Adventure Travel Story
Best Women's Travel Writing
Traveler's Tales, May 2017
How far must we go to truly run away?
“This is where the jinn live,” Mustafa said softly, as if he could see something on the stark plateau that I could not. We were in Oman, a small country on the southeast tip of the Arabian Peninsula, slinking across a strip of desert highway. As we sat idling behind pickup trucks teeming with camels, I noted tire tracks that veered off the road and disappeared into the sand. Beyond, rose-hued dust gave form and color to the wind, as its ghostly figure pirouetted across the plain.
Mustafa pressed his finger against his SUV’s sooty window, pointing to a stand of wizened juniper trees sprouting from the cracked desert floor.
“The who?” I asked.
“Shhhhhh,” he sneered, as if I were rousing something. “The jinn.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and shrank into his seat, hoping to coast through this section of the highway undetected. “The evil spirits.”
I scanned the horizon, seeing only earth and shrubs and, in the distance, the Al Hajir mountains that separated us from Saudi Arabia. With no apparent logic to the ridge lines, and almost no flora growing on the slopes, the terrain could be mistaken for a massive rock quarry, with pyramids of loose rock the colors of honey and oxidized silver.
“There are stories of people falling asleep in their beds and waking up the next morning being auctioned off in Saudi Arabia,” Mustafa warned. The jinn were folkloric demons that had plagued the Arabian high desert for centuries, he told me. While tales of them extended across the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to Morocco, this was their heartland. The town we were passing through, Bahla, was the center of Oman’s power in the medieval ages. Now, thanks to the jinn, it had been reduced to ruins, nearly abandoned.
“Sometimes they haunt the palm oases down the highway too,” said Mustafa, “calling to people after dusk, repeating their names until those who follow become hopelessly lost.”
It took five seconds to pass the mud-and-cement town. I held my breath for the duration, as if that would keep me safe. On the edge of town, a hitchhiker stood crisping in the raw desert sun.
“The jinn could make a fire combust at any moment here,” Mustafa said. I kept my eyes fixed on the empty plain, bracing for the flame.
There were jinn in my life, too. Ones I knew well—not spirits, though a haunting of sorts.
It was September in Manhattan, a place with possibilities as seemingly infinite as its avenues. I had walked through the Lower East Side after a business meeting, admiring the pink cotton-ball clouds that had been tumbling across the sky all afternoon. The air still held the warm dampness of summer.......
An Innocent Abroad
Lonely Planet, November 2014
"A Walk with a Cave Man"
The sun lowers over the mountain ridge ahead, the highest in Thailand, leaving a sudden chill in its wake. As the ember red bus slowly climbs toward the darkening sky, I review the few things I know about John Spies: He’s earned the nickname “Cave Master of Thailand” for mapping more than two hundred caverns, some of the deepest in the world, in the northwest corner of the country. He built his guesthouse, The Cave Lodge, in 1984 mostly with his own two hands, and by paying local villagers with beer. He’s Australian and married to a Thai trekking guide whom he met when he was 22. He’s now 58. He’s discovered ancient tribal coffins in the area and is still on the hunt for a rumored stash of World War II treasure.
Traverse the backpacker circuit in Thailand long enough and you’ll hear his name. Some say he’s crazy, even dangerous, and tell tales of guests at his lodge who have vanished in the nearby jungle or narrowly escaped with their lives. Others hail him as one of the very few authentic explorers left in Southeast Asia—no maps, no sponsorships, no bullshit. Just boots and a feeling he follows. But all the tales are hard to trace to their origin, leaving the man himself an alluring mystery. Which is why, on this chilly December evening, I have impetuously decided to take a five-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to John’s lodge in the jungle on the Burmese border.
The bus drops me at a dusty bench on the side of the road, where a group of women in tribal garb are dismantling their food stalls for the day. There are no tuk-tuks or taxis here; I must rely on strangers and my gut to tell me who I can or can’t trust. I hitch a ride with a gentle-eyed villager in a rusty pickup. We bump along a narrow winding dirt road for miles, the sky darkening until the only lights are from the pickup’s one functioning headlight and the occasional fires warming families on the side of the road. We drive so far that after thirty minutes I begin to question the driver’s intention. Then we come to a halt at a weathered log cabin.
A figure opens the porch door. Scrawny shoulders slouch in a canvas German army jacket and clumps of peppered chest hair struggle out of a low, white V-neck.The first thing that comes to mind is delusions of grandeur. But there’s no turning back; the truck has already disappeared into the jungle.
