The West, 2021: Days 24-28: Wildly Western Stories


If you're new to Non-Boring History, welcome! Right now, things are a little hectic. I (Annette Laing, PhD, actual historian among other things) am on the road in the West, with my tolerant spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). I’m reporting on our historical experiences, and I'm sending more than my usual 2-3 emails each week.

I warmly recommend you visit my orientation post to learn more about how this site works.

Scripts make life easy, don’t they? And there’s a place for scripts in travel. Tours work for people who otherwise might not otherwise go overseas, for example. I do think bucket lists are a bit of a mistake: My best times in travel have often been in unexpected places. Currently, there’s an effort to persuade Americans to stop crowding into Yellowstone and Yosemite, and other overwhelmed national parks, and check out the hidden gems. I endorse that effort.

It’s when you go off script, that things really get interesting.

A Brit in the West (No, Not Me)

We were glad to get out of Billings. It was a bit grim. And the rest of Montana wasn’t exactly thrilling us, either, when I saw an exit sign for Terry, Montana, and below it, EVELYN CAMERON GALLERY.

With my weak internet connection, I barely had time to search Evelyn Cameron on Wikipedia, and notice she was born in London, before yelling to Hoosen to take the exit. Slight screeching and swerving might or might not have ensued.

So Evelyn was one of those crazy Brits (stop looking at me like that) who forsakes her native land and all its culture and comforts to move thousands of miles, and embrace the American West. Born into a wealthy merchant family, Evelyn Flowers gave up her stifling Victorian lady future, married a Scotsman called Ewen Cameron, and emigrated with him to Montana in the late 19th century.

Their goal was to raise polo ponies and ship them back to England for the sport of aristocrats. This venture (like so many English ventures in American history) was a disaster, because it wasn’t well planned: The ponies died on the journey home. Ooops. No wonder, if she went around standing on them.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

So Ewen and Evelyn lived instead on her three hundred pounds private income a year, and her hard work as a pioneering homesteading housewife (while Ewen went off birdwatching, or something). Raised with an army of servants, she loved to do housework. The woman was obviously bonkers. Here she is baking her own bread in Montana:

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

Oh, and she also made a good living as a portrait photographer, while also taking photos for art’s sake. Like this one of her sitting on a petrified tree over a canyon, along which she apparently crawled as far as she would dare. Which was a heck of a lot farther than most of us, I suspect, and definitely farther than me. Bonkers, I tell you.

Want to know more about Evelyn? Montana PBS made a documentary about her: A Worthy Life. Or you can visit Terry, Montana, and the lovely volunteers at the local museum will let you into the gallery to see Evelyn’s photos (the originals are safely stashed in St. Helena, but they have copies, as well as copies and transcripts of her diaries, right there in Terry).

The OTHER Amazing Park

So Hoosen and I bypassed the crowded delights of Yellowstone, skirting the edge of the park, and instead set our sights on Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands, so called because everyone from the Lakota to the French called the area “bad land”, simply because it was. Traveling through this jigsaw with its multiple obstacles and muddy water without a modern paved trail must have been truly a pain. But a beautiful pain. This, by the way, is just one of many, many views.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

Wait, isn’t Non-Boring History supposed to be about history?

Indeed it is. And that brings us to buffalo (more properly called bison), seen here in the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (named for the man who discovered the value of conservation by slaughtering bison willy-nilly in the 1880s):

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

If you flew in and saw these sights, you would, as we did, say “oooh, ahhhh.” But driving across America on three different routes over the past three years, including two different routes on this trip, added an uncomfortable layer of perspective, by allowing us to see conservation parks in context, and understanding how small conserved areas really are.

Where once there were millions of buffalo wandering wild across millions of acres, today they are limited to a very, very small part of the American landscape. At Roosevelt National Park, they are hemmed in by a fence (yes, a 7 foot tall fence surrounds the park), visitor centers, and tourist traps.

I rush to add that the National Park Service does a great job (even though I continue to find the quasi-military uniforms disconcerting), but, really, the segregation of fragmentary natural ecosystems in America strikes me as tragic.

