Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Bugging Montana

In Expeditions on April 2, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Until last week, I don’t think I’d ever been any farther west than Fort Worth, or Omaha, with the exception of several flights to California in the 60s and 70s, courtesy of Uncle Sam.  That is to say, I’d never seen any of the landscape of the (whaddya call ’em)Great Plains, I guess.

Well, my lovely and youthful wife Amanda is (unlike me) still MANY years from retirement, and is gainfully and busily employed as a schoolteacher.  During the summer, she’s required to earn some “continuing education credits”, which means she could be sitting in a boring classroom, at her own expense, in order to further her professional development.  Enterprising sort that she is, however, she has discovered the Wide World of Education Grants.  Last summer, she was accepted into a program at nearby Wilson Creek National Battlefield, where she spent a week traipsing about the grounds, sitting in on lectures, and having a simply splendid time, while the National Endowment for the Arts supplied a generous stipend.

This year, she applied to several more similar programs, and was accepted to a weeklong seminar/tour of historic sites in MONTANA.  Since her lodging costs were included in the grant, she graciously asked me to come along, to share the driving, and to amuse myself during the daylight hours while she absorbed Montanania with her colleagues.

Having driven myself to the brink of penury by recent construction, home appliance and miscellaneous expenses, I jumped at the change for a change of scene.  As we drove north, so as to drop off our eight-year-old daughter at her older sister’s home in Council Bluffs, Amanda even let me stop at three or four Missouri streams, so that I could add three new counties to my quest to discover Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in all 115 of Missouri’s counties (plus the independent city of Saint Louis).  Fifty-three down, sixty-two to go.

After spending the night in Council Bluffs, we began working our way northward.  The year’s flooding had closed I-29, so we were forced to cross the Missouri River into Omaha, then snake our way up the west bank, before popping back into Iowa at Sioux City.  Every since reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, I’ve been fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition, and had wanted to visit the gravesite of Sergeant Floyd in Sioux City.  Sergeant Floyd was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the journey (probably of appendicitis), and Corporal Sims wanted to pay his respects.  I envisioned a small, lonely marker, perched on a bluff high above the Missouri.

Amanda at the Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, Iowa

The Sergeant Floyd Memorial looks like the bloody Washington Monument!  It’s huge, and marks the second resting place of the sergeant.  When the river began to change course, and threatened to wash away the original gravesite, his remains were removed about 200 yards landward, and reburied under this magnificent obelisk.  Well worth the detour.

Well, we cut across a small corner of Wyoming, and Amanda let me play in ONE little stream, just so I could say I’d captured an odonate in Wyoming.  Then, on into South Dakota.  Throughout the long drive through that state, I often expressed my appreciation to the South Dakota farmers who obviously provide a good portion of the corn and wheat that I enjoy.  But WHAT do these folks do in the wintertime??  Usually the towns were fifty or sixty miles apart, and then offered little more than a post office and a convenience store.  Must get MIGHTY lonely out there, on those treeless plains, with the snow drifting up to your rooftop.  I have to admit that the scenery in the Great State of South Dakota soon became a trifle monotonous.

We spent the night at a cool little 1950s-style “motor lodge” just outside Badlands National Park.  Amanda gave me the option of taking a detour, so that I could see another fifty or sixty miles of “badlands”.  I demurred.  A little badlands is quite enough for me.  We raced on to the Little Bighorn National Battlefield, listened to a great talk by one of the Park Service rangers, then took the very short walk up the hillside which marked Custer’s “Last Stand”.  This is the area where Custer and his surviving men shot their horses, to provide cover, before they were ovverrun and killed.  The “last stand” area is FAR smaller than you thought it was, and white cenotaphs mark the place where each man fell.  I’d say it’s about the size of an average suburban front yard, and the area is fenced off.  (Recently, the NPS has placed red granite markers at the place where each of the Indian warriors is known to have fallen, as well.  There are no red markers on the last stand hill.)

The bodies of Lt. Col Custer, some of the other officers, and a couple of the civilian casualties were removed from the battlefield, and reburied elsewhere–Custer at West Point.  The remaining casualties from the Seventh Cavalry were buried together atop the hill, under a modest memorial stone.

