Monday, April 5, 2021

Solastalgia: The Drought of 2021 in North Dakota

Smoke from the Horse Creek/North Unit Fire, Easter 2021, as seen above the Killdeer Mountains from Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge (by Lillian Crook)

Here in North Dakota in the spring of 2021, the headlines about the pandemic are being pushed aside by the daily news of the extreme drought and prairie fires. All of us search the forecast in hopes of rain, knowing the damage this is causing to the people, the critters, and the landscape we love. All of us search for any hint of green in the brown and dusty expanse. All of us are weary of the wind blowing nearly every day and the dust storms. 

I have vivid memories of past droughts including the Drought of 1988. I also spend time each day with my mother who was born and raised on a Slope County ranch during the Dirty Thirties. She tells me of the tumbleweeds, of the grasshoppers scratching on the window screens in the night, and of the cattle that had to be shot. Mother also tells how my Grandma would instruct her that if they were separated due to a prairie fire, they should meet at the Yellowstone Trail sign west of our place. Last summer, when we were locked out of her nursing home, I would relish the mornings when I could call her and say, “Mother, it rained last night” and hear the relief in her voice. Sadly, those mornings were few and far between. 

My husband, Jim, loves to tell the story about Gov. Art Link and the Drought of 1976. There was a big fire in Slope County that autumn, near Davis Dam, north of our Slope County ranch. I remember being on the school bus driving home from a basketball game, turning the corner east of Amidon, and seeing the smoke. We boisterous teenagers packing the bus went silent. Back at home, it was all hands on deck, and, in our farmhouse kitchen, we prepared hundreds of sandwiches which I delivered to the Davis Ranch, the fire operation headquarters (a teenager, I was thrilled to get any chance to drive on my own – to not mention the opportunity to be in the center of the action). During a tight campaign for his re-election, Link was forced to announce that the hunting season would be closed that year because of the extreme fire conditions and the Slope County fire. Then, just a few days before the election, the sky opened up and it rained! The downpour put out the Davis Dam fire, Link announced that the deer season would open on schedule – and he was re-elected. 

Now we will forever remember the 2021 Good Friday and April Fool’s Day fire that burned thousands of acres of parched grasslands southwest of Medora, forced the evacuation of the village, threatened the national park, and scorched right up to the concrete portions of the Burning Hills Amphitheater, giving new meaning to “burning hills.” We bore witness to the fire as we drove through the TRNP South Unit, viewing the still-burning junipers (explosive torches in these conditions) from the park’s vistas. From our Easter weekend’s lodging near the Elkhorn Ranch, we stayed up late for star-gazing and followed updates on the fire closely. 

We awoke Saturday morning to meadowlark song and found joy in the knowledge that the migrants had arrived in the night. Fording the low Little Missouri River, we hiked to TR’s Elkhorn Ranch site, where the buffalo-grass crunched underfoot. Our eyes were eager to spot any hint of green and we searched in vain for crocuses. A pop of cobalt revealed the arrival of mountain bluebirds. 

The interpretive sign at the trailhead best captures something so true to my life. 

"While my interest in natural history has added very little to the sum of my achievement, it has added immeasurably to the sum of my enjoyment in life." Theodore Roosevelt 

Lillian, Jim, Christine Hogan and Larry Dopson, Elkhorn Ranch hike, Easter 2021 (by Lillian Crook)

By Saturday evening, the Medora fire was mostly contained, but a new one had sprung up in the Little Missouri National Grassland’s area north of TRNP’s North Unit known as Horse Pasture, threatening the park’s Visitor Center and housing. On our trip home, we visited Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge, near Dunn Center and from there we could see the smoke to the west billowing above the Killdeer Mountains. This is rugged country and the responders must be very weary, faced with a long fire season to come. 

This past winter, the driest in North Dakota in recorded history, I’ve been pondering the word solastalgia, a neologism that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change, the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change. The word is formed by the combination of the Latin word sōlācium for comfort and the Greek root -algia for pain. 

The writer Robert Macfarlane first brought my attention to solastalgia. He writes, in his book Underland, it is a “term coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to mean a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales when he realized that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness. Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the Anthropocene—we might consider John Clare a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810S—but it has certainly flourished recently. ‘Worldwide, there is an increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,’ wrote Albrecht in an early paper on the subject, ‘matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes.’ Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognizable by climate change or corporate action: the home become unhomely around its inhabitants.” 
Robert Macfarlane, Underland, pg. 317

Drought triggers solastalgia – may this epic drought end soon.

Recommended reading:

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Sun Halo & the Vernal Equinox

Sun Halo on the Vernal Equinox 2021
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Lillian Crook

Spring weather came to North Dakota early this year, the fifth driest winter here on record. The sky has been filled with migrating Canada Geese and some crazy fishermen have already had their boats on the nearby Missouri River, even though there is still ice on the banks. 

