ROCHFORD | In the last 10 days alone, we’ve witnessed carnage at an Orlando nightclub, the heart-breaking tragedy of a little boy dragged off by an alligator at the happiest place on Earth and a contentious presidential campaign marked by an ongoing dialogue so divisive it threatens to turn millions away from participating in the electoral process at all.
But down the trail less traveled, in the shady, well-watered heart of the Black Hills, is a refuge a world away from your regular day.
Six years ago, Dave Snyder, a retired pig farmer who spent four years as executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority when the Sanford Lab in Lead was in its infancy, established the Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary as a far-away respite from the modern world.
Here, on an 80-acre preserve, stands of aspen replace 24/7 news cycles, a gurgling brook overpowers breathless political pundits and alpine meadows help slow the heart rate and restore the soul.
“I have long felt that we have a lot of conflict in the world and that we live in a time too often dominated by separateness, a separateness that results in human conflict and contentious interactions,” Snyder says during a pause in building fence on his property last week. “I’ve always been open to the fact that what I believe may be different than someone else’s beliefs, but it doesn’t necessarily make me right or wrong.
“Pathways Sanctuary is about tolerance,” he explains. “When we look beyond our differences, we as humans are all the same. I wanted to create a place that embraced that concept.”
And he did.
Down a quiet lane off Rochford Road, surrounded by the wondrous woodlands of Black Hills National Forest, a large wooden gate signals arrival at Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary and opens to another world.
Just inside the gate, visitors discover walking sticks and umbrellas to aid their journey down the path of compassion, forgiveness and healing. Soon, a heroic statue called “The Invocation,” soars heavenward, depicting a Native American man atop his steed holding a buffalo skull to the sky.
Along the meandering 1.2-mile trail, visitors find other artwork and circle a large meadow and traipse through the trees, discovering hand-hewn benches for solitary introspection and notepads on which to record their thoughts.
“I love the world,” 4-year-old Jenna wrote in one notebook.
“I am a skeptic to the core,” an unnamed visitor penned in another. “If I can’t see it or touch it, it does not exist. But there is something in this place that I cannot explain. I feel joy, sorrow, peace, beauty, and a whole range of human emotions, all at the same time.”
At the headwaters of Elk Creek, a small pond reflects the pines and billowy clouds overhead. Along the route, whitetail deer bound through a grassy meadow while a jackrabbit, stirred to action by an approaching hiker, hops away into the darkened forest.
Inspirational plaques scattered along the route tout quotations from the history’s great philosophers and religious leaders, allowing visitors to contemplate life on a larger scale, as well as the gentle breezes which tend to carry away the accumulated stresses of the day.
When Snyder, now 71, created this special place, he says he had no idea if anyone would ever visit. To date, he’s relied solely on word-of-mouth and a website to attract prospective visitors. But today, a half-dozen years after he opened the gate at the Juso Ranch homestead he had acquired in 1993, he notices some visitors stay for two or three hours, meditating and taking in the natural world around them in an attempt to break-away from the stresses of the modern day.
“As it turned out, it’s really created a space that seems to be needed,” Snyder says. “No matter who you are or what you believe, you can come out here and be who you are.
“It’s probably the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”