Wonders of Childhood Rediscovered on a Mountain Hike

Only 17 and 20, my brother and I followed the call of the Piper

Walter Bowne
Mar 1 · 14 min read
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park in South Dakota. Photo used by permission. By Lanis Rossi.

My brother Dave and I were finally alone.

We were alone to commune with nature and marvel at its wonders. We were alone to talk about male stuff, women, jock itch, college, where I was an English major, high school, where Dave was an in-coming senior, the philosophies of Dudeism, and other such intellectual topics on our hike to Harney’s Peak in South Dakota in 1989.*

Although we love our sister Noelle and our mom, after so much camping and traveling together, it was natural to get on each other’s nerves. Every now and then, you need time away, even from those we love. Alone time is so needed.

The Journey into the mystic

Dave strapped his insulated canteen of water around his neck, and I had my camera case. We had to be careful not to take huge swallows. We had to have enough for the trip back.

The first mile was pretty easy going, with only a few minor ascents and descents. However, as the mile dragged on forever, we noticed the unusual color of the sand along the trail. At times the color gave the impression of being wet; the ground was splattered with sparkling silver. After close scrutiny, we found the silver was really slate chips, thin and shiny, flecks from the surrounding rocks.

The trail led to a small clearing that overlooked the forest and the summit of Harney’s Peak which loomed ahead. An old stone building stood against the blue sky. We were still far away. What was that place? Was that our destination?

We hiked upward and onward, stopping for a breather and a swig. Midway through the second mile, the trail suddenly grew more steep and treacherous, with many unstable rocks and gravel. The trail curved around the side of the mountain.

Late in the afternoon, the sun was not too hot, and huge spruces and evergreens enclosed the trail, providing near-constant shade. Streaks of holy sunlight found holes in the tears of the canopy, breaking through, illuminating particles floating insensibly in the air.

My brother Dave takes a rest while hiking to Harney’s Peak, renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016. Photo by Walter Bowne. 1989.

Brothers on a mission

Hiking through the woods reminded me of my favorite song Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. In my thoughts, I did see “rings of smoke through the trees” and the “voices of those who stand looking.”

At times I heard the faint whispering of the wind echo my name, and it seemed to chant a subliminal message as if the Piper was calling me to join him. Join him for what? Why?

I glanced around the woods, hoping to find Merry Gentlemen prancing about in the brush, wearing a Jester’s outfit, or playing Nine Pins like in “Rip Van Winkle,” and playing a song on the flute or drinking from a flagon of rich ale.

In my mind, the Jester was summoning us to the King’s Court on top of Harney’s Peak. How could we be of service?

So many dreams ran through my head. Such outings inflame my imagination! Before the hike, Dave and I told each other that we to pretend to be Frodo Baggins and Sam Gangee from Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Through the Elven Woods of Murkwood and the Haunted Forest to the Forbidden Land of Mordor where the Ringwraiths lie in waiting, ready to reclaim the Lost Ring before we cast the Evil Thing into the Cracks of Doom.

Once again, it was fun to be young again. Even at twenty and in college, I loved pretending to be a character on a mission. What was my mission on this trip?

People often forget what it’s like to be a child full of ideas and wild imagination. Such creativity should never leave us! Perhaps such creativity is covered over with the responsibilities of adulthood. Is that why fiction is so popular? Authors transport the reader to other realms, much like Tolkien did for my brother and me. However, another realm existed here. Did I need a novel or a song for escape?

My real escape had started.

The view of the Black Hills of South Dakota from the top. Photo by Walter Bowne.

I can see miles and miles and miles

Huge columns of granite lined the trail with several small alcoves, like caves and havens for animals. We kept a strong lookout for elk, moose, mountain lions, and all sorts of animals. It was amazing many rocks and tree stumps, from a distance, seem to transpose themselves into fantastical creatures.

The trail marker ahead read two miles. We knew the journey was two-thirds over. The trail led straight up. Rocks embedded in the soil acted as steps in our ascent. We rested often, taking water breaks at convenient areas. The air was thin. The oxygen, low at this altitude. We took one step, another, and rested. I glanced frequently behind my back to see if Dave was still close behind, or if he needed assistance. But at seventeen, was any needed?

