Crossing Wyoming Again

Click to enlarge this route mapAfter another hearty Waffle House breakfast, we headed north, letting I-25 take us north out of Colorado and all the way across Wyoming, until it merged into I-90 about 30 miles south of Sheridan. The driving was generally easy except right at the beginning, when we fell in with a knot of traffic that took some time to untangle.

We bought gas in Douglas, WY, and ate lunch in Casper at the Red and White Café, located in a neighborhood of used-car lots, pawnshops, and run-down motels. My sandwich was of grilled ham and “Swiss,” which greatly resembled the light-colored (i.e., non-orange) variety of American cheese, but tasted good all the same, and the fries were excellent. I asked for a Dr. Pepper, but they were only able to supply the Coca-Cola counterpart to that Pepsi product, which is named “Mr. Pibb.” (I prefer Dr. Pepper.)

The short Colorado part of our trip, right at the beginning, was through a broad, well-irrigated valley where a lot of farming was going on. Wyoming started out the same, but after Cheyenne the land got increasingly higher and dryer. It was mostly grassland. There was some sagebrush, but the terrain never looked like the bleak Great Basin. Three or four times we saw antelope grazing near the highway, which was guarded by the usual line of snow barriers.

As we continued north, we saw first the Laramie and then the Bighorn Mountains on the western horizon. In the Bighorns we could see a cluster of snowcapped peaks behind a sheer wall of lower mountains that looked to us like the edge of a crustal block. Closer to us, and stretching as far as we could see to the east, were rolling, grassy hills, increasingly green as we got closer to Sheridan and the Montana state line. We arrived at the motel in Sheridan at four, having logged nearly 400 miles for the day. Our odometer read 19,938; so far we had traveled 7,947 miles.

Though Sheridan was the northernmost place we had been on the trip so far, the temperature registered 93° on the car thermometer when we got there. Except for when we’d been stuck in the traffic jam in El Paso, this was the highest reading we’d observed anywhere up to then, including the Mojave Desert.

At dinnertime we took a tip I’d found on the Frommer website and went to Sanford’s Pub and Grub, which is one of a chain of five or six located in various cities in the mountain states. It was elaborately funky, with old beer signs, license plates, and so on nailed to every available surface. Dorothea ordered a huge chicken fajita salad with triangles of deep-fried flour tortillas and salsa on the side. Since the Frommer listing had praised their Cajun food, I had crawfish jambalaya, which I ordered medium hot. This was as hot as I’d ever want any food to be, but fortunately it wasn’t too hot to enjoy thoroughly. I drank a 25-oz. stein of their self-brewed amber ale (on special for $3.00 that evening) and found it perfectly acceptable though not an occasion for major rejoicing. The jambalaya came with potato-cheese soup and vinegary Cajun beans, both good, plus a deep-fried submarine (“hoagie”) roll and honey butter — this was odd but tasty. We passed up dessert in favor of eating a Belgian chocolate bar we had bought ourselves in Fort Collins.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield

Since our motel didn’t offer breakfast, we crossed the street to Kim’s Korean-American Family Restaurant, which (according to a sign in the window) did. I ordered a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and a cinnamon roll that turned out to be enormous — fully six inches square, and microwaved to a state of oozing stickiness. It was intensely sweet, and I left almost half. Dorothea had raisin bran and a blueberry muffin, which was also large and microwaved, but fortunately not sticky. There were no Korean items on the breakfast menu — not that we really wanted to start the day with kimchee — but the menu showed that lunch and dinner were a different story. The place seemed to be popular with Sheridan’s blue-collar citizens, many of whom live in that neighborhood.

Click to enlarge this route map (same as Devil's Tower map)We filled the tank and set forth, and had no difficulty getting to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which is 70 miles to the north on the Crow Reservation in Montana. However, the battle site took longer than we’d planned — almost two hours — to see. We had decided go east from there on US-212, then take a little, twisty mountain road south to Devil’s Tower. This route was 40 miles shorter than the one we’d planned, and it also eliminated about 100 miles of backtracking. But we weren’t ready to leave the battle site until 12:30, and we got worried about the unknown quality of the shorter route. We decided to revert to plan A (shown on the map).

Grassland where Custer approached -- click to enlargeThe Little Bighorn site is a sobering place to visit. The grassy ridges are as bare as they were in 1876, and the shady river valley where the Lakota and Cheyenne were camped looks as cool and pleasant as it must have looked then, even with the roads and farms it now contains. Valley where the Indians were camped -- click to enlarge

Scattered across the bare ridges are little white gravestones, each marking the place where a cavalry trooper died. These are not actual gravestones, but markers placed by the Army in 1890 to indicate where the soldiers fell.

Markers at the last stand site -- click to enlargeAt the site where Custer and most of his men were killed, there is a small cemetery with the markers arranged in rows, but although bodies were hastily buried there a couple of days after the battle, the bones were removed a few years later and buried en masse under a large monument a few feet away. Custer was reburied at West Point, and some other officers’ remains were also taken to Eastern cemeteries at that time. Their names are on markers in the little cemetery. Some black paint has been applied to the background on Custer’s monument so that his name can be read from outside the iron fence that surrounds the “graves,” and there was a little flag stuck in the ground next to it, although (since this was only four days after Memorial Day) I don’t know if it’s a permanent fixture.

Soldiers' death-site markers -- click to enlargeI don't know how the Army decided exactly where to place those monuments on the ridges, 14 years after the battle, but they are certainly evocative.

Since the early 1990s there has been some effort to balance the presentation of the battle site, which before that time was exclusively a monument to Custer and his troopers. Three markers (appropriately carved of red stone) now show where two Cheyenne and one Lakota chief fell; a nearby interpretive sign says that the locations had been marked with cairns by the chiefs’ families.

Down the hill a bit from the “last stand” monuments is a new one that memorializes the Native American side. Appropriately large and impressive, it was completed in 2002. And a small marker has even been set up over the grave of the cavalry horses killed in the battle (some by their riders, who needed the horses’ bodies for cover on the bare hillside).

In the visitor center, Dorothea overheard a man complaining to the park rangers that “Sitting Bull’s monument” was bigger than Custer’s. The irony was compounded by the fact that most of the rangers appeared to be Native Americans. And probably, since the site is on their reservation, at least some of them were Crows, a tribe whose members (very few of them, but they were the only Crows present) took part in the battle as scouts for the 7th Cavalry. One irony follows another.

Thinking about everything that brought both sides to that place in 1876, one is left with a kind of generalized mild sadness and sympathy — for the losers, who looked like us, and who fought and died in the wrong cause; and for the winners, who didn’t look like us, whose cause that day was just, and who, in spite of their victory, were thoroughly crushed not much later. It’s probably impossible for a present-day white American — at least it is for me — to harbor a sincere wish, in spite of the terrible injustice of the Indian wars, that the Indians had been completely victorious. Nor does it do any good to wish that the two peoples had reached a peaceful accommodation of equals. Of course that’s a good thing to wish, but it probably wasn’t possible, at least at that time, for two cultures so totally different to come to any such terms. So I felt haunted, at the Little Bighorn battlefield, by sadness and vain regret.

The next day we would be close enough to Wounded Knee to go there. But neither of us thought we’d be able to stand it.

 

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This section last updated 12-13-2004

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