- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the West there is no such thing as a short drive. Thankfully, interstates turn excursions that once took days or weeks into hourslong treks, allowing one to take in several states within one day — even some of the larger states like those here at the edge of the upper Midwest where the Great Plains give way mountainous countryside.

After two days exploring greater Rapid City, South Dakota, I decided to point my prow a little further west and north. Partly to revisit some places I hadn’t seen in 27 years, as well as some that would be entirely new to my eyes.

Although in Texas everything may be bigger, here in the plains, rolling hills and volcanic mountain country of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, there is no such thing as a “little” drive.

Go big or go home. Better yet, take an even bigger drive.

***

I head west out of Rapid City along I-90. Western South Dakota is lovely countryside, and 90 effectively threads a needle between the Black Hills and the prairie lands that sustained American Indians and livestock for generations.

Not far past the Wyoming border, I come upon a sign for a town called Sundance, which proclaims as its native son the outlaw Harry “Sundance Kid” Longabaugh, who would later team up with Butch Cassidy in their exploits in the West and down into Bolivia, where they would meet a grisly end.

Robert Redford, who portrayed the Sundance Kid in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” would later name his own film festival after his character. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and find it post-haste. That’s what Netflix is for.)

The “main street” of Sundance doesn’t have much to offer beyond some tourist traps and the usual shops, so I speed back toward 90’s onramp — a little too briskly, as it turns out, as a cop pulls me over, having clocked me above the limit. He lets me off with a warning, and I promise to slow down.

I turn on U.S. 14 and have some road to make up as daylight works against me. U.S. 14 bobs and weaves through prairie lands and various formations of the Black Hills, but upon making one particular turn, I see the igneous tower off in the distance that can only be one geologic miracle.

Devils Tower’s geologic origins are a bit mysterious, as are how precisely it came to be so called. The Native Americans, who regarded the stone monolith as sacred, referred to it as “Bear Lodge,” but on the Devils Tower website, the National Park Service reports that mapmaker and geologist Henry Newton was sent to explore the area by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge in 1875. Either through a mistranslation or simply Anglicization, Newton reported back that the Indians called the obelisk “bad god’s tower,” which he modified to “Devil’s Tower.”

And to copy editors like myself, an interesting factoid is that when the tower became a national monument in 1906, the apostrophe was lost, and hence, we now know of it as “Devils Tower.”

You drive into Devils Tower National Monument on Wyoming 110 West, and everywhere are places to pull over and take photos of the obelisk. Prairie dogs roam the side of the road at a stretch called, appropriately, “Prairie Dog Town.” The rodents scurry about, sometimes burrowing into their underground tunnels, and just as often sniffing at tourists and hoping for a human snack.

(Note: Please DO NOT feed these cute little creatures. Human food is bad for them and also emboldens them to approach, potentially leading to bites, spreading disease and maybe drawing them onto the roads, where cars can squash them.

To get up super close, your best bet is to stop by the Visitor Center to take the 1.3-mile Tower Trail loop hike. This is an easy schlep with almost no elevation gain, and it’s also paved for the accessibility of the disabled.

The only problem with the Tower Trail is it can be very crowded and thus nudge aside any semblance of being out in nature. This isn’t precisely the place for quiet — especially considering you’ll hear nearly every language under the sun on the circumferential walk. Incredibly, I even spy someone with a T-shirt from Alexandria, Virginia, the town where I now live with my girlfriend.

As you get a little bit farther away from the Visitor Center, the hiking crowds peter out somewhat, but then suddenly I hear a buzz from overhead. Thinking I’ll spy either a swarm of angry insects or maybe a bird, I peer up.

Nope, it’s a drone.

Seriously, some technology should be banned in beautiful places like this.

As I make my way around the Tower Trail, I see several traditional Native American prayer garments left in bushes and on tree branches not far off the trail. Be respectful and leave them be by observing from afar.

But DO look up to see the hearty, hearty, adventurous souls scaling the Tower. It takes about four to six hours to climb it, according to the NPS, and then another one to two hours to rappel back down. The top of the Tower itself is the size of about a football field — and if you’re one of the fortunate few to make it, consider yourself accomplished indeed.

Back at the Visitor Center, you can learn more about the geologic and human history of Devils Tower. One mural depicts a Cheyenne legend positing that a giant bear clawed its way up the tower, resulting in the signature striations so visible from any point in the park. Also, I learn the Tower itself is closed to climbers in June out of respect for its sacredness to the Natives, who mark the high point of summer with traditional ceremonies.

On the way back toward the main entrance I pull over at Belle Fource River Campground, where I recall camping with my family nearly three decades ago. I can’t recall the precise campsite, but I remember the views of the Tower from here. I also remember the nature talks given by rangers at the amphitheater, but one thing that has definitely changed in the last three 30 years is the “Sacred Circle of Smoke,” one of seven “peace sculptures” installed around the world by Japanese artist Junkyu Muto. It seems a bit incongruous to have such modern art here framing something that is eons old, but again, Devils Tower has always been a place where man and nature have come together as one in unusual ways.

