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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.


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

The Color of Wheat

5 Aug


“Is this hotel really haunted?” 

“Oh yes.  But just the third floor.  We keep it locked”

Fort Peck Hotel, August 3rd 2015


The morning came early, as promised.  Apologies to Grand Forks.  As wonderful as you probably are, we blew right past you in exhaustion, only to land in a convention center/hotel/condo gulag  to your southwest.  Your sunrise the next morning was, nevertheless, gorgeous.


The morning  sun across the fields is spectacular, teaching me the beauty of grass against wheat against sky.  It becomes clear to me for the first time that great artists learn about color from nature, not a textbook.


And so we keep pulling over to the side of the road and stepping into the morning wind.


And walking through the quiet towns.


We hear the train before we see it, and rush to tracks where we see nothing in either direction.  Getting back into the car we hear it again, closer this time, and we run back.  Still nothing. “Maybe there’s another set of tracks,’ I say.  And then it’s there, coming fast out of the east.


The combination of empty roads, great speed limits and a time zone crossing that works in our favor, allows us to arrive early in Fort Peck, Montana.  A town built from nothing by the WPA to house the men working on the Fort Peck Dam, we are booked into the former workers lodge, now the Fort Peck Hotel.


Beaver pelts, moose heads, a wolf skin and more stuffed birds than I can count, with a bar in the lobby, it is everything I hoped for.DSC_0708

Built on a hill, there’s a loneliness to the town.


And though the it fills up for the afternoon performance of Tarzan, The Musical at this gorgeous theatre rebuilt by volunteers from the movie theatre built for the dam workers back in the ’30s, it is quiet again by dusk.


An island of homes in a sea of sagebrush.