Off to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Crossing the border in early June into my 50thvisited state, North Dakota, we were astounded by endless miles of space with lush green fields, and thousands of chalky white mounds, some of them freshly plowed for wheat—good-old North Dakota wheat. The night before we had camped in Custer State Park, South Dakota (with its huge herd of buffalo), but today our destination was much farther north, all the way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the Montana/North Dakota border.

Crossing the border

 After what seemed like an endless drive on US 85, we at last arrived at Interstate 94 to proceed for only a dozen miles westward to stop at Painted Canyon Overlook and take a gander at the immense space of heavily eroded sandstone mounds and cliffs and juniper brush with scores of chirping western sparrows to greet us at this eastern end of the national park. No wonder a young and frail Teddy Roosevelt seemed to be so overwhelmed by this spacious terrain. His father reminded him too often back in Long Island that he was a sickly weakling. Thankfully his father’s wealth supported Teddy’s going west,  providing him with necessary funds.

 But, as he wrote, his years spent cattle ranching in the wilds of North Dakota helped to form his character and to strengthen him physically and spiritually to become one of America’s greatest presidents and one who admired wild Nature so much that he would also become a noted conservationist who signed into law many of our spectacular western national parks. But this one, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, was established in his honor years after his presidency (1901-1909) in 1936. 

 We soon found our spot in Cottonwood Campground along the gently flowing Little Missouri River. After setting up camp, we headed out on a drive along the fifty-mile loop to stop at a turn-around construction site and take a nice trail out to the old 1936 entrance to the park off old highway 10 long before the interstate was built. We trekked through rolling fields of sagebrush underneath eroded humps of red and gray sandstone which (we were later told) would eventually erode into level plains for future wheat farms, who knows?

Old entrance station 1936

 Walking along, we noticed hundreds of wee mounds of prairie dog towns, each one guarded by a squeaking little creature standing on his hind legs and wagging his black tail to warn his clan of rattlesnakes or of low-gliding hawks. Within fifteen minutes we arrived at a brown sandstone-block wall and a similarly built entrance station where old-time tourists were greeted after their long car trip from distant states.  Now, high mounds, some forested with dwarf pines, surrounded us looking as they did for young Teddy Roosevelt back in the 1880’s. This magical terrain certainly grows on you and gets into your blood.

 We headed back to the camper bus to return to our Cottonwood Campground past several lone buffalo (bison) either resting or grazing on lush blue-stem grass. The sky that evening shone brightly with the Big Dipper slanting downward toward the Earth. Cool breezes rustled the leaves of aged cottonwood trees with deeply creviced bark looking almost prehistoric.

 I arose early the next morning to sit with my coffee and watch western meadow larks with bright yellow breasts chirp and flutter in the branches above me. I then took a wee ramble along the Little Missouri gently flowing northward toward the “Mighty Mo” navigated by Lewis and Clark some eighty years before Teddy Roosevelt appeared on the scene in 1883 months before his thirtieth birthday. Bushes laced with white clusters of chokecherry blossoms fluttered in the wind. A few mule deer grazed on the opposite shoreline where golden banner flowers bent in the wind.

 After more coffee and some cereal my friend Jim and I packed our gear and headed back to Denver by way of another night in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But not before our stop at the park visitor center in Medora where Theodore Roosevelt’s little ranch house, the “Maltese Cross,” stood in a back courtyard. A ranger explained that this ranch house was built with ponderosa pine logs (longer lasting than local cottonwood).

Maltese Cross log ranch house

 But where did they get ponderosa logs? The ranger explained that his ranch hands discovered a bunch of ponderosa logs floating down the distant Missouri River. They must have come from a lumber camp in Montana and had somehow broken loose from an upstream log-jam. They used these logs (dragged by horses) to build this smaller first home.  Eventually, Teddy moved to a second, much larger ranch house built with softer cottonwood logs at Elk Horn farther north. This larger home did not stand the test of time. 

We entered the cabin to see a living room with a writing desk and two rocking chairs that young Teddy favored. On the opposite side of the hallway we peered into the kitchen with a huge wood-burning stove near a table set with shiny china dishware. The ranger said that ranch workers slept upstairs in the attic after a hard day of cattle ranching. It was this life style that hardened a young future President from Long Island and that gave him a strong appreciation for hard work in rugged and wild Nature. Had it not been for his experience in North Dakota, Teddy wrote that he would never have become President.

Landscapes of TR National Park

 A look-alike Teddy with a big mustache and steal-rimmed spectacles approached to greet us to his ranch here in the wilds of North Dakota. I chuckled and told him to keep a close eye on those frackers searching for riches of natural gas, and he smiled to say, “Will do.” So ended our three-day adventure of going up to North Dakota to log my fiftieth state of these United States.

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