Looking at the date of my last post makes me realize just how lax I’ve been in keeping this up! So, for now, another tall — but true, at least in my memory, of my time in the Badlands, doing archeology (archaeology isn’t used much now; personally I think if any word should keep its old spelling, it’s this one!)

Well, it was the late 1970s (yes, children, I am old) and there were a (small) handful of companies drilling for oil (as I write this, I think western North Dakota has more active oil drill rigs than any state in the lower 48). We were doing “cultural resource” surveys for proposed roads and drill pads on federal land out there (Bureau of Reclamation). If we found something, we recorded it (location, drawings, and the description and location of any material evidence. Then our fore-person would decide if it was enough to be called a site, and if so, it went up the line for “mitigation.” Sometimes that means a report. Sometimes it was a test “pit” (actually a very neat square hole, dug in 2-3 cm layers with trowels and sieved through a device made of wood and screen). Very rarely, it meant a full-scale excavation. And sometimes it meant that the company who wanted to use that land had to choose another route or another place to drill.

You may or may not know that western North Dakota is home to rattlesnakes — diamond-back rattlesnakes, to be more precise. They are a pit viper (not because they live in a pit, but because on their nasty little faces are very sensitve indentations — pits — that pick up vibration in the ground around them). They’re very sensitive to movement, a good thing for them because their vision isn’t very good, but not so great for people walking around in desert workboots. However, they don’t jump out at you or chase you; they only bother you if you bother them. Step on them, for example, or put your hand on a ledge that you can’t see the top of when you’re climbing, a ledge that just might be occupied by a rattlesnake trying to get some sun. (Not that they tan or anything; they’re cold-blooded, and they like to warm up.)

They do bother you if they’re angry. On one all-too-memorable day, I was doing survey in an area with several active drill rigs. Think about what a drill rig does to the land around it as it drills. If you’ve never experienced it, use your imagination and see how the ground is almost visibly shaking, and the rumbling is spread out around it for miles. Now imagine you’re a rattlesnake who is extremely sensitive to that drilling and those ripples of movement. Not very happy, are you? And no wonder! It would be like the loudest concert you’ve ever been to with the noise multiplied at least tenfold. Your ears! Their pits! Nasty! Angry!

So I’m walking along, with a light backpack, and with a USGS quad map in the other so I know I’m where I should be. I’m looking from side to side, trying to see if there’s anything there that shouldn’t be there. A hard stone that either has clearly been used by a human in some way, or is a flake from the making of a tool. And small changes in topography, possibly marking campsites used over and over through the past 1000 years or so. I searched so much around me that for a brief moment, I wasn’t looking in front of me. Big mistake.

I realized my mistake when I’d put one foot down and lifted the other to set it down ahead of me. Because directly in front of me was a rattlesnake, all coiled up, hissing and rattling. Oh dear. So I look to the left. Another one. I look to the right. ANOTHER one. This cannot be possible! Then, oh dear lord, I hear another one behind me, that I must have stepped over without even seeing it. I was in a rattlesnake den; there were at least 5 of them, probably more, and although in my memory they are huge to the point of genetic anomaly, I’m sure they were just rattlesnake-sized. But they looked ginormous at the time.

I stood there, on one foot, trying to balance, and terrified to the point of witlessness. Somehow, and I do not know how I was able to do it because I am not in the least coordinated or athletic, but somehow, I managed to leap backwards, off of the one foot on the ground, over the rattler behind me. Really. That part is amazing but true. I couldn’t do it again — unless maybe my life depended on it. It must have been fear and adrenaline, because I have trouble simply hopping these days. Then I backed quickly away. I wanted to faint, but I was honestly afraid they would come after me if I didn’t get away from their location!

Their anger was justified (I wasn’t too happy about the drilling myself, and I could just hear it, not nearly as loudly as they felt it), and I was there to take it out on. I could have been killed; I don’t know why I wasn’t. The grace of Someone. I was doing survey alone, and it would have been several hours before anyone realized I was missing, much less find where I was. One or two snake-bites could have killed me, and I will bet you that it would have been a lot more than that because more than one of those angry snakes would have bitten. Struck. Fanged me. Envenomated me. Pick your favorite verb. I know how lucky I was.

For the rest of that summer, I jumped every time I heard a rustle in the grass, a cricket, a grasshopper. I was on edge for a month and a half. The rest of the crew teased me relentlessly, but they had no idea what that situation whas like. I’ve never been particularly fond of snakes, although I will acknowledge that many are quite beautiful and they play an important role in whatever ecosystem you find them. But now I absolutely hate snakes. Most mammals do. Some scientists say that it is an innate and genetic fear that has helped keep us alive to become what we are today, both people and other animals too. I don’t know. All I know is that it really improved my ability to look where my foot was going to go down before I put it down!

I never saw that many snakes together again. For which I remain forever grateful. Not that I never saw another rattlesnake, no; I saw plenty of them. But I gave them wide berth (and didn’t poke at them with a stick, like one idiot in our crew did!) and they did likewise. And that’s a true story.

