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

The Hands That Feed America
February 23, 2009

Recently mule Polly and I took a lunch break at the grain elevator in Tokio, Texas. This cheered Polly immensely as she had her choice of millions of pounds of milo. Milo, a close relative to sorghum, is used by feed lots to fatten cattle and bio fuel plants to produce fuel. To Polly, it looked like a million pound buffet.

Polly samples the million pound buffet

After Polly ate her fill, I visited with Manual Cantu and Daniel Christensen. In October and November, they weigh and unload the grain trucks that milo grain to the elevator. Until April, they load the milo onto trucks that haul it to nearby feed lots.

Manual Cantu

Daniel Christensen

Manual and Daniel’s handshakes were leathery – the bones in their fingers out of line, like broken branches that had healed crooked.

The hands that feed America

To listen to Manual and Daniel explain what happened, click on the player below.

Daniel’s “hands of a working man”

Posted Monday February 23, 2009 by Bernie
Journey Down a Mule's Throat
February 17, 2009

Traveling by mule wagon across the Great Plains, under what used to be a 1000-foot deep sea, it’s hard to imagine what the vanished marine inhabitants looked like. Still, given what I have on hand, one mule and some photos of a mosasaur skull, I’ll try. Today, we’ll look at the mosasaur’s head, in particuler, the structure of its mouth.

Polly on the Lost Sea seabed
Lake Alma, Saskatchewan, Canada

To review, the mosasaur was a marine lizard that swam in the Lost Sea 80 million years ago. Its closest living relatives are snakes and the monitor lizard.

Today, we’ll talk about its jaws and mouth. Polly, who just happens to be standing idly by, will be pressed into service.

Polly – today’s Mouth Model

Here’s what Polly’s front teeth, her incisors, look like.

Polly’s incisors

A typical herbivore, she sports 12 incisors in the front of her mouth – 6 upper and 6 lower. These flat teeth are designed for tearing grass (and the occasional book-signing cookie).

Okay, now let’s look deeper into Polly’s mouth. For this, I’ll cram my camera into those teeth for a photo. Here’s what the inside of Polly’s mouth looks like.

Behind Polly’s incisors

What’s striking is how the roof of Polly’s mouth is corrugated. See those triangular, ridge-shaped rows of tissue in the roof of Polly’s mouth? As Polly chews grass, she presses the bits of food against these ridges with her tongue. They’re sort of like one-way speed bumps, allowing bits of food to pass toward her throat – but not back out.

Pretty cool, eh?

But what does this have to do with a mosasaur’s mouth?

Quite a lot, actually. Like Polly, the mosasaur’s mouth was designed to grab stuff, then work it down its throat. Here’s a photo of a mosasaur fossil’s maw.


Most notable are the shape of the teeth. Slender and conical, they were designed for grabbing and holding, not shredding, prey.

Okay, so a mosasuar has clamped down on a 4-foot fish. What next?

That’s where the pterygoids come in.

Ptergygoids (center)

Ptergygoids are special teeth found in the roof of the mosasaur’s mouth, way in the back. Like the ridges in the roof of Polly’s mouth, they helped hold food in place in it’s inevitable journey toward the gullet.

Something the mosasuar had that Polly’s doesn’t is a double-jointed jaw. If you look closely at this next photo, you’ll see a second joint in the jaw. It appears as a fine tan line in the lower jawbone, right behind the last teeth.

Second jaw joint (center)

This, along with a floating lower-jaw joint, allowed the jaw to swing open to almost 180 degrees. This allowed it to ratchet over-sized prey down its throat like a modern snake.

The complete mosasaur package

Pretty neat, eh?

So that’s the last things fish and grass blades see here on the Lost Sea.

Coming next, how you can get your hands on a piece of Lost Sea mosasaur lore.

(Thanks to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for letting us photograph their mosasaur. Bernie)

Posted Tuesday February 17, 2009 by Bernie
Journey's End - and an Offer
February 17, 2009

Hitching-up-time (but not much longer)
Outside Artesia, New Mexico

Holy wagon tongue Pilgrims, it’s happening! Yep, together, we’ve traveled 2500 miles, 13 months, through 10 states and 4 seasons. We’ve cooked Kansas rattlesnakes , slogged through snow and gone down a mosasaur’s throat. And now our Canada to Mexico wagon voyage is coming to an end.

Mexico is coming into view. From here in Artesia, New Mexico it’s under 200 miles, or 4 weeks by wagon, away.

200 miles from Mexico
Outside Artesia, New Mexico

Like any mule traveler worth his weight in bar ditch alfalfa, I carry trade goods aboard the Lost Sea mule wagon. You know, to help pay for expenses. No, I’m not talking moonshine, pipe tobacco or hatchets. Rather, I carry copies of “Too Proud”, “Woody and Maggie” and “65 Days”, the books and DVD of past journeys across America by mule and around the world by sailboat. Cases of them.

