Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Days Three and Four
The plan is to see the sun rise at Chimney Rock, perhaps the most famous natural landmark along the Oregon Trail. Visible for miles around, it is the 120-foot spire atop a 205-foot base that told emigrants that the journey was almost half over but that the hardest part was yet to come. I get up at four in the morning. I drive eastward about thirty miles, turn off onto a dirt road, and drive to a dead end close to the eroded butte. As I drink my tea and eat my muffin, I wait for the sun to reveal this distinctive formation of Brule clay mixed with volcanic ash and Arikaree sandstone, but a patch of black clouds covers the East. The light changes, slowly revealing Chimney Rock. Distant horns announce the regularly running trains on the railroad paralleling the North Platte, but the Nebraskan sun never rises – or so it seems. I take ample shots of the rock in the changing light, but then it’s time to leave. As I drive back to the highway, I see bands of sunlight like an upside-down halo radiating downward from a sun I never see.
Like the emigrants of old, I head westward. Embarking on their 2000-mile trip, the emigrants acknowledged that they were “going to see the elephant” – something unusual. I’m certainly game to see the elephant. Once more I drive a Nebraskan 25 mph up Old Oregon Trail and I cross the pass through the bluffs of Scotts Bluff – just like one of the nearly 400,000 emigrants who followed this route west.
I cross into Wyoming. In a small town I see a trail-grubby cowboy on horseback leading two packhorses against the background of a gas station, a convenience store, and a plastic fast food joint.
Wyomingites are straightforward and serious about what they do. They are content with their lot in life, convinced that they live in God’s country. They have a sense of humor. A sign reads, “Welcome to the town of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. 250 good people. 6 sore heads.”
I stop at what turns out to be another highlight of the trip: Fort Laramie, a fort built to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail and as a place for the emigrants to restock supplies and prepare their wagons for the second half of the journey. Here the U.S. government made the Treaties of 1851 and 1869, designating the lands apportioned to the Indian tribes, the land that the U.S. would take away shortly after. Here 10,000 Indians of various tribes, the largest gathering of Indians in American history, camped out for the Treaty of 1851.
This is the kind of historical location that takes you back in time. Some of the old buildings – barracks and officers’ quarters – have been restored. Some buildings have been reproduced. Rooms are dressed like historical movie sets. An officer’s room – with improbably short bed covered with buffalo robe – is decorated with garments, books, maps, letters, and artifacts picked up on excursions into the territories: rocks, bones, antlers, arrowheads, fossils, feathers. This is the room of a Victorian romantic who pictured himself embarked upon a glorious adventure in the wild Western land of the savage red man.
I continue westward. I pass through the town of Guernsey, location of a National Guard base. I pass a training obstacle course (looks very hard) and a big field where a full company of guardsmen is camped out for training maneuvers. It looks like a set for a Michael Bay movie – maybe Transformers 3 - with the soldiers in desert fatigues – standing in a group next to tanks, helicopters, and rows of desert-camouflage pup tents.
Next stop, Register Rock, is a disappointment. The emigrants chiseled their names and years of travel in the soft sandstone, their graffiti still visible today. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who dug their names into the rock. Thanks to the locals, the register is up to date. When I hear an explosion from the direction of the National Guard training session, I wish I were back there on the Michael Bay set. Nearby, you can see the sandstone ruts cut by tens of thousands of wagons passing over the same ground.
After nearly three full days of driving, and getting up this morning at 4 a.m. for the Nebraskan sun no-show, I’m kind of exhausted. I look forward to checking into the Comfort Inn in Casper, Wyoming. As I wait for my room to be ready, I have a burger at the nearby iHop. I have no reason to be tired when I think of those westbound emigrants walking beside their wagons, day after day, in all kinds of weather. Actually, I could go for a 12-mile hike next to an oxen-drawn wagon, have biscuits and beans for supper, sleep out under the stars. What an epic journey!
