pilgrimage journal

For the kids’ privacy, I’ve listed them as Girl 1-8 and Boy 1-2. The other two leaders are, logically, Leader 1-2.


So I’m starting this a day late. I didn’t have patience yesterday for writing. What a day. I’m so amazed that we got through it in one still-speaking-to-each-other piece.

Up at 5, out the door at 5:45. Debbie saw me off — very sweet — she slipped a letter about listening for God’s voice into my pack. (Aside — I’m writing this on the porch of the main house @ Borderlands, and the wind is blowing over the hills and in the leaves, and the only other sounds are birds and bugs. First morning, and already I have an inkling of why this place is sacred. It’s more than “pretty nature” — I really feel that things here are talking some language I’ll understand soon. And twice today already I’ve seen people and looked again and they weren’t there. Keep this up and I’ll start believing in the whole spirit thing.)

Yesterday was a nightmare, but it could have been much worse. The good humor of the kids kept it all from deteriorating. I’m very grateful to them for that.

We all got to the Richmond airport at 6:30 a.m. yesterday. Hugs and pictures all around, and then the parents left us alone with the kids. Moment of private panic, then shook myself and got over it.

We got to watch half of USA vs. Germany soccer before boarding the plane to Detroit. Quick (uneventful) layover, then on to Minneapolis. (All layovers featured a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful quest to buy me a watch. I still don’t have one.)

Minneapolis. It all started to go bad in Minneapolis. It was the weather’s fault — a line of thunderstorms shut down the airport and everything was incredibly backed up. We ended up spending 4 hours on the plane getting to Minneapolis. I don’t have to detail the sheer hell of that experience. Obviously, we missed our layover, and I guarded the kids and luggage while Leader 1 and Leader 2 moved heaven and earth to get us all on another flight.

Tempers frayed. Poor Girl 8 was having a rough time feeling excluded — I love Girl 5 and Girl 4, but they can be downright mean sometimes, and Girl 8 just doesn’t know how to play along to fit into a group. We had a long talk but I don’t know if it helped — time will tell. (Saying that a lot…)

Girl 1 had a hard time too, fighting homesickness and depression. She improved when we broke out the Play-Doh and started making modern art sculptures. I really like that girl.

We had dinner in the airport, and ran all over the place as they kept changing our gate. Finally got off the ground at 10:30 p.m. Into Rapid City, found the rental van waiting and had to rent a car as well. Despite our best efforts: too much luggage.

I had to drive the 15 passenger van at 1 a.m. local time into the hills with cows on the road and vague directions. Only by the grace of God did we make it in one piece.

We woke up Linda Kramer, poor thing, deposited the kids in their cabins and crashed. 2 friendly dogs — Spooky (black mutt female) and Grady (white Great Pyrenees male) — made us feel welcome. I slept in the main house in a window nook — not enough beds in the cabin — I was devasted to have a room and bathroom to myself, let me tell you.

Weird dreams (something about Mary — she better not have the baby before I get back) and 5 hours later, I got up, showered and met a breakfast feast. Margie had made everything imaginable, most notably pancakes and sausage.

The kids are starting to wake up now — Boy 2’s beside me, silent, half-awake — and Russell Eagle Bear should be here soon.

(insert — rubbing of Balm of Gilead leaf, from tree near front porch.)


Hmpf. I’m glad yesterday’s over with. Don’t get me wrong (oh God, first sip of very hot, very sweet tea = bliss), we had fun, but there was a lot of annoying logistical stuff to do. Half the group went to Hill City for groceries — first time a grocery list has ever taken 2 hours to write — and the other half stayed here to plan today’s worship. That ended up being quite fun, actually. Girl 3 discovered Chief Seattle’s web prayer, everyone liked it, and Girl 2 turned it into a group participation thing. We’re going to make a hoop out of twigs that we ransacked from the junk heap — very bendy twigs — and as we repeat the prayer, everyone will weave a web in the middle of the hoop, passing yarn back and forth. The interconnectedness of all things and all that. Should be fun.

I love the fact that both Boy 2 and Girl 1 want to talk at worship. They refuse to call them sermons, instead creating the term “tellings”.