I evaluate the mad-scientist hair, the face that possesses a shark’s sharpness. 1980s’ rock blares from inside.
“Well, eh, hurry up. Dinner’s almost over,” he says.
This is the man I’ve come to meet. I hand him the equivalent of nine US dollars in jade-colored Thai baht for three nights in the main dorm.
Inside, the bamboo walls are covered with photos of local hill tribes and scrolls of butcher paper listing tours written in colorful ink. There’s kayaking, caving, hill tribe treks. John’s wife, Diew, scoops chicken curry from a giant wok into small bowls and hands them to the five other lone travelers and me. I eat in silence, leafing through a copy of John’s self-published memoir, “Wild Times: 30 Years on the Thai Border.” It begins with a chapter about a young Australian woman who was murdered while staying at the Cave Lodge in 1988. The case was never solved. The rest of the book is riddled with titles that tease at the dark tensions of his reputation: Blind Drunk, Head for the Hills, Paralysis, and Cold Blood. I think maybe I don’t need to go on a trek with John to find the answer I am looking for. But before I can affirm this decision, John hands me a tin cup of whiskey inviting us to a bonfire on the other side of the lodge.
“Tomorrow,” he says, prodding the flaming logs with a stick, “I’m heading just over a ridge, above the nearby village. A friend there said he saw a new opening in the mountains. Should be back by early afternoon. Any takers?” The five other guests, all men, ignore him.
“I’ll come,” I say, tossing back another swig of whiskey.
“You, eh?” he says, surprise in his gaze. I see his point: Between four burly Dutch men, one German, and me, an American woman in yoga pants, I seem the least likely choice to respond emphatically. He looks me up and down, then heads off to bed without another word.
The next morning I’m in the back of John Spies’ old pickup truck, sliding around like a load of loose cargo. We whiz past villagers boiling water over fires, turning up debris in the brisk morning breeze. Dust-cloaked children wave their hands wildly, and barefoot elderly women in black and neon garb smile at us. The crowns of the mountains we’re heading for, foothills of the Himalayas, bob on the horizon. This is the outskirts of the Golden Triangle—a remote region where the terrain is as tumultuous as the history.
The forbidding topography is riddled with gaping caves and rogue 2,000-foot cliffs. Water combines with decayed plants to form a carbonic acid that leeches into tight limestone crevasses, slowly eating away at them and eventually carving out hollow valleys and some of the deepest known caves in the world. Above ground, black scorpions, tarantulas, and centipedes scuttle about, but John tells me they aren’t poisonous to the point of death, unlike the snakes, such as the ill-tempered Malayan Pit Viper or the king cobras.
Inside the caves is a world even more mysterious, unpredictable, and baneful. I recall the ominous way John explained the caves to me by the fire the night before: Tunnels twist through the earth like an intestinal system, leading to vertical drops that plummet 1,000 feet. Carbon dioxide festers and is even exhaled from some of the caves, to which John sarcastically recounts a near-death incident in one: “Slow death by suffocation—bloody hilarious!” And it all exists in a darkness blacker than outer space. A shade of night only found in the bowels of a planet.
Ten minutes into our trek, I’m barely keeping up with John as we hoof it up a barren craggy formation toward the lush jungle and the deep blue sky. I glance below us, at the small hill tribe village where we parked the truck. His pace is one stride per second—swift and not breaking a beat, even when a renegade rock or branch crosses his path. He reminds me of an old but sturdy train chugging up a hill, his breath deep, short, in steady bursts like a locomotive.
Given John’s haggard physique and affection for whiskey and cigarettes, I’d concluded I must be in twice as good shape as him. But not even a single mile in, my chest is already tightening and my calves are cramping, while John ascends into the elements without hesitation.
“What I like about Thailand,” he says, not breaking stride, “is that there's no permits to go into the backcountry. You can just do whatever you want and no one will stop you.”
As if on cue, a gunshot blasts in the bushes next to us. A villager emerges with a rifle slung over his shoulder and passes us, shining a smile. John grumbles the only thing that scares him are guns, the long-muzzled automatic ones, which the hill tribes surrounding the Cave Lodge carry in abundance. Luckily, John says, he's on their good side. He befriended most of the local tribes, and even lived with a Black Lahu tribe in the late 1970s, when opium addiction was rampant and kids as young as five smoked rolls of rough homegrown tobacco.
