The Sound of Battle

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Out of nowhere, a noise filled my head like a rushing wind: Pounding hooves. Shouts. War cries. The report of rifles.

When these sounds crashed in on me, I was staring at a display of artifacts in the museum at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It was as if these relics were whispering the story. As if all I had to do was pull back a curtain and suddenly find myself in the middle of the battle. These artifacts had been there the day Custer and every man in five companies of the 7th Cavalry died, as well as an unknown number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

My brother and I (with Molly) made a trip to Billings last week. While we were in the area, we decided to see the battlefield. My brother had been there before, but this was the first time for me. I’d been told that many people found the battlefield to be a moving experience. They were right. Maybe because the day I was there was June 24th — just one day before the 138th anniversary of the battle.

Or perhaps because it had taken me twelve years to get there.

Twelve years ago, I first started participating in living history at Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota. Fort Lincoln was General Custer’s last command–and home, and has in many ways become my home.

Me as a frontier army laundress at Fort Lincoln.

Me as a frontier army laundress at Fort Lincoln.

I didn’t join the laundress corps of the frontier army all those years ago because I was a die-hard Custer buff. I hardly knew anything about him. They just needed a couple of musicians, and my brother and I played fiddle and banjo. In between jigs and reels–and many encores of the General’s favorite, “Garryowen”–I gradually learned the Custer story. Montana claims fame as the place where Custer died, but North Dakota was the place where Custer lived.

It’s become almost strange to me to realize that most people remember Custer for his death. At Fort Lincoln, the year we portray is 1875. It’s always the summer before the Little Bighorn, and Custer is always there for our big events, portrayed by his modern-day twin Steve Alexander. Every December 31st, Fort Lincoln resets the clock to 1875, and Custer cheats the battle once again.

Steve Alexander portraying General Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Steve Alexander portraying General Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Maybe it was all those years knowing the living Custer–and all the living soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, like Captain Tom Custer, the most eligible bachelor in the 7th; and Captain Keogh the Irishman; and Captain Calhoun, whose wife played the harp–maybe knowing them almost personally for so many years is what made the Little Bighorn more than just a historic landmark for me.

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Who’s horse, I wondered, had lost that shoe? Was the rider thrown? Another soldier had lost his own shoe–a leather brogan shrunken and crumpled with age. Did he lose it retreating up the bluffs, away from the Little Bighorn?

Most eloquent of all was a simple metal band. The plaque merely said “Wedding ring.”

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More than 130 years ago, a woman gave that ring to a man as a token of their love. Lost on a battlefield in the midst of a tragedy, it became a token of a woman’s broken heart. Now lover and beloved are both gone, and their ring sits in a museum, silently telling a story as moving as any Romeo and Juliet.

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My brother and Molly and I drove the four-and-a-half-mile road along the length of the battlefield. Contrary to popular belief, the entire 7th wasn’t annihilated. Custer divided his troops and attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne village on two fronts. Seven companies suffered great loss. But the other five that went with Custer were cut down to the last man.

Here was the hill where Captain Calhoun died. And there was the hill where Captain Keogh died–his horse Comanche the only living thing that survived the Last Stand. At the end of the road was the hill where Major Reno and Captain Benteen and the surviving seven companies withstood a siege for two days.

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The entire battlefield was covered in stone markers, memorializing the very spot where every soldier died. A few newer markers commemorated the places where known Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell.

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Last Stand Hill was thick with white stones. Squarely in their midst stood one highlighted with black. Here fell General George Armstrong Custer.

Last Stand Hill

Last Stand Hill

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I don’t remember Custer for being a great Civil War hero. Nor as the controversial leader of men. I remember that he loved onions–and would eat them raw like apples. And I remember that he was never without one of his dogs at his side. And I remember that he and his wife used to slide down the banister instead of taking the stairs.

I don’t dwell on the logistics of the battle, the blame-shoving, or even if one side was good and the other evil. All I see is a great tragedy in the Human Story. I hear the voices of children crying. I find women reaching for their lovers in the middle of the night and finding an empty bed. I hear a haunting Native wail for lost sons and brothers.

Memorial to the Native Peoples who died at the battle

Memorial to the Native Peoples who died at the battle

“From that time the life went out of the hearts of the ‘women who weep,’ and God asked them to walk on alone and in the shadow.” ~Libby Custer

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Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield

Lost Lake

The results are in.

Lost Lake is indeed lost.

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I was exploring the North Dakota countryside via one of my favorite modes–Google Maps–when I spied a tiny splotch of green indicating some sort of recreation area. (Another reason green is my favorite color–green splotches on maps.) I zoomed in until the name appeared: Lost Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge was located squarely in the middle of nowhere and was small enough to lose on the head of a pin.

