Wyoming to Illinois (July 10-13)
Clint Black sweet talks me north as I backtrack to Greybull (say Grable). This is the fourth time I’ve driven this stretch so I daydream. At Boysen Reservoir I recall the talk given last night at the rendezvous campfire by one of the people who voyaged in the fake birch bark, fiberglass canoe from the rendezvous site to St. Louis, in imitation of Louis and Clark. The crew of wannabes hauled the canoe out of the reservoir at Boysen Dam and rolled it along the highway through Wind River Canyon on a cart; the speaker bragged that they used metal wheels on the cart to be “authentic.” The dingdongs set out in a single, fake birch bark, fiberglass canoe the size of a Trailways bus, then worried about authentic wheels for a cart which wouldn’t have been needed had the thing not been so huge. What crap.
Then, there was the Californian in the concealed fly pants, who believes that the mountain men were functioning under a complex philosophy. I smack my head with my hand to recall my consternation: he couldn’t articulate what this philosophy was, but he described the early trappers as a cross between the Twelve Apostles and the EPA.
Carping is such fun that I fail to notice that I’m in new country. My brain quits grumbling as I enjoy Shell Creek Canyon, a narrow, pink and deep cut in the Bighorn Mountains which eventually rises into talus slopes topped by massive, creamy rock. Sixty feet below, the river is full, clear and slightly iron green. Above the canyon is an area where the trees were blown over by a tornado. A sign says so. Otherwise, it would look like they just fell down. There are sheep all over the shoulders so I slow down, but a jerk from Texas passes me at high speed in an overloaded minivan. A mother moose and her miniature clone chomp deep grass along the road. The baby folds up, sinks into the vegetation and becomes invisible. Some idiot from Pennsylvania, his car dumped in the middle of the road with the driver’s side door open, stalks them with his video camera. I bet he’s never seen a female moose run.
The Mint Bar / now and 1940s
In Sheridan I have something to eat, and then wander around. It happens sometimes that I can’t decide where to stay so I drive back toward the Bighorn Mountains, to a tiny town on the Tongue River which was named for a rockslide that looked to the Indians like a buffalo tongue. I guess that was the best reference they had for something long.
Although the sign says, CAMPGROUND, RV HOOKUPS, MODERN ROOMS, there’s nothing modern about the place. A few barn red cabins sit to one side of a similar house, inside of which is an office that opens into the living room.
“Dad,” the girl at the desk shouts. “They want a pull-thru. We got one?” A man in jeans and red suspenders comes into the hall to look at me.
“No hookup,” I say.
“Oh sure. There’s a van in front. Park next to them.”
All I want is a shower, really. I’ve gained the habit of walking the dogs, something I rarely did when they had a yard. The old dog and I don’t go too far because he gets tired. The black dog wants to go like a cat out of a washing machine and I fight him for the first block as he tugs, chokes and coughs. Eventually, we have a nice walk. Tonight we head up the only street in town and stop at a junk shop that has a note on the door: “If you want in, come to the green house,” so I do. The owner bides his time at the desk while I look around and try to make conversation.
“So, does this town have something notable in its history?” I ask.
“No.” He looks at me like he’s thinking, Why should it?
How can such a huge building, crammed full of stuff, have nothing interesting in it?
“There was a stage stop somewhere east. Actually, it got goin’ I guess, when the railroad was cuttin’ ties in the mountains.” He is quiet for awhile then says, “It was awful quiet for some time.”
The rest of town is simple and somewhat charming. A house and the peak-roofed log building behind it are painted dusty blue. Bleached elk antlers hang above the garage door and a handful of orange day lilies erupts to one side. An old, beat-up Chevy pickup is faded to an identical blue, as if the whole had been done at once.
“As a personal touch of my appreciation, I have enclosed a signed photograph which I hope you will enjoy for years to come.” The letter accompanies a color photo of Bandar bin Sultan, a cherubic member of the Saudi Royal family, dressed not in cowboy gear but in home town get-up, his round face framed like the Madonna by a red and white cloth. Did he retain it when he tried on boots, spurs and six-guns? Does he dress cowboy behind palace walls? The royal souvenir hangs below black and white photos of rodeo cowboys across the years, on the north wall of King’s Saddlery, where items with tourist appeal cram the shelves street side with working gear in the back of the building and a warehouse across the alley.
