We sit in the car trying to decide whether to drive up the driveway to the house, or to walk. Our indecision is based on the cold wind picking up and the cold rain falling down. Nasty, unpleasant. We wait. We stop waiting. We walk up the driveway.
Richardson ground squirrels are everywhere around here. They favor short grass prairies, exactly the environment that surrounds us here at the highest point of North Dakota. I understand these little Sciuridae are pets of growing popularity.
Richardson ground squirrels are also known as the flickertail. Why are they called flickertails? Just watch for a moment and you’ll see the frenetic tail. It’s… flickering. The squirrel holds perfectly still for a moment and then it will jump, or step, and as it does, the tail goes crazy. We could call them Jerk squirrels.
North Dakota is known as the Flickertail State. Much better than the Jerk State.
Once home, perhaps in honor of the flickertail, or as a reminder of the great Highpoint vacation trip just taken, a couple of gray squirrels in my back yard stand on the wooden fence and — how about this! — they flick their tails. They never do that in my yard. Three flicks at most, but now, these guys are unrestrained, out of control. Squirrel holiday.
And speaking about squirrels, the neighborhood next over from me was first inhabited by Native Americans. They had been here for a very long time. If you want to get to this neighborhood, you would inevitably be gaining altitude. The area, a hill, was good as a hunting ground, rich in game. Among the wildlife was a great multitude of gray squirrels.
When the area was first discovered by the white people, a surveyor reported back to his benefactor in England, “This is a wonderful area, rich in natural beauty and resources. Good farmland abounds and the hill is covered with oak and hickory trees. Alas,” — I am making up the wording here — “Alas, this place, this hill of squirrels, is so overrun with the little rodents that I doubt a stable settlement could be made.” They named the area Squirrel Hill.
Why go up to the house here in White Butte? We’re on private land, one of nine state highpoints that is privately owned. For fifty points, name five of them For fifty more points each, name the rest of them. The list is at the end of this column.
But why go up the drive to the house? Being on private land, it would only be civil and respectful for us to ask permission of the owner before we begin our traipsing. The owners are Angeline and Joe van Daele. The problem with this plan is that Angeline is dead, and so is Joe. And they’re not the owners any more.
When Angeline died, the property was deeded to her three adult kids. Probate court got involved. Eventually Daryle and Mary Dennis were able to buy the property. Ms van Daele used to ask for donations of five to twenty dollars to land foot on her property, to climb the highest point. I don’t know what the Dennis’s are doing.
The driveway is a thousand feet long so we have time to examine the buildings and farm machinery along the way. The structures look empty, with rips and holes in the walls. The machinery is rusted, unused, abandoned. We face the decrepitude, the overgrown weeds, the idle, open doors to the house, the general emptiness. Lisa is getting a bit creeped out here. I’m a little concerned too. We prepare for the unexpected, however one does that.
From my research, I learned that the former owner, Angeline van Daele, might have been a full goose Bozo lunatic. We are unable to verify because, as I’ve said, she is dead.
“Hello? Hello? Who’s here, anyone?”
No answer. We don’t want anyone to answer. Okay, good enough. Let’s go. We tried.
Back to the road crossing where we sat in the car. This is trailhead. No van Daeles, no Dennis’s. No sign of life.
James MacPherson of the Associated Press interviewed Ms van Daele, actually ten days before she died in 2003. I doubt he knew she would die within the next week and a half and she probably didn’t die of the interview; the timing was fortuitous. Anyway as I’ve said, a visitor should exhibit respect. Concerning the van Daele property, this means, for example, don’t leave the gates open because cows might just mosey on through. “It amazes me how people know how to open gates, but they don’t know how to shut them,” van Daele said in her interview.
MacPherson reported that “Mrs. van Daele admits she gets a rise out of hassling Highpointers — but she also grudgingly admits she likes the company and relishes showing visitors logbooks of people who have climbed the butte. She says she has met people from all 50 states and several foreign countries.”
Along with her husband Joe, Mrs van Daele watched through their large picture window as hikers and Highpointers moved on toward the summit. Her other interests, she said, included watching television, drinking and chain smoking. When she was in a good mood, she would, “…just sit around here, waiting for these dumb people to show up. There’s not much else to do around here.”
Supposedly, Mrs van Daele would laugh any time she saw a rattlesnake.
Don Holmes, at the time of the interview, was president of the Highpointers Club. He called Ms van Daele a “character.” He quantified her eccentricity, “She’s the tough one, not the rattlesnakes.”
Things to watch out for when hiking White Butte. First, it’s wide open rangeland, so be careful of the intense sun. Second, the abandoned house may not be abandoned. Maybe the ghost of Angeline van Daele is watching you through the picture window, laughing at you. And third, this area is crawling, or slithering, with rattlesnakes. Way above average numbers. More than you can shake a stick at, if that’s your dumb idea of a good time.
Rattlesnakes. Specifically the prairie rattlesnake. White Butte is famous for the astonishing number of rattlesnakes who live here. Teddy Roosevelt had a quote about rattlesnakes but it’s kind of boring, so instead, I offer this philosophy from Lance Morrow…
A rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of animal rights.
That master W C Fields had just the right perspective…
I always keep a supply of stimulant handy in case I see a snake, which I also keep handy.