Monday, September 5, 2011

Leaving, learning, living.

Notable Statistic: I have passed 100,000 feet of vertical ascent!  See more Statistics in the "STATS" colum to the right.

9/4/11Day 57: Hot Springs, SD to Hill City, SD: 40 miles

I have reached the point where I am starting to feel like this lifestyle is now my norm. I hang out in a town for a couple of nights with a newly made friend, or some old ones, or both. I restock on groceries, post pictures and writing, and I get back on the bike and move on. At least that much of my routine remains fairly constant, though the actual amount of biking from day to day, and the activities that I engage in in each town have been somewhat different. I am camping alone tonight, away from any other people, off of a random dirt road in Black Hills National Forest. It is the first time I've done this since my first night in Montana, over a month ago.

Two days ago, I dropped below 4000 feet for the first time since entering Glacier NP. The mountains and high plains have been good to me, and I find myself often wondering what they are like during the 8 months of winter that most of these places go through.

The grass is surprisingly green here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, much more so than I would expect at this time of year. I am wearing my warm clothes tonight, including my warm hat for the first time on this trip. Autumn is already approaching in this part of the country, and the grass seems to still be green from a long, wet spring. The seasons here definitely play out differently than in California.

It has been 4 full days since my last writing – the longest I've gone on the trip so far. In those 4 days, I finished off Wyoming with my first true headwinds, flowers the color of fire growing on the roadsides, a great surf on a couch in Lusk, and a “real fruit smoothie” from McDonalds. It had been nearly 4 years since I'd spent money at a McDonalds, and I tried to convince myself that this time, I was voting with my dollars to change the type of food that mega-corporate fast food restaurants serve by choosing a healthy, fresh item on the menu. I also used their bathroom twice and their internet for an hour.

My final couch-surfing experience in Wyoming was at the home of Brooke H, who works for an electric utility in Lusk. She and her 11 year old son, Pason, welcomed me into a well-loved home that reminded me of being 11. Pason has 3 snakes, one of which I was allowed to watch eat 2 earthworms in less than 5 minutes, swallowed whole by a rapidly growing garter snake. We dined on a hearty helping of spaghetti, and some warty local crook-neck squash that was seasoned deliciously. Brooke and I spent several hours talking about travel, family, and life on the edge of Wyoming and Nebraska (the border was 20 miles away, and her family is there). In the morning, I helped with pancakes, and said goodbye.

I passed through Buffalo Gap National Grassland on my way to Hot Springs, SD. There was a lot of grass, and a fat flock of sheep, which at first I mistook for rocks, all with their heads down, munching contentedly. I arrived at the home of Jennifer D in Hot Springs at around 7, and she was busily tidying up the house, preparing for Shabbat. Jennifer runs a ministry in the town of Manderson, SD, which is in the middle of the Lakota Indian reservation, about 1.5 hours from Hot Springs. She is an active, energetic and positive person with a thirst for right-living and spreading love in the name of Jesus. After a shower, I jumped right into the kitchen and helped to prepare dinner. We ate a splendid spread of lamb chops, potatoes, fruit salad and another salad made from a base of a green leafy vegetable called lamb's ear, which is a relative of spinach, and grows well here without much maintenance. We had good conversation, and talked about many of her previous couch-surfers, who seem like a varied group of likeable characters.

Yesterday morning, we packed lunch, jumped in the car and headed toward the church than Jennifer attends. There, we picked up a load of food, including a 30 lb venison meatloaf, to bring out to the reservation. We also picked up another passenger, Peg, who is also a member of the church, and volunteered to help out with what Jennifer had going on that day. As we made our way through the low, grassy hills and deep into the reservation, we stopped at a church along the way to use the restroom. It was locked, but Peg happened to know the lady in charge of that church, who lived in a trailer next door, so we knocked on the door and were kindly allowed to use her facilities. Our next stop was at Bette's Kitchen, a small restaurant and bakery run out of the home of an elderly Lakota woman. There, we picked up some frybread, which was fresh out of the fryer, and still warm. It was my first time eating frybread, which is basically a large, plain donut without the sugar or glaze on top. It was tasty, but certainly felt heavy by the time I had finished.

Jennifer had spent the entire previous day cooking food to bring to the funeral of a Lakota man who had recently died. She expected his funeral to be the next day, and we were going to drop food off with the family of the deceased. When we arrived in Manderson, however, we found out that the funeral was in progress. After a quick stop at the home of some children that Jenn sometimes takes care of, we ended up bringing the food into the gym of the local school, where the ceremonies were being held. As we walked in, there was a man speaking to a crowd of 120 (my guess) people about land rights, values and making change. He seemed somewhat upset.

In the gym, a tipi had been set up, with the deceased, George, on a raised bed inside. Behind the tipi hung a row of beautifully colored quilts, some of which bared his name. Vases of flowers and photographs filled a row of narrow tables between the quilts and the tipi. Along one side of the gym, several large tables held about 40 cakes that had been brought for the occasion. The rest of the gym, facing the open door of the tipi, was filled with folding chairs and a row of bleachers 6 or 8 benches wide. Peg and I found a seat in the bleachers while Jenn said hello to several people she knew, and started preparing some of the food for serving. Peg and I were 2 of perhaps 8 white people in the place. I certainly felt nervous at first, unsure of whether I should be there or not.

