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

Sounds like a well
November 29, 2008

Bottom of the Lost Sea
Picture Canyon
Northwest of Walsh, Colorado

Going on a year now, mule Polly and I have been bringing you reports about the Lost Sea, the 1000-mile wide body of salt water that once flooded the Great Plains.

But there’s another great sea in these parts and it’s completely underground. It’s called the Oglalla Aquifer.

Recently, while visiting with Duane and Derril “Buckshot” Ackely of Walsh, Colorado, I got a first-hand report of how the Oglalla Acquifer was doing – and how it sounded.

Duane and Derril “Buckshot” Ackely
Walsh, Colorado

Yep, buried underfoot, anywhere from a few feet to 500 feet, lies the Oglalla Aquifer, one of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water. No, it’s not filled with sea monsters. Rather, it’s responsible for watering about one-third of the United States’ irrigated cropland.

While visiting with Duane and Buckshot, they showed me an old well they were going to cap. Seems the casing, the metal pipe that lined the well’s walls, was rusting. Now the well’s working barrel, a catchment at the bottom of the well, was filling with sand. There was no saving it. Before they filled the well with cement, they wanted to let me hear it speak a final time.

Duane Ackley

Now we’ve all dropped pennies into the fake rock wishing well at the mall. The copper discs land with anemic plops symptomatic of water that’s shallow (so the money can be retrieved) and dyed blue (so it looks ocean-deep).

Out here in Colorado, they don’t drop money into fake wells. Nope, real men drop real rocks (or in the case of Duane Ackely, pieces of concrete) down real wells. What goes into a well in these parts disappears there forever.

A proper well rock

Rock selection is important when it comes to making wells speak. More important is that we take care of our underground water reserves. In the recording you’re about to hear, Buckshot speaks first. The vanishing water table he refers to is the Oglalla Aquifer.

The last time the Ackley well will ever speak
Walsh, Colorado

Ready to hear a Colorado well speak for the last time? Then make a wish and click on the audio player below.

Posted Saturday November 29, 2008 by Bernie
Message in a tumbleweed
November 19, 2008

While sailing alone around the world from 1998 to 2003, I tossed countless message-laden bottles off my steel cutter Sea Bird.

Bottle launch 1998
200 miles off Beaufort, North Carolina

I’m still waiting for the first message to be returned by Neptune or someone combing his beaches.

So, traveling across the Great Plains by mule wagon researching mid-America marine fossils, I’m giving messages another go. No, I’m not stuffing business cards into my empty wine bottles and tossing them into the buffalo grass, hoping some rancher finds them and returns them before his prize Angus bull crushes them under foot.

Nope,I’m launching notes tied to something else.


Yep, call it the shorter days of November getting to me. Call it the loneliness brought on by watching the last Sandhills cranes whirling south on those northern busters. Call it loneliness by any name but that’s what it boils down to.

I’m giving in to the call of the man alone at sea.

So today mule Polly and I chased down a tumbleweed.

To catch a tumbleweed
Keyes, Oklahoma

The prairie I’m prairie schooning into, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, are covered in millions of tumble weeds that bounce north in mass migrations one day, only to pass me headed south with the next front.

Then they pile up. They pile up so high on fences they rip the barbed wire off. They pile up so high in the road ditches they have to be bull dozed off. They pile up so high in ranchers’ corrals they have to be shoveld out before stock can be worked

Corral tumble jumble
Keyes, Oklahoma

That’s the problem. They’re just too many of them out here for one with a dirty note tied to it to be noticed.

This is where the fluorescent orange spray paint comes in. After I caught my prize tumbleweed, I gave it an orange belt brighter than a prairie sunrise.

Then I wrote a note on one of my business cards. Polly inspected my handiwork.

Mule spell check

Then using gaffer’s tape from my movie camera, I tied it to my tumbleweed. For good measure, I added a piece of pink marking tape. Polly had another look.

This afternoon, I led Polly onto the prairie, tumbleweed in hand, and turned our tumbler free.

The launch

Good bye tumbleweed

So tonight, as Polly and I rest peacefully on the Plain, far, far away from the wagon, a tumble weed carrying a note and a postage stamp will hurl across the range.

If you find my note, please write back. I even included a stamp.

Cheers from these Great Plains!

Posted Wednesday November 19, 2008 by Bernie
Not the Kansas you had in mind
November 17, 2008

You know the Kansas geographical clichés. Kansas is flat as a pancake. Kansas is one of the Drive Through States…

The Kansas you’re thinking of
West of Ransom, Kansas

Well, some of those old saws are true – in some parts of Kansas. But did you ever hear of the Kansas Badlands? Or did you ever walk across Kansas with a mule? And for that matter, where in Kansas would you go to make a photo of you and your mule greeting the sun in the lee of chalk pyramid?

