The Black Hills

As our vacation comes the an end, I found myself contemplating a few things about the Black Hills, and why we love them so much. Of course, Harney Peak (now renamed Black Elk Peak, but always Harney Peak in my mind) is our favorite hike, and one we have hiked 16 times now. As we were driving to Keystone to catch the 1880 Train, which is our last day of vacation tour every year, I can get a glimpse of Harney Peak, and it occurred to me that I might be much the same as Doctor Valentine Trant O’Connell McGillycuddy, the white man whose ashes are entombed at the top of the peak at the fire tower there. McGillycuddy was the first white man ever to climb Harney Peak. And when he was an Indian Agent, he was respected and even called “Tasunka Witko Kola” (Crazy Horse’s friend), because he was of course, Crazy Horse’s friend, but was also loved and respected by all of the Lakota Sioux tribe. As a doctor, he treated Crazy Horse’s wife, which brought about their lifelong friendship. He also treated many other Lakota Sioux warriors when they were wounded in a wrongful attack by the army. To the Lakota Sioux, even his old enemy, Red Cloud, McGillycuddy was known as “Wasicu Wakan,” which literally means Holy White Man. It was probably the greatest sign of respect he could have received. Now I’m not saying that I could even begin to compare to McGillycuddy in all the things he did, but in one way, we are the same. We both love the Black Hills, and especially Harney Peak. After McGillycuddy passing, and as a show of respect, and to commemorate his love of the Black Hills and Harney Peak, his ashes were entombed in that amazing place.

Of course, for us there are many special places in the Black Hills. We love the trails. Among our favorites are, of course, Harney Peak, Sunday Gulch, Horsethief Lake, Cathedral Spires, the Flume Trail, the Mickelson, the Centennial, and French Creek trails. These trails take us to beautiful areas of the Hills that you just can’t see from the road. They are inside places like the Black Elk Wilderness areas. These are remote places where you have to sign in, just in cast you don’t come back out. It gives them a place to start looking for you. In reality, it would be hard to get lost, provided you stay on the trail. The trails are well marked and easy to spot. It’s just not easy to get lost. Some of the trails are really hard, however, and sometimes it just depends on the shape you’re in. A trail that was really hard one year can be a lot more tolerable the next year. The Black Hills are a challenge, at least for the tourist who gets away from the touristy things, and looks for the remote beauty of the Black Hills.

The summer of 2012 could very well be known as Wildfire Summer. June has brought record high temperatures and more wildfires than ever before. Colorado Springs lost at least 350 homes in one neighborhood. At least one fire fighting plane has crashed killing most of the people on board. Tens of thousands of acres have been burned. Whole forests and wilderness areas close to being wiped out. It is such an awful situation. Rain seems to only exist in the areas that need it the least…like Florida. Each day I pray for rain for the areas that need it so badly, and for comfort for those who have lost so much.

If the summer of 2012 is Wildfire Summer, then 2009 would have to be known as Pine Beetle Summer. So many trees were lost on mountains, forests, and wilderness areas. As a hiker, the loss felt devastating to me. The beauty of the Black Hills that I love looks so scarred, and it makes me feel so very sad. It is hard to look at the dead trees when we were on the trails, without feeling the loss very deeply. Our annual hike to Harney Peak, though we will not be able to take it this year due to a lack of time to prepare, takes us right through the Black Elk Wilderness Area. I’m told that virtually all the trees in there have been killed by the Pine Beetles, and that makes my stomach churn. It is such a beautiful place…or was. What will it look like the next time I see it.

Then today, when we were on our hike, I saw something that made me realize that all is not lost. There in front of a stand of large trees was a row of smaller trees…the next generation of trees. It occurred to me that every year the pine trees drop their seeds as the pine cones mature. Those seeds fall to the ground, and somehow manage to get started in the process of growing a new tree. As each tree drops hundreds of new seeds every year, and those seeds form hundreds of new trees, the next generation of trees is born.

Looking around, I began to notice several different years of new trees that were different heights now. There were 4 or 5 different years worth of new growth that were visible along the sides of the road and trails. The forests are the same, of course. All around the downed and brown trees there is new growth. Yes it will take years to regrow it all, but it will return. Of that I have no doubt, because I have seen the hope of the next generation.

Bob and I went on the first hike we have taken in a very long time today. We used to hike 8 miles a day at least 5 days a week. Now our days are filled with something different…caring for Bob’s parents. His dad has Emphysema and his mom has Alzheimer’s Disease. It takes time to care for another individual…much less 2 of them. Something has got to give when you are caregiving. There is no way to spend the amount of time necessary to keep a person healthy and still spend all the time you normally did on yourself.

When I was able to walk 8 miles a day, I was not only in great shape, but I was at my ideal weight. Now, I have learned to forgive myself, and to know that I cannot “do it all” and still take care of my aging mom and in-laws. I may not be in the best shape ever, but I could not look myself in the mirror if I did not take care of them. Besides, I love them, so I’ll set my needs aside for a while and care for theirs.

Our hike today was harder than I am used to, but it felt so good, and I want to be able to do more of it. I know that the road I have chosen to take will limit the hiking or even the after dinner walking I will be able to do, but…well, life happens, and we have to follow where the road takes us. Many times it is more important to set aside our needs for a time to do something that is more important for someone else. People do it all the time. Raising children is a prime example of it.

I will get back to having time for me again. I’m not worried about that. It is the way that I will get time for me back that I am trying to avoid. They will need help for the rest of their lives, so as long as they live my time will be less mine…and that is ok. I’d much rather have the parents I have left be here a while longer, than have the time for me.

