By Patrick Branyan
We really liked Medicine Hat, and that holds for every place we visited in Canada. I’ve confused Medicine Hat, Alberta with Mexican Hat, Utah for about 25 years since driving from Las Vegas to our old farm. We spent several days in Vegas back then with our friends Dan and Janet. Before we left Austin a friend called and asked me to play $10.00 for her with me fronting the money.
Medicine Hat to Havre Through The Great Plains of Rolling Grasslands and Green Coulees
It took Dahna and I about two days to lose our $200.00 gambling budget. The morning we left Dan told me he was hungry and to hurry up and lose the ten bucks I was fronting for my friend Lynn. I saw a huge slot machine sitting by itself against the wall like Jabba the Hutt and fed the money to it. About two minutes later I won $130.00. I turned around and said, “Can you believe this shit?” Dan looked at me with sleepy eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” We split up after breakfast and started the drive home.
That afternoon it became apparent there were no motel vacancies anywhere in the southwest in summer. Hadn’t thought of that. We were stuck with over a thousand miles to go and no room at the inn. I said, “Let’s just go home to the farm.” Dahna still loves that 80 acres more than anyplace on earth, so that’s where we went. Sometime past dark we drove through rolled up Mexican Hat. I don’t remember much about it except liking the cool name. I think Medicine Hat is a cool name too, and it has the vibe to go with it. Both names pay homage to minorities that once were majorities not that long ago. Anyway, we camped out beside our old wheat field around midnight.
When we got home to Austin, Dahna and I took the elevator to Lynn’s office and I peeled off six twenties and laid them on her desk. “I’m keeping my ten dollars,” I told her. She looked at the money and then up at us and said, “Let’s go to the Four Seasons. On me,“ Win win, that day.
Not long after regretfully leaving Medicine Hat we pulled up to the U.S. border at the Montana state line fully prepared this time for their citrus fetish. The last time we crossed was up in Maine and the chipper border lady cheerfully confiscated our precious limes. God knows what she did with them. This time Dahna juiced out about a dozen into a plastic jar and threw away the incriminating rinds. You can thank Dahna now or later for this little tip if you cross the border and need lots of lime for your sundowner. If you drink Old Crow like we do, you’ll want that lime.
I was disappointed when the border officer obviously thought I was too harmless to do anything dastardly like smuggle in limes. No search, no questions. I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’m on any lists and at this point that’s shameful.
We headed for Havre because it was too far to make it to Hardin located close to the Little Bighorn. It looked on the map like a desolate spot, but it was beautiful like most of Montana. The RV park was privately owned by a young hard-working couple, the Hansens. It wasn’t perfect yet, but they thought hard about their modest place, and it showed in the ways that make for a nice park.
Hansen Family Campground near Havre, MT
Burro: Part of Hansen Family Campground Petting Zoo
We didn’t know it, but we were close to the spot where the Nez Perce were finally defeated at the Battle of Bear Paw. I’ll bet you a cookie that as a youngster you were among the millions who remember their chief’s haunting eloquence when he said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The more you know about our treatment of the Indians, the more likely that sentence will make you cry.
We headed for the battlefield on our second day near Havre. The site is located a little over a dozen miles south of the little town of Chinook, MT. It was cold and windy with a light mist hanging over everything when we parked in the almost empty parking lot near three small monuments. We let Sacha out on her leash, and since I didn’t see anyone but a lone hiker high up on a ridge I thought of letting her run free. That’s when we noticed a ranger mowing downslope near a restroom, actually a dry toilet called a vault.
The Nez Perce encampment was on the flat ground to the fore of the trees.
The ranger soon rode the mower up to where we were and introduced himself. We asked him a few questions while he petted Sacha. He gave us a master class in courtesy by the way he gently got it across to us that we were standing on ground sacred to the Nez Perce, and that it would be better for Sacha to remain in the truck. He pointed out that the bundles we saw left near the the monuments were offerings and some contained bones. With Sacha happily boarded in the back seat, he asked us if we would like to hear the story of the Nez Perce War of 1877. Dahna and I did a psychic high-five and almost together said, “Yeah!”
