By Tony Santoloci
I went through the sublime Beartooth Pass to get to Yellowstone National Park. The pass is a scenic windy road that abuts Wyoming, Montana and Yellowstone. Travel on the road is limited throughout the year as the altitude reaches 12,000 feet at the peak. If you can cross without freezing, or being stuck in a 20 foot snow embankment, you witness some of the most magnificent dark alpine, montane landscapes, lush forests, and vast tundra, any road in America could have..
The Beartooth Pass was the first real handling test on how the new car tire would work the bike. I weaved and turned her hard on most of the ride, attempting to drag pegs and drag heart. I have to push and lean the bike harder into the corner but she still feels great, and even more stable when holding the curve.
Near the top of this surrealistic road, I witnessed another surrealistic moment. To my right a band of Mountain Goats took advantage of the most fertile grassland along the way. A few cars stopped alongside the road, and I spoke with a local who travels the pass several times a year who told me he’s never witnessed this many goats up here at once.
I spent about an hour with the goats, watching their movements, observing their simple lives. They are not like the goats you would see on a farm, but much larger versions. The adult males are 300 pounds, have an aggressive social structure and conflict with other males 2-3 hours every day. (this would have been useful information to know beforehand) The goats perfect white coats made great contrast to the open colored rocky land behind them. They didn’t seem to mind me hanging and taking photos, until I came too close to their babies. I overstepped the boundary because the two males, 20 yards away, began a fast paced trot directly towards me, in a eerie alien-like sidestep. The goats raised shoulders and intent stare had me not walking, but running away like an inmate breaking from prison. I didn’t look back for a good 30 yards to make sure I wasn’t being chased. Lucky, I didn’t become target practice or fodder for the surprisingly large goats.
Yellowstone is prehistoric America with wildlife at every turn. The park is the most sensual of all lands I’ve seen yet. The land is impressive, and her gentle auburn, red and yellow valleys spread across the gracious earth like fine hair woven from silk linen. Eruptions of water come from her ground, steam rises off of cool rivers, colors of all kinds lay down before your eyes and each corner of the park has a different aphrodisiac to experience. While gazing through her beauty I counted five times my hair stood up as if touched by the gentle hand of a woman.
I stopped for my lunch and walked into a lush green open meadow that set next to a rising forest line. I enjoyed my lunch in peace, away from the spinning movement and tourist traffic. After finishing I laid back into the grass and dozed off. The next thing I remember I was being awoken to the sounds of Buffalo grunting. I was now in the middle of a passing Buffalo herd. Big Papi Buffalo was chasing his girlfriend and grunting right next to my face. There wasn’t much I could do at this point, but maybe crap my pants. I was pretty sure if I moved the massive brown furry beasts would gore me. So I relaxed and watched in wonder as these large frame giants munched, grunted and slowly passed by me with ease. I was happy I didn’t seem to be a threat, and I was allowed to leave without having a horn stuck into my side.
I left Yellowstone ecstatic and crossed the free open plains of Wyoming headed for Rapid City South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills, and The Badlands. I ended up staying a week in the town thanks to another adventure and the generosity of some friends who allowed me to crash at their place a few nights.
South Dakota is also home to the Lakota Indians. I was set on going to one of their legendary sweats. I would have to go to their reservation, and even though the sweat was open to public, I knew I would be considered an outsider. Regardless of the discomfort I decided it was an experience I wanted to have and I was determined to go.
I arrived at the location, met the holy man who would be running the sweat and offered him pipe tobacco I bought before coming. He instructed me to throw three pinches into the fire. The fire was comprised of upright firewood four to five feet tall with a total circumference of around six feet. The center of the fire acted as a furnace and heated the stones, which the Native Americans referred to as Grandfathers. These rocks were used throughout the ceremony, and ranged in size from 2 to 3 feet around.
Immediately after throwing the tobacco into the flame, smoke spirals shot out around me, and the two Lakota men conferred and stated the spirits were here.
At first I thought the place was makeshift. The huts were covered by cheap blankets, the alter had little trinkets around it, a skull of an ox was painted in bright blue and yellow, assorted painted sticks and colorful flags lined the top of a small mound outside the sweat hut.
The feeling of dis-credization was quickly removed as soon as the Medicine Man shut the door to the hut. I was covered in complete darkness, and my senses were lost. Chanting began and the Medicine Man started to place the burning hot rocks, from the outside into the center of the pit using a devilish looking pitchfork. Eight of us filled the ring inside the hut. We shared sage and bitterroot, that we either chewed, rubbed on ourselves, or threw it onto the rocks. The Lakato also threw flat cedar onto each glowing stone as more Grandfathers were placed into the pit. Inside this sacred darkness these cedar chips created a fragrant fast sparkling light display.
Their was a series of four doors, each one increasingly becoming hotter as the the Medicine Man filled the center with more Grandfathers while pouring water on them during the ceremony. After each door we took a break and passed along water in a rustic steel pot with a ladle. Some pored the water over themselves, some drank it, and some threw it at the stones.
Through each door the Medicine Man became increasingly more powerful and the flame outside by the fire-pit appeared to lick the sweat from his body. As he forcefully dug into the burning furnace wielding more and more Grandfathers from the core with his rusty pitchfork, the steam inside the tent mixed with the cold dark setting air outside. The trinkets on the mound I once thought were tacky, now covered in our fog, transformed into ancient mystical powers. The temperature from the steam inside was so hot it forced you to pray. As the Medicine Man pored more and more water on the Grandfathers, and more songs were sung, I began to slip into a trance. The darkness that once was blinding became filled with tiny white lights which I witnessed dance in the blackness. Time, if there was a thing that could be considered time at that moment, stood still. Everything darkened with serenity, and within this kind dark spirit, whom through my life I have come to accept and understand…I was home.
In one door we shared a peace pipe, and each participant was given a turn to pray to their God. When my turn came, I had succumbed to the awe of the experience. I spoke loud and I prayed hard, real hard, to which I asked for the well being of my Mother throughout her life and the understanding of suffering for mankind.
I hadn’t spoken or heard from my Mom in about a week and to my surprise after the ceremony, my cell phone had a text from her that read “Can you hear me” I smiled and realized…she had heard me.
The experience was nothing less than profound. And much more came from it than can be written in the space of this article.
By Tony Santoloci