I visited: Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The park contains Wind Cave, one of the longest caves in the world and a site that is sacred to many Indigenous groups.
Last year I visited the WCNP with Steve, but we were unable to enter the cave because of COVID-19 restrictions. This year Becca and I expected the opposite problem, that we’d be unable to get tour tickets because of the large crowds visiting National Parks this summer. Unbeknownst to us, we scheduled our road trip through the Black Hills the same weekend as the Sturgis Rally. That made it harder to find silence in the parks, but it also meant WCNP was unseasonably empty, and we had no trouble getting a tour.
After the grandeur of Rocky Mountain and the otherworldliness of Devil’s Tower, the prairie surrounding Wind Cave is striking for its soft, rolling elegance. Although the park largely exists to protect the cave, our visit last November didn’t disappoint us because our hikes on the surface were so tranquil and pretty. That trip also involved a hilarious dilemma when Steve and I returned from a hike to find a full-grown buffalo licking road salt from the bottom of my Honda Civic. When our only idea—using my key remote to honk the horn—didn’t spook it, we had to wait a hundred yards away while it slowly made its way around the car and then finally wandered off, about 30 minutes later.
On this trip Becca and I started the morning at the Crazy Horse monument, then Custer State Park, then Wind Cave. It’s impossible to explore the region (or, frankly, to read the names of locations on a map) without running headfirst into the history of the United States and Indigenous people, a history that is being worked out in real-time. The tension is maybe nowhere more apparent than inside the cave. The park ranger who led our tour described the convoluted and contentious history around the cave and claims of ownership to it. She also explained how the cave is “barometric,” how air rushes in and out of the cave in order to equalize pressure above and below the surface. It is almost literally breathing.
At the last stop of the tour, the ranger conveyed to us at length the Lakota emergence story. In addition to being geologically remarkable, the cave is significant to many as the location where the first humans emerged onto the surface of the world. I had previously asked her whether it’s customary for Lakota people to enter the cave or whether it’s a cultural taboo, and she answered gently: “It depends on the individual—much like you, Lakota people interact with and explore their heritage in different ways.” I think what I was actually asking was: “Is it wrong for me to enter this site? Am I trespassing on someone else’s holy space?” But of course the ranger couldn’t resolve that for me or anyone else. It’s up to me to interact with and explore my heritage, however convoluted and contentious.