It’s not unusual, I have found, that people who live in one location for a long time or for their entire lives often don’t visit the very places that new folks to the region or even tourists want to visit. While I loved growing up in Missouri, I had no idea at the time about the fact that sliced bread was first successfully marketed in Chillicothe, not far from my home in St. Joseph. Nor did I know that J.C. Penney was born in Hamilton or that Walt Disney spent a couple formative years in Marceline or that John J. Pershing was born in Laclede.
Within a year or two of moving to Wisconsin, we discovered that we had visited more Wisconsin sites and events than many life-long Wisconsinites. I thought that was odd.
I first visited the Black Hills of South Dakota when I was in high school. When I was in college and soon thereafter, I spent many a weekend exploring the Hills, camping there, taking backroads and overgrown trails. And I had a great time doing it. But as I grew older, I took the Hills somewhat for granted except for stolen weekends after Labor Day when the tourist season was over and everyone’s kids were back in school.
I’m not sure when we last visited the Black Hills. It may have been 20 years ago or more. Busy jobs and demanding schedules would have kept us away. The Black Hills would always be there, I thought, and no doubt brushed aside desires to visit once again. I thought I had seen it all.
A couple weeks ago, Terry and I ventured once again to the Hills. Now Terry’s idea of camping is “poor room service” so there was none of that. We stayed in a fine home in the northern Hills, the guests of friends. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a flock of turkeys – there must have been 15 or 20 of them. Not long after, the deer began what I soon recognized as a regular trek around and behind the house. It was heaven. Far removed from the road and with nearby homeowners living miles away, we had not only the house but the whole locale to ourselves.
But what really surprised me was our venture out onto roads with which I thought I was intimately familiar. Somehow I was looking at things differently. I didn’t assume that this or that landmark was coming up. I just drank in the work of nature. As we drifted through Spearfish Canyon and made our way to Roughlock Falls, we learned for the first time that the canyon is at least twice as old if not three times older than the Grand Canyon.
In the days of yore (my yore), I used to visit Roughlock Falls with this friend or that, weaving my way down paths strewn with rocks and using stepping stones to either walk in front of the Falls or behind them. Today those rough paths have been smoothed out by state projects designed to make them accessible to most folks, even in wheelchairs. There’s no more walking behind the Falls (at least not legitimately) and the walks in front of the falls, the ones with the best views, are on display from constructed overlooks. The Falls are magnificent, or they were when we were there. I suspect in dry years, they may narrow to more of a wide trickle. That has always been the case.
But what thrilled me even more was the creek, Little Spearfish Creek, that winds its way to the Falls and then heads on downhill. The water is running very fast, but it is so clear we could see the trout shouldering their way against the tide as they awaited this morsel or that to come floating by. A quick jump and they were back in position waiting for the next piece of food.
When we returned downstream we were taking a casual walk behind the nu-Latchstring Inn (ah, don’t get me started on how it used to be; improvements often leave history behind) and we heard rushing water. We followed the sound of it, taking a ¾-mile hike down a very rough 110-feet to the gorge below. That’s when we discovered for the first time Spearfish Falls. More magnificent than Roughlock Falls, it marks the spot where Little Spearfish Creek flows into Spearfish Creek.
How is it that we had never known about Spearfish Falls before? We learned that Little Spearfish Creek had been diverted by Homestake Mining Company (that’s the gold people) for 90 years so that they could direct that water into their hydroelectric plant downstream. In 1985, the Falls were restored. It may be that we hadn’t been to that neck of the woods for 30 years so we didn’t know about it. Many more folks will soon learn as the rustic trail is being transformed into a more walkable, accessible path as well.
I saw a wooly bear caterpillar that day. And I saw glimpses of the canyon that made it all new to me despite my previous familiarity with it.
I’ve written on this blog in the past about “thin places” (June 3, 2015). “The premise is that there are some physical locations on earth where the boundaries fall away between heaven and earth thus providing the visitor or resident an extraordinary experience of oneness with God.” I’ve had a few of those experiences before, but I am compelled to say that I have never before felt the impact of a thin place as much as I did on this recent visit to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the northern Black Hills of South Dakota. I understood in my heart for the very first time why it is that the Native Americans have always said the Black Hills are a sacred place.
Now, had we visited in the midst of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally or another heightened visitor time during the year, I may not have felt the same way. The sounds of gunning motors and loud voices shrieking at the sight of a buffalo or a mountain goat would, without doubt, dissuade me from experiencing a “thin place.”
But as we drove out of the Hills on our last day there, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and a heaviness in my heart as I had to leave it all behind. It was mystical. I felt as though I did have a oneness with God if only for that one day among others in Spearfish Canyon. I still have that feeling today. I yearn to go back.
Maybe it didn’t hurt that I had taken it all for granted. Maybe I needed to be away from it for 20-30 years to truly appreciate what God created there millions of years ago. Maybe I needed to appreciate the patriotism I feel whenever I see Mount Rushmore, but maybe, just maybe I needed to appreciate the crystal clear waters, the flowing streams, the trails to new vistas. Maybe I just needed to be older to really see what had been in my back yard for many years.
1 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8