The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial

The Disneyfied, Las-Vegased Main Street of Deadwood.

Journal: Horsethief Campground North, Black Hills National Forest, Saturday evening, July 22nd, 2017

It’s a little before 10 pm, the last vestige of the sun’s light has left the sky. The starlight is somewhat obscured by the slight haze and the ambient light from this bustling, heavily populated campground. The children’s shouting and crying are finally quieting down but the teens and adults are still chatting, and some are partying. I chose this site, one, because it was available (it was the last one) and two, because of its proximity to the hike I have planned for early tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that after it happens. My tent is pitched for the night, my clothes are ready for the morning. I’ll be glad when the night is over and I can leave this campsite. I’m regretting choosing this spot because all the hubbub is breaking the peace and beauty that this forest could bring, and worsens the disappointed surprise I’ve been feeling since I entered the Black Hills.

The first attraction (as a street sign identified it) that I came across after entering the Black Hills from the north is Deadwood. This Old West town has been converted to a sort of quaint Disneyland of themey cutesy old-timey trinket-mall combined with Las Vegas excess. I’m sure that if I expected to arrive at Disneyland-LasVegas, I’d think nothing of it, or take it all in with the sense of humor that usually keeps me from turning curmudgeon. But for the last few days I’ve been immersed in national parks, monuments, memorials, forests, and other spaces that move one to wonder and contemplation and even enlightenment. They’re managed so as to showcase, and to protect, and to educate about the natural wonders or important historical occurrences that caused them to be instituted. When I saw that ‘Black Hills National Forest’ sign among the lovely pines across from a glowing red clay hillside, I was happily anticipating more of that since that’s primarily what I was here for.

But here on Deadwood’s Main Street, the greed for gold, which drove our theft and rape of this natural treasure from those who treated it with the leave-no-trace care that did much better justice to its grandeur, is celebrated without any apparent self-consciousness. The signs proclaim ‘Black Hills Gold!’ and ‘Celebrity Hotel!’ and ‘Gaming!Gaming!Gaming!’. I would not presume to speak for any Native American of the Great Plains, but I can imagine that seeing this screamingly cartoon take on the gold rush, for the sake of which countless numbers of their people suffered, died, and were dispossessed of the homes and ways that gave life its meaning, as a result of greed for that ultimately useless soft yellow metal… I imagine that if I saw this while remembering what happened to my ancestors, I would want to vomit or set it all on fire.

Billboards off the highway through the Black Hills, 2017 Amy Cools

Billboards off the highway through the Black Hills. ‘Buy booze!’ they shout.

As I continued my drive, I passed tacky billboard after tacky billboard, loud recreational vehicles roaring by painted in garish colors, each casino and resort and gimmicky attraction following on each other’s heels with tedious regularity, my mood continued to slump.

As there was a just enough light left to get a look at one of my destinations, I followed the signs to Mt Rushmore. I arrived not long after sunset. It’s crowded and it cost $10 to park in the massive parking garage across from the monumental sculpture carved out of the rock of the cliff side (my magic annual national park pass didn’t work to waive the concession parking charge, as the signs refer to it). The parking garage is actually well-designed for its purpose: it fits a huge number of vehicles while not interfering with the view of the sculpture and directs the considerable traffic very efficiently.

Mt Rushmore in Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota, shortly after sunset

Bust of Gutzon Borglum by Lincoln Borglum, Mt Rushmore viewing platform, Black Hills, SD

Mt Rushmore is an impressive, beautifully executed sculpture. There’s an excellent telling of the creation of the Mt Rushmore sculpture by PBS’s American Experience, I very much recommend it.

I don’t care so much for the bust of creator Gutzon Borglum that I pass on the walkway to the viewing platform. It’s the work of Borglum’s son Lincoln, who helped sculpt Mt Rushmore especially in the finishing stages after his father’s death in 1941. It’s technically good but rather stiff. Except for the redeeming little smile on the lips, the portrait bears an unfortunate resemblance to those forbidding Lenin busts and sculptures so omnipresent in parts of midcentury Europe. Gutzon Borglum had talent and perseverance and sculpted many of the most important figures in American history, and I’ve encountered his work many times throughout my historical travels. However, I’m not an admirer of him personally either; perhaps that contributes to my impression of his portrait bust. He was a rather unscrupulous character and an unabashed white supremacist. I’ve no doubt he was aware of the incongruousness, even insult inherent in carving U.S.-presidential portraits into this U.S.-stolen mountain.

Walkway to the viewing platform at Mt Rushmore

It was sort of a carnival atmosphere when I approached the viewing platform. Patriotic music started blaring over the loudspeakers, and I heard talk of a light show. I was struck by the lack of diversity in the large crowd: I could count non-white people there on two hands. Born and raised in Southern California and having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for fifteen years, I always find a lack of diversity discomfiting. I am used to being around a wide ethnic variety of people and I love it.

I think about which of the four presidents would approve of their 60-foot-tall likenesses here. Washington and Jefferson: no, surely. Both were wary of the power of power to corrupt one’s character, and neither believed in deifying other human beings, especially themselves, in the way this extraordinary sculpture seems to do. I’m a little less sure that Lincoln would wholly disapprove: he did believe in the unifying power of symbols, and he was an extremely ambitious man, though I think he was one of those rare characters whose ambition did little to erode his integrity. On the whole, I still think he would disapprove. Of the four, I think Theodore Roosevelt would most likely to approve if it, with his outsize personality, love of power, and ‘great man’ theory of history. He was a committed conservationist and was instrumental in creating the National Park system, but I still think he might approve of this particular exception to the rule of forbearance when it comes to altering natural wonders.