Greeting the Kansas dawn

Recently, I visited with Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton of Logan County, Kansas.

Barbara Shelton
Logan County, Kansas

Barbara explained why the country side I was traversing was emptier now than it was during the Homestead Act days. Click here to listen to the interview. During our chat, she mentioned fossil beds. Fossil beds? Intrigued, I took a detour through Logan county to tour the sights no one outside Logan County really talks about.

What I found tied in perfectly with what I was seeking. I found the bottom of the Lost Sea.

Kansas Badlands: the bottom of the Lost Sea

Scientists say Kansas has been under water longer than it’s been dry. The Western Interior Sea, or Lost Sea, as I call it, covered the Great Plains about 75 million years ago. Then, theory has it, the land to the west of it rose, pushing the water back to the Gulf of Mexico. In the millions of years that followed, erosion from the Rocky Mountains covered the ancient sea bed.

The Lost Sea
Modern-day Kansas is in the light blue water south and west of South Dakota

Bernie films the Kansas Badlands
Logan County, Kansas

In some places, like Logan County Kansas, erosion removed the overburden, exposing the ancient sea bed – and the fossils interred there. It’s the same way badlands are formed in most areas, be they the famed badlands of South Dakota or the lesser known ones of the Sunflower State.

Badlands (foreground) and uneroded plain (distant)
Logan County, Kansas

One of the advantages this country is aerial views. Yes, the mule traveler that wants a bird’s eye view of his wagon just has to climb the nearest chalk uprise and look down.

Camped at the Little Pyramids
Logan County, Kansas

Canyon camp from above

But this country’s biggest draw is marine fossils like the X-fish, better known as the Xiphactinus (pronounced “zi fak tin us” by paleontologists).

Sternberg Museum

Coming next, Xiphactinus, the Lost Sea fish with the funny name and the bull dog face. A fish so ravenous, it was known to choke to death on its prey. Stay tuned!

Posted Monday November 17, 2008 by Bernie
On becoming the Cat Lady
November 12, 2008

Good morning Michele,

This evening a Tom cat climbed into my wagon while I was out and pissed on my bed. Now my wagon smells like the Cat Lady’s house down the road. You know the lady down the street from where you grew up. The one that never had a light on during Halloween and when you went by to sell Girl Scout cookies you caught a wiff of her abode and thought, “Dang, don’t ever let me turn into that person.” Her house smelled of pee and smoke.

Now I know why. Well, now I know why it smelled of smoke. The cat pee I figured out…

So tonight I get back to settle in for a cozy night aboard the sea vessel to be confronted by this age hold horror of a stink. But seeing how my wagon is my home on the road and the closest Motel 6 is 100 miles away, I did what the Cat Lady did.

I shut my doors tight, pulled the curtains – and light my pipe. To hide the smell of Tom Cat’s squirt.

So now I’m choking on smoke and cat pee and the neighborhood kids are saying what you and I said about the Cat Lady. That her house reeked and she had a phlemy cough from all those cigarettes she smoked.

Yep, I’ve become the Cat Lady. And I’m gonna kick that cat’s ass in the morning when I catch it lifting a leg on Polly’s blanket – which I just remember I have hanging on the fence….

Sure hope you had a better evening and a better day.

Love and thoughts of pure Carolina air. My apologies to the Cat Lady for those early evil thoughts.



Posted Wednesday November 12, 2008 by Bernie
Alone on the Range
November 11, 2008

Recently, ducking a patch of wintry weather, mule Polly and I holed up with Barbara Shelton and Chuck Bonner of Logan County, Kansas.

Polly bundled up for the cold at the Bonners

Logan County is located in the western part of Kansas and includes some of the Great Plains’ best chalk deposits, laid down when the area was covered by the Western Interior Sea (or Lost Sea as written on the side of my wagon).

Creep feeder with chalk deposits in distance
Logan County, Kansas

Chuck and Barbara with “Spiker”, the truck they use to take folks on fossil digs

While the snow swirled and wind generator roared (Barbara and Chuck live off the electrical grid) I holed up in the Bonner sun room as Barbara explained how western Kansas was emptying out.

Barbara Bonner

Bernie in the sun room

So pull up a chair next to Barbara and me and listen to her explain why the land on the others side of the glass is emptier than frontier days.

