Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

I didn’t get any photos here.  Sorry for the unbelievable negligence.  This is where former President Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed his first outdoor adventures.  Roosevelt hunted bison here in the 19th century, enduring 7 consecutive days of rain before shooting one.  The Park Service’s historical writings describe Roosevelt as an “inexperienced dude from New York” on this outing.  He established two cattle ranches in the vicinity.  One can still walk to the site of Teddy’s main ranch house, though nothing remains of the structure.  Historians credit Roosevelt’s experiences in this area for ultimately inspiring him to establish the U.S. National Park System.

When I arrived in town traffic was backed up half a mile from the park entrance.  I thought I might encounter thick crowds, but a ranger explained it was just a town parade.  He said the park receives 10% of the visitation at Yellowstone, and this was my experience.  Road traffic was light, and I didn’t see anyone else hiking the trails.

The park is a more colorful version of South Dakota’s famous badlands.  Said color is provided by a distinctive mix of juniper trees, deciduous shrubs, and grasses carpeting the several hundred foot tall dirt mounds and treacherous gullies.  Wild bison abound throughout the park and are easily seen from the road.  I watched herds of large adults shepherding calves small enough to sit in a person’s lap.

Burning coal beds, ignited by lighting or wildfire, were present under some of the dirt mounds into the 1950’s.  The soil is composed of bentonite clay and is known to become extraordinarily slippery and soft following a hard rain.  Substantial rain fell on the area while I was there, and I had no trouble walking the trails or driving the dirt roads.

The Little Missouri River National Grassland borders the park.  Dirt roads of varying difficulty interconnect for miles in all directions.  The area sits atop the famous Bakken shale formation.  Oil and gas wells are scattered throughout the grassland.  Cattle ranches are too.  I found a secluded place to camp off one of the many spur roads in the grassland.  My only neighbors were three flaming gas wells, each a long distance away.

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Sand Creek/Tallgrass Prairie Part 3 of 3: Travel Date Nov. 2012

I cross paths with the bison herd no more than 40 minutes from the ranger station.  There are roughly 20 animals grazing and lounging in the center of the trail.  As instructed, I start beating a wide path around them.  I estimate my separation at 50 yards, rather than the recommended 100.  Several of the animals start watching me, and two of them stand up and stare as I pass by them.  After a tense but uneventful moment, I am on my way.  A couple hours later I drag into the parking lot, exhausted.  The parking lot has been packed since my arrival, but I saw only 2 others out hiking.

After wolfing down a bag of raw Brussels sprouts, I head toward home.  On the way I take a detour through the town of Elmdale.  On one side of the street sits an abandoned two-story house, perhaps 1900 square feet, flanked by an ample lawn.  The second story of the house is collapsed into the first, and all the windows are either boarded or visibly broken and clouded from age.  Most of the paint seems to have worn off the exterior, revealing splintered, sagging siding.  A few dustings of chipped white paint accent the otherwise gray and faded wood.  Directly across the street, I observe someone making dinner in an only slightly less dilapidated home.

These are not the prosperous small towns I remember from childhood, when my Dad took me pheasant hunting in farm country.  From eastern Colorado to Eastern Kansas, rural towns are hurting.  The only notable exception is Ness City.  I contemplate how fortunate and grateful I am to be in my given situation.

The small and unbalanced meals I’ve subsisted on for the last 2 days cannot support 13 miles of hiking, and by the time I pull into the Pizza Hut in McPherson I am desperately hungry.  The restaurant is run by high school kids who demonstrate an impressive degree of professionalism, organization, and hustle.  Other diners stare at me as I rapidly consume large amounts of pizza from the buffet.  Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I cut the feast short and hit the road.

Pulling into Goodman State Fishing Lake for the second time in as many days, I notice a shiny white Chevy pickup with its hood open.  Approaching to offer assistance, I find the truck abandoned.  Again, I have the whole lake to myself.

Early on Thanksgiving morning I pull onto the highway for the last few hours’ drive home.  One of the towns just inside the Colorado border has a large display of Christmas decorations, and I stop to look closer.  There are waist-high painted wooden sculptures, trees with ornaments, lights.  Several signs list the businesses that sponsored the setup.  The area does not look dilapidated, it looks prosperous.  This is more like it, I think to myself.  A few hours later I was home, enjoying Thanksgiving with my family.