My first birding excursion of the year took place earlier this week with my daughter, Chelsea. We spotted FOY (birder-speak for first of the year) American Kestrels and a few other birds, but the highlight of the day was a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, east of Bismarck, close to a thousand on the ground in one small area of a stubble field. Hundreds of the birds would rise in the flight pattern called a murmuration, just a few feet above the ground, then fly over to the opposite edge of the flock, and land, and thus the constant churning, with the birds on the outside edge ever-changing. Chelsea shot video you can watch here. .)

In observation of the Vernal Equinox and our wedding anniversary, today found Jim and I birding the wetlands and lakes east of Bismarck, in the hopes of spotting the enormous flocks of Snow Geese reported overhead, and perhaps a Western Meadowlark or Sandhill Cranes. Along the way, we spied many early spring arrivals, brought in by strong south winds, and eleven Bald Eagles, on the ice hunting stray gulls and wounded geese. It is worrisome how dry the wetlands are -- the shorebirds are going to find slim pickings if we don't get a deluge soon. 

At Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge -- Success! A couple thousand Snow Geese flew over, first in one flock, then scattering into smaller flocks. And then I noticed the sun halo, or what Jim called a "winter rainbow." Because the temperature was about 60 degrees, it was unexpected, but, of course, the temperature is much colder thousands of feet up in the atmosphere. Then the geese skirted across the sun halo and I managed to capture another photo in which one flock can be seen. 

Snow Geese over Sun Halo, Vernal Equinox 2021
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Lillian Crook

Halos can be seen around the sun and the moon and are called "22-degree halos" by scientists because the ring's radius is 22 degrees around the orb. These are caused by ice crystals in thin, high cirrus clouds. And here is perhaps the most enchanting piece, as described by Earth & Sky, my go-to website: Everyone sees their own particular halo, made by their own particular ice crystals, which are different from the ice crystals making the halo of the person standing next to you. I've seen a few really lovely moon halos, but today's sighting of the sun halo will be a memory I cherish (sadly, we saw no meadowlarks). 

You can read more about this phenomena at Earth & Sky (which includes a lovely photo of a moon halo taken near Mandan, ND) and learn more about the equinox as well.  

Halos are different from "sun dogs", as described on the website and shown below:


A halo is a ring or light that forms around the sun or moon as the sun or moon light refracts off ice crystals present in a thin veil of cirrus clouds. The halo is usually seen as a bright, white ring although sometimes it can have color.


Sundogs are colored spots of light that develop due to the refraction of light through ice crystals. They are located approximately 22 degrees either left, right, or both, from the sun, depending on where the ice crystals are present. The colors usually go from red closest to the sun, out to blue on the outside of the sundog. Sundogs are also known as mock suns or parhelia, which means "with the sun".

Sun Pillars:

Sun Pillars appear as a shaft of light extending vertically above the sun, most often at sunrise or sundown. They develop as a result of ice crystals slowly falling through the air, reflecting the sun’s rays off of them. Look for sun pillars when the sun is low on the horizon, and cirrus clouds are present.

sun pillar


The reason that Jim said, when I pointed the sun halo out to him, "winter rainbox" is that the poet Paul Southworth Bliss, whose biography we are writing, wrote a poem about these when he was living in North Dakota in the 1930s, another time of historic drought. The poem is published in Bliss's book, Cirrus from the West, published in 1935.

                Winter Rainbox

                by Paul Southworth Bliss

    Out of the oakland,

    Out of the pineland,

    Near the time of sunset,

    I came to the un-treed plains.

     On the frost-struck air

    There lay two segments

    Of a mighty wheel,

    Sunk to the sun-hub

    In the glistening prairie.

    The inner ring was rose,

    The middle maize,

    The outer

    Power-puff green.

    And the two segments

    Were awesome arches

    Between the snow-clad earth

    And the blue zenith!

    I have lived through war,

    I have lived through floods,

    And storms and droughts . . . 

    No matter;

    I have seen at last

    That miracle of miracles,

    The winter rainbow. 

                                    December 28, 1934

                                                Fargo, N. D. 

The phenomenon of the sundogs is relatively common; but until today I had never seen them expanded into sections of a winter rainbow. This marvel of the plaines appeared at about 3:50 P.M., today, and continued for nearly fifteen minutes. I had emerged from the gloom of the oak and pine lands of Minnesota and burst onto the prairie in air that, due to the low temperatures (at least zero), glittered with billions of frost particles.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Crooked Little Missouri River and its Headwaters

Little Missouri River, Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit (photo by Lillian Crook)

The crooked Little Missouri River is in my bloodstream, deeply embedded in my psyche. I grew up working and playing on its banks in Slope County, North Dakota, and have canoed and kayaked almost every ND mile of the river countless times, and frequently written about my explorations on WildDakotaWoman. My favorite stretches of the river are in the Deep Creek area, my home country, and through the North Unit wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The river flows into the Missouri River north of Bismarck (now Lake Sakakawea), where I now live, and thus in some way, I drink its waters each and every day. In my file cabinet are many maps of the Little Missouri River including a thick folder filled with Wyoming maps, accumulated in my quest to learn more about the place from which the river begins. Today I've taken out that folder and am thus transported in my mind for many hours to these wild places, my spirit landscape. 


