“Custer for Buffalo and Buffalo for Custer”

August 1

day 13_045DSC_0045 This was the refrain I kept repeating as we traveled toward the Wyoming town of Buffalo after leaving Custer State Park in South Dakota (where we saw all the buffalo/bison). The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (site of the infamous Custer’s Last Stand) is just a short 110 miles north of our base camp in Buffalo and we knew it was something we wanted to see. 

Map Buffalo to Little Bighorn 110 miles When we woke in the morning, the skies were even smokier than the night before, and the beautiful views of the Bighorns still eluded me. 

On this day we traveled I-90 north through a dreary murky world, trying to get an idea of what the surrounding landscape  might have looked like on a clear day. There isn’t a lot to see along this stretch of I-90 without the views of the beautiful mountains and broad vistas.  Instead I kept checking the iPhone for InciWeb reports of the fires, reading that smoky skies north of Buffalo from the Rosebud Complex firesthe worst fire was actually just a few miles north of us, right near our destination.  I could see road closures, and hoped that at least the interstate was still open.

New name in 1991 Arriving at our turn up the hill toward the monument, we were worried when we saw the “road closed ahead” barriers, but thankfully it was just the road past the monument, and  not ours.

The more amazing thing about the day, however, was that as we neared the source of the fires, the smoke thinned and thinned and eventually was completely gone except for the big, dark plume at the fire just northeast of us near Rosebud. To the east, south, and west, the Montana skies opened up in all their Big Sky glory, filled with wild clouds flying to the southeast and brilliant sunshine. Sometimes I think it is more than just luck that follows us around on these roads.

day 13_032DSC_0032 Often, when traveling in this part of the world, as when working in the wilderness in the past, I find myself slipping back into thoughts of what it must have been like to be an Indian living here before the white man arrived.  I look toward the skyline and imagine being on a horse overlooking a ravine or follow an old track with images of a heavily laden travois trailing behind me. Somehow this morning, as we drove north through small valleys along rivers lined with cottonwoods, I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be a young boy of 18, from somewhere in Illinois, riding along these meandering streams in hostile country, scared and trying to hide it, wondering what in the world his commander must be thinking.

I grew up with Cowboys and Indians, with the Indians most often being the “bad guys”.  I lived through the awakening of our culture to the true atrocities of what was done to our native people, day 13_024DSC_0024highlighted again on this trip as we visited Wounded Knee. I read the book as so many others did, and turned with so many to the belief that we were the “bad guys”.  But somehow on this smoky morning, I felt sadness for those young boys who followed their leaders into the wild west and tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them.  Maybe it is because I have had two of my own young boy grandsons led into war, two boys who tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them and suffer the sad consequences.  Of course, that is another story.

markers for Indians who fell at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Imagine my surprise to find out that at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, the story of the clash of both these cultures would be presented with such insight and authenticity.  No one was the “bad guy”. Well, almost no one.  I can’t help looking at photos of Colonel George Armstrong Custer and thinking, “That man was crazy.  He looks crazy!” 

Little Bighorn is a special place.  The history has been well documented, the story studied and written from so many angles, you can find it anywhere.  However, the actuality of walking this sacred ground is something that can’t be written about very well.  It is a gut reaction, and no matter what your personal slant on this part of history, you will be moved if you have a soul.

day 13_010DSC_0010 The four of us wandered through the incredibly well done Visitor Center, and landed in a small theater to watch an Oscar-worthy documentary about the battle, the players, the strategy, and the politics.  Yeah, it even made me cry. The movie used animated arrows to describe the movement of both sides toward the fated conflict, and the soft voices of Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow told the story of what this battle meant to them.  Then a small quiet voice of a young solder talked about how it felt to be in this place on the fated day.  It sounded just like that 18 year old boy I imagined wandering on his horse along the cottonwood lined streams.

