Hunting trips turns into a spiritual experience among the rocks

November 25, 1990|By John Husar | John Husar,Chicago Tribune

EKALAKA, Mont. -- My good and sensitive friend, Neil Oldridge, had warned that I would come to Carter County for antelope and mule deer, but leave with much more.

"You'll want to spend some time alone in the medicine rocks," he said. "I think it will affect you."

Indians for centuries had come here for spiritual refreshment, the Oglala and Hunkpapa Sioux. They sought their personal spirits, the omens of their lives.

These medicine rocks -- hundreds and hundreds of eerie sandstone formations reminiscent of the mysterious statues of Easter Island -- are scattered through a small part of Carter and Fallon counties on private and public land. Most are within the boundaries of Montana's Medicine Rocks State Park, but the best -- those still largely undefaced by vandals -- are on Frank Mehling's adjacent Medicine Rocks Ranch, where we hunted.

Here rocks loom from the rolling landscape like tombstones from a land of giants. Carved by wind and rain for millions of years, these fossilized remnants of an ancient riverbed resemble faces of people and animals, sometimes whole creatures or things.

From certain angles you can behold a beautiful Indian woman, an old man, a hawk searching for prey. A teepee. A castle. Countless stoic warriors. People. Face after face of people.

The Indians were drawn to this desolate area for the vast herds of bison, antelope and deer in the fall. But they also came to replenish their spirits.

Historians say that no Indian campsite can be found among these rocks, nor were there any legends of battles. That would have been as unseemly as pitching tents or starting fights in church.

"They camped outside the rocks," said Mabel White of the Carter County Museum, where thousands of artifacts are stored. "I would imagine they didn't want to upset the spirits of the rocks."

Even after settlement, the tribes camped on hospitable ranches. The skeleton of one of those ranch houses -- the E. Frank Emerson place -- is on Mehling's spread. There, Sitting Bull himself once tried to coax 4-year-old Ida Castleberry -- grandmother of local historian Marshall Lambert -- to sit on his lap.

"She wouldn't do it," White said. "She was scared."

Those Indians left behind gifts for the Emersons, a pair of tomahawks -- one of stone, the other of two female bison horns -- now treasured in the county museum.

Oldridge drove slowly through the rocks when we arrived at sunset. A rutted trail from the county road wound toward the rickety old guest cabin where Mehling's hunters and itinerant veterinarians stay. We felt as if we were being studied by hundreds of stony eyes.

True to Oldridge's prediction, I spent as much time as possible among the rocks. I hurried there each sunset to hear the owls and coyotes awaken. I nestled there to feel the darkness fall. I sometimes would slip outside to luxuriate in a night scented by wood fire, hearing rustles in the darkness, the rocks bathed in spectacular starlight.

The hunting became secondary. I hurried through the requirement of bagging my antelope and mule deer to save a whole day to be alone in those rocks.

My final afternoon was profound. Among many hunts in many parts of the world, it will not be forgotten.

The day was clear and golden with a chill breeze rustling the dry prairie grasses. I took along a shotgun in case I encountered sharptail or sage grouse, or just a jackrabbit. I slowly prowled among the rocks.

Here and there were small caves, places for ancient solitude and contemplation. I thought of Crazy Horse and Little Wolf and wondered if this might have been where they drew their famous courage.

The rocks hid grassy, dark oases, much like those private chapels that ring the sanctuaries of European cathedrals. Could the Dog Soldiers have mastered their defensive strategies in a place like this?

Game trails wound among the rocks. Scattered feathers and bleached bones littered coyote lairs. Owl pellets were piled beneath offal-stained ledges. Signs of life and death abounded.

I paused where the land sloped sharply toward a hidden pond and was staring at a butterscotched band of antelope far in the distance when I felt a touch on my leg.

I skipped away and looked down, my hands and feet tingling with the shock of sudden terror. A gray-eyed puppy looked at FTC me, a young blue heeler, one of the finest of bird dogs. Behind him lumbered a big, old Black Lab with a sour, weathered face. They were alone and looking for company.

We checked out each other and decided we were all right. The dogs accepted friendly scratching. I accepted their leadership.

They seemed to know the country and showed me the important sights. They took me around the pond to the ruins of an abandoned ranch. They jumped rabbits and songbirds and checked a fox den. They circled the medicine rocks and ushered me back into them through a path that I hadn't known.

And here was the sacred spot. Here I beheld 24 stony countenances confronting me. The dogs were gone and I was left with the spirits.

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