The Little Missouri River originates west of Devils Tower National Monument in Crook County, Wyoming, due west of where I was born when my parents were stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. How much more synchronicity can there be? It was destined that this sweet little river would burrow into my brain.

With a surname of Crook, I have some fascination with anything to do with Crook County and Camp Crook. These place-names "Crook" originate from the Civil War Union general, George Crook, a distant relative, who campaigned in the area in the 1870s and whose grave in Arlington Cemetery I've visited. There are several excellent books about Gen. Crook readily available for anyone interested in learning more. When I was a child, we took frequent Sunday excursions to places of interest, the Logging Camp Ranch and nearby Burning Coal Vein, Pretty and Bullion buttes, the Limber Pines, the Powder River area, Medicine Rocks, and, naturally, Camp Crook, South Dakota.

Crook Walk at Arlington Cemetery, Lillian with her daughter, Chelsea (photo by Jim Fuglie)

"As a surname [Crook] first appeared as Crok, Cruke, Crokes and Crekes, which should indicate the name was once associated with a creek....It is found in very old records in England, Ireland and Scotland....One who dwelt near a bend in the river or road might be called Bend or Crook." Crook, an American Family, 1698-1955, pg. 11. Crook is a historic market town in County Durham in the northeast of England and hosts an annual Crook Carnival every July as well as Crookfest, a music festival. Sadly, I did not visit Crook when I traveled to England in 2019 -- yet another reason to return. 

The Camp Crook Centennial t-shirt was purchased when my sisters and I visited Camp Crook on a backroads expedition from Medora to Spearfish. The cookbook was a gift from my mother. The photo right was taken in 2017 when my friend Valerie and I visited Crooks Tower, one of the highest and most remote summits in the Black Hills of SD. The tower is long gone. 

Back to the little river of my heart. 

Located in four states (Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota), the Little Missouri River Basin includes 6,632,160 acres with most of the acreage in North Dakota at 3,608,800 acres, a good portion of which is public lands. (Source for my data: Little Missouri River Basin: Land Planning and Classification Report, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, May 1959 - a personally auspicious date for me). At the time the report was published, there were 1,818,429 acres in federal acres within the basin, a figure that is probably close to today's acreage, although due to land swaps since then has changed slightly. More than half of this federal land is the Little Missouri National Grassland, the largest grassland in the US.
Little Missouri River Basin, 1959

The river is "a sediment laden muddy stream," and, according to an early 1930s Bureau of Reclamation study "a very heavy sediment carrier for its size" (now those are monumental understatements!). It arises southwest of the Little Missouri Buttes, four summits arising from an eroded mesa and prominent in the Devils Tower landscape, the tallest of which is 5,374 feet. 
"A butte is a mesa's orphan, the freestanding remnant of a larger landform. Protected from the erosional brunt of rain, frost, and wind by its overlay of hard caprock, the butte's mass stands flat-topped and steep-sided, always taller than it is wide. The parent escarpment may be but a gap of space away: imagine this gap filled with rock and you can picture the entire landform's sweeping, high-crowned continuity." Ellen Meloy, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez, 2006.

The Little Missouri River's headwaters are nearest to Flag Butte and Oshoto, WY, and it is "the only major tributary stream that flows north into the Missouri." Said to be the longest undammed tributary, this isn't quite true as the Oshoto Reservoir, an earth dam constructed in 1954, is situated a few miles from the headwaters, however, other proposed dams were never built due to the sediment load." In 1914 construction work started on a dam near Alzada, MT, "as a Carey Act Project but "a freshet in Cottonwood Creek damaged the dam...and no further work was ever done on the project." It was estimated that the Alzada dam would fill within 41 years so someone came to their senses thanks to the "freshet." "Estimated duration of the [proposed] Bullion Butte Reservoir was 58 to 61 years until filling with sediment would be complete." Again, wisdom prevailed and the Oshoto Dam is the one and only on the river. 

From its source to its mouth, as the crow flies, as one can see from the first map above, the river covers about 300 miles, but its crooked twists and turns nearly doubles the river's length to 560 miles. As a canoeist, I can attest that these bends can be tortuous especially if the current is slow and the headwind fierce, a regular occurrence. One is frequently tempted to portage over these corkscrew landscapes, but the tall buttes along the canyon render this foolhardy. Once, while perched atop the Teepee Buttes near the Logging Camp Ranch, I asked my friend, Clay Jenkinson, who has famously hiked the length of the river (the North Dakota stretch twice) if he "cheated" and just plunged across these bends, a fair question, I thought. He said he most certainly did not, however tempted on a scorching summer day. 