Several more people spoke about the George, and also about diabetes, horseback riding, and other tribal issues. The sound system was not high-fidelity, and I had trouble understanding much of what was being said, even when they were talking in perfect English (though about ¼ of what was said was in Lakota). At some point, a procession of people started going into the tipi to view George, say their goodbyes, and then shake the hands of or hug each of the family members, who were sitting in the first row. George had been killed in a car accident, and though he was 61 years old, the death came as a shock and surprise. He was a well-known man, in and outside of the reservation. A line started to form, leading into the tipi and back out. The looks on the faces of the people leaving the tipi showed genuine sorrow and grief. I felt for them. Peg, Jennifer and I joined near the end of the line, and each took our turn viewing the deceased in the tipi, and shaking the hands of the family.

George was then taken out of the tipi, and loaded into a pickup truck, where he was driven to a hillside with a nice view for burial. I could not hear most of what was said at his grave site, but I watched as handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt were thrown on top of his body, which was covered with a buffalo fur.
Children rode horses decorated with painted hand-prints, rifles were shot and two men who were visiting from other tribes held fur-covered staffs decorated with feathers.

Back in the gym, we helped prepare all of the food that had been brought for eating. Other than carrying a box of food into the gym in the morning, the only work I did all day was to carry some 5 gallon insulated water containers from one end of the school to the other. Jenn did a good job of making me feel as though I had been useful. We ate a main course of fried chicken. Other dishes included some pasta and meat, potato salad, corn soup & corn on the cob, watermelon, and a berry pudding for dessert. Meat and white flower made up 80% of the meal – which was hearty and probably had a good variety compared to what most people ate day-to-day. I was not surprised that many people were getting diabetes. Almost everyone I saw over the age of 14 was overweight.

The atmosphere on the reservation was tense. As if everyone were just waiting for someone else to explode at all times. It probably didn't help that as we were driving, Jennifer told me about the rampant poverty, violence, alcoholism, neglect and malnutrition that left many people hurt, sick, abused and dead. I felt like I was in a third world country. The laws are different, the communities are isolated, and the people seem to be struggling against each other toward different goals. Garbage lines the streets, and too many people are crammed into each house. One elderly gentleman, as he was speaking at the funeral, exclaimed his disgust at watching young people who's only priority was money, like the white man. I overheard a conversation about a boy who had committed suicide – at age 8. I felt fairly useless in the face of the thick emotion that hung in the air. I did my best to be respectful and positive while I was there.

As we left that day, we brought two young Lakota siblings with us, Andy and Patricia. Jennifer has been spending time with them, taking care of them and providing a safe place for them for several years now. She took them to church on the morning I departed, and will take them back to the reservation Monday morning.

Jenn and I had discussions about demons, hell and family. I had a hard time understanding how she could be so sure of some of the things that she had seen, done and felt. But that did not diminish the fact that she was sure about them, about what they meant, and about why they happened. The one thing that she kept saying was that as long as you are coming from a place of love, then you are doing good. And I can agree with that any day. Staying with Jennifer, and going with her to the reservation was perhaps the greatest learning experience of my trip. I am thankful for the opportunity.

This morning, I passed through Wind Cave National Park, and took the “Fairgrounds” tour. Based on estimates from air-movement calculations, the NPS believes that only 5% of the cave has been explored. A young limestone cave in an arid region, wind cave has no stalactites or stalagmites, but instead, contains “boxwork.” Boxwork consists of calcite formations which filled cracks in ancient limestone beds long ago, and stayed where they are while the limestone eroded away. The results are quite spectacular, and the photographs I took show some of the most interesting formations. It is very difficult to get proper perspective inside of a cave, giving many of the photos and eerie, alien-world look, which is very fitting, because that is often how the cave felt. The tour was quite worth the time and money. On my way into and out of the park, I snapped some photos of prairie dogs and bison.

9/5/11 Day 58: Mt. Rushmore

This morning, I pedaled 14 miles through the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore National Monument. The Black Hills continued to surprise me with their beautiful pine forests, verdant meadows, and lakes tucked into steep valleys with soaring granite formations in the background. They remind me very much of the Sierra Nevada at the same elevation (5000-6000 ft.).

I found Mt. Rushmore quite satisfying. The heads themselves, set on a scenic mountain-top, are a little too far away to quite get the scale of their enormity (Lincoln's head is over 70 ft tall). The visitor center, however, is well-stocked with video and photographs detailing the concept, design and construction of the massive work of art, as well as the yearly maintenance. Photos of people hanging off of the giant faces give a much better idea of their size. I also borrowed some binoculars from a ranger to get a closer view. I didn't even have to pay an entry fee, because they only charge for parking. Now, I am at a coffee shop in Keystone, heading to Rapid City for the night, to stay with another couch-surfer.

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