Over 90 songs and nearly nine hours of Rock And Roll later, we had reached the end of our show run for this tour. But the journey was not over yet. We still had several National Park sites to see, and 4 days in which to see them. So there was a small sense of melancholy at play when we hit the road Tuesday morning, but also a keen sense of wonder in what surprises were still ahead of us.
Due to the news we had received the day before concerning the wildfires in Glacier National Park, we had originally considered changing our plans entirely, and perhaps going back to Yellowstone, or just moving eastward a day early and allow ourselves more time for planned stops back in Wyoming and South Dakota. But even with the fires burning, and the closure of over half the Going To The Sun Road, many parts of the park were still open. We had camped at Glacier one time before, years ago, but we had still not seen a large portion of the southern part of the park, so we decided to go ahead and drive north from Missoula anyway. The smoke hanging in the air grew thicker the further north we went, and the mountains, though visible, looked as if they were shrouded in fog, the kind you would see in The Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. But that Appalachian “smoke” is fog, and this mountain “fog” was smoke. Once we arrived at the park, we drove the eastern portion of the GTTS Road as far as we were allowed to drive it, which was all the way to Logan's Pass, normally one of the congested areas of the park, now virtually empty. Our original itinerary had us taking a hike from one of the trailheads here, but there wasn't much of a view of the surrounding landscapes with all of the smoke in the air, so we drove back to the Many Glacier area, where we had camped in 2005. We cooked some dinner on our camp stove and enjoyed the sunset as much as we could see it.
We decided to get further east before bedding down for the night, so we arranged our things in the car so Heather could sleep in the back seat while I drove (we really need to look into a van or a camper. Our rental was way too small for this trip, but...budget). We headed south through Blackfeet Nation and into the night. On that trip back in '05 we had driven this same route in the opposite direction, heading into Glacier, and we had visited the Museum Of The Plains Indian which is near the town of Cut Bank. The man working there asked where we were from and when I said Ohio, he replied “Ohio...you've got those mounds out there.” He was referring to the Hopewell Mounds and The Great Serpent Mounds, places that are considered sacred to many tribes, not just those from the Midwest. It made me realize that we all take for granted what is near to us. This man would possibly only see the great mounds once in his lifetime, if he ever made it there at all. And I may only see these mountains but a few times in my life. He can see them anytime he wants. And I can visit the mounds anytime I want. It was an interesting thing to reflect on as I drove. A few hours down the road, I found a state park and pulled into one of the campgrounds for a few hours of Z's myself.
We were not far from the Montana state capital of Helena, so we took a little bit of time there in the morning to catch up on emails and online messages. We had been virtually off the grid for the last week except when we were in major cities and larger towns. Our primary destination for the day was The Little Bighorn National Battlefield & Cemetery.
LBNB is the site of what was once popularly known as “Custer's Last Stand”. As that name implies, it is the site of General George Custer's death. On June 25 and 26, 1876, his 7th Cavalry suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors fighting to preserve the Native American way of life. These tribes led by Chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall won what was in the end a pyrrhic victory, routing and killing their invaders, but also fueling plans of vengeance from the US 7th Cavalry that would culminate in the Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota a short time therafter.
We sat down in back of the visitor center and listened to a talk from a Crow Indian Park Ranger that was both entertaining and informative. I am somewhat of a Native American History buff, and in general I believe I “know my stuff”, but this Ranger offered a nuanced look at this history-changing event, and provided a balanced look at both sides of the story, in particular by not making a villian out of Custer. On the contrary, this Native American man informed the dozens of us sitting there that Custer was one of the most decorated soldiers in the American Civil War, and had received commendations from his commanding officers that named him as personally responsible in a large part for the Union victory. He said many come there and say Custer “got what he deserved”, but he said Custer was just a man doing his job, in an impossible setting, to the best of his abilities, and he went to his death doing his duty as an American soldier. Also told was the heroism of the Indian warriors, “fighting for everything they had and everything they were ever going to have” as the Ranger stated on multiple occasions in his talk. Their story was told passionately by this man, descended from some of those very warriors. In the end he said “Folks, this is my last talk of the season, I'm giving you my all.” He seemed literally drained by his presentation when it was through.
After the sobering talk we drove the Battlefield tour route and hiked some of the paved and unpaved trails to various grave markers (the gravestones at Little Bighorn are set where the men fell in the battle, giving you a visual lesson on the carnage that happened there). We also took the short walk from the visitor center to Last Stand Hill, where Custer's marker is set, bearing a black shield on the front face to distinguish it from the other white marble stones of the men who fell defending him. Red granite stones mark the places where the Native warriors fell, honoring these men who died defending their homeland and way of life. Across the road from Last Stand Hill is the large Indian Memorial which further honors these men. It features a large plaza from which you can watch the Sun set in the distance behind a sculpture of charging warriors on horseback.
Little Bighorn is a place of ghosts and glory. It's a place of honor, and of sorrow. It's a place that exists so that we might never repeat the crimes of the past, and where valient men gave their lives to protect and defend the lives and livelihoods of all those they held dear. It's a place where heroes rest and those who remember them come to reflect. It's a uniquely American place that simultaneously celebrates the best and worst of our human nature. Be still...and listen to the lessons of the dead.