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

Hiding Under Cow Cake
June 30, 2008

Western South Dakota, which mule Polly and I are currently crossing on our Canada to Mexico Lost Sea Expedition, is a land of precipitation extremes.

The land we’re crossing
Badlands National Park, SD

75 million years ago, it was covered in hundreds of feet of salt water. Now it gets by on a foot or less of annual precipitation – often less.

Mule voyaging on an inch of rain per month
Hurley Butte
Outside Interior, SD

After 8 years of drought, the moisture’s returned. Not gentle-like mind you. Nope, where talking Noah’s Flood style, sort of like the ancient Lost Sea’s returning. Example. The daughter of a rancher I stayed with outside Rapid City had her garage knocked off its foundation by a neighbor’s house that came whistling by in a flash flood. A day later, mule Polly and I knocked off early when a flash flood submerged Antelope Creek Road.

Antelope Creek flash floods
Caputa, SD

There was no way to cross the torrent of fence posts, cotton wood snags and prairie grass spilling across the gravel road.

Seems you can’t just have a warm spring rain here in the South Daktoa. That’s how I ended up hiding the Lost Sea wagon under a cake bin.

Right, I’d better explain.

Cake bin?

Yep, it’s what holds cow cake.

Cow cake has nothing to do Betty Crocker triple layer pound cake and even less to do with cow pies. It doesn’t even look like cake. Rather, it resembles an oversized feed pellet, about the size of piece of sidewalk chalk.

Cow cake

It’s made of corn, oats and in the spring, if the grass is really lush, as it’s been this year, supplemental magnesium.

Seems in spring, the cattle in this part of South Dakota are susceptible to “grass tetni”. Grass tetni has nothing to do with rusty nails.

I learned all this from Casey Vaughn and Patti Oleic who hosted mule Polly and me recently. They ranch outside Scenic, South Dakota.

Casey explains.

Casey explains corn cake

“Mostly it affects lactating cows. A cow can only store magnesium for 24 hours in its system. So it needs to get some every day. When the grass is really rich and a cow is nursing a calf, its body can become magnesium deficient.” The cow collapses and only a few pints of magnesium solution, administered by IV within hours of the cow’s sickening, can save the cow.

This time of year, supplemental magnesium added to cow cake helps prevent this condition.

Cow cake is stored in a cake bin. No, it’s not a tin you’d put cookies in. Rather, it’s a giant hopper that rests about ten feet above the ground on steel legs. According to Casey, it holds a “semi load” full of cow cake – about 22 tons. A hole in the bottom of the bin dispenses it.

Loading cow cake from the bin

So how do you feed cow cake?

With a cake feeder, of course.

The cake feeder is a box-shaped contraption mounted on the back of a pick up truck, in Patti’s case, a Ford of indeterminate age. The truck and feeder are backed under the cake bin. The slot at the bottom of the bin is opened and fills the feeder “with about 600 pounds of cake”.

Loading the cake feeder

When the cake feeder’s loaded, Patti drives the the truck out to cattle, pushes a button in the cab, and an auger in the feeder dispenses the cake in a orderly flow of pellets.

Feeding cake

Well, that’s when the contraption works. “It gets stuck lots,” Patti notes “so lots of times I put the cake in buckets and feed it that way.” Each cow gets about 2 pounds of cake. They’re tame enough to be hand fed.

When the cake feeder breaks…

So why hide mu wagon under a cake bin?

To keep the solar panels being smashed by hail.

Badlands hail that pelted the Lost Sea wagon

The evening I visited with Patti and Casey, hail was forecast. Turns out Patti’s cow cake bin was just tall enough for me to park my wagon under. That meant I didn’t have to cover the fragile panel with empty water jugs and the old sail I carry aboard the wagon. I just rolled the wagon under the hopper.

Hiding the Lost Sea wagon under the cake bin
(wagon is yellow figure at 5:00 position)
For a clue on how we got the aerial shot click here….

So did it hail the night I hid my wagon?

Nope, sure didn’t.

Which is a good thing. Right, my solar panel didn’t get smashed. Better yet, and I say this with pride, I get to boast I once (almost) saved my solar panel by hiding it under 22 tons of a cow cake.

