Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oh Oh Oh

Hello from the laundromat in Basin, WY, where for some reason I can get an internet connection... I think it's coming from a nearby house. This is the same laundromat we used to do our laundry while at field camp. I went here for the same reason I have come back to the Big Horn Basin at all; I know where there are fossils to collect here. They may not be the best sites, but the fact that I know where they are means less time spent researching and driving around and more time spent actually collecting. Likewise, this may not be the best laundromat in the world, but I know where it is and that it works, and I did just wash and dry a load of clothes for $2.25.

Me, just now.

I stayed five nights at Badlands National Park, partly because the campground was free, partly because the weather kept being nice. I met a young man named Josiah there; he is also traveling (around the entire country, which is too much for me!) and has a blog, at, on which he will probably post about me.

We traded food the first night (my jerky for his chocolate) and a couple mornings later we made Johnny Cakes, a traditional Rhode Island recipe, from the package of genuine Rhode Island Kenyon's cornmeal I had. You are supposed to have them with syrup; thankfully, Josiah had pure New York maple syrup. He is from New York state.

It was at the end of this meal that we noticed the buffalo, which we climbed up to a high point to photograph.

If you click this picture for more detail, you may see how they are heading toward the campground, which is in the upper-left. At this point we decided to go back to the campground. But I didn't think they were going through the campground. In fact, I didn't realize it until I looked up from stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack and noticed they were all around me.

So I managed to get over to my picnic shelter without being charged by angry buffalo, and sat in my hammock wishing I had grabbed my book from my tent. Tourists kept driving up... I suppose one of them had told the park rangers where the buffalo were, and they were telling other tourists... and soon I became an attraction, the crazy girl relaxing in her hammock in the middle of a herd of buffalo. I was afraid to move from it, though. Someone took this picture of me:

It took them several hours to go through camp. I actually had to get creative at one point because I was afraid to go through the herd to get to the bathroom. Mostly I just sat there feeling irritated with the buffalo.

Flies like beer!

That evening I went backpacking in the badlands. It's funny, at Glacier they have whole backcountry trip planning offices where you go in and go over everything with the rangers. At Theodore Roosevelt, I had to listen to a list of warnings and fill out a permit. At Badlands, the ranger just said, "Okay, remember to bring your own water." And it was much milder here. I know the badlands can be over 100 degrees in summer and below zero in winter, but for the most part I ended up finding both the terrain and the weather to be thoroughly manageable, even boring. The terrain was very open and it was hard to get lost. Large sections of the park are simply grass. My backpack was very heavy, though, at first, as I brought in three gallons of water. I left it and my tent and most of my stuff at this base camp.

The next day I went exploring from here with just a day pack. I was hoping to find fossils. In fact, they were impossible not to find. I didn't realize how rich the Badlands area is for fossils; I've never seen anything like it. Many items of literature tell you to "report fossil finds to park authorities," but I gave up on the idea as soon as I realized you couldn't walk anywhere in the park without tripping over them. These fossils are around 30-40 million years old, by the way. Ancient hornless rhinos, saber-tooth cats and small ancestors of the horse. Some of the nicer things I found:

A pile of bones weathering out of the ground


A section of jaw with teeth

Another, from a different kind of animal

Something... a turtle skeleton? weathering out of the side of a hill

A very small vertebra

There were also other things in the badlands, like, well, grass, and some cacti. And this:

which was very cool to find. The rest of the skeleton was scattered nearby.

Above, a game trail winds through the badlands. Some of these were quite prominent and easy to follow.

More buffalo!

Yet despite seeing so many fossils during my 2-day backpacking trip that they had become totally boring, I still wasn't satisfied. They were all mammal fossils. I know (from visiting the visitor's center!) that the park also contained exposures of the Pierre Shale, from when the area was covered by the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. There were supposed to be lovely ammonites and baculites in the park--distant relatives of the nautilus--so well-preserved their shells were still covered in pearl. But I hadn't found any Pierre Shale anywhere. Until I drove back to the campsite and saw a dark grey shale exposed where the creek had cut into a hillside.

I wanted to go explore immediately, but I had to wait a good while for the bison to leave the area. I had really had enough of them by now. But as I kicked around downstream, waiting for them to leave, I found a river-abraded chunk of baculite and knew I was on the right track:

And sure enough, once I was able to get up to the shale exposure, it was worth all the waiting. Falling out of the hillside were many huge concretions, mineral growths around a central seed. No one is sure exactly why concretions form, but they often seem to accrete around organic matter--say, a dead animal that fell to the sea floor. And, in fact, inside these concretions were fossils.

