Stories from Bernie's current trip - a mule voyage from Canada to Mexico

Biker Reunion in the Shadow Of Devils Tower
July 27, 2007

Mornings, when the rain drops fall heavy on the mule wagon roof, I know Polly’s harness won’t come out from under the wagon. On wet days we stay in camp. Driving a wagon in the rain just isn’t worth it. Polly’s bare feet, softened by the rain, wear too quickly. Drivers that whoosh past the Lost Sea wagon have more than just cell phones, arguing kids and fast food to distract them. Now they’re navigating a gray world slashed by windshield wipers.

So this soaking Friday morning, with the Wyoming rain coming down on Devils Tower, I fed Polly and headed to the Devils Tower KOA Campground for breakfast.

After eggs and toast, I stopped to chat with a motorcycle rider sitting on the restaurant’s porch drinking coffee from a foam cup and smoking a cigarette down to the butt. His name was Dean Cornett and we talked about the things travelers discuss in dry places when they don’t want to go back into the rain – how he broke his ankle in Oregon, how he’d wrecked the Harley in New Mexico with his wife and two dogs aboard. “Busted up the dog good.” he said, waving to the Pomeranian waiting on the Harley in the rain. “He landed spread eagle, slid across the pavement and I was sure he was dead.” But everyone survived and the little dog had 25,000 Harley miles under him now.


Then talk shifted to mules. Of how, once, a few years back, Dean saw a man with a mule and pony come through his home town of Estelline, Texas.

What? Estelline? No, it couldn’t be. I’d traveled through the town of 168 a few years before and had spent a pleasant night camped at the town’s rodeo arena. I remembered it well for the fog and the stock tank where I’d watered Woody and Maggie.

Watering Maggie and Woody
Estelline, TX – Fall 2004

Dean smoked some more and I closed my eyes and I described my route through the area and sure enough, it turns out I’d camped across the street from his house. He knew Sherry, the lady who’d supplied me with grain for Woody and Maggie, well.

Dean, dog and Devils Tower in the rain

And so we passed the morning hiding from the rain, talking Texas, Harleys, bike crashes, the tornado that struck Estelline and a mule journey from way back when….

So that’s what we’re doing out here in the Wyoming rain. Sure hope you’re killing some rain time today with a friend from way back when – even if your skies are dry.

Posted Friday July 27, 2007 by Bernie
Do you Call it Shark Tooth, Buffalo Horn or Devils Tower?
July 26, 2007

Traveling thoroughly as I do with a mule (it’s “thorough” as opposed to “slow”) I have the luxury of watching the landscape change as I roll across the Lost Sea seabed. Last week, when I saw Devils Tower rise between Polly’s ears, it looked like a shark fin cruising the Lost Sea off to the west.

Devils Tower from 11 miles away

As I got closer, my route drifted south. It looked more stump-like.

Devils Tower from 4 miles away

Finally, twelve days after I fist spotted it, I arrived at its base and it looked like the Devils Tower of “Close Encounters” fame.

Devils Tower from 2 miles away

This matter of approach and perspective wasn’t lost on the Native Americans that lived in the area long before the white man called the tower among their midst Devils Tower. (That’s right. Our first National Monument is spelled without an apostrophe – whether it’s due to clerical error or multliple imps of Satan remains unclear .) This week, Milo Yellow Hair explained how the Native Americans named the mountain – solely on from what direction it was viewed.

Milo Yellow Hair
Devils Tower, WY

I met Milo at the Tower’s base as he was showing guests the area. According to Milo, an Ogallala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the native tribes gave the tower a different name depending on the direction from which they viewed it. Looking from the east, where I saw a shark fin, the Lakota saw “Grey Buffalo Horn”. From the south, the Arapahoe, instead of a stump, saw “Broken Buffalo Horn”.

Other native American folklore holds that the mountain rose up to save six Sioux maidens from a giant bear. The bear, clawing the mountains sides to reach the girls perched on top, left the distinct grooves in the structure’s sides.

Still, I like the visual approach best, the one that changes with perspective. It’s in keeping with the way I wander the land. Last night it rained and ever the sailor, I snapped the tower’s reflection in a puddle. I’ll name it come nightfall.

(Thanks Matt and Kathi of the KOA Campground in Devils Tower, WY. Polly’s sure enjoying her corral and I got a kick out of watching “Close Encounters” last night at the foot of the fabled tower.)

Posted Thursday July 26, 2007 by Bernie
Dig a Dino Bone with Paleo Pete Larson
July 23, 2007

Remember how I rolled into Hulett, Wyoming last week all hot and bothered to see Devils Tower? It didn’t happen. Instead, Polly and I spent the week digging dinosaur bones with world-famous paleontologist Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota.