A “Woody and Maggie” book straight off the wagon
Sucker Rod with family and family dog Biscuit
Maljamar, New Mexico

Thing is, in the last 200 miles, mule Polly has to haul the Lost Sea wagon across the Guadaloupe Mountains, a 3,000-foot climb over wind-bent yucca and a road dynamited into Russell Gap. From there, we drop down into Dell City, Texas and cross the desert to Fort Hancock, on the Mexican border. These will be hard miles so I’m lightening the wagon as much as possible.

That means in the name of adventure and weight reduction, I’ll send you a piece of the Lost Sea wagon. No, I don’t mean a lug nut, brake or one of those groovy Lost Sea life ring signs painted on my wagon’s yellow flanks. I’m talking a signed book or DVD straight off my prairie schooner. Yes each will contain a special message written inside attesting to its voyaging origins.

So if you enjoyed taking part in the Expedition and want a part of the Lost Sea wagon before journey’s end, drop by the General Store and order what you like. Polly and I will mail it to you from the next post office. Because once the Lost Sea Expedition is over, there’ll be no more buying barter goods off the wagon (though you’ll still be able to purchase books, DVDs and speaking programs from the General Store).

Post Office bound – sort of….

In the meantime, if you find yourself in the Guadaloupe mountain range or the desert south of that, drop by for a gam. Cheers from the trail!

Posted Tuesday February 17, 2009 by Bernie
Crow Fires
February 16, 2009

Back when I worked in an office, I noted the seasons on paper, with a calendar. That changed when I moved into a wagon and crossed the ancient seabed that spans the middle third of the North American continent.

In South Dakota, Lakota Elder Janice Red Willow explained how the natives marked the seasons using references such as the moon and wild turnip.

In New Mexico, I learned how Sucker Rod uses crows.

Sucker Rod
Maljamar, New Mexico

I met Sucker Rod on my 2004/5 voyage across America by mule. Named Sucker Rod after the slim pipe that pulls oil from the ground, I revisited him recently with mule Polly. We got to talking about the seasons, how winter was drawing to a a close. How, come March and early spring, the grass fires would begin.

There were various causes.

First you have dry lightening, where a lightening bolt strikes the grass, but no rain follows so the prairie burns. Then you’ve got cigarettes and trucks with flat tires (the rim drags on the pavement, creating sparks that ignite the dry grass).

Finally, you’ve got crows.

New Mexico Crow
Maljamar, New Mexico

Seems they have a self-destructive habit of building their nest in places that cause ignition – to themselves and the grass below them.


Then click on the audio player below to listen to Sucker Rod explain.

After I left Sucker Rod’s place in my wagon, headed west toward Artesia, New Mexico, I started taking a closer look at the power poles that lined the highway. Sure enough, on average, every twentieth one had a crow’s nest.

High line with crow’s nest
Outside Maljamar, New Mexico

Crow’s Nest
Outside Maljamar, New Mexico

Posted Monday February 16, 2009 by Bernie
New Mexico Position Report
February 11, 2009

As of February 12, Mule Polly and the Lost Sea wagon have crossed into New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment – also known as The Land Where Crows Burn up the Prairie.

Progress to date
Artesia, New Mexico

From Artesia, the Expedition heads for Dell City, Texas, then Fort Hancock on the Mexican border

New Mexico

But first, man and mule take a day of rest.

Polly rests
Artesia, New Mexico

Posted Wednesday February 11, 2009 by Bernie
Modern Lost Sea Fossils
February 6, 2009

Play toy photo

Found in ranch house window sill
Outside Hildreth, Nebraska

Traveling 2000 miles across the Great Plains by mule wagon, I’ve filmed, interviewed and photographed Plains folk and their marine fossils. I’ve also collected photos of another type of fossil – the contents of abandoned homesteads.

Recently, Roger Haldenby described how Texas cotton farmers had grown in size, in the span of three generations, from 320 acres to upwards of 3000 acres. Click here for the story and audio update…. The flip side of this means that folks have to leave the land. Barbara Shelton of Logan County, Kansas described how the land was emptying out, in some cases, to levels lower than pioneer days. Click here to listen to Barbara Shelton explain…

Sometimes, though, a song describes an event in ways voice alone can’t.

While in my home state of North Carolina getting mule Polly fit for the Lost Sea Expedition, I took a two-day wagon trip to Fords Bluegrass Mill in nearby Hamlet.

That Friday night, I set up my recording gear and captured “Uncle Danny” Pate and his band “No Limits” playing some nitty gritty ‘grass, including one of my favorites, “Thirty Years of Farming”.

Written by Canadian Fred Eaglesmith, “Thirty Years” recounts what happens to all small farmers on these plains. Eventually they sell out, and for a few years, before they vanish into the grass, their homes become the newest generation of prairie fossils.

To listen to the recording, click on the audio player below.

As the music plays, look at the pictures that follow. They were taken during the Lost Sea Expedition and illustrate the modern fossils of the American Great Plains.

Coffee pot
Logan County, Kansas

Stone faced dug out
Outside Two Buttes, Colorado

Soddie walls
Cimmaron County, Oklahoma

Palco, Kansas

Reynolds Prairie
Hill City, South Dakota

Posted Friday February 6, 2009 by Bernie

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