Of Burgers and Bikers

As I mentioned previously, food on the road can occasionally be a problem. This has become more of an issue since we crossed the Rockys: now it’s burgers or nothing. Burgers, of course, can be great, so the challenge is to find the best burger place in any given town. Here some rules of thumb:

  1. Avoid chains. Chains guarantee quality, and for 95% of chains, that means low quality.
  2. Find a place that’s frequented by locals. They will know.
  3. Finally, all else equal, choose the place that also serves beer. Even if you’re not gonna have one. If they target adults, their food tends to be better.

During our trip we make the interesting observation that the places we end up eating at, using the above criteria, tend to be places that are frequented by bikers. Neither of us expected to have much in common with the Harley crowd, but apparently we do! Thesis: Bikers are a well connected community, so news about good and bad places travels quickly and reliably within that community. Hence: quality is higher.


Black Hills – Part I

jewel cave jewels - prickly!

Our first stop in the Black Hills – and South Dakota – is another cave, Jewel Cave. It is clearly more popular than either of the two caves we’ve visited so far: we cannot get tickets for the tour we had hoped for. Fortunately we don’t have to wait too long; they offer tours every 40 minutes. Our tour is packed, and not all of the people are to our liking. Our tour guide is very good, though, knowledgeable and helpful.

This cave is interestingly different from the tours we’ve seen earlier on this trip. It is mostly dry (and hence not longer ‘live’), at least in many of the parts we get to see. Jewel Cave is currently thought to be the second longest cave in the world (~ 157 miles), and we only get to see a very small fraction of it. Some of the chambers of the cave are remarkably large, too.

The most distinctive feature of Jewel Cave, however, are the “jewels”. The jewels in question are calcite crystals, of no particular value, but nice to look at. Or nice to look at when they are clean. Most of the crystals are covered in dust, so “jewel” is not what immediately springs to my mind. In some chambers they cover the entire walls, giving them an appearance of something very prickly – perhaps a lychee.

It is certainly a very unusual cave, and one that is still being explored today.  According to our guide, analysis of windflow in the cave indicates that only 5 – 10% of the volume of the cave has been discovered so far, so there’s plenty for the volunteer explorers who are mapping it still to discover.

The visitor center sells maps of the cave – they come in two different sheets, to capture the expanse of the cave, and the different levels.  They also offer spelunking tours, which we would love to go on, but the logistics of such a tour are beyond what we could fit into our schedule. To be allowed on the spelunking tour, a test must be passed: outside the visitor center sits a concrete block, with an opening in the middle. Only those who manage to squeeze through that opening are allowed on the spelunking tour. Of  course I have to try it out. Success, I’d be good to go! My only competition are some 8 year olds, who would be disqualified for age reasons anyway! But maybe that just goes to show that I have more in common with an eight year old than an average adult.

The Black Hills

Moonrise over the prairie

The next few stops after Devils Tower will all be in the mountains at the western edge of South Dakota known as the “Black Hills”. Before we begin our journey there, however, we spend another night in Wyoming, which at five nights is now the state we’ve spent the most time in on this trip.

For the night we stay in Newcastle, which gets its name from its richness in coal. Unlike virtually everything else in and around the Black Hills, Newcastle is actually a workers’ town, with an industry other than tourism. At the bar kind enough to serve us food at this hour, we witness a group of temporary workers, dining, drinking, and exchanging political ideas. At least one of them seems inclined to think that Schwarzenegger is more of an American than Obama, and should hence be allowed to run for president.

Devils Tower (Bear Lodge)

Devils Tower

After so much history, it is time to return to nature, at least for a little while. Our first destination in the Black Hills (or at any rate: close by) is Devils Tower or Bear Lodge. Bear Lodge comes closer to the original Indian names, “Devils Tower” was the name given to this rock formation by a US geological survey team in 1875, possibly based on a translation error.

Various native American tribes consider the formation sacred, and are hence not pleased with the fact that it is also a popular destination for rock climbers. Since Devils Tower is a national monument (indeed the first national monument), climbers have argued that they have a right to climb it, since it is on federal land. A compromise suggests that climbing is not to be undertaken in June, out of respect for the rituals traditionally held in that month. I have to confess, of course, that my immediate thought was: I want to climb it! But then again, I think of rock climbing as a form of worship.

Prairie Dog - a cute, almost extinct pest

We didn’t encounter any aliens, while we were there, but many Prairie Dogs. Supposedly they carry the plague, but that claim sounds very much like a protective measure, to prevent people from taking them home as pets.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

We continue our exploration of history with a visit to the battlefield at Little Bighorn river, location of the most famous battle of the Great Sioux Wars (1876-77). The very short version of the story presents the battle as “the last major Indian victory”, but that’s of course a very short version of the story, and one that obviously doesn’t do justice to the event, its context, and the people involved.

