Glacial Peaks, Alpine Creeks, Gunslingers and Gold Miners: How the West Was Lost

Little Bighorn Battlefield

Little Bighorn Battlefield

These hushed woods once echoed with the rumble of rickety wagons chock full of gold ore. Mining towns, never built to last, set as stunning jewels in precarious mountain slopes, endure.  Just as the spirit of the rugged individuals who carved  communities in the wilderness, endures.

Tilted rock formed deep within the earth eons ago, panoramic and picturesque. Landscapes of granite. Postcards of stone.

By day, the Yellowstone River’s mist on our skin. Bugling elk, mountain goats wary of our intrusion.

By night, glittering constellations over velvety backdrop.

Dipping our feet in an icy alpine creek after a long arduous climb.  And down, we still must traverse. Brief respite by a hidden glacial waterfall; we must be the first, ever to have found this slice of heaven on Earth. We must.

Motoring from sea to shining sea. Mapping out the adventures, the sites, the magnificence. It is breathtaking and we  have a sense of can-we-really-be-here about the whole adventure.

Snapping picture after picture. Until our memory card is filled with nearly eight hundred of them. Holding and immortalizing the hikes, the sites, the signs, the history, the starts, the stops. The drenching rain on an Old Faithful evening, the sun illuminating Abe’s face on a Mt Rushmore afternoon, the playful splashing on a rocky Pacific morning.  And, oh yeah: The rocks. When your hubby is a rock hound, a geologist through and through, the roadside outcroppings are a marvel. We take it in too, as well as the sometimes lengthy science lessons. We learn and we love.

The Moments.

Building  campfires,  creating marshmallow s’more concoctions. In these eight thousand miles and seventeen states. Collages  of morning dew in West Glacier,  mundane interstate stops in Idaho, creekside tent pitching in the Dakotas and the just-being-togetherness on the journey.

And the stories. The hardiness of the pioneer spirit back then.  And now? Life on the range and the farm? It is a world away and out of our realm. Those quintessential cowboys and cowhands? They’re not just of song and story. Their work is hard and honest, and quite cerebral. And the children of the range? They don’t play  little league; rather, they aspire to score high roping a calf or guiding their stallions around a haybale obstacle course in Cody Wyoming.  Rodeo capital of the world.

The human drama unfolding on the prairie a century and a half ago? Across the mighty Mississippi to the Rockies.  Triumph? Or tragedy? Yes, this then one hundred year old country of ours wrote a sad chapter in our history.

Tolerance, virtuous behavior and grace demonstrated toward our fellow man? Not terribly much of that witnessed on the western frontier.

What about  our American “heroes?” The Son of the Morning Star epitomized underhandedness; he was no hero. Truth: Custer earned this Lakota nickname, silently attacking at dawn, decimating  villages of unsuspecting, sleeping, peacful people. Mothers, babies, elderly.

What’s that, some may say? He was only following orders?  Decades later, my Dad heard those echoes too, as an Army Infantryman in the Pacific Theater. In quiet, humble villages throughout the Phillipines in the 1940s, those under the flag of the rising sun were only following orders to overtake peaceful Manila.  It was heard too, throughout Europe. Those who donned the swastikas were  carrying out instructions. Nothing more. I suppose this is how some justify man’s inhumanity to man two generations removed?

            For you have been called to live in freedom, not freedom to satisfy your sinful nature, but freedom to serve one another in love.   Galatians 5:13

The Lakota Sioux have a saying:  “There is no death. There is only a change in worlds.”

Are we truly t-h-a-t different from those called ‘savages’ by the white man? By those who wished to own the land? By those who wished to rule and change? By those who thought themselves quite superior? Who came to this new land to escape brutality and suppression themselves?

And here’s a challenge:  How my husband and I respond to our nine year old, our sweet altar server and choir boy, as he states with firm conviction, “There is a special place in hell for General George Armstrong Custer!”  after touring Little Bighorn Battlefield, scene of the ‘last stand.’ The bloody rampage between the cavalry and the Plains Indians in June, 1876. And yes, the spot where Custer met his infamous demise. Just one week before our country’s bally-ho, the over the top centennial celebrations.

Truly, may God bless Anerica.

And to our twelve year old, who replies to his brother, “A special place. You got that right, dude.”

How hard it is not to just agree. Not to condemn. Very hard. At any age.

            But with you, there is forgiveness, so that we can with reverence, serve you.    Psalm 130:4

As you stand in this place and absorb  the inextricable connection of the beauty and the legends to the violence and the abuse.

As you look from the tilted battlefield monuments and the headstones in this already searingly hot Montana dawn and you see tears streaming down the faces of those around you on the ranger-led walk.  Then you realize that you, too have tears.

Because this is it. This is t-h-e cowboy and Indian show-down. This patch of grass encapsulates the West for so many the world over and draws more foreigners than Americans.  They want to live and breath it as well. Well, we live and breath the shame.

This is not your toddler playing with inch high plastic figues. Half donning colorful headdresses, wielding tomahawks. Half in spiffy painted-on cavalry uniforms, even spiffier, shiny muskets. This time it’s real and the last one standing is the one who lives.

Well, unless he wears the headress and a name honoring the Earth and then he simply wins a place in a dusty reservation. Rocky soil, unworthy of livestock. And most of his family,  gone.

Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.   Psalm 23:6

Our family journey is now in the past.

We expected the good –  visions of our America, natural history, happy snippets of time.

We expected  the bad -  occasional cheese-y tourist traps and occasional family bickering, of course.

What we didn’t expect is the ugly. That we’d come face to ugly face with our condeming selves as we dipped into these tragic pages in our American story.

What is the true ugliness here? Is it the raw mistreatment and inhumane acts or is it us? Standing in judgement?

            For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.   Psalm 86:5

Copyright 2012 Christine Capolino 

One Comment
  1. Kevin Capolino
    September 3, 2012 | Reply

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.