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

Hand Pumping Water with Clifford Hanley
June 26, 2007

Clifford Hanley won’t put up with bad water, hot hats or squeaky hand pumps.

Clifford Hanley
Medicine Rocks, MT

A Baker, MT resident, I met him recently at the hand-pumped well at the entrance to Medicine Rocks State Park. Clifford was a direct man -he’d ventilated his cowboy hat by slicing holes in it with a knife.

Medicine Rocks State Park
Medicine Rocks, MT

Clifford at the pump

So isn’t it odd that in 2007, a man in suspenders and a slashed hat would show up at a hand pumped well with a bunch of empty jugs? Not really, the water was worth the drive.

“This water’s the best you’ll find anywhere,” he told me. He’d driven twenty miles from Baker to fill his four gallon jugs. I had to agree. I’d filled my water jugs at the well the day before but found the well a burdensome beast to operate. It creaked, leaked, and resented the vigourous pumping I gave its cast iron handle. The water was sweet, though, a welcome change from the sulphery, often sour-smelling water that plagues farmers in Fallon County, MT.

Clifford put the first of his white jugs under the spout, gave the handle a downward stroke and stopped pushing the moment the well gave the geriatric – knee – joint – without – the – synovial – fluid creak it had subjected me to.

“Needs oil,“he noted.


He walked to his Ford and returned to the pump cradling something under his arm. “Vaseline works best” he said, “but motor oil works okay too if that’s all you’ve got.” Oil brand was unimportant as long as, “you’ve got plenty of towels on hand to clean up the mess.”

Havoline: pump greaser’s second choice

First oil, then towels

The pump’s shaft oiled, Clifford wiped his hands clean and pumped the handle anew.
Silence. Then the sound of water gushing into plastic jugs followed by the waft of oil on the morning air.

He filled his jugs and I filled mine and we parted company, content with the hushed sloshing coming from our vehicles.

Enjoy your water.

Ekalaka, MT
(click here for more on our upcoming program in Ekalaka).

Posted Tuesday June 26, 2007 by Bernie
Grass and Dried up Towns in the Land of of Twelve Inches of Rain
June 22, 2007

The big news on the Northern Plains this year is rain. After a twenty-year dry spell, the heavens have opened, releasing record amounts of rain, and mosquitoes, to the Land of Twelve Inches of Rain.

The ranch land’s greener than most old-timers remember. When I overhear them talking in the Post Offices and corner stores, the first thing I hear is, “Have you ever seen the top of (enter butte name here – Bullion, Sentinel, Square, South…) covered in grass?” Followed by, “Have you seen that guy in the yellow mule wagon…?”

Welcome to Grass and Montana

This means lots of choices for Polly. Back in Carolina, she just ate Bermuda grass. But out here, a mule can choose from crested wheat, alfalfa, needle-and-thread, and, my favorite-sounding, cheat grass (because it grows so thick if it ever invades a farmer’s crops, it cheats him out of his fertilizer).

Still, for all there is to eat around Beach, ND, Polly and I want to visit the Badlands before the green turns brown. This week, we’re heading for Ekalaka, MT (named for Sitting Bull’s niece) to look for marine fossils.

We’re sticking with back roads as much as possible. Mostly they’re scoria-covered. Scoria’s just dirt that’s been fired underground, usually by a burning coal vein. It’s sharp, red and when Polly drags her wagon across it, it sounds like we’re driving over a thousand broken clay pots.


Scoria Travelers
Outside Golva, ND

Beaver Creek trestle bridge
Outside Carlyle, MT

Day’s end
Golva, ND

Grass, grass, grass. It’s everywhere this year. In my photos, in my wagon, in my boots But this is fickle country. Remember how everyone’s talking about how green it looks this year? Well, that’s because they know it’ll go back to dry.

I’ve only seen hints of what this country looks like when the rains stop. But this last photo says it all. It was taken in Carlyle, MT.

Until the early 1970s, Carlyle was a booming town of a hundred. It boasted two elevators, a bank, a school, a bar and a church. But as agriculture changed, as farming went from small, family-run outfits to large outfits that needed fewer workers, Carlyle dried up. Today, the abandoned town is covered in grass and about all that remains are the elevators, called “prairie cathedrals” by some.

But Carlyle’s only green today, while the rain’s still doing its magic. Soon, the grass will die back and only the elevators will remain.

Carlyle, MT
(abandoned early 1970’s)

For now, Polly and I will take the wet.

Baker, MT

Posted Friday June 22, 2007 by Bernie
Finding the Beach in Beach, North Dakota
June 18, 2007

So last week mule Polly and I rolled into Beach, ND with a wagon full of relics. Man there was everything clanking around in the old wagon from arrow-pierced bottles to a short film of two dung beatles rolling their namesake across a road.

Welcome to Beach, ND (Mike Archdale photo)
Beach, ND

Only one thing was missing from my collection of Great Plains stuff – relics from the Lost Sea – like fish fossils, sharks’ teeth, or even a lowly fossilized sea shell. Then, before I got to head into the hills with my hammer, the weather caved in and Polly and I took refuge in Ardis Stedman’s Quonset hut.