Exactly the kind of place Molly and I would love to see.

Satellite view on Google Maps didn’t tell me much. There did not appear to be any roads through he refuge. Or trails. Or even an entrance.

Most notably, there did not appear to be a lake.

Two creeks ran through the green splotch, and there were two or three small bodies of water, which may or may not be worthy of the name “lake”–depending, perhaps, on whether you had just arrived from Death Valley, and whether it had been raining in North Dakota recently.

The locale was both so remote and so mysterious, of course Molly and I had to check it out.

Google Maps offered two routes to get there. I started with one, penetrating deeper and deeper into the country, only to discover that there were no road signs. Meaning I couldn’t find my turn.

Now, let me define the word “lost,” according to me. “Lost” is when you have no idea how to get home again. By that definition, I don’t think I’ve ever been “lost.” I’m very good at following a trail backwards to my starting point.

However, I frequently have no idea where I’m going. In fact, I usually have no idea where I’m going. Hence why I’d rather just stuff the map in my back pocket and follow my nose. Maps stress me out. All too often, I find discrepancies between where I think I’m going and where I end up.

Google Maps is fun from an armchair perspective–but gets all complicated on me out in the field.

My search for Lost Lake was a classic example. I tried several roads–and saw plenty of pretty scenery–but didn’t find anything like what was drawn on the map.

I finally gave up on the first route Google Maps gave me and tried the second.

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This road proved more direct. I finally found a large brown sign proclaiming, “Lost Lake National Wildlife Refuge.”

Where one finds a sign, one would presume to find an entrance.

Not in this case. The barbed wire fence stretched endlessly to the horizon.

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So I followed it.

A couple of miles later, I almost missed the gap in the fence, the turn-off, and the cattle guard. No sign. No fanfare. Apparently Lost Lake intended to stay lost.

I followed the road into the park and drove from one end to the other, about two miles. Pleasant stretch of road, ending in another gap in the barbed wire, another cattle guard, and (oddly) a gravel pit.

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Something was missing.

I turned around and retraced my route.

Yep. No lake. Not one. Not so much as a damp, duck-infested ditch alongside the road. No turn-offs or trail heads, either, that I could see. Lost Lake was indeed lost.

This, then, was the Bermuda Triangle of North Dakota: where lakes disappear, never to be seen again.

To make the trip worth our while, Molly and I poked around the surrounding area, had a great walk, and came up with some nice photographs.

But Lost Lake is indeed Lost. Maybe we’ll try again another day.

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Leopard’s Spots

Juliean the Superior CatMy cat Juliean lived at the humane society for two years, and nobody would adopt her. Simply put, she is crabby beyond words. Beautiful … but crabby.

Why did I adopt her?

Because she looked me in the eye and said, “You are my human.”

The same reason I adopted Molly.

After I promised to adopt Juliean, I was thrilled to discover that she’s as much of an outdoors enthusiast as I am. She’s perfectly comfortable in a harness and leash and even tolerates a clumsy human sneaking up on birds with her.

She’s tolerated a few other things, too …

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Juliean “crabbing out” on Santa. Photo by Kiel Skager, ‘Ohana Photography.

It was winter when I brought Juliean home to my new apartment–the coldest winter I can ever remember. The furkids and I eventually gave up on any idea of cross country skiing and winter hikes and basically hibernated.

Once the worst of the weather lifted, Juliean was thrilled to get out on her leash again.

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Too thrilled.

I quickly learned that Her Crabbiness and I had a serious difference of opinion. One or two outings a day simply were not enough for her. I could walk with her for an hour, but as soon as I let her back in, she was meowing at the door to go back out.

And we’re not talking sweet, plaintive little mews.


The more I took her outside, and the more the temps warmed up, the worse it got. Her noisy desperation was so much like a cat in heat, I questioned whether she was really spayed. But I knew she had been one of the cats to receive a donated spay surgery while she lived at the shelter.

Her meowing was so loud, I was afraid the neighbors would complain. But I wasn’t keen on kicking her out the door unsupervised. Juliean has two modes: Sleeping and getting into trouble.

Setting up a schedule she could learn to count on didn’t help. Giving her a place to sit in a sunny, open window didn’t help. (She’d wait for somebody to walk by and yell, “Help! Bust me outta here!”)

I Googled “cat won’t quit meowing at the door” and learned that the only way to stop the racket was to cut off her outdoor privileges cold turkey.

It broke my heart. She loved going outdoors, and I loved taking her outdoors.

