The Sunset and Spirits

Posted Apr 2, 2003
Last Updated Oct 31, 2011

The shadows were growing. I could see the shadow of the mountain behind me creeping up the hills across grandma’s house. The crowd of long-separated brothers and sisters and parents and uncles and cousins sat around in the living room chattering and laughing. And I slipped out the side door.

We would be going back to our home in the city over a thousand miles away. I wanted to hold onto these moments as long as I could so I walked out into the crisp North Dakota air.

Carrying a long stick and wearing my grandpa’s cowboy hat, I clutched the camera that an uncle had given to my Dad. The sky was pretty clear and the sunsets had been glorious, so I headed out to reach the peak of the mountain before sunset. I wanted to capture a colorful sunset across the Badlands that rested beyond this small sub-mountain range.

Past grandma’s garden and by a tree house my uncle built many years ago. Through old wooden gates and around sheds and barns. Cattle watched me with lazy stares as I passed them and a little pond that seemed like the perpetual sources of frogs crying for attention. Dozens of old tractors and farm machines sat around, some alive and some probably derelict for decades. And beyond, some dark tree lines broken with grassy patches, sloping up to the peek.

And up I went.

I must’ve been thinking about how much I would miss this place when we would leave in a week. A white flash pulled my eyes to the bounding deer fleeing my approach. Up I walked, along trails my family had known for half a century and I had known but a few weeks. I wanted to stay and walk this wilderness stretch longer … but time was running out. Clutching the camera, I pushed on.

The landscape here was littered with large boulders that broke out of the earth at odd angles. They sat like great dark sentinels embedded into the grass-covered ground, some slumbering low and others standing tall and precarious. After some time I stopped to rest on one, sitting on the lichens-covered stone. I looked down and marveled at the distance I had covered. The wind was from my back as I looked down at grandma’s little farm. I felt like I could jump off this rock and glide down to the house.

But the shadows were growing even longer, so I turned and continued up. I quickened my pace so I would not miss the sunset.

A clutch of young turkeys exploded from my path as I entered a small strip of trees. They startled me, and had I not been so intent on reaching the summit in a hurry, I would have tried to catch one.

Gaining in ferocity, the wind was blowing my hair and making it harder for me to breathe. This was a windy place in the world almost every day, and even more so at the top of this mountain. But I pushed on, holding tightly to the hat that grandpa had given me.

And then I was there. I broke the summit and was hit by an immediately violent gust of wind. Struggling so hard against the wind, my eyes could barely stay open. Water poured from my eyes in a vain attempt to keep them from drying.

Making my way to some rocks to steady myself against, I slowly accustomed my eyes to the ferocious and cold wind. And instantly a surge of marvel and fear slipped through my body. The sky was even more brilliant than I had expected. It was sending yellow rays across a lavender and maroon horizon that faded to the deep navy blue above me. But these rays were cutting through the tunnel of two leviathan storms rapidly colliding from the north and south. The corridor of light was closing quickly… and I stumbled to get a picture as quickly as I could. I took one shot, and then pulled the lever to advance the film. The monstrously black clouds flickered with bolts of streaking lighting, as if they were agitated with each other’s presence and wanted to intimidate the other away. But then kept going as if to collide, and the light was going away. I took another picture.

I stood for several moments until the strength of the wind made it almost impossible to breathe and a large drop of rain slammed into my cheek. Panic set in—I was at the top of a mountain in the middle of a stormy wilderness … and I had a long way to go to get to shelter and siblings.

With the wind to my back it was too easy to run. I could control the speed at first, but eventually I was taking strides that were too long to control. A loud crashing thunder destroyed my desire to even try to slow down and I bounded down.

Running and jumping and trying to keep my balance, I soon ran out of breath and forced myself to stop a moment at one of the large boulders. As I sat I noticed that it had yet to rain and the clouds streaming overhead were not so dark as the approaching storm had seemed. So I sat even longer.

The landscape had changed. The strips of woods were ominously dark. I looked up at another mountain further north and wondered about a battle that had occurred here over a hundred years ago between Native Americans and US Soldiers. That’s when my mind started to wander… People had died here. Perhaps there had been strange rituals carried out in this place.

A coyote howled off to the south and without a moment of thought I was bounding down the mountain faster than before. More coyotes started their forlorn songs to the north and ahead of me. And while those howls surged my blood into a lightheaded frenzy of flight, it was the intensely unquenchable fear of Native American spirits that was really on my young mind.

Without effort I jumped a barbed-wire fence and made it nearly to the edge of a thick stretch of trees. Slowing down I approached the dark area with great apprehension. Other thoughts entered my now uncontrollable mind. I heard the voice of Leonard Nemoy talking about the Yeti. My isolation in the darkening wilderness sent my eyes darting wildly to the left and right. I tried to scan the forest for movement but my eyes could not pierce the blackness nor could I tell which movements wind or beast caused.

I laughed out loud, but the sound was lost in the wind and the rustling leaves. So I shouted. The noise was snuffed out and carried away in an instant.

"There are no spirits or Bigfoot,” I said to myself. But the grip on my walking stick was tight, and I held more as a weapon than a walking aide.

If I wanted home I had to go through these woods. With muscles tense I stepped into the woods. I wanted to run but sheer fear kept me from moving with anything but deliberate effort. It was not so windy here, but the air carried screeching flurries of audible chaos and madness. Was it the spirits singing with the coyotes?

Trying to distract my terror, I searched for thoughts to ease my terror of my racing and paranoid mind. A story Dad had told me of an area such as this came to me. I could not remember the details but he said something about a large pig that had escaped... and immediately I thought of a tale a friend had read to me of a possessed pig that had human eyes.

I bolted. I ran without another thought. When I hit a slippery spot, instinctive fear alone kept me from falling. I saw the dim shadows of old tractors and barns but they could not fully register in my head… I had to get home. The landscape was a blur.

I passed several landmarks I knew were close to home. But I didn’t slow down. Even when my lungs were searing with pain and my heart felt like it was ready to explode from my ears, I did not stop. I knew that ancient spirits were following me, guided by the aide of coyotes and possessed pigs that were racing to get my flesh before Bigfoot did.

I stumbled up to grandma’s side door. I wanted to rip open the door and dive in but I heard uproars of laughter from inside. I looked back and felt a few drops of rain and the blast of a strong wind. The shadows were deeper than any city night could ever dream of, and darker still because the clouds covered the nightly stars like a shroud.

Clenching my fists, I held my breath and forced myself to calm down. The moment my breaths were less than panicked, I opened the door.

Closing the door behind me, I felt a flood of relief surging through my body. My aunt smiled at me and said, "Hey, there he is! Did you get any good pictures?”

Sighing, I said, "I think so.”

She smiled again and we went into the living room. Everyone was still happy and conversations were still roaring away. I shook my head, happy to be home and really amazed at myself.

There is no Bigfoot, and the coyotes always ran away from me. If there were any spirits out that night, they were relics in my mind and blood.

In the Mind

Essays and personal accounts about the clash of reason and superstition.

  1. Psychics and Statistics
  2. The Sunset and Spirits
Stories from North Dakota

Some stories and thoughts related to North Dakota.

  1. The other end of life
  2. The Sunset and Spirits
  3. Donald George Olson died at 72

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