The Nez Perce Trail to Walla Walla

After Yellowstone, there’s a gap until reaching the next logical stopping place. You travel through parts of Idaho, Montana and Washington – nice states, to be sure – but there’s no “major” parks along the way to Seattle. Not until you hit Mt Rainier, which I made my target.

Although the major parks, like Yellowstone, are missing, there are some minor parks – all thematically connected with the turbulent relationship between whites and Native Americans. As they were kinda-sorta on the way, I decided to visit these parks. In fact, they’re loosely connected by a set of highways that form the so-called ‘Nez Perce Trail’ (this same trail frequently crosses paths with the ‘Lewis & Clark Trail.’

The Nez Perce were a group of plains Indians who historically controlled roughly 15 million acres of land across Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Already ravaged by disease, after the Civil War they were hounded and hunted down for refusing to cede 14.7 million acres of their traditional lands to the US Government. (What a legitimate treaty, where you’re forced to sign, huh?) Over 4 months they traveled 1500 miles, trying to find refuge first with the neighboring Crows and then in Canada; the bulk of the group eventually surrendered just 40 miles from Canada and then spent years in various tiny, desolate reservations in Oklahoma and Idaho. The whole event is probably most famous for Chief Joseph’s remorseful, “I will fight no more forever.”

The three parks which I selected to visit were roughly on a straight line (as the crow flies) between Rainer and Yellowstone. They were: Big Hole National Battlefield Park, Nez Perce National Historic Site, and Whitman Mission National Historic Site.

Although they lie in roughly a straight line, the non-interstate highways in this area are anything but straight; they are forced to conform to topology as they wind along various rivers and navigate huge mountains.

My first move after Yellowstone was to travel into Montana, and then up the distorted western border of the state to Missoula. Along the way, I planned on visiting two sites: Big Hole, and a state park, Bannack, which was the first capitol of Montana, and which featured a mining ghost town. Unfortunately, the state park was closed (a fact I only discovered when 10 miles away). Fortunately, Big Hole was not far away.

Montana towns, by the way, are quite nice. I felt there was a tidiness to these towns that was unlike those in other states. They always seemed well-organized, even with just a few thousand people, and I quite enjoyed my limited time in the state. The other amazing thing about Wyoming and Montana was highway repairs: on the East coast I’m used to some really botched repairs, many of which amount to globs of asphalt thrown haphazardly in the direction of potholes. But in these two states, the repairs were surgical – you could glide over them and hardly feel a bump. I don’t know whether this was due to climate peculiarities or the competence of the workers, but it was a welcome change.

There are huge parks like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and then there are tiny, mostly unknown sites, such as Big Hole National Battlefield. This marked an early battle in the Nez Perce War, and although minor in absolute terms was historically significant.

I say minor in absolute terms because of the amount of people involved: 200 US soldiers and 800 Nez Perce (including 200 warriors). As someone most familiar with Civil War battles, which could involve 200 thousand people, I found the tiny size of the battle remarkable. Also interesting to Civil War afficionados, many Civil War officers re-appear in the Indian Wars, so you see familiar names and faces (in this case, O.O. Howard and John Gibbon). The famous Custer, incidentally, was an unlikeable Civil War cavalry officer who became an unlikeable Indian fighter before being obliterated.

Some symbolic tipis on the Big Hole battlefield

The battle itself was depressing, a night attack on the sleeping Nez Perce camp with the customary slaughter of women and children (soldiers were ordered to “shoot low, because they’ll be sleeping in their tipis.”) The Nez Perce, although initially surprised, organized a resistence, repulsed the soldiers, and then were able to continue their flight. Most curiously, the night before, many of the Nez Perce warriors apparently wanted to post sentries and were shut down by one of their leaders.

After hiking a few of the short trails around Big Hole, I hopped in my car and headed to a hotel in Missoula, about an hour and a half away.

Missoula lies near the Bitterroot Mountains, a set of mountains that lies in an unusually straight and regular line extending South from the city; you travel alongside these mountains to reach it.

It’s a small city, just 63 thousand people, and although much of it has the usual suburban blight, the core part of the town feels very much like a Pacific Northwest city, with coffeeshops, microbreweries, bicycles, and so forth. This, despite the fact that Montana is not something I typically consider Northwest. The small downtown section which I saw felt very walkable (I saw, briefly, the Missoula Celtic Festival… my tolerance for bagpipes is about 3 minutes). My biggest problem with the city was the fact that, like small midwest towns, it retained a significant amount of diagonal parking spaces, which are wonderful in one-road towns. In larger cities, they seriously obstruct the view of traffic and make driving across main streets a hazardous gamble.

