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Monday, 01 May 2006

Written in Bone: An American Adventure

Written by Walter Williams
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Listening to the wind whisper through the Missouri Breaks about 20 miles down stream from the ghost town of Virgelle, Montana, the words of Don Quixote flashed across my mind:

My destiny calls, and I go! And the wild winds of fortune
Shall carry me onward ... To wither so ever they blow ...

imageWhat wild wind had blown me to this idealic place, I was not sure. But I certainly appreciated the opportunity to share in what was rapidly becoming an American adventure.


The cry of an eagle floating on the breeze, the campfire songs drifting up the vertical white cliffs from the camp far below, and the towering cinnamon hued stones of LaBarge Rock made me aware that I was in a wild and untamed place, little changed with the ebb and flow of time. Fur traders first visited the river and later the Corps of Discovery in 1805. I easily imagined Captain Meriwether Lewis standing on this same peak, charting the meandering course of the river and taking measurements. In fact, I would pitch my tent that night within a few hundred feet of Stonewall Creek, a campsite named by Lewis and Clark as they made their way up the wild Missouri a bicentennial ago. Lewis wrote of this very place, “so perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.” (May 31, 1805).

My heart still raced, but not merely because of the hasty climb to the isolated summit. Earlier, I had followed a freshly cut streambed to the base of a cliff. Within the last few years the precipice had sheered off, causing a shift in the flow of water. A deep eight-foot channel had been summarily cut into the canyon floor as a result of erosion. While following the channel, I noticed a flash of white and discovered several rib and femur bones. Just around the bend I saw a buffalo skull, horns intact, jutting from the side of the ashen bank.


imageMud-sheathed for centuries, the flesh long since nibbled away by time and the elements, the skull seemed to murmur, “I have a story to share”. Less than ten feet away, I detected another skull, noticeably smaller… a baby buffalo skull. Digging around the horns, I exposed enough of the adult skull to determine that I was looking at the back of the head. I had searched in vain up several canyons the previous day, hoping to find sign of an Indian camp. Now I wondered if this could be a kill site? Perhaps it was a buffalo jump like the one at Ulm Pishkun, just a few miles away as the crow flies. After all, from a site two days down river, Captain Lewis had described how the hunt worked:

One of the most active and fleet young men is selected and disguised in a robe of buffalo skin… he places himself at a distance between a herd of buffalo and a precipice proper for the purpose; the other Indians now surround the heard on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all show themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffalo; the disguised Indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently near the buffalo to be noticed by them when they take to flight and running before them they follow him in full speed to the precipice; the Indian (decoy) in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranny in the cliff…the part of the decoy I am informed is extremely dangerous. (Wednesday, May 29, 1805. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Volume 4) Gary E. Moulton, Editor.

I searched for additional bones but found nothing of significance. Neither did I find any flint or stone tools to indicate the presence of Archaic hunters. Caressing the aged horns, I beheld a story in bone and could only speculate as to the events that caused their deaths. Perhaps, at some point in the distant past, the baby buffalo and mother had stepped too close to the edge of the rock face. Being weak and made of sandstone, the edge had sheered away taking the mother and baby with it - interred for centuries under 8 feet of earth. The magnitude of my discovery touched me – an unread leaf from history, destined to disappear, perhaps forever with the next rain.


That night, sheltered under the protective arms of aged Cottonwoods, I dreamed of buffalo herds and feathered nomads racing across the undulating prairies. Awakened by the ambrosia of crackling, thick slabbed bacon, hobo biscuits, and steaming black coffee, the guide informed me that a petroglyph had been discovered imageup one of the nearby canyons. Intrigued and curious, just as the morning fog was lifting, I set off with the scant directions, “Follow the steam up through the canyon and look for a twisted juniper.” As usual, I missed a turn, crossed the stream too soon and ended up on the top of a ridge looking down into the valley. All was not lost though because I heard the tap, tap, tapping of a Pileated Woodpecker. The red-crowned head and black body were immediately visible against the weathered bark of the tree. After a few moments of observation as the illusive creature sought his morning meal and I was back on the trail.


Soon, the crooked Juniper came into view. At the base of the cliff, etched into gnarled sandstone was a horse and rider. Battered by bullets from insensitive despoilers, yet impervious to the ravages of time, the petroglyph held the power to mesmerize me… muted images from the past reaching through the portals of time to mentor the present. The image begged me to ask who and why questions, but, even in the field of archeology, some things are better accepted for their aesthetic value. Time is capricious, revealing secrets only to the tenacious. I didn’t have the time. Back at the camp, the canoes were being loaded with tents, food, and equipment. Schedules and itineraries beckoned, but not before one last look at the sullen Missouri, the majestic White Rock Cliffs, and the cotton ball clouds in the azure sky. My river odyssey was ended. I had received something natural and precious, and the memories of the adventure would last a lifetime.

Details:Our group of five launched from the small ghost town of Virgelle using the Missouri River Canoe Company. I stayed in a rustic but authentically furnished Sheepherder cabin. Other alternatives include the spacious Geiser Homestead with two rooms and three beds. I awakened with the crow of pheasants, and a splendid view of the prairie river valley complete with a small herd of Mule deer making their way over the skyline on the opposite side of the Missouri. The smell of frying Whole Hog sausage and Baked Stuffed French Toast with a honey, lemon, and ginger sauce complemented the dark Montana coffee. The owner, Don Sorensen, will make sure each guest receives a filling and satisfying breakfast before launch. The Virgelle Mercantile offers a variety of bed and breakfast options combined with canoe packages, all reasonably priced, and is the perfect place to spend the night before starting a trip through the Missouri Breaks by canoe (1-800-426-2926).

©Walter  Williams

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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