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From the Continental Divide: camping with prairie dogs and buffalo

© Abbe Rolnick   July 2013

I am a voyeur, allowed to view the world without knowing the minute details, the why of everything.  I watch through windows, not hiding my excitement, the sensuality of what I see. My husband Jim is of another breed, a biologist, who sees the world and constantly asks questions to discern what makes it tick. He looks for meaning through the eyes of science.

  We’re headed across the northern part of the United States, from Western Washington, over the Cascades, through Eastern Washington, across the Rockies, and then the Great Plains to Duluth, Minnesota.  Our mission in Duluth has nothing to do with the western shore of the largest lake in the world, Lake Superior, home for the Masabi Range of iron ore. It just happens to be the town chosen for an international wetlands conference Jim is attending, the meeting place of bogs to the north, and prairie potholes to the south and west. In his excited voice, “This is the top of three watersheds, the Hudson Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean.” 

Traveling in a VW pop-top camper van from Washington State to Minnesota is the antidote to my geography lessons of long ago. Depth and understanding came slowly with each mile further from the Columbia River. No one had ever mentioned the Clarke-Fork River or the Yellowstone River in my geography and history lessons, yet they took us across Montana and snaked back and forth into Wyoming.  Crossing the Continental Divide meant leaving the Rockies behind and letting the Missouri River begin its flow to the Mississippi River. Jim posed the question, “Which of these two rivers is larger, the Missouri or the Mississippi? “My lessons in geography told me the Mississippi, but as we traveled, the Missouri loomed large. Could the naming of the main stem of the rivers have more to do with the politics and the economy of that period than the real driver of the habitat– spring rains flowing into the flood plain and through New Orleans?

The VW sped up and over into Montana, the city of Missoula, a college town celebrating graduations, hosting a convention for the Jehovah Witnesses, on the Friday night just before Memorial Day. Each hotel answered our query for a room, with a shake of the head, a raising of their hands, and a look that said, “No rooms available at this inn.”   Jim weary from driving twelve hours insisted we would find a campsite before dark. With his assurances we headed into the valleys where mining silver and lead brought us to smaller towns. Veering just off Highway 94, we abandoned the more touristy routes and searched for a camping site. Long days gave us light but as the sun, set, we took back roads to find a hidden spot, and in my tired opinion, any spot.  Whenever I noticed a pull-out, a turn-a-round edge or even an imprint of space, I’d muster up an unconvincing plea, “We could pull off here, camp, and be gone before anyone would notice.” Jim, now on a mission, kept driving, until miraculously the turns took us to a campground with an empty site. Now in the Missouri watershed, we popped our van top and that of a bottle of wine and celebrated our first night out. 

 Up before the sun, we hiked along Bear Creek trail, deeper into the woods, till we crossed a small bridge, where water made its way from the hills above.  Jim brewed a pot of French Press coffee, a necessary indulgence. Packed, we made our way out, past the nudges of spaces, fishing pullouts where a few cars parked for the night, campers less patient than us. The parting gift, a herd of Rocky Mountain sheep grazing along the winding road, ignored us as we drove back to the highway. 

We breakfasted in Philipsburg, a town of only one- opened café. Our waitress stood at least six inches shorter than my five feet and ruled the café with her boisterous and confident greetings; she bounced from table to table.  I looked atop her head for rubies and sapphires, a crown of sorts, as Phillipsburg is famed for these stones.

 Gems, the lure of success, prepared us for the hills of copper in Anaconda and the forever changing landscape where the veins of time, majestic fortresses of colored minerals pressed together and rose up the valley hillside.  Here is where the confusion of water begins. Jim talks of the Columbia River and the Snake River as they meld somewhere else. His excitement progresses, his fingers pointing as he refers to map after map. He wants to find the exact spot where we lose our familiar watershed waterways and wetlands. I stare out the window, watching the shifting of rivers, the burned trees, like whiskers poking up in a crew cut of hills, the stubble of past forest fires, the exposed  skin of the earth until we dip south into the northwest tip of Wyoming—the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.