There is no great sound film about the Oregon Trail worthy of that epic trek. A few shots from How the West Was Won (1962) capture the grueling yet majestic scope of the journey, but the film is fascist about the nearly religious righteousness of Anglo-American occupation of the land. It is briefly sympathetic to the displaced, deceived Native Americans, but their situation is lamented as a necessary misfortune of progress. The image of Richard Widmark as railroad tycoon Mike King, (perfect name for a railroad tycoon) standing on the front of a locomotive, is an image of the inevitable dominance of white technology, and the film ends with Cinerama vistas of skyscrapers, strip mining, and a confusion of cloverleaf freeways teeming with cars - progress!
My evening’s viewing in Casper is the complete idiocy of Spielberg’s Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The story is a King Kong remix with elements of Hatari thrown in. The acting is horrid. Spielberg stages synchronous, overlapping dialogues with Julianne Moore rattling off facts to one character as Vince Vaughn spews worthless information to another character – a lame attempt at Robert Altmanesque realism. Meanwhile, everything is a gimmick. The dangling trailer routine is a mess of cliff-hanging gimmicks –with characters falling multiple times to the last handholds – that amounts to comedy.
My last night’s viewing, in Billings, is the lengthy climactic battle sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Ah, Steve. I tend to like his straightforward suspense efforts better than his “serious” films. For all its graphic, often hyperbolic violence, seriousness leaks out of this film through many holes. Too much of the action has the gung-ho we’ve-got-to-flank-‘em (the Germans never flank anybody) tone of 1950s boys playing war in the backyard. Then you’ve got American soldiers climbing on a tank getting ripped apart by a cannon, and we see obvious headless dummies. In addition, we have the German babbling about Mickey Mouse and that ridiculously teary-eyed scene in the cemetery. But the film certainly set the requisite look for all subsequent World War II films. The Band of Brothers series takes that same look – but those episodes get one up on Spielberg by being impeccably realistic and serious.
Last day on the road I drive 276 miles north from Casper, through Wyoming back to Montana. The snow-capped Bighorn Mountains rear to the west. This is the Powder River Country prized by the Oglala and their allies. I pass the site of the Fetterman Massacre, December 21, 1866. The Lakota called it the Battle of the Hundred in Hand. The elements of this story parallel Custer’s Last Stand on a smaller scale. A brash officer – Captain William Fetterman – went against orders, took 80 soldiers, and pursued a decoy led by Crazy Horse, got surrounded by thousands of Indians, and got killed along with all of his men. As with Custer, here is an example of the chauvinistic temerity of the Anglo-American: Fetterman had boasted, “With 80 good men I could rise through the whole Sioux nation.” Serendipity came back to bite him!
I make my sixth visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, but this is my first stop at Garryowen, a privately owned “town” on the site where Major Reno first attacked the Indian village and got turned back to the bluffs above the river. The town consists of a Conoco gas station, a Subway, a post office sharing space with the Subway, and a historical museum; this past winter the whole shebang was for sale on the Internet. Outside the museum lies a bronze plaque flanked by bronze busts of Custer and Sitting Bull. Here lies an unknown soldier killed in the beginning of the battle – or so we are told. A loudspeaker blares a continuous narrative of dubious scholarship explaining the battle and related events. The museum includes an interesting collection of vintage photographs, a lock of hair cut from Custer in death by Trooper Martin, and artifacts collected from the battlefield before it became a national monument.
At the Little Bighorn Battlefield Trading Post and Café, run by Crow Indians, I have my lunch. The cheerful Crow waitress recommends the special: beef stew and fry bread. The stew is more like a soup, but I relish the real meat and vegetables, and I’m not crazy about fried dough, but the fry bread is light and not greasy. Coincidentally, I learn from Indian Killer that beef stew and fry bread is a popular Indian dish. This is appropriate since I know that Indian women usually boiled their meat in containers filled with hot river rocks; they didn’t roast hunks of meat over a fire, as one might imagine. Also, once they acquired flour from posts like Fort Laramie, Indians loved making fry bread, which they like to eat with honey. Over time, Indians grew to love white products such as sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Crazy Horse, a purist, stayed away from that kind of stuff, but he had no problem carrying a Winchester repeater into battle.
