Obviously, we had a lot to get done here. And we couldn’t have found a better place to make it happen.
We arrived at the KOA Campground on the 30th. It was an in-town park, but you’d hardly know it. Just a block off one of the two main drags, it was a comprehensive installation ranging from simple to complex tent sites, multiple levels of traditional RV sites, cabins and permanently occupied mobile homes. It had a great collection of extras – pool, rental bikes, walk-to-transportation, playground, activity hall, store and quick-restaurant. The best news for us is that the offered a “medical rate.” With appropriate certification, the rate on a daily basis was quite a bit less even than the monthly rate, with no electric surcharge. We checked in for 28 days with the promise that a doctor’s certificate would be forthcoming in a couple of days, with my first visit to the orthopedic practice. Our pull-thru site was more than ample size and in a section of the park that was less occupied most of the time. Ideal for all.
My May 2 appointment did, indeed, reveal two surgery requirements. I had a torn medial meniscus in my knee, a candidate for arthroscopic correction, and my finger had a cyst at its base. Simultaneous surgeries were scheduled for May 19. The only condition was that I could pass a surgery-eligible physical, and I found a local doctor who performed that. We were so positive about Dr. Ihrig that Dot also updated her medical requirements with him.
Our next goal was to get me to Brasstown, NC so that I could teach Nantucket Basket Weaving at the J.C. Campbell Folk School. Plans and reservations were all in place. We just had to make sure Dot was comfortable with managing the mechanics of the RV and our four black treasures, one of whom was still giving us major concerns. Fortunately, Dot identified and met with a fabulous vet before I left – Patti Prado.
On Friday May 6, Dot drove me to Missoula International Airport around noon. Fortunately it was open! Even more fortunately, the security screening was empty. I had wonderful chats with all of the six TSA employees on duty. They didn’t slack off a bit on checking me, but since I’d sent virtually everything ahead, there was little to inspect. I flew from there to Denver and then on to Atlanta, where I bunked overnight before driving the 130 miles up to Brasstown. The whole trip was on United Express planes – a bit crowded but only 60 passengers per flight to deal with. Much easier.
This was my second year of teaching there, and my first living on campus. I had 9 students, one more than my eight maximum. The students were very satisfied, but it was hard on me, especially with my dual aches. On Sunday, May 15, I drove back toward Atlanta and hooked up with dear friends Bob and Pat Rotchford – and Samantha – for hours of great conversation, great dinner, and an overnight. Off to the airport before dawn, I was back in Missoula by midafternoon on Monday.
Surgery on Thursday was easy – I slept through it all, of course. Dr. Stayner, the knee guy, is a former Seattle Supersonic whose career was cut short by a . . . knee injury! So he went on to med school and is now renowned in the area. Dr. Rickard, the hand guy, was abrupt but very competent. He also released the trigger finger pulley while he was in there.
Rehab was more challenging, but I had an excellent PT, Kristen Green, who led me through an expanding set of exercises and encouraged me to keep them up. I told her we planned to leave on June 12, and she scaled the program accordingly. KOA accepted our medical status for the whole time. So we were able to make the best of our visit.
We ordered everything we could think of off the internet because we has a direct shipping address for it. We shopped town, including a new larger TV set for the living room and new glasses for me. We got my hearing aids fixed. And we got important maintenance reformed on the rig.
Even more important, we had special visits with friends. One of Dot’s closest pen-pal friends on the Schip network, Susan Butchart, lived in Hamilton, fifty miles south. And a close friend of Dot’s from her retail days in Washington, Alice Erb and her husband Gary, were retired to their homeland about 35 miles north of Missoula. We spent quality time in both directions.
And we didn’t neglect our environs. Intermingled with our “normal life” activities, we played tourist and history seekers. And the rewards were excellent, as you will see.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was founded by four Montana hunters in 1984 for the purpose of preserving the future of this elegant creature and his fellow creatures by protecting and improving their habitat. It has over 500 chapters around the country. The headquarters/visitor center features numerous exhibits about their work and a menagerie of the beings it’s bound to protect. Elk are often divided into six subspecies based on grazing region. Two are extinct – those east of the Mississippi and those in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. Since 1937, federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition and state hunting license fees have gone directly to wildlife conservation.