View of Horsethief Campground from my tent

After a short time, I left. I was in no mood for a light show. The sculpture is impressive and looks lovely in the low soft light of the evening, but it just doesn’t belong here in the Black Hills.

Journal: On Black Elk Peak, Black Hills National Forest, Sunday afternoon, July 23rd, 2017

I woke up refreshed and cheerful this morning. The campers, cabin vacationers, and partiers of last night are getting ready for the day. Their evident satisfaction with this beautiful morning after a day and night of fun made me feel more kindly disposed towards them, and I chatted with several of them while waiting for a shower stall to open up, including the hospitable couple from the campsite next to mine who loaned me their camp light last night to set up my tent by.

Black Elk prays to the Six Grandfathers on Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, in 1931, when he ascends this peak for the first time in the flesh. He’s accompanied by his son, and by the poet and author John Neihardt with his daughters. Black Elk had been on this mountaintop in a vision when he was very young, a vision that guided him for the rest of this life. ‘He’d prepared in advance for this address to the gods. In his Vision, he’d been naked except for his breechclout, his body painted red, the color of the right road. But the girls were there and he didn’t want to embarrass them [what a gentleman! – AC], so he stepped behind an outcrop and a few minutes later emerged wearing a bright red union suit commonly called long johns. Over that he wore a black or dark blue breechclout, trimmed in green, and on his feet high stockings and beaded moccasins’ – Joe Jackson, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary

I packed up my tent and drove to the Sylvan Lake recreation center, where there’s a hotel, cabins, and structures for boating and water sports, and where I’ve been recommended by a few people to start my Black Elk Peak hike from. The young woman at the front desk looked and sounded quite a bit like Winona Ryder, but taller, leaner, more what’s often called ‘girl-next-door’. She looked to me like a local and a hiker so I approached her; my guess turned out to be right. I asked her about the hiking trails to Black Elk Peak, and she hesitated. I assured her that I’m a sturdy hiker and was looking for the best hike, not necessarily the most popular one. Her smile broadened, and she directed me to ascend via Trail #9, the Black Elk / Harney Peak Trail, from the Willow Creek trailhead rather than the Sylvan Lake one. The former is longer and more strenuous, but, she said, much more spectacular. ‘That’s the one, then!’ I said. After all, I’ve gone all this way to do this, so best do it right.

She was the first person in the Black Hills that didn’t react negatively to my calling it Black Elk Peak. It was finally renamed by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names last year after years and years of protest. Until last year, it was named Harney Peak after General William S. Harney, whose forces massacred Native American women and children in the wars for the Plains. When I had asked various people for directions and advice or just mentioned my plans in conversation, the response was invariably a rather sour look and something like ‘Oh, you mean Harney Peak. It’ll always be Harney Peak around here.’ I realize people like familiar things to remain familiar, but I’m still disappointed by this ungenerous reaction. I mean, c’mon. We’ve taken these hills by force and trickery and are milking them for cash to this day, and we’ll never give them back. Let a little something of their sacred history be memorialized here, too.

Trailhead to Black Elk Peak / Harney Peak from Willow Creek, Black Hills, SD, via Trail #9 by way of Trail #8

A view from Trail #9 in the Black Elk Wilderness

Returning to my story, the woman at Sylvan Lake Hotel was right. I’m so very grateful that she sent me here. This 9 ½-mile out-and-back hike is glorious, from gently winding sandy horse trails through pines and voluminous wildflowers to steeper, narrower climbs between fantastic rock formations….

…. Continued later the same day: I stopped writing just there because I of a happy interruption.

As I was writing what you just read, I was perched on a rock near the edge of the peak with a very long, nearly sheer drop under my feet. At overlooks like this one, I like to reverse-Spiderman towards the edge, creeping face-up along on all fours so I can’t slip as I near it, until I find a hollow I can sit in. The depression needs to be deep enough so I can tuck my rear well into it and feel that there’s no way I can fall unless I really tried (this tactic allowed me to fully enjoy the grandest view possible of the Virgin River canyon at Zion National Park from Observation Point not too long ago). I took my photos from my perch and then was inspired to write. I was so absorbed in my writing that I was unaware of what was happening right next to me until I heard the tinkle of a bell and someone say, ‘Whoa!’ I swing my head around in the direction of these sounds and see a couple with their medium-size dog (the bell was on its collar) well behind me on the rocks. I swing my head back around again to the white shape they were looking at rather near to me on my right, also near the edge like I was.

Perched on a rocky edge of Black Elk Peak

It was a female Rocky Mountain goat, a mature one, with curved pointed horns. She was perhaps twenty-five or thirty feet away from me. I was surprised that such a large animal could come so close without my noticing, but I think the people who know me best would not be surprised. When I’m reading or writing, generally, I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on around me. I carefully gathered up my things I had tucked into another crevice next to me, buckled my pack around my waist again, and backed up a little farther from the edge, moving slowly all the while. I wasn’t afraid of her since she was very clearly not afraid of me so long as I didn’t approach or make any sudden sounds or movements. She kept half an eye on the dog which was carefully restrained by its owners; it was quiet, tensed in riveted attention. After apparently satisfying herself that the dog was no threat, she turned her attention to me, sniffing energetically and edging herself in my direction, chewing her cud all the while. At a certain point, she turned and walked purposefully towards me, coming to a stop about 8-10 feet away. I’m only a little nervous, but not as a result of her behavior: she was still at ease. I was just aware that she’s a wild animal, she’s very large, her horns are efficient tools for ridding herself of enemies, and I’m near the edge of a cliff. It’s her natural habitat, but not one I could so navigate gracefully if I needed to beat a quick retreat.