Dahna and I are native Texans and don’t know how to pronounce anything, so I asked Ranger Casey Overturf how to say, ‘Havre’. He said that long ago back in town a couple of guys liked the same girl. One night at a dance they fought over her, and the big guy gave it to the little guy good and hard. Lying there on the floor he looked up at two big fists and said, “If you want her that bad you can havre.” We laughed a little, and then he got down to business.
Ranger Casey Overturf And Some Old Guy That Wandered Up
One year after the Battle of Little Big Horn, The Nez Perce had been removed from their ancestral lands in Oregon to a reservation in Idaho. The U.S. Army was unable or unwilling to stop white miners and settlers from taking over large areas of the reservation forcing the Indians onto a small fraction of its original area. This pegged the Pissed Off meter of some of the young warriors, and they took their revenge on a few of their loud new neighbors, temporarily restoring an element of quiet in those quarters.
Chief Joseph, the peaceable leader of the Nez Perce, knew then he had to get out of Dodge fast. With about 800 people including roughly 200 warriors he led them on one of history’s greatest series of running battles. It might surprise you to know that the Indians either won each of these engagements or held their own throughout the 1200 mile escape attempt. It was finally at Bear Paw where the old axiom was again proved that you can win every battle and still lose the war. Our side was reminded of that a hundred years later after the dust settled in Vietnam.
Swainson’s Hawk -Bear Paw Battlefield
History buffs of a military bent will appreciate the brilliant blend of guerrilla and fixed emplacement tactics that bloodied the U.S. Army so badly. General William T. Sherman spoke of the Indians as having “…fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications” (Wikipedia). Leadership and tactical judgment are separate things, but the Nez Perce had both in spades when the bullets flew. But tactics and strategies are different things too.
Chief Joseph was neither the tactician nor the strategist of the war. Rather, this fell to the chiefs of other bands such as White Bird, Looking Glass and men like Poker Joe who was a warrior, guide and interpreter. The outcome of the war might well have turned on the winner of the critical debate between Looking Glass and Poker Joe. That winner was Looking Glass.
He argued for a slower pace of travel in order to allow the women and children an easier time of keeping up. Makes sense. Poker Joe argued for a faster pace in order to out-distance the pursuing army. That makes sense too. But Poker Joe lost the debate and the U.S. Army won the war when they caught Chief Joseph at Bear Paw, just 40 miles from the Canadian border and safety. Looking Glass was killed at Bear Paw and so was Poker Joe during the siege lasting several days.
Chief Joseph’s Statement of Surrender at Bear Paw Battlefield
I can’t overstate the wonder of having a person like Ranger Overturf stand with you at that site and give you the extraordinary benefit of his knowledge and skill in story-telling. With a little imagination it’s almost like watching the battle in real time. I’ll say this too. If you travel down the history of our treatment of the Indian nations, you’ll discover it wasn’t a crime. It was a sin.
We only stayed at the Hansen Family RV Park and Storage for three nights. Soon we found ourselves headed to another park near Hardin, MT for a long-desired visit (on my part) to the Little Big Horn. The park was set up like the one in Banff. In these you share a site with another camper. Let me give you a word of advice if you plan to travel in an RV: Avoid these parks unless you hate privacy. The only good thing about it was that the rain held off just long enough for us to get set up. The rain was dogging us like Columbo but without the funny quirks.
Bunny at Hansen Family Campground
In the spring of 1975 I was pulling an ancient one-way disc plow over my 20 acre pinto bean field when I looked up and saw a familiar blue car at the other end. A little closer and I thought to myself, ‘Damn! That is Jack Burkhead.’ He was talking to Dahna, and I stopped the old Minnie Moline tractor when I got close and then walked up to see him. He wasn’t as glad to see me as he might have been because he had just been on a wild goose chase looking for our place, and that rubbed off some of the shine for him.
Jack travels a lot and on this particular day, there he stood on our high, dry land farm near Summit Point, Utah. Summit Point isn’t even a ghost town anymore because there are no buildings left, just a few wispy Dust Bowl memories, even back then fading away. Today, nothing has changed way out on the Point; still no electricity or running water and still remote.
He was already tired when he got to Monticello whereupon he asked a local guy if he knew the whereabouts of a one-armed hippie and his skinny girlfriend. The guy pointed toward Moab and off Jack went. He did find a one legged guy somewhere out there which is fine, of course, but it did cost him several more hours, a big bucket of gas and a chip out of his disposition. I can’t remember how he finally found us. Anyway, there he was. Jack is preternaturally good-natured and positive though, and the ordeal quickly became part of his large personal repertoire of stories.
The story I want to talk about in a minute is the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In my life that’s one of the places where Jack comes in. He’s one of only two people I’ve known who has a true, margin-to-margin photographic memory. The other, God help me, is my wife—selfsame skinny hippie chick aforementioned. Of the three of us, it’s abundantly clear who the slow step is. I give myself credit for adjusting though and you would too if you were in my shoes for a few minutes. I suppose you can still be dumb as a post and have a photographic memory, but that’s not my experience with these characters. They ring the bell out at the old IQ carnival while I sell tickets.
Site of Indian Encampment Beyond the Little Bighorn River
Back when Fischer and Spassky were engaged in their knuckle-biting struggle for the chess crown Jack taught me how to play better. I already could beat a good few of the dumb people I played hanging around Houston, but he brought several orders of magnitude of skill to our games. I can’t give a precise number of orders of magnitude because I never could quite fathom how he did those things to me on the chessboard. He tried to show me as he recreated the games from memory, but the winning lines might just as well been those woven into his tattersall shirt for all I could tell. I swear, my mother had to be chain smoking when she carried me. She liked Pall Malls. Unfiltered.
I mention all this because all those years ago in our little farmhouse Jack told me the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from that same big memory vault. At the end of about two hours I had the picture. I didn’t read any more about it except as mentioned in other things I read through the years. As it turned out I didn’t have to. I already had a vivid account nestled in my head like a hard-shelled walnut.
A few days ago Dahna and I stood under umbrellas a few feet from where Custer fell. From that small patch of high ground much of the battlefield is in view, an area I suppose to be around eight to ten square miles, maybe more. You look down from there to where the Little Bighorn River meanders through the trees that line its banks, the place where the lodges of the Lakota and their Cheyenne allies made up one of the largest assemblies of plains Indians ever known.
Little Bighorn Last Stand Memorial
I looked left and right and there it all was just like I thought it would be. Familiar. It wasn’t just the terrain I “remembered” but the battle itself. It came back to me that day and the next; the heat, the dust clouds from the horses charging and plunging, the barked orders amid the war cries, the smoke and noise of the gunfire, the curses and the screams. It wasn’t just that either but the movements of the two main detachments of Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment. I remembered some of that too, mostly from Jack.
Depiction of The Last Stand
The Indians had great leaders like Gall and Crazy Horse and others who inspired the warriors and guided them strategically, tactically and with discipline. But, I think of the way they rode through and around the soldiers in close combat, dissolving the cohesion of the cavalry and, finally, its discipline and effectiveness. Where did they get that kind of courage? Sitting Bull had a vision a few weeks earlier that predicted victory against an attack by white soldiers and, after the battle started, Crazy Horse told his warriors that they could “…kill them all…” Maybe that’s partly where they got it.
Red Stone Markers Where Warriors Fell Are Few Since Most Were Carried Away for Tribal Rites.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn is Rashomon made large. I know from my own experiences in combat that those heightened perceptions, especially, are much less reliable in recall than those of the everyday. And, keep in mind the small range of survival chances in the mind of each man at some point in the battle, soldier or Indian warrior—from the high possibility of death to the absolute certainty of it.
Marker for Custer’s Fall
Everybody knows the outcome of the fight, and there’s much agreement about the how of it too. But many details will never be known because of ordinary interpretative biases and the Rashomon effect distorting the survivors’ accounts. It’s hard enough to accurately recount what happened at work yesterday, much less a day with several hours of Death trying to choke off your every breath. Adrenaline might save your ass, but it’ll defeat your memory.
I think it was unimaginable to Custer that his regiment could be beaten regardless of the size of the encampment. First of all, his scouts’ reports varied but at least one was accurate. Like most of us though he settled on those figures most comfortable to him, the lower counts. Custer planned more time for scouting, but he was given evidence his camp had been spotted and the element of surprise lost. So, he attacked prematurely—before he knew the true count of enemy warriors. It was his biggest mistake and it came wrapped in several other faulty assumptions including misjudgments about his subordinate commanders.
