The Ballad of Charlie Marrs

Saturday morning, I awoke in my rattling tent around 6. The wind was blowing in from the Northwest at around 15 to 20 mph. Waves were crashing onto the beach I was camped on, just at the edge of my boat pulled up on shore. I considered getting back onto the water right away, another full day on Fort Peck in the wind and the waves, confident I’d be able to paddle through it, but not really looking forward to the effort and concentration needed.

I checked my GPS map. I was camped on the very tip of a coulee – Eighth Coulee – sort of a long ridge/peninsula that juts into Fort Peck Lake. Way up at the top of the coulee – maybe a good 4 miles away as the crow flies, I see a little marker – Graveyard Hill. At that moment I decided a walk to whatever Graveyard Hill turns out to be was better than a rough day on the water. I packed a small bag with snacks and water, grabbed my hiking pole and set out.

The first mile or two of the walk, I am simply trying to solve the maze that is the ridgeline that will lead me up the coulee. After all, I was walking on top of what used to be a pretty substantial ridgeline that overlooked the Missouri River valley prior to the dam being built in the 1930s, which turned this into a floating labyrinth. You climb a hill, determine which is the best route that will get you further up the ridge, then descend and follow what your mind remembers before you climb again. I saw what I assumed was Graveyard Hill a ways in the distance, so I tried to keep that as my objective. The treeless peninsulas and ridges soon gave way to a pine forest, which showed signs of having burned in a wild fire recently. I was watching every step closely, aware of the risk of upsetting a resting rattlesnake, though not too concerned as it was a pretty chilly day, or turning an ankle on a rock or root. Consulting the GPS map, I had to correct course a few times to stay on track for the Hill.

Eventually, I started climbing over a razor thin ridgleline – looking out to on both left and right miles out into the lake inlets. Graveyard Hill was getting close. One last climb and I was there. The highest point for miles around. At first there was nothing. Then I saw a few things that nature didn’t have an explanation for – approaching them I noticed there were three Army Corps survery markers:

Interesting, perhaps, but this wasn’t the Graveyard advertised. Nevertheless, I took in the incredible view in the gusty winds for a bit, then started back down the coulee.

Taking a slightly different route going down, I looked to the next ridgeline and noticed something else not quite explained by nature. A small fenced off area – protecting a small plot of land from invading cattle that sometime use the pastures. For a moment, I didn’t think much of it and continued on my path. But the thought that’s came to me time and again on this trip – you are here in this place only once, you have unlimited time and no one is telling you what to do – I walked up to it.

4 poles stuck in the ground connected by wire, surrounding a gravestone:

I read the headstone. My mind was going 200mph. Charlie Marrs. Young guy, 32 years old. Cowboy. Struck by fricking lightning on his horse – what an awful way to go. Then 88 years later, some grandnephew gets wind that his great uncle was an ‘old time cowboy’ and decides to plant this headstone. Certainly ol’ Charlie Marrs isn’t buried here. My best guess is that young Don best approximated the spot where Great Uncle Charlie was struck down and came up here to plant this. It’s absolutely possible the exact spot is somewhere nearby, possibly 200ft under the lake that wasn’t there in 1905. But it was an amazingly beautiful spot overlooking the lake, on an extrememly remote ridge, where I doubt anyone has randomly run across this before.

When I’m back in civilization, I would love to try to track down Don Weibert, or Great-Grandnephew Jamal Weibert and get the full story on Charlie Marrs, and what’s the story behind this memorial marker. I am certain the story behind Charlie Marrs is 100x more interesting that the story of me locating his memorial stone. My long hike up to Graveyard Hill didn’t turn out to be a disappointment. If I was a singer or someone who writes songs, you bet your ass there’d be a tune coming out that lamented the unfortunate ending of one of the true old time cowboys, Charlie Marrs.


The Biggest Thing

On my 4.5 mile walk back from Fort Peck Dam to my campsite (correct, this place wasn’t built with pedestrians in mind – more on that later), I got to thinking about the single biggest human-created object I’ve ever seen. We can quickly get into a debate on definitions of ‘big’ and of ‘object’: is a city an object? The Great Wall of China? Do a lot of little objects make up something larger? Does big mean intricate, complicated?

On a restful Monday afternoon, over a few beers and a sunny, perfect day in Montana, I’ve decided this is the largest human-created object I’ve ever seen:

It’s hard to see but it’s there. The Fort Peck Dam. Lake on the right, the dam curves from the center, out to the right, then back to the left again. It’s the world’s largest hydrollically created dam, which I learned today means they dredged silt, sand and gravel from the river bottom to build it. The loaded all that slurry into a single massive pond, let all the water drain and let it dry out, rinse and repeat, layer upon layer until you have the dam. It’s 4 miles long and 1 mile wide at its base. It took 7 years to build, at its peak employed 10,000 workers making 50 cents per hour, killed 31 guys during contruction (an excellent safety record for its time), and cost what an average major league pitcher signs a contract for today: $84 million!

In my definition, this object was built to serve a single purpose, plus one big caveat is that you can see pretty much see the whole thing at once. That would disqualify the Great Wall (not counting from space – see I can qualify this however I want, this is my blog).

I’m trying to wrack my brain to think if I’ve ever seen anything bigger in my life. Have you? What would that be?