Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hello buffalo

It was cold and windy after I left Glacier. I stayed for a couple nights at a free campground at Fort Peck Lake in eastern Montana… it was miserable weather, I was tired and unhappy, and I wrote and played guitar (in my tent) and wandered around for long hours. Oddly, there were seagulls here. Also, apparently, a really big dam, which I did not actually visit, despite the exhortation.

The next day I went to Makoshika State Park, the largest of Montana’s state parks and a very nice place with fossils, cool trails, and a good museum that had many of the things that can be found in the park on display:

I hiked around for a while… or fooled around…

Of course, I had to look for fossils. And I found some. I just have no idea what they are. I didn’t take them, I mean, I just took pictures of them…

The park contains something known as the K-T boundary, which marks the division in the rock record between the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary; in other words, when there are dinosaurs and when there ain’t. It is a much-studied section of earth history.

After Makoshika I traveled east and made camp at the Buffalo Gap campground just over the border in North Dakota. This little campground, recently built by the Forest Service, was tremendously luxurious, with well-groomed sites, flush toilets, sinks, and pay showers. It was the cushiest place I have ever stayed for $6 a night.

Gratuitous snake!

And the next day I went to go backpacking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Backpacking is a way of doing three things, primarily:

1. Seeing the heart of a park; getting under the skin of a place, or getting it under your skin, or all over your skin, depending whether it’s been raining and the place is particularly muddy
2. Getting to photograph wild places at sunrise or sunset without having to get up at ungodly hours
3. Camping for free.

Since the campgrounds in national parks are often $15 or more a night, the last had a certain amount of appeal to me. I got a backcountry permit at the North Unit ranger station and gathered my gear, which included a gallon and a half of water as the water in the park is mostly no good… dissolved salts, I think.

After hiking into the wilderness area for an hour or so, I came across a prairie dog town. These animamls are remarkably social and entertaining, obligingly interacting with each other and their environment as you watch.

After another hour of hiking I came to a stream I couldn’t jump across. I am perpetually lazy about taking things off when I hike… I don’t like to take off my backpack when I rest, I just stand in one place for a while with 30 pounds on my back… and I certainly didn’t want to take it off and take my boots off then put everything back on after crossing. That would have taken at least five minutes. So I found this tree that had been chopped down by a beaver, which I crossed, ridiculously, shimmying over it and dragging myself up the branches with that huge backpack on.

The trail was marked here and there with posts, which bison had rubbed to a high sheen. There was bison hair sticking to some of them. Nevertheless, I kept losing the trail. I had a map and would eventually find it again. The biggest detour, though, came toward the evening, as I happened upon a whole herd of bison grazing on a ridge:

I got close enough to see that they were basically all around me and I would have to go way out of my way to get past them… I watched them do bisony things for a while:

…until at one point I realized they were all looking at me. It was as if I had said a particularly stupid thing in class. Though I was several hundred feet away from any of them I decided I was probably too close and began to trek around the herd. It took me an hour to get around them and by then the sun was setting.

I was hopelessly divorced from the trail. I wandered through the badlands until it got too dark to see my footing, then made camp. As I was cooking supper something ran under me. It was a scorpion. No one told me there were scorpions in North Dakota! The park brochure warns explicitly against rattlesnakes and ticks, not scorpions. Find the offender in this picture (with supper for scale):

When I woke up it was very wet. Foggy and misting. As I was packing up my soaked things, I noticed I had camped next to a petrified stump that was still standing upright in the side of a hill. Very cool.

Walking out of the badlands, traillessly, in the soaking mist, proved intensely annoying and fun. The whole landscape was gullied with steep ravines, and there was simply no way across some of them. I spent a lot of time backtracking, or happening upon places where the buffalo had worn a path down into them that I could follow. It was also very muddy. I have spoken of bentonite in previous posts; it is that clay that swells greatly when wet. It is very slippery. There have been varying amounts of bentonite in every badlands area I’ve visited; there was some here, enough to make walking around a muddy pain. I fell on my rump, once, and looked back to see that the skid mark my boot made before my butt hit the ground was about five feet long.

But boy, does this sort of hiking make following a trail seem boring. To have to scout routes and keep looking at the map is much more engaging than simply placing one foot in front of the other for hours. I forgot how much my body hurt, minded the wet less, and in general actually had a great old time finding my way out. (Well, finding the way out was not the hard thing… the road was to the south, all I had to do was go south until I hit it. It is finding a reasonable way out that doesn’t take three extra hours and leave you completely coated in mud and plant matter that is the thing.) In short, I had an absolutely amazing time. Tremendous fun.

I found some cannonball concretions in the wilderness… nobody knows how these round knobs of sandstone form.

I finally hit the road and hiked for a while along it to get back to my car. And then, buffalo again. And another long hike around them. Here, again, almost all of them stare at me as I walk past several hundred feet away.

