In a few short weeks, Harry and I are moving out of our house and becoming full-time RVers. We have been knocking this idea around for the past year or so, but taking our two-month trip out west this past spring solidified the deal.
In July, we started purging forty-eight years worth of possessions, donating, giving away, and selling 95% of everything we owned. It was both exciting and terrifying to let go of things we held near and dear to us, but it was the only way to achieve our goal of becoming full-timers.
Other than our clothing and techno stuff (laptops, iPads, etc.) we are keeping very little in the way of possessions. Harry chose to hang on to his metal detectors and a handful of fishing equipment. I opted to keep my sewing machine and my camera. Not only have we downsized, but we’ve also had to minimize some things, like our printer and shredder. The foot of our bed lifts up, and those items can be stored under the bed while we are traveling.
We sold Harry’s beloved MINI Cooper last month, and this week we’re selling our Toyota Tundra (aka our weekend mobile—it only has 56K miles). I have loved that truck for the past twelve years, and I really hate to see her go, but we simply cannot take more than one vehicle with us. We have a Jeep Cherokee that is designed to flat tow, and it is already set up with all the requisite equipment needed to tow it four wheels down. We could have kept the MINI and sold the Jeep, but the Jeep is a more practical vehicle for us. It has a tow hitch, so we can haul our bikes, and it has way more room than the MINI.
So why are we making such a drastic move at this stage of our lives? The answer is simple. We want to travel as much as we can for as long as we can, and we simply cannot afford to do that while being tethered to a house.
How do we know we’ll like our new life style? We don’t, but we are committed to trying it for a minimum of two years. After that, well, we’ll just play it by ear.
We made it home safe and sound this past Tuesday. After visiting Spearfish Canyon, we did not do any more sightseeing because it was too hot. Other than spending three nights in Bellevue, Nebraska, to visit friends, we drove straight through to Georgia, spending one or two nights in various campgrounds along the way. We had planned to stay in Nashville a few days on our way back, but I could not find a site with 50-amp service anywhere near the city. For those of you who are not RVers, you can only run one air conditioner with 30-amp service, and we have two units. There was no way we could endure the heat with only one AC unit running.
Since this was our first long trip, we learned some things that we will do differently the next time we hit the Asphalt Trail for a long journey.
Leave Harry’s drone at home. Virtually all RV parks prohibit use of drones, so we will definitely not drag it around with us next time.
Leave our portable satellite antenna and receiver at home. Harry only hooked up the satellite dish one time during our trip, but after learning from a close friend that you can no longer get local channels if you are more than 250 miles from home, we boxed up the equipment and that’s where it stayed for the rest of our trip.
Leave our metal detector at home. We stored it under the bed and never once used it.
Leave my knitting bag and supplies at home. I never once unzipped the bag the whole time we were gone.
Leave our bikes at home. In two months, we only rode them three or four times.
Don’t make reservations in advance unless it is for a national park or a holiday weekend. When our generator died, we had to cancel reservations at a state park in Missouri, and they charged us a $15 cancellation fee.
Research the climate for the area we’re visiting. I truly thought I had this one covered. We left home on April 21st. It was still cool and wet in Georgia when we left, and the weather remained cool and wet most of the time we were on the road until we reached Montana. In fact, it went down to 29° on June 2nd, the night before we left Gardiner. But once we hit I-90, the thermometer started rising and kept going up. We had planned to boondock in the Buffalo National Grasslands again, but by the time we reached South Dakota, it was in the high 80s. It was even hotter in Nebraska, with temps in the high 90s. And the flies there were horrible. They were the pitch-black, bloodsucking kind commonly referred to as stable flies, since the feed on livestock. But don’t let the name fool you. They bite humans, too. And they draw blood. One even bit Harry through his sock. I guess I need to include insects in my research for our next long trip.
Stay off I-90 at all costs. It is absolutely the roughest interstate we’ve ever driven on. I thought I-285 and I-20 West in Atlanta were bad, but I-90 takes the prize for the worst interstate ever.
