Custer’s Last Stand, as told by a shopkeeper

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POWDER RIVER COUNTY, Mont. – I don’t do a ton of research before we hit the road. I do my learning via visitor centres, historical plaques and lonely dudes in the last open store for 300 miles.

Our GPS, Alpha, was set to take the fastest route from Deadwood to Billings, Mont. He did his mystery calculations and carefully planned a route that was four minutes shorter than the interstate. “In 800 metres, take the exit right. Exit right now, then take the motorway.”

The motorway was the 212, which runs roughly parallel but not too close to the I90. A two-lane highway through the plains with a suggested speed limit of 75, it has neither traffic nor services. And it is stunning.

There are so many horses in South Dakota and Montana. I had expected to see this many in Texas, yet here they are up north with thousands of acres to graze and prace and ignore the cattle. There were hundreds of deer, too, or antelope – thankfully they weren’t close enough to the road to tell which. Eventually the land began to roll, great gentle bumps covered in sagebrush and Prairie grasses that became modestly greener as we bolted through Wyoming (about five minutes across a tiny corner of it) and into Montana.

It was near suppertime on a lazy Sunday and though our thoughts turned to food, the highway did not.

Powder River boasted (on the only billboard for 100 miles) the best food for 300 miles at the Judges Chambers in Broadus. “It’s the only food for 300 miles,” I said, and I thought I was joking. It was closed.

Everything in Broadus – a slice of highway and two or three cross streets – was closed, except the bar with half a dozen pickups outside, and the corner store.

The shopowner had a neat white beard and a gentle voice so quiet I had to strain to hear him.

“She your first?” he asked, and I shook my head, pointing to Trevor, who was at hte back of the store looking at trucker caps and rifles.

The shopowner’s children spanned 13 years. The baby was 19, the last one left at home. He told me his whole story, but with his soft voice I missed big chunks of it.

His first wife left him and he met another lady with more kids to add to his brook – the 19-year-old was one of those. The second lady had some kind of midlife crisis last summer, he told me, and went from a Size 12 to a Size 7, sitting in front of the computer with coffee and cigarettes, playing WoW. Plus, she was being indiscreet.

“Indiscreet,” he said again, barely louder, to sure I understood. “That’s hard on the kids. If you’re going to do it, be discreet, you know? For the kids.” She had to go, and she didn’t take her children with her.

He followed us outside, still talking. “You’re in the country where Custer got his ass kicked. This land all belonged to the Cow, who were rather nice people. Then the Sioux came down, and they weren’t so nice. They were mean, and came to take the land. They come up against Custer and who’s he got on his side but the Crow? He came on down here in ’72.”

1872, people. Do you realize how recent that was? My grandfather was born in 1899, and I knew him well.

Two years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and in 1876 Custer led the charge to send the aboriginal tribes packing. As my friend told me, it didn’t end well for him.

“You’ll pass some white crosses up that way. That’s where they found teh bodies. They moved them eventually, but that’s where they fell, back when Custer got his ass kicked.”

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In the short term, a coalition of aboriginal tribes had their victory. But they lost in the end: They were pushed onto reservations in and around the hills. We stopped for gas and ice cream in a tiny town on Cherokee land, experiencing for half an hour what it’s like to be the minority – the only white people to have stopped in that town for heavens know how long.

Our shopkeeper had told us he taught a history class that an aboriginal boy attended. After telling him the story of Custer and the Indians’ loss of land, he asked him what he thought. “Well, it was the first drive-by, wasn’t it?” the kid responded.

An elder talked to us (mostly the baby) for a while, wishing us a peaceful and safe trip. It was exactly how the day was supposed to end.

A walk in the park: Badlands National Park

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Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

BADLANDS, S.D. – All South Dakota has to do is be herself. She’s one of the most beautiful states without even trying. Yet she’s also one of the neediest, imploring people to like her with hundreds of billboards like dark mascara on a classically lovely face.

Wall Drug! 1800s town! Badlands gift shop! Wall Drug! Pioneer Auto! Ranch Store! Oh, and did we mention Wall Drug!

