Saturday July 26, 2014, 83 miles (134 km) – Total so far: 3,324 miles (5,349 km)
Just before dawn on 9 August, 1877, 163 men of the 7th U.S. Infantry waited for first light to attack 800 Nez Perce Indians at what is now the Big Hole Battlefield. The Nez Perce had been travelling since mid-June from Idaho with the US Army in pursuit. The Army had orders to place these five bands of Nez Perce onto a small reservation in central Idaho. The Nez Perce had fled, but over the course of the summer, they were forced to fight with the U.S. Army in several battles as the Nez Perce tried to elude capture. The battle here had the highest number of casualties over their 1170-mile journey which lasted from 2 June until 5 October when the Nez Perce finally surrended just 40 miles south of the Canadian border after the Battle of Bear Paw.
I want to visit the battlefield early in the morning to try to better understand what it might have been like on that early August day. My little thermometer reads 37F when I crawl out of the sleeping bag. It is decidedly chilly and my arthritic fingers protest movement. We silently slip out of the campground and down the valley which is still covered in deep shade. I’m shivering by the time we emerge from the forest and hills into the edges of the Big Hole Valley.
A herd of horses comes galloping toward me from nowhere. I brake almost to a stop as they see me and turn hard left. They break into a run, heading straight down the road. After a few minutes they slow back down as I follow them down the road. Eventually they run alongside the road and then head through a gate to pasture on the right. Being caught in a horse herd just after dawn is a first for me.
I cruise down to cross the Big Hole River tributaries then slowly climb the hill out the other side. At least the uphill allows me to stop shivering after the downhill out of the mountains. Once into the national battlefield, I take the road down to the hiking trails. No one else is around. It is quiet and still. The sun angle is still low. Signs warn that moose and bear have been spotted recently.
I park the bike and take the trail up to the overlook. I try to imagine the events of 9 August. The infantrymen had hid behind the willows waiting to attack, but a Nez Perce man had come to look for his horses. The infantrymen shot and killed him, and thus the attack started prematurely. The infantrymen crossed the river and into the Nez Perce camp, shooting at anything and everyone. The Nez Perce took defensive positions, then counterattacked, sending the infantrymen in retreat. The infantrymen recrossed the river and climbed a bench covered in pines. Here they dug trenches and were besieged for the next 24 hours. Finally, on the second day of fighting, in the early hours of 10 August, the Nez Perce withdrew and headed south, continuing their ill-fated journey. Twenty-nine soldiers were killed; 40 were wounded. Sixty to ninety Nez Perce were killed – most were women and children.
I sit on the bench at the overlook, gazing down at the maze of willow and the tipi lodge poles erected where the Nez Perce camp had been. I try to imagine the sharp cold of the water and the scratch of the willow branches as the soldiers plunged through. I try to imagine the noise and confusion of that day, in the absolute silence of this morning. I think about the cries of anguish, the screams of pain, the sound of bullets hitting flesh, the sound of horse hooves on the riverbank. I try to imagine the panic and terror, and the sense of power changing hands as the infantrymen went from offensive to defensive positions. I try to imagine the urgency.
After I take in this overview and pay my respects to those who lost their lives here, I head back down to walk through the siege area. The trenches dug by the soldiers are still visible. A large monument pays tribute to the fallen. It is so peaceful, it is hard to put yourself back into that day full of death, terror and injury. Unfortunately, many of the pines here are succumbing to the pine beetle in a battle of their own. Some years from now, this place is unlikely to look as it did then and now.
I then head up the steep trail to the Howitzer capture site. A group of infantrymen had been lugging a howitzer through the forest above the siege site, and had just managed to place it on the hillside before a group of Nez Perce captured the gun and tore it apart, scattering its pieces and rendering it useless. I cannot imagine trying to ‘hurry’ through the dense forest, up a steep hill, on uneven ground, in the middle of a battle, with this heavy piece of equipment. No doubt you would feel like a sitting duck.
I sit at the Howitzer capture site for awhile, reading the park brochure and looking out over the battlefield. My secure, middle-class upbringing in modern day America means I’m way too sheltered to ever know what this scene would have truly looked and felt like. I do my best to imagine it, and to place this battle in the context of the rest of Western History that I’ve engaged in during my bike tours, but I know I will never truly know what it would have been like to be here that day.
