THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.
In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.
Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.
by Larry Brody
Ernest the Lakota Fireman has become one of Paradise’s busiest residents since his pickup truck collapsed in our driveway upon arrival on The Mountain a month ago.
A friend since the ‘90s, when Gwen the Beautiful and I met him on a trip to the Black Hills, Ernest intended his stay to be short and sweet, after which he would continue on his way, searching for – well, he wasn’t sure what. His future? His past? Something.
Now, in order to pay for repairs (or, more likely, a new used vehicle), he’s working at three different jobs, including helping take care of our ranch, and until recently he spent all his spare time toiling away at a ceremonial sweat lodge because, as he said, “This is part of the search. It’s what I have to do.”
Inasmuch as we were in need of a handyman and Ernest is about as knowledgeable about practical things as I am ignorant – as well as the kind of smart, thoughtful guy you don’t find just anywhere, Gwen and I are delighted to have him staying in the single-wide trailer we call the Cloud Creek Annex.
Last week Ernest completed the sweat lodge, a dome-shaped structure built on a framework of willow and cedar, insulated by plastic garbage bags, and covered with blankets. On the floor of the lodge, pieces of carpet form a circle around a shallow pit. White ribbons hang down from overhead.
Ernest asked Gwen and me to help him celebrate by holding the first ceremony to, he said, “bring humans and spirits together on this mountain.” So, at sunset, with the temperature in the mid-thirties, Gwen (the smart one in our family) stood inside the heated Annex, watching from its bay window while, about ten yards away, Ernest and I got ready to enter the lodge.
Ernest insisted that I be the “pipe holder.” In other words, that I be in charge.
“I’ve only been to a couple of sweats, and that was years ago,” I protested.
“Don’t worry,” Ernest said, “it’ll come to you. Grandfather told me.”
Grandfather is the spirit of a man who, as near as we can guess, lived on this property ten thousand or so years ago, when it was the center of a now-lost North American Indian civilization. He’s the ghost who revealed himself to Ernest right before Ernest’s engine block thudded onto the driveway.
Afraid I’d not only embarrass myself but also ruin what Ernest was trying to accomplish, I shoveled the rocks he’d been heating in a large fire pit outside the entrance flap all day – because that’s what a Lakota fireman does! – into the smaller pit inside. Then I took the wood and stone pipe Ernest had brought and filled it with tobacco he gave me. Entering the lodge, he and I sat down across from each other.
Ernest lit the pipe, and I held it up as I remembered the pipe holder holding it back in South Dakota. I turned it east, south, west, and north, and with a little prompting from Ernest thanked Mother Earth for allowing us to be here, in this place, on this night.
As I finished, I realized that I now knew—how, I can’t say—a story I’d never known before about life and the many paths through it one can take. I also knew somehow that the story was for Ernest, so I told it to him and passed him the pipe. He held it and asked the darkness around us questions about his future.
Beside me was a small hand drum. I picked it up and played a steady beat with its wool-covered beater. Ernest began singing in a wordless language neither he nor I had ever heard before, and I found myself joining in with no problem.
We ended the song together, and the lodge blankets blew in toward us, then puffed out again and again in an even rhythm.
“The lodge is breathing,” I heard myself say.
“This is the moment of its birth,” Ernest said. “It has its own spirit now.”
We waited in the darkness in case other spirits were going to reveal themselves. We weren’t sweating, but the rocks made us feel warm and comfortable. Recalling the sweats I’d been to, I reached outside the flap for the bucket of water Ernest had put there, and poured some onto the rocks.
A flash of blue and red sparks. Then darkness and cold.
We were done.
When Ernest and I emerged from the sweat lodge we found Gwen waiting for us. “Did you see him?” she said.
“An old man came out of the lodge. He looked at me, and I heard him as though he was standing beside me. He said you’d proven yourself a good man by helping bring the sweat lodge to life. Then he waved, and was gone….”
“Grandfather!” Ernest said. He turned to me. “Told you you’d get it right.”
“All I did was make it up as I went along.”
Ernest smiled. So did Gwen. Like the two of them shared a secret.
I’m hoping that someday I’ll know it too.