First let me say that I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my lifetime, but I’ve never seen a “flying saucer” or any other unidentified flying craft that was obviously a craft. Nor have I seen little gray aliens or large Nordic aliens (although I’ve wondered about a few tall Nordic types, who seemed pretty strange to me). But once upon a time, in a hot summer in the Badlands of North Dakota, I saw something that I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. And I wasn’t alone at the time.

We’d been camped out near a cattle tank, miles and miles of bad roads from our main camp, to work on — you know, I really don’t remember. Might have been a road, might have been a pipeline — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter was that our tent, which was co-ed, was one of the ones we called the “Custer Tents.” University of North Dakota lore says that when the 7th Cavalry headed out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, there were some tents that were in such bad shape that they were left behind, to be scooped up later by the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at UND. And ours was one of those giant canvas tents, with no floor, that reeked of must and mothballs, and leaked on the (very) rare occasions that it rained. For those of you who’ve heard my story about feeling so dirty that we bathed in a cattle tank, this was the place.

It was one of the hottest times in the Badlands that I can remember. The tent was stuffy and filled with the extra scent of sweaty men. I, and my bff Jeani, could not stand it anymore, and took our sleeping bags out under the stars. For those of you who live in cloudy places, or in large cities, I pity you. You can’t really see the stars. In the Badlands, and in the New Mexico desert, the entire night sky is filled with stars, more than city dwellers can conceive of.

So we lay there, comradely, (and no, not drinking beer — we left that to the boys), talking about the work, our love lives, and whatever came to mind. The moon was full, and it seemed so close that you could reach out and touch it. Near the moon was a round bright light. When I first noticed it, I thought it must be one of the planets, or maybe a satellite, because it didn’t twinkle like stars do, as their little light makes it through Earth’s atmosphere. Jeani and I said to each other, at the very same time (great minds truly do think alike), “Look at that!” We agreed we were looking at that bright round thing that looked like it was next to the moon, and I said it might be a planet, and she said it was too late for that, the planets had already set, or hadn’t yet risen. “Maybe a satellite?” I asked. No, she said, those usually are moving. I think. Suddenly the bright round light sped to our right, and the stopped as suddenly as it had started. “Did you see that?” we chorused. How could anyone have missed it? It was big, and it was obvious.

As we watched, it appeared to make a 90 degree turn, and sped off towards and behind us. We sat up to watch. It stopped again, as abruptly as it had the first time. It was still for about a minute (Jeani had a watch with one of those green light features), and then it did a 180 and and sped over us and out of view.

We were baffled. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The movement indicated that it couldn’t have been a star or a planet, and I don’t know of any satellites that do that, although it may be a possiblity (but bear in mind that this was pre-1980, and satellite technology has come a long way since then, so what they can do now may not have been possible then). I don’t know enough to say for certain that it wasn’t, but at the time, we didn’t believe it was. Satellites usually orbit, right?

So what was it? Not an airplane; no aircraft, with the exception of helicopters and Harrier jets, hover like that. And it was up much too high to be a helicopter, and the closest air base, in Minot, ND, didn’t have any Harriers. Besides, it was completely silent. Since it was an object, and it was flying, and we didn’t know what it was, we called it a UFO.

When we finally got back to our base, showered and dressed in clean clothes, we discussed it with the project manager, who hadn’t been with us in the Custer Tent. We (Jeani and I) wanted to report it; the question was, to whom? The county sheriff’s office would probably have laughed at us, so we skipped that option. We ended up calling the air base at Minot. A pleasant if slightly skeptical young officer took our call, and said he was making a note of our observation, and no, they hadn’t been doing any exercises in that area at the time. That was it.

We still talk about it from time to time. Neither of us have every seen anything like that since, although we’ve both spent plenty of time outdoors doing our different jobs. Was it a UFO? Well, yes, by definition, but was it an alien craft? I have no answer for that.

What do you think?

The recent “happy California cows” ads have succeeded in convincing most people that cows are happy placid animals that have nothing better to do than gossip while munching on grass and chewing their cud, in between milkings, of course. This could not be further from the truth. Cows are vicious, aggressive creatures who hunt in packs. And they’re probably carnivores.

How do I know? From personal experience, of course. I used to be someone who believed that cows were calm and basically a little dim, with kind brown eyes and cute babies. Then late one summer day in my first full field season, I was ordered to do a piece of survey that would lead me through a field of cows. The boss told me that the cows would move away from me and let me pass. Silly me, I believed her.

So with great difficulty, but only one tear in my jeans, I made it over the barbed wire fence and into the field, as the truck disappeared into the distance. All the cows immediately looked at me. I thought they were merely curious; actually, they were starting to plan.

I took a few hesitant steps forward, looking from side to side for any stray artifacts, but any that might have been there were covered with cow flops. The cows moved slowly in my direction. I remembered what the boss had said: if they come towards you, stand still; they have a “personal space” and will stop before they reach you. Silly me; I still believed that. (I didn’t realize that these were actually free range cattle who had been rounded up within the past two days, and stuck into this barbed wire cage. They were not happy cows.)