But, secondly and besides, he thought his battle plan solid enough to accommodate larger numbers based on two things: the high protectiveness of the warriors for their women, children and old men (true) and the possibility of a quick collapse of resistance due to surprise (false). Indian sentries reported soldiers in the area but they didn’t expect to be attacked, and so the village remained peaceful and unprepared. Regardless, they were off their reservation and Grant ordered them moved back. The unimpeded mining of Black Hills gold was the booty to be won.
Custer divided his regiment into three battalions, two for the assault and one held in reserve. He assigned Major Marcus Reno the mission of attacking first at the south end of the village thus drawing the warriors to fight there. As the noncombatants ran for safety to the north, Custer intended to capture and isolate them there while trapping the warriors between the jaws of his own battalion and Reno’s to their front. A kind of squeeze play known as the Anvil and Hammer. Pretty basic.
If Sitting Bull and the other chiefs quickly saw their situation to be hopeless and surrendered, all to the good. If not, Custer had their wives and children as hostages to force the issue. Further, if things really got out of hand, he could use the hostages as human shields and, by rifle volley, signal his reserve battalion under Captain Frederick Benteen to reinforce him and Reno. Good plan. Mice and men.
Crow Ponies Running At Little Bighorn
A number of things factor into why the plan fell apart almost from the beginning. A few include the fact that a significant number of troops were recent immigrants from Europe, some who couldn’t speak English. A lot of them were very poor and just needed a job and the possibility of advancement. But military cutbacks since the end of the Civil War stressed the army too, cutting armaments, supplies and morale. On the other hand, the Indians felt strong in number and rode with the visionary power of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other powerful chiefs. It was plenty for that day, June 25, 1876.
Almost immediately at the onset of Reno’s attack to the south, Custer’s favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife, was shot through the head. Blood and brain spattered the side of Reno’s face, rattling him and causing him to fall back into a defensive position. As the Indians began to arrive in larger numbers he broke his skirmish line in spite of low casualties and retreated to a stand of timber nearby. Many had lost control of their horses and were on foot by then. Panic was in the air.
Major Reno Retreated At This Crossing Of The Little Bighorn River
Reno might have made a good defensive stand in the trees according to Indian accounts. But, he broke again and ran, exhorting his men to make a dash for the river in hopes of taking higher ground on the other side. The race from the trees to the river turned retreat into rout and that’s when the Indians stopped fighting the soldiers and began “hunting them like buffalo.”
Indian accounts describe the soldiers as appearing drunk, wildly waving their arms, and firing into the air as they were run down and tomahawked or shot by arrow or rifle bullet. The Indians broke off the slaughter of Reno’s men when the survivors managed to cross the Little Big Horn River. They spotted Custer moving against the north end of the encampment, so they stripped Reno’s dead of clothing and arms and turned in full force to meet the new threat. Reno and those who escaped gained the high ground whereupon they dug in and remained in relative safety with Benteen assisting.
Custer was not aware of Reno’s rout and the evaporation of his “anvil” when he initiated his assault—the “hammer.” Instead of capturing non-combatants trying to escape though, he was besieged by several thousand charging warriors with a strong taste for blood and total victory. Some analysts believe he never managed any offensive action at all, but was able only to mount a series of defensive reactions as he fell further and further back to high ground.
Markers Where The Soldiers Fell At Last Stand Hill
Lt. Colonel George A. Custer’s self-assigned battalion was destroyed to the last man possibly in less than an hour. No reserve unit came to his aid in spite of several rifle volleys fired in distress. I think I know why. Numerous Indian accounts speak in admiration of the courage shown by Custer’s men, and of him personally. I believe these accounts prove that of the three battalions on the field that day Custer’s was the one far better led. I’ll leave it at that.
The battle continued through the next day as the Indians attacked Reno and Benteen’s perimeter. Spotting a column of reinforcements, the Indians disengaged, broke camp and left the Crow reservation’s Little Big Horn behind. But, their victory was short-lived, to say the least.
After we left the monument on Last Stand Hill we travelled the park road that wound through the battlefield. Throughout the sites of significant events, you’ll see the widely-scattered white marble markers where each soldier fell, some in small groups and some alone. That’s when you’ll get the picture for yourself in full force.
