En route from Capitol Reef, Utah, to Mesa Verde, Colorado. Made a few stops along the way, like this view looking down at the Grand Gulch from atop the mountain. Next stop: the Navajo Rez to show Chris the impressive Monument Valley.
The last time I was in Monument Valley was in 2002 (click here to see my old Visual Journal post). And man, the place has really changed!! They built an air-conditioned monstrosity and a huge paved lot where the old campground used to be!!! I was saddened to see this vulgar display of “progress.” But I guess if the Navajo Nation wanted to develop their tourism, it’s their right. But my heart was truly broken to see it like this.
They even improved the dirt road so cars could drive down in the valley!! No more 4-wheel drive needed.
En route to Colorado from the Black Hills, we visited Wounded Knee Memorial on Pine Ridge Reservation. The place was erie and heavy. It saddened my heart to stand above the murdered.
A sweetgrass offering on the fence.
Western Wonderland Roadtrip
That night we set up camp at Toadstool Geologic Park in northwest Nebraska’s famous Sandhills. I wanted to roam the hills and take some wicked sunset photographs. We set up camp, with no one else there, had a few beers and then got hit by a spring rainstorm. We waited a couple hours for it to pass, but it kept raining harder. So we quickly tore down camp and drove the 20 miles back to a paved road. We were lucky to make it out of there on the sandy, rutted road, slowly being transformed into a mud wallow. We headed to the nearest town of any size — Alliance — and got a hotel for a dry night’s sleep.
An amazing day caving with Dan Austin in Jewel Cave.
Western Wonderland Roadtrip
Chris and I were excited to have three caving trips lined up in two world-class caves: Jewel and Wind Caves. Sunday we arrived bright and early for our first trip underground into Jewel. Dan Austin, the Paha Sapa Grotto vice chair (which is the only South Dakota grotto), took us underground for an eight-hour trip. He took Chris and I on a measly couple-mile tour amid the 142 miles of cave. Jewel is the second longest cave in the world, only to be surpassed by the Mammoth Cave System in nearby Kentucky.
As a South Dakota native, Dan is certified by the National Park System as a trip leader. He told us it took 100 hours of logged underground time to become one. I think it would be easy tooling around 142 miles of passage and surveying new passage to build up 100 hours.
The main difference for us, being eastern cavers, was the manganese present in Jewel. The manganese dioxide, called pyrolusite, covered the floors of all the lower passages in the cave. It looked like dark shale covering the floor in chips and slabs. Unknowing to the caver, if you stepped on them, you would break apart the deposits and would release a monster to reckon with. Once you break up the manganese, it turns into a thick, oily, slick surface that stains everything you touch.
A distinctive path showed the way where everyone had been before us. You could tell if someone had strayed from the established route by a single step. Also, the walls were covered in the black manganese where people used formations as handholds. It was strange for us not being able to go our own way and check out leads as we seemed fit. We became very aware of all of our movement and it was clear that we had to stay on the path to preserve the beauty of the cave.
Dan knew his cave very well. He was constantly throwing facts at us along the way. Things like the nailhead spar that we saw on the walls covered about 80 percent of the cave. It supposedly varied from an inch to 2.5 feet thick in the lower levels. We mostly saw 6 to 10-inch thick nailhead spar, which gives great traction under the slick manganese residue. Dan also told us of how climatologists have been conducting studies on the air flow of the cave. By calculating how much Jewel breathes, things like cave volume and connections to other caves can be better determined. He said that from the current air volume, anywhere from 5-50 percent of the cave has been discovered. Now that’s a lot of cave to survey!
There is also the mysterious “white stuff” that appears in Jewel. This very technical name is given to this white residue that appears to cover the walls in the lower levels of Jewel. Dan said the mineral content has been tested and scientist still do not know what the compound is made of or how it forms in the cave. Hence, the highly scientific name of “white stuff” was born.
Jewel cave is also the first cave for both Chris and I to encounter moonmilk. It is a white gummy material with the consistency of cottage cheese. It looks like normal white calcite or aragonite deposits on the walls and the only way to tell for sure that it’s moonmilk is to touch it, thus destroying the area. Moonmilk is actually a magnesium carbonate compound.
The highlight and destination of our tourist trip into Jewel was to see the amazing frostwork at Bunyan’s Foot. This huge formation, which looked like the foot of a giant, hangs over a breathing tube that leads down from the loft level to the next lowest level. Once climbing up to these levels, the cave changes dramatically. There is no more nailhead spar, but only delicate sand formations lining the walls with colors of red, tan, yellow, white and black. We even saw bat scratches, evidence from long ago of a bat population in the cave miles from the natural entrance of today. Bunyan’s Foot was the most amazing frostwork I’ve ever seen. The fragile white hairs ranged from tiny little things you can see in Virginia’s highly decorated cave of Paxtons to several inches long. I felt as if I would break them if I breathed too hard. The entire rock was covered with frost, as was the area below it. We stopped there to eat lunch, being mindful not to drop any crumbs on the cave floor, and take photos.
One interesting thing I noticed was that there were many features and passages that were unnamed. Many squeezes and rooms that were forgotten to the many other miles of “better” passage. I guess it would be too much naming everything. You would have a list of place-names 50 pages long in a cave like Jewel.
