The weather was clear last week and should be clear next week, but this week promised springtime’s blustery winds and snow flurries. I’d planned to spend some time sightseeing the local American treasures, but instead rushed through the scenic roads around Rushmore to take advantage of the brief clear skies for my hike.
There was a school field trip at Sylvan Lake, dozens of junior-high-aged kids dutifully examining the Black Hills geology or sneaking off into the forest. A ruddy school bus driver in a plaid Stormy Kromer cap offered me coffee from his thermos as I loaded up my daypack. “It gets windy up there, ” he warned, inspecting my rain shell. “Beautiful views, though. I hike it about once a year with my grandkids, you know it’s the highest point east of the Rockies until you get to the Pyrenees in…” he paused, squinting into the trees after a pair of teens “…Europe.” Distractedly he wished me luck and headed back to his thermos, flashing one more wary glance to the disappearing couple.
The trail starts off as a wide sandy path glittering with flakes of mica. Every time the clouds parted it lit up like a disco ball, fool’s gold flashing amid the pine needles. Tall spires of rock stood in the distance around every corner, bold exclamation points punctuating the dark rolling Black Hills.
Gradually the pines–they smelled so good, crisp fresh firs shielding patches of snow from the sun– started to disappear, replaced by fallen denuded dry logs. Bark beetles have just devastated this place. It felt unsettlingly apocalyptic to be hiking through a forest of entirely dead trees. Bare swaths marked the areas where helicopters had flown out thousands of the deadfall to be chewed into paper.
I entered Black Elk Wilderness and read one of the quotes attributed to Black Elk himself, laminated and tacked neatly onto the permit board,
“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”
I reflected on these circles and cycles as I hiked through the corpses of trees, my mind wandering to my favorite mountain biking trail in Flagstaff, destroyed by a careless forestfire five years ago. That first summer it was a charred black wasteland, but two years later it was a dizzying kaleidoscopic field of bright wildflowers, and now the first delicate shoots of aspen are twining up from the dark soil. Long after I’m gone, that pine forest will stand as stately as it did in ’99 when I remember it best, my quads screaming as I triumphantly broke in my new Specialized “Stumpjumper” on the steep shaded track. I hope the same can be said for this forest, already whistling with tree-massacring insects in cool April.
The final mile to the summit is steeper and rockier, finally revealing a fire tower made of stone. An older couple with vintage canvas knapsacks are perched on the side of the tower stairs, glowing in the view, and I unsuccessfully try to hide my breathless panting. They smile indulgently. “It’s the rough part,” the woman explains. “But this view is so worth it.”
Her partner nods. “It’s so beautiful. You know, this is the highest point east of the Rockies in the whole country. Until the Pyrenees, in fact.”
I grinned and clambered up the rocks past them, through a small tunnel and then into and through the impressive stone tower, out to the highest outcropping of grey rock I could find, marveling in the 360 views of the Black Hills and Badlands circled around me. Finally I sat on the edge of a rock, sipping my beer and shushing tiny mice away from nibbling at my backpack, and thought of another of Black Elk’s quotes, this one carved on a log many miles below me but describing this very view:
“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.”
About the beer:
The Pile O’ Dirt Porter from Crow Peak brewery– named for a rock formation visible but not discernable from my vantage point– smells delicious on a windy April day, like dark roasted coffee mingled with those Werther’s candies. Coffee snobs will sometimes sneer at Starbucks, claiming the chain burns their beans, while fans of the Siren will applaud the rich roasty flavor. It tastes just like that, enthusiastically roasted husky malts like they were spun over a smoky bitter charcoal grill. There’s a sort of earthy soil/dirt flavor that I love in a dark beer, like stirring up the embers from a campfire, a perfect complement to the dry Black Hills.