Thanks, Patti and Casey, for having your cow cake save my bacon.


Posted Monday June 30, 2008 by Bernie
Harvey McPherson Explains the Creston Dinosaur
June 23, 2008

Traveling across the ancient sea bed of the Western Interior Seaway, which I refer to as the Lost Sea, I’m always on the lookout for marine fossils – and a good place to sneak a nap.

Imagine my surprise when mule Polly and I came across a dinosaur.

Coming across a dinosaur
Creston, SD

This I had to investigate.

A bit of searching turned up the dinosaur’s caretaker, Harvey McPherson. Harvey runs the ranch owned by Ken Wilson, where the dinosaur lives. In a addition to caring for the ranch’s red angus cattle, Harvey’s become a sort of on-site dinosaur guide. On a recent morning, standing in front of the enormous green creature, Harvey gave me his take on the critter’s history.

Harvey McPherson

To listen to Harvey’s version of the story, click on the audio player below.

Harvey in front of dinosaur

What I found fascinating about the Creston dinosaur story is that as Polly and I continued our journey across the Badlands, I started coming across all sorts of stories about the dinosaur’s past. The day after I visited with Harvey and the dinosaur, I caught up with Kathleen Ann, the grand daughter of the man who built the Creston Dinousaur. RiverEarth.com will air her story soon.

So what did I learn from Harvey and Kathleen’s stories?

That every grown up, kid and mule traveler should take time to listen to dinosaur stories. Then take a nap with one. And, of course, take a photo.

Self portrait with dinosaur

Happy napping!

Thanks Harvey and Kathleen for sharing your stories with mule Polly and me.

Posted Monday June 23, 2008 by Bernie
Listen to That Bluegrass I'm Missin'
June 20, 2008

Some call it the sweetest sound ever to slide down an ear canal. Others call it “that damn chicken scratch music”.

That’s right, I’m talking about bluegrass music, in particular, the stuff you still hear in old dance halls and feed stores. I think it’s crash hot and have driven mule Polly miles for an earful.

Out here traveling across the Dakota plains in my mule wagon I miss it sorely.

Mule Polly and the Lost Sea Expedition wagon
Outside Interior, SD

Earlier this winter, to get Polly in shape for my Canada to Mexico Lost Sea Expedition, my friends and I drove our wagons from outside Southern Pines, NC to Rockingham, NC to listen to some old timey bluegrass at Fords Mill Bluegrass. It took 2 days to cover the 25 miles.

Bluegrass-bound friends
Hoffman, NC

The evening I arrived, I talked with owner James Ford about his upright base, or “dog house base” as some call it.

James Ford and his dog house base
Rockingham, NC

Click here for the story and interview.

Later that night, I set up my recording gear and captured “Uncle Danny” Pate and his band “No Limits” playing some nitty gritty ‘grass.

One of the things I enjoy most about the recording you’re about to hear is the lead up to the music itself. In an age of 2-minute album cuts, it’s nice to just sit back and hear a band work up to its music. Hell, Uncle Danny spent 5 minutes fussing with his audience and gear before he even started playing. Listen to the sound of the crowd, the single plucked strings, the sound check – first the banjo, then the dobro. Note the comment about the mule in the yard….

What Uncle Danny was refering to…

Okay, ready for a listen? Then kick back and click on the player below to listen to Uncle Danny singing “Sitting on Top of the World”.

Nice, eh? No, this isn’t the overproduced, over-hyped, syrupy music that counts for country music these days – canned stuff played by airbrushed models that one suspects are lip synching. Nope, Uncle Danny’s up there on the stage ribbing the crowd and hurling friendly barbs at his buddies like, “I’m glad to know that there’s more than one jack ass here than Gene Erwin….”.

Part of this recording’s charm is it took place in an honest to God dance hall. Ford Mill Bluegrass is an old feed store converted into bluegrass venue. The dream of owner James Ford, it nows serves up bluegrass most Friday nights. Gone are the fifty pound bags of calf starter and laying mash, replaced by an assortment of plow shares, old saddles and horse collars hung from the wall.

