I am very glad I bought the heater while in Oregon. The 20-degree temperature differential to outside’s 48 is welcome as the heat of Needles is a long way past. Both in time and distance. I think Mabel also likes the heater as she can sleep sprawled out on her side of the camper instead of in a tight ball to conserve heat. I wonder if she knows the trip is coming to an end and will soon be back home. Is a dog’s sense of time restricted to feeding/bathroom/sleep? She seems the same as when we started 80 days ago, and I never sensed home sickness on her part. You read about dogs that travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to find their family. Was it their nose that guided them? If so, is Mabel’s nose starting to get a twinge the closer we get to Minnesota?
I am anxious to get on the road and don’t want to waste much time this morning. Last night wasn’t the best sleeping, I just couldn’t get comfortable and don’t think it’s because of the camper. I am just ready to see Sheri, the boys, and my little home in Hopkins. The sun comes up over the lake and plays off the mountains to our west. The clouds look like they could grow angry and the day feels like early fall.
We take a walk, I owe it to Mabel after the amount of car time she has spent/will spend in the car. The end of the property closest to the lake holds a pink flamingo themed restaurant which is closed for the season. I am thinking the proximity to the lake rode bodes well for economic success during the summer. Now it just lies in wait for the next season with the main hope of surviving the winter. Brightly colored boats that look to be part of a mini-golf course sit uneven on their keels, but I can’t determine the rhyme or reason of its layout. Someone thought the course will provide a sense of fun, though I am not so sure.
We continue down the road toward the lake and there are campers occupying lakeshore spots. It looks like a good fishing lake with plenty of area to speed around. This is the end of the season and I imagine the hot days in July sees it full of people. I was ready to move on, so we head back to the site for a quick cleanup and hot shower.
Mabel and I were back on the road, heading south on HWY 287 to pick up HWY 90 for an eastward heading. Mabel never seems to complain as we drive if there is an open path between the two windows and she can stick her head out. The windows have gotten quite a workout on this trip. Many ups and downs as Mabel decides which side of the car has the more interesting scenery.
I pull off at Three Forks to do some exploring. We travelled through sporadic farm fields before finding Main Street and passing onto the far side of town which is mostly a beautiful form of openness. The mountains dominate the view as I looked without luck for a passable spot to turn around. My backing skills were put to the test and I am thankful the road was one least travelled this morning. Back through town and passing the historic Sacajawea Hotel with its white teepee before finding HWY 90 to head towards Bozeman.
There are mountains to my right, full of snow, their silhouette loosely distinct against the hazy white sky. It looks like the boundaries of both are blended so you can’t see where one ends and the other begins. Random patches appear, brighter than the rest, more titanium white popping from the sun. The fall colors are muted, not the brilliance I saw at Glacier NP.
The highway is “limited” to 80 MPH which seems to throw sand in the face of the old public service announcement of “Stay Alive-Drive 55.” Lots of sights on today’s drive. It must be hunting season somewhere as a truck with an elk in the bed passes me in the fast lane; its rack sticking high above the tailgate. A train pulling a railcar with an airplane fuselage heads west, it’s destination must be the Boeing plant. Only in Montana do they have cattle bars across the on ramps, the car and Arabella shuddering over them as I leave one highway for the next.
Ryan and Michelle, our friends and neighbors, have a son at Montana State in Bozeman so I was curious to see what it was like. It’s a smaller city nestled at the foot of mountains, its cityscape predominates the view. After tuning on the local radio station, we hear today is homecoming with a parade and football game afterwards. Mabel and I find an exit that will get us close to the campus and we proceed into town past light industry and commerce. I see a man exit a brake shop, his hand occupied with a large mug of what I assume is coffee. His day is starting like it probably always does, a routine that provides more comfort than suffering or else he would move on. I think of how that can be life for so many people, circumstances holding them in a position that may not be for the best but provides enough to stick around for. That was kind of my story. But I am making bold assumptions, the man with the coffee cup, may be in total happiness doing what he is doing.
We find a parking spot in a quiet neighborhood that allows for an easy exit and walk towards the parade route. A small grassy lot next to a store provides our viewing point and just happens to be at the parade’s starting point. I am texting Michelle and Ryan to see if their son just happens to be close, but technology fails me this morning and the messages aren’t sent. Reception was not at its best at a lot of spots on the trip. The Royal Court stands ready and soon the parade starts its progression towards campus.
