Medicine Bow Peak. It's the coup-de-gras of hikes in the Medicine Bow National Forest. And for good reason. At just over 12,000 ft in elevation, the 360 views at the top are just reward for the rigor of the climb up. The vistas on every side show a variety of landscapes and you can see for miles and miles and miles. If you hike the loop, you see very different scenery on the way up from the way down, and it's all captivating.
Though all of the reviews I read of the hike said to go clockwise in order to have a more gradual ascent, saving the steep grades for the descent, I opted for the reverse. I'd much rather climb steep inclines than descend them, and my knees thank me for it! The decision to go against the herd was a great decision for the company I had the good fortune of keeping on the challenging 0.8 mile switchback, boulder climbing press to the peak. I'd only seen one person up to that point. When I reached the sign that indicated the way to the peak or the way down to another lake that is a common starting point for a relatively quick (but steep) hike up to the top and down, the wind was insane. It is Wyoming. The wind is always insane. But it made me contemplate the wisdom of heading up a steep climb on the side of a mountain where I did not know the trail conditions and all I could see was rocks and boulders going up. I like adventure, but...safety first (you're welcome, Mom!). At that moment, I noticed a group of five heading up from the lake towards me. Maybe I was in luck...
Once they reached me, I asked if they were going to the top, and after some discussion, they decided they were going to go for it. And they welcomed me to tag along. This, it turned out, was to be one of my favorite parts of the hike, keeping the company of this delightful, international family. So many overlapping interests and histories. We were not lacking for conversation on the way up. It turned out that not only did I feel safer (at least if I blew off the mountain, there'd be someone there to get help), but I also had camaraderie and new friends. It made the climb up seem much less grueling.
We had to part ways for the trip down, however, as they had a very important and exciting appointment to keep at the university in Laramie and would not be making the loop. While at the top, there had been two other couples, they were making the loop in the opposite direction. I had the trail to myself once I left the peak, seeing only one other individual in passing on his way up, until I had Lake Marie in my view again near the bottom. From good company and good conversation to quiet solitude, I had it all on this trip to the top and back. I could not have asked for a better day for the end cap to my time in Medicine Bow National Forest.
The Lost Lake Trail was supposed to be my “warmup” trail for Medicine Bow Peak. The app I was using said 3.6 miles. This was an out-and-back trail, and I’d assumed that the 3.6 miles was for the distance going out and back. That is what the other listings had been, and this trail wasn’t noted any differently than the others. I had planned to tack on a bit more and turn it into a five or six miler—to see more lakes and because the peak loop trail is supposed to be seven miles. This trail was to go past several of the glacial lakes that make this area one for scenic peak vistas and quiet water views. I anticipated that I’d be stopping often to enjoy the views, to sit down on a rock by the water in quiet contemplation, to catch my breath after a steep climb. So, off I went, with layers and food and plenty of water weighing down my backpack.
Gail and I had done a 3.5 miler that started from the same parking lot as this one, but headed in the opposite direction. Beautiful hike, but about half of it went through pine forests devastated by the bark beetle. There were at least as many brown or needleless trees as those still standing green. What is happening here in the west is difficult to observe. It’s painful. I remember the first time I witnessed a forest overcome by bark beetles. My family was camping in an area west of Rocky Mountain National Park. The forest in the campground had almost no healthy trees left. It made me wonder then what was to come of our other forests. And now I see. The beetles are unstoppable with the changes in seasonal patterns. They are leaving in their hungry wake large swaths of denuded forests. Dead wood. Tinderboxes for the ever-increasing wildfires. Evidence of which can be seen in the Medicine Bow National Forest as well. Just three months ago, there was a large wildfire here, and daily the horizon—and sometimes even overhead—takes on the yellow-orange hue from the haze caused by the burning west.
I signed into the registration box and noted only two other groups of two had signed in ahead of me. I’d pretty much have the trail to myself. Lovely. The forest was changing quickly with altitude gain. Fewer beetle trees. Eventually, trees gave way to shrubs and then to alpine tundra. Prior to reaching the higher elevations, I landed at Lost Lake. Turns out that the trail’s namesake lies halfway along the out-and-back trail. At this point, my watch said I’d already gone 1.9 miles, which meant that if the entire trip out and back was 3.6 miles, I should have been turning around now. But I still had at least that much further to go to get to the end of the trail. I didn’t mind. After a snack and a sit on a rock, onwards I went.