Fords Mill Bluegrass Barn

Oh, and then there’s the music.

The night of this recording, the Mill was packed with about 100 folks, from bald headed infants to bald headed great grandparents. You’ll hear chairs scrapping, laughter, clapping and sweetest of all – the tinny clicke of tap shoes on concrete.

Lots of the older folks in the crowd slipped into flat-soled white shoes with metal taps on the bottom. During slower parts of these recordings, you’ll here their slow tap. In this recording, they sound like bottle caps on concrete.

Nights on the Dakota plains, falling asleep in my mule wagon with little more than abandoned farm equipment to keep me company, I fire up this recording and listen to Uncle Danny howl into the dark.

Prairie company

The wind rocks the mule wagon, Polly grazes under prairie stars and my mind comes off the silent plains for a spell.

Makes me want to get out and find some Dakota chicken scratch music…

PS: Thanks to Uncle Danny Pate and “No Limits” band members Little Joe Grooms, B.F. Darnell, Hal Darrell and, on the dog house base, Tommy Sessons. For those of you in central North Carolina who’d like to check out the Mill, here are the details:
Fords Mill Bluegrass
Hamlet, NC
Fridays at 7:30 pm
Contact:James Ford
ph 910 895 6253

Posted Friday June 20, 2008 by Bernie
Now You Know the Mule I Know
June 16, 2008

Hauling film gear

I was hauling my film gear back to the Lost Sea wagon when Larry Harvey came swooping through the buffalo grass in his one-mule cart.

Larry swoops in
North of Hill City, SD

“Whoa “I Know,’” he said and mule and buggy rolled to a stop alongside the Lost Sea Wagon.

Larry Harvey

I’d met Larry the day before while out looking for a place to keep Polly for the night. He pointed us toward some Forest Service pasture just past his house. Said he might drop in for a chat if he saw us camped out.

But on a mule?

Now you have to understand, when you travel with a mule as I do, you attract lots of like-minded folks. In Larry’s case, he decided that with the price of gas so high ($3.76 on May 30, 2008 in Hill City, SD), he’d just hitch his mule his buggy and do errands that way.

Hence the mule.

Today, he was heading up the road to check on his neighbor’s horses.

Time for a gam

Still, like men that travel via horse or mule, he had time for a gam before work. Talk turned to his steed.

Larry had owned the mule from birth. “My dad bought a jack for $35 and we didn’t know if he’d be any good.” he said. A jack being an ungelded male donkey, it was implied that a good stud donkey might cost more.

Seems the low-dollar jack was fine and knew just what to do. He impregnated two mares right off the bat.

“We named the one mule “I Know” and the other “You Know,” Larry explained.

Larry and I Know

You Know was sold. I Know’s been with Larry over two decades.

The first years, she was “a little jumpy”. I Know had a tendency to run off.

Larry explained. “I hitched I Know to her cart one day for a boy to drive. It was real hot and he’d brought an umbrella to put in the wagon. It was a big one – 6 foot across. Well, he climbs in, opens the umbrella and I Know takes off at a dead gallop.”

The mule spots the barn, “just pours on the coal” and gallops in through the doors, umbrella and all – crashing the buggy inside.

Undaunted, a little later, the same boy used the same mule to court a girl 7 miles away. Traveling 14 miles per outing, “was just what that mule needed”, according to Larry.

“Then she pours on the coal….”
Larry recounts. I Know listens.

That was ten years ago.

Now 21, I Know has mellowed enough for farm work. Larry hauls fire wood with her these days. He uses his buggy as a pickup truck, hauling chain saws, gas and oil into the forest. Once among the Ponderosa pines, he unhooks the cart, attaches “tug extensions” to his harness (pieces of chain, they let the log drag farther behind the mule so it doesn’t hit her in the heels) and drags the logs to the saw-up area.

Larry showing off his tug extensions

So what’s next for I Know? Larry says he dreams of driving her across South Dakota – if he doesn’t take his saddle mule. Then again, by nature, “I never really wanted to travel far by mule”. Seems he’s content tooling around the Black Hills with I Know jerking logs out of woods and checking on the neighbor’s horses.

