For an illustrated version, see The EnvironMentor vol 7 no 5 pp 17-18

A Pecos Bill Tall Tale

You probably know that Pecos Bill was a cowboy. Did you know that he settled down on a ranch near Fairview OK, back in the days soon after statehood?

Bill loved his cattle and horses, and he did all his own veterinary doctoring. Whenever an animal got hurt or sick, he fixed them right up. He loved wild critters too. Whenever he found a broken-wing bird or a jackrabbit with an ear torn on that new-fangled barb wire, he took them in and nursed them along until they were fit to go free and wild again.

One hot day in late spring, he was riding out near the Glass Mountains looking for a stray calf. A little wind was blowing, and he watched while a dust devil spun and spun itself into a whirlwind zig-zagging playful as a pup over the prairie. He saw it was growing into a baby tornado. It ripped leaves off of trees, it tore shingles off an old shack, and then as he watched, that fool young tornado flung herself against one of the Glass Mountains! She crashed and fell onto the glittering shards of gypsum at the foot of the mesa.

Well of course he felt sorry for her. He lifted that limp and exhausted windbag onto the horse's rump and took her home to one of his corrals.

All the rest of the summer he took care of her. He used an old telegraph pole for a splint. Fed her on tree branches and old barn doors until she was feeling fit and lively again. He even taught her to talk. You can do that, if you catch them young enough...

At last the day came: the geese were flying south. “My dear,” he said, “I think it's time for you to be on your way and rejoin your herd... flock... whatever.”

She objected, “But I can't leave until I've laid my eggs! My babies will need a nice sandy spot to hatch out next spring. Do you know of a place like that around here?”

Now Bill knew that this foolish young tornado had been by herself all summer. But then he thought of his hens, who laid their daily egg whether he had a rooster or not. 

He thought. “I know just the place: the Great Salt Plains about 20 miles north of here. Sand for miles.”

So they headed north, he on horseback, she flitting eagerly overhead. Then he watched as she zig-zagged over that huge flat valley, piercing the white salt crust with the tip of her ovipositor dozens, hundreds of times. “Ain't nature wonderful?” he mused.

When she finished, she blew him a kiss – nearly tore his hat off – and headed south for the winter. He never saw her again.

But he worried about those eggs. The next spring and summer he returned to the Salt Plains whenever he could, but he never saw so much as a little dust devil. “Just as I thought,” he said, “those eggs couldn't have been fertile.” Finally, out of curiousity, he brought a shovel and dug down through the salt crust into the damp sand. And that's where he found the crystals.

They were flat rectangles, clear as glass but each one marked with a redbrown X pattern that some folks might call an hourglass, but Pecos Bill knew it was really twin tornadoes joined at the tip. Minerals must have replaced the shell and contents of that tornado's eggs, the way minerals replace dinosaur bones in a fossil.

So now you know how the Great Salt Plains got its famous crystals, which are found nowhere else in the world. Thanks to Pecos Bill.



Gypsum (CaSO4·2H2O) forms selenite crystals in other parts of the world, but only in Oklahoma's Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge can you find “Hourglass Selenite” with red clay inclusions shaped like mirrored tornadoes. They were designated Oklahoma's State Crystal in 2005.

This area was once a shallow sea into which the eroding Rocky Mountains drained for millions of years. As the land lifted and the seawater dried up, salts and minerals concentrated in the sandy bottom. Winter rains redissolve the minerals but as the sandy flats dry out, the crystals regrow in the sand while a fresh crust of white salt forms on top.

From April 1 to October 15, we can drive out onto marked areas of the salt flats and dig for these unique crystals. Dig gently by hand: they are fragile. And be careful, their edges are sharp enough to cut you! Because they are constantly reforming, we may each take up to ten pounds of crystals. But they may not be bought or sold.

Also, we must carefully stay within the designated areas so as not to disturb the nesting sites of many kinds of birds. Remember, this is a wildlife refuge. It's nice to know that our digging helps to feed the birds: brine flies breed in the water-filled holes we leave behind. And some birds nest on the dirt mounds of previous digging sites.


STORY source: I invented this story to add interest to the selenite crystals I took to Japan last November, as gifts for my storytelling colleagues there. The crystals were perfect as unique items from Oklahoma, but I worried that their sandy red clay appearance might not appeal to my fastidious Japanese friends. However they loved the “tornado egg” story, and were reassured that these fossilized eggs would never hatch in their homes.

FACT sources