A Rocky Mountain goat approaches me on Black Elk Peak

We observed each other for quite a while at these close quarters. She continued to sniff: at my scent? at the snacks in my bag? and to watch me, sometimes looking at my straw-colored hat flopping in the wind. I could almost reach out and touch her: she was only about two steps and an arm’s length away. At one point, however, I coughed, and she shied away about ten feet.

A panoramic view from Black Elk Peak with a Rocky Mountain goat

A broken rock reveals its inner shine, set on a fallen log

After quite awhile, I decided it’s time to go. I was thirsty, and I noticed my legs were getting sunburned. I still had a long trek ahead of me, mostly downhill, but steep and very hot. I rose slowly to my feet, and the goat ambled a few more feet away. I looked back at her at the edge of the rocks as I leave. She looked grand standing there, ageless.

I wound my way back down, and the sandy trail sparkled under my feet. It’s as if the passing stars, in their slightly changed positions in each night sky, left a pinpoint of their glow behind, except where spilled moonlight stuck to the ground in the form of shining rocks and large luminescent pieces of mica. The trail is beflaked liberally in many places by thin little sheets of this translucent and opalescent mineral.

The trail was also bounded by exuberant sprays and stands of wildflowers. The wild raspberries were bursting with fruit along most of my course up and down. The ripe berries fall off their stems with very little encouragement and are as effortless to eat too. They’re so tender that chewing and swallowing are almost unnecessary: just roll them on your tongue then press gently in your mouth and they dissolve away. I must have eaten one or two pounds of them on the round trip.

Wild raspberries grow plentifully along Black Peak Trail

A view near the top of Black Peak Trail

Flowers and fruits along the Black Peak Trail

Another view from the Black Elk Peak Trail

At the bottom, I rested a bit, then headed to the nearest KOA center for some ice. I was soaked in sweat and covered in dust, the latter stuck firmly to me from the former. First I poured several pints of water over the ice, drank several pints of that down, then poured a warm bottle of beer from the car over the rest to enjoy that when I reach my next destination. I headed east on 244, then south on 385.

Portrait of Korczak Ziolkowski at the Crazy Horse Memorial Visitor Center. The unfinished frame is purposeful: by direction of the artist, the rest of it will be put in place when the Crazy Horse sculpture is finished

In the early 1930’s, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear approached Gutzon Borglum with a proposal to create another monument carved into the Black Hills. This one would immortalize his cousin, the great warrior Crazy Horse, a leader of the victorious Native American forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Not surprisingly, Borglum turned him down. Standing Bear persevered in his search for another sculptor willing to undertake this massive project, and he found one: Korczak Ziolkowski, who had assisted with the carving of Mt Rushmore for a time. Standing Bear discovered him in a 1939 article about his prize-winning sculpture of the Polish pianist, politician, and independence activist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Ziolkowski thought the project sounded like a worthy endeavor. He worked on this massive sculpture, which already dwarfs the Mt Rushmore sculpture, with determination and single-mindedness for the rest of his life. He did preliminary work on the Crazy Horse Memorial throughout the early 1940’s when he wasn’t serving in the military, then arrived in the Black Hills in 1947 to begin creating the actual sculpture. He married and had 10 children during this time as well, and died 35 years later on October 20, 1982. His wife and now many of his children carry on his work. It won’t be fully finished for another several decades at least. By the way, it’s fully funded by private donations and the proceeds from entry ticket sales, so if you believe it’s a worthy project too, you can donate here.

The Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture by Korczak Ziolkowski rises from the pines of the Black Hills

Inside the shabby but sturdy old school bus that takes us closer to the Crazy Horse Memorial. I particularly liked our tour guide and driver: a funny and warm sweetheart.

Working model of Crazy Horse Memorial at the Visitor Center

Profile view of George Washington’s sculpted head from the side of Mt Rushmore

After I arrived at the Visitor Center, I looked at a few of the several thousand interesting and beautiful artifacts and artworks throughout, and then make my way back outside to get a better view of the memorial itself. At the bus stop, I rested, waiting with the other tourists for our ride closer to the sculpture, not generally accessible by foot since it’s an active work site. I sipped my cold and watery beer, ate my beef jerky, and chatted with other travelers.

After I lingered at the visitor center and museum for awhile, I set off on my journey north and east to my next destination. On my way, I returned to Mt Rushmore, which was pretty much on my way, to see if I felt differently about it. The beauty of Black Elk Peak, seeing the Black Hills there as I longed to see them, and then seeing the noble and fitting endeavor of the Crazy Horse Memorial had left me feeling uplifted and inspired. Perhaps I could appreciate this work of art more fully and positively in my very different frame of mind.

No good. I still felt the same about Mt Rushmore as I did the day before.

To be continued….

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Sources and inspiration:

Battle of Ash Hollow‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Crazy Horse Memorial, website by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation

Howard, Brian Clark. ‘Highest Point East of Rockies Renamed for Native American.’ National Geographic online, Aug 12, 2016

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Mountain Goat‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Mount Rushmore‘. Season 14 Episode 4 of American Experience, PBS

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Shaer, Matthew. ‘The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore: The sculptor behind the American landmark had some unseemly ties to white supremacy groups‘. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2016

Taylor, Alan. ‘Statue or Bust: Around the World in Lenins‘. The Atlantic, Oct 9, 2014

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2

Cheyenne Warrior Marker historical placard, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, NPS. I’m glad to see that there’s now public acknowledgement that other human beings died here that day besides U.S. soldiers. Soon, I hope, that more of the Oglala, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other tribe members, their slain warriors and slain women and children as well, will be specifically remembered too, as far as we can identify them. There’s a general remembrance in the Indian Memorial, but it would be a very good thing, I think, to see more of the victims named if possible. The attack began, after all, with U.S. soldiers firing into the lodges of families, regardless of the collateral damage (that pragmatic military term to ease the conscience of war-makers), the lives of noncombatants that would necessarily be lost.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As I continue to explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield the next morning and afternoon, I gain a much clearer idea of how the drama played out. I had read many accounts of the battle, but seeing the lay of the land helps me visualize it more clearly. For example, it all happened over a much larger area, and over a longer period of time, than I had conceived.

