BLACK HILLS

I imagine he thinks this is his life now: Wake up, get a treat, pee, get in the car, ride all day (with nice moments of ball-chasing at rest stops), eat dinner in a strange room every night, and sleep on the bed with Dad. I wonder what he thinks or feels about Hannah’s absence.

Last week, two days before we moved out of our house and headed west, I gave my dog, Hannah, to the new owner of our house in Bloomington. She will be enjoying the enchanted forest for many years to come with her new guardian, David. Hannah loves men, so I think this was an easy shift for her. At least I hope to God it was. I’ve never given up a dog in all my life. But I could not coordinate a cross country move with two dogs, nor find a place that would rent to us with two largish dogs plus cat…

Hannah was chosen as the dog who would be left behind, and Mazel Tov was packed up along with Darter the cat for the move. Hannah is near-impossible to keep in a fenced yard. The forest was the best and safest place she ever lived, scouting out a certain terrain and keeping it over the years. When I put her in David’s car, I felt nothing. The kind of nothing that means just empty and all cold inside. Our move has taken us months to accomplish, and I started running out of gas, and have been running on fumes alone for many weeks. I will feel again when my engine begins refueling. And then, the loss of Hannah will hit me and I’ll grieve and wonder how I could have ever left my dog behind.

I’ve already given you a capsule summary of Mazel’s days of late. Darter the cat has an even more monotonous day, if you can imagine: Wake up, get stuck in a carry cage, ride in the car all day, eat dinner in a strange room every night, and search out the whereabouts of the litter box.

Carter had mapped out our route to Washington, taking a mostly southerly route. A couple days into the trip, he said, “I just can’t bear to drive through Nebraska again. What say we head north and see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills?” My ears perked up. The Black Hills? The paha sapa, the sacred center of the Lakota universe? No need to ask me twice!

I expected to be reminiscing about my Indiana life on the road to Washington. What I hadn’t planned—and it has been a heart-warming wonder—is that I would have a chance to revisit and remember my extended time in the Rocky Mountains. I’ve never been to the Black Hills, or South Dakota, but it is a land of sage, pines, aspens, stones, and cloud formations like gods.

The morning we headed out of Rapid City, South Dakota, and into the first traces of the Black Hills, my heart simply ached in my chest at the loveliness of the land. From a distance, the Black Hills are the only part of the landscape covered in pines, and from the tan land of Rapid City, they indeed look black and mysterious. As we wound our way deeper into the hills, rock formations of shimmering black/silver mica stretched up and up into high cliff faces. At one juncture in the road, I asked Carter to stop the car. I felt moved to collect two stones—one for my friend, Leslie, who would understand the significance of the place, and one stone for myself.

I asked the rock face to guide me to the stones I could take with me. Along a rain-wet sheet of stone, a small alcove shimmered with soft green. There, I found two stones sitting alongside a bed of fresh new grandfather sage. I picked a small bit of the sage and held it up to my nose, and instantly burst into a short session of tears. It has been four years since I have smelled the intoxicating scent of fresh sage. From my pocket, I took a handful of tobacco, which I always carry in my car’s glove compartment for moments like this. I sprinkled the offering over the sage, and took the two rocks back to the car.

For the next two days, we wandered by car through a cold, rain-soaked Dakota. On my mind, when my mind would clear, was only one word: Thank you. Thank you, beautiful stones for showing yourselves to us. Thank you, Meadow Lark, for your lilting song. Thank you, young Deer, for listening to me when I heaped you with praise and compliments for your beauty and grace. Thank you, fresh sage. Thank you, Magpies, with your raspy song. Thank you, clouds and sky. Thank you, sacred waters. Thank you, sacred hills.

For most of my life, I have been obsessed with the Rockies and all relations who dwell there. Somehow, four years ago, that obsession left, and I don’t know why. Revisiting these landscapes and ecologies so dear to my soul filled me up in a very gentle, tender manner. My heart did not tug to return to the mountains. It was enough to simply allow them to drench my tired soul.

