Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gonna Climb Me a Mountain

Rua and I near the top of Lookout Mountain. 
Lookout Mountain isn't intimidating. It doesn't loom over the City of Spearfish like a citadel. True, it's 4,452 feet high, but that's only 800 feet above the city. It's a knobby little knoll in the scheme of things, but it does play its part as eye candy every day. It sits back from I-90 and it dominates the skyline when I drive down the hill into town. It exposes sunrises, reflects the fires of sunsets, and defines the backdrop of the region toward the northeast. It's an easy climb, and it's been tempting me to do just that ever since I've lived in Spearfish.

I've lived here for almost four years, and it has become embarrassing to admit that I hadn't climbed it. It's been one of those thoughts that's crossed my mind every time I see it. "I have to climb Lookout Mountain," is generally the unspoken statement in my head, followed by, "I can't believe I haven't done it. It's there. It's probably not hard. The view would be gorgeous."

The meadows beside the paths are stunning during the autumn.
I've climbed many mountains. I've found myself on the peaks of many of the White Mountains, including Mt. Washington. I've hiked up several Maine mountains, including the tallest, Mt. Katahdin. I've even crossed the knee-knocking, awe-inspiring, rocky path called the  Knife's Edge between the Pamola and Baxter peaks on Katahdin. I did that during a year when I had hiked a lot, including down in the Grand Canyon and up again, when my balance and my confidence overcame my fear of heights. Could I do it now? No. My knees and my balance are less than stellar, these days.

But I could climb Lookout Mountain, and a couple of Sundays ago, I did. It was the last day of the year when snow wouldn't be an issue. Bob and I started out in the afternoon, with Rua. A front was moving in. We didn't know that the front was actually winter arriving early, complete with sub-zero temps. But that afternoon was perfect for the climb up Lookout Mountain.

Actually, Lookout Mountain has been conquered, a lot. In fact, it was being conquered that day by bikers, by a family with a baby in a backpack accompanied by dog, a couple of college students, and us. If one reads the description of the hike, one knows that it's a haven for mountain bikers, families, and people like me, who feel guilty just admiring it from a distance. It isn't tough to climb. You just have to do it.

The path (there are hundreds) we took up was steep, actually, and scored deep into the red earth by mountain bikers. We stopped, many times, to catch our singular breaths and collectively admire how far we had come. Spearfish spread itself below us. The cold wind shepherding the steely autumn clouds out for the season was sweet and sassy. We climbed further. Stopped to breathe. Climbed more. Wondered if it would rain and decided we didn't care.

A boulder at the top of Lookout Mountain. Remained unclimbed. Small dog with delusions of grandeur in tow. 
The lack of trees is one reason I like hiking in the West. In the East, thick groves of pine, spruce, and fir trees often crowd a trail for miles, leaving little room for views. But in the West, one can rise above a tree line in short order, and views abound. A service road for cattle and/or for the electrical lines that cross the hills leading to Lookout Mountain was an easy way to rise, for a short time.

The closer I get to the top of a mountain, the more I want to get there. I'm drawn to the peak, to the sky, to the wind, to the act of climbing a mountain. Even if the mountain is small, I find it hard to stop for anyone. That Sunday climb was no exception. Bob had led us for most of the way, but about five sixths of the way up, Bob decided to stay in a high mountain meadow and admire the spread of prairie and landmarks a few hundred feet below the top of Lookout Mountain. That was fine with me. I headed for the top, dog trotting after me.

The grasses along the path were varied and incredibly beautiful. Browns, reds, green, and gold, silvered, violet and orange, just magic. Rua and I wound our way through groves of small pines and up along a path with an close edge that made me slightly uncomfortable, but we kept going. We passed the family with the baby and the dog. We had a short conversation, passed by, and Rua and I were alone.

More grasses. Beautiful.
I scooted Rua up over a rocky, rooted path, and then climbed up after her. Several large boulders sat above us, but I didn't tackle them to make the exact top of the mountain. Having a small dog with a big spirit along made me aware that she might try to follow me, and I was conscious of her safety. We sat for a minute in our little spot, and looked down over Spearfish. I ate a granola bar and had some water, and she ate her supper.

The view from the top of Lookout Mountain.
We climbed down to meet Bob, and descended, which is always harder for me. I use a walking stick these days to coddle my left knee. The day was late, and I wanted the comfort of a warm house and a Sunday night supper.

