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Snow was falling leaving Sylvan Lake and the Crazy Horse monument which is easily seen on a clear day was barely visible. The roads of the Black Hills National Forest were unplowed and growing thicker by the minute. I didn’t have a good feeling about this next leg of the trek and tenseness set in.

A friend called to check in on the status of the hike and my safety. The conversation turned to Thanksgiving and I thought of the friends and family I’d miss on a favorite day of the year. Enjoying good food with friends and family provides connection and community not always occurring throughout the year. Instantly I felt overwhelmed thinking of all the people who have been a part of my life. I’m truly gifted to have some of the best friends in the world. I knew I would not only miss them on Thanksgiving but for an unknown period of time. Thoughts that I could or should have waited heading west until after Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Years or even the spring were swirling in my mind. Was this the best thing to do at this point in my life? With a bucket of doubts raining down turning back crossed my mind. A bad idea. I left when I did to minimize the winter weather I would encounter and waiting until the spring wasn’t an option. The time was now to move forward. I procrastinated to head west long enough. I regained composure and continued on the snow and ice covered roads.

Snow, Ice, Wind & 6% Downhill Grade“The Little Truck that Could” pulled hard up the mountains then engine braking down the steep 6% grades. No fun on snow and ice. We, the truck and I, were traveling at less than half the speed limit locked into 4WD. The line the truck took was fairly stable and we stayed on the road away from magnetic guardrails wanting to pull us in. I left finger impressions deeper than what was already on the steering wheel. True white knuckled driving. An hour later entering Deadwood I was craving a cheeseburger. (McDonald’s wasn’t an option.) As much I wanted a one more daylight miles were needed and there was a break in the weather. Finally on I-90 a better speed was obtainable making good miles. So I thought. More snow came then wind. Snow covered roads became ice. My hyper focus on the road was more than when I played the video game Asteroids in high school. I held on with a death grip and had to pry my fingers from the steering wheel to change hand positions. This was crazy, insane even. There were places where if I was blown off the highway there was no getting back to the road. Maybe I could get help from my brother Dave’s Navy helicopter team. My life’s belongings would sit at the bottom of one of these slopes forever. More thoughts of turning back consumed me. The weather wasn’t going to suddenly get better leaving South Dakota and crossing Wyoming. With these wild thoughts building an eagle suddenly flew across my path, wings spread wide, dangling legs and long talons. I couldn’t translate the sign this majestic bird was providing, but I was being guided by another raptor.

Iced Aero TrailerThe weather worsened and I knew the department of transportation would be closing the highway. I just needed to make the next exit in Gillette, Wyoming. Mentally wiped out and hungry I found a busy Mexican restaurant playing an extreme level of La Cucaracha three times normal speed. I would have won a taco eating contest that night and couldn’t leave fast enough even though the tequila menu looked tempting. I finished a much needed beer and found my place of rest. The snow sprayed from the rear tires to the trailer made an aerodynamic design I’m submitting to U-Haul for a patent. The following morning a weather advisory had me sequestered in the hotel where I tried to figure out what exactly was in pre-made waffle batter which made better sponges than a breakfast treat. I was surely not in Belgium!

Iced Over The Toyota is Ready to Press OnBack on the road at 10:00 AM snow was disappearing and I could relax into normal driving. My willpower broke down and treated myself to a double filet-o-fish and a small fry for lunch. I deserved it. The Toyota received a treat of high octane. I left Wyoming with a few mental scars from the previous day. Crossing into Montana the terrain began to change. Outlines of mountains near Bozeman were fading as darkness took over the sky. Cresting a mountain exposed the city lights of Butte which reminded me of pacing in the Wasatch 100. I welcomed seeing the city knowing my head would soon hit a pillow.

Clearing in MontanaMisting clouds broke early the next morning creating rainbows in the mountains. The “Little Truck That Could” pressed on and pulled the heavy load through the mountains of Montana and into virgin territory of Idaho. A state I’ve never been to before. I had to give the truck a name. Being strong, stocky and rugged, Tatonka would be fitting. Meaning buffalo in Lakota. We were gifted with warmer than normal weather and clear skies reducing the fear of sliding off the motorway. Idaho came and went with a long final decent into Washington through Spokane then into the high desert region of the state. Refueling in springlike temperatures felt good and odd. Was this the same month I was in a few states ago? No green was to be seen and as dusk set in I crossed the Columbia River into Oregon and decided to make the final push to Portland. Maybe I would be in time for Thanksgiving leftovers.