Most of the rangers at the national monument are Crow. Ironically, the Crow were enemies of the Lakota. Crow, along with Arikara, served as scouts and interpreters for the U.S. army, and a number of them died at the Little Bighorn, defending “the Crow way of life,” as the site-of-death markers read, though the Crow scouts had no problem attacking a village containing women and children and stealing horses, the traditional spoils of war.
I ask one Crow ranger if she knows any Lakota language. She says she doesn’t. I wanted to know the definitive translation of the Lakota word “hokahey.” Many people erroneously think it means, “It is a good day to die” because one use of the word was as a generic war cry that preceded that positive but fatalistic philosophy. Some sources state that the word suggests the meaning “Hold on! There is more.” Nowadays it can be used to mean “welcome.”
The ranger tells me something about the complexities of Crow and Lakota. Apparently a given word is said differently depending on your sex. She tells me that when the Lakota taught Kevin Costner their language, on location during the filming of Dances With Wolves, they played a prank on him and taught him the female inflections for words.
Although it’s hot, I have a last hike – from “Last Stand Hill” where Custer died with 50 of the men from the five companies under his command, along Battle Ridge where the rest of his 170 men died fighting. I look for rattlesnakes. I want a shot of one as the opening image for one of my videos, but it’s too hot for them.
As I drive out of the park, the last thing I see is a little Crow boy from a church field trip standing in the tall grass, launching an incredibly long arc of pee onto the ground where his forefathers fought for their way of life by attacking a village filled with women and children.
Back in Billings, having come full circle, after driving 1300 miles over four days, I look through the materials I collected during the trip, peek at some of the video, and get ready to get up at 4 a.m. for my flights home to Denver then La Guardia then Boston.
In the frivolous but very entertaining movie Somewhere in Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the time travel method employed (a tribute to the device used by Jack Finney for his fabulous time-travel novel, Time and Again) is a sort of psycho-time-transference. You basically think yourself into the past by dressing from the desired period and placing yourself in a historical location devoid of any contrasting modern references. (Camping out at night on the Gettysburg battlefield, modern-day Civil War re-enactors have attested to feeling such a jump back in time for a second or two.)
I’d like to believe it’s possible. That’s an element that draws me to historical sites. I love the Little Bighorn Battlefield for its back-in-time ambiance. In many places, you can look out over the grassy ridges and not see any modern distractions. You’re seeing basically what the combatants saw back in 1876.
Another excellent place for such a psycho-time trip is Fort Laramie. Sitting on the second storey verandah of the restored officers’ quarters called Old Bedlam, I look through the cottonwood limbs across the parade grounds to the Laramie River where officers’ families enjoyed picnics. This place has seen a lot of historical traffic: nearly 400,000 plodding emigrants with tens of thousands of creaking wagons; 10,000 Plains Indians for the Treaty of 1851.
It is here that I can imagine a grand film epic of the West. A lengthy sequence about the 1851 gathering can establish the main characters, conflicts, and promises that will be broken, as the camera moves through the various tepee circles, through the dusty gathering of tribes, through the fort, with overlapping Altmanesque dialogues establishing a turbulent mingling of languages and tones that suggest the inevitability of a tragic outcome.
Visually, I would go for an imagist’s approach: a Terrence Malick style. The siltstone spire of Chimney Rock at dawn. A cavalry officer’s artifacts arranged neatly at his bedside. A Lakota family’s accoutrements organized in their tepee. The grass and cacti on the ridges above the Little Bighorn. Custer fallen. Crazy Horse shying from the bars of the guardhouse. Chief Big Foot frozen forever in death. End of trail.
(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)
(Did you miss Day One or Day Two? If so, check them out.)