So we’ll see how worship goes. The rest of the day yesterday involved mucho slacking off. We hiked to the top of the surrounding hills (Borderlands is in a valley), played cards, fixed spaghetti for dinner (with showtunes belted out at high volume in accompaniment), and watched a spectacular thunderstorm that only rained on us for 5 minutes. Linda Kramer was disappointed. They desperately need rain here.

After all that, we wound up the day with a video called “Paha Sapa” (Lakota for “Black Hills”) telling the story of the area from the Lakota perspective. Very powerful stuff — the kids actually stayed awake. It changed their perspective on the area, especially Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. More on that later.


A lot to write about. Went to Crazy Horse yesterday — interesting, but we spent approx. 2 hours too long there. We waited for Leader 1, Girl 6 and Girl 4 (who had gone to the doctor’s) to catch up. Overall impression: really big, awe-inspiring vision, but don’t agree with carving up any mountain, much less a sacred one.

By the time we were done there, we decided to “bag the Rush” and save Mt. Rushmore for another day. We’re less than enthused about big dead presidents of dubious legacies, but feel we ought to go. We’ll just sneak in the back way and not pay — heh heh. (We never did go to Mt. Rushmore. We had time and opportunity toward the end of the trip, but by that point the kids were firmly attached to the idea of the Black Hills as sacred land and had no interest in going to a sacrilegious tourist trap. Hooray.)

Back at the Ranch, Leader 1 and I met the horses — very sweet and inquisitive, about 6 of them — and noticed a few antelope watching us doubtfully from the ridge. (Antelope are everywhere in the Black Hills.) Later I hung out with Boy 2, Girl 2, Girl 3, Boy 1, Girl 5 and Girl 4 on the overlook while they finished the web…oh! I forgot to talk about worship.

Our first worship service was quite moving. Girl 3 sort of directed it, opening with us all singing the chorus of “Spirit”. We all sat in a circle on the porch of the house. Girl 2 led us in singing “Johnny Appleseed”. Boy 2 gave a “telling” — not a sermon, just like the ceremony was a “shindig” instead of a service — about how he hoped we’d be changed by Pilgrimage. Girl 2 explained the idea of the sacred circle in Lakota culture (from the devotional), then instructed everyone in the ritual of making the web. Whlie the web was going around, Girl 3 read the “web prayer” and then we said a centering prayer (“Traveler, there is no road. The road is made as you go.”) for each person. Got a little awkward as the yarn tangled, but oh well.

The shindig finished with singing a hymn and Girl 3 and Boy 2 teaching a song they’d written. More later.


Back @ Borderlands. But I’ve got some catching up to do. I’ll try to comment on everything later, but for now, I’ll just outline. Starting from the end of worship Sunday night, after the web was finished:

Sun. night — Russell Eagle Bear and Ben Rod spoke to our group and a group from Michigan about Wounded Knee, the sacredness of land and home, and the power of change. Kids very impressed.

Mon. a.m. — drove to Pine Ridge Reservation (very like third world country), via Custer National Park. Long trip, but saw buffalo and prairie dogs. Rock on.

Mon. p.m. — lunch @ Big Bat’s Texaco. All signs in Lakota.

— met with Rev. Loren Robinson of the Reservation’s Presbyterian Church. Kids fell asleep during his talk — must confess I did too. Embarrassing, but his talk was pretty canned.

— Heritage Center: Art Show and Holy Cross Church. Loved the art but didn’t buy anything.

— dinner @ Pizza Hut.

— Wounded Knee. Silent observation from Catholic Church @ top of hill, watched spectacular sunset. Breathtaking. Kids awed — major attitude change. Voted in van on way back that materialism is bad. Hooray. Their transformation is fascinating to watch.

— crash at church.

Tues. a.m. — breakfast @ Big Bat’s.

— Rev. Robinson spoke again @ the church re: his experience @ Wounded Knee II as a federal officer. Kids opened up to him much more. He drove with us to Wounded Knee and told us about the graves, and pointed out where everything had been. All joined hands for prayer at end, with invasive tourist snapping photos. Kids appalled/insulted. Good perspective for them.

p.m. — drove to Badlands. Took forever.