Bernie’s lodgings

Polly’s lodgings

Pinned down by the type of weather that shreds a sailor’s sails one moment and leaves them flapping becalmed the next, I set about exploring Beach. That’s where I found the bottom of the Lost Sea.


Tama Smith, owner of Prairie Fire Pottery, had heard I was looking for relics of the Western Interior Seaway, the ancient ocean that submerged the Dakotas millions of years ago. She told me to visit her studio. She had something that might interest me.

The day I dropped by Tama’s pottery, she was glazing pots, dipping them into a vat of pigment, before placing them into a kiln for final firing. A chunk of what appeared to be rippled mud was perched among the pitchers and jugs she was covering in grey, green and red glaze.

“That’s it” she said as I eyed it.

“It” just looked like a slab of mud that had had a piece of corrugated tin pressed into it, something you might find dried up at the bottom of a river bed. Which is pretty much what had happened. Only, instead of a piece of river bottom, it was a chunk of the Lost Sea seabed. That’s right, a real piece of petrified sea bottom. Well, petrified sediment.

And what was it doing in the Prairie Fire Pottery? “I use it for a mold,” Tama explained, “to make garden pavers.”

To make the mold, she’d pressed wet clay into the piece’s corrugations. When the clay dried, she popped it loose and fired it. This gave her a mold or die, for making her pavers.

Tama and her chunk of the Lost Sea

To make a paver, she pressed wet clay into the mold, then glazed and fired the pieces to 2,400 degrees. Or, in her words, “I make rocks.” Lost Sea rocks to be precise.

Chunk of the Lost Sea (forward) and a Prairie Fire paver (behind)

Thanks Ardis and Tama for introducing me to the bottom of the Lost Sea. The weather’s clearing now so in the morning we’re heading for Golva, ND. Then we roll on for Ekalaka, MT.

So do I have a chunk of the Lost Sea aboard the wagon? Though Tama offered me a sample, I had to decline. Polly won’t let me pile anymore relics into her cart. You, on the other hand, are welcome to pick up as many of those Lost Sea-inspired pavers (or jugs, mugs and platters) that Tama’s making. Just give her a shout over at Prairie Fire Pottery.

Posted Monday June 18, 2007 by Bernie
Wagon Life at Six Miles per Day
June 16, 2007

After forty-something days on the trail, mule Polly and I have yet to break the 250-mile mark – which is just the way we like it. Here’s why it’s taking so long.

Posted Saturday June 16, 2007 by Bernie
Mapping 1000 Hours of Mule Travel
June 15, 2007

“So where are you now?”

Folks have been asking me that a lot lately, as though, if I could point to a map and say, “Right here.”, they’d be satisfied. The answer promises to underwhelm. Remember, the Lost Sea disappeared over millions of years. In keeping with the theme of receding waters, Polly and I are living at the speed of ebb tide – or about five miles per day. This journey’s about rolling under the big sky and knocking off early to check out the big belt buckles, skinny bellies, calf fries and branding.

Getting nowhere slowly
Polly fills her tank
Little Missouri Grasslands
North of Beach, ND

Beach, ND

This week we’re in Beach, ND, exploring the area for evidence of the Lost Sea. After ten days of climbing buttes and day trips in the Lost Sea wagon, we’ve come up with some pretty neat artifacts, including a chunk of fossilized sea bed (more on that in a later update). Still, you want to know how far we’ve come…. You want me to show you a long line.


So here you are. See the three lines?

The thick blue line that runs from East to West coast marks my last journey across America, a 3,500-mile journey with mule Woody and pony Maggie (you can read about it in the book “Woody and Maggie Walk Across America”). The yellow-ish line that runs from North Carolina to Canada shows you the route I took when hauling Polly and the Lost Sea wagon to Neptune Saskatchewan, the starting point for the Lost Sea Expediton.

And that stubby blue line that runs from eleven o’clock due south? Well, that’s how far we’ve rolled in the forty-something days we’ve been on the road – under 250 miles. Ah yes, progress. Lovely, beautiful, slow, progress…

It’s been 1000 hours of dung beetles, hail storms, rainbows, rope burn, chapped lips, hot tea, dead fish, oil wells, glowing brands, cold beer, dry lightening and a mummified cat found under a grain bin. I haven’t seen a BMW in a month.

Enjoy the pace

Beach, ND

Posted Friday June 15, 2007 by Bernie
Watch This. We're Going to the Drive-in by Mule Wagon
June 10, 2007

So you think driving your ’92 Ford F-150 to the drive-in theater is old school? Well get with the times, grab six bucks and let’s head down to the Sunset Drive-in in Plentywood, Montana. Yep, we’re taking mule Polly and the Lost Sea Wagon.

Posted Sunday June 10, 2007 by Bernie
Video: Come Haul a Bushel of Oats with Mule Polly
June 5, 2007

This week mule Polly and I took a break from fossil hunting to get into the grain hauling business. Slide in here beside me on the Lost Sea wagon and let’s head for Lake Alma.

Posted Tuesday June 5, 2007 by Bernie

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