The density of the trees grew smaller. The appearance of rocks and huge, granite boulders became greater. Would we reach the summit after we turned just one more corner?

No, the trail wandered around towards my left. The number nine was imprinted upon a tree and we knew we were heading in the right direction. Nine was the number of the trailhead.

The summit was approaching. With every step, that Piper’s merry song grew louder. The trail became steeper and more difficult. As we rounded the last curve, several crude stairs led upwards to the final leg of the journey. Such stairs seemed out of place; foreign to the wilderness. The steps were narrow and steep but placed with meticulous care. We took the staircase, or Stairway, and followed its serpentine route to the first leveled area.

Had we just entered the King’s Court? The mysterious stone building we had seen from afar drifted, just ahead, like a dusty cloud. We had even entered the first chamber; one wall rose to our left and another one, to our right. There was no roof, but a path led underneath a small opening in the rock, forming a tunnel. The walls blocked the wind and silenced the song.

We entered another room, much larger than the previous one. On the right, an opening appeared as a natural window, overlooking the Black Hills of South Dakota.

A long narrow staircase led up to the taller, left wall and we followed it with care. The place was eerie. Our footsteps and the tripling of stones were the only sounds. We exited the room and found ourselves on a plateau, guarded by large boulders on each side. As we walked forward, the wind picked up and swirled around us.

Through cracks in the boulders, a panoramic view of Custer State Park stretched for miles and miles and miles. The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” floated in my musical brain. We looked ahead. The Tower loomed several hundred feet above us. Where was the entrance? Would goblins be guarding the gate? To the right, I quickly found one. A gate, not a goblin!

We climbed carefully and steadily, keeping our balance, staying away from the strong wind gusts.

The old stone house on top of the summit. I stood naked in the tower. Photo by Walter Bowne

The spirit of Valentine J. McGillicutty: 1849 to 1939

We finally reached the entrance of the Stone Tower. At the gate, a silver-plated plaque with strange letters imprinted it, like an ancient script in a dead language, spelled out: Valentine J. McGillicutty: 1849 to 1939.

Who was this gentleman? Was he an old hermit who lived in the tower? Was it his spirit luring us? Was his spirit still living here? Was this the Piper calling us to join him?

I did not have my Ouija board, which was probably a good thing.

Many thoughts ran through my mind as we walked through the threshold and into an empty chamber. Why was this Tower built? How did someone build such a structure on top of such a mountain? What was its purpose? Such questions at the time couldn’t be answered. Would we want facts, or would our own private fiction serve us better?

A window appeared to our right. A metal staircase, directly in front of us, led to a dilapidated patio overlooking the Black Hills towards the West. With care, we walked upon the blacktop patio and stared into eternity.

The Cathedral Spirals, to the left; The Needles soared directly next to them. Once again, we entered the main chamber.

Dave and I placed the canteen and camera on the floor, and then we began our climb. The Upper Level was completely open to the elements. Twelve metal poles supported a wooden roof. Was this a lookout tower? An eagle’s nest? It was difficult to remain stable with the wind.

Dave and I were now at the highest point east of the Rockies. The view, needless to say, was impressive: to the east clouds hovered off the horizon, casting long, dark shadows upon rolling fields and mountain slopes, giving a “black” tint to the region. Was it any wonder these were called the Black Hills? Much like “the Blue Ridge” in Virginia?

We felt so alone in the tower. Over the vastness of every angle, no one could be seen. No signs of civilization. I felt small, insignificant, amidst such grandeur of Nature. Was I one of its wonders, too?

Dave and I retreated downstairs to fetch my camera. I took several pictures and we stayed about ten minutes in the Tower. I shouted and my voice echoed for what seemed miles. I shouted a “barbaric yawp,” and my voice echoed and echoed.

