MEDICINE ROCKS STATE PARK — There is a double allure at this remote 330-acre park in the southeast corner of Montana.
One—the obvious one that would seem to comport with the traditional notion of a state park—has to do with the rocks themselves. They are beautiful and majestic, in some cases haunting, wind-sculpted spires of sandstone or great hulking blocks full of arches, tunnels, caves and deep pockmarks.
You can understand why Native Americans considered it a vision quest site, a place of “big medicine,” and you can understand why another visitor, Theodore Roosevelt, said it was “as fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.”
The other allure is somewhat more problematic. It raises questions similar to the one being debated in Billings and other cities: Is it art or is it graffiti?
At Medicine Rocks, the sandstone formations are covered with an estimated 15,000 inscriptions, from Native American petroglyphs that predate European contact to last week’s declaration of eternal love on the part of local teenagers.
Technically, carving anything on the rocks is prohibited, but Tom Shoush, a park ranger at Makoshika State Park in Glendive who puts in about 100 hours a year at Medicine Rocks, said he’d be happy if modern visitors would just be careful not to damage any earlier inscriptions.
“You simply can’t stop it, nor could you 100 years ago,” Shoush said.
Shoush and Tim Urbaniak both drew analogies with Pompeys Pillar, which became a National Monument because William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, carved his name there in 1806.
Urbaniak, a drafting and design instructor at MSU Billings’ City College, has done extensive research on historic inscriptions, including a complete survey at Medicine Rocks over the course of two summers.
He mentioned the Minnesotan who carved his and his wife’s name on the sandstone monument a few feet from Clark’s signature in 2013. The man was later identified and paid a $1,000 fine for misdemeanor vandalism and $3,400 in restitution.
“Define irony,” Urbaniak said. “Getting fined for carving your name on a place famous for being a place where someone carved his name?”
It is also worth noting, Urbaniak said, that Clark himself chose to carve his name over a Native American red ochre pictograph. For that matter, Urbaniak said, Indians themselves often created rock art on top of existing art.
“Would you call that vandalism?” he asked. “Would you call that territorial control? Would you call that cultural change?”
Urbaniak said the thousands of inscriptions at Medicine Rocks are a “continuous chronology” of visitors to the site and a record of the times in which people carved them. They help tell the story of pre-contact Indians, white explorers, early homesteaders, pioneers moving west and cattle ranchers.
Among the inscriptions are detailed depictions of people, animals and ships, cattle brands, Masonic symbols, peace signs, inspirational sayings, religious exhortations and no end of hearts, which Urbaniak called “the No. 1 symbol out there.”
I went to the park last week with Nathan Carroll, the dinosaur researcher featured Tuesday on Last Best News, and Kirsten Johnson, an MSU film graduate who was doing marketing work for the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka this summer. The park is 10 miles north of Ekalaka and 25 miles south of Baker on the west side of Highway 7.
It is classed as a primitive park, with 12 camping sites, picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets. For water, there is a hand pump just inside the entrance.
We got there after dark on a warm, clear night and awoke the next morning to the yipping of coyotes. The sun was still quite low on the horizon, bathing the sandstone hoodoos, as freestanding rock formations are called, in a beautiful golden light, mixed with shades of red and orange.
In three or four hours of traipsing around the park, we saw only one other person, in addition to a border collie posted outside a pickup, evidently waiting for the return of his human.
A park brochure explained how the formations were formed about 61 millions ago, when the area around Ekalaka would have been part of a swampy, forested region that sat on the margins of a great inland sea. Slow-moving rivers full of silt flowed through these marshlands, and some of the sediment was deposited as sand bars.
Over eons, the sediment was compacted under great pressure, eventually turning to sandstone. Then, over millions of years, erosion carried off the less-resistant materials, leaving the relatively solid sandstone standing on the prairie, where some of them now tower 80 feet above the ground.
The caves, pockmarks and arches were carved by wind, water and temperature fluctuations. Carroll also pointed out that some of the cavities in the rock were formed by ancient trees that were buried in the sand, remained embedded in the hardened sandstone and later rotted away when the sandstone was exposed to the elements.
The sandstone formations, with their endless variations and phantasmagorical shapes, are a wonder to behold. I only wish I could have been, oh, say, 50 years younger, in which case I could have spent several days climbing all over those rocks. Beware though: signs plead with visitors not to let their clambering, or even the oils on their hands, degrade the inscriptions.
Since I was not 50 years younger, I spent the majority of my time gawking at the thousands of inscriptions. Urbaniak said his favorite was a big sailing ship, and his directions were so good that we found it within minutes of parking our vehicle at the northwesternmost corner of the road that loops through the park. The ship was, according to an accompanying inscription, carved by a Henry Jensen in 1929.
Probably the most famous carving at Medicine Rocks is a portrait of a lady, seen in profile, being presented with a flower by a bird. It apparently was carved an Irish sheepherder in honor of his lost love. Carroll, a native of Ekalaka, said the same gentleman supposedly carved several additional likenesses of the woman in other parts of Carter County.
The carving is impressive, and it was much bigger than I had assumed after seeing photos of it in the past. I thought it was maybe fist-sized, but it is closer to two feet high and nearly that wide.
Another notable inscription is a finely detailed, elaborate tribute, apparently to a soldier killed in Vietnam, complete with a decorative arch. Urbaniak said he was intrigued by that one, too, but he knows nothing more about it.
In addition to the sailing ship, Urbaniak said there is a carving of a Louisiana shrimp boat, but that one, alas, we did not see. And among all those thousands of inscriptions, he said, there are probably 20 to 30 petroglyphs carved by pre-contact Native Americans.
I saw two of them, both so faint that if Carroll hadn’t known where they were I’m sure I would have missed them. One was a depiction of an elk and the other was a stick figure of a human with a V-neck, just barely visible at the top of the carving.
In his years of studying inscriptions, Urbaniak said, he has come to see patterns in what human beings do. The first impulse is simply a statement of existence: “I exist. I was here. I was here at this time.”
Then there is the urge to supply some background, such as a hometown, or perhaps a home country. And then inscriptions broaden out to include associations, which is why there are many military references, cattle brands, Boy Scout symbols and the like.
Urbaniak, whose project to record every inscription at Medicine Rocks was part of his work toward a doctorate from the University of Montana, said all of the images recorded at the site will be put into a database at Montana State Parks. People will be able to sit at their computers and view every inscription from multiple angles.
“We have assembled the database. We just haven’t posted it yet,” Urbaniak said, and he wasn’t sure when it will be available to the public.
It will be fascinating to view the inscriptions online, no doubt, but everyone in Montana, and everyone with an interest in Montana, really ought to visit Medicine Rocks State Park at least once.