Dahna generally spends very little time considering the whys and wherefores of war because she hates the idea of it, the stupidity, and will say so to any enthusiast. This time she was strongly affected because of her appreciation of the Native American way of life and its harmonious relationship with nature. She noticed that the Native American Peace Through Unity Memorial had few visitors compared with Custer’s and she chalked it up as one of the things that is still wrong with this country.
We were cold and our legs were wet, and Sacha had been left alone in the camper too long even though she loves that thing like we do. On the way home, Dahna said she wanted to come back the next day to visit the Indians’ monument, a far more recent addition to the battleground than the soldiers’ white obelisk erected a few years after the battle. She also wanted to listen to the Native American docent’s account.
We got up early and gathered our cold weather rain gear and put our heads down into an even colder day with hard rain and strong winds. It was our last chance to go though, so we took the shot leaving Sacha in her toasty camper, poor little baby. The docent had just begun his remarkable lecture when we sat down to listen in the freezing wind-swept patio reserved for that purpose. Like Ranger Overturf, the man really knew his stuff, and it was obvious he felt a strong emotional attachment to the tragedy it was and so remains.
When he concluded after 45 minutes or so, he scanned the white sea of our faces and then asked us, “Couldn’t we have done better than this? Don’t you think we could have done a lot better than this?” The crowd burst out in applause, but I think Dahna wanted to cry.
Peace Through Unity Memorial
We were alone when we climbed the hill only a few hundred yards away from where Custer fell. We passed two white markers a few feet to the side of the pathway and continued up. The memorial first appears as a mound, but as you approach you find a partially-walled circular structure, with openings to the east and west. The circle contains a beautiful welded line sculpture of spirit warriors on one side and engraved stone panels for each of the tribes that fought on the others. The names of many of the warriors who fought and died there are inscribed as well as some translated excerpts of accounts given by the survivors.
The miserable weather of the day added to our somber mood and we were hushed as we walked back down. We stopped to look again at the two white markers for a moment while the cold rain struck hard at our umbrellas.
I knew something of what those two men felt in their last moments.
Asclepias speciosa – Showy Milkweed At Little Bighorn
I’ve been worried and nervous, and I’ve had my share of frightening jolts like stepping on a snake or a close call on the highway. I had a number of very close calls in Vietnam, certainly when I was wounded. But, I’ve only been scared once in my life. It was during Tet ’68 or right after, maybe later in March of that year, southwest of Da Nang. My platoon went through a medium-sized village and one of our guys cut down some banana trees with a machete and then killed a pig with it. There was no firefight, but that caused plenty of tension.
That night we dug in nearby. My buddy Jenkins and I found a trench three or four feet deep and took up our positions there. Not long after dark we were hit with heavy and sustained automatic fire. The tracers fanned across our trench just inches from our heads. We were completely pinned down and unable to return fire.
Dark-Eyed Junco (White-Winged)
Even through the noise of the firing I could hear something else. I realized it was the buckles of my helmet’s long rotted off chinstrap rattling loud. I was trembling. I went through a macabre debate of what ifs; whether or not to take it off to be quiet or leave it on to protect my head from getting blown off. Back and forth again and again. Finally, I kept it on and leaned back with my rifle’s barrel pointed just above the out-facing lip of the trench ready to fire at anything. The helmet rattled away.
Next to me Jenkins pulled the pin of a grenade and kept the spring-loaded “spoon” down with a death grip. He held it that way all night, unbeknown to me sitting next to him. His plan was to kill himself with it to keep from being captured and tortured. Some of Custer’s men committed suicide for the same reason. But, that night our casualties were light because we called in artillery almost on top of our own position and got them off of us. That was scary too.
The next morning Jenkins showed me the grenade in his hand, and he wanted my opinion as to what to do about it. My impulse was to strangle him, but since he was still holding a live grenade I just told him to throw the damn thing. It wasn’t a dud.
A few weeks later, “Jinx” got shot through the fat part of his thigh. When another guy and I carried him back to the road for medevac, he just laughed and laughed. “Million dollar wound P.J.” he said more than once, “Goin’ home.” I told him to shut up or I’d kill him myself. We shook hands after we loaded him on the big 6 x 6 and I never saw him again. Jenkins was a black man and one of the finest men I ever knew, grenade incident aside. He’s where my casual southern racism died a quiet death. He stays in the back of my mind and his memory still helps me out from time to time.
