Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day One
It was all the Westerns that did it for me. Growing up in the 50s and 60s – all those old Westerns caught on TV or seen at the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Manor Theater in San Mateo, California – all those new Westerns viewed upon release in theaters. I especially loved anything about Custer’s Last Stand and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Films like They Died With Their Boots On (1942) and Chief Crazy Horse (1955), with Victor Mature as Crazy Horse, started me off on the legends; later, extensive reading filled me in on the facts. Fact or fiction, I am obsessed with the history of the Plains Indian wars, and I have always been drawn to the places where that history happened: the southeastern corner of Montana, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the northwestern corner of Nebraska, and the Powder River Country of Wyoming. So there I had to go to seek out the sites connected with Plains Indian history and the Oregon Trail, to shoot video, and to imagine a grand theatrical film epic depicting the rise to power of the Lakota nation and their allies, the defeat of Custer, the sudden defeat of the Plains Indians with the deaths of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the last hope of the Ghost Dance, and the final tragedy at Wounded Knee – the film I would make if I had the resources and could make any film I wanted.
It takes me three flights to get to Billings, Montana, where I check into the Country Inn and Suites and walk across the street to Applebee’s for dinner. A group of young twenty-somethings occupies a nearby booth: three blonde-haired Lauren Conrads; a guy who looks like a California surfer boy; and a scruffy guy. The topic of conversation is the scruffy guy’s problem relationship. The queen Lauren Conrad holds forth with her sage and very extensive advice. I feel like I’m in an episode of The Hills. I thought I was in Billings, Montana.
I get up early and drive the 65 miles to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I was here last year with my younger brother, but now I literally get to see the rolling ridges and coulees in a different light. Under threatening clouds (I swear I saw a tornado starting to form just like in The Day After Tomorrow), with promising patches of blue sky peeking through, the light is soft on the faintly green battlefield, not washed out with garish sunlight.
The rain and periodic drizzle keep people in the visitor’s center, and I am mostly alone with the ghosts of the white bluecoat soldiers and the Crow scouts under the command of George Armstrong Custer who fought against the Hunkpapa, Oglala, Minneconjou, Brulè, Arapaho, and Cheyenne protecting their village on June 25, 1876. I drive the five miles to the end of the road – to a bluff where Major Reno and his surviving soldiers retreated after their attack on the village below was met by overwhelming Indian resistance – and I follow it back, stopping at sites in chronological order: the ridge where Custer first saw the vast village he thought he could rout with the 220 men in his unit; Medicine Tail Coulee where two companies sent down to the village engaged in a skirmish and were turned back up Deep Coulee; the ridge where companies under Calhoun and Keogh were stationed as a rear guard but where they were eventually overtaken and killed; and Last Stand Hill at the end of the ridge where Custer and 50 men fought and died.
As far as theatrical films, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) comes the closest to an authentic depiction of the battle in an authentic-looking location. We see an attack on the village. We see Custer’s companies retreating from the village. We see the confused battle on the ridge with companies separated and overrun by the Indians. Most of all, I like this rendition because it captures the spirit of the historical event: Custer’s temerity; the Indian’s jubilation. In addition, we see the dusty chaos, the panic, and the disjointed action. The moments of the aftermath, with the victors riding back and forth over the field, getting off their horses to count coup and take trophies, is superbly portrayed.
After capturing ample shots, I follow Highway 212, a beautiful 203-mile stretch of two-lane blacktop that crosses the southeastern corner of Montana from Crow Agency to Belle Fourche, South Dakota. It is called the Warriors Road. Here the Plains tribes followed the bison and camped in the protection of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue, and Powder River valleys. Near the Rosebud, in the spring of 1876, after the U.S. government had proclaimed that all Indians that did not report in to a reservation would be considered hostile, the Lakota staged a sun dance. For his part in the ceremony, Sitting Bull cut fifty snips of flesh from each arm and sat bleeding in the sun until he got his famous prophetic vision of bluecoat soldiers falling upside down into the village. It was also along the Rosebud that Custer led his companies, after leaving the greater column at the Yellowstone River on June 22, 1876. He came upon the sun dance site where Sitting Bull's vision seemed to predict Custer's doom.
