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Archive for the ‘North Dakota’ Category

Continuing our sculpture tour of the Lewis & Clark trail, let’s take a look at the Lewis & Clark monuments to be found in the Great Plains states.

"First Council" Monument at Fort Atkinson State Park, Nebraska, by Oreland C. Joe (2003)

This interesting monument depicts the first meeting between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with the Native Americans. The captains, along with their dog Seaman and an interpreter (whose name was recorded by Clark as “Fairfong”), met with Shon-go-ton-go and We-the-e of the Missouria-Oto tribes. The sculptor, Oreland C. Joe, is himself a Native American of Navajo and Ute descent.

"Spirit of Discovery" by Pat Kennedy (2002) stands in front of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa

Does this imposing statue look familiar? It should if you read Lewis & Clark in Sculpture, Part 1. It is identical to the statue that stands on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri. I read on the Internet (so it must be true) that there were three castings of this sculpture. Where is the other one? Let me know in the comments!

"Pointing the Way" by Tom Palmerton at the entrance of the Missouri River Basin Visitors' Center in Nebraska City.

I can’t seem to discover much about this monument. Anyone who knows more about its story and when it was dedicated is cordially invited to comment!

Mary poses with Tom Neary's "Mandan Winter" (2004) at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota

This is truly one of my favorite Lewis & Clark sculptures. When we first arrived at the Interpretive Center (gateway to Fort Mandan and a huge milestone on our Lewis & Clark travels), it was raining lightly, and the powerful impression of the sculpture of the two captains with Sheheke of the Mandans (Big White), brought to mind some lyrics from a favorite song:

I could almost see them standin’ in the rain
Their brown and blinded faces reflecting all the pain
And all the cars and people, passing by
And all the ringing memories that can make a banjo cry

Also, visit sculptor Neary’s site for some great photos of the fabrication of this statue and a separate one of Seaman that is near the replica fort.

Explorers at the Marias, by Bob Scriver (1976). This statue stands along the Missouri River in Fort Benton, Montana.

The sculpture at left by Bob Scriver depicts Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea at “Decision Point,” as they make the critical decision at a huge fork in the river as to which branch is the true Missouri and will lead them further to the west. There is some interesting history behind this monument. The site was selected as Montana’s official state memorial to the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1925. However, no money was ever appropriated to proceed. In 1972, the community of Fort Benton began a fundraising project that resulted in $400,000 and a commission to Bob Scriver, a sculptor mostly known for his western bronzes. The research for the Fort Benton work led Scriver to a life-long obsession with Lewis & Clark.

York, Seaman, Lewis & Clark gaze westward in Bob Scriver's "Explorers at the Portage" (1989) in Great Falls

Scriver’s prominence only grew with the passing years, and in 1989 he created this bronze for the city of Great Falls in honor of the centennial of Montana statehood.

If anyone has any additional details about these statues, or I have missed any in the Great Plains states (South Dakota, where are you?), please let me know. I’d also welcome any comments on how the summer floods affected these sites. In the final installment of this series, we will visit the statues from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

For more reading:

Lewis & Clark road trip: The Nebraska Trail
Lewis & Clark road trip:  The Sioux City Interpretive Center
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Mandan
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Benton, Montana

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Having just endured the hottest, driest summer ever recorded in Central Texas, I admit I feel a certain reverse kinship with Lewis and Clark regarding the long, cold winter they spent at Fort Mandan. The winter of 1805-1805 was bitterly cold on the Dakota frontier. Clark started off the month of December noting in his journal that the days were “cold & windey,” “a Cloudy raw day,” and “a Cold raw morning … with some snow.” On December 6, Clark noted, “The wind blew violently hard from the N, N W. with Some Snow    the air Keen and Cold. The Thermometer at 8 oClock A, M, Stood at 10 dgs. above 0—.”

"Hunting with Sheheke: 'White Coyote' And An Expedition Member Approach Ft. Mandan Winter 1804-1805," by Michael Haynes

"Hunting with Sheheke: 'White Coyote' And An Expedition Member Approach Ft. Mandan Winter 1804-1805," by Michael Haynes

Unfortunately, it was only the beginning. The next day, Clark wrote:

The weather so excesive Cold wolves plenty, we only saved 5 of them, I with a party turned on the 8th out and found the Buffalow at 7 ms. distant    Killed 8 & a Deer, I returned with 2 Cows leaving men with remaining meat—    Several men badly frost bit—    The Themormeter Stood this morning at 44 d. below Breizing [freezing].

