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Self-Portrait
By Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Lowell


The bone-build of the eyebrows has a mule's
or Pole's noble and narrow steadfastness.
A scared blue child is peering through the eyes,
and there's a kind of weakness, not a fool's,
yet womanish -- the gaze of one who serves.
The mouth is just a mouth . . . untidy curves,
quite unpersuasive, yet it says its yes,
when forced to act. The forehead cannot frown
and likes the shade of dumbly looking down.

A still life, nature morte -- hardly a whole!
It has done nothing worked through or alive,
in spite of pain, in spite of comforting . . .
Out of this distant and disordered thing
something in earnest labors to unroll.

--------

From Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch in The Washington Post Book World.

On Wednesday morning we drove past the Beartooth Mountains in Montana, making me nostalgic for Yellowstone -- the first time we went there the Beartooth Pass was closed due to snow, and we could see snow on the peaks even under the 90-degree Montana sun as we drove through hills nearly as dry as the southern desert. We stopped to have lunch at Little Bighorn National Monument. Though it was a beautiful day with a spotless blue sky and we ate in the shade of a tree, it's one of the saddest places I have ever been.

The museum reminded me of Holocaust museums I've been in more than Native American cultural centers; it's a documentation of the extermination of the people who lived on those plains for centuries, though it was originally built in commemoration of Custer and the U.S. soldiers who died fighting there. Now there's a Peace Monument in tribute to the Indian guides, but the site is still biased toward the invading army and the U.S. flag looks all wrong. The kids, interestingly, recognized the similarities between the history and the movie 'Spirit' -- when I learned about Little Bighorn, it was from the perspective of Custer and the westward expansion as the important history and the Indians as the impediment to American progress.

From this sad place we drove past the Bighorn Mountains to my favorite spot on the planet: Devil's Tower. For anyone who has never been there, photos don't do it justice, nor does 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. The colors of the landscape -- red bricklike stone making up the low rocky cliffs, mottled gray stone higher up, and the browns and beiges of the vertical rock of the tower -- constrast gorgeously with the leafy green trees ringing the campground, the dark green trees on the cliffs and the lighter green-gold grasses growing by the river. The tower dominates the landscape, looking slightly different from each angle. In the open areas the sky looks enormous. It was filled with dark thunderheads when we arrived, and in fact it drizzled a bit as we wound around from Gillette, Wyoming toward the park. Then, as we pulled into the campground parking lot, a huge rainbow spread across the eastern sky opposite the Tower, above the horses and behind the American flag.

We stayed in a cabin next to the one where we stayed four years ago on our Yellowstone trip. The tent sites are right underneath the mountain, while the cabins are just behind those, separated by a circle of trees, backing up to the Belle Fourche River. Devil's Tower is high enough to be visible from every place in the campground, including the pool, the playground, the general store and the bathrooms -- all places we visited. Thunderheads continued to gather periodically but didn't storm while we made our campfire and toasted hot dogs and marshmallows. As the sun set, the sky turned a brilliant dark pink with spots of purple-gray cloud and a distant line of blue storm clouds flashing occasional lightning. The temperature remained in the low 70s through the night, and it was glorious; I sat outside on the laptop and downloaded photos of Little Bighorn and Devil's Tower as night fell.

Once the sky was fully dark, the wind picked up fiercely and we had trouble getting our things off the table before they blew away. But the wind was warm, and when it finally died down -- cooling off the cabin which had gotten rather stuffy inside while the kids were falling asleep -- the sky was clear and brilliant. We sat and watched the stars, including a few meteors and a couple of artificial satellites. The Milky Way was clear and obvious right over our cabin. The campground store was showing 'Close Encounters' on their outdoor screen as they do every night, so in the distance we could hear the famous five-note alien theme over and over...making the whole scene rather eerie, as the spaceship landing was filmed on the site of the campground. When eventually we went to bed it remained very warm in the cabin so we left the windows open and I was awakened around 6 a.m. when the sun cleared the horizon.

We had intended to hike the circuit trail around Devil's Tower early in the day before it got really hot, but when we woke, after watching deer race across the campground, making pancakes over the griddle and taking the kids to the playground, we discovered that there was a puncture in one of the van's tires and it had flattened overnight. Someone on a neighboring campsite pumped it up enough for us to drive into Hulett, six miles away, to get it patched. We saw buffalo grazing the grasslands on the way.

Then we went back to the monument and walked the circuit trail that passes through the pine forest surrounding the remains of the volcanic cone. Many of the trees were destroyed by fire a couple of years ago, but the grasses and shrubs had returned. The guys on the campsite next to us were climbing to the top, and we watched the small dot-people creeping up the tower to see if we could spot them. It was 98 degrees in the park, according to the rangers at the monument, so the kids were completely fried after walking the mile-and-a-half trail.

After stopping for drinks, we drove through the grasslands in the park and stopped briefly to see the prairie dogs. Then we continued through Wyoming into South Dakota, parallelling the Black Hills, passing through Rapid City en route to Wall and the legendary/infamous Wall Drug. Thunderheads were gathering so we didn't spend all that long in the backyard taking photos on the jackelope, bucking bronco, etc. (and the lady of the night was nowhere to be seen -- Wall must be cleaning up its image) but we did walk through the newer section of animatronic history displays and get our free ice water. It's just as tacky as it was when I first visited in 1992, though somewhat expanded.

Our serious destination for the afternoon was the Badlands, which thanks to the thunderheads (which thankfully never did more than drip occasionally upon us) could be viewed in less than 90-degree heat for the first time in my experience. The kids had a great time climbing on the sandstone cliffs and we walked through the visitor's center, which has information about the Ghost Dance movement and the local reservations as well as about the spectacular rock formations which look rather like one thinks being on the moon must look, or maybe Mars with all the reddish layers of dusty rock. Like Devil's Tower, the Badlands really have to be seen -- photos don't do the area justice -- and I felt very lucky to have been there under cloudy skies rather than melting like the last two times we were there!

By the time we got to the hotel, we decided we should go out to dinner rather than wrestle with the microwave, so we are headed out now to eat in lovely downtown Kadoka and plan an early night in preparation for heading out early to offset losing an hour to the time zone upon entering Minnesota tomorrow. I know I owe a ton of e-mail, will do my best to get to some of it, but it might have to wait till we get to Chicago!


Close Encounter of the First Kind

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