My Mountain Meccas  

TOPIC: My Mountain Meccas

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Date: Fri, Mar 21 2008 4:56 pm


Larry Tucei Jr. asked if I would share one of my excursions into the world of travel and aesthetic pleasures as a prelude to the kickoff of spring - if it ever occurs here in western Massachusetts. Today the noontime temperature stood at 27, going up to about 33 or 34 and there is a lot of wind. Brrrr. Well, I'm mightily honored to have been asked by Larry to share my experiences and will enthusiastically do so. I had been thinking about subject matter and have decided to relate some memorable times spent in the great American West as a prelude to Monica's and my upcoming summer trip to Wyoming and Idaho via Minnesota to see Lee. I have decided to write about two of my favored mountain Meccas, the venerable Black Hills of South Dakota and the majestic Bighorn range of the Rockies of Wyoming. I first point out that descriptions of these areas that I intend to present over the next few weeks are intended to begin the resurrection of an attempt of mine spawned in the late
1980s to write a book about the western travels of myself, my wife Jani, and our two children, travels that occurred over an 8-year period. I took my family on the trips for several reasons. Jani and I needed to annually reconnect with the West, but the trips were also undertaken to introduce our children to real as opposed to virtual geography, to visit their mother's roots, and to become acquainted with a region of the world that I think scenically matches any spot on the globe. The trips were undertaken with deep seriousness and reverence for important places and personages along the way. For example, when we crossed the Mississippi, we always stopped and paid homage to Mark Twain. Each river was approached with a vague sense of history and plenty of respect. I frequently quizzed the children about state facts and land features. They had to know state capitals, largest cities, major rivers, mountain ranges, and other land features of each state that we visited. Every fact had to
be places into a context. It was not about absorbing mindless trivia; it was about understanding their country. The children were seldom allowed to sit in the back seat oblivious to the countryside through which we traveled.
With respect to my abortive book effort on our travels, although I had encouragement from several writer friends to complete the work based on their perusal of the draft, I never finished the book. That is a story in and of itself that has a forest component, but I'll hold that story for another time. So, without further ado, here goes the first of a number of episodes on the Black Hills and Bighorn Mountains.

Episode I - Meeting the Black Hills.

