MY BELOVED PRAIRIE

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I watch the wind whirl around the dry, cracked wooden fence posts lined up across the prairie, some straight while others tilt with age, their mangled barbed wire sagging in between each pole, barely holding them upright. Small drifts of snow remain at the base of the wood, slowly melting into a soil of clay rich bentonite with tips of sage peeking through.  I can smell it, you know?  As I sit here, far away from my beloved prairie, I can still smell every inch of it. Even when the ground is winter cold, it smells like warm earth covered by fresh grasses, sage, and years of wild buffalo and cattle drives stomping it’s depthless surface.

I’M BACK!

Today I write!  So why have I not been posting any new chapters?  Well, on August 4th, I had intensive spine surgery, and that is why it’s been difficult for me to post stories on my blog.  I admit, it’s been a long, difficult journey.  But my surgery was an absolutely total success!  For three years I’ve not had any feeling in my left leg.  I walked bent over; mainly to the left, and my left foot was without feeling.  My nights were spent with what felt like millions of bugs crawling beneath the skin of my left leg, knee and hip, and the pain was unbearable.  It was so debilitating that I ended up in an assisted living community.  But guess what? I’m doing great!  Just minutes after I awoke from surgery I could feel my left foot, and there was NO pain in my left leg.  And when the nurses got me up for the first time, I stood straight as an arrow.  In fact, I am now an inch taller.

I’ve had an awesome home health team which covers nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy. In a couple of weeks I’ll be released to outpatient physical therapy. I will have intense physical therapy sessions three days a week for several months and after that, the visits will lessen but all-in-all the total time of this recovery is up to a year.

I’ve relocated to a healthier environment which will be less than a mile from the physical therapy clinic. Other than my writing, this recovery will dominate my life.  I’m extremely grateful that I have this choice, and insurance that allows me an opportunity to embark on such a road to wellness. The past several years have not been easy and I tried to give up – more than once – “but I am what I am today by the choices I made yesterday”… Stephen R. Covey.

I love the quote below, by the writer, Veronica Roth. It gives me thought, pause, and courage.

“There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater.
But sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life.
That is the sort of bravery I must have now.”

So, today I write!  I will write about the magic of the South Dakota prairie.  I will continue to post  adventures from my book THROUGH MY FATHER’S INDIAN EYES.  And I plan to create new blogs with new projects.

I’m back and, I remain unbroken. 

 

Dancing With Lightning

Excerpts – from the book – ©THROUGH MY FATHER’S INDIAN EYES, by Juanita L. Priest

My breath lingered in the wind chilled air as Grace and I drove the twenty-some miles across the prairie from Porcupine to Kyle.  An occasional small house or trailer would appear along the way; streams of smoke escaping from its chimney and then disappearing through the yellow leaves of the cottonwood trees.  Several homes were surrounded by metal graveyards of worn out and broken down cars, their valuable parts waiting to be used and shared with neighbors.  Some of the homes had tipi’s on the property that stood bright against the horizon, their poles so high they touched the dark, sheltering, morning sky.

I leaned my head against the coolness of the glass and watched the tall grass bow and curtsy with the laughter of the wind dancing above the tussocks.  Then gradually, the repeating prairie began to swell up like a golden bosom and within its cleavage sat the small town of Kyle, and the colorful, proud Little Wound School.

The school looked out of place in comparison to the weathered community of Kyle.  Little Wound’s bright, red shiny tiles shaped an abstract formation of the head of a buffalo housing the high school gym, classrooms, cafeteria and offices.

We drove around the back and were greeted by faded modular homes that made up the administration buildings.  Groups of kids, all ages, were scrambling off to class with tail-wagging stray dogs in tow.  Several horses meandered towards the football field to graze on new, spring grass that peered out from beneath the ice and snow of yesterday.  This was a scene I would come to know and love daily.  Everyone was on their way to their purpose of the day. Even the dogs and horses had an agenda.