Peter Larson

Peter and his crew were in the Hulett area excavating dinosaurs that, eons ago, were washed into a a ravine or stream and then buried by soil. 150 million years later, he was digging them up with a mixed team of paid staff and volunteers – and this week, a mule traveler and his steed. All I had to do was ask. Pete said I’d be welcome to join them so I hitched Polly to the Lost Sea wagon and drove to the excavation site.

On site, Peter explained that unearthing bones as part of a responsible dig team just boiled down to slowly, carefully moving soil. Slow in this context meant “moving a mountain with an X-ACTO knife” as the paleontologist’s saying goes. “The brush is your most important tool” he stressed. It’s the brush, not heavy equipment, that uncovered dinosaur bones.

Tools of the trade

Or, as Peter cautioned, “I don’t want folks to think they can just back their truck up to a T. Rex sticking out of a dirt bank, hook a logging chain to its tail and jerk it out.” Just to ratchet my expectations down a few notches, a kid mentioned in passing, “and don’t get fooled by the faux bones.”

Faux bones? “Yeah, they look like bones but they’re not. We call them fool’s bones.” Or just plain old rocks.


Still, Peter encouraged me to try my hand at finding some bones. Brush, X-ACTO knife and a larger digging knife in hand, I settled among the gathered dinosaur bone hunters and began slowly, blade-full by blade-full, peeling back 150 million year-old dirt.

All day I picked at the dirt waiting for that giant Smithsonian-grade bone to appear under my slender blade. Nothing. The sun shone. The sun set. It was pretty. I found faux bones. I felt like a fool. I found more faux bones. That is to say, I found nothing but rocks.

Bernie: faux bone pro (note grim set of lips)

Did I mention the sunset was pretty?

Sunset over the Lost Sea Wagon
Outside Hulett, WY

I found no dinosaur bones.

The next morning, Polly, who was tethered just outside the mess shelter, sent me off with a morale-building nicker. I tromped up the hill to the dig site, spent the first half of the day unearthing rocks then climbed back down the hill for lunch. Polly, mirroring my plummeting expectations, greeted me lying down.

She even let me sit beside her in the dust, a Lost Sea Expedition first, as though saying, “it’s okay. you can sit next to me – even though you’re just a fool’s bone digger…”

Keeping up appearances
Self-portrait of a fool’s bone digger

Then, one afternoon, a clink under my blade and a whisk of the brush and yes, a real bone! I flicked and brushed away at the four-inch chunk then heard a voice hunching closer, saying, “Nice. That looks like a stegosaur chevron.”

It was Peter.

To me, the bone just looked like the broken-off end off the Thanksgiving turkey’s drumstick. Now Peter was saying it might actually be important and this buoyed my flagging spirits until I realized I hadn’t a clue what a stegosaur looked like.

Enter Sam Farrar.

Sam worked with Peter at the Black Hills Institute and after I cleared the chevron of dirt, he came over to stabilize my find. To protect the bone, he glued the fragments together (seems I’d found a fractured chevron) with Paleo Bond – the equivalent of paleontologist’s super-glue.

Sam the chevron repair man

When the glue set, Sam wrapped the bone in aluminum foil and strolled off to find tape for labeling the silvery parcel. While his back was turned, I saw it.

A stegosaur.

It was on Sam’s back. Rather, it was on the back of his t-shirt. Quick as Polly nipping a fly off her flank, I snapped a photo.

T-shirt Stegosaurus

Sure, now it was coming back to me. The stegosaur – that was the one with the tail spikes and kite-shaped plates on its back.

The chevron was one of the small bones under the cervical vertibra, the roundish bones that ran from the dinosaurs hind legs to the tail. Unlike larger bones found in the stegosaurus, which stood up better to the crushing weight of sediment and time, the chevrons were fragile. That’s what made them desirable. They would be used to build a stegosaur skeleton.

When Sam returned, he labeled the now aluminum-wrapped bone and returned it to the exact spot I’d found it. Later, he explained, he would overlay the site with a one-meter gird, measure the bone’s location and note its location on a map. That would make it easier to reassemble, if possible, all the chunks of stegosaur that might appear during the course of the dig.

Wrapped for mapping

So I finally found a dinosaur bone and that’s how I got the dinosaur digging fever and well, that’s why I spent five days digging with Peter Larson instead of heading for Devils Tower.

So, are you ready to stray from your routine a bit? Are ready to learn more about paleontology – or how Peter got the “Paleo Pete” nickname? Then visit the Black Hills Institue where you can learn more about what it’s like to unearth a T. Rex. Heck for that matter, you can even buy one. Hint: you’ll have to read “Bones Rock” by Peter and co-author Kristen Donnanto find out how he earned the monicker.

And what about Devils Tower? Well, Polly and I are still headed that way – ten days after we rolled into Hulett.

Until then, keep your harness oiled, your wheel bearings greased – and don’t glue your fingers together with Paleo Bond.

