I’m sitting in the large van, en route to Sheridan, Wyoming. In the back, the youth are chattering and laughing, largely because Nolan, Bas, and Conner are playing “King Kong,” pretending Nolan’s head is the Empire State Building and using little plastic toys as the “airplanes” that are attacking Nolan’s face.
I take this as evidence that we all still like each other.
We’ve been through some beautiful landscapes so far. Yesterday, we drove through grazing land, with large herds of cattle dotting the lush green fields. The prairie rolled forever in every direction, with only the occasional tree to break up the flat, linear view. The prairie then folded into the Badlands, stark spires of stone erupting in bursts of white and tan, red and gold. This morning we eased into the Black Hills, the sharp peaks softening into rolling hills quilted in pine trees. Angular cliffs fell away, revealing red and black earth. We paused for our morning ritual at the beautiful Pactola Reservoir.
Today the hills flattened into the Wyoming desert, trees became scarce, with sagebrush flocking the folds of the land like herds of silvery-green sheep. Our road has been winding through these arid hills for a couple of hours now. We came around a bend in the road, and on the far horizon, we just caught our first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains, blue and mysterious against the skyline, shoulders draped with snow. How many hours yet until we get there?
But first, we will pass through Bighorn National Forest. It rises like a cool island out of the hot desert land. We’ve been enjoying sunshine since yesterday, but the misty edges of the clouds are beginning to lower over the land in front of us. I expect we will see rain before midnight; possibly even a brief thunderstorm.
Right now, Wyoming is still mostly green. In another month, much of the green growth will begin to brown under the hot summer sun. We’re enjoying a nice, cool 85 degrees today; in late July and August, the weather can be expected to reach a steady 101.
In the back, the youth have switched games. The toys have been given a rest, and now they are challenging each other with trivia questions, such as, “Give the full name of the Nazi Party,” and “What was the title of Hitler’s autobiography?” or “In what country was Hitler born?” After exhausting their WWII knowledge, they have moved on to acronyms and movie trivia.
As we’ve traveled, we’ve heard occasional current events updates. Back in Golden Valley, Minnesota, General Mills has come out and made an official statement against the state’s constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to one man and one woman. And meanwhile, the White House has announced that the DREAMers (young immigrants who grew up in the United States but do not have legal citizenship) have been granted relief from deportation.
Lainy commented, “We’re living in exciting times!”
This is the beginning of being a pilgrim.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, I’ve been grappling with the question of how to provide spiritual experiences for this group of travelers. Because it was my idea to call this journey a “pilgrimage,” I’ve been feeling a burden of responsibility that I’m not sure how to fulfill. It seems unrealistic to just sit back and expect everyone to magically intuit how to travel spiritually. Yet how can I make anyone have a spiritual experience?
The trick, I’m thinking, is to provide invitations. I can’t force anyone to accept the invitation, and frankly I wouldn’t want to. But I can do my best to coax the group’s attention toward opportunities to move deeper into an experience. If they decline the invitation, that’s part of their personal journey. And if they accept it, then they will do their own spiritual work in ways that I cannot possibly predict. We’ll see how it goes!
As it turns out, those mountains we saw are not the Rockies — they are Bighorn National Forest. I mentioned that it rises out of the desert like an island; well, it’s a really big island!
We ascended into the peaks by way of a series of switchbacks, tightly twisting our way up and up and up. Each pass offered us a view of the desert plains we had just spent the last several hours driving across. Higher and higher we went, until we arrived at an elevation of 6000 feet (over a mile!).
To explore an interactive map of what we saw, click here.
Then the road headed straight into Bighorn National Forest. Patches of snow still huddled in the hollows of the mountain slopes. As we wound around pine forests and alpine meadows, a cold rain began to fall. Then the road began to descend, down into breathtaking canyons with rivers and waterfalls. Weather and terrain made us drive slowly … and then more slowly ….
By the time we were back near sea level, the timer on the GPS had barely moved — time-wise, we were practically as far from Yellowstone as we had been before the Bighorns! And the pattern continued for the rest of the drive. While the original plan had been to arrive at Yellowstone around dinnertime, set up our camp, and then go visit Old Faithful before bed, the actual plan kept getting adjusted as time proved we could not get to Yellowstone as fast as the GPS told us we could.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation (on the leaders’ part, at least) that we raced the sun across the Wyoming landscape, hoping against hope that we would somehow manage to set up our tents before dark.