John rolls a spliff between his fingers, sucks in a steady drag and says, “Onward, mate.” I take one last look at the thatch-roofed village below, a sight I never thought would indicate such civilization compared to what’s ahead.
Three hours later we are trampling leaves the size of elephant ears as branches with the girth of a python reach toward us from every direction. My forearms sting. I look down to see hair-thin trails of blood lashed across my arms. Lime green vines twist and tighten around my ankles, as if pleading me not to go deeper, but I pull my way in. With no focal point to rest my eyes on, the jungle feels unreadable—just a shapeless nightmare of green.
I ask John if he has a knife, but really I’m hoping for a machete. “Knife? Eh, why in bloody hell would I have a knife?” John replies, furiously battling his way through the brush. “That’s what you got hands for.”
Then I ask if he has a compass and his response is asking if I have the time. When I realize he doesn’t have a knife, a compass, or a watch, I conclude that I’ve just found the unfortunate answer I came here seeking: I’ve followed a crazy man into the wilderness. And I’m getting the feeling he has no plans to return in the early afternoon, as he’d promised.. So I begin to weigh my chances of turning back on my own.
“The only thing more dangerous than going forward is turning back,” he says with the conviction of a preacher. “But you can go whenever you like. Luck to ya.”
I survey the terrain we’ve covered and consider the possibility. But we’ve wound around too many cliffs, scaled too many peaks, and crossed too many valleys for me to be able to find my way back through this limestone labyrinth. And in the chaos of the jungle, a city girl like me wouldn’t last long. I look at my water bottle. There’s three ounces left. The gravity of the situation starts to set in. Every few steps I stop to gauge my chances of making it back on my own, and each time I do, a tar-like dread bubbles in my gut, telling me this time I’ve followed my curiosity too far.
I look behind me one last time, and confirm that I have no chance of getting out of the wilderness on my own. I must commit one hundred percent to wherever the whims of John’s internal compass take me.
By 4 p.m. we’re in a poppy field, crouched below the fading sky on a corroded bamboo platform John says hasn’t been used since the area was farmed for opium in World War II. For the first time I take a moment to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. Grass almost as tall as me sways in the wind. Jagged slate grey cliffs jut out of the blonde and violet brush. The sun hangs low and a streak of navy blue is widening on the eastern horizon. My last ounce of water slides too easily down my throat, a cold reminder that we’re running out of time.
This must be the turnaround point, I think. But no. I should know better. Soon we are at the edge of a very steep slope. John takes a step forward and his foot sinks past his ankle into loose dirt the color and consistency of espresso grounds. He grabs a flimsy bamboo stalk for support. “We have to move fast down this, no stopping,” he says, then charges down the cliff like a warrior sprinting into battle.
I stop at the bottom of one of the ravines; the climb up the next pass looks sketchy, with loose boulders and rocks unavoidable on the ascent. My mouth is dry and my knees are weak, from both exhaustion and fear. John sees me hesitate and pulls a small bottle of water from his pack. He’s been holding out on me. “You can have this,” he says, placing it on a rock, “but you have to come get it.” Then he disappears over the ridge.
Dangling with one arm twisted in vines, I stretch for a distant root sprouting from the side of the cliff. But when I grab a hold, it loosens, releasing a plume of spiders with plump marble-sized bodies and toothpick legs. Dozens pour out, scurrying up my arm and scattering across my body. I feel their feathery feet tickling me as they scamper.
I look at the void below that I will fall into if I let go of the root, and I cling tighter. The water bottle is glistening in the orange sunlight, just a few feet above. I must reach it. I don’t even care that hundreds of spiders are crawling on me when my other option is plummeting to a rocky death. I suddenly realize that this is all it took to overcome my lifelong fear of spiders, and start laughing. They are the least of my worries.
As we begin our descent down the next pass, John tells me he wasn’t this intrepid when he first came to Thailand. He was a young backpacker, the same age as me, drifting through Southeast Asia on a shoestring when he met Diew, a beautiful Thai woman, in Chiang Mai. Diew was the first female trekking guide in the region, and the deeper she lured him into the mountains, the more he fell for her. Soon they were exploring every nook of northwest Thailand, despite the turbulent nature of it, both topographically and politically. Then the allure of undiscovered caves and rumored treasure drew them 120 miles down a dirt road, originally made as a World War II Burma invasion route, to the spot where the Cave Lodge sits today.
