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

Self Portrait Tips For Mule Travelers
August 26, 2007

You’re traveling alone, maybe with a mule.

Traveling alone
Outside Sundance, WY

It’s early morning. You’re sitting in your favorite blue folding chair in the lee of an abandoned homesteader’s shack, coffee cup in hand, and that irksome thought crawls into to your re-caffeinated mind. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a picture of me sitting her enjoying this coffee?”

Sure it would – if you were Charles Kuralt. If you were Chuck, it’d be easy. You’d snap your fingers, your personal photographer would hustle over, capture the moment and hopefully offer you a refill of java bliss.

But face it, for most of us, that’s not going to happen. When you travel alone, without a film crew, you’re going to settle for photos of others, not you, right?


Just this morning, I spied my favorite blue chair in front of miner’s shack and decided to capture the moment. Here’s how it went – and why traveling alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a few pictures of you.

Blue chair and miner’s shack
Hill City, SD

Okay, first things first. I poured myself that second cup of coffee. I suggest you do the same. This self-portrait business involves lots of running back and forth so get yourself good and caffeinated.

Coffee cup in hand, I set up my primary camera.

The primary rig

I’ll be using the Sony HDR-HC7 on a Libec tripod to take my picture. Though I’m lazy and in love with the “Easy” button on my Sony, for this shot, I’m shooting in Manual Mode. Fear not. All that means is I enable the self-timer so when I hit the shutter, I have 8 seconds to run over to my chair, plop down and capture my coffee-slurping interpretation of Nirvana.

Oh, did I tell you I wanted to get Polly into the picture…? Here goes. Let’s get that self-timer set.

Okay Polly, get ready to dive for the blue chair.

Take One: Oops. Self-timer malfunction

Take Two: Off-scene battle with Polly, trying, unsuccessfully, to get her in gear.

Take Three: Okay Polly, let’s hustle

Take Four: Polly!

Take Five: Polly makes reluctant appearance

Take Six: More mule tug of war

Take seven: Crap, I spilled my second cup of coffee. Time for the third.

Take Eight: Reach chair. Now if I could just get Polly’s head down.

Take Nine: Polly takes her snort of coffee

And Finally Take Ten: Self Portrait in Blue Chair by Miner’s Shack
Hill City, SD

Whew, that self-potrait thing’s work, isn’t it?

Okay, so now that you’ve seen what’s involved, you’re wondering, “Who took the photos of Bernie taking photos of Bernie?”

Bernie did. That’s right, I set up my other camera, a Canon PowerShot A620 on a second tripod, behind the Sony. Then, racing back and forth, I dove from self-timer to recalcitrant mule to chair, with generally disasterous results. Call the series of photos Self Portrait of a Self Portraitist, a surreal exercise in logic, an M. C. Escher “Drawing Hands” moment. Takes One through Nine were taken with the Canon camera.

Only Take Ten, shot of me in gentlemanly repose with Polly, was shot with the Sony.

So get out there in front of your camera and see how you do. As for me, I’m beat. Those 22 set-ups and takes (I only showed you 10) took it out of me. I’m heading for a nap in the mule wagon. Wake me when you’ve got some cool shots of yourself.

Happy self-photographing. Hopefully your camera is better than mine…

Mule Polly
Black Hills, SD

Posted Sunday August 26, 2007 by Bernie
Mule Treat or Fossilized Baculite?
August 13, 2007

In keeping with the Lost Sea theme, I gather marine fossils as I journey along the floor of the vanished sea. I slip them into Polly’s wagon while she’s not looking, keenly aware the weight of one added to the next adds up to heavier pulling. Then, feeling guilty, I slide them into my pockets, as though lugging them around in corduroy significantly eases Polly’s burden.

It started with the carrot-shaped fossil Doug Smith gave me back in Dagmar, Montana. Doug, paleontologist, mensch extraordinaire and Montana Dinosaur Trail organizer, did his best to explain what it was. Bernie, still reeling from figuring out life on the road in a mule wagon, didn’t get it.

Until now, (sorry Doug), I’ve been letting Polly chew on it.

Sorry Doug…

In her quest for the Ever-Expanding-Belly, the Rubinesque Polly (she’s gained weight every step of this Expedition) has developed the self-serving habit of rummaging my hands for food – apple cores, bread, broccoli – anything to add to her girth.