Here are just a few more images of the many, many more things I see and learn here this second day at the Little Bighorn battlefield:

Headstones marking where U.S. cavalry soldiers fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. The 7th cavalry was hopelessly outnumbered; later, Native American expressed their amazement that George Armstrong Custer’s 7th attacked the encampment given that it was so large, about 7,000 in all, including about 2,000 warriors. Though it was later revealed that Custer ordered the attack because he didn’t want the encampment to escape, still, it was suicidal to lead his men to attack such a large force before the other approaching U.S. troops arrived.  So it the question remains unanswered, at least satisfactorily: was it just hubris on his part, or dismissiveness of Native American prowess in war, or ignorance, or some of each? The debate continues….

John Stands in Timber, Lame White Man’s grandson, was one of those who helped the National Park Service to identify and honor the sites of fallen warriors

Here, about 7,000 people banded together near the banks of the Little Bighorn River in 1876 in a bid for freedom

Above: Deep Ravine, through which Crazy Horse led a charge towards Land Stand and Calhoun Hills from the Little Bighorn River.

Site of Major Marcus Reno’s retreat, about five miles from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield. He attacked the encampment from one direction, Custer from another, and his detachment of soldiers was the first to start firing

Looking towards the Crow’s Nest vantage point from which Custer directed his attack

Black Elk quote on the wall of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum. Black Elk, a Northern Cheyenne, was a young teenager when he fought in the battle here, and he went on to become an important witness to what occurred here. This quote is from Black Elk Speaks, poet and author John G. Neihardt’s account of Black Elk’s conversations about, among many things, this battle and of his life as a visionary and holy man. It was published in 1932, when Black Elk was in his late 60’s. Black Elk’s life was a fascinating one, and I’ll continue to follow him in this series. To be continued…

Many times throughout my life, especially as a child and teen, I had heard of the battle at the Little Bighorn, and shrugged my shoulders each time. I was not then inspired to learn more about it: it seemed to me like just one more of the countless times human beings have slaughtered each other for what were probably completely insufficient reasons. Why learn the tedious details?

I’ve only recently begun to make a serious study of the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and their encounters with the encroaching peoples of the United States and Europe. What I’ve learned is disturbing, amazing, complex, and heart-wrenching. Learning about this battle, it turns out, is not the least bit tedious. It’s dramatic, tragic, fascinating, and invaluable for understanding this very important and formative period in American history, and continues to be very relevant today. Human beings are still wasting lives on battlefields all over the world, and Americans are still dismissive of and doing wrong to the original inhabitants of the Plains, as the recent Dakota Access Pipeline debacle illustrates.

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Sources and inspiration:

‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

‘Indian Memorial’, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Janiskee. Bob.  ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1

The view very near where I turned off to sleep at Beartooth Pass, Montana. It was quite a sight to wake up to.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

View of Custer-Gallatin National Forest from Rock Creek Vista Point off Beartooth / Highway 212 heading east

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well.

When I arrive at the Battlefield, it’s early evening. There’s still a good couple hours of daylight left, and the angled sunlight makes the grassy undulating land glow gold. It’s windy up here, and the air is soft.

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

I stop in at the Little Bighorn National Monument Visitor Center. At the entryway to the museum, I find life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant. Grant was disturbed by what he heard about the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers (that’s one thing to call them), but his idea of humane reform was to put Native Americans on reservations and convince them to adopt white language, religion, and culture, and to remove their children to white schools to train Indian ways out of them. Sitting Bull did not see things this way at all. He believed that the Great Spirit had placed his people where they were intending that they live in accordance with the opportunities and limitations of the land as he had created it for them. I think he also realized, as history has taught us time and time again, that culture and a sense of history are essential for health and happiness and a sense of purpose. Like natural immunity, culture takes time and a particular set of circumstances to develop. It works very well but is also very fragile. Rip people out of the environment in which they develop and try to force them to suddenly survive in another, and the results can be just as devastating and long-lasting to physical, mental, or spiritual health.

You likely know at least this about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its significance: it was the worst defeat inflicted on the United States military in the Great Sioux War of 1876. George Armstrong Custer’s 209-man division of the 7th cavalry was annihilated when they attacked a large encampment of allied Native Americans, shooting without warning into the lodges of families as they slept, for defying U.S. government orders to confine themselves to reservations.

Great Sioux War map at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum, NPS

These reservations were largely composed of lands undesirable to white encroachers: they were relatively poor in soil and natural resources and had often already been stripped of their timber, their buffalo herds and other game all but exterminated by the first wave of white arrivals; they were also often damp and mosquito-infested. Many of these Native Americans had already lived for a time on these reservations and found that life there was miserable: the agencies which managed the reservations were often run by both military appointees and private entrepreneurs who supplemented their meager salaries by plundering the rations sent by the government to the tribes. So food was scarce, the lands inhospitable for the reasons described above, and disease was rampant. Malnutrition, depression caused by forced inactivity and homesickness, malarial conditions, and diseases carried by whites for which the Native Americans had no evolved immunity, caused them to sicken and die at alarming rates. So, of course, many of them left. The risk of violent death at the hands of the military seemed preferable to a slow, depressing death by malnutrition and disease.

