So far my trip to South Dakota has been an amazing learning curve of people. history, culture and food. Today that learning curve taught me a new word—-Volksmarch.
According to the American Volkssport Association (who knew there was such a thing?!!) the meaning of the word is a walking event. Also termed, “volkswalk”. In Germany, these events were originally termed Volkswanderung - "volkswandering." and evolved into Volksmarch in the United States.
Though walking is the primary activity, the volkssporting movement also includes bicycling, swimming, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. Special provisions allow for people with disabilities to participate in most events.
Depending on the event, participants will walk a distance of 3.1, 6.2 or 12 miles or longer, on a pre-determined outdoor path or trail, with the aid of posted signs or markings, or a map and a set of written directions. Worldwide there are more than 7,500 Volkssporting events each year, with an estimated participation of 10,000,000 people.of all ages and abilities participate.
I was completely unaware of Volksmarches until I met Jill Hendrix at the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival. The festival was the first stop along my South Dakota journey and I was immediately drawn to Jill’s Wyoming Silvers artisan booth for the gorgeous horse jewelry she creates.
Within minutes of my wandering through the displays of her work, Jill approached and we began to chat in a way that felt like we were best of friends. Before we were done, we’d bartered one of her beautiful necklaces for one of my Beauy & Grace Books and Jill invited me to go for a hike on Sunday.
When explaining the hike she said it was a local event in which she’d taken part once before and wanted to do again. She gave a name to the event that I’d never heard before but stuck in my mind as the Harry Potter “bad guy” Voldemort. Whatever. I was pleased to have connected with Jill and looked forward to sharing more time together.
Over the ensuing three days, as I met more South Dakotaians, whenever I mentioned this “Voldemort “hike, they immediately nodded in recognition, correcting my terminology to Volksmarch. They then continued to extol the significance of the hike linking it to a memorial they named as Crazy Horse.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this so-called hike was much more than a casual walk through the woods and decided it might be prudent to do some research.
What I discovered was that Jill’s hike is officially titled, The Bi-annual Crazy Horse Volksmarch. Started in 1985, it is a 6.2-mile woodlands ramble to the world's largest mountain carving in progress in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. It is also is the most popular organized hike in the United States, with 15,000 walkers participating in their best year.
With a bit of trepidation, I set off Sunday morning to meet Jill in the Crazy Horse Memorial Information Center. Despite the South Dakota Weather Forecast of sunny and warm, my early morning drive to the memorial was filled with clouds and rain.
My mood was one of tempered excitement as I wondered if this 6 mile walking hike would be a stretch for my body?
Passing through the admission gates (where the fee for the day was waived in exchange for a donation of canned goods) I followed the flag waving volunteers to the appointed event parking lot.
Following in a line of cars, I found myself rubbing my eyes to clear my vision as I thought I was seeing people on horseback directing drivers to their parking spaces.
A few feet closer and I realized it wasn’t the foggy morning or my eyesight playing tricks on me….there were women and men on horses moving from car-to-car as they guided them into their appropriate spaces. Clearly this was going to be a most interesting day.
Jill and I made out way to the registration area and waivered our rights to any injury claims the day continued to be dark and dreary.
I mentioned to Jill my wonder about the demanfrds of the hike and if I would be up to the challenge. She kindly encouraged me with assuances that I would be fine and then offered that we would take our time and stop, if and when needed, along the way. I appreciated her positive approach, despite railing against the thought of having to stop in the middle of thousands of hikers, like some old lady .
Setting out we joined in a group of hikers from across the United States. Men, women and children of all ages, shapes and physical abilities. Picking our way through the clearly-marked, wooded trail, Jill and I found a walking pace that suited us both, chatting as we went.
People passed us, we passed others. Some relied on walking sticks, some powered using their own strength. There was even a woman 8-months pregnant, hiking with an entourage of husband and family ready to deliver the baby if need be.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this hike was not about competition or even endurance. It was about the chance to prove to oneself that it was doable and to experience the wonder of standing within touching distance of the 640-foot high Crazy Horse Memorial.
And to answer your question, yes, Jill and I stopped along the way, multiple times. Yet we were far from alone. And as we sat to catch our breath at 6,000 feet above sea level, we chatted with others doing the same.
Two of those people were Ed and Brenda from Minneapolis, Minnesota. We met them as Brenda was waiting for Ed to get up from his boulder seat and start hiking.
As Ed rocked his body in motion to help him rise, I asked Brenda if I could help him? Smiling sweetly, she answered, “No. He’s fine.” And she was right. After a few forward and backs, Ed managed to pull himself up and start walking.
Jill and I partnered with the MInnesota couple for a while chatting about our lives and our communities. In the midst of our conversation Brenda shared that over the last three years Ed had lost 175 pounds.
She continued that part of his motivation was his lifelong dream to hike to the top of the Crazy Horse Memorial. I turned to Ed, who was making his way up the mountain one step at a time, and asked him about his weight loss and how he felt realizing this life dream. With a glow in his eyes, Ed told me about his measuring belt—-the belt he used to wear that now wraps around him one and a half times. He said he uses it to inspire others.
When at last Jill and I reached the top of the memorial, the sun had burned through the dreary clouds . Between my euphoria at completing the hike and standing next to the imposing head of Crazy Horse, my writer’s brain was in overdrive. There were so many stories to be told in this moment in time. Where to start?
Fortunately, Volksmarch organizers placed craftsman currently working on the memorial around the site to answer questions and provide information.
.To my amazement, one of those craftsman was at the top, actually standing outside the protective fencing, on the edge of the mountain. Armed with a barrel of questions I made my way over and fired away.
The young man said he has been on the project for the last three years. He is not a sculptor or a mason. Rather, he is someone who can follow the guidelines of the 3-d designs and CAD drawings of both the mountain and the sculpture as it was dreamed and designed in the 1940’s by Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American designer and sculptor.
As he continued to describe the next stages of sculpting of Crazy Horse’s arm and the horse that will support the arm, I tried to imagine the time frame of such complex and demanding work.
Asking that question, the young man said the hope is that it will be done in another 50 years. The fact that I will not be alive to see that completion washed over me within the realization of the complexity of this project.
With my writer’s curiosity fully satisfied, Jill and I took our leave of Crazy Horse’s domain. The retun walk was a straight shot along a dirt and gravel driveway made to accomodate oversized drilling and digging equipment. Between our euphoria over reaching the top of the memorial and the downhill slope of our path, we only stopped once—-to shake out some stones that had become trapped in my sneaker.
Reaching the final descent area, we came upon an oversized sign.
The message was simple yet clearly reflected the spirit of Korczak Ziolkowski and the craftsmen who have and will continue to create this monument. And people like Ed whose lives have been changed by their desire to stand with Crazy Horse on his mountain.
And me, who through my writer's dream was invited to come to South Dakota for the Festival of Books and am enjoying that opportunity to the fullest by experiencing the wonders of this region...like the here-to-fore unknown Volksmarch at The Crazy Horse Memorial.
Someday, a half century from now, I dream that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will travel to South Dakota to witness the completion of The Crazy Horse Memorial in all its glory.
When they do, I hope they they will read this story and see this photo and know who they are and where they come from.