Cave Tour and Home Again
You’re a sixteen year old boy who has just moved to South Dakota in 1890. There’s a cave in your backyard…and your mother is still in Iowa. What would you do? Grab a candle and some string and start spelunking! Alvin McDonald spend three years exploring the cave and keeping a daily journal of his discoveries. While presenting his findings at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he contracted typhoid fever and died at the end of the year. He was just 20 years old.
This cave’s natural entrance is only about ten inches in diameter. Depending on the pressure difference between the outside air and the cave air, it is either “breathing” in or out from this orifice. This Spirit Wind figures prominently in the creation story of the Lakota people. How were you breathed into being?
This cave differs from the others I’ve visited (Mammoth Cave, KY; Carlsbad Caverns, NM; Cave of the Mounds, WI) in that its formations are mostly boxwork, rather than stalactites and stalagmites. Boxwork is kind of like what you’d see if you built a castle of sugar cubes and mortared it with cement. The sugar cubes dissolve, and what is left is a kind of honeycomb of borders, criss-crossing each other. The calcite “mortar” that filled cracks in the limestone and dolomite is what remains. These structures were formed at the genesis of the cave, and not later by the action of dripping moisture, so they are speleogens rather than speleothems. (My new word for this section of the trip!) The ranger asked us what we thought it looked like. My first response was “a Jackson Pollack painting”.
They also rather resemble cobwebs, giving the dimly illuminated cave interior an aspect of Gothic horror. Creepy and fascinating!
Cave tours are absolutely spellbinding, but they don’t make good photography hikes. Watching my head and my footing, looking around at the surroundings, asking questions and trying not to hold up the single-file line of tourists took too much concentration for me to get many pictures.
I was reminded of the phenomenal bat program at dusk at Carlsbad Caverns, but learned that Wind Cave doesn’t have one. The number of bats is far less and the egress far smaller than the natural arena at Carlsbad. (If you’d like to read about that experience and see a photo of the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, click HERE.)
So, early the next morning, we headed home across the tall grass prairie of South Dakota, past Badlands (which we will return to see), through Minnesota, across the Mississippi River, and back to our Wisconsin home on the conservation prairie. The lawn hadn’t been cut yet this year and was absolutely lush and about waist high. It made us almost giddy! A good old Midwestern thunderstorm washed my car of all the insects and dirt we’d accumulated on our trip.
Five thousand miles, eight National Parks and Monuments, five hundred photographs, and four new brake pads later…I’m back at the computer, dreading the news about what is happening to our public land. I am so glad to have had an opportunity to walk in those places, to breath, to see, to sleep under the stars. I hold a hope in my heart that my children and my future grandchildren will have the opportunity to get to know the America that I visited on this journey, and that it will endure in its character. I may never know what they will inherit, but I will try to do my part to protect it.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
We drove north from Interstate 90 across tall grass prairies and into the Black Hills the next day. We stopped at a small town museum, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland ranger station to collect some information about the area. There are a LOT of tourist attractions here, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. We were not interested in seeing how people had carved up the mountains, however. We were interested in exploring the ecosystem on top and the caves beneath these sacred hills.
We decided to stay in the Park campground for two nights and take a long hike in the morning and a cave tour in the afternoon of the full day in between. The campground was in a stand of Ponderosa pine, nestled in the grassy, rolling hills. We heard coyotes at dusk both nights, yipping far off somewhere. The camp sites were, thankfully, not crowded at all. But the Visitor Center sure was! The cave tours are very popular in the summer, one reason being that the temperature in the cave is a constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Probably most tourists are seeing other attractions and sleeping in town, only visiting the National Park for a few hours to tour the cave. We saw no one on the six miles of hiking trails that we covered. But we did see buffalo, prairie dogs, dung beetles, an elk pelvis, and lots of other signs of a vibrant biotic community.
Medicine Bow National Forest
Where to now?
With Memorial Day over and the commitment to be back at the office in one week, we faced a point of decision. Steve felt that we had missed the chance to go deeply into a single Place and was willing to drive straight home to Wisconsin. I wanted to see some sights along the way and avoid spending a night napping in the passenger seat or in a truck stop. We reached a compromise and decided to head toward the Black Hills for a few more days of exploring.
Heading northeast from Vernal, Utah on Highway 191, we found ourselves traveling the Flaming Gorge Scenic Byway. Two state parks are along this road, and then the Ashley National Forest and Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Where the land isn’t protected, mining operations have stripped off the top of the mountains. The sight of those huge scars made me shake. Along the way, we realized we were on the “Drive Through the Ages Geological Tour”. This section of road traverses the Morrison Formation. Roadside signs name the various geological features and approximate their age. It was like having a review of the Geology 101 talk we heard at Dinosaur National Monument by going down the symmetrically opposite side of that bell curve.
