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The unzipping sound of a tent flap in the darkness was the first sound of this early morning. I stumbled out into the cool, fresh eastern Montana air. Bumbling around with my flashlight, I managed to get a pot of coffee started on the old propane Coleman stove. Then went off to relieve myself.

We were at Crow Agency, Montana … home of the Crow Indian Tribe, mortal enemies of the Lakota interlopers to their homeland. That is how 6 of them came to be scouts for the 7th U.S. Cavalry, led by General [brevet] George Armstrong Custer, back in 1876. This little campground was just to the east – maybe a little north – of the famous Last Stand Hill where Custer and about 50 of his men were found mutilated … and very dead. But, at that moment, it could have been in my back yard. All was dark & silent, except, for the sound of coffee beginning to percolate. I just sat in silence, absorbing the smell of those brewing coffee grinds.

Poured myself a mug full of the awakening beverage, and then, that zippering sound again. Out rolled my oldest boy, Jesse — then 6 years old. This was 1987. We quietly chatted. Then, the sky began to brighten, ever so slowly. It is very likely that my two other urchins, Adam & Christopher, popped out of the tent about this time.

The day before, we had driven and hiked around the battlefield which stretches some 3 miles along the Little Bighorn River. One of the things that struck me, as we were on foot among the markers – [they are not headstones, though there is a National Cemetery in the Park, but rather markers that denote where bodies,  in some cases specific bodies, where found by the burial parties] – was that you could almost feel the flow of the battle. Those markers make this the most unique National Battlefield in the Park system. Little Bighorn – or, Custer’s Last Stand – is a pristine & peaceful place. Yet, for two days in June it was dusty, loud, violent, and bloody. The dichotomy cannot be ignored.

Little Bighorn sky

courtesy of National Geographic Magazine

The morning sun began to rise. We had a clear view from our campsite up to Last Stand Hill and Battle Ridge beyond. The markers glistened. There was a beautiful orange glow cast upon the site. It was quiet, we had our comforting coffee, it was a glorious sunrise. And we were gazing upon an iconic location where a scene of lifelong interest had taken place. Now, in my reflective mind, it was coming to life.

It was a recipe for our own private nirvana. To this day, those moments were among the most calming I have ever known. Wish I could bottle it: some quiet solitude, a cup of coffee, a dash of children, sprinkle in some sunrise, and a scenic and/or historical site to jump start the imagination. Perfect, to my taste!

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