Monday, June 28, 2004

June 28, 2004
Back from Cody and Custer Country. Flew many miles, changed many planes, ate many peanuts, drove many miles (586.7), saw much history, ate much mediocre food, met my first True West Maniac in the wild and almost bought a used Stetson for $700.

On Friday morning Sue Lambert and I met Juti Winchester at the Buffalo Bill Museum and she took us downstairs to the library where I got a good look at their massive photo collection (at some 350,000 images it’s the largest in the West). Picked out 250,000 to run in the magazine, then whittled that list down below a hundred, then down to fifty. Finally gave up, told them I want to run numerous photo features and use everything. They laughed and agreed. Just a fabulous depository.

Left there at ten, got Sue set up at our table at the Brian Label trade show and took off in my crappy Dodge rental car to Montana. Went via Powell and Billings, stopped at Bridger (yes, named for mountain man Jim Bridger) and had lunch ($7 for a pre-made, cardboard sandwich and iced tea, which she never brought). I spread the map out on the table and asked the waitress about a shortcut across the Crow Reservation but she had no clue, claiming she had only lived in the area for five years. She said she’d ask the cooks and the guys in the back but they also knew nada. Shocking. Guys not knowing the roads leaving their town? What is this country coming to? This just stunned me. How can you be a guy and live in a town and not know the status of a road leaving your town? Can people be that ridiculously unaware? Evidently in Montana.

Finally, I went over to a table where a guy in a feed cap was knocking a mighty big hole in the buffet table. His wife had her own gaping hole going. “It’s dirt for the first twenty mile,” he told me as he knocked back a gooey looking jell-o spread. “I’d take the Billings way. More pretty.” I gave him a True West and took his advice. When in doubt in a small town, trust the guy who loads up on the buffet.

Hit the freeway west of Billings and pushed it up to eighty. East of Billings I saw the first of several billboards for the annual Custer reenactment (June 25-27). Got to Hardin in record time, took the exit, followed the signs and got out to the staging grounds at 1:45. It was about ten miles out of town on the road I would have taken at Bridger. Ha. Was worried I would miss the battle, but as I parked and ran across the greasy grass parking area I heard the announcer say, “Then came Sacajawea. . .” so I knew I was plenty early. The stands were packed with white people, and we were all there for one reason: to see Custer get it.

Unfortunately we had to sit through “Travel by Travois,” “Setting Up a Tepee,” “Forked Tongue,” “The Commissioners Arrive,” “Peace Treaty Council,” “Red Cloud Speaks,” “A Treaty is Signed,” “The Ink on The Treaty Dries,” “Custer Takes Leave of Libbie,” “Who Shall Govern?” “Pony Express,” “Encroachment on Indian Lands,” Gathering of the Tribes,” “Sitting Bull’s Ordeal,” “Sitting Bull’s Vision” and several other scenes that I would file under, “Let’s Ride in a Wide Circle and Yell,” followed by “Let’s Ride the Other Way and Yell.”

Finally we got to the good part, “Reno Attacks,” and here they came, the mighty Seventh Cavalry headed by a Canadian named Tony Austin who looked great as Custer. But the problem with these local reenactments is sixteen soldiers have to stand in for 700 and twenty Indians have to portray 2,000, so it gets a tad thin, more like an advance scouting party coming under attack, but they did a good job falling off and I took three rolls of film to prove it.

From there I drove down to the actual battlefield where incredibly they had another reenactment going on just across the river from the park. Someone told me that this one is put on by a local Crow family and that their version "has humor and is funnier." I was sorry I didn't get to see this version, but I pictured a pie in Long Hair's face and a few rodeo clowns with their big shoes slapping Hairy Moccasin

At the Visitor’s Center I met ranger Michael Donahue and Jim Hatzell and they wouldn’t let me even look up at Last Stand Hill. No, they insisted on taking me by truck around to Little Reno Creek, east of the Morass and west of the Crow’s Nest to walk me through the entire battle, point by point, so I could see what Custer could see, or not see, and how and why he made his decisions. The tour took five hours and they were rushing through parts of it. That story tomorrow.

"Some people like to decide and act. Others live by the motto: Indecision Is The Key To Flexibility."
—Steve Goodier

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