We then took our time to walk through the museum and I was mesmerized by the famous photo of Sitting Bull, a life sized reproduction.  Can you see brilliance and intelligence and compassion and resolution in a simple old black and white photo?  I did!  Can you see crazy insanity in a photo of a man?  Looking at Custer’s photo, I wondered what made him tick, as many other historians have wondered and researched as well.

the original marker with the names of the white soldiers who died The book and gift shop was a treasure of history, with sections devoted to each part of the conflict and its as yet unresolved problems.  What still stays with me is the way that the entire story was presented so beautifully, so fully, and with so much cooperation between once warring tribes and the invading white men.  I bought a shiny new copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and a small slim volume documenting the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”.  It is irrelevant, or almost irrelevant that my great-great grandmother was Cherokee, but I still wanted that book.  A tiny part of the few family roots that I can actually track go back to the hardwood forests of the Carolinas when the Cherokee were still there.

at the Little Bighorn Battlefield After being thoroughly moved by the stories, the exhibits, the movie, the photos, we wandered off to drive the five mile narrow road that follows the famous ridge above the Little Bighorn River.  We saw the markers that were placed after the battle, another story worth seeking out.  We saw Custer’s marker, and pictured him behind the six horses that he killed in a futile attempt to make some kind of barrier between him and Death. We saw the new markers for where the Indians fell as well, testament to the fact that this place is sacred to the tribes as well as the white man. 

What struck me most of all was the understanding that the Indians won this battle, but it was the marker of the end for them.  Here they lost the war.  There was such a huge outpouring of outrage at the time that congress enacted all sorts of programs to once and for all eradicate the “bad guys” from the rich west they wanted to exploit.  Manifest Destiny and all that.  It was a day for contemplation as well.  I stood on those golden hills with that gorgeous Montana sky above me and wondered just what our country would have looked like if Manifest Destiny had failed. What it would look like today if we stayed where we belonged, but then how far east would that line go? The thirteen colonies?  Ohio? Or maybe the Mississippi River?  What kind of country would we have been in the world if we had treated our native people with true respect?  the Bighorn Mountains are waiting for us

Time travel isn’t possible, you can’t go back and change anything, and even if you could, what kind of other messes would arise if you did?

It has taken me a month to write about this place.  At the moment, it is 5 in the morning on September 10th in Rocky Point.  Little Bighorn affected me profoundly in ways that have been meandering around in my soul for awhile now, and I wasn’t sure I could even come close to conveying what it was like to be there in any kind of way that mattered.  You can view it as simply history, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit the lovely center, or you can stand there and feel the place.  However it strikes you, it is a place not to be missed.

August 27 Continental Divide to Fort Peck

The rest of the photos for this day of travels are linked here.

Divide_to_FortPeck The wind blew hard all night, yet it never really cooled off until this morning.  We are surrounded by thin lodgepole pines with a few subalpine fir trees in this high elevation habitat, more than 5000 feet.  I was surprised at the warmth, and could feel the difference in the air.  We are over the Continental Divide and the climate is now more influenced by continental air masses rather than the Pacific air flow that controls much of the weather in the northwest.  The major difference is felt in the summer rains that happen east of the Rockies.  Out west we have a long dry summer, and the soils reflect that difference.  The deep dark soils found on the plains get summer rain. 

I was grateful that the campground seemed to be well managed, without many dead or diseased trees, especially as I watched them whirl and twirl in the high winds.  The sound was soothing during the night, and I slept really well in spite of the warmth and slight humidity.  Morning sunlight illuminated the high mountains of Glacier Park to our north as we hooked up the rig and were on the road by 7:45, hoping to make up the extra miles we would have to drive due to our early stop in the forest.  I drove, and in spite of the wind, was pleasantly surprised at how well the rig handled.  I think most of the wind was coming directly from behind, and we were being pushed along, not a bad thing for the gas mileage on this day.

FortPeck_to_Dickinson (12)Within a very short few miles we were out of the mountains, passing through East Glacier, and onto the high plains.  This part of Montana seemed very dry, with only a few wheat fields with short stubby wheat nearing harvest.  As we traveled east, the wheat fields became more prevalent, with wide strips of fallow land.  I noticed a lot off what appeared to be CRP grasslands, the Conservation Reserve Program set up to remove some fields from production, seed them to  grass for a minimum of ten years, and pay the farmers a stipend for doing so.  The main objective is to protect highly erodible lands from severe erosion, but it also helps to keep crop prices up.  Could agriculture manage at all in this country without government support?  Who knows, but I can’t imagine the free market system really working when it comes to food production.  Wonder how the big corporations would outsource it if they didn’t have the government subsidies for agriculture.

After being in the close up hills of the California foothills, covered with thick brushy vegetation, I especially appreciated the wide view of sky and plains.  Subtlety becomes the norm, with small differences providing entertainment.  As the miles slid by I noticed that the grasses on the right of ways were becoming more lush and green, reflecting the increasing precipitation as we traveled east. 