I head northeast on WY-24 to the tiny town of Hulett, which I must stop in given that a friend of mind bears that surname and also plays in a great band based in Memphis called Snowglobe. I stop for a sandwich at the do-drop-in Red Rock Cafe (202 Main St, Hulett, Wyoming, 82720, 307/467-5551) This is precisely the kind of little-town roadside joint I most enjoy patronizing in my travels, and the meal is precisely the nourishment I need for a full day of road warrior-ing.

Luckily for me, right around the corner is The Ponderosa Cafe & Bar, (115 Main St, Hulett, Wyoming, 82720, 307/467-5335), a roadhouse that has every type of tchotchke hanging from the walls imaginable. I even find a New Jersey Devils banner — which makes some sense given the nearby monument — and Jersey license plate while perusing the interior with my beer in hand. I try out some Wyoming liquor called Koltiska Winter Mist Liqueur, which is tasty and boasts just a hint of cinnamon.

Have I mentioned that my road trips can be a bit … ambitious? It’s now decidedly after lunchtime, and my final goal for the day remains, well, nearly 200 miles to the northwest of Hulett in the barrenness of southeast Montana. Mind you, I’ve not been back to Big Sky Country for seven years, and last time I spent a whole week in the state.

Will it be worth it to be there for a few hours only? And then need to drive all the way back to Rapid City?

As I’ve learned within the past year, life is short; there might not be a tomorrow. There is only today.

To Montana I go.

Most of what I have previously seen in Montana is in the west: Butte, Helena, Missoula, Glacier National Park. Those places are where pine trees mingle with the upper Rockies and fashion beauty that is nearly indescribable. Here, in the far east part of the state, the topography is much different, with grassland plains swept over by Plains winds that rattle the seemingly limitless horizon.

It’s little wonder it took the white man so long to “tame” this part of the country and finally bring it into the fold of the United States when Montana achieved statehood in 1889. But before she became the 41st state, the last of the great wars between U.S. military forces and American Indians would take place on an unassuming hilltop on what is now the Crow Reservation.

On Jun 25 and 26, 1876, mere days from the centennial of the founding of the U.S., General George Armstrong Custer and his forces of the 7th Cavalry came to the Little Bighorn for what they hoped would be the decisive victory in the Great Sioux War and the quelling of the last of the Indian uprisings against relocation to reservations as settlers pushed ever further west. Crazy Horse and several leaders and warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho decided they would not go down without a fight — to make their stand.

As history turned out, it would be the last stand for Custer.

Crazy Horse and his combined forces routed Custer’s grossly outnumbered men, soon pushing Custer and his remaining officers up to a hilltop, where they were slaughtered.

Crazy Horse escaped to Nebraska but was captured in 1877, officially ending the Great Sioux War. After centuries of armed conflict between whites and Indians, the last of the armed conflicts came to a close. The resistance was over.

Today you can see the site of so much bloodshed at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Interstate 90 Frontage Rd., Crow Agency, Montana, 59022, 406/638-2621). As with many other places I have visited that are steeped in unimaginable death, Little Bighorn today is eerily peaceful and preternaturally quiet. Cemeteries near the visitor center host veterans, both white and Indian, of America’s wars going back well over a century. A fierce wind blows across the Upper Plains, and rain clouds gather steam in the distance to the east, threatening a tempest.

Inside the visitor center, the ranger recommends I watch a film and then drive to the battlefield itself. Exhibits about the history of the Natives and their culture are interspersed in the visitor center with detailed recreations of the battle of June 25 and 26, 1876. There’s a lot to see in here, but I’m running out of time before the place closes, so I head outside.

As a light drizzle sprinkles over the seemingly limitless Big Sky, I drive out to various posted signs on Calhoun Hill, which detail where Custer’s forces and his opponents engaged. The prize, however, is the stone obelisk marking “Last Stand Hill,” where the cavalry met its fate. The park was formerly known as “Custer Battlefield National Monument” but was renamed in 1991 thanks to a directive signed by President George H.W. Bush. (Custer’s remains were removed from the site and taken to West Point, New York, in 1877 and given a proper military funeral.)

The Supreme Court would rule in 1980 that this land rightfully belonged to the Sioux, and was taken from them illegally, as the United States had purloined the Black Hills, where Crazy Horse’s memorial is under construction. Today, the Little Bighorn memorial features both white and Indian stories of the battle as well as testimonials to the fraught, ongoing relationship between American and its Native peoples.

History isn’t always convenient or pleasant — no more so than in this particular relationship. Both of the sites I have seen today have historical ties to many of the tribes of the Upper Plains, and it is incumbent upon those of us fortunate to be guests at Devils Tower, Little Bighorn or, indeed, nearly all of the land on this continent, we recognize while it is all now officially part of the U.S. (or Canada), peoples have been here for generations before. We have a beautiful, amazing country, and much of its history is violent or difficult. We cannot work backwards and undo what was, but we must bear in mind what happened in these magical places and to keep both the nature and the memories alive for posterity.

It is necessary, indeed, to keep these places both wild and wonderful. And to remember. For as William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”


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