Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Day On the Battlefield

Monday, July 25 - Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Garryowen, Montana

Some places have been on my list of must-experience long before there was any thought of traveling full-time.

Little Bighorn Battlefield is one of them. It's why we're in the area for a couple days.

Sadly, our first day we head to Pierce RV Supercenter in Billings, MT, for a 9 am appointment. This wasn't on the list :-(

This place is huge. The reason I'm able to get in so quickly is because they have a Same Day Service program. You pay extra for it, and most warranties don't cover it (just the additional cost, it doesn't change what the warranty covers), but I think it's brilliant to have this option. Otherwise we can get in two weeks from now.

While waiting to sign-in there is a 5er being moved up to the bays with the forklift. All slides are open and the stairs are down. I'm feeling pretty good about just having one slide issue!

After a good breakfast at a local coffee shop recommended by the service tech, we return to see if they've made any progress. They've diagnosed a bad wire and are working on it.

It's so hot that hanging out in the air conditioned waiting area sounds preferable to exploring.

I really like the Minnie - it  has no slides and no steps!
Tessa is one of five dogs enjoying the cool carpet - these two are such clowns
We go check out the nearby Yellowstone River Campground to see what a $81/night place looks like. It looks like a $40/night place so I have no idea why it's over half full. It's nice, but not that nice!

Next we stop at the Jeep dealer and check out the Wrangler Unlimiteds on the lot. We've never sat in one, and we do that. Very sweet, we could be happy with one. Not today.

Another few hours and the rig is ready to go. Even with the additional hourly rate, and nearly nine hours of work, the cost is surprisingly reasonable. Best of all, we've only lost a day to get it fixed.

Having no desire to return to Hardin, MT, we continue to Garryowen and 7th Ranch RV Park. And find one of my favorite parks so far. After the worst park the night before, this is a beautiful place. Set in the rolling hills with terraced sites that all have lovely views to the south, it feels wonderful here. It's still light at 8:30, and is the latest we've ever arrived.

Views from our front yard 
About 11 pm the lightning show begins. The clouds illuminate like dozens of photographers using their flash just beyond the gray veil. Occasional brilliant strikes add to the powerful exhibition. Soon thunder, wind and rain join in, and then pass on within 45 minutes. Wonderful!

Monday we're out early to see the battlefield before the heat of midday makes it too uncomfortable. The "symptoms" of the Jeep's illness include not being able to run the air conditioner while traveling at slow speeds. Like when you're driving through a national monument.....sigh.

Everyone has the same plan, and the parking lot and visitor's center are packed. Standing room only for the small theater room. Outside there's seating available for the ranger talk so we join that. 

Exhibits include artifacts from the local tribes
and photos and documents of Custer and other army officers
Telling the very detailed story of the Battle of Little Bighorn
This Ranger really knows the history of the battle, and the days surrounding it, and does a great job of sharing it with us. Hearing the story while looking at the scene of Custer's Last Stand makes it very real. With few exceptions, the area looks much the same as it did on June 26, 1876.

The large cemetery includes veterans from multiple wars, reaching capacity in 1978. 

With the details of what happened where, we drive the 4 mile loop. The interpretive signs highlight specific locations where different companies of the 7th Calvary engaged warriors led by Crazy Horse and other tribal leaders.

At 45, Sitting Bull remains behind at the huge camp along the river, and he is here when the cavalry opens fire on  women, children and elders 
Soon the warriors arrive and drive Reno's company across the river
This river, at exactly this spot! Walking history is so much cooler than just reading it!!
Headstones of unknown soldiers spread out throughout the hills and gullys
make the loss of life very real
A combination of survivor accounts and identified bodies tell the story of what happened in each location
A small herd is walking along the road and this beauty stops and looks in my window, waiting while I get his photo before moving on
His buddy couldn't be bothered with a cameo.....
The monument at Custer's Last Stand is huge with the names of all who fell here that day. The remains of enlisted men are buried beneath the large stonework. The officers' bodies were removed from the initial burial site and returned to the east. Custer was re-buried at West Point. His two brothers and nephew died with him on this hill.

Memorial to 7th Cavalry soldiers who died in the final battle
Marking where they fell. Custer's stone is highlighted in black.

Across the road is the Indian Memorial, dedicated in 2003 to the warriors who lost their lives in this famous battle. Long overdue. 

While the original monument is interesting, this circular memorial is moving. I read every word, some through tears. It is not sad, it is inspiring. It is powerful.