Our route is still Highway 2, so far a two lane road with excellent surface and very little traffic.  In the past, I have crossed Montana in I-90 and the difference is striking.  It’s wonderful to travel along at 60mph without having to worry about the heavy truck traffic on the interstate. We stopped in Shelby to try for an internet connection, and a phone connection to cancel our Ontario Provincial Park reservations.  It was a bit of a shock to find out that this would cost us a 50 percent fee to cancel simply because our reservations were made more than a month ago.  I debated a moment, then decided to do it anyway.  Somehow it is more enticing to travel northern Wisconsin and The Upper Peninsula of Michigan than the long miles through forest along Canadian Highway 17.  Part of this may have to do with the time I spent on google earth last week viewing the route.  While our destinations were gorgeous, most of the route of several hundred miles seemed to be through flat thickly vegetated forestlands dominated by scraggly spruce without many views.  The decision is made, the reservations cancelled, and we now have 5 extra days to travel spontaneously.  Hopefully the Labor Day weekend campers won’t be a big problem.

Divide_to_FortPeck (2) Around mid day, we reached Havre, Montana, a town I have heard of through work but never seen.  There is a soil survey office in Havre, and it’s difficult to get soil scientists to apply for the MLRA Soil Survey Leader position for some reason.  As we drove into town, Mo checked the AAA book and found information about several interesting historical sites that we decided to take the time to visit. Something I am discovering about our NUVI is that a specific address is usually required to find something.  When I search for attractions, I get things like bowling alleys and golf courses, but not campgrounds and cultural attractions like the one we wanted.  I do hope that when I get access again to Garmin.com, I can buy extras that hopefully include campgrounds! After a bit of a mix-up  regarding the location of 3rd Ave vs 3rd Ave W and 3rd St, Divide_to_FortPeck (6)we found the chamber of commerce.  Havre has put of lot of thought and resources into it’s historical value and we took brochures for the Havre Residential Historic District Walking Tour and the Havre Business Historic District Walking Tour.  Our main choice was the Havre Historical Underground Tour, however, so we decided to walk just a Historic Bungalow portion of the residential tour.  There were some charming bungalows, but many of them seemed to be a bit run down, without a great deal of work.  I love bungalow style, and in places like Boise, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington, there are some gorgeous renovations of bungalows, kept true to style.  Of course, I remember the bungalows in Pasadena that I loved as a kid, and now that whole area is called Bungalow Heaven.  It’s on a destination list for another trip someday.

We arrived at the Underground Tour just in time to leave.  The tour lasted an hour and was a fascinating view into the history of Havre.  These tours are worth the time and fees just to get the inside story.  Our tour guide was informative and knowledgeable, a short nice little lady born and raised in Havre.  Even midweek, midday, there were close to a dozen people on the tour.  Viewing the maps at the end with pushpins marking visitors locations was impressive.  There were thousands of pins from all over the world. As with many other towns in the early twentieth century, Havre’s business district burned to the ground in 1904 and the businesses were forced to take up shop in their basements in order to continue to function. 

Divide_to_FortPeck (19) A quote from the brochure: “Havre was a community that was instrumental in the taming of the West.  It was a melting pot of races, and racism was prevalent.  For this reason, the ethnic mixtures of black, red, yellow, and white created an explosive atmosphere and created the rough and tough town to be tamed.  TO this mix was added the refinement of another class of people whose temperament drew them to the concert hall and theater productions that were so lavishly provided.  A cross-section of this melodrama is presented in the historical underground tours, bringing to life the successes, the good times and the tragedies of those early years.”

We saw the meat market, the bakery, the brothels, the opium dens, the hidden safe house for the Chinese who were brought to Havre to work but were treated to cruelly by the locals.  South of Havre, is Fort Assiniboine, home to the Buffalo Soldiers, black men in the US Cavalry, another story told by our diminutive guide.  Leaving the tour, we viewed the museum, with many displays about the history of Havre, and the importance of the railroad in this part of the country.  The Railroad was the driving force for settling this part of Montana and much of the west.

Divide_to_FortPeck (35) We left Havre by 2 or so, and headed east again to our original destination of Fort Peck Dam.  Prior to Havre, much of the skies were murky with haze.  I wondered about this, if you can’t find clear skies in Montana, where are they?  I suspect much of the haze was due to the bare fields and harvest in progress, but it was good to get out of it as we approached Fort Peck.  Mo picked this campground from an internet search, and we often try to find something near water so we can kayak if time allows.  We both knew that our history tour no doubt cut short any kayaking time, but still it was at first a bit disappointing to see that the campground was below the dam, and the river wasn’t even accessible from the campground directly. 

