Seeking a place to set up my tentfor the night, I pore over my Nebraska State map searching for little red triangles that signal public camping sites. There isn’t much to choose from. I could bite the bullet and check into some grungy roadside motel and fritter away my night watching bad TV. Or I could take my chances on an intriguingly named site called Toadstool Park about 15 miles from where I sit.
The gravel road to Toadstool shadows a busy railway bed. Snaking lines of coal cars rattle past every few minutes, full towards the east, empty back to the west. Eventually, I cross the official boundary for Oglala National Grassland. Few Americans know much if anything of the 20 federally designated National Grasslands totaling almost four million acres of mixed grasslands. Many represent quintessential short grass prairie habitat, colonized by an association of plants and animals that can survive on an average of fifteen inches of rain that falls annually on these landscapes (as opposed to wetter tallgrass habitat).
The scope of these lands reveals the scale of earlier human failure. 1862’s Homestead Act opened a great deal of the mid portion of the continent to land hungry easterners searching for “fifty miles of elbow room” and a decent life if they could prove their claim on the land through judicious effort. Offering 160 acres for the modest price of $18, a flood of disenfranchised Eastern farmers, newly arrived European immigrants, single women, and former Southern slaves loaded their wagons and headed west for a new start. Many failed right from the get-go, and even those who succeeded for a spell could be wiped clean from bouts of improvident weather or wildfire.[i]
Within twenty years, the combined intervention of railroads and intentions of cattle barons overtook all but the most steadfast of the original settlers. However, subsequent tweaks of the Homestead Act (most notably the Kincaid Act of 1904 which upped the claim acreage to 640 acres), along with the discovery of gold nearby and further west brought new waves of prospective homesteaders to the region.[ii] Droughts, flash floods, dust storms, and plagues of locusts (and other insects) constantly challenged these new dirt farmers, along with their gruff and sometimes violent cattle ranching neighbors, and took the heart out of their efforts.
By the 1930’s, in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl that hit these Nebraska grasslands as hard as any Okie hardscrabble farm sung of by Woody Guthrie, much of the populous – and the soil – had migrated elsewhere. A series of commissions and acts of legislation attempted to stem the soil tide. It’s little surprise that coal and oil leases now abound on National Grassland holdings. Dirt cheap leases to ever larger cattle ranching operations also predominate. Despite these constant pressures, many of these grasslands are veritable gardens of Eden compared to their corn and soybean compatriots further east.
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Toadstool Geologic Park sits at the boundary between grassland and badland. It looks like something out of a Flintstones cartoon. At the base of a curving cliff of hoodoos and fractured cliffs, a semicircle of six covered picnic tables and parking/campsites curves away from a restored sod house based on an original homesteader’s design for the first homes cheaply made in Sandhills settlement. A chalky white trail slivers up and over sandstone shelves and around the capstone slabs on clay pillars from which the park gathers its name.
In the last half hour before sunset, I delay dinner and camp setup for the pleasure of a brief back-country ramble. Prehistoric volcanic activity in the area periodically draped this landscape in layers of ash. Weathered into cracks in the clay the ash eventually crystallized. The softer surface material erodes, revealing glasslike gravel and the bones of primeval organisms. The path curves and traverses an old stream bed. Patches of this coarse mix of bone and silica appear where waters have worn them visible. I pick up a fragment of ashen glass, picture in my mind’s eye the original fiery rain, the pressing concerns of centuries of sandstone deposits, followed by eons of watery cascades and caravans of wind, revealing this moment of Homo sapiens grasping a handful of the past within his present.
Around the corner, a self-guided signpost alerts me to the presence of prehistoric tracks. Again I enter the crossroads of my imagination as I rest my palms into the shallow depressions that describe the path of some antediluvian organism. On a balanced sandstone boulder off to my right, I note the tracks of a two toed animal across the ancient mud. My imagination can neither confirm nor deny the evidence of an entelodont’s traverse. I must trust the paleontologist’s call on the passage of this prehistoric giant pig.