I make a 25-mile side trip south of 212, up the Rosebud Valley to the site of the Battle of the Rosebud. Basically what happened there is that the 1,300-man column of General Crook, part of the three-pronged army sent to capture or kill the “hostiles,” was met by a very enthusiastic group of Lakota and allies led by Crazy Horse on June 17, 1876. It was a haphazard battle that resulted in a stalemate, but Crook had to turn his column around and withdraw from the area due to casualties and low supplies. The Indians left happy. Because a Cheyenne woman named Buffalo Calf Woman rode out under fire to save her brother by slinging him up on the back of her pony, the Indians called the fight the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.
I risk the rental car on a gravel road that leads to a severely rutted road that takes me to a rather picturesque draw along Rosebud Creek where the battle occurred. If I wreck my little economy car, I’m stuck; my cheap cell doesn’t get a signal out here. But it’s a beautiful location – and Crazy Horse was here, and Buffalo Calf Woman rode out under zipping bullets to save her brother, and I am here.
Back down the rutted road, back along the gravel road, back 25 miles to 212, and I continue my journey eastward. This was spirit land for the tribes. I can feel it. This is the land of the sun dance and the vision quest. Crazy Horse wandered this land. Here, too, Custer led his men in search of glory.
Charging into battle, the Plains Indians blew shrill eagle-bone whistles. The bluecoats charged to the trumpet. Although Custer didn’t have his regimental band along with him at the Little Bighorn, he probably heard the echo of his regimental tune, the Garry Owen, in his head – though his regimental band played the tune as he charged the unsuspecting Cheyenne village at the Washita River on November 27, 1868. Since the use of the Garry Owen in They Died With Their Boots On as a lively theme celebrating the righteous heroism of the more legendary Custer (Errol Flynn), the use of this tune became synonymous with Anglo-American dominance over the Indian tribes whose unfortunate role was to be conquered and set apart on Indian reservations in order to allow for the inexorable but desirable progress of white civilization. For John Ford in The Searchers, the tune is a glorious tribute to America’s military strength, though the film doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side effects of that military presence. In Little Big Man, in which the skirl of fifes playing the Garry Owen announces Custer’s attack on the Washita River village, the stunning extreme long shot of the charging ranks of 7th Cavalry turns the tune into an anthem of merciless Anglo-American aggression – the kind of thing going on in Vietnam at the time of the film's release.
Back on 212 East it’s a long haul across spirit land. I pass through the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Some properties are neat ranches with beautiful horses grazing in the pastures. On other properties you can hardly see the ramshackle mobile homes for the jumbled collections of junk cars.
I pass through Belle Fourche, the destination for John Wayne’s cattle drive in The Cowboys (1970). Wayne pronounces it “Belle Foosh.” In the movie, the locations for the cattle drive scenes look very much like the terrain I pass: wide grassy valleys, sparse stands of pines, rugged rimrock.
For the last 60 miles of the day’s journey, I follow a busy interstate flowing with traffic headed to resorts near Deadwood. A billboard promotes tickets for Aerosmith and Chuck Berry. Wow, Chuck Berry has staying power! But Mount Rushmore is the main attraction. In Rapid City, the gateway to Rushmore, motels are booked full by families planning to see the granite presidents. Recently, Greenpeace was at Mount Rushmore too.
I travel light: an assault pack for essentials and a small duffel – so I don’t have to check any bags at the airport. My only technology: my trusty camcorder and a cheap cell phone that I never turn on. No laptop means no DVDs to play at night, so I am forced to forage for movies on TV – most of them already in progress.
First night, in Billings, I happen upon the beginning of Field of Dreams (1989). The film is a fantasy through and through – even the scenes that do not involve the phantom baseball field and the ghostly baseball team. I love it when Ray (Kevin Costner) asks his wife if he should go ahead and plow under their corn crop so he can build a baseball field because a voice told him, “If you build it, he will come,” and his wife (Amy Madigan) just looks at him and says that if that’s what he feels he has to do, then go ahead and do it. What a nice wife!
I’m starting to get drowsy; it’s been a long day, but this gets my attention. That's just like my wife! I basically asked her, “Do you mind if I take six different flights to fly 4000 miles round trip so that I can drive 1300 miles over a period of 4 days and stop at pieces of ground where famous things happened,” and she said fine! Though I’m sure she was thinking, “If that’s your idea of a vacation, go right ahead.” Ah, I love how movies hold “the mirror unto nature.”
(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)
(Look for Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day Two – coming soon.)