We’ve fallen for Wall Drug twice in five years. It won’t happen again. But we hadn’t before experienced the Badlands, South Dakota’s apocalyptic dream.

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They rise out of the Prairie like the steel teeth of a bear trap, white against a colourless sky. From even five miles away it is impossible to know the enormity of the Badlands – “242,756 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States,” according to Wikipedia.

Time and distance act strangely on the Prairie, so the formations grow before you, more and more ominous until suddenly you are surrounded by giant white sandcastles, boxed in when moments before there was nothing but field and sky. It takes several minutes of slow driving to become adjusted to the new wilderness, to begin to see faces and creatures in the rock, to marvel at the hardy brush and black-eyed Susans that somehow find root in this alien landscape.

Badlands, SD

By suppertime, we had decided to spend the night. By sunset, Trevor had climbed one of the mountains to watch the sun slip behind the rock backdrop. By nightfall, we were sitting, our backs cold, around a campfire burning in a metal pot on the plain with a million stars above us the soundtrack of a thousand nightbugs. Melani and the baby wandered to the road to see more sky – Trev and I saw perfect white shooting stars above the fire.

“Come here!” Mel called. I was reluctant to leave the fire, but Trev followed her and then beckoned me with, “Mom, you’re going to want to see this.”

I wrapped his blanket around me and hiked up the deep ditch to the road. And there was the moon, rising, a giant orange ball at eye level, making her slow way up to the stars.

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Badlands National Park gets the ever-elusive five stroller wheels (only Fundy has that high a rating from us) for its incredible beauty, geological uniqueness, conservation efforts, ease of use and wow factor. A pass is $15 for a car for seven days, or $80 for a yearly pass to all of America’s national parks. A bargain no matter how you spin it.

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A taste of history

Trevor attempted to mimic their faces.
Trevor attempted to mimic their faces.

Today was Mount Rushmore day. We got off to a slow start and made it to the mountain in time for the blazing heat (I’m sporting a Monster Spectacular t-shirt-shaped sunburn) and wandered around making fun of Lincoln’s Elvis hair (in a rather respectful way, of course) before heading out into more Prairie and, finally, the Wyoming foothills.

I’ve been waiting 20 years to return to Wyoming, and yet it’s South Dakota that I’ve fallen in love with. It’s the most spectacular kind of barren beautiful I’ve ever seen. You just drink in the pretty till you pass out.

Gift shop on the edge of the Badlands.
Gift shop on the edge of the Badlands.

The kids are fantastic with each other. Most of the time they just do their own thing in the car, but when they get talking or giggling, it’s like magic. I was horribly against getting a dual-screen DVD player for the car, but listening to them giggle over Short Circuit yesterday was one of the highlights of my trip.

I worry about Kendra. She’s a good sport for someone who’s never done this before, but it’s very hard to gauge whether or not she’s having fun. When I did this trip somewhere around her age, I just enjoyed every little bit of it and soaked up the history and beauty. But she’s just not that kind of kid, and I’ve got to accept that.

Tonight we’ve splurged on TWO rooms. They’re right next door, but there’s a whole wall between us. And therefore, my friends, good night.

The road is long. Really long

All signs lead to Wall Drugstore. No, really, all of them do. We saw thousands along the highway, from the very moment we entered South Dakota, till a few miles after we’d left it.

All roads lead to Wall.
All roads lead to Wall.

Shortly after my camera had a stroke, we stumbled on the World’s Smallest Biker Bar. It was closed.

World's Smallest Biker Bar
World's Smallest Biker Bar

The Mitchell Corn Palace kept us occupied for far too long. Every year, they rebuild it with a different design. These people do not fool around with their corn.

Heat wave danger?
Heat wave danger?

Once again we were faced with outrunning a storm. Kendra and I, terrified and fascinated by tornados, were terrified and fascinated by the cloud formations. We watched the weather the entire day.

Even when the weather scares me, I'm awed by the pretty.
Even when the weather scares me, I'm awed by the pretty.