Medora was a lovely place to lake up. Bright sun. Crisp Air. Hardly a trace of humidity.
Bluffs behind Medora, North Dakota, were cut by the Little Missouri River.
At one time, the high plains were continuous from the Rocky Mountain Front near Denver to the Mississippi River. Beneath them are the clay, silt, and sand of coalesced deltas and wide alluvial plains deposited by large lazy rivers carrying sediment eastward a wet, semi-tropical climate. Today's rugged topographic relief and the "badlands" exposure of ancient strata are due entirely to localized down-cutting by modern streams.
At the Visitor Center of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we took tour of the Maltese Cross Ranch house guided by Mary Ellen Ergle.
Maltese Cross Ranch House, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.
If I understood correctly, this cabin-sized ranch house was built for Teddy Roosevelt long before he became president. He and the cowboys he employed on his ranch lived in it together. Originally located on the site of the Maltese Ranch, it has been moved for exhibitition many times, finally ending up at the park visitor’s center.
Desiccated timber at the Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.
Two related themes from the day are shown in the photo above. First is the crispness of the shadows created by intense sunlight. Such sunlight can only occur when the air is extremely clear, as it is here because there is little moisture in the air. With such little moisture, wood above the soil surface preserves very well. And when accompanied by a steady breeze, the rate of evaporation is very high, causing desiccation. Water, rather than nutrient, sets the limit on life in this place.
Later, Mary Ellen reflected on how beautiful the water was in all of its splendid turbidity, with pastel earth tones ranging from slightly off white to reddish brown. Her main concern was that energy development was raising pressures to build another bridge across the Little Missouri River, which she believes would compromise the beauty of the land she has learned to love. They would truck it on what is now a silent place.
Another staff person, Lilian Crook described a kayak trip that offered unexpected pleasure of floating by a family of baby beavers swimming with one of their parents. Here concern was with low-water crossings, which were being filled to cross with vehicles, changing the courses of streams.
Material on exhibit at the Medora Historical Museum, Medora, North Dakota.
During western settlement, the materials of everyday life came almost entirely from factories in the eastern and Midwestern United States. In an earlier era, material for New England and Virginia colonies came almost entirely from factories in the Old World. As much as westerner's pride themselves on their independence, they were, and remain, dependent on eastern commodities and services.
The Custer section at the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora, North Dakota.
Never have I seen an entire wall of books about General George Armstrong Custer.
American in general and this town in particular have a love-hate relationship with General Longhair, whose final moments captured many emotionally-rousing themes associated with the human condition: tragedy, revenge, war, heroism, misjudgment, race, arrogance, Manifest Destiny, Native Americans, cultural extinction. In my quick scan of the section, shelf, I found only one book dedicated to the Indian point of view.
Adjacent books from the Custer section of Western Edge Bookstore in Medora, North Dakota.
The plain cover on the book about Indian views suggests that it’s the content of history that matters, not the marketing.
Cotton was flying everywhere in Medora. It carries the seeds of the cottonwood tree on the wind; hopefully to a spot wet enough for germination.
Cottonwood tree, downtown Medora, North Dakota.
With such a steady breeze from the west, I wondered how such a tree could ever spread upwind in that direction. For the rest of the day we saw cottonwoods lining the bottom of every watercourse, from small creeks to the banks of the Yellowstone River.
The strata around Medora are rich in bentonite, a clay produced as a byproduct of the weathering of volcanic ash. One of the most fascinating things about bentonite is that it actually takes water into the mineral structure, expanding in the process, and producing a water-tight seal. It’s impervious to infiltration that is used to line the bottom of ponds and the casings of wells. So, when it rains around here, the water cannot infiltrate. Rather the rain runs off, usually in torrents, which is why a city like Medora needs to pay special attention to its surface drainage.
Cement drain in downtown Medora, North Dakota.
Medora was so fascinating, that we left much later than we had planned to. Despite our urgency, we didn't drive more than a hundred yards before finding one of the most interesting water stories of the trip.
Little Missouri River, looking northeast from the bridge at Medora, North Dakota.
Taking this photo made me realize how interconnected the water system is on earth, in time as well as in space. Here, the river is muddy because it has incorporated and suspended river mud from an era when mammals were just beginning to dominate North America (Paleocene). Also in the river are gravel bars composed of an unusually red, quite jagged gravel.
That’s clinker, otherwise known as porcelanite. Essentially, it is natural “redware,” the name given to primitive pottery of colonial America during the 16th and 17th century. To manufacture that pottery, muddy clay was shaped on a potter’s wheel, then fired and glazed. Here, on the high plains drained by the Little Missouri, the muddy clay was fired by seams of lignite coal burning underground for millennia. They had formed tens of million years ago as peat deposited in freshwater swamps. After deep burial and exposure, the peat-turned-into-coal was set on fire by lightning strikes, and then burned for centuries or more.
