After I failed to fight off an uninvited wet tongue kiss, Rambler’s rank dog drool smeared across my face reaching the trickles of sweat flooding down my face and dripped into my ear before I could catch it.
Jammed into the back of a 1969 Willy’s Jeep between my big brothers, big sister, two dogs, the camping equipment, luggage, and a cooler full of plain bologna sandwiches “for the road” that were already flattened like pancakes under two cases of Schlitz Beer, was I, “Baby Cyndi”, an eight year old little girl with absolutely no say in the entire matter whatsoever. We hadn’t even backed out of the driveway and I already felt like a hostage.
Flash forward to what feels like a hundred years. Chugwater, Wyoming was now over a day’s driving behind me and already felt like a distant memory. I had finally crossed the Montana border and there was no denying I was running out of steam. My back and neck ached, my right butt cheek had lost all feeling back in Oklahoma, and I was fighting the urge to pull my car over and hitchhike just so somebody else had to drive. I was crossing The Crow Indian Reservation that had over the years, become a dumping ground and a total disgrace; it truly saddened me. Things had really changed for the worse over the years and my mind wandered back to when I was a little girl crossing this same Indian Reservation in the back of an old broken down 1969 Willy’s Jeep. Soon my little orange scion, aka my “little orange bullet”, was driving itself. I was still lost in my daydream drifting back to that scorching hot day so long ago, yet not forgotten.
It was the dead of summer and our “cross-country family vacation” from Montana to rural Wisconsin where my cousins lived had begun. That particular year mom and dad had tried to convince us kids, that this year, it was going to be more exciting because along the journey, we were all going to learn how the Wild West was settled, and “wouldn’t that be fun?”
All we kids really wanted was ice cream and to hatch an escape plan. My butt cheeks felt like that had melted into the hot black vinyl seats, We were going to take the old Willy’s Jeep dad and my big brother had rebuilt to “Good as new!” Since the best I could gather, it was held together with duct tape and bubble gum, I was transfixed on the likelihood of me surviving the next 1300 miles; there was no denying, the outcome looked bleak at best.
I was only eight years old and I already knew my parents were full of crap. Even I knew this whole “family vacation” was a carefully hatched plan for the block of time between when we kids would have finished picking the beans and peas in our huge country garden, and bean and pea picking season in Wisconsin. It was just an excuse for mom to see my aunt, and for my dad to “go fishing” which was code for slamming down Schlitz all day, while us kids picked another whole garden of beans and peas in smoldering heat, and we all knew it! That is just how life goes for a country girl. The reward was going to the county fair when we were finished, and at the age of eight, it was a price worth paying.
We weren’t to the end of our dirt road yet, and I was already contemplating the pros and cons of simply jumping out of the back window to fend for myself. I doubted anyone would even notice until they pulled my siblings out of the back of the jeep a week or so later like bodies being pulled off a covered wagon just like back in the Old Wild West.
As soon as dad reached 15mph, the long strains of drool hanging from the dog’s loose lips took flight with great abandon and began to hurl around the back seat like a snapped electric cord in a hurricane. Nobody was spared.
The first stop was six hours away; twelve to twenty hours if you count the old Willy’s Jeep breaking down on the side of the highway every 150 miles. Finally, dad pulled the jeep up in front of a roadside historical marker in front of a big empty field, three whole miles off the highway, and out of our way. Any extension whatsoever, to the driving distance, gave me anxiety. My stomach knotted up when he didn’t pull into the very first gas station when we exited for gas. So six miles roundtrip added to the trip was unacceptable. I grumbled to myself, “This better be good!”
By then all of us kids were fighting with each other and covered in dog spit. My mom, who was a schoolteacher for twenty-five years before she retired, and ignoring the bloodshed in the back seat, read the entire historical marker aloud while we groaned in agony and punched each other. Then she said gently “Now children, close your eyes. I am going to tell you the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the biggest battle in The Great Sioux War. It happened on your brother’s birthday June 25 in the year 1876. Are you ready? Are your eyes closed?”
