse “twitches” were.)
  • “Everything Under the Sun—Wall Drug of South Dakota.”
  • “191 Miles to Wall Drug.”
  • “All Roads Lead to Wall Drug.”
  • “Wall Drug As Told By The Aukland Star.”
  • “Free Ice Water—Wall Drug.”

It’s really amazing how I’ve always heard talk about wide open spaces—and now, seeing South Dakota, I understand what they mean. It sort of makes you love the country, love the space. I just can’t get over how terribly cramped the D.C. area seems to me now in my heart.

I took a detour into Hartford, population 1200. The sign at the gas station I stopped at proclaims they are “big on being small.” And two young boys on bicycles stopped and came over to me as I was filling up my gas tank, said hi to me, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from Washington, D.C., he let out a big whoop of amazement. “Why in the world are you traveling through this town?” he asked. “Why are you on this trip? Where are you going? Do you know people out here? How can you be going someplace where you don’t know a soul?” He peppered me with questions, and seemed slightly mystified.

I found out that he and his family have lived in this town “ever since I came back from the hospital.” They’ve traveled a bit themselves, visiting relatives in Washington state (“it’s really nice out there”). I tell the boys my story, amazed at their friendliness, their unguardedness toward a stranger, delighted with their warmth and interest. Continue reading

Categories: Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 7 Comments

The Big Trip: Pipestone


The Butterfield Café had a terrific breakfast special: 2 eggs, 2 cakes, 2 sausage, 2 bacon, $2.75. The bacon was extraordinary. The waitress wore jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. There were signs for Mountain Dew on several of the walls, reflecting their overuse on the sides of the buildings in this little town, and everyone said, “You bet!”

All the folks in the café were regulars. They helped themselves to coffee, sat in the same seats each day, and the cook would come out and sit with them when he wasn’t busy. I learned that Butterfield’s main industry was its chicken processing plant. These guys slaughtered chickens for a living, killing some 60,000 of them a day, most of them destined for pot pies and such (not Perdue quality chicken, which I learned are mainly processed in Washington state).

Butterfield’s other claim to fame was its annual “Camping Bee” with its “Hiawatha Days,” about which I unfortunately could learn nothing, though there were these ancient steam tractors on permanent display at their fairgrounds. A kid in town said that Butterfield had a population of 900; the visitors I met the previous night while camping said it was around 600. Either way, welcome to small town America.

A murder of crows (I love terms of venery, those collective nouns for groups of animals: a shrewdness of apes, an exaltation of larks, a storytelling of ravens) were congregating over my campground, which I passed on my way out of town. Felt slightly ominous. Continue reading

Categories: Shamanism, The Big Trip, The Medicine Wheel, Travel | 8 Comments

The Big Trip: Equinox


After the Inipi ceremony and the evening with Virgil, I needed a day to process everything. I left St. Paul after breakfast, and wandered around southern Minnesota on country roads and headed toward Mankato.

Mankato is a Lakota word meaning “blue earth,” and (perhaps not surprisingly) it’s located in Blue Earth county. Now, I had visited Mankato fifteen, maybe seventeen, years earlier. I lived in St. Croix for my high school and college years, and my summer job for several years running was to work in a Christian bookstore run by a missionary couple, Gary and his wife Marty. So during Thanksgiving break at college one year, I didn’t have enough money to fly back home to St. Croix, so my employers arranged for me to spend the holiday with Marty’s parents on a farm in southwestern Minnesota.

Back then it was a long bus ride from Minneapolis to tiny Mankato, which seemed at the time to be the last outpost of civilization, then an even longer ride to the snowy prairie wilds where Marty’s father gave me a toboggan ride over his fallow cornfields, pulling me along by his tractor. It was a lovely time. The trip back to college, however, was a disaster; my bus to Mankato turned over in a ditch, and we slept on the floor in a bus station overnight. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 3 Comments

The Big Trip: The Day My Life Changed


The drive itself took, what, fifteen minutes? Twenty at most. At the time, St. Paul was definitely Minneapolis’s poorer, more down-at-heels twin. Now it’s described as a somewhat bookish brother to Minneapolis in that it is festooned with small liberal arts colleges, tightly adherent to tradition, fastidious in its street level presentation, and less interested in the high-rise, glass-sheathed architecture meant to be appreciated by “angels and aviators.”