My eyes could not absorb all I saw. Something about this environment spoke to me. The contrasts between the rocks, trees, and water, the shifts between ecosystems. The wildness. And even the wind. When I get in these types of environments, I feel a part of it all. I sense the connection we all have to the natural world around us. I am as filled with contrasts as this space as I see around me. My own internal space is shifting. The more I am out here, the more I want to be. The more I am out here, the more I feel that this journey has so much to do with reconnecting with natural spaces, both in the world around me and in myself. Even my fears are different out here. Fearing confrontation with a bear or fearing an incoming storm while above tree line is somehow less stressful than the day-to-day fears encountered in our modern live-to-work, xenophobic, consumerist society. I fear the bear, though I want to see him. I fear the storm, though witnessing the power of Mother Nature is also exhilarating. At one point along the trail, looking out over several lakes and up at Medicine Bow Peak, with the wind whipping around me, I thought: If I die out here, I’d be okay with it. I would die happy. Of course, on my way back down, as I was racing that incoming storm to the car, I thought: I better not get stuck out here above tree line in a thunderstorm. I better not f@*king die out here! You see? Full of contrasts.
I did see that bear. Or its backside as it scampered away from me and into a clump of rock and trees. It took a moment to realize that a bear is what I was seeing. I did not fear it, as it posed no real threat (and I had my bear spray within easy reach, though I’m not entirely sure I’d be as quick and adept at using the contraption as I need to be, should I ever need to be). The bear was not as enthralled with seeing me as I was of seeing her. I was happy for the brief glimpse, though I do wish she would have been just curious enough to turn around and look at me, so that I could see her face, look into her soulful brown eyes, and see a bit of myself in this magnificent creature, before she disappeared into the safety of trees and rocks.
At the end of the Lost Lake Trail, I did not turn around, in spite of the tell-tale cumulonimbus clouds growing above and edging over the peaks. The trail intersected another, and I decided to walk on another half mile to the next glacier lake. It wasn’t until this point that I’d encounter more people (I’d only seen two forest workers and a woman and her four Burmese mountain dogs up to this point). I’d enjoyed my solitude, but did not mind now seeing others out enjoying the beauty. It was also a bit of a comfort to know there were others out there as the winds picked up and the clouds rolled in. I had planned on eating lunch at the next lake, but was unable to dally long. The clouds were truly beginning to look ominous. Though I longed to keep walking, to discover what was over the next rise, to see the next vista and the next lake, and to continue onwards from there, it was time to turn around. I lost the people again once I hit the Lost Lakes Trail. My heart raced a bit as I raced down (and up) the path heading back to the trail head. In spite of the fear, I still had to stop and take in the views, and take some photos to mark my time here. To wonder at the power and the grace of wind, weather, and earth. The power and grace (lacking in those moments I stumbled over roots and rock) of me as a part of it all.
I made it back to my car, just as the raindrops began to plop down on my head. I still had an hour’s drive back home, during which I witnessed two rainbows, cloud-to-ground lightening, and a wind that could lift a person of her feet if caught off guard. I felt lucky to be just there. Just here. Satisfied. Content. And yet ready for more.
We are going to take the time in this post to retrace our footsteps from our current home near Medicine Bow National Forest back to Custer State Park and Black Elk Peak. In the ensuing week and a half following our departure from Custer, we have come to understand more fully how important the role of nature in this journey has become. Yes, the people we have met out in these parts have been warm, welcoming, and interesting. But as we have found ourselves walking paths through woods and along passes and up peaks, the draw to the natural world has increased. The power of nature to ground and to heal as it challenges and inspires has become increasingly apparent to us.
Even before we started, the hike up to Black Elk Peak seemed important. Important because of what it is and what it signifies. It has historically been a place of spiritual significance for the Native Americans, and, given each of our reflective experiences on the history and current conditions for Native Americans here, a hike up Black Elk Peak seemed fitting. The peak is also the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees. We knew it would challenge us. We knew it would inspire us. It did not disappoint.