But the enforced life of hopelessness on the reservation was not the worst of the U.S. government’s depredations. The Black Hills (Lakota Pahá Sápa) of South Dakota and Wyoming were a sacred place to the Native Americans of the Great Plains and were guaranteed inviolate to white invasion by the Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Native American tribes. However, in response to rumors of gold found there, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to confirm these reports. He also wanted to find a good location for a fort to defend prospectors and a possible route to the southwest through the Hills. Again, all of this was illegal, in violation of the Treaty. But in this case as in countless others, the lust for money was allowed to conquer all. So not only did the U.S. decide to take their homes, they decided to take their sanctuary, their holy of holies, as well. After Custer’s expedition, prospectors poured in, and after their first feeble attempts to keep them out, the U.S. government caved to monetary interests and took steps to buy, and then to steal, the Black Hills for annexation as U.S. territory.

Sitting Bull portrait etched into black granite at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. I like how the golden grassy hills are reflected on the stone as I am looking at it

The Lakota Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, were the victors of the Little Bighorn battle. They were led by the famed warrior Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other great Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Sitting Bull did not fight but stayed with the women, children, and the aged to protect them. He believed it fitting to leave the fighting and its opportunities for glory to the younger generation. After fasting and sacrificing 100 tiny pieces of his own flesh from his arms at a Sun Dance ritual two years before, the warrior and holy man Sitting Bull had a vision in which he beheld U.S. soldiers falling in great numbers headfirst into a Lakota camp. He believed this presaged a great victory. The minor victory the week before at the Battle of the Rosebud did not seem to fulfill the prophecy he perceived in his vision; the Battle of the Little Bighorn very much did. But this victory sparked a much more vigorous crackdown, and the Native Americans, as we all know, were ultimately defeated in this war.

From the time I arrive at the battlefield, to when I return the next morning, to the time I leave, I experience the place visually and emotionally, with very little inner dialogue. My eyes take over, and I let them. So accordingly, I’ve decided to tell the rest of this story, the story of my visit to the Little Bighorn, in annotated photos, in which I share my thoughts as I review them. They portray just some of the many, many things I see and learn here.

Last Stand Hill, where George Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with just a few of the multitude of headstones marking the site of U.S. casualties. At the time I saw this hill, throughout the rest of the evening here and my visit here the next day, I kept thinking ‘Hubris! Such hubris!’ (excessive pride)

Wooden Leg Hill. His account of the Little Bighorn battle was the first first-person account I read and is an integral part of the historical records of what happened here on June 25th and 26th, 1876.

Two Cheyenne warrior gravestones at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument. It took far, far too long, but finally, the sites of fallen Native American warriors began to be marked as well starting in the 1990’s, with elegant red granite headstones

Spirit Warriors Sculpture by Colleen Cutschall / Sister Wolf at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About some of the warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Custer’s pledge not to kill any more Cheyennes, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. Like so many other white promises to the Native Americans, this promise was unkept

Portraits and a list of warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

View of gravestones and visitor center from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial

A chokecherry bush with prayer ties. A jubilant songbird is perched on it as I look. You can see it if you look closely at the center top. Just off the path near Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial.

I wander here as long as I’s allowed, then the ranger lets me know it was time to go since it was five minutes before the 8 pm closing time. So I leave to find a place to spend the night, and I’ll return tomorrow.

To be continued…..

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Sources and inspiration:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Indian Memorial‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Janiskee. Bob.  ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

On July 26, 1948, Harry Truman Abolishes Discrimination and Segregation in the Armed Forces by Executive Order 9981

On this day, President Harry Truman took one more step towards realizing the idea, central to the founding documents of the United States, that all persons are created equal.

Thank you, Grinman Films, for telling the story!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands

Entrance to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana. Merriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s expedition never visited these caves: they were not discovered (by whites, anyway) until the later 1800’s. But the expedition did pass nearby, a little further south along the Jefferson River, so the caverns were later named for these intrepid explorers

Journal: Billings, Montana, Friday, July 21, 2017

In my idealistic early adulthood, I often lamented how a certain coffee chain, with its weirdly militarist logo of a two-tailed mermaid with a star on her head (the old logo was much better), seemed to crowd out much of the market for charming coffee shops serving Italian style preparations while playing quality music. The more I’ve traveled, however, the more I’ve come to appreciate their ubiquitous clean bathrooms, unlimited wifi, comfortable chairs and tables to write and read at, and dependable coffee.

Especially this morning. I woke up disheveled and a bit cramped: I camped out in the car last night on a pull-out near the road block at the very top of the pass on Beartooth Highway, which runs through the mountains of the Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. There’s construction on the road and I made it there too late to get through; they close the top of the pass during the night so that the construction zone can be navigated safely, only in daylight hours. My decision as to where to spend the night, therefore, was made for me: every campground, lodge, and hotel I passed were full. It was too windy to set up my tent in the dark, so I re-made the nice cozy nest in the backseat that I had made the night before to spend the night in Yellowstone. I fell asleep to a spectacularly clear and starry night, and I woke up to this:

View from Beartooth Highway at the top of the pass on Hwy 12 through Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests, very near to where I spent the night

So I drove another hour or two until I came to Billings. I found the nearest Starbucks, took a baby-wipe-and-sink bath, brushed my teeth, changed into fresh clothes, and ordered oatmeal and coffee. Now, clean and comfortable, I’ll tell the story of my last two days on the road.