October of 1964 found me a new graduate of Officer Training School at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas, and en route with a set of fresh orders to my first assignment at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. I had an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a job offer from the Ford Motor Company, but thought it my duty to serve my country first. However, being from the South and tied emotionally to that region, I had requested my first assignment to be in the Southeast, but it was Air Force policy to break any emotional dependencies of its personnel on favored geographical regions, especially those close to one's home. As a warrior, you are not supposed to develop attachments to physical places. You are not supposed to care that much about where you are ordered to go by your superiors. Throughout your military stay, you are supposed to cultivate a mindset that considers every assignment and location a career-enhancing challenge and uncomplainingly adapt when you suddenly find y
ourself in unfamiliar conditions with strange sights and smells. You dare not allow yourself to fall into a position of being labeled a homesteader by your peers. During my Air Force career, at least, that handle was guaranteed to get you pegged as a second-class warrior, and as a new, wet-behind-the-ears Second Lieutenant, I wanted none of that. I wanted to be the real deal, a true warrior.
Ellsworth AFB was part of the prestigious Strategic Air Command, or SAC for short, and the South Dakota air base was home to weaponry that I, on my arrival, could not have imagined. As its contribution to national defense, Ellsworth had assigned to it a wing of fifteen B-52D strategic bombers, a wing of 150 Minuteman I ICBMs, a squadron of Titan I ICBMs, a squadron of KC135's air refueling tankers, and a squadron of EC135's (electronic counter-measurers) aircraft. The Minuteman I and Titan I missiles were all targeted on the Soviet Union and about half the B52s were on constant alert, set to take off at a moments notice and fly via a polar route to Soviet territory. The nuclear arsenal at Ellsworth and the importance of the base's strategic mission was overwhelming to my simple mind. In fact, it was impossible for any of us assigned to Ellsworth to imagine the immense destruction that could be unleashed by even a small part of the weaponry at Ellsworth, or if the unth
inkable should happen, what it would portend for, not only the nation, but all humanity. However, we were trained to not think about the impact or consequences of taking military action. We had to trust the judgment of those appointed over us.
Upon my arrival at the Rapid City airport, after a long flight that began in Atlanta, Georgia, I stepped off a vintage, shaky DC3 flown by the small but reliable Frontier Airlines and immediately got my first palpable taste of what was to become my home for the next four years. I was rudely slapped in the face by a genuine South Dakota prairie wind that must have been gusting to around 40 MPH. As I recall, it was mid or late afternoon when our plane set down. The temperature was probably in the low fifties and apart from a few clouds, the sky was clear. I remember being buffeted by that steady wind as I walked from the aircraft to the terminal. I wasn't dressed for the occasion. The steady wind on my bare face and arms was a sensation that I instinctively disliked. The Dakota wind was somehow different from my perception of the eastern winds I had always known. Its whistling sound in my ears was mildly unsettling. I could not tune it out. The amber color of the surround
ing prairie grass imparted a somberness to the landscape. Where had the green of the trees in Atlanta gone? The South Dakota countryside had an alien look to it and I suddenly was gripped with a desire to return to the lush mountains of my youth. Perhaps it was an inevitable a touch of homesickness, but for an instant, I wanted to jump back on the airplane and return to the safety of my parent's home in the mountains of far off northern Georgia.
At my breezy introduction, I could not have imagined that I would come to like, even love, the prairie winds. I was to eventually reach a point of welcoming them. They drove away the hordes of biting insects and they cooled me in the summer's heat. Those same winds could also pile up 20-foot drifts of snow in the winter and send the chill factor plummeting to -60 degrees and lower. I learned to accept that the prairie and high plains winds would always be a mixed blessing, but on balance the wind was my friend, a constant companion on days when you wanted the wind and days when you didn't.
Apart from the wind and amber prairie grasses, from the airport runway, looking to the west I could see a long line of dark blue, jagged peaks that comprised the famous Black Hills, a small range of mountains dating back to the Tertiary period, an outlier to the bulk of the Rocky Mountains farther to the west. The profile of the Hills was both strange and intriguing. Their sharp spires bore no resemblance to the gentle profiles presented by the high Blue Ridge of my native South. The Hills appeared as bona fide mountains. Of that my eye bore true witness. Certainly, their rugged profile belied the name Black Hills as did their elevations. Hills is a misnomer. They are mountains and respectable ones at that. Their highest summit, Harney Peak, rises to 7,242 feet above sea level and almost 4,000 feet above the rolling South Dakota prairie to the east.
On closer inspection, I found the Black Hills to be gentle in places, rugged in others, but always accessible. Once in the mountainous interior, summits of nearby peaks rise less dramatically above their bases, typically between 500 and 1200 feet. Occasionally they exceed this altitude range, especially in the Harney Peak region. One does more readily accept the title of Hills from their interior, but great elevation is not the source of their power.
The most entrancing quality of the Black Hills is the spiritual power they possess, which will always transcend their contested status of mountains. Native Americans believe Spirit protects them and mitigates the impacts of the abuse they have received at the hands of European Americans since the late 1800s. The European attitude toward the Black Hills has always been one of resource extraction. The Hills offer human society an abundance of minerals. Rock shops abound and rock collecting is a popular hobby. In years past, miners took full advantage of the mineral wealth. What was the largest active goldmine in the western hemisphere, the famous Homestake Mine, is in the Hills. At its closing in 2002, Homestake was the deepest mine in North America, with tunnels to 8,000 feet below ground level.