I arrived early at Mazakute Episcopal Mission, which was named for Paul Mazakute, the first Native American ordained in the Episcopal Church. I nervously entered the small church in the run-down part of town, and searched for the Rev. Virgil Foote, with whom I had scheduled an interview for The Witness magazine (which sadly ceased publication in 2003 at the age of 86). Foote is a Lakota, and his wife Kathleen, also an Episcopal priest, is white. Together they ministered in this little church to a blended congregation: about 70% of them were Native Americans of several different tribes, the rest white, black, and Latino. They said their ministry represented the place where the Red Road and the White Road cross. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 5 Comments

The Big Trip: The Minneapolis Drag Show


As I look at the map and retrace my path, I’m rather mystified by the route I took. Some of it makes sense; some of it worked out so well that you know there was some divine synchronicity involved; some of it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Like today’s trip from the Mirror Lake to the Twin Cities. If I were going to stick to the interstates, why wouldn’t I take the one that headed directly there? Why would I head west toward Albert Lea, then due north, if I wasn’t going to take any scenic detours?

In western Wisconsin were some really interesting shale formations. My notes talk about rock towers jutting up out of nowhere, formations that were once little islands, apparently, and mentions Castle Rock by name, though I can’t find any record of such a place online. I drove by a Castle Rock Lake; maybe I saw a sign for it and confused it with the landscape I was seeing. Having my eyes deceive me would become a theme for this leg of the journey. Continue reading

Categories: Sex and Sexuality, Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 3 Comments

The Big Trip: Mirror Lake


Day 4 began with me leaving Lake Forest and heading up to Wisconsin. Wisconsin, as close as it was, might as well have been another world; everything in our world centered on Chicago, not points north. I’d avoid the interstates and stick to the smaller, more scenic roads. This one took me to the deliciously tacky Wisconsin Dells, where I hoped to spend the afternoon being silly, then head off to find a campground.

On the way there, I passed André’s Steak House (“Never a Bum Steer!”); a place that sold minnows, and nothing but minnows; L’il Richard’s Bar (“Polka Fest This Saturday!”); End of the Line Caboose Motel; Popeye’s Cocktails and Casual Dining (“Homemade Apple Pie, World’s Best”); and a decidedly surreal sign on the side of a country road that read, “Airplane Crossing Ahead, Watch Out for Low Flying Planes”—with no airfield anywhere in evidence. I wondered if I had started hallucinating. Continue reading

Categories: Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 11 Comments

The Big Trip: The Return of Henry VIII


Ah, the flatlands! Driving east from Rockford, I’m finding the prairie very refreshing—all these wide vistas, this great expanse of sky. How I hated the plainness of it all (pun intended) when I went to college up here. Something in me is hungry for boundlessness. Today I’m heading back to my alma mater, Lake Forest College, for a visit with some old

As I drove through McHenry County, farms were absolutely everywhere; the one other place I saw that wasn’t a farm was a tiny house that sold hay and straw.

But then things started changing. First I passed an ancient-looking stone silo right next to the road that was being used as a gatehouse for a large and rather grand home; a beautiful and intricately carved wooden door replaced whatever had been there originally. So strange to see this in the middle of farmland.

There were other oddities as well. A gigantic sign in front of an otherwise normal-looking farm proclaimed, “Mink Barn, Furs by Talledis, Fur Barn, 1/2 Mile.” (The sign depicted a woman wearing a fur coat. Not your normal farmer’s togs.) Then there was the sign for Illusion Farm, though the farm itself certainly seemed real enough. Continue reading

Categories: Depression, Great Quotes, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 3 Comments

The Big Trip: Illi-noise


I left the idylls of Ohio for the ills of the interstate. At least it went by quickly. The moment I got off the interstate, I saw twenty-five vultures (yes, I counted them: twenty-five turkey vultures) gliding in a vague circle above a stand of trees. Of course my mind immediately goes to the macabre—has the highway killer struck again?but it was more likely a dead or dying animal in that little grove. Twenty-five of them, just soaring and circling. Waiting.