Back on the road, I cruise the gentle downhill into the Big Hole Valley. This is the highest and widest of the valleys of western Montana. The gentle downhill we traverse is a desert alluvial fan formed 3 to 4 million years ago. I see a solo guy with four panniers climbing the other way. We wave and continue on.
I stop several times to take in the immensity of the valley. Geologists speculate this valley is the gap opened after a large block of crust (the Pioneer mountains) detached and slid east about 70 million years ago. All of the valleys similar in structure to this one have filled with Tertiary sediments (60-2 million years ago), but this valley is unique in the depth of sediment. There is an estimated 14,000 feet of sediments filling this valley. Get your head around that! So not only is this valley incredibly wide, but it is incredibly deep!
The campground at Wisdom doesn’t look very attractive, so I’m glad I stayed up at May Creek. The mozzies weren’t bad up there, and I’ve heard they’ll carry you away down here. Indeed, the mozzies come looking for me when I start to eat some food in the shade of the grocery store. So I pack up the food I just purchased and go sit on a lump of concrete in the sun outside the post office.
I see my dinner companions from last night. They park near me and are amazed that I’ve already pedaled 20 miles and visited the battlefield. My elk hunter friend again says, “You really are amazing. I still just can’t believe you. You are so courageous and I have so much respect for what you are doing. Please stay safe, and let us know when you finish your trip.” Then they head off to look at guns, sewing machines and flea market junk, and I head off to follow the edge of the valley downstream.
The road gently climbs and falls on the bench above the valley. The tall peaks of the Continental Divide rise far in the distance. This wide, wide valley stretches for miles and curves to the northeast. We follow the river closely at times, and I’m dismayed at the amount of algae growing in the currents. There must be pretty high nutrient loads in there to support that much in-river greenery.
The road hugs the eastern edge of the valley for some time, pushed up next to the base of the Pioneers. Granite outcrops can be seen among the pines which grow in clumps and along gullies on the other side of the river. As the road turns east and flattens out, the base of the Pioneers rise right up from the river. The thickly forested slopes are rocky with talus slopes here and there.
Just before the river heads out of the Big Hole Valley and into a narrower canyon, we head north on County Road 274. I don’t know how busy this road is at other times, but it actually carries a fair bit of traffic on a weekend. Luckily, most of the people are going the other way, so it’s not too bad, but it does seem to be a very narrow road (often without edge or center lines painted) for how much traffic it carries. It is also in pretty bad condition. There are patches on patches, lots of potholes and grooves, and various colours and sizes of chipseal where the road has been redone in 15X20 foot squares. One of the smoother parts of the road is actually the ¼ mile that is all down to dirt ready to be repaved!
The beauty makes up for the surface condition and traffic, however. The road climbs a wide valley with views down over lush grasses and ranchland backed by the tall peaks of the Anaconda Range. The low hills to the right are sometimes close and sometimes far. We dip down to cross streams and then climb again to the valley edge. Always the view to the north and west is of big peaks with the last bits of snow strung along the crests.
I stop at an interpretive site in the scenic valley. On the other side of the mountains lies the town of Anaconda. This mining town was the site of three copper smelters, each one built bigger than the previous one to keep up with the ore being shipped over from Butte for processing. The trouble with each of these smelters is that they spewed out tons of sulphur and arsenic. Farmers and ranchers in surrounding valleys sued the smelter company over lost earnings when the land and air became too polluted to continue business. The smelter company’s response was to build larger and larger smokestacks in an attempt to disperse the pollutants. However, this just sent the pollutants over a wider area. At some stage in all of the legal proceedings, the smelter company purchased a ranch to operate to show that the pollution wasn’t all that bad. In the end, the smelter company won the court case which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the current residents in the valleys along I-90 from Missoula to Butte live in the nation’s largest Superfund site, an area with four separate clean-up sites considered to be more toxic than Three-Mile Island.
Not long after the interpretive site at the ranch, I begin to notice that the vegetation looks fairly young and weak. Then further along, I can smell sulphur and there are blue-green or yellow streaks in the white chalky soils. The closer you get to the Continental Divide, the more the landscape looks altered. It’s not necessarily in-your-face obvious, but something definitely doesn’t feel right. The smell of sulphur makes you think hot springs, but it is not. It is all the pollutants in the soil.