"The basin formerly consisted of broad rolling upland surfaces that since have been extensively eroded into breaks and badlands. This is particularly true in the lower reaches from the southwest corner of North Dakota to its confluence with the Missouri River....a well-cut channel...spectacular, fantastic, colorful and intriguing." (Little Missouri River Basin, 1959)

The report continues: "Elevations vary from 4,600 feet on Flag Butte at the source of the river in Wyoming to 1,900 feet at the mouth of the stream in North Dakota where it enters Garrison Reservoir." An ignominious end, I might add, and the reservoir's backwaters have flooded an area of the canyon that was once quite beautiful. A wonderful account of a river journey from a time before the Garrison Dam was written by Clell G. Gannon and published in vol. 1, no. 1, the October 1926 issue of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. Gannon, with his pals, George Will and Russell Reid, all of Bismarck, floated in their 18-foot rowboat, christened the "Hugh Glass," from Medora to Bismarck in June 1925, using 1894 Missouri River Commission maps. Gannon writes, 
"There was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology, and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich." 

Kindred spirits! 

The Little Missouri river drains a semi-arid region with seemingly endless bottoms of cottonwood and green ash and is abounding in short-grass forbs and prairie wildlife. "Slope County has 63 percent of its surface within the basin" (Little Missouri River Basin, 1959) -- again, the serendipity that Slope County, ND, was my childhood home, settled by my maternal ancestors, along the west fork of Deep Creek, a tributary that enters the Little Missouri River at the Logging Camp Ranch north of our place.

Lillian (photo by Jim Fuglie)

When I close my eyes and return to these wondrous places in my mind, I hear the harsh call of the Red-headed Woodpeckers in the cottonwoods, and remember watching a female coyote swimming across just ahead of our approaching canoe somewhere north of Marmarth, ND, the water dripping from her heavy tits as she emerged on the eastern bank, unperturbed by our silent arrival. Often, as our watercraft slips near the muddy bank, a beaver will splash into the river from their hole, startling us, and once when I was kayaking near Bullion Butte, I inadvertently trapped a baby beaver between my craft and the bank for a minute or two. It nearly fell into my kayak. Once, when Jim and I canoed the river at historic high water, the banks sailed by and we nearly slammed into the canyon wall where it takes a sharp bend at Wind Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).

Jim Fuglie (photo by Lillian Crook)

These river memories are made by keeping a sharp-eye on the four Little Missouri river gauges maintained by the US Geological Survey, at Camp Crook, Marmarth, Medora, and Watford City (actually at TRNP's North Unit). The sweet little river in this arid country is more often a trickling stream and one must seize the moment when it is navigable, usually in the early spring, often when there are still chunks of ice on the banks. When we lived in Medora, Jim would dump me and my kayak in the river and at the end of his workday pick me up at a pre-determined takeout, and listen to my stories of close encounters with bison.

Jim and Lillian (photo by the camera)

Lillian, the late Lizzie, and our yellow canoe

Aforementioned is my long fascination with the headwaters of the Little Missouri River and my quest to learn more about it, hence my collection of historical maps. In 2002, I corresponded with the US Geological Survey attempting to pinpoint the official location of the river's source. I received a reply from Roger L. Payne, the Executive Secretary of the US Board on Geographic Names, and retained that letter in my files, from which I will quote extensively. He wrote:

"The earliest USGS topographic map on which the name Little Missouri River appears is the 1:125,000-scale Devils Tower, Wyoming map, published in 1905. Unfortunately, the exact source of the stream is not made clear, although it would appear to originate upstream of the present-day location of Oshoto Reservoir."

"Presumably, because of the imprecision of the 1905 map, the BGN decided in 1930 to establish the official source of the stream. The October 7, 1931 decision read "...rising in Sec.14, T53N, R68W of 6th P.M. Wyoming, Cook Co. [sic]....". Following this decision, the USGS Devils Tower topographic map was reprinted in 1939, although with no change in the placement of the type for Little Missouri River, but this name placement did not alter the official source as established in 1931."
The 1905 USGS map from my collection

"In 1957, the first larger-scale map, entitled Oshoto and produced at a scale of 1:62,500, was published. This is the map...on which Oshoto Reservoir first appears. The name Little Missouri River continued to appear upstream of the reservoir, yet the name was placed on the more "southerly" tributary, in conflict with the application decreed by the BGN in 1931. The exact source of the stream is not apparent on the 1957 map, because the feature extends beyond the edge of the map, but it is clearly, and incorrectly not the aforementioned tributary, 'rising in Sec. 14, T53N,R68W....". 

The 1957 map from my collection

He continues: "In 1962, the Army Map Service (AMS) in cooperation with the USGS, published its 1:250,000-scale Gillette topographic map. Despite the small scale of this map, the name Little Missouri River was clearly applied to the more "westerly" tributary (that is, present-day Deadman Creek). Although this corresponded to the location established by the BGN in 1931, the BGN was informed in 1974 by a representative of the USGS Mapping Center that the application was incorrect. Based on field investigation conducted by the Mapping Center, local authorities recommended that the source be depicted in accordance with the 1957/59 map, not the 1962 AMS map or the 1931 BGN decision. This investigation further revealed that the more westerly tributary was indeed Deadman Creek. Upon review of this evidence, the BGN voted on December 10, 1974 to change officially the application of the name Little Missouri River to the more southerly tributary and apply officially the name Deadman Creek to the more westerly stream. This application is still official for Federal use today, although...the name Little Missouri River appears only downstream of Oshoto Reservoir on the 1984 Oshoto topographic map." 

