Mountain Medicine Power: To Walk in this World, Yet Not Be of It

Creative Nonfiction published in the Savannah Literary Review, 1996.


Although as a child, I talked to cats — in cat language — I had never looked for an animal guide. Too many New Agers had publicly flaunted them, always claiming the eagle or bear, but never the ant or beetle. I had read about power animals, spirit guides, Carlos Castenada’s naguals, played with Jamie Sams’ Medicine Animal cards, and pooh-poohed it all.

When I married a Sioux spiritual leader, I became a Black Crow, even though I did not identify with that bird. In 1976 there were no kit fox warriors, no buffalo dancers, no bear doctors left on the reservation.

Only medicine men might use spirit animal guides, but no one talked about it. Those who went fasting for power often came back empty. And there were no medicine women.

Because we lived in an earth-buried cabin, I was jokingly called Pizpiza Win, or Prairie Dog Woman, but I did not claim it, even though the underground ones, like Crazy Horse’s gopher, are very powerful because they know the herbs and roots.

We raised buffalo, and lived inside the buffalo pasture, so I spent hours studying the herd for lessons on how to live peaceably. Although I identified with the buffalo so much they became my children, I never thought of bison as a personal spirit power.

Not until fifteen years later, alone, climbing Little’s Peak in Targhee Teton Wilderness, the hidden Idaho side of the park, did I experience a change of mind.

I love hiking high alpine meadows lush in August with purple monkshood and lupine, red paintbrush, and the dense low mat of mosses and berries. I love high granite peaks, stars, and silence.

My destination is Little’s Peak, 10,700 feet high. Directly across the valley, rising into the clouds, are the Tetons, seemingly close enough to reach out and touch: the jagged, massive triangular Grand Teton, then the lesser Tetons in a line fading to the south.

On my map Little’s Peak is an easy climb, rising steep and steady without cliff faces, ledges or chimneys. It’s not a mountain so much as a giant scree pile of rocks and boulders, granite chunks cracked and dumped as the glaciers receded.

As I climb I discover the steep rock pile is only one side of Little’s Peak. The east side is gone — gouged out, sliced off by the same glaciers that deposited this scree.

I crouch at the edge. It drops straight down 2000 feet or so, straight down into glacial ice fields and jeweled lakes, glowing milky blue-green. From the Grand Teton, this rock pile must look like Yosemite’s Half Dome.

There is no trail, only scree-hopping to the top. The easiest route follows the ridge or backbone four feet from the drop-off: loose shifting rubble four feet from disaster.

Spectacular, but it makes me cautious. I flounder, slipping and scraping myself on the scree. Rocks I’ve loosened ricochet and clatter down the mountain.

The weather isn’t so great. In August the Tetons are usually clear in the morning, clouding up for rain in the afternoon. Today, though, it’s cloudy, windy and cold by ten. I continue anyway, putting on my rain gear from my pack . First sprinkles, then rain, then hail showers.

No place to hide from the pellets pounding the granite boulders, none big enough for shelter, each big enough to be difficult to climb up and over. I’m exposed, not a good place to be in a summer thunderstorm.

I sit and wait, motionless, wondering how far I’ve come. The rock piles on the topo map become five humps up the mountainside, and by my reckoning I am on hump two. Soon the storm passes.

Instantly the sky clears to brilliant blue, the sun melts clusters of hail, steam rises from the damp granite. I look for tufts of grass and moss to step on, the solidest earth around. These small flat stones shift and turn so easily underfoot.

Halfway up the third and steepest hump, I stop to catch my breath. I’ve been climbing along the spine about ten feet from the drop-off, where there’s less scree, more moss and grass tufts.

But I cannot force myself to hike any closer to the edge. I lean against a large square boulder, wishing there were a trail rather than this helter-skelter scrambling up the scree slope.

I look upwards to check the route. Outlined against the washed blue sky are the forelegs, shoulders, head and curved horns of a mountain sheep not thirty feet above me.

Like a National Geographic nature video, a shot from below showing a mountain sheep braced on the edge of a precipice, outlined in majesty. A still shot.

I freeze, half-twisting on the granite boulder. The sheep is looking right at me, checking me out, sizing me up. It’s frozen too, moving only the eyes. I send out greeting vibes, amazed. Where’d it come from? Can it live at the top of this barren rock pile, with nowhere to hide?