We entered the administration building and Grace escorted me into a large office where a number of the staff sat.  I felt my pulse quicken.  Grace had been a precious friend.  She welcomed me into her home and shared her culture with me.  But that didn’t necessarily mean I would be accepted by everyone.

We all shook hands and I commenced to connect my little laptop into the office phone line.  After all, this was during the days when the only connection to the Internet was dial-up.  I said a silent prayer that the then what was known then as the super-information-highway would connect with whatever cyberspace angel was out there, and another prayer that I would connect with my peers.  And I did.

With each sincere, welcoming smile I could see true delight in their eyes.  After a visual explanation of web page design, and some ideas about its content, the meeting came to a close.  We laughed, told jokes, and shared bits of our lives with one another and for a brief moment a feeling coming home enveloped me like the warmth of another sun.

TWO MONTHS LATER

I can hear the wind from far away traveling swiftly from above the butte and across the plains.  Like a massive gathering of the climates, it comes from all around. One moment there is stillness but then, within a few seconds, the tops of tall pines bend toward the earth. Lightening strikes and thunder roars as the storm begins to voice its anger.  My horses defiantly kick up their heels, wanting to escape the corral and race with Mother Nature.  I grab my duster and tighten my black Stetson hat around my head as I venture out into the storm to release these wondrous beasts.  Before I reach the corral, another bolt of lightening flashes above me, followed by piercing, shotgun thunder.  On impulse, I lift my arms to protect myself as heavy, large drops of rain begin to slap against my face so fiercely that it pushes me back.  By the time I make my way to the corral at the bottom of the hill, I am dripping with wet.

I lift the heavy, rain soaked latch and open the gate wide, staying on the opposite side to protect myself from whipping manes and the backlash of the sharp kick of a hoof as these noble creatures seek deliverance.  With haste, I ride the gate back in place.  By now the rope is drenched and doesn’t want to slip over the post.  I struggle with this while trying to avoid the razor sharp sting of rain.  Suddenly, I feel warm gentle breath upon the back of my neck.  This would be Stella, my black and white Appaloosa mare.  My girl Stella, who taught me to trust and respect such magnificence. I turn to her and for a moment our eyes meet.  She nods with satisfaction that I’m okay and gallops away with swift precision, instantly fading into a massive, glistening wall of showers.

The ground has now turned into a slick, gumbo mud.  Like a puppet whose strings have been cut off in midair, I slip and slide my way back up the hill to the dry, safety of the house and remove my duster which is dripping with it’s protective oil.  A tiny river halos the brim of my hat and spills over the tips of my Donna Morgan riding boots.

And then I see it…

Like a cascading waterfall, rain is pouring through the ceiling, splashing on the floor and furniture.  Grace told me that the roof leaked a bit, but I was not prepared for a storm such as this, and stood stunned.  A clap of thunder woke me from my trance and I ran to find pots and buckets to catch the water; anything deeper than a few inches.  I remembered the many empty paint cans in the basement and with a sigh of relief, I ran splashing through my living room which was now a small lake and hurried down the stairs to retrieve the solution, only to be frozen by the scene that lay before me.

Bright shards of lightning were skipping across a foot of water that covered the basement floor.  Like drunken fireflies, sparks would bounce against the walls and onto the furniture.  The air was thick with the smell of burnt plastic and rotted wood.  It was almost asphyxiating and I felt my throat begin to close.  I hung onto the stairwell wall and slowly slinked my body back up the stairs to safety.  With each step I could hear the snapping sound of electricity on the conductive water.  Even though the lightning never touched me, I could feel what I saw.  Little shocks began creeping into my fingertips while balancing myself on the stairs. Before I reached the top, I saw a snake peek its head above the surface of the rising water and then disappear.  Two more swam towards the basement glass doors.

I stepped into the dining room, now covered with several inches of water.  Rain was still pouring from the roof.  A loud, booming burst of thunder cracked above me.  I could feel the adrenaline pump through my body yet I was frozen in one spot, afraid I might touch something and get electrocuted.

