Category Archives: Travel

Nightmare in Hot Springs: A Serial Killer Strikes Again

About an hour south of Rapid City lies Hot Springs, South Dakota. But there’s a darker side to the naturally occurring warm water around which the town is based. In fact, during the last Ice Age, the creatures that lived around Hot Springs were continually stalked – by a serial killer!

IMG_2036

One of the killer’s many victims.

Yes, indeed, the scene at Hot Springs is the stuff of which horror movies are made. It was only in the last century that evidence of this monster, which, astonishingly, continued to murder its victims over a period of seven hundred years, was finally uncovered. As there can be no statute of limitations on such a series of heinous crimes, archaeologists are working around the clock to catalogue the remains of perhaps hundreds of victims of this deadly killer. Who could have done such a thing? What unholy terror could have repeatedly destroyed – and with apparent impunity – such terrific and powerful beasts?

For you see, the primary victims of this diabolical criminal were not flightless birds, or helpless little mammals, but some of the largest land creatures known during the last Ice Age – the mammoths!

The better-known woolly mammoth paled in size compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth.

The better-known woolly mammoth paled in size compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth.

I am relieved to report that the murderer of these majestic creatures has at last been identified. This hardened criminal will escape punishment, I fear, as it, too, has long since been buried. But the evidence of its crimes lingers, and the whole sad story may finally be told.

It appears that some twenty-six thousand years ago, when mammoths were still plentiful on the North American continent, a sinkhole developed in the region, much like this one that was used for the Vore Buffalo Jump. However, in Hot Springs, the force of the collapse caused the hole to tap into a warm artesian well, which in turn caused grass to grow in the area year-round, even in winter. When food was scarce, mammoths would be naturally attracted to the site. They would snack on the grass, then perhaps climb down the sides of the sinkhole for a sip of water. Once inside, their flat feet would be unable to gain traction on the slippery sides of the sinkhole, and they would become trapped inside, floundering about helplessly until they either drowned or starved.

Mammoth footprints. Surprisingly, they don't make much of a mark. Comparatively few remains of smaller mammals have been found at the site, likely because animals with claws rather than hooves were better able to scramble out of the sinkhole.

Mammoth footprints. Surprisingly, they don’t make much of a mark. Comparatively few remains of smaller mammals have been found at the site, likely because animals with claws rather than hooves were better able to scramble out of the sinkhole.

Thus, unlike at Dinosaur National Monument, the tragedy at the Mammoth Site was not mainly the result of a single event, such as a drought, but rather a series of accidents, likely all nearly identical in form. It is worthy of note that every one of the many skeletons that has been uncovered at Mammoth came from a juvenile male. Knowing what we do about modern-day elephant societies, which are matriarchal, these were likely young elephants which were banished from their herds and went off on their own, and therefore had no wiser, more experienced mammoths to warn them against the dangers of the sinkhole. In addition, these lonesome individuals, being outcasts, probably traveled further afield than the others did in their search for food.

After about seven hundred years, the sinkhole had filled in to such an extent that it evidently no longer posed a hazard for mammoths and other local creatures. The mammoth tragedy, however unhappy it was for its victims, has resulted in a truly spectacular archaeological find. Nearly all of the bones have been left in situ, which means they still lie virtually as they were found.

IMG_2039

Clearly identifiable mammoth skulls.

Indeed, the site is an active archaeological dig; you can see on the board the new bones that have been uncovered during the current season alone.

IMG_2055

You can see, too, that the bones at this site are much easier to pick out from among the dirt and rocks than those at Dinosaur, and this is because these bones have not fossilized. They are evidently not old enough for the bone to have been replaced by harder minerals, leaving mere casts of where the remains once were. Instead, we see here the original bones, which, visually, have a markedly different texture from fossilized bones, which resemble rock.

???????????????????????????????

Mammoth tusks. I don’t care how well-preserved they are; I’m not licking one!

According to our tour guide, if you’re in doubt, you can also identify a bone by licking it; if you’re tongue sticks, it’s bone. I confess that that little tidbit rather put me off the idea of pursuing a sixth career as an archaeologist.

Now, as at Dinosaur, this incredible find was made possible by mountain building forces in the region, namely the uplifting of the Black Hills, which brought the rock layer containing the mammoth skeletons closer to the surface. The remains were found, as these kinds of things often are, during excavation for a new building. It makes you wonder how many more such sites lie beneath the surface, especially in these rural mountainous regions, just awaiting discovery.

And, as at Dinosaur, the nature of the tragedy that befell these creatures created a set of conditions in which large numbers of skeletons would be found in one location. Unlike at Dinosaur, however, there was no river or flooding to jumble up the remains of the creatures that died, which means that many of the skeletons have been found largely intact, as is very apparent when you examine the uncovered bones.

Be sure to return for Nightmare in Hot Springs II: Death Springs Eternal, in which we conclude the story of the killer at Mammoth by examining one of its other unwitting and now-extinct victims – the giant short-faced bear!

* * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

A Sacred Place Is Where You Find It

Surprisingly enough, although I have been to Rapid City and its environs before, I had never heard of Devil’s Tower. I only stumbled across it this time because it was featured on a throwaway tourist map of the area that was forced upon me by some motel. Devil’s Tower! I thought excitedly. I love landmarks named Devil! Consider, for example, The Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley – if it was named after you-know-who, you know it’s going to be worth seeing.

Of course, as readers have reminded me since, Devil’s Tower is the destination featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given its fame and the way it sticks up out of the ground like a veritable stairway to the heavens, it is rather difficult to imagine how I could have missed a landmark like this on my prior trips through Wyoming, particularly when it’s visible from miles and miles away:

Devil's Tower from a Distance

I suppose I can’t be blamed too much for overlooking it. As you can plainly see, It’s plunk out in the middle of nowhere. Have no fear about your morning java, though. The lonely road to Devil’s Tower is proof positive that you really can get a cappuccino literally anywhere in the United States:

Coffee Shop Nowhere

Contrary to its name, Devil’s Tower was not traditionally perceived as a haven for the Dark Lord, but rather as a holy place that featured prominently in both Native American lore and in the traditions of white settlers of the region.

Devil's Tower Sign I

Indeed, some of the Native tribes still visit the tower for religious purposes, as is evidenced by the prayer cloths and bundles scattered all about the wood that surrounds the tower:

Devil's Tower Sign II Cropped

I myself am not a very spiritual person. But when you’re standing in the shadow of this unusually designed and seemingly inexplicable 900-foot monolith, it’s hard not to be moved.

Devil's Tower Closeup II

But as permanent and everlasting as it seems, the tower, of course, will not live forever. All about its feet lies abundant proof that it, too, is slowly self-destructing, that the days of its existence may be numbered to but a moment in geologic time. For while the igneous rock of which the tower is formed is far tougher and less subject to the forces of erosion than the sedimentary rock that once surrounded it, it also cannot survive indefinitely. One by one, the columns of which the tower is constructed will break off and crumple in heaps all around it, creating a field of giant stones in the midst of this quiet and peaceful wood.

Broken Columns

It will be a lengthy process. It has been a hundred years since the last column collapsed, and in the meantime, the tower continues to grow taller as more sediment is eroded from the plain. The tower itself also stands immune to one of the direst natural calamities of the region – the wildfire.

IMG_1941

These blackened trees appear to present evidence of just such a calamity. Fires are a natural part of the western ecology, and, left to their own devices, help to renew the forest floor without causing excessive damage to established trees. But, as is often the case when people interfere with nature, fires have become more devastating to our vast areas of forest in the last hundred years. This is because human efforts to suppress wildfires have caused buildups of fuel in wooded areas – which means that when fires do burn, they burn much hotter and are far more destructive.

It’s a lesson for all of us. Every year our skies are darkened by the smoke and soot of wildfires; every year our fire fighters risk their lives attempting to control these blazes in an effort to spare our homes and other places we hold dear. It’s only natural that in our approach to the world, we put humans first. But at what cost? Do we really derive any long-term benefit from interfering with the natural ebb and flow of our forest ecologies? Or are we merely postponing the inevitable and, in the process, causing greater harm than good?

It is human nature to develop attachment to the land. The land in which we are born, the land in which we grow up, the lands in which we experience our first love, our first adventure, our first taste of freedom; the land in which we choose to grow old and die. Places form a large part of how we define ourselves, of how we comprehend our position in the world. Who among us has not gone out of our way to drive past a house we lived in as a child? Who among us does not remember “where we were” during important events in history, such as the John F. Kennedy assassination, or 9/11? Who among us does not imagine the chapters of our lives as beginning and ending with the places we have lived, because every new place is, in our minds, distinctly different from the last, even if the move was only across a state or down the block?

The Native Americans understood this. Many of their origin stories are centered around the land, around the gifts of land, the gifts of places that were granted to their people by their god or gods. It is perhaps one of the reasons why the shift to reservations was so painful, so intolerable to the Native tribes. You cannot simply remove a people from one land to another and expect them to be satisfied, even if the trade were, on paper, fair and equal. The land does not represent merely a way of life, a means of earning a living. It is the very essence of a people.

We will always fight to protect our sacred places, whether they be a stretch of coastline on the eastern seaboard, a beloved old elm in our own front yard, or a four-block neighborhood in the city of Cleveland. Places move and inspire us. We cannot bear to see them altered or destroyed. But of course, eventually they must be. Even a monument like Devil’s Tower cannot stand forever. Nothing can.

But perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that this particular landmark will continue to stand, for as long as we ourselves are living, and for many generations after us. It is, for all human intents and purposes, an essential and everlasting part of the landscape. It is land at its very best. Permanent. Indestructible. Sacred.

* * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Devil’s Tower: Imposing, But Not Really Evil

* * *

If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Buffalo Jump!

