The Inspiring Tale and Resulting Fire of Hugh Glass

When I awoke and opened the door of my hotel room early Monday morning, I was greeted by a pleasant drizzle and a temperature of 65 degrees. Awesome. I noticed the nip in the air gave all the bikers at my motel a chance to sport full leathers for breakfast, which seeemed to more than offset their annoyance of having to deal with the rain and they were all happy and cocky about wearing their drag around town.

The route I'd planned for the day would take me right back through the heart of Sturgis, but I actually relished the opportunity to make the just-short-of-maddeningly-slow crawl down the main drag one more time, watching the press and throng of biker humanity go by, safe in my little automotive bubble. As I headed up the interstate toward Sturgis, though, I had to make a quick pit stop when I spotted this gigantic gleaming silver tube on the side of the road.

I chatted up the fellow that seemed to be the pointer of the group, while the others remained curiously silent. What they were doing was assembling a railway tunnel that will be incorporated into a cement overpass when a road is built through the area in the not too distant future. He told me the pieces of the tunnel came pre-formed and that the crew simply had to bolt the pieces together in the correct order. I tried to imagine what the project would have required in the age of rivets. I was personally mesmerized by it all and I feel certain those four construction workers were left with something to chew on the rest of the day, trying to figure out why some pink-haired woman wanted to take pictures of their damn tunnel.

On to Sturgis and into the press. I quickly found myself so completely surrounded by bikes that for a while I could easily imagine that I was on another planet - it was intriguing. Just before I rolled out of town, I saw the first two black faces (or any ethnic faces, for that matter) I'd seen the entire time and it made me wonder again to myself why events like this and Burning Man are such a white, white thing. Hmmm.

Eventually, I emerged on the other side of the Sturgis fray and guided the car northeast onto the open road toward the city of Lemmon. Light summer rain showers refreshed me from time to time as I rolled along the smooth blacktops of rural South Dakota, surrounded by vast expanses of tan, beige, gold, emerald and brown. My eyes drank in long, cool draughts of symmetry, color and texture and I was deeply satisfied. As I drove along, I found myself on yet another planet, different from my own familiar one or the one I had just visited in the Sturgis galaxy.

I passed through a tiny little town called Faith that's famous for being the site of a discovery by an amateur paleontologist of one of the oldest, largest and most complete T Rex skeletons ever recovered. In front of an exhibit pertaining to the find, I spied this wonderful metal sculpture. It was a beautifully done piece with a great sense of shape. It's stumbling across things just such as this that fuel my fervor for the road. Wahooooo!
A short while later, I was honing in on my intended target for the day, a place I had just happened to spot while perusing the map days earlier. As soon as I saw it was in my vicinity, I was firmly resolved to go. But, ahem, you'll have to bare with me a minute while I explain.
Hugh Glass, if you believe the various written accounts of his life, was most notable in history because of his extreme suffering. We know little else of his accomplishments, but what can generally be agreed on is that Hugh is a potent symbol of being a colossal victim. Or so I thought.

Hugh was on a fur and scouting run in 1843, camping several miles down below the marker you see at the left, at the fork of the two branches of the Grand River near Lemmon, South Dakota. His party was attacked by a grizzly bear, and Hugh was unfortunately slashed to ribbons. So much so that the group figured he was a goner, and left one/two individuals (accounts vary) behind to bury him after he died and then rejoin the party. The death watch babysitters seemed to decide pretty quickly that it wasn't worth waiting around, and so took all Hugh's stuff, his gun, his food, everything, and left him to die alone. Well, as you might guess, Hugh didn't die. As he faded in and out of consciousness over the next two months, with a broken leg and grievous bear attack wounds, he was forced to literally CRAWL back toward civilization in order to live. One thing that pretty much EVERY account agrees on is that during his ordeal, his raw wounded back became infested with maggots. Sorry, just had to say that. All the accounts agree. He had to evade groups of hostile indians and scavenge what food and water he could find along the river. He even had to do without lattes! Damn!