Sheridan is Cowboy City, or it manages the appearance. Main Street’s well-preserved brick storefronts and honky-tonk-sized signs promote outfitters, bars and curio shops. I buy a set of soda fountain glasses from a man whose store contains many souvenirs of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago; the event dates the last time he visited that city. His person, and the odd little shop, wear the cast of that decade, as does much of the town. It’s kind of fun, it’s rodeo week and bunting hangs from light poles.
The Sheridan Inn
Sheridan is intriguing but I can’t think of what else to do here at the moment, so I drive north. The highway crosses the Montana state line and simultaneously enters the Crow Indian Reservation, which today is a two-part universe of green hills and a black, warring sky. I cross the Little Bighorn at 3:54 p.m. doing sixty, my left hand on the steering wheel, my right hand hanging on to a slab of ham leftover from breakfast.
The dogs do their thing at a turn-out where a marker relates in part, “Gary Owen, the old Irish tune, was the marching song of the 7th Cavalry…. The Battle of the Little Bighorn commenced in the valley just east of here…,” where right now, someone is shooting an air rifle.
It’s late, so I pass up the battlefield and drive to a KOA, where it’s vacation time. Tents go up, trailers are leveled, chairs are unfolded, food is cooked, kids swim and families talk about their day. A fifth wheel trailer bears Arizona license plates. How remote that desert purgatory seems after four and a half months. Suddenly, I feel weary. In two or three days I could be at my dad’s place in Illinois but at the prospect my heart crashes like I’m about to surrender myself to the authorities to do time.
Local schoolchildren have done comic injustice to a group of dignitaries by rendering them in yellow, black and red paint, in anatomical shorthand, on the windows of a grocery store where I buy juice and a sweet roll. Sitting Bull, Custer, Congresswoman Rankin (first woman elected to Congress: 1901) and Yosemite Sam send me on my way.
Rain and mud; it’s Sunday at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I wander another cemetery, this time with tourists who mingle in the tight rows of small marble slabs. It rains steadily, so I join the crowd at the visitor’s center where progress is slow through the displays and there is time to read every word, even if no one has the last word: “The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty set aside all of western South Dakota as a Sioux Reservation and northeastern Wyoming as their hunting territory…included Black Hills.” I turn the corner and confront Custer’s Last Stand. I back up and try again. “…1874 expedition into Black Hills confirms the presence of gold. …General Crook was sent to expel the prospectors. Popular opinion supported the miners…. U.S. government tried to buy the land. A few Indians sold out…the rest left to join Sioux who hadn’t come to the reservation yet. Generals Terry, Clark and Gibbon were to converge on the Sioux in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn. Crook was defeated at Rosebud Creek. Gibbon and Terry went up the Yellowstone to a point forty miles from Custer, who went up the Rosebud.”
“Custer’s Crow scouts reported the Sioux camp fifteen miles away. It stretched for three miles along the Little Bighorn…3500 warriors. Custer was worried the Sioux had sighted his force so he attacked…afraid they would get away.”
I let out a loud, “What?” but the room is noisy and no one hears me.
In the photographic portraits of Indian warriors I see hard, intelligent men, not the beatific idiots that modern sculptors like to portray. None of them however, could have known that Europe was about to disgorge millions more peasants into their front, back and side yards. Custer himself leered at the camera with eyes that were almost white to the film, but when I animate his body with my mind, he becomes ordinary. Like the poet, the photographer grabs an image out of an ever-dissolving field of action, and as Ovid perceived, there are no heros without the resulting illusion of persistance.