The Flaming Gorge Recreational Area was created by damming up the Green River that flowed by our campsite the previous night. I have so many questions about how this man-made alteration affects the land, why it was proposed and built, who benefits and who loses. I have questions about others in the west as well: Glen Canyon dam, Hoover dam, and the rest along the Colorado River. Coming over the top of the Uinta Mountains, all I could say when I saw these structures through my cracked windshield was, “Dam!”
We headed on to Interstate 90 going east through Wyoming and crossed the Continental Divide again…twice. At this lower elevation, it splits into two lines on the road map, and it seems there is a dry basin area in the middle. In eastern Wyoming, we camped in Medicine Bow National Forest for the night. It was quite close to the Interstate, convenient but noisy. Rain was falling as we pitched the tent. I scrambled inside, but emerged shortly because I had forgotten something in the car. I’m so glad I did not miss this sight!At the end of the day, no matter what humans have done, built or destroyed, there is still Air, Water, Sun and Earth. I am glad. And I am humbled. This is the Medicine Bow.
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay…
Well, this isn’t that Green River. That’s in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and I have been there. This is the Green River in Utah that carved out part of the Morrison Formation and exposed many of the geologic layers of the past 150 million years.
The river was running high and fast from snow melt.
Memorial Day boaters were finding out just how cold that water was, and I had to see for myself. It sure felt good after a couple of miles on the desert trail!
On Memorial Day itself the National Monument campground was not completely full, as many travelers were headed back home. We decided to spend two nights. Federal sites command a higher level of respect, I find, and despite the number of families with lots of gear and gadgets, the place was quiet and clean and people were well behaved. Being in a Park campground means that you get opportunities to hear Ranger talks in the evening. We heard a presentation about Mountain Men of the area. The Ranger was dressed in period clothing and had all the gear and accessories that the kids clamor for: a coyote skin hat, a rifle, a beaver pelt and traps, a flint & steel pouch, a bear claw necklace and a big knife. He told the story of Hugh Glass’s experience with General Ashley’s company exploring the Green River…the story that Leonardo di Caprio acted out in the movie The Revenant. Later that evening, we drove out to the homestead at the end of the road where Josie Bassett Morris lived for more than 50 years. She had divorced three husbands, been widowed once and came out to this spot with husband number five to build her own cabin. Soon he was asked to leave as well. She hosted her four children and numerous grandchildren throughout the years, finally suffering a broken hip while at the cabin in 1963 and dying of complications the following year at the age of 90.
This homestead offered another version of human habitation in the desert to ponder. Josie was part of a wild bunch of outlaws in her younger days, and when she settled, her community lived in town, many miles away. Her cabin was built right next to a spring, which still runs with fresh, clear water. She brought in a lot of material to make the place “home”. This represents a much more modern version of life than the Pueblo communities we’d visited days before, but is still a sharp contrast to life in the campground we had just left that night.
Which causes me to wonder, what is a “sustainable” lifestyle in this place? What is “enough” to live in a desert? Or in any landscape? How has the idea of “enough” changed in my lifetime? What do I think is “enough”?
Geography 101 with Ranger Erin
Dinosaur National Monument is probably the coolest thing in America for dinophiles. I don’t mean because of the kitschy colored brontosauruses advertising every roadside establishment within 100 miles. I mean because it has 1,500 actual fossilized dinosaur bones on display, still embedded in the rock quarry where they were found. For real!
Driving up to the park entrance, you can see right away that these rock formations are unusual. They look so much older and seem to be at an odd angle compared to the surrounding mountains. If I were simply scanning the landscape for a dinosaur bone, I might pick this spot just because it looks…likely. It turns out there’s a good reason to look here. The deep layers of rock stick up at a 70 degree angle, giving a vertical look at hundreds of millions of years of history.
Picking a particular age is like selecting a product in a grocery aisle, according to Ranger Erin. And how did these layers become exposed like this? Ranger Erin demonstrated with a thick catalog of pages, striped horizontally on the edge. Pressure from the movement of the Rocky Mountains in the east and the Uinta Mountains in the west squeezed this section of Earth’s crust up into a kind of bell curve shape. Then the top was sliced off over time by the Green River. This provides unique access to layer upon layer of fossil history. It’s called the Morrison Formation.
In 1909, Andrew Carnegie hired Earl Douglass to hunt for a dinosaur skeleton for his museum. Douglass (who was really into mammal fossils) went out to the Morrison Formation and found 8 tailbones of what came to be known as Apatasaurus louisae (named after Carnegie’s wife).
“This discovery was the beginning of a dinosaur quarry that achieved worldwide fame. In 1915, Dinosaur National Monument was established to protect and conserve that dinosaur quarry.”
Erin called it a “dinosaur logjam”. I call it breathtaking.
There is so much here to learn, so much to imagine, so much to study. This one slice of Earth is fascinating, ancient, and full of stories yet to be discovered. I had to wonder at all the young children running through the exhibit. How much do they comprehend about dinosaurs? What is popularity of dinosaurs about, really, to them? How might their visit to Dinosaur National Monument inspire them?