After spending the night in Missoula, my next stop was the Nez Perce National Historic Site in Idaho.

You know you’re in for a fun drive when you see signs that say “Winding Road: Next 99 Miles,” and in Idaho I developed a particular abhorrence to a certain type of highway, since I was now two states removed from my lightning quick I-90 days. Let me describe these highways:

The speed limit is 50 miles per hour, but there’s no way to sustain these speeds. You are forced to reduce speed for cornering at anywhere from 20-40 mph at least 4 times every mile. However, some people will fly along these roads and tailgate you so you have to pull over at infrequent turnouts. Sometimes you will encounter an RV which will not allow you past, which you must suffer behind for tens of miles (sometimes with a tailgater pressing you to pass in rare passing zones). There’s no shoulder on the roads, and they’re claustrophobically narrow. One side of the road typically terminates in a cliff wall and the other with some river or sheer drop of hundreds of feet. The whole time you drive these roads, you worry about people coming around corners and drifting over the double yellow line, which some cars do, if they’re traveling too fast.

I’d estimate, at this point, that I’ve driven about 1000 miles on such roads, and I’ve grown to loathe them, including 200 consecutive miles through Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. I’ve discovered, with some surprise, that the single biggest predictor to how comfortable I am on a road is the width of the shoulders. No shoulder means discomfort; just 2-3 feet of shoulder and I’m typically fine.

One Nez Perce site: “Heart of the Monster” (pretty cool name at least)

Anyway, I finally reached Nez Perce National Historical Site. This ‘site’ is actually a disjoint set of sites – various pullouts along the road that form a constellation of traditional Nez Perce lands and sites where they were hounded to death by US soldiers. The administrative center was in the nothing town of Spalding, Idaho.

I would not recommend this park to anyone. There’s a small museum in the visitor center, and a 25 minute video that was assembled in the mid-eighties, to judge by the clothing. The narrators and even interviewees of this video were clearly reading from a script, stumbling over the words. Although the visitor center was tidy, it was located in an empty, sun-baked field that must have been 95 degrees.

I watched the video and then left immediately, glad to be in the cool AC of my van. Spalding is right on the border of Washington, and after stopping in Lewiston (right next to Clarkston, get it?) for lunch I continued through Washington.

The only thing notable about Lewiston was that I drove right through a forest fire – there were emergency vehicles on the road, and a helicopter dropping a bucket into the river about 100 yards from me. The smoke from the fire sprawled across the road, darkening my path and turning everything an eerie yellow. It was a unique experience.

As is so often the case, the Idaho/Washington border marked an immediate transition, and I entered a huge swath of wheat fields. I’ve never seen anything like it – these were literal mountains of wheat, the ground covered with a mono-crop even more consistent than corn in Kansas. This continues for a hundreds of miles in southeastern Washington, and is totally inconsistent with my mental image of the state.

I spent the night in a Walla Walla, Washington, Wal-Mart (population: 30k). Wall Walla felt like the husk of a mall, when the building is intact but the stores have left. There was a downtown, but it was deserted, and even the strip was depressing. The nearby college looked like a purely vocational school. But it turns out there’s a neighboring town, “College Place,” which is where I found the Wal-Mart, and chain stores that showed some semblence of life. Around the town, the monoculture subsides somewhat and there are some vinyards as well.

An overview of the grounds of Whitman Mission

The attraction near Walla Walla was Whitman Mission National Historic Site, which is notable as one of the rare locations where Indians slaughtered white people (though this slaughter of 13 was not really comparable to the 90 Indians massacred at Big Hole). Before the slaughter, the Mission had been an important stop on the Oregon Trail.

Got to walk along the Oregon Trail. Didn’t die of dysentery.

If Nez Perce was a dismal site, Whitman Mission was delightful. It’s just 96 acres, but it had a small museum, a nice view of the foundations of the mission, and an incredibly professional video. I’m not joking, it had the single best video I’ve seen at a National Park Service site. It must have been filmed within the past year, it was Hollywood quality, and it was filled with the insipid drivel some of these videos spew.

The site was quiet and cool when I visited in the early morning, and the history here – of misunderstandings between Indians and settlers that led to tragedy – was quite moving. I’d strongly recommend this as a stop for anyone traveling through southeast Washington.

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