Day 1: August 5, 2016
2:30 am comes early. I know I have said this before, but I so love that 5 am flight, so I am willing to make some sacrifices. There is just something about flying into your destination, and making it there before 11 am. You still have most of the day to sight see!
We got into Billings, Montana before 11 am after a couple of easy flights, with enough layover time to get a quick breakfast in Seattle. We picked up our car, and there was a bit of drama. We had made our reservation through Costco – then prices dropped so we canceled it and made a new reservation. Somehow, the car rental agency still had the first, more expensive reservation. It is important to pay attention to these things!
The clerk was having trouble fixing it too after we showed her our confirmation page with the correct, lower price. Eventually we got our car, a white Subaru with extensive hail damage. It had golf ball sized dents everywhere, and the side mirror housing was ripped off on the passenger side. We weren’t going to have to worry about any damage we caused! Which I learned later, was a good thing (hello foreshadowing)!
We stopped at Walmart to buy a cheap cooler for our travels, since we were planning to do lots of picnic lunches on our trip. Mom bought a camp chair so she could hang out and sketch or journal while I was out hiking at the various parks. And we had a quick lunch at Subway.
Our first tourist stop was at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. If you don’t know the story, Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse resisted government attempts to force them onto reservations. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the United States broke their treaties with the Sioux and allowed unchecked waves of gold seekers to move to the area. As a result, many more Sioux and Cheyenne left their reservations to join the Native Americans who were already in Montana. Custer and his troops were sent there to squelch the resistance.
Custer attacked a village of Sioux and Cheyenne; he misjudged the size of the village and mistakenly assumed that most of the warriors at the village would be sleeping in. Oops… The counter attack was swift and decisive. Custer’s troops ended up retreating to a grassy hill overlooking the prairie and were killed on the hillside. Of the companies directly commanded by Custer, there was not a single survivor. Of the approximately 600 U.S. troops involved in the battle, 274 of them were killed.
It was very hot the day we visited; almost 100 degrees! The battle occurred on June 25, 1876 – on what was probably another very hot day. It would have been very difficult to fight in such conditions. Custer’s soldiers knew there was nowhere to run; so they made the tragic decision to shoot their own horses to form a defensive barrier. It wasn’t effective. It is hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of killing my own horse; they must have known at that point there was no opportunity for a victory or for escape.
We checked out the Visitor’s Center, and then ventured out to see the site. There are markers showing where Custer and some of the other soldiers fell. There are also a few markers showing where Native Americans died, but the Native Americans removed their dead after the battle, so the accuracy of these markers is based on recollections years after the battle. A few years after the battle, the remains of the U.S. Officers were removed from the site and buried with honors at other National Cemeteries – Custer was reburied at West Point. The enlisted men and scouts were re-interred in 1881 at the base of an obelisk at the top of the hill – 220 men in all.
Also at the monument is a memorial erected by the tribes to honor the Native Americans who served there. It is beautiful and moving. In 1991 the name of the monument was changed from Custer Battlefield National Monument, in order to honor the Native American story. Although Custer and his men were killed there, it was not a bloodbath directed at killing U.S. troops – rather it was the culmination of a long period of persecution and murder of the Native Americans. It was kill or be killed for the tribes at that point.
After we toured the battlefield, we listened to the Ranger Talk of what happened there. He pointed out where people were at various points during the battle. He talked about which tribes participated on which side of the battle and why. It was interesting to hear both perspectives and to visualize the movement of both sides throughout the battle.
After Little Bighorn, we stopped to take the first of many photos of prairie dogs who made their home in a colony just outside of the monument. Yes, I get all of the reasons why these cute critters are reviled, but they totally get a bad rap! Prairie dogs are critical for a healthy ecosystem. They provide food for predators like coyotes, foxes and ferrets, their burrows provide homes for those same ferrets and burrowing owls, and the process of burrowing helps to rejuvenate the prairie grasses that the bison need to survive. No prairie dogs, no healthy ecosystem. Take that, you prairie dog haters!
We couldn’t watch the prairie dogs too long though, as we still had touristing left to do! Next up – the Bighorn County Historical Museum.