— hiked Door and Window trails. Kids fell in love with area and hiking in general. Many great photos. Nearly busted my behind climbing around but had great time. Scenery: good God.

— lunch @ Cedar Ridge restaurant. Indian tacos and eye candy — many cute hikers. For the first time, all kids sat at 1 table. Much happy bonding. They’ve all been high on life ever since.

— started drive home, through Badlands loop, N to Rapid City and W. Chattering all the way. Leader 1 and I bonded, mostly over the fact that she drove 90 miles with the parking brake on.

— dinner @ Route 16 Diner in Hill City.

— and back to Borderlands. Wonderful to be here. Now, I can’t stand the dirt under my fingernails another second. Must shower.

6-27-02 (written on scrap paper)

At Bear Butte. Russell Eagle Bear spoke to us at the bottom of the trail about what to expect. A sacred place, a place of power, a place of no expectations. As we started up the road, I lagged farther and farther behind until I was walking with Girl 8, who was far behind the rest. I knew how she felt: all the others were forging ahead like mountain goats, while we struggled behind. Girl 8 was crying a little and saying she couldn’t, she wasn’t supposed to do this with the medications she’s on (we knew her meds, and sun exposure and exercise are not problems). I encouraged her to slow down and focus on breathing, and when we got to the shelter we sat in the shade while she drank water and got her breath back.

I kept praying for guidance but I was so mad I wanted to cry. I’d really wanted to climb that Butte. But I knew that what Girl 8 needed was more important. I spoke gently to her, reassuring her that it was okay, she didn’t have to do what she didn’t want or felt she couldn’t do. God doesn’t ask more than we can give, I told her, but He expects us to try. He wants us to push ourselves to become the person He wants us to be. She still was unhappy — with herself and the situation — and didn’t know what to do.

As we sat there, a group of people joined us — and old Indian man, a white-haired white woman, a mentally handicapped man and a man in his 30’s. They all sat with us and we made pleasant small talk, mostly with the old man. He was a Cheyanne who explained some of his people’s background: Bear Butte is sacred to them but they don’t climb it — he compared it to Mt. Sinai with the Jews. He comes to that shelter every year and prays, or talks to people. He’d met many people there.

After while I turned to Girl 8 again and asked, “Well, what do you think? What should we do?” She didn’t know. I suggested a compromise: we go together, step by step, very slowly, stopping or sitting when we needed to. We’d go as far as she felt she could and then go back down, as long as we try.

While we talked the old man listened intently. As Girl 8 thought things through, he beckoned to her and said, “Give me a rock.” She picked up a small one from the gravel walk and handed it to him. He stood her in front of him, facing him, with her left hand extended, and rolled the rock in between his hands with his eyes closed. Girl 8 watched him wide-eyed. He opened his eyes and touched the rock to her forehead, then held it over her head, moved to her left ear, her shoulder, down her arm slowly to her hand. He pressed it into her palm and covered it with her right hand. He then moved his hands down either side of her body, a few inches from her body, and up again slowly, pausing by her ears and over her head. Then he gripped her hands and said, “Carry this with you.”

Through this whole thing I could hardly breathe. Tears were right behind my eyes. I could almost see the energy and power between Girl 8 and the rock and the man.

Girl 8 said, “Thank you,” still wide-eyed, and stepped back. The old man turned to me and asked if he could do the same for me. At first I hesitated and said I was just Girl 8’s guide, but he just looked at me and I said, “Okay.”

He did the same with me as he had with Girl 8. As his hands passed over me, my body felt — different. Aware. Jolted. Lifted. It didn’t feel ike my feet were on the ground. I could have run back to VA and led a thousand kids. I prayed silently throughout, “Help me be a good leader.”

When the old man was done, he looked in my eyes and said, “Our faiths are the same. Your faith will guide you. Carry the rock with you.” His eyes said more but I can’t articulate it.

I said, “Thank you.” Girl 8 and I then turned silently, picked up our packs and started up the path. Girl 8 didn’t hesitate, just walked steadily, pausing in the shade. After a good bit she sighed and said, “That’s as far as I can go.” We stood there for awhile and prayed, thanking God for the gift of courage and strength and the chance to try.