After enjoying my cold beers and a little rest at Lochsa Lodge in the early evening following my Wendover Ridge Hike in the Bitterroot Mountains on Tuesday, July 18th, I drove to Butte, Montana, where I found a cheap but perfectly acceptable motor inn which had, most importantly of all, a bathtub. The hot bath finished the restoration that dipping my arms, head, legs, and feet in the Lochsa River had begun, and I awoke the next morning ready for a long day.

On Wednesday morning, July 19th, I headed for the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and on my way, I noticed signs for the Lewis & Clark Caverns. I had heard of them a few times before and that they were well worth seeing. So I followed the signs, and I’m so glad I did. Here’s (some of) what I saw:

The limestone and minerals that make up most of the Caverns are colored in shades of white and gray highlighted here and there with shades of yellow and pale rust. The Paradise Room, the lowest, largest, and most colorful cave in the system, is richly hued mostly in shades of pink and purple. The lighting is carefully designed to show the colors as they would appear in daylight.

In the first of the caves, we noticed that most of the small stalactites and some of the smaller stalagmites were broken. This mangling of this natural wonder occurred in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when the Caverns were managed and shown to tourists by private entrepreneurs, who charged high prices and allowed visitors to break off pieces as souvenirs of their visits. This is yet one more of the hundreds of examples to show how important the national and state great public parks are. Unfortunately, profit motives and human psychology very often result in short-sighted decisions that cause long term harm, and the tragedy of the commons is revealed in the way some individuals rob the wider community of the opportunity to enjoy the riches nature has to offer unless the people unite to protect, defend, and steward them. Government, in this case as in many others, does provide an invaluable check and balance to the self-centeredness and destructiveness that form parts (but only parts) of human nature.

So I’m with documentarian Ken Burns in his belief that the National Park System (and by extension, every state and regional park system) is America’s best idea. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and countless others of the most awesome, most beautiful, and most rare of the landscapes built by the forces of nature, were despoiled and marred by humans seeking to profit off these wonders regardless of whether their efforts served to protect or destroy them in the long term. Much of the damage is still being repaired if it can be at all, and some of the damage is ongoing and still unresolved as in the case of the great Yosemite Valley in my own California, where heavy car traffic is causing pollution, overcrowding, and wildlife destruction. Even good government fails sometimes, so the public needs to act as a check and balance on that as well. I would recommend that we demand that the National Park System close off Yosemite Valley to private car traffic.

Early Wednesday evening, I arrived at Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world (way to go, America!) and explored many of its wonders, stopping along the way to inquire at every campsite I passed whether a site had opened up. At long last, late in the evening, one did, a tiny RV site where pitching a tent is not permitted. So, I slept in the car. I felt better about that anyway, since as I was about to pull in to park, I watched a tall, thin man in a black shirt and a long black pleated glossy skirt walking slowly and deliberately backwards through my site, like a scene out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I’m pretty broad-minded in my opinions of human behavior since I consider the variety and creativity in the human species among the most interesting and often delightful of natural phenomena, but this was a little weird. I let him do his thing undisturbed.

Once he left, I created a cozy sleep space in the backseat with my sleeping bag and camp sleeping pad, additionally padded at one end with my coats, towels, and sweaters, then I stepped outside, sipping from the large bottle of ale I brought with me and leaning on my rental car, looking at the brilliant stars showing between the black silhouettes of the trees. Eventually, a sustained rustle of a large creature of some sort sent me scurrying to my backseat nest. I didn’t fear bears here since the large number of other campers and their fires would keep them at bay, but the strange man had left me just a little spooked, rather to my surprise. So I laid there in the car drinking more of my ale and thinking about the amazing sights I had seen earlier that evening, only a few of which are pictured below:

Fountain Paint Pot, with intense blue above the white surrounded by brilliantly colored microbes and minerals. The water is incredibly clear and you can see the deep opening in the earth from which the water wells up

The sun sinking low over Artist’s Paint Pots, Yellowstone

I watched Old Faithful erupt for several minutes just after sunset.

The next morning, July 2oth, I explored the park. I saw wonder after wonder after wonder! Here are some of them:

Looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from the top of Lower Falls. I see where the park got its name

View of the Lower Falls from the side of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I didn’t get any successful pictures of the osprey’s nest on a tower of rock near the cliff side, where the mother was guarding and feeding her two young. It was a beautiful sight to see her swoop gracefully through the air and quickly return with wiggling prey. A nature videographer on the overlook kindly let me get a few good views of the action through his camera.

A view of Yellowstone from the road between Tower / Roosevelt Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs. On recommendation, I took a brief trip to Gardiner to get water and a few supplies and to find a nearby campground to return to that night, still having no luck in Yellowstone. On the rise above Gardiner across the river and the valley between, I got these beautiful views of Yellowstone. But when it comes to a campsite, no luck here either! I shrugged my shoulders and returned to the park. Something was bound to work out… the spirit of adventure was and is strong in me, and I don’t care much where I sleep

Roosevelt Arch at the north gate of Yellowstone; I was here last this January and the backdrop was white with snow where it’s now green.

A hillside clothed in brilliant grasses and wildflowers across from the similarly garbed Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone NP

The trail up Mt Washburn, a 3-mile hike which climbs 1,400 feet

See the animals dotting the side of Mt Washburn? I saw so much wildlife up here: elk, horned mountain sheep with their young, birds, and chipmunks.

