When You Wish Upon A Mound...

by Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde


She was so vivacious and charismatic that I went up and introduced myself after the talk she gave.  When I told her I was from St. Louis, she immediately asked, “Have you ever been to Cahokia Mounds?”  “Well, my kids went on school trips... I’ve been meaning to go since they built the new visitor’s center...,” I muttered my reply.  “You have to go,” she urged.  “It’s one of the most wonderful, inspiring Native American sites in all of North America.  Promise me you’ll go.”  “Sure,” I said.


I met Judie in October 2009 when she spoke at a retreat for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at the lovely Tamaya Resort north of Albuquerque.  Judie and I had an instant rapport, and, when we met for lunch in Santa Fe a week or so later, she again pressed us to go to Cahokia Mounds.  Again we promised.  But life intervenes, and by the time we returned to Santa Fe the following summer and called Judie to get together, we still hadn’t gone.  

We tried to make a lunch date, but she was busy and so were we.  We were volunteering for the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, and we were hunting for a house.  In the course of hanging out in Santa Fe for three weeks, it became very clear to us that this was the place we wanted to live.  We decided that owning two houses was not for us.  We needed to commit fully to a new community and a new life, so we were ready to make a full move.  

When Judie heard we had bought a house and that we had to sell our house in St. Louis, again came the exhortation:  “Now you really have to go to Cahokia and send a prayer to the heavens that you will sell your house fast.”  “Where should we do that?” I asked.  “You’ll know it when you get there,” she replied mysteriously.

By the end of September we owned two houses.  Since we had no idea how fast we would be able to sell our St. Louis home, we figured we needed at least a chair to sit in when we returned to Santa Fe.  The chair idea grew and morphed, and pretty soon we decided to move half the contents of our house in St. Louis so we’d be comfortable in Santa Fe.  In December we came to Santa Fe to enjoy our home and see what winter was like at 7100 feet.  

We went back to St. Louis in early January, with a plan to spend the next three months getting our house ready for sale in the spring.  We worked hard:  depersonalizing and de-cluttering the house became our full-time job.  Judie’s exhortation lurked in the back of my mind. We needed to sell our house; we really couldn’t manage two homes. With that in mind, we decided that on our wedding anniversary, January 28, we would go check out Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park.

The park is near Collinsville, Illinois, only a 50-minute drive from our house.  It is designated a National Historic Landmark as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Occasional articles in National Geographic Magazine about ongoing archeological research reminded me that I needed to visit this important site in my own backyard.  Cahokia had been the largest pre-Columbian community in North America, the most sophisticated pre-historic Native American civilization north of Mexico.  Large earthen structures were build by Mound Builders who flourished between 700 and 1400 C.E. over a 6 square mile area.  At its peak, it is estimated that over 100,000 people lived in the area in a city larger than London in 1250 C.E.  Mounds were scattered all over the greater St. Louis area and, over time, they were torn down before their significance was realized.  St. Louis is still called the Mound City.  Monk’s Mound at 100 feet high is the both the geographic and spiritual center of Cahokia.  Many Native Americans and other folks consider the site to be sacred and the source of powerful psychic energy.  I think my friend Judie is definitely one of these folks.

My husband and I drove over to the Collinsville area wondering what we would find there.  Would we know where to send out our little prayer?  It was a gorgeous January day.  It was chilly, but the bright sun made the snow sparkle.  Our first stop had to be the beautiful, recently built interpretive center where we saw dioramas of what life might have been like for the Mound Builders.  The grounds are not very dramatic, so the information at the center was invaluable for getting a feeling of what might have happened there over a thousand years ago.

Monk’s Mound called to us from across the snowy field.  With sloped sides and a flat top, it was taller than anything around.  We climbed the stairs, which were definitely not 1000 years old but probably OSHA approved, and wandered around the open terrace.  Off in the distance we could see the St. Louis Arch and the mighty Mississippi flowing before it -- an iconic vista.  Closer to the Mound, the view wasn’t so lovely.  We looked out onto a dump, then looked away.  We had a more pressing purpose.  We had to figure out where to send our prayer off to the heavens.  We looked around and decided that this had to be the place.  We waved our arms and cried out, “Please, let us sell our house fast!”  Okay, not a very sophisticated prayer, but it was heartfelt.  Besides, we were improvising, and it was getting darker and colder.  We needed to head home.

We worked full time for three months, recycling everything we could recycle, donating hundreds of books, lots of clothing and countless items we decided we no longer needed.  We were moving to half the space we had, so we had to pare things down.  By April 1, the house went on the market and on April 2 we flew to Santa Fe to remind ourselves why we’d been working so hard.

We returned to St. Louis after two weeks, and two days later we received an offer on our house!  Two families had looked at it; one made an offer.  It wasn’t an easy process, and there were many bumps on the road to closing, but the deal did go through at last.  On May 20 we became full-time residents of Santa Fe, ready to start a new life. 

Had our prayer on top of Monk’s Mound made it happen?  Had that short little prayer been our secret weapon in the horrible real estate market of 2011?  I’d like to think it was.  I’m sure our friend Judie thinks so too.  When you wish upon a mound, your wish may indeed come true!


Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde and her husband Michael have recently moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they are determined to maintain their awe of the natural wonders of their new home state.  They intend to continue to behave like “tourists” and explore New Mexico’s beautiful and interesting places.    

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