Plains Folk

Selenite Sam


Somebody ought to be in charge of reviewing this sort of thing. What I mean is, we were driving along Highway 8 south of Cherokee, Oklahoma, and there was this huge billboard. On the left side appeared a figure bearing a remarkable resemblance to Yosemite Sam of Looney Toons, only the billboard indicated this figure was Selenite Sam, and he was inviting us to turn off into the selenite crystal digging area of Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.

The truth is, we had come to these parts to dig selenite crystals, but how many times have you cringed when you saw well-intentioned, ill-advised advertising for some attraction on the prairies? Wall Drug and the associated goofy attractions around the Black Hills of South Dakota get by with this by becoming caricatures of themselves. You can’t make fun of Wall Drug, because being absurd is what the place is about. But the other day, driving into Grassy Butte, North Dakota, I was a little embarrassed by the hokey billboard hillbilly beckoning me to the old post office. And I often feel like I need to apologize for my whole native state of Kansas on account of all the cheesy capitalization on Dorothy and Oz.

There are real things behind some of these promotions, through, and the selenite crystal thing at the Great Salt Plains is one of them. The Great Salt Plains, in northern Oklahoma, are a serious historic site, on account of their association with the explorer, George C. Sibley. Sibley, the government trader to the Osage Indians, came out in 1811 in search of the mountain of salt that President Jefferson had told Congress existed somewhere in the Louisiana Territory.

It turns out Sibley actually found Jefferson’s Salt Mountain, but I’ll get around to that in another column. En route there, he called in at the Great Salt Plains, along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River.

It is worth noting that when we say some explorer “discovered” one thing or another, like Sibley discovering the Salt Plains, what we mean is that he was the first white guy to get there and make a report. The saline areas of the central plains were, in fact, well known to Indians such as the Osage, who guided Sibley there. Many tribes came there, not just because they wanted to gather salt, but also because the salt attracted bison and mustangs. The salt plains were a place of danger, though, because they lay in the heart of Comanche country.

Sibley found the plains encrusted with crystalline salt, but he did not dig beneath the surface. If he had, he would have found crystalline gypsum, or selenite. That’s what we did this summer, in the middle of the great southern plains heat wave of 2011. We got a whole bag of the clear, rectangular crystals with 90-degree points on each end and red hour-glass formations embedded inside them. Not rare stones, but nice mementoes, with a sense of place to them. You can’t find these anywhere else but under the Great Salt Plains.

You can drive right onto the salt plains, just like Sibley galloped out horseback with the Osage, only now you have to stay on a designated track. Once on the scene you get really hot, and muddy, and salty, and sunburned, but it’s easy to pick up a load of crystals. Crystal-digging on the salt plains is such a great family outing, I’m surprised this place isn’t well-known up and down the plains. But then, that’s the way with so many prairie places—we’re still exploring these Great Plains.

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