Day 40 – Big Sky

It snowed my first morning in Montana—the first snowfall I had encountered since leaving Dallas. The snow did not last very long (just part of the morning) or cover very much geography (45 miles down the road, it was clear). But, the geography and timeframe that it did cover included my trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I had to go there, regardless, because I had told my Grandmother that I would stop there, at her request. The story goes that we have some distant relative who was part of Custer’s cavalry, but who stayed behind at the camp that morning instead of going to battle. I don’t know if that is true; it seems like everyone has a story about how one of their ancestors was the one person who stayed behind that day, and was the only one of Custer’s men not killed. This purported one man must be an American version of Adam; if he had died that day, the human race on this continent would be extinct now.

So, I wasn’t going to let a few inches of snow stop me. Neither snow, nor rain, nor sleet, nor park entrance fees would keep me from my appointed rounds. Though, I wasn’t sure if I really had any appointed rounds. I’m not even sure what a pointed round is.

A pickup snowplow was getting to work clearing off the road up to the visitor center when I pulled up. The entrance fee was something like $10, but after discussing it with the park ranger, I instead paid $80 for a national parks annual pass. (By the way, this has turned out to be a very good idea. It is a golden ticket that has saved me lots of trouble, and money. If you think you will make it to 5 or more national parks, national monuments, or national anythings in the next 12 months, you will probably be better off getting the annual pass.)

The snow made it a bit harder to see the battlefield. A road takes you up the hill where Custer made his famous last stand and along the ridge where the rest of the battle took place. Driving in the snow was not a problem, but it made it a bit harder to see the scattered gravestones, which are placed where each dead body was found lying. It especially made it harder to read the various informational markers that explained the different parts of the battlefield, since the signs were set up like TV trays and were all covered by snow. I eventually used my deluxe snow/ice windshield scraper to clean each one off so I could read them—the first real use I’ve ever had for the gadget, though I’ve carried it around behind the seat for years.

The signs, and a small museum in the visitor center, explained the various parts of the battle—that so-and-so commander fought along this ridge, or a group of cavalrymen tried to escape down that gulley over there. They also talked a bit about the history behind the battle, and why the two sides were even fighting. Namely: the U.S. government decided that any tribes who were not already on a reservation should be forced onto a reservation and converted to Christianity—or else. And yes, by “or else” they did mean death.

It is really hard to defend this policy. Perhaps, in military terms, if you go out to conquer another country and take their lands, you get to call the shots. But it would be similar to our country today declaring that Iraq is now part of the U.S., and will be turned into several states including East Virginia and Bushylvania. The Iraqis who live there now, and own their own homes under accepted Iraqi law, would be told that there is now a new law of ownership, and they would have to give up their homes to strangers. In return, they would be given apartments in a few small reservations—all the Shiites would live in east Baghdad, all the Sunnis in a corner near Kuwait, and all the Kurds would be shipped off to Afghanistan (New New Hampshire).

Personally, I’m glad Custer lost.

But, I began to wonder why we had this big monument to Custer, and not to the Indians who defeated him. Wouldn’t that sort of tick to tribes off? I mean, they did win, right? Their casino within view at the bottom of the hill, so they must have won.

Just down the hill from Custer’s monument, I did find the monument to the victors. It was built much more recently, during the first President Bush’s term, but the government did at least turn the battlefield into a more balanced memorial.

While I read the quotes and information about the tribes who fought there, I started seeing quotes from and about Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse? For some reason I had remembered that Sitting Bull was chief of the Indians who fought Custer, but I had not realized that Crazy Horse was the other main chief in the battle. Three Crazy Horse sightings in three days? I felt like the man was following me around, and I’m pretty sure he is dead.

I wondered what the ghost of Crazy Horse might want from me, or what he was trying to say. Was it “fight the man”? That if you are “modest, courteous, generous, of great physique and known for (your) self-denial”, that you will be well-remembered? Or “get off my property”?

Question unanswered, I headed off into big sky Montana.

About one out of every 300 people in the U.S. lives in Montana.

One out of every 317, to be exact, according to my road atlas.

Not a very big percentage, if you think about it. We hear all the time different statistics and probabilities: the odds that a person will develop cancer (1 out of 2), or that the Celtics will win the NBA title (1 out of 5,000), or that the person flying your plane is drunk (1 in 117). “Living in Montana” does not rank very high in the “odds of” list; it is somewhat more common than having a fatal slip in the bathtub (1 out of 2,232), but not quite as popular as working at Wal-Mart (1 out of 161) or living in prison (1 out of 128).

Why so many people choose to go to prison, rather than Montana, is a mystery to me. Montana is a beautiful place, with much better views and a whole heck of a lot more space. The state is about the same size as California, but only has 2.5% as many residents. In fact, if all of the land in Montana were divided up equally among the people who live there, each man, woman, and child would have 103 acres all to themselves.

Since people tend to congregate in cities, though, it is actually much, much more spread out than that. Towns listed on the map are often 30 or 40 miles apart, but since they have such a big map to fill and so little to fill it with, what constitutes a “town” often gets exaggerated. Don’t skimp on filling up your gas tank in Montana, because yes, it just might be 90 miles until the next gas station—even if the map says you will pass through 3 other “towns” along the way.

You don’t really have to imagine what Montana looked like when Lewis and Clark first explored its length; for the most part, it still looks the same. In fact, there is even a butte near Billings where Lewis carved his name and the date into the stone wall, and you can still see his graffiti there today. The state still looks like a place where you could park your car along some two-lane highway, start walking away from the road, and spend the rest of your life as a mountain man in the wilderness—without ever being discovered by another human.

Such is the appeal of big sky country. I had been a bit skeptical of the state’s “big sky” claim; isn’t the sky the one thing that would be the same size as everywhere else? It always covers about 180 degrees, and stretches from horizon to horizon. As I drove between Billings and Great Falls, I started to believe in the “big sky” thing a little bit. The sky still stretches from horizon to horizon, but in Montana the horizons seem farther off. I would drive over one ridge of hills or mountains and see a valley stretching to the next ridge—10, 20, or 50 miles distant. And when I would finally reach and cross that next ridge, I would be greeted by another valley stretching for another few dozen miles. And there was often no sign of human interference in sight, other than the road I was traveling down. Even the radio airwaves were clear; in more than one spot, I found there were no FM stations in range, other than the iPod adapter I carried with me.

Along with big, open spaces, you get big wind, which makes it a good place to put up big windmills. I passed through one such farm of lonely giants, and counted 90 electricity-generating windmills scattered atop a low hill. I remembered the extra-long windmill blade I had seen traveling north in Kansas, and wondered if this was the final destination. But, even though the windmills were indeed very large, and it can be hard to judge size on something that is hundreds of feet tall, I thought that these windmills just didn’t seem big enough for the monster I had seen driving down the road. Luckily, a nearby town had another blade laying on the ground, for easier comparison. Though bigger than it had looked in the air, it seemed pretty clear that it was nowhere near as big as the one I had seen driving down the road.

Considering the size of these smaller windmills, it was hard to imagine how tall that larger windmill must stand. Perhaps it was heading to Montana, but just to a different part of the state. Such a giant would only seem to fit in a sky as large as Montana’s.

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