Fun facts: The Shawnee name for elk, popular in crossword puzzles, is wapiti. It means white rump. The elk’s security is enhanced by the fact that its eyes on the sides of its head and its ears rotate independently. Their antlers are bone and are shed annually. Horns, on the other hand, are hair and grow continuously. Elk walk and run on their tiptoes, and they are exceptionally fast. The Corps of Discovery survived in great part on elk, killing at least 375 during their trek and using everything but the mating trumpet.
One particularly fascinating exhibit was the Native American’s Elk Tooth Dress, shown below with a picture that includes the story and the real thing.
Smokejumper Visitors’ Center
On the grounds of the airport stands the Missoula Smokejumper Base, an arm of the U.S. Forest Service. Missoula is one of seven units in the Pacific Northwest employing almost 300 men and women. The Missoula contingent is 85.
A smokejumper is an experienced firefighter who has upgraded his/her career by being willing to be dropped into a conflagration, followed by a separate parachute-load of supplies to sustain you for up to three days. While it appears insane, they are not only willing but eager to make their contributions. They range in age from 20 to 50. Their ground support includes parachute specialists who precisely pack the chutes they use (they pick at random from certified packs). They bunk in a nice dorm and have good but “military sparse” facilities. Their planes include DC-3’s, Twin-Otters and Short Sherpas.
The museum includes a comprehensive description of their equipment and challenges as well as a full size replica of an observation tower. And admission includes a tour of the facilities.
An interesting sidebar. The CIA trained smokejumpers in Laos in the sixties. Jerry Daniels from Missoula was the liaison officer with General Vang Pao, the leading advocate among the locals. After the Communist takeover and U.S. withdrawal in 1975, Daniels remained in Southeast Asia to supervise the care and feeding of Laotian refugees. Sadly, he died seven years later at age 41. He was honored as a hero by his peers from all over the U.S., and General Vang eventually relocated to Montana.
Nat’l Bison Range Wildlife Refuge
About 45 miles north of Missoula lies the National Bison Range, an 18,500 acre wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It encompasses numerous hills and valleys, and it is home to not only a zealously protected bison herd but other species, such as big horn sheep, prong horn antelope, elk and black bear. The bison herd ranges from 350 to 500 animals, and excess stock is transferred live to other organizations requesting stock to build their own contingents. A ranger told us that births had waned in recent years because of inbreeding, and Ted Turner has loaned some of his bison stock to help re-enrich the breeding lines.
There are two driving trails available. The energetic one is the Big Sleep Trail, a 19 mile excursion around and up and down, with grades of up to 10 degrees abd snake-like turns (see below). It is tricky enough to require a two hour commitment. But we were game. We didn’t see as many bison as we expected to, but several large herds were in view. And the landscape was breathtaking.
But wait . . . there’s more. Like our sort of “eureka moment” at the Berkeley Pit in Butte, we discovered that we were in the heart of Glacial Lake Missoula. Coincidentally, my niece Kimberly had told us, in one her recent calls, to check on a phenomenon that a friend had told her about , and this was it.
Glacial Lake Missoula was a dammed lake formed between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago during the Ice Ages. It is believed to be the largest ice-dammed lake to ever occur, and the wall of ice rose to nearly 2,000 feet at times. From time to time – about 40 times over a 2,000 year period, it floated and leaked from the bottom, eroding and scouring the landscape for hundreds of miles and creating, among other things, the Columbia River Gorge (on our list to see). Other theorists claim that there was just one flood of biblical proportions, dumping fifteen times the water volume of all the rivers in the world in 48 hours. In any event, here we were, on a rim with camera in hand and chilled by the magnitude of this event.
Flathead Lake and Kerr Dam
We took a second trip north for one of our visits with Gary and Alice. They live in Polson at the southern tip of Flathead Lake, a 200 square mile lake with depths up to 370 feet. Not the largest, of course, but it is the largest U.S. lake west of the Mississippi. And it is pristine. In the heart of Native American country, the many scenic signs leading to it are displayed in both English and Salish (Flathead Indian) tongue. The two right hand pictures are taken at Gary and Alice’s house.
The Kerr Dam sits at the bottom of the lake, where it exits into the Kerr River. It’s been in operation since 1938, generates almost 200 megawatts of power, and has a drop greater than Niagara Falls. It’s owned by Pennsylvania Power and Light, but the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation, upon whose land it sits, holds an option to purchase it in 2015. All thirteen of the spillways were opened when we were there, due to the massive amount of rainfall and late snowmelt that threatened the entire region.