Never take expense jewelry on a trip, period. I lost my engagement ring and wedding band somewhere along the way. I removed my rings several times when we were out hiking because my fingers were swollen. I normally put them in my camera bag; however, it’s possible I put the rings in one of my pockets. That’s where I usually kept the lens cover for my camera when taking pictures. When I remembered about my rings, I searched through my camera bag, but they were nowhere to be found. My spare battery for my camera was missing, too. We searched the car, the motorhome, and the pockets of both my jackets. I even removed the coin trap on my combo washer/dryer, but no luck. When we got home, we did another thorough search of the car and motorhome, but to no avail. It was a hard (and expensive) lesson to learn. Next time, I will leave all my jewelry at home, even if it’s just for a weekend trip to the lake.
And last, but not least, I don’t think I will blog on our next long trip. As much as I enjoyed researching and writing about the places we visited, it was too time-consuming. Next time, I’ll follow Harry’s lead and just post photos and brief comments on Facebook.
In closing, I would like to thank each and every one of you who took the time to read my posts. I appreciate it more than you will ever know.
Before we left Billings, one of our dear friends, Debbie, told me about some ice cream called Tillamook, which she and her husband love. Their favorite flavor is Marionberry Pie. The ice cream is marketed under the brand name Tillamook. The company is headquartered in Tillamook, Oregon. Debbie told me that Tillamook’s ice cream is not sold east of Montana. The story reminded me of the plot to Smokey and the Bandit, the 70s Burt Reynolds movie based on the premise that Coors Beer could not legally be sold east of the Mississippi.
A marionberry, in case you’re wondering, is a cross between two cultivars of blackberries. The marionberry accounts for over half the blackberry production in Oregon. It was named for Marion County, Oregon.
Since we had already planned to stop over in Bellevue, Nebraska, to visit Debbie and her husband on our way home, I decided to surprise them with some Marionberry Pie ice cream. Unfortunately, it turned out that not all stores sell the same flavors, and no one in the Billings area carried Marionberry Pie. I did, however, find some Mountain Huckleberry at Walmart and decided to give it a try. Boy, am I glad I did. It is hands down the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.
Huckleberries, which basically look like small blueberries to me, are apparently a big deal in Montana. While we were there, I saw huckleberry candles, fudge, hand cream, jam, preserves, salsa, soap, syrup, and so on. I’m surprised they didn’t sell huckleberry hamburgers and huckleberry sodas. Seriously, their adoration of huckleberries, dare I say, borders on obsession. So I suppose its no surprise that they sold Mountain Huckleberry ice cream in Montana. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. That is some seriously good ice cream.
We left Montana with two cartons of Mountain Huckleberry (okay, it was actually one and three-quarters by the time we fired up the motorhome) but alas, I had failed in my pursuit of Marionberry Pie.
The next night, while we were eating dinner in Sheridan, Wyoming, Harry brought up the Marionberry Pie conundrum. He suggested we check some of the local stores, just in case Tillamook had made it to Wyoming. I figured it was a waste of time, but got on Tillamook’s website anyway—you can search by flavor for sellers in your area—and low and behold, Albertsons, which was within spitting distance from where we sat, carried Marionberry Pie. We hotfooted it over there and purchased two containers, one for Debbie and one for her husband.
Next year, maybe I’ll talk Harry into going to Tillamook, Oregon for vacation.