Now, he admits, “It’s hard to stop. The deeper I go, the greater the temptation to continue.” For John, hunting for a new cave is not unlike a junkie seeking his next fix. Realizing this, as the darkness descends around us, makes me question if he has an exit strategy, or if he will blindly follow this impulse until he finds his next cave—even if that means we’re trekking for days.
We finally reach the bottom of the cliff, and discover a few yards to our right, the dark gaping mouth of a cave the size of a grand ballroom. A foul smell wafts around us, like a monster exhaling the stench of rotting prey. I press my hands against a boulder with the texture of petrified lace and pull my way up. I cobble over a pile of four other boulders with that same ancient feel, then stop where the ground levels out inside the cave. I feel like I’m in the jowls of a sleeping beast.
The plunk… plunk… plunk of condensation falling from fang-shaped stalagmites echoes around us. One, as tall as a three-story house, drips onto a patch of perfect emerald ferns and ivy. The unlikeliness of this little Eden, in this dark and foul cave, surges hope and joy through my chest so quickly it catches me off guard, and I start to choke. “It’s the only place the sun touches,” John says.
I ponder the time it took for this to form. A time incomprehensibly beyond my experience. I think of the few things in this world that are untouched. I feel a sense of the scale of the universe and for the first time in my life, I kneel down on the earth and worship something.
But my state of euphoria is short-lived. Just as the bruise-colored sky turns to black, the animals of the jungle come alive in a clamor of hoots and hollers.
“Where’s your headlamp?” John asks, as he cinches his around his head.
“I don’t have one. I thought you were bringing me one.”
“Eh, why would you think that?”
He turns around before I can answer, his light revealing a thick, tangled wall of thorn bushes, with no way around. John desperately beats them down, but they’re resilient and slowly close up behind us, encasing us in a daggery tomb. “Bloody fantastic,” John says, looking defeated. “It’s too thick and could go on like this for miles. Turn around.” I realize we are lost.
When we emerge from the brush, I’m pulling thorns from my sleeves while John hinges over a river as black as the moonless sky, a look of intense contemplation on his face. “Oh, hell no,” I think. The dark watery highway rushing by four feet below feels like the edge of the universe. John hesitates, leaning forward, then back, then forward again. Tufts of whitewater scatter across the river, like puffy clouds on a black oil canvas, signs of rocks and logs beneath the surface.
John jumps and sinks chest deep, grabs a protruding branch to keep from being swept away, and begins a slow and unsteady journey across the river. When he reaches the other side, the light from his headlamp rotates around like a lighthouse and pauses on me, shining in shattered brightness through the trees. But it quickly turns back around and continues on.
I’m left with no time to weigh options, so it’s into the river I go. I dip myself into the rushing water. My feet slip and slide on the slick rocks beneath my sneakers. I gain my balance and slowly, inch by inch, without lifting my feet from the rocks, begin to shuffle my way across when I feel something slick coil around my ankle. I want to scream and writhe and flail like an infant for her mother, but a calm voice within tells me that will result in me being pulled down the quick-moving river, so I keep going, one inch at a time, the opposite bank looking like the farthest finish line I’ve ever seen. Steady, steady, I repeat to myself, while the slick wiggling body around my ankle tightens and tugs.
When I reach the other side, there’s a cliff one foot higher than my upstretched hands. With no hope of pulling myself onto it, I plunge my fingernails into the dirt and begin clawing away at the cold moist earth until I reach the icy corpse of a root and curl my fingers around it. I pull myself up, prepared to rip a water snake from my ankle. But it’s only a vine.
I look at my watch. Midnight. We’ve been in the jungle for fifteen hours, and out of water and food for seven. And now John is beginning to move on without me. My mind starts to slide into primitive desires—fire; water; a road; a path, even. I think of my backpack, sitting on my bed in the lodge, with my flashlight uselessly inside it, my toothbrush still moist on the bathroom sink.
Will we be the final chapter in the lore of the Cave Lodge? Or will we make it back, escaping with another story that a few will believe and spread on the backpacker trail, strengthening John’s reputation and luring more naïve backpackers hungry for real adventure, not heeding the warnings of those who’ve lived to tell the tale—don’t go, he’s crazy—and instead hearing adventure—wilderness—become a real man.
Just as I’m plummeting into the darkness within me, just like the cave—dark and foul beyond belief, housing a trove of beauty—a light emerges. John sees it too and starts running. I follow. My dragging feet feel light again, and soon we’re both running, stumbling, savagely tearing through the jungle like the beasts it’s made us.