Before you start, here are some definitions for life alone on the range.

Alone on the range
Logan County, Kansas

Alone on the Range Definitions
1) Township: a township consisted of 36 sections, each of one mile square
2) Section: a section is one square mile, or 640 acres.
3) Quarter section: a quarter section is 140 acres. Homesteaders were alloted quarter sections. In some cases, they could file for a “tree claim”. That was a quarter section on which they were to plant trees as an improvement.

A final audio recording note. The roaring wind you hear at the start and end of the following recording was recorded in the snow shower outside Chuck and Barbara’s stone home on the prairie.

Ready to brave the emptiness? Then click on the audio player below.

Thanks, Chuck and Barbara, for sharing your home and stories with mule Polly and me.

Coming next, mule Polly and I explore the empty land Barbara described. Stay tuned for the Kansas Badlands…

In the meantime, if you’d like to visit Chuck and Barbara at the Keystone Gallery, just click on the link below.Click here to visit Chuck and Barbara at keystonegallery.com.

Posted Tuesday November 11, 2008 by Bernie
Welcome to Colorful Colorado!
November 4, 2008

Welcome to Colorful Colorado
Outside Towner, Colorada

Yes!!! After 10 months, 6 states and 1200 miles on the road, mule Polly and I crossed into Colorado. It’s enough to make a man dance a jig on his mule wagon.

Posted Tuesday November 4, 2008 by Bernie
Nicodemus Part 2: Name without prejudice
November 4, 2008

Earlier, I wrote of the founding history of Nicodemus, Kansas. Here’s a brief oral history of the name’s origin as recounted by Angela Bates of Nicodemus.

Angela Bates

To listen to Angela explain who Nicodemus was, click on the player below.

Which brings us to the weather.

In the months I’ve traveled by wagon across the Great Plains, I’ve learned to keep a weather eye peeled for hail, thunderstorms and dry lightening. As soon as I hear rumbling, I break out the film and recording gear.

Recording the sky
Minor Ranch
North of Hyannis, Nebraska

Then, if there are any in the area, I run like hell for the nearest Quonset hut or abandoned barn. When the prairie sky falls, no property is private.

South of Bell Community, Montana

The weather had the same effect on homesteaders that eked a living off the Great Plains a hundred years ago.

Walking through prairie weather

Click on the audio player to hear Angela Bates describe how the Kansas weather has proven the area’s great leveler. And how prejudice was not a luxury homesteaders could afford under angry skies.

Thanks all you farmers and ranchers for the times you’ve pulled the funny looking wagon with the odd name out of the prairie weather.

Posted Tuesday November 4, 2008 by Bernie
Nicodemus Part 1: Into the Land of Smoking Holes
November 3, 2008

It began with a promise.

The Promise

Newly-freed slaves living under Jim Crow in post-Reconstruction Kentucky and Tennessee were given a chance to own their own land. A quarter section of it – 160 acres. All they had to do was show up to claim it.

The catch?

The land was located in Kansas.

Still, many decided a new life in an unknown land was worth the voyage from familiarity to frontier.

Truth and Grace Hannah
Nebraska Homesteaders
(Kansas State Historical Society Photo)

So begins the story of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Recently, mule Polly and I took a break from searching for marine fossils to visit Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, Kansas

Enter Angela Bates.

Angela Bates
Nicodemus, Kansas

Angela runs the Nicodemus Historical Society Museum. She explained what the freed slaves found when they showed up to homestead their claims. They found much of what I did. Expanses of grass so vast as to blur the foreground and horizon in a sea of waving blades.

The land of opportunity?

Willina Hickman, one of the settlers who had been lured to the Kansas plains by handbills promoting “9 MONTHS OF SUMMER” and “3 MONTHS OF FALL AND SPRING” was in for a start when she first laid eyes on Nicodemus.

9 Months of Summer

Making her final miles across the treeless, windswept landscape, lured by the promise of upper-case promoted “CHOICE FARMING LANDS”, she was overcome with second thoughts.

“I looked with all the eyes I had. ‘Where is Nicodemus? I don’t see it.’ My husband pointed out the various smokes coming out of the ground and said, ‘That is Nicodemus.’ The families lived in dugouts… The scenery was not all inviting and I began to cry.”

Dugout life: the source of “smokes coming out of the ground”
(Kansas State Historical Society Photo)

To listen to Angela Gates explain Nicodemus’ start, click on the audio player below

Coming next, Angela Bates explains how Nicodemus got its name.

Posted Monday November 3, 2008 by Bernie

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