The Medicine Wheel in Wyoming is not much to see, if one is expecting spectacle, a monument, a marvel of human ingenuity. You must prepare yourself to understand it for what it is, an ancient site of spirituality, a sacred place, one that is still actively used by Native Americans. It is maintained by the U.S. Park Service, and a ranger greets you before you start the mile-and-a-half trek up to the monument (uphill both ways, I heard someone joke), to advise you that the walk is not easy, that you should not hurry, you should hydrate and rest when you have to, and most of all, that this is still a site of religious observance—accord it the same quiet respect as you would any place of worship you visit. Photos are permitted, but not of worshipers.
High in the mountains and deep inside the Big Horn National Forest, the drive to the site is long, though beautiful enough to make it worth the time. There are clear coursing streams, vistas into forest passes and wooded hillsides that quite literally take your breath away—if you have any breath left at this altitude (about 9,500 feet). The day I visited was cloudy, but after a half hour’s drive you are high enough in the mountains to stand above the clouds, an irresistible photo op.
There were no worshipers when I was there, but it was nice that the half dozen visitors that morning maintained a respectful quiet. The Wheel consists of a circular rim of loaf-sized stones, divided by 28 spokes, which are usually seen as the days in a lunar month. There are seven stone cairns within, and these were the focus of prayer activity. They were adorned with many small objects, such as beads, feathers, colored strips of cloth, and animal skulls and teeth, some deeply weathered, but some clearly of recent placement.
Questions swirl in the mind about why this spot, why this particular mountain peak among hundreds in the vicinity. The monument was old before Columbus set foot in the New World, and nobody knows who built it. It is much used by the local Blackfeet Indians, but they will readily insist that their ancestors did not build the Wheel.
Two days before visiting Medicine Wheel, I was at Mount Rushmore, which embodied all the spectacle not present in the older site. It is a little surprising, seeing it for the first time. The sculpted heads are much higher than they appear in most photos, and hard to take good pictures of without professional equipment. Also maintained by the National Park Service, there were hundreds of visitors present both times I went in. I assume they were mostly Americans, but I heard many accents and languages spoken, many mothers calling after scrambling children in words I did not know. While one need not prepare oneself, as with Medicine Wheel, to understand Mt. Rushmore as a sacred place, I think it is best understood that way.
Each evening, people gather in an amphitheater facing the monument. A video plays on a large screen which describes the building of the monument, and details why each president who is represented has his place there. From George Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War and his creation of the presidency as we know it, to Thomas Jefferson’s stirring formulation that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; from Abraham Lincoln’s stewardship of the Union through the Civil War, and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature,’ to Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the American Century, and his creation of a National Park System, we have been often blessed by those we chose as leaders.
And yet I was a little heartsick as I watched the program. A little while before, in the park’s gift shop, I saw a young man wearing a Make America Great Again hat. It was the first time I had actually seen anyone wearing one. He didn’t look very intelligent, but perhaps that’s just my view of anyone who would wear such a thing. Maybe he is a brilliant student, studying for his PhD. I doubt it, but it’s possible. As I sat in the bleachers listening to the stories—perhaps more mythical than historical—of our greatest presidents, I found myself hoping that this young man was taking it in, that he was hearing how great presidents talk, what great presidents do, and how, regardless of political differences, they strive to unite us as a nation, rather than create further division and enmity. Mt. Rushmore is also a sacred place, dedicated to those American ideals which have made us a great nation, and the presidents who have embodied those ideals: not only will some presidents never earn a place among them, there are those whose names ought not to be uttered in their presence.