After settling in to our spacious site and making supper, we decided to explore the surrounding area on bikes.  The park is really very nice, with open space, no water at individual sites, but good water available for filling the tank, and electricity onsite.  A wonderful paved bike trail winds around the perimeter of the park, with loops circling small ponds and the banks of the wide Missouri River as it emerges from Fort Peck Dam.  We couldn’t see the lake, and the thought of camping below a huge earthen dam is a bit disconcerting, but this one has never failed, so I let that thought go completely.  Of course, no dam has ever failed till it fails, right?

Divide_to_FortPeck (25) The bike ride was wonderful, and we saw several deer and a lovely sunset.  Even though we are in eastern Montana, somehow it feels much more Midwestern, similar to Nebraska, and I kept forgetting that we were still actually in Montana.  There were even cicadas singing in some of the big cottonwood trees. It was a lovely end to a lovely day, and we capped it off by using our lovely electricity to watch a DVD, “Did you hear about the Morgans?”.  A silly bit off unlikely fluff, but not demanding in any way and of course, a bit entertaining.  I think all the funny moments in the movie are shown in the trailers. That was a bit disappointing, but it was still fun to slow down enough to watch something anyway. 

We haven’t seen television or heard any news at all since we left.  I think there is a hurricane going on somewhere in the Gulf, Danielle.  I think we will actually have cable tomorrow night, so may get caught up on news and happenings in the world outside our own cozy space with a view of the plains.

August 26 Bonners Ferry to the Continental Divide

  …  Just a little side note here…Recently there has been some conversation about travel blogs and the do’s and don’ts for writing a good blog.  One of the comments discussed eliminating long paragraphs and rambling conversation so people don’t get lost and bored.  So I tried, I really did.  I thought I could put some photos up and add some captions, and then continue my personal journal down below somewhere.  Well, THAT just doesn’t work at all here since I have spent way too much time tonight trying to figure out how to edit and move photos around in LiveWriter (most unsuccessfully) and make my blog more “readable”.  The previous couple of posts show my efforts.  However, since I am writing this blog for me more than anyone else, I have decided to continue to ramble on with my thoughts and put the photos where they happen to fit.  Anyone else who happens to drop in can read or not, right?

The rest of the photos for the day of travel are linked here.

Bonners_to_DivideWe slept wonderfully last night in the quiet of the North Idaho forest, untroubled by any worries of intruders, lights, or noise.  It cooled off to a pleasant 45 degrees overnight and sleeping with the down comforter and no fans was perfect. Chet stopped in around 7 on his way to his morning meeting just in time to catch us almost completely buttoned up, with the baby car attached.  He said Georgette, (not a morning person) was already awake and waiting for us to come up to the house for breakfast.  Once up there, we were treated to fresh eggs from her hens, some of the yummy roasted potatoes from last night sautéed with chicken basil apple sausages, homemade granola with honey and yogurt and fresh blueberries.  I enjoyed having tea the way Georgette does it, strong and black with honey and milk. 

I enjoyed so much being in this part of the world.  The plants are familiar, the geology and shapes of the mountains are so familiar to me.  I first knew Boundary county as a student trainee soil scientist, and the western rim of the Selkirk mountains in my breakfast view this morning was my first survey area.  I described one of my very first soils in something similar to what is on Georgette’s land and made a soil monolith that now hangs at the University of Idaho in this Port Hill soil. 

After breakfast, after entreaties to visit again, we hugged and laughed and waved goodbye as we drove off toward Bonners Ferry and Highway 2.  Traveling beyond Moyie Springs, we crossed into Montana, crossed over the wild Yaak River, and paralleled the dramatic Kootenai River.  This river drops 90 feet every mile west of Libby, over ledges of pre-Cambrian rock so old the only fossils are of blue-green algae, the only thing living on the planet at the time that these rocks were sediments under a great inland sea.

Bonners_to_Divide (23)Not far from Troy, the road passed the Kootenai Falls Swinging Bridge Park, and we decided that it might be worth a turnaround.  It was worth every bit of the effort, which actually wasn’t much since traffic on this road is almost nonexistent and the turnarounds are wide and long.  The park is lovely, with clear paths leading to the river in two directions, one to the bridge and the other to the falls.  Midway there is a span of stairs that crosses the railroad tracks, an excellent plan for the safety of all the people hiking to the falls, but a little bit tough for Abby in her bare feet and her fear of walking on something with holes in it that looked far down to the ground below!

