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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.