With all sincerity, she continued, “Good, now children, imagine Lieutenant Colonel George Custer made the terrible decision to force his 7th Calvary Regiment into this battle because it was the soldier’s duty to fight, and because he was a vainglorious arrogant fool who thought he was invincible. His army was made up of 700 soldiers from twelve companies on foot and horseback. Imagine what they were thinking coming over that big hill and just as they round the hilltop they discover to their horror, they are outnumbered by a combined force of several thousand Indian Warriors led by among other Chiefs, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall; all very angry Indians. It is said they were inspired by visions of Sitting Bull. I would guess it was also said by the surviving soldiers that following Custer’s orders was a huge mistake.
As she reached her grand finale, she added dramatically, “Now open your eyes! Look ahead at the big hill in front of you and imagine Custer’s battalion being massacred. When it was over the field was blanketed with the bloody bodies of several hundred 7th Cavalry soldiers and only 31 Indian warriors. Almost a hundred soldiers lay screaming in pain and covered in blood. By the time it was over, Custer was killed, five of his twelve companies were annihilated. Not to mention two of his brothers, a brother in law and his nephew were also killed. It was an overwhelming victory for the Indians and remains the most famous American Indian battle. Can you imagine that children? Now open your eyes and try to see it.”
Then in a serious tone, she went on, “I hope this teaches you, my children, to pay close attention to the leaders you choose to follow in life. A person may act as if he or she knows everything, it does not mean they actually do! Never feel like you have to follow the crowd, nor a leader you know is an idiot just like Custer. You, four kids, were blessed with brains, use them”. Even thru my heat stroke and misery, I remember looking closely at my mom’s eyes while she spoke. Her unwavering determination to make cake out of a mud pie never escaped me.
My dad, cracking a cold Schlitz, sat staring off into the distance. He didn’t say a word.
About a half-mile down the road we came upon a huge dilapidated Indian Teepee painted red, white and blue and setting all by itself in a field in the middle of nowhere. Outside there was a hand-painted sign, and like the teepee itself was badly worn from years in the sun. The sign read CHEAP SOUVENIRS spelled incorrectly and attached to it were barely inflated balloons hanging limply by a string. The Teepee looked like it belonged in a carnival. It goes without saying the back seat erupted in passionate pleas begging to “STOP DAD! LET US OUT, PLEEEEASE!!”
I suppose my curiosity for the bizarre was just in my blood from the start.
Waiting for me inside the teepee after I stepped through the big flap, was a whole new world. Four folding tables were covered with arts and crafts handcrafted by the local Indian Tribes. Carefully crafted turquoise jewelry, blankets, wood carved statues of Warrior Indian Chiefs of battles won and lost, paintings, real Indian headdresses and perfectly shaped Indian heads. Not like the ones at the checkout counter at the gas station with “Made in Taiwan” stamped on the bottom either! These were genuine Indian Heads painstakingly etched out of stone by hand. There was a hand-woven basket on the ground full of skipping stones, undoubtedly collected by the children. The skipping stones were ten cents apiece. Each of us kids got to pick out our favorite to throw into the lake next to our campsite. It was like a magic Teepee full of treasures. I could have spent all day looking at all the colorful art, touching each piece gently with the tip of my little fingers, as I still tend to do, honoring and admiring it. They had to drag me out of the teepee, but it wasn’t as hard getting back into the jeep this time. Not only was it a badly needed break from the monotony and dog drool, but even better my mind was now filled with colorful headdresses and dancing drums made from buffalo hide.
These cross-country family vacations to Wisconsin would take place every summer, and there would never be a way out of it. Sometimes they would squoosh me up into the back window where I would lay horizontally across the top of the luggage for the five to seven days of non-stop driving and roadside car repairs. Every now and again someone would throw me a plain bologna sandwich over his or her shoulder. The sandwiches hadn’t improved over the years. They were still as dry as a piece of cardboard and equally as thick. When we stopped at a rest area, my dad would have to open the back window to lift me out so I could pee. Jammed up into the back window, I pretended I was in a bird’s nest, and all things considered, I preferred the bird’s nest to my big brothers and dog drool.