Suddenly the phone rang a loud brrrrr-ring, in competition with the raging storm.  BRRRR-ING, CRACK, BOOM, SPLAT, SNAP were the sounds I heard all around me.  My mind tried to remember my science days in high school and whether or not I should touch the phone but because it wasn’t plugged into a wall socket, I must be safe; I picked up the receiver.

It was my brother’s voice on the other end of the line.  Our father had just died.

The storm was over…

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WESTBOUND ON THE INDIAN PACIFIC

In my early career as a travel writer, I soon discovered that the world of literary adventures was lacking in truth about the indigenous areas of the globe, and also, there were hungry minds out there that wanted to know about the Native peoples of our world. I decided to make it my goal to venture into areas that would be more appealing to Lonely Planet books as my publisher, instead of the comfortable Conde’ Nast cocktails’-by-the-pool writing life.   So I bought a tent, backpack, and Bluet eight ounce gas burner, and entered the world of hosteling, walking or riding my bicycle throughout areas in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although I traveled alone, I was never without a welcoming face or friendly smile to keep me company.  This held even more true when I rode the Indian Pacific Rail across Australia’s Nullabor Plain, between Sydney and Perth.  It was published in Women’s World and interestingly enough, when my home burned down, this article, and the magazine, survived the blaze.

The journey in this article was the beginning of many weeks traveling on foot, and living with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, a memory that stays as perennial as Australia’s never-ending red horizon; but that’s another story.

©WESTBOUND ON THE INDIAN PACIFIC

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There is no better way to absorb Australia’s vast frontier than to travel by rail.  For seventy-five hours, the Indian Pacific’s bright green and yellow engine pulls a medley of shiny silver coaches racing across more than a thousand kilometers of outback wilderness.

Reserve bookings before leaving your country of origin or from the train station in Sydney; an old stone building built beneath a lofty clock tower where international flags hang from a braided wood ceiling and contrasting bright orange benches accommodate travelers from all over the world.

Different styles of travel on the Indian Pacific start with First Class private en-suite sleeping accommodations.  All meals and use of the dining car and lounge/bar car is included in the fare.

Next is Holiday Class which offers smaller twin sleeping berths.  Meals are not included but use of the dining and lounge cars is available.

My budget called for Coach Class that provides the comfort of blue and silver brocaded seats reclining to a comfortable angle.  Wide picturesque windows frame the colorful views of early dawn and fiery sunsets.Unknown

Toilets and showers are located at the end of each coach and clean towels are kept abundant by friendly train conductors.

The Australian rail service takes the initiative to reserve all single coach class booking two seats, if availability allows.  In other words, unless otherwise requested, it is customary for a lone passenger to have an empty seat next to him or her.

The lounge cars and dining cars are not available to people who travel Coach Class.  Instead, a small snack bar provides hot meals, sandwiches, alcohol and fruit to take back to our assigned seats.images-7

Coach Class does offer the opportunity to meet and make friends with the citizens of Australia.  There is nothing more relaxing than the eternal song of the rail, while sharing travel stories with new friends who will stay in your memory for a lifetime.

During this adventure, which spans from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans, across the vast and empty Nullabor Plain, an array of Australian wildlife comes into view.  images-1In the four days of travel, I counted seventy-two kangaroos, forty-two emus, and two yellow dingos that raced with the train, while the Indian Pacific’s symbolic Wedgetailed eagle sat atop red cliffs, in awe of the silver serpent that sped across his homeland.thumbnail

The first day we crossed the blue mountains and journeyed through the outback of New South Wales.  At dusk we were greeted by the nocturnal kangaroo, bounding across the horizon.

The second day we stopped in the historic mining town of Broken Hill to pick up passengers who were spending their holiday at Broken Hill’s small casino.

The coastline came into view north of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.  We said goodbye to the ocean blue waters upon arriving at out next stop, Port Augusta, the gateway to the famous “Long Straight,” 478 Kilometers of undeviating desert-track.  images-4

Rich gold fields of Western Australia and the mining community of Kalgoorlie greeted the Indian Pacific on the night of the third day.  images-6For a few dollars, a tour bus will take you on a memorable journey through the town.  It is a chance to learn about Western Australia’s mining business and the colorful population that has survived this near waterless desert.