1957 Oshoto quad from my collection 

1972 Flag Butte map from my collection

1955 Army Service Map Wyoming

1984 Oshoto quad from my collection (what started it all)

Armed with all of this tantalizing detail and given the perfect opportunity during a driving vacation to Wyoming and Utah, Jim and I found our way to the landscape west of Devils Tower, Wyoming, almost twenty years ago now. 

I can't help but wonder why all states can't produce
such a map with rich topographic detail as Wyoming's

On the return leg, we left the freeway at Moorcroft, Wyoming, just when one can begin to glimpse Devils Tower to the north, and thus began a two-day gravel-road adventure, one that included the loss of the Jeep's muffler. It took some wrong turns, but we found the headwaters and climbed to take in view of the grassy and gently rolling landscape, so different from the rugged Bad Lands of the North Dakota reach of the Little Missouri River we know so well. 

The headwaters of the Little Missouri River, Crook County, Wyoming, the Little Missouri Buttes on the right horizon

Lillian Crook, overlooking the Little Missouri River headwaters in Crook County, Wyoming

Confirming that indeed there was a reservoir, albeit small, near the tiny village of Oshoto, we knew the myth of the undammed river arose from the confusion in the maps described above, stemming from the 1984 version of the map that did not name the river above the dam. Nonetheless, about 555 miles of the river's 560 miles run freely through the wild landscape. We headed north, staying as close to the banks of the river as the roads allowed, the perfect exploration of the Little Missouri River country. Throughout its Wyoming and Montana reach, it is really more a prairie stream, dotted with place names signifying the river's name. It isn't until Camp Crook, SD, that a bridge of any significance crosses the river, and after that, there are just seven more bridges of any substance, at Marmarth, Medora (interstate, highway, and railroad), near Watford City, and the illegal bridge, all in ND, and a whole lot of "Texas crossings" built by the local ranchers, wide places filled with rocks (some naturally occurring, some hauled in) rendering it easier to cross except in the rare instances of high water. 

Our destination that last night of the road trip was the US Forest Service campground southwest of Camp Crook in the West Short Pines, one of the many "pine islands" scattered about this west river country, rolling hills covered with ponderosa pine, uprising from the prairie expanse, thus different from the more commonly occurring buttes. Short Pines was once a Forest Reserve in its own right, established in 1905, but is now part of the Gallatin National Forest. Sadly, there had been a recent fire in the area. We had the entire campground to ourselves and a splendid, star-filled sky.

Here in the West Short Pines, we found a whimsical USFS sign that merited a stop and we've laughed about it ever after. Seems if one was headed to Camp Crook, there was no wrong turn, a parable for my life and this epic entry. 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

My Brother, Thomas: A Veterans Day Tribute

Thomas Crook, used with his permission, taken on July 10, 2020, at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery at the burial of our father, Garland Crook, Sergeant First Class, US Army, Retired.
(Photo by my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson)

My younger brother (by 23 months), Thomas Crook, Senior Chief, Retired, United States Navy, my best friend all these many decades, is the very model of humility and dignity. Because of the deep trust between us, Thomas has allowed me to share the photographs taken at our father's burial this past summer, for my Veterans Day tribute to him, although he does not like to be in the spotlight. This is a deeply personal story, perhaps the most personal I've ever shared and it was paramount that Thomas agreed to its telling. 

Lillian and Thomas, 1963 (Photo by Garland Crook)

I've written a number of times about my Dad, but a review is in order: Dad was on Omaha Beach on D-Day and a few years ago, our friend, Bob, whose father-in-law had also been on the Normandy beaches, visited that hallowed ground in France, and when he returned to North Dakota, he brought with him the iconic photograph taken on D-Day by Robert Capa. Bob requested that my father sign the photographs before he had them framed and presented one to my father along with a vial of sand he had collected from Omaha Beach. This photograph was on the dining room wall at my father's home and then in his nursing home until he died, and it now is on my wall. As you can see from the photograph, my father wrote that he was there eight hours after the first wave. The courage of these soldiers and sailors is unimaginable. 

My brother, Thomas, who retired from the US Navy with great distinction, and continues to live in the Norfolk area, booked a flight to Bismarck as soon as we decided upon a date for the funeral, during an exceptionally challenging time due to the pandemic. When I called Thomas on Memorial Day to tell him of our father's passing, he made an extraordinary gesture. Thomas contacted the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, and arranged for an American flag to fly over the cemetery on June 25th, and subsequently be shipped to him in Virginia. Then he brought that very special honor flag with him to North Dakota for the funeral.  