With that, Larry climbs into his buggy, chirps to I Know, and vanishes from our camp. All man and mule leave behind are two long streaks of bent-over buffalo grass.

(Thanks, Larry, for finding Polly a place to spend the night. Oh, and thanks, too, for showing me how to tie her halter properly…. Bernie)

Posted Monday June 16, 2008 by Bernie
Into the Badlands
June 13, 2008

Badlands from 2000 feet
Outside Scenic, SD

75 million years ago, a shallow sea covered South Dakota. As the marine creatures died, they settled into the muddy sea floor where some fossilized. Millions of years passed. The western North American continental plate rose, draining the sea south into the Gulf of Mexico. Eons passed. Erosion from the Rockies covered the sea floor with hundreds, in some places thousands, of feet of silt.

Now flash forward to the the 1700s. French trappers, among the earliest white men to travel across South Dakota, encountered the layers of silt and erosion. “Les mauvais terrers a traverser” they called it – “bad land to travel across”.

Then, in June 2008, another white guy entered these Badlands with his mule Polly and wagon. That would be me

Mule Polly and wagon
Outside Scenic, SD

Rolling and bumping across the eroded wreckage of a vanished sea, I’m learning the latest name for the area. “Back in the fifties, when we went to school, they called it the Great America Desert” Ben Ahrendt of Scenic, SD told me.

Ben Ahrendt
Scenic, South Dakota

Receiving an average of barely 12 inches of rain per year, the South Dakota Badlands have been in a drought the last eight years. From 2000 to 2008, it’s been so dry most ranchers haven’t been able to make even one cutting of hay per year. Then, in May 2008, the precipitation started. Rain, snow and hail have bombarded the area, producing flash floods, hail damage, and yes, green grass. Finally the cows have something to eat.

Cow and calf country

This is hard ranching country. In a good year, it takes 25 to 30 acres to support a cow and calf. In a bad year, hay has to be trucked in, or worse, ranchers have to sell their cattle.

Hard country

Still, Polly and I couldn’t have chosen a better year to enter this arid country. Currently averaging 12 miles per day, I’ve witnessed the land change from Ponderosa pine forests in the Black Hills, 60 miles to my West, to eroded spires and flat top tables. So far, the water has held up. Polly drinks 5 to 10 gallons of water per day, much of which she finds in ditches and stock tanks. Still, I carry 4 6-gallon water jugs on the back of my wagon. Currently, only one is full.

That means instead of chasing water, I can spend the time photographing and filming the land the french trappers dreaded.

My favorite shooting vantage point? The top of the Lost Sea wagon. With the tripod straddling the wagon’s solar panel, I get just enough loft to shoot earth, sky and the crumbling remains of the long-vanished lost sea.

Shooting earth and sky: Bernie’s aerial photography set-up

Post Script

I’d like to thank Bryce Nelson for taking me flying in his Piper Cherokee. A Rapid City realtor, Bryce was good enough to haul my film gear half a mile into the sky for some great aerial shots. Yep, I’ll be sharing more of those photos with you as I head East across the Dakota Badlands.

Bryce Nelson standing next to his 1977 Piper Cherokee
Rapid City, SD

To visit Bryce at Bryce Nelson Real Estate, Click here…

Posted Friday June 13, 2008 by Bernie
Listen to Linda Kramer Talk Prairie Balds
June 10, 2008

Traveling by mule wagon across the Great Plains, it’s easy for folks to think I’m out here camping with the prairie dogs and antelope. Yes, some evenings I bunk down among the Great Plains flora and fauna.

Reynolds Prairie, also known as Reynolds Bald
Black Hills of South Dakota

But just as often, I’m taken in by folks I meet along the way. This week I’d like you to meet and listen to Linda Kramer, who hosted mule Polly and I outside Hill City, South Dakota.
Linda, an Episcopalian priest, and owner of Borderlands Ranch, a spiritual and educational center outside Hill City, South Dakota, has been heavily involved with the Lakota Tribe.