When I see Lookout Mountain now, I no longer feel guilty for not having climbed it. I can picture the climb, the view, the top, and I feel as if we've come to an understanding. I know you, Lookout Mountain, I say to it, and you know me back.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The License Plate Game

My South Dakota License Plate. It's hard to read. Take note, all who pass me. 

I'm an old hand at traveling back and forth from South Dakota to Maine and back. A distance of 2100 miles to and 2100 miles fro and I've pretty much got it down.

Day One: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. Drive to Wall for gas and a donut. Drive forever, unless I and the dog have to pee, until I reach Sioux Falls. Turn right, and end up in Iowa. Stay overnight in said Iowa. Unpack dog and cat, pack back up in the morning. This last thing, all three days. They are remarkable and patient travel companions.

Day Two: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. The second day is the most stressful. I head right toward Chicago and race around the perimeter of it, on I-80. The last time I did it, I ended up taking a wrong exit, which is always a big fear of mine. What will happen? Who will save me? I ended up in a tight and uncomfortable traffic jam that spit us out into LaPorte, Indiana, where my GPS guy, Garmando, who tactfully didn't say, "I told you to take that exit, idiot," found I-80 East again. After going through Indiana, I reach Ohio, race through Cleveland on I-80, and head up to Erie, PA for the second night.  

Day Three: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. This is the longest day. I'm heading for the ocean, and I can't get there, soon enough. When did New York and Massachusetts, both of which I have to cross, get so big? Finally, I get to the BRIDGE. Everyone who loves Maine, who comes home over that BRIDGE, knows the one I mean. And everyone who has been away who crosses that BRIDGE from New Hampshire to Maine and home does what I do. They laugh and cry, and whoop and holler, and then they open the windows to suck in some Maine air. It really is different. It smells like home.  

And, I'm never home, long enough. When I leave, I perform the opposite actions. Erie the first night, Iowa the second, and back to Spearfish on the third. The third day, another BRIDGE takes me across the Missouri and puts me on a galloping path up a big hill and into the West, onto the high plains and prairie, and into the Black Hills, which are not for sale.   

Here are some observations.
  • South Dakota highways are awesome. 
  • Iowa (particularly the southern part) is one of the most beautiful states I've ever driven through.
  • Ohio has the best rest stops. The sign that says Ashtabula reminds me of two Bobs. Clements and Dylan. I try to call the first Bob when I see the sign, to tell him I'm in Ashtabula because we get a kick out of the fact that Bob Dylan uses the word in a lyric. …I'll look for you on old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula…(from You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go).  
  • I can't remember much about Indiana, save for the towns surrounding Notre Dame and the signs leading to Fort Wayne. If I took that detour, I could visit my ex-husband. I never do. I've already been that route.  
  • No matter what day or time I try to sneak through Chicago, even on I-80, I wind up tear-assing through six lanes of traffic, ready to snarl at the dog or cat should either one make a peep. I rejoice when it's over. It's ugly and nasty and I want my Mommy and/or a glass of wine.
  • I can't believe they put a 90-degree angled turn in Cleveland.  
  • Lake Erie is really big. Gordon Lightfoot wrote The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald so that I could think of this every time I see the lake. …and farther below Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her….
  • The Berkshires are beautiful and every time I go through Stockbridge, James Taylor croons to me from his song, Rockabye Sweet Baby James. Said lyrics: ...and so were the Berkshires from Stockbridge to Boston….
  • My license plate is among the rarest spotted during the license plate game. And I know when people might be playing that game.
How do I know? Someone starts to pass. I see them pull out. I wait forever and then I peer into my rearview mirror to see that they are hanging on my rear bumper. I know what they are doing. They are trying to figure out where I'm from. There are two clues. One is a funky photo of Mt. Rushmore. If a traveler knows where that is, then they'll figure out that I'm from South Dakota. If they don't know, the other clue is the fuzzy, smudgy letters way to the top of the plate that reads "South Dakota" in red cursive. It's hard to make out when one is driving eighty miles an hour. Heck, it's hard to make out when one walks right up to it. I almost hit a pedestrian in the Kennebunk, Maine rest stop when I started to back up before noticing that she was walking up to the rear of my car. She studied it and then toddled off, shouting to her friend back on the sidewalk, "It's South Dakota!"