The one thing that never changed was the little detour, which had become an annual tradition. It always played out about the same. Looking back, I feel a little guilty for laughing at my mom while she read the marker aloud, but I couldn’t help it. It didn’t take a grown up to see the craziness of it. I wish I had a photo of us kids crammed in together, boiling hot and rolling our eyes.
Over the many years to follow, we teased mom about Custer’s Last Battle Stand at every opportunity. We said things like, “Now mom, close your eyes and imagine Custer’s entire army following him over that hill and immediately being slaughtered and scalped because they let a dumbass lead the way. Never follow a dumbass…” and so on. Truth be told, my mom instilling into me to always think with my own head, question authority if something doesn’t feel right, and it is better to be the dumbass leader than the one following the dumbass. Well, I paraphrased a little here, but you get the gist of it.
Truth be told, every time I hear mention of Colonial Custer, my mind transports me back to that first scorching hot day when I escaped into a treasure-filled teepee after listening to my mom recount the massacre. I immediately start missing her. Well, missing her and really really wanting a dancing drum.
So all these years later, even after five days of driving non-stop from New Orleans, and three hours already on the road that morning, the very idea of driving even three miles out of the way made that old familiar anxiety return with abandon. My inner debate didn’t last long. I declared out loud to my steering wheel, “I will be damned if I am going to miss out on Custer’s Last Battle Stand, no matter how ridiculous it is!” I was going to take a selfie in front of the little roadside marker, you know, for Christmas gifts. Then I was going to see if, by any chance, the teepee still stood after all these years. I doubted the old worn teepee of my childhood could have survived, but I was crossing my fingers they kept the CHEAP SOUVENIRS teepee shop in business.
I was only three hundred miles from my mom’s house. According to my GPS that should take about five hours, which loosely translated, means about eight to twelve more hours on the road for me, including, of course, potty stops and spontaneous detours.
One of the worst self-discoveries of my life, and quite tragic for a world traveler is, as it turns out, I have a terrible sense of direction. It is a wonder I found my way home from China. On the other hand, I can read any map put in front of me, including topographical. This is a good skill to have because nobody can trick me into “going for a walk”, that includes hiking up a mountain. Nevertheless, it is the kiss of death for someone to ask me “Which way is the (fill in the blank). The strange skill I do have is retracing my steps, even years later. I have an innate ability to, for lack of a better term, feel my way back to somewhere I have once been, as long as I don’t give it much logical thought. It could be a hunting cabin in the woods, or a massage school in Bangkok where you can get an hour-long massage for two dollars, or a little hole in the wall in the middle of Cairo that makes pizzas using camel’s milk cheese. I just have to open my mind and have faith. I don’t actually know what landmarks I am looking for, but I know them when I see them, and eventually, it leads me back to that place.
By the time I drove to where I thought the exit should be. I hadn’t seen a single sign mentioning Custer’s Last Battle Stand, and my heart sank. I couldn’t find any signs directing me to the little historical roadside marker. So, I stopped trying and instead, I felt my way back to where I thought the little roadside historical marker once was.
I was shocked by what I discovered. It wasn’t that Custer’s Last Battle Stand had disappeared it was that the name had been changed! The little roadside marker had been replaced by a huge impressive version of its former self only now it read The Battle of Little Big Horn; giving the recognition to the American Indians that protected their land, and not the ‘white man’ who tried to steal it. “Well done Montana!!” I said to myself.
