Listening to the wind whisper through the Missouri Breaks about 20 miles down stream from the ghost town of Virgelle, Montana, the words of Don Quixote flashed across my mind:
My destiny calls, and I go! And the wild winds of fortune
Shall carry me onward ... To wither so ever they blow ...
What wild wind had blown me to this idealic place, I was not sure. But I certainly appreciated the opportunity to share in what was rapidly becoming an American adventure.
The cry of an eagle floating on the breeze, the campfire songs drifting up the vertical white cliffs from the camp far below, and the towering cinnamon hued stones of LaBarge Rock made me aware that I was in a wild and untamed place, little changed with the ebb and flow of time. Fur traders first visited the river and later the Corps of Discovery in 1805. I easily imagined Captain Meriwether Lewis standing on this same peak, charting the meandering course of the river and taking measurements. In fact, I would pitch my tent that night within a few hundred feet of Stonewall Creek, a campsite named by Lewis and Clark as they made their way up the wild Missouri a bicentennial ago. Lewis wrote of this very place, “so perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.” (May 31, 1805).
My heart still raced, but not merely because of the hasty climb to the isolated summit. Earlier, I had followed a freshly cut streambed to the base of a cliff. Within the last few years the precipice had sheered off, causing a shift in the flow of water. A deep eight-foot channel had been summarily cut into the canyon floor as a result of erosion. While following the channel, I noticed a flash of white and discovered several rib and femur bones. Just around the bend I saw a buffalo skull, horns intact, jutting from the side of the ashen bank.
Mud-sheathed for centuries, the flesh long since nibbled away by time and the elements, the skull seemed to murmur, “I have a story to share”. Less than ten feet away, I detected another skull, noticeably smaller… a baby buffalo skull. Digging around the horns, I exposed enough of the adult skull to determine that I was looking at the back of the head. I had searched in vain up several canyons the previous day, hoping to find sign of an Indian camp. Now I wondered if this could be a kill site? Perhaps it was a buffalo jump like the one at Ulm Pishkun, just a few miles away as the crow flies. After all, from a site two days down river, Captain Lewis had described how the hunt worked:
One of the most active and fleet young men is selected and disguised in a robe of buffalo skin… he places himself at a distance between a herd of buffalo and a precipice proper for the purpose; the other Indians now surround the heard on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all show themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffalo; the disguised Indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently near the buffalo to be noticed by them when they take to flight and running before them they follow him in full speed to the precipice; the Indian (decoy) in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranny in the cliff…the part of the decoy I am informed is extremely dangerous. (Wednesday, May 29, 1805. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Volume 4) Gary E. Moulton, Editor.