Tuesday, July 28, 2015

BIG SKY COUNTRY AND THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN

Big Sky Country--Montana
(photo courtesy of Larry Miner)

Day four of our tour takes us into Big Sky Country also known as Montana. The crossing from Wyoming into Montana is seamless; same endless grassy plains and infinite blue skies. It becomes more and more apparent as the miles pass that this is also Indian country. They may not claim most of this land any longer, but their presence is felt everywhere. Small herds of buffalo remind us that once millions of buffalo grazed these plains and hundreds of thousands of native Indians pitched their tipis among them.

Battle of The Little Big Horn

The Indian’s continuing fight to keep land they’d called home for as long as they could remember culminated in the ultimate stand against the US Government at The Little Big Horn River on June 25, 1876. Today, we are visiting the site where the combined tribes of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho and the United States 7th Cavalry headed by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer battled for the rights to this land. Thousands against hundreds, it was a slaughter. Custer and 41 of his men, isolated on a ridge overlooking the Little Bighorn River below, shot their horses in a desperate and failed attempt to shield themselves against the Indian’s attack. The battle,  often called “Custer’s Last Stand”,  is really the last big stand for the brave Indian tribes for their own land. In the end, United States forces eventually overwhelmed them and claimed the land for themselves. More importantly, they finally got what they really wanted--the land’s gold.



Video of the site of The Battle of the Little Big Horn

Painting in the Visitor's Center showing what it must have looked like
moments after the battle. 
(Double click on any photo for a full screen view.)

What it looks like now with grave markers of Col. Custer and his men where they fell.
Custer's grave marker, painted black, is in the middle.

The day is wet, cold and blustery which matches the mood of this somber place. Standing on the top of the ridge with The Little Bighorn River below, I’m in the exact spot where Custer and his men died in battle. As I look outward to the beautiful, fertile valley below, it is hard to fathom the unimaginable carnage that took place here. The grave stones dotted around and down into the valley remind me of the immense sadness of this place where 262 of Custer’s men died that day. Many of the enlisted men are buried in a mass grave now marked by a memorial monument on the ridge. Custer’s remains were reburied at West Point; however there is a marker where he fell.

The Officer's bodies were reburied back east, but the others were buried in a nearby
cemetery. Some were buried where they died. (bottom left). 
Dayton, Wyoming

Our moods brighten as we cross back into Wyoming for a date with big slice of homemade pie. We’ve been promised that the pie is awesome and coffee hot at our next stop at the Elk ViewLodge, in Dayton. We weren’t disappointed. I went for a slice of pecan pie, but I could have had the lemon meringue, or apple, or peach, or blueberry or….. Well, you get the picture. I could have had a slice of each and not felt a bit guilty!

Ain't much there in Dayton, but the pie's good and the scenery ain't bad either!
(photo courtesy of Larry Miner)

Shell Falls, Big Horn National Forest

Shell Falls, Big Horn National Forest
(I may look relaxed, but it was cold!)

The Sweetest Cowboy in the West

Heading on down the mountains, we stop briefly to admire Shell Falls in Big Horn National Park before stopping at Dirty Annie’s for buffalo burgers and meet the sweetest cowboy anywhere in the west. I guess you could say I’m “sweet” on old Irv and his horse, Speedy. Grizzled, gregarious and just plain kind, he is instantly likable. Enthusiastically posing for pictures and spinning yarns for our amusement, he also let it be known that he’s in the market for a wife. When asked what kind of wife he’s looking for, he scratched his stubbled chin and replied, “Well, I’ll tell ya. I’d take just about any pretty little thing as long as she don’t mind me bringing in a lamb to warm in the kitchen sink on a cold night.” Ladies, if that sounds good to you, you can contact Irv at Dirty Annie’s in Shell, Wyoming! (By the way, Irv says he’s a rancher, not a cowboy, but he can sure pass for one!)

Dirty Annie's in Shell, Wyoming. This is where Irv has his ranch, Gals!
(photos courtesy of Larry Miner)

Next time: Buffalo Bill Cody and his town

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WILD WEST KIND

Hitting the trail early on our second day, we watched Rapid City fade into the distance and soon crossed the border into Wyoming. We would be on the road most of the day, but there was plenty to see along the way. The first was Devils Tower.