The sign was sitting right in front of the best Montana souvenir shop I have ever been in. It was huge and absolutely packed to the max with more authentic American Indian handcrafted goods than I have ever seen in one place, and dragging myself out of there took all of the self-control I had left in me. I had a great conversation with the young lady that was in charge of stocking the shop and gave her all the accolades she deserved for putting together such an amazing celebration of the American Indian, their history, and culture. While at the same time, providing solid income to the Indian craftsman and artists. I will return one day on a bigger budget. Until then, I purchased the most spectacular oversized straw cowboy hat ever made and left the shop bursting with Montana Pride.
After finally taking my selfie with the new huge roadside marker, I followed another sign directing me up to a big gate that read “Park Entrance”. Over the years, a huge national monument park and museum was built complete with a massive cemetery with white gravestones of both the soldiers and the Indians who lost their lives in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Covering the rolling hills beyond the cemetery they had erected gravestones depicting exactly where soldiers and Indians bodies had been found after the battle. The tradition was to bury bodies where they found them, so that was where the gravestones were set. It was an awe-inspiring scene as I looked across the rolling hills and could see the white stones blanketing the landscape far and wide. It made the battle feel very real and it was easy to imagine all of the tragic human death and devastation.
I was freezing. A winter storm was setting in and it was almost fifty degrees colder than when I left Louisiana. I could feel the shrill wind down to my bones. So I wrapped myself up in my green picnic blanket and walked around the massive memorial park, stopping to read some of the names and giving silent blessings.
It is an amazing rendition of the famous battle, paying homage and respect to both sides. I have never seen anything like it. It was hard to believe this impressive memorial park with all of its attention to detail, replaced the tiny roadside marker of my childhood. “How long have you been here?” I asked out loud to a soldier’s headstone.
There is an impressive museum and information center with maps and brochures that lead you from one area to the next knitting together the story of the battle. You can also rent headsets that give you a self-guided tour. I will leave the details and stories for you to discover and experience for the first time in person, as it should be.
There wasn’t another soul to be seen on that cold, overcast day. It was just the ghost warriors and me. Driving up the winding road I discovered statues, memorials and countless informative markers describing the battle in great detail complete with maps. There are mounds of mass graves and the hills behind are blanketed with sprawling graveyards. Over the years the markers have vastly improved and well worth reading. They are carefully placed adding an almost chilling depiction of the bloodshed. When you look up from reading and your eyes fall upon the battle field beyond, you’ll take it all in effortlessly visualizing the spectacle in vivid detail with echoes of the dying warriors sending chills down your spine.
As I stood atop the hill overlooking the whole battlefield, I decided right then that one day I would bring my mom back here. It would mean so much to me to hear her read some of the markers out loud, and watch her discover all of the so carefully placed monuments. Only this time, as she read aloud the story of Custer’s Last Battle Stand, my eyes would be wide open.
By Cynthia Stetzer©
The battle of the Little Bighorn Memorial is located near Little Bighorn River. It is located on the Crow Indian Reservation in Big Horn County, Montana east of Billings.
I am always surprised how big Indian Teepees are inside, it’s pretty cool. If you ever get a chance to check out a Teepee, you should. There are even campgrounds where you can rent a Teepee for the night. Your mind will be visualizing all the stories you’ve ever heard about American Indians. KOA Campgrounds (Kampgrounds of America), a chain of campgrounds found all over the States, is my top recommendation for campsites, especially if you are traveling in a place you’ve never been. Much like the Youth Hostel Association, in order to be certified a KOA campground, they are required to maintain very high, regulated standards. So they are always clean, safe and have good shower facilities. They often have outdoor swimming pools, so as kids we begged to stay at a KOA when camping.
You can find KOA’s everywhere and if you are lucky, you will stumble upon one that has some crazy nightly rental such as a Teepee, a real caboose, yurts, tree houses, glamping tents or even luxurious trailers for those who are sick of roughing it. At one time I might have turned my nose up at the idea of “glamping”, but let’s face it, once you’ve been spending vacations in luxurious resorts, it’s an attractive alternative to hardcore camping, but still has you out in nature. Much like I felt about Botox until I woke up on my fortieth birthday and looked in the mirror.