Posted By admin on November 19, 2009
Thought I’d trot this one out again. We ran it in the paper in the lead-up to the 2001 “Brawl of the Wild.”
Not everyone in Montana gives a damn about the Grizzly-Bobcat football game. But folks from all walks of life do, and don’t our peculiar walks define us?
I’ve long thought the home team and hometown fans get cheated in the Brawl of the Wild. Getting there is at least half the fun. It’s a chance to “get gone,’’ to let Montana and its vistas and its history come alive before we settle into what, for one afternoon each autumn, amounts to the state’s seventhlargest town – enclosed in just a few stadium acres.
It’s a great opportunity to celebrate our Montana-ness.
Say you hop that train to Bozeman on Friday, at the same station on North Higgins where students, faculty and townsfolk for so many years saw off the team on a Friday after classes. They’re there now, in your mind’s eye, wishing you Godspeed, toodle-oo and hubba hubba.
A few miles up the Clark Fork River (think of it as the Missoula or the Hellgate, for old time’s sake) you cross the Blackfoot near its mouth. There in the dead of winter camp, circa 1862, are Lt. John Mullan and his road-building men, urging you on. Look closely as you roll upstream and you might see Charlie Shaft. He’s agreed for $500 to take Mullan’s mail to Salt Lake City. But poor Charlie has fallen through ice and his feet are frostbitten. In a few days, back in camp, both legs will be amputated above the knees.
You come to a great meadow, where angry beavers of very long ago are met in a showdown. Skookum, king of the beavers, has an insurrection on his paws. Even as your train slips by, his upstream beavers are busy building a dam of earth to block the river from downstream rebels. It works, the dissidents cave and the south end of the dam is removed. The rest remains as Beavertail Hill.
The train is delayed this side of Garrison for Golden Spike ceremonies. Former President Ulysses S. Grant is among the dignitaries, the band from Fort Keogh at Miles City plays and hundreds watch from a wooden pavilion as the spike that signifies completion of the Northern Pacific railroad is driven by NP president Henry Villard. Lake Superior and the Pacific Coast are linked.
The landscape is thick with ghosts when you reach the Deer Lodge Valley, where cattle graze even before gold seekers sweep into the country. You climb past Anaconda and Marcus Daly’s great and belching copper smelter smokestack, up and into Butte. Swarms of dialects meet your ear. You get the old-time feeling you’re at the center and the top of Western wilderness civilization. No place else on Earth could men and women be more jaded and more tender, more calloused and corrupt, more joyous and despairing, raw and busting with life.
You watch as some 300 men, most of them unemployed, break into Butte’s NP roundhouse in the middle of an April night in 1894. They steal an engine, boxcar and six coal cars and take off hell-bent for Washington, D.C., to join other bands of protesters comprising Coxey’s Army. They’ll make it 340 miles, to Forsyth, where federal troops from Fort Keogh surprise and subdue the train thieves, some of whom escape into nearby hills.
Across the divide, for a while, you retrace Lewis and Clark’s trail, past the caverns named for them, and on past the mountains that served as refuge for father Don and son Dan Nichols after they killed a man and took Kari Swenson hostage 25 years ago.
See John Colter make his naked run into legend from the Blackfeet Indians in 1809. In a lot of ways, Three Forks was the cradle of Montana history before the white man came. It’s the recognized source of the Missouri, the longest river in the United States. Here, in one of the more grisly scenes in Western literature, mountain men Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins and their Indian companion Poor Devil came upon a Piegan camp stilled and swelled by smallpox, as described in A.B. Guthrie’s “ The Big Sky.’’
And then you’re to Bozeman and the football game. You’ve missed the treks that many take from the Golden Triangle through Charlie Russell country on Interstate 15; from I-90 and I94 east and Sidney, Glendive and Miles City – Teddy “ Blue’’ Abbott and cowhand country – and Billings.
Others have come from the state’s midsection, past Calamity Jane’s late-career haunts in the saloons of Gilt Edge, east of Lewistown. Down south is Yellowstone Park, and the stories it can tell. If you want, the Brawl of the Wild is played out on a football field. If you want, the once-a-year event is big as Montana gets.