Mid-Winter Update

The dilemma for a blogger – if you are busy blogging, you aren’t busy living.

And yes, this is my excuse for not posting since late summer . . .

The threads of life keep weaving through the days and months.

Fall was a lingering and lovely season that went on into mid-November, both a blessing and an ominous portent. Blessing in that we were able to get out and enjoy mountain biking along the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota for a long weekend in late October, and a paddling jaunt to Bighorn Canyon on the Montana/Wyoming border two weeks into November.

Winter arrived on our way home from Bighorn Canyon. We went from the take-out boat ramp at 60 degrees, to snow and zero late that same night. That afternoon, while winter was dropping in, we scooted up high in the Bighorn Mountains to visit the Medicine Wheel there, and then, on the way home, also drove over to visit Plenty Coups State Park, south of Billings. Both were sweet, sacred spots and worthy visits. I’ve inserted a piece I wrote about the Medicine Wheel, and which was published by the news syndicate, Writers on the Range. Read below for my take on that remarkable spot.


The riddle of the circle of ancient power

Walk left, the sign says, at the entrance to the roped-off site.

It’s a place that hammers me in the chest. The world spills away, down into the Bighorn Basin, across Wyoming and north into Montana, a huge gallop of space. Brown miles stretch out veined with river courses, serrated with ridges and mountain ranges. Gray clouds bulk up on the horizon.

The Medicine Wheel is made of stones and rests close to 10,000 feet on the exposed northern end of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. It is mid-November, the end of a lingering fall, but it feels like storm. Wind tugs across the bare ridge through tufts of brittle grass. A skiff of snow sticks to the ground, blowing in hard pellets.  I fight the urge to return to safety, to lower ground, to pavement and the warm car.

I’ve been instructed to walk left. So I do.

I edge around the roped circle, looking in, wondering how to be here. Hundreds of offerings flap in the wind: Knotted scraps of red fabric, intricate bows, medicine bags, beaded necklaces, a pottery bowl, a buffalo skull, a hawk feather, a jaw bone. They are the artifacts of prayers and stories, gratitude and pleas, all gathered to this airy perch so starkly moving yet mysterious.

The wheel is nearly 100 feet across, a ring of stones seamed with 28 spokes, which some think might represent the lunar cycle. Stone markers sit at the four directions; including the points where the sun rises and sets on summer solstice. All laid out in this most remote, most wind-bitten, most grand perch. What it means, no one knows, or is saying, any more than anyone knows what Stonehenge in England means. What the Forest Service says is that circles like this one reflect the 7,000-year-old occupancy of Native Americans on the continent.

The Crow Tribe has a legend of a young man with a burned face who traveled here on a vision quest, and who first laid out this wheel. It has been noted that this site forms one point of an equidistant triangle, the other points being Devil’s Tower and Hell’s Half Acre, near Casper, Wyoming.

There are a great many stone sites scattered across the Great Plains – sacred hoops, altars, animal designs – some added to over many generations. Few are preserved. Most are unrecognized. Many have been plowed up or paved over or otherwise destroyed — another part of the legacy of oppression. Some are kept secret. The Medicine Wheel has been recognized and made a National Historic Landmark, for better or worse.

I walk left all the way around, looking in, then out across the sweep of distance, and close up, into the mountain valleys. The wind hammers my face, and then my back. I contemplate the offerings, imagine the people and lives they signify. I pull out my bandana and knot it around the rope, thinking about Mother Earth. It flaps in the wind. I imagine it fraying and fading along with the rest of these tattered prayer flags. It is inadequate, I know, not properly considered. It is also an impulse I can’t deny.

We lap once more, lingering, our faces cold, the wind rising. It had been an effort to come here, up the winding miles of 10 percent grade, out the snow-crusted dirt road and slippery track to the ridge. I think of the ancients walking up the long river valleys, climbing past the last tongues of trees, emerging into the exposed high country.

To do what? To sit? To fast? To dream? To sing? To pray? To dance and celebrate? To be grateful? To find solace? To understand?

It isn’t the impulse to be of that culture that I feel, standing here in this raw wind. Nor is it the voyeuristic urge to peek at forbidden sanctuary. It’s more the sense of emptiness and yearning in the cradle of the earth, the lack of ease or context as I walk around the ancient ring perched against sky. And also the ignorance about what to do with it, what ceremony to bring, how to act, what tradition to uphold.

All I have is the abrupt command to walk left, and to make what I might of this lonely circle of stone humming with power on the lip of the earth.


Since that weekend in November, winter has been capricious and odd. I’ve been bike riding in January and February. There is really no snow on the ground, and in the backcountry, even high up, things are thin. Marypat and I skied on crust into a Forest Service cabin in early Feb., a place usually buried under snow, and we saw bear tracks in the snow – bears out of hibernation in February! Strange stuff.

And family circumstances have become a looming factor, with Dad’s health sliding. He is now in Denver at a hospital, where he’s had a toe amputated and blood vessel blockages removed in his legs. Ann Noel is with him this week, but his prognosis, now, seems pretty dire.

So yes, blogging seems a strange and surreal luxury, and who knows when I’ll post next.

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