It was 8:30 pm when we got off the freeway.
We had left Custer State Park in western South Dakota at 10:30 am and had been driving all day. The sun was at the tail end of a stunning display in the wide open sky. I was ready to be in Cody in western Wyoming.
“How many more miles?” I asked Roddy as we came to the end of the exit ramp.
“Thirty or fifty, I think,” he replied, reaching for the GPS. He fiddled with it and then added, “Oh, no, sorry. We have one hundred and thirty miles to go.”
“No problem,” I thought, sucking it up. “That will take us a couple of hours.”
Earlier, we had dawdled at Devil’s Tower, or “Bear’s Den,” as the local Native Americans call it. I knew that meant a later night, but I figured lingering in the cool parts of nature was what we came for so we took our time and walked all the way around that incredible rock formation. My brother was not due into Cody until close to midnight. We had plenty of time.
Roddy gave me directions through the small town at the edge of the freeway. On the other side, the road led straight up into the Bighorn mountains.
“Are we going over those mountains?” I asked. A couple of hours earlier, a similar range had been on the horizon and we had driven around them. Roddy checked the map.
“Yup. The road goes up the mountains and through a national forest.”
In the dim light, I could see the switchbacks of the road winding up a steep grade. There were no cars in front or behind us.
I began to feel afraid. It is one thing to drive 130 miles on a major freeway and quite another to attempt that over an unfamiliar mountain range, through a national forest, in the dark. The woman at the hotel in Cody had told me to be careful when I called letting her know we would be arriving late. I was beginning to understand why.
I thought about turning around and spending the night in one of the hotels at the last town. We could call my brother and tell him that we would finish the drive early the next morning. I floated the idea by my children.
“No. You can do it mom.” They were unconcerned.
“Are you afraid, Mom?” Roddy asked, intrigued.
“Yes!” I replied.
Up until then, I had been calm during our cross country adventure. Driving for hours on end does not phase me. But there is something about mountains that awakens a place of fear in me. It is right next to the place of awe. Any time, I have to go up high, way up high, like over 10,000 feet high, I get scared.
Back in theology school I read a book by Rudolf Otto that describes the experience of the holy as simultaneously invoking fear and fascination. As the road climbed and climbed and climbed, I was feeling the fear part of God’s high places.
I considered the fact that my fear might be my wisdom. I explained to Roddy. “Out here in the national forest there will be lots of wildlife. There are very few cars along this road. The towns are 50-100 miles apart and even then they are tiny. There is no cell reception. If we hit a deer and needed help, what would we do?”
“I will help you look for deer,” Roddy offered. “And we can listen to our book on tape to pass the time.”
“Ok,” I thought. “We’re going for it.”
Roddy popped in the Scott O’Dell story, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, that we had begun earlier in the trip about the forced migration of the Nez Perce tribe from Oregon. It described a major chapter of Native American history that I did not learn in school.
As we listened, the Nez Perce journeyed over mountain ranges with the elderly, children and injured – with the US military in close pursuit. A surprise morning raid killed a husband and his pregnant wife. Another battle resulted in several of the Nez Perce chiefs dead. One day, the Nez Perce encountered a small group of white people. A skirmish ensued, in spite of the Nez Perce urgings that the white people leave them alone.
Meanwhile, it had gotten dark on the Bighorn Mountains. Several times, I saw deer grazing right next to the road. A nearly full moon rose behind us. Under different circumstances, I would have stopped to take in the beauty all around me, but I was still nervous, still vigilantly checking for wildlife. I looked at the odometer. We had gone 50 miles.
At the end of a mountain top valley, the road started to descend. The Nez Perce were in Wyoming now, hoping to receive assistance from their friends, the Crows. Instead, they discovered that the Crows had betrayed them and were working for the US military as scouts. The Nez Perce then turned to head north to join Sitting Bull in Canada. They got close to the border when the US military caught up with them and they were forced to surrender.
We finished the story just outside of Cody. As we pulled up to the curb outside the tiny airport, my brother was stepping outside.
The next day we went into Yellowstone and set up camp. As I studied the map of the National Park, I noticed “Nez Perce creek.” I did not get it at first. The Nez Perce were from Oregon. Why was there a creek in Wyoming named after them? I asked a ranger about that. She took out a map and showed me that the Nez Perce had traveled right through Yellowstone. I had not realized how close we were to the route we had listened to the night before.
The ranger showed me where the tribe had encountered early tourists in Yellowstone and where they had turned and headed north toward Canada. Then she showed me where they had surrendered. It was just south of the Canadian border. After crossing 1300 miles, they were within 40 miles of being free of the US military. The tragedy of their story hit me hard.
The ranger continued, “After that, they were taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. Many of them either died on the way there or of diseases once they got there.”
A few days later, up on Signal mountain in the Grand Tetons, we studied a sign that gave the names of the various peaks. One of the Southern most ones is called “Nez Perce” because that is where they crossed. It is more than 10,000 feet high.
When my boys and I left California, I packed a few of the books on tape that the library had given away for free. I had not planned to listen to the story of the Nez Perce as we were retracing in reverse the long sad journey they took. I was grateful to have a different way of understanding the history of this land. Listening to their courage and persistence as I was inside of my own vulnerability gave me a deep respect for the chief who said upon surrendering, “I will fight no more forever,” and for his people who crossed several mountain ranges in Wyoming in the night, in vain.