A slightly longer version of the story goes like this. Under the leadership of Sitting Bull, groups of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had combined forces to resist the US expansion and the reservation system. At the battle itself, which took place on June 25th-26th, 1876, a large number of them (estimates range from 1,000 to over 1,800) fought and defeated the 7th Cavalry Regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer. Custer himself, and over 250 of his men were killed in the battle, and the battle is viewed as an important victory for the Sioux. It is unclear how many of the Lakota and Cheyenne were killed, but nowhere near as many.

Battlefields are always a bit odd as tourist attractions, and remind you that there is a difference between time and space after all. Still, a visitor center could of course help, but this visitor center has little to offer. The information available is not only superficial, it is irrelevant to the event for which this site is a memorial. It may be true, and perhaps interesting, which parts of the buffalo were used for what by the Indians, but what is really needed is a map (or several) and time-line for the battle.

Now, as it turns out, part of the problem is that the exact sequence of events, and in particular the movements of Custer’s party and their motives, as well as the number of people involved on the Indian side remain unclear. Still, it is only once we have a map in hand and make our way through the battlefield, that we begin to get a sense of the place and the event.

Once we stand on the actual hills and look into the valley that the Indians had camped in, the actuality of the day’s events starts to take shape.  Custer and his troops were only able to see part of a large (as it turns out, 7,000 strong) Indian encampment.  In his enthusiasm, Custer split his troops and rushed behind the hills to find the other end of the camp.  At the Southern end of the battlefield is where the rest of Custer’s troops first engaged, then retreated from the encampment.  After defending the circle of hills on which they fell back for 24 hours, the Indians finally retreated to the Bighorn mountains and the survivors were reinforced.

Meanwhile, Custer himself snuck behind the hills before charging the camp in his enthusiasm.  The Indians, in both cases, rushed to meet their attackers.  Although the encampment was 7,000 strong, only 1,800 or so were warriors, amongst these the legendary Crazy Horse.

The crucial Lakota leader Sitting Bull, instrumental in bringing together this unique combined force, was senior and did not actually participate in the military action.  But this is part of the significance of the Battle of Little Big Horn – tribes which usually went their separate ways united against a common enemy and, consequently, triumphed.

Although the movements of Custer’s secondary divisions are well documented by survivors, the actions of Custer himself must be reconstructed from the accounts of Indian braves and the remains found on the battlefield itself.  Two factors are absolutely crucial here.  First, the hubris and ignorance of Custer and his 200+ men; second, line of site.  Although the actions of June 25, 1876 take place over only a couple square miles, the dynamic is driven by which locations are visible from where.  Custer’s lack of visual access to the full Indian encampment drives his ignorance about the extent of their forces.

Since Custer’s division was massacred completely, we have no first hand account of his side of these events.  From verbal reports and the battlefield remains, it appears that Custer first charged through a valley, only to be met by Indian braves, fording the Little Bighorn river to meet him.  After being overwhelmed, he fled over a series of hills, away from reinforcements and towards the Northern end of the Indian encampment.  The stream of skeletons discovered by later archeologists charts this path.

The site of Custer’s famous “Last Stand” is indeed the highest hill at the end of this string of skirmishes.  The Braves who fought Custer report that they split and flowed around his troops “like water” – Custer and his remaining troops were forced to kill their horses to form a crude barricade at the top of this hill, the highest in the immediate vicinity and the best hope of managing a defense.  They were overwhelmed however by the superior numbers and spirit of the braves who surrounded them, and slaughtered to the last man.

It would be a mistake to view this as a mere case of victory by numerical superiority, however.  One has to remember that, as the most recent affront in a string of broken promises and arbitrary commands, the US troops were hunting Indians in order to force them onto reservations against their will and against any reasonable conception of modern justice.  Furthermore, although the Braves rode out to meet them, there is no question that it was Custer who initiated this Quixotic attack.  Finally, the unique achievement of Sitting Bull, a unified force comprising members of several distinct tribes, was both unexpected and innovative.  Historically, of course, although they won the battle, they lost the war, and any tragedies meted against Custer and his troops that day were repayed ten thousand fold and more by the expansionist US in the years before and after.

It’s difficult to come to terms with the Battle of Little Big Horn – should we feel outrage at the slaughter of Custer and his troops?  Jubilation at the Indian victory?  The fact of the matter is, the death toll was between three and four hundred, a pittance compared to the lives lost in many battles of the Civil War, or the World Wars of the twentieth century.  But the Battle of Little Big Horn clearly represents a symbolic landmark, a demonstration that the lesser can band together against the mightier, that the tides of history can, for a moment, be made to ebb by sheer collaboration and willpower.

But the attempts to deal with these intellectual and emotional conflicts on the part of the park organizers are even more confusing.  There appears to be a project in progress to place a gravestone at the exact death site of every single US cavalry officer and Indian Brave.  Interesting though this may be from a historical standpoint, the exact motive is somewhat unclear – why lend this individual treatment here rather than Gettysburg, or Waterloo, or Normandy, for that matter?  Is it just because the numbers are smaller, and thus the task is possible?  Does any of this amend in any way the wrongs of American expansionism or cause the souls of our slaughtered cavalry to rest more easy?