(Thanks Pete and Neal Larson and all the folks at the Black Hills Institute for including mule Polly and me in your dig. Bernie)

Posted Monday July 23, 2007 by Bernie
Grab Your Scope and Rifle. Mule Polly's Escaped!
July 10, 2007

I was enjoying that last cup of coffee with my hosts Carl and Erma Sensenig of Belltower Community, MT, when I cast a glance out the window. “Time to harness Polly.” I wanted to say but it came out, “Guys! I don’t see my mule!”

Polly, who’d been turned in Carl and Emma’s pasture overnight, had escaped. Damn! This was way big land and if she got a head start there’s no telling how far she could get before she hit a fence – or a rattlesnake.

In a flash the RiverEarth Mule Recovery Team was mobilized. Carl’s son Zack and his friend Jordan piled into their Dodge Durango and the hunt was on.

RiverEarth Mule Recovery vehicle

Now understand, this is wide open country. Country so wide, flat and mule-colored (the seed heads are just turning Polly-colored) that it would be easy to overlook a 800-pound animal.

Where’s the mule?

We roared up the Sensenig driveway, rattled across the cattle guard and rolled to a stop. Zack pulled a .243 rifle from the Dodge, threw it to his shoulder and aimed the barrel across the prairie.


“Sure hope he doesn’t shoot her,” I thought then saw his finger wasn’t on the trigger. He said he was just using the scope as a sort of high-powered monocular – “scoping” is what he called it.

That’s how big this land is. When your mule runs off, the land runs so far to the horizon you need more than just plain eyesight to catch a glimpse. So the rifle wasn’t just a macho symbol you carried around in your pickup, barrel pointed at the transmission. In these parts, it doubled as a useful spotting device.

Zack handed me a rifle. I scoped.

Bernie scopes

I remembered to keep my finger off the trigger in case I saw what I was looking for…

He didn’t need to hand Jordan a rifle. Jordan was already scoping for mule.


We saw six antelopes, four mule deer and a rabbit. Lots of birds too – meadow larks, black birds. A black angus cow.

The view

But no Polly.


This used to happen out here. Before the days of barbed wire and Dodges, if a pioneer traversing the sea of grass lost his mount, it could be a long search. That mount could run all the way back to St. Louis. Or elude capture altogether. They called the later mustangs.

It also drove home the “Range Stock at Large” signs. These large yellow sign dotted the highway to remind drivers that they were rolling through range-land, open prairie that was home to thousands of free-roaming cattle. And now, one mule…

From experience, I’d learned mules run away in certain patterns. Polly runs in the direction I came from. Evenings, when I turn Polly loose for the night, the first thing she does is head north. It didn’t look good. North ran from here to Canada, three hundred miles up the road.

The three high-powered scopes piercing the prairie yielded nothing. Faced with thousands of empty acres of rolling grasslands, where a dip in the terrain can swallow herds of sheep, cattle and deer from sight, it became clear our morning would be spent searching for Ms. Longears.

We drove a few hundred yards east, stopped, pulled out our rifles and searched. All we saw was prickly pear and sage brush. We drove north a few miles, stopped, scoped. Now it was foxtail grass and gumbo dirt. Finally we widened the search and tackled yesterday’s route.

This was embarasing.

I’d promised folks I’d mail them a copy of the “Woody and Maggie” book – straight off the mule wagon. Now I wondered what excuse I’d come up to explain that, well, no, I wasn’t able to take their books to the post office in Alzada because I’d lost my mule….

Then, at a cattle guard, a brown, fly-swatting, four legged shape. Driving closer, we made out the foot-long ears. That’s right, it was Polly, resting in the shade of a “Range Stock at Large” sign.

Range Stock at Large

Polly, it seems, had just gotten lonely. Zack and Jordan just walked up to her, guns and all. Then she followed them back to the Dodge and insisted on riding home with them.

can i catch a ride with you guys…?

The cheek – first to run off, now to want a ride home. I explained to Polly that, no, since she’d run off and enjoyed the outward bound section prairie alone, she’d enjoy it with human company on the way back.


It took us the rest of the morning to get back to the Lost Sea Wagon. By the time I got back to the wagon and fixed the fence (Polly had stepped over a downed section of wire), the day was half gone so I figured I might as well take the other half off. That’s why it’ll take us five days to travel the seventy-two miles from Ekalaka to Alzada, MT – provided I don’t loose Polly again.

Home – tonight.
Belltower Community, MT

In the morning we set off anew for the Alzada post office.

Those of you who ordered a copy of the “Woody and Maggie” book, fear not. It’s headed your way – with another adventure under its belt. And for those of you who’d like to order a copy of the “Woody and Maggie” book straight off the mule wagon? Yes, I’ll send you one direct from the Lost Sea wagon. Just drop by the General Store.

So that’s what’s up on the Lost Sea.

