Thin places. Ancient Celtic Christians used the term to refer to those places where heaven and earth seemed closer than normal – that is, where the space between heaven and earth was indeed thin.
Eric Weiner has described thin places as “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine…”
However you prefer to describe them, thin places are those spaces that are understood to be special, transcendent, perhaps even sacred.
I have encountered several such thin places during my explorations of the American West. Medicine Wheel (Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark) in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains was the most recent. (Another recent example is Devils Tower, also in Wyoming.)
The Medicine Wheel sits high atop a mountain in the Bighorns (nearly 10,000 feet in elevation) with a stunning 360-degree view of 18,000 acres of mountain wilderness. The stones that comprise the Medicine Wheel form an 80-foot diameter circle with stone spokes radiating outward from the center where a stone represents the Creator. The name “Medicine Wheel” was applied to the site by white men who saw it in the late 1800s.
Despite the historically recent “discovery” (USFS term, not mine) by white men, the wheel is believed to have been constructed 300-800 years ago by Plains Indians. The various cairns that comprise the wheel point to rising and setting places of the sun and stars around the summer solstice. Interestingly, while the solstice alignments are still accurate, the wheel’s alignment with stars would have been most accurate around 1200 A.D. (See Bighorn Medicine Wheel at Stanford SOLAR Center for more on this topic.)
Today the site is still viewed as significant historically and spiritually by Native American tribes. As evidence of this significance, the site is adorned with prayer cloths and other sacred items.
This site is worth visiting while you are in the Bighorns if you are interested in historical sites or Native tradition/spirituality. The parking area is approximately 1.5 miles from the wheel, so come prepared for a summer hike at high altitude (bring water and appropriate hiking gear as the weather can change fast at this elevation).
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is located on the north side of ALT 14 in the Wyoming Bighorn Mountains. Approaching from the east, take Interstate 90 to Ranchester, then follow Highway 14 to ALT 14. Approaching from Yellowstone National Park and Cody in the west, take ALT 14 from Cody.