We had done one other hike, deemed strenuous. That hike had some beautiful pieces, but we were ill-prepared for it. For Black Elk Peak, we'd done a bit more research, and were thus much more mentally and physically prepared for what we would meet on the journey to the top. What we were not prepared for, however, was the pleasant surprise of the realization that this hike marked a turning point for us on our life's journey out here on the road. We had understood that natural spaces would be important to us, that we would find beauty in the North American landscapes. We had not fully grasped until this point how much we would utterly need those natural spaces, to connect with them in order to connect with ourselves.
The connection is about more than what we view from the windows of Knight, or from our wanderings around the campsites we inhabit. It is about more than pushing your body to get to the top, though there is that glorious sense of accomplishment in discovering what your body can do and that sense of wonder at the views from above. It is about truly being present where you are. Not just looking around you, but truly seeing what you are a part of, taking in the grandeur of broad views along with noticing the tiniest of wildflowers still blooming among the trees or the spiders that crawl across your path, and everything in between, and realize that they, along with you, make up the Big Picture that is our world.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an affinity for “Native American Culture.” As a child, I was drawn to something I did not (and still do not) completely understand. I’m not even exactly sure what it was back then that pulled at my soul. I’d like to think it was an understanding that Indians had a deep-seated love of nature, except that as a child I didn’t really fully understand that I even had an inherent love of nature myself. Perhaps it was the depiction of the Indian understanding of animals as beings with spirit. I think I got that about myself then, that I had that same understanding. Whatever the reason, my attraction to this idea, this mythology, of Native Americans was without an understanding of the reality. We like to lump Native Americans under one nice and tidy label that is somehow supposed to sum up the numerous cultures and histories of tribes that currently and historically inhabited North America. Whether we identify the Indian, or Native American, as savage or as the bearer of wisdom, our label allows us to neatly categorize and compartmentalize many tribes of people with their rich and deep histories and their presents. It allows us to gloss over the realities of the lives of people. Real people. People who love, laugh, learn, make mistakes both great and small. Who have great strengths and great weaknesses. And, yes, who have cultures, beliefs, and traditions that continue to thread through modern lives.
We recently visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. I REALLY wanted to see this memorial. You see, in addition to this great attraction I have, I have an equally great feeling of guilt and sadness over what we have done (and continue to do) to those we conquered. Because, while our family lore has always identified us as part Native American, that doesn’t excuse my mostly European ancestors from participating, even if indirectly, in the decimation of countless men, women, and children who were here long before us. So, I had been excited to see this symbol that is being constructed to honor the Native American tribes in South Dakota (and across North America). I was wholly unprepared for the reaction I had upon walking around the museum, grounds, and gift shop.
Conflicted. Gut-wrenching sorrow. Honored. Doubt. Curiosity. They were all there, taking turns rolling through heart and mind, each staking it’s claim on my conscience, each vying for prominence. It was a busy day, with tourists meandering through the museum, briefly glancing at the artifacts and photographs on their way to the gift shop or out into the courtyard to watch a Lakota family play traditional music, dance, provide a brief synopsis of some tribal traditions, and invite everyone to hold hands and move in a friendship circle. The words and the song we heard of the husband and wife were beautiful and moving. They held out the hope of peace, friendship, and understanding. I was moved to tears, while also wanting to cry because I had to wonder: what is it these tourists are here for and what are they getting from this experience? For how many is it just spectacle and entertainment? A check mark of “things to do” on a tour of the Black Hills? How many feel the tug at their hearts of the hope in the words and music of this family who is willing to share a bit of themselves? How many are curious to know more of the story? To know what other experiences embody the life and traditions of this modern Lakota family? I myself had so many questions, so much more I wanted to know about what else holds true for this family and why they put themselves out there for tourists to see and what else do they dream for the future of their family, their tribe, the nation, and the world? But I kept quiet, even when I saw them in the restaurant afterwards. I was too afraid to be intrusive and too afraid my motives would be misunderstood.
I still feel an affinity for “Native American Culture.” Yes, perhaps somewhat for the mythology, but, I think too for at least some of what I understand to be a common thread of love and respect for the natural world around us, for the understanding that we, as humans, are all a part of this natural world, not apart from and above it. But I feel that the connection is more than that. Perhaps it can be chalked up to empathy as well as admiration. For the endurance and strength of people who have been beaten down for centuries now and, yet, they carry on. Whatever the connection is, I can still say that it is for a way of living that I still do not, and will not ever, fully understand because I do not walk in their shoes. But I can sure try.