Driving across the country is a long, long journey and the license plate game is one way to keep from going nuts. Of course, electronics keep a large part of the population entertained, but some must still get carsick, or like to contemplate their lives while staring blindly at scenery. I like to believe that spotting my license plate gives a carload something to keep them going, keep them hoping, until their own journey ends.  

I did the very same thing once, with a friend, as we drove from Maine to Arizona and back. We saw the license plates from all 50 states. The last one we found? The one that sent us past them in a road-weary hysterical frenzy? The one that obsessed us from Utah until the sighting on the Oklahoma panhandle? No, not South Dakota. It was an even rarer find.

It was our neighbor upstairs. North Dakota.  

Friday, February 21, 2014


I once saw a New Yorker cartoon in an issue published either close to or in the midst of spring. A happy bird sat on the windowsill of an open window with its beak cracked open in a wide grin. "I'm back," read the caption. "Any messages?" That's all I have to say about that. I've been gone. I'm back. "Any messages?"

We are - the world - all waiting for spring. We are waiting for that bird, and yes, we have messages. The primary message is, of course, "Where the hell have you been?" In Maine, the weather is crushing the roofs and the spirits of even the toughest Yankees. The snow will not quit, but neither will my fellow Mainers. They will triumph, I'm sure, but they'll have sore backs and arms.

White horse, survivor of the winter storm, Atlas. 
Here in western South Dakota, it's been relatively mild, with the exception of one devastating cruel storm last October 4th that punched out the lights and the hearts of the most stoic of ranchers by killing thousands of cattle and other livestock. And horses. it was the death of the horses that surprised everyone. That, evidently, is a rarity. The government was shut down, which didn't help anyone, but the West takes care of its own, and it did, as best it could, with fundraisers and donated cattle and horses, and help from neighbors and neighboring fly-over states. They've told me that the East often has no idea of what tragedies or big events have occurred out here, and I saw that first hand after the storm. About 40,000 head of livestock died of hypothermia or suffocation, affecting the lives of generations of ranchers, and it took about a week for the fact of it to reach the New York Times. By that time, as it would be in Maine, a dazed but fierce recovery effort was underway.

A pair of Eurasian Collared Doves perched on the remainder of a large maple tree branch. 
The other casualties were trees, or parts of trees, or branches. Here in Spearfish, and I imagine in surrounding towns, tree cleanup is still going on. Where once there was shelter, now there are stumps. Almost every deciduous tree suffered some sort of ice-fueled amputation. It took Bob and I three days to clear the yard of branches and debris. Workers are now performing surgery throughout the town to help strengthen each tree. Rua and I are familiar to the worker who drives a tiny bulldozer along the walking paths of the parks. I wonder if he sees tree parts and sawdust when he closes his eyes at night.

Tula Mae
Rua, my Cairn Terrier, is about eleven and a half now. We've been struggling with a localized tumor in her left leg for about two and a half years now, performing lumpectomies when it got cumbersome. I'm happy to report that she is in remission and that she's waiting for a walk. We also have a new kitten, Tula Mae. She was about six weeks old and a foster for about five minutes in our house, until her little starved body found a cubby hole in our kitchen near the heater, and found nooks in our hearts. I didn't want a kitten, wasn't looking for a kitten, much less a female kitten, but here is she, and she's fabulous. She just came into the office wanting my help in untangling the yarn she'd wrapped around her legs and neck. Rua and she are friends, which Jessie would like, I think.

I've written another novel during my time away from the blog. A sequel to Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea. It will be published in German, first, as was Red Ruby Heart. The title, in English, will be Cold Blue Sea, Endless Sky. Writing this book was an entirely different experience. The first novel is written at one's leisure, because it's just for practice. The second novel is written on deadline. This sequel drew blood, sweat, and tears, I'll tell you that! The tone is completely different, almost frantic and filled with a lack of time. Writing a book about characters suffering from a lack of time can be tense, but in the end, I loved what came out of it. I love my characters, Florine, Bud, Dottie, Glen, and all the residents of The Point.

Eagles fill my eyes these days. I spot them along the creek, searching out fishing spots. Turkeys also loom large, in big, big flocks. The deer are suspiciously scarce, this winter. I still have not seen an elk out here, although Bob and I have been to places where they are allegedly common. It's like Puffins on the East Coast. I've never seen one, but they tell me they exist. At this point, if I spotted an elk or a puffin, it might take away from all that I have imagined them to be.

"Any messages?" One. Come, Spring.