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

Reptile Roadblocks
September 29, 2008

Traveling across the Great Plains in my mule wagon various reptiles have held up progress.

Some days, a tortoise brings the Lost Sea Expedition wagon squeaking to a halt.


Tortoise road block
North of Hyannis, Nebraska

Other days, a tiny snake can hold up the wagon.


Snake-bound
Outside Phillipsburg, Kansas

This week, as I removed the latest roadblock, I recalled a day spent oggling a massive reptile that inhabited the Great Plains.

Okay, so it wasn’t the type of road block I could remove by grabbing behind the head (snake) or by its shell (turtle). For once, I didn’t even have to wash my hands in Polly’s water bucket after handling it (I have a knack for making snakes and tortoises nervous when I handle them so they pee on me).

I’d heard this critter resided at the Journey Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota. So I took a day off to investigate.

Its skull looked like this.


Front end of a 17-foot roadblock

You’re looking at the skull (actually, it’s a cast resin replica) of a giant marine turtle that was found in South Dakota.

A sea turtle in South Dakota? Sure. South Dakota, home of modern-day reptiles like turtles and snakes, once looked quite different. Here’s a map of how it looked.


South Dakota 75 million years ago

That’s right, way, way back when, South Dakota was covered in a shallow sea that stretched from roughly the east slope of the Rocky Mountains to the western rise of the Appalachian mountains. Paleontologists call it the Western Interior Sea. I call it the Lost Sea because it’s fewer letters that needed painting on the side of my wagon.

Coming next. The life and times of a Great Plains sea turtle that weighed 10 times more than my prairie schooner. Until then, click here to journey down the throat of a Lost Sea critter that grew to 4 times as long as my 11 foot wagon….

Or, to learn what Lewis and Clark wrote of the same beast, and how its jaw measured up against mule Polly, click here….

Posted Monday September 29, 2008 by Bernie
Tales from a Soddie
September 22, 2008


George McKillip
92 years old
Webster, Nebraska

George McKillip was born in a Nebraska sod house in 1916. Recently we sat down in his sod house, or “soddy” as he calls it, to talk sod home living.


Sod house
Pioneer Village
Minden, NE

First, some sod house history.

When the homesteaders arrived in central Nebraska, from the mid-1860s to late 1890s, they had to erect a shelter as quickly as possible. Many dug a hole into a dirt bank and erected a roof of boards overlaid with sod. There they spent the first winter hunkered down underground. Blizzards raged. The snow piled up. In the spring, come thaw-time, their snug covered hole turned into a swamp.

The next year, they built a sod house.

The sod house was a step up from a dugout. Constructed of two foot-wide “bricks” made from prairie sod, it was quickly built above ground, often in a matter of weeks. Like the dugout, it sported a board and sod ceiling.


Soddy wall and board ceiling
Pioneer Village
Minden, NE

Inside, some where plastered, giving them the appearance of conventional homes.


Sod house interior
Pioneer Village
Minden, NE

Still, shelter, not permanence, was the idea. Like 21st century homeowners, a better home lurked a few years up the road. In the case of the sod dweller, the next house had to be stick built.

Typically, the homesteaders lived five or six years in their soddies. By then, they’d “proved up” on their land, taking title to the quarter-sections (140 acres) of land they’d setttled for the government. They were also earning cash for their crops and life stock – cash that could buy wood for a framed house. The day many homesteaders proved up was the day they laid the foundation for their dream wood home.

The soddy, with its board and earth roof, quickly fell into disrepair. A few years after one was abandoned, it was reduced to a bump on the plains.

In the past eight months and 1100 miles on the road with mule Polly and the Lost Sea Expedition mule wagon, I’ve only come across three sod houses. Two were in museums.

But not George McKillip’s.

George is 92 years old and lives in a sod house outside Brewster, Nebraska. George’s soddie is over 100 years old. The secret? Unlike most sod houses, it was stuccoed and covered with a tin roof. This kept the roof and walls dry, saving the structure.


George and his sod house

Inside, aside from the deep-set windows, it’s indistinguishable from a contemporary home. The walls, plastered and smooth, are cool to the touch, even in hundred-degree weather.


Inside with George

But who am I to tell you about soddies? To listen to George, speaking in the kitchen of his beloved soddy, click on the player below.




George’s hand

Thanks, George, for sharing your soddie with me. Thanks, too, to the Howard Warp Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska for letting me tour their fine sod home. To visit Pioneer Village, click here.

Posted Monday September 22, 2008 by Bernie
Locomotive Manifold Menus
September 14, 2008

Hot food. It’s always on my mind as I travel from Canada to Mexico aboard my mule wagon. Trouble is, to cook food, I have to fire up my thirty-year old Optimus cooker.


Poke Weed ala Optimus cooker

That means unhitching mule Polly, priming the stove’s burner with gasoline, tossing a match into the pool of Regular Unleaded and waiting for the ensuing fireball to settle to a manageable blue flame. While the greasy black smoke settles, I chase down Polly who’s afraid of open flames.

Small wonder I live on bread and fruit.

