Shrouded Hills

Any time spent away from home leaves me hungry to search out my favorite places, as if to check on them, or remind myself that they are real, and are not just a product of my imagination. After a week in Illinois (I got back last week), I sought out what has become a favorite drive of mine, the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. Now, it is far from a favorite of mine in the middle of the day, in the middle of the tourist season. But at dawn, before almost anyone else is up, it is heavenly, peaceful, serene, and gloriously empty, yet full, so full. This particular morning, my hope of capturing the sunrise was thwarted, but I was gifted instead the coziness of glowering clouds and drifting fog and shrouds of mist. In spite of the rain and wet, the meadowlarks were singing as loudly as ever, and the buffalo calves were frisky and ridiculous. The landscape was unbelievably green. It truly is incredible how beautiful the new grass looks when the dead brown grass has been burned away. With the mist and the rolling hills, the tops of which were obscured in fog, the landscape looked somewhat as I imagine Ireland must look. Occasionally, the sun would briefly break through and light would dance on the slopes, before being shrouded once again.IMG_5535eIMG_5533eIMG_5454eIMG_5531eIMG_5540eIMG_5474eIt amazes me that anyone could look at such glorious beauty and not be struck to the heart by awe of our Creator. God’s glory is on full display in the wonders of His Creation. If my heart needs a revival, a walk in God’s woods or a drive through His prairielands and hills reminds me of the God I serve and love, and how good He truly is.

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Resilience

An early morning drive to enjoy the dawn and to photograph the sunrise in the Park didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but no drive with a camera in hand and eyes to see God’s goodness is ever really wasted. Towards Hermosa, I drove into a large fog bank, completely obscuring the sunrise, and the fog slowly moved west, coming to a stop against the rim of the Hills. The Wildlife Loop was bright and clear, though banks of fog could be seen hanging in the trees towards the east. The beautiful Wolf Moon, waning now, hung in the western sky like a pearl. IMG_0272IMG_0407eThere was an element of sadness driving through the Park and seeing the destruction left in the wake of the Legion Lake Fire. The snow whitewashed over much of the evidence of the fire, but the blackened hillsides, the charred or browned trees, and the smell of ash gave it away. I have to admit, it was worse than I thought it would be. Parts of the Park will look very different, with the standing dead, charred and blackened, scarring the landscape. Once the needles fall off the dead trees, it will be even more striking. The torched trees, blackened from root to crown and completely denuded, were grotesque against the snow, with yellowed trees on this side and that, somehow having escaped being torched. In places, the fire had eaten through fence rails like acid, though other stretches of fenceline were untouched. Lots of manpower will go into repairing those fences.IMG_0288eIMG_0398eIMG_0381eIMG_0354eeHow amazing: fire, while destructive on the one hand, is one of the means of renewal that God has put in place for the maintaining and flourishing of this world. Change is just a part of life. While everyone is fond of Custer State Park and we’re used to it looking a certain way, that just isn’t how nature works. It isn’t meant to stay the same. Change is one of the ways in which equilibrium is maintained. There is a natural ebb and flow, a cycle of life and death and life again, a cycle of destruction and renewal, which occurs on the micro scale, as well as with large-scale natural disasters. I know that the forest will renew itself or will change, and life will go on. I also know that come springtime the Park is going to be greener and more vibrant than it has been in years, with all the old grass and underbrush burned away. It will be a sight to behold!IMG_0415eAnd even now, in the meantime, life goes on. The buffalo were mostly in the corrals, feeding on hay, since their food supply was drastically affected and they will require hay for the rest of the season. A handful of youngsters frisked and played, chasing one another, though the solemn buffalo look never left their faces. Buffalo are such serious-looking critters. A few prairie dogs popped out of their little holes in the ground, and a sassy squirrel raced up and down a dead tree. The tiniest of creatures, happily going about their little lives in the wake of a deadly fire. IMG_0469eDon’t under estimate the sheer resilience of God’s Creation. He has equipped it well.