With temperatures dipping to – 44°F, frostbite became a major concern for Lewis and Clark. According to Or Perish in the Attempt by Dr. David J. Peck, frostbite occurs when the skin’s temperature drops to 24.8°F, the freezing point of pure, undiluted water. At that point, the fluids inside and outside the skin freeze, blood vessels spasm and leak fluid into the surrounding tissues, and circulation of blood slows down or even ceases altogether. In severe frostbite cases, the tissues are so oxygen-starved that major tissue damage occurs and the tissues can actually “die.” In milder cases, the skin becomes red, swollen, blistered, and extremely painful.

1804 was long before the age of Gore-Tex, silk underwear, and goose-down coats. Lewis and Clark’s men had only buckskins, flannel shirts, wool trousers and army coats to protect them from the severe cold, putting them at serious risk. Furthermore, because of the necessity of hunting, guard duty, and fatigue work, they could not always limit their exposure to the damp, blustery winds, deep snow, and sub-zero temperatures. Despite Lewis and Clark’s measures to protect them – the captains rotated Fort Mandan’s guards every half-hour at one point — many of the men suffered from frostbite on their hands, feet, and ears. At one point, poor York was even forced to contend with “a little” frostbite on his penis. It was no wonder. On December 17, Clark recorded a mind-blowing, bone-shaking 74° below zero.

Winter at the Mandan villages, 1804-1805

Winter at the Mandan villages, 1804-1805

Under such extreme conditions, Lewis and Clark’s men were not the only ones suffering from the colder-than-average temperatures. The Native Americans were also feeling the cold. Clark reported on January 10, 1805:

The Indians of the lower Villages turned out to hunt for a man & a boy who had not returnd from the hunt of yesterday, and borrowd a Slay to bring them in expecting to find them frosed to death    about 10 oclock the boy about 13 years of age Came to the fort with his feet frosed and had layen out last night without fire with only a Buffalow Robe to Cover him, the Dress which he wore was a pr of Cabra (antelope) Legins, which is verry thin and mockersons—    we had his feet put in Cold water and they are Comeing too—

Lewis was the boy’s primary care physician, and regrettably, there was not a whole lot he could do to warm the boy’s feet and restore circulation. The boy hobbled around for a couple of weeks before the tissue on his feet started to turn black and it was clear the damaged tissue on his feet would never heal. The only recourse was frontier surgery.

On January 27, Clark wrote in his journal, “Capt Lewis took of the Toes of one foot of the Boy who got frost bit Some time ago.” Four days later, he made another entry: “Sawed off the boys toes.” It seemed the unlucky patient had lost more of his metatarsals. Fortunately, the boy escaped gangrene, infection, or further surgery. Less than a month later, on February 23, Clark recorded, “The father of the Boy whose feet were frose near this place, and nearly Cured by us took him home in a Slay—.”

By that time, the Corps of Discovery was already looking westward. They had begun to hack the keelboat and pirogues out of the ice. By February 25, Clark noted in his journal that “The Day has been exceedingly pleasant.” The worst of winter was over, and the men were anxiously looking forward to proceeding on.

More interesting reading: The Little Ice Age

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The ongoing flooding disaster along the Missouri River in the Great Plains and Midwest is a sobering reminder of man’s tenuous relationship with nature. Despite all our engineering feats and illusion of control, the earth still conjures up torrential rains, ice packs and snowmelts that make our levies and floodgates look pretty puny indeed.

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

The evacuation and inundation of Minot, North Dakota – just the latest community to go under – calls to mind the horrific Missouri River flood of 1993, which destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated millions of acres of farmland, halted river and rail transport, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. As the flood and its consequences roll downstream, we may be looking at an awful repeat.

For some perspective on the 1993 flood and some background on the more recent state of the Missouri River, I recommend a thoughtful book called Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark, by water resources consultant Tom Mullen. (We had the pleasure of meeting Tom on a Lewis and Clark trip along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2005, where he was the guest historian.)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Around 2002,  Tom returned to the United States after years of helping developing countries set up water systems overseas. As a way of easing his “reentry” into life in the United States, Tom went on a six-month, cross country odyssey – following the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, the Missouri and the Columbia.

Along the way, Tom talked to dozens of people who live and work along those rivers: farmers, waitresses, small-town historians, freight boat captains, ecologists, Native Americans, Fish and Wildlife employees, dam operators. As the context for his conversations, Tom asked the people about the floods of 1993 and 1997 that devastated the areas along the Missouri River. He also asked them how the building of dams in the 50’s and 60’s had changed their lives.

