Driving through the West

I grew up on the plains- rolling hills, sloughs with cattails and red-wing blackbirds, wind passing through tall grass like a giant hand through a healthy head of hair, hours spent driving down straight roads and seemingly never gaining on the destination (maybe visible in the distance). Endless miles of rows of corn. Towns, some mere wide spots in the road were made up of a grain elevator and maybe a gas station and maybe a lonely diner.

The scale of distance out on the plains is immense. Crossing it in a covered wagon must have been daunting.

In the ‘70s, I once camped atop a ridge in Montana. There was a thunder storm in the distance and the filtered sunset turned the rough brown grass magenta. Some distance away, at the bottom of the ridge stood the stump of what eons ago had been a mountain. There were no other mountains around, just this remnant, this little hill.

That next morning my friend and I were going to walk down and have a look at it and maybe climb it. We decided to drive to it so we could be on our way and save the walk back.

Two hours later we still hadn’t reached it. It took an hour to drive fully past it. That tiny, baby mountain, that bare remnant, that sliver of what once was, towered two or three hundred feet above us as our car crawled by.

My first trip west was in 1962. Burma Shave signs still gave one relief from that endless asphalt strip. “If hugging – On highways – Is your sport – Trade in your car – For a davenport – Burma Shave. Those and the ever present billboards urging a visit to the Reptile Gardens (world famous!).

Driving through North Dakota’s Badlands was eerie. The landscape was so bleak yet there was something strangely beautiful about the gulley ridden wasteland. Occasionally there would be a shack in the distance that looked long abandoned. One couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would build a shack in such a desolate place. And then I wanted to hike to it, see what was in there, get a feel of the immense isolation of the surroundings.

In Montana every mile or so would be a little cross by the road, sometimes a cluster. I was told they memorialized someone or several who died in an accident from losing control, drowsing, speed, drink. So many crosses!

Mount Rushmore is an amazing monument to our founders. It was envisioned and executed by the son of immigrants Gutzon Borglum, who acquired the site and completed the work with his son and crew, all without government funds. Imagine.

When I was there, a Native American man (we called them Indians back then) stood in buckskin clothes and a full chief’s feathered headdress. His job seemed to be providing a dignified presence representing the region’s past. He did it well. To my eyes, he looked just like the image on head side of the old buffalo nickel.

We kids were in awe of that Chief. It must have been a strange job being gawked at by little kids. My brother’s and I at least knew enough not to point our fingers at him and make shooting sounds like some of the other kids. I wanted to talk to him but what does one say? How do you strike up a casual conversation with someone whose people own such a tragic history? You don’t.

On that trip we also stopped to see the museum celebrating Custer’s Last Stand. It was kind of odd to see so much made of a military blunder made by such an arrogant fool. The movie “Little Big Man” summed up his character pretty well.

The museum displayed lots of dramatic bronzes by Frederick Remington. His work lent stark dignity to the Native Americans, the mountain men and their hard lives.

If my memory serves me, that museum also had quite a display of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exploits. He made quite a career of bringing a romanticized vision of the ‘Old West’ to the rapidly modernizing Eastern part of the country. His shows were an early version of what became the American circus. For his recreations of a buffalo hunt or settlers attacked by ‘Indians’ he employed some of the very warriors who were on the winning side at Custer’s Last Stand.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

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