When we picked up Thomas from the airport, it was moving to know that he had this special flag with him, along with his Navy dress blues.

During the funeral, the memorial tributes highlighted that my father had done so much work to ensure that the oral histories of his fellow veterans would be preserved, and it wasn't until he had completed every single one that he agreed to complete his own. These oral histories are available at the ND State Historical Society Archives. Several family members spoke about my father's life and then, in a powerful moment that everyone in attendance will never forget, Thomas, in dress uniform, rose to his feet to speak in his firm voice: "It wasn't about him. It was never about was for people of France, of Europe, and his buddies,...for us, for his neighbors, his family, his friends, was for them....But today is about him." (Watch here, with Thomas's remarks at 44:25 minutes into the recording, and our Dad's obituary is here.) 

Then it was time for us to drive to the peaceful hill south of Mandan for Dad's burial at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, where some of our friends were waiting to pay their respects. We filed into the chapel for the final tribute and I sat between my husband and Thomas. My brother Thomas supervised the Honor Guard who fired the final salute to my father. Before we began, he rehearsed the folding of that large flag with them in the entry, telling us later that the soldiers were a little intimidated by it as at 5 feet by 9 1/2 feet it was larger than the standard flag. At the end of the service, after the two young women soldiers brought that special Normandy flag to the front of the chapel, folded it, Thomas rose to his feet to receive the flag, and then he presented it to the family "...a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."  

Photo by Eric Crook

Photo by Eric Crook

(Photo by Eric Crook)

Together we walked outside to the gravesite. And then came perhaps the most poignant moment of the day. Thomas and my sisters and his widow and I each sprinkled a handful of that Normandy sand into the vault in the manner of a British burial, my father being of British ancestry. As my husband had said, my Dad in his life career in the Army had gotten lots of sand in his boots and the sand from France was a fitting gesture. 

And this is a true statement: At that moment, while Thomas stood saluting our father's grave, I heard a Western Meadowlark sing its hauntingly beautiful song. I knew then it was time to leave my father there at ease, at peace, where he had hoped to be, a cemetery he had helped raise the funds to build all those years ago.

Photo by Lillian Crook

After that were but a few more precious days with my siblings during which we sorted through our father's things, 95 years of memories including his Army footlocker and memorabilia from numerous veterans organizations and reunions, and distributed keepsakes to grandchildren and Dad's remaining siblings. We toasted Dad with his favorite "Old Granddad" Kentucky bourbon. There is never enough time with Thomas when he is home and I gulped hard when I left him at the airport for his return to Virginia. Then I drove out to the University of Mary hillside to watch his airplane and to look west over the Missouri River to the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery just across.

Thomas, Lillian, Sarah, and Beckie
This is the first Veterans Day of my life without my father. This photo below was taken last year when I attended the program at his nursing home. He and I are wearing poppy scarves I purchased earlier that fall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Dover, England, a place I had been keen to visit because my Dad would have seen the White Cliffs during his World War II service, a place of stark beauty from which, on a clear day, one can see the coast of France. I stood there a very long time thinking of my 19-year-old father on that beach with all of those young men. 

Garland and Lillian Crook, Veterans Day 2019, Mandan, ND
(Photo by Jim Fuglie)

Photo by Lillian Crook

Today, Veterans Day 2020, I pay special tribute to my brother Thomas, who came from humble roots and has served his country with faithfulness, and distinction, and honor, and who bore my father to his resting place with great dignity. May you all have such a hero in your life as my brother.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

My Restorative Retreat to the Badlands: A Solo in Three Acts

My spirit has been battered in this past year, like so many. I am blessed with a house and a garden and a loving family, yet life has kept me close to home and hearth with innumerable chores and obligations. My father died at the end of May and we buried him at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in July. My mother has been in lockdown in her nursing home since March and our daughter Rachel has been in several lockdowns in her living setting since June. We visit Mother's window, talk to her on the phone daily, and Skype with Rachel each night. We moved Chelsea to a new place last week. The garden here at Red Oak House is "put to bed" and the pantry and freezer are full. With all of this, I was only able to visit the badlands once this summer, in a careful, limited way, while at the same time distracted by demands at home and the extraordinary events on the national stage. And then, my mother was diagnosed with Covid (happily, she survived after quarantine in the Covid wing of her nursing home). As it became more clear that these things were resolving, on my mind was a solo trip to the badlands at the earliest opportunity.  Hence my restorative retreat last week to the Badlands. 

Act One

I loaded my car on Wednesday afternoon with gear, food, water, books, binoculars, walking stick, backpack, field guides including my Sibley bird guide, my journal, and hiking boots. Thursday morning, as I prepared to depart, I received the phone call I've been awaiting from the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery informing me that my father's marker had been placed, so my last stop before driving west was to bear witness. It is a fine, strong marker for a fine, strong man who I miss so very much. 

