The Fourth of July is the time to think about freedom. Of course, the holiday is about declaring independence from the tyranny of monarchs, but all the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are implied in that Declaration of Independence. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, long after the Declaration of Independence was signed, but that list of rights to freedom of religion, assembly, press, speech, bearing arms, etc., has come to define the United States and is celebrated on the Fourth of July.
There are other, uniquely American rights that – to my knowledge - don’t appear in our founding documents. Freedom of movement and the right to solitude are as American as the game of baseball. These were the freedoms that drove two friends and me to commit to five summer days of solitary walking.
I had not been sleeping well for months – up and pacing several times a night, thinking of problems I could do nothing about. I was feeling a little trapped by my life – uninspired. I was exhausted and wondered if I should even go. But as I stood in our front yard and looked to the southern horizon, I saw for the ten-thousandth time, a long badlands butte with steep cliffs in the the murky distance.
The butte is called Stronghold Table and is an important landmark for Lakota and Caucasians alike. The butte became immortal in 1891 as a refuge for the practitioners of the Ghost Dance - a religion that was never allowed the free expression that the Bill of Rights promised. It is the place where hundreds of terrified worshipers fled after the news of the massacre of more than a hundred and fifty men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek – just thirty miles to the south. Elements of Custer’s Seventh Calvary – still enraged over their defeat at Little Big Horn fight - caught the rag-tag Ghost Dancers and slaughtered them while both a white flag of surrender and the Stars and Stripes flew over their camp. It is a remote place in the no-man’s land of the Pine Ridge Reservation and Badlands National Park. The top of the butte would be our starting point and once there it would be a long walk back to our ranch house. It was the kind of walk that might do me good. It would be a Freedom Walk in more ways than one.
Patrick and Ron had planned the trip for a few weeks earlier, but the fickle Great Plains weather handed us rain, sleet, and icy winds. The instant we postponed the first trip, the rains stopped and the temperature rose. The morning we threw our overloaded packs into the pickup truck for the circuitous, thirty-five mile ride to Stronghold table it was 80 degrees by nine o’clock. My son-in-law, Colton, was our support guy and thought it was funny to keep reminding us that NOAA was predicting mid-nineties for the next five days.
It was several miles from the nearest hard surfaced road to the area of Stronghold Table where the persecuted, religious refugees had celebrated the last days of the Ghost Dance, who were eventually talked down off the heights, by a compassionate Army officer. Once the sound of Colton’s pickup was gone, it was easy to imagine lingering drumbeats wafting up the severe cuts from the grasslands below.
We swung our packs onto our backs with grumbles and jokes about how heavy they were, but an hour into our walk the three of us had already fallen silent, folded into thoughts of the pain in our joints, the heat of the day, and worries about whether we’d packed enough water. It was not until the second day that all of that fell away and we began to savor one of the goals of such a trip – empty minds, separation from physical pain, a focus on the essentials. We traveled down a beautiful badlands creek bottom with steep eroding cliffs on both sides. There was a trickle of undrinkable water in the creek. The banks and wide spots in the canyon were grassy with ample sign of deer and coyotes. Heat from the walls baked us, but felt good. It was impossible to say if time was passing or not. We strung out with our own thoughts for a quarter mile.
I studied the ground below my feet – dusty, the trails of rodents, birds – wildflowers, defiant and tenacious. When I looked up we were at our first campsite. It was just below a cliff where a half dozen Big Horn rams looked down on us with the same wonder that we looked up at them. There was shade in the late afternoon and shelter from the wind that funneled down the canyon from the top of Stronghold. We ate buffalo steaks that we enjoyed twice, one that evening for the deep, appropriate taste and again the next morning before we shouldered our packs that were a pound or two lighter. With zero light pollution, the stars shone white and bright, but not for long. We fell asleep early and slept like death.