Polson-Flathead Historical Museum
The town of Polson, 4,000 strong, is described on its website as being “located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in a natural amphitheater at the south end of Flathead Lake. “ There are two museums. One, called the Miracle of America, flashed its presence from the roadside. The other sat demurely in an obscure building in town. We chose the latter.
A delightful local took our small admission fee and gave us the grand tour. The exhibits were very special, with many still to be completed. And they were enhanced through local and first person knowledge, who even sat down and played the antique melodeon for us. There were multiple rooms in the barnlike building, and, outback, the exhibits continued with a second general store building and large artifacts for which there was no room inside. One very special exhibit was a set of large marionettes of many members of the L&C expedition created by Blanche Harding. Another: the picture second from right in row one is Calamity Jane’s saddle. We could have stayed longer, but we needed to reserve time to see Gary and Alice.
Traveler’s Rest was, indeed, a genuine find. It had been some time since we’d crossed paths with our friends Merry and Billy, a/k/a Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But we were about to start our reconnection.
Traveler’s Rest State Park is located in the city of Lolo, about ten miles south of Missoula. We learned it was the site of a L&C camp, so we drove down about ten days after my surgery to scout it out. We couldn’t wait to get back there two weeks later when I could walk the half mile trail.
We met a young ranger, a UMontana graduate student who worked both there and at the federal installation not far away (see next section). It was his description that got us excited. We learned that archeologists have pinpointed the exact location of the camp here, one that was visited both ways, from September 9-11, 1805 on the way west and June 30–July 2, 1806 on the way east. In fact, this was the place where the two captains split to explore two alternate passages eastward, Lewis along the Missouri and tributaries and Clark on the Yellowstone River. They rendezvoused five weeks later at the confluence of the two, near Williston, ND.
It was our understanding that the only place where positive evidence of a Corps’ exact location was at what is now called Pompey’s Pillar near Billings. Dan explained, however, that Travelers Rest had been accurately mapped. First, fire-pits were located in the suspected area. And then, the coup d’état: 100 yards away was evidence of the camp latrine, exactly where it would be in a military bivouac. The giveaway? Evidence of mercury, which never disappears. Lewis, the expedition’s medic, often issued Dr. Rush’s pills. Dr. Rush was his principle medical advisor during his 90 day crash course before the Expedition left, and his pills were an all-purpose laxative containing a heavy concentration of mercury!
The site itself is underdeveloped – more holy than demonstrative. Sites are marked by numbered brass oak leaves, shown below. First is the campsite; next points to Lolo Pass, yet to be conquered; next is the latrine; and the last memorializes the separate paths that Lewis and Clark took on the way home.
Dan had another surprise. Prior to the Expedition, Lewis spent months in preparation. Part of this effort found him at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where he purchased armaments at the arsenal there. Among other things, he purchased fifteen rifles. Until learned authority Frank Tait published his treatise in 1999, it was assumed that Lewis purchased the new 1803 model. Tait stated that the 1803 model actually wasn’t available until 1804 and instead declared that the rifles must have been the 1792 model. Others differ. Research has shown that the Arsenal was consolidating inventory from multiple locations at the time and that their stock included fifteen prototypes of the 1803 version. Lewis’s records show that he paid $8 apiece for the rifles, which is considerably lower than standard pricing. Thus, he may well have negotiated for the prototypes at this reduced rate.
Jump ahead 205 years. Missoulian George Knapp is a 20 year member of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and a Travelers Rest re-enactor. He wanted to buy an authentic looking firearm to use, but knowing that rifles of that era commanded prices in five figures, he had to do a lot of searching. In 2008, he found an alleged 1803 Harpers Ferry model in an Ohio auction catalog in tough condition, but his $2500 phone in bid won it. He worked diligently on his relic, and when he had removed enough rust and grime, he found the manufacturer’s label. Its serial number: 12.
Thus it could be one of the fifteen actually carried by the Expedition. He took it to a noted Denver antique military authority in 2009 who certified it as an 1803 Harpers Ferry. But the best anyone can say is that it may well be a rifle that visited Travelers Rest twice before. Knapp donated the rifle, and it proudly went on display on July 1. We left two weeks too early to see it in person, but here’s the display case prepared to hold it!
One additional piece favoring the Harpers Ferry 1803. Lewis obtained 15 swivel slings for his rifles. Knapp’s Number 12 has a hole drilled for a swivel.
