Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.
While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.
Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.
In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.
We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…
until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.
We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,
it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.
The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.
A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.
While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.
Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.
Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.
These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.
While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.
After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.