The swinging bridge crossed the canyon over the river, was sturdy and well built, but swung just enough to feel a bit exciting over the rapids.  The falls were wild and free, with many pools on the ledges and several runs between rocky cliffs.  It was warm and a bit humid, but a perfectly lovely morning walk.  Bonners_to_Divide (8)Once back in the rig, we headed east again along the river, crossing over from time to time.  We are on our way to Kalispell, and as we continue east the air is getting more smoky from forest fires.  I have a vague memory of something mentioned in the news recently of Montana fires and smoke predictions.  Here I have no cell reception at all, so will have to wait for Kalispell to find out any more information other than what I can see looking out the windshield

About 35 miles west of Kalispell, we passed a lake district which appeared to created by dams on the river, but they looked like natural lakes, not reservoirs.  We passed Thompson Lake State Park, and Mo said, “Gee, can we stop yet?” Tonight we are planning to go to the Williamson Park Campground near Shelby, but don’t have a reservation for this first-come first-served park.  We can stop anywhere we want!  Although 200 miles east of our destination might be a bit premature!  Again we passed another lovely lake, called Macgregor, long, narrow and blue, without much sign of habitation on the perimeter.  There are lots of fishing signs, and some cabins.  The smoke thinned a bit as we traveled east. 

Bonners_to_Divide (37)Sometime this morning, we had a brainstorm, although I am not sure just what started it.  Our original plan was to travel north from Grand Forks and go into Canada through International Falls.  However, reviewing the maps, and talking with Chet last night, we realized that Highway 2 extends as far east as Maine, and is a dotted, scenic route almost the entire distance.  On the map, I saw the road leading to Duluth, then through Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to Sault St Marie.  Recently some RV blogging friends have been  traveling the area extensively and singing the praises of the UP.  Once we get to Kalispell, I am going to cancel the two provincial parks we have reserved in Ontario and we are going to travel Highway 2 much farther east than we originally planned.  During the planning process I was excited about seeing Thunder Bay and Northern Lake Superior, but now I am excited about the change in plans, and we can go to Pictured Rocks National Seashore.  More importantly, however, we can add Wisconsin and Michigan to our state decal on the back of the MoHo!  Yes, Laurie, I will watch the ships in the locks, even more meaningful for us since we just transited the Panama Canal last January!

Highway 2 follows the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, but there weren’t many places to pull over for photos of the peaks.  Near West Glacier, the peaks appeared snow free and rocky, with fire smoke dulling the view somewhat.  Once in the distance, I saw a patch of white that appeared to be a glacier, but that was all.  The road, however, was lovely, with forest and rock, river and mountains all around us, I remembered that I found two forest service campgrounds along this road while internet searching a few months ago, but didn’t choose them because I Bonners_to_Divide (41)thought they weren’t far enough along our route.  It was so beautiful, however, that we decided to try to check them out to see if they might work for our evening stop.  At the Continental Divide, stopping for photos of the monument there, was a campground entrance, with reasonably wide paved roads and only one other camper in sight.  Driving through it didn’t take us long to agree to drive the extra 85 miles tomorrow to reach Fort Peck Dam where we had pre paid reservations. It was worth it to take advantage of this delightful campground.

After several days of hookups and plenty of driving, we had plenty of power for a dry camp night.  After parking and settling in, we walked the campground roads, took photos of the mountains and plants, and Mo found firewood at a vacated campsite for our evening fire.  We didn’t bring wood on this trip, but Mo really loves to build campfires, so any opportunity is a good thing.  I made tacos dressed with the tomatillo salsa that Georgette and I made with Laura’s tomatillos and we Bonners_to_Divide (59)had supper at the picnic table by the fire. Mo got out the comfy chairs and shortly after we settled in to enjoy the fire, big drops of rain started falling.  We weren’t about to give up the fire, however, so Mo got out the umbrellas and we sat in the windy storm and used the umbrellas for protection from the smoke more than the rain, which wasn’t much at all.

It was a perfect evening, and I really felt at last as though we were on a real vacation.  The skies were dramatic, with a front coming over the divide, and the sound of the wind in the lodgepole pines was soothing rather than scary.