Two hundred years ago, buffalo roamed, prairie dogs chirped, and indigenous people made a living without destroying the ecosystem that sustained them. Now, except for animals and plants cloistered in precarious national parks, and people on reservations, shunted into lands of no economic value, all are gone. And the disastrous process was still underway less than a hundred years before I was born.

In the larger South unit of the National Park, we drove around for several hours, walked a bit, and saw One (yes, 1) buffalo. That was it. I know there were more out there, but they weren’t exactly flooding the landscape. Buffalo aren’t endangered anymore. But they came close to extinction during the period after Americans began their mass migration west in the 1840s. Within five years of Teddy Roosevelt starting on his hunting in the Badlands in the 1880s, the buffalo, once about 25 million, were reduced to 600. Not a typo.

No, Roosevelt wasn’t personally responsible for those numbers, and the decline was in freefall before he even set off for the West, but it’s a shocking reminder of how fast that change happened, and how devastating it was. He saw it, too, and became the most conservationist president the United States has ever had.

While the bison are no longer endangered, their lack of genetic diversity remains a subject of study and conservation work.

I recommend eating bison: We tend to value what we can monetize, a disturbing fact of modern life. And buffalo burgers are (quite seriously) good eating.

Today, National Parks remain threatened by corporations eager to strip them of their natural resources. Which brings me to the North Dakota Oil Boom (now bust).

The Gold, I Mean Oil, Rush

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

Hotel prices are high as the nation rushes to get out of the house this COVID summer. So Hoosen and I ended up saving $$ by detouring a bit, and spending the night at a very cheap, very empty Hampton Inn in Williston, ND, center of the North Dakota Oil Boom which peaked in 2012. It’s left behind empty new hotels and apartments by the truckload, not to mention bars and small casinos, plus the occasional very good coffeehouse.

What’s left looks a lot like the aftermath of the 1849 California Gold Rush: The people who owned the mineral rights became millionaires. The early employees to arrive made great money, at great personal risk. Later workers made very modest sums, also at great personal risk. The cost of rentals in Williston, at the peak, just as in California in 1849, was insane: $3000 for a two-bedroom apartment was reported to me, and other ways were found to relieve workers of their gains: The bar-casinos, drugs, prostitution to name a few. In other words, much money was to be made, as ever, by mining the miners.

To quote my favorite saying (well, one of them): History doesn’t repeat itself. But it sometimes rhymes.

A Bit of Medieval Europe

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

It isn’t just a magnificent church. It’s a magnificent abbey.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

With actual monks. Here’s my old friend Brother Michael.

I think we’re being photobombed by a saint and Pope Francis. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

For more than a century, the Benedictine brothers of Assumption Abbey have been praying and working in the tiny town of Richardton, ND. Founded by Swiss monks, and numbering many Americans of German and Russian descent among the brethren over the years, Assumption Abbey still manages to stand out on the prairie, despite all the remains of the Oil Boom littered about. It’s a fascinating and peaceful place, and visiting with Bro. Michael is always a joy. We’ve known each other for more than a quarter century, and we have one of those friendships where we can always pick up where we left off.

Bro. Michael and the other monks are not medieval, of course. They are modern men, who use electricity and wifi, who make modern products for sale (soap and candles, among other things, but NO, not fruitcake, that’s the other Assumption Abbey), who engage with the world the way it is now.

But every day, several times a day, they meet together, dressed in habits, for prayer in the magnificent Abbey church, and their voices take us back three thousand miles, and a thousand years.

History is never a separate subject on my journeys. Never something I leave behind in a bag of famous names and dates. It’s here and now, forever present, adding rich stories to even the bleakest landscapes.

I hope you have enjoyed following the cross-country adventures of Annette and Hoosen. If not, that’s OK too. The first two months of Non-Boring History have seen many experiments, and this is just one of them. I will be taking a slightly different direction soon, allowing you to customize how (and how much) you engage with me. So do stay tuned.

And as always, please let me know what you think.

Don’t forget, I am putting together a very cool gift pack of fun and useful souvenirs of all kinds from this journey! Paid subscribers will be entered in a drawing this week, so if you want a chance, it’s not too late to become a paid subscriber for only $5 a month (or less, with an annual subscription!)