Lens-Artist Challenge: My Travels

I met Steve eight months after I was widowed. In the tumult of grief and transition, he offered me something that was transformational – a chance to go camping. My husband and four kids and I did not camp together. I hadn’t been camping for years, but I consider myself a lifetime Girl Scout. Getting back into the outdoors, practicing self-reliance and adaptability, and surrounding myself with the beauty and non-judgmental, non-moral embrace of Nature was just what I needed to consider Life worthwhile again. Steve’s style of camping has a distinct difference from mine: his motto is not “Be Prepared”. His motto is “Be Open”. My instinct to make lists and consult maps was challenged at the very outset. We spent the first hour of one of our early trips parked at the curb outside my house in a deep philosophical discussion of what it means to be on an adventure. 

Steve also introduced me to the wonder of the National Forests of the U.S.A. There is no fee for camping in the National Forests, but there are Leave No Trace rules. A world of freedom opened up for us when I discovered we could easily make camp, cook, clean up, sleep and deal with personal waste (!) outside of crowded developed campsites.

We have, however, depended on either his former Toyota or my late husband’s Honda to transport all our gear.I would love to be able to experience the freedom of going into even more remote wilderness areas, either with a 4-wheel drive vehicle with higher clearance or a backpack. (The latter would be more realistic if I were ten years younger and in better shape…)

We have enjoyed the diversity, the grandeur, and the autonomy of places not dominated by human impact. I find those sacred spaces truly inspiring… and extremely photogenic.

(I had to include that last photo just to prove I’m not kidding about the Girl Scout bit…)
I thank Amy for sharing her inspirational Travel stories and for inviting us into this Travel Challenge. 

At Wounded Knee

The southern portion of Badlands National Park is jointly managed by the National Park and by the Oglala Lakota. The hope was that one day this section of the park would be the first Tribal National Park in the country. Those plans have not yet become a reality. The northern unit of the park hosts the scientific interpretation of the land and holds all of the associated resources you’d expect at a National Park.

The southern unit is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. At the White River Visitor Center, you can hear the historical interpretation of the people of this area, from paleo-Indians to European settlers to US Army Air Force troops in WWII who used the reservation land for a gunnery range and bombing practice. Just under 350,000 acres were acquired by eminent domain from the Oglala Lakota in 1942 on the pretext that it was “unused, unoccupied, and blighted”. 

Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of the Park. Its history is told in signs, tombstones, graffiti and the living words of people who live in extreme poverty, mistrustful of neighbors and governments and directly impacted by changes in climate and habitat for the animals that provide their sustenance. I am grateful to Mr. Apple (age 25) and Mr. Fast Horse (age 13) for sharing their story. 

My heart aches for these people, for their wounded dignity, for their invisibility, for their spoiled livelihood. That “living off the land” was ever possible for humans in this place year-round is doubtful, especially after the buffalo herds were decimated by European immigrants. This is an area of seasonal extremes, a place to which you’d make a sacred pilgrimage, spend a time in awe, and respectfully vacate. 

To see the land as sacred, wild, and autonomous allows an attitude of humility to flourish and banishes thoughts of domination, extraction and exploitation.  It brings truer balance and harmony to the relationship. Perhaps from this new understanding, a more sustainable future will develop for our species. 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Wisconsin Tour Guide

“Share with us an image, or two, or three, (or more!) of where you live.” 

If you look up over this post title, you will see two links to separate pages labelled “Wisconsin Historical” and “Wisconsin Outdoors”. You will find quite a few more than three photos there!

I moved to Wisconsin 7 years ago from Illinois, and have absolutely fallen in love with my new home state. I used to summer at Girl Scout camp as a child in northern Wisconsin, but I’ve come to feel like I’ve always belonged outside, here, even after living for 15 years in California. When I first moved north, I worked for 3 summers at Old World Wisconsin, a 575-acre living history museum that recreates 19th century farm and town settlement. Last year, I moved onto a property that is owned by the land trust that employs me. I have thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by 56 acres of Wisconsin woodland, wetland, and restored prairie. 

Wisconsin is a ridiculously photogenic state. It can take your breath away, fill you with pride, and surprise you at every outing. When we’re out hiking, my partner Steve very often just flings wide his arms and remarks (to nobody in particular), “Ladies and gentlemen — Wisconsin!”

Yes, it deserves your attention and applause. Here’s why: 

Tour Guide

An American Adventure: Part Seventeen

Cave Tour and Home Again

You’re a sixteen year old boy who has just moved to South Dakota in 1890. There’s a cave in your backyard…and your mother is still in Iowa. What would you do? Grab a candle and some string and start spelunking! Alvin McDonald spend three years exploring the cave and keeping a daily journal of his discoveries. While presenting his findings at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he contracted typhoid fever and died at the end of the year. He was just 20 years old.

This cave’s natural entrance is only about ten inches in diameter. Depending on the pressure difference between the outside air and the cave air, it is either “breathing” in or out from this orifice. This Spirit Wind figures prominently in the creation story of the Lakota people. How were you breathed into being?

