For a writer, it’s odd not having a lot of time to write. And, of course, if one is busy experiencing things to write about, that takes priority!
I think if I were asked to choose two highlights of my two-month journey thus far, one of them would be visiting Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming.
Getting there was, itself, a pilgrimage. It entailed climbing up very steep inclines (in my car) with sometimes precipitous drop-offs on the right, and also absolutely spectacular views which I couldn’t fully absorb because I was too busy trying to stay on the switchbacking road. I had a friend with me for this part of my trip. She was afraid of heights and was petrified at times.
Getting there, however, was absolutely worth moving through the fear of the more-than-one hour car ride up through the mountains.
My friend and I parked in a parking lot at about 9000′ in elevation and, after going to the bathroom, reading the signs, and talking briefly with the two rangers at this remote outpost (one of whom was from NJ), we began the 1.5 mile hike up to the medicine wheel. My heart immediately began to open wide as I noticed all the native alpine wildflowers growing alongside the path and the multitude of butterflies and bees which were feeding upon them. We saw beautiful butterflies we’d never seen before. It was such a relief for me to know that there were at least a few areas in the country where there was ample food and habitat for the hardworking pollinators.
Butterflies enjoying the native flowers. One of the great blessings of creating national parks, monuments, and historical sites is that the nature around these sites is preserved as well.
My friend and I walked on the ascending path toward the medicine wheel, gradually separating as I began to crave more silence in preparation for what was ahead. I knew this was a very sacred site.
Experts don’t agree on how old the site is, however, evidence suggests that Native Americans have been visiting the site for almost 7000 years!!! Clearly this is a prehistoric site. And, I only recently learned that there are hundreds of medicine wheels in North America. Once again, this begs the question: Why the heck didn’t we learn about these in our history classes??? (To read an excellent document by Deborah Scherrer for more information, including a map of North America on the first page showing some of the many locations of these ancient wheels, click HERE.)
I finally arrive at a plateau near the top of the mountain and catch a glimpse of a chain surrounding the wheel with prayer flags and other offerings hanging from it. Walking toward the entrance of the circle, I read a sign that only those with a special permit can enter the circle. I am happy to read this. This will help maintain the sanctity of the circle as well as preserve the lines of the spokes of the wheel from being disturbed.
I begin to circumambulate the circle, scattering tobacco along the perimeter as I go. I walk around four times. (Four is a sacred number to Native Americans.) The final time around, I, too, hang prayer ties.
Meanwhile, my friend, Diana, is doing her thing. Unfamiliar with medicine wheels, on the way there, I had shared with her what I knew. I suggested to her that it might be helpful to meditate in each of the four directions for answers to some of the questions in her life. Amazingly, it is not until she and I connect at the end of our time there that I realize this wheel does not appear to be oriented in the traditional four-directions way. How could I have missed this? It’s so obvious! It is at this point that I theorize that the cairns have solar, lunar, or astronomical alignments. This does indeed seem to be true. It definitely has alignments with the summer solstice sunrise and sunset (as do many of the earth mounds) as well as the rising of several significant bright stars.
Fig. 6 The astronomical alignments of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel discovered by Eddy.
On the possible discovery of precessional effects in ancient astronomy – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-astronomical-alignments-of-the-Big-Horn-Medicine-Wheel-discovered-by-Eddy_fig4_2171040 [accessed 25 Aug, 2022]
What I remember most about our visit to this site is when we connected after our individual meditations and reflections. Before we head back down to my van, I asked Diana if she would mind if we did a closing prayer together. She said that she would love that. So, I reached out and we clasped hands. I began with something like “We bring to this sacred site our gentle hearts…” and immediately I choked up.
Sometimes my emotions come to the surface so unexpectedly. Sometimes I don’t know how moved I am until I begin to speak. I felt the honor and privilege of being at a place so ancient, where people have journeyed for sacred reasons for countless generations, ascending the tall mountain range not in the comfort of an air-conditioned car, but by foot or horse.
We have so much to learn from these ancient people.