A dear friend of ours from the Twin Cities visited us this weekend. She was on her way to Seattle via the Amtrak legend The Empire Builder. Because she’s never seen this part of the world Carjo insisted we make the trip to “The Badlands”.
The term badlands in North Dakota means a couple things. It could be the rough country of the Killdeer Mountains or it could be the ragged beauty of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. For my wife, it only means the later. It’s just under a couple hours for us to reach the North Unit of TR and another hour n’ change to get to the South Unit. So we got a late start. We reached the dramatic drop that signals the beginning of the North Unit early in the afternoon.
Our friend had seen a few photos of this area before but nothing prepares you for the first time you see it in person: the breath-taking valley of the Little Missouri, the clash of the red scoria against the stripes of sandstone and coal, the twisted pillars and stumps from the erosion of wind and water, and of course wildlife everywhere. There are vast complexes of prairie dog towns, reclusive mule deer, wild mustangs, and the mighty bison.
We saw our first bison at the park entrance where one was taking the sun just behind the ranger station. The ranger said, “stay at least 100 yards away”. Well for crying out loud, the damn thing was only twenty feet from the station’s propane tank and maybe thirty yards from the parking lot. Our friend took photos and we peed the dogs who sniffed at the creature’s deep tracks. We saw a couple more driving into the North Unit to the old CCC overlook and then we drove to Medora and the South Unit.
The old cow town/tourist trap extraordinaire of Medora was mostly closed. Most businesses wouldn’t open until around Memorial Day weekend. I recalled an epic climb I had made of the big bluffs behind the Badlands motel when I was a teenager. It was a foolish and risky exercise but I made it to the top. The memory of that triumph gave me a new goal. We grabbed a late lunch/beer/cider at Boots saloon and drove into the South Unit of the Park.
We encountered a lot more bison, slowly walking through the prairie dog towns, rolling in the dust, or just crossing the narrow highway. They are truly magnificent to behold in the wild. They trot up steep banks without hesitation and roam wherever their whim takes them. Or just hanging out at scenic overlook, scratching off that thick winter coat on a trash can.
Eventually we got to Wind Canyon. The canyon is short and narrow, taking a short and twisted run directly to the Little Missouri. I hiked up it many many years ago when I was a limber fool and the tortured erosion of the interior is a marvel to behold. But Sunday the canyon gave me a different task. You can take a short hike that leads you to a peak over the Little Missouri valley. I’ve taken it several times but those were back in the days before I had a broken ankle and an old man’s sense of balance. I’ve come a long way since the ankle episode and it was time for a test of my stability/endurance. So while Carjo sat back with the dogs, me and our friend followed the trail up. There are wide steps at a couple points on the trail which for me are almost worse than just walking on rough ground and there were places were I had to struggle for balance. The descent was almost worse than the ascent. But we did it.
Six years ago I would have made that little climb without an issue. Two years ago it would have been impossible. One Sunday it was a struggle at times and the ascent made me a little winded but dammit, I made it. The photo at the top of this post is the view we were rewarded with. As you can see, it was pretty much worth the exertion.
So this summer I will continue to push myself. I don’t know how far I’ll get, how close I can get back to some semblance of my prime. But Sunday was encouraging and that’s all I need. So thanks to our friend for visiting us and thanks to the badlands for pushing me in a much-needed direction. I shall return.