Last Friday Aradia and I skidded into KC at the end of a nine day road trip to the South Dakota Badlands and Rocky Mountain National Park. As tempting as it was, in theory, to turn the road trip into a spiritual retreat, the fact is that I desperately needed the vacation. And what a vacation it was. Even after all the travelling I’ve done with Aradia and my family, I had never seen landscapes like the ones I saw over that week-and-a-half: the Karst cartography of central and south Missouri gave way to the Loess hills of northern MO and eastern Iowa before we set off across the grasslands of South Dakota. We came into the Badlands from the north, via I-90, and I don’t even know how to describe the feeling when the earth dropped off in front of us, only to rise back up in magnificent spires of white and red stone.
Tragically, as our visit coincided with the Perseid meteor shower, it rained on us briefly every day we were there, despite the arid climate, and every night was overcast. That unseasonable water made it all the more shocking when I tried to get a sense of the spirits of the place and sensed nothing by Earth and Air: ancient, slow-moving things from whom I sensed not just a vast indifference to human life, but to mortal life in general. My poetic nature wants to describe that indifference as “bordering on cruelty”, but I think that’s a little bit of projection and a great deal of anthropomorphization; I think the spirits that ancient stone, weathered by the wind and by water whose brief appearances is as destructive to the rock as it is necessary to the survival of plant and animal life, are simply the most alien things I have yet to come into contact with.
The Badlands were vast, alien, and austere. So far from my lands in which I have invested my power, and from the Water which makes up so much of my nature, I felt empty—sucked dry. Surprisingly, that feeling was healing and cathartic: my waters have been murky, almost poisoned for the last year, by the stresses of my personal and academic life, and by the rigid forces of the ceremonial I had been practicing. By travelling outside my own personal bog, I was able to let some of those “contaminants” (to continue the metaphor) dry out and be carried off by the constant winds of the desert.
From there were traveled south and further west, cutting through the top-left corner of Nebraska into eastern Wyoming, where we skirted the foothills into north-eastern Colorado where, after gaining elevation slowly over hundreds of miles, we finally ascended into the mountains proper. The thin air of the Rockies hit me hard, and I was nearly useless for the first twenty hours or so. The green and grey vistas of the mountains hit me as hard as the desert had, and I found the magical climate much more to my liking, but even farther from “home” and equally alien.
I don’t know if the Rocky Mountains are actually younger, geologically, than the Badlands, but they felt that way to me. More patient, and with an indifference to my passing that was somehow less hostile. Earth and Air still dominated, but Water was more familiar, perhaps even more welcome. When I finally had the opportunity to perform the Stele of Jeu on the last day—something that I had been trying to fit in for the whole trip—the local spirits wanted reassurance that I was not attempting to dominate them, but they took me at my word that I only sought to purify myself.
By the end of the trip, as we came down off the mountain to get coffee in Denver and struck off eastward for dinner and a hotel in Hays, I finally felt like a person again: scoured clean by spirits of Earth and Air.