Original post: 2005-05-31: Return from Mojave, Day 8
Photos: Mojave to Illinois, May 2005
When I landed in Idaho on 30 May, I stayed at my grad school thesis advisor's house in Lake Fork, Idaho. Oof. I was a horrible grad student—no focus. Every time I think of it, I get a little embarrassed. Some people get into grad school with a plan to go and do something with it (e.g., be a professor), some of us get into it because it's an available next step. To compress the whole thing down to one sentence before floating on, that job in the COIL lab in grad school taught me more about practical things like using a lathe, soldering, solid modeling, etc., than any other thing I've done. Anyway, we're halfway home here, and I'm going to hide behind that to not think about my utilization of grad school as a parking lot instead of a runway. Selah.
What's in Idaho?
I don't remember as many specific things about this day as the previous day, but for a few things.
The first is stopping off at the White Bird Battlesite on US-12 on the way from Idaho to Missoula. I didn't seek it out, it was just at the right place at the right time when I needed to stop driving. This was where a bit of the Nez Perce nation turned back the US Army I had never really heard of the Nez Perce nation, but I vaguely remember knowing vaguely about Chief Joseph, if only for the coda, "from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever". But that's all. The rest of indigenous America is Dances with Wolves and Chief Illiniwek and Custer and it's all grating on my nerves a little bit here in the long shadow of George Floyd.
Obviously on 31 May 2005 George Floyd was just some dude wherever, and now he's dead and everything feels like it's running amok, like a game of nuclear dominos.
None of that was obvious in 2005. But I do remember the feeling of standing in that memorial field. Some open spaces are like that—ostensibly just a bunch of grass, but heavy with memories. You can feel Pickett's Charge if you stand there long enough. I suspect the beaches of Normandy are like that as well. At White Bird, the historical sign says something to the effect of "here the Nez Perce turned back the US Army and then whipped them back up the canyon". And what is that feeling where you can root for the underdog when they're whipping your team?
I remember visiting Custer Last Stand when we went on a family vacation to Montana in 1988—I really still remember that. (I don't think I'm misremembering that it was called ungramatically "Custer Last Stand" instead of "Custer's Last Stand".) Every fallen US soldier had his own grave marker, wherever it was in that open field where they fell. And there was something about the openness of that grassland and the sheer number of the grave markers that leaves a question on your heart: why? Who really remembers anything directly from when they were younger, I don't know, but I don't feel like I walked away from that place feeling like my team had done the right thing. There's a nasty dose of dissonance in store for anyone who tries to square their everyday lives in the Midwest with the everyday lives of someone else out on some prairie being squared up at the end of the barrel of a gun. Maybe your mind can't give words to it, at whatever age, but something is off.
So is it a heavy feeling or a light feeling as you walk the battlefield—so much smaller than the battlefields that you think of in your mind, some Civil War or World War II slaughterhouse mayhem—but the small size and the isolation get to you if you take a quiet moment to think about it.
Really, that's all you're going to give it, at most—a quiet moment. Then you're going to get back into your car and drive somewhere else far far away. And if you get hot you'll turn on the air conditioner. And if you get bored you'll turn on the radio. And if the cavalry rides into your backyard to oust you from your home you'll do what needs to be done. These are the rules. We don't write them. We got here after thousands and thousands of years of accidents and hard work and we might not know everything, but we know what needs to be done to survive, even if it kills us.
Later I ended up in Missoula and stayed with my Aunt Sandy. It was nice. Really. I'm just lacking, for the moment, the will to think about it.