The animal is six inches from the drop-off, and I am blocking its descent. I hold my breath and slither sideways amid the boulders, farther away. Pauses. Inhales, exhales. I’m breathing, don’t go away!

But slowly it starts down the rock pile above me, picking its way delicately and silently amid the rubble. It stops about twenty feet from me, slightly above and to the right, still at the very edge of the drop-off.

I keep sending grateful vibes, thinking, is this real? The ankles are so slender, tan-gray body so chunky above them. Nose wide and flattened, more like a llama’s than a deer’s. Ears erect, sticking out from the head, circled three-quarters of the way around by slender curving horns outlined by blue sky.

Is this a real animal? I’m not sure it’s a sheep, not like any sheep I’ve ever seen, the domestic woolly kind we used to raise when I was a kid.

Yet it can’t be a mountain goat, because the horns curve around the ears until they face forward. Yet the horns are so thin, not massive at all, like the pictures I’ve seen of ram’s heads. I assume it’s a male, from the horns.

This frozen moment in time, a gift, ends as he continues slow-motion down the trail I had missed, his black hoofs grafted to the rock. He does not slip or slide on loose scree. No rocks roll down the mountain.

I realize this inhospitable ground is his territory. He’s perfectly at ease here, the scrawny struggling tufts of grass are enough. How he must love being on the top of the world looking all around and down.

Slowly he edges by, occasionally glancing sideways at me, completely silent and poised. The hair is short and dense like a deer’s, but the color more buff. The butt is like an antelope’s, white and flat with a slim black tail bisecting the rump. So chunky yet tail so delicate. The breeze brings a whiff of damp musk.

About thirty feet below me he stops and bends down, chews, and moves on. I watch until he shrinks to marmot-size as he continues past humps of rock and rubble below, matching the tan-gray shadings of his granite surroundings. So peaceful.

Our silence ends with a distinct yet distant rasp of metal on granite. I glance toward the bottom of the mountain. Are other hikers coming? When I look back, I’ve lost him. I look and look, but he’s faded into the granite hillside hundreds of yards below. Yet I know he’s still there, motionless, merged perfectly with his mountain.

Renewed and strengthened, I climb upwards following his path. It’s a trail! I brave the sheer edge without looking down, still clinging to boulders and slithering over scree until I reach the top.

At he summit I’m surrounded by dozens of white butterflies fluttering about the gray-white rocks. At the topmost cairn I sign the logbook in the bottle and sit to enjoy the 10,700-foot view.

Yet I keep seeing those curved horns, ears and head framed against the sky. What would it be like to come from the mountaintop, clear of vision and peaceful of heart?

To walk delicately, step by step, undaunted by rubble, unfazed by scree?

To nourish myself whenever I come upon a tuft of grass, in however unlikely a spot, and continue peacefully on life’s way?

Going back down is quick and easy. I walk upright, my hands outstretched for balance. I walk delicately, silently, steadily, sure amidst rock and rubble. On the trail, which had been there all the time, at the edge. I’ve gained a sense of balance in this shifting terrain.

Later that evening, around a campfire, I share this experience with Park rangers. They tell me that no mountain sheep has been sighted in this wilderness since 198l, and then only by the resident wilderness Park ranger, with binoculars, at three hundred yards. Some are envious; some around the campfire don’t believe me.

One says, “It’s amazing that he came so close!”

“Well, he had to get by on the trail,” I reply.

They all laugh. “He could have bounded away easily, any direction, if he’d wanted to. Or vanished before you even looked up.”

The rangers tell me small curved horns indicate either a young male or a solitary female. I decide she is female.

Yes, she certainly hadn’t needed to come closer, nor inched by me against the drop-off. I begin to realize that, according to native tradition, she is also a spirit animal.

I’ve seen her up close from all directions: head on, from below, from the side, from the rear, from above. And we’ve stared at each other, locked glances.

From her this day I’ve acquired a delicate balance, a poise of Spirit, to walk through the rubble of our civilization. Now I wonder, are there any mountain sheep songs in native tradition? Any mountain spirit songs? I’ve heard only silence on my mountain; that itself is a song.

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