At the summit of Mt Washburn. My elation is pretty evident in this photo

The setting sun from the trail as I descended Mt Washburn

From the base of Mt Washburn, I readied myself for the drive of undetermined length from Yellowstone, Hwy 212 towards I-90 en route to my next destination via Cooke City-Silver Gate. When I was in Yellowstone in January, I saw a lot of buffalo but hadn’t seen any at all this trip. But as I drove in the dark, my headlights picked up a dark shape off to the side with two glowing eyes. I stopped and put on my hazard lights as a fuzzy, light brown, charmingly ungainly creature appeared, followed by a mother buffalo and two more calves. Over the next fifteen minutes or so, I watched a small herd of buffalo wander onto the road then mill around. Two young males found this a perfect place to tussle and push. Bison social hour was finally ended as an impatient motorist finally decided to clear the road by driving slowly at the herd, honking, until they took fright and scampered off the road. A little further on, I came across another car, pointing in the other direction, with its hazard lights on and its bumper caved in. The driver ruefully confirmed that he had collided with one of the herd, but the stricken animal was nowhere to be seen. Buffalo are hardy creatures, I hope that one recovers from the impact. Later on, my headlights picked up elk, two waddling fat little creatures (marmots?), and a red fox. As you may imagine, I drove particularly slowly after all that.

I drove on, winding up and up and up, until I reached that roadblock I told you about. I gazed at the bright, bright stars awhile, then curled up to sleep.

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Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike

A view through the windshield of Petty Creek Rd / Rte 489 between I-90 and Hwy 12, Lolo National Forest, Montana

Journal: Powell Campground & Lochsa Lodge, Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest, Monday, July 17th, 2017

After lingering over breakfast this morning with my sister Bonnie, cousin Beth, nephew Cory, and cousin Mo, I realized there was no way I was making it from Spokane to Yellowstone National Park today. So I thought: why not camp near Lochsa Lodge and do the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge hike, which friends of mine will be doing later this week, on the way? I’ve left plenty of time in my itinerary to go spur-of-the-moment adventuring. My friends have told so many tales of joy and hardship on this hike that my curiosity and spirit of competition just can’t resist the challenge. So, I make my decision. I stop at Superior Ranger Station off I-90, discuss my plans with the two oh-so-kind and helpful women there, and get directions. The ranger here who knows the trails, as well as the ranger she conferred with by phone at Powell Ranger Station, both warn me that the trail is extremely rough and in parts nearly impassible, not having been maintained in any way for at least two years. Sounds to me right now more like a dare than a warning.

I head south on Petty Creek Road, a beautiful drive through a pastoral valley, and over the ridge to Highway 12 and a short drive back west. I was here last in snowy, frigid January. It’s very different today.

Lochsa Lodge, Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest, Idaho

I was in these mountains last when on a delightfully nerdy literary-historical retreat to celebrate my 40th birthday in my own way. Rather, it was just one, a newer one, of my own ways. I delight in parties, too, and in camping, and in going off on solitary adventures in which I also meet new people. On my actual 40th birthday, I went camping with a tiny company of closest family and friends, foregoing the usual New Year’s celebration with dancing, drinking, and light carousing. But I was feeling a little more pensive this time around and wanted to go off and do something on my own as well. So I went on a retreat a few weeks later which took me to Lochsa Lodge, right across the campground from where I am now, and made those very friends who will be doing the Wendover Ridge hike in a week or so. The thermometer never topped freezing when I was here last; now, it’s green and lush and warm. The campground is teeming with fat little chipmunks and birds, and the hidden animals are no doubt likewise well fed in all this abundant growth.

My tiny tent at Powell Campground, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

The little orange tent is set up, a little green plastic doll shoe in the corner. I’ll be sleeping in my niece Savannah’s cast-off tent, very lightweight and very small. It’s sufficient for these summer days: it’s 8:30 pm as I write this and I don’t need sleeves yet. I’m using this little cast-off tent since I’ll be flying to Scotland at the end of this trip, and have no room in my luggage to take a good tent with me across the sea. It’ll go to a thrift store when I reach Chicago.

I hike trail 25, which runs north and south. I know that if I can’t find the trail or if I lose it, I could never get too lost: to the north is the top of the ridge, to the east, the West Fork of Wendover Creek and the fire road that runs along it, to the west, the other road and the steep hillside. And, of course, to the south, is the Lochsa River

Journal: Whitehouse Campground, Lolo National Forest, Idaho, July 18th, 2017

This morning, I’ll hike from the Lochsa River to Wendover Ridge, the steep 7-mile hike that those same friends I made during that January retreat call the ‘Wendover Death March.’ It follows the route (more or less) that Merriweather Lewis and William Clark took over Wendover Ridge, on a trail used by the Nez Perce, with a Shoshone guide. I’ll tell you the story tomorrow.

Trail marker for Lewis & Clark 25: 7 miles to Snowbank Camp on Wendover Ridge

Journal: Cafe at Park & Main, Butte, Montana, July 19th, 2017

From this cafe, I’ll tell the story of yesterday’s hike in annotated photos, with this introduction: relaxed from a hot bath last night, with that satisfying feeling of combined mild soreness and strength the day following strenuous exercise, a warm bowl of oatmeal and berries in my belly, a second hot cup of very creamy coffee, and the open road and adventures yet to come before my mind’s eye, I am as happy as a person can be.

