Saturday, August 27, 2011

Crazy Horse Revisited

There were two small boys.

- Are you a scientist?

- No.

- You look like a mountain climber.

- I am a hiker.

- Wanna see something cool?

-Sure. What you got?

The taller one pulls a rock the size of his head from a bag.

- This is from the mountain. They're blasting it today.

Ten minutes before the blast...

I went to Crazy Horse and not Mount Rushmore. Not out of any indignation at the choice of figures on that mountain. Personally, I don't think the face of any man - George Washington or Crazy Horse or anyone else - makes an improvement on the face of a mountain. I would much rather have just the Black Hills themselves.

During the blast...
I was attracted to seeing the Crazy Horse monument since it is still a work-in-progress and - being entirely privately funded - is likely to remain so for at least another 50 years. Mount Rushmore is finished. There is nothing more that can be added to it. For that reason, I felt no inclination to go. I've seen photographs of it. And unlike a photograph of a completely natural location, I did not get the sense that to be there and to see it in person would be any greater than to see it in print. Only one statue can I ever remember being truly impressed by, and even then I thought how much greater it would have been to have seen Michelangelo himself carving out the features of David than to have just the finished product. It is the process of something, and not the ending, that fascinates me.

Ten minutes after the blast.
There is an odd fatalism to human works. A bridge is built, a dam is finished, an office tower opened and behind the spectator's gaze is a concealed guilt, wondering when it all fails how astoundingly loud the crash will be and how great the smoke. Here, tho, it must be the reverse. The explosions are all in the present tense. When the noise stops, it is because the builders have gone. Then, it is a different vision - a great silence as the last motor burns out and the final electrical coil snaps.

And then thought is removed again, beyond the event and onward to the new spectators, and who will they be, and what will they think? Later versions of ourselves, perhaps, who might feel in their looking as we do at cave paintings. Or else others, with other ways and other thoughts from some other star? Will they too yearn with a misplaced nostalgia and think, 'there were giants in those days' ? Or will it just be a pair of ravens, looking out from their nests in the hollows of the eyes of Crazy Horse, the old Indian still pointing?

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The cowboys I met weren't as much fun, and these guys helped me out with coffee, sandwich, and conversation.

For Sale: Scenic South Dakota

There is something you should know about the neighbors, quiet tho they are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dakota, Oaks, Indians, and the Hundredth Meridian

Quercus alba

Salix babylonica

Tsuga canadensis

I had been saying the names of trees of the east aloud as I walked. Slowly, the words shaped, intoning the latin with reverence, as tho by this tongue reserved for temple and laboratory I might call them up from the earth.




A monk at vespers, a Darwinist considering a list of beetles, wondering what any god could have meant in making so many.



Then I would break, look around at escarpments of eroded bluff and dun colored grass with not a tree to break the sun and say a single bewildered word, - 'Dakota.' How did I get here?

To run out of water in the Badlands is to understand why the place is named so. Not stone, but rather thickets of vertical mud define the horizon. A labyrinth of crumbled clay that still pushes out the bones of creatures that millennia ago strayed in and died. A few divining cottonwoods show where there is moisture still, but it is more muck than water, and with the occasional steer wandering thru, unsafe to drink. I slip a bottle from my pack, head for the road, and hold it to oncoming traffic, turning it upside down as a car approaches, hoping by the gesture to communicate thirst.

Surprisingly, the car pulls over.

- You need water?

- Yes. You got any?

- No. You need a ride?

- I do need water.

- I can take you town.

It is 7 miles to town. It's 11 now and past 90 and all my bottles are empty. This is the first car to pass in a hour. I can be smug and parched, or give up some pride in my humility and get in the car.

- Town sounds fine.

- Get in the back. We're Indians, she says, pointing to her passenger, then puts her hand in front of her mouth and gives a mock ululation.

The passenger is quiet of expression, eyes like sunken wood knots above a dribbly beard. He has that look of poverty that has given up feeding off anything that need be chewed, a withered stick in overalls.

- You smoke? He lifts a nub of something.

- Tobacco?