The Cathedral Spires of The Black Hills of Custer State Park, South Dakota. 1989. Photo by Walter Bowne

Standing naked on the Tower

David was now downstairs. I was alone. An urge hit me. Taking off my clothes, I stood naked against the most brilliant backdrop nature could create. The wind wrapped around my body with its cool, embracing fingers.

After several minutes, unashamed unlike Adam and Even, because did I ever leave Eden, I placed my clothes on and met up with Dave. He was outside by the patio. We peered over the ledge and saw a small pool nestled between massive boulders on each side.

A cool dip would be lovely since we were very hot and tired. Within the mountain boulders, we searched for a way to the pool at the base of McGillicutty Castle.

Huge boulders stood like proud sentinels, towering above us. The castle disappeared from view. We discovered a small cave with the remains of a campfire, long past in use. Inside we saw nothing but darkness. I was disappointed. Was I half hoping to stumble over a sleeping bear or a mountain lion? What a shock and a story and an obituary that that would have been!

Of course with my nickname, Wally Chapstick, I could have easily handled the situation.

The author, a Dude, at 19 at McGullicutty Castle, 1989. Photo by David Bowne.

A mysterious pool, like Dozmary Pool?

Dave stated there must be an opening higher up, near the castle. We just had to find a passage to this forbidden pool! Like the legendary pool from King Arthur? We made our way quickly up the path.

Dave stopped and glanced around, his eyes like an eagle, hoping to find a path. I walked on, continuing the climb. I leaned over a rock ledge. A door below me came into view. I called out, “Dave!” Was there another story to the castle? Another floor?

We jumped over the ledge and scrambled over the boulders. An easier passage appeared, and Dave helped me through the small crevice. The covered path was now clearly evident. We found the lower story of the castle. I approached, slowly, ducking my head from the low threshold, and proceeded with care.

The place was eerie. More so than the second floor. Debris was tossed about, but there wasn’t any garbage or signs of fellow travelers. It was debris from ruined furniture and broken pipes. All human-made ruins. Two small windows to my right emitted fragments of light; cobwebs hung in every corner and dust-storms encircled my sneakers.

I lingered in one room while Dave went ahead to a small alcove, the light more like the dawn. A broken toilet basin with rusted pipes tore through the floor and broke apart at the ends.

A flight of wooden stairs curved around the bathroom wall. David went first. What was behind that stairway? Just other bricks in a wall.

We retraced our steps and wandered through the rest of the abandoned building. A fuse box with wires hung out of one wall and a boarded window on another. I was chilled as if haunted.

With each step, the floor squeaked and moaned. The hallowed whispering of the wind sounded like restless spirits we released upon our intrusion. Was McGillicutty among them? Were we welcome guests? Or disturbers to his peace and solitude?

Dave climbs around the boulders beneath the mysterious pool of water while the Rocky Moutain goat looks down upon us. Photo by Walter Bowne.

We left the house and wandered down the narrow pebble path to another Stone House. Where was that elusive watering pool? What secrets did it contain? With so much difficulty, it must hold some sword or restorative powers.

The outhouse was nothing exciting, but through a window, I spotted a large, shallow pool of water that glimmered just below the house.

“Hey, Dave!” I yelled. “I found it!”

Valentine the Goat stares us down. Photo by Walter Bowne.

A billy goat gruff and his mysterious stare

Between the stone shack and large boulders, we barely fit through the small crevice. I found a foothold. Then Dave tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to an object on top of the boulders above the pool. It was a Rocky Mountain goat. She was white and staring straight at me from twenty yards away.

His stare was unshakable. His cold dark eyes marked my every move. For a better view, I moved higher. Although amazed and excited, we were also both a little scared by this impressive animal.

After all, we were in his land. We were the visitors in his territory. Although mountain goats are not prone to be dangerous, they are unpredictable, especially at close range.

We had nowhere to run. Fear soon passed and gave way to wonder. How much wildness was still contained within us? He seemed unmoved by our presence but kept a watchful eye.

The three of us stood staring at each other. For ten minutes this continued, without a sound. Was this the communion between beast and man?

The goat was resting, high upon the sun-baked warmth of the boulders. Was life easy for him? Such words, of course, are not necessary for higher animals. Was he secure in the knowledge of his safety? How different life must be for such a creature. Could humans mirror such a life?

