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

The Completed Lost Sea Expedition Route
September 28, 2009

The Lost Sea
75-million years ago

The goal of the Lost Sea Expedition was to travel the seabed of the Mediterranean-sized sea that covered the Great Plains 75-million years ago. Just me and a hearty mule named Polly pulling a small wagon filled with recording gear.

The Completed Lost Sea Expedition Route

The voyage began in Neptune, Saskatchewan. That’s about the only thing that went according to plan. What was supposed to be a 6-month trip spanned 2 calendar years. In the end, we spent 13 months on the road, crossed 10 state lines and witnessed 4 seasons roll one after the other into the next. On March 13, 2008, mule Polly and I arrived in Fort Hancock, Texas.

Posted Monday September 28, 2009 by Bernie
The Final Lost Sea Breakfast
August 27, 2009

It was the target mule Polly and I had been aiming at for 14 months. We’d started in Canada, traveled the length of the Great Plains and now it lay before us.

The Rio Grande.

But no sooner had Polly hauled our wagon to the river’s banks, I discovered a ding in my dream. While I could see the Mexican flag from where I was standing, there was no getting down to the water. The Rio’s bank’s where way too steep for descent.

Within sight of the Mexican flag
Fort Hancock Port of Entry
Fort Hancock, Texas

But no way to get there….

Nope, my steed and I weren’t going to wade into the Rio like they used to celebrate the river’s arrival in days gone by. So I tossed Polly’s water bucket into the river, and extracted a bucket of Mexican American water to wash her feet in.

If you can’t take the mule to the river, take the river to the mule.

As I washed her hooves in the silty water, my mind wandered to all the folks I’d interviewed on my journey.

River meets mule

Each interview took us on a wildly different journey, from the mummified school house coyote to how to cook a rattlesnake. But each audio journey began the same – with a sound check.

To adjust my audio recorder’s volume and gain, I asked the subject what he or she had for breakfast. While “pancakes, an egg and coffee” streamed through my earphones, I twiddled with knobs and controls until I got the sound just right. But these were more than just sound bites. I came to look forward to them almost as much as the interview. I vowed that, at trip’s end, I’d run a string of them together like so many colorful beads,

Well, Polly’s pulled her wagon to the river’s edge. There’s no going farther. It’s time to string my breakfast tidbits up.

To listen to my Plains friends describe how they start their day, just click on the audio player below.

Some of the voices you’re listening to have appeared on RiverEarth.com in the past. In speaking order, they are newspaper publisher Dan Epp, dinosaur caretaker Harvey McPherson, paleontologist Mike Everhart, the railway hobo known as Hobbit, whole foods vegetarian Kathleen Ann, paleontologist Chuck Bonner, Chuck’s wife Barbara, sod house dweller George McKillip and 1950s champ lady bare bronc rider Twila Merril.

And with that recording, trail mates, the Lost Sea Expedition draws to a close.

From here aboard the Lost Sea Expedition wagon I’d like to thank you for traveling with Polly and me from Canada to Mexico. Yep, it’s been a bang up voyage. 2,500 miles through 10 states and 4 seasons. To see how far we’ve come, click here for the route map.

Now it’s time to return to Southern Pines, North Carolina – by truck and trailer.

But don’t think we’ve reached the trail’s end.

Nope, in coming months, the real work begins. It’s time to put together the Lost Sea Expedition documentary series. When complete, you’ll be able to travel the Lost Sea and meet its fossils and denizens in full Hi-def glory.

So long friends.

See you on that dusty Lost Sea!

Mule Polly

Posted Thursday August 27, 2009 by Bernie
Meet the Mule that Walked Across America
April 27, 2009

Train eating mule?
Seneca, Kansas

Ever meet a mule that swallowed a train? No? Well, here’s something almost as good. Yep, here’s your chance to meet one that walked across America. Click here for the April 25 program details…

Posted Monday April 27, 2009 by Bernie
The Bull 'n Lime story with Trent Loos
March 16, 2009

Last week, I spoke of what I’ve come to refer as the Bull ‘n Lime incident. That’s were a bull chased me onto my wagon pursuing Polly’s last flake of alfalfa hay.

The Bull ‘n Lime Incident
Russel Gap, New Mexico

Here to explain how hay, whiskey and limes almost brought the Lost Sea Expedition to an early close is Trent Loos. Trent is the host of the daily “Loos Tales” radio program. For the past 2 years, we’ve been doing interviews about the Lost Sea Expedition. I’ll be running installments in the coming weeks. Let’s start with the Bull ‘n Lime incident. Just click on the audio player below.

Posted Monday March 16, 2009 by Bernie
Guadeloupe Thoughts
March 3, 2009

In recent days, mule Polly and I have crossed the Guadeloupes, the range of hills that divides Artesia, New Mexico from Fort Hancock, Texas, our final Lost Sea Expedition destination. Unlike cars, which travel the gravel route in 3 hours, Polly and I took some time to look back on the trip we’re completing. We stretched the 110 miles to 12 days.

The Guadeloupes

From Artesia, New Mexico, the route climbs 2,500 feet to Russell Gap. Here, in the mile-high Chihuahua desert, we entered the lonely realm of winter wind and choya cactus. This is the land of 7 inches of rain. This is the land where, as the mailman in nearby Hope puts it, “the wind blows so hard, it’ll blow a post hole out of the ground”.

Choya cactus

While not extracting cactus spines from Polly’s muzzle and legs, I did some reminiscing on our Canada to Mexico voyage.

Man and mule reflect

Stages of desert life

Field recording notes: I made the following recording in the Lost Sea wagon while parked on a jagged ridge under Russell Gap. If you listen carefully, even though I’m sitting inside the wagon, you’ll hear the desert wind whistling between my words.

For some voyaging and vegetation thoughts, click on the audio player below.

Posted Tuesday March 3, 2009 by Bernie
Into the Guadaloupe Moutains
March 3, 2009
Posted Tuesday March 3, 2009 by Bernie
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

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