Lolo Trail and Pass
About 35 driving miles from Traveler’s Rest – less as the crow flies — is Lolo Pass on the border between Montana and Idaho. It was the most commonly used route over the Bitterroot Range of the Rockies. Led by a guide, Old Toby, supplied to them by Sacagawea’s brother, Chief Cameahwait, the Corps scaled this trail with incredible difficulty. The weather turned foul, with snows up to 10 inches deep. They had virtually no food and tattered clothing. The passage took 11 days, more than double their estimated time. It was then that they first met the Nez Perce, who proved to be good friends.
Despite 60 degree temperatures and clear skies on the day we visited, there were deep piles of snow around the peak, where the Forest Service has an extensive presence (this is the other place that our friend Dan works).
The museum was extensive, telling two tales, one much more heartening than the other. The first was L&C’s presence there, on both directions of their journey. While the outbound trip was dastardly, the return had its own share of difficulty. In fact, after a first attempt at the Lolo Trail, the expedition was pinned down by weather conditions for nearly a month (May 14-June 10, 1806) at Camp Chopunnish and more than an additional week at Wieppe Prairie before a second successful passage could be made. They did not waste this time, using it to refresh, explore and catalog their finds, and make celestial observations as well as cement their relationship with the Nez Perce even more. The relief map covered a major segment of the trip. The enlargement at right below shows the trip along the base of the Bitterroots and then up across the pass.
The second tale happened years later, when the government killed and herded the Nez Perce and confederated tribes onto reservations and sold off their lands to white settlers. More progress.
Upliftingly, the museum also houses a beautiful quilt made to celebrate the 4oth anniversary of the Wilderness Act by the stewardship organization of the 1.3 million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area.
The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula
Within a half mile of the hospital where my surgery was performed is old Fort Missoula. It has a sixty year long history from 1877 through 1947. It was constructed about 15 years after the frontier town was first organized by early entrepreneurs. The fort was requested to protect the growing population, including gold seekers, from western Montana Native Americans. It was an un-walled “open” fort; as such, it was more initiative than responsive. Around the turn of the 19th century, the fort was expanded with a series of large concrete buildings with red tile roofs that housed barracks, officers’ row and the hospital.
Its first challenge was to round up Chief Joseph and an unregistered band of Nez Perce. The Indians managed to circumvent the hastily constructed log earthworks, earning the episode the moniker Fort Fizzle. In the 1880’s, the Fort became a home for the Buffalo Soldiers; among other things, they experimented with the use of bicycles as military transportation and actually completed a 1900 mile ride to St. Louis. During WW I, it was a training center, and it would have closed thereafter were it not for its assignment as the NW Regional headquarters of the CCC.
In 1941, it was turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and housed over 2,000 “aliens” from Italy, Japan and Germany. Whether you call it internment, confinement or detention, it was still imprisonment without charges or trial. Nevertheless, the men housed here were treated very well and had extensive local freedom. The Italians named the place Bella Vista, and it was well suited, having housed many CCC workers in its previous life.
Exhibits, both in the museum and on the grounds, abounded. In addition to a thorough history lesson in the founding and growth of Missoula, it had a major display on the Great Fire of 1910, a/k/a the Great Blow-Up, since it roared to its ferocious life from a series of wildfires through the three state region (WA, ID, MT) on August 20, 1910. The largest wildfire in U.S. History, it burned 3 million acres and left 87 known dead. There’s also a tribute to Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1916).
The grounds offered numerous buildings, including three that are original to the fort and others moved there — homestead, schoolhouse, rail station, church, etc. An old CCC barracks houses the internment camp interpretive center. Both the railroad and the logging industry are extensively detailed, and a fire tower stands on the grounds.
We drove past the newer concrete buildings and spotted one with the name Missoula Indian Center. We stopped to investigate and discovered that it was a medical health facility for Native Americans in the area. Not quite knowing what to do with us, the receptionist introduced us to the acting director, Dr. Patrick Weaselhead, who warmly invited us in and spent over half an hour chatting with us about the Center’s work, our journey, and the proper recipe for Chesapeake crab cakes. Meeting Patrick was a treasured bonus.
I can’t end this first Montana journey without some general comments about the state. Our friend Susan in Hamilton describes it as the “jewel in God’s crown of earthly glory.” We love the majesty of the mountains. They will never supplant the coastline in our hearts, but their beauty makes it very easy to stay here for an extended time. Second, we love the people; cordial, helpful, easygoing and genuine. Third, we love Missoula. If we could shorten the winters to about a month, it could be an ideal place for us to live. Alas, that will never happen. But maybe six months here, six months. . . . . . .