Category Archives: 2012: Montana

The Loneliness of Little Bighorn


August 2012:  I’ve always been fascinated by George Armstrong Custer and the battle at Little Bighorn. Perhaps it’s from watching too many westerns as a kid or because pop culture constantly references it – the 1941 Errol Flynn movie, for example, and the 1963 Twilight Zone television episode and the movies “Little Big Man” in 1970 and “The Horse Whisperer” in 1998 and countless others.

The battle took place in June 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone* and the year of the American centennial. It was a cultural spike in American history that shocked the public.

Linda and I have traveled fair distances on the motorcycle but never got to the northwest quadrant of the U.S. until recently. We rode through Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in 2010 but didn’t have enough time to cross over into Montana.

Montana didn’t happen until 2012, when we took the Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park. That was a great ride in itself, making up for the many exhausting miles we covered in too few days. On the way home from Glacier, we were able to stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

To get to Custer’s Last Stand, you drive across grass fields to a toll booth and a big parking lot with a restroom and a ranger station/visitors’ center. Beyond that is Last Stand Hill, with its white obelisk, bearing the names of fallen men of the 7th Calvary. Historians say 263 soldiers were killed and 55 wounded in the battle against several thousand Indian warriors. No one knows how many Indians died; estimates vary widely from 30 to 300.

The remains of the soldiers themselves are in a common grave around the base of the obelisk. Tombstone-like markers have been placed where soldiers are believed to have fallen. A black iron fence surrounds them.
The battlefield was designated a military cemetery in 1879 and became part of the national park system in 1940. Its name was changed later to Custer Battlefield National Monument. The park emphasized the losses of the U.S. Army until 1991 when Congress changed its name again to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It became a memorial to a clash of cultures in addition to the memories of the soldiers and the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.

An Indian Memorial was built in 1996 and red granite markers showing where warriors fell were added starting in 1999. All of which was overdue, I think.

But nothing really prepares you for the park itself. Already tired from the day’s ride, we park the bike, take off our helmets, and stumble wearily toward the center, moving awkwardly in boots and armored riding suits, like astronauts on a heavy-gravity planet. The white obelisk beckons from the top of the hill, so we bypass the center and walk toward it.

Distance from the visitors’ center to Last Stand Hill is maybe the length of a football field but once there, everything is different. The top of the hill gives a view of rolling grasslands in every direction, falling away forever, land so empty and immense and eternal it seems to swallow up sound. The only thing you can hear is the wind ruffling the long dry grass.

That’s when I realize how god-awful place this is, how damned lonely and remote and uncaring. A true cemetery. It didn’t take much to imagine being pinned down on this hill and hearing war cries and the shrieks of the wounded and dying. It was too damned real. It was in that moving grass like memory.

We walk around and go in the visitors’ center and see the exhibits and watch some of the videos but nothing touches me like those moments on Last Stand Hill. We fire up the motorcycle and slam out of there, stopping to refuel at the Exxon pavilion in Crow Agency, on the Indian reservation just outside the park.

We’re tired and hungry and decide to eat at the KFC outlet – a KFC, of all things, on a reservation. A Native American takes the order and he’s talkative enough to make me consider asking him if he’s been up on Last Stand Hill and what he’s felt there. In the end, I don’t, preferring not to look like a dopey white tourist. Besides, I’ve already felt something myself.

* – Ignoring for now the patent controversy between Bell and Elisha Gray in February of that year.


“I Had a BSA Once…”

Aug. 17, 2012: The guy at the hotel at Kalispell, Montana, after watching me pull the cover off the motorcycle and check the oil and tire pressure, finally came over to talk about bikes.

He said he had a BSA a long time ago but gave it up. He noted the Virginia plate on Endurance and the dealer plate frame from Nevada and asked me lots of questions about riding — where I’d been, what I’d done, what I’d seen.

His handsome wife came out from the hotel, gave me and the bike a disapproving look, cold as congealed grease, and they got into a minivan and left. The only thing I could think was, you makes your choices.

A Little Night Jaunt Along I-90 in the Rain

July 28, 2010: The scariest rain I’ve ever ridden through was on I-90 in South Dakota.

We were heading home after seeing Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and a ride to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. We’d encountered heavy rain outbound through Milwaukee but the weather was pretty good otherwise.

We had omens, which I did not pick up on. In Presho we stop to refuel and a 300-lb. farmer in overalls and a green cap holds Linda hostage with a story of a world-record hailstone from a storm in Vivian, about 14 miles west. We’d seen the story on the Weather Channel that morning.

“The hail was just coming down,” the farmer says. “Cars were pulling off the highway. Lotta windshields got smashed.”

Weather reports call for scattered thunderstorms and we have a motel reservation in Canistota, about 150 miles away.

“It’ll be dark when we get there but we should be okay,” I tell Linda.

Clouds start building up to the northeast of us not long after leaving. They get darker and bigger and more impressive and I realize we’re probably on a collision course. But 90 veers a little to the south and I think maybe we’ll miss it.

Around Chamberlain dark cloud formations change and an impressive column of white starts spreading in the distance. It reaches from the sky to the ground and looks like it’s a couple miles wide. I can hardly keep my eyes off it.

It’s so white, which I’ve never seen before. I start thinking of the farmer in Presho and his story of hail…

Nearly every motorcycle rider travels in rain. You’ll hit it sometime, the only way not to is to stay home. The solution is to expect it and suit up accordingly (which we are), try not to stay too long in it, and know when to bail out.

It gets dark and the rain starts falling around White Lake and soon starts to hammer us. It’s bad but still manageable and I’m thinking to myself, “I can handle this.”

It gets worse after Plankinton, seriously worse, an absolute downpour that reminds me of an ocean storm I encountered once on Cape Cod. The winds pick up and start pushing us all over the road. Then we hit highway construction and eastbound traffic is merged into the westbound lanes, a single lane for each and now we’re buffeted by oncoming trucks rushing past a few yards away. To top it off, the pavement has those stupid rain grooves that have the front tire skittering around, seeking purchase. I ease off on the throttle and shift down.

At this point, I realize I’ve gone too far, that we should not be out in this, and I admit to myself I’m scared. My helmet visor is misting over and I have to crack it open slightly, which lets in cold stinging rain. My arms ache from wrestling with the handlebars. We’re canting into the wind but the air blasts from the trucks literally stand us upright and we keep pitching back and forth like that until I’m convinced we’re going to get blown over. It’s time to abort.

But there’s no exit and no place to pull over. We have to keep going for a few teeth-gritting miles until the next ramp, some place called Mount Vernon. We get to the top of the ramp and find a rural road with nothing on it. Off to the left I see lights in the distance and head for that.

It turns out to be a gas station/convenience store, an oasis of light in an ocean of darkness. I pull the bike under the overhang and park between the gas pumps. We shakily climb off and squish inside.

The woman is an incredibly kind soul who lets us put sopping helmets and gloves on a glass counter and says we can stay as long as we like. She’s supposed to close at 10, but keeps the store open and tells us not to worry. We buy hot tea and stop shivering after a while. Eventually the rain lets up and I refuel. We reach Canistota about an hour later, peel off the riding suits and collapse.