CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — Crazy Horse And Carhenge

All the news is D-Day. The late Stephen Ambrose would be elderly now, had he lived, but he would have been part of this last great celebration of that historic day.

I did not get to Sand Creek. I ran out of day. Eventually, I got to Denver — Brighton and then Aurora — and stayed in a dismal motel, sketchy even by my relaxed standards. Read Mark Edmundson’s “The Heart of the Humanities” and a new book about the Literary Club that Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) created in London. Johnson and James Boswell are an amazing pair. I never get tired of reading Boswell’s unbelievably candid journals or the “Life” of Johnson, still regarded as perhaps the most interesting biography ever written.

But to the day. I left Hot Springs, S.D., after the usual make-your-own-waffle breakfast. Coming off the Black Hills is astounding. Suddenly, you are in a giant grassland. I had forgotten how much more grassland there is in South Dakota and Nebraska than in North Dakota. Those who say that the Great Plains are homogeneous have not really opened their eyes. And those who say that North Dakota and South Dakota are Tweedledee and Tweedledum are just wrong. There were so many places in western Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota that I wanted to divert to see. A gravel road suddenly strikes off due west over the ridgeline and at the end of it there are fossil beds, buffalo bone sites, toadstool badlands formations, dinosaur quarries. I wanted to explore every one, but each one is an added half hour or four times that. So I kept moving.

My first stop was Fort Robinson near Crawford, Neb. There were 250 people there, families and older couples. NONE of them was at the site of the killing of Crazy Horse or the breakout of the Cheyenne (“Cheyenne Autumn”). They were all either dinking around in fascination with the frontier military or riding bicycles or bicycles built for two.

I don’t like the karma of Fort Robinson, not just because of Crazy Horse and the Cheyenne, but because it represents the spear of American military occupation and land theft in the American West. I get it. It is what it was and is, and in some sense, each one of us votes for that conquest every day in our habits and in our complacency about what happened between 1840-1890. You can hardly say, “this should never have happened,” and yet be a beneficiary of what our white forbears did. But you can try to check your complacency and your moral evasiveness.

The two log buildings that brought the end of Crazy Horse have been re-created. They look like re-creations, of course. There is no whitewash. The signage, such as it is, does not try to coverup the fact that Crazy Horse was lured to the Fort on false premises, not to confer with the “soldier chief” but to be arrested and transported to Florida and then on to the Dry Tortugas, where he would be allowed to live out the rest of his life behind bars.

There is a new commemorative something in front of the adjutant’s office, where he died, and the guard house, where they intended to fling him. Strange unshaped rocks on concrete bases. It wasn’t at all clear to me what was intended, but it didn’t deepen the experience. In fact, it cheapened it in my view. I like stark. I don’t like cluttered. And if the rock garden is somehow important to our understanding of the thing that happened there in September 1877, we need to have some clue. I thought perhaps the rocks were placed where individuals fell in the horrible skirmish, but who knows? To be at such a place, where such a shameful thing occurred, and to see the whole assembled crowd using Fort Robinson as a low-level summer resort, examining cannons and sabers but not visiting the Crazy Horse death site was really upsetting to me. Nor do I think that putting tourists in old forts is such a good idea. Fortunately, I am not in charge of the universe.

Then it was on to Carhenge at Alliance, Neb. Carhenge is my favorite roadside attraction in the American West. I took photographs from 50 angles — for the 10th time in my life, but where are the previous photographs? There were nine cars there and two motorcycles.

Unfortunately, the purity of Carhenge has been damaged by “improvements.” Why must we always add more to every spare place? Other metal sculptures dot the site, some of them impressive, but the net effect is to detract from the fact that in that place in western Nebraska a zany entrepreneur erected a dead car version of Stonehenge. The fencing, the picnic tables, the awnings, the signage, the souvenir shop — all that degrades the experience, in my view.

A couple wandered among the cars identifying make, model and year. The man was wearing Great Plains man shorts, a straw cowboy hat, sunglasses, a muscle shirt open at the armpits and low cowboy boots. In short, he looked absolutely ridiculous, a kind of caricature of something. And yet I think he reckoned he looked good. And perhaps he did. There are many paths to the great spirit.

I sat down at a picnic table to eavesdrop on conversations. A family of eight or nine was having lunch — baloney sandwiches and individual bags of chips. The children were freaked out by a bee and the parents were ridiculing and rebuking the children for being freaked out by a bee. The man had a drone that he powered up and flew over Carhenge. Eventually, he landed it, saying, “You know, maybe we should walk out to look at the site.” In other words, they were at Carhenge, but they were observing it from a distance, even though the experience requires you to wander in the sacred space. His wife turned to me. “First time here?” Yes, I lied. Then he spoke. “It’s really neat. We have been here a couple of times over the years. Apparently, it is based on that Stonehenge thing in England.”

Well, then.

And off I went. I had mediocre Chinese food in Alliance, Neb., and then began to barrel for Denver. I had let the day slip away. I spent the rest of the evening reading. From Hot Springs to Denver, endless, largely unpopulated country. Lots of pronghorn antelope.

Today I pick up my truck camper, go through orientation, and then light out for the source of the Colorado River, or rather “one source” of the Colorado River. I am hoping by this time tomorrow I will be John Steinbeck’s lesser cousin, Chip Steinbeck, somewhere in a state park, of which there are very many, in Colorado.


Written in a Starbucks in Aurora, Colo.

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