Sandhills, Bison, Pelicans and History

I woke up at 6:00 AM with great intentions to do some writing. It had rained for the majority of the night, so the earth of the group campsite we were occupying was the consistency of lard. Sticky, greasy, nasty. I was looking for a place to set up and write, as the picnic bench was very unsuitable, when the guy from the next campground, John, walked over. He’s in between consulting gigs. He decided to take some time off between consultations. The last gig was a very successful consulting job, and he decided that he needed to take a look at the world before the next one. It was a great wandering conversation, filled with stories about each of our lives. Told with respect, illuminating, no braggadocio, snippets of achievements we were proud of in an effort to describe our individual lives. Suffice it to say, that after reaching an agreement, I would trust him with everything I own. A spiritual man, possibly religious, but nothing on his sleeve, everything in his actions.

I had set an alarm to end my writing and it went off, so I quickly put away the stove and grill that were left hooked up last night as the thunderstorm arrived, and went in to wake the girls. Shannon was awake, Megan was on the edge. After a quick breakfast and a departure earlier than any we’ve had so far, we left the Badlands, looking exceptional in the morning light, the structures washed of the dust from the couple of dry, hot, days, with all the grasses and flowers refreshed by the night rain. I knew that we had a long day of driving to see the sites on the schedule. I usually plan the day’s drive out carefully, but this time, due to the paucity of roads, I let Google plan the route. Mistake.

We were on a tertiary road that led through the Ogallala Sioux reservation. When Google maps wanted to lead us down a gravel and dirt road, disappearing into the indeterminate grasslands, I balked. For years, everyone, many people, people I’ve met, individuals who don’t travel quite so far off the grid, have told me to dump the paper books, and go electronic. I like paper. Paper books have no batteries to go dead. They can get wet and be revived without being submerged in rice. They can be dropped without severe damage. There are never connectivity issues, and although there may be issues with the information being completely timely, you can see a gravel road on them, and the content is neither deleted nor modified for non-empirical reasons. Not so much on Google. With paper, no one has been removing roads from the American Countryside, so less than up to date information is not a concern.

Megan broke out the really big road atlas. I like them because they show things you didn’t search for. You look at the map, and in little brown, red or green letters, the paper map shows you stuff that you never even thought of, much less searched for. You can see a graphical representation of the world made by a person who loved maps, and knew what things to put on them. We navigated on the old paper map, and ignored the GPS software, and a good thing, as half the time there was no cellular service. No service is becoming a rarity, but my best travels seem to be to places where there is no cell service. No phone, no data, no nothing. Like the 1950’s but only with North Korea and Iran threatening to nuke us instead of just Russia. Little enclaves, with people who know and rely on each other, self sufficient, hours from help if they ever decided to call the sheriff. The real America.

Following the paper maps is why we found ourselves in the vicinity of the Wounded Knee Massacre. At the site, the Indians have a number of structures using black pine boughs to keep the sun off. They use the structures for commerce, which sounds strange for such a location, but is no different than food carts at Ground Zero. Given the noticeable lack of money or commerce on the reservation, I’m glad they are engaged in any type of commerce. The Wounded Knee Massacre was committed by the US Army, against a group of old men, women and children and disarmed young Sioux men. Over a hundred unarmed innocent people were killed in an event not much different from the Mei Lai Massacre, or any number of atrocities committed by the Waffen SS during the Second World War. There is a large double sided sign, red and white, at the site of the massacre, and the victims were buried in a mass grave on a nearby hilltop. I read the sign and cried. I felt like an intruder. Wounded Knee should be an embarrassment to any American. Many people today take on the mantle of victim. The Sioux exist with the reverberations of the past, and the continued policies of the 1800’s. They deserve better.

There is a huge, government funded memorialization at Little Big Horn, where the pompous Custer disobeyed orders, split his command and got all of his men killed. He deserved his end, his men did not, but they were all engaged in hostilities that, for the white man, were genocide. The Sioux deserve, at least, better memorialization. .

After leaving the reservation, we gradually entered the Sandhills of Nebraska. The Sandhills were created at the end/during the last ice age where large amounts of loess and sand were blown across Nebraska. Grass eventually stabilized the hills, and the country is a series of lower hills bordered by higher hills. The axis of the hills is in a generally east west orientation. All I can think of, while driving over the Sandhills, is the song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” We were motoring along in the absence of any cellular electronic signal (there are few people in the Sandhills) when we passed a group of brown bovines on the west side of the road. Something wasn’t right, and then I realized that it was a herd of about 200+ buffalo. We turned around, and we spent a very nice time watching Buffalo on the ranch. There was just one Buffalo Calf,  I’m not sure where all the calves were, as every other species of animal seems to have had a prolific spring. Plenty of baby sheep, horses, and cattle. Megan spotted the only calf; she has good eyes.

