Bicentennial Summer: Big Hole National Battlefield

Big Hole Battlefield: Online Photo

Big Hole Battlefield: Online Photo

For thirty-six days we rode our bicycles from Portland, Oregon, to Indianapolis, traveling in reverse over routes explored by the Lewis and Clark expedition and half a century later by 400,000 pioneers on the Oregon Trail. At 44 years of age, I was the senior member of our threesome; my daughter, Sharon, recently graduated from college, and Paul, the son of a seminary classmate and an elementary school teacher near Indianapolis, were my companions on this 2,600-mile journey.

On our bicycles we carried clothes, personal items, tents, sleeping bags, tools, and a little food—a total of about thirty pounds each. Not counting our five rest days, we averaged 85 miles a day, despite daytime temperatures often approaching 100 degrees, mountain passes as high as 9,600 feet, heavy traffic, and a little rain.

For the western half of our journey we often were surrounded by many other cyclists, since a recently formed company—BikeCentennial—had developed a 4,200 TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and inspired 4,100 people to celebrate the American Bicentennial Anniversary by bicycling across the country. After riding through Yellowstone Park, we developed our own route for the rest of the journey.

I kept a journal, which for the most part records the externalities of the trip. Shortly before we started, I had bought a new camera, but I set it incorrectly and at the end of the trip discovered that most of the photos were seriously overexposed and so the visual record is sparse.

July 4, 1976, was a Sunday, and I had hoped to attend church that day to give thanks for the heritage of our land. Our camp site on Saturday, July 3, however, was in a public park near the summit of Chief Joseph Pass in western Montana, far from any town or church. On the great day, we cycled to the top of the pass where we encountered a band of cyclists, all of them young men about the same age as Sharon and Paul, who had reached the pass by cycling up another trail that came from a different direction.

Later in the morning, most of us stopped at Big Hole National Battlefield. Instead of celebrating our nation’s heritage of freedom in a church, we sat in the amphitheater overlooking the battlefield. A park ranger displayed a video describing the battle that had taken place there in 1877. There had been a decades-long struggle between the United States government and the Nez Perce Indians who were the long-time residents of this region. As often happened in these conflicts, there had been a history of friendly relations, treaties, broken treaties, military skirmishes, and outright military conflict. Chief Joseph had finally decided that their cause was hopeless and he had inspired a significant body of his people to flee to Canada where they would be safe.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 9, 1877, U. S. armed forces swept down upon the sleeping camp of men, women, and children. By the time the smoke cleared on August 10, almost 90 Nez Perce were dead along with 31 soldiers and volunteers. Big Hole National Battlefield was created to honor all who were there. Later, Chief Joseph made this declaration:

“I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

After watching the video, we enjoyed a 30-mile downward sweep to Wisdom, Montana, where we ate lunch in a mosquito-infested restaurant and watched and listened to Walter Cronkite’s narration of the tall ships coming into New York Harbor. As we continued across the country, however, visiting many places that depict the glories of our nation, the tragic aspects of our history continued with me.

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2 Responses to Bicentennial Summer: Big Hole National Battlefield

  1. jacbikes says:

    I’m catching up on your blogs now that I am not on my bike tour! This brought back good memories of your trip with Sharon & Paul, which I remember your talking about at the time. It also brought back strong memories of Guy’s & my visit to Big Hole National Battlefield & then cycling over Chief Joseph Pass as we headed west on the TransAmerica trail in 2012. I remember how sad I felt in watching the video, learning the ignominious history of that tragic site, & reading the wrenching words of Chief Joseph. Unfortunately, it seems that our nation’s endemic racism from our beginnings is rearing its head again, both in the current presidential campaign & in recent violence. Here’s hoping & praying for greater progress in justice, equality & reconciliation! Thanks for sharing your memories!

    • Joe, I’m revising an account of that trip 40 years ago. It is bringing back lots of memories. I hope to drive over this route when my grandson and I drive my car to Indianapolis later in the summer. Keith

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