The final hill to the summit looks very steep from a distance but is manageable in the climb. The top of the pass has no sign – the MT bike map calls it “No Name Pass” and lists it as 6,772 feet. We go zipping down the other side. The sign says “4 miles, 7% grade”. It is steep – the biggest problem being that it is so rough with so many holes and grooves, you’ve really got to concentrate to miss the biggest stuff.
Once we level off though, the landscape is incredibly flogged. The smelter only ceased operation in 1980. There is not a lot of vegetation in many places. Dense stands of scraggly aspen line the road. A pine tree here or there grows in the distance, but my brain just says, “something is just not right”!
Further down, the huge smelter smokestack comes into view. In 1883, the owner of copper mines in Butte decided on a site for a company town that would be the location of a new smelter. The town grew to 1,500 residents in two months. Within three years, a larger smelter was required and built a mile away from the original. By the late 1890s, this smelter was inadequate, and the Washoe Smelter was built across the valley. It treated more than 15,000 tons of ore a day. The company built a 300-foot tall smokestack to mitigate pollution, but lawsuits continued, so they built a 585-foot stack in 1918 – the one still left today. An exhibit at the park helps visitors understand the size of it. It is big enough that you could fit the Washington Monument inside of it. The structure is still the largest free-standing masonry structure in the world.
I roll into town among recent-but-somewhat rundown businesses, gas stations and motels. Once into the older part of town, I feel like I am in a ghost town. The wooden, company-built cottages are in various states of upkeep. The brick buildings downtown reflect money, opulence and optimism. The old hotel, sheared of its original top two stories, still holds its important position. The neighbourhoods are full of historic homes. It really does feel like a reconstructed mining town where people dress up as historical figures and you wander around the old buildings to get a feel for mining life at the turn of the century. But it is not a ghost town. Instead, it is a ragged and somewhat downtrodden place where the blue-collar workers never left and the historic homes are still occupied by those left behind when the smelter company pulled out in 1980. It is well worth a ride through all the neighborhoods and the downtown area. It is simultaneously creepy and intriguing.
The bike shop is already closed when I get into town. There are electrical outlets, wifi and covered picnic tables at the information centre, however, so I head there to eat and recharge my iPod. After touring a few more neighbourhoods, and watching a wedding party spill out of the Catholic Church to line the sidewalk, I head down to the city park. The camping area is shady and not too full, but $15 a night seems steep for a porta-potty and a patch of grass. So I head over to check out the private RV park – but it looks like a parking lot with no shade, so that’s no better. I head to the supermarket and stock up on food, then head back to the park and take a shower at the pool. There are lots of events going on in town today, so there are people everywhere and plenty of people picnicking.
By now it’s evening so I go over to the camping area and pitch the tent away from the RVs all parked near each other along the creek. The grass is soft, but I have no plans on paying unless someone comes around to collect the money.
Later in the evening, a couple walk by carrying a duffel bag. They look pretty scrungy. The socio-economic demographics of this town most definitely lean toward the sad side. The couple contemplate different places to camp but then head down the path along the river through the weeds. Not long after, they return, minus duffel bag, and come up to talk to me.
The man is probably in his mid-40s, though he looks older because he looks like he’s led a hard life and done lots of drugs. He is very scruffy and has open sores on his neck and face. The woman is dressed in tight jeans and a cut-off shirt. She is younger than me, and I wonder how she got involved with this guy. I feel bad for her, like any potential she once had is slowly being erased by association with this man. He asks politely if I have a cigarette. When I say no, then I get the sob story how they’d been living in their tent in Helena, but somebody stole it and all of their stuff. So they came back here because the girl’s mom lives here. But the girl’s mom doesn’t like him, so they can’t stay there. They’ve found a spot along the river. I know they are positioning themselves to ask for money, but I keep steering the conversation away. They ask if I’d like to have a campfire with them later, as they are trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I say that would be nice. They don’t ask me for money, but I can hear the girl pestering the guy about him not asking me, as they walk away.
I don’t see the couple again, but before I go to bed, I head down along the river to see if I can find where they stashed their duffel bag. Once I find it, I leave them a couple bananas, two apples, a box of crackers and some granola bars. I won’t ever give people like this money, but I’ll always give food, and besides my jar of peanut-butter and packet of cheese, that’s all I had. Even though most of their bad luck stems from bad choices, I always feel like, “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. I don’t believe in a god, but I definitely believe we are all only a few bad choices away from a fall from grace. I am grateful for my good fortunes and hope that girl can eventually escape that man and make a good life for herself.