Friday, June 13, 2014

Montana and Yellowstone (A tour of the West)


My father first hitchhiked out to Big Timber from Virginia when he was 16-years old to work on a ranch owned by extended family, but eventually he wound up in Jordan, Montana on his later trips for hunting. He would stay a month at a time, so I was never able to go. I enjoyed the stories of the people he met -- the ranchers and assorted small-town colorful characters, as well as descriptions of the landscape itself. I've lived with these stories a good long time, and I suppose as one gets older and you start to think of your parents as actual people, you get to wondering what it is that makes them tick. So I wanted to see my father's Montana, and this is where we depart from any travel route you're likely to take.

Jordan is the seat of Garfield County, described as the most remote county seat in the lower 48 states. It will probably not be on your Western itinerary. Just north is the Fort Peck Reservoir, so if you're a fisherman or a hunter, then you might find yourself in the neighborhood. Otherwise, it's only renown is for the Freemen uprising in 1996 and for its rich dinosaur fossil fields in the Hell Creek Formation nearby. From Miles City, you drive northwest about 84 miles through undulating low hills and pasture land, dotted by sagebrush, dressed momentarily in spring green for us. To my father, it was always brown and sere in September, empty and practically treeless, a straight road to a place only a few can love. I thought it was peaceful and beautiful in its spareness. Farms and a couple of tiny crossroad communities lie in between. I might have seen my first antelope along this road, just one or two wanderers, picking through the sage. They are very graceful, gentle looking creatures, golden brown with big patches of white on their rumps and stubby little tails. They would not look out of place on an African savanna.

Pulling into town, it looks dusty and quiet. At the crossroads is the Garfield Motel where we stayed. The desk is empty, but if you pick up the phone, someone will answer and scoot on over to check you in. I'm not sure if anyone else was staying there. The good news is, you can walk to just about anywhere you want to go in Jordan, as all the businesses are clustered around very handily. There's a museum where you can view area fossil finds (closed by the time we arrived), pharmacy, coffee shop, grocery, garage -- all your basics. Of the several bars, we went to Hell Creek Bar, where my father would stop in on his trips. This was Memorial Day, so probably not the most hopping time to be in town. There were only a few patrons and one long table that looked like a family having dinner. I ordered Wild Turkey (unusual for me, but good) and we had bar food for dinner. Don't come to Jordan for the cuisine. 

But the point is, I was finally there, perhaps sitting on the same bar stool where my father sat, and I would have called him had I had any cell service. We asked after a friend of my father's who owns a ranch nearby, but he wasn't in that night and we didn't know how to get in touch with him. So there we were in Jordan, Montana for no earthly reason other than it's the place my father liked to go. I wonder what the locals thought of us greenhorns showing up for an overnight stay and then disappearing without a trace. No one asked us any questions, but they were perfectly friendly. I expect that they do not tend to pry. I even wandered around the streets as dusk came down, swung on the swing set at the elementary school, smelled the fragrant shrubs blooming (lilacs?) here and there, snapped a picture of their war memorial where I expect they had some sort of remembrance earlier in the day. A good number of WWI names as well as WWII and other conflicts. I'm sure a few people saw us meandering. I hope they made up some good stories about us.

Little Big Horn

Little Bighorn Battlefield looking uphill where Custer made his last stand.
Not wanting to retrace the same ground on our circuitous southern path to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, we headed due west out of Jordan along Route 200, and traveled about 100 miles through sagey grassland, buttes, and coulees populated by mostly cows and browsing antelope. Cross the Musselshell River and eventually in the distance are the Judith Mountains to the north and the Snowy Mountains to the south. You hang a left at Grass Range and go another 90-odd miles on 87 to Billings. By this time, we are listening to Francis Parkman's decidedly dated but still engaging memoir, The Oregon Trail, a misnomer, as he didn't actually go all the way to Oregon, but went part ways, following his own interests (among them was living for awhile with a Sioux tribe, who apparently found him interesting or amusing enough to keep around).

All the Indians this Bostonian meets in 1846 are "savages" and the immigrants, trappers, hunters, Mormons and soldiers rarely fare much better in his opinion, but it is an interesting window on the prevailing attitudes of the time. His descriptions of life on the trail are meticulously detailed, full of adventure, and appropriately florid. Herman Melville reviewed it and liked it well enough but thought Parkman was too contemptuous of the Indians. "When we affect to contemn savages, we should remember that by so doing we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also." Melville needn't have gone so far back to find savages among the whites, but at least he's on the right track.

Well, now we're back on what might be any normal person's itinerary of the West. Traveling partly along I-90 southeast another 60 miles, we came to Little Bighorn in the Crow Agency. History buffs, we couldn't pass up a chance to view the storied battlefield. We didn't take any of the guided tours, but they do offer them and at least one is led by Crow Indians for the Native American perspective. There is also a  memorial dedicated in 2003 to the Native American tribes who took part in the battle -- Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe -- just down the hill from the monument to the fallen 7th Cavalry.
It's a lovely wheel-like monument with openings meant to represent gates to the spirit world where both soldiers and Indians meet again in the infinite. A bronze silhouette of Indians on horseback is traced against the sky and prairie.

