Stones

My uncle used to take us out to an area in the badlands to rock-hound. He told us a lot of stories as we walked over that parched land and I suspect several were tall tales.

For example, he supposedly was one of the few who knew the location of a young girl buried in a dress woven with gold threads.

He was also known for practical jokes like collecting the round, prickly seed pods of a native plant, putting them in a pickle jar, and selling them to tourists at the local bar for a dollar, saying they were porcupine eggs.

The thing was though, he knew that land intimately. It wouldn’t be long before he’d disappear into the hills, leaving us behind to worry. What if he didn’t come back? What if he had a heart attack? After all, he was old and fat. What if he slipped and broke a leg? 

We never worried about him getting lost. 

We came from a temperate rain forest of thick and lush understory, shaded forests, ferns and salmonberry and salal. In his land we learned to recognize sage and yucca and tiny wild ground roses. We learned to watch for rattlesnakes and to not stick our little hands into intriguing holes in the ground. We learned to watch the weather out of respect for flash flooding through the washes we walked.

We came home with pockets heavy with treasure. Dark, mysteriously textured rocks that he told us were fossilized digested stomach material from dinosaurs. Sometimes those rocks became fossilized dinosaur poop. I still don’t know what those are.

Best of all was when we came home with sand marbles because those were truly a mystery.

Sand marbles are perfectly round, depending on how they have weathered. Most have a seam around them that you can break the marble open along. Inside is a small replica of the outer marble that lifts out. Someone once told me these were iron geodes but that didn’t explain that inner marble. 

My uncle said he took the marbles to a geologist one time and tests revealed a miniscule fossilized insect at the center of the inner marble. But that didn’t explain the formation of the outer marble or the seam. 

I’ve never found out what they actually are, even though I belong to a rock hound group. And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know. We should all have a little mystery in our lives.

When our son decided he wanted to be an archaeologist (age about five) he was given a paintbrush and followed my uncle into the badlands for his first ‘excavation’. He found a petrified lower jaw of a buffalo with the teeth still intact. 

That barren land was rich in stories and magic.

My family still looks for rocks; whether it’s seeking agates at the ocean, or just pretty stones that catch our eye when out walking. Our windowsills are lined with agates that glow when the sun shines through them. 

The last time I went into the badlands with my uncle I followed him as he sweated and huffed and puffed his way into the hills, picking up treasures with his three-fingered hand. I worried about his age and his weight. I worried when he did his usual disappearing act, going off alone. And as always I was profoundly relieved when we finally saw his silhouette high above us against the skyline, returning to us.

He always returned.

Until a week ago when COVID-19 took him. 

Inherited Memories

Do you ever wonder if the story you remember actually belongs to you, or if you’ve taken someone else’s history and made it your own?

I’m not talking about déjà vu.

I’m talking about northeastern Montana.

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My family homesteaded there. They’ve been populating those little towns for generations. Busily populating, mind you. They’re a prolific lot. It’s where my first father grew up and where we visited often, and where we still return. My youngest sister moved back there, I think to have that connection to our history and our family. Although things rarely turn out like we hope.

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The annual excursions involved an uncle taking us to the badlands. They spread across Bureau of Land Management country, private rangeland, and the Sioux reservation. You can see amazing wind-sculpted sandstone, countryside cut deeply by weather, and wild, unforgiving places where you can easily disappear. You can find agates and fossilized wood, dinosaur bones and fossils. It’s in the same area as the famous archaeological digs around Fort Peck. It’s a land that bares its age to the elements.

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On the way, we always stopped at this tiny store to stock up on water and soda for the uncle. Almost seventy years ago an eighteen-year-old boy died there, shot in a robbery. He was my uncle’s friend. Every time we walk in that store I wonder if my uncle sees the boy there.

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Every time we walk in that store I look for the boy because the story has become mine. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. My uncle tells it every time we drive that highway. I’ve absorbed the words into the sense of place so that it is tied up with heat and dry washes and old bones.

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Is the story true? Did it really happen? I have no idea. But it’s real.

Anyone who has spent time on this blog knows I’m a mountain and forest woman. I need rain and green and high mountains and the standing nation of tall trees.

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Badlands and ghosts of trees

But when I’m in that corner of Montana, it feels like home. It sinks into my much-younger bones. It feels like family and history, like my place in the universe. Even though I long for the whitewater rivers and high canyons when back there, the place still sings to my soul.

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Is it because so many generations of place created my DNA? Is it because I’ve breathed in all those stories until I believe them? Is it simply the memories of many visits running together over years?

I don’t know. Maybe stories can’t be separated from your past, or the past of those who tell them.

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