Independent Guestatorial


The Michelson bike trail in South Dakota is over 100 miles long and so far, Kei and I have managed the Custer to Hill City and Hill City to Mystic routes. This trail was formerly a railroad, developed into a rails-to-trails straight through the heart of the Black Hills.

The Black Hills are an especially sacred place to Native Americans. This place is truly the Garden of Eden, or cradle of all life on Earth, to the Lakota. The Spirit energy of millions of souls over thousands of years feels energetically alive. Only 10,000 years ago, giant mammoths, camels, and rhinoceros roamed the buttes, canyons, forests, waterways and valleys here. Dinosaurs lived here in abundance well before the human species was born.

Forests along the path are adorned with Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine, Black Hills Spruce, cottonwood, ash, elm, birch and aspen. Birch and aspen look similar from a distance but aspens have heart-shaped leaves and birch have oval.

The combination of trees is glorious and majestic, especially when riding towards the Mystic Trailhead after exiting a long and dark tunnel. We rolled alongside two creeks yesterday, Castle Creek and Rapid Creek. The many waterfalls and currents, over ages, have cut into sheer rock formations that look like towering castles made of ancient rock.

Considering lately the way that modern humans organize, I noticed a sickly aspen tree in the Hill City town square. To me, it often seems that many modern humans organize things individualistically while considering aesthetics foremost. Nature’s way of organizing seems to favor community and survival foremost.

A human – landscape designer, shop owner or public works – likely thought that the bark of the aspen was aesthetically pleasing, so a single tree was chosen to adorn the town square. An artificial hardscape of brick surrounded the base of the tree close to the trunk. It appeared overheated, hot, lonely, sick and on the verge. In nature, this tree can live 120 years.

Some believe that aspen are amongst the most ancient of trees. The forests along the Michelson trail had ancient colonies of aspen. There were aspen and other plant species that co-exist with aspen – flowering shrubs, groundcovers, grasses, native roses, ferns and forbs surrounded the ground under the trees in the forest. Mother trees seem to keep the younger trees shaded and protected. Smaller plants carpeted the earth and help to keep the soil in place and cover and protect the roots on very hot 100° days like we are having now.

 It is tempting to say, as a white person raised on Christianity, individuality and separation, that there were different colonies of aspen along the route, but really there was likely only one. That all the roots of these trees are connected from New Mexico to Canada could very well be the case. 

It is likely no different than our roots being connected to the Native Americans who also came from East Asia and Eurasia thousands of years before Christopher Columbus or the Pilgrims. Our ancestors traveled different routes at different ages and times of our individual migration histories but, like the aspen lineage, there is genetic evidence that all homo sapiens are connected to a common mother on the family tree.

It’s funny how the same bicycle ride can lead to different conclusions about life. I was left to ponder the lonely aspen in the town square and Kei was interested in our new Ebikes (power-assisted RAD bikes) and how the motors could be made more efficient and user-friendly. 

There is room for individuality and different contributions and gifts, even in community.

Susan Pang