Big Wheel Keep on Turnin’, or Climbing to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Dad and I have the tradition that if I’m in Montana during the summer, we take a day trip down to see the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. It’s an hour from Bridger to Lovell going south on US 310, then another hour to get to the parking lot on Medicine Mountain itself. As the wheel can only be accessed during the summer–the elevation and the amount of snow make it an impossibility during the other 8-9 months of the year–we can make a good day trip of the outing.

 

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Medicine Mountain Sign

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is maintained by the National Park Service and is a National Historic Landmark. The National Park Service has rangers on hand at the parking lot and the wheel to ensure that the wheel remains as it is.

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Walking up to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Once out of Crusty, my trusty Subaru, we walked a couple of miles up up to the wheel itself. Some may wish to drive closer and avoid the walk, but I find that I quite like the it. It provides me with time for reflection, to think about all of the people that had made this same trek. For some it was spiritual, for others a way to connect with the past. I think that for many, it was likely a bit of both.

Once there, Dad and I admired our foresight at bringing a jacket, even in July. The sun was warm, but the wind is a bit nippy at almost 9,500 feet. The sky itself was a brilliant blue with puffy clouds scattered across the expanse. We could see for miles in any direction, including parts of the Bighorn forest and across parts of the Bighorn Basin.

After our third lap around the medicine wheel, we were stopped by a park ranger. “Pardon me, sir, but are you a Native American? I couldn’t help but notice that you walked around the medicine wheel three times,” she said.

Dad and I chuckled. “No, we are not,” he said. “I was just trying to get all of my steps in for the day.” She laughed with us, and then told us how she lived in Florida but had come up to work in Wyoming for the summer.

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel always reminds me of my time in Mongolia. After I finished my first stint at university, I joined the Peace Corps (because what else does one do with a degree in English literature except join the Peace Corps). I was posted in Outer Mongolia, where I lived in Sukhbaatar City, the first train stop in Mongolia south of the Russian border. I taught English to sixth- and eighth-form students, and they taught me vastly more useful skills like how to survive winter and the importance of good socks.

One spring weekend, my students took me on a day hike to see the Mother Tree. We left early on Saturday morning with backpacks filled with water and snacks, reaching our destination in time for lunch. The Mother Tree itself looked much like any of the other trees except that it was covered in blue scarves that had been tied to its branches. Some students had thoughtfully brought along some milk to pour onto the tree while others tied blue scarves of their own to the tree itself. After lunch, we rested a bit, then made our way back to town. I have many good memories of my time in Mongolia, but that remains a favorite.

Looking at the medicine wheel, I could not help but think of the Mother Tree. The Mother Tree had been wreathed with blue scarves where the Medicine Wheel sported scarves and small bags of many colors. Both where in remote, wild places, both domed by the bluest of skies. There are likely to be only a few people that have seen both, and I’m lucky to count myself as one.

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Scarves Left as Offering at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Steps completed for the day, dad and I loaded back into Crusty to drive home to feed the dogs. If you ever want new meaning to the terms dry, desolate, parched, the drive back down Medicine Mountain into the Bighorn Basin could round out the definition for the Oxford English Dictionary. The land is such that I could almost see the ridged and plated spines dinosaurs as they tried to stand up, freeing themselves from the rock in order to go and find water.

We made it home that evening, much to the delight of my parents’ multitude of dogs. They didn’t care so much about our day, but they were glad that we had returned home to feed them. Dogs have a way of seeing the important things in life.

Addendum

This is the Hyart movie theater in Lovell, Wyoming. I just love the turquoise color, the so-retro-it’s-cool factor going on here. Big cities have nothing compared to this little gem!

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Hyart Movie Theater in Lovell, Wyoming

References

 

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