At a Lonely Railroad Crossroads in Nebraska

At the world’s largest “railroad classification yard” in North Platte Nebraska, history converged with orphan trains, a major “canteen” for WWII troops and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

While your image of Nebraska as mile upon mile of farms and grasslands is not off the mark, my time in the state uncovered bizarre roadside attractions (Carhenge), natural landmarks for Native Americans and emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails (Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock) and the urban joys of Omaha with its innovative cuisine, outdoor sculpture gardens, music clubs, riverside parks and boutique hotels.

 

 

North Platte, however, was the surprise.  Half way through the six-and-a-half hour drive across the state, I decided to stop at the world’s largest “railroad classification yard” where personnel sort, service and repair locomotives for Union Pacific Railroad.  With the golden spike observation tower providing a birds eye view over the 315 miles of track, 985 switches, and 766 turnouts, , it would offer anyone a good excuse to stretch your legs but the history of this rail crossroads quickly draws you in for a longer visit.

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In the late 1800’s, Buffalo Bill located Scouts Rest Ranch at North Platte because it allowed him to move his Wild West Show by train or by wagon across the United States quickly.

From 1941 to 1946, the North Platte “Canteen” supported more than six million service members being convoyed across the United States.  Every day for 55 months, volunteers from this small community would offer 3,000 – 5,000 troops sandwiches, coffee, cookies, newspapers and friendly smiles.

“Upon stopping at North Platte, we were invaded by a swarm of angels, beautiful girls and charming women, all with a simple smile and cheery word . . . and food and drinks and candy bars and all the other things we needed.  We were dumbfounded. . . .

We know you call us “your boys” but I wonder if you realize whom we saw in you.  We saw our mothers, our wives, our sisters and daughters and sweethearts . . . above all this we saw America.”

Letter from a wounded serviceman published in the North Platte Telegraph

North Platte was also a major destination for the “orphan trains” that ran from 1854 to 1929 transporting more than 250,000 orphans and unwanted children out of New York City to find homes thousands of miles away in the Midwest.  The “placing out” system was originally organized by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society of New York. His mission was to rid the streets and overcrowded orphanages of homeless children and provide them with an opportunity to find new homes.  Some found loving parents.  Others ended up closer to indentured servants and field hands.  In arriving at a train platform, people would gather to look over occupants of the train and decide if they wanted to take one home.  Orphans that were not chosen stepped back on the train riding to the next town and starting the process all over again.

All of this and so much more transpired at a single rail crossroads in one small community in the middle of Nebraska.

Averting Our Eyes Yet Again – Laramie Wyoming

Readers have seen examples of my interest and my struggle with the way we convey the darker sides of our history.  I’ve always believed that we must face our demons no matter how painful.  I don’t do so to cast blame. but to acknowledge that evil resides in all of us, to take time to reflect upon what transpired, and to commemorate those that suffered.

Readers have seen examples of my interest and my struggle with the way we convey the darker sides of our history (see post on the powerful lynching museum in Alabama and the pathetic memorial at Wounded Knee).  I’ve always believed that we must face our demons no matter how painful.  When our family traveled to Cambodia to visit the glories of Angkor Wat and the beautiful capital of Phnom Penh, I insisted we go to the killing fields and walk through buildings where horrific torture took place.  I don’t do so to cast blame since evil resides in all of us. but I have a profound need to acknowledge that fact, to take time to reflect upon what transpired, and to commemorate those that suffered.

As I approached Laramie, Wyoming, I decided to stop to commemorate Matthew Shepard.  Most of you will remember his tragic death two decades ago.

On October 6, 1998, Matthew Wayne Shepard met Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson, both of Laramie, in a local bar. Contemplating robbery, the two led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. Inside the truck, McKinney pulled out a gun and demanded Shepard’s wallet, then hit him with the gun repeatedly as Matthew begged for his life. They drove to a remote location, tied Shepard’s beaten body to a fence, and left him to die.

