All I hear are the soft sounds my skis and poles make in the fresh snow. Driving one leg forward and then the other, I slowly find my rhythm. I’ve never been a graceful classic skier. I glided through Sunday lost in my stride and my thoughts while my face stayed hot against the twenty below. The trees lining the trail were thick and weighed down by fairytale goops of snow. Arctic air only made it more striking.
My high beams cut into the black highway at 3:30 am. It only took a few hours of public radio and guzzling coffee before I had to pull off the road to relieve myself in the woods. I wanted to get to Standing Rock by noon. The dark woods soon gave way to the open plains of North Dakota as the sun crept over the horizon behind me. I stopped for fuel in Mandan and then sped across more plains towards the camp. I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful. The clear blue sky was framed by snow-capped hills which opened up into the Cannonball river valley as I reached my destination. Flags whipped in the wind as I rolled up the road toward the entrance. The camp spread out on both sides of the river, Oceti to the East and Rosebud/Sacred Stone to the West. Tepees, yurts, tents, woodsmoke, colors, people, mud, snow, and dogs all blended into one feeling as I pulled my car in and found a place to park and set up my tent.
Snow hangs heavy again on the pine trees today. The forest is becoming my midday meditation. I keep driving my feet forward trying to get kick as I stride up the back trails. It feels unfair that I’m allowed to ski like this. I wasn’t sure if my car would make it up the steep quarter mile hill to the ski trails over lunch. The snow was 3 inches deep and falling fast. I hit the bottom of the hill at 40 mph and crawled across the top bottoming out at 7 mph. Once in the woods, I pushed forward hard, gamely slipping and sliding as my ski tips cut through the thick layer on the tracks.
Woodsmoke formed a thick and continuous haze in camp. After completing my instinctive and almost animal hike through the entire settlement to get my bearings, I walked over to the main medic tent. There I met another third year medical student who told me she’d been at Standing Rock for over a month. For some reason she decided I was legit, and gave me an informal orientation to camp. Spending the afternoon with her and the other long term activists gave me a flashbang insight into the place. Emotions seemed to be a mix of love, pride, passion, resolve, and frustration with each other and newcomers. I worked in both Oceti and Sacred Stone on the day I arrived. It didn’t take me long to find a stethoscope, figure out where supplies were stored, and get to work. I stopped at a massive woodpile in Rosebud as I hiked between from Sacred Stone back to Oceti. Using my body for an hour helped steady my nerves and gave me time to think about the place and my role in it. I was taken aback by the legitimacy that I was immediately imbued with in a place that was so questioning of motives. It’s hard to tell why you’re accepted or not, but it was sobering to reflect that my profession, gender, and race all seemed to advantage me even in a community of activists. As the first day faded into night, I took a break from the medic tent to make dinner in the back of my car and walk around the tent city at sunset. Long underwear was key as the temperature fell into the teens.
My friend shared her birthday with the coldest day of winter thus far. At 6:00 pm it was dark, fifteen below and getting colder. She asked me if I wanted to go night skiing before we met up with people at the bar. How could I say no? Besides her inexcusable lack of quality ear protection (so my ears suffered), it was pure magic. We didn’t turn on our headlamps, so the trails were like ghostly streams weaving front of us.
Over the next two days I split my time between the two different medic tents, stopping to split wood for a couple hours each day at lunch. The medicine itself was everything from asthma and URIs to extreme agitation and head lacerations. The positive energy was palpable as we all seemed to get a thrill from being a part of something bigger than ourselves. It was hard to keep a clear head and avoid being seduced by the sense of purpose and feeling of being needed. Everyone came for their own reasons, and questions of privilege, appropriation, respect, and space were present all the time. There seemed to be an ongoing argument/discussion regarding who was up at the protest, how long they were there for, and their motivations for being there. I had thought a lot about why and whether to go before I left, and decided that I would rather go and risk being problematic than not go at all. I did my research and I believe that the Standing Rock tribe’s claim to the land is just. Either way however, I felt uncomfortable that the government and local police have been using force against peaceful protesters. It was powerful to be a part of something so strong yet rooted in non-violence. Things seemed to be coming to a head when the Veterans for Standing Rock decided to come on the weekend that the government had given the protesters an ultimatum to leave. I figured if there was any weekend I could be of some use, that was it.
Rain hit my face like cold little pebbles as I sat in the hot tub looking up at the trees on Christmas night. Strange winds howled and whipped the naked tree branches back and forth. The sky was beautiful. Icy rain made our house feel even more cozy and welcoming as family, friends, and neighbors poured in. Sitting in the living room with Niko, Brad, and Nate it felt like we were in a time capsule circa 2005 in Brad’s basement.
The only thing that I see as a guarantee is that things will change, and I’d rather ride that wave than fight it. I left Standing Rock after the easement was denied and the tribal elders asked people to decamp for the winter, but I didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment as I drove home. What I felt was an energy pushing me to keep fighting for a better world. Trump’s election was so devastating because I think for the privileged among us, it had felt like we were on a moving sidewalk on the way towards that better world. I think this gives us the opportunity to see that this world won’t come easy and that there are millions of people who didn’t feel like they were riding that wave of progress. It takes small steps, like my cousin Megan explaining to her husband how he doesn’t see his white male privilege. Or my brother, throwing his life and energy into social justice and teaching. I have no answers, so I guess that just means I’ll have to go on that 10th Mountain Division Hut ski trip in March. Even if we don’t come up with answers, it seems better to ask the questions in a log cabin surrounded by snow capped peaks in the Rockies.