Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

There's a Mastadon Following Us

Well, we missed the missile site, which was a shame, because I'd looked forward to a brief moment of contemplating the Cold War that had millions of 1950s schoolchildren cowering under their desks. But it was cold and rainy this morning, with ominous storm clouds spreading over South Dakota's enormous sky. We at fistfuls of Cheerios in our dreary motel room and scrambled into our clothes for an early start.

A light rain was falling as we drove into the Badlands. Benny hopped around on the Door Trail while I stood on the platform with my umbrella. Tour buses disgorged dozens of shivering tourists in shorts. A lovely family with three children tripped by, all dressed in shiny raincoats, rain hats and boots. I looked at my flip flops and Benny's wet t-shirt and ball cap and sighed.

We drove through a downpour to Rapid City and dashed into an Applebee's for lunch. Benny laid out his new plastic cowboys, Indians and Wild West animals (which included a buffalo and a giant meerkat). Ron studied the map and I ate a giant bowl of pasta. We decided to check out the nearby Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "World-Renowed!" the web site claimed, sounding like an 1880 Town billboard. But it promised to be dry, anyway.

Well, the museum was superb. It highlighted fossils in South Dakota and Wyoming: Oligocene mammals, giant marine reptiles, Jurassic dinosaurs. Benny was immediately taken by a giant Mastadon skull hanging 13 feet above the floor. We admired the skeleton of a 29-foot mosasaur, a reptile which swam in the shallow inland sea that covered much of North America. Back in the Badlands visitors center, we'd seen a lovely tableau of a big piglike animal ripping flesh off a little rhinoceros stuck in the mud while a small three-toed horse snuck away. Here in the museum we saw the bones of those three animals.

At the gift shop, Benny scored a toy mastadon and a sabre-toothed cat to threaten his plastic Indians and cowboys. I bought a copy of "Roadside Geology of Montana" and the woman behind the counter didn't look at me strangely at all. But then, she was wearing a T-shirt that said "Sedimentary, My Dear Watson."

We emerged from the museum and lo, the sun shone brightly. We dashed to Mt. Rushmore, which I hadn't seen since Ron and I drove a moving truck from Kalamazoo, Mich., to San Francisco in 1999, right after we returned from Prague. Benny clutched his mastadon while we hiked around the monument.

The four presidents are carved into the Harney Peak granite batholith, a huge expanse of continental rock that cooled underground, like the Sierra Nevada batholith in California. Mt. Rushmore's granite cuts across older schist, which was originally mud and dirty sand on an ancient sea bottom. You can see the color change below Washington where the white granite overlies the gray schist.

Then it was time to race the rain to Wyoming. There were the Rockies ahead, blue and distant, their swirling snowpacks blending with the overhanging clouds. We spent the night in Gillette, Wyo., and prepared to enter Montana the next day.

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