When I was a kid, the arrival of our cousins was a festive occasion. We lived eight miles out of town, and we tended to spend our time focussed close to our own farm. But when cousins came, anything was possible. We might go hunting, climb a mountain, visit the creek bottom, or shoot off illegal fireworks. If the uncle who was a Seattle detective was visiting, we might get to shoot his handguns into the clay banks at the top of our road.
There was one time when some cousins arrived that we decided to take a hike, to visit the coulees at the top of the hill where water (a magical thing in the desert) poured forth to form a stream that wound through the eastern end of our farm. These coulees were Mystery; they were Natural Wonder. Here you could sit and count layer after layer of clay deposited in some ancient lake or flood. There was even a layer of cobbles a few feet down from the top: remnants of an Ice Age flood that scoured Eastern Washington clean of prehistoric fossils.
On the hike we took that afternoon, we found a curious round stone protruding from the soil. Cousins crowded in on the discovery, and we began the excavation with something less than scientific precision. Soon it was clear that there was a skull emerging from the soil. Somebody was sent off to alert the parents, and within a half an hour my father had arrived.
The site lay beside the Milwaukee Road tracks. My father, inspecting the discovery, determined that somebody’s cow had strayed in front of a train, and the evidence had been buried. He never let on that the cow in question might well have been his own.
In this same coulee, sometime in the 1950s, my father had helped a scientist from Central Washington State College unearth the remains of a camel. Ever since that time, my brothers and I had believed that there were curious Ice Age fossils to be exhumed at our leisure. We spent hours (well, it seemed like hours) inspecting the pebbles at the base of clay runnels, looking for fish vertebrae and other fossils. It amazed us to find fish vertebrae in the heat of an arid desert. What we didn’t realize is that everything we found was eviscerated: nothing was intact. Years later I discovered the hefty remains of a leg joint of a bison, broken off clean and petrified. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living on a graveyard.
Our home lay on the slope lying beneath a shoreline terrace of an ancient Ice Age lake. Not only that, but our home lay in the van of a mountain that opposed the rush of Ice Age floods. Those layers of silt and clay and cobbles had been deposited by successive floods during the Ice Age, a trivial bit of knowledge that a scientist named Bretz had proposed at the risk of ruining his career. We found chips of bone in our home yard, blackened vertebrae from fish or other unidentified animals, even chips off of the shells of turtles, on the hills behind our farm. My father praised J. Harlan Bretz…and we thought he might be somewhat deranged.
But since that time, I have often imagined what it must have been like for people–yes, people were here when it happened–to stand on top of Saddle Mountain and watch that devastating flood occur. The waters would have moved as fast as an automobile, preceded by a windstorm and the rumble of destruction. The valley would have quaked. The waters, dashing against the mountainside, would have excavated trenches at the base of the hillside, causing the mountain to collapse into the maelstrom. There would have been quakes, windstorms and destruction. Where high water left its mark, you would find dismembered animals–fish, mammals and reptiles—mingled in senseless repose. It was those remains we found in the clay runnels of the hillside above our farm.
So where did the camel come from? I don’t know. If the skeleton had any sort of cohesive structure, it must have wandered into the area to die well after the Ice Age flood. Bretz’s flood took place at the end of the Ice Age, when Glacial Lake Missoula spilled out in catastrophic torrents to trench the fertile plains of Eastern Washington. And it occurred time and time again, according to the latest Ice Age news.
The discovery of that “camel” that was actually a cow marked the beginning of intellectual challenge for me. I was so convinced that we had found something a scientist would be interested in! From that moment, the shape of the hills, the layers of clay and rubble, the ground out canyons and channels that baked in a relentless sun…all had a different meaning for me. I began to piece together the geological history of Eastern Washington and to look for evidence to support that paradigm. So far, nothing else has seemed so likely as the floods Harlan Bretz first theorized.