Just outside of Portland, fatigued almost to the point being delirious, mixed thoughts and emotions arose while I wondered about this new beginning and if this was the right thing to do. I was here and it was time to move forward. Arriving in Portland my Tatonka - High Desert Rest Areacousin’s family and aunt welcomed me to a warm hello and much needed plate of Thanksgiving dinner.

I was with family for Thanksgiving, thankful for making the 3,500 miles safely and ready to begin a lot of new.

A grateful thank you to Christine, Jill and Bob who were virtual passengers throughout the trek.

Thank you! Peace – Greg

“You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with the best you have to give.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

“There is unknowing until you’re in the throes of your decision.”               – G. Chokas Cross Country Trek With Numbered Stops A special thanks to all of my family and friends who have been with me through this journey west: Mom, Dad, Jamie, Lyn, Danielle, Gram Roy, Jane, Dennis, Christine, Jill, Bob & Catherine, Sue, Phil, Jenn, Keith, Alan & Kim, Stacey, Mike, Rich, Carl & Maggie, Lynne, Vicki, Peter, Reuben and family, Pam, Elisa, Suwan, Kathee, Pat, Bob, Rick, Brooke, Rick 3, Eric, Donna, and to those I haven’t been in touch with for years who have sent messages. If you’re not listed you’re not forgotten!

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The silent morning broke to conversing crows. Waking to their caw is welcome over any man made noise. The day was to be one of reprieve from windy highways to hike in the Black Hills re-energizing my legs and my being. The destination was Harney Peak(7,242 feet). The highest peak in South Dakota. A sacred area where the famous Oglala Lakota Medicine and Holy Man, Black Elk, received a great vision.

Crazy Horse Memorial MonumentIn route to the trailhead I could see the distant Crazy Horse Monument standing 563 ft. tall staring into the eastern rising sun. I knew I’d return later. Missing the trail parking area I was soon at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. A monument I had little interest seeing. The presidential faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln chiseled into sacred land of the Lakota’s after the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie is considered a disrespectful undertaking. The Black Hills were “given” to the Indians who originally resided in the area. When gold was found by trespassing settlers the land was retaken resulting in the Great Sioux War of 1876.

Mt. RushmoreNot wanting to stay long I was allowed to enter the memorial for trail information and a few photographs. Although an impressive sculpture, history and common sense told me this was in the wrong place. I left for the trailhead and noticing the parking area was no place for the truck and trailer Crazy Horse Monument became the next stop.

Construction on the monument began in 1948 by Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. Chief Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota people asked Korczak because he and other chiefs wanted the white man to know that Native Americans also have great heroes. There is some controversy by certain Native American Groups of defacing a mountain but the work continues supported by most. In addition to the monument there are currently seven buildings including the well planned Indian Museum of North America. I watched an introductory video of the construction, perused the buildings and took a guided tour for a closer look at the monument. Impressive is an Crazy Horse Memorial Monumentunderstatement. The exhibits are meticulous and seeing people from native tribes working in the museum providing historic information was good. I highly recommend visiting the monument which is supported only by private funding.

The day worked out well since making the hike on the difficult northern route would have added to the previous day’s exhaustion. The following morning I broke camp at 4:30AM and left the site at 5:30. An 8-point buck bid farewell strolling in front of the truck to see his bedded mate a few yards away. Off I went through the hills to find the southern route.

Black Hills National ForestI’m not sure if the morning caffeine didn’t kick in but I couldn’t find the trail head. The icy road became steep and I engaged the truck into 4WD crawling upwards with areas of no guardrails only to find no trailhead. I drove down the unprotected side of the road to a dirt road encountering a locked gate. Reversing the trailer wasn’t an easy task. It took numerous attempts to back out onto a thankfully rarely used road this time of year. To give the destination another try I went back to where I was sure the trailhead was then down again. With no luck I stopped in the town of Custer with disappointment. Looking at the map a final time and not easily deterred I drove the seven miles up the dangerous road again to finally find the trailhead at Sylvan Lake.

