On the trail near the top, I met Jim Jandreau, a Lower Brule Lakota who manages Bear Butte State Park.
Jim is 65, a year younger than I am. And he grew up in Lyman County on a place just the other side of spiritually significant Medicine Butte, a few miles from our farm on the edge of the Lower Brule Reservation north of Reliance.
When we met on the trail last Thursday, Jim was testing a new hip, working his way slowly down from the summit he had just reached for the first time since surgery in February.
I congratulated him for that. I also told him I’d been to a memorial service for my friend Denise Ross down in Sturgis a couple of hours earlier, and was hiking up to the summit to pray for her.
Jim smiled and nodded: “Well, this is the place for it.”
Indeed, Bear Butte is the place for it. The geological anomaly — a mound of igneous rock that was thrust up through sedimentary layers millions of years ago — is a sacred place to many Native American tribes, and to non-Natives who recognize and embrace the butte’s essential role in Northern Plains spirituality.
On clear days, four states are visible from the 4,426-foot Bear Butte summit. You get there on foot, by a fairly rigorous three-mile round-trip hike that begins, for most, at the visitor center and parking lot about 1,200 feet below the summit.
The trail winds through hardwood groves, small clusters of tough ponderosa pine and clumps of big bluestem and other native grasses, taking you past multi-color prayer clothes and pouches left by Native worshippers. In the distance off to the east, in a restricted-access area near rocky crags, Native
people gathered for prayer and vision quests can be seen moving about in a camp.
If you’re lucky, you might hear a song, or a drumbeat. You might even feel a song, or a drumbeat.
What better place, what better way, I figured, to honor my friend and conclude a process of ceremonial goodbyes. Turned out my brother, Terry, figured the same thing. He had stopped at Bear Butte earlier that day, after a drive out from his home in Fort Pierre, and before the memorial service for Denise at Grace Lutheran Church in Sturgis.
Terry didn’t hike to the Bear Butte summit. But he soaked in the spirit of the place. He had done some similar spiritual work a week earlier, when he and his wife, Nancy, joined their son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, LaRayne, a Rosebud Tribe member, for a sun dance in the hills above the Little White River near the hamlet of Rosebud out in Todd County.
Terry didn’t dance. But he prayed for many things and many people while at the sun dance grounds, including our friend Denise and her family. He had gotten to know, to like and to admire her almost 20 years ago while covering the Capitol for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, while she was there for the Rapid City Journal.
A cancer survivor himself, he felt a particular connection to Denise during her heroic 7-year fight for life against increasingly difficult odds. He wrote about that last week in his column in the Mitchell Daily Republic, remembering times they covered the state Legislature and she lectured him for munching bagels.
He called her “Ross,” by the way. She called him “Woster.”
“My routine was to arrive early, make a round of the statehouse to check happenings, then return to the press room for a bagel and coffee,” Terry wrote. “I’d been doing that for years before Ross showed up.
“The first day I tried it after she arrived, she looked over in horror and said, ‘You're not going to eat that? It's nothing but processed carbs. You'll just be hungry the rest of the day.'
“I finished the bagel, but she took the fun out of it. Worse yet, I was hungry all day.
“I had a bagel last Saturday morning, just after I learned that Denise had died. At age 48, she and her husband, David, had two sons. She'd been living with and fighting with breast cancer and its complications for most of seven years.
“I could almost hear her voice as I bit into the bagel on Saturday. I smiled. Then I cried, for the passing of a lovely and talented young woman, a dogged reporter and a committed mother who was treated unfairly and taken too early by an evil, capricious disease.”
All true, including — unfortunately — that part about the evil, capricious disease. Denise fought it with courage and tenacity, researching her type of cancer and treatment options like a self-styled oncologist. She found clinical trials, cutting-edge treatments, diets and relaxation therapies and foundations for optimism against long odds that helped her survive years beyond her prognosis.
She was often accompanied by her father, Jerry Ross, who figured he put more than 75,0000 miles on his pickup driving Denise from one place to the next as she sought treatment and testing and searched for solutions. Or maybe it was 100,000 miles. It's hard to know exactly. Either way, they typically listened to Jerry's favored country western radio music on the road trips, even though Denise was a public-radio buff. But country western was something they did back when Denise was a kid in Mobridge and she went for a ride with her dad. So so tunes had history, and heart.
