How often do you take the time, (several days perhaps), to really remember something vital to your appreciation of being alive? I only started doing that consciously when I turned 50, (sadly, nine years ago)… Up until then, I was just going about my days as though they would last forever, as though I didn’t need to take such time…
I just returned from my annual motorcycle Vision Quest, the 12th such journey since 2002, and it was a truly regenerative experience.
If you choose to read on, (and I hope you do), perhaps you can “come along the ride” with me, and perhaps refill your well of gratitude for the experience of being alive a little bit by doing so…
At least I hope so…
The Road of Gratitude
We had scheduled the trip in January for mid-May. It was something Dave and I do every year (take a motorcycle Vision Quest together), and we never know exactly where we are headed until we start. This year was no exception. Go North and see the Black Hills? Head back to Santa Fe and Taos? Sedona? Bryce Canyon? What wondrous possibilities there are in simply waiting for the time to arrive before departing to decide; yet never without some anxiety of the unknown future implicit in riding a 900 pound Gold Wing throughout the roads of the West and hoping for the benevolent experience – yet knowing that the opposite is an equal likelihood…
This would be the seventh trip we’ve taken together (of the 12 taken overall), and Brother Dave and I have gone through both extremes – the Light and the Dark of motorcycle travel.
We were delayed a day departing due to harsh May weather, but the day finally arrived and off we went, due northwest to the Black Hills. Dave had never seen them, along with all of their infamous sites (Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, sacred Indian lands, etc.), but he seemed glad just to be able to unwind with the wind and the road in the blessed silence and introspection that is long-distant motorcycling…
As the weather spit and threatened, it gradually cleared as we made our way north. Cheyenne came and went, and as we began the lonely highway through the diagonal path toward Hot Springs, South Dakota, the wind made its presence known… (Is it ever any other way in Wyoming?)… The bikes seemed eager to hum along at 70 or 80 miles an hour, and now and then a large truck going the other way would “swoosh” by and create a wind void that would swerve the bike uncomfortably within the lane, either into the oncoming traffic (what little there was of it), or toward the lonely ditch to the right. Heartbeat rises and falls with the moment to moment experience that comes along, and continuous mindfulness is an a-priori requirement to even have a chance to avoid dangers when riding the beastly machines.
Along those magnificent open stretches of Wyoming prairie – (which are most reminiscent, I am told, of Mongolia of all other places on the planet), periodic white-tail deer or antelope would graze beside the road, glancing our way with chewing wariness as they watched these bi-peds sitting on machines going past their nests, fields and rivers. It is somehow sweet to view wild animals at home in their land while we flow past them on our machines, a reminder of what the trip is all about.
Which brings me to my hopes for the Quest… I began the trip knowing that I wanted three outcomes from this particular journey: to refill my well of energy (drained through everyday transactional work and living), to practice moment-to-moment present-mindedness (mindfulness in the moment without projection of regret backward or fear forward), and a renewed state of gratitude (to regenerate a heartfelt appreciation for the experience of living, however much longer it may last).
I was, with time, blessed and honored by the experience and outcome of all three…
Night One: Hot Springs, South Dakota… Budget Host Hotel… the lobby is about the size of my closet at home, and Wally (the friendly and sincere Polish proprietor) offers us rooms at the outrageous price of $49 per night. Did you even think that you could get a room in America that wasn’t located in a crack-neighborhood for $49 a night anymore? I didn’t… But there it was. The room was clean, old, somewhat tawdry, but kind of like an old waitress who hobbles to bring the order too slowly, but is sweet with the time and intention of age. Cold and grey skies, so the next morning we had to find long underwear at the local department store. Their electronic systems were all out, so NO CREDIT CARDS OR CHECKS – CASH ONLY! Dave found his warmth to go under his clothes as pajama bottoms with handcuffs printed on them, and off we went to…
The Mammoth Museum of America. An actual archaeological site where Mammoths from 35,000 years ago have been found and are still there half-exposed in the ground, within this beautiful building. The huge tusks, the huge skeletons, and the fossilized structures of fellow sentient beings who walked this area when it was a large plain (instead of today’s mountains), and fell into a sink hole to have their calcified remains be one-day gawked at by tourists. Actually, quite moving in the considerations of time and change that will face us all with time….
Starting into the middle range of the Black Hills, we spot a lonely buffalo walked on a distant crested hill through golden grasses overlooking vistas into the blue, mountain-encased forests beyond. He looked lonely and resigned… heading somewhere we would never exactly know…
Drove to the Wind Cave, but the wait was not worth it, so on to Custer for lunch, then the Needles Highway road. Dave’s bike slipped down at a stop, but with the help of friendly strangers, we got it up and on to the beautiful, but somewhat challenging Needles Highway. Switchbacks at 10mph, and several one-car tunnels, the last of which had 3 inches of snow and ice in it (not fun on a 900 lb motorcycle that you don’t want to go down on)! On to Crazy Horse Monument. Incredible! A 50 year project being finished by private funds honoring Native American’s that will eventually dwarf Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse’s face is now complete (where it was only a rough image 20 years ago), and they are working on the horse’s head. Crazy Horse is looking off toward the lands where his people are buried. Very moving…
At the site where the movie and gift shop is, ran into an Indian woman selling jewelry. Her father has written many great books on Indian Spirituality. I bought “Creator’s Code: Planetary Survival and Beyond”, which is one of the most intelligently written overviews of Indian Spirituality I’ve ever read.:) Similarly moving to “Black Elk Speaks”, the best book of this genre I’ve read up until I bought this one.