Okay, so as you can see, Hugh Glass is a tragi-heroic figure of huge porportions, and since one of the constructs I've been closely examining in my life for the last several years is victimhood, I was very strongly drawn to this monument erected to the poster boy for suffering. It was enough to make me drive out to the middle of absolute nowhere without a doubt in my mind. It was also enough, once I saw the beauty and isolation of the place to make me decide it was the perfect place to do my next fire project.

As soon as I had completed a quick evaluation of the site and realized how ideal it would be, I drove straight into Lemmon and got a hotel room and began a mad dash to carve a brick for the evening's fire so it would have time to dry out. There I was, leaning over the tub with the water running in a motel bathroom in rural South Dakota, madly filing a wet kiln brick into the shape of a drinking glass. How fun is that? You see, in thinking about it, I realized that Hugh Glass was in fact the exact OPPOSITE of a victim. If Hugh had been a true symbol of being a victim, he would have curled right up there on the banks of the Grand and checked out as soon as the bear was finished. What Hugh Glass did that was worthy of every bit of notariety he gained was to REFUSE to be a victim. He somehow managed to regain consciousness every day for over two months and decide he was not to going to be a victim again that day. He endured hardships beyond any imaginings I have, thankfully, and refused to give up. To honor this truly awe-inspiring feat, I carved my brick in the shape of a glass, with a line indicating the half filled line. I figure Hugh pretty much always saw the glass as half full to do what he did.

I returned to the Hugh Glass memorial just as the golden hour approached. The remoteness of the site insured that the likelihood of me seeing a single other human being the entire evening was extremely slim, so I set about setting up for my fire in a gloriously relaxed and happy fashion. A deliciously pleasant breeze played across the hilltop and the site was breaktakingly beautiful, enhanced by the golden light beginning to rim every stalk of the abundant grasses flowing down from the hilltop. As I prepared, I watched the sunset orange up the sky and once again on this charmed journey experienced moments of perfect golden happy satisfaction. I cried when the Dixie Chicks sang to me about taking the Long Way Around. I reverberated with gratitude to Mark for helping me create the space that I'm getting to play in. I'd imagine there was a beam of pure white light shooting up from that hilltop it was feeling so good up there. I turned off the stereo and waited patiently for the dark, listening to the wind and absolutely nothing else. I sat on the back side of Hugh's monument, overlooking the river and spent a few minutes thanking him for the fire he had inspired.

Finally, it was time. I first experimented with incorporating the canvas the dirt in front of the monument provided, but found that it didn't really burn very well, so I then concentrated on the monument itself and just enjoyed the interaction of the flame and the words the photons illuminated. Here are some of my favorite images from the fire. (PS: I'll try and keep the number of pictures here on my blog to a reasonable number. After I get home, I'll put them all up on my Gallery webpage if you're interested in seeing more. )


ChrisB said...

What an incredible story and an inspiring twist on the man known for suffering - the hero, not the victim.

Loved your fire tribute to Mr Glass and the half-full glass makes you realize how much you really have.

Love you.

Anne said...

Shiree: I KNOW of Mr. Glass!!! Having grown up with my father, the teller of tall tales, he once told us all about this man who was left for dead and dragged himself back toward civilization (yes, we did have fun on our vacations in the midwest where we stopped at every historical marker known to man in about 10 states). He even told us how the maggots saved his life bc (don't read on if you're squeamish) they ate the rotting/ infected flesh. We all thought it was just another bs JB story (along the lines of "I buried an axe in my knee right here on this very spot" when we were in Guernsey WY). Hmmmm, maybe I should watch Big Fish again.

I'm so enjoying following your journey and your art seems to get more amazing with each passing day.

Today's blog gave Steve a bit of PTSD from his AirForce days in Minot SD which he has often described as "hell on earth," but your pictures, etc. are wonderful!

Have fun, be safe