Monday, February 23

come on you wolverines!

Before leaving Park City, I told my friends that I was heading to Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park. I lied. Improved weather and my desire to escape mountains and snow led me to try my luck and head north. Much to my delight, the snow receded and the midday temperatures rose into the 40s when I reached Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I have had a secret interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn since I first read the story back in elementary school. It is one of those snippets of history that schools teach as a one-sided rah rah American tale of heroism, not unlike Catholic schools and their depiction of the Crusades as a conflict against the Muslim heathens. To this day I can still conjure the image of a picture in my history book depicting Custer's "Last Stand." The painting illustrates a horde of Lakota-Cheyenne riders closing in on the U.S. 7th Calvary as dismounted Indians bludgeon U.S. soldiers with war clubs and tear off scalps. In the middle of the scene, Custer, wearing his distinctive white buckskin coat, stands defiantly with his sword in the air, having just opened the chest of a nearby attacker.

Custer, a Michigander famous for leading the Wolverines of the Michigan Brigade during the Civil War, was immortalized by the American media as a martyr following his demise at the hands of some two thousand Native Americans led by Sitting Bull. I have always thought Custer was an arrogant opportunist who deserved his fate because of foolish military strategy. I also cheered the victory of the Lakota and Cheyenne, a final chance for honor and a slap to face of a expanding United States before being forced onto reservations.

I have criticized battlefields before in this blog, but Little Bighorn was different. A winding tour road marks spots of historical significance, but there is an added touch of realism. Following the battle, the dead soldiers were quickly buried in shallow graves marked by simple wooden poles. Weather forced the government to exhume the remains and bury them in a mass grave while headstones were placed on the spot where each man fell. You can actually imagine the battle raging as you walk the bluffs and see the marble stones scattered about.

Many parts of Montana are beautiful, but the hills around the Little Bighorn River are desolate and a miserable place to die. Aside from a few trees, the only color is that of dead grass, and because the conditions do not favor agriculture, the earth is beaten and chewed by range animals.

As I drove through Montana, I kept trying to figure out what is meant by Big Sky Country. I crossed the border into Montana twice and each time I half expected the horizons to expand, see blues turn bluer or hear myself spontaneously blurt out, "Damn, that's a big sky!" The sky in Montana is vast and beautiful, but it's just as vast and beautiful as the sky in Wyoming, Nebraska, or any place where there is a lot of flat nothingness. The only difference would be Washington State or Michigan during the winter where there is no sky, just clouds.

Southern Wyoming, on the other hand, is a wasteland of epic proportions. Middling mesas stretch on for hundreds of miles and everything looks like someone just mixed dirt in with cement when they painted the landscape. I figure Nature was taking her first shot at designing canyons, realized she created a calamitous disaster and left the land to rot while she designed masterpiece after masterpiece a few hundred miles to the southwest. And, not surprisingly, humans agreed with Nature's assessment; there is not one settlement for a hundred miles with the exception of some obviously insane person who lives in a one room shack just off the expressway and has fifty cars parked on his front lawn.

I continued on to Devils Tower, a dramatic "monolithic igneous intrusion" that rises above the Black Hills in eastern Wyoming. The Lakota Indians believe the tower and the Black Hills were created during an ancient race as stampeding buffalo and other animals pounded the surrounding earth lower. Conveniently, the Magpie, who was racing in the stead of the slower human, won the race allowing the Indians to forever hunt the buffalo. I think the tower is a beacon for the extraterrestrials who built the pyramids, earthen mounds and the crystal skulls that drive men crazy. In fact, my theory was proven correct when aliens, led by a being that could take the shape of humans and was called Steven Spielberg, made contact with us at the tower in 1977. That same being, along with its life partner, George Lucas, proceeded to stay on this planet and ruin a great many of the franchise films we know and love.

Actually Devils Tower is an impressive piece of rock that explodes out of the landscape. I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the base of the tower absolutely dumbfounded at how erosion could create such a monument. On a side note, I have learned more about geology in the past few weeks than I have in the last 27 years.

As the sun began to wane, I lingered a while longer before driving through Sundance (A tiny town whose only claim to fame is Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid) on my way to Deadwood, South Dakota.

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