Devils Tower, America’s First National Monument

“I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I’ve been seeing this shape. Shaving cream, pillows…. Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important.” (Roy, as played by Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, written and directed by Steven Spielberg)

It’s easy to see why Devil’s Tower inspires legend, wonder and awe as well as a blockbuster movie. Shooting out of the earth 867 feet straight into the air, its eerie shape seems sculpted by out-of-this-world forces. Surely, the gods must live here, or so thought the twenty-some Indian tribes who believed the place to be sacred. In fact, it just might be that Spielberg’s movie was inspired by a Cheyenne legend. It tells of a great hero called Sweet Medicine who had a vision before he died and was buried beside the Tower. He foretold of “…the coming of white men, strangers called Earth Men who could fly above the earth, (and) take thunder from the light…”

So, how did this amazing natural wonder get the ominous name of Devils Tower? Bad translating, apparently. The Arapaho called it “Bear’s Tipi” and the Cheyenne called it “Bear’s Lodge” or Mato Tipila.When the Tower was discovered by a white explorer, Col. Dodge, on a discovery expedition in 1875, his interpreter translated “Mato Tipila” as “Bad God’s Tower” instead of “Bear’s Lodge”. Eventually, the unfortunate translation was shortened to Devils Tower.




Devils Tower was created by molten lava being forced upward into sedimentary rock about 50 million years ago. As it cooled, the mass contracted and fractured into giant columns. Erosion exposed the formation over the millennia leaving something mystical and magical for some, and just plain amazing for others.






Man scaling one of the gigantic columns.
View of the valley from the base of Devils Tower.
(Photo courtesy of Larry Miner)




A very nice trail circles the Tower with a terrific view of the countryside below. We saw a lot of critters too. I know I saw a chipmunk and I think I saw a roadrunner!

(Photo courtesy of Larry Miner)




On the backside of Devils Tower, a huge chunk of the side has fallen off. The
picture on the bottom right shows just how huge the columns are.

Vore Buffalo Jump
(Photo courtesy of Larry Miner)

Leaving the Bear Lodge Mountains, we head out into the Wyoming plains, passing the Vore Buffalo Jump. The plains Indians herded buffalo into the pit where they could be easily killed. Nothing from the buffalo was ever wasted. They had over 50 uses for the hide, meat, bones, bladder, muscle tendons, blood, tail, beard, teeth, fat, skull, hooves and all the organs.
  
(Photo courtesy of Larry Miner)



The rest of the day we spent watching miles of Wyoming landscape pass by our bus windows while we head for Sheridon for the night. Mostly flat and green and capped with endless blue skies, the scenery is mesmerizingly beautiful.  



We stop to watch a family of Prairie Dogs turn watchful eyes toward us. The young ones soon forgot about us and went back to frolicking in the grass while the adults stood like sentries, ready to sound the alarm.

(Photo courtesy of Larry Miner)




Next Time: Battle of Little Big Horn

Sunday, July 12, 2015

AMERICA’S CROWN JEWELS, THE WESTERN NATIONAL PARKS


Mount Rushmore

America The Beautiful

Fast and furious, exhilarating and unforgettable best describes my recent trek through America’s Western National Parks! It was a trip for the senses: from river rafting against a backdrop of the soaring snow-clad peaks of the Grand Tetons, to gushing waterfalls throwing rainbows, to the verdant plains of Wyoming and its grazing herds of buffalo, I was overwhelmed by the sheer rugged beauty of it all.

I’ve lived in the west all my life and still hadn’t seen many of its national parks. I’d always wanted to see places like Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde, but somehow never had the chance. The time was right, I decided, when I received a brochure from Grand Circle Tours offering just these sights on their itinerary.  I couldn’t give them my money fast enough! The brochure described how in 18 days I would travel 3,000 miles and see 6 major western parks. It told me that along the way I would experience a “thrilling river rafting excursion on the Snake River”, and take a ride on a 127 year old steam train that huffed and puffed along the raging Animas River in Colorado. What it DIDN’T say was that the ancient engine would cover me in coal dust and leave me with a charcoal grin that went from ear to ear or that I might see buffalo, sometimes close enough to touch. Or, maybe I’d catch a glimpse of a bear, a moose or wolf. However, it did say to take my camera and pack plenty of batteries.