We stretch our legs at Yellowstone National Park, where the wetlands boil. Old Faithful, a geyser spewing hot steam, drew crowds of tourists.  Lines of onlookers weave along paths, and we blend among them, awed by the impressive burping of sulfur, the bubbling of gases from deep within the earth all centered in this vast area.    My legs, no longer cramped in the van, felt the rise of steps, the letting go of tightness, but the crush of beings surrounding each site, stifled my peace. I felt claustrophobic. All of us selfishly vied for a place to see the timed explosion of Old Faithful; the count-down and impatient tick of minutes.  Secretly Old Faithful’s tardy gurgles pleased me; the reminder that cycles are cycles and that even nature is unpredictable. The triumphant spew, ten minutes late, receives healthy applause, and Old Faithful, tweets an extra fountain of water for an encore.  

Jim and I seek areas less crowed, sites less advertised but still impressive, small pots of gases and mud, colored blue and yellow by algae, with flowers hiding inside.  I see thoughts creep along Jim’s forehead, and with his tongue firmly in cheek, he asks,” I wonder why temperature isn’t in the federal guidance manual for wetlands.” Work and pleasure mix in his brain, a curse and an opportunity to learn. 

Unsure of where to camp we find the Fishing Bridge R.V. Park Area, with  warnings from the camp host, “Keep your Yeti cooler inside your van, your pop-top sealed— a mother grizzly just booted out its three month old cub.   The cub was spotted here yesterday.” So much for my peeing outside in the middle of the night, I squelched nature’s call by sleeping on my side, listening for the scrounging paws of a hungry cub. 

Early morning mist hung over Yellowstone Falls, but the roar of water cascading down the canyon with the sun casting shadows, drew us into the edges.   The crack of time, the working of energy, the power and beauty stood before us. As insignificant viewers, we witnessed nature’s supremacy. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the result of a huge volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago, left a giant caldera that filled with lava and the river’s role in exposing time. The sun cast light on the lower falls, onto multi-hued rocks, yellows and oranges: rainbow rocks of geology.  Jim names the rock and the process, “Sulfide and carbon dioxide alter the rhyolite. That is why the stones are yellow.” I smile, happy for the information, but only able to absorb the rays of color, the grandiose display of mist, the product of years of weathering.

Climbing upward to 8000 feet, we left the park through the Silver Gate with snow piled on the sides of the road and flakes tumbling towards us, a spring snowstorm.  We breakfasted in Cooke City where an oasis of simple food, fireplace crackling, and an old piano played. Hearty town folk came and went as we warmed ourselves by the fire, ate our English muffin egg sandwich, and held our hot coffee mugs.  

From here the terrain changed dramatically.  If I thought Yellowstone National Park was impressive, the morphing of landscape, redefined my perceptions.  The park includes both Montana and Wyoming, and now we slipped back into Montana where coal dominates the economy and sandstone and mudstone the landscape.  We shift from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains. Jim notes the floodplains and backwater wetlands as we come to Pompeys Pillar, a massive sandstone base on the banks of the Yellowstone River– a monument famous for Captain William Clark’s signature graffiti and marking Lewis and Clarks’ travels.  I felt the irony of the signs and cameras placed to admonish tourist and implore them to refrain from carving the stone with their own initials. Oh, how we as a people want to mark our territory, name our spot, declare our existence.

  Railroad tracks carrying long extended freight trains of coal, dipped in and out of our sight as we headed to Glendive, Montana.   And here is where the weather became a verb, visually changing before our eyes. Now in the Great Plains, the skyscape opened, and the clouds marked what was to come.

