Moved, not by mountains but by a field of brown grass
I recently toured two national parks which are renowned worldwide for the beauty of their landscapes, yet neither place made my throat swell with emotion nor my eyes sting the way that a third park did.
This despite the latter park being, by comparison, shabby in appearance and unlikely ever to grace the pages of a calendar or a coffee table book.
The scenic grandeur of the other parks — Grand Teton and Yellowstone — is beyond dispute.
I quite enjoyed gazing at the granite spire of the Grand, with its imposing precipices and the almost cartoon-like scene it paints against a backdrop of blue sky.
And the immediate and rampant volcanism of Yellowstone, this blatant evidence of the molten world that lies beneath our feet, impressed me as well.
But there is a great difference, it seems to me, between pondering the works of nature and imagining the scene behind the buffalo robes of a tipi, where two women lie dead beside a newborn whose skull has been crushed by a heavy blow.
Between the carnival atmosphere at Old Faithful, which spews on a schedule that’s scrawled on dry-erase boards outside kitsch-crammed gift shops, and a thicket of lodgepole pines where men gouged into the soil to gain meager shelter from the misguided policy of their government and the bullets that it spawned.
The third park is Big Hole National Battlefield.The site is in Southwestern Montana, a little ways west of Wisdom, which is in turn quite a distance from anywhere.
Big Hole is where, on Aug. 9-10 of 1877, a contingent of U.S. Army troops and volunteers attacked members of the Nez Perce tribe who, earlier that year, had been driven from their homeland in what today is Wallowa County.
The battle at Big Hole was one of several skirmishes during the flight of the Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph, a tragic episode that ended, nearly within sight of the Canadian border, with Joseph’s speech in which he uttered perhaps the most noble words ever associated with the sad word “surrender”:
“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.”
Of the 750 Nez Perce who had camped that early August in the willow flats beside the North Fork of the Big Hole River, about 90 were killed in the battle, including many women and children.
Among the force of 184 soldiers and volunteers, 31 died.
It was an unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war.
This hardly qualifies Big Hole as unique in the annals of combat, of course.
The story could even be construed, in that sense, as mundane.
Thousands more died at Normandy, and the Somme, and Antietam.
But Big Hole is the first battlefield I’ve ever hiked through, and I was surprised by how powerful the disgust was that I felt as I stood beside the replica tipis and looked up at the sagebrush slope down which the soldiers came.
My antipathy, though, was not for those men.
It was for the government officials who decided that evicting the Nez Perce from their beloved “land of winding waters” was not sufficient, that the people ought also to be pursued, as though they were wayward cattle, as they sought to escape to Canada rather than be confined to a reservation in the Great Plains.
That decision doomed those 31 soldiers just as surely as it did the Nez Perce who were slain at Big Hole.
I don’t mean to imply that none of the soldiers was motivated by bigotry; I’ve no doubt that some thought of the Indians as sub-humans.
But it’s also true that the men, in common with their counterparts in every war, were following orders rather than the vagaries of their own prejudices.
Those soldiers who were repelled by the prospect of attacking the Nez Perce — and some felt that way, according to the National Park Service’s pamphlet for the Big Hole battlefield — could hardly have opted out of the fight on moral grounds, after all.
It’s the inevitability of this needless battle, then, that seems to me its most depressing aspect.
Yet I think too that my powerful reaction to Big Hole was precipitated in part by the drastic contrast between the battlefield and Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, where we had been just a couple days before.
Each of the latter two, and in particular Yellowstone, epitomized the amusement park experience that I associate with the more popular national parks.
I’m no recluse, but the crowds that congregated at every major attraction in both Yellowstone and, to a lesser extent Grand Teton, began after a while to annoy me.
And by “a while” I mean about half an hour.
National Park Service statistics put this disparity in glaring contrast.
In 2009, Yellowstone attracted 3.7 million visitors, and Grand Teton 2.6 million.
Big Hole’s tally that year: 49,822.
It’s not that I begrudge the masses in their rented RVs and tour buses.
I think everyone ought to have their look at the Tetons’ jagged skyline, and to wait, in anticipation, for Old Faithful to belch its accumulated pressure.
Yet the Park Service, despite its often admirable attempts to minimize how much its tourist accouterments mar nature, can’t altogether escape the banality that creeps into any place that measures visitors in the millions.
The $6 sub sandwich and the hand-painted shot glass will not be denied, certainly.
There was no snack bar at Big Hole Battlefield, and of coffee mugs and T-shirts I saw no sign.
In the parking lot there were six cars, counting my in-laws’ Expedition.
In Yellowstone three times as many vehicles stopped at every meadow which contained a buffalo.
And there are quite a few meadows, and buffalos, in that park.
At Yellowstone Falls the roar of the river could scarcely be discerned against the constant hum of conversation and idling engines in the sprawling parking lots.
At Big Hole the predominant sound was the north wind, soughing through the beetle-ravaged lodgepoles.
It was not only quiet but also somber, which seemed to me wholly appropriate for a place where so much blood was spilled, and wasted.
Sacred, too, is an apt adjective, and one I thought about, in relation to littering, as I walked the paths through the battlefield.
As a general rule I abhor that brand of vandalism; it seems to me a particularly insipid sort of laziness.
Yet I could imagine myself, while strolling the boardwalks around the geysers at Yellowstone, not bothering to stoop to pluck a candy wrapper, so common are bits of trash in such places.
But that same act, if committed at Big Hole, seems to me shameful, akin to hawking a mouthful of tobacco juice on a religious shrine.
I will I’m sure long remember my first sight of the Tetons, and the initial telltale cloud of steam above a Yellowstone hot spring.
But those scenes, as compelling as they are, already seem pale and lifeless when compared to the involuntary shudder that wracked me as I stood in a field of brown September grass and imagined the crack of rifles, and the smells of blackpowder and blood, and the low cry of a child, hiding beneath a buffalo robe.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.