Strata exposed in a highway road cut east of Beach, North Dakota, shows a bed of red clinker (burned coal) above black coal strata that are not burned.
The heat from the burning coal “fired” the adjacent muddy clay in to strong, but brittle rock. It is easily fractured, but will not fall apart back into mud.
Close-up of crushed clinker used for road-bed materials above bentonite soils on Montana Route 216 about five miles south of Sydney.
This natural red ware is the only source of gravel around here and is responsible for the unusual beauty of the river gravel bars. For human use, the clinker is crushed for gravel roads and substrate for pavements.
Red dust from gravel roads on back of Subaru Outback in Medora, North Dakota.
Hence the connection between the black coal in the outcrops and the red dust on the back of the Subaru Outback we saw parked on the street.
Interstate 94 west of Medora had light traffic. Only one car passed us when we stopped to photograph this water tower during mid-afternoon on a beautiful day.
Water tower in Beach, North Dakota, just east of the Montana line.
Beach? The nearest ocean beach is easily more than 1500 miles away. Some day, I’ll have the time to find out why this town was named.
Just over the border was the Montana Welcome Center at Wibaux. There we met Darlene Brown, who works for the local chamber of Commerce. She was completely surprised when I told her I was heading up toward Plentywood, far off the beaten track of tourists. Her main concern was that the water is so polluted with nitrates that it could “kill a baby.” This was from agricultural runoff and infiltration. Their family gets water from the well on their ranch. They don’t spray, except just once when the grasshoppers got too bad.
Beyond that was the town of Wibaux, itself, named for a cattle entrepreneur from France, On the way into town, I got my first exposure to culvert art, created by a local resident named Joe Burnam.
Bucking bronco art made from old culverts, Wibaux, Montana.
The library was our most interesting spot. Inside was a very senior librarian, a middle-aged librarian, and three teenagers working at the internet.
Main Street of Wibaux, Montana, just west of the Montana line.
Their Montana Room, which held books on the state, was formerly a walk-in small room-sized bank safe. The building had been built as a bank to keep all the money ranching produced. Later, it was the jail. Now, it houses precious books.
A senior in high school, Jackie Quinn relayed a story about almost drowning in the Yellowstone River near Billings to save her dog, which couldn’t swim. That was her response to a concern about freshwater, you can die in it. What she likes most about fresh water was that you can get it quite cheap at the Coke plant.
Astonished, I inquired further because I wanted to make sure I got the story right. Indeed, there is a Coca Cola bottling plant nearby. To meet manufacturing specifications, they have to filter and purify the water of its deep-down chemistry that is very soft, rich in sulfur and sodium. They go there with five gallon jugs, which they fill for approximately a dollar a piece. I wondered how different this Coke water was to the city water sold by the Water Depot in Woodstock for nearly four times the price.
Jackie wanted to know the blog address. When she found it, I noted her stile, to cruise through the photos until she got a photo that interested her, read the caption, then move on. I fear that much of this text will get unread as well.
A Lonely Stretch
From Wibaux, we drove north on Route 216, a distance of 54 miles, encountering no traffic either direction for the first fifty miles.
Route 216 midway between Wibaux and Sydney, Montana.
The central 12 miles were made of gravel, in this case of crushed clinker, a.k.a. porcelanite. I suspect that this material need not be mined at all, but could simply be dug directly from gravel bars in small rivers.
To the east and west, the road moved mostly through subdued badlands, with outcroppings being both rare and distant. Fences ran continuously along the way, with distant cattle visible on the hills. We encountered no human being working outside, despite the fact that we went by several clusters of ranch buildings in the last third of the way. En route, I wondered when the last person came through here in a Volvo with Connecticut plates.
The availability of water seemed to be the limit to ranching in this vicinity. One excavated stock pond we drove by in the distance was completely dry. From its white color and cracked appearance, we guessed it to be combination of bentonite clay and salt.
Dried up stock pond on the highlands on the road between Wibaux and Sydney, Montana.
More commonly, the beds of local streams would be excavated, with the dredging spoils being used to build a dam on the downstream side.
Excavated and dammed stream for livestock watering on Route 216 approximately a dozen miles south of Sydney, Montana.
The encrustations along the pond edge are a sure sign of excessive evaporation.
Approaching Sydney, we began to notice that oil wells were quite common.
Oil well borders the road between Wibaux and Sydney, Montana. Its gravel pad was composed of crushed clinker.
We saw dozens such wells within the next hundred miles.
Between the Rivers
Just south of Sydney, we crossed the floodplain of the Yellowstone River, which was covered with spray irrigation devices.
Yellowstone River at the bridge to Sydney, looking upstream to the south.