Our drive to Glendive became a race with lightning and thunder.  The dark thunder clouds spread out around us, with rain rays pointing the way of the storm.  More than once the pellets of rain obscured the road and the downpour accumulated to pools of water making the highway a river.  Jim feigns nonchalance, but I note how he switches the windshield-wipers to high, how he hugs the edge of the two-land highway. Straight roads, no visibility, and zigzagged bolts of light punctuated the blue-black sky.  With our arrival in Glendive the rain dissipated, and the dark clouds floated off to the north. We were lucky as others showed evidence of the storm on the hoods of their cars, pock marks from golf-sized hail. 

The town, with a population the size of my high school, boasts two hotels, with four in construction.  We read signs that say it lies within a prehistoric sea and the newly discovered coal and natural gas sites from the Bakken Shale Formation. This is black gold. Drilling crews, one truck after another, drove the pot-holed roads. Even though the shale formation was centered in North Dakota, the real boom in Williston spilled out to these towns.  I felt the past in the present, the frenzy of the gold rush, the greed without understanding the consequences. Lined along the highway, machines used for drilling outnumbered the multitude of John Deere tractors. Pumps sat adjacent to the farmed fields; lone metal structures moving silently up and down on pads of concrete, surrounded by corn and wheat fields, and a pyre flame for excess gases. Mining and fracking touched everyone; the issue wasn’t political.  We heeded this warning from the manager of the hotel, the daughter of an engineer who made his living maintaining drilling equipment. As we ate at the recommended diner, everyone wore the grime of a long day at work. Jim devoured his slab of beef. I ate their version of a stir-fry of vegetables. Our conversation veered away from the obvious. Consequences for the groundwater and surface water didn’t register on their radar screen. We understood this to be a town of pragmatists. The new discovery buried within the earth, created a livelihood and guaranteed survival.  

   Glendive’s fame for buried treasures, to Jim’s delight included dinosaurs. Survival for the dinosaurs ended around the cretaceous period and the Makoshika State Park just out of town had us hiking and hunting fossils in the hills where the first Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil was found. Roaming for me was not easy, as the badlands steep and rugged, oozed mud from the recent thunderstorms.  With binoculars on my shoulder, a camera around my neck, and a walking stick for balance I slid on every incline until finally my shoes sucked in the mud and my left hand and walking stick held me in too precarious a position. Mud baths, I’m told are great for the skin. I used the edges of rocks to ply off the ancestral goo. We left satisfied that nature had in its wisdom, created a steppingstone of magnificent blocks, as resting stones for the dinosaurs.

On our way out of Glendive we stopped at the local fish hotspot, the “intake” for agriculture on the Yellowstone River to discover that in these badlands, a freshwater fish, mammoth in ugliness and beauty, existed.  The paddlefish, waiting to gain energy for its jump up the diversion dam, was the local favorite. Families staked their spot early in the day. We watched fisher folk measure, weigh and harvest the roe to make caviar. Most of the locals eat the fish, preferably before it grows to maturity. In this case they claim the smaller, the tastier.   While I took pictures of the long paddle snout, stuck my nose in roe, and posed with just the two foot head and snout, Jim studied the river and talked to the fishers. He learned that thirty percent of the proceeds from the caviar go to the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks program to fund paddlefish research. Nice returns for these ancient fish with no scales.

  From the intake we headed back into the prairie through the badlands dipping back into Wyoming.  Turkey vultures flew over– an omen of sorts. This, their home, was as rugged for them as the mountain spikes rising up above the flat plains.  I felt the vastness, the endless rising and falling of peaks and valleys. Banded colors of eroded rock extended on a horizontal plane as if the sun struck lines through the strata. It held a loneliness and beauty; a place of awe, respect and danger. The badlands rendered another surprise off the road south of Wibaux near Ekalaka, the large sandstone rocks, dubbed Medicine Rocks by the Native Americans.  This too was a remnant of an ancient sea. I had at first thought the name a tourist trick to entice the crowds, something to draw us in. I was wrong. Here, the towering ochre and red sandstone monuments held the spirits, creating– inya-oka-laka, rocks with holes, arches and artistic sculptures that healed with energy of long ago.   I felt more than at Yellowstone, or the stomping ground of the dinosaurs, the serene yet powerful work of time. 