Sure hope the week’s going well for you. Remember to keep your reins tight, your wagon wheels greased – and your mule picketed tight…

Heading for Alzada, MT

Posted Tuesday July 10, 2007 by Bernie
Life and Faces in Ekalaka, Montana
July 1, 2007

Mornings in the mule wagon, I open my eyes and see this.

The view from my front wagon window
Ekalaka, MT

Then then there’s a bump on the door, and if it’s not fastened, I see this.

The Lost Sea Wagon’s so short and the days so hot, I don’t sleep with a blanket so when Polly nudges the door open, she has a clear shot at my exposed toes. There’s just no getting away from her so I get up, give her some oats for breakfast and go about my day in Ekalaka.

Ekalaka, MT was settled in the 1860s by a fellow who figured solving thirst, not eradicating the last buffalo, was more his style. The sign on the outskirts of town reads as such:

Montana Department of Transportation Sign

So that’s how the town got started.

We won’t talk about Ekalaka proper today. That’ll come later. Rather I wanted to show you some scenes from the roping arena where Polly and I are camped.

First a bit about the area.

The first big open-range cattle outfits came to south-eastern Montana, the Ekalaka area, in the early 1880s. Before that, it was considered “hostile territory”. This, after all, was Sitting Bull’s country – rather, it was the land he’d been forced to occupy. This was was Custer country. This was Little Big Horn country.

This was the country where 1400 mounted troops were sent in with the little-discussed Cole Expedition to mop up the remaining native Americans after Custer failed. They soon learned the land couldn’t support feed and water for so many horses and men so by September, when the first snows fell, they admited defeat – after dispatching just over 20 native Americans. They lost an equal number of men.

Still, ranching took hold and these days Carter County raises mainly cattle and fodder for cattle – alfalfa and warm season hay. Unlike Fallon County to the north, there’s no oil exploration in this area so Carter County and Ekalaka rely largely on ranching for their livelihood.

Like most all the small eastern Montana and western North Dakota ranching towns I’ve visited, Ekalaka has a community roping arena. It’s here that I’ve rested Polly for a week. It’s here, in the evenings, that local families, fathers, sons, daughters and wives, come to rope steers.

Here are some of the faces.

The bulldogging Fruits: Orry (l) and Troy ®

Orry Fruit just qualified for the national high school rodeo finals in team roping and bulldogging. In bulldogging, a steer is turned loose and then the dust starts.

A mounted rider (Orry, in the photo above) chases down the running steer on horseback, leans over, grabs the galloping steer’s head, then slides from his now-flat-out-galloping horse and wrestles the steer to the ground.

The hazer (Troy, in the photo above) rides on the side opposite the galloping steer to keep the steer running in a straight line.

So who turns the steer loose for the bulldogger to tackle?

Mikel Fruit – or in Orry’s case, Mom.

Mikel Fruit: Mom at the cattle shoot

Some evenings, six or eight folks show up. Faith and Ramon Rankin, whose kids are attending camp at nearby Camp Needmore, have visited regularly during the week.

Faith Rankin

Okay, so the dust’s flying, bawling steers are trotting around the arena and voices shout, “I just ran out of arena…” So what are Polly and I doing while all this is going on?

Polly, predicatably, is eating. In fact, she’s gained so much weight on this trip I had to spread the wagon shafts so she can fit between them.
Polly fills her tank

And I? Well, this weekend I gave a presentation in Ekalaka. In the evenings leading up to the event, I signed books in the roping arena grandstands

Summer’s coming, though. The crested wheat and cheat grass that Polly’s feasted on is heading out (maturing) so it’s time to move on. This week, Polly and I are heading into the badlands for Alzada, MT. This means I want Polly’s wagon as light as possible.

I normally carry fifty of my “Woody and Maggie” children’s geography books aboard the Lost Sea wagon. I sold most of them at this week’s Ekalaka appearance. Now, since I’m heading into such rough country, I want to sell the last dozen so Polly doesn’t have to lug the extra weight across 100 miles of buttes and sage. (When I get to Alzada, I’ll have more books shipped out to the wagon.) This is where you get lucky…

That’s right, for the next two days (July 2 and 3) you can get a copy of “Woody and Maggie” that actually came off the Lost Sea wagon. Your copy will even have the special “Wagon Edition” inscription (in addition to anything else you want in your book). Yep, these are the same books that have witnessed all the photos above – from the safety of their secure, ventilated lodgings.

“Wagon Edition” inscription
Straight off Polly’s wagon from Ekalaka, MT to you.

Ready for that straight-off-the-wagon copy of “Woody and Maggie”? Just drop by the General Store…

Have a ranchy week.

Ekalaka, MT

Posted Sunday July 1, 2007 by Bernie

Recent "Lost Sea Expedition" posts:
Lost Sea Expedition Archives: