I’m a little behind but that’s ok. One thing about road trips, they’re exhausting. Even with all the conviction in the world, instead of keeping up with your blog, you end up hitting the hotel bed right after showering. Lights out. Tomorrow I’ll be back in New Jersey, back home. It seems like I’ve been away for weeks. So many miles, so many hours, so many landscapes, so many experiences and memories that I will carry with me to my last day. But let me offer a recap of my hike up Black Elk peak.
This mountain, the highest in the state of South Dakota and also the highest peak east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees, has evaded me for twenty years. The first time I had the chance of climbing it, I missed out due to dehydration. The second time, the very next year, the group I was with decided last second that they were know longer interested in climbing it. Fast forward to last Friday’s failed attempt and you can understand why I was starting to think I might have had a curse placed on me.
But after a weekend of non stop rain and downright miserable weather, Monday brought fabulous conditions to the Black Hills. For a second though I thought I’d strike out again as the rain and fog continued, up until the point that I arrived at the trailhead on the shores of Sylvan Lake. The hike began in an eerie fog reminiscent to what hikers often encounter in the subalpine zone of the Adirondacks of New York or the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But at regular intervals, an incredible Granite spire would peek out of the mist or a grove of White Spruce would make an appearance, creating a scene of fairy tale like proportions. I was in complete awe. The contrasting natural elements, the subdued colors, the prehistoric forms of dizzying magnitude.
It’s true what they say. Even a bad day in nature is a beautiful day. I was in for a tremendous treat. Just like that, at the snap of a finger, the fog dissipated, the clouds parted, and the sky took on the most gorgeous cerulean blue color imaginable. Colors popped all around me. The yellows of the Aspen leaves, the forest greens of the Spruce boughs, the steely grey tones of the Granitic monoliths, all finally presenting themselves with no filter. The sun was out, the temperature climbed, and I was transported to a boreal heaven. I didn’t know where else to look! Every direction presented sublime delicacies in the form of endless panoramas and post card worthy forest scenes. I felt good again, the best I’d felt on this whole trip. My body yearned for this kind of exercise, rigorous but necessary. I was in my element.
I continued walking past scenes straight out of Lord of the Rings or Willow. Other hikers were on the trail, happy, rejoicing in the sunshine and natural wonder that surrounded them. There was an air of giddiness all around. I was now in the Black Elk Wilderness Area. Black Elk Peak used to be known as Harney Peak but Mr. Harney wasn’t the nicest of guys, to say the least. So the mountain was bestowed a new name, the name of a Lakota Holy man. A respectful gesture, although made a little late. The last three quarters of a mile were the toughest part of the climb. The trail ascended pretty steeply and even slithered through granite passageways and up stone staircases to the summit tower. What a view! Three hundred and sixty degrees of glorious vistas surrounded me! From the top, you were looking into North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and into the famous grouping of Granite spires known as “The Needles”. Mountains, hills, valleys, and wide open land spread out in front of me as far as the eye could see.
A few of the Black Spruces had prayer flags wrapped around their branches, reminding climbers of the sacred nature of this highpoint. I spotted one of these pilgrim hikers, bent over, hands on rock, in a deep state of prayer. It was a beautiful site to behold. I made my way to one of the secondary summits and began to send my own prayers and thoughts into the four directions. I thanked Black Elk for allowing me safe passage, I spoke to my niece Camilla, and I said a prayer for all the Indigenous men, women, and children who lost way a way of life, who lost this scared mountain and the forests below it. It was quite the experience. I lingered for a while savoring the view and my accomplishment before shedding layers and beginning my descent back down to Sylvan Lake.
This was a hike for the record books. World class beauty, challenging, of spiritual significance, and completed just as I was starting to lose all hope. Black Elk Peak was medicine. It inspired me to continue on this path of exploration, adventure, and discovery. It re-ignited my desire to live life with purpose and passion. It brought a smile to my face. I could now leave the Black Hills feeling content and ready for the long trip back home. Dogsha…..