Packed for Camp and the RoadConditions were full on winter with hard packed snow. Fresh covering snow provided enough to see deer and coyote tracks who are smart enough to use a man made trail when humans are nowhere to be found. The backpack had more than needed in case of an emergency in those conditions. With the heavy load and being behind schedule I had to make good time to Harney Peak 3.5 miles out. The trail was moderate taking a few hours to reach the sacred area Black Elk would have his vision quests. The fire tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) in the 1938, an organization my grandfather Chokas was part of in Connecticut. Winds were gusting up to 60 MPH and I ate as much and quickly as possible in the tower to refuel for the Harney Peak Lookout Towerreturn. After a few minutes of personal thoughts and prayer I kept a brisk pace to stay warm and cut time knowing long roads were ahead of me. Fresh coyote and deer tracks were in my inbound tracks. I wasn’t alone and it felt good to have unseen company watching me in the forest.

Hungry FriendsReturning to the truck at 1:30PM a change of clothes was made and I was ready to drive down the unprotected side of the steep, winding, icy hill for the last time. Similar to leaving the campsite I was shown out by deer.

I slowly regained strength and awareness for the trek back to I-90W. The stress of not finding the trailhead, driving the icy roads and maintaining a fast pace on the trail was draining. With snow falling and more mountains for the truck to climb and descend it would make for a long day and stressful driving…

Up next…White knuckled driving and thoughts of turning back.

Peace – Greg

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mohandas Gandhi

Stacked and PackedPutting plan in action I picked up the U-Haul trailer to load my possessions. I thought I was over zealous getting the largest trailer my truck could pull but after trimming down everything fit with little room to spare. Eight AM on November 19 a short good bye was said to my incredible Aunt Jane. The Toyota, trailer and I were westward bound. Wheels in motion to start a new chapter or maybe this is a new book. My mind was racing, “Whoa! Am I really doing this?!”. Thoughts and emotions were churning as I kept driving.

Interstates 84 and 80 provided the western route to the first overnight stop in Pennsylvania 500 miles away. Soon after entering the interstate two red tail hawks, spirit guides, lead the early stage of the journey. I was fortunate to see this raptor along with others many times while crossing the country signaling I was being watched. With the heavy load the ride was uneventful only stopping for gas and slowing for deer grazing casually on the side of the busy interstate.

Uncle Den's Train SetTen hours later I was in Greenville, Pennsylvania. A town once known for manufacturing automobiles and railroad cars. With industry long gone the town has become financially distressed. Uncle Dennis put me up for the next few nights to visit and see the model train set he builds piece by piece by piece. The trains, tracks, and towns are as you would imagine to see 60 years ago. The complexity of the different number of trains and crossings almost require a locomotive license to be at the helm of this train set. The following day I met a special cousin, Vicki, catching up on the many changes in our lives and was reminded as always she’s my elder by 22 days. The time was good to see family during the early stage of this journey.

Leaving Rockford, ILThe next morning the trek resumed. Light snow was in the air and I prayed it didn’t fall any heavier. Travel continued on Interstate 80 until sweeping around Chicago connecting to I-90 making for another 500 mile day stopping in Rockford, IL. After the motel check in I hauled in the next days necessities and a sleeping bag which I find more comfortable (and safer) than bedding in quick stop motels where the “Free” breakfast is marginal along with rubberized hard boiled eggs. A nearby Starbucks saved me with a venti dose of caffeine to begin the day ending in Mitchell, South Dakota, 600 miles later. Not much to see in this truck Ready for the Huntstop town with gas stations and motels. Same routine, check in, necessities and sleeping bag. Early next morning pheasant hunters and their canine companions from Alabama were preparing for the fields. The dogs were more excited than the hunters after a 12 hour drive and six hours of sleep.

The Plains of South Dakota delivered severe headwinds trying to push the Toyota and me back to Connecticut. The drive was unnerving since the Toyota is the shape of a refrigerator towing a giant block. Not aerodynamic to say the least. Completing only 300 miles both the Toyota and I were done for the day which worked well being near my only other planned stop, the sacred Black Hills. A tourist center was just Home in Custer State Parkoff the highway and when asking about camping I was looked at rather strangely since few camp in the winter months. I was reminded it was the off season and cold. Fortunately, one campground was open and my response to the cold was cold is relative. I surveyed local shops for food and supplies pulling this large white and orange container. Driving through parking lots was no easy task since it was the weekend before Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping madness had begun. I found needed items, refueled myself with yet another Starbucks and the truck with a treat of high octane gasoline.