After roaming amongst the Medicine Rocks, we headed further south back into Wyoming.  The big sky and straight roads continued on and on. Jim speaks his thoughts out-loud, tells me how the badlands earned their formations.  I haven’t asked, but I know it helps him understand. “The steep slopes are made of soft clay and silt from the ancient sea and capped with sand. Rivulets and rills run through the slopes and overtime the cutting action creates the steppingstones.”  I let the words, rivulets, rills and run, roll off my tongue, feeling the roll of our VW taking us through time.  

When we arrive in the Belle Fourche river valley, I gasp in disbelief at a rising stone pillar.  I wish I could say that this pillar was on my bucket list of places to see but Devils Tower never came up.  Jim has been here before and he watches my eyes as I take in the rise of thousands of feet. This is the first national monument declared by President Theodore Roosevelt, but to the Native Americans, who worshiped the tower, it was the spirits rising, bears clawing in a showdown of native legend. The geological explanation is equally dramatic– a magma plug stuck in a volcano, worn away through time, so that the volcano disappeared exposing the tower. We camped outside the tower, awe struck by the seven sided basalt columns and the boulder size scree. 

After our first cup of coffee we return to hike among the scree. It takes us an hour to circle the tower. The large crumbling of the stone reminded us that sometime in the future, other generations would only see remnants, that the weathering away would eventually erode the magma plug, the past would not be anyone’s present.  

As we drove on to Mt. Rushmore, two coal trains passed along separate tracks. It was an optical illusion, fast flashes splintering in two directions at once. Sun flashing off metal as their hundred cars rushed along in opposite directions– modern man’s artistic mark.  Mt. Rushmore, man-made, was more a homage, a larger than life memorial to our famous presidents. I felt the same as I had at Yellowstone National Park; an obligation to see something famous. The best I could do was wink at my namesake, Abraham Lincoln, pleased at his inclusion.   Heading back to what we dubbed the good land of the badlands, north to South Dakota, we took an exit different from our impressive entrance of four- lane roads. Our exit took us on three, 360-degree roundabouts, onto bridges shored up with wood pilings and one lane tunnels going in two directions.  Straight dusty gravel roads, more thunderstorms, a tornado, and hail, and hours of driving brought us to the Sage Creek Campsite– a spot that combined the elements of the Great Plains, badlands, grasslands and prairie potholes.

Here we found posts surrounding sand; reminiscent of wagon trains where the settlers huddled together in a circle.  We parked our van above the tents that lined the sandy area, not far from a horse trailer. The grassy area covered cracked mud and buffalo pies.  Across a road and field, buffalo grazed. With thunder clouds above us, we crossed our fingers that the rains would not drench the ground. That the mud would remain solidified, that our van wouldn’t sink into the ancient mud-goo.   That night we slept with our Yeti cooler outside, our pop-top open wide. While Jim snored beside me, I counted after each lightning strike never getting past five before the thunder rolled. I smelled the rains, the grass, and the musty scent of buffalo.  

In the morning mother- nature calls us awake even before the rising sun. Our full bladders can’t wait for relief.  Jim climbs down from our bed and I follow. We stepped out onto moist grass with three bull buffalo greeting us by our door; the prehistoric sounds of munching, the wide heads bowed in concentration; ignoring us but aware.  The poster at the campsite warned of signs of agitation: the lifting of the tail, the stare down, the rolling on the ground. We ventured out with cameras, slowly judging the tension. When one of the buffalo began to rock its mammoth head from side to side, we slipped back inside. But the tail remained down, the stare never came. As the buffalo moved on, they rolled on the grass, leaving brown oily spots with pockets of long strands of hair in the form of dreadlocks. This was their shedding season, their version of a haircut.  Half hairy, half skinned, the male buffalos sauntered off with Jim following to collect their dreads.