We left Billings on Tuesday, and Wally Docked at the Walmart in Sheridan, Wyoming, that night. The next morning, we drove to Days End Campground in Sturgis. And yes, I know I gave them terrible reviews, but you cannot beat the price: $30 a night. Our mission for staying in Sturgis was twofold: catch up on laundry, and drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, something we had missed on our way to Montana due to inclement weather.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a 22-mile stretch of highway that snakes through Spearfish Canyon on Highway 14A in Spearfish, South Dakota. The byway begins off I-90 in Spearfish and connects to the mouth of the canyon, ending at Cheyenne Crossing outside of Lead (pronounced Leed). The paved road lining the canyon floor is built on top of an old rail bed that dates back to 1893, when the Grand Island & Wyoming Railroad Line opened Spearfish Canyon for the first time. The engineering marvel consisted of three hundred and seventy-five curves of up and down hill climbing. The line spanned thirty-three bridges to reach Spearfish from Deadwod. Shortly after its construction, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad bought the line for $2 Million.
The canyon is a deep, but narrow gorge carved by Spearfish Creek, which parallels 14A. Early European explorers found Spearfish Creek so swift and reliable they referred to it as a river, distinguishing it from some other Black Hills streams that were mere trickles by late summer. Stories the visitors heard about the Lakota people and other native peoples spearing fish in the creek gave Spearfish its name.
Towering thousand-foot-high limestone cliffs border the highway as it winds its way through the chasm. The byway offers visitors views of pristine natural wonders, including Bridal Veil Falls, which can be seen from the roadway. The name of this 60-foot waterfall stems from the shape of the water as it cascades over the edge of the steep cliff and thinly veils the limestone and other rock layers like gossamer lace.
Not far from Bridal Veil Falls, the creek has been impounded, making a small reservoir for catch and release fishing. Once you pass the fishing area, the creek starts flowing much faster. Mid-canyon, you reach the abandoned Homestake Mining Company Hydro Electric Plant No. 2, which once helped power the Homestake Mine. The Homestake Mine was a deep underground mine founded during the Black Hills Gold Rush in 1876. Over its 125-year run, which ended in 2001, the Homestead Mine produced more than 40 million troy ounces of gold.
As Spearfish bleeds into Lead, you reach the community of Savoy, home to the Spearfish Canyon Lodge and Latchstring Restaurant. The parking lot for the Roughlock Falls trailhead is just past the lodge. The overlook to the falls is also handicap-accessible by car, utilizing a gravel road that roughly borders the trail, but we braved the heat and made the one-mile hike
The tranquil setting in a side canyon makes Roughlock Falls one of the most photographed spots in the Black Hills. The falls got its name from early pioneers who had to “rough lock” their wagon wheels by attaching a chain around the rim of a rear wheel and fastening it to the wagon reach to keep the wheels from speeding out of control on the canyon’s steep grade.
The trail to Roughlock rises and falls as it meanders through the woods. A canopy of lofty pines shades most of the path, but occasionally there is a break in the trees, affording spectacular views of the nearby craggy cliffs. Colorful wildflowers and native shrubs border the well-trodden pathway. Created by Little Spearfish Creek, the waterfall plunges off a 50-foot limestone ledge in a series of spectacular cascades. A wooden viewing notch offers spectators a fairly close-up look at the falls.
After trekking back to the car, we drove across the street to Latchstring Restaurant, the parking lot for the trailhead to Spearfish Falls. The three-quarters of a mile trail descends into the canyon at a steep incline in places to reach the 47-foot waterfall, the most impressive of the three falls in the canyon.
Spearfish Falls was one of the most popular tourist stops in the canyon in the beginning of the 19th century, when a Burlington Railroad line took passengers directly over the falls. In 1917, the waterfall was actually “turned off” as water from Spearfish Creek was diverted to the nearby hydroelectric plant that helped power operations at Homestake Gold Mine up until November of 2003.
Thankfully, once the power plant closed, the water was reverted back to the creek, restoring Spearfish Falls to its former glory.
On our way back from driving the hairpin turns of the Beartooth Highway yesterday, we took a side trip to Bearcreek, the site of the Smith Mine Disaster. It was the deadliest underground coal mine disaster in Montana’s history. Bearcreek, named for nearby Bear Creek, is roughly six miles from Red Lodge on Montana Highway 308. Bearcreek owes its existence to area coal mining, which began in the 1890s. The town grew rapidly when the spur connecting the Bearcreek mines to the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1906. That same year the town was incorporated.
