With Lori Erickson, author of Every Step is Home, we uncover the sacred essence within natural wonders in the U.S. -- each linked to an element such as air, water, and stone. From the Marching Bears Iowa mounds to the hallowed dirt of El Santuaro in New Mexico, to the spiritual stones at the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, Lori leads us on these and other journeys of discovery.
Our talk includes the mesmerizing Northern Lights, the astronomical marvels of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, and the destructive and regenerative power of fire at Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.
Lori ends with the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska. You'll see that the sacred is all around us, waiting to be discovered, as you join us in this captivating conversation.
Lori Erickson's newest book is Every Step is Home: A Spiritual Journey from Appalachia to Alaska. She is one of the foremost writers of sacred and spiritual travel in the U.S.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, and has written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and 'one of the top 100 Indie books' of the year). She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.
Contact Lea- she loves hearing from you! @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; Places I Remember with Lea Lane on Facebook; Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
New episodes drop every other Tuesday, wherever you listen. Please consider sharing, following, rating and reviewing this award-winning travel podcast.
As we travel near and far. There are sacred elements and experiences to be discovered all around us, the extraordinary and the seemingly ordinary, anywhere and everywhere. Our guest is Lori Erickson, author of Every Step is Home, a Spiritual Geography from Appalachia to Alaska. Lori was our guest once before, in episode 30, when she talked about other spiritual journeys around the world. Welcome again, to Places I Remember. (I'm delighted to be back with you, l. Well, we're delighted to have you. You took off with your husband, Bob, who's a photographer, and you towed a camper and you went about the United States researching and then writing about spiritual discoveries that you found. You divide your book into chapters focusing on basic natural elements. How did you come up with that premise?Lori Erickson:
Well, I knew when I started this book I wanted to write about the United States, because I've been fortunate to travel around the world exploring holy sites. But I wanted to let people know that there are wonderful sites here in the United States. And then COVID happened, of course, and that threw a wrench into everything and in the end I felt like that deepened my experiences, because I really had a sense for how travel is transformative and that not being able to travel for a time really helped me think about all that travel has given me and gives me. So, anyway, I knew I wanted to write about the United States. I knew I was traveling during COVID, and so the idea of doing a book that was primarily about sort of out of the way, lesser known places, places that we could explore almost all of them by driving became sort of a necessity. That became, I think, a real asset in the end.Lea Lane:
Well, you start with the Marching Bears of Iowa. How did that inspire you, T ?Lori Erickson:
The bears of Iowa are a set of effigy mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Northeast Iowa. Effigy means that is a mound that's in the shape of an animal, and Effigy Mounds is full of hundreds of mounds, but the most remarkable is a set of 10 bears that appear to be marching across a high bluff over the Mississippi River, and it's a really striking place. But it is a place where you have to have a little bit of imagination. These really aren't that visible from ground level. You have to see an aerial view of them and I really decided on the marching bears as a kind of metaphor for the ways in which seeking out holy sites really requires a shift in perspective, and also that some of these sites are more subtle. You know they're not. It's not the great pyramids t they're They're Places laces that are a often have a kind of subtlety about them and a kind of beauty that you need to sink into . (Absolutely They don't knock t off perhaps at the beginning, but then, the more you know about them, the more impressive they are.Lea Lane:
Well, it's so impressive because you divide the chapters into elements, and the first one is dirt. Even dirt is holy. Tell us more.Lori Erickson:
Uh huh. So each of my chapters is both a description of a trip and then also a meditation on a different theme or element- - sacred water, sacred air, etc. And we'll get into those. So the first chapter is about dirt. I thought what is more homely than dirt? And the place that's associated with that is the El Santuaro, the Chimayo in New Mexico Most people call it Chimayo which is a Spanish mission church in rural New Mexico that is renowned for its holy dirt, which is said to have healing properties. It was a sacred indigenous site before it became a Catholic holy site and I thought it was a perfect place to start off my book.Lea Lane:
Yeah, well, I know many people go to get mud baths. That's kind of dirt and they feel very spiritual after having one of those baths.Lori Erickson:
I've had them.Lea Lane:
You look horrible, but you feel good. Yep, yep, right. How about stone? Stone is the oldest thing we can carry, and stone is an element that you discover at the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. Tell us more.Lori Erickson:
So Pipestone National Monument has been a holy site for tribal nations in the United States for many centuries. It's a place where stone is quarried, it's made into ceremonial pipes. It's a beautiful red stone that's relatively easy to carve. I mean, it's still a lot of work to quarry it. All the quarrying is done by hand and I love the idea of exploring how, again, like dirt, stone is not something that we immediately think of as holy, but once you start thinking about it, I think there are a lot of entry points for people For example, the number of people who travel and who pick up stones as a kind of talisman of their trip. The cairns that people create as they're walking on paths. The ways in which massive stones like Stonehenge have been a source of fascination for people. Pipestone was a place to reflect on all of those things.Lea Lane:
You mentioned that stones move. We think of them as immutable, but they're moving all the time, including with tourists. We move them around as well.Lori Erickson:
Well, that's right, and during the course of the research for that trip, I immersed myself in sort of a mini course in geology, which is not a subject that I was all that interested in before, I have to admit. I thought it was fascinating to. If you look at the earth from a longer time frame, it is an incredibly dynamic place of volcanoes and earthquakes and massive tectonic plates torquing each other and pushing up mountains, and so it was amusing to me to sort of shift perspective and realize, well, stones in one sense are sedentary, but in another sense they've always been on the move.Lea Lane:
One of my most treasured possessions is a stone that I found in the Catskill Mountains many years ago. I just picked it up. It was pretty, but I looked at it and there was a sea fossil in it and I understood then that, yes, this was the sea, this was what's the sea. It was so amazing. I have it on my shelf and I look at it very often. So, yes, stone is spiritual for sure. (Perfect example, yeah, whatever you mean.) Well rees, trees is another section and of course, they're among the oldest living things and many of us can feel their spirituality, especially the large ones. I know forest bathing is a big thing now, where people go into the forest and feel that spirituality. I know when I visited the Redwoods and Kauori the trees Howery Trees in New Zealand and other places. There's tremendous spirituality involved with it. Tell us about your visit to Redwood National Monument in California.Lori Erickson:
Well, it wasn't hard to decide where to find sacred trees, because I think almost everyone has a sense that the redwoods are an extraordinarily precious, precious ecosystem, and I went there to celebrate my 60th birthday. I wanted to sleep under the redwoods on my birthday and it was everything that I had dreamed of, and more. And so the redwoods became then a jumping off point for talking about trees in general, because in each of these chapters I wanted to make it clear that while I was writing about a particular place, I hope that people will take what I write and extrapolate it to their own lives, and so in that chapter, that people might think of their own connections to trees as sacred. I think many people have a sense for that, especially if you own a home. You know if you have trees in your yard, when one of them is damaged or you have to have it cut down, there's an incredible sense of loss, often gets to more than just sort of the utilitarian value of them, that we feel a connection to trees. They are a symbol, I think, of continuity, of beauty, of deep rootedness, and so, reflecting among them amid the redwoods, it's one of my favorite experiences that.Lea Lane:
I had Absolutely and we've learned, of course, through science and through novels and other writings, that trees communicate underground, they become communities. We have no idea if we put one tree down and the other trees are aware of it. So it's amazing what we don't know, but what we feel for them. Well, more than 70% of the earth is covered with water and about 40% of the earth's population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. So you figured, water has more spiritual devotees than most any other natural element. Talk about your experience with the hot springs of our guide.Lori Erickson:
So the water chapter is my favorite chapter in the book, and part of the reason is that I realized during the course of the research and writing that I am a water person in a way that I had not recognized before, and of course, water is a part of all of our lives in all sorts of ways. But for the water chapter I wanted to do something that was special and unusual for me. So I went to the hot springs of Oregon, which are a chance to experience water, I think, in its most enjoyable form. You know, hot springs aren't going to kill you, unless, of course, you get into a really, really hot springs. They're gentle, they're beautiful, they're womb-like in all sorts of ways, and in that chapter, unlike many of the places, I don't identify exactly where I went, because part of the ethic of hot springs is that you know you sort of want to discover them on your own. You don't want them to be overwhelmed with people. Well, you don't want a jacuzzi experience with sick people in a beer right, yes, yeah, and so if you're searching for hot springs, though, in Oregon you can find hundreds of them, and so I figured people could they could get the experience on their own, even if they didn't visit exactly the places, right?Lea Lane:
