We traveled the short distance from Hill City, South Dakota to Sundance, Wyoming on the morning of June 4th. It wasn’t much of a drive as we only covered some 84 miles and half of that was on Interstate 90. We arrived in Sundance just after noon and decided to take the rest of the day off. The RV Park had pretty good WiFi, so we got to catch up on e-mail and just sort of rest.
The next morning we drove to Devils Tower National Monument. Connie had never been there and I hadn’t been in such a long time I couldn’t remember when I was there. Amazingly, it hadn’t changed from what my memory told me to expect. Of course some of that is because there are so many photos of this magnificent formation. I did remember some about the roads though, and that was somewhat impressive.
There remains some geological controversy over just exactly how the tower was formed. In its official handout the National Park Service explains it this way: “About 50 million years ago molten magma was forced into sedimentary rocks above it and cooled underground. As it cooled it contracted and fractured into columns. An earlier flow formed Little Missouri Buttes. Over millions of years, erosion of the sedimentary rock exposed Devils Tower and accentuated Little Missouri Buttes. The Tower rises 867 feet from its base and stands 1,267 feet above the river. The area of its teardrop-shaped top is 1.5 acres. The diameter if its base is 1,000 feet.” In the visitor center there is a display which offers three slightly different explanations of the formations creation. All have great similarities. We found it interesting that in this day and age geologists have not been able to completely agree on the mechanisms that were in play to create this super feature on our nation’s landscape. All agree that it was formed below ground and erosion exposed what we see today. It was a completely overcast morning when we visited, so my photos have taken on a rather gray tone. At least the colors are true to what we saw.
As is the case with most of our National Memorials and Parks, Devils Tower offers more for the visitor than the namesake rock formation. The area within the boundary of the memorial is rich in diversity of landscape and wildlife. The tower stands in a transitional area where the pine forests of the Black Hills merge with the rolling plains grasslands. At Devils Tower you can see every phase in the process of establishing a forest from bare rock to pines. A great variety of birds frequent the area due in part to the convergence of mountains and plains. Over 150 species of birds have been counted in the area. We certainly didn’t see that many, but we got our eyes on some pretty special ones.
After a hike around the base of the monument and a visit to the visitor center we could tell the weather wasn’t going to get much better so we decided to move on. On took us to the “town” of Aladdin, Wyoming which boasts a steady population of 18. In fact there are T-shirts in the General Store that say “Aladdin – Population holding at 18. When a woman gets pregnant a man leaves town.” We ate lunch at a place called Cindy B’s. The owner of the RV park we were staying at in Sundance recommended this restaurant saying that it could not be beat. We both chose the grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I swear there was a half-pound slab of ham in my sandwich and who knows how much cheese. It was huge! I also chose the fries, which were made the way my mother made French fries when I was a kid. They were absolutely soaked in lard. They were piping hot when served, but they were limp as a spaghetti noodle indicating they were just saturated with oil. I ate them all and lived to tell the tale. Connie didn’t make it all the way through her sandwich and didn’t even try to eat the homemade potato chips which differed from the fries only in their shape. I helped her out. That one meal probably netted me more fat grams than a week’s worth of my normal eating. It sure was good, but…
After lunch and before a coma could set in we walked through the general store which has to have been there since the early part of the 20thcentury. I was more taken by the building and its cabinetry and display cases than the merchandise. However, it did offer the basics for the 18 residents, the surrounding farmers and, of course, the many tourists who stop for a visit every summer.
From there we worked our way back to Interstate 90 so we could visit the Vore Buffalo Jump. On our way into Sundance the day before we had seen this gigantic teepee shaped building between the interstate and the old highway. At the time we wondered what it was. Again, our hosts at the RV Park suggested we visit this place as it is an ancient Native American hunting site.
What we learned at the Vore Buffalo Jump was really quite amazing. For all my life my understanding of how the Native Americans hunted bison (buffalo) included great chases with the people on horseback with bows and arrows or long spears. Anywhere one travels in the west paintings and reproductions of paintings can be seen with such hunts taking place. But what about before the Native Americans had horses? How did they harvest the great herds of bison in the prehistoric period? The answer is literally buried in sites such as the Vore Buffalo Jump. This site, which differs only slightly from hundreds of others that have been unearthed in the Great Plains, is a natural sink hole. It was used by at least five Plains Indian tribes throughout the 1500-1700’s.