The river was turbid, but with a grayer color more suggestive of glacially ground up mid than with the rusted clays of badlands country. The edge of the river contained black chert and volcanic rock with free-floating crystals, exotic stones we had not seen since leaving the Canadian shield of northern Michigan. These were from ancient rocks in the distant Rocky Mountains, seemingly a world away.
The river also contained what most Midwesterners would call exotic fish, especially sauger.
Sign beneath bridge crossing of the Yellowstone River at Culberton, Montana, asking recreational fishermen to help with fish research.
At this point, the river flows in a fairly straight channel, beginning to meander near the North Dakota border before joining the Missouri at Buford, named for the historic Fort Buford. Between Buford and Williston the river flows about 40 miles to reach the western tip of Lake Sakakawea, which is impounded by the Garrison Dam more than a hundred miles to the east.
From the map, the Yellowstone flows more strongly than the Missouri. This prompts me to think not only of the Missouri River, but also of the headwaters question regarding the great Mississippi System. Why is the link between Buford, North Dakota, and Saint Louis, Missouri, not named the Yellowstone River? Why is the head of the Mississippi River considered to be more important than the head of the Missouri system, which is really the head of the Yellowstone system?
Sydney runs on cattle and oil. Driving through downtown, we couldn’t help but notice two culturally significant signs. The first was the “Lucky Buckle,” which looked like a clothing store from the street, probably selling western wear. A block down was the largest local watering hole (western-speak for drinking establishment): the “Cattle-ac Saloon.” It doesn’t get any better than that, a place that embodies America’s love of the automobile and its beef cattle in one word.
Cattle-ac Saloon in Sydney, Montana.
The same sun that makes such bright colors and stark shadows creates in human beings a powerful thirst and a desire for shade.
Our destination for this leg of the trip was Culbertson, Montana, which lies on the north side of the Missouri River. Was it an accident that both Sydney and Culbertson lay on the north side of the river?
Approximately four miles south of town, and on the east side of the road we spied an enormous boulder of hard rock, a banded gneiss with a vein of granite running right through it. Without question, this boulder had come from the Canadian shield, far to the northeast, perhaps from as far away as Keewatin, on the west side of Hudson Bay. We had crossed the glacial limit. I had suspected this earlier, having seen rounded, light-colored spots in the distance that I interpreted as ancient sun-bleached boulders, but which could have been the mounds of dirt above badger or prairie dog holes. The gneiss boulder weighed nearly a ton and was diagnostic of long-distance transport by ice.
Our purpose in leaving the glacial limit and re-entering it here was to see if the water issues of the glaciated landscape were different, which they were. South of the limit, the land was nearly overwhelmingly given over to ranching, principally for beef cattle, dominantly Angus and Hereford breeds. I don’t recall seeing a single dairy cow or any corn, except in a few protected hollows, or for that matter, many cultivated fields at all.
Gradually, the number of boulders picked up, to the point where we began seeing piles in cultivated fields. The brown layer above the rock outcrop thickened to the point where it could be confirmed as till, rather than the subsoil. Deposition of this substance, rather than erosion of soft strata became responsible for the undulating character of the terrain, something we hadn’t seen since near Mandan back to the east. Subdued buttes and sections of badlands were still present, but only on the high points, remnants too large to be sheared and smeared by the passing ice.
As we neared the Missouri River, we could see the gallery forest of cottonwoods along the meandering stream. The fields were rich on the alluvial plain, being watered with spray irrigation. In the distance, we could see a return to the Tertiary strata the glacier had covered to the slough. This return was due to erosion by the Missouri River, which carried torrents of glacial meltwater as an ice marginal stream.
Missouri River looking downstream to the east at Culbertson, Montana.
Beneath the Culbertson Bridge was an old, beaten-up U.S. Geological Survey Gauging Station.
Staff gauge for measuring water height at the Missouri River Bridge at Culbertson, Montana.
A staff, mounted on mangled sheet piling, was marked off in feet and tenths of feet to determine the height of the river, its stage. I found it curious that it was rust at the top and bottom, but not in the middle, where the pilings were white. This, I suspected, was the range in height at which swift-flowing currents carrying silt, scoured off any rust that forms on a nearly seasonal basis. Most of the time, the river runs fairly low.
Modern U.S. Geological Survey Stream Gauge at the Culbertson Bridge, Montana.
With the old gauge, a public servant drives out to the bridge, heads down to the river, and visually reads the gauge, sometimes with binoculars. With the new gauge, there is no need for an employee. Sunlight powers photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity to power an automated electronic transducer that reads the stage of the river by measuring the hydrostatic pressure in a column of water. That information is then automatically logged onto a digital file at the station and sent via radio waves to some distant computer for archiving and analysis. The clean, high-tech gauge is a lonely gauge, as independent as a Mars Rover.
