Saturday, October 20, 2007

Saturday Road Trip to Big Hole National Battlefield

I attempted to wake up at 7:30 a.m. this morning, but that didn't happen... I think I disabled the phone alarm in my sleep. I did, however, manage to climb out of the loft by 9 a.m., and after piddling around on my laptop for a while and trying not to notice the blue sky outside my window, hit the open road.

I headed south on Hwy 15 towards Butte, kept going down to the town of Divide, where I took Hwy 43 into the Beaverhead National Forest. A wide, flat, and fly fisherman's paradise called the Big Hole River parallels Hwy 43, and I followed it all the way to Wisdom. Hwy 43 is a gorgeous drive along the river, and the land around--the Pioneer Mountains high and white-capped to the west, long flat fields covered in russet willow--was mostly enveloped in snow. After passing through tiny Wisdom with its antler-decorated saloons and the painting of a voluptuous Indian maiden adorning one of its larger wooden buildings, I took Hwy 43 about twelve miles through cattleland to the Nez Perce Historic Park/Big Hole National Battlefield.

During two bloody August days in 1877, U.S. Army troops and about 750 fleeing Nez Perce battled it out in the Big Hole Valley, a wide-open field and marshland along a flowing, winding creek. This bunch of Nez Perce were non-treaty, and so had refused to be removed to a reservation. They were resting in the valley, thinking that after long weeks of running and military skirmishes, that they were safe... and some even thought that since they'd crossed into Montana from Idaho, they'd left their troubles behind.

But a U.S. Army colonel named John Gibbon had received a missive from a commanding officer, requesting that additional troops intercept the Nez Perce after they'd crossed into a place called the Bitteroot Valley. So 146 enlisted men, 16 officers, and 34 local volunteers headed towards Big Hole. They made camp across the creek from the Nez Perce encampment, where children were playing and the women had begun to cook, and planned to launch a surprise attack. In the middle of the night, they'd even stumbled upon a huge herd of Nez Perce horses in a steep meadow nearby. But it wasn't to be: an old Indian found them first, and after they shot him the chaos began. The white soldiers charged toward the encampment, firing into teepees and unfortunately killing several women and children. It seems like everyone was confused, and the result was tragedy, chaos, and death. (The soldiers had also dragged a Howitzer along with them, but some Nez Perce warriors had seen what they were doing and attacked the men with it, then disabled the heavy cannon and stole the ammunition.)

Despite their lesser firepower, the Nez Perce rallied and the soldiers were forced to a grove of pine trees... with Nez Perce snipers tailing them through a thick bramble of willow. While the soldiers hunkered down and dug frantic ditches for themselves and their rifles, the battle continued among the trees. The snipers held the soldiers there until the last moment, when they left to join fleeing family members. The monuments there report that "casualties were heavy on both sides."

The Big Hole Valley, and the battlefield itself, is really quite eerie. There are frames of teepees that mark the spot of the Nez Perce encampment; some have been decorated with colored cloth and animal skins by people visiting. The whole place is considered sacred to the Nez Perce, because it literally became a graveyard to those that fell. The long valley is marked by willow, and in the distance you can see white-capped mountains. It's truly a hauntingly beautiful spot.

I left Big Hole National Battlefield around 4 p.m., and decided to head home the way I'd come, back along the river. A gray, forebodingly huge snowstorm blew up in the Pioneer Mountains, but because the roads had been plowed I felt like I'd be okay. I ended up veering from my route and taking scenic Hwy 569 alongside the Anaconda Range, and towards the town of Anaconda. I was one of few cars on that rough road--the others only trucks--and for a while the snow blew thick and relentless. But after keeping my eyes in permanent squint to watch for cattle (they open-range in the area), I passed over some kind of line of weather demarcation and into the sun.

Suffice to say, I'm home safe and sound, and it was a gorgeous trip. Tomorrow, Kate Kahn and I are headed towards the Tobacco Root mountains, to do a 7 mile round trip hike to Lake Louise. Hopefully the bubble blister on my big toe and the sore spot on my heel will take it easy on me!

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