So I did. Prepared for a variety of weather and sometimes over 9,000 feet of altitude, my suitcase was loaded down with stuff for every contingency: long johns and rain coat for those rainy, cold days and suntan lotion, hats and short sleeves for the heat. Oh yeah, and bear and mosquito spray just in case. I felt like Pioneer Woman! Then the day finally came when I met up with 40 other eager souls, plus our tour director Timothy and our driver Ken, in Rapid City, South Dakota to begin the tour.

Map of our Western National Parks Tour
(courtesy of Grand Circle Tours)

Rapid City, South Dakota, an Oasis in the Plains

I instantly liked the place. Our tiny commuter jet set down next to the equally tiny Rapid City terminal reminding me of how nice flying used to be. We landed, picked up our luggage and were on our way to our hotel in less than 10 minutes.

Located on gently rolling plains with the Black Hills in the distance, the air is pure and the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming.  Named after the turbulent water of Rapid Creek that runs through its middle, Rapid City is a laid back ranching community. The Creek is edged by a large expanse of grass and trees, creating an oasis of tranquility in the middle of town. I overheard one of our group commenting, “I could live here!” I silently agreed with her. The peace and community pride were evident everywhere.



Downtown is just plain fun. The City Fathers created an avenue of Presidents (capitalizing on nearby Mt. Rushmore) with bronze statues of our past leaders on every street corner. The best is Calvin Coolidge captured for all times waving a 10 gallon hat and clutching a western saddle! The story goes that this buttoned down President’s support was needed to secure national funding to build Mt. Rushmore. So, the South Dakotans invited him to the Black Hills for some hunting and fishing and made sure he effortlessly caught a boatload of fish and bagged plenty of game. And, by gum, it worked! He went back to Washington feeling like a real South Dakota outdoors-man instead of the city slicker he really was. He persuaded Congress to appropriate $200,000 for the project and the rest is history.

Rapid City's Presidents

(photo courtesy of Google Images)



Downtown scenes: statues of John F. Kennedy, John Adams, and Rapid Creek
(photos courtesy of Larry Miner)

Crazy Horse Monument



Driving into the heart of the Black Hills (so-called because the thick forest of Ponderosa Pines look black from a distance), we visit the Crazy Horse Memorial first. Filling the sky, the mountain sized face looms into view miles before we pull up to the Visitor Center. After decades of blasting and chiseling, only the massive, imposing face of Chief Crazy Horse is all that’s discernible and even that isn’t finished. Started in 1948, the sculpture of Crazy Horse was commissioned by Standing Bear, Chief of the Lakota Sioux to be built on Indian land. Sculptor Korczak Kiolkowski (jewel-CUFF-ski), not content to sculpt a modest monument like Rushmore, chose an entire mountain to depict not only the Chief but his horse as well. With raised arm and scowling face, the Chief points to the burial places of his people. The pointing finger also may well be a gesture of indictment against the white man who gave then took away his people’s land, an issue not fully resolved to this day.
(Map courtesy of Rapid City Convention and Visitor Bureau)





The unfinished monument makes Mount Rushmore look like a postage stamp. There is no telling when it will be finished, but the work goes on, thanks to the dedication of Kiolkowski’s ten children. (The memorial is not a part of the National Park system or any private concern, and all proceeds from the memorial go to benefit the Lakota Sioux Indians.)


Model of the finished sculpture with the work in progress in the background.

Mount Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore has to be seen to be believed. The fact that anyone would take on such a daunting project is mind-blowing. The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had just the ego and artistry to make it happen, and as a result, he gave the nation a permanent symbol of pride and accomplishment. Started in 1929, the monument is basically unfinished according to Borglum’s original design. The sculpture was to be carved showing the Presidents down to their waists, but WWII came along and congressional funding for the project was forever stopped. However, it is finished enough. There is a beauty and sense of rightness that the faces emerge partially completed out of the rugged granite. To many it is a symbol of our nation--unfinished and imperfect, yet grounded in the bedrock of democracy.

 I climbed up an exhausting 256 steps to get up close and personal
with the sculpture. At this angle, I could almost count the hairs
 in Jefferson's 20 foot long nose!



Larry Miner, a member of our tour, graciously allowed me to use many of the pictures you will see on my account of this great trip. The man is a marvel with a camera and he made my job so much easier. Thanks a million, Larry!



Next Time: Devil's Tower