In November of 1942, the federal mine inspector drove from his office in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Bearcreek, to perform a long-overdue inspection of the Smith Mine. The mine had the dubious honor of being the first mine in the state to be inspected because it was purportedly the gassiest. After spending a week inspecting the mine, the inspector called a meeting with management, informing them there was too much gas in the mine. He told them they would have to get rid of everything that could ignite the gas, from cigarettes to open flame headlamps. They needed to order closed lights for every miner. Ventilation would have to be increased dramatically. And then there was the problem with coal dust, which is highly flammable. The best way to alleviate coal dust is to smother it with pulverized rock. This could be done by hand, but utilizing a rock-dusting machine was much more efficient. Given the fact that America was at war with Germany, the inspector knew that getting the new headlamps would take some time. In the meantime, he said, several times a day the foreman needed to examine every place the men who wore open helmets worked, to ensure the rooms were free from gas.
It would later be determined that the rock-dusting machine was never ordered, even though company officials claimed the order was placed in November. The electric helmets were not ordered until a few weeks before the disaster occurred, and had not yet arrived.
On Saturday, February 27, 1943, 74 miners died when an explosion ripped through Smith Mine #3. Poisonous, flammable gas had ignited in the mine, creating a series of powerful explosions. Smith Mine sloped for roughly three miles into a hillside on a gradual descent. The relatively small crew had descended at least 7,000 feet when the accident occurred. According to one newspaper report, many people around the vicinity of the mine did not even feel the massive explosion since it was so deep.
Smoke billowing from the mine entrance was the first indication of trouble. Shortly afterward, the whistle started wailing relentlessly, a very different sound from the brief whistle blast that signaled the start of each work shift. Everyone within hearing distance knew there had been an accident of some sort at the mine.
A hoisting engineer named Alec Hawthorne, one of only three men to survive the accident, stated he instantly felt the most powerful wind he’d ever experienced come up the slope, bringing flying debris with it. He ran to the nearest phone and called the office at the surface of the mine. He told them there was something seriously wrong down in the mine and that he was getting the hell out. He passed out as he started to flee.
Approximately 100 miners were pressed into service to help with the rescue operation. The first body was located that Saturday, along with three unconscious men. One of them was Alec Hawthorne. The rescuers breathed their air into the men’s lungs. All three miners regained consciousness. They were loaded onto stretchers and taken out of the mine.
Rescue crewman feared the deadly gas had penetrated the maze of tunnels and reached the entombed miners. Hundreds of men who volunteered for the rescue effort were force to wait impatiently at the mine tipple Sunday, after the poisonous air had driven other rescuers from the mine. Fans were installed to force the gas from the mine passages, but the battery of rescuers were not expected to reach the spot, 14,000 feet back in the slopping shaft where most of the victims were believed to be trapped, until late Monday night or Tuesday.
Since Saturday, two dead and three injured men had been removed from the mine, and the bodies of four other miners had been located. Women and children waited fearfully as rescue workers staggered through the warren of Montana’s largest coal mine in search of the missing miners.
Fourteen skilled rescue workers from the big copper mines in Butte flew to the scene by plane. The rescuers, equipped with oxygen masks, were able to stay down in the mine for as long as six hours, but they were hindered since they were unfamiliar with the Smith Mine. Additionally, six helmet men were rushed to Bearcreek from the copper mines in Butte Sunday afternoon by a highway patrol car.
Helmet men were trained to use bulky self-contained oxygen tanks. The huge pieces of headgear allowed the men to work for long periods in toxic conditions. The helmet men repaired the ventilation shaft and created new air routes so that toxic gas could be blown out and fresh air brought in. The local Bearcreek men had been entering the mine without any protection at all. Doctors at the nearby Red Lodge emergency hospital stated that 62 rescuers suffering from exposure to mine gas had been treated there.