I walked a few steps more, and one cow stepped out in front, and pawed at the dirt/cowflops and snorted. “Nice cow,” I said. “Be a nice cow. I’m just passing through. Really. I’ll be gone before you know it.”

I don’t know if it was the sound of my voice or the smell of my fear, but the lead cow charged and the rest of the pack followed. I held my ground at first, certain they would stop (after all, the boss SAID they would…), but when they were within about 10 feet and gaining speed, I threw valor to the wind, turned, and ran for my life.

I reached the fence that had given me so much trouble on the way into the field, and just in time, flew over it (Olympics, here I come…). The cows were right behind me, stopping only when the front ranks actually hit the fence. I backed through the ditch and back onto the road, and the cows kept pushing at the fence. Could they get through? Was I doomed?

After about half an hour of standing in the middle of the road and shaking, I noticed that the lead cow seemed to be communicating something to the others. Quickly they spread across the field, returning to pretend to graze. Within minutes the truck returned for me.

No one believed my story. They still don’t, over 30 years later. They all think that Silly Me is terrified of cows for no good reason. They don’t know that vicious carnivorous cows nearly trampled and ate me that hot summer day. But I do, and I remember. And I avoid cows in all forms.

In one  particularly stormy month,  our hard-working crew was camped on Bureau of Reclamation land, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  As usual, we had two tents: One belonged to our fearless leader, Arlen. It was modern, fairly easy to set up, and could hold three people if they were washed and good friends. The other, well, that’s almost a story in itself.

The University of North Dakota, for whom we were working, had been bequeathed the tents used by the all-too-brief archaeological survey of the area that would be flooded by Garrison Dam. In the early 1950s. After seeing these tents, we didn’t believe that story. No, we were quite sure they’d been left behind by the Seventh Cavalry when Custer took his last trip to Montana Territory. They were moldy, mildewy, gargantuan canvas tents, floorless and cheerless. And leaky. They were for the crew. Of course.

The skies were clouding up, but we had some beer, and three of us gals decided to leave the menfolk to their silly tales of conquests, past and future, and take a 6-pack to Arlen’s tent. We were sitting inside talking about archaeology, and archaeologists we’d like to work with, when we heard the first rumbles of thunder and the first raindrops on the tent.

Arlen looked out the flap, and said, “It looks nasty. Let’s head to the other tent!”

She and Jeani managed to get out and run for the Custer tent, but my legs were tangled in a sleeping bag, and by the time I got to the tent’s exit, it was pouring rain and starting to hail. I decided I’d ride it out in where I was. I’d just finished my beer, after all, and there were three left in the six pack.

It continued to rain and hail, and I continued to sip on a beer. Or beers. Suddenly I heard a noise like a freight train. Having grown up at the north end of Tornado Alley, I knew what that meant, but I had to look out the flap anyway.  Sure enough, about a quarter mile away a funnel cloud had dropped from the ceiling (cloud ceiling — I wasn’t that drunk) and was headed straight for us.

I zipped up the flaps and thought. Let’s see. Take shelter in the basement. No basement. Take shelter in a sturdy interior room. No buildings, no rooms. Don’t get into your vehicle. OK, I could manage that. Hide in a culvert. Well, unpaved two-track road: no culverts. No shelter at all. I decided that where I was wasn’t any worse than anywhere I could get to, so I cracked open another beer.

The noise got louder, the tent began to rock, and I heard a “ping” as a tent stake pulled loose from the ground. I took a long drink. The tent continued rocking, and the pingings continued, from time to time.  I continued drinking, and tried to remember songs from “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Finally the roar and the thunder stopped, and the rain slowed to a scatter, then stopped as well. A few minutes later, Arlen unzipped the tent flap. Jeani was looking over her shoulder.

“She looks OK,” Arlen said.

“She looks drunk,” Jeani said.

“Are we in Kansas?” I asked.

Arlen shook her head. “You look like some kind of strange bird that lines its nest with bottles. A giant magpie, maybe.”

“A Kill-Beer,” Jeani corrected.

This struck me as incredibly clever and hysterically funny. As I was rolling in the sleeping bag, laughing, it occurred to me that I’d had more than twice my usual amount of beer. They could be right. Hmm.

“Why didn’t  you come over to the big tent with us?” Arlen asked.

“Well, I got tangled up, and by the time I got untangled, it was hailing. And I did have the beer…”

It turned out that I had chosen the best shelter, even if it was only secured by  two stakes at that point. The ancient canvas of the Custer tent (which, honestly, should have been on exhibit in a museum) couldn’t withstand the hail, or even the hard rain. It was now full of holes, as well as soaking wet inside and out. I was the only dry one in the group — on the outside, at least.

There was another 6-pack in the cooler in the Custer tent, but I’d had my share, and sat on the cooler while the others drank a bit. That was the closest to a tornado that any of us has ever come — or ever want to. But we’d been lucky. Aside from the holes in the tent, and wet clothes, we’d received no damage at all.

There was a great gouge running across the road and through the open area between the tents.  Mother Nature can be violent, but apparently she shows mercy to beery archaeologists.  And I don’t drink anymore.

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.