Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 22
Day 22: Bitterroots, Big Hole, and Beaverhead Rock (August 17)
Shortly after midnight I drove our RV back over the Bitterroot Mountains and the Continental Divide. We made a short night’s camp at a State Park, just enough sleep to get into the new day, and woke up in the woods. We had our coffee amidst the quiet trees, made a plan for the day, and set out.
A short but beautiful half hour drive brought us to Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, Montana. On August 9, 1877, soldiers and volunteers with U.S Army attacked the Nez Perce who were retreating to safety. The attack took place before dawn, while most were still asleep. At the end of the day, 90 Nez Perce and 31 soldiers were dead. The actions were shameful and a national embarrassment.
We arrived just as the Visitor’s Center opened. As the first folks on site, we were able to enjoy the solemn silence of the place before entering. On one of the walls of the small theater where we watched a film on the events leading up to and following the battle are the words of one soldier: “I recognize the fact that the Indian must yield to the white man … but power is not justice, force is not law!”
The visit is particularly poignant for us because the New Perce were considered by Lewis and Clark to be exceptionally friendly and faithful to the explorers.
The Nez Perce prided themselves on their friendship with the explorers and toward the U.S. government. But time, broken promises and greed on the part of the United States, homesteaders and settlers had eroded the possibilities of peace. In memory of those who died, the army erected a stone monument; the Nez Perce erected the skeletal poles of tepees.
Our hike was expertly led by a student intern named Abby. Her presentation was spot on appropriate for our seven year old. As we have noticed in other parks, a great deal of responsibility has been laid upon interns as parks have had to reduce the number of rangers at each site (there was only one ranger left at Big Hole). This is another result of sequestration. Let me be clear, the interns have been great, especially with our child. But our rangers are the stewards of these national treasure’s that are our national parks. And our parks suffer without them.
August was very proud to become a Junior Ranger at Big Hole, making his promise to do his part to explore, learn and protect such a sacred place.
We ate lunch in the RV, and then headed back to Dillon, Montana, having made a 250 mile loop through Idaho. Our stop here, just north of town, was Clark’s Lookout.
“Hearty visitors can climb the hill to enjoy the same view that Captain Clark had on August 13, 1805, as he traveled with the main party behind Lewis’s advance group. Don’t confuse this site with Lewis’s Lookout, which is nearly 30 miles farther north on the same road. Lewis climbed this hill on August 5, 1805, to look ahead and confirm his belief that the river he called Wisdom (today’s Big Hole River) was the tributary to follow upstream.
Passing through Dillon for gas and lunch, we proceeded east toward Beaverhead Rock. You really need your imaginations to see it, and it is a bit more plausible as a swimming beaver’s head from the other side – but it was a recognizable landmark which had stood out in Sacagawea’s memory and indicating home. This meant hope for the Corps of Discovery as they sought out the yet-to-be-seen Shoshone.
The only real landmark we feel that we missed on this trip was Three Forks, Montana. Three Forks is the “real” headwaters of the Missouri River. It is where what Lewis named the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin Rivers come together to make the Missouri. The Jefferson is the longest, and finally ends at that “most distant stream” that we all straddled yesterday. We needed to press on if we were to have any hope of reaching Yellowstone National Park tonight. That, and we wanted to have plenty of time to play tag in the sage brush, ignoring the signs warning us to beware of rattlesnakes.
We arrived in Yellowstone, having secured one of the last available campsites in the park. The gates were open but empty, which means we entered without paying a fee. But we had still had over two hours of driving INSIDE the park in order to get to our campground at Fishing Bridge. With only ten minutes to go, we were startled by this bison walking down the white line on the side of the road. We passed, slowly, within feet of him as we went by – close enough to smell him.
Recommended Reading: As we drove today, I read to Noelle a speech given by Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce, who eventually surrendered to the U.S. The interview was given in 1879 to a gathering of the press in Washington D.C. It is an eloquent testimony of a determined people in the face of injustice. It is published as “That All People May Be One People, Send Rain to Wash the Faec of the Earth” (1879).