A different problem is created by the fact that it was not simply a battle between Indians and US Americans. The Indians in question were the People of the Plains, whose nomadic lifestyle was under particular pressure from US expansion. On the US side, we find a diverse group of men, many of them foreign born, plus a number of Indian scouts. The latter were recruited from tribes and groups traditionally in rivalry with the Lakota and Cheyenne. One of the most disturbing features of the battlefield are a number of gravestones erected for individual scouts, proclaiming they had died “defending the …. way of life”, where the dots represent the particular tribe the particular scout belonged to. Given that these men were working for the US army under a command with the explicit task of reinforcing the reservation system, this claim is simply false (and emblazoning it on gravestones represents profound ignorance or (worse) cynicism). The best explanation seems to be a nervous political correctness, which permeates the entire site. But political correctness and history seldom go together.

[P.S.  Sorry, no pictures for this post because they don’t capture much of anything.  The subtly shifting lines of sight which create the dynamic of the battlefield must lie in the beholder, not the camera. If you are curious – visit it for yourself!]

Bighorn Canyon and the Bighorn Mountains

From Cody we drive northeast, toward Montana. Our goal is to get to Bighorn Canyon, where we hope to rent a kayak to spend some time on Bighorn Lake and set up camp for the night.

For once the weather is against us, though. A thunderstorm is in the making just as we arrive at Horseshoe Bend where we intended to camp and kayak. Since kayaking won’t be an option, camping there no longer seems attractive, and so we only visit the lookout over the canyon, storm clouds and lighting at our heels.

Bighorn Canyon

With nothing left to do at Bighorn Canyon, we make our way towards the Bighorn Mountains. The Bighorn Mountains form the eastern border of the Bighorn Basin. They are surprisingly tall, and the road we take to cross them is steep. To make matters worse, we also face strong headwinds as my car is trying to climb the steep slope. Fortunately there’s hardly anyone else around, so being slow is not a big problem.

The worst part lies behind us, when Alistair spots a sign pointing to a “Medicine Wheel” higher up on the mountain. Curious we turn to the left and follow a dirt road up the mountain. After two miles it ends in a parking lot. From here we will have to make our way on foot, if we want to see the Medicine Wheel.

Just as we are leaving the car, it starts to rain. Once again it seems the weather will thwart our plans. But this time we win. We wait out the rain in the car – not least because I don’t want to drive down the dirt road in the rain – and after 15 minutes the rain stops. So we take the short hike to the Medicine Wheel, with the scenery even more dramatic thanks to the storms.

What is the “Medicine Wheel”? The little brochures we picked up at the entrance contain more conjecture than fact, but it is a pattern of stones near the summit of the mountains at 10,000 feet, between 800 and 400 years old, arranged into an elaborate spoked circle. Known to the Native Americans, it’s unclear even in their records what the origin is – though they seem to have identified it as a landing pad for the Great Eagle or a representation of the Wheel of Life.  Either way, the place is still used for vising questing.

The sacred nature of the Medicine Wheel can be felt quite strongly as we contemplate it alone in silence, the storm blowing overhead, just under the peak of the mountain.

Medicine Wheel


After so much nature, it is time for some culture and history! Since we are in Wyoming, the culture and history at hand is the Wild West. As we descend into Cody from Yosemite through the Shoshone River Canyon, the landscape begins to look like a set from a classic Western.

Western Backdrop

Cody itself is an incredibly touristy, cliche Wild West town, but in the case of Cody, there is really no point in complaining: Cody was practically founded on the premise of marketing the Wild West. It is named after William Frederick Cody, b.k.a. “Buffalo Bill”.

Buffalo Bill continues to be a presence in the town, even today. We have dinner at the “Irma”, the hotel Buffalo Bill had built for his daughter, Irma. We sit in Pearl C. Newell’s booth, “owner and keeper of Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel and its legacy for 40 years (1924 – 1964)”, and end up having too many of their fabulous buffalo ribs. They are nice though, and let us take some home.

Alistair in the saddle, but where's the horse?

The next day we visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which is five museums in one. The Buffalo Bill collection is the best part, as one might expect. He was a showman, promoting the Wild West in the United States and Europe. His show shaped the image of the Wild West, of Cowboys & Indians, and I bet most of us would have to admit to have been influenced by the image in some way or another.

The museum makes some attempt at an even handed presentation, featuring the Plains Indian Museum, to teach us about the lives of the Indians in the Great Plains. It’s great on pedagogy, but thin on hard facts or actual artifacts. The more convincing collections are those concerned with Buffalo Bill and his show. They have many actual documents and memorabilia, and go into surprising details, like the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm consulted Buffalo Bill about railroad logistics.

Even more impressive than the Buffalo Bill collection is the firearms collection, which holds the largest collection of American firearms in the world. We are immediately overwhelmed, and can only manage a walk-through, though.

Incidentally, Cody is also the birth place of Jackson Pollock. Not something you’d notice walking down the main street, though.