Mule “Bernie, are you going to eat that?” Polly

On its own, out her on the Lost Sea, it’s not a big deal. Still, I try to discourage the habit. I don’t want her to confuse children’s fingers with baby carrots. Kids sure love a mule, can’t resist petting the nose of one tied up outside the grocery store, and, well, you get the picture.

So, to suppress Polly’s nibbling instincts, I took to offering her Doug’s carrot-shaped fossil, the one I carry around in my pocket. Nice try. Rather than shun its mineral taste and petrified texture, she took to it like a permanent lollipop – one she could suck and chew on but never damage. I think she was going for the salt that had transferred to it from my sweaty, guilt-ridden paws. So much for breaking her of being mouthy.

In Hill City I sobered up. I decided that, instead of using my pocket fossil as a mule pacifier, I should really should have it identified. So I took it down to Neal Larson at the Black Hills Institute.

I’d met Neal earlier at the Waugh dinosaur dig in Hulett, Wyoming.

Neal Larson

Along with brother Pete and partner Bob Farrar, he co-owns and runs the the world’s largest privately-held fossil museum. In addition, he’s the world’s leading expert on North American ammonites, baculites and belemnites, extinct marine creatures related to today’s chambered nautilus, octopus and squid.

What better man to identify my mule-gnawed fossil?

“Ah! That’s probably a Baculites eliasi!” he exclaimed when I showed it to him. Neal speaks in exclamations, not statements. “Last endemic Baculite of the Western Interior Seaway”.

Great. Mule Polly was using the equivalent of a stuffed passenger pigeon for a chew toy.

The Baculite, Neal explained, was a long, tubular, chambered creature related to the modern nautilus. In layman’s terms, it looked like a carrot with a squid’s head and tentacles fused to its wide end. It used fluid-filled chambers connected by a tube called a siphuncle to regulate its position in the water column.

Neal showed me models of Baculites he’d constructed at the Black Hills Institute.

Model Baculites (Left and Right) surround Ammonite (Center)

The tricky thing about making a Bacuilte model is this. No fossilized Bacuilte soft tissue has been found. The only fossilized remains that were unearthed, apart from the shell, was the occasional beak that resembled a parrot’s. Aside from that, reconstruction relied on guess-work.

Ammonite beak. Baculite beak would be similiar

“Baculites are cephalopods,” Neal explained, “so, aside from the fossilized beak and shells we’ve found, all we had to go on is how their modern relatives, the squid and octopus, are built.” Posed under a five-foot long Baculite model whose rubbery arms reached toward me in slithery grasps, he added, “so we gave them 8 arms. But really, it’s just an educated guess because we really don’t know.”

For emphasis, he pointed to a dime-sized hitchhiker attached to one of the circular ammonites. “We figured they would have had barnacles on them, too.”


Neal sent me home to the Lost Sea wagon with a selection of annotated Baculite fossils.

“Baculites Corrugates – 73 Million Years Ago – Found SE Rapid City, 25 miles away”.
“Baculites Sp (undescribed) – 82 Million Years Ago – Crow Indians collected these for buffalo stones”.

Baculites Sp (undescribed)

The last chunk of Baculite Neal gave me was thicker than my forearm. “Baculites grandes – 69 Million Years Ago – From Weston County, Wyoming”.

Bernie’s arm – versus – Baculites grandes

Don’t worry, Neal.

It’ll never fit in Polly’s mouth.

(Thanks, Neal, for the Baculite education. For anyone interested in Neal’s work with ammonites, baculites and all things Western Interior Seaway (Lost Sea), be sure to check out the Black Hills Institute, especially the section on marine creatures.

No, Doug, Polly’s not going to chew on your fossil anymore.


Posted Monday August 13, 2007 by Bernie
Hiding My Purple Bouquet From 500,000 Bikers
August 7, 2007

This week I’m in Hill City, SD and I’m nervous. Call me a chicken for being afraid to walk among the projected 500,000-plus bikers that are expected to converge on the Black Hills during Sturgis Bike Week.

Hill City, SD


Because I’m the only dude out here dressed in a button-down blue oxford shirt, tan slacks and an off-brand backpack. Don’t think you’d be any braver. You’d be uptight too if you looked like a narc with a rucksack at a Hell’s Angels gathering. Those dudes have big arms, bigger tattoos, and don’t give a damn that you think you’re invincible because you slept in a mule wagon last night. And if they ever got wind that you spent considerable time gathering purple bouquets, why, they’d stomp you before you had a chance to explain it was alfalfa for your mule Polly.

