Me and Mummy Joe
Only a few minutes after you leave the East Entrance of Yellowstone, on the way to Cody, if you pay attention, you’ll see a big cave there on the left. Its mouth is 150-feet wide and looks like a giant opera singer yawning in the side of the mountain. The beautiful North Fork of the Shoshoni River splashes the opposite side of the road right there.
The cave didn’t have a name when I first knew it but it always made a strong impression on me, and it was a favorite lunchtime respite for my family when we were headed to Texas after a summer in Yellowstone.
And of course I usually climbed into the cave and sat on a rock in the back to eat Fritos and drink my Dr. Pepper. That was in the 1930s and 40s.
Twenty-five years later I became friends with two of the men who excavated the cave. They were Bobby Edgar and George Dabich. For two years in the middle 60s they carefully moved rocks, shoveled dirt, screened for artifacts, compiled data, and helped uncover Mummy Joe.
And the cave finally had a name.
Once, when George and I were having dinner at the Erma in Cody, he spoke of watching an archaeologist uncover an Angostura point that was 28-feet below the cave’s surface. The weapon had been flaked to kill an ancient species of bison and had not seen daylight for almost 9,000 years.
George also talked about the artifacts he uncovered: stone choppers, hammers and grinders, projectile points, cordage, fragments of tanned sheepskin, arrow shafts, basketry, rabbit nets, and more than 2,000 leftover animal bones that had been discarded by the ancient dwellers.
In 1967 I received a gift from George. It was a 5-inch long knife he’d carved from a mountain sheep bone that came from layer #3. He said it carbon-14 dated to about 682 AD.
George’s tales were colorful and compelling. He spoke of what it was like living in the cave 1200 years ago when Mummy Joe died, and of the trail weary hunters who returned from a hunt dragging elk hides full of meat that would sustain their clans through the freezing-cold winters. I was fascinated by the stories.
After midnight, with George’s words fresh on my mind, I drove to Mummy Cave. The night was so black that the snow-covered ground offered little moderation. With a small light as my only companion I climbed up and in, and sat on my rock against the back wall. In the lonely silence nothing was moving but the wind that whispered its way through the trees, down the river, and past the cave.
As I sat in the eerie quietness I could feel the austere grandeur of my surroundings. Who were these ancient people who called this sheltered place home? Over the last few thousand years several hundred nature-toughened Indians had rested their butts on the very rock upon which I sat. I just knew it. Can you imagine how that made me feel?
Today my thoughts sometimes harken back to Mummy Joe, who was wrapped in sheepskins so long ago, and buried deep in the dirt. What would I have thought when I was a kid, sitting on my rock, knowing that Joe was just a few feet away. Are there any among you who are as intrigued by America’s ancient past as I am? Tell me.