Yes, our hike today was lovely, and it took the work of 5 other people to make it happen. Corrie, Amy, Josh, Brenda, and Jennifer gave of themselves to give Bob and me a vacation, and it is a gift I will never forget. I know it was extra for each of them and their families sacrificed too. I want them each to know that I love them and I appreciate the time I have been given to rest and get my strength back. I will be forever grateful.

Every year Bob and I take time to rejuvenate in the Black Hills. It’s almost like the Black Hills is in my blood. This doesn’t really surprise me so much in that my dad has always loved the Black Hills, even before they were the big tourist attraction they are today. And he would not be alone in that either. Many people have come to the Black Hills since the Gold Rush days. Many came to find their fortune, and many did find it, but many did not, but once they came and saw the beauty of the Black Hills, they either stayed or, like us, they come back often.

Dad found the Black Hills to be so picturesque, that even before some of the landmarks that we now know so well, were finished, he took pictures to remember the beauty of the area. He wanted to always remember that beautiful place. I know just how he felt back then, because it is exactly how I feel today. I come here every year, and yet I never run out of beautiful sights to photograph so that I will be able to remember them always. I think that is because no matter how many times I come here, I will never be able to see all the Black Hills has to offer.

When we were kids, the Black Hills was a place we loved to go, and although we didn’t get to go as often and Bob and I do, we did get to go. They wanted us to see the show of patriotism that lives in the Black Hills too. Every Time I go to Mount Rushmore, I find myself in thinking of the men who are portrayed there, as well as the ones who carved the mountain. It was and always will be totally awesome to me.

Dad has left us now for Heaven, but his echo still remains in the Black Hills. Every Time I come here, I can hear his voice pointing out his favorite places to his wife and daughters. And when Bob and I hike the trails that run through the hills, I can imagine what my dad would think of the places we have gone. To my knowledge, he never hiked in the Black Hills, but I know without a doubt that he would have loved the places we have gone on our hikes.

Our goal this year for miles on The Mickelson Trail will not materialize, due to the second hike up Harney Peak. That’s ok with me, because I would hate to have missed Harney Peak. We love it up there so much. We walked 5 miles one way/10 miles total on the Mickelson Trail today, so we will be 10 miles short of our goal. I still feel good about it, because of the added difficulty of Harney Peak. What the Mickelson Trail lacks in difficulty, we make up for in distance, so while the workout isn’t the same, we still get a workout.

Bob and I have hiked for a long time, and we have learned that sometimes hiking isn’t about socializing. We have a tendency to walk at times quietly, each in our own thought world. I find myself, especially in the Black Hills, thinking of my Dad. The Black Hills was a favorite spot of his, and his echo is everywhere here. I hear him in the breeze through the trees, the crackling of a campfire, the rushing of water over rocks in the river, the chirping of the birds, and because he wanted us to see the historic places and deep patriotism that are here, I am reminded of him in everything I do here. He would have loved the places we have seen on our hikes. You just can’t see them from the main roads.

The animals that we have come across are always a total surprise. From the deer on the trail to a fox running away. From a chipmunk looking for food to a woodchuck watching us curiously and .yet not really wanting to run away. He seemed almost as curious about us as we were about him…peeking at us from his hole and ducking ever so slightly if we moved too much, then coming back up

I am always amazed at how much I need the hikes in the Black Hills. It’s like I come alive again, like I can breathe again. I think the Black Hills are simply in my blood. I need a week of trekking through them to refresh my energy again. I look forward to my yearly trips here, and am always sad to see my time here end. Nevertheless, because of the Black Hills, I go home refreshed and feeling very much alive…and very thankful for my time there.

As the Independence Day holiday approaches, so does my vacation. Every year over the 4th of July week, Bob and I head to the Black Hills for a few days of hiking, sight seeing, and relaxing. It is a time of rejuvenating for us, and I always look forward to it. We will probably hike around 45 miles over the 7 days we are there, weather permitting, and we will do some of the normal touristy things that everyone who goes there does, even though we have been there many times in the past. It is a place that we will always love to go.

There is a quiet peacefulness in the Black Hills that always renews my spirit. When you get out in nature, away from the crowds and noise, your mind can relax and regroup. The stresses of a busy life melt away, and I feel refreshed again, like I can go back and take on the world again. There is nothing like a few days hiking the trails in the Black Hills to do that for me, and the anticipation is building in me moment by moment. I think this might be a long week.

Many people go to the Black Hills every year, but few realize that there is a world there that is out of sight of the normal avenues of travel. Many people are rushing here and there trying to cram 14 days of sightseeing into 7 and hoping to take away memories that will last a lifetime, because many will never come back there again. I was that way too I suppose, until Bob and I discovered hiking, and got out into the real Black Hills. Now when we go over, it isn’t the touristy sites that appeal to me the most. It is the anticipation of what new sights we will see on the trail today. Like the part of the Mickelson Trail where there must have been thousands of butterflies. They were literally everywhere, and they seemed to have no fear of people. One little guy came around us and didn’t seem to want to leave. He would fly a little ways ahead of us and land, and as we came close, he would finally move a little more. At one point we got so close we might have been able to touch him…had we tried. He seemed to be begging us to take a picture of him, so I did, and then…satisfied, it seemed, he left.

When the week is over, we will return to our busy lives, a little sorry that our days of refreshing are over, but feeling very blessed to have been able to savour those sweet memories of a quiet time spent close to nature. It won’t be the last time we take in the elixer that is The Black Hills, but unfortunately, it will be probably another year before we get to go again, so I am thankful for the pictures, both on my computer and in my head, that will hold onto that sweetness until I am once again able to go again for a few days of refreshing in my Black Hills.

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