This cave differs from the others I’ve visited (Mammoth Cave, KY; Carlsbad Caverns, NM; Cave of the Mounds, WI) in that its formations are mostly boxwork, rather than stalactites and stalagmites. Boxwork is kind of like what you’d see if you built a castle of sugar cubes and mortared it with cement. The sugar cubes dissolve, and what is left is a kind of honeycomb of borders, criss-crossing each other. The calcite “mortar” that filled cracks in the limestone and dolomite is what remains. These structures were formed at the genesis of the cave, and not later by the action of dripping moisture, so they are speleogens rather than speleothems. (My new word for this section of the trip!) The ranger asked us what we thought it looked like. My first response was “a Jackson Pollack painting”.  

They also rather resemble cobwebs, giving the dimly illuminated cave interior an aspect of Gothic horror. Creepy and fascinating!

Cave tours are absolutely spellbinding, but they don’t make good photography hikes. Watching my head and my footing, looking around at the surroundings, asking questions and trying not to hold up the single-file line of tourists took too much concentration for me to get many pictures.

I was reminded of the phenomenal bat program at dusk at Carlsbad Caverns, but learned that Wind Cave doesn’t have one. The number of bats is far less and the egress far smaller than the natural arena at Carlsbad. (If you’d like to read about that experience and see a photo of the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, click HERE.)

So, early the next morning, we headed home across the tall grass prairie of South Dakota, past Badlands (which we will return to see), through Minnesota, across the Mississippi River, and back to our Wisconsin home on the conservation prairie. The lawn hadn’t been cut yet this year and was absolutely lush and about waist high. It made us almost giddy! A good old Midwestern thunderstorm washed my car of all the insects and dirt we’d accumulated on our trip.

Five thousand miles, eight National Parks and Monuments, five hundred photographs, and four new brake pads later…I’m back at the computer, dreading the news about what is happening to our public land. I am so glad to have had an opportunity to walk in those places, to breath, to see, to sleep under the stars. I hold a hope in my heart that my children and my future grandchildren will have the opportunity to get to know the America that I visited on this journey, and that it will endure in its character. I may never know what they will inherit, but I will try to do my part to protect it.

An American Adventure: Part Sixteen

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

We drove north from Interstate 90 across tall grass prairies and into the Black Hills the next day. We stopped at a small town museum, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland ranger station to collect some information about the area. There are a LOT of tourist attractions here, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. We were not interested in seeing how people had carved up the mountains, however. We were interested in exploring the ecosystem on top and the caves beneath these sacred hills. 

We decided to stay in the Park campground for two nights and take a long hike in the morning and a cave tour in the afternoon of the full day in between. The campground was in a stand of Ponderosa pine, nestled in the grassy, rolling hills.  We heard coyotes at dusk both nights, yipping far off somewhere. The camp sites were, thankfully, not crowded at all. But the Visitor Center sure was! The cave tours are very popular in the summer, one reason being that the temperature in the cave is a constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Probably most tourists are seeing other attractions and sleeping in town, only visiting the National Park for a few hours to tour the cave. We saw no one on the six miles of hiking trails that we covered. But we did see buffalo, prairie dogs, dung beetles, an elk pelvis, and lots of other signs of a vibrant biotic community.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Transient

The Wilderness Act of 1964 protects designated wilderness and defines it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. 

Hikers passing through in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, leave no trace…

Ancient desert communities left the pueblos centuries ago…

And my tent is pitched on this Earth for just a short while.

Transient

An American Adventure: Part Fourteen

Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay…

Well, this isn’t that Green River. That’s in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and I have been there. This is the Green River in Utah that carved out part of the Morrison Formation and exposed many of the geologic layers of the past 150 million years.

The river was running high and fast from snow melt.

Memorial Day boaters were finding out just how cold that water was, and I had to see for myself. It sure felt good after a couple of miles on the desert trail!

On Memorial Day itself the National Monument campground was not completely full, as many travelers were headed back home. We decided to spend two nights. Federal sites command a higher level of respect, I find, and despite the number of families with lots of gear and gadgets, the place was quiet and clean and people were well behaved.  Being in a Park campground means that you get opportunities to hear Ranger talks in the evening. We heard a presentation about Mountain Men of the area. The Ranger was dressed in period clothing and had all the gear and accessories that the kids clamor for: a coyote skin hat, a rifle, a beaver pelt and traps, a flint & steel pouch, a bear claw necklace and a big knife. He told the story of Hugh Glass’s experience with General Ashley’s company exploring the Green River…the story that Leonardo di Caprio acted out in the movie The Revenant. Later that evening, we drove out to the homestead at the end of the road where Josie Bassett Morris lived for more than 50 years. She had divorced three husbands, been widowed once and came out to this spot with husband number five to build her own cabin. Soon he was asked to leave as well. She hosted her four children and numerous grandchildren throughout the years, finally suffering a broken hip while at the cabin in 1963 and dying of complications the following year at the age of 90. 

This homestead offered another version of human habitation in the desert to ponder. Josie was part of a wild bunch of outlaws in her younger days, and when she settled, her community lived in town, many miles away. Her cabin was built right next to a spring, which still runs with fresh, clear water. She brought in a lot of material to make the place “home”. This represents a much more modern version of life than the Pueblo communities we’d visited days before, but is still a sharp contrast to life in the campground we had just left that night.

Which causes me to wonder, what is a “sustainable” lifestyle in this place? What is “enough” to live in a desert? Or in any landscape? How has the idea of “enough” changed in my lifetime? What do I think is “enough”?