By Wednesday, the mine had given up 20 of its 74 dead. The bodies were wrapped in canvas and tied to boards by rescue workers. Later, they would be brought out by the mine’s electric train. Victims were found as far as two miles from the mine’s entrance. Retrieving the bodies was a dangerous and gruesome task. One man was killed, putting the total of deaths at 75.
Bodies of all but two of the men had been found by the following Saturday. Dying messages, written in chalk on powder boxes by three of the 74 miners told a brief, grim story of waiting for the end they knew was coming. The messages were found in the last of the tunnels and passageways to be searched, along with seven bodies.
Emil Anderson’s poignant last words, which I’ve written verbatim, brought tears to my eyes when I read them: “It’s 5 min, Pass 11 o’clock. dear Agnes and children. I’m sorry we had to go this God Bless you all. Emil with lots Kiss.”
The two remaining victims were eventually found. A fifty-three-year-old bachelor had been overlooked the first time the rescuers searched the mine, but they found him on the second pass. The last man to be accounted for was the foreman, Elmer Price. His body was found the following day. Even in death, he had somehow managed to remain in the mine until all of his men were recovered.
A coroner’s inquest was held in April to determine how the men had died and if anyone was to be held liable for their deaths. The inquest was held like a trial, but instead of a judge, the county coroner presided over the hearing. Numerous witnesses were questioned and evidence examined. After all the testimony had been given, the jury deliberated for more than six hours. Their final conclusion was that the men had died due to concussion and gas poisoning caused by the gas and dust explosion, but they failed to blame anyone for the disaster. I am incredulous that the company was not held accountable for the accident, that they had in fact gotten off scot-free.
It was later determined that company officials never ordered the rock-dusting machine that would smother the coal dust, even though they claimed an order had been placed the previous November. The electric lamps were not ordered until a few weeks before the explosion occurred and had not yet arrived.
The Smith Mine, which reopened a few months after the disaster, closed two months later due to financial problems. In June of 1953, Montana Coal and Iron closed its doors for good. Not a single one of the women widowed by the Smith Mine Disaster ever received a dime from the company.
A granite monument that honors the victims of the Smith Mine Disaster stands in the Bearcreek Cemetery. The United Mine Workers of America erected the memorial in 1947. The cenotaph stands on a low, stepped concrete base and is etched with SMITH MINE DISASTER and the date of the disaster. The names of each of the 75 men who perished are carved on the monument.
The state of Montana razed most of the buildings from Smith Mine #3, but some still remain, the rusted derelicts a constant reminder of the horrific tragedy that occurred there.
After ten days in Gardiner, we said our goodbyes yesterday and started our long trek back to Georgia. It was the first time during our entire trip that I did not want to leave the place we stayed. Maybe it was because I knew we were leaving to go back home, or maybe it was simply because I fell in love with Gardiner. It is not the prettiest town I’ve ever visited, but there is something about the tiny hamlet that draws you in and makes you want to be a part of the community.
Since we missed the Beartooth Highway while we were in Gardiner, we decided to spend a couple of days in Billings, MT. We are staying at the Billings Village RV Park close to I-90, so we’ll be making the scenic drive from the eastern terminus in Red Lodge, instead of the western terminus in Cooke City. The highway begins and ends in Montana, but a large portion lies within the northwest corner of Wyoming.
Clearing the highway is a monumental task that takes about eight weeks to complete. Crews install snow poles along the edges of the road each fall as a guide for the following spring, when the road is blanketed in up to 30 feet of snow. When the poles become buried or knocked down during the Beartooths’ harsh winters, determining the location of the roadbed is often a matter of experience. The dozen or so members of the plowing crew use Snowcats equipped with plows to shave the top layers of snow until the heavier blades can begin punching through the denser, compacted layers underneath. Behind those massive snowplows, equally massive snow blowers churn through the ridges of snow to push them off the road.