A hot meal’s often on Gene Hansen’s mind, too. Only he doesn’t rely on a cooker that offers steaming rice and third degree burns at equal odds. Gene, a locksmith and conductor for the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroad, doesn’t even stop working when he craves a Cornish game hen.


Gene Hansen
Seneca, NE

Nope. When he’s riding the rails, Gene cooks directly on the locomotive engine.

Recently, I visited with Gene at his mother Sandy’s home in Seneca, Nebraska. Over a loaf of banana nut bread, Gene showed me a copy of his book “Manifold Menus: Rail Road Cookbook”. To listen to our discussion, complete with trains rolling by, click on the audio player below.



Want a free copy of “Manifold Menus”?Then click here.

(Note: you’ll be directed to Gene’s page on Nebraska Locksmithing. Scroll to the bottom to download “Manifold Menus”)

Thanks Gene and Sandy, for hosting Polly and me. Oh, and Gene, I’m expecting you toss mule Polly and me a Cornish game hen next time you pass us on the grain train.

Note: The “Manifold Menus” PDF is no longer available at Gene’s site nebraska-locksmith site.

Posted Sunday September 14, 2008 by Bernie
Bean Can Boot Repair
September 8, 2008

Mule Polly and I recently near-creamed a tortoise.


Near collision
North of Hyannis, Nebraska

Thinking she’d enjoy meeting Mr Slow Poke, I held the critter to her nose. She responded with a snort and rein-wrenching bolt. That’s when I noticed the hole in the toe of her EasyBoots, the rubber boots she’s worn the past 1000 miles.


A hole big enough to drive a finger through

Now, holes in the toes of your boots don’t sound like a big deal. They’re not, if you’re walking on grass or sand. On pavement it’s a different story. Think metal rasp on cheese. As many miles as we travel on asphalt, sometimes 20 per day, her toes would have soon been worn to the quick.



It looked like a patch was in order.

But how? How, in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills, traveling among the least-populated counties in the United States, was I going to fix the hole in Polly’s boot?

Flash forward to a few days later. It’s lunch time. I’m enjoying the standard-issue RiverEarth lunch: canned black beans, garlic and olive oil. Spooning the beans out of my can it hits me.

Steel toes! That’s what Polly needs. Steel toes for her boots. Or rather, inside her boots. After lunch I cut the top and bottom out of the can of bean.


Bean can boot repair kit

I slipped the tops into the boots, so they covered the hole in each toe, and hit the road.


Bean can boot repair

The repair lasted ten miles. At which point the metal patch wore through, leaving me to open another can of beans. And so it goes. Walk ten miles. Eat a can of beans. Walk ten miles, eat another can of beans. Soon we’ll be in Loup City, where I can make a more permanent repair.

In the meantime, I’m getting damn sick of eating all these beans….

(Post Script: EasyCare, maker of EasyBoots, having heard of our blown-out boots and growing resistance to canned beans, kindly supplied mule Polly with new boots. Thanks Garret. To check out EasyBoots and EasyCare’s line of hoof boots,click here.)

Posted Monday September 8, 2008 by Bernie
Get a Book Straight off the Mule Wagon
September 8, 2008

A yellow mule wagon rolls into your town and you think, “hmmmm…. Wonder what he’s selling?”


Hmmmm…..
Anselmo, NE

Problem is, there’s a gap between what folks think they can buy off a mule wagon – and what you can actually carry aboard an equine-powered machine. I roll into a town like Anselmo, Nebraska, and folks wander up with a fist-full of dollars saying, “Mister, I’d like a hotdog.” or, “Mister, I’d like an ice cream.”


“Mister, can I buy an ice cream?”
Anselmo, NE

At first thought, the idea of selling dogs and cones off the Lost Sea Wagon seemed like a good idea. Then reality sank in. Books and DVDs don’t melt, spoil and draw flies in the summer heat. So aboard came the books “Too Proud to Ride a Cow” and “Woody and Maggie Walk Across America”, the grown-up and children’s accounts of our latest coast-to-coast mule voyage. For Great Plains sailing fans, I packed copies of the “65 Days at Sea” DVD.

It worked. Instead of walking away bummed they couldn’t buy something to eat, folks I’ve been meeting have been going home with something they could read or watch.

Then I started thinking. Why not let the folks back home, the ones following the Lost Sea Expedition online, get a book straight off the wagon?

Ordinarily, the RiverEarth.com General Store ships all books and DVDs from Southern Pines, NC. But after seeing how folks enjoyed walking away from the Lost Sea wagon with a book in their hands, I figured it’d be fun to spread the cheer farther afield.

So, from now until October 16, 2008 (or until mule Polly discovers she can’t eat the extra weight I’ve piled into the wagon), I’ll send you a signed copy of anything from the RiverEarth General Store direct from Polly’s wagon.


Signing a copy of “Too Proud” atop the Harlan County Dam
Outside Republican City, Nebraska

That’s right. When you click the red “Buy” button, your order will be directed to the Lost Sea wagon where I’ll sign your purchases then deliver them to the nearest Post Office.

By mule wagon, of course, just like we’ve done before….


Here come your books
Wagram, NC

Happy late-summer reading!

Posted Monday September 8, 2008 by Bernie


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