The rain had only moistened the ground and we drove off without getting stuck in the ancestral ooze.  Five miles down the road we spotted black dots peppering the grassy fields. Binoculars in hand, we watched a herd of fifty some female buffalo graze with their newly born calves. Our parting memory was the view of the prairie, flat before the spikes of the badlands, where light brown prairie dogs, bobbed up and down from their underground holes.  Standing on two feet, their arms curled in anticipation—- asking the question, “What? What is so funny?”

The landscape morphed as we headed to our ultimate destination, Duluth, Minnesota, for Jim’s wetlands conference.    With tornado warnings and more thunderstorms blowing in from the south, we made the decision to drive on a more northerly road and transferred our sightseeing to Interstate 90.  Green grass is everywhere, dancing with the breezes. Jim cranes his head at every turn to see birds, antelope, and the land. His banter is worth listening to, and as I watch the terrain change, he blurts out, the obvious, but profound statement, “The earth is not homogenous, and neither are people.”   True, how can we expect to see the world the same way when the elements change on us? How can we govern the same when we as a people aren’t homogenous? Hidden in Jim’s statement is the question of how our government inherently works to eliminate our differences, blending one landscape into another, and one culture into its own.

I remember the woman at one of our stops telling us of her 8000 acres, how she rounded up her cattle in a snowstorm and how she had to survive without a choice. Her herds believed in her and she alone saved them. She ate and dressed for survival, smart and capable; her concerns were matters of the heart, not how to fit into larger society.   I have no idea how to live in a world of large acreages of grasses, or the harsh winters of never-ending snow. Self-reliance and working with the elements aren’t the same for those living in cities. Climate, terrain, and the vast distances between homes and towns, change an individual.  

 In Minnesota we enter an area of bogs and lakes— wetlands, the prairie potholes of isolated waters from North Dakota disappear, over-powered by the largest area of lakes in the world.  Again, green is everywhere. I listen to the ca-plunk of the roads, a rhythmic sound as we hit notches where the cold of winter and hot of summer creates a buckle of sorts. Jim can almost see the expansion and contraction, just like what causes scree.  In between the farmlands of 1000’s of acres, railroad tracks zigzag through the fields to towns far-away, iron mines, and cities; the Boundary Waters take precedence. The Great Lakes shape the people just as the desolation of the Badlands; the harsh winters of the prairies establish self-reliance.  Here the towns remain small, everyone drives a pick-up truck trailing a boat, and fishing is what you do. We stay at a resort along a large lake just outside of Canada. The restaurant is packed with locals, here more for the beauty than the food. They come in their boats, share fish-stories and eat Walleye.

I am overcome by the city of Duluth, its adaption to industry and its vibrancy as a welcoming larger city. Lake Superior rules life.  Standing on its shores, cold winds blow despite the sun. I see the mixture of cultures, the domination of the iron industry — railroad tracks for freight only, the work of art in a bridge that opens to allow the vast ships carrying coal, iron, and other mined products to cities and towns across our country.  Before Jim’s conference we visit an iron-pit, witness the making of round pellets the size of peas that will be used to make steel. Truck after truck carries the pellets to the railroads.

While Jim learns about canary-grass research in the Ukraine and the problems in Sri Lanka with maintaining wetland habitats, I try to put thoughts together.  I see our infrastructure, the by-ways, the highways, railroads, and shipping routes, connected to what is inside our great earth. I see each river connected; each mountain range separated by ancient seas.  We live in a world that compresses time, minerals, dinosaurs, and extracts raw material to create steel for bridges, harvesting crops from farms and even farming fish. As we change this landscape, we affect the place where we live — a curse or an improvement?   I’m struck by the fact that coal comes from peat, compressed in our precious wetlands. I see cycles of life. Time as my husband Jim states, is life. I value it all. I want the scablands, the badlands, and the wetlands to be treated with respect—our Goodland.