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The Day I Climbed Spirit Mound

I should probably preface this by stating that “climbed” is a definite overstatement of what I did last August.  More accurately, I “strolled”, or maybe even “ambled”.  Spirit Mound is not exactly Mount Everest.  No climbing gear was involved, no harnesses, no spiked boots, no rappeling ropes, not even a lowly walking stick.  I was wearing sandals and a skirt, for Pete’s sake. 

I make no claim to extraordinary- or even modest – heroics.  Spirit Mound, a historic site on the Lewis & Clark Tail, rises a mere 100 feet above the surrounding prairie in southeastern South Dakota.  It is a gentle slope on a well-marked trail, a little overgrown in this better-than-average rainfall year, and a couple of people in our party with bad knees made it all the way to the top!

Lewis & Clark’s experience on this hill was slightly different, however.  On Aug. 25, 1804, eleven of the men climbed the five story high hill to check out the rumors that it was inhabited by fierce spirit people 18 inches tall with large heads and “arrows with which they can kill at a great distance”.  They saw no men of any description but were greatly fatigued after detouring eight miles from the Missouri River on a very hot summer day.  In fact it was so hot that they sent Lewis’ dog, Seaman, back to the keelboat.  They also had no groomed path designating the easiest course to the top.

From an exploration standpoint their adventure was disappointing.  Nothing to report, another day wasted with winter coming on, and still 682 river miles to go before reaching their hoped-for wintering spot at the Mandan Villages.  But for me, this achievement was a very personal one.  This was my eighth Lewis & Clark Trail tour and I had never climbed it or even given it a thought.  I planned to walk part-way with the group, as I always do, then return to the bus to make phone calls, do paperwork, work crossword puzzles and chat with those who had also stayed behind.

My first visit to Spirit Mound had occurred decades earlier, as a student at the University of South Dakota, which is located just a few short miles from Spirit Mound.  The site is very remote and – even today – lacks the usual amenities of a state park, but on that first visit it was private agricultural land including a truly gross cattle feedlot at the base.  There were also a one-story ranch-style home, gates and fences staking the owner’s claim to the property. Locals knew of its historic significance, but before the impetus of the Bicentennial, there was little hope that it could ever be protected.

Today thanks to funding and interest generated by the Bicentennial Commemoration, the house & feedlot are gone and it is a South Dakota State Park.  A modest kiosk and occasional interpretive signs along the trail explain its significance and an enthusiastic volunteer organization has returned the mound and its surrounding prairie to something the men of the Corps would surely recognize.

As I slowly made my way along the pleasant path with the rest of the group I gradually became aware of what for me was an unfamiliar sensation: I felt good.  It had been over a year and half since I had felt even OK because of a painful and sometimes debilitating illness.  This was a new and unexpected feeling for me.  So I continued.

At various points along the trail I would assess my condition: should I turn back here?  Maybe a little bit further.  Then we approached the last bench before starting the actually “ascent”.  How about here?  Not tired yet.  So far so good.

Eventually it occurred to me that I had never been this far along the trail.  The day was fine: clear and mid-seventies.  Our interpreter was interesting.  I wasn’t out of breath (I also have a touch of asthma and am a dedicated couch potato.  Not much in the way of reserves here.)

But I was good, so I kept going.  And then it slowly dawned on me: I was going to make it.  This year, I was going to climb Spirit Mound!

I had absolutely no desire or incentive to climb this or any other hill.  Yet by achieving that which I had never even imagined, I was strangely exhilarated – and more than a little surprised.  What would have been unimaginable just a few months ago, was completely, un-premeditatedly, happening!

The mound, created by a Wisconsin glacier and still held sacred by the Natives, is now accessible even to invalids and aging Boomers with bad knees.

Today – this day – I climbed Spirit Mound!

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.



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