Two months on restriction went by–but she still hadn’t forgotten her thirst for the World Beyond the Door. A squirt bottle did nothing. Herbal essances and a pheremone diffuser only helped a little. Frequent play sessions with catnip and strings and laser lights were appreciated, but not nearly enough to expend her seemingly endless energy. Night and day, she took up her vigil by the door, depriving me of sleep, writing hours, and sanity.

It got to the point where Molly cringed every time Juliean meowed–knowing that the cat’s meow was a trigger that made me frustrated.

I couldn’t bear to have Molly anxious. Not to mention, the cat pretty much hated me.

My crabby kitty

My crabby kitty

“Fine!” I said after two nights of nothing but Juliean singing and Molly wandering from room to room, trying to find a place to hide. I opened the door and kicked Juliean out of the building. “You win.”

Juliean stood on the front stoop, her eyes wide. Oh my gosh. I’m outside.

I pointed a finger at her. “Whatever you do, don’t annoy the neighbors. You’ll get in trouble with the landlady. Or worse, get us evicted. So don’t screw this up.”

Juliean just stared across the yard. Oh my gosh. I’m outside.

“Yeah. Have fun. I’ll check on you in an hour.”

I went back in.

Forty-five minutes later, someone knocked on my door. One of my neighbors stood there, trying to hang on to a squirming Juliean.

“This your cat?” he asked.

I sighed. Busted already? “Was she getting into trouble?”

“No. I just saw her sitting outside and thought maybe she got out by accident.”

Ha! He had no idea.

“I talked to the landlady,” he went on, “and she said there was a cat in this apartment. So we figured it must be yours.”

I raised an eyebrow at Juliean, who by this time had squirmed out of my neighbor’s hands and was trying to decide which way to run. So you’ve met the landlady? I asked her.

Juliean bolted into my apartment and hid in the bathroom.

I told my neighbor there was no mistake; I had merely lost the war to convert her to an indoor cat. I thanked him, had another talk with Juliean, and put her back outside.

Over the next three days, I met nearly half my neighbors, who either knocked on my door or called the number on Juliean’s ID tag. In each instance, she had been in no trouble. My neighbors were just making sure she wasn’t lost.

In fact, I’m surprised. Miss I-Can’t-Keep-Out-of-Trouble has been a model citizen so far. The two little boys in my building adore her, as do the kids next door. One day I went out to check on her and found a young couple petting and playing with her in the grass. “I miss my cats back home,” the young woman said. Now that everybody knows where she lives, they let her into the building for me, and I now hear Juliean meowing on the outside of my door, asking to be let in.

Her shining behavior isn’t the only surprise. Queen Crabby has recently been observed weaving around my legs, purring for no particular reason, and even head-butting me (while I’m trying to work). She even enjoys a few cuddles now and again–something she used to shun.

Thanks for listening to me, she says.

Then under her breath she adds, Humans are so dense.

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Sky Fest


I saw the ad in the paper: “Sky Fest over Fort Stevenson,” Memorial Day weekend. The kite graphics in the ad were enticing. I haven’t flown a kite since I was a little kid, but something about the care-free abandon symbolized by a kite on the wind appealed to my sense of freedom. And as part of my quest to explore North Dakota, I’d been looking for an excuse to visit Fort Stevenson State Park.

It took me all of five seconds to decide I was going.

The decision to spend the night camping didn’t happen until the last minute. I literally walked out of church that morning and said, “Oh, what the heck. Why not?”

In a couple of hours, I was packed and ready. But I stopped to send a quick text. To a cop.

My story with Sam the sheriff’s deputy didn’t end with rescuing a stray dog and helping him get his patrol car out of the snow. He and his wife Jen (a corrections officer) became my first friends in my new hometown.

Sam and Jen have never flat-out informed me that I’m insane for traipsing into the boondocks alone, frequently without a moment’s forethought. But if I walk home from their house after dark (all of three blocks), I’m supposed to text that I made it okay (in a town so small, everybody knows everybody by name). I was also under orders from Jen that I was supposed to tell them if I went camping. And when a prison guard tells you to do something, you just say, “Yes, ma’am.” (BTW, her hamburgers are awesome.)

So I texted Sam just before I left, threw the last of the equipment into the car, and was soon flying down the highway with my dog Molly bouncing in the back seat.

We’re going campi-i-ing! she barked at the first car we passed.

No plans. No cares. Nothing to hold us back. Molly and I are so alike, it’s uncanny.

When we got to Fort Stevenson, on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea, we saw the air filled with kites from a mile away. Inside the park, Molly and I claimed a campsite, then walked to the reconstructed guardhouse to capture some photos.

