The Antelope Mafia (a Tale of Badlands Archaeology)

December 19, 2008

A very long time ago, when I was in college and disco was still an unpleasantly vivid and recent memory,  I spent my summers doing archaeology in the Badlands of North Dakota. Having passed field school, I was paid a bit, and lived in squalor with the rest of the crew.

We mainly did surveys, as oil prices had sent wildcat drillers into the Badlands to search the Bakken Shale formation for Texas Tea. Much of the area is National Grasslands or Bureau of Reclamation land, so a cultural resources survey is required as part of the EIS or EA for drill pads, roads, pipelines, and so on. When we encountered the Mafia, or Antelope Gang, we were surveying the route of a pipeline that will remain nameless, although it came from the NORTHERN BORDER of the state and more or less followed the Little Missouri River breaks to the southern border.

One of the first rules of Badlands archaeology is that no one works alone; the buddy system makes sure you don’t get too lost (remember, this was pre-cell phones!), that if one of you is injured, the other can go for help, and (theoretically) that you won’t miss anything, since if one of you walks obliviously through the middle of a  site, the other will probably notice it. With dangers like heat, rattlesnakes, cougars, and stray buffalo (and no, I am not making that up),  the buddy system is a very good idea.

But when time is short, and a deadline looms, sometimes safety rules are overlooked. This was one of those times. So each morning, we were dropped off between 8 and 10 miles apart (or wherever the route intersected a driveable road or 2-track) to survey our stretch of the route, which had (supposedly) been staked and flagged by the nameless pipeline company’s surveyors.  With a USGS quad map, a compass, a canteen, and a lunch of sorts in our daypacks, along with a waterproof notebook, we were on our way.

It was on the second day of the job that I noticed the antelope. There were three of them, and they were watching me intently while pretending not to. Now, Badlands pronghorns are by nature very shy creatures, but they’re also very curious. (So curious that hunters used to hide behind rocks and wave a white handkerchief. When the antelope got close enough to see what it was, the hunters would shoot them. Not exactly sporting, eh?)

Their curiosity makes them watch, but they pretend not to, under the assumption that if they aren’t looking right at you, you won’t see them. Nobody said they were brilliant, just fast. The three on my tail kept their distance, but followed me along. When I stopped, they stopped. If I sped up, they sped up; if I slowed down, they slowed down. The only time they got closer was when I stopped to eat my lunch. They slowly but steadily moved closer, their great brown eyes on my carrots and celery. I’m a sucker, so I left those items behind, but put everything else back in my pack and moved on. As soon as I was about 25 feet away, they moved in and went for the veggies like they were the food of the Gods.

My generosity proved to be a mistake on my part; they assumed I had more, and over the rest of the day came closer and closer, until they were no more than 10 feet behind me.  But not long after that, I reached my endpoint, and sat down by the edge of the road. The antelope were uncertain; they came a little closer, then backed off when I turned to look at them. They put their noses together, as if in conference over how best to deal with the situation. But before anything more could happen, Gertie the Truck pulled up with engine roaring, and the antelope dashed away.

That evening I told the crew my story, and it seemed that all five of us had been followed by at least two antelope, who apparently have a buddy system of their own.  I was the only one who had fed them, but our crew boss told me that I shouldn’t do that; we didn’t want them to become dependent on human food. I didn’t think two carrots and three celery sticks would have made the three antelope dependent, but I digress.

The next morning, I was dropped off in a new spot with a new map and lunch. I looked around, and from behind a large rock outcrop, an antelope head popped up. I must say here that, no disrespect intended, one antelope looks pretty much like another. I couldn’t be certain that this was one from the previous day (how could they have found me?) but I couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t, either.  As I moved out, I looked back: three antelope were again following me.

As during the previous day, the antelope stayed pretty much the same distance from me, at least at first. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the antelope got gradually but steadily closer. I wasn’t nervous. No antelope would threaten a human; it’s just not in their nature. So I kept walking, zig-zagging and studying the ground, raising my head from time to time to check the map and look for the next stake, and checking behind me.

I didn’t find anything noteworthy, but the creeping closeness of the antelope was becoming increasingly unnerving. Were they rabid? Usually it’s coyotes who are rabid, but who knows? Were they carrying plague? More common in the southwest than the Badlands, but still… and closer and closer they came.

When I was about halfway to my endpoint, I found a pinon pine and some rocks, and after checking for snakes, decided it was a good place to eat  my lunch. I sat down, pulled out my smashed sandwish and its accompaniments, and looked up at the sound of small rocks moving. The antelope had me surrounded. They were looking at my lunch. They looked hungry. They weren’t much more than 5 feet away.

This isn’t a situation they teach you to deal with in the Acme College of Archaeology. Antelope are supposed to avoid people, not follow and surround them.  I said, “Go away!”

They continued to look at me, and one pawed the rocks. (Hoofed the rocks? Hooved the rocks?) I held up my sandwich. The atmosphere grew more tense.  I held out my apple, and one antelope leaned in. I tossed it to her (him? I didn’t ask) and she took it and backed up a couple of dainty steps to munch. That left two of them.  I had no choice; I offered up my carrots and celery to these lunchtime bullies. They took them, and backed off a bit to eat them. I ate my mashed bread with peanut butter, grateful that they hadn’t seized my canteen.

I got up to move on, and they maintained their positions: one was in front (the one that snagged my apple), one was behind and to the left, and one was behind and to the right. And so our interesting little group followed the stakes (they sniffed at the flagging but found it inedible), with me hoping that the distance to the pick-up point was shorter than it looked on the map.

And then we entered a field of mustard, in bloom. I started sneezing, and the antelope bolted. I don’t know if it was the sneezes, or if they didn’t like mustard any better than I did. For the entire length of the quarter section, my nose streamed like a faucet on high. I didn’t have the sniffles, it RAN. I quickly went through my tissues, then my sleeves, then finally reached the end of the field, took off my scarf, and wiped my face and neck. 

Cramming the now-disgusting scarf in my back pocket, I moved on to the next flagged stake, and behind me I heard a sort of throat-clearing noise. I spun around. There they were, the three antelope. There was no escaping them. They accompanied me to the road, and waited with me until Gertie put in her groaning, dust-raising appearance. By the time the dust settled, the antelope were gone.

I told the crew my story. They didn’t believe me. Antelope are shy creatures, they said. They don’t come close, they said. They aren’t lunch bullies, they said. HA!  I know better. And if the carnivores riding with me had carried fruit and vegetables in their lunches, they’d know too.

All the crew were followed by antelope that day, by the way, but  we finished surveying the line that afternoon.  And while I’ve been followed by antelope since then, I’ve never encountered another gang that wanted my lunch.

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One Response to “The Antelope Mafia (a Tale of Badlands Archaeology)”

  1. I love it! You’ve got a good hand for balancing description and action, and a deft sense of humor. It sounds like the beginning to a book of personal essays on the Dakotas you know. Keep posting your tories and eventually you’ll have a book. . . .

    Susan
    http://communityoftheland.blogspot.com

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