The journey ended in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, which sits along the Swan River.

As I left the train, I watched my new friends go their separate ways.  Some were greeted by loved ones, while other hurriedly claimed waiting taxis.

I looked back at the Indian Pacific and thought of a line from a poem by Edwin Markham;

“Gone is the city, gone the day, yet still the story and the meaning stay.”

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Myself, and a wee passenger named Amy.  Amy was traveling with her dad, Ian, a single parent.  A lot of us girls took turns bathing, feeding and keeping this little Angel happy.  She had a beautiful smile and hardly complained at all.  Later I found out that the giant diaper bag Ian carried was stuffed with marijuana.  This photo was taken when we stopped at Kalgoorlie.  The little white building you see behind me is one of the prostitution huts.  Prostitution is legal in Kalgoorlie, and holds true for a lot of mining towns, overseas, and in America.

IP

South Dakota & The Invitation

Excerpts – from the book – ©THROUGH MY FATHER’S INDIAN EYES, by Juanita L. Priest

Against the white-blanketed hills of Custer State Park several large mounds of snow begin to move, cracking open like giant eggs exposing dozens of enormous and mahogany fleeced buffalo.  Their eyes peer out from beneath a headdress of thick, dark snow covered fur.  It is time to roam the plains for a patch of grass not yet frozen from the severe winter temperatures.

Fifteen miles away sits the scanty town of Buffalo Gap, once a thriving South Dakota boomtown.  Stray dogs climb out from under the abandoned cars and begin to bark in competition with a rooster’s crow.  Trails of smoke drift from chimney tops that sit above weathered shingles, mingling with the smell of coffee and bacon.  This little shanty town left a trail of leather and lace. It is part of America’s last frontier and  where I fell in love with the prairie, and the wildness of the plains.

While living in Buffalo Gap I was invited to create a web page for Little Wound School, an Indian school funded by grants and monies from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in Kyle, South Dakota.  Kyle is one of the Districts, (what one would imagine a township to be), on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The invitation came from a beautiful Chippewa woman name Grace.  She had hair the color of red earth and quick, flashing brown eyes.

It was April 5, 1998, my forty-eighth birthday when I first caught a glimpse of the East entrance into the Badlands.  Large monoliths of clay and stone stood stories high above the prairie, painted with earthen layers of time.cropped-1501742_1433570260207368_102190767_n.jpg

I drove my truck beneath South Dakota’s sharp edges while hawks circled  the tips of towering structures cutting into a landscape of boundless prairie lands.  A bald eagle peered at me with curious yellow eyes, as he perched on a weathered fence post.  The smells of sage and bentonite were intoxicating and they filled my lungs with an open coolness.

I was stunned by the beauty of the Badlands.  Other than the wild heartbeats that flew above, and the four legged animals that blended within the tall prairie grass, I was completely alone within this virgin, rugged landscape.

My friendship with Grace began with a gift.  She welcomed me with a pair of yellow and red beaded star earrings.  That was the material gift.  But her most valuable gift was her continuous loyalty as my mentor and friend during the first few months living in her home in Porcupine, working at Little Wound School, and learning the importance of patience and humility; behaviors I witnessed daily while living amongst the Oglala Lakota Sioux.

Grace’s house was located in a small canyon nestled between hills of rock and green and hidden from the road.  It was an old, large, weathered two story home with white paint cracked from years of harsh weather.  To the South, giant cottonwood trees surrounded the home and were nourished by the Porcupine Creek; it’s waters melodically rippling between the frozen remains of winter.

Horses of all sizes and colors grazed peacefully to the North, beneath the shadows of pine and purity of the sky.  This was the kind of scene that makes one look back to remember where they have been, in order to believe where it is they are going.  It could have been a picture from a Currier and Ives Christmas greeting card instead of a small patch of land located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a place I would soon discover was full of both mystery and misrepresentation.

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