By Kay Braddock
This isn’t their first rodeo, eh, um, … wagon trail – at least not for the majority of the group of five who have embarked on retracing Lt. Col. George Custer’s trail to the Battle of Little Bighorn. But when considering the broken hitch, tipped over wagon and spilled cart along with one wrong turn into a cornfield, it’s been a rodeo-kind of experience for the three men and two women from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The group began at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, south of Mandan, N.D. on May 17 - as Custer did 134 years ago.
They’ve attempted to camp as near to the original campsites and follow Custer’s trail leading to the fateful battlefield as closely as possible. But the journey hasn’t gone without a few bumps and bruises and a little outside help.
“(We’ve been) pulled uphill a couple of times with people in their trucks coming along when our mules just didn’t want to do the hills,” Arleen Kessel of Powell, Wyo. said. The newest member to the trail wagon group, this is Kessel’s first journey in a covered wagon, while others in the group have traveled along the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail, to name a few.
It’s been an experience that Kessel says has given her a better understanding of what frontier pioneers, like her grandmother, endured on their westward treks.
“I have such an appreciation for that woman now,” Kessel said.
Not only tolerating days without showers, hair washings and other modern-day luxuries, Kessel has suffered a painful outbreak of shingles.
“I’ve been dealing with that,” she shared.
That’s not the only ailment suffered by the group. Fellow traveler Joe Adams of Rupert, Idaho, twisted his knee after a misstep off of his wagon.
Beyond those minor setbacks and a rough two-day start before, during and after crossing North Dakota’s Little Heart River, members of the 50-and-better-aged group say they’re on track to achieve their ultimate goal – reaching the battlefield in time for the June 24 re-enactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The journey has also included enduring a tornado warning, with 50 to 60 mph winds and 70 mph gusts. With no support vehicle nearby the five followed tornado warnings by taking cover in the only place available - their covered wagons.
A cold morning near the Montana-North Dakota border reminded the group of the conditions the 7th Cavalry endured in 1876.
“It made you think about the soldiers and how they were marching in that miserably cold, wet weather,” Bob Fosnot of Ennis, Montana said.
The four-wagon caravan, including 14 mules, five chickens and three dogs, reached Terry last week after traveling through Ollie, Baker, Plevna, Ismay and Locate, Montana. After spending Wednesday night at Ten Mile Flat, they entered Terry with an enthusiastic greeting which included a more than typical traffic flow of cars and trucks that came out to see the unusual sight. It’s a response the group says they’ve become use to seeing in the rural settings of Montana and North Dakota.
“The people have been great,” Fosnot said.
After a brief stop at a local watering hole and beauty salon, the wagon train headed west along Old Highway 10. Turning north towards the Prairie County Fairgrounds, where the group would spend the next three nights, fellow wagon trail traveler Flo Adams described one producer on a sprayer pulling off to the side, stepping out and climbing on top of the cab to get a better view.
“He was just grinning,” she recalled, “And I said, ‘Kind of neat to have your own parade,’ and he said, ‘Yeah!’ ”
It was during Custer’s four day stay in the Terry area that the men of the 7th Cavalry would spend part of their time breaking mules, converting them from driving to packing. It was also in Terry where wagons were sent back east on a steam boat, along with some of the men.
“The guys that pulled the lucky straw were the ones who were in the infantry and got left behind and didn’t get assigned a cavalry horse,” Fosnot said, indicating the slaughter that awaited the remaining men.
The wagon train group has settled into a daily routine with just over a week left on their trip. It begins with an early morning coffee and “boots and saddle” preparation. By 6:30 a.m. their on the trail, generally stopping at 9 a.m. for breakfast using a propone stove that includes a full menu of anything from bacon, eggs, hash browns and French toast. The group usually settles into the next campsite by mid-afternoon.
Although the trials, tribulations and daily routines of the wagon trail will likely be favorably looked back upon, the group agrees its the friendliness of small communities that will leave lasting memories. Warm greetings have gone well beyond a wave and a smile the group shared, pointing out the generosity of many - from donating vehicles to use to get back and forth from campsites to nearby towns, to allowing use of showers and bathrooms to donations that have included eggs, sticky buns, cherry pies, hamburger and even feed for their animals.
“They’ve gone out of their way to be helpful,” Fosnot said of those the group has encountered. “A wagon train opens up a lot of doors.”
June 16, 2010