When we got back down, Russell was amazed by our story. He said he’d been doing this for 20 eyars and had been given 3 stones by elders. When we get back, Russell will show us how to make pouches to carry the stones with us always. He said from now on, we’ll always know in the back of our heads, that the Spirit is with us, helping us.

Linda said Girl 8 looked like she was walking 3 feet above the ground. I know how she feels.


Unreal how crazy these past few days have been. Emotions all over the place. I’ve cried more in the past 2 days than I had in months. Joy, awe, euphoria, grief, rage, exhaustion — mainly exhaustion.

It’s been 3 days since I’ve written because I haven’t had time or energy to spare. Now, it’s hard to remember everything that’s happened. I’ll try to summarize.

Wed. — took the kids to Hill City to do laundry and grocery shop. Had slept late, which was great. If I get 5-6 hours of sleep/night it’s rare. Kids are up late, then Leader 1 and Leader 2 and I stay up later talking over the events of the day, venting, and planning.

Girl 1, who had been torn up over her favorite pet’s recent death and her parents’ divorce, had a breakthrough and committed to staying through the end of the Pilgrimage instead of asking to go home every day. Miracle.

Highlight of Wed. was that night’s devotional, in which the kids for the first time enjoyed praying. We asked them to just give thanks for stuff, and we couldn’t shut them up. Girl 5 said it was the best prayer she’d ever heard.

Thurs. — Bear Butte. Events at that site recorded separately. Drive home was rough, as kids were all wired and cranky. If I never have to drive a 15 passenger van again it’ll be too soon. But all in all still awed by day’s events.

Fri. — all hell breaks loose. Girl 8 — we think — hasn’t been taking her meds and is picking fights with others, ruining the mood of the whole trip. Everyone edgy and confused. Seems like we go seemlessly from one crisis to the next. We spent much of the day in Hill City shopping for gifts.

Inipi (sweat) Lodge was last night. No words to describe it, except maybe like dying and coming back to life. Feast afterwards with Michigan group, since it was their last night. Much bonding.

After feast, Girl 8 flat-out decides she’s not going to hike Harney Peak, our big group-bonding exercise. No amount of pleading, wheedling, firm pronouncements (“you will go”) or loving reassurance makes a dent. Actually, talking to her made the situation worse. Leader 1 and I were so drained that I sat outside and cried, and then we prayed for help, ’cause we had nothing left. Girl 8 had lost all trust in others and desire to be a part of the group, and it was ruining things, and it all made no sense. The kids were trying to reach her, but frankly she was acting like a 4-year-old and couldn’t see it. Honestly, there’s no reasoning with her.

Some of the girls came to us and said they’d heard Girl 8 yelling in the cabin. Leader 1 and I went over to see what we could do, even though we were drained. As we got close, we heard raised voices — laughing. Girl 8 and some of the girls were in there dancing and having a great time. Leader 1 and I looked at each other in disbelief, then snuck up to the side porch to eavesdrop. We’d just settled in when Leader 1 ripped a loud fart. We busted out laughing and ran off. So much for sneaky surveillance.

This morning the kids decided — as a gift to Girl 8, a way to draw her back into the community — to not hike Harney Peak, but to stay here and celebrate Girl 8’s birthday instead. (Her b-day’s actually tomorrow.) Cards, gifts, brownies, candles, singing, confetti, etc. Girl 8 was genuinely surprised and touched, said she’d never had a surprise party before. The good mood lasted through mid-afternoon, when she started snarling and lashing out a the others again. Admitted she hadn’t taken her afternoon meds but seemed no better once she had. Don’t know what to do now.

Rest of today: Leader 1 and I went shopping in Hill City again — got the coolest stuff — and napped @ the Ranch. Later took the kids swimming Deerfield Lake — very cold but fun nonetheless. Wildfire on horizon, approx. 35 miles away. Unconcerned for now, but watchful.

At devotions after dinner, Leader 2 told everyone about her spirit vision on Bear Butte. Was grateful kids were polite, but concerned about their attitude toward her. They learned to tune her out years ago and have no respect for her. Sometimes it is hard to take her seriously, poor thing, because she tends to ramble and is very heavy-handed with the kids. I love and honor her and hate the way the kids treat her.