Then the wind starts whipping up. I had forgotten what the prairie winds are like. Even the big rigs seemed to be having trouble staying where they should be. I was being seriously buffeted.

When I drove through Gary, Indiana, I was shocked to see no smokestacks billowing forth. Fifteen years earlier, the sky was a sickly gray-green from all the pollution, and now—nothing. Clear skies. Clean city. Amazing how things had changed so dramatically. It gave me hope.

Coming back into Chicago gave me a definite thrill. For four years I took the train from Lake Forest into Chicago frequently, once or twice a month at the very least. I saw a stunning production of Equus there the first week I was in town, and I dearly loved the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony and shopping at Water Tower Place. But I admit I went there most often for more prurient pursuits, and I felt a stranger there from first to last. The city always smelled of desperation to me. Continue reading

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The Big Trip: Day 1


Silver Spring, Maryland, where I lived at the time, is terminally suburban. It creeps up to the border of Washington, D.C., and sprawls for miles into Montgomery County, becoming the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore.

I grew up one town over, in Takoma Park, but after college, Silver Spring became our home. Not Home in the big sense—that will always be Vermont, despite the fact that I only lived there for two years—but it’s where my parents lived, where my first apartment was, where my father died, where I shared a house with my mother. Leaving Silver Spring on a great adventure was a symbol for leaving an inherited mindset behind and trying to see with new eyes.

It is September 17, a Tuesday. Somehow it’s important that I mark the time of my departure precisely: 11:26 a.m. My trip takes me up route 270, where I visit my great grandmother’s homestead in the tiny town of Boyds, Maryland. My great uncle’s general store there still bears his name. Such a flood of memories: summer nights chasing lightning bugs and drinking black cows, screen doors banging as children ran in and out of the house happily, sitting on back lawns with friendly neighbors, the sound of cicadas buzzing furiously, the feel of the graveyard beneath my feet at the little country church. There was something quietly mystical about that town back then. There still is. Continue reading

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The Big Trip: What Happened the Night Before

When they heard about my impending cross-country trip, my friends Wayne and Sue arranged a Talking Stick ceremony for me. We had done these sorts of gatherings before. Theirs always centered on a single individual who was in need of support. Perhaps someone was facing a health crisis; perhaps another needed counsel and guidance on a particular topic. But most often it was done for someone undergoing a transition in his or her life: the end of a marriage, the beginning of a career. For me, it was this trip, this quest.

Sue invited me over early, and suggested I go down to their basement and take a sauna. It was one of those free-standing sauna rooms that could seat one or two at the most. And it was lovely. I cranked up the heat, way higher than was recommended, leveling off only when I started experiencing an . . . altered state of consciousness. That wasn’t my original intent, but it served as a fitting symbol for the trip to come.

At one point, as I shifted position, I burned my butt on something. Made a serious welt, like I had been branded. As I was majorly communing with the Divine at the time (the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, not the late drag queen of John Waters film fame), I called it God’s Burn for the duration of the trip. Continue reading

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The Big Trip: Prologue

In early 1991, while being smudged with a combination of five herbs sacred to the Yaqui tradition, I had a spontaneous and rather overwhelming out-of-body experience. I met with some deeply spiritual people at church—a very cool Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.—about this experience, and they told they felt God was calling me to do a serious study of shamanism, or was in fact calling me to become a shaman.

Almost immediately I had a driving desire to go to the Pacific Northwest to see the places I had visited in my OOBE. Some of this may well have had to do with the confluence of two television programs, Northern Exposure, a show that had thoroughly stolen my heart and which, though set in Alaska, was filmed in the little town of Roslyn, Washington; and Twin Peaks, the beautiful and deeply twisted drama from David Lynch, which was filmed in the towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend, about an hour from Roslyn. Of course I had to visit these towns as well.

It would take a month. I had $2,000, and a car that had no business being on the road, much less driving across the country and back again. I would spend many nights camping in the national parks and forests, despite the fact that I had previously done only two overnight camping trips before, both of them close to my home, and had a body that was built for comfort, not for sleeping on the ground in a tent. Continue reading

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