The colors of beads used in decorating a Sioux knife sheath encode ‘kills’ made by its owner, states a note posted with Sioux artifacts. In this language of death, green represented a Crow, red a white person and yellow a Shoshoni. The warrior to whom the weapon on display belonged extinguished one Crow and two white people. The carcasses of three Kingfisher birds sewn to a deerskin shirt were meant to make the wearer swift and a buffalo hide hat was believed to protect a warrior from gunfire. Unfortunately, superstition has never stopped a bullet, though it is the cause for which men have fired millions.
“There were no Ward Bonds or John Waynes out here,” a museum guide says when a woman comments on the size of a cavalry boot looted from a soldier and made into a pouch by a Sioux woman. “The average man weighed 140 pounds. In fact,” he says pointing to a chart, “forty per cent of the 7th Cavalry was foreign born and most were illiterate.”
Indeed, 125 of the men were from Germany, 128 from Ireland, 53 from Britain and 15 from Canada, a handful from Spain and Greece. Send me your tired, your poor, your young men yearning to be transfixed by arrows, to have their eardrums popped, their fingertips cut off, their scalps lifted.
Leaning against the wall in an outer room is a crude metal sign spray-painted black. In letters made with welding rod it says, “In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. Cavalry. In order to save our women and children from mass murder. In doing so, preserving rights to our Homelands, Treaties and Sovereignty 6/25/88 G. Magpie, Cheyenne” A note says that the plaque was placed by its maker on the rise where Custer died as a protest to the park service’s presentation of the confrontation. It was dislodged and set here casually, but half-hidden, as if its prescence is an embarassment. How strange is our conception of history. The actions of previous generations are important because the sum got us to where we are presently, but we can’t do a thing about any of it. Not what they did, nor how or why they did it. So why are we afraid to look at the past, fully? But some still fight the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as if the outcome were in doubt.
At a roadside park on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation there are signs too, but they are difficult to make out because they have been left to the weather. “The Northern Cheyennes helped defeat Custer. They were sent to Oklahoma and promised they could return. Sick and hungry, determined to return to their homeland on Sept 7, 1878 the Cheyennes under Dull Knife (also called Morning Star) and Little Wolf escaped…. These heroic people fought froze and starved to death to reach home. In 1884 land was finally set aside…. Dull Knife and Little Wolf are buried in a cemetery to the north.”
I wait for a bizzillion coal cars to pass so I can cross the tracks into Forsyth. A happy face is drawn in chalk on one of the cars along with EAT MY DUST. Across from the Howdy Hotel is a junk shop, so I park and go in. The man who runs it is quiet at first, but soon we are gabbing like friends. He’s new to town by two months, but intends to stay.
The Howdy Hotel, Forsyth MT
“Ah’ve found a home heah,” he claims. “I never lived nowhere mo’ than nine months befo’.” He rocks his head slowly up and down for emphasis and half smiles. “Ah been from Noth Carolina t’Alaska.”
“And this is home, for sure?” I ask.
“Oh yes.” His drawl is subtle, his eyes are bright blue. He looks to be more than forty, with thick salt and pepper curls. “Ah’m a ‘lectrician, but ah don’t want to do that no more.”
“Does anyone want to do what they do anymore?”
“Yer not doin’ what ya did either, are ya?”
“No, not hardly,” I confirm.
“Ain’t we lucky?” He smiles a sweet southern smile.
My stomach says it’s time to go. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Any good restaurants closeby?”
“No, nothin’ ta recommend,” he says. My stomach grumbles and I resign myself to snacks from the gas station. “You’d have ta go back to the motel at the west end of town.”
Parties of big boys and shriveled old women, who’ve come to town for Sunday dinner, crowd every table and I wait impatiently by the cashier’s stand to be seated. Two very big boys enter by a side door, saunter to the only clean table and seat themselves.
“Is it seat yourself?” I yell at the bus girl as she pounds by with a full tray of dishes.
“Oh yeah. Sit anywhere,” she says. The only empty table is piled with dirty dishes.
“Just sit there,” a passing waitress says.
My temples pulsate with food desire; I must be hallucinating because everyone has curly blond hair and wears eyeglasses. I can’t read the menu because I’m too hungry.
“Our special tonight is short ribs,” the waitress says.