All for now. Praying. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.


Went to the Gathering of Eagles yesterday. Great honor to be invited — Russell Eagle Bear and Linda Silk, who helped in the Inipi Lodge, invited us — and worth the trip. Not sure what to expect, but it wasn’t what we found. Lots of hippie-looking white people and a few earnest Indians. Lots of dead time, since we got there during lunch. But we learned clear lessons in hospitality — even before they knew who we were, we were welcomed lavishly. Girl 3, who had been feeling alienated because of her “moon time” (which excluded her from many traditional ceremonies), found a potential mentor in Susan C. (not sure of spelling), who’s supposed to come tell us stories later, and who gave our group a candle for a peace flame from the Dalai Lama. (We also got to see Ralph Red Fox, who had gifted Girl 8 and I with stone at Bear Butte.)

Back to Borderlands, with a good, reflective, “we can change things” worship time. Slept on the hill under the most beautiful stars I’ve ever seen, with a 180-lb. Great Pyrenees keeping me warm.

I stayed at the Ranch this morning instead of hiking to the Sun Dance grounds with the others. Feeling a bit dehydrated. Chugged water, napped, read an autographed copy of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle. Now am on top of Flag Mountain. Quiet time, reflection for all. What has the pilgrimage meant?

It’s been hard. Euphoric experiences were few and far between, and I’m starved for sleep. But I’ve found love and grace and mystery and strength and connections with other 2-leggeds, 4-leggeds, wingeds, things that crawl, and the mother earth. I’ve given and received. I’ve confronted my limitations and overcome some of them. I’m a good leader. God is with me, and it is good.

1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”

(insert: “process” diagram from Susan C.’s storytelling visit. Complete flake, loony, but worthwhile as discernment teaching tool.)


En route home. Pretty tired, so reflection will be limited. Closing ceremonies and worship were good last night. We prayed, exchanged gifts, Leader 2 and I formally ended our stint as leaders, we all walked the labyrinth and had Eucharist. All outside — couldn’t bear to spend one minute of our last night inside. I already miss the wind and the smell of the sun on the grass.

Walking the labyrinth: Leader 1 lit a candle surrounded by stones from Wounded Knee and placed it in the center. Even though it got dark and hard to see the path, still a great prayerful walk. Felt very connected to the kids — all their individual quirks and fears — prayers for them just poured out. Especially Girl 3, who carried the candle back out. She had been very hurt when she couldn’t be in the Inipi Lodge because of her period, and I hadn’t been there to help. Ache for her — she’s so confused about what it means to be a woman, so many conflicting messages. Intend to buy her copies of The Red Tent and Phenominal Woman when we get home.

Think most kids, except Girl 8, had a good experience. Really wish we could have helped Girl 8 — she’s not evil, as I was tempted to think more than once — just lonely and spoiled. And emotionally unstable. Finally I had to give up, and I didn’t like doing that.

But everyone else is okay, and learned something, which is all I had asked for. Girl 1’s doing great — what a wonderful surprise she’s been — I just pray her parents stop tearing her apart at home. Dear little mountain goat (the nickname she earned on the trip for her hiking prowess).

Also concerned for Girl 2 — don’t think Boy 2’s serious about her, and she’ll get hurt. I love Boy 2, but teenage boys are idiots. Hope she realizes that.

Catching glimpses of headlines from others’ newspapers. Scandals horrors death. I didn’t miss the news.

Wonder how the forest fire in the Black Hills is going. Hope it’s under control — it was only 35 miles from Borderlands yesterday. Glad our leftover food is going to the firefighters.

So — almost home. Not really looking forward to it. But can’t wait to talk to Bonnie et al (people from church) and tell stories.

Off subject — got 2 of the greatest compliments of my life on this trip. Girl 1 called me one of the most trustworthy people she knows, and Girl 2 said I was one of her greatest spiritual influences. Greatest insult: Boy 2 called me a “church leader” in the voice of scorn only a 15-year-old boy can use. Oh well.