We ate like sumo wrestlers, but with fifty-pound packs and miles of rough terrain to cover, we didn’t gain an ounce. Although there was plenty to eat, water was another matter. We’d budgeted three liters a day per person which I thought that was overkill, but by day two it was clear that it was certainly not too much. We had arranged for a resupply from Colton on the third night. Whether we could actually find each other in a roadless area of over a hundred square miles was the question. By day three, the question of water and the precision of our rendezvous began to creep into my otherwise empty mind. Ron fussed with a GPS app on this I-Phone –“We walked eleven miles yesterday… no wait… maybe it was three point seven miles. No, wait…”
That afternoon we detoured to the sight of a fossilized dinosaur. It took us several hours in the mid-day sun to find the fifteen-foot long trail of fossilized bones in the cliff wall. We studied the supposed dinosaur, but later learned that it was a 25 million year old, giant, rhinoceros when we showed the photographs to an expert. We spent too long in the sun, the water was running low, and Ron was still not sure where we were, or how far we had to go to meet Colton.
After we’d had our fill of looking at the old pig we set off, on swollen and blistered feet, into a very hot afternoon with little more than a few swallows of warm water in our canteens. Every mile or so Ron would stop, look at his GPS, turn in a couple circles, point decisively in a direction, look down at his GPS and then say, “No, no wait…”
The rendezvous sight was a place I was familiar with. It was where our path crossed the only fence we saw for five days. When we got close, I helped Ron out. “We’re close. If we hang out at that pond we should see him coming.”
“If he knows where he is.” I didn’t bother to answer. I was trying to decide if I would drink directly out of that scummy pond if Colton didn’t show up.
But he did. At the appointed time we heard the sound of his pickup and rushed to the trail. Colton was the first and only human we would see on the trip, but we didn’t bother much with him. We dove into the ice-stuffed cooler and found the object of our hallucinations – frigid water and the Gator Aide. We drank it way too fast.
Colton spent the night with us. As the sun went down in purples and reds, we all had a couple shots of Scotch and tried to talk about politics. But the antics of Donald Trump could not hold our interest. Mostly we watched the sky. Above us, nighthawks we’re executing their booming dives at unseen insects. Then came a battalion of bats that seemed incongruous on that wide-open prairie until we thought of the distant, badlands cliffs and caves. The bats were diving just like the nighthawks had been doing – swooping over our heads, shooting between us in duos and trios. It was then that Ron whispered, “I see eyes, the eyes of animals.”
I figured it was the scotch talking but we all stopped watching the bats and looked out to the darkening grassland. “Jesus, yea. Over there.”
Someone else pointed in a different direction. “No. Over there!”
“There’s another one.”
“There’s two right behind you.”
“What are they?”
“Oh for God’s sake,” Patrick said. “They’re lightening bugs.” One lit up right between Ron and Colton and was promptly snapped out of the air by a bat. Another bat snagged one just above my head.
It was one of the only times I have ever seen lightening bugs on the prairie and the darker it got, the more lightening bugs appeared and the more suddenly they blinked out with the whirr of bat wings. We fell asleep with the air show still in full swing.
The last day was a particularly hot one. Deer and antelope laid in whatever shade they could find. We had a long, steep hill to climb and when we got to the top we came to a lonesome pond surrounded by noting blue sky and green grass. With almost no discussion we stripped down and waded in up to our necks. A mother duck led her six ducklings as far from us as she could get.
The last leg of the thirty-five mile trip was mostly downhill but the long meadow to ranch seemed to stretch on forever. We had seen only two garter snakes in the entire trip, but just before we came to the gate that let us onto our ranch property, Ron nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. By then he was proficient with his GPS and marked the spot - as if someone would someday want to return.
We’d been moving freely for five days. I was exhausted but in a different way than the sleepless nights in my own bed had made me. I had slept soundly, even with wind, insects, and a little rain. The exhaustion I felt was a healthy exhaustion. It was born of shear movement and shrouded in solitude. It was the kind of freedom that energizes the soul.