Whatever the station, Jerry said he would have listened to anything and driven a million miles for his daughter, and he wishes he’d had a chance to.
Denise forged ahead in challenging the disease not so much for herself as for the two sons, David and Jerryd, she was raising with her husband, David Larson. Because of her grit and smarts, the boys got more time with their mother than the prognosis seemed to allow. Still, it was not nearly enough. Not at 48, not with boys 8 and 9.
As my brother wrote, that's just evil, and capricious.
As you might expect, the memorial service for Denise included country music, most notably Willie Nelson's "Something You Get Through." As Nelson crooned "It's not something you get over; but it's something you get through," the eyes of family and friends grew teary. And tears flowed freely when a close friend read a letter Denise had written to her sons while she was in hospice. She told them they were the best of her, and loving them was the best things she ever did. Denise also said in the letter that she’d always be with them, and told them what she wanted most for them was for them to be caring people who help others.
The place broke down during that reading, of course. And no one beyond the immediate family was more overcome with emotions than Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former U.S. congresswoman and current president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
And Denise Ross’ friend.
Getting to know the each other, beyond their jobs
Born six months apart in 1970, Denise Ross and Stephanie Herseth were high-achieving South Dakota students who grew into confident, high-achieving young women who focused on their careers early in their adult lives. They met when Herseth was running against three other Democrats in the U.S. House primary campaign.
“We met in the Rapid City Journal office,” Herseth Sandlin says. “She mentioned that we were the same age. And I appreciated getting decent coverage from the Rapid City Journal during that primary.”
Herseth Sandlin won that primary comfortably over her main challenger, Rick Weiland, then showed well in a losing generally election race against still-formidable four-term Gov. Bill Janklow. But less than two years later Herseth Sandlin won the House seat in a 2004 special election after Janklow resigned his office after driving through a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist.
Denise covered the Janklow trial and the special election, along with the many other news obligations she had. At the same time, she was also building a professional relationship with Herseth Sandlin that would evolve into something more personal a few years later, after Denise left the Rapid City Journal late in 2006 to strike out on her own.
“It was really about the time that she left the Journal and I was expecting Zachary that we connected in a different way,” Herseth Sandlin said.
It was a way you might expect women in their late 30s to connect as they are preparing to become first-time mothers. Herseth Sandlin’s son, Zachary Lars Sandlin, was born on Dec. 15th, 2008, and Denise’s son, David Alexander Larson, was born on Feb. 5, 2009.
Their boys drew them closer together, as they put the boys together from time to time and talked, mom to mom, about children’s books and parenting and the challenges of mixing careers with kids. Eventually they talked about cancer, too.
“When she was diagnosed we talked about that, of course. And she was so optimistic about a good outcome,” Herseth Sandlin said. “Then the cancer reoccurred, and I started to get more updates from Denise. There was a time in there when we got the boys together — Denise had Jerryd then, too — and I think that was the first time I saw Denise vulnerable. She and her husband, David, were talking then about what might happen.”
But the “what might” rarely slowed Denise Ross down for long. As she said in an hour-long special on living with Stage 4 breast cancer on South Dakota public radio with Lori Walsh: “It wasn’t ever something I wanted to define me. I just wanted to live my life.”
As a mother of two young sons and the wife of a surgical nurse with a busy home to manage, there wasn’t much choice there, she said.
“You still have garbage to take out and laundry to do and kids to get to school,” Denise said. “I mean, you’re living your life.”
Looking on as a colleague and a friend, I thought she lived her life as fully as it’s possible to do, cancer or not. So she made the rounds of activities and interests almost as she always had before, except that she focused more and more on her boys and her home and her husband and less on her career and her work.
“I was grateful for every day for every day I got to have with my boys,” she told Walsh.
Which didn’t mean turning away from friends. So despite complications in treatments for her worsening cancer, she showed up in Sioux Falls when her friend was named president of Augustana University.