Sand Creek/Tallgrass Prairie Part 2 of 3: Travel Date Nov. 2012

The first hour into Kansas is more of the same:  idle, brown, deserted short grass prairie occasionally punctuated by a few sagging buildings with chipping paint.  Shortly before dark I arrive in Ness City, an oasis of bustling civilization that I seemed to have left behind forever ago.  It is a small town, but the streets are bustling with cars and people.  The main street is paved entirely with red cobblestones from one end of town to the other.  There are hotels and restaurants, but I decide to make camp at Goodman State Fishing Lake 7 miles south of town.

After setting up camp in the dark the preceding night, I awake to find a lake perhaps 100 yards across ringed with brown grass that towers over my head.  I wonder if this is what awaits me at the Preserve later today.  I had the lake to myself for the entire stay; not bad for free admission.  I drive back to Ness City through green farmland.  A number of commuters are heading to work at the various ag-related businesses.  A short, muscular man and I waived to each other as he stood in the parking lot of a tractor repair facility.  Everyone waves here, and the town feels safe and friendly.

Approaching Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, my primary destination, I stop at a gas station.  An adjoining restaurant is shuttered and out of business.  The cashier is a young blonde woman over 6 feet tall.  I can’t help but notice her wedding ring, as it is one of the biggest and showiest I have seen anywhere.

A week before my trip, I spoke to an enthusiastic young ranger over the telephone who confirmed that the preserve would be open for me 24/7.  He seemed eager for people to experience the park under his charge.  We talked about the proposed cuts to the National Park Service budget.   He thanked me for coming to the Preserve and urged me to “keep showing up” to parks around the nation, as that is their best lobbying.

A different ranger helps me get oriented upon arrival.  He warns me about the aggressive bison herd, from which I should stay at least 100 yards at all times.  The Preserve’s boundary is drawn in the shape of a t-square, 7-12 miles long on each side.  I hike a combination of several trails to form a loop approximately 13 miles long.  The grass, conspicuously, is only knee high in most places.  The ranger says this is due to the drought now several years on.

Sand Creek/Tallgrass Part 1 of 3: Travel Date November 2012

I never heard of anyone taking a vacation to Kansas, so I decided to do it.  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, located in the eastern half of the state, is the closest thing Kansas has to a National Park.  It preserves one of the few remaining tall grasslands in the United States.  Seas of tallgrass stretched across the Midwest for hundreds of miles, according to Preserve literature, until it was destroyed by agriculture and general civilization.

My route from Denver is carefully planned to avoid the interstate in favor of rural highways.  I feel this is the only way to truly experience the plains.  I begin by heading southeast on US 40/287.  The late fall fields are brown with the grasses barely reaching a foot in height.  Passing through the towns of Hugo and Wild Horse, I see hardly a soul among the few small buildings and decaying homes.  As I slow into Kit Carson at lunch time, 4 tumbleweeds blow across Main Street.  There are five cars parked at a restaurant/bar.  That is the only sign of humans I see.

I turn south to my first destination, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near the Kansas border.  A brown single-wide trailer serves as the visitor center.  It is at the end of a round dirt parking lot bordered by leafless cottonwoods.  A tall, burly, elderly ranger ambles over and gives me the rundown.  I hike ¼ mile up a moderate slope to reach the overlook.  Fifty feet below sits the dry bed of Sand Creek.  On the far side thirty- to forty-foot tall cottonwoods with trunks the diameter of wine barrels line the bank among rolling hills.  On the near side, the creek is bordered by sheer dirt cliffs peppered with indentations measuring several feet across.

It was here in November 1864 that a US Cavalry regiment killed hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.  Accounts by the only two officers to hold back their men portray a scene of shocked and defenseless Indians being shot to the last person.  Many took cover around the creek in an attempt to survive.  Looking at the small rolling hills, the cottonwoods, and the cliffs, this is too easy to imagine.  Visitors are prohibited from entering this area of the creek due to its sacred status.  I don’t want to get any closer.  This place emits a strong spiritual feeling that encourages deep reflection and puts a chill into my spine.  I normally don’t have much imagination.  But it is eerily easy here to imagine the events in vivid detail:  the uniforms; the smug looks on the officers’ faces; the gunfire; the Indians shooting their arrows and then digging in with their wives and children.  Upon return to the deserted parking lot, all I could say to the ranger was, “That’s really something.”  He earnestly thanks me for my interest, and I’m soon heading east on Route 96 into Kansas.