Hot. Humid. 99 degrees. Summer, 1960.
“Yes!” we all jumped up, ready to go.
“Whoa! We’ve got to pack our lunch.” Mom reminded us.
But Bette and I were already running up the stairs to gather our mini-purses for the gift store at our annual visit to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan, North Dakota. Whenever our cousins spent time at our house, this was one of our favorite trips before we’d spend a week at Lake Metigoshe with our Aunt Vi.
Bette and I were ten years old, and my brother Bill and Marilyn were seven. We’d have to hang out with the younger ones, but we were used to that.
“Tennis shoes~ No sandals,” mom yelled up the stairs.
“We know!” I yelled back as I tied my shoes and threw my sandals into the closet. “Ready?”
“Yup,” replied Bette. “Marilyn and Bill, let’s go.”
“Dibs on the window!” I called and turned to run down the stairs.
“Dibs on the other window!” Betty yelled and bounded down behind me.
We pushed through the back door to the alley where Dad had just closed the trunk of Aunt Vi’s metalic brown galaxy.
“We get the windows!”
“Either on the way there or on the way back: Choose.” Dad said.
I stomped my foot.
“Sheri-Rae,” is all he had to say, and Bette and I squished into the bench seat so we’d have the windows on the way back. No air conditioner available in the car, and we’d be roasting after the hike. We made the best choice as Bill and Marilyn hopped in the back with us, thinking they were luckiest for the window first. They’d be disappointed on the way back, even though it was only a 1/2 hour drive back to Bismarck.
Funny how we learn how to wait from little experiences like this. And how my love of history began with these simple picnics with cousins.
Dad would pull in at the star in the above map to drop us off. We had no water bottles, adult, or map. We just hiked up the hill, four cousins together, to the first guardhouse, occasionally taking shade in the cottonwood or elm trees along the way up the steep hill. No one even said, “Watch out for snakes — or strangers.” Just, “Have fun. Look out for each other. See you at the parking lot.”
We’d enter the guardhouse of what was once Fort McKeen and run up the stairs to open the slits where soldiers stood if under attack. We walked out and looked over the railing. And I would pause at each spot, close my eyes, and imagine that General Custer had walked here. I’d touch the walls and sense the excitement. You know that Star Trek show, “First Contact,” where Picard touches the Phoenix — yeah that feeling.
Of course we bounded to the next guard house, and then walked, exhausted, to the third and final one before meeting my parents in the parking lot–because the next stop was our favorite: The On A Slant Mandan Indian Village.
The fort was hot and dirty, but the earthen lodges, built by the Mandans, were cool and peaceful inside. In these times, benches were provided for we future folk who might not like to sit in the dirt. But we’d sit and we’d stare at each historical item carefully placed appropriately behind a screen. We’d imagine and talk about what we’d be doing and how we’d live here if we had lived during that time. And we knew that where we walked, so did the amazing Sacagawea because this is where Lewis and Clark wintered and found her to help lead them to the coast.
No matter how hot the summer heat, our parents had convince us to leave, and Betty and I each sat, our heads leaning back on the seat, and the wind blowing on us on the way home. And we tried to convince my parents to take us to the museum, cooled with air conditioning, so we could continue learning about the local Hidatsa, Lakota, and Mandan Indians — Native Americans who had lived in this area for eons.
Patience. Planning ahead. History. Love the little lessons from cousin visits.
Google Maps from Fort Abraham Lincoln Google Map.
Guardhouse by Sheri, replica from park site.
“The interior of the hut of a Mandan Chief”: aquatint by Karl Bodmer from the book “Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834” Public Domain
Mandan earth lodge, photographed by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1908; Public Domain