Leaving the Rapid City airport, I traveled the short distance to the air base, passing through the small community of Box Elder - named after a small tree of stream banks. Upon my arrival at Ellsworth, the Officer of the Day, a first lieutenant, greeted me and informed me that I was privileged to be assigned to one of our most important military installations in the entire country. He proudly explained that Ellsworth functioned as a nuclear deterrent to keep the Cold War from becoming a raging inferno. I have struggled to recall my exact thoughts at the time. I think my mind was filled mostly with feelings of insecurity. But over the course of the coming weeks, as a new second lieutenant, I would have moments that I could identify both as exultation and intimidation, accompanied by a constant, underlying fear. Could I rise to the occasion and accomplish whatever would be asked of me as a member of the elite Strategic Air Command?
My first night on base was spent in guest quarters. A small room became my temporary home for about two weeks, if I recall correctly. But regardless of the duration, I clearly remember the constant sound of the wind vibrating the metal framing of the guest quarters. On that first night, I quickly went to sleep, fatigued from the long flight, but intermittently awoke to the sound of the unrelenting wind rattling the metal framing. The effects of the wind were not to be denied.
As an example, in the days following my arrival at Ellsworth, I began noticing the base's efforts at landscaping. Small trees held vertical by wires had been planted near some kind of boundary. The merciless winds caused desiccation and stunted tree growth. After a few years, some of the seedlings simply gave up and died. In many places, the location and spacing of the trees flew in the face of common sense, much less specialized landscaping knowledge. Evidently some mindless military regulation on landscaping had been implemented. The South Dakota winds were unimpressed.
As weeks rolled by, what became equal in importance to the mission of Ellsworth AFB was its geographical location. Ellsworth sits 10 miles out into the South Dakota prairie East of Rapid City, facing the long line of the venerable Black Hills, sacred home of the Lakota. I could see the Hills stretching for miles from the windows of my bachelor officers quarters - a wooden and quieter structure than the guest quarters. As I gazed westward, I could see the glistening of rock faces on the distant peaks and often wondered about them. I could even see the reflection off Mount Rushmore, which I eventually confirmed through binoculars. From my new home at Ellsworth, I was positioned to explore the mountainous terrain of the Black Hills on the weekends and firmly establish them as my second mountain Mecca. I did not have a car at the time, but made friends with the only black officer on the base. Richmond did have a car and was interested in visiting the mountains, but felt rel
uctant to go there by himself. When he learned of my mountain background, he generously provided the transportation. We became explorers of the Black Hills and my love affair with those sacred mountains began.
Over the course of my first two years at Ellsworth, the Black Hills became my spiritual mountain home. Chronologically speaking, my first Mecca will always be the Great Smoky Mountains, but the Black Hills is equal in power to the Smokies as are the Bighorns. Each of these ranges could not be more different from the other two.
The modern day Black Hills are an enigma. Along the major arteries, the region has become swamped with tourist traps replete with the inevitable spot where gravity is mystically suspended, a phenomenon to intrigue the scientifically gullible. There is the historically famous Stratobowl, site of a famous balloon ascent to 72,395 feet. There is the fake gold and phony wild west displays, but I could quickly bypass all that. Dodging the touristy spots, the real Black Hills offered me an abundance of wild, scenic terrain that was remarkably easy to access. Ponderosa pine forests, impressive rock formations, tumbling streams, box canyons, distant vistas, caves, crystals of many minerals, buffalo, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, and deer made the Hills more than just a recreational destination. The Black Hills also have bear, but black bear, not grizzly. That intimidating predator had been eliminated years before, and it probably is not proper in wild
life circles for me to say so, but I felt relieved.
In spring and summer, the Hills unfolded their multi-colored petals for the serious wild flower enthusiasts to enjoy. I remember a fragrant blue phlox, the likes of which I have not since found. That is appropriate. After all, the Black Hills were the Paha Sapa, held sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, and Kiowa. The Black Hills were about finding a secluded spot and communing with the spirits of the land and sensing lingering presences of its past human inhabitants. One simply needed a quiet retreat and to this end I was especially drawn to the small but rugged box canyons that one could escape to without long treks into remote wilderness areas. A 300-foot elevation change scramble up a ridge laden with attractive rock outcroppings that served as effective barriers to casual strolling, a quick traverse across a narrow top, and one could drop into a fairyland world hidden completely from the eyes of summertime tourists. All sounds of people and cars faded and left one
with only the sounds of weather and wildlife. The small, secluded canyons provided me with climbing opportunities and on occasion there were caverns to explore. I mostly avoided the caves. I was intimidated by the darkness and the steadily narrowing passages. I usually ventured only a few yards into those underground worlds before my imagination would conjure a demon and I would quickly reverse directions.
If the natural setting of the Black Hills was idyllic for me, so has it been for others, except that with growing numbers comes other priorities and inevitable abuse of the land. In recent decades, there are conservation success stories in the Black Hills, but the abominations continue. Abuses can be on an overpowering scale. The Black Hills is home to the annual Sturgis Motor Cycle Rally. An army of elbow to elbow motorcyclists converge on Sturgis to create an event wholly inappropriate to the nature of the Black Hills. The Mount Rushmore National Shrine is another offense to those sacred mountains for different reasons. Then there is the Black Hills National Forest. While well-managed when compared to many other national forests, the BHNF leaves much to be desired in terms of ecological and historical appreciation of the Black Hills. Basically, the philosophy there is that the only good tree is a managed tree, albeit with a recognizable element of care in the case of
the BHNF. Credit should be given where credit is due.
A favored area for me to visit in the Black Hills was a place called Joe Dollar Gulch, a series of drainages and ravines sandwiched between three prominent peaks in the central Black Hills. But I'll save Joe Dollar Gulch for Episode II.


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