Jul. 7th, 2004

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My family and I just returned from a 5½-day vacation in the Black Hills. We have been there before, but never has the experience been so insightful as it was this time.

We camped at a campground just outside of Custer, South Dakota, called Big Pine. The place is well named as it has zillions of Ponderosa Pine trees on all its sixteen acres. (I accidentally backed my car into one of the trees, with no damage to either of us.) The area around Custer is within the Black Hills National Park, within which are located a couple of State Parks.

Two different themes made this journey so profound. The first involved the July 4th Holiday, feelings of patriotism and national pride. The second theme was intensely spiritual.

Two events made the first experience profound for me.

The first occurred as we approached the Custer State Park. Beth and I decided to drive the wildlife trail in the park so Eleanor could see wild animals living where they belong, not in captivity.

We drove my car, which has Vietnam Vet license plates, so anyone can tell from a distance that I am a VV. As we approached the gated entrance to the Park, a Volunteer State Ranger walked over. I expected her to ask for the entrance fee, but instead, looked through the open door window and asked if I am a Vietnam Veteran. I replied that I am. She reached for my hand, shook it, and said, “Welcome home.” No one had ever said that to me before, and my original return home was somewhat unpleasant, so I was mildly shocked. She explained that she was an Army Surgical Nurse in Vietnam and was proud to welcome fellow Vietnam Vets to the State Park. Her husband is also a VV and he too would be pleased to shake my hand. I met up with him the next day and we extended each other a friendly greeting.

My point here is that she was genuinely proud to greet VVs as we entered the Park!

The next episode occurred at a tee-shirt shop. I collect tee shirts wherever I go. Beth pointed out a tee shirt and old-time photo shop where the proprietor gives a 10% discounts to Vets, provided they can prove their status. I can and did, and as the proprietor and I talked about our experiences (something I rarely do, even with Beth) he whispered to his sales assistant to give us a very hefty discount; as we had purchased several tee shirts and an old time family photo.

These two events told me that people in the Black Hills take patriotism and Military service very seriously. For the first time in years, I felt proud to have served in the Army. I remembered, for a moment, the pride I felt in wearing the uniform and awards, both earned those many years ago.

Our selected president so easily takes the pride our current service men and women have for granted. He is so undeserving!

The second theme was the sudden realization of the intense spirituality that lives in the Black Hills. Most of you may know that I have been struggling with my own personal spirituality for some time. Having said that, I felt a profound spiritual presence there. So much so that I had decided that I would not, could not take a stone or a piece of wood as a souvenir, as I would anywhere else. I felt that if I took something away, I would be desecrating the spirits of the Hills. The place felt alive in a way that I have never before experienced.

Two evenings before we left, I felt the need to sketch some of the trees that surrounded our tent site. I drew a few of the more interesting trees. As I walked around looking for a new subject, I suddenly tore out the drawing I had just completed and stuffed it in a crevice between two agate outcroppings near our tent.

The next day, a small branch of one of the trees had broken off and fallen next to our tent. I thought about the branch all night and came away feeling that this was a gift from the spirits. If I did not take it, I would be insulting them and this I did not want to do. I will make several wands with the wood that I brought home.

I wanted to share this with you.


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