What you don’t want them to see.

Or would they?

“To hell with it.” I decided, shoving my introvert tendencies aside, “I’m going to meet some of these folks.” – before my back pack gets me in trouble.

To fathom this latent fear, you have to understand biker etiquette. When you roll into town, in this case, Hill City, you’re expected to park your super-custom Harley (you are riding a Harley, right…?) at a 45-degree angle to the curb. Then, when curb-side parking runs out, because the streets are blocked to four-wheeled traffic, you park in the row of motor bikes that runs down the middle of the road.

As the day goes on, bikes park closer and closer, especially in that middle row, until the mirrors, many sculpted to look like chromed Inquisition devices, practically touch.

This poses a delicate problem to the blue-shirted, accountant-looking, back-pack wearing type like me. How do I cross the street without my back-pack snagging a battle-axe shaped mirror that precipates a domino-like tumble of $20,000-dollar bikes that runs all the way to a Stop sign? I can just see it, the huge biker-looking dude with the ZZ Top beard at the far end of the row of Harleys I’ve upset barking, “Hey! You in the blue shirt!”

So, because I didn’t want to cower at the sight of every biker taller and hairier than I (which is all of them), I decided to meet the baddest looking biker in sight.

That’s how I met Cowboy.

The baddest biker I could find

Cowboy, it turns out, was a soft-spoken biker from Newton, Kansas. His real name was Ron Ulmer and he was in Hill City for the day. In a voice I’d associate more with a jeweler than a Hell’s Angel, he informed me he was just “looking around” like I was.


Then, before I could ask Cowboy what he did in life, an Alice in Wonderland-looking apparition caught my eye – a black top hat perched above red shades and beard trolling down Main Street aboard a motorbike that rattled my ribcage.

The apparition

The bike slowed, pulled into a parking spot and guys with full-arm tattoos stared. I’d found my man. Excusing myself from Cowboy, I approached the newcomer and before he could walk away from his bike, beat him over the head with the standard, “Hi I’m Bernie Harberts and I’m traveling by mule from Canada to Mexico and I’d like to take your photo.”

A grin parted the grey beard. This was going to work out…

That’s how I met Tophat.

In real life, Tophat, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, built homes. Fancy homes. Homes for folks like Sylvester Stallone’s brother, and the list went on and I swear I heard the words “Wayne Newton”… “We’re different from other builders because we build the whole home from the ground up.” he said. “That means right down to digging the foundation and laying the block. Most home builders subcontract all their work but we do it all in-house.”


Then talk turned to the bike.

I’d found it curious that for all the free-spirited, independent-living, devil-may-care image that bikers reveled in, they all caved in when it came to bike brands. There was something oddly homogenous, almost lemming-like, in the choices most every biker made about his ride.

Face it, if you wanted to live the rebellious Easy Rider lifestyle, you had to ride a Harley. I found the mass brand-consensus amusing. The Wisconsin bike-maker’s marketers had scored the proverbial ace.

So, I wondered, what kind of Harley was Tophat riding….?

“This is a 1999 Yamaha,” he grinned with a smirk. He tapped the words “Roadstar” airbrushed on the bike’s tank. “It’s a single carb, V-twin, belt drive with ceramic jug linings. That means no vapor lock like you get on the Harleys.”

The bike, he added, had been awarded 1st Prize at a recent bike show that emphasized “style and art, not name brand.” The judges, a home decorator, house painter and chef, chose it best in class – the only non-Harley in the selection.

Cool as a Harley – without the vapor lock.


So, now that I’ve talked with some of the bikers in Hill City for the week, I’m not afraid to walk around in my blue, button-down shirt any more. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that lots of these leather-clad rollers will be wearing blue button-down shirts next week. Long sleeves will cover up tattoos and voices be saying, “Line One” instead of, “Yep, that’s a pan head.”

That puts me at ease.

The specter of snagging my backpack on a Harley mirror, however, still horrifies me.

(Thanks, Cowboy and Tophat, for peeling back the biker mystique and putting the guy in the blue shirt at ease. Thanks, too, Grant and Kristin of Black Hills Bronze for putting mule Polly and me up while I mingled. Finally, to Pat, Lisa and Marci at Dry Creek Coffeee, three hearty cheers for keeping me in coffee and breakfast burritos. Bernie.)

Posted Tuesday August 7, 2007 by Bernie

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