For over 18 hours Shepard bled profusely in near-freezing temperatures until a cyclist happened to discover him the following day. A police officer who responded to the 911 call would later testify, “Though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away.”

The 5-foot-2-inch, 102-pound Shepard never emerged from his coma and died five days later.  He was 21 years old. 

Due to the defendants’ testimony describing the crime and their attorney’s reliance on a “gay panic defense” (the judge and jury rejected that defense and the defendants received extended sentences and remain in prison), Matthew became a poster child for the LGBTQ community and those advocating for an expansion of hate crime legislation.  It took a decade but the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law in October 2009.   (Many of you will remember that James Byrd was an African American man who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged behind it, and decapitated in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.  If any of you have gone to Jasper, I’d appreciate learning what memorial, if any, exists there for James Byrd.)

What shocked me was that Laramie was virtually devoid of any true acknowledgment of what had transpired.  On the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, there is a bench with a plaque that says “Matthew Wayne Shepard December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998. Beloved son, brother, and friend.  He continues to make a difference.  Peace be with him and all who sit here.”  They are worthy sentiments but grossly inadequate for any of us to remember, to commemorate, or to learn.

 

While the street names have been changed and there is no marker or memorial of any type beyond a private road sign designed to dissuade those who feel compelled to make this pilgrimage and complete the detective work to find it, I went to the location where Matthew perished.  It didn’t offer any epiphanies, but it felt right to offer a moment of silence at that spot.

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The Natural Wonders of Southern Utah

Southern Utah offered an astounding wonderland of national and state parks and monuments. The hikes we took are manageable for even a novice hiker and provide life-changing vistas and experiences.

Just think of it – Linda Caudell-Feagan camping and hiking.  For those of you who know her well, I know I will need incontrovertible proof so I’ll provide photographic evidence and an ode to our hikes across ten (yes 10) national and state parks and monuments.

What I offer here is a phenomenal itinerary through the natural wonders of southern Utah.  While I’ll highlight our hikes, the vistas were astonishing throughout our journey.  Many of the highways are officially labeled “scenic” but it seems to me that every road in southern Utah deserves that designation.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a shout out to our drives through Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area and Dixie National Forest, as well as our rafting trip down the San Juan River near Bluff Utah.

Now on to the hikes.  While experienced hikers may discount some of our choices, I can highly recommend those we chose.  You can never see every nook and cranny of the parks but the 45 miles of charted trails and all of the overlooks and stops throughout the parks certainly impressed us AND Linda kept up every step of the way.  Here are our recommendations.

Arches National Park was our first stop after settling in with our inspiration and spirit guide, Lauralee Green.  Lauralee was a life changing teacher for both of our daughters in elementary school.  She was not only our gracious host in Moab but also helped plot out each step of our adventure.  Arches was a wonderful start with more than 2,000 natural red-rock stone arches and hundreds of pinnacles, fins and giant balanced rocks.

Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail offered our initiation.  Don’t fail to climb behind the arches and take the “primitive” trail.  You’ll escape the crowds and get great photos.  Double arch is also right across the parking lot.

Landscape Arch Trail was likely our favorite. This huge spanning arch threatens to collapse as part of the natural evolution of arches that continually form and fall.  We were glad it waited for us.

Delicate Arch Trail leads to the iconic image on Utah license plates.  Since the day was ending, we were only able to get to the viewpoint but next time I’d love to take the three-mile round-trip hike to the summit.

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Canyon Lands National Park is one of the five national parks in the high desert of southern Utah where erosion has crafted an amazing landscape (we hit them all).  It is divided into four separate districts by the Green and Colorado rivers and we were in Island in the Sky.  Much of our visit was stopping at each viewpoint immediately off the park road but we did fit in two official hikes.

The Mesa Arch Trail offers a spectacular sunrise hike to an arch perched on the edge of a cliff.  It perfectly frames your photos of the canyonland that plummets 1,000 feet below

Upheaval Dome provided a fun hike to an overlook of a three-mile wide 1,000 foot deep crater that defies any clear theory for its origins.

In comparison to the national parks, Goblin Valley State Park was miniscule and while I resist ever anointing a favorite, it was top of my list because it is so strange and the small campground was idyllic (I’d highly recommend campsite 10).  The landscape is covered in sandstone goblins and formations that are often compared to Mars.

Carmel Canyon Trail – A 1.5-mile loop through the desert floor gave us an array of different perspectives on this wonderland.

Natural Bridges National Monument was not even on our itinerary but we had time so we drove in to see its three grand bridges named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the Native Americans that once made this area their home.  We only took advantage of the viewpoints but already have scoped a hike at Owachomo for our next trip.  (For those of you who don’t know, a national park is established by an act of Congress while a national monument can be designated through executive order, hence why President Trump could unilaterally roll back the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante.)

Capitol Reef National Park was our third national park and our second night of camping.  The campground is set in the middle of fruit orchards originally planted by the early Mormon pioneers so we enjoyed apples off the tree.  We knew little about Capitol Reef but came away impressed by the canyons, cliffs, mesas and petroglyphs.

Hickman Natural Bridge offered an early morning hike (most of our hikes started early to avoid the heat of mid-day) but my favorite was –

The 4.5 mile Grand Wash Trail.  It has my favorite attributes for hikes in this region – long enough to stretch your legs thoroughly with high canyon walls that offer splendor and shade much of the day.  “A Desert dry wash is a North American desert biome occurring in the flat bottoms of canyons that lack water at or near the surface most of the year, and are subject to periodic severe flooding events.”  Fear not – we checked the weather so we knew we were safe from rain and the flash floods that follow.

Bryce Canyon National Park was phenomenal.  I use so many superlatives in the descriptions of our journey but Bryce . . .  Bryce . . . Bryce.

Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop – We combined two trails to hike to the canyon floor to get close to the hoodoos.  A hoodoo is defined “as a column or pinnacle of weathered rock” but that definition fails to convey the magic.  The truth is you just have to see it for yourself and this hike which includes both Sunrise and Sunset points is my recommendation for the experience.

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Kodachrome Basin State Park was our next stop.  It contains 67 monolithic stone spires, called sedimentary pipes, and multihued sandstone layers on the canyon walls that “inspired a National Geographic Society expedition to name the area Kodachrome, after the popular color film, in 1948.”

The Angel’s Palace Trail offered a 1.5 mile stroll to get our legs warmed up but wasn’t my favorite hike.  Down the road however were two highlights.

Grosvenor Arch Trail in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was down a dirt road from Kodachrome.  I knew nothing about it but Linda had fallen in love with arches so off we went.  It is actually two sandstone arches towering 150 feet over your head.  The largest is 100 feet in diameter. I thought they were spectacular.

Cottonwood Canyon Narrows was one of my favorite but most stressful hikes.  It had been suggested by a ranger at the Grand Staircase Escalante regional office.  I knew nothing about it.  I had no trail maps.  I only had its location and a regional map that showed it had a north and south entrance.  But it was a narrow canyon so if offered adventure and shade.  It was another ten miles down that dirt road from Grosvenor Arch.  Fortunately, we didn’t read the description since the ranger assured us we could get there in Blueberry but according to descriptions I’ve read since – “This road is infrequently maintained and subject to washouts. Throughout much of its course, this undulating winding road traverses bentonite clay, which when wet can become impassable and, at best, is very dangerous to drive. A high-clearance vehicle, preferably with 4WD, is recommended, though not required unless runoff has damaged the road.”  The road wasn’t the problem.  The challenge was the fact that most people hike the canyon narrows as an in-and-out experience.  Not knowing that we hiked the entire canyon from the south parking lot and then exited at the north parking lot and started down the road.  It was doable, but it was a long hike on the dry and windy road and we had no idea when it would end.  It did end and we are still married!

Zion National Park reminded me of Yosemite with its towering vertical walls and striking formations.  It also had my all-time favorite hike.

Weeping Rock Trail is a short hike to one of the distinctive features of Zion – hanging gardens of ferns and wildflowers fed by water that filters through the Navajo sandstone and Kayenta shale forming a steady slow rain at overhangs.  Quite a change from the normally arid landscapes.

Watchman Trail offered a switchback up to tremendous vantage points up the canyon with plenty of wildlife and other entertainment.

But the Zion Narrows was the showstopper.  Linda joined me as far as the Riverside Walk when I plunged into the river that cascades down the canyon.  While it often goes up to your chest, it was only up to my knees on the three-mile trek I took.  It was fabulous

The Grand Canyon North Rim was our final national park and final night of camping.  We returned to the Grand Canyon after our trip to the South Rim in December to take another moment to absorb its all-encompassing vista.  I’ll have to admit that after the parks in southern Utah, I wasn’t enthralled but I also have a fear of precipices so that could offer an explanation.  We did take two short hikes on the Bright Angel Point Trail which offers a great vantage point but one that terrified me and on part of the North Kaibab Trail.  Camping was beautiful in the cool forested campground but we were ready the next morning to head back to Salt Lake City and enjoy an airport hotel before Linda flew home and I started the final stage of my year-long ramble.

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All in all our travels were fabulous and we are already planning a trip back with our children.  I’d highly recommend it to any reader and would be happy to go into even more excruciating detail if you have the patience.  It took a great deal of discipline to limit the number of photos so feel free to visit for a full slide show.

I’ll leave you with some of our favorite restaurants just in case you have read this far and plan to follow in our tracks.

Adventures Around Every Corner

Who knew that a stop on the road to Salt Lake City to clean-up after Burning Man would introduce me to the Grand Canyon of Nevada, Basque poetry-slams, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

While I enjoy all the national monuments and well-known tourist sites I visit on my rambles, I get some of the greatest joy from unearthing treasures at locations I know little about.  On my escape from Burning Man, I booked an AirBnB in Elko Nevada.  The only reason I stayed in Elko was because it was on the highway to Salt Lake City where I’d pick up Linda for our adventure in southern Utah.

It also offered a respite to cleanse myself of playa dust since I was skeptical she would enjoy the clouds that followed me.  That cleansing involved 8 loads of laundry, two automatic car washes and hours scrubbing the dust out of crevices by hand, hosing down my air mattress, and servicing Blueberry at the local Toyota dealership since I’ve already driven over 22,000 miles.

And then Elko started to reveal itself.  Who knew I would stumble upon:

  • Lamoille Canyon. Known as the Grand Canyon of Nevada, it offered fabulous scenery as I drove into the heart of the Ruby Mountains and went on a two hour high-altitude hike up to scenic lakes and canyons.

 

  • An immersion in some of the unique aspects of Basque culture. Basques moved into Northern Nevada, central Idaho and southeastern Oregon in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush and stayed as sheep herders. They are a genetically and linguistically distinct people from a region of the Pyrenees straddling France and Spain.  They speak Euskara, one of the oldest languages in Europe.  While its origins are uncertain some speculate that it comes from the Caucasus but no one has been able to definitively trace its beginnings.

In Elko I learned about bertsolaritza festivals described as “Part poetry-slam, part hip-hop freestyling, part a cappella singing and 100 percent improvisational.”  Now that would be worth experiencing.  I also learned about the tradition of Basque immigrants carving family history and art into aspen trees as they watched over herds of sheep.  These tree carvings are a treasure trove of folk art and documentation of times gone by.

 

  • Elko is also home to the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The Poetry Gathering started 34 years ago as a place where Western ranchers and cowboys could gather to share poems inspired by their lives working cattle.  “The tribe is now a nation of Western poets, musicians, artisans and storytellers, sharing their creativity across the country, telling their stories of hard work, heartbreak and hilarity, and what it means to make your way in the rangeland West.”  I learned from an extended conversation with one of the volunteers that they even let Basque participate recently – a major step since the divide between cattle ranchers and sheep herders remains deep.  Who knows – maybe I’ll make it back this January.

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Well I certainly got more out of this stop than clean clothes and a polished car.  Elko  affirmed my belief that there is fascinating history and unexpected adventures around every corner.

Lessons from Burning Man and my Ramble

Burning Man and my rambles across the country have offered many lessons from being present to the joy of celebration to the importance of family.

After almost a year of rambling, I entered Burning Man different than in the past.

My first immersion in the playa in 2011 was simply overwhelming.  Your senses are assaulted on every front and your moods and emotions can be on a roller coaster.  The photos in my prior post gave you a sense of the visual stimulation, the festival atmosphere and the frenetic pace but, trust me, they don’t convey a fraction of the reality.

You turn yourself over to the experience. In fact, the community has its own lexicon that reflects the unique landscape, culture and character of the event. You start referring to Burning Man as “home” and the world outside its boundaries as the “default world.”  You adopt (or are given) a playa name reflecting an alternate persona.

Burning Man taught me many things.  It taught me to be present.  One midweek afternoon several years ago when I was dusty and sweltering and feeling sorry for myself I had one of those experiences of serendipity when a campmate took me on an adventure.  Who would believe that I could go from exhaustion to exhilaration from being disheartened to joyful within a matter of minutes.

In my prior years, I also exalted in taking campmates out for nights filled with dancing and partying as we went from one rave and camp to another.  For those of you who have been out with me on a three-bar night, you have a sense of the pace and the delight that I take from these quests.

This time, I was more introspective.  I’ve had a year to decompress from work so I didn’t need to blow off steam.  I’ve also spent time reflecting.  With my close friends that have joined me in prior trips to the playa remaining at home this year, I had the freedom to let the pace of the day evolve, to participate in some of the camps running meditation sessions and other spiritual offerings, to listen to more of the lectures and performances at the Center Camp, and to simply absorb rather than orchestrate the experiences of others.

I also became more rebellious.  I dropped my playa name since I didn’t feel the need for a different personality or persona.  And while I fully embraced much that Burning Man has to offer, I also rejected the terms home and default world.

If there is one lesson, I’ve gained from my months of rambling it is a true sense of home.  It was only deepened in my time in Colorado last month.  Linda, Jane and Leah all came out for a weekend in Denver.  The precipitating factor was the opportunity to see a concert by Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks Amphitheater.  Before I go on, let me simply state that everyone should see a concert at Red Rocks.  Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it is simply breathtaking and, according to Rolling Stone, is the best concert venue in the nation.  Everyone also should see Brandi Carlile in concert.  Whether you characterize her music as pop, rock, alternative country, or folk, her ballads can tear at your heart and her performances are so energetic they will sweep you away.

 

But let me get back to my topic.  Being together as a nuclear family for that weekend was truly magical.  Being in a loving family is the definition of home from my perspective.  We had fun tubing down a river in Golden Colorado, imbibed at a number of brewpubs, and had some fantastic meals including a memorable one at Linger.   We were wowed by our night at Red Rocks when Brandi seemed to be singing just to us at moments in the evening.

Most important, however, we had time together.  We shared our joys and struggles.  We embraced in pairs and as a group and we gathered strength from our history together and our love. The great thing about family, whether defined by genetics or chosen on your journey through life, is that you can reveal your inner self.  At places like Burning Man you have the joy and opportunity to test out different skins as you try to refine how you define yourself.  With the lifetime that you share with family, you inevitably unveil your inner self, even the flaws.  And, in the best of families, you are loved despite those flaws, or, perhaps, because those flaws reflect the struggle that we all share and the striving to be our better selves.

Home is family.  Family is home.

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What is Burning Man and why are YOU there?

So many of my friends are baffled by my attendance at Burning Man.  Others have never even heard of this bizarre annual festival on a dried lake bed, known as the playa, two hours north of Reno Nevada.  There is simply no way to fully describe it.  It is one of those things that you need to experience.  For those who have heard salacious snippets – it is all true.  Yet, it is so much more.

