Image: Sean M. Santos
It was the evening of Saturday, September 13, 2014, and Sean and I were back in camp after a great eleven-plus-mile hike through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
No rest for the weary, though, while Sean started supper, I began to pack up. We still had one more night in camp, but the more we prepped to convert our packs to checked and carry-on bags, the less we’d have to do in the morning. I hoped to hit the road at 6am, so that we’d not be rushed on our nine-hour drive to Sioux Falls for our 6:05pm flight. Neither of us wanted a repeat of the sprint to the airport we’d experienced leaving Big Bend.
We still had a touch of wiper fluid left in the bottle we’d purchased back in South Dakota when it had been so snowy. I figured we’d used enough that I could top off the chamber. I walked around to the front of the Jeep and opened the hood. I was greeted by a small face as surprised as I was. It twitched its whiskers excitedly and then slipped behind the engine.
“Sean,” I cried, “bring a camera!”
The tiny face worked its whiskers and nose and then dove deeper behind the engine into the bowels of the Jeep. By the time Sean got there, seconds later, it was nowhere to be seen. Neither of us had seen it scamper from the Jeep, but we hoped that it would be gone by the morning.
Sean and I awoke in our tent in Juniper Campground in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was Saturday, September 13, our last full day in the Dakotas. The journey through three National Parks, two National Monuments and a National Memorial Park had been glorious, but had involved a great deal of time behind the wheel of our rented Jeep. This would be a day of hiking. I said to Sean, “I want to walk out of this campground, have an adventure, and walk back in.”
Image: Sean M. Santos
It had been another freezing night, but the sun was already warming us from the outside while strong percolator coffee warmed us from within. The camper nearest us, a fellow camping alone in a huge tent a few sites away, had already packed up and moved on, so we had the northern end of the campground to ourselves.
Friday, September 12 had been an immense day, from waking up to hoarfrost and a moving conversation to lunching at the “cradle of conservation” to plunging into the awful heart of a latter-day gold rush.
But now we had reached the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where our journey through the Dakotas would conclude.
Immediately, the North Unit felt different from the South Unit, although we were still in the Badlands of the Little Missouri River. Half of this unit is federally designated wilderness. Through most of its course, the Little Missouri flows north. But here in this smaller unit (slightly more than half the size of the South Unit), the landscape is oriented around a great turn in the river as it meanders east. In the South Unit, the river is incidental, flowing through the western section of the Badlands. In the North Unit, the river is the centerpiece, carving a great, tantalizing valley out of bluffs and prairie.
At the Little Missouri in the North Unit, in one very particular way, the continent cleaves itself in half. Here the north bank of the river marks the Central Time Zone, while the south bank marks Mountain Time.
Image: Sean M. Santos
Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.
– Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the United States, 1905
Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.
– John Muir, July 1890
It was the afternoon of Friday, September 12. After our picnic at the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” as it has been called, Sean and I were keen to continue on to the final destination of our journey through the Dakotas, the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
From the Elkhorn, we drove west up the bluffs and back into the the Little Missouri National Grassland, administered by the Forest Service under the “multiple use doctrine” advanced by Gifford Pinchot, its first chief. Pinchot also successfully advocated moving the National Forests from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture so that they could be managed as a commodity. While commercial drilling for shale oil is prohibited in National Parks, National Forests, including the Little Missouri National Grassland, are exempted from such prohibitions. Many of the oil wells encroaching on Theodore Roosevelt National Park are on land administered by the Forest Service.
The image above is both particular in that it is literally on the doorstep of Elkhorn Ranch and also generally representative of the wearily monotonous pump jacks and burn-off plumes found throughout the oil patch of the Bakken. Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grassland that surround it sit atop a vast oil reserve known as the Bakken shale deposit for the farmer on whose land oil was first discovered in the 1950s.
Late Friday morning, September 12, we headed out from Medora under a glorious North Dakota sky to the Park’s Elkhorn Ranch Unit, site of Theodore Roosevelt’s primary ranch during his time in the Badlands. Our intention was to make the drive out, eat a picnic lunch, and then continue on along the Forest Service roads of the Little Missouri National Grassland to the North Unit. Handsome Ranger Michael had recommended that a picnic was the perfect way to experience the solitude of the Elkhorn
Since Roosevelt’s first arrival in Dakota Territory and enthusiastic purchase of the Maltese Cross Ranch south of Medora in September 1883, his world had been shattered. Days after the birth of his baby daughter, both Roosevelt’s beautiful young wife, Alice, and his mother died of unrelated illnesses in the same house on the same night, Valentine’s Day 1884. The young New York State Assemblyman was devastated. “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote in his journal. He withdrew from the social life of New York City he had enjoyed with Alice and shifted his attentions resolutely toward the Dakotas.