Further along the loop trail, I come across more entelodont traces, this time trailing two sets of other tracks. My imagination fails me altogether as I read the guide’s story of two separate species of rhinoceros that had once followed this streambed. Some Dick Tracy paleontologist had speculated that the smaller of the two had crossed the stream after the larger had just passed. Perhaps spooked by the near encounter, it apparently sped off through the mud, leaving splash marks that stained time immemorial.[iii]
At the crest of the sandstone ridge I sit on an outcrop and survey the plain stretching south from the campground. In the distance several telltale conical slopes suggest that volcanoes indeed marked time here. From that far vista, sienna and tan grasslands stretch back towards me like a scratchy wool blanket rumpled by windstorm creases and flash flood gullies. Nearer still, and off behind me lie the crushed and crucified badlands that tie all the way back north towards Badlands National Park in lower South Dakota.
At sunset, crisscross ripples of different and diametrically opposite layers of flows of cloud and color perfectly portray a landscape that has learned to hold contradictory forces in dynamic tension. I let Sandhills earth and sky, spaciousness and timelessness, seep into my skin and blood. There’s no one else nearby to verify what year this is, or to declare what organism will next round the rocky bend, or to debate with me what it would take to keep and restore this grassland cum moon crater. Reflecting on the tracks of a now extinct archaic giant pig and a lumbering rhinoceros, our crafting of management plans detailing the denouement of native and nonnative species strikes me as somewhat absurd and hubristic. By whose calendar are such things measured? From the calcified perspective of the entelodont, we are all invaders here.
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That night as the cold flows over the rock faces into my valley, an intense wind and a sneaky rain wreaks havoc with my efforts to fire up my cook stove to craft dinner and warming tea. I give up; put on every layer I can, and wriggle into my sleeping bag. In the absolute dark I hear rumbling and howling. Loaded coal train? Yahoos out for a bit of tourist torment? Coyotes on a hunter’s prowl? Blundering entelodonts rushing downstream to crush my tent? In such a time and place anything seems possible – except perhaps the possibility that humans will choose the wisest course in matters of managing these primeval lands.
Arising early the next morning, I hike a stream-bed trail and up onto the plateau behind Toadstool heading towards Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed. In the early 1950’s ranchers Albert Meng and Bill Hudson uncovered large bones poking from an eroding bank and summoned scientific expertise. Excavations revealed an extinct species of bison with stone tool artifacts dating some 8,000-10,000 years. Archeologists surmised first an ancient bison jump, then a natural death event of unknown origins. The mystery is yet being explored by archaeologists and visitors to the dig site.[iv]
Wind tosses the dry grass. I stand on a high ridge with a 360 degree prospect. I’m at a crossroads of dim past and uncertain future, equally inscrutable, recorded in stone but not fixed in time. Who’s to say that tomorrow’s paleontologists won’t be excavating cattle ranches plumbing the secrets of bovine decline, or that either grasshopper or redwing will yet be here to watch over burgeoning blowout penstemon? For all the apparent mystery, across the span of time, no land remains trackless. Roaming the wind-sculpted hills of Lake Crescent, the eroded ash hoodoos of Toadstool, the airy sweep of this plateau, I glimpse traces of creatures past and present within these ancient lands. On the trail of episodic migratory species, ephemeral plants, prehistoric tracks, and eternal wind, I feel more a shaman summoning fleeting spirits than a researcher pursuing scientific certitude.
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[i] "Homestead Act," National Park Service, 10 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/home/homestead_act.html>.
[iii] Toadstool Geologic Park, Oglala National Grassland, (United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, 2004).
[iv] "History of Hudson-Meng Bison Kill," Hudson-Meng Bison Kill, 13 Oct. 2006, <http://www.hudson-meng.org/Hudson-MengHistory.html>.