Rocks and Oracles

StreamI got to Pipestone National Monument 20 minutes before the visitor’s center was supposed to close.  I had never heard of it before, but I was looking to take a break from driving and I saw a sign on the highway with an arrow pointing off to the side. National Monuments tend to be pretty interesting, and they’re almost always worth the stop. The ranger behind the counter told me that the monument was there to preserve the quarry where Native Americans get the traditional stone for their pipes. Now that it’s a National Monument, only the local tribes are allowed to take rock from the quarries, and even then they must have special permits. The stone itself is seen as sacred.

The ranger pointed towards the back of the visitor’s center and told me that there was usually a craftsperson back there working on a pipe. I followed where he pointed and saw a middle-aged Native American man sitting on a stool and fashioning a pipe by hand. There was another couple already standing there watching him, a husband and wife on the early side of retirement. The man asked the artist if he was part of one of the local tribes, and the artist recited his quarter lineage through an impressive string of vowels I can neither remember nor pronounce. The man laughed out loud at the absurdity of having a name so strange and long.

“So you work and live around here?” the man asked.

“Yes,” replied the artist.

“And where’s your casino?” the man said, chuckling at his own joke. I cringed.

“Up in North Dakota,” the artist replied, without anger, offense, or joy. He was used to it by now. It wasn’t worth correcting the man.

“Oh,” the man nodded. He hadn’t expected an actual answer.

Oracle SignI looked around the pipe museum and gallery until it closed for the evening. Upon the suggestion of the ranger I set out on the 3/4 mile walk to see the quarries. The path was easy and the prairies were calming. The walk occasionally followed along a small creek, and I watched the water forming its path over the rocks. In one corner of the walk I came upon a small waterfall where the members of the J. N. Nicollet Expedition of 1838 stopped to rest for three days, carving their initials into the rock. Nicollet and his men were mapping the upper Mississippi, and I can see why they stopped. The little waterfall is surrounded by full trees that provide shade, and smooth rocks that make for comfortable sitting. The prairies are more hospitable than the desert, but they still benefit from the occasional oasis.

The OracleI continued my walk, coming across unusual formations that had been given names and histories by the local natives. Most of the named rocks were ones that seemed to form faces. Some were endowed with prestige, such as The Oracle. I hadn’t walked far when I got to The Oracle, but I was far enough that I couldn’t see the visitor’s center anymore. No one else was on the path, and I did my best to travel back in time for a moment. I thought about being one of those early settlers, coming across a form of rock so highly valued that the locals made pilgrimages to obtain it. I thought about being one of those natives, and seeing The Oracle formed in the rock. It must have felt like destiny – seeing a face in the sacred stone. I thought about being in my car just an hour earlier, turning off the highway because of a sign and an arrow, and seeing the face of a thousand-year history. I like to think I’m closer to the artist than the tourist, but that’s just my vanity. Perhaps I turned off the road to be reminded of that. Destiny comes in all sizes.

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