“I’ll take it,” and with that I have permission to raid a salad bar stocked with potato and egg salad, macaroni of several types, fresh vegetables and a stack of desserts. I return to my table from a second trip to find a mountain of tender short ribs and real mashed potatos and gravy. I eat until I’m almost sick, then devour a bowl of rice pudding with blueberries. Thank-you, Southern man.
A few miles to the east the land opens into the plains, where the eye meets illusion and stripes of grain. I pull into a rest area for the night and read two rose-colored, white-lettered wooden markers. “Buffalo hunters took over 40,000 robes from this area alone during the 1860s and 1870s (that’s 2,000 a year, or 5 -6 per day, I calculate) shipping them out by river boat. The slaughter disrupted eastern Montana’s Indian culture! (Someone has added a bold underline and exclamation point in orange spray paint) and precipitated several years of bloody confrontation culminating in the Battle of Rosebud on June 17 1876 and the Battle of the Little Bighorn eight days later.”
The quiet evening is disturbed by two vehicles that broadcast heavy metal music. The occupants have mouths as loud as their stereos and the drivers feel the need to repeatedly race the engines. Oh, just go away, I want to say.
The other sign is titled Famous Montana Brands and I while away the time copying them in my book. They range from the mundane two dot, to the graphically beautiful FUF. The evening stays bright and warm, so I sweep the trailer and dump moldy grapes, brown bananas, fossil bagels and orange-spotted cream cheese from the cooler. Once again I vow to buy food for immediate consumption only, plus enduring items such as peanut butter, crackers and powdered Gatorade. Two RVs and a flatbed truck have joined me for the night, or part of it. A full moon rises behind lavender clouds in a sky that’s fast going flat and cold.
Miles City, Montana, is a vision of peace, like a pretty town in the Twilight Zone which is really an alien zoo that specializes in humans, especially if one arrives at 7:30 AM Monday morning, through fog banks that spill across the Yellowstone River, after one’s body has turned itself inside out in the night. I buy liquid clay at a grocery and take swigs from the bottle as I drive the empty streets.
At the town park enormous cottonwoods engulf the legs of a water tower which tops out far above them. Below, a lake shaped like a kidney bean is three-quarter edged by tall reeds. A beach of dark tan sand, which lightens as it dries under morning’s crisp sunrays, covers the remaining bank. A white bath house, a yellow diving platform and benches, a lifeguard stand and a crew of swimming ducks are eerily sharp-edged and golden. Beyond the lake is an absolutely, blissfully American baseball park identified by navy and gold letters as Denton Field. A crew of young men are busy sprucing the grounds after last night’s game. A solitary young man who looks like he might have slept in the park, checks a trash barrel and moves on.
The road that runs south from Miles City to Broadus is seventy-five miles of no-shoulder asphalt, patched-to-hell in stretches, used mostly by a few trucks and the ranchers who own this corner of Montana. I stop in Broadus at the cafe where old, old ranchers, two of whom sit side by side facing me, rest their bones. They say, “Huh?” mostly and pause frequently. One has diabetes and complains that he can’t drive far before he passes out, and that the clinic he must go to is farther than that. The other man says, “My, that’s awful.”
At the far end of the lunch counter a woman on the color TV speaks earnestly. Two men in baseball suck their coffee cups and joke around. A woman’s legs peek out from below the sleeve of one man’s shirt; they belong to Lois.
The land becomes beautiful, and astonishingly so, as I cross the state line into Wyoming. Drab plains turn to lush, grass-covered hills brushed with groves of oak and clusters of pine. The road runs to Devil’s Tower and the sight of it from miles away prompts me think I’ve seen a giant Tiki god. It’s the time of day when towns look like train sets, even Sturgis, South Dakota. How quickly things become Midwestern once Wyoming has been left behind. Interstate 70 is a mess of tourist traps. The state didn’t help things when it hired a church architect to design its rest area restrooms, which resemble standing rib roasts.
What Kind of American are You? Hey you, lady in the red truck, yeah, you with the trailer! You missed the exit. Turn back. Must See! Mt Rushmore.