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “Buffalo Jump,” of course, but in all my travels, I had never actually seen the site of one before. After spending a dark and stormy night outside of Rapid City, I decided to duck over to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower. It wasn’t long after dawn when I spotted signs on the highway directing me to this noteworthy landmark:

Buffalo Jump

Very thorough explanation, isn’t it? But what, you may be wondering, as I was, does the buffalo jump actually look like? After considerable searching in the early morning light, I finally realized that it lay in an unmarked field just across the road:

Buffalo Jump 2

That’s one heck of a sinkhole, but it doesn’t seem as though buffalo could become effectively trapped in it, does it? Perhaps not – but it was a sinkhole, after all, that was responsible for creating one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world today – Mammoth!

???????????????????????????????

* * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

They Call It Rapid City Because If You Don’t Hurry, You Might Miss Something

It never fails to come as a surprise. The midwestern states always seem like vast stretches of nothing until, wham! They hit you with something truly spectacular. Or, in the case of Rapid City, with many things truly spectacular.

It doesn’t seem like much at first. A good-sized town tucked away in the northeast corner of South Dakota, not far from Sturgis of “Sturgis Raw!” fame, which fans of The History Channel will recognize in an instant as the site of one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.

Knucklehead

They call this area The Black Hills. But it is perhaps best known for one rather grayish-tan hill:

Mount Rushmore

Every day, thousands of people flock to Mount Rushmore, to this ultimate homage to dead presidents. It is so cheesy, yet so reassuring. It reminds us that in fifty years currently popular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Pitbull will be long forgotten – yet these four presidents will live on in the American imagination. Not because of their principles, not because of their achievements, but because some sculptor thought it would be really cool to memorialize their heads on the side of a mountain.

And you know what? It actually is really cool. And what’s even cooler is that they livened up that dull, colorless mountain by turning the entrance to it into an Avenue of Flags containing the banners of each of the fifty states:

Avenue of Flags

The whole monument is so cool, in fact, that another sculptor – with entirely different motives – decided to attempt a similar gambit some twenty miles to the south:

Crazy Horse Monument II

Any guess what famous figure that’s supposed to be? Maybe this will help:

Crazy Horse Model

That’s right; this mountain is – or is going to be – a monument to Crazy Horse, the famed Indian warrior who inspired such fear and admiration in the spirits of white men, and who, a century and a half later, remains an icon of the Plains Indian to both red and white men alike. This massive project – which, if completed, may be the largest sculpture in the world – receives no federal funding and has been a work-in-progress since 1948. However, I think it’s safe to say that even if the project is never finished, it has ensured that Crazy Horse will enjoy a permanent place in American history.

It is perhaps ironic that not far south of the Crazy Horse Mountain lies Custer State Park, named for the cocky yet ill-fated Indian fighter who met his doom on a Montana battlefield which I hope to see again later in my trip. It is perhaps fitting that General Custer and his outmoded ways of thinking have been commemorated by an equally antiquated theme park, which has been constructed in the city that also bears his name:

That’s right – in Custer you can order food from the Flintstones drive-in…

Flintstones Theme Park II

… or make a call from the Bedrock phone booth, which can be really handy if, like me, you have a third-rate cell service provider and your phone hasn’t worked in a week.

Flintstones Theme Park III

Yes, Rapid City has an abundance of special charms that you won’t want to miss. You don’t have to worry about hurrying down to nearby Hot Springs, though – this guy definitely isn’t going anywhere:

Mammoth

* * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

With a Name Like Badlands, It Has to Be Good!

Join me, if you will, on a journey through one of the most forbidding destinations in the Great Plains. But I warn you – there’s danger in them thar hills, dire and perhaps deadly danger!

Unless, of course, you’re driving around comfortably in your car, as I was. Just play along, people!

Upon entering the park south of Wall, South Dakota, your first view is of this, the Pinnacles formation. It’s hard to convey in a single photograph just how massive this is – these formations literally go on for as far as the eye can see. How daunting it must have been to early settlers of the region, not knowing when – or if – the Badlands would ever end.

???????????????????????????????

The soil colors are caused by the decomposition of different plants at various points in the area’s geologic history. The layers became fossilized and were thus preserved in the “rainbow” arrangement we see today.

???????????????????????????????

This section almost reminds me of Arizona’s Native American cliff dwellings – except that no rational, civilized people would build a home here when they had a nice, comparatively comfortable desert available to them.

???????????????????????????????

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of wildlife here, either, except for insects, and, of course, these lovely fellows.

???????????????????????????????

Notice the teeny little  structure up top – then imagine trying to climb your way up the sides of this enormous crevasse.

???????????????????????????????

I’m pretty sure this is what Tolkien had in mind when he pictured the land of Mordor. Let’s hope Sauron isn’t still hanging out in here somewhere.

???????????????????????????????

 * * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

“Les terres mauvais à traverser” – Badlands National Park

Take a look and see if you can guess why French-Canadian fur trappers called this section of the South Dakota prairie “bad lands to cross.”

* * *

If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.