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Sunday, August 6, 2017

I dragged my daughter to Slope County: Another SW North Dakota Excursion

"A billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when the stars are dead."
Ranier Maria Rilke

Cottonwood leaf, turned yellow too early because of the drought
My daughter, Chelsea, and I packed up the car and headed for southwest North Dakota this past week.  I know, it seems I'm always traveling, especially odd for a homebody like me, but summers are short in here on the northern plains, thus we squeeze as much play time as we can in the season.

Our destination was Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), but first, while I had her in the car and she was now old enough to appreciate it, I wanted to take her to tour my home country, Slope County, to help her to better understand her heritage.

At Belfield, we drove south into the clear air of the southwestern corner of the state, and frequently saw soaring Swainson's hawks and other buteos.  Traveling through Amidon, I smiled at the sign proclaiming that it is the "smallest county seat in the nation." The crops along the way looked rather pitiful and,in several of the towns, we saw "Pray for Rain" signs. We passed White Butte, the highest point in the state, and discussed a future hike there (I've been, she has not).

Near the Bowman County line, I saw a prairie falcon.  We proceeded on past Twin Buttes to the tidy town of Bowman, where I showed Chelsea the highlights.

She was impatient to get to her favorite places (TRNP), but had finally decided that she might as well go with the flow and let me "get this out of my system."

Cruising Main Street, I was sad to see that they've moved the Drug Store, the place where I often went as a kid to the soda foundation and to purchase a new Matchbox car.

I want Chelsea to understand her southwestern ND roots so I told her family stories as we drove.  I attended many movies in the theater here, my Grandpa Andy Silbernagel had a house here (next door to the Ohm's), and my mother was a nurse at the hospital here.  One year I brought my 4-H chickens to the Bowman County Fair. I am grateful that I got to participate in 4-H and learn many lessons from our leader, Pauline Brooks, a great Slope County lady.

I took out my first student college loan from this bank

This was my Grandpa Andy's house.  A high school classmate lives there now.

This was the Ohm house, next door to my Grandpa

The Methodist Church

The dental office where I worked for two summers

The old hospital where my mother was a nurse, now being re-purposed for a different use

The beautiful new hospital, attached to the nursing home

Before we left Bowman, we had a hearty lunch at Jabber's Restaurant and bought some of their huge caramel rolls for our next day's camp breakfast.

Next, we drove northwest on the Farm to Market road, to our home ranch.  This is beef country, and prominent places in my memory are the Stuber and Brooks Ranches. My father would help with the work at the Stuber Ranch, all those many years ago.  Sadly, the house at the Pearson place is gone now, but my memories remain, and I told Chelsea of the forts we built and the rabbits we raised and the hills we sledded.

Pearsons picked up the house and moved it to Bowman some years ago

The Cash School

This is rocky, hilly country, with many prairie rattlers present.  Hilltops like this one were great places to explore, pretending these were our castles.  On the farm, we had a couple of old combines in the yard, and we would make believe that these were our pirate ships.  When we were not busy with our chores, there were endless possibilities for entertaining ourselves.

Although this display of combines is in south central ND, it does give one the sense of the old combines on which we played
In the area near our old ranch, I saw a Krider's hawk, a very pale variation of a Red-tailed hawk.  He soared over us soundlessly in a silent landscape.  Chelsea can understand why, when I moved to the city for college, I struggled to adjust to the noise.  We also heard Phoebes calling when we stopped near to farm buildings.

One more spot nearby I showed her is the old metal sign west of our place, the remnant in this Deep Creek Township area of the old Yellowstone trail (I will write more about this sign and trail in a future blog).

I recounted to Chelsea stories about riding the school bus, past this sign every day, in all sorts of North Dakota weather.  As we neared Rhame, this prairie folk art amused us.

In Rhame, I showed her the old high school.  There is no high school there now (the students attend in nearby Bowman), but it appears that they are using the building in support of the elementary and junior high students.

I played girls basketball in this gymnasium, was a cheerleader, and played flute in the pep band.  It was here I gave the valedictorian speech on my graduation day.  Since that day, I've only been back to the school once, for my younger brother's graduation.

Next, I showed her the Lutheran Church, where I was baptized, attended confirmation classes and Vacation Bible School, sang in the choir, and was the church pianist and organist, one of my first paying jobs.

I often attended CCD and mass at St. Mel's with my Catholic friends.

An obligatory stop at the Waterhole Bar, where a couple of Rhame folks were playing a game of pinochle, amused Chelsea.  It didn't take long to renew acquaintances again after all these years.  These guys were members of the Rhame American Legion post with my father and fondly remember him.

