Medicine Wheel NHS

In these times when travel is mostly by memory and not by motor, my memory has traveled back a few months back to August and north-central Wyoming. Burgess Junction is little more than a hotel/restaurant/bar/gas station/community center where drivers decide which route, north or south, to take to Yellowstone National Park, two-hundred-odd miles west.

But it is in Burgess Junction that each summer, a group of a dozen men gathers for fishing and philosophy. The fishing takes them to the Tongue River, which flows east out of the Big Horn Mountains. The philosophy takes them to the curious corners of their faith. Half the group are pastors, the others laypeople.

Last summer, Bruce and I were invited to lead the philosophy part of the retreat. During the day we fly-fished. Bruce caught-and-released a few trout. I am told I hooked a few things, though they were mostly willow trees or animals smart enough to unhook themselves – and I spent much of my time standing in the water, savoring the gentle push of the current, taking in the scenery of a state I hold close to my heart, reveling in the cerulean Wyoming skies. I enjoyed the rhythm of fly-fishing, the cool, thin, fresh air the change from the routine. I was never a fisherman, but I may be if I can find a good rod and reel.

The North Fork of the Tongue River near Burgess Junction
The North Fork of the Tongue River near Burgess Junction

Midway through the week, though, a few of us were ready for a field trip. Spike – a Yale-educated rancher, businessman, and philosopher, far smarter than I can ever be – offered to take us to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, 22 miles west and a couple thousand feet up. A National Historic Landmark managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Medicine Wheel is an ancient Native American sacred place likely thousands of years old. How could we say no? Four of us piled into Spike’s truck and headed west into the Big Horns, following the Tongue for a while and then rising above it. Along the way, we stopped to take in a sweeping view of the Big Horn River valley.

Spike made a right turn on to a Forest Service road and parked at the trailhead. “It’s up there,” Spike said. “Just follow the path, and you’ll find it. I’ll be here when you get back; I’m gonna take a little nap.”

The road to Medicine Wheel
The road to Medicine Wheel

Bruce and Rob and I read the warnings – “you go down before you go up up up, and the altitude is higher than you think, so be careful” and “drink lots of water” – and set out. We followed a 1.5-mile-long gravel road down, then up. Rob is from Fort Collins, Colorado, so had an advantage on the two flatlanders as we gasped our way along at 9,600 feet above sea level. That wasn’t entirely the altitude’s fault; the scenery as we followed the spine of this mountain, peering down into the conifer-blanketed valleys between peaks, a streak of dead trees marking a not-long-ago tornado, and the wide river valley below would have stolen my breath at sea level.

Eventually we climbed up the peak and saw a short trail veering left. There, on a slight slope, surrounded by posts and thick rope, was the Medicine Wheel.

The Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel

The facts about the Medicine Wheel, I can verify. Made of white limestone rocks a little bigger than a football, the not-quite symmetrical wheel is about 80 feet across, with 28 spokes reaching from a cairn at the center. Seven smaller cairns lie around the circumference. Attached to the ropes encircling the wheel, protecting it from intruders, were a variety of offerings: ribbons, small bundles, a few coins, a bundle of tobacco. The plants inside the circle thrived in the late summer sunshine. A small gate allowed entry to the few who had a right to be in the sacred space.

The legends about the Medicine Wheel, I can only report. Legends suggest the wheel is more than 10,000 years old. The Crow Indians say the wheel was there when they arrived in the area. No tribe claims to have created it, but it was well-used; local trails show significant signs of travel. It is still sacred ground, still the site of religious practices. Like many other ancient sites, it aligns with astronomical events like solstices and celestial appearances.

The feeling of being at the Medicine Wheel, I can share with the hopes of giving it the respect it deserves. To be at a site that is holy to so many, that has been holy for so long, that has been instrumental in the lives of countless people whose names and stories we’ll never know – it is a humbling feeling. In the minutes I circled the wheel, my imagination created images that almost surely are incorrect but whose emotion, whose sentiment are absolutely authentic. I imagined the sounds of the worshippers, the scents of smoke and leather and sweat and food, the shaking of the ground during ceremonies, the fires leaping into dark skies, the cold of a winter observation. For a few minutes, I stepped out of my own faith story into another, an indescribable gift.

A prayer bundle left by a pilgrim dances in the Wyoming wind
A prayer bundle left by a pilgrim dances in the Wyoming wind

Eventually my mind returned to a breezy day in August 2019 and knew it was time to depart. Bruce and Rob and I hiked back to the truck, and Spike awoke and drove us back via the scenic route. We fished that perfect evening and the next perfect day, in the waters of the Tongue River, sacred to the local fishermen. A few days later, I was back home in St. Louis, back in my own sacred space on Sunday morning.

When Bruce and I wrote America’s Holy Ground and America’s Sacred Sites, we knew our assignment addressed a finite set of locations to choose from: first, National Parks, then National Park Service units. We have written about more than 100 of those locations now, yet the list of places to visit and to write about never gets shorter. But we knew that list was nowhere near complete.

It doesn’t matter what department logo is on the front gate or the informational brochure – there are so many more holy grounds and sacred sites to be shared.

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