Burning Man is held annually the week leading up to Labor Day.  During those seven days, 70,000 people descend on the beautiful, remote and inhospitable Black Rock Desert to form a temporary metropolis.

 

So to get past it – yes there is extensive drug use and nudity.  There are raves that go on nonstop. There can be dust storms that rage for hours.  A huge wooden structure of a man is burned on Saturday night along with a massive temple and many other structures that are immolated over the week.  But there is also a guiding philosophy that deeply grounds this temporary community with shared values (see the 10 principles that range from self-reliance to radical inclusion to gifting to leaving no trace to . . .).

I stay with Duane’s Whirld, a camp that is assembled by an eclectic array of 40 friends and strangers to survive the week.  We jointly purchase all the food and drink needed, share in a treasure trove of critical materials packed in a storage space in Reno that includes our bikes (you cannot drive once you reach BM so the main way to traverse the expanse is by cycling), couches, shade structures, kitchen equipment, etc.

 

As with most camps, we also plan some joint gifting.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving.  The value of a gift is unconditional.  Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

There is nothing to purchase once you reach the playa, other than ice.  You bring what you need.  Gifting is deeply embedded in the culture.  In your first trip, you’ll likely be confused by this principle and end up bringing some trinket out of desperation to hand out to everyone you meet.  The truth is you don’t need to do so.  A gift can be a hug, offering someone chap stick or sunblock, or inviting someone into your camp to eat a meal with you.

For our camp, we have two wonderful traditions.  We bike out into the more remote sections of the playa with a chest full of ice-cold beer to hand out during the heat of the day.  On other nights we pedal out the necessary paraphernalia and set up a station to make smores.  One of my favorite camps, Northwest Mist, comes down from Portland Oregon and sets up a large tent with misters that lightly spray water from the ceiling to help you replenish after days in the desert.  Another camp is filled with Mathematicians that “gift” lessons on math and statistics throughout the week.

The most momentous aspects of Burning Man are large art installations (scroll through slide show for a small sample),

 

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the mutant vehicles or art cars that are the only motorized transportation allowed on the playa (They typically have extensive sound systems and astonishing designs, lighting and/or flame effects), and, of course,

 

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the structures that BURN!  The theme for Burning Man this year was IRobot so you can see its influence on the Man.  The Temple is a much more sacred space that is filled with tributes to people that have died or are suffering and narratives and art reflecting the struggles of those in attendance.  The burn of the temple on the last Sunday is done in silence as all of these tributes carry off their messages and reverence.

 

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What stands out for me however is the relationships that are built.  Typically, you plan a vacation or attend an event intending to experience it with your friends, co-workers or family.  You deepen your relationship but it is a more insular experience with only limited interactions with strangers. At Burning Man, everyone enters with an intention to meet others.  The principles of gifting, immediacy, inclusion, and communal effort leads you to strike up conversations with others continually and to build relationships.  I’ll be in camp one day and someone whom I’ve never talked with will walk up and ask whether I want to bike out to a sculpture on the other side of the playa that they’ve heard about and an adventure begins that lasts all day.

Ben Von Wong is a great example.  I met Ben and his partner, Anne, on our first day.  They helped immensely as I organized a massive shopping expedition at a grocery store in Reno before our camp’s trek to the playa.  Later in the week, I joined a small group he assembled to photograph images at sunrise.  In the days since leaving BM, he has shared more of his life experience and I’d encourage you to view this TEDx Talk he gave on art and social change.  My life is enriched by the opportunity to engage with a true visionary creative.  For me, such opportunities are the greatest gift at Burning Man.

Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn – A Stark Contrast

Wounded Knee should be a site that we seek out and that offers us an opportunity to learn about the complex and challenging past that is our heritage. Contrasting Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn is provocative and perlexing. What should be done?

As we left South Dakota, we went through Wounded Knee.  There is so much of that history that is shrouded in the mists of time.  What I recalled was that in December 1890, Wounded Knee was the site of the largest domestic massacre in the history of the United States.  Let that fact sink in.

