In which I almost blow completely off the face of the earth.
The wind was howling this morning. Quite literally howling as it swept around the building loudly enough to wake me up.
But it was sunny and also well over 70 at eight in the morning, and I had the other half of a national park to visit, so I ate my breakfast bar and packed up my luggage, and headed west again.
Belfield is only about a dozen miles east of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, which abuts the freeway for about a dozen miles on its southern edge. Coming from the east, the first stop in the park is actually a combination rest area/visitor center/viewpoint at a place called Painted Canyon. The name fits, I must say. And I was grateful for the big plate glass windows in the visitor center that overlooked it, allowing me to enjoy it without getting blown off the edge of the canyon and hurled to the bottom of it. I asked the young man staffing the desk what the weather forecast was for the rest of the day, and he said, oh, it’s supposed to get windier later. Might even get up to 60 mph sustained. And the temp’s supposed to go up over 90. He smiled. I did not.
But it was my one day to go enjoy what the South Unit had to show me, so I got back on the freeway and drove the few miles to the town of Medora, and the main entrance to the park.
Medora, North Dakota, is to TRNP’s south unit what Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is to the Great Smokies. Not just an adjunct to the park, but sort of a theme park in its own right. I would check it out later, though, and I headed immediately to TRNP’s main entrance, which is rather oddly situated right in town. I showed my parks pass, acquired my brochures, and drove up and over the interstate, which actually passes through the southern edge of the park for a few miles, into the park proper. I don’t know if the highway came first or the park did, but TR is the only national park I know of with part of a freeway running through it. It’s much less intrusive than I’d have thought such a thing to be, though, perhaps because this southwestern corner of North Dakota is such an isolated place to begin with.
The park’s main access is via a thirty-odd mile loop road, winding up and down and around from the edge of the bluffs to down in the bottom of the valley and back several times in its course. I drove slowly, enjoying the badlands views. I stopped at a prairie dog town and watched the noisy antics of the whack-a-dog game they seemed to be playing with invisible hammers. I had forgotten what a racket prairie dogs can make. You know how some people put their fingers in their mouths to create a piercing whistle? That’s about how loud prairie dogs are.
I saw more beautiful views than you can shake a stick at, and walked a couple of nature trails, one of them to the top of a hill with a magnificent vista. The only problem was trying to take photos of it while the wind was blowing hard enough that I could not hold the camera still. I literally had my feet planted at least two feet apart and was leaning forward at about 10 degrees off plumb just to stay upright. But it was worth it, and down in the canyon the wind wasn’t bad at all.
And it wasn’t 90 degrees quite yet.
I was about halfway around the loop before I saw my first bison, a lone male lying under an overhanging ledge out of the wind. Smart critter. I passed another one soon after, but I was beginning to wonder if I was going to see the main herd at all. At last I came around a corner to see a number of mama bison and their babies, grazing peacefully while the wind whipped around them.
They were sharing their meadow with more prairie dogs, too. That was nifty.
I had been planning to spend the night at TRNP, in what would have been a nice campground in better weather, but I changed my mind and drove back down to Medora, first stopping at the visitor center on my way out. My main reason was to see Theodore Roosevelt’s first ranch cabin when he came out to North Dakota as a young man (in his mid-20s, actually) after the horrible experience of losing both his mother and his young wife on the same day back in 1884. The cabin has been moved around the U.S. several times over the years, but has come back and it now sits directly behind the visitor center. A ranger took several of us on a tour of the three-room cabin and talked mostly about the differences between it and more typical cabins of the place and era (for starters, most cabins then and there were one-room affairs, and did not have bookcases in them).
It was by then well past lunchtime, and I ended up in Old West Medora looking for somewhere to eat. Medora may be a tourist town, but on this hot, windy June Tuesday, the tourists had pretty much forsaken it. I did finally find a hamburger stand, and then poked through a few of the shops before deciding to head on west.
I drove, fighting the wind which kept trying to yank the steering wheel out of my hands every foot of the way, across eastern Montana, where the only real amusements were some of the exit signs. I got as far as Miles City, Montana, where it was 99 degrees according to a bank sign and the local news said there’d been 70+ mph wind gusts. I holed up in a second-story room in the air conditioning in a Motel 6 and spent most of the night waiting for the power to go out or the roof to get blown off.
Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures