I set out with Emily, your favorite Solemn Oath taproom server and my wonderful girlfriend, on a two-thousand-mile journey to South Dakota and back with a hatchback full of camping gear and possibilities. It would be a voyage about finding ourselves--could we really stand thirty hours in the car with each other?--and about finding what's not ourselves. Going out into the wild forces you to consider what you really need--what's bullshit and what's real. So we traded the man-made millieus of Logan Square (home) and Naperville (the brewery) for the untamed peaks, spires, and buttes of the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, hoping to glean something about the nature of the universe and our place in it.
The universe has no impulse to self-preservation or impulses of any kind. Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities. We are so fond of being out among Nature, because it has no opinions about us - Friedrich Nietzsche
The Black Hills are a lush, natural beauty, a dramatic Eden teeming on granite formations that roil under rolling pine forests, then burst up into soaring peaks from the surrounding sea of grasslands. Quartz and pegmatite shimmer in the mountain soil like glitter. Ponderosa pine trees trap light in their boughs, making the hills appear dark and smoke-blue in the distance, except where they're dotted with stands of aspen, birch, and ash trees or where the granite flies too steeply to support any growth at all. The shorelines of mountain lakes are strewn with schools of minnows and tadpoles, while their deeper recesses are patrolled by trout. Mushrooms sprout from the forest floor and inside splintered tree trunks, creating new life out of the forest's recently fallen. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, a few varieties of deer make adventurous meals out of the forest fungus--some of these grazers themselves fall prey to the mountain lions that stalk the ridges and spurs.
Bison roam the grasslands surrounding the Hills in scores, magnificent and imposing, yet mere shadows of their peak population before the transcontinental railroad made shipping their meat and hides cheap and easy business, driving them to near extinction in less than a decade. Today's bison share their refuge with pronghorns, prairie dogs, elk, and the few humans reckless enough to enter this foreign world.
My work at Solemn Oath is split between the brewery and its propaganda machine. Half of my time I'm following procedure, focusing on safety, sanitation, concentrations, time, and temperature. The other half, I'm in my own head trying to connect with yours and generally make the space where our beer intersects with the world as weird and provocative as possible within the conventions of good taste tacitly agreed upon by the open-minded crowd we find ourselves in front of. In both domains of my work--brewing and telling our story--getting away is really fucking important; so far away from the trappings of life and work that I can forget about them for a period of time. Only then can I return clear-headed, objectively behold them, turn them around and view them from several angles, take them apart, discard plenty of the shit pieces I've been holding onto for too long, and put them back together in a more soul-filling and interesting way. This was no rest-and-relaxation kind of vacation.
If the Black Hills are a fortress of solitude, the Badlands are a desert of desolation. Its ethereal forms are so isolated from human culture and impact that it's clear who's in charge here, and it's not us. We are merely visitors stopping over, interlopers in a place we can absorb but never really be a part of. The bison rule the plains, bighorn sheep the ridges, turkey vultures the sky, and prairie dogs their underground metropolises. But nature itself is the callous master here, shaping over millennia the stage for all living beings. The summer sun bakes the land and parches its inhabitants, sending temperatures into triple-digits, unsympathetic for the lack of shade and water here. Drama rarely sits still, but the energy and intensity of this placid terrain is a paradox that incites a perceptual crisis in mind and soul. How can a place as barren as this support such diverse life? How can something perfectly motionless convey so much mystery and motion? As stunning spiritually as they are visually, the Badlands are a cathedral in the most serious sense of the word: they stir their inhabitants' souls before filling them with awe and reverence for the majesty of the universe. There's rhythm and sublime order in the peaks and slopes, the gouges and ravines, but all of that is contained within the chaos of how these formations are strewn about the grasslands. It's all there.