The wind was howling and the dust made for a hazy day -- severe drought. I've not been to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for quite some time thus made the decision to have mostly a driving day, turning north on Highway 22 at Dickinson, observing the nearly empty parking lots at all the new industrial development and motels between Dickinson and Killdeer, evidence of the bust, all of which cause me to worry about the good taxpayers of those southwestern ND counties who will bear the burden of this unused infrastructure. The haze somewhat obscured the view of the Killdeer Mountains, but I could see that the leaves were mostly fallen from the aspen and burr oak trees. My first stop was the Little Missouri Primitive State Park with its magnificent views of the canyon of the Little Missouri River. 

Always interesting to observe the variation of orange buffaloberries rather than the usual red berries. Each bush was loaded with berries, oddly enough considering the drought. 

The Lost Bridge over the Little Missouri River, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation on the other side

As I passed the highway markers along the way for various bays on Lake Sakakawea, including the Little Missouri Bay, I thought of all of the times my father drove that highway towing his fishing boat behind, headed for some good times with his pals in the years he lived in Dickinson. Having survived three wars and a lifetime of hard work, he knew on a deep level the importance of making the most of each day. 

Arriving in Watford City, I made a brief stop at my favorite of that town's places, the Long X Visitor Center and Pioneer Museum, once again observing a prairie town transformed by the Bakken Boom, with beautiful new schools and hospitals, but worrisome signs of a bust in the midst of a pandemic. 

By early afternoon, I drove into the North Unit and was delighted to learn that, as I expected, visitation was light on an autumn weekday and the entire scenic road was open. Straight to the end of the road for me, observing vistas along the way dotted with herds of bison and migrating American Robins darting in and out of the shrubbery along the road. I had the Oxbow Overlook to myself where I paused to admire the signage the NPS has erected to interpret the river and the geology. As I made my way back to my car, a young man arrived in a car with Arizona plates. "First time?" I asked him at a careful distance. He replied in the affirmative so I gave him a few tips about watching for bighorn sheep and he headed to the rim of the canyon with his camera and tripod. 

Returning to the drive, I made my way with a couple of stops to admire the bison and the views. Just before the Riverbend parking area, a bison herd was on the road. I can never quite get my fill of listening to their quiet munching on the native forbs and low grunting to one another so I lingered. It calms me. I've not had the chance to see many of this year's bison calves. The cows are refusing to let the yearlings nurse by this point of the season and the herds have dispersed into smaller bands with the end of the rut. In my rearview mirror, I could see that Arizona man had caught up to me and he closely followed as I carefully navigated through the herd. I gave him the thumbs up. When we met again in the parking area, he said "That was something! You clearly have done that before. One of those bulls was as big as your SUV!" 

Bison herd grazing, Theodore Roosevelt NP North Unit
Bison cow rebuffs her yearling calf which wishes to nurse

After I spent my time at the CCC constructed shelter overlooking the bend in the river from which Riverbend Overlook takes its name, I walked over to him and he asked a few more questions about visiting the badlands, specifically interested in safe places for star-gazing. It is so heartening to witness young people exploring these wild places and gives me a renewed sense of hope. 

Young Arizonan 

This year has been filled with ill wind, both literally and figuratively and today's gusting wind was troublesome, yet made for the most glorious music in the saffron cottonwoods under which I stood. 

The low sun in the west was a reminder that I needed to get to Medora before dark, where a virus-safe hotel room awaited me. I didn't observe many birds, except for a pair of Golden Eagles near the entrance, but I did spot the evidence that a bird had perched on this little butte. 

Back on Highway 85, I crossed over the Long X bridge, for perhaps the last time before it is removed with the anticipated opening of the new bridge currently under construction. 

Tired after a long day of driving and wind and dust, I settled into my room and took a short walk around Medora in the gloaming, ending my day with a dip of my fingers in the river's sacred waters. 

Act Two

The morning's view from my window promised a gorgeous day and autumn colors ablaze in the badlands, at last a one-day break from the wind. Many of the other guests and staff at the hotel were wearing the now-familiar pandemic masks and I tucked away on my own in a corner booth for breakfast. A stroll over to the sweetest little post office in North Dakota, complete with a chat with the friendly postmistress and the purchase of stamps, was my next order of business. When we lived in Medora, I enjoyed a daily walk to check our PO box here, which, besides the three watering holes, serves as the hub of village life. 

Again, a portal to the place so close to my heart, Theodore Roosevelt National Park --- this time, the South Unit, where I spent time at a campsite at the newly reopened Cottonwood Campground planning my hiking adventure and observing birds, including a White-breasted Nuthatch that landed on the picnic table right by my hand and my topographic map of the park.  

Knowing the river level was low, I decided on a hike to the Big Plateau, from the trailhead at Peaceful Valley Ranch, where the NPS is restoring the buildings of the historic 1880s Buddy Ranch. Clearly others had the same idea and, at first, so longing for quiet, I was concerned about the construction noise, however as I prepared to embark, the workers shut down for the long weekend and silence returned. A woman from California arrived at her car just before I left, reporting that her hike was wonderful during which she had observed a couple flummoxed by the reality that they had to cross the river to get on the trail. Before she left, I encouraged her to visit the Elkhorn Ranch, giving her pointers using the map within the park's newsletter. "Happy trails!" we said to one another. 