As we approach the light, I see it’s coming from a lone corroded wooden shack on a narrow dirt path. John gets to the door first and furiously knocks on it. An old man with labyrinths on his face that seem as deep and brown as the canyons we just trekked through answers it. He squints his eyes at us then chuckles, revealing only a few yellow teeth, and motions us inside.
He seats us at a table fashioned from an old splintered door, piling tepid Chang beers in front of us. We clamor for them like starved animals and guzzle, foam streaming down the sides of our mouths. The floor is dirt, iron pots are piled on white ashes in one corner, a cot with an old woven rug in the other. A single lantern rocks in the midnight draft. He’s a Karen refugee from Burma, who moved here to escape the violent military junta, John says, translating. His smile is radiant, contagious. “He says he has a truck and can drive us back to mine.”
John climbs into the bed of the rusted Ford truck and for the first time, extends his hands to me. They feel big, weathered, and sturdy as he pulls me in. The old man offers us a few warm beers for the road.
The truck grinds up steep grades and curves around the mountains we’ve just braved the other side of. Stars dazzle in the sky like distant diamonds. I’ll think about this experience the next time I encounter something difficult in my life: that even when we feel like our legs are giving out beneath us and there’s no way we’ll be able to carry on—not only can we keep going through the darkness with barely a flicker light, but we can climb mountains and cross rivers. And still keep going. That in the world’s darkest caves, there are verdant untouched gardens. And in the most remote decrepit shack, there is a jovial refugee who helped a couple of crazy strangers in the night.
I look at John, who’s sitting next to me, clutching his straw hat to his chest.
A smile spreads across his face and I suddenly wonder: Was this his plan all along? I study his face hard, trying to determine the answer, but the darkness is obscuring, and I can’t tell if it’s a smile to be out of the jungle alive or the smug satisfaction that he’s pulled off another successful stunt.
Best Women's Travel Writing Vol. 9
Travelers' Tales, August 2013
"The Road to Wounded Knee"
On our way into town we passed billboards offering $6.99 breakfast platters and genuine leather wrangling gloves. Our sixteen-seat puddle jumper had landed not even an hour before, but my mother was already well into her stories of childhood on the prairie. Growing up not far from here, she said, in a single gas station town named Murdo, she and my grandparents had dreamt of thunderheads: black clouds that divined themselves out of indigo and tore across the sky feeding thirsty crops, then disappearing only slightly slower than they’d materialized. Like the work of an angry but loving God.
I saw the eyes before the body: two reflective dots in the dark, one on top of the other. Bump. My mother didn’t see it in time either. A deer.
“It was already dead,” she said. She was sure of it.
We had arrived in Rapid City just as the wide sky faded from purple to black and the tall blonde grass disappeared into the night. After the soothing golden lights of San Francisco, South Dakota felt isolated and cold. I had never been here, but I knew it—if only from the stories passed down from my mother, and its residue in my blood.
Our plan was to sleep in an original homestead in a prairie outside of town; we’d booked it through the owner, a corn farmer, thinking it would give us a sense of local history. But when we creaked the weighty door open, we took the unwelcoming stench of kerosene and dank wood, and the presence of a terrified mouse and a half-dead beetle twitching on the dirt floor, as omens. We checked into the nearest motel, where we sought refuge in stiff hotel sheets that smelled of chlorine while trains whistled in the distance throughout the night.
In the morning while we dressed, I drank weak coffee with powdered creamer—poor fuel for the day ahead. My mother slipped on a pair of dangly turquoise earrings she had bought from a Lakota man at a jewelry show in California, then twisted her long hair into a ponytail.
“South Dakotans don’t wear dresses,” she said, wagging her finger at me. She handed me a pair of jeans and a white shirt, and looked satisfied when I put them on. “Now you look like a local.”
Then we loaded our rented nickel-colored Impala with the bulky suitcases we had hauled from San Francisco and headed into the prairie, unsure of exactly what to expect on our journey to Wounded Knee.
My mother first proposed this trip as a mother-daughter bonding pilgrimage to our homeland, to see the town where she was born and reconnect with our roots. But I knew her primary agenda was to face the horrors she’d heard about at Pine Ridge. Maybe to understand it better. Maybe to purge herself of the demons that plagued her.