Ramen and ChickenCuster State Park was outside of town and my residence for two nights of solitude being the only camper on the premises. In short time the tent was erected, sleeping gear thrown in and water boiling. If you’ve followed the U.S. Tour posts you know ramen noodles are a personal staple. They were again, only this time I had (store) roasted chicken to add instead of tuna. Nice!

Brutal head winds, navigating through Rapid City, locating and setting camp made for an exhausting day. I was looking forward to sliding into a -30 degree sleeping bag even though temps were in the low 20’s, which, by the way, is barely cold to winter campers.

Up next… Mt. Rushmore by accident, The Crazy Horse Memorial, a hike to a sacred area that almost didn’t happen.

Peace – Greg

“When you remove the risk, you remove the challenge, when you remove the challenge, you wither on the vine.”  –  Alex Lowe

Thanks for returning to the Peaceful Pathfinder blog. (Pardon my sabbatical.)

This post is dedicated to my sister Danielle who who provides encouragement while seeing a second brother pursue new opportunities in other regions of the country. Keep smiling Danielle!

Each birthday I plan something special. This year I decided to celebrate the milestone of turning 50 in Portland, Oregon. This was my fourth trip to a very diverse geographic region of the country wanting the Pacific Northwest experience one more time exploring more of Oregon and visiting friends in Seattle. After returning, a few busy months passed and I encountered crossroads of staying in southern New England or make a major life change and journey to the Pacific Northwest. Not wanting regrets the decision was made to go west. A decision I’ve made more difficult than needed with an overactive mind and personal situations. Challenges from layoffs, effects of an ended relationship, and physical issues took their toll. I can’t explain it all exactly. Being stuck, hitting a wall or the dreaded mid-life crisis was in my path. Years ago I told myself a mid-life crisis would never happen. No way! Well it happened and I’m moving on doing my best to leave behind what’s no longer serving me. Time for a lot of new including uncertainty and adventure.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Well, I survived the storm and there’s been an upside of personal growth through travel, a new connection with nature, reading the right books and being with the right people. Currently there’s a relief since the past year provided healing and recovery from health, heart, and ego which bites me now and again (Must be the stubborn Taurus in me.).

Society says at this point in life I should be married, have two point something kids, own a home, have a lot of stuff and work so much I hardly see family. I’ve wanted all of it, even the amount of work if that’s what it took to support a household. These events haven’t happened for reasons I don’t know why. I am where I am and what the future holds is unclear. I can only be the change I want to see and major changes are in process. I’ve sold or donated bigger items of furniture, downsized and minimized personal belongings and will be bringing my life to Portland to see where I’m directed. The drive will be a 3,000+ mile journey where I plan to make road reprieves visiting family in western Pennsylvania and spending a few nights in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. Traveling this time of year may present weather obstacles effecting roads and towing a trailer the size of my truck will add to the driving challenge.

The decision leaves behind family and an incredible circle of friends who fulfilled my life with camaraderie, outdoor recreation and support. Being a person of connection, the distance away won’t be easy especially through the holidays. Many friends are as close as sisters and brothers and are part of my tribe. Along with people, I’ll miss the four seasons but there will be glacier covered mountains to climb, rides along the coastal highway and fly fishing in beautiful streams and rivers. Do I have fears and doubts? I sure do and it’s a matter of working with and through them. Faith and trust are by my side.

When starting this blog a goal has been to share interesting trips of India, a 10,000 Mile U.S. Tour and other journeys. Travel was more than sightseeing it was also to provide opportunities to investigate new places to live and experience culture outside of areas I’ve resided most of my life. The Pacific Northwest has been on my mind for many years and I won’t know the experience without making the leap, no matter my age, time of year, or any reason. With personal interests in hiking, camping, climbing, tracking, fishing, hunting I look forward to the experiences.

Thanks for joining this journey. I hope the related posts are intriguing and provide insight to similar circumstances you may be encountering. Feel free to drop a personal note or question as I believe in paying it forward from advice and experience.

Up next… Packing up and beginning the cross country trek.

Peace – Greg

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt

 

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