Somewhere Near the Medicine Wheel by Ken Hartke


Somewhere Near the Medicine Wheel
by Ken Hartke

It was somewhere near the Medicine Wheel
that we knew our lives had changed.
A commitment had formed, a bond unspoken,
that remained that way for months to come.
Unsaid but forged strong for a lifetime. Silent.
We were afraid to spoil it in those days of wonder.
Now, those are hazy days in my memory,
as are many things as I look back. It seems that
for a while we were younger than our years.
But we were on the edge of uncharted territory.
The Bighorn Mountains were almost empty, then.
Things were different those forty-five years ago.
The mountains belonged to us that summer.
Miles and days passed with no intruders.
She was my morning sun and golden sunset.
I was her hero and pathfinder. We laughed
at ourselves. Who did we think we were?
I led her onward and upward with M&Ms.
I turned to help her cross a stream. She stomped
right through — splashing water — making rainbows.
We had a very close encounter with a Mule Deer.
I remember trout rising to a fly. They were so small
that we roasted them on sticks, like hotdogs.
Cloud Peak rose above us, but we were high enough.
I remember the mosquitos — she would too if
she was still here. We camped on the crest of a
hill over Mirror Lake. The breeze kept them at bay.
I recall our night visitors — polite, not destructive.
Another deer, an Elk, or Big Horns? Large animals.
One or twenty? We did not want to know.
Lost Twin Lakes and the high cirques were
not far above us on the trail. There were
horsemen heading up one day. I wanted to go
rambling the trail and the lakes — but she
was happy reading a book. She was content
just to hear my tale. That was her quiet way.
The Medicine Wheel, arrayed on the hillside
for centuries, stands as a landmark in my memory.
We went back decades later to see the place again.
It was not the same — all fences and parking lot.
It was confining — not expansive. We told our
daughter the story but she could not see it.
We have those markers in our lives: milestones.
Those are signs, and we are pilgrims. There are
places where paths diverge or come together,
depending on your perspective. It was there
that our paths joined, at a different place
and time. But my memory holds it close.
How do we get through life? Are there traces
showing us the way? Sometimes we get lost.
Sometimes someone finds us. We leave cairns
for those who follow after us: like Medicine Wheels.
They show we have come this way and
and how we got this far.

PHOTO: Cloud Peak Wilderness, Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming (courtesy of


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: “Somewhere Near the Medicine Wheel” is about the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming and the ancient Medicine Wheel, a sacred Indian site laid out in stones and cairns on a hillside and aligned with the stars. The Bighorn Mountains are an uplifted and glaciated range that straddles the Wyoming-Montana border near Sheridan, Wyoming. The Medicine Wheel is something of a mystery but has been spiritually important and revered by local tribes for hundreds or possibly thousands of years. As things commonly happen, it has been “discovered” since 1975, and visits to the site have increased, requiring modern conveniences and safeguards. Our experience then was solitary and quieting. The poem centers on an often-remembered backpacking trip through the Bighorn Mountains in the summer of 1975 when my future wife and I were in our twenties. This same trip was a spiritual journey, of sorts, that cemented our years and life together next 30-plus years. The Bighorns, and the Cloud Peak Wilderness,  were not a formidable mountain challenge but quite welcoming that summer. The Medicine Wheel was a spiritual landmark of that trip.

PHOTO: The Bighorn Medicine Wheel,  Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming (Wikimedia Commons via

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken Hartke is a writer and photographer from the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, but was originally planted and nourished in the Midwest’s big river valleys. Always a writer, his writing was mainly work-focused until he landed in New Mexico in 2013 seeking a new second act. The state has been very welcoming. His New Mexico photography now inspires much of his writing — and sometimes the other way around. The great backcountry continually offers itself as a subject. He has contributed work for the Late Orphan Project’s anthology, These Winter Months (The Backpack Press), Silver Birch Press, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He keeps an active web presence on El Malpais.

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