Bozeman is a small college town of about 50,000 in Southwest Montana. We found it to be welcoming and a happy, brief retreat from the past week-plus of camping. A bottle of whiskey had somehow broken one of Jade’s ukulele strings two weeks before, and after stopping in a music store for a new set, we took a stroll down the quarter-mile main stretch in the center of town. Two minutes in, a sign on a bagel shop reminded us that ‘brunch without mimosas’ was ‘just a sad breakfast’, and we continued our stroll with open containers. Antique shops border trendy coffee shops and places where they sell flannels for $200, and, repelled by the boutiques, we dined at a Korean restaurant where Jade spilled chili sauce all over her overalls, to her dismay and my amusement. Chewed up and spit out by the main drag, we toured a sex shop and called it a day.
The next morning, we found public showers for $1 (good looking out, Bozeman) and headed south, chasing hot springs and a whiskey distillery described to us by Talia and Hondo. Our route took us through Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, home to three separate biomes full of beautiful flora and fauna, the continent’s largest overdue megavolcano, and the country’s largest fester of insufferable tourists. While presumably normal, relatively harmless middle-class people within 100 miles of their home zip code, a certain horrible metamorphosis transforms a percentage of travelers into tourists, creatures compelled by some inner demon to stop five minutes in the middle of the road for every single bison, white-tailed deer, duck, and swallow to take blurry picture after blurry picture on their cell phones. The worst-affected of these actually climb out of their SUV’s to get up-close and personal with the buffalo, all while stopped in traffic, and a drive that should have taken us an hour dragged on over two and a half.
Luckily, after they have caused massive traffic jams, screamed at their children in public for the fourth time, and littered their pork rind packages on National Forest highways, most tourists prefer several-hundred-dollar-per-night cabins and hotel rooms, or at least campgrounds with running water, to sleep in before ruining everyone else’s next day. After driving past full RV parks and travel lodges, we were still able at 8:30 to secure a campsite on the river about an hour East of the park exit. We drove through a smattering of ruined mining towns the next morning and into Central Wyoming. A collapsing ranching town there, Kirby, is home to the distillery of Talia’s lore, where we sipped free samples and watched antelope graze on the tour area lawn. As adept at marketing as they were at making bourbon, Wyoming Whiskey bills itself as “Wyoming’s first legal distillery”, and we walked away with fresh booze and memorabilia, including a hat that Jade now refuses to take off.
Half an hour South of Kirby is Thermopolis, home to a large natural spring that reeks of sulfur, but, because of a century-old treaty with the Shoshone, was contractually obligated to be free to the public. We took a long soak and the surroundings: though Wyoming did maintain a small pool, true to their word, no less than three private waterparks and pools had been developed within a few hundred metres, ruining any natural beauty the area once had and blemishing again, this time as farce, not tragedy, the US Government’s relationship with the people whose land they stole. On our route through a reservation on the Wind River, we researched the history of the local tribes. Unsurprisingly but still unsettlingly, the Shoshone and Blackfeet that had once roamed the area had been systematically murdered, tortured, and geographically erased by the US Army and militias of wealthy settlers. It was an old story: a treaty was struck, the government unilaterally cancelled it, and declared all those who refused to relocate to restricted areas devoid of utility were hunted down and murdered, often without quarter for women and children. Native Americans stuck a few minor retaliatory blows, and were hunted down even more fiercely and with greater force than before. The US Government reenacted this narrative countless times, almost without alteration, from the signing of the Constitution until the early 20th century.
The only interesting variation in the story of the Shoshone who now lived in the area was the internal political rifts in mid-century native tribal structure. There were two groups with opposing views on how to interact with the genocidal, deceitful invasion of white settlers: a minority who I call the liberals, who favored accommodation and placation, and the majority who I call radicals, who refused to sign new treaties and related to the government with varying intensities of warfare. The liberals regularly signed treaties on behalf of the whole Shoshone nation, and the radicals refused to recognize them and continued to fight the government, which now enacted massacres on the pretext of enforcing a treaty none of them had signed. Eventually, both groups were entirely wiped out or forcibly relocated to reservations, the only treaty still recognized one regarding public use of one hot springs. Even in mid-19th century Colorado-Wyoming Native American tribes, the liberal impulse to appease and indulge imperialist reaction led them to sell out the radical flank and destroy the whole cause. We stopped at a rural Walmart and bought some bagels and bear mace. Any mob of wealthy racists or forest predators that threatened us would get a face full of capsaicin.
From the Walmart parking lot, we steamed West, through Grand Teton National Park and over 10% grades at 25 mph. As we passed a town of strip malls and truck stops named Blackfeet, Jade read the final portions of Almighty, about the latest (failed) efforts to institute reductions in international nuclear weapon stockpiles. Truck stops turned into arching fields of potatoes and then into unspoiled semi-arid grassland, never plowed but fenced in with barbed wire. Small yellow rectangles were planted in the ground every 100 meters: “Department of Energy. No Trespassing”. We were approaching Atomic City.
There are dinosaurs outside of Thermopolis’ hot springs.
Foreboding messages outside Atomic City.