“She came to my inauguration,” Herseth Sandlin said. “Here she was battling cancer and she drove all the way across the state to be there for it.”
Herseth Sandlin sobbed when she talked about that, just as she did when we spoke after the memorial service at Grace Lutheran Church. She also recalled how she had broken down while speaking by phone with Denise, two days before she entered hospice.
“Even though she was remaining strong, I started crying,” Herseth Sandlin said. “And Denise said, ‘That’s OK. You’ve got to feel it.’”
Herseth Sandlin feels guilty that she wasn’t able to call Denise during her time in hospice.
“Every time I’d get ready to call, I’d start crying,” she said.
Instead, she put her law degree and legal experience to work in helping Denise’s husband, David, and the family with such matters, making a difference that way.
I have no doubt that Denise would understand her friend’s emotions. And Denise was busy, anyway, with more visitors than any of the hospice staff could remember for a patient there. The stream was nearly constant, leaving David and Jerry to limit visitors when they thought Denise needed rest.
Leave it to that "kid" to set a standard, even in hospice.
For almost all who enter, hospice is a place of endings, sooner or later. But the woman with the lion’s heart didn’t see it that way. Not with boys 8 and 9 in need of a mother.
Woster, look me in the eye and swear you didn't!
When I stopped for the first time to see Denise in hospice, I had been speaking to Lori Walsh on the phone out in the parking lot. Along with the cancer special, Denise had worked with Lori in making appearances as one of the Dakota Political Junkies on Lori’s public-broadcasting radio show, In the Moment.
So after my greeting to Denise, I told her that Lori sent her love.
A familiar shadow of suspicion crossed her face.
“Woster,” she snapped back. “Were you on the radio talking about me going to hospice?”
I laughed and started to say something, but Denise interrupted, emphatically.
“Woster, look me in the eye and swear to me you did not go on the radio and talk about me being in hospice,” she demanded.
I glanced at her dad. He nodded his head and smiled, through tears, as if to say "That's my girl. Still feisty."
So I looked Denise in the eye and swore, as ordered. I also realized that whatever cancer had done to her body, it still hadn’t touched her spirit. And during the next 40 minutes or so I sat and held her hand and mostly listened, as she talked about healthy diets and the importance of exercise, about the need for her dad, Jerry, to build a planter on the patio of her room, on the friends she had seen and what they’d said, about what she would do when she got out of hospice.
Wait, what? Get out of hospice? Yeah, more on that in a second.
Of course, Denise talked about her cancer, her difficult fight nearly seven year road since the diagnosis and surgery, the chemo, radiation and, after a hopeful period, the recurrence. And she talked about her decision to come into hospice, to get a rest, she said, to build up her strength, she said, so she could resume the battle.
Oh, yeah, she was planning on getting out.
“Woster,” she said with a steely stare. “Do not bet against me walking out of here. Do not!”
I replied: “Kid, I wouldn’t be against you on anything, ever.”
I’d called her “kid” for about as long as I’d known her. She called me “Woster.”
The names worked, I thought, for both of us. But as she fought the cancer and became more and more not just my friend by my hero, I asked her once if “kid” was still OK for a woman of enormous strength and accomplishment.
“Oh yeah, Woster, keep calling me ‘kid.’ I like it,” she said. “It makes me feel young.”
She was young, way too young to die. But she was really young back when we first met, over the telephone. She was an undergrad journalism major at SDSU and working as an intern for the Rapid city Journal. I was 18 years older, pretty well experienced in the news game and working as the Journal’s capital reporter when I called the newsroom to dictate a story.
Yes, dictate a story, as in a pre-laptop enterprise that insolved scribbled in a notebook and reading the scribblings over the phone to someone in the newsroom who had drawn short straw, a draw often based on seniority, and typed the dictation into a word processor. It was evening and I was near or past deadline when I called.
Our exchange went something like this:
“Hi, this is Denise,” she said.
“Who?” I said.
“Denise,” she said. “Denise Ross.”
“Who are you?” I said.
“I’m the intern,” she said. “I’m going to take your dictation.”
