Monday, July 30, 2012

In Search of the Poet's Table

This story begins in 1969.  That's the year some intrepid wayfaring adventurers, and presumably poets, transported a heavy wooden table and chairs colored with green industrial strength paint to a well hidden location near Sylvan Lake in the heart of the Black Hills. I recall first hearing about it back in the 70s, but forgot all about it until several years ago when I stumbled across a reference to something called The Poet's Table on the internet.  I don't even remember where exactly.  Some travel blog maybe.  There were photos of that original green wooden table, plus a matching green cabinet which looked to be filled with journals and notebooks containing all manner of writings.  My curiosity was peaked, and it's been in my head ever since that time.  So, this was the summer I decided to make the pilgrimage.
My first attempt started at the Little Devil's Tower trail head.  From the parking area I headed off on the trail armed with a few clues that I hoped would lead me to my goal.  But after a mile or so I began thinking that I had missed the unmarked turn-off.  I was pretty sure it was close to the start of the trail.  I still had some doubt, though, and the trail ahead looked very promising.  Also, a memory from long ago surfaced and the phrase "Forward - Onward" kept popping into my head.  I probably should explain where that came from.  In the wandering days of my youth, a friend and I would regularly head out on warm sunny summer days with our thumbs in the air and catch a ride from some friendly motorist heading south toward the Black Hills.  Our goal on this particular day was a place called Devil's Bathtub, a popular spot where the creek widened to form a perfect little swimming hole.   We found a ride with some long haired hippie us...who took us all the way to the start of the trail to what I thought would be our final destination for the day.  However, after reaching the swimming hole and taking a nice cool dip, my fellow traveler thought it would be fun to keep on going upstream to see where it would lead.  I concurred and off we went.  After what seemed like a few miles (I have no idea how far we actually walked) I suggested we turn back.  The only response I got was "Forward! Onward!"  So we kept going.  There was very little conversation other than about every mile we would pause, then in unison proclaim "Forward! Onward!" After hours of walking and discovering several old cabins we emerged at an abandoned mining town, followed a dirt road out of there and eventually ended up on the highway where we were able to catch a series of rides home.  All that in one day. For some reason I've never forgotten that day, or that phrase.  I may have even said it out loud a few times on my current trek, so it was probably a good thing that on this day there were few others on the trail to hear my strange incantations.  I continued on...and on...and on... and was finally rewarded for my persistence with the pay-off of an incredible view that was worth every huff and puff on the way up.
The climb took all I had to give for that day.  But I had a good idea where I should've turned off the main trail in order to find the Poet's Table, and I decided to come back the following week to complete my quest.  Which is what I did.  This time I concentrated on a clue referencing a leaning tree that pointed the way.  And, after only about a quarter to half a mile from the trail head there it was.  I turned off and began a steady climb toward my destination.  The way seemed to reveal itself to me at each decision point until I came to a solid rock wall.  I could go left or right.  To the left was the obvious choice because it offered the least resistance.  But I chose to go right, hugging the side of the rock cliff, making my way around on loose dirt and pine needles, then over a fallen log.  After a few more steps I noticed a lone tree rising up from an outcropping in the rock.  That had to be it.  And it was.  I had found it!
For the next hour I browsed through the writings, books and trinkets left by previous visitors, studied the carvings on the walls, admired the view, and just listened to the quiet.  I also took some time to read from a book that I had carried along with me...
...The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. I marked a passage that was perfectly appropriate for this day and this place:

"The secret of this kind of climbing," said Japhy, "is like Zen.  Don't think. Just dance along. It's the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen."  Which it was.  

I'm not sure how long I was actually there, but eventually it was time to go.  I took a few more photographs, and left a couple of pictures that I had brought along for no particular reason.  I decided to leave my book also.  Hopefully others visiting this special place will take time to read a few lines and appreciate the genius of the author.  Maybe you will decide to make the trip.  I'm sorry that I can't help you much with directions.  It's a place you should find mostly on your own.  It's more rewarding that way, and you will have a greater appreciation for not just the destination, but the entire journey as well.  Safe travels and good luck!