Knowing that there is a Texas crossing here at the river, combined with the low river levels, I was not troubled, and with my trusty hiking stick in hand, I hopscotched across the rocks without so much as a wet ankle. Perched on the western bank of the river, I munched my lunch and savored the sound of the water flowing over the crossing's rocks. I could have spent the rest of the day in that spot. 

The lifeblood of the badlands, the Little Missouri River

Having crossed the river, I was now in the wilderness portion of the South Unit (most of the North Unit is wilderness) and I savored that balm to my spirit as I hiked up a draw to the Big Plateau ahead, on the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. Nearly to the top, I spotted a young couple on their way down. Back at the trailhead, I had noticed that the log pages in the trail register box were completely filled and hikers had gotten creative with bits of their own paper. When I lived in Medora, one of my volunteer tasks for the park was to check these trail registers, bringing in completed pages and leaving blank pages behind, the information about the use of trails being vital to the park's decision-making and historical records. I asked the couple if they were enjoying the hike and might they have some blank notepaper in their car. Alas, they said no and after they picked my brain about kayaking the river and told me tales of their summer's adventures on badlands trails, we parted and I made my final ascent, pausing in a prairie dog town to admire the vista and listen for bugling elk. 

Big Plateau, Petrified Forest Loop Trail, panorama
Black-tailed prairie dog at Big Plateau

This year's drought has tamped down the taller prairie grasses thus the shorter native species were more evident, including the buffalo grass and thread-leaf sedge, and the fall coloration of the forbs was perfection. I silently named the various species along the way so as not to lose my knowledge of the landscape, my sense of place and I listened to the rustle of various critters in the newly fallen leaf litter, confident in the knowledge that I was surrounded by the wild. 

On my way back down the trail, I pondered the problem of the trail register but was happy that this itself was evidence of the hikers enjoying their national park despite the difficulties of 2020. By the time I got to it, I had made a plan to remove the filled pages and drop these off at the Park administrative offices upon my return to Medora. After all, there wasn't any space left upon which any visitors could write anyway and I was wearing my Friends of Theodore Roosevelt cap. Crossing the river again, I rummaged in my car to find any available paper -- Eureka, in my bag was a notepad from an earlier stay at the Badlands Motel. With that in hand, I headed back across the river (I'm sure the mother and children playing on the riverbank wondered why I was doing this) and put the notepad in the trail register triumphantly, reminded of the lessons from my parents to leave a place better than I had found it. Back across the river I trudged (prolonging my time there no hardship) and then back on the scenic loop road after removing some cockleburrs from my shoelaces. 

Back in Medora before the office closed, I left the pages at admin with a note explaining what I had done. I'm greatly impressed by the work that TRNP has done to improve the infrastructure, with the aforementioned ranch restoration work, new wayside and trailhead markers, new comfort stations, and upgrades to the campground, along with a beautifully produced park guide and newsletter.

A takeout burger from the Little Missouri Saloon was my supper and then another walk around the town until it was time to watch the sunset at the Medora Overlook. A coal train came through, a reminder of how integral the railroad is to Medora and what a welcome development it was when the quiet-rail crossings for which my husband advocated were installed at the two crossings here. This time of the year, the white-tail deer are sauntering around Medora, taking the park road down the hill as the most direct route to the river. By the time I was ready to call it a day, Mars was shining above. 

A coal train passes through Medora in the gloaming

Act Three

Morning brings the return of the gale winds and a stop on Johnsons Plateau to admire the southern badlands. In the middle distance, in the dusty haze of 2020, the center of my universe, the Mother Ship, Bullion Butte, in Slope County, around which the living water of the Little Missouri River takes a huge swing before continuing its course north. My place in the world, in the badlands.

After a drive of the portion of the loop road that is open (erosion is a powerful force and the repairs have been ongoing for a couple of years), it is time to head back home. Nearing Medora, a visitor ahead of me makes an abrupt U-turn upon spotting a band of horses with a colt and I nearly sideswiped their car. Driving east on the interstate I observed a couple more bands of horses near the Painted Canyon overlook and the eastern boundary of the park. 

Autumn is indeed the most splendid time to visit the badlands with fine temperatures, light visitation, and glorious foliage. The clock tells me it is time to head homeward.

Panorama at Jones Creek

But first, a reunion I've been waiting for, a visit with my daughter who lives in Dickinson. I've passed the required pandemic restrictions for being with her and we stay in my car to be safe, eating lunch and going on a memory lane auto tour to various Dickinson places, sharing our stories with one another. The time goes by too quickly and my path takes me home via Old Highway 10, with my spirit renewed, my restorative solo retreat to the badlands just the balm I needed, and a blessing to return to Red Oak House regenerated for what seems likely the bleak winter to come. 

Walking my home landscape builds my resiliency. 

My home ground heals me.