It was in the midst of the period when the U.S. was making and breaking treaties with Native Americans, when many Sioux were mesmerized by a belief in Ghost Dances that would free them from their travails, when buffalo herds were decimated leading to starvation among indigenous peoples, and, as the U.S. was entering a serious recession, when the lure of wealth on lands committed to tribes under treaties was irresistible to a nation that believed in Manifest Destiny.  You can read the histories yourself but here is a perspective from a U.S. General serving in the territory.

The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.

They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.

The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyenne have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.

From a telegram sent by General Nelson A. Miles from Rapid City to General John Schofield in Washington, D.C., on December 19, 1890

Ten days after General Miles sent the telegram, the U.S. 7th Cavalry intercepted a band of Lakota and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek.  The next morning, they attempted to disarm the warriors and a fight broke out.  By the end of the day, 150-300 Lakota were killed and 25 members of the Cavalry died.  The vast majority of the dead were women and children.  In recognition of this tragedy, the site of the massacre was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and in 1990, on the centennial, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.

With that background Linda and I traveled through the Pine Ridge Reservation to visit the memorial and gain a greater understanding of the history.  This is what we found.

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There is no museum, no monuments, no means to commemorate and learn from what transpired in Wounded Knee.  The mass grave where the bodies were piled is memorialized by a single marker and a chain link fence. The only note on what transpired is relegated to a sole sign.  Let me reiterate, this was the largest domestic massacre in the history of the United States.  We were baffled and disheartened.

As you go through the Pine Ridge Reservation, you can certainly understand why the Lakota have not invested in the site.  It is one of the most impoverished of all reservations and the deprivation can shake you to your core when you see mobile homes with windows boarded over to keep out the cold (and the sunlight).

 

A week further in my ramble, I went to Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, Custer’s Last Stand or Battle of the Greasy Grass as it is known to Plain’s Indians.  It stands in stark contrast.  The complex history of the battle between the Sioux and the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George A. Custer is not glossed over or glorified.  There are touching memorials to the U.S. troops and to the Native Americans and living history from both perspectives that bring this moment in time alive.  At Little Big Horn, approximately 260 of the 585 U.S. troops were killed.  Since the bodies were removed by their families, the number of Native Americans that died is hazy with estimates ranging from 36 to 300.

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Memorials to those in the U.S. Cavalry and a well-balanced presentation on what transpired by a National Park ranger
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Memorials to Native American warriors and an impressive monument conveying the history from a tribal perspective

I’m still struggling to understand why we have failed to create a site that helps us learn from the history of Wounded Knee when we have succeeded at Little Big Horn.  At first, I resorted to a narrative that it was simply white-washing of history by the victors.  I also recognized the fact that Wounded Knee sits on a Native American reservation with rights of tribal sovereignty and also abject poverty.  On the former point, however, the victory of Native American tribes and a narrative on what they were fighting for is prominently displayed at Little Big Horn so it isn’t entirely skewed history.  But we all learn about Custer’s Last Stand in our history books when we are children even though that account is abridged and does a disservice to the broader conflict between the U.S. government and Native Americans tribes.  Nevertheless, tourists are inclined to take a detour on the way to Yellowstone to visit the national monument.  How many of us learned about Wounded Knee beyond a footnote?  How many of us would take a detour when we are in the Badlands of South Dakota?

Wounded Knee should be a site that we seek out and that offers us an opportunity to learn about the complex and challenging past that is our heritage.  As I mentioned in my prior post, I reflected on this at Sturgis.  Much of the time of bikers attending Sturgis is spent traveling the roads of South Dakota and the broader region.  I also now know from family members that embrace the joy of motorcycles that there is a strong culture of charitable work including the Trail of Tears Remembrance Motorcycle Ride.   Could some of those attending Sturgis start making a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee?  Could they begin to raise funds to support the Pine Ridge Reservation in building a destination that offers an opportunity to learn this history and offer those who lost their lives the commemoration that they deserve?