Sheridan was our second stop in Wyoming, after Sundance and Devils Tower National Monument. Peter D’s RV park, just outside of town, had a big fenced-in dog park and even bigger open field where we could let the dogs off leash. Wyoming had fulfilled our expectations so far with its wide open spaces.
While Chris got some work done, I took the kids to a historic house built in 1913 by John B. Kendrick, the orphaned son of Texas pioneers who became a successful rancher and eventually governor of the young state of Wyoming. I wasn’t sure how much the kids would get out of Trail End, but they enjoyed having the place to ourselves to explore, especially the “Open Me” signs posted on a few cabinets – and an elevator door which hid a prohibition-era bar. Almost all of the materials for the Flemish revival style mansion (the only example of its kind in Wyoming!) were shipped in by train: Montana granite, Michigan oak woodwork, Kansas brick, Vermont and Italian marble. I always find it interesting to see this kind of luxury in the Wild West, compared to an established society like Newport, Rhode Island where one Gilded Age “cottage” outdoes the next.
Since it was already mid-September we didn’t want to risk traveling all the way north to Glacier National Park, but still had to see some of Montana, another new state for us. On our way from Sheridan to Billings we stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about this famous battle site beyond the name, and that it was “Custer’s Last Stand”. I didn’t realize that it was also the last stand for the Native Americans’ in their efforts to preserve their independence from US government-run reservations, nor that the death and defeat of Lt Col George Armstrong Custer, a Civil War hero, was such shocking news on the East Coast.
We first encountered Custer when we spent a great week in the South Dakota town named after him. In 1874 he was ordered to make an exploration of the Black Hills, which were inside the Great Sioux Reservation. When gold was discovered, the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which granted the Black Hills to the Sioux, were quickly disregarded. Conflicts escalated between the increasing numbers of settlers and the Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as well as independent bands of hunters and warriors, who had never accepted the reservation system.
The situation was passed off to the military after an ultimatum issued by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for all Sioux to report to the reservation went unanswered. You can read fascinating details here. Ultimately, the 7th Cavalry under Custer’s lead was cornered and killed in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This great victory for the Sioux and Cheyenne was short lived, as the Army quickly retaliated. Within a year most “hostiles” had surrendered to reservations, and the Black Hills were taken by the US government without compensation.
The Little Bighorn Visitor Center had compelling exhibits about the history leading up to the historic 1876 battle, with personal stories and memorabilia about the leaders and young fighters on both sides. We walked up the hill where the final battle took place, and where the survivors of the 7th US Cavalry returned a couple days later to bury their fallen fellow soldiers.
The landscape was wide open in all directions: rolling hills covered in long golden grasses that bent and waved in the wind. It was beautiful and austere, and powerful to imagine the carnage that happened here, as well as its place in the longer arc of US history.
Perhaps ironically our next stop was a KOA campground, where teepees are available to rent in many locations. Kampgrounds of America is the largest system of private campgrounds in the world and we were staying at their very first site, in Billings, Montana. The kids were disappointed because the pool was already closed, and the weather (ok, and parents) didn’t let mini golf happen. But the best part about the campground for me was its stunning location on the Yellowstone River, where we took long walks and let the dogs run loose. That, and the laundry room housed in a cute little cabin.
A small National Monument nearby provided a great opportunity to reconnect with Lewis and Clark. During the return journey of the Corps of Discovery, after successfully reaching the Pacific Ocean, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to split up in Montana. Clark and his party traveled the Yellowstone River, where they encountered a prominent sandstone butte that Clark called “Pompey’s Tower” (later changed to Pompeys Pillar), after his nickname for Sacagawea’s toddler son. What is remarkable about the spot is that Clark carved his name into the rock. While Lewis & Clark’s expedition from 1804 to 1806 spanned 8,000 miles and led to the Western expansion of the US, this carving is the only physical evidence left from the entire journey.
After enjoying the excellent Visitor Center, we took a short walk along the banks of the Yellowstone River and then up the wooden staircase built into the side of the butte. It was impressive to see Clark’s signature from 1806, to take in the panoramic view from the top of the Pillar and imagine what William Clark, Sacagawea, and the rest of their party saw when they stopped here over 200 years ago.
We got to explore another beautiful park nearby, Pictograph Caves State Park. Set in a box canyon, paved paths led up and around the sheer canyon walls to two large, shallow caves. The pictographs themselves weren’t very easy to spot (the Visitor Center provides detailed images), but it was still fascinating, and a stunning natural setting that we had all to ourselves.
We had one more destination before heading into Yellowstone. With a charming downtown, fantastic science museum, and a huge dog park with breathtaking views, Bozeman, Montana was quickly added to the list of towns that I fantasize about living in, despite our brief visit.
Next up: Spectacular Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I may have cried.