Gullies, Ravines and the Clear Creek

19 Aug

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 The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges. All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them.   — An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse, recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

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Goodbyes to Jetta, who was up at 4:30am to make us breakfast.  Sliding through the misty fields and into the woods, deer are everywhere.

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And then the land begins to shift.  Rocky outcrops are replaced by gently rolling hills.  Signs for the Little Bighorn National Monument appear, and so we stop.  A native american park ranger takes our money, and making our way past the motorcycles and RVs, we come to a visitor center with a hill above, and a valley below.

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The tree line in the distance marks the village where several tribes were gathered.  The trail wending its way down is dotted with white stones, and as I follow it toward the river, and the small grassy hills rise around me, I see what a hellish vengeance this must have been. DSC_0045 (2)

Gullies and ravines all around, and nothing visible until it’s too close to outrun.

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Backing up to the high ground is the obvious maneuver, but by then it was too late.  The tribes had outflanked Custer and his men.  Native accounts note that the whole battle took no longer than the eating of a good breakfast.

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In the late afternoon we arrive at the Occidental Hotel.  Established just three years later in 1879 by Charles Buell of Wisconsin, the Occidental began as a tent set up along the Clear Creek in a settlement that would grow to be Buffalo, Wyoming.  A hole in the ground served as the community’s first bank, a safe place to store the gold dug from the hills Custer was charged with clearing of “hostiles.”

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Eastern European exchange students in flannel shirts and cowboy hats rush out to help mom with her luggage.  A bearded gentleman in a rocking chair out front says, “I hope you have a reservation, because she just flipped the sign.”  I assure him we do, and he smiles, “I just didn’t want you unloading those bags for nothing.”

It’s a nice place, but it walks a fine line.  The history is palpable, but pretty.  Building fortunes was a grubby business.

Exhausted, but having come a long way to see the saloon next door, I say goodnight to Mom and head downstairs.  I’ll poke my head in.  If it’s too crowded or doesn’t feel right, I’ll bail.

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Crowded it is, and looking to see what’s on tap I lose the last seats at the bar to a couple of burly gentleman with great teeth, nice tans and some very clean leathers.  The black fringe is immaculate.  The ghosts of Generals Sheridan and Crook, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane are definitely about, but at the moment their presence is not obvious.  Teddy Roosevelt’s here though.  Making up in zeal what he lacks in authenticity, he fits right in with all the wannabe cowboys.

Failing to get the bartender’s attention, I’m about to leave when I realize that I am listening to one ripping version of “Ring of Fire.”  I take seat at a table and hope the waitress can find me.

“We play old songs, cause basically we’re a couple of old farts,” says the lead guitarist, before leaping back into things with Merle Haggard.

As my beer hits the table, they call up Frederick to join them on piano.  In his pinstripe shirt and pastel shorts, he skews the aesthetic a bit.  But once he starts playing, it matters not.  Over a hard driving acoustic rhythm and the electric guitarist’s walking bass and gentle fills, Frederick coaxes some subtle, Floyd Cramer style piano chords out of the old honky tonk upright, and thinking that we’re heading back down to Nashville it takes me a moment to recognize the song.  “Main Street,” by Bob Seger.  Sweetest version I’ve ever heard.

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The locals walk straight through the place as if the tourists don’t exist, holing up in the back room with the pool table and the stuffed bear.

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The couple to my right relax and take it all in.   “There’s so much history in this room,” I hear him say.

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The boys wind things down with “Pancho and Lefty,” and then one lone couple takes the floor for the final song.  Awkward at first, they warm into each other.

But darling this time
Let your memories die
When you hold me tonight
Don’t close your eyes*

And all of us wannabe cowboys finish up our beers and head on home.

Occidental Hotel, 1902

Occidental Hotel, 1902

* Don’t Close Your Eyes by Keith Whitley

3 Responses to “Gullies, Ravines and the Clear Creek”

  1. Barbara Bell-Collins August 19, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    I am right back there, only up stairs to our old time (very nice) room, wondering who will be walking the halls tonight!

  2. Dan Barr August 22, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    D–have enjoyed reading about this journey you’re making with Mom; reminds me of any number of impromptu (long!) car trips my family made as I was growing up in Chicago. I’ve been to many of the places you and your mother are seeing, but so long ago, they’d been relegated to the far corner of my memory. Thanks for the posts; they’ve given me fresh perspective on both the past and the present. DB

    • dtoddbell August 23, 2015 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks Dan. Good to hear from you.

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