So, what is a buffalo jump and how did it work? In the case of this particular jump, the natural sink hole was situated such that a natural approach from one side was formed by the hills. The Native Americans stacked rocks to form a funnel shaped approach to the sink hole with the hills on one side and the hills on the other. Tribesmen would hide behind the stacked rocks while others drove the herd of bison into the funnel. As each hiding tribesman was passed he would scream and shout while waving blankets causing the bison to run towards the sink hole. The stampeding beasts would run right off the edge of the sink hole and fall to their ultimate death at the bottom. Those not killed outright in the fall would be dispatched with arrows or spears. Once the jump was over, the tribesmen would harvest the kill. The meat was preserved for the long winter ahead. The hides were tanned and used for the building of teepees and clothing. The bones were made into tools. The horns were used for tools and vessels for drinking. Essentially all parts of the bison were put to some use. The unused bones were left in the sink hole thus leaving an archeological record of the activity that occurred at such sites.
These buffalo jumps were not small time enterprises. Thousands of bison were “processed” at each of these jumps. By studying the various layers within the sink hole, archeologists have been able to determine when and how often the site was used as well as how many bison were killed at the site each season it was used.
At the Vore Buffalo Jump visitors are escorted through the site by very knowledgeable paid staff members. The site remains an active archeological dig site operated by the University of Wyoming Archeological Department. The active digging occurs annually during the month of August. The tour route is such that visitors get within inches of where the digging last ended. I had never been that close to an actual archeological dig. It was pretty impressive.
I took several photos to try to illustrate the layers of bones left behind each season.
One of the things we learned was that this site was not used continuously during the two-hundred plus of its existence. There were several of these sites all around the Great Plains and they were used intermittently as circumstances allowed. If there was a bad year for grasses in one area, there would be no bison roaming that area, so no hunt would go on. If the Native Americans who were also very transient didn’t come to this particular area for a few years as they moved with the herds, some time could pass between use of the jump. The archeologists can also determine when horses began to come into use by the Native Americans, as the numbers of bison killed in the jump and the frequency of the jumps both were greatly reduced. This manner of hunting was all but abandoned by the late 1700s.
As I have mentioned numerous times in this blog, each area we have visited whether on the main tour routes or not has something to offer that is at least locally important and at best is of great educational value. The Vore Buffalo Jump certainly fits both categories. We likely would not have stopped were we not tipped off by the RV park owner. However, the giant concrete and wood teepee did get our attention and we were told that the structure which houses displays and information about the site has attracted a lot of traffic off the interstate. So, as I have also mentioned many times before, when traveling we have to be on the lookout for the attractions which don’t necessarily draw national and international attention such as the National Parks and National Monuments. There are thousands of sites out there that have special meaning to a wide audience without all the fanfare.
One last thought before leaving the Vore Buffalo Jump. The jump was discovered by the Wyoming Department of Transportation while surveying the area during the planning of I-90. The sink hole which was quite obvious caused the engineers to take a core sample to determine the stability of the substructure. Sink holes can be quite troublesome in road construction as we have seen of late. Anyway, as the core sample was analyzed layer upon layer of bones were discovered and the archeologists were then called in. Realizing there was something of great historical significance in the area, a preliminary study was conducted to determine the breadth of the site and the course of the interstate modified to avoid the site. If you look at a close up map of the area you can see where the highway makes a turn that has no apparent reason and then further down the road returns to the base course. The Vore Buffalo Jump is in that bend.
For more information about the Vore Buffalo Jump go to their web site: Vorebuffalojump.org.
The next day we traveled on to Sheridan, Wyoming where we would spend a long weekend visiting with my relatives and doing some sightseeing and getting a little rest prior to entering the park and our third season of work as volunteer campground hosts.
As usual my Aunt Rose Marie did a wonderful job of pulling together many of my cousins so we could visit and catch up a little. As an added treat my cousin Dave Madia and his wife Patsy were in town so we got to see them as well. Dave was a local football star and went on to a very productive career as a running back for the University of Wyoming. Following college he moved to Evanston, Wyoming where he and Patsy raised a wonderful family while Dave became a very successful businessman. It had been years since we last saw them and that time was a family reunion with too many of us in attendance to do any real catching up given the time restraints.