This morning we drove to Red Lodge to begin our trek on what has been heralded as one of the most scenic drives in America The 68-mile stretch of road affords stunning views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, climbing to an astounding 10,947 feet above sea level.
In June 13, 2002, the Beartooth Highway earned the prestigious designation of All-American Road. To receive this designation, a road must possess characteristics of national significance in at least two of the following intrinsic qualities:
According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The road or highway must also be considered a ‘destination unto itself.’ That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip.”
I guess they’re right. We did spend two nights in Billings for the sole purpose of driving the Beartooth Highway, after all.
As you leave the valley floor, the road snakes up the mountainside in a series of tight turns and switchbacks, passing snowbanks 15 to 20 feet high in some places. There is a ski area on top of the Beartooth Plateau near the summit. Two Poma lifts deliver skiers to the top of a steep headwall. It’s strange to see people snow skiing in June.
At the top of the pass, the temperature was in the thirties. The wind was so strong it kept whipping the hood of my jacket off my head. I finally gave up and pulled on my knit cap. The snow was so deep the picture I took of the sign that marks the top of the pass did not capture the elevation from my vantage point. However, there was a very nice man standing in the bed of his truck snapping pictures who offered to take a photo for me. He had no idea how much that meant to me, since I had just carved my late son and late grandson’s initials into the snowbank near the sign. I know they will be gone in a month or two, when the temperatures warm up enough to melt the snow off the summit, but that memory is etched in my brain in inedible ink.
Yesterday we had a cold snap here in Gardiner. It rained most of the day. The high was 48 and the low was 32. Tonight the low is supposed to be 27. Being a born and bred southerner, it’s hard to wrap my head around temperatures in the 20s and 30s in June.
We had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway today— a National Scenic Byways All-American Road that winds its way through southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming. Unfortunately, it snowed in the higher elevations last night so the pass was closed. The irony is the Beartooth Highway just opened for the season yesterday. Traditionally, it opens on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend—this year the opening was delayed until June 1st this year because there was so much snow on the Wyoming side of the pass.
Plan B was to drive the 47-mile Chief Joseph Scenic Byway on Wyoming Hwy 296. The route runs between the Beartooth Highway (US-212) near Cooke City, MT, and Highway 120, north of Cody, WY. The Beartooth Mountains and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River lie to the north of the road, and the Absaroka Mountains and North Absaroka Wilderness are to the south.
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after Chief Joseph, the chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Indians. Chief Joseph’s given name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. He was born in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley, in what is now northeastern Oregon.
Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain was widely known as Joseph or Young Joseph. His father had taken the Christian name Joseph after missionary Henry Spalding baptized him. Young Joseph’s father was one of the first Nez Perce people to convert to Christianity.
When white settlers started moving into the area, Young Joseph’s father was initially hospitable to the newcomers. However, he grew wary when they demanded more Indian land for farming and grazing livestock. In 1855, the governor of the Washington Territory organized a council to designate separate areas for natives and settlers. The elder Joseph and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed the Treaty of Walla Walla with the United States, establishing a Nez Perce reservation encompassing 7,700,000 acres in present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The Nez Perce maintained much of their traditional lands, including the Wallowa Valley.
In 1863, gold was discovered on land covered under the treaty, attracting an influx of new settlers. Government commissioners tried to convince the Nez Perce to accept a new, much smaller reservation of 760,000 acres situated around the village of Lapwai in western Idaho Territory. In exchange, they were promised financial rewards, schools, and a hospital for the reservation. Chief Lawyer, a leader of the Nez Perce, and one of his allied chiefs signed the treaty on behalf of the Nez Perce Nation. The elder Chief Joseph and several other chiefs were opposed to selling their lands and did not sign the treaty.