Kites over Guardhouse, Fort Stevenson State Park


Guardhouse, Fort Stevenson





Molly and kites

Aside from seeing the kites, our plans were carved in jello. First we wandered around the park by car, then by foot. Molly had a dip in the lake and chased the breakers as they came in.

Sailboat on Lake Sakakawea


Lake Sakakawea

Wooded Trail

red rock shore, Lake SakakaweaThis, I thought, is the best part about traveling with just your dog. No one to argue with you about what they want to do and when they want to do it. Just chase whatever looks fun.

Molly swimming in Lake Sakakawea

Molly and I shared that long, red shoreline with only two other people, a mother and daughter sitting just beyond the reach of the waves.

Mother and Daughter

I wondered what they were talking about. Probably nothing important. But I found myself hoping that the little girl would remember that moment for the rest of her life. And that she and her mom would have many moments like them.

I took Molly back to camp and got busy setting up my tent, a task that takes me ten minutes. Choosing the best location, however, can take me half an hour. Shade tree–good! Tree roots–bad. Uneven ground–bad. Fire pit–cozy! Wind direction–smoke? Proximity to picnic table–good! Sunset–beautiful. Sunrise–also beautiful. Lake–also beautiful. Why must my tent have only one window?

I stood back and scratched my neck.

That’s when I realized one of my earrings was missing. My pulse started moving faster. They were my favorite pair, and they had been a gift. From Sam and Jen. My stomach turned at the thought of them ever finding out. I had forgotten to remove the earrings after church.

I snagged a park ranger when she walked by and reported the loss.

“Do you know where you may have lost it?” she asked after taking my name and contact info.

I shook my head. “I’ve been all over the park. I doubt anybody will ever see it again.”

For some reason, I didn’t believe my own words. A voice in my head countered, Mindless as you are, there is no way you could have lost that earring. You will find it again.

I tried to hang on to that hope. Meanwhile, I kept the remaining earring in the coin pocket on my shorts and checked on it every ten minutes.

Strange, for someone as stubbornly independent as me, to attach such a great deal of value to a gift. And yet I did.

Pier at Fort Stevenson

Marina at Fort Stevenson

Sunset over harbor at Fort Stevenson

Molly and I returned from our sunset photo shoot as the darkness gathered and built a fire. Molly dozed beside my camp chair while I watched the stars come out and spied a little on the neighbors.

The family of four in the next campsite over had all gone to bed. The tent was dark. No voices. The evening was still young, but their children were small. Earlier that day, the whole family had gone fishing. I envied the memories those kids were making. Camping was something that came to me only recently. It was not a tradition that was passed down to me. And I always went alone.

In the other direction and further away, I could make out a roaring fire through a stand of trees. Voices drifted from that direction. Talking fast. Laughing. They seemed to be playing some sort of game.

Memory carried me back to another campfire, years ago. I was at a friend’s farm, along with pretty much all the home school families from the area. The kids–we’re talking 20 or 30 young people of all ages–had built a bon fire after dark, and we sat around roasting home-grown apples and playing games and telling stories. Our laughter filled the night sky, and none of us wanted to go home.

Bringing my thoughts back to my own fire, I stroked Molly’s ear and was glad for her company. But I wondered if something was missing.

Besides my earring.

Sam tells me I shouldn’t be such a loner. I’m not fast to make friends. I prefer not to trust people.

Memorial Day dawned cold, but the kite enthusiasts were out early. Molly and I took a hike right after breakfast–just to keep warm.

Trail overlooking Lake Sakakawea

By the time we got back to camp, the day had warmed enough for me to fidget with straps and ties without my fingers freezing.

I glanced over at the family-of-four’s camp and found the mother tearing down alone.

“They left you to break camp by yourself?” I called over.

She stopped in the middle of rolling up the tent and laughed. She explained that her husband had caught a fish that morning and the kids had gone to watch him clean it.

“But actually,” she said and laughed again, “it’s easier to break camp without the kids ‘helping.'”

She said she’d enjoyed watching me and my dog. (A campground is the only place where people shamelessly spy on each other.) “Do you camp alone all the time?”

I said yes.

She motioned to another campsite. “I’ve been watching that guy too. He’s camping alone. I saw him last night just sitting by his fire, and I thought, ‘When’s the last time I felt that relaxed?'”

I smiled at the irony. She had been envying the fact that I was alone?

The sky was full of kites again when Molly and I left–each one on the end of its own string, alone and unencumbered to fly high and fearless and free.

Yet on the ground, someone always held the other end of the string. Holding the kite back. And in doing so, lifting it higher.

I got home and picked up my small silver jewelry box. Took a deep breath. Opened the lid.

My earring was inside.