I told Carter that if I could come to understand, to know, why the Rockies had called to me and held me, and then why they had let me go, I would understand something important to the how and why of my life. For now, an answer eludes me, but I am so grateful to my husband for suggesting this little detour that I never would have thought of myself.

Tonight, we are all settled in to a hotel in Twin Falls, Idaho. We imagine it will take us two more days to get to Washington. We can’t do long days on the road, so we end up with a longer trip. Tonight, writing this, I see in memory the pronghorn herds of early this morning, some females with tiny, wobbling babies at their hips. I see a cowbird dive-bombing a huge raven, and I see the raven turn upside down in the air and grasp out at the tiny cowbird, and miss. I see storm clouds layered in seven shades of silver and gray. I see the ribbon tails of magpies, fluttering in the wind. I see the aspens shimmering in the afternoon light, and smell the tart scent of sage on the plains. And on my mind is only one word: Thank you.

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14 Responses to BLACK HILLS

  1. Jeanna says:

    The Black Hills are truly a Sacred place. I could never find adequate words to explain the energy of the Hills……..it is palpable and alive……..

  2. Barbra Ragsdale says:

    That you for sharing this!! I could almost smell what you were smelling and see the same sights you were seeing!! hope you are moved and settled in soon! And hope Hannah is bonding with her new owner!! You did the unselfish thing to let her stay where she is at home!!

  3. Cindy says:

    What a beautiful and sacred journey you are experiencing! Continued blessings on your path…

  4. Pam Templeton says:

    Susan, very moving and just lovely. Through you I feel kinship even though I reside on the east coast and we will probably never meet… Your love and respect for mother earth and all the forms her creatures take help me to remember that kindred spirits are everywhere..

    Be well and happy, Pam

  5. Erin says:

    Thank you for sharing your adventures on your way to your new home. As always, your writings are so vividly real that I feel as if I was there with you. And for all you give and share with us all I can say is thank YOU!!!

  6. Carol Maurer says:

    When my husband was alive I experienced all of these magical places riding on the back of our Harley. The voices of the trees and birds, the smells of damp forest places . . . you’ve brought it all back to me. Our motorcycling focus was to experience nature, not the crowds of Sturgis. Sometimes we’d turn the bike off and coast down mountain roads.

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Carol and all: Thank you for being with me in spirit. I really wanted to share the magic of that place with you, no matter where you live. It was so unexpected, and so alive and on fire with spirit.

  7. Bob Sholis says:

    “Thank you, sacred hills…” and thank you, Susan.

  8. Deb says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey…I was born and raised in the Dakota’s, and your words sung misplaced memories of a long ago but not far away Life into my Heart!

  9. I’ve never been to the west but your words and pictures take me there. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  10. Carter says:

    In the last 10 years I’ve moved more times than in the rest of my life. Each of the last 3 times was “the last time.” I’m, too old for this %^$(, then really, I’m too old, then, in Clintonian fashion, what does “last” mean?

    The land here is beautiful. We are close to clear surface water. This place just feels right. I say these things realizing they are subjective to the observer. My heart says this is the place. My brain says “We’ll see what we see.” The heart/brain duality follows wherever I go. This will be the last time, unless there is a next time.

  11. Sandra Kennedy says:

    As you drink in the sweet nectar of the sights around you, you will begin to feel the excitement of your journey to a new home. You have experienced the Rockies firsthand and they are cherished memories now. You have been a steward of the land where you lived in Indiana. You will soon experience the wonders of the Pacific Northwest, one of my most favorite places in this wonderful country that we have the opportunity to share with our animal friends.
    May your new journey be blessed as you learn the land where you will live. I love the feel of your new home and the peace and spirit that you and Carter exude.
    Be conscious that an old friend is living in Portland now and protect yourself from any and all disruptions that may come with that. You are an amazing woman, storyteller, visionary and wife. You bring out the very best in those who follow your musings:) You deserve the peace that comes from being alive in the Northwest. Take a ferry ride through the Straits of Juan de Fuca (out of Anacortes). I find a new peace with every trip there. Enjoy your new adventure!

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