As has been the trend with our visits to Sheridan, Aunt Rose Marie introduced us to the latest entrants to the Sheridan Dining Scene. We had dinner at two new restaurants, both of which were just wonderful. We also ate at a local favorite, The Wyoming Rib and Chop House. This local (northern Wyoming and southern Montana) chain offers consistently good meals. The Sheridan restaurant has occupied three buildings over its existence. It was first located in the Historic Sheridan Inn which is truly a grand old building. After losing the lease for reasons unknown to anyone I know, they moved to a smaller location on 4th Street. While the food was just as good at that location, the physical constraints made it a tough location. They are now in their own building at the corner of 5th and Main Streets. This restaurant looks very similar to the two others of the chain where Connie and I have eaten, one in Livingston, Montana and the other in Billings, Montana.
The other thing we try to do while in Sheridan is take Aunt Rose Marie for a ride in the Big Horn Mountains, her backyard. While she still drives, Aunt Rose Marie restricts her driving to mostly in town so it is a treat for her to go to the mountains when anyone wants to go. We had a great drive over the mountain on a beautiful late spring day. We saw eleven moose. There were five bull moose grazing on the same hillside. That was pretty special for all of us. We rarely see moose in Yellowstone due to habitat changes and the vastness of the available habitat that is attractive to moose. The moose here seem to be less tolerant of people than those in the Bighorn Mountains. With plenty of habitat away from people they seem to stay out of our view a good bit of the time.
As always, we enjoyed our visit with Aunt Rose Marie and our other Sheridan relatives and vowed to come back sometime during the summer for another visit.
On Sunday June 9th we got a fairly early start from Sheridan headed to Yellowstone National Park via Billings and Livingston, Montana. We needed to stop in Billings to get the motorhome washed. We were still carrying around dirt from the rainstorm we had driven through in central Texas weeks before. I had not been able to wash the coach along the way as none of the places we stayed allowed washing on site and we never encountered a truck wash along our less than straight-line route. When we arrived at the only truck wash for miles, we were third in line. Not too bad we thought. Well, the truckers in front of us must have been more finicky than us because after spending nearly a half hour in the wash bay one of them decided that some rework was necessary, so they backed him back in after the next truck left. The truck directly in front of us was a livestock hauler and I sort of expected he would be pretty fast, possibly a cab only job. I was wrong. He was in the bay for over an hour. I couldn’t see what he looked like coming out, but I suspect that the next load of livestock he hauled off to slaughter felt pretty good about their temporary accommodations.
I was quite pleased with the job they did on us and it didn’t take much longer than about 20 minutes and that included the best spray on wax job we have ever gotten. We left feeling pretty good albeit a bit later in the day than we had hoped.
The Livingston stop was a fuel top off stop and a fresh fruit and dairy pickup prior to entering the park. We were in and out of there in less than a half hour.
We spent our first night in Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs Campground where we got to catch up with our friends from last year, Russ and Susan Farmer. We had a light dinner at Mammoth Hotel Dining Room and then took a drive out towards Indian Creek Campground and beyond to see what animals were roaming in our summer backyard. We returned to the campground shortly after dark and went to bed. Early on Monday morning I went in search of coffee, our ranger and our mail. I was successful in all and as a result we were given our keys to the campground which include the barrier at the highway and the electric box at our site and most importantly we were given the go ahead to move into the campground.
We spent the next few days getting the campground ready to open by installing all the signs and organizing the registration cabin. Part of that process also included getting acquainted with our new host partners. We had met Bonnie and Ron when they worked at Norris Campground, but it is a different relationship when you are work partners. We got off to a good start with this addition to the team. I feel it is going to be a good season relationship-wise. Rick Dumar and I hiked a portion of the trails in the vicinity of the campground to make sure there were no trees down over the trail. We were on our last leg of the hike when a pretty good hail storm broke out. We were able to get to the warming hut located just off the main road at the entrance to the drive up to the campground before we got soaked. We rode out the storm there and were very glad we did. The storm intensified and laid down a lot of pea sized hail. The ground had a thin layer of hail with vast mounds several inches deep in places where the rain couldn’t melt the hail stones as readily. Had we continued the last quarter mile we would have been soaked to the bone and badly stung by hail. By the way, the trails were clear except for two small trees we were able to move by ourselves.
Indian Creek Campground opened for the 2013 Summer Season at 8:10 AM on June 14 with Rick and Donna drawing the honors to work the first two days. Connie and I worked the second two days followed by Bonnie and Ron.
As I write this we are in the beginning of the third rotation and all is going well.
As usual, during our off time Connie and I have been doing some exploring in and out of the park. I have taken a few photos, but there are hundreds more to follow as the season develops. I will end with the promise that the linked photos below tell the rest of the story to date.