We arrived in Cody, Wyoming (the last large town before Yellowstone) just before 8:00pm. We paused for 15 minutes to inhale dinner before hurrying back to the vans and heading into the wild. Mountains shouldered up around us as we drove into the pass.
The sun kept sinking.
By the time we reached the east entrance of Yellowstone, the ranger station was closed. Luckily, we were still able to drive in, because we had already purchased an interagency park pass back at the Badlands. (Yay for planning ahead!)
As we drove along, we saw frequent little waterfalls coming down the cliff beside the road. We began a game of seeing who could spot the next one first, calling out, “Waterfall!” But sometimes there wasn’t enough water to really call it a “waterfall,” so we began to shout out, “Watertrickle!”
Our route took us to the eastern edge of Lake Yellowstone. As we came around a bend in the road, we were greeted by a buffalo grazing along the edge! The youth named the buffalo Albert. (Or maybe Arnold.) After pausing for pictures (as the sun continued to sink), we began driving again — only to realize the rocky slope beside us was populated by an entire herd of bighorn sheep! More pictures. Less sunlight.
We finally arrived at Bridge Bay campsite along the northern shore of the lake. There was still some light in the sky! We pulled up to the check-in building. And waited. And waited.
I got out of the van to stand in line, and I could see my breath as the light faded. When it was finally my turn, the woman asked if I wanted to purchase firewood, and I thought it would be a good idea for warmth if nothing else. We got all checked in for our three campsites, and I hurried back to the van.
We drove to our campsites. They were in the woods under a thick covering of pine trees.
It was completely dark.
But I have to say, our youth are troopers! Without a fuss, they all clambered out of the vans and went straight for the tents. Even though a few of them had never set up a tent before, they all chipped in to help — some put the poles together, while others drove the stakes or held flashlights so we could see what we were doing. The six girls all piled into one tent, and the four boys piled into another. The chaperones fit two small tents on the middle site, with two adults in each tent.
I got the fire roaring in a couple minutes (I had motivation), and we gathered around for our evening ritual before heading to bed after an incredibly long day. A few hardy souls gathered to lie on the pavement and look up at the stars spread overhead. It was truly amazing how clear they were; we could even see the Milky Way curling like a pale ribbon through the constellations. But eventually the cold seeped into us, and we returned to the warmth of the fire.
It took me a little longer than the others to let go of the stress that kept my shoulders tight. I stayed up to watch the flames as everyone else huddled into their sleeping bags. Somewhat furtively, I also made a small offering of Minnesotan red willow to the fire, with prayers of thanks for our safe arrival.
When I finally could no longer hold my eyes open, I too crawled into my chilly sleeping bag — with two pairs of pants, gloves, a wool hat, two shirts, thick socks, and a wool blanket. I get cold easily.
It’s interesting to see what stress does to us. The chaperones all were concerned at the prospect of setting up the tents in the dark. All of our energy for that entire day was directed towards the effort of preventing that possibility from happening, and yet no matter what we did, our arrival kept getting pushed back further and further. We were all getting a bit tense as the sun inched toward the horizon, and we realized that our very first night camping would involve doing exactly what we had tried to avoid.
But then…it was fine. We did it. The youth rose to the challenge with good spirits, and we all had a place to sleep that night. For all that we tried to control the situation, it unfolded in a way that we perhaps didn’t like. The only thing we could do was to go with the flow and hope for the best.
And we survived. We worked as a team and did what we needed to do. I was secretly worried that I had been too bossy while directing the girls in how to set up their tent, but then Alex came up to me and said, “You did a good job of bossing us around. We needed that.” Well…I’m glad!
Part of a pilgrimage is the travail — which is rooted in the Latin word for a medieval torture rack. Certain aspects of today’s travel certainly felt that way! But when we look at it as part of a pilgrimage — as part of a spiritual journey where we are expected to grow and change — we can begin to see the value in these experiences. I wonder how today’s travail will influence our perceptions of our future travels together.