Pine Ridge, the Indian reservation that encompasses Wounded Knee, sits in southwestern South Dakota, larger than the state of Delaware. I understood Pine Ridge in two ways: from my family’s guilt-colored stories, and in extreme, almost impossible, mathematical figures: the poorest region in the U.S., eighty percent unemployment, ninety percent alcoholism (it’s not unusual for kids to start drinking when they’re six), and the highest suicide rate in the nation. There’s no bank, there are almost no businesses, and aside from a new Subway, vegetables are basically nonexistent, resulting in a fifty percent incidence of diabetes.
In 1906, my great-grandparents homesteaded in Murdo, a two-hour drive east of Rapid City and three hours from Wounded Knee. It wasn’t until my mother, aunt, and grandparents moved to California in the 1960s that they realized homesteading in South Dakota had displaced the Native Americans who were living in the area by forcing them onto the Pine Indian Ridge reservation, which set them on a fast track to poverty, disease, and dysfunction.
As we rolled across the Pine Ridge reservation line, swollen gray clouds sagged in the sky, ready to break. We passed a billboard reading, Catch the winning spirit at prairie wind casino! A thick purple bug splattered on the windshield, black skid marks veered off the road in front of us, then we hung a right on Snake Butte Road.
Occasional dirt driveways branched off the main path and disappeared into the prairie. Wooden crosses stood taller than any house in sight, and long-abandoned homesteads had been weathered down to splinters in the dirt. Other structures resembling homes with makeshift tin roofs appeared at random, and I would have wondered if anyone still lived in them if not for the old Ford pickups in the driveways.
The anti-drug signs that punctuated our path with astonishing volume and frequency—Please don’t bring drugs into our town! were more pleas than authoritative statements. We had yet to see a person.
As we passed Little Wound High School, my mother commented proudly that she donated money regularly. Oglala Lakota College, home of the bravehearts, whipped by on our right. Five wild horses roamed the campus, but there wasn’t a human in sight. Every few feet there was something to tug at our hearts and our fears—a dead cow on the side of the road, ribs protruding from a horse’s thin side—and I saw that here, it was as bad as my mother thought it would be, if not worse. It was a place that knew it had been forgotten.
It was already noon, and the temperature hadn’t broken 45. Moisture collected on the windshield and formed bead-sized drops against the wind as the clouds above turned from gray to livid. I was underdressed, wearing only jeans, a light jacket, and a thin scarf that was more accessory than function. My mother was better prepared in a heavy black cotton jacket, the collar inching up her neck.
I surrendered my iPod for the randomness of the radio, and Johnny Cash’s “Hang My Head” droned in and out. Then we turned into a town named Kyle. There were no fences around the houses. No flags. No welcome mats. Gaunt dogs flopped in yards next to rusty propane tanks. I saw clotheslines swinging loose and empty, an idle trampoline, an unoccupied wheelchair. A hulking black Suburban rumbled in a driveway and two men, not in uniform, escorted a cuffed man with a shiny black ponytail into the SUV.
“As a country,” my mother said, turning down the radio, “we don’t help them. Because in order to do so, we’d first have to look at ourselves and acknowledge what we’ve done. And we don’t yet have the courage to do that.”
I knew my mother was approaching her soapbox. I quickly glanced at her before staring back out the window. Though she was wearing her usual brown scrunchy and matching eye shadow, everything else about her seemed different. Back home, where she worked as a psychology professor, she was known for her disarming Midwestern sense of humor and her Zen outlook on life. Her intellectual curiosity and grace were the highlight of any dinner party she attended (that, and whatever decadent chocolate desert she’d baked). But here, she seemed tense, as if anticipating something I didn’t know was coming. She wrung the steering wheel with her hands and repeatedly checked the rearview mirror. And on the topic of Native American reservations, she spoke with an evangelist’s tongue.
Listening to her, I felt a sudden tinge of shame: I was a journalist—why had I never publicly acknowledged the situation here?
“The past is bad enough,” she continued. “But what’s worse is that we live based on a lie of people who are still here and living. My family didn’t know they were taking away land from other people when they homesteaded, but the schools do now, and they still don’t teach it that way.” Then in her usual good-natured way, she joked, “O.K., that’s my sermon for today,” and veered back onto the main highway.
We pulled up to Wounded Knee with blood on our tires—evidence of the deer from the night before—and walked to the mound where two hundred Indians were killed and buried in 1890, in one of the bloodiest massacres in American history. That was sixteen years before my family homesteaded 150 miles away.