Valentine the Goat in his element in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo by Walter Bowne

Miles to go before we could rest

It was getting late. Unlike the goat, we had miles to go before we could sleep. After all, hiking along a mountain trail at night without flashlights is no easy or safe task, not even for Wally Chapstick!

The air was cooler. The wind: a soft breeze that gently brushed the fur-like waves on the goat. Like Adam, who bequeathed names for everything, could we name our new friend?

Dave suggested “Valentine, The Keeper of the Castle.” So I dubbed the white goat “Sir Valentine, the goat, of Custer, and Keeper of the Castle.”

This was a historic occasion. For the first time, I had initiated a non-human into my Realm of Dudeism, a philosophy I created in 1986 while a junior for my school newspaper.

Heading back, we maneuvered over the rocks, found a path that led over the ledge, and traveled down the staircase which led to the main entrance of the castle.

We peered up at the granite boulders, protecting the pool. Valentine, poised like a Calacatta marble statue, gave us our final look. I will always remember that goodbye.

We picked up the path and headed back fully rested for the three-mile hike back to Sylvan Lake. After a few minutes, we found a broken-down stone staircase situated in the middle of the woods.

Still together, stood six stairs that led to an altar-shaped object. How weird was this? If only I had brought my Ouija board! Some nasty spirits could be summoned from the depths of Hell at a place like this, like in Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

It seemed strange, and so out of place. Was this a door to another portal? As we walked on, the cast of shadows from towering evergreens kept in step and danced in front of us.

The journey back was easier. The temperatures were cooler. The sun no longer a factor, just more of a danger as it got darker. After two miles, we stopped for a water break. We talked of a great many things; Valentine, the Castle, the views from the Summit, and how great it was being away from Civilization.

From the time it took us to complete the last mile, we concluded it was much longer than stated on the trail markers, but we finally made it back to Sylvan Lake.

Horse Thief Lake, South Dakota. Photo by Lanis Rossi.

Memories of the mind and of the page

Alas, dear reader, the journey was over. We met up with our mom and our sister Noelle who were sitting on a bridge, waiting for us. They had a good time horseback riding. I was glad.

All that was left were memories; memories that will be stored in the files of my mind and on the pages of this typewriter. I will bring these memories out again, every now and then, to be cherished and savored.

We all need to remember times like these: on top of the mountain, for instance, especially being naked in the wilds of the wind. Amen. And good night and happy travels.

In the morning, we head to Cody, Wyoming.

The Bowne family packs up the camper in Kentucky for the last leg home to Voorhees, New Jersey. Dave and Noelle assist my mother, who was 40 at the time. Dave was 17. I was 20. And Noelle was 14. I used the same camper with my wife on camping trips with our daughters, Madeline and Nancy. Photo by Walter Bowne.

Author’s Note

This is an excerpt from Day 5 of our three-week trip across the country with my mom, my brother, and my sister in 1989. I was 20. Throughout the trip with the pop-up camper, I kept a handwritten journal and typed the journal soon after.

The journal is over 200 pages. This excerpt was only moderately edited and updated from the original. I gave the final copy to my mother in 1991. This is what I wrote:

Dearest Mother,

I thought it was about time but I gave you a copy of this journal. And seeing that it’s Christmas, what better gift to give? Anyway. I read over some parts during the last few days (and damn if they’re not good.) I remember back to what an incredible experience that was and how much fun and how much growth you have given all of us, mother, something very special. You know what that something is: the love of life.

There is no better gift.

Love always,

Xmas 1991

*Harney’s Peak is now called Black Elk Peak. It was renamed in 2016. General Harney’s men massacred Native American women and children, according to historic records. The site is holy to Native Americans.

Thank you for reading!
Thanks to Lanis Rossi for the photo.

You can follow me on Spotify, YouTube, and Twitter for more.

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Walter Bowne

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Walter Bowne writes humor and some serious stuff on family, education, gardening, literature, and craft beer. His work has appeared in over forty publications.

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