We took back-roads out of Valentine into the Badlands National Park with two effects: we had the roads almost completely to ourselves; and Alie, who thought she was coming down with a cold, recovered almost completely leading us to believe it had been allergies. I had a similar problem in Pennsylvania and Ohio where I had sneezing fits everywhere that trees were budding out.
Because as we zigzagged across the nation we have been moving generally to higher latitudes and elevation, we have enjoyed the new flowers of spring for six weeks – and we found were allergic to them.
We had both been to Mount Rushmore, so we did not fight the huge crowds when we were there in June 2012. This time early in the morning in May, however, the roads were so lightly traveled I did a three-sixty degree turn (twice) to get a good look at a yellow marmot.
We then went on to the Crazy Horse monument, a private venture that started in the 1930’s and is unlikely to be finished in our lifetimes but was nonetheless impressive.
Our guide Rick at Ashfall had told us about the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs, South Dakota as well as the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park and Agate Fossil National Monument in Nebraska, so our real goals for the day were to see more bones, not Presidents and Indians.
Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was discovered by a heavy equipment operator digging for a new development. The developer sold the site to a private non-profit corporation for what he paid for the land saving an important discovery for posterity. We were fortunate again to have a “private” tour with an experienced guide.
Some 26,000 years ago, a sinkhole developed when a limestone cave collapsed. It filled with water, and the water and surrounding grass were tempting, especially to teen-aged male mammoths. The sides were steep, however, and once in, they couldn’t get out. To date, 58 Columbian (the big ones) and 3 Woolley Mammoths (think the movie Ice Age) have been discovered along with a giant short faced bear, llamas, prairie dogs and a wolf.
One particularly interesting fact was what had been a waterhole became a mud-hole compacted down into hard rock by many generations of animals. As a result, when the soil around the waterhole eroded, it was left as a hill. Like the Ashfall site, there are complete skeletons visible just as they are being unearthed, and there is still much to be discovered after forty years.
Fort Robinson was not too far south in Nebraska. The fort has a significant history as part of the Indian Wars, but little of the original fort remains. The present structures are part of a state park primarily devoted to hiking and trail riding, not history.
Rick had recommended the fort’s Trailside Museum because among its exhibits is the “Clash of the Mammoths,” a pair of bull mammoths who died with their horns locked. The bones were fully excavated (a disappointment to me) but they did recreate the original site and had the bones of one of the combatants posed standing. Underneath one was the skull of a coyote: was he too close when they fell?
Unlike the Mammoth Site and Ashfall State Park, I found Agate Fossil Beds National Monument a disappointment. A drought struck the plains 19 to 20 million years ago, and many animals died near a waterhole. However, when I took a very nice walk to the sites, I found that other than a few fossilized tracks, all that was visible was the places where the researchers dug.
The exception was a trail near the entrance. Here were Daemonelix, originally thought to be spiral plants but since revealed to be the fossilized burrows of an early beaver ancestor that behaved more like a prairie dog.
Having enough bones, we headed for Wyoming, the true wild west.