Total Miles: 920.2
Prying apart a seemingly endless expanse of emerald green forest, a bright golden sea of grass cradles a hardy stock of ranchers and a lazy, winding river that courses through it. Late summer stacks and rolls of bailed hay dot the fertile land by the thousands. It’s the kind of place Monet would have come to paint had he not found haystacks closer to home. That’s the Big Hole Valley.
There’s history here too, the kind that should not so easily be forgotten. Just up the road from the town of Wisdom, a small swale briefly runs lengthwise along the valley over which an historic monument sits. On August 9th, 1877, 800 Nez Perce slept peacefully beside that swale. Having been driven from their homeland, a reservation reduced to one tenth its size, they could not have known that what was about to happen would later be called by a Nez Perce elder, “our people’s painful and tragic encounter with ‘Manifest Destiny’”.
The ambush by the U.S. military that came as they slept would leave 90 Nez Perce dead, and a deep stain on the history of treatment of native peoples by the federal government that lasts to this day. The battlefield monument may ostensibly exist to honor all those involved, but honor is surely not a distinction deserved by all.
The battlefield drifted past as Courtney, the young woman from Jackson who had given us a ride to Butte as part of our June exit from Montana, drove us back up to the pass where we’d left the trail yesterday afternoon. Behind us, the Big Hole Valley shrunk into the distance for the last time.
The trail left behind the highway to course it’s way through a Nordic ski trail system, with wide corridors cut through lodgepole forest and signs hung high on the trees to account for the substantial winter snowpack. The forest was perfectly spaced with only a short grassy understory, the kind of place hammockers salivate over finding at the end of the day.
Somewhere among those trails, the Idaho/Montana border swept to the west for the final time, never to be seen again. From here on out, it’s all Montana all the time.
The day itself was as pleasant as could be, a gentle cool breeze occasionally arising to near-perfectly offset the heat of the sun. Even the trail cooperated, rising and falling only at the most leisurely of grades, tracing an arc through a massive burn area that stretched for nearly all of the final 15 miles.
Looking out into the distance from among the charred remains, the distant peaks and ridges were drained of their color by a scrim of smoke that had permeated everywhere we could see. Behind us, the Big Hole Valley unfolded in it’s entirety, smoke billowing into the sky from its opposite end. Another tragedy unfolding, this one before our eyes.
Latitude/Longitude: 45.81413, -113.74393