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Hiking | The Prairie Trail

The cool weather was perfect for hiking the 3-mile Prairie Trail loop in Custer State Park. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t want to hike it on a day with temperatures in the 90s! Although there is some tree cover, it is mostly prairie and open sky, with a couple of steep ups and downs to warrant a “moderate” rating. The trail is a loop, so it can be hiked two directions. Taking the left hand fork is preferable, since it allows the steepest slope to be climbed down, instead of up.
SpiderwortThe wildflowers were blooming plentifully, and the spiderwort in particular caught my eye. I’ll have to hike this loop again later in the summer, to see what other wildflowers are gracing the trail. Some wonderful open views looked down on the Wildlife Loop Road and part of the buffalo herd along one of the fence lines. This trail is open to the buffalo, so be aware of that. We didn’t come across any on this hike, but according to Hannah the buffalo tend to congregate in the area of the trail in the fall. IMG_3999Standing partway up a good long slope, breathing hard and sweating, Hannah and I extolled the benefits of hiking. I’ve never been a runner, she has never been a runner, and unless there is some weird drive a person has to go running, why run? A good hike is just as good exercise, without ending up needing knee replacements at the age of 60. Painted LadyThere are a couple of creek crossings, and plenty of poison ivy, so long pants (or caution) are recommended. Sunscreen also recommended, because of how exposed the trail is! Pack water and a picnic lunch – There is a beautiful picnicking spot at about the halfway point, under a small stand of trees, shortly after a steep downward slope and just before the trail emerges again onto the open prairie. A good place for a picnic.  This is a great hike if you’re not wanting to spend all day hiking – I believe this took us about an hour and a half.

It is so good to be able to get away from the distractions of everyday life, and into God’s glorious Creation!

Laura Elizabeth

Darling Pair

After such a good drive through the Wildlife Loop on Monday, I couldn’t resist and I drove it again (yes, I burned a lot of fuel this week!). The buffalo weren’t much in sight of the road, and the burros had made themselves scarce. However, these photos made it all worth it.
IMG_3926Mama and baby antelopeI caught sight of this mama and baby antelope over an embankment, close to the road but almost sheltered from view by the slope and the guardrail. Fortunately, there were no other vehicles behind me to scare them away. Mama antelope was as contented as can be, cleaning her little kiddo’s bum while he nursed. When my little sister saw that picture, her response was: “That’s just wrong.” No, it isn’t! That’s mama antelope taking good care of her little one!

What a darling pair.

Laura Elizabeth

Early Morning in Custer State Park

Yesterday, I took an early morning drive through the Park – The girls and I had driven through it Sunday afternoon, on our way home from church, and were amazed at the numbers of tourists. I thought it would be better for picture taking to drive through before the tourists woke up. I had a portion of the bison herd to myself for a good ten minutes, maybe twenty minutes, free to take pictures to my heart’s content! The burros were charming, as usual, and everything had babies. Here are my favorites:
Mama and babyBison herdBuffaloBurro mama and babyBuffalo babyWhat a delight, to live so close to places like Custer State Park. I still pinch myself, to make sure it is real!

Laura Elizabeth

Blue Skies and Dirt Trails

Harney Peak Trail #4What a delight, when winter temperatures soar into the 60s and 70s under blue skies and warm sun! Waking up to 10 degree temperatures and gentle snowfall this morning, it is hard to believe that we enjoyed a summery hike last Saturday. Like many other residents of the Black Hills, Roy, Jessie and I spent the afternoon soaking up the springtime weather beneath Harney Peak. There was still ice on Sylvan Lake and snow in the shadowed places, but there wasn’t a hint of chill in the air.

Harney Peak Trail #4All around Harney Peak, there is a web of trails wending through the Black Elk Wilderness and Custer State Park, beautiful scenic spurs with gorgeous, soaring vistas and haunting hollows. We have all hiked Harney Peak a number of times, but some of the spurs were new to us, or at least new to me. Trail #9 is the most common way to reach the Peak, but Trail #4 is a little more rugged, less up-kept, and affords lovely views of the towering Cathedral Spires, as well as a lively scramble to the top of Little Devil’s Tower.

Harney Peak Trail #4For some of the little climb to Little Devil’s Tower, it was cumbersome having my camera bag slung over my shoulder, but worth it for the views at the top! The Harney Peak fire lookout looked doll-sized, and the dozens of people in and around the fire tower weren’t even visible. We could see Custer, like a map, spread out in the southwest, and we could see Rapid City to the northeast, sprawling and minuscule, with the Badlands barely visible in the distant haze. The hills dropped away, an alluring blue, fading and dimming as the distance grew.

Harney Peak Trail #4On the Cathedral Spires trail, we could see mountain goats sunning on the tops of rocks, far enough away that it just about maxed out my zoom lens. Such awkward looking creatures, yet so graceful and sure-footed! The first time I hiked Trail #4, we saw some up-close goats. It would have been fun to see a few up-close on the trail, but there were enough hikers with their companionable canines, the goats probably were more comfortable high up and out of the way.

Harney Peak Trail #4Such beautiful country to wander, and what clear, fresh air to breath deep of, to drink in, to soak up. Mica glittered dazzlingly in the trail dust, granite spires soared into the sky, pines grew precariously from any cleft of rock, and the aspens shimmered pale and silver in the warm sunshine, in a sea of golden grass.

Winter isn’t over in the Hills just yet. But almost. Spring is just around the corner.

Laura Elizabeth