My mother’s demeanor changed when we approached the entrance. She looked calm and present as we stood alone above the shallow mass grave. But it wasn’t what I expected an important historical site to look like. There was no granite memorial wall or line of tourists taking photos—only plastic and moldy wooden crosses sprouting from loose dirt. Some tombstones bore names like two two, and respects nothing. Others were just uninscribed stones protruding from the dirt. The ground was littered with fake plastic neon flowers, Sprite bottles, and Slim Jim wrappers, which had gently corroded over many harsh winters.
Fags, Dave eats Happy out, and You’re all little kidz was scrawled on a wooden post near the entrance.
Down the hill a Native American teenage girl with jet-black hair was hoofing it up the hill in our direction, stopping every few steps to rest her elbow on her knee and glance up at us. When she got to the top she approached my mother, who was carefully reading one of the tombstones.
I waded through the piles of stone and trash, heading toward them. The girl was wearing a black puffy FUBU jacket with flared jeans and Sketchers. When I reached them, she didn’t turn to acknowledge my presence. Her clay-colored cheeks were flushed pink and she scrunched her jacket sleeves to her elbows, revealing two armfuls of tattoos. She was deeply engrossed in a story she was telling my mother, who was all ears. The girl didn’t avert her eyes from my mother’s once, not even as the wind lashed leaves and M&M wrappers around us.
“You see, I started college—I wanted to go to school and be smart, you know? Like, I wanna get outta this place. But my grandma—she had this foot infection my first semester. I mean, I was the first one to even graduate high school in my family—and then my grandma, she stepped on this piece of glass. She’s diabetic, and the infection spread faster than they could treat it, so they amputated her leg at the knee. She survived, but how was she supposed to cook fry bread and sweep the house with one leg, right? So I had to drop out. To take care of the rest of the household, you know.” My mother nodded.
In the girl’s right hand was a Ziploc baggie filled with dream catchers and little beaded bracelets, and I noticed how beautiful and timeless her face looked. I knew my Mother would have emptied her wallet if given the chance, if the girl just asked.
But something felt off, and I was suddenly acutely aware of how far we were from anyone who would care if something happened to us. I tugged at her coat sleeve and told her we should go. When we turned around three men were standing behind us dressed in ponchos and dirt-splotched jeans. One said something to the girl, but I couldn’t make out what. He was in a daze, his eyes vacant and his words crashing into his few teeth.
“Man, Buddy, not yet, man.” She spat the words, then kicked the dirt.
I felt panicky. “Mom, we need to go,” I said, but she shot me a glance like I was the rude guest at a dinner party, then turned back to the girl.
“As I was saying, I really just want to go back to school—” her words were now competing with faint droning and heavy breathing noises coming from behind us.
She pointed to a run-down wooden building at the bottom of the hill. Its planks splintered in different directions, and it was corroded like a decayed tooth on the north end. “We can give you a tour of our medicine house, in that building down there, get to see what real life is like in Pine Ridge, not the tourist draw of Wounded Knee. Don’t you want to know what we Indians actually live like here?”
My mother’s eyes lit up as she opened her mouth, undoubtedly to say, “yes.”
I sensed that if we were about to be taken, financially or physically, on the mound of Wounded Knee, my mother would have welcomed it as a sacrifice, some kind of retribution.
“I’m sorry, we need to go, but thanks,” I said, my voice trembling.
As we turned to leave, one of the men whispered after us, his voice coming from another dimension—deep and hollow with no trace of inflection—“Welcome to Wounded Knee,” in a way I knew would haunt me.
My mother reluctantly headed for the car with me, but couldn’t help glancing back at them.
As we left Wounded Knee and headed toward Murdo to see my mother’s childhood home, we passed more signs: God so loved you and Why die?
Then on the border leaving Pine Ridge, we approached the biggest billboard yet: a picture of Mt. Rushmore and the headline, Come hear the patriotic story of America!!! I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
We were silent, both staring at the road that stretched infinitely in front of us. In the distance, thunderheads rolled through the sky; the grass seemed to dance for the oncoming rain. I turned to my mother to comment on the weather, and maybe the sign, but something in her expression stopped me—she looked almost blissful. Her grip on the steering wheel loosened as she focused her gaze on the road ahead. I admired the way her turquoise earrings reflected the light and the faint but distinct smile that started to form on her face. I realized that we both had a new—if different—understanding of Wounded Knee. Then the sky opened and the rain started, and we drove on.