Mabel was very good as we watched the parade, sitting by my side, and not pulling on the leash. She allowed people to pet her and patiently watched the parade go by. A float with sorority girls passed and I thought they were looking in my direction. Turns out they were, but not at me, they thought Mabel was cute and waved to get her attention. I waved back….because Mabel can’t.
With the parade ending we were back on HWY 90 heading east towards Billings and the day’s main objective; Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. After Bozeman I see more mountains topped with snow, but they leave us for prairie with trees eventually dominating the view. The view at Park City requires a pull over, the small buttes or mesas or hills (Whatever they are. I guess I should have paid more attention to Mr. Courtenay’s earth science class.) provide for beautiful scenery.
Soon we turn off the highway to Little Bighorn and it is much different than my original perception of what the battlefield would look like. First, I pass by the obligatory touristy souvenir shops. All were Indian or cowboy themed and sat at the parks entrance. The road leading to the visitor center passed through rolling hills covered with prairie grass, a lazy peacefulness seemed to permeate the sunny afternoon air. I pass through the gates expecting to show my national parks pass but today was a freebie, no special treatment for me, I was just like everyone else. It was busy, but I find a parallel parking spot for the camper and put Mabel inside with the fan running. It is warm, but she will be comfy lounging on my bed. I mill about the visitor’s center waiting for the interpretive movie about the battle to start. It is a packed house and the movie provides the necessary history lesson to piece together the events.
As a kid I always pictured the battle taking place inside the confines of a large cliff. Custer and his men ride into the bowl with no way out and the Indians suddenly appear on the rim with more pouring in at Custer’s rear. And then the carnage would begin. I am sure this image is from some cowboy and Indian movie I watched on WOR Channel 9 at my grandparent’s house. The movie name is long forgotten but the interpretation of an Indian battle is stuck in my brain, pulled out whenever I hear Custer or Little Big horn or Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. But my understanding of the battle is wrong.
After the movie I walk up to where Custer’s last stand took place. Scattered on the hill are markers showing where they fell, some in clusters, others by themselves and I wonder what went through their minds during the last seconds of life. The terror they must have felt or if lucky their death was quick and unexpected. On the other side of the hill is a memorial to the Indian tribes that took part in the battle, a metal statue surveys the plains they were trying to protect.
Mabel and I drive to the far end of the park passing more death markers, usually alone, the prairie grass cut so they can be seen. The battle dragged along the top of the hill until reaching the climax at Custer’s last stand. Horses graze by the side of the road, whatever fences used to contain them are unseen. They may have free range for miles, I can’t tell.
At the end of the road is a parking lot and a loop trail that takes us into the plain, so we can see where the battle started. It is beautiful, and its peacefulness camouflages the horrific events of so many tears. I let Mabel walk the path, we are far enough away that no ranger should find it a problem, and she appreciates the exercise. It must be lonely out here at night and probably feels like nighttime at the ocean. The wide-open spaces provide a sense of vulnerability even though you can see for miles. The hills roll, and the grass grows, much like they did on that day that saw so much violence.
Leaving the park, we take HWY 212 through more plains on our way to catching HWY 94. Small towns dot the road as we head to take HWY 39 north. I pass through Busby and Muddy and Colstrip before getting on good pavement and heading east towards Miles City. There is a KOA that will provide tonight’s lodging and I look forward to getting some sleep.
I follow the GPS and take a left just before reaching the main business section of Miles City. The KOA sits at the end of a neighborhood street and I am greeted, just by chance, by the owner who is making one last check for the night. She and her husband have owned the KOA for a few years and she teaches when not working at the campground. The couple have turned this KOA from predominantly long termers to overnight visitors like myself and I am surprised to hear that this is a more lucrative business model.
My spot is underneath large trees with neighbors a few sites down on both sides. We access it by leaving the property and driving down a neighborhood street. Being in the middle of a neighborhood is unlike most of the campgrounds I visited but tonight I don’t need the wilderness, just a place to stay. I take Mabel for a walk through the neighborhood, the leaves are dropping, and it feels more like fall the farther east I drive. It’s a good feeling, one I am looking forward to as I settle in and fall asleep.
Thankful tonight to be getting closer to Sheri and the Boys and for what I have seen so far.