I wasn’t thrilled. Dictating a story on deadline, and taking that dictation, is a process filled with the potential for error and misunderstanding. To say nothing of aggravation, on both ends.
So when I said, “Great, an intern. Just what I need” I didn’t say it with my out-loud voice. But Denise seemed to hear it, and diffuse it.
“I’m ready if you are,” she said.
I began reading my story into the phone — one, by the way, with a cord going to the receiver and line going into the wall — defining quotes, adding punctuation, and pausing periodically to let her catch up. Eventually she asked: “Why do you keep pausing?”
“So you can catch up,” I said.
She paused herself, but only for a second or two.
“I’m caught up,” she said.
Turns out, she was, in taking dictation and a lot more. But that night she took the dictation quickly and perfectly, making an impression on me. I asked about “the kid who took my dictation,” a couple of times after that.
And “kid” seemed to stick, even though I don’t recall seeing or talking to Denise for years after her internship ended. But she made an impression with Journal staffers and management that mattered five years later when Denise applied for a job covering the northern Black Hills.
I was working for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader then, living in the city and joining my brother, Terry, the Argus capital reporter, during the legislative sessions. Those were still good times in the newspaper business, with full or close-to-full newsroom staffs and solid commitment to chasing the news and looking under the covers of state government.
Denise joined the legislative team in Pierre in 1999 after switching Journal jobs to become the paper’s political and government reporter. So I got to get better acquainted with “the kid,” first during legislative sessions and then, in 2002, even better when I moved to Rapid City and returned to the Journal.
"Oh, Woooster, you have to know what a blog is by now"
Two years later, Bill Harlan came to me with an offer to join him and Denise in an online venture for the Journal called a web log, or blog. The idea was to raise points and issues and questions about the 2004 campaign, featuring U.S. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and Republican challenger John Thune, then engage blog readers in conversations online.
He wanted to call the thing Mount Blogmore.
I liked the name, but still wasn’t sure what the heck it was. Nor was I sure I needed anymore news work. So Harlan called on Denise to help persuade me. Together they made a compelling argument that this blog thing was cutting-edge online stuff, a sign of things to come. They said “blogging” could supplement and emphasize reporting we were doing on the 2004 race and a lot more.
Besides, they said, it could also be fun.
When they were finished, I admitted that I kind of liked the idea of bolstering our coverage and engaging readers. But I still had one question: “What exactly is a blog again?”
That inspired a familiar “Oh, Wooooster,” from Denise and a response from Bill that began with a deep breath and went something like this:
“OK, Denise, I’m leaving Woster’s online education in your hands for now,” he said. “You bring him up to the Commodore 64, then we’ll tag team him from there.”
Let’s just say I never really evolved all that far beyond the Commodore 64. But they tag-teamed me anyway. And sometimes they simply carried me, hoisting me up one tiny level at a time in online capabilities over the next few years. And the three or us teamed up to make Mount Blogmore the biggest thing online in South Dakota politics, though some might have argued otherwise.
Eventually other blogs would begin to catch up. Denise would move on to other jobs. Bill would leave for a great job at the Sanford Lab. Other blogs would pass Blogmore. And while Mount Blogmore continued until I left the Journal in August of 2013 — sometimes with me moderating and writing it solo, sometimes with help from another staffer, most notably David Montgomery — it was never quite what it was when the three of us were at the controls.
It was the right time, the right name and the right players. And we got the jump on the blogosphere.
But Denise always thought it could again be what it was, and more. And the fine points were something she was pondering in detail in hospice. She brought it up one day shortly after Harlan and I walked into her hospice room.
“Ah, the Blogmore team, back together again,” she smiled from bed. But she had much more in mind than a memory and a smile.
“We should get Mount Blogmore going again,” she said. “There’s an audience out there for it. I hear from a lot of people that they’d read it.”
It was not a surprise to hear that Denise had a plan for rebuilding and marketing Mount Blogmore. She was expecting a meeting with us sometime after she got out of hospice. And we were encouraged to expect one, too.
Harlan was fully prepared to return from his home in Columbus, Georgia for such an event, should good fortune and Denise’s powerful will make it possible.