Cold and beginning to spit snow, so we took the easy route back to Custer and stayed at the Rocket Motel, and retro motel owned and run by a great young couple who are fixing it up in an all white motif. Custer is a classic Black Hills town that seems to be hanging on by its fingertips through the winter in hopes of the tourists returning to visit in the Summer. Sometimes, quality of life comes at a great cost…
The next day began with a hearty breakfast at the local café of choice for the locals, and on to Mount Rushmore. Hadn’t been there in 20 years, so it was surprising that it has become Disneyland from a traffic and parking control perspective. Huge garages that can hold thousands of cars, but largely empty as they, too, await the thaw of Summer to bring guests who wish to see our greatest Presidents. Surprisingly inspirational (I suppose due to the experience of seeing what mankind can do when he thinks big enough and long-term enough to commit to a large project that will benefit future generations, even when those who create it won’t be around to see that benefit fully manifest. Crazy Horse as a monument has the same value, in my mind).
Circling through the Black Hills to Rapid City, and on to Spearfish via the beautiful Spearfish Canyon Highway. One of the joys of 2-wheel motorcycling (this will make more sense as a differentiation as you read on) is “flowing” down a mountainous canyon road with fast but sweeping turns on a Sunlit day. Spearfish Canyon is just such a road… incredible! One feels like the bike is “dancing with the road and wind” as it leans to and fro through the curves, majestic pine-scented forest flowing by as the dance proceeds.
Spearfish is a clean and inviting little town, where we visited the Lehman Trike Factory the next morning to take a tour. Ken, the President, walked us through the plant and showed us the operation in full… As the population of America ages, more and more folks are “Triking” their motorcycles into 3 wheels to eliminate much of the risk of the activity. As we left Spearfish to head for Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, I became convinced that I should become one of them…
Rolling down the Interstate towards Wyoming at 80 mph, a cross-wind hit me that had to be 30 or 40 miles an hour from the left, pushing my bike across my lane to the right side of the road. Leaning into it, I road the next 10 or 20 miles at a 30 degree list into the wind from my left just to go straight, and every once in a while it would abate and I would then be veering hard left into the next lane, so I pulled over and asked Dave if we could just head South and see Devil’s Tower next time. He graciously agreed, so we turned into the wind on a remote Wyoming highway to begin the route home.
Driving 80 mph into a 40mph headwind nets a 120mph wind at your head, and the deafening sound in your helmet is reminiscent of standing behind a jet engine for 6 hours as you drive to your nightly destination. A roar in your helmet keeps you focused, but you have to give up the premise of comfort to access the remote beauty of being out in nature in regions where few humans live, and one rarely visits other than through movies or television.
It reminds you of the wonderful scope of the world and the real joy of simply being alive – something commonly and easily forgotten in our day-to-day transactional lives of work, family and routine…
Thus, the purpose of the Vision Quest, and the well-worth reward of renewed gratitude at the cost of the discomfort of motorcycling throughout the West.
Arriving in Cheyenne at day’s end, Dave suggested we stay at a humble chain motel along the Interstate. “Humble” is generous. Walking into the Lobby, the staff was sitting around jack-jawing about how angry they were over the maids not cleaning all the rooms. As we checked in, we asked what the rate was to be for the night.
Did you even know that you could get a $39 a night room in America anymore? I didn’t…
The Front-desk clerk matter-of-factly declared that mostly oil-workers stayed at the Motel, and that they would begin getting drunk around 6pm that night. The good news, however, is that they generally have to get up early and go to be by 9 or 10pm, so we probably wouldn’t be bother by them. Yeah! :)!
Walking into the room, the first thing I noticed (other than the overpowering stench of cigarette smoke) was the pillowcase on the bed. It presented both a human hair (brunette, as best I could tell), and some dried mucus from someone who apparently was suffering from a Cold the previous night. The wall had what appeared to be unidentified stains on them, and the windowsills had various bugs fighting for dominance over the crumbs available for their dinner. As I began laughing at the incredibly gross scene before me, a C-130 transport propeller plane from the nearby National Guard base rumbled a few hundred yards above the motel and rattled the windows with its wake.
Maybe $39 a night was too much after all…:)
(Rodeway Inn off I-25 in Cheyenne if you are ever tempted to have such an “interesting” motel experience…)
The final morning, we got up early and made the brisk early morning run to Fort Collins to have breakfast with our dear friend who practices Psychology there. A wonderful conclusion to a trip that successfully created the necessary trifecta for joyful living:
- A state of Gratitude
- An experience of Mindfulness in the Moment (without the automatic forward projections of fear, or the backward regrets of guilt and times past)
- A “Refilled Well” of personal perspective an energy that, once again, reminded us of the innocent joy of simply loving life from a balanced mind and body
(By the way, I’m looking hard at “Triking” my bike and going to 3 wheels from my current 2 so I may be able to take such journeys for a bit longer in this life, with a little less risk and fear as the price of such inspirational experiences…)
May you give yourself some Vision Quest in the near future, to provide you and your family all of the above.
(An Ode to Native Americans in honor of the Sacred Black Hills)
I love a people who have always made me welcome to the best they had;
I love a people who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poorhouses;
I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read them or heard them from the pulpit;
I love a people who never swear, who never take the name of God in vain;
I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves;
I love a people who worship God without a bible, for I believe that God loves them also;
I love a people whose religion is all the same, and who are free from religious animosities;
I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property, where there was no law to punish for either;
I love a people who have never fought a battle with white men, except on their own ground;
I love and don’t fear mankind where God has made and left them, for there they are children;
I love a people who live and keep what is their own without locks and keys;
I love all people who do the best they can;
And oh, how I love a people who don’t live for the love of money!
George Catlin (1796 – 1872)
(early white explorer who lived among the Plains Indians)
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