Greg Carlson, Louis Bergquist, and Les Schaefer. 
We toured a little bit more of Rhame and then drove on to nearby Tuttle Cemetery, where my grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.  I explained to Chelsea the story of Post Office Butte, where the early settlers left mail in a drop box, pre-USPS. At Tuttle Cemetery, I was surrounded by the graves of people I knew.

The old bank building

The noon and curfew sirens emit from this bright yellow horn device.  Classic small town sounds.

The old lumber yard building

At Fort Dilts, the buffalo grass was crunchy underfoot.  Here, too, I'm grateful that folks have preserved the history of the area and erected signs for our edification. I mentioned to Chelsea that her former college history professor would be pleased that she is visiting this place. You can learn more about Fort Dilts here.

As I strolled around the grounds, I spotted the first blooming blazing star of this season.  Because of the drought, these are scarce.

Blazing Star

We proceeded on north to the Henke Ranch, the former home of my Aunt Junette and Uncle Alan.  Here, too, I have many happy memories of Sunday and holiday dinners, card playing, berry picking, and various ranch games in their big barn and the nearby stock tank (where various sticks functioned as boats).  I was staying here with them when Walter Cronkite came on television to announce that Richard Nixon has resigned the presidency, a somber moment in the history of our country.

Chelsea was growing impatient to get to her beloved TRNP so we drove on, past Mound Church, where I attended and played piano for many Memorial and Veteran's Day programs, with my father.  I remember the sod house that was next to the road about halfway between the Henke place and ours, but my Aunt Junette tells me that it has now almost completely melted away. Chelsea tells me that she knows about sod houses from reading the Little House books.

We proceeded on north with a very quick stop at Davis Dam, where the buffalo berry bushes are loaded with fruit. Picking these berries is very tedious work and the bushes are thorny! Needless to say, I didn't even suggest this to my traveling companion.

I remember the sad day when we got the news that Spec Davis had died in a tractor accident.

We drove on past the Ponderosa Pines area on the East River Road and on to Medora, where we learned that the TRNP campground was full.

Plan B was to spend the night with my sister in Belfield. Since Chelsea had been waiting all day to go to the park, we drove on in and cooked our supper at the picnic grounds.

Then she went for the loop drive while I savored some river time.  The Little Missouri River's water heals whatever might be ailing me and soothes my soul. If you care as much about this sweet river as we do, please consider attending this week's meeting of the reconvened Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission.  You can learn more from my husband's recent blog post: The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission is back in business.

After a good night' sleep at my older sister's house, we had a full day of TRNP happiness ahead.  Chelsea is a photographer and is particularly fond of the park's wild horses.  She is a member of the North Dakota Badlands Horse organization and enjoys interacting with her fellow equine loving friends.

At the Painted Canyon Visitor Center (which must be the busiest rest area in North Dakota), she got a chance to interact with some trail riders who were gathering to depart from there.

After that, it was on to the heart of the park, through the prairie dog towns, where we saw pronghorn antelope and three golden eagles, followed by a hike to Lindbo Flats from the Boicourt Overlooks.

We had just gotten started, bushwacking a trail, when a prairie rattler struck at my hiking stick.  My senses processed this in the nanosecond it took for the strike to occur.  Although I was now on full alert, this didn't trouble me too much as I'm a veteran of this landscape and grew up with rattlers all of the time in Slope County.  I just stepped back and we observed the rattler until it slivered away. Chelsea was more than a little jumpy when, a few steps later, a cottontail blasted out of the brush.

Prairie Rattler. Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

A Cooper's Hawk flew over, with a distinctive alarm call, and chased away a Northern Harrier that had strayed into his territory.

Later, back in the car, we drove past the remnants of a long-ago controlled burn.

We ended a great day of exploration with, what else, Medora ice cream.

The following photographs were taken by my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson. You can see more of her work on Facebook at Wild Dakota Photos.

Artemesia Tritendata. Big Sage. Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Twin yearling Pronghorn Antelope. Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

Photo by Chelsea Sorenson

"It is the stars as not known to science that I would know, the stars which the lonely traveler knows." Henry David Thoreau


  1. A grand tour. Want to hear more about the Yellowstone Trail segment, when you get back to the subject.

  2. Great article Lillian! I loved growing up in Rhame

  3. Thanks so much for your comment, Kurt. I'm so pleased you liked my article. Such a beloved landscape.