The elder Chief Joseph died in 1871, and Young Joseph was elected to take his father’s place. The new chief led his band of Nez Perce during the most turbulent period in their history, when the United States government forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands onto a reservation in the Idaho Territory. Like his father before him, Chief Joseph, along with fellow Nez Perce leaders, Chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, balked at the relocation plan. In 1873, a federal order to remove white settlers and let Chief Joseph’s band remain in the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful in retaining his lands. But the federal government soon reversed its decision, and in 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph’s band and other holdouts onto the reservation. Believing military resistance was futile, Joseph reluctantly led his people toward Idaho.
Sadly, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Perce warriors, infuriated at the loss of their homeland, staged an attack on nearby settlements, killing several people. The army began to pursue Joseph’s band and the others who had not moved onto the reservation. Although he had opposed war, Joseph aligned himself with the war leaders.
Over the course of the next four months, Chief Joseph and his 700 member band of men, women, and children, embarked on a 1,400-mile march toward Canada, seeking asylum from persecution by the U.S. government. Only 200 of Chief Joseph’s followers were warriors. None the less, the journey included several impressive victories against a U.S. force that numbered more than 2,000 soldiers.
Joseph led his band through Yellowstone Park eastward into the Absaroka Mountains. From the Absarokas, the Indians searched for a route to the Great Plains. However, the U.S. Army had anticipated that the Nez Perce would attempt to break out of the mountains onto the Plains and had stationed *General Samuel D. Sturgis and 600 cavalry near the base of the mountains to intercept the Indians. Sturgis’s forces were strategically placed where they could move quickly south or north toward known trails along the Clarks Fork Canyon. Unfortunately, Sturgis failed to take into account the Clarks Fork exit from the mountains, believing it would be impossible to pass through the lower several miles of Clarks Fork, as it was a narrow canyon with vertical walls.
On September 8, 1877, the Nez Perce reached Dead Indian Pass, about six miles from Sturgis’s force on the Plains below. Their advance scouts observed the soldiers far below awaiting their appearance. They evaded capture by sneaking back north and traversing Dead Indian Gulch down to the Clark’s Fork River, taking Dead Indian Gulch, a narrow, steep-sided slit in the rock that dropped almost vertically for 1,000 feet and was barely wide enough for two horses to go side-by-side.
But the retreat took its toll on the group. By the fall of 1877, Chief Joseph and his people were exhausted. They had come within 42 miles of the Canadian border, reaching the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, when the U.S. army finally cornered and defeated the Nez Perce at the Battle of Bear Paw.
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is open year-round. The road closely follows the path taken by the Nez Perce as they fled the U.S. Calvary in 1877. Several historical and interpretative signs along the road provide more information about the flight of the Nez Perce. The road passes through a series of picturesque valleys surrounded by craggy forested hills. There are countless twists and turns as the road rises and falls as you slowly make your way to the 8,061 foot summit at Dead Indian Pass.
The are two schools of thought as to the origin of the name “Dead Indian Pass.” The first refers to the Nez Perce flight in 1877. A member of the Nez Perce band was supposedly killed near the pass. The second theory is that in 1878, Colonel Nelson A. Miles and his soldiers encountered a group of Bannock Indians. The Crow Indian scouts killed a Bannock and buried him at the top of the pass.
As I’ve researched the places we’ve visited in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, I cannot help but notice that the government’s seizure of Indian lands seems to be a common theme, especially where gold is concerned. If you’ll recall, this is the same thing that happened to land they had been ceded to the Indians in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The treaty stated that the Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills. The government later reneged on the treaty after gold was discovered in the region in 1874. The U.S. government issued an order to the Indian agencies that all Indians return to the designated reservations by January 31, 1876, or be deemed hostile. The improbability of getting that message to the hunters, coupled with its rejection by many of the Plains Indians, made confrontation inevitable.
I don’t know about you, but I would fight back too, if someone tried to take my land.
*Sturgis, SD, home of the annual motorcycle rally, attended by 480,000 people in 2017, was named for General Samuel D. Sturgis. General Sturgis’s twenty-two-year-old son, Lieutenant James G. Sturgis, was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn. His remains were never identified.