When I was done I was probably the worst combination of wet, muddy and smelly I’ve ever been. I took a sort of a sponge bath in the visitor center bathroom and began to drive toward South Dakota.

I had wanted to go to Makoshika and TR partly because I nearly ended up there at one point in my past… a grad student at URI was going to be doing her thesis work out here, looking for signs of environmental transformation that may have occurred after the proposed dinosaur-ending meteorite hit the earth, and she had said she would be happy to have me as a field assistant. But then I didn't hear anything for a while and ended up applying for that paleontology internship at Petrified Forest instead. Which I got, and then my professor informed me that a student named Katie was going to be doing her thesis work at Petrified Forest, and that we would be going out together and I would be her field assistant. This seems a bit outrageous to me now, but it's what happened. I was a bit put out by all of it, frankly, I had wanted to travel by myself and go where I wanted and do what I wanted. And I wanted to do paleontology and not spend all summer holding the other end of the tape measure for some woman I didn't even know.

Katie, of course, who is below, became the dear friend I spent all summer and then every weekend for the next two years with, and with whom I am lucky enough to be able to travel with next month. Our acquaintance has changed my life in so many ways that it's hard to imagine, now, what would have happened if I'd taken the other job. For instance, without Katie, I would never have become an alcoholic.

Okay, I'm not really an actual alcoholic. (I haven't had a drink in a week and a half... it's been too chilly for me to want a beer with supper.) But, anyway, the point is that instead of all that happening two summers ago, the petrified forest and the phytosaur fossils and the cold beer, I could have been out here.


I finally came to Badlands National Park… the badlands here are very different, as you can see. And each badland area I have been to has a different look… different colors, different roundedness or sharpness, openness or closedness.

There is a very nice free campground here.

And more of these guys.

But right now I am in Wall, SD, where long ago (May of last year, in fact) our geology field camp vans drove by on the highway, past a hundred billboards for Wall Drug, which Katie had told me I had to visit and which was now sadly receding into the distance. So now that I am here I had to visit.

This place is in fact a tourist trap, but it does have a remarkable story behind it. In 1931, Ted Hustead bought a drug store in the middle of nowhere town of Wall, SD, named after the wall of badlands hills separating the "upper prairie" from the eroded, lower-elevation "lower prairie" below it. Predictably, nobody came to the drugstore. One summer day, after five years of poor business, his wife decided travelers heading across the hot plains to places like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone would probably welcome a glass of cold water, and so Ted put out signs advertising free ice water. The first takers were already being served at the drugstore before he even got back from putting up the signs. The next summer they had to hire eight staff to help out, and now Wall Drug has grown to draw up to 20,000 people on a summer's day.

Some of this has got to be from the billboards; they are simply everywhere. As I finally approached Wall I noticed I could taken in twelve of them with one sweep of the eye. And in fact I was seeing them just a couple hours out of Denver, just north of Cheyenne. The billboards are all over the west and, apparently, in other countries too. It makes you want to visit; it makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. In fact it is just some shops (where you can still get free ice water). They are mostly selling the same tourist stuff, but there is a good shop with many sundry camping items, where I got some straps and a super light cutting board.

I am going backpacking in the badlands here tomorrow night; then I turn west again. I am in a hurry to finish this blog entry, so I apologize if it's especially slapdash; I am actually writing from my car, parked outside the Sunshine Inn, which offers free (unsecured) Wi-Fi. There are so many things I want to say but haven't the time.


Mom said...

Wonderful post again. Photography beautiful, as always, especially the photo of you on the rock (although I'm sure it wasn't just "a rock."

I feel as though I'm there with you!

Thanks for posting so often. The more I hear from you the better if feel.

Miss and love you,


Michelle said...

There is nothing "slapdash" about this post! Except that last paragraph, which is written very slapdashedly, as if to illustrate the very nature of the term "slapdash." Which is very postmodern of you.

Also, in my opinion, snakes are never gratuitous. They are just really really cool.

Amazing amazing amazing buffalo pics. Actually, technically, bison pics. (I looked it up.) To quote the Bison Specialist Group of North America: "'Buffalo' is the popular name often used to describe North American bison; however, this is a misnomer. In fact, buffalo are distinctly different animals from bison. Although both bison and buffalo belong to the same family, Bovidae, true 'buffalo' are native only to Africa and Asia." ( But you probably already knew that. :)

Michelle said...

Ok, now I can't get that dang 1980s Echo and the Bunnymen song out of my head. Had to look that up, too.

"Bedbugs and Ballyhoo"

J said...

No, in fact, I did not know that about the buffalo. There are all sorts of things I've wondered since I began traveling, but I never have enough time during my internet stops to look them all up. Thank you!