Harney Peak. Black Hills. South Dakota.

Somewhere in Minnesota or South Dakota, I came across a piece of information about Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet, it’s the tallest US summit east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s located in southwestern South Dakota close to the Wyoming border. The highest point east of this peak is in France’s Pyrenees. This really surprised me, but then again, I’m from the west. Once this peak was in my head, I was set on tackling it when Kelly and I arrived in that area.

That area. The Black Hills. Paha Sapa, to the Lakota people that named them. Traveling west on highway 90, the granite range erupts out of the flat earth. As soon as I saw them in the distance, I knew at once why these mountains were given this name.  The Ponderosa Pine forests paint the mountains in a shade of darkness, shadow-like.

We had just spent days in the Plains, and I took note of my pure joy and excitement for once again being in the presence of coniferous trees. It’s a good thing to know your own personal preference of landscape; the one that makes you feel the most at ease. It seems ideal to our health and sanity to live in the natural environment that makes us feel the most content, whether it be orange earth with cactus and sun, green forest with water that only knows how to flow or sandy shores and crashing waves. In each new place, I pick up a piece of my puzzle, a deeper understanding into the natural characteristics that make me feel the most at home. Ironically, it always comes back to the area I come from. And so it was a delicious feeling to journey westward from land unfamiliar to me and arrive in a place with characteristics similar to home. Trees and mountains. Though, I was far from home.

We woke up in a Sam’s Club parking lot off Highway 90 in Rapid City on the day we planned to hike Harney Peak. It was a sunny day, our first without clouds and rain. Without the dreaded wind I had come to loathe. So Kelly and I were excited to wake early. We ended up at Seattle’s Best Coffee (which is, in my opinion, in no way Seattle’s best coffee) where we knocked off a few hours of work before hitting a bagel shop and heading up into the Black Hills. Our first stop: Mount Rushmore.

After some lunch, we made our way towards Custer State Park and began the seven mile out and back that is Harney Peak.

Harney Peak South Dakota Journeyfoot

Harney Peak hike storm

The blue skies we had enjoyed at Mount Rushmore were now in the far distance, and the world had a look of eeriness that happens when a storm is lingering near. It sort of hung there in the northern sky, as though trying to make up its mind about whether or not it wanted to move our direction. The trail edges were lined in glitter, and the ground sparkled as we moved across it. At closer look we found mica, thin as paper and almost translucent. We pushed on towards the top and were surprised at how quickly and easily we reached it. Still, it didn’t rain.

The views at the top were breathtaking. This is where a great native is said to have had his great vision, and with the views at the top, it seems like the kind of place for visions, both inward and outward. An old lookout tower now rests on the land. I thought of the history and how this place had different meaning for different people. One cannot travel through this area of America and not be confronted with inner dialogue about its past and its people.

Harney Peak

Kelly Harman Van Slyke Harney Peak

On the way back down, the storm seemed to have made its decision. Grumbling grew closer, and I could feel it was about to rain.

Harney Peak hike black hills journeyfoot

It was not one minute after reaching Stud that the storm started. Kelly and I were both content with the option to wait it out inside the camper. We left only the screen door closed and watched the storm through the open windows and door. There is something very special about being more outside than inside during a warm rainstorm. The sound of the pounding drops on the thin roof and the smell that washes up off the wet ground. The air. It’s magical.

Once the storm cleared, we were left with thin clouds stretching across the late afternoon sky, low sun clinging to their sides. We picked up coffees at Bank Coffee House in Custer and hit the road.

kelly harman van slyke journeyfoot bank coffee house

Driving was easy. We crossed into Wyoming while listening to a dicussion about Bowe Bergdahl, eventually pulling into a Walmart in the city of Gillette just as the sky faded to dark.

Our day in the Black Hills was amazing. And then, as though just to remind us that there is no greatness without some badness,  I found a mother effing wood tick on my arm.


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