The result is a fascinating picture of the effect on lives and ecosystems when man attempts to harness nature. What Tom found out is that we have made terrific strides in using the power of the rivers for energy production, literally making it possible to “make the desert bloom.” On the other hand, dams and levies have tamed wild areas of the river along the Lower Missouri, making river channels deeper and more consistent, the current faster, and commerce more predictable – but also making for fast rising waters in times of flood. Development and dams further up the Missouri have provided power for residents but destroyed unique wildlife habitat along the rivers, with surprising consequences. They have also cut Native American tribes off from an important part of their culture.

There are tradeoffs everywhere, and one of the most refreshing things about this book is that Tom does not attempt to moralize. Reading this book is like taking a rambling road trip with a friend. You might not think of water management as a fascinating topic, but your eyes will be opened by the effect of the great rivers on the communities that live along them. Especially at a time when the devastating power of water and our inability to control it is all too evident.

I-29 in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

I-29 barely above water in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

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The Missouri River flooding in Omaha, Nebraska. That is Interstate 29 underwater. Photo by Larry Geiger.

Though we usually don’t cover current events on this blog, no Lewis & Clark aficionado can ignore the incredible scale of the flooding now taking place on the Missouri River. In the past few weeks, the upper Missouri basin has received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall. In addition, the forecast snow melt runoff is 212 percent of normal across the upper portion of the river system. The result has been massive flooding across Montana, the Dakotas, and now Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. The Gavins Point Dam floodgates near Yankton, South Dakota, are pouring out enough water to cover a football field with 156 of water every one minute.

For more of Larry Geiger’s photos of the incredible flooding, please visit his slideshow page.

The Great Missouri Flood of 2011

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Napi, the creator god of the Blackfoot Indians

The exact origins of American Indians have always been somewhat controversial. Most of us grew up with the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago. Recent archeological evidence, however, indicates that people may have lived in the Americas much longer. Most Native American tribes have origin myths that defy conventional science; as a Nez Perce park ranger told me once, “Those other tribes may have come across the Bering Strait, but we were always here.”

At the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went west, the great minds of the day had already begun to ponder the origins of the Native Americans and grapple with the idea that they had originated elsewhere in the distant past. Some even believed the Indians to be the so-called “Lost Tribe of Israel.” When Lewis & Clark were assigned to collect Indian vocabularies, the intention, as Jefferson later wrote, was “to publish the whole, and leave the world to search for affinities between these and the languages of Europe and Asia.” In April 1805, Captain Lewis sent back a total of 14 Indian vocabularies he had taken in the Great Plains, and over the course of the journey through the Rockies and to the Pacific Ocean, he recorded nine more.

It’s important to remember that before Lewis & Clark headed into the west, no one knew quite what they would encounter. That was the whole point of the exercise after all. So to modern eyes, some of the speculation that preceded their journey seems ludicrous today. Live mammoths wandering around the Great Plains? Not exactly. A giant mountain made of pure salt? (No, but Utah’s got a lake that fills the bill). Blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians? You don’t say, Mr. Jefferson.

Boy sits in a traditional Welsh coracle, 1865

Since the 1500s, shortly after the discovery of the New World, Welsh patriots had promoted the story that a Welsh prince named Madoc had discovered America in 1170, some three centuries before Christopher Columbus shouted Land ho. Supposedly, Madoc landed somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, he and his men made their way up the Missouri River where their fair-skinned descendants lived on. Even today, there are still adherents running around claiming to have proof that this or that tribe–usually the Mandans of North Dakota–are descended from the Welsh.

After all, the Mandans were light-skinned and sometimes fair-haired, and they lived in large walled towns. Obviously Welsh, right? But proof via a linguistic connection proved disappointing. In 1796, the Spanish sponsored an expedition up the Missouri in order to bolster their claims to Louisiana (an incident that we enjoyed dramatizing in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe). One of the leaders of the expedition, John Evans, was Welsh and spoke the language; he discovered no link between Mandan and Welsh.

Lewis and Clark wintered among the Mandans a decade later and documented their customs thoroughly. Like Evans, they did not believe their friends to be of Welsh descent, though Clark did later tell artist George Catlin that he would find the Mandans to be “a strange people and half white.” Though Clark probably meant that the Mandans lived a settled and highly sophisticated existence, Catlin seems to have taken him seriously. In the 1830s, when Catlin visited the Mandans and created his famous portraits and landscapes, he became convinced of their Welsh heritage, probably the last observer of any repute to promote the theory.