Above, a little shell, with a crystal-encrusted concretion in the background

A bivalve shell bigger than my foot!

A chunk of concretion with ammonite and baculite shells in it

A baculite, with the pearl still on its shell, and lovely calcite crystals inside

The size and number, and level of preservation, of these fossils was amazing. It made me want to buy a plot of land near the park so I could have my own.

When I got back to the campground it was hot. I lay in my hammock, which was partly shaded by the slats above the picnic table, but I couldn't concentrate on my reading and when the thermometer still read 95 degrees at 4:30, I decided to drive over to the other end of the park (an hour away) to go to the evening program.

On my drive I saw the source of a mystery I'd already forgotten about. On my hike down into the badlands a couple days before, I'd seen smoke billowing on the horizon, and figured there was some kind of fire. Once I crossed into the west side of the park, I saw that the ground was black as far as the eye could see. A huge section of park had burned. Finally I found a park volunteer to tell me that it was a prescribed burn, set to rid the park of fuel (dead grass) before it could build up to a level that would make a fire unmanageable.

The evening program was great... it was on astronomy. We learned many interesting facts about the heavens and then, once it got dark, the ranger used laser pens with a five-mile range to point out constellations (which are more than five miles away, as you know, but the strong light shone effectively off the dust in the atmosphere and seemed to be pointing right to them). There were also three very large telescopes set up and we looked at double stars, galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and planets. I saw the four large moons of Jupiter. The really interesting thing about the program, though, was that while I wandered around the amphitheater looking into the telescopes and talking to people, the area was kept completely dark, and I never saw the faces of anyone I was talking with.

There were three women from Connecticut... from the town just south of where I'd grown up, in fact, and who had also been in Glacier at the same time I was, and who had followed my route across Montana and down from North Dakota... another couple, and the park volunteer Chuck (who called me "Science Girl")... whom I conversed with for hours without ever knowing what they looked like.

I didn't get back to my campsite till almost midnight. The next day, I did some sightseeing in the Black Hills.

Finally, Mt. Rushmore, which, yes, is a bunch of faces carved in some rock, and takes about five minutes to fully appreciate;

Crazy Horse, in progress as it has been since 1948, I think... you can see the head of his horse sketched out on the lower-right side of the mountain, just above the bus that says "Lamers," which I think is the best part of the picture.

I drove into Buffalo, WY, on my way to the Bighorn Basin and thought it looked interesting so I stayed a little while. There is a great old hotel there, which you can look around:

Bottom-most, the library; middle, the room you first enter into. I love that the windows say "Oh Oh Oh."

Then I drove up into the Bighorns where I could camp for free on Forest Service land. My view this morning:

When I looked back, the town of Buffalo below was covered in cloud:

I have just poked a little bit around the Bighorn Mountains and the east side of the basin today. The only other thing I found worth taking a picture of was this:

There was a truck pulling a horse trailer, which passed me going up a hill. Immediately after passing he had a blowout in the left tire of the trailer, rubber flying everywhere. And he just kept going, driving on the rim (painted white, as you see, above) at 70 miles an hour. He eventually pulled away from me and was soon lost from sight. I never did come upon him stopped by the side of the road. (There was no reaction from the horses, either, as far as I could tell.)

So, I ought to head out now so I can find a new campsite before dark, but I will leave you with the sunset from Badlands a couple nights ago.


Mom said...

"Wow Wow Wow"

Great fossils. I checked out Josiah's blog. Yours is far superior. Love all the photos but the ones of you the most.



Silver Fox said...

Enjoying following your way cool trip! :)

Bigbird183 said...

Wow! First of all, thanks for your lovely postcard. But I love your photos and storytelling. What a cool adventure! I can't believe there's a place where such ancient fossils are so ubiquitous. It doesn't even make sense in my non-geological brain. But that's why you geological people study these things. Traveling with you in spirit, hugs, D.

Kate said...

The pearl on the baculite is beautiful!!

Anonymous said...

I am so impressed with the beauty of your blog. I am mesmerized and transfixed on the images you are sending. You are transporting me there. I am reliving my own trip of many years ago. Tho no geologist, I am so glad I know you, as you see the world the way I do, but you have words for it and knowledge of it. Did you kno that astronomers have now found 14 galaxies besides ours? I learned this at the museum lately. Colleen

Josiah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josiah said...

Hi J!

Your blog is absolutely amazing; so many incredible fossils and everything! I'll definitely be following.
Hey, I really enjoyed meeting you in the Badlands; the chow and conversation was a nice treat. Happy fossil-hunting!