Hairy Woodpecker – Custer, SD
Dahna walked off, but I stayed looking at the markers just long enough to shiver a little bit. It was cold out there.
I suggest taking my account of the battle with a grain of salt though. It would be better if you saw it through your own eyes and biases. I think you would agree with the docent that, yes, we could have done better. A lot better. We can do a lot better today too and maybe we will. But the shadows that darken our history still move along with us…so, who knows? These days I’m not as confident as I used to be.
The next morning I went around the camper to dump the holding tanks before packing up. I was trying to be quiet since another RV sharing our site was only inches away. I jumped when a disembodied voice said, “Good morning.” Looking around for a ghost, I finally figured out it was the guy in the abutting RV. He had opened the window next to my ear and wanted to know if we were going to the battlefield. I told him we went the day before, and he was incredulous, “In that rain??”
The cold front blew in good weather for the drive to Custer Mountain RV park near Custer State Park, SD. It was a nice park with the usual caveat or two. The main problem was the unleashed dogs that wandered around. I wouldn’t mind this ordinarily because I’m all for puppy power. But, the dog we have used to be a stray and had to fight for food. Nowadays, when she gets close to another dog she makes a Hulk-like transformation from sweet, lovable Lassie into White Fang. That, in turn, forces my activity level up to “energetic” which is not my nature. Snowballing, my politics instantly devolve from liberal live-and-let-live to strident, red-faced leash Nazi. Then I hate myself for a little while until I get over it.
View from Custer Mountain RV Park, Custer, SD
We stayed there for five nights and covered a lot of miles driving around in the truck. On the first full day we drove over to Sylvan Lake which I didn’t like because too many dogs, and I was pretty vocal about it. Holding White Fang back was work. Dahna’s comment was, “Well, that’s pretty stupid, it’s a nice lake.” Nevertheless, we cut the lake thing short and headed down a twisty little road to see the Needles rock formations. The road passes through several short “eye tunnels,” super narrow one-way passages through the rock. I folded in my side mirrors and went into the first one at a crawl.
One of Many Needles Rock Formations
Sylvan Lake At Custer State Park
Right away we came to a pair of beautiful mountain goats that were licking a mineral seep off the port wall near the tunnel’s exit. There was no getting around them, so I shut the engine off and waited. In the ten or so minutes that followed a healthy line of vehicles formed up fore and aft. Ten minutes of inconvenience due to concern over wild animals is intolerable to many Americans, and a woman at the exit started ranting at me to push them out of the way.
I enjoyed stalling for another five minutes on her behalf, winding her up tight. When I figured the goats had enough I gave them a little toot and got them to sidle by. If I had a left hand I could have petted them as they passed, but alas. Pulling out of the tunnel Dahna said to the woman, “These goats have the right of way, not you.” The lady smarted off, and Dahna let her have it like a howitzer. A shaken guy standing out there could be heard as we drove off yelling, “Hey now!” He couldn’t hear me laughing.
Mountain Goats in Eight Foot Wide Tunnel
The next day we visited Mount Rushmore. Dahna was new to the monument, but I had been there 50 years ago winding up my solo trip mentioned in my last post, “Back in the Saddle Again.” Dahna wasn’t really excited about Rushmore preferring more natural wonders, but I wanted to see it again. Actually, I was most interested in seeing the monument’s restaurant made famous in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.“ By coincidence, I sat in the same spot 50 years ago eating lunch alone where Cary Grant sat before he was “shot” by Eva Marie Saint in the great movie. I wanted to see that little table again.
Mt. Rushmore – The Fab Four
Unfortunately, the spot was still there but not the table. Everything else was the same, so I had a little nostalgic moment. The place was overrun with people, and we’d left Sacha in the cool parking garage and didn’t want to leave her there very long alone. So, we headed back to the camper after only about 30 minutes at Rushmore. For Dahna it was like our Iranian friend we met at Geneva S.P. in Ohio said about Niagara Falls, “You see a thing and then you go see something else.”