On through Montana.  Montana is undescribably (or should that be “indescribably”?) beautiful.  Although the daytime temperatures were in the mid-90s, we could see snow on the tops of the nearby peaks.  Amanda’s first night was spent in Bozeman, where her workshop commenced.  Bozeman’s a great-looking place, and we drove through the deserted Montana State Universitycampus, which I’d recommend to ANYONE.  The following night, her group stayed in Virginia City.  Virginia City, a small hamlet, has a dearth of hotel accomodations, so I was unable to join her there.  Instead, Dobby (The Best Dog In The World) and I drove around on Monday, hoping that we’d be able to drive to the top of one of the +10,000-foot mountains, to see if we could survive the altitude.  Few of those crags are provided with roads, however, so we contented ourselves with a trip to a lake south of Bozeman, where we managed to snag a few damselflies at 6700 feet. 

Camping, Montana style

We then made our way to the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, where we spent $23 to sleep on the ground in our tiny backpacker’s tent.  As I approach the beginning of my seventh decade, the ground seems to have become noticeably harder.

On then, to Butte.  Amanda was required to take the tour bus from town to town, so Dobby and I filled our days with bug-hunting and such, then met up with her at each night’s motel stop.  We got to Butte a couple of hours before the scholars arrived, and noticed that the streets were being blocked off for some sort of festival.  Turned out that the next day was the beginning of the Tenth Annual Evel Knievel Days, to celebrate the life of one of Butte’s most noted citizens.  Knievel, who died three or four years ago, is remembered for his daredevil feats which involved jumping his motorcycle over cars, obstacles, and MOST of the Snake River Canyon.  Many of the folks who were arriving to set up exhibits seemed to know each other, and I walked over to introduce myself to the Cannon Lady, who turned out to live in the town of Bolivar, Missouri, only about an hour from my home.  She was busy setting up her apparatus so that she could be shot from a cannon repeatedly during the festivities.  I poured a frosty adult beverage into a plastic cup, and perched on a concrete barricade to watch the activity.

Soon, a van rolled up, and a couple got out.  They were immediately surrounded by many of the other folks, with lots of hugging and picture-taking.  One couple was from England, and always fly over each July for the event.  Two guys had driven all the way from Conway, Arkansas, just for the weekend.  Another guy owns the Batmobile, and usually displays it, while he stands around in costume, signing autographs.  He’d left the car at home this year.  Other daredevils were setting up “Barrel of Death” cycle rides and the like.  I wandered over to the newly-arrived couple, who quickly introduced themselves.  Bob Gill was, perhaps, Evel Knievel’s greatest competitor.  He originally was a motorcycle racer, but began daredevil jumping in 1970, and may be remembered for the Super Bowl commercial in the early 70s, when he jumped his motorcycle over the entire fleet of Ryder rental trucks.  His girlfriend, Chantal Boccaccio, had flown in from California to join him at his home in nearby Billings.

George (l.), with Daredevil Legend Bob Gill and Chantal Boccaccio

Well, this was a most sociable lot, and we adjourned to the bar of the historic Finlen Hotel, where Amanda found us shortly afterward.  She soon fell in with the other daredevils, and we adjourned to the M&M Cigar Bar, which Amanda claims has been open continuously, 24 hours a day, for over 100 years.  According to her, Jack Kerouac visited the place during his travels which led to On The Road, a book which spectacularly underwhelms me.

After awhile, we wandered down the street to a recommended steakhouse, arriving just as they were closing for the evening.  Back to the M&M for a meal, and a fine old time.  We talked a bit about Bob’s career, and he said that his records for jumping cars on a motorcycle still stands.  He referred me to his website, www.bobgilldaredevillegend.com, which contains lots of pictures and stories from his four year career, which began in 1970, and ended in a spectacular crash in 1974, which left him paralyzed and without use of his legs.

Amanda headed out to Helena, the state capital, on Thursday morning.  Dobby and I slept in until nine, then headed north, catching bugs in two lakes and a stream, before driving into town.  At this very moment, 3:20 PM, Mountain Daylight Time, Amanda’s off on a walking tour of Historic Helena with her colleagues, while I sit in the Holiday Inn parking lot, Dobby asleep at my side, awaiting her return.

Probably chase a few more damselflies tomorrow, while Amanda finishes up her education.  Then, on Saturday, southward, maybe through a bit of Idaho, then east through Wyoming and Nebraska, catching bugs at a VERY few sites before picking up Susan and heading home.  I sure miss her.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever get back to Montana.  I’m sure glad I came.

(Note from George:  Since I wrote this post in 2011, we returned to Montana and Wyoming, looked around again, and will be moving to Wyoming in summer 2013.)

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