Refreshed by our lunch, we discussed what to do next. It was Thursday, September 11. We had an afternoon and a morning left in the South Unit before heading to the North Unit the following afternoon. We also wanted to see Elkhorn Ranch. We decided to save the ranch for the next day, planning to visit it on the way to the North Unit. For the afternoon, we’d hike to the park’s petrified forest out in the western portion of the South Unit.
We stopped at the C-Store. Virtually every time we were in Medora we stopped at the C-Store. I believe that this was the time we discovered Dot’s Pretzels, locally made seasoned pretzel rods. The fellow who works at the C-Store who is originally from Eugene, Oregon, recommended them to us.
To get to the petrified forest, we would have to hike through the South Unit’s designated wilderness. We had two options: ford the Little Missouri River at the campground and climb the bluffs or drive out of the park and into the Little Missouri National Grassland, starting the hike at the park’s western boundary. Since the Little Missouri was obviously high, there was really no choice.
After spending the morning of Thursday, September 11 driving and hiking around the South Unit, Sean and I drove into Medora for lunch. On our way out of the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center, mostly to use the restroom, but also to have a look around.
While we were browsing in the bookstore, a ranger called that a tour was about to begin of the Maltese Cross Cabin. At first we ignored the call as a group of about a dozen visitors gathered around the ranger. We figured that we’d check out the cabin later after lunch.
The ranger began to give his talk there in the center, and we listened in as we continued to look at patches and pins and postcards. He briefly covered Theodore Roosevelt’s early life in New York and at Harvard before diving into the young man’s experiences in the Badlands, the incredulous reaction the locals had of him as a “New York dude,” and his motivations for heading west.
When Roosevelt first arrived in the Badlands in September 1883, his goal was little more than to hunt bison before they were extinct. But this was far from Roosevelt’s first foray into the wilderness. He’d been hunting in Minnesota and the far eastern edge of Dakota Territory a couple years earlier with his brother. More substantially, he’d spent a series of trips in the backwoods of Maine, developing an abiding love of the outdoors.
The ranger, whose name was Michael, asked his audience about their motivations in coming to Theodore Roosevelt National Park that afternoon. Sean and I were the only ones who, although not part of the audience proper, raised their hands when Ranger Michael broached the restorative power of nature. He encouraged us to join the tour, which we did.
The second half of our tour of Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit’s loop road comprised two short nature hikes: Coal Vein Trail and Ridgeline Nature Trail. Throughout the park, we found the interpretive brochures consistently well-stocked, well-written, and informative. Kudos to the park staff and volunteers. Sean delighted in reading the brochures aloud in his radio voice.
The sky had grown insistently moody by the time we reached the parking lot for Coal Vein Trail, a 0.8-mile loop in the western part of the South Unit. It was here that a coal vein slowly burned for twenty-six years (1951-1977). While it has been out slightly longer than I have been alive, the evidence is captured in the rock, and the vein is clearly visible at points along the trail.
Nowhere, not even at sea, does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly never-ending plains; and after a man has lived a little while on or near them, their very vastness and loneliness and their melancholy monotony have a strong fascination for him. The landscape seems always the same, and after the traveler has plodded on for miles and miles he gets to feel as if the distance was indeed boundless. As far as the eye can see there is no break; either the prairie stretches out into perfectly level flats, or else there are gentle, rolling slopes, whose crests mark the divide between the drainage systems of the different creeks; and when one of these is ascended, immediately another precisely like it takes its place in the distance, and so roll succeeds roll in a succession as interminable as that of the waves of the ocean.
– Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman
At more than 46,000 acres, the South Unit is the largest of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It lies immediately north of the town of Medora and I-94 and is therefore by far the most visited of the three. A 36-mile scenic loop road allows motorists from the interstate to easily take in the sites, grab a bite or some gas in Medora, and be on their way across the continent. The loop road was the first thing on our agenda after breakfast on Thursday, September 11.
On September 8, 1883, twenty-four-year-old Theodore Roosevelt traveled from his New York home to the Little Missouri badlands of western Dakota Territory so that he could hunt a buffalo before they were extinguished from the Great Plains. He arrived in the middle of the night at the depot in Little Missouri near the Montana border. Exhausted, he found lodging on a cot in a bunkhouse hotel near the tracks. Next morning, the young Harvard grad, up-and-coming in the New York legislature, whose wife back east was expecting their first child, would hire a local guide and set out on what he would later term “the romance of my life.”
On September 10, 2014, after Sean and I completed our hike at Devils Tower National Monument, we were ready to head to North Dakota for the second half of our Dakotas adventure. We did, however, need to make a brief pit stop back in Rapid City. Sean had inadvertently purchased two tops and no bottoms for his new long underwear (necessary since the temperatures in western North Dakota were expected to dip into the 30s and the region was under a frost advisory). So back we went to Rapid City.