Of course I am an architect and that ride through the land of pure line and evanescent color affected me strangely. Here was the element, architecture, cut of the body of the ground itself beggaring human imagination, prostrating the simplicities of man before the great cosmic simplicity. Reverence, yes, awe. Deep satisfaction, harmonious, like great music, drifted over the senses until a new sacred realm was born of light, delicate color and ever changing but immaculate form wherein not even the senses could touch bottom, top, nor sides of its vast repose. - Frank Lloyd Wright
I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over all of our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere — a distant architecture, ethereal. An endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it. - Frank Lloyd Wright
The Badlands are a physical record of millions of years of deposition and erosion. A vast inland sea once filled the area, then dried out. Its unlucky inhabitants left their remains on the sea floor, which were then covered with silt from the Black Hills carried by an ancient river system. At some point early in the human era of the Americas, people started living among these cliffs. Early pioneers built ovens into the their walls, many of which have been found and studied, shining a long light on the way of life in this inhospitable place. The layers of gray, yellow, and red clay, and the vertical veins of green shale contain within them a staggeringly complete story of this region's geological, evolutionary, and human past. The hundreds of thousands of years trapped in those tiers are even more amazing when you consider what's not there--the formations in the Badlands are only as dramatic and otherworldly as they are because rain and wind have washed away a much greater portion of the landscape than what remains in its present-day above-ground glory. The gouges, ravines, and vast emptiness between spires is the evidence of the slow destruction by nature of the very land you stand on, what was once a sprawling, grass-covered claystone plateau. As that interminable process wears on, new fossils and human artifacts will emerge.
As the sun drops near the horizon, the light diffuses more gently and reveals the vibrant colors of the cliffs. What was buff and gray during the day turns copper, ochre, saffron, gold, apricot, and sunflower. As the colors warm, the peaks and spires seem to inch closer around you, wrapping you up in their soft glow. Then, all of a sudden, twilight turns to dusk and a strange world morphs into an alien one. The cerulean sky darkens to black like dye. Driving the lonely road through the cliffs, we realized everyone else around--granted, only a few dozen people--had the good judgment to be back in their tents by this time. A peek into the rearview mirror reveals an eery nothingness--it might as well be a slab of slate. With our brights on, the formations that displayed so much depth and drama in the light of sun look cardboard-flat in night, like you could pick them up between your fingers and move them from here to there. You know there are dramatic ravines alongside you--you just can't see them. The abundant wildlife of late afternoon is out of sight, but coyotes and rattlesnakes spring to life in their place, gliding between brush and grass--and across the road--in search of unsuspecting meals.
Here, for once, came complete release from materiality. Communion with what man often calls "God" is inevitable in this place. It is everywhere around him. A strange sense of inner experience will come to him, a crisis in his perception of what he has termed beauty. He will leave that place a more humble, seeking soul than when he went in. He will know baptism in its higher than sectarian sense. - Frank Lloyd Wright
Visiting South Dakota made the historian in me sad to think that the ancestors of modern America decimated, herded up, and impoverished the people probably best equipped to appreciate and sustain the deep spiritual energy of these places, people who felt a one-to-one connection between themselves, the Great Spirit, and the Earth. The unproductive land in Paha Sapa and Mako Sica were of no interest to settlers of European descent until whispers of gold drew them in. They changed the entire human ecology of the region, mortally disrupting the Lakota way of life and ultimately closing a four-centuries-long chapter of human history in which the native peoples of the Americas were annihilated, along with their diverse cultures and customs, by newcomers from Europe. Not far from the section of the Badlands I visited is the Wounded Knee memorial. The dark irony of that humble monument resting a few hundred miles from Mount Rushmore, a stories-high symbol of American vanity and arrogance, carved into the hills themselves, made me sick while I was there and again as I write this. Unfortunately, no story of man and nature in the Americas is complete without such a reckoning. Of course, I'm aware of the privilege and opportunity I was born into as a descendant of European immigrants--albeit much later--to the United States. That heavy understanding comes with a moral imperative to do something good in the world. For me, right now, that something is trying to satisfy your tastebuds and weave threads in your mind. I know that's not enough. I know there's a grander task out there for me. I don't know what that is yet, bu I have an eerie sense it will take me back here.
What did this trip do for my life? My relationship? My work? I think you'll have to keep drinking and reading with Solemn Oath to really find out. I won't ever tell you directly, because that's personal and you need to go on your own damn vision quests, but if you can't taste and interpret the effects from our beer and my words the same way I've drawn inspiration and mystery from these places, you're missing it; it's all there.