He turns without considering my answer and puts his eyes on the road, then brings the nub to his mouth but doesn't light, then again lowers his hand. The driver puts the radio on. Wood-knot drops the nub and reaches over the gear shift to put his hand under her shirt, then runs his fingers lower and snaps her panties. The driver glances at me thru her mirror. She turns up the radio, as tho sound could cover or account for action. I turn my head to the window, the Badlands slipping away. Wood-knot tries for lower.

Liriodendron tulipifera, I mouth.

For 15 minutes the front seat is the theater of attempted - and thwarted - digital cunnilingus. Far different from the last time I was on a reservation. That had been in June, on the Blackfoot in Montana, and then I had it in my head not to expect any charity since it was the anniversary of Little Bighorn. But I was wrong. A man out walking for his diabetes started talking to me, then went back to his house for a box of tea, a sack of apples, and a roll of toilet paper - probably the most thoughtful thing anyone has given me in a long while. Even the next day he took a good guess at where I went and tracked me down in his buick to bring me water.

We pull into the college of Lakota. Driver gets out so I can get what I flagged them down for.

- What are you doing? asks Wood-knot.

- I got to let him out.

- Him who?

He turns.

- Oh, hey. How's it going?

- Just thirsty, I say.

I'm thinking back to the Crazy Horse memorial, and the artist's model charging out of marble, hair streaming and muscles swelling, pointing towards the lands where ancestors turned to dust. Not like any Indian I ever saw. It's hard for me to imagine a man who lived free tho fugitive to have pectorals and biceps like that. It starts me thinking on another Indian who wouldn't live on a reservation or take white man's food, and to see what that life does to a person just consider a photograph of Mohandas Gandhi.

Some say that the carving is meant to be more a measure of the spirit of Crazy Horse than an accurate representation. There are no photographs, after all. And the story of Crazy Horse the man and the story of the carving of Crazy Horse the monument are both the sorts of tales to inspire an awful stillness in the heart. But I have trouble connecting the two. I do not think the countenance of any man improves a mountain.




but I can't remember any more. I could say a few west coast trees, but I want to save those. To name them now would bring me contrary to my destination. I'm nearing the hundredth meridian, the true line between east and west. To one side of it, more than 20 inches of precipitation. To the other, less. The difference between dust and corn. The land has been getting greener. There are more trees - and more of them deciduous - on the reservation than there had been in the last few acres of Wyoming. The air is still dry but lets out small sighs of humidity in the low draws. Russian olive and crack willow are starting to show.

I sit outside the grocery store to drink water and tea. A dog hobbles over on three legs and lays down against my ankles. I'll feel bad about it trailing after me as I walk out of town, but feelings of regret will be tempered with ones of suspicion as I sit in a doctor's office one week later for treatment of a rash that has spread upwards from my ankles.

The heat of the day well passed, I walk another seventeen miles, then turn my watch one hour forward as I come to Central Time. St. Louis Time. New Orleans time. Chicago time. A line of trees shows a creek in the light of a softly-fallen afternoon. I come near what seemed a cottonwood but proved more compact the nearer I come. No arching trunk or quaking leaves that flip silver-side up in the wind, but a neat dome of twisting limbs on a stout trunk. Something in the genus quercus. I drop my pack, walk over and place my hand on the bark.

- This is an oak tree.

Quietly. Almost without grasping. Prayer has brought me this, and now I must make of prayer a thing of earth.

- This is an oak tree.

I say it louder, as tho English could abase what Latin has set up and so bring down the divine.

- An oak tree.

There are no hills for an echo, so the words just spread out and fade as I run the tips of fingers over bark, then climb hand over hand within the branches, upward to the limit an animal of 65 kilos can perch. The sun is dropping down, down, and I am in an oak tree.

Close by is a yucca, the last of the wild yucca that I will see. Totems of the west are giving out. Sagebrush has become wheat. Dust, corn. Buffalo, combines. Indians, Farmers. For some there is no clear exchange. Where are the pronghorns? And are they each worth a Holstein? Two days later, in the town of Winner, South Dakota, I check my coordinates. Ninety-nine degrees, fifty-one minutes, thirty-two seconds west.

This one tree marks the beginning of the east. A burr oak, I think. Yucca for oak.