In the loft.
A cute little bat scratch on the wall.
We finished out our day visiting Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Here are prayer ties on a tree.
And to finish our our amazing day, the sunset behind Devils Tower.
Devils Tower at dusk and an hour or so before, with the warm winter light falling on the tower’s columns.
Devils Tower, or what the natives call Bears Lodge, is a beautiful place of my past that I revisit when I can.
It’s always drawn me near… the powerful presence this giant landmark has… which is why any tribe that encountered it has known the place for it’s true awesome energy and incoorperated the lodge in their oral histories.
Out of all the historical ties to the Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone tribes, my favorite creation story is from the Kiowa. It goes as follows:
Before the Kiowa came south they were camped on a stream in the far north where there were a great many bears, many of them. One day, seven little girls were playing at a distance from the village and were chased by some bears. The girls ran toward the village and the bears were just about to catch them when the girls jumped on a low rock, about three feet high. One of the girls prayed to the rock, “Rock take pity on us, rock save us!” The rock heard them and began to grow upwards, pushing the girls higher and higher. When the bears jumped to reach the girls, they scratched the rock, broke their claws, and fell on the ground. The rock rose higher and higher, the bears still jumped at the girls until they were pushed up into the sky, where they now are, seven little stars in a group known today as The Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. In the winter, in the middle of the night, the seven stars are right over this high rock. When the people came to look, they found the bears’ claws, turned to stone, all around the base.
Kids crashed out to catch a bus into the event. Looks like a scene from any other music festival, BUT DO NOT BE DECEIVED.
The Ichthus Festival is a very Christian gathering, so none of the usual music festival shenanigans like drinking, partial nudity or drugs were happening. I was there to cover the event for the day. In this photo below, thousands of people were praying together.
If you’re not familiar with this massive Christian Music Festival, consider yourself lucky. It’s an annual shin-dig of tens of thousands of people (mostly teenagers) in a southern-Baptist heaven called Kentucky that come together for the latest Christian music.
This is the famous Devil’s Tower on my first of many visits to this enchanting place. It was late and the summer sun was setting on it’s massive columns.
Geologists think the tower is a volcanic plug or the neck of an extinct volcano that has long ago eroded away. It is sacred to all of the plains Indian tribes. Most tribes call it Bear Rock. The Sioux traditionally held their sacred Sun Dance at Devils Tower around the summer solstice.
Each tribe had their own stories about the creation of the tower. My favorite is told by Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, in 1969. It goes:
“Well, long, long ago, two young Indian boys found themselves lost in the prairie. You know how it is. They had played shinny ball and whacked it a few hundred yards out of the village. And then they had shot their bows still farther out into the sagebrush. And then they had heard a small animal make a noise and had gone to investigate. They had come to a stream with many colorful pebbles and followed that for a while. They had come to a hill and wanted to see what was on the other side. On the other side they saw a herd of antelope and, of course, had to track them for a while. When they got hungry and thought it was time to go home, the two boys found that they didn’t know where they were. They started off in the direction where they thought their village was, but only got farther and farther away from it. At last they curled up beneath a tree and went to sleep.
They got up the next morning and walked some more, still headed the wrong way. They ate some wild berries and dug up wild turnips, found some chokecherries, and drank water from streams. For three days they walked toward the west. They were footsore, but they survived. oh how they wished that their parents, or aunts and uncles, or elder brothers and sisters would find them. But nobody did.
On the fourth day the boys suddenly had a feeling that they were being followed. They looked around and in the distance saw Mato, the bear. This was no ordinary bear, but a giant grizzly so huge that the boys would make only a small mouthful for him, but he had smelled the boys and wanted that mouthful. He kept coming close, and the earth trembled as he gathered speed.
The boys started running, looking for a place to hide, but here was no such place and the grizzly was much, much faster than they. They stumbled, and the bear was almost upon them. They could see his red, wide-open jaws full of enormous, wicked teeth. They could smell his hot evil breath. The boys were old enough to have learned to pray, and the called upon Wakan Tanka, the Creator: “Tunkashila, Grandfather, have pity, save us.”
All at once the earth shook and began to rise. The boys rose with it. Out of the earth came a cone of rock going up, up up until it more than a thousand feet high. And the boys were on top of it. Mato the bear was disappointed to see his meal disappearing into the clouds. Have I said he was a giant bear? This grizzly was so huge that he could almost reach to the top of the rock when he stood on his hind legs. Almost, but not quite. His claws were as large as a tipi’s lodge poles. Frantically Mato dug his claws into the side of the rock, trying to get up, trying to et those boys. As he did so, he made big scratches in the sides of the towering rock. He tried every spot, every side. He scratched up the rock all around, but it was no use. They boys watched him wearing himself out, getting tired, giving up. They finally saw him going away, a huge, growling, grunting mountain of fun disappearing over the horizon.”
A boy takes shelter from the scorching August sun underneath spectator seating in full pow wow wear.
A young mother talks to her baby while dancing in the circle at the Annual Omaha Nation Pow Wow in northeastern Nebraska. The Omaha claim to sponsor the longest continuously running pow wow in the nation, with a history going back to 1804.