When I graduated from college in 1973, one of my buddies got a job with the U.S. Geological Survey driving around and collecting data from stream gauges. Young people who used to work their way up the career ladder no longer have that opportunity. The analysts sit inside in front of a computer, as I am doing now, rather than being outside.
When westerners think of rivers, their thoughts are usually drawn either to the extremes of flow, whether destructive floods or times when the river dries up. Between those limits, we tend to take flowing water for granted. Those USGS analysts may not even see the rivers much anymore.
To the Limit
Two miles north of Culbertson, Montana was a dramatic change in the terrain. All of a sudden, we were on an undulating plain rich with cultivated fields and dotted with boulder piles here and there. Verdant green wheat was the principal crop, with yellow-flowering canola fields common as well.
When we reached Homestead, it seemed to us that we were back in the upper Midwest-- rather than the west. The cultural icon of the rain elevator, water tower, small towns smothered in trees, and endless fields surrounding them. Soil, rather than climate or culture, set the boundary between rangeland and farmland.
Medicine Lake was rimmed by extensive marshlands and many birds. Medicine Lake is one of the more important wildlife refuges run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Medicine Lake, Montana. The presence of water makes it easy to see how flat the landscape really is.
My original plan was to head north to Plentywood, Montana for the night. Later, we decided we might not find a motel or library there with the functional Internet service we needed to make our final blog post. Instead, we decided to overnight in Williston, North Dakota, the only place within 130 miles with more than one motel, so we were told. To reach Williston before dark, we had to turn east at Reserve, Montana before heading back into North Dakota.
Reserve exhibited a skyline dominated by grain towers little different from Edgeley, North Dakota, which we had seen four days earlier.
The limit of our trip at the junction of Route 16 North and Route 258 East, in Reserve, Montana. The town is barely visible left of the sign.
If Reserve has a water story, it’s the absence of a water tower visible from a distance. It lies on the banks of Big Muddy Creek. Perhaps after the sediment settles out, they have a reliable supply.
Were it not for the rich farmlands all around us, one might call this country bleak. We drove west by the Eden Valley cemetery, which was very well kept, despite being miles from the nearest valley and without so much as a tree. If ever there was a nearby church, its now gone, perhaps burned to the ground. Another sign that could be misinterpreted as signifying bleakness was a completely intact, but thoroughly abandoned set of farm buildings Brush Lake Road north of Dagmar.
Abandoned cluster of farm buildings (including the base of a windmill) northeast of Dagmar, Montana. The buildings are completely surrounded by wheat.
The windmill is an icon of the upland prairie, a place where groundwater is often the only source of water. One of my earliest memories was climbing such a windmill tower to its top, despite explicit instructions to stay away and despite the threat of certain punishment. I must have been less than five years old. I remember the combination of excitement and fear, and of feeling my heart throb in my chest in the process. Of course, my mother would have had heart failure had she known what I was up to. Perhaps she will find out in reading the account of this road trip.
Dagmar, set a half-mile in from the county road in the middle of a section, was an anomaly. People still live there on its two or three streets, and tend the cluster of trees that protect them from the wind. Driving by at a distance of a half mile, we saw no water tower, no grain elevator, and no steeple. This puzzled us. Here was a huddled community if I ever saw one. Mechanized machinery has expanded the distance between farms. Homesteads, which began at 160 acres, were not abandoned, but incorporated into ever-enlarging farms.
Our final stop on the entire trip was to visit Brush Lake; the most easily reached small kettle lake within a cluster that stretches northwest to Dooley near the Canadian border, and eastward into nearby North Dakota.
Brush Lake in Sheridan County, Montana. State park is the cleared patch of beach visible on the opposite shoreline.
To the south lay additional kettles within a kettle moraine, these occupied by various waterfowl and rimmed by marshes.
Here was a beautiful lake, precious in its rarity, and crystal blue in its quality. But people were completely absent. At its south end was a decrepit park, blocked by a locked gate. The few wood-frame buildings present seemed abandoned. Some were falling down, others being enveloped by brushy trees. There were no parked automobiles. We didn’t see or hear a soul.
After a steep climb to the east side of the lake, our first steep slope in more than twenty miles, we turned north on gravel toward Highway 258. Along the way, we passed by the road to Brush Lake State Park, which was clearly marked with a sign similar to the one we had seen seven miles back before we left the main road for Dagmar, and eighteen miles back when we left the main road at Reserve.
I regret not driving the mile of gravel road to the shore to see if there was someone to interview. Earlier, we had decided that the park must have been closed, because we saw no cars and no activity there when we stopped across the lake, seeing nothing but a small swimming beach with no cars and no people visible
It was there, surrounded by fields of silently growing wheat and at that lonely junction between two gravel roads, that our road trip ended.