Sugarloaf Spirits Live

It’s springtime, the season of emergence and regeneration, optimism and growth – a time when airborne euphoria titillates the imagination, unleashes a flow of creative juices. Many have felt it. It’s contagious. Peaks in May. Fades into steamy summer doldrums. And here I sit, rain falling, grass greening through the southern window, enthralled, mind climbing an ancient Indian footpath leading up the southern face of a venerable Connecticut Valley landmark. Called Mount Sugarloaf by most, Wequomps by the earliest deed, and The Giant Beaver in Algonquian oral history, there exists at the top an inconspicuous shelf cave tucked under the Beaver’s eyebrow.

Although I often think of that boyhood curiosity, I have not scaled the path or visited that cave in 50-some years. My last visit would probably take me back to the years surrounding the winter 1966 torch job of the white, 19th-century, porched, wood-frame summit-house I remember well. The roof of the infamous cave up there, known to locals as King Philip’s Seat, is the old fenced-off observation deck along the road. I know the path and the cave despite exploring it far less often than another ancient footpath to a similar cave on North Sugarloaf, secluded on a hardwood ridge where no motor vehicles or adults ever visited. I suppose it was then possible to bump into a familiar face on rare occasions. Otherwise, you had the place to yourself – a private sanctuary, place of peace and solitude – a lofty, indigenous, stone altar securely nestled in the Earth Mother’s chapel.

Both ridgetop caves are in fact rock shelters situated high above pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock shoreline of the late Pleistocene. They date back far deeper than the civilized world’s oldest pew, to a world of hunting, gathering and pagan worship. The cave on Sugarloaf faces southeast. North Sugarloaf’s faces west. Both are located high on the southern tips overlooking steep drops. They can be clearly seen from the towns below if you know what you’re looking for.

Though the caves’ appearance hasn’t changed in my lifetime, the activity around them has increased dramatically. That’s especially true on Mount Sugarloaf, a tourist destination where car and foot traffic stream up and down the road and hiking trails to the mountaintop observation tower protruding from the Beaver’s skull. On North Sugarloaf, you are apt at any time to find gaily clad hikers and helmeted bikers following a network of marked trails maintained and patrolled by uniformed state employees headquartered at Sugarloaf. Not threatening, these park rangers are potentially present anytime, anyplace all the way from Sugarloaf’s summit, across the notch, up North Sugarloaf and down to the Hillside Road parking area. Perhaps the solitude and quiet contemplation I recall as a kid could still be experienced in that North Sugarloaf cave if you hit it right. No guarantees

What triggered my thoughts of the Sugarloaf caves of my South Deerfield youth was a relatively new biography I read about the great Sioux holy man Black Elk. Written by Joe Jackson, I would recommend it to anyone attempting to understand Oglala Lakota medicine man. Perhaps a diligent reader should first read “Black Elk Speaks” and “The Sacred Pipe,” both still in print if you want to understand the tribe’s worldview. Much of what that culture believed mirrors the beliefs of western Massachusetts’ native people scattered long ago to faraway places. Some likely eventually found their way to Sioux, Blackfeet and other Great Lakes and Northern Plains villages that took the harried migrants in.

My interest in Black Elk began in the summer of 1963. Having graduated from Judd’s fourth-grade class at South Deerfield Elementary School, I would turn 10 at June’s end. My maternal grandparents – Martin and Adele (Comeau) Keane – were retired world travelers. They took me along on a fascinating three-month summer tour of the Midwest, where we visited family. We stayed first with my grandfather’s sister Delia in Illinois, then traveled to my Uncle Bob and Aunt Renie’s Twin Cities home in Minnesota. From there, we all embarked on a camping trip through South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands to Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, a magical place indeed. Along the road, I witnessed abject Native American poverty, the likes of which I had never imagined. I also got my first taste of black urban poverty, passing through Gary, Ind., where I was confronted by my first black mannequin. But let us not digress.

During a brief sightseeing stop at Mount Rushmore, I met Black Elk’s son, Benjamin Black Elk, who worked as interpreter for “Black Elk Speaks” author John G. Neihardt’s interviews. Leave it to my grandfather to connect with the traditionally dressed Sioux man. From Galway, Ireland, Grandpa had kissed the Blarney Stone. Having read a “Rotarian” magazine feature about Benjamin Black Elk, a Mount Rushmore attraction, he sought out the man in the dining room and sat him down with us for buffalo burgers.

Ben Black Elk was promoting the Cinerama spectacle “How the West Was Won,” which was debuting, and in which he played an Arapaho chief. An Oglala holy man himself, he told us his father had witnessed Custer’s Last Stand and was a famous Sioux healer about whom books had been written. His traditional dress, kind black eyes, deep dignified voice, and graceful manner left an indelible mark on me. Since that boyhood encounter – and because I grew up on the banks of Bloody Brook, knew the “Boy Captive” narrative and often walked the “Indian Trail” to the North Sugarloaf cave – I have held a fascination for our indigenous people. Most fascinating in recent years has been my study of Native shamans, plant medicine, vision quests, spirit quests, the cosmos, worldview, and creation myths – all of it esoteric to the nth degree.

Having read what I’ve read and studied my place, I am confident I know why the ancient footpaths to the Sugarloaf caves are carved so indelibly deep. I know why they will outlast me, why they will likely never disappear. Such ancient paths through dangerous mountain terrain strongly suggest an important destination. Maybe such a trail was related to hunting and gathering, to a strategic observation point, a sacred place of high spirit and cultural worship. Maybe all of the above and then some.

Who was the first to walk the path? When? How often was it scaled? Was it only for men? How many indigenous feet trod it before the European colonial invaders came? Many questions. Answers elusive.

I’m more convinced than ever that the two stone chambers – one situated in the eye of The Giant Beaver, the other overlooking the fatal neck-wound delivered by the mythical transformer hero Hobomock of Algonquian lore – were, first and foremost, seclusion chambers for vision quests and spirit quests. For millennia, shamans used these sacred shelters to sit in spiritual isolation, fasting, singing, chanting and praying themselves into trance for supernatural instruction. Google it. You’ll find that the Sugarloaf shelf caves meet all the classic requirements for such a place of spiritual questing. Water could be transported in. The trails could be 8,000 years old. Maybe more. Incredible.

These forest treasures hidden on a state reservation (ironic, huh?) must be respected and protected. They stand as spiritual monuments to a native race that called our place theirs for unimaginably longer than we have, and had a far deeper understanding. Too bad they are gone. They knew the rich stories of the land, tales that need to be told … and heard … if they have survived, which is at best unlikely.

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