We start out this day in South Dakota, and Jonathan has planned another ball breaking 12 plus hour drive to Glacier National Park in Montana,
which means we travel through most of the Big Sky Country and a slice of Wyoming.
They call it Big Sky for a reason, and you can see why when you pass mile after mile of nothing but vast dry empty grasslands and huge open ranges for cattle and horses punctuated on rare occasions by a single lone farmhouse a mile from the highway, all under a great blue sky with curling wisps of cirrus clouds high up in the stratosphere near the bright sun. This is real cowboy country, and it goes on and on in great rolling waves and flattened earth with an occasional mesa or bluff, past the by now familiar wind farms of 100 or more windmills turning slowly and silently in the immense plain, and you’re hard pressed to find a tree save for a few cottonwoods down by a small stream. Jonathan and I eat in the car, and not for the first time, a snack of beef jerky and almonds washed down with water, and somehow this spare meal seems to fit nicely with the arid region we’re travelling in today.
The Little Bighorn River is where Custer famously made his last stand, of course, so we make a far too brief stop here to see the monument. In what I am beginning to see as a pattern of lazy incompetence, the Park ranger attendant has put a sign up in his gatehouse to please pay as you leave, since he or she is elsewhere. But that’s understandable, since inside, I find three Rangers busily engaged in a conversation about football, so of course that takes priority over minor things like revenue. We wonder around in the Battlefield Museum, which has interesting Cavalry and Indian artifacts and biographies of the various people involved in the Plains War struggle.
There’s also a Ranger led talk about the battle, but we have too much road in front of us so we must skip that. Instead, we take a walk to the actual place where Custer’s body was found after the massacre. It’s marked by a tombstone on the side of a hill, though his actual grave is now at West Point, NY. Standing here, it’s not hard to imagine those 2,000 Sioux warriors encircling the young general and his troops, where they used their dead horses as field expedient bulwarks in a desperate attempt to stave off the attack long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Interestingly, only 42 of Custer’s men died on this hill. The rest, 268 in total, which were most of that 7th Cavalry regiment, died in other locations nearby on that fateful day June 25, 1876.
I’m once again struck by how much fate, joss, or luck plays in battle. I don’t know enough about the tactical situation to comment on that, but it’s pretty clear that Custer surprised the Indians and didn’t realize the size of the force he was up against, so he in turn was surprised. I’d also like to mention that in these politically correct days the media seems to always want to portray the Indians as noble savages who above all craved peace and harmony with nature and their fellow man, when the truth is they killed, often and with gleeful abandon, men, women, and children, and in this case they took no prisoners either. I’m not saying that Whites treated the Indians fairly in most cases, but simply that atrocities were committed frequently by both sides, and it doesn’t make them evil, but simply products of the times and their respective cultures. I take one last look around the knoll where Custer fell, and I hear the wind whispering through the grass, and am once again struck by an awareness that men died here as heroes and warriors, and their souls still speak to us.
We leave the Little Bighorn and head toward the setting sun, and soon we are encountering a large dark mass on the skyline. It’s the Rocky Mountains, and we’re going to pay them a visit. Stay tuned.