"If this memorial is to serve its total purpose, it must not only be a tribute to the dead; it must contain a message for the living...power through unity..."
Enos Poor Bear, Sr., Oglala Lakota Elder

All the tribes that fought and died here are represented 
We still don't get it
Often vilified as traitors to their people, the Indian scouts who fought with the army are also honored here
You enter the circle through one portal, and depart from another
As the ranger said in his presentation, it was Custer's last stand, and also that of the natives. Never again were they to win a major battle against the white man, this was ultimately their ending.

Those who died in their home land were identified by family and friends who lived there
Far from their homes, most of the soldiers were unidentified 
I would love to return when the temperatures are milder and walk the Deep Ravine Trail. Most of the major sites are identified along the road, but there are many on the walking path throughout the park as well. 

After lunch at the lone cafe (good food, good service, very nice store), we stop at the Custer Battlefield Museum. 

From the website and brochure I'm not expecting a cheesy gift shop and Subway. Out front is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Dedicated in 1926 by General Edward Godfrey, who fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and White Bull, Sitting Bull's nephew. Along with the remains, they buried a hatchet and other artifacts. Thus the "bury the hatchet" reference for agreeing to move forward after a disagreement. It is a pretty significant memorial to be found in a gas station parking lot. I find the surroundings a bit insulting.

The museum is a private undertaking, receiving no government or foundation funding so I cut them some slack and pay the $7.50 each to enter past the red rope.

Where my opinion immediately changes. This is a small museum, but it holds an incredible collection. There is no photography allowed. I admit to sneaking a couple on my phone, but I won't share them here. 

Many artifacts from the battle were uncovered when I-90 was built, and several of those are displayed here. Rifles and other weapons, tools and camp items, even belt buckles and buttons. 

Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is the collection of photographs by David F. Barry. His individual photos of the warriors and officers line three of the walls. Most are taken before the fight and include many who did not return. Others are taken afterward, some the day before the warriors and their families were forced back to the reservations. 

The journal of John Martin (Martini) who carried Custer's last orders to Reno, includes what Martin writes are pieces of Custer's hair. He doesn't explain their significance.

We watch a 40 minute documentary, narrated by author Jerry Orbach, which sounds very much like the ranger talk we heard earlier. In some cases word-for-word. Still, we learn more about Custer's 100 other battles, including Civil War victories that won him two Medal of Honor citations. His brother Tom was also awarded. While arrogant and driven are the words used to describe him, he is also recognized as a leader who lead from the front. Like Miracle Whip, he was either loved very much, or hated very much.

So if you stop here and are tempted to keep going when you pull up, don't. It is a worthwhile stop, and a great addition to what you'll see at the national monument. I can't say which "order" would be best to see them, they just work together.

Tuesday night we are entertained with a repeat performance of lightning in all directions. With the lights out and the blinds up, we watch the show. It's even more spectacular than the night before. Again we get the rain and wind, but soon it passes to the east and all is calm.

I am so very glad we stopped here, I already want to come back.


  1. Which tribe was Miracle Whip from? :-)

  2. No matter where you go you always find great things to see.

  3. Little Big Horn is way up on my list too but maybe not in July. Sorry it was too hot for you. This is such a sad place. It’s hard not to think that we deserved such a defeat for our policy of genocide alone but war seldom seems justified and the deaths are tragic. Thank you for giving me this look at a place I definitely want to experience. I’m wondering if, like Gettysburg, it feels like hollowed ground and you can feel the spirits of those who fought and died here.
    Really really hoping you have no more slide issues. Glad the 2nd campground turned out to be so much better than your first. I don’t get people who pay $81 a night either to bring their own home and sheets and towels. But I do love lightning storms especially when they are far away and look beautiful in the sky.

    1. Yes, I would avoid it in July, but you have to see and feel it. The spirits are definitely present and walking our on the plains by the headstones is powerful. Sharing your hopes for no more slide issues!

  4. Such an interesting place full of history and emotion.

    Happy your MH is good to go....

  5. Thanks for this great travelogue piece. Enjoyable from start to finish. The part about the memorial for the tribes made me cry. Such a sad piece of our history.

    1. Thank you for coming along :-) It was indeed a sad time.

  6. Visited the Custer Battlefield back in May of 92 and it has left a lasting memory on in my mind ever since. Like you say, the land looks much the same now as it did back then and that adds to the reality of feelings one experiences there. Luckily there were no crowds the day I was there and that went a long way towards my feelings and understanding of where I was.

    1. It would be lovely to be there without the hordes. You need to go back and enjoy the Indian Memorial - I think you'd appreciate the spirit of the place.

  7. I remember visiting this site before the name was appropriately changed. A sad story in our history. Glad the slide is fixed.

    1. Very sad times for so many. The historical accounting is fairly balanced now - at least in what we heard and saw. Having the slide issue resolved is such a relief!!