Linda Kramer

She was the first Episcopalian priest to work on the Pineridge Reservation. An ardent educator and priest with a specialty in pilgrimages, she’s worked with the Lakota tribe since 1993.

On May 29, we spoke on Flag Peak, one of the highest peaks in South Dakota. At only about 300 feet lower than Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest point at just over 7200 feet, it’s one of the highest points between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees.

View of Flag Mountain in distance (with green Lost Sea wagon brake in foreground)

Our conversation took place among the ruins of an old Civilian Conservation Corps tower. Before the tower, the site had been used for Lakota Vision Quest.

Bernie at base of CCC tower, where interview took place
(Linda Kramer Photo)

The top of Flag Mountain is a windy, craggy peak. It has a 360 degree view of the Dakota horizon. Yes, the rumble you’ll hear in the recording is wind and thunder. As we spoke, a thunder storm was rolling toward our rocky perch from Montana.

Flag Mountain vista

Ready for a listen? Then join Linda she discusses the Lakota Sun Dance, the Black Hills’ little known grassland balds (also known as prairies) and what she’s doing to preserve the sacred Pe Sla (pronounced “pesh la”). Linda begins the conversation by explaining where the Lakota traditionally held their Sun Dance.

To listen to Linda’s story from high atop Flag Mountain, click on the player below.

Thanks, Linda, for putting mule Polly and me up in your exquisite cabins. If the story gets out about how I survived the Big May Snow in comfort my reputation as a rough-and-ready mule traveler is shot…!

To learn more about Borderlands Ranch, Linda Kramer, Reynolds Prairie and the pilgrimages Linda leads, Click here…

(Recording notes: The piece you just heard on Linda Kramer was recorded atop Flag Mountain using a Sony PCM-D50 recorder. All editing and production was done in the Lost Sea wagon on a Mac. Yep, the whole lot’s run by 100% South Dakota solar power provided by a 100-watt panel attached to the wagon roof.)

Posted Tuesday June 10, 2008 by Bernie
The Sound of Tree Wind
June 3, 2008

Traveling from Canada to Mexico with mule Polly and our wagon, we’ve been exposed to all sorts of wind.

Heading into the wind.
Click here to read about snow after Memorial Day…
South of Rochford, SD

On the zephyr side of the scale, you’ve got your wagon breeze. That’s the stuff you crave on hot summer days around noon when you’re lying under your mule wagon. The sun’s burned the grass to tinder three months ago and you’re just waiting for the bolt of lightening to drop from heaven, catching the prairie on fire. That’s when you want a wagon breeze. It’s the soft, wafty stuff that feels like you’re lying on your bed and some one softly lowers a sheet on you.

Then, on the other end of the scale there’s winter tree wind – the hissing, fog-laden, wintry stuff that blows through the Ponderosa pines up here in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Ponderosa pine
South of Rochford, SD

To listen to the pine tree in the picture above, click the player below.

The recording you’re listening to was made May 22 just on dark. It’s the sound of near-freezing wind and rain enveloping a lone Ponderosa pine at 6,000 feet on Reynolds Bald outside Hill City, SD.

A bald is a sort of high prairie, a patch of buffalo grass among the pine trees. Originally kept clear by bison, Reynolds Bald’s now kept windswept by cattle and ranchers who knock over encroaching pine trees with a grubbing hoe. Occasionally a seedling escapes cow and hoe and grows into a crooked pine that hisses in the wind.

During the course of the recording, the lone pine disappeared in a fog bank.

Vanished pine

I made this recording to give you an idea of what this sort of wind does to your head. After 10 seconds you’ll be thinking “God, I’ve had enough of that static!” But no, don’t cheat and hit the stop button. Suffer through it and get a feeling for what it might have been like to have lived out here on the Plains and never escaped this northern wind’s incessant hiss.

Not up to it?

Don’t feel badly if you can’t listen to the whole 30 seconds’ worth. The wind got to lots of homesteaders, especially during the Great Depression. They pulled up stakes and headed west, mostly to California.

“Blowing out” is what the Oakies called it.

Posted Tuesday June 3, 2008 by Bernie

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