Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is the place travelers’ plans go to die. I know this from long and bitter experience; yet it vexes me that my trip home should so dominate the memories of a delightful week in the Bighorn Valley with my friend, Baird.
The way west went smoothly through Detroit and Salt Lake City to Billings. Every flight took off on time and landed early. Returning home via Denver and Chicago to Burlington was a much different story. In Denver, after laboriously loading a sold-out wide-body with hundreds of passengers, the “flight deck” came onto the cabin speakers with a tone of voice I have come to know all too well. Chicago was in the grip of a line of thunderstorms; planes flying holding patterns there were experiencing icing. The gist of it was we were in a holding pattern ourselves. Some time later, we were told we could deplane if we wished, but to take our carry-ons and keep in touch; “corporate” was deciding what to do, and one never knew. Grumbles of dissatisfaction turned to a roar of protest. I got off and shortly afterward, the flight was canceled till the following morning.
The line at Customer Service stretched 50 yards. After a period of unhappy waiting (those lines always feel like arriving at a McDonald’s right behind a high school hockey bus), I was given a 5:25 a.m. to Dulles and another getting to Burlington about two. I grabbed them.
And so to bed. Customer service gave us bottled water, snacks in bags impossible to open, and little blankets. I picked a chair right near my expected departure gate, just in case — the soothing background noise, rather like a river’s, was the soft rumble of the moving walkway — and tried to find positions I could stay in for more than five minutes at a time. I kept thinking of Macbeth in Act II: “‘Twas a rough night.” But I can’t recall the hours between two and four, so I must have slept some.
It’s too bad that return trip has so dominated the memory of the week — and you haven’t heard it all — because the days on the Bighorn River with Baird were delightful. The sun shone most of the time; we drifted along with an old guide, eyes peeled for rising trout. Baird’s a keen, dry fly fisherman, and likes more than anything else to stalk and cast to a large fish feeding on the surface. When he finally gets one to hit, his quiet triumph is palpable even 15 feet away. I enjoy it, too; but like Norman Maclean’s narrator in “A River Runs Through It,” I enjoy watching now almost as much as doing. I was happy to drift a pair of microscopic nymph imitations a few feet below the surface and wait for the sudden impulse that signals something down there is connecting. A lovely 22-inch brown rewarded my philosophy one fine morning.
The Bighorn, Edenic though it may seem, is currently suffering. Fish counts, at one time up around 25,000 per mile, are down to about half that. The outfitter expresses optimism for next year. The guides clearly doubt it. “High water” is the most often-cited culprit; it washes trout eggs off the redds. Plus, Wyoming and Montana share the lake above the fishing area, and their disputes about the proper uses and distribution of the water are probably indicative of future disputes over water everywhere. The one bright sign was a large number of small trout, 10 to 12 inches, which bodes well for the future of the fishery. In any case, we’ll research carefully — if hopefully — before coming again.
A week ago, I mentioned that had I been with Custer, a few miles away, on that fateful June afternoon in 1876, I’d’ve volunteered for courier duty — preferably long-range and high-speed. On an afternoon last week when 40-mile-per-hour winds blew Baird and me off the river, we revisited the somber scene of the battlefield, where I learned, in a conversation with a Park Service guide (conversations are far more rewarding than lectures), that there was just such a guy with Custer. Giovanni Martini had fought with Garibaldi and joined the U.S. Army upon immigrating. A trumpeter, he spoke no English, so when Custer dispatched him to urge the ammunition train to speed up, a quick-thinking adjutant, Lt. Cooke, scribbled a note to carry with him: “Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring packs.”
The addressee, Capt. Benteen, instead diverted to save Maj. Reno’s routed command from encirclement and slaughter. An attempt to reach Custer’s last known position was forcefully repelled. Before anyone could reach it, everyone with Custer, including Cooke (whose note has been miraculously preserved), was dead on the field. Giovanni Martini was saved by his courier assignment, and later from conviction for cowardice (the search for scapegoats was intense) by the note he and his wounded horse had borne to the rear. He ended his days in 1922 in Brooklyn, an old soldier with occasional flashes of memory. Remembering him during that long night in Denver, I was embarrassed to think how much easier we have it now — even during occasional flight cancellations.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.