Each day made it clearer, however, that her plan to “graduate” from hospice wasn’t likely. When Harlan and I stopped in to see her at hospice the morning I was to drive Bill to the airport for his flight back to Georgia, the decline even from the day before was noticeable.
It was a hard goodbye for Bill there at Denise’s hospice bed. He had mentored and supported Denise during her early years at the Journal and also teamed with her on some of the paper’s best coverage of key issues during Bill Janklow’s last term as governor.
“That’s probably the last time I’ll see her,” he said as we walked down the hall, evoking tears from both of us.
And it was the last time he saw her.
The last time I saw her was three days later. I sat next to her bed, held her hand and thanked her for her friendship. I also told her how much she had inspired me with her courage and intellect and her commitment to her boys. I prayed there, too, although I wasn’t quite finished with that.
That night Denise’s superstar of a father, Jerry, texted a group of us to say that that his only daughter had died. Soon Bill called, and we shared our grief. I also mentioned that brother Terry would be praying for Denise the next day at the sun dance.
“A perfect place for it,” Bill said, adding that he would be lighting a candle for Denise the next day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbus. And I said I would call out her name during the petition prayers at Mass at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church in North Rapid City.
“Sounds like we’ve got it covered,” Harlan said. “Maybe one of our messages will get through.”
Or maybe all of them, including the one I sent up from the summit of Bear Butte not long before sundown on the day of Denise’s memorial service. I think she would have liked the idea. She told Lori Walsh on the radio that she had found solace and strength in time outdoors.
“Of course, I feel better when I’m outdoors, in nature,” she said. “I feel like I’m listening to my body more.”
I listened to my body and the mountain as I headed up the trail. I planned to hold my prayers for Denise until the summit. But I prayed throughout my hike up, one decade of the Rosary at a time, for my wife, Mary, for each of our children, and for our grandchildren; also for friends who are struggling with despair or addictions; for immigrants and refugees; for justice for Native Americans and other minorities; for my bishop, Robert Gruss, for my cousin, Monsignor Woster, and other priests; for the canonization of Nicholas Black Elk; for the souls of family and friends who have passed on; and for the lost and least among us.
Hiking to the summit, one prayer at a time
My steps fell into a slow, Hail Mary rhythm as I hiked to the musical squeak and chirp of spotted towhees and the raspy chatter of magpies. I moved pragmatically, concentrating on my prayers and my steps as I worked my way up steep slopes across often-unstable footing, stopping regularly to drink and to consider the world around me and our place in it.
When I stopped to chat with Jim Jandreau on the trail, he said he had texted a picture from the top to his son, who was cutting hay on family land not far from the Butte.
“Good service up there, right?” I said.
“Great service up there,” he said.
We shared a smile, knowing we weren't just talking about cell phones.
But I did plan to send pictures to my own family as I plodded up the trail, finally climbing the staircase up onto the wooden platform at the summit. Before snapping my own pictures, though, I offered to take a few of a young Native American couple who were struggling to get the right angle with a selfie.
After I snapped their picture with each of their cell cameras, I sat down on a bench, took of my hat and took a sip from my almost-empty water bottle. The young man noticed and pulled a full bottle from his backpack: “Water?” he asked?
I took it, gladly. He examined me further, reached some sort of a conclusion and rummaged around in his backpack again: “Trail bar?”
I took that gladly, too. He came better prepared than I, and willing to share — a blessing all its own.
After the couple headed down, I snapped and sent pictures from the top to Mary, to my son, Casey, and to my daughter, Meghan. Mary and I have been to the summit a couple of times together, Casey and I just once. Meghan looks forward to her first visit.
In my texts, I told them I was there to pray for Denise.
“Can you feel her up there?” Meghan asked by text.
“Yes,” I texted back.
Then I wondered: Did I really feel her or did I simply feel the loss of her? And is there a meaningful difference, at such a place, at such a time?
Of this I’m sure: There was a presence there on the summit, one that could be felt if not necessarily understood. The service is great up there, after all.
So I said my prayers for Denise, then whispered: “Goodbye, my friend.”
The silence of the summit was her reply.