History on a carefree camping trip

July 28th, 2008
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One of the nicest pleasures of travelling the Great American West is the unmistakeable sense of history encountered at nearly every turn. Part of this stems from the Americans’ impressive preservation (and characteristic promotion) of historical sites large and small.

At one end are modest, out-of-the-way examples like the quietly beautiful log cabin Mrs. K. and I found along the Judith River in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains. It was built with great love and dedication by the first man who arrived there to steward this region of National Forest – and today remains with its original furnishings and decor. At the other end of the spectrum are scenes of titanic struggle and tragedy, like the vast and emotionally overpowering site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (which I’ll blog on next time).

Plus all manner of things in-between, like the 400-foot-high Yellowtail Dam that created a 60-mile-long canyon lake alongside the epically tortuous Bighorn Mountains, which rise nearly 5,000 vertical feet from the surrounding badlands. The dam bears a plaque talking about how a 21-year-old Jim Bridger in the 1820s became the first human to navigate the deadly Bighorn Canyon – using a driftwood log raft.

And of course, nearly everywhere we went, we saw references to the history-making Lewis & Clark expedition – including the numerous towns in several states that hold annual Sacajawea Festivals in honour of the young Indian woman who guided the explorers on much of their journey.

For me the largest part of the historical ambience stems from the simple fact that vast areas of the Great American West look much as they did for thousands of years past. One doesn’t need to backpack into designated wilderness areas, either. All over there are lonely areas that remain virtually unchanged. Huge National Forests of rugged mountains where one can creep along rough single-lane jeep trails for 60 miles without meeting another party. Enormous Indian reservations where the rolling grasslands, coulees and buttes go on and on – indeed, where the population may be less than it was 150 years ago. And even the ordinary private ranchlands, where individual holdings are in the tens to hundreds of thousands of acres and the only development aside from the ranch house and outbuildings are “two-track” pickup truck paths meandering over the hillsides, indistinguishable from the wagon trails of the 1800s.

Driving through any of these areas one can easily envision raiding parties of Plains Indians, regiments of U.S. Cavalry or scruffy bands from the motley assortment of miners, traders, settlers and various other fortune-seekers who roamed these lands throughout the 1800s for purposes noble to nefarious.

Taking in and ruminating on how an area came to be the way it is, and who made it so, adds a meaningful dimension to an otherwise carefree camping trip, in which the most serious challenges are choosing the next great trout stream, agonizing over which especially lovely camping spot to stop at for the night, or pondering which small ramshackle town along the secondary rural road might hold the diner offering the region’s best milk shakes or Coke floats.

These aspects of the Great American West are almost second nature to Mrs. K. and me. Yet, again and again we come across Canadians who have no idea about this dimension of America. They have difficulty imagining a nation of 300+ million offering such solitude and naturalism. They seem to imagine virtually all of the U.S. as heavily populated, over-developed, socially stressed and environmentally damaged – perhaps a sort of vast Las Vegas or Miami whose suburbs reach across the land without end.

It just isn’t so. Wyoming has under 600,000 people, Montana barely 900,000 even after an alleged population boom. The Dakotas together total just over 1 million. Idaho is more populous, but largely because of the Boise area. Alberta, with 3.5 million and rising fast, and B.C. at well over 4 million, dwarf these states in population.

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By George Koch
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