We walked along the trail that ran down the hill where Custer made his stand to the deep ravine where many of his men were trapped and cut down easily by the Indians, who had the high ground on the edges of the coulee. It presents a stark realization of just how desperate the fighting must have been, and how completely wrongheaded it was to pitch a battle that set about 260 U.S. troops against the thousands encamped around the Little Bighorn in the valley.

White marble markers of the dead are erected where soldiers fell (marked by the Army when the bulk of it arrived a few days later). Newer markers of red granite have joined them as Native American historians have documented their own dead from the scarce records. Driving the length of the battlefield, the scattered remnants are lit by the sun in the waving grass. It's sad and eerie and oddly jarring as all preserved battlefields are -- all that terror and violence distilled down into a tranquil landscape that looks as peaceful as a dream, as if we were trying to blot out the pain of what once happened there.

Our third and final book for the journey was Larry McMurtry's short life of Custer. McMurtry is very good at fleshing out Custer and his wife and the rather long list of people who despised him. Custer was pretty easy to dislike, if for no other reason than his total disregard for getting his own men killed. I think he was a sociopath. One might argue that he put his own life in danger as well... except when he didn't. He was court-martialed for deserting his command in 1867. (I have saved Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand for future reading and additional perspective.)


Indian Paintbrush
The end of our long day on the road was Wapiti, Wyoming, about 20 miles west of Cody, along the North Fork Highway. This is a lovely scenic drive along the Shoshone River with red, rocky cliffs and the snow-peaked Absaroka Mountain Range in the distance, forming the eastern boundary of Yellowstone. We stayed overnight at a pristine little inn with a place to do laundry and only about a half-hour from the park entrance. The hillside behind the hotel was dotted with sage and wildflowers. Just about dusk, as I was poking around out back and looking at the hills, a lone mule deer came down the slope, looked right at me (from a convenient distance) and ambled on out of sight. When I went out after dark to look at the stars, I spooked a huge owl (Great Horned?) sitting atop a telephone pole. One of my favorite things is watching wildlife, and there's no better place to do it than out here where you never know what you're going run into (hence, bear spray).


Absaroka Mountains near Sylvan Pass in YNP

Our first national park is a wonder. So vast, so beautiful at every turn, and full of life. All those responsible for setting it aside deserve our eternal gratitude. I think the crowds of summer would make it kind of challenging to fully enjoy, but we were there early enough to avoid all the madness. While we're not heavy-duty back-country hikers where one might expect to be alone most of the time, even our shorter hikes on accessible trails were quiet and empty. I think we passed one couple as we turned around to hike back down the South Rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon and no one at all on a trail by Undine Falls, the next day. There was snow in the higher elevations and in the shady shallows of some trails, but the weather was perfect -- 70s and sunny.
Snowy bit of trail on the South Rim of the canyon.

For someone like me who is endlessly fascinated by roadside weeds, all the flora and fauna of Yellowstone could keep me in thrall for far longer than the two days we were there. But light crowds meant we could get around the park pretty easily, so we tried to make it around the entire loop (142 miles!), which is roughly a figure eight. The first day we came in the east entrance, over the Sylvan Pass and skirted the shore of Yellowstone Lake, still partially iced over. We drove up to Canyon Village where we stopped at Artist's Point and hiked part of the South Rim of the Canyon. We headed to Madison and made camp at our small tent site, and then in the evening we traveled down by the geysers to Old Faithful where we were planning to see the iconic eruption and have dinner at the Inn. This was one of the few times we had a sprinkle of rain. We were a bit underwhelmed by OF, but you know, if you're there, you gotta see it.

Cleopatra's Steps at Mammoth
On our second full day in the park, we drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs where you can walk a boardwalked path through the steamy, sulfurous, pools and springs. 
Fossilized bacteria in the hot springs beds

After lunch at Mammoth Village, we drove the northeast part of the loop toward Tower Falls, across the beautiful Lamar Valley. Lots of buffalo herds and elk in the distance, but a few fellows very close to the road. We stopped to hike along Lava Creek to Undine Falls -- another empty trail -- and I saw a marmot! No bear sightings, which is probably for the best.
I kept hoping to see one through binoculars though. The Yellowstone River winds through the area and drops down to Tower Falls. We came back down toward Canyon over the Dunraven Pass (8859 elevation), where the sheer drops at the side of the road made me rather nervous. A few sections have guard rails, but not all. I was too scared to take pictures!

After a full day of driving the scenic loop, we went back to our campground for brats roasted over the fire and cold beer. My husband built a huge fire to warm us until bedtime -- the temperature was dropping steadily on a clear, starry night. It would get down to 32F, but we stayed pretty toasty in the tent. The next morning was getaway-day, but our trip was far from over.

Going home

Grand Tetons
The return itinerary took us out through the South Entrance, into the Grand Tetons National Park, and then we were going to take one more dogleg west to Salt Lake City for an overnight stay, just for kicks. It's amazing what seems "in the neighborhood" once you've adjusted to the Western scale of things.

The drive through northeastern Utah was pretty spectacular. We stayed in Denver for two nights and took in a history museum and had a great meal at Osteria Marco. Then the long ride through Kansas back to KC for a night, before the final leg home. 

We will probably never make such an epic car trip again, but we felt extraordinarily lucky to make it through this one with few mishaps along the way.

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