Big Hole to Bannock

July 6, 2002 – Saturday

Stevensville, MT to Dillon, MT

Evidently the early trappers in these parts called a valley a hole – the valley where trapper Jackson did his work was dubbed “Jackson’s Hole” or later, Jackson Hole (Wyoming).  The valley we drove through today was correctly called the Big Hole, although a rival name might have been the High Hole, considering we climbed to 6,000+ feet to reach it and dropped only a little to land in the Big Hole.

We woke in cute little Stevensville and decided to look around in the sunshine after breakfast of coffee and hot cereal (instant polenta with protein powder) laced with butter and brown sugar.  As they were in the middle of their Clark Days celebration, I expected some extra festivities, but it seemed to be business as usual – workmen toiled to refurbish a storefront (the shady side), the diner advertised prime rib and chicken, the ice cream drive-up showed moderate activity, and the variety store was plump with summer shoes, earrings, office supplies, cow de-wormer and a liquor section.  The folks running the store, mostly young people, were eager to help.  As we waffled in the booze section about what we could fit in our small-but-perfectly formed bar and would taste OK warm and sans mixer, the helpful young girl minding the section offered her advice – sweet and sour liqueur (sour apple, watermelon, etc) with 7-Up.  As refreshing as that sounded, we opted for a fifth of scotch and one of spiced rum.  Got to keep to the basics.

One building was featuring a special art exhibit and we popped inside to see pastels of local scenes, watercolors, large oils of mountain animals, and photos of east Africa.  A small framed painting of a lake surrounded by trees and hills caught my eye and the $20 price was very reasonable, but it did not seem to fit in our current lifestyle, though we almost bought an even smaller watercolor of Indian Paintbrush instead.  There was to be a “quick draw” later in the day and we promised the chap minding the show that we would try to return.

Hanging around town gave us a chance to catch up on laundry, but the chore made us arrive late for the quick draw and the artist’s renderings of a river in bold strokes with bright oil pastels were already taped to the wall when we arrived.  Unperturbed, we browsed again and drank an icy glass of pink lemonade.  As we were leaving, I bought a raffle ticket to help pay for a fellow’s lung replacement surgery, longingly stroking the handle of the attractive fly rod I knew I would not win.

It was time to hit the road and we quitted the pleasant valley to climb once again to the Great Divide.  Though the heat had been oppressive, it was suddenly overcast and cooler, for which Herb was grateful.  He pulled us stupendously up the curves right to the edge of the Idaho border, where we turned left and east to drop into the Big Hole.  Very soon we found our destination – the Big Hole Battlefield where Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce were attacked in the pre-dawn hours by the troops of the 7th Infantry.  It seemed appropriate that the sky had clouded significantly and bolts of lightening occasionally ripped through the gloom.

Pleased that our Golden Eagle pass welcomed us free to another site, we entered a building shaped like a stylized teepee which housed the lecture room, displays, artifacts, books and souvenirs.  We caught a video presentation about the history of the Nez Perce Trail from the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon to northern Montana, where it ended 40 miles short of the Canadian border that would have spelled freedom.  It was a bitter tale of broken promises and resulting conflict, murdered white settlers, forced relocations, and fleeing Nez Perce women and children killed by soldiers.  The wind howled outside the darkened room.  Through the windows, the standing poles of the teepee circle where this particular confrontation occurred could just be made out.  The backdrop of a lovely little stream and peaceful looking hills made the scene even more mournful.

That was our introduction to the Big Hole and we proceeded to drive miles through its flat ranch land.  I was awed by the size of the ranches, which were scattered miles apart on the open range edged by distant mountains.  I was sad to leave the Big Hole, but we now had the mining ghost town of Bannack was in our sights, passing it up for the night to refuel Herb and ourselves at nearby Dillon.  When we were all settled in for the evening at a park and before I crawled between our fresh, clean sheets, I opened a birthday present which Sherril had sent with Brian –  a DVD movie of “Cats”.  Very cool; I had never seen it and was sure Koko and Murph would approve, too.






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