This sign, not far from the trailhead, tells a bit of the Lewis & Clark story on this route

Sign marking the start of the overgrown Trail 25, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest

I climbed the steep first section of the trail, at times clambering over fallen trees and pushing through soft, lush, lower overgrowth, until I reached a fire road. I turned right, misreading the map, which is partially obscured by a little annotation where it portrays this section. The trail follows to the right of the road, not to the left of another which branches off, and I chose the wrong branch. I go half an hour out of my way before the sign for the Wendover Creek West Fork alerts me I’m too far east. No matter. It’s a lovely warm-up for the rigors of the next section of the hike. I go back to where I had turned onto the road and find the partially obscured trail marker which sets me on the right path again.

The butterflies are out in force in Clearwater National Forest

A cone of purple wildflowers echoes the shape of the trees on Wendover Ridge, Bitterroot Mountains, ID, 2017 Amy Cools

A cone of purple wildflowers echoes the shape of the trees on Wendover Ridge

Ah-hah, there’s the trail marker, off to the left among the tree. I was too far off to the right to notice it when I made that wrong turn.

Yes, there’s a trail under there

…. and under all that too. The trail’s overgrowth and fallen tree debris get thicker and thicker the farther I go. I should have worn pants, however warm the weather

I dub these ‘Jazz Hands Ferns’

A chipmunk tail, cleanly severed, draped decoratively on a stump. Creepy.

Hanging mosses drape a grove of trees

Another winged beauty

Thimbleberries, with a lightly sweet and tangy taste. The ripe fruit turns bright red and soft, and lifts easily off the underlying structure which it covers like a cap, or thimble. They also grow plentifully along one of my favorite hikes in the Oakland hills in California

Stunning view from the side of the ridge somewhere in the vicinity of the trail. At this point, I turned back about an hour ago. I believe I nearly reached the summit but I could not find the trail, try as I might, among the loose litter of needles in a large grove on a particularly steep section. I was nearly out of water and it was very hot: I’m still recovering from a chest inflammation and laryngitis following a particularly nasty chest cold and needed more water than usual. But the deep breathing of clean, dry, deliciously scented mountain air and strenuous exercise of the day invigorated me, and I felt better and better as I went along, nearly recovered. Still, it seemed prudent to turn back while I still had a little water, since I had hiked a long, hard distance already.

A little brook that feeds into Wendover Creek’s West Fork. Farther up, I found a large, muddy spring bubbling up over a large area; I discovered it as my shoes squelched right through it under its obscuring blanket of happy leaves. I searched and found a section where it filtered through a little patch of sand and tiny rocks. I tipped one of my canteens and pressed it gently on its side into the sand, so the water flowed into it nearly to the top. Then, I poured it into my larger canteen through my cotton shirt, filtering out most of the silt. The water was cold and minerally and incredibly refreshing. I filled the larger canteen with filtered water, and the smaller again with unfiltered. My water worry assuaged, I continued with renewed confidence. Not finding a better route down, I decided to follow the water, which I knew must inevitably lead to Wendover Creek. It was steep and required lots of sliding and Tarzaning down the slope from the overhanging strong but bendy branches

This is what a tired and very happy hiker looks like

I tore up my legs a bit on this adventure: I recommend pants despite the heat. Oh well.

I was glad to reach this fork of Wendover Creek, which is what I was aiming for hiking down off-trail, Bitterroot Mountains, ID, 2017 Amy Cools

I was glad to reach this fork of Wendover Creek. I was aiming for this creek since hiking downhill off-trail, which I knew was in this fold of the mountain on this side of the ridge. I finished the hike on this gravel fire road which takes me back to the main road just west of Whitehouse Pond, where I had begun the hike

One more of Nature’s winged jewels

The hike accomplished, I bathed my stinging legs and hot head and arms in the Lochsa River. What a glorious day. I completed it with two cold beers at the Lodge, a little rest, and a nice drive to Butte, Montana, and – oh, the joy – a hot bath and a long sleep. The hike took 8 1/2 hours all told, including the hour-long accidental detour.

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Before You Can Be With Others, First Learn to Be Alone, by Jennifer Stitt

In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe described the ‘mad energy’ of an ageing man who roved the streets of London from dusk till dawn. His excruciating despair could be temporarily relieved only by immersing himself in a tumultuous throng of city-dwellers. ‘He refuses to be alone,’ Poe wrote. He ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime … He is the man of the crowd.’

Like many poets and philosophers through the ages, Poe stressed the significance of solitude. It was ‘such a great misfortune’, he thought, to lose the capacity to be alone with oneself, to get caught up in the crowd, to surrender one’s singularity to mind-numbing conformity. Two decades later, the idea of solitude captured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s imagination in a slightly different way: quoting Pythagoras, he wrote: ‘In the morning, – solitude; … that nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.’ Emerson encouraged the wisest teachers to press upon their pupils the importance of ‘periods and habits of solitude’, habits that made ‘serious and abstracted thought’ possible.

In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.

In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. How could anyone, she wanted to know, perpetrate such evil? Surely only a wicked sociopath could participate in the Shoah. But Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.

Just as Poe suspected that something sinister lurked deep within the man of the crowd, Arendt recognised that: ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.

‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,’ Arendt wrote, ‘because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even another murderer.’ It is not that unthinking men are monsters, that the sad sleepwalkers of the world would sooner commit murder than face themselves in solitude. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’.

But what if, we might ask, we become lonely in our solitude? Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den – and from the company of other humans – into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.

Echoing Plato, Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away – except by ceasing to think.’

Arendt’s warning is well worth remembering in our own time. In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. We check our email hundreds of times per day; we shoot off thousands of text messages per month; we obsessively thumb through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, aching to connect at all hours with close and casual acquaintances alike. We search for friends of friends, ex-lovers, people we barely know, people we have no business knowing. We crave constant companionship.

But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Jennifer Stitt is a graduate student in the history of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bio credit: Aeon

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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