Grass and Dried up Towns in the Land of of Twelve Inches of Rain

The big news on the Northern Plains this year is rain. After a twenty-year dry spell, the heavens have opened, releasing record amounts of rain, and mosquitoes, to the Land of Twelve Inches of Rain.

The ranch land’s greener than most old-timers remember. When I overhear them talking in the Post Offices and corner stores, the first thing I hear is, “Have you ever seen the top of (enter butte name here – Bullion, Sentinel, Square, South…) covered in grass?” Followed by, “Have you seen that guy in the yellow mule wagon…?”

Welcome to Grass and Montana

This means lots of choices for Polly. Back in Carolina, she just ate Bermuda grass. But out here, a mule can choose from crested wheat, alfalfa, needle-and-thread, and, my favorite-sounding, cheat grass (because it grows so thick if it ever invades a farmer’s crops, it cheats him out of his fertilizer).

Still, for all there is to eat around Beach, ND, Polly and I want to visit the Badlands before the green turns brown. This week, we’re heading for Ekalaka, MT (named for Sitting Bull’s niece) to look for marine fossils.

We’re sticking with back roads as much as possible. Mostly they’re scoria-covered. Scoria’s just dirt that’s been fired underground, usually by a burning coal vein. It’s sharp, red and when Polly drags her wagon across it, it sounds like we’re driving over a thousand broken clay pots.


Scoria Travelers
Outside Golva, ND

Beaver Creek trestle bridge
Outside Carlyle, MT

Day’s end
Golva, ND

Grass, grass, grass. It’s everywhere this year. In my photos, in my wagon, in my boots But this is fickle country. Remember how everyone’s talking about how green it looks this year? Well, that’s because they know it’ll go back to dry.

I’ve only seen hints of what this country looks like when the rains stop. But this last photo says it all. It was taken in Carlyle, MT.

Until the early 1970s, Carlyle was a booming town of a hundred. It boasted two elevators, a bank, a school, a bar and a church. But as agriculture changed, as farming went from small, family-run outfits to large outfits that needed fewer workers, Carlyle dried up. Today, the abandoned town is covered in grass and about all that remains are the elevators, called “prairie cathedrals” by some.

But Carlyle’s only green today, while the rain’s still doing its magic. Soon, the grass will die back and only the elevators will remain.

Carlyle, MT
(abandoned early 1970’s)

For now, Polly and I will take the wet.

Baker, MT


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