Saturday, November 16, 2002

Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site

All weather worries were dispelled when we reached the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota. It was still cold, and there were still bits of frosted fluff flittering to the ground, but we felt relieved and even amused with ourselves; so silly to have been nervous about a bit of weather. And Hot Springs proved to be a welcoming town with beautiful old stone buildings along the river and we saw ducks enjoying the steamy warmth on the banks.

We stopped for lunch, and then went to Mammoth Site. In the 70's a man began excavation of his property, in preparation for buildings, but fossils were discovered, so the tractors were parked until it could be determined what they were digging up. It turns out to be the site of a very old sink hole that accumulated very many mammoth and other animals, and the conditions were ideal for preserving their bones. Fortunately the site was preserved and is now a museum. The building that houses the museum and labs, also encloses the dig site. The fossils are protected from the elements and visitors are privileged to observe the bones as they are discovered.

Every year in July paleontologists gather at Mammoth Site to chip away at the dirt surrounding the fragile remains of ancient animals. They collect all they can in one month, and the rest of the year is devoted to recording and processing the material and information gathered. On a cold October day, in the middle of the week, there are very few visitors. We enjoyed a practically private tour. We very much enjoyed witnessing the process involved in solving a mystery. The clues are in geology, biology, paleontology and intuition, and the detectives are dedicated to the study of every detail, including the cross sections of mammoth molars.

Downstairs we met Malon. He sat in his desk chair, smiling warmly and waved us in to the lab. He casually showed us around, pointed out the latest big bone to be brought out of the dirt and shared with us the disappointment they all felt when it fell and broke as they hoisted it up. Now he will help to reconstruct the pieces, and make fiberglass models, like the one of the bear. He passed the skull of the bear to William. He showed us arrowheads he is making as replicas from real artifacts, and described the pleasure he has in his work. The boys asked about the clay on the shelves and the illustrations on the desk tops. Malon told us about the hard working Summer interns, and his confidence in the talent and skills of one young woman in particular.

Any visit to a museum can be interesting or enlightening, but our visit to Mammoth Site made a more lasting and meaningful impression, largely thanks to Malon. He patiently visited and laughed with us; we felt like friends just come back to town. He took the time to make his interest in his work more interesting for us. We have suggested to our sons that the best careers will be found in work that interests them. Malon lives and projects the success of this way of thinking. I'm glad we met him.

Maybe I botched details, and certainly Mammoth Site can tell it better, so if you want to know more please check out: And visit if you can; it's worth the drive.

Monday, November 11, 2002


Winter, cold and dark, with wind and frost, causes a desire to stir in my soul. By the time we were crossing southern Wyoming the temperatures were well in to the 30's. It was cold, and the leafless trees and mounting clouds suggested more cold. We tuned our radio to a weather station. Forecast: snow in southeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota. I pulled my knit hat down lower, over my ears, and thought about mashed potatoes, and also chocolate chip cookies, roaring fires, deep piles of quilts, fuzzy slippers, tamales and turkey dinner, sleeping. I wanted to pull over, find a cabin and hunker in. There could be only one way to survive this climate; hibernation. Every instinct and desire of my body insisted on long naps, long underwear and a buffet of every Thanksgiving delicacy ever served.

South of us, on the mountainous Colorado horizon we could see the clouds accumulating, rolling and building, dark and pretentious. (Geoff says, "You mean 'portentous.' These clouds, looming and leering, stuck up in the sky, were pretentious.) Our plan would be to turn north and head for the Black Hills; get ahead of the storm. Diego, our cat, came down from his perch in the overhead bed, and curled up on my lap. We were driving across rolling hills, where cattle stood shoulder to shoulder in white frosted coats. The miles of barbed wire fencing could not hold back the weather, and they looked as cold and biting as the wind that blew through them.

As we calculated our driving time, the miles we could cover before dark, we smiled warmly at each other and I felt the sweet comfort of being with the man I love and facing the elements head on.

Where I come from snow is such a novelty that families returning from a day in the local mountains will often pile snow in the beds of their trucks or across the hoods of their cars. It means 'look, real snow, and we were there!' It took three or four snow covered vehicles, passing us as they headed south, before it occurred to me that people in this neck of the woods likely don't bother scooping up chilly shovels of snow and deliberately dumping them atop their cars and trucks. And so by the tenth or thirtieth snow encrusted south bound vehicle we began to question our destination choice. No one else seemed to be going to the Black Hills. As we scanned the sky, the pretentious clouds were no longer looming in the distance of our rear view mirror; they were everywhere.

I felt a little shaky. Mentally I inventory-ed the refrigerator; turkey, dressing, carrots, rice milk, butter, noodles, cream of chicken soup, lettuce and green beans. I counted blankets, and gave thanks for having the foresight to pack coats, gloves, and boots. The boys were drawing blueprints for an amusement park; they were content, unconcerned. Geoff drove with steady hands, "Call my dad and see what he can find out about this storm." I described our situation; the wind, the blowing snow (I had seen actual flakes, as many as 50), the dark clouds and our lonesome progress up highway 18. I projected my discomfort, uncertainty and anxiety. "All right! So, you're having a little adventure. Fantastic." He was pleased for us. He wished he were with us, sharing the fun.

Some people are built that way. For them snow means 'wax the skis and salt the walk, here I come!' Phil ice skates on real lakes, and cross country skis in the wilderness. He drives in this stuff all the time. He goes down to the Twin Cities, across to Cambridge, back to the North Woods. Winter for him is a time to play and greet the elements with sporting equipment and soulful joy. The Inuit have very many names for snow; describing it as wet or dry, falling in flurries or very icy. In St. Paul Minnesotans host a Winter Carnival, complete with an ice castle and sculptures, all outside, with wind chill. Oh, yes, and Geoff's dad camps in the snow. Outside. In the cold, cold, cold.

Theoretically, snow and winter cold is very appealing. I like ice skating very much, and I have even, once, enjoyed skiing. Building snowmen is very fun and making snow angels is fun as well. My favorite song is Winter Wonderland. I delight in the profound hush that falls upon the earth as snow gathers in the trees and paths and falls delicately across the roof tops. Initially though, instinctively, my body begs for a heaping plate of casserole, a down body suit, hot chocolate and an insulated corner where I can sleep and watch the snow falling from behind a double glazed window.