The directions to Poets Table are pretty good. But not Garmin-specific.
“Take the trail to Little Devil’s Tower,” says Jason, a Sylvan Lake Hotel employee.
“Not very far up the trail look for a lone leaning birch tree on the right, pointing up a draw to the left. That’s where you want to go. Keep the highest peak on your left as you go up the draw. Poets Table is around that peak.”
Jason has been to Poets Table before and recommends it as a pretty cool destination for someone who likes nature and likes to write.
Back in 1969 someone had taken a table into the wild and set it in an alcove at the base of one of the area’s small granite peaks. A tradition developed of people leaving writing there for others to read, a sort of wilderness publishing for an admittedly limited audience.
Heading up the grassy, log-strewn draw, I discover the trail is less than obvious. But I’m glad to be off the main trail. Hiking on the Sylvan Lake-Harney Peak system is not for those seeking solitude.
At 10 o’clock on this cloudless June morn, the day-use parking near the Harney trailhead swarms with multiple-family camper groups, lean and tanned outdoorsy young couples, and nature-loving seniors staging for their Black Hills adventure.
Although my semi-aimless wandering frustrates me, I let out an involuntary sigh of relief. Finally I’m out of earshot of vehicles traveling Needles Highway, gaggles of bickering siblings, and the vacation-strained commands of parents herding their flocks.
The way up the draw grows steeper. I hear myself breathing deeply. I look up to confirm the peak is to my left. I listen to Jason’s directions as I repeat them aloud. I scan the ground for remnants of a path.
That’s when I spot a splash of purple with the dash of yellow where I’m about to step. A lone flower stands in the midst of the mica-bejeweled, gray soil, and rock-strewn mossy section of hillside.
Many years have passed, maybe a decade or two, since I last saw the pointy violet petals with their delicate yellow bullet tip bowed atop a leafless stem. Darkthroat shootingstar.
I get out my camera and take a picture. And then another – much closer. And another – macro zoom. Then a different angle. Again – a different background.
Like running into a once-good college friend, it stirs up joy from recollection of past encounters.
“Common throughout the Black Hills,” my flower guidebook tells me. “Blooms from May to July.”
I hike a lot in the Hills. Why haven’t I seen it? “A short-lived perennial” that blooms at different times depending on elevation, the book answers.
I suddenly realize this fond reunion has disrupted my mission – the quest for Poets Table. I put away my camera and guidebook and continue up the slope. After only five paces I spot a small clump of shootingstars near the top of the ridge. Overcome by joy I pull out my camera and digitally capture the brilliant bunch of flowers.
After about 10 minutes I once again become aware of my distraction. I resolutely pull myself together and set off, certain that Poets Table is just over the ridge at the base of the peak.
Just a few steps past the top of the ridge another splash of purple catches my eye. Then another and another. Small clusters of shootingstars dot the downward slope.
Powerless against the darkthroat’s spell, I unsheathe my camera yet again. First this cluster, then that one. Standing up, laying down. From one side, then another. After all, who knows how many seasons or decades might pass until I once again encounter the shootingstar.
Aware once again that these tiny temptresses have undermined the pursuit of my goal and robbed me of precious time to achieve it, I check my watch. If I do not return to the hotel by 1 o’clock, it might cause alarm to those who are expecting me. It’s 12:30 and I’m a solid half hour away.
I gather my gear and scramble to the top of the ridge. When I reach the ridge I am disoriented. My fixation on the flowers has interfered with the cardinal off-trail requirement of noting landmarks for a return route.
I move downhill to the left a ways and it feels wrong. I backtrack uphill and follow a rock wall on my right. That also feels unfamiliar. I return up the hill staying to the right. I climb on a rock and turn to look down the draw to see if I can get my bearings.
On the other side of the rock sit some crude chairs with peeling picnic-table green paint, a matching table and a cupboard with a sign on top that says “Poets Table.”
I laugh and say, “Mission Accomplished?” I have “found” Poets Table. But I’m running late and I’m sort of lost. Nonetheless, I snap a few photos.
I climb back on top of the rock and determine that if I just head straight down the draw I will end up back on the trail. After a bit of bushwhacking I am back on what feels like familiar ground.
A few more minutes and I hear the now-welcome sound of a parent-child conversation. I make it to the hotel about 10 minutes late and find no one the least bit concerned.
So I had spent the morning not finding what I was looking for, then finding what I wasn’t looking for, and then stumbling across what I was originally looking for when I had given up looking for it.
It made me think that I am often so focused on a goal that I miss the unexpected delights that life has to offer. I become unaware of what is going on around me and trample the delicate flowers that can give joy and relieve the self-imposed stress that comes from the energy I spend on the all-consuming objective.
And then there are times when I release my grip on the thing I so desperately desire only to find that it comes to me unexpectedly in a way I never imagined.
We are not always as in control as we think. Being off-course and off-task is sometimes the way to discover a new direction that can restore and renew us.