Pat at Carver’s Cafe, Mt. Rushmore
Later, back at the RV park, a big bright red Ford F-350 diesel pickup began backing in an equally bright red Winnebago travel trailer. We made ourselves scarce in order to let the North Dakotan couple set up in peace. Later, while taking Sacha for a walk, I had a little daydream about that truck. I could imagine all that power and torque in my own hands whisking our heavy trailer over a high mountain pass. I like my lighter truck just fine, but I’ve been blown off the road by big diesel pickups pulling trailers damn fast on many a mountain.
I had one more vivid memory I wanted to resurrect from that old trip back in ’69. It was, in fact, the last memory I still had from that trip, but since I was in the neighborhood why not try to dig it up? I was 21 then and sitting in the middle of Custer State Park on Hwy 87 looking up at the huge head of a bull bison who was looking down at me. Traffic was stopped by the herd, and there I sat, low to the road in an XK-E roadster with the top down. The buffalo was about eight feet away from me, and I froze holding my breath.
[BTW: In 1969 you could buy a brand new E Jag roadster (silver gray/black top and interior)—“the most beautiful car ever built” (Enzo Ferrari)—for $6,200. A new Corvette was about $5,000. I kept the car for two years and then bought a used cargo van because my plans radically changed. Those new plans led me straight to this couch somehow.]
So, on our third day we headed to Custer S.P. by way of Wind Cave National Park. The cave itself was closed because the elevator was broken, but the drive through was open. We saw bison, lots of prairie dogs (Sacha’s favorite rodent) and the “begging donkeys.” The donkeys are wild but hang with the tourists because they feed them. Eventually, the road led up to a familiar place in Custer.
Bison at Wind Cave National Park
Pronghorn At Wind Cave
Prairie Dog At Wind Cave
Unlike my original visit there in ’69, this time there was no traffic and precious few buffalo. After awhile, things started to goose my memory. I stopped at last on the highway and told Dahna. “This is where I stopped in the Jag.” She wanted to know if I was sure and I said, “Yeah, unless there’s another place just like it.” There wasn’t, so I had another cool, direct wire back to my misspent youth.
Begging Burros At Custer State Park
Too Proud To Beg
Later, back at the RV park, Dahna fixed drinks and we went out with Sacha to the picnic table. I was still mooning over our neighbors’ red pickup when they came around and we met them. It was one of those things where everybody clicked, like with the Milhous’s, and we spent a nice evening getting to know them. Sheila and Hoad Harris live in Fargo and, as you might expect, it wasn’t long before I had to ask Sheila about the popular Coen movie.
Red Crossbill (The crossed bill facilitates removal of seeds from conifer cones.)
She began by saying that she is not a fan of Coen movies, and I told her I understood completely. My friend Sally and I like some Coen movies and not others, maybe 50/50 thumbs up or down. The thing is, Sally dislikes the very same movies I do like and I’m on the other side about her choices. We went together in high school and fought like cats and dogs. Anyway, I never met anyone like Sheila who, strikingly, has no use for their movies. But, I can see how it can happen…like Sacha’s single blue eye.
Pronghorn At Custer State Park
She told us that only the opening establishment scene was actually filmed in Fargo. The rest were shot in Minnesota because it had that “frozen tundra” look the Coens were after. I liked “Fargo,” especially Frances McDormand. I first saw her in one of my favorite noirs, the Coen’s “Blood Simple.” The great thing about that movie is that all of the characters are operating under false assumptions. Not one of them knows what’s actually going on in this murderous little flick.
Downy Woodpecker – Custer, SD
While making small talk with the Harris’s I was reminded of Mickey Mantle’s probably not original line, “If I knew how long I’d live, I would have taken better care of myself.” They were younger than us but not enough to account for their appearance compared to the one I see in the mirror every day. They looked a lot younger, and I thought I knew why after briefly considering, then discounting, the Dorian Gray theory.
Both Red-Breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches – Custer, SD
They’re long term fitness junkies often going on killer mountain hikes that sometimes involve climbing using your hands, deep water scuba diving, and other exertions too horrible to contemplate. The only price paid that I could tell was Hoad’s somewhat fragile knees from years of running. Physically, the one thing I’m proud of is my good knees. Of course, the last time I ran anywhere was across a rice paddy dike (damn fast!) during my John Wayne days.