Well, even in Iceland, of course, when you go to the springs, there are thousands of people and it's another kind of experience. It's fun and it's also a type of spirituality with others, which I did enjoy. Now in Dunbar Cave in Tennessee, you found some interesting things, and one of them was there were swastikas in the cave. That was something that struck me. Tell me about that.Lori Erickson:
The chapter on sacred caves made me realize that worship in caves is probably the oldest form of religious worship in humanity. Probably humans worshiped in caves for 20,000 years. The Lascaux cave art in France is an example of ritual art that is many, many thousands of years old. In the United States there are many places that have rock art, pictographs and such, especially in the Southwest, but there are very few places where there is true dark zone cave art, and by that it means in the real depth of caves, and the Appalachian plateau is the only place that where these have been found. Dunbar Cave is the only public cave that you can tour that has them. The swastika symbol is one of the early symbols used by well many ancient cultures. Unfortunately it was co-opted by the Nazis, but it is an ancient symbol and it's one of the symbols that's deep in Dunbar Cave.Lea Lane:
Right Interesting. I love going to caves. It's beautiful. They light them up, sometimes so dramatically, and you walk along and you hear the water dripping and it's just a magical experience all over the world.Lori Erickson:
But I think people either love caves or they dislike caves. Yeah, one of the environments that people are not neutral on.Lea Lane:
Exactly. Well, we've all used the term or we've heard the term, spirit animals and describing people we admire, but tell us about the spirituality that you found at the Buffalo Roundup in South Dakota.Lori Erickson:
So Buffalo, who are more accurately termed bison but the terms are interchangeable in the United States. They've been a sacred animal for indigenous tribes in the United States and North America, and so I thought, well, that would be fascinating to go to the annual Roundup in Custer State Park when more than a thousand of these animals are brought into corrals for their annual that check up and they also separate out some of the calves that will be for sale. My father-in-law, years and years ago, was the one of the state veterinarians for the state of South Dakota, and so for many years I heard his stories and became fascinated by bison as a result of that, and so the chance to see the Roundup, to feel the power of more than a thousand of these magnificent creatures pounding by as they are brought into the corrals at the final event, it was an elemental, archetypal experience. You just felt the sense that people have been hearing that sound for thousands of years, and what a privilege it is to hear it today. We so nearly lost the Buffalo I was going to say they're coming back, right, they're coming back and they were down to just a few hundred, and it's a remarkable environmental success story that they are now no longer endangered and we can enjoy them once again.Lea Lane:
Right, that's wonderful. One of your chapters is lights and of course, nowadays especially, people want to see the Northern Lights. It's one of those bucket list items. On episode 16 on Alaska, author Midgie Moore gives a beautiful description of seeing the Northern Lights for the first time, and I remember seeing them for the first time as well, and I hope people try to do that in their lifetime. You mentioned your experience in Fairbanks. Tell us about it.Lori Erickson:
We talked about dirt as an example of something very, very humble, and maybe it's sort of hard to get your thoughts around that it's holy. I think the Northern Lights are at the opposite end of the spectrum. You cannot see the Northern Lights, I think, and be just transported by their beauty and their mystery. So I went to Fairbanks, which is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. I also reconnected with a cousin of mine there and that becomes part of the story. People would have to read the book to find out. But the Northern Lights, I mean, you have to work to do it, though. It's cold, it's dark. In order to see the lights you have to be up in the middle of the night and they're pretty creatures. You don't know when they're going to appear, and so during our week there, I was sleep deprived and sort of groggy and fueled with multiple cups of coffee throughout the day, but it was so worth it.Lea Lane:
It is worth it. I mean, you stand out there and sometimes it doesn't come for a long while. You say, well, maybe I should go to bed. And you say, well, wait, maybe not. And then if you go to bed, of course everyone says, oh, did you see them? Last night it was super. So it is a really a catch as catch can. But I will say about Fairbanks I don't know what it is there, but they have purple lights as well as green. It's a certain area that's special. So I would say, if you really want to see them, it's a sure thing if you stay there a few days in the winter, or even in the fall, it's one of the great experiences. Of course, the sky has so many beautiful things in it the dark skies with the stars, the rainbows. We should look up a little bit more for spirituality. Yes, now fire. Well, earth alone has fire. There's a quote from your book. Tell us more about Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.Lori Erickson:
So my chapter on Hawaii's sacred fire became even more poignant because, of course, the recent terrible fire disasters in Hawaii. I went to see into the lava lake of a volcano, which is it's not easy to do that Volcanoes National Park is one of the few places in the world you can do that if you are not a volcanologist. And to experience that elemental power, to feel the ways in which fire is both destructive and regenerative, was a place to reflect upon the ways in which destruction is really necessary for life. Looking back on that chapter now, it would have been a different chapter If I wrote it now, you know, given what has happened in Hawaii, but I think my general points are still valid. Hawaii as a place of incredible beauty and greenery, but it is also a place that has been shaped by fire and by destruction. That's how it was born and after fire destroys and it can take many, many centuries, millennia for it to come back. But Hawaii is the place that it is because of fire.Lea Lane:
Right, and it's one of the few places on earth where you can see it being created, being formed, yes, well, fascination with the skies has always been with us and you have a chapter called astronomy. Tell us why and what the fascination has been. It's pretty obvious. We've been talking about the sky, so go into it.Lori Erickson:
So the last chapter in the book and the place I chose to end my journey is Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is a remote, historical and sacred site. You have to work to get to Chaco. It's a horrible road to get there, very rough and washboard, but it's worth it, and part of why it's worth it is that so few people go there. I must say Chaco Canyon has I think it's about a dozen great houses, they're called, which are houses that were constructed about a thousand years ago, with hundreds of rooms. One of the great houses has 600 rooms, and it's not clear why. One theory is that they were pilgrimage destinations. But what is clear is that the houses have many astronomical alignments built into them, not only the houses but also the roads leading up to them. And so clearly the Chaco people, the ancestral Pueblan people, as they're called now they used to be called the Anasazi, but now that's no longer used it's clear that they spent a lot of time watching the heavens, and when you're in Chaco Canyon you can see why because it's one of the best places in the world to see stars. It's so remote, the air is so dry and clear, it's high desert and there's so few people there, and so it was a place where it seemed like heaven and earth really does intertwine. You could see why the Chaco and people would try to, in a sense, recreate on earth the symmetry that they had seen in the heavens.Lea Lane:
So it's a beautiful ending to a really beautiful book. I have to say I loved your book, thank you. The name of the podcast is Places I Remember, where you've already described so many natural wonders. But could you please end the episode with one special memory of yours.Lori Erickson:
But we haven't talked about this sacred air chapter, which is again one of my favorites For sacred air. It was a bit of a struggle to try to figure out. Well, how do you talk about sacred air? And then a friend suggested to me that I write about birds, and when I thought of birds I immediately thought of the Sandhill Crane migration in Central Nebraska along the Platte River every March, during which about a half a million Sandhill cranes are there for about four weeks on their way north. They stop in Nebraska and gain weight and eat a lot the rest of their epic journey north. It is amazing birdwatching, especially in the morning and in the evening when great flocks of cranes fly overhead to their roosting places in the river. And one experience in particular Bob and I on our last morning we got up early you always have to get up early in order to see the birds and we were perched with our binoculars looking out at the river and a few birds are starting to take off, and then a few more. And then something startled the birds, not clear what, maybe a coyote, or maybe a human moving somewhere, and suddenly it was probably 200,000 cranes. Oh, my. This guy all at once within the space of a minute, and the sound was overwhelming. It was like a freight train going through my mind. You could just feel the beat of their wings and it was this enormous rush of air and an elemental power that I mean. Both Bob and I just had tears streaming down our eyes. It was so powerful. It lasted only about a minute, but it was a wonderful example, I think, of the ways in which being in nature can be a profoundly spiritual experience if you're open to it. That's beautiful.Lea Lane:
Thank you, laurie Erickson, for coming to join us again and for your wonderful new book Every Step is Home, a Spiritual Geography from Appalachia to Alaska. You remind us that there are sacred elements and experiences to be discovered, and even the simplest and most familiar elements of our world. By sharing some of your discoveries, you encourage us to find our own. Thank, you.Lori Erickson:
Thank you so much for having me, Leah.