All of us at Carhenge

The previous day, on our trip to Scenic, SD, I was on the look for White Pelicans. Seriously. Originally, years ago, I thought the chance of finding a pelican in South Dakota was about as good as finding an alligator in Anchorage. When I saw them five years before, when Louise and I had been there, I called my birder cousin Pat, to ask her about the big white birds that looked like Pelicans, and she assured me that, yes, you can find white pelicans in South Dakota. Who knew? We went looking for them again, didn’t find them, and assumed that we were late in the season, and they moved on. Lo, and behold, shortly after the Bison, there was a lake with about 20 Pelicans. Some standing around, some swimming, one flying. Success!

Later on, about lunchtime, we found a Historical marker that told us about Alliance, Nebraska during WWII. Boom and bust with four 9,000 foot runways left over by 1945. The Army came, 12,000 men strong, trained, and left by 1945. Then there was nothing. It was a good place to have lunch

Scotts Bluff – From the top

It appears that none of my electronic devices likes Chimney Rock National Historical Site. We took a long circuitous route, and finally arrived at a building set out in an un irrigated piece of land. I have a geezer card, so everyone in the party only had to pay $2 each. ‘Unk’ took care of that, and we went in. A quick summary of the place. The Indians lived there. The fur trappers found a route to the west that didn’t involve mountains. Everyone followed on their way to Oregon or Utah. The animals ate the grass and anything else, the travelers burned everything they could for fuel. Everyone crapped everywhere. Everyone, Indians, trappers, travelers got sick and many died. There was less game, the Indians left for nicer places, the area eventually was irrigated and settled.

Why they were traveling to Oregon, and why they were traveling to Salt Lake really wasn’t explained. The Willamette Valley in Oregon was fertile; there was gold in California, and the Mormons were going to Utah, because that’s where the Mormons went was the explanation. Gold I understand, but why was everyone else taking the risk? It was a valiant effort, but Chimney Rock National Historical Site took a shotgun approach to what was going on and came up way short. Completely underwhelming.

Since we were so close, we zipped down the road to Scotts Bluff, got lost because there is a town and a site and we had difficulty in differencing the two. The Visitors center is in the process of being ‘Renovated’ ie, the 1930’s buildings are being torn down and replaced with progressive Washington DC Modern education style buildings. *Sarcasm* I really like it when I can’t remember where I’ve been because all the government buildings look the same, on a manner similar to Wendy’s, McDonalds, or Burger King. You’ve been to one, no need to see another one, ever. I spoke to the ranger, who sized up the Winnebago, gave me the green light, and to the top of Scotts Bluff we went. We walked all the trails at the top. There is a Geodesic Survey marker at the top that 10 years ago I could read. It was cool because when it was placed, it was flush with the rock. Last time I was there, it was significantly raised. Today, it’s off the rock by at least a foot. There is ‘no off the walkway’ signs everywhere, and they had brush stacked at the beginning of all the herd paths, so there was no re-examination.

Initially, I thought I’d been there five years ago. It was actually closer to ten years ago. I remembered things I’d put in the back of my head, that now, make me realize how hard Louise worked to make me think that everything was OK. Like the Eugene O’Neill story the Gift, we were both trying to protect the other, and we never addressed the truth. We both worked very hard at defining a good time independent of what was actually occurring. In retrospect, I don’t think that I would do it differently, as we had a great respect for each other. She was always perfect to me, and when she wasn’t, I made every effort to assist her in getting there. The sad part is, it isn’t until now, that I can grasp the concept of what was going on.

This trip is working in ways that I could not have explained a month ago. I certainly have a different relationship with my nieces than I did before. It’s no the one I anticipated, it’s the one we have, and it’s not an ‘I’m older, I tell you what and how to do stuff’, it’s an Uncle and nieces who love each other relationship, who reach a goal cooperatively. Not complete equals, but we’re working on it. They’re old enough.

Fortunately, I made reservations for Lake Minatare in advance. The reservation included electricity, so this evening in 80 degree heat, we’re cooling off as the RV AC runs the temperature down to 72. Thank God. Did I mention that the lake is five feet above normal, and there are enough mosquitoes to carry off a small child? I cooked dinner, hamburgers and macaroni and cheese, and I only dropped one hamburger into the dirt. Ground beef and ground for dinner. Think it will catch on? I got my fiber for the day. Tomorrow and the day after should be light days, with time for some maintenance, possibly some wash, who knows? The future is “Whatever will be, will be”, and with things falling into place, who can worry?

Tomorrow we travel the ‘Fossil Trail” of western Nebraska, and head back towards South Dakota for the weekend. A most excellent trip so far.

2 thoughts on “Sandhills, Bison, Pelicans and History

  1. tallerpat

    I am proud to be your birder cousin, Pat. And this was a post that went to my heart for several reasons that we can discuss at a future time. Thanks for taking us along on your journey. xox

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