Okay, it makes sense even to me that a lifetime of good habits is probably good for you in the long run. What I didn’t understand was how they could have raised eight children (can that be right?), sent every one of them through college and still be standing, much less all the other stuff they do. If we raised eight kids and had to earn the money to get them through school, Becky would have scattered our ashes out in the orchard years ago. But there they sat with vodka cocktails.
Gray Jay – Custer Mountain RV Park
It turns out they both have careers in health services. Hoad is a physician, a GP with his own practice in Fargo. When I heard that, my limbic (lizard) brain stirred like Grendel in Beowulf and started sending little ache and pain impulses to various parts of my body in an shameless bid for free medical advice. By the time my alarmed conscious
(Hi! I’m Pat!) brain wrestled the dragon to the floor, it was too late. I’d already saved several hundred bucks. I did manage to mumble something a little apologetically about it, but Hoad generously chuckled and waved it off. Beau geste.
Sheila is a Reconnective Healing practitioner. She didn’t really talk about this, so I don’t want to get out over of my skis too far to use a completely inappropriate metaphor in my case. Generally, the idea is that conditions and events deeply imprinted in childhood can stunt adult lives both physically and mentally. The goal is to reconnect the client to a larger adult awareness and balance; sort of a maturation process, I think, that pays off in overall health benefits. Familiar psychological therapies are not involved and neither are drugs or religion. You don’t have to spend a fortune, nor do you have to flog yourself in a freezing convent or monastery somewhere on a mountain top.
Red Squirrel At Custer Mountain RV Park
I’d better stop there, and I might be off the mark even at that. I can confidently say that Sheila and Hoad are among the most delightful and accomplished couples we’ve met on the road, so whatever it is they’re doing works like a charm. It could be the vodka, but the probability of that is pretty small, I think. After I groveled a bit, Sheila promised to consider writing something for our blog. Maybe she’ll link to her own website, and you can dispense with my characterization of her work as a healer. Better that.
White-Tailed Deer, Custer Mountain RV Park
Hoad is also a pilot, and I think I know why, at least in part. When he was young his dad took him on a helicopter tour of this same area around Custer State Park and environs. The helicopter was a Bell 47, like the ones seen in M.A.S.H. with the “soap bubble canopy” (Wikipedia). If you think about it, that’s a pretty exciting ride for a kid; perfect for infecting him with the aviation bug. Another neat thing is that tour is still available with the same type of helicopter.
On our last day there Hoad and Shiela took the tour and were flying high while we lumbered along on the ground in the truck. One famous place they flew close to was the nearby Thunderhead mountain being sculpted in the image of Crazy Horse. This work in progress has been going on for about 70 years primarily because it’s entirely privately-funded. Today, only the head is finished, but the design calls for him to be sitting astride his horse while pointing to the horizon. The scale is roughly 1/3 larger than Rushmore, and the work itself is controversial among the Oglala Lakota.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The issue is whether or not it’s appropriate to fashion an image out of a mountain that’s sacred to the Indians. The pro side argues that Crazy Horse is as important as the Rushmore quartet and should be memorialized by a monument as well. That was the original impetus for the construction. The other side argues that’s it’s sacrilege to deface the mountain with an image even if it is Crazy Horse. They also argue that he would have opposed it himself being something of an ascetic. Overall, that’s what I’d call an open question for debate.
Stockade Lake at Custer State Park
That night we spent our last fun evening with the Harris’s and went to bed wishing we could hang around another day. They were sweet to get up a little early to say goodbye the next morning, and it was much appreciated. Hoad looked sleepy, and Sheila looked determined to get him back to sleep as part of her plot to have him fully restored and relaxed when he returned to Fargo and his patients.
Stockade Lake Picnic Shelter Built By the CCC (I’ll never accuse Pat of overbuilding again)
I took one last good look at that beautiful red pickup as I pulled out headed for our next stop near Lake McConaughy, Nebraska, moving south toward home in Texas. The Harris’s plan to attend a wedding in Austin fairly soon, and there’s a chance we can sneak in another visit. One can hope.
Buffalo Ambling Down The Road At Custer State Park
Verbena Stricta – Wooly Vervain, Custer State Park