Mandan Bull Boats and Lodges, by George Catlin (1832). Catlin thought the boats very similar to the traditional Welsh vessels.

It’s unknown whether Jefferson, Lewis, or Clark took the Welsh Indian speculation seriously, but what is certain is that some of their men did. Consider these journal entries from September 1805, when the Corps of Discovery encountered the Salish (Flathead) Indians near modern-day Missoula, Montana:

These natives are well dressed, decent looking Indians, light complexioned. They are dressed in mountain sheep leather, deer & buffalo robes &c. They have the most curious language of any we have seen before. They talk as though they lisped or have a burr on their tongue. We suppose that they are the Welch Indians if there is any such from the language. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 4, 1805

Our officers took down some of their language, found it very troublesome speaking to them as all they say to them has to go through six languages, and hard to make them understand. These natives have the strangest language of any we have ever yet seen. They appear to us as though they had an impediment in their speech or brogue on their tongue. We think perhaps that they are the Welch Indians, &c. They are the likeliest and most honest we have seen and are very friendly to us. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 5, 1805

We take these savages to be the Welch Indians if there be any such from the language. So Capt. Lewis took down the names of everything in their language in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they sprung or originated first from the Welch or not. – Private Joseph Whitehouse, September 6, 1805

With all due respect to any die-hard fans out there, the Welsh Indian theory eventually died out due to being utter nonsense. No historical basis for Madoc or his journey has ever been found, and no linguistic or cultural similiarities bear up to scrutiny. As for the light-complexion of the Mandans, even Catlin admitted that no more than 20% of villagers were fair — no more than the variation in complexion to be found in any ethnic group, from Viennese to Vietnamese.

More reading: Mandan is not Welsh (from Language Geek)

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Of all the animals the men of the Corps of Discovery encountered on their expedition, the most formidable of all was the Ursus horribilus, better known as the grizzly bear. Lewis and Clark were no stranger to bears, having grown up hunting the grizzly’s smaller cousin, the black bear, which was then commonly found across along the east coast. Intrigued by the Mandan Indians’ formidable description of the animal they called the “white bear,” they were eager to try their hand at hunting this fabled beast.

Grizzly bear

Ursus horribilus, the Grizzly Bear

Lewis and Clark began to see signs of the grizzly shortly after they left Fort Mandan in April 1805. Lewis reported seeing “tracks of the white bear of enormous size” along the Missouri, along with mangled buffalo carcasses on which the bear were feeding. The first grizzlies they spotted ran away, giving the Corps a false sense of security. They killed their first grizzly on April 29, 1805, an immature male of about 300 pounds. Lewis bragged in his journal, “the Indians may well fear this anamal equiped as they generally are with their bows and arrows or indifferent fuzees, but in the hands of skillfull riflemen they are by no means as formidable or dangerous as they have been represented.”

Subsequent encounters would prove otherwise. On May 5, William Clark and George Droulliard killed an enormous grizzly bear, with some effort. Clark described it as a “verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill    we Shot ten Balls into him before we killed him, & 5 of those Balls through his lights.” Lewis estimated the weight of the bear at 500-600 pounds, about twice the size of the average black bear.  He noted that after the bear was shot, “he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died; he did not attempt to attack, but fled and made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.” Once the bear finally died, they butchered it for meat, bear oil, and its thick furry skin. Sobered by the size and ferocity of the bear, Lewis wrote, “I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal.”

Captain Clark shooting a bear

Captain Clark shoots a bear (illustration from Sgt. Gass's Journal)

A few days later Private Bratton narrowly escaped after being chased half a mile by a bear he had wounded through the lungs. Lewis sent a party in pursuit, which found the bear “perfectly alive.” They finally killed it with two shots to the skull. By this time, Lewis’s bravado had all but disappeared. “This bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear; there is no other chance to conquer them by a single shot but by shooting them through the brains… the flece and skin were as much as two men could possibly carry.”

On May 14, six men from the Corps of Discovery, “all good hunters,” came upon another grizzly  bear lying in the open about 300 paces from the river. Lewis described what happened next:

they took the advantage of a small eminence which concealed them and got within 40 paces of him unperceived, two of them reserved their fires as had been previously conscerted, the four others fired nearly at the same time and put each his bullet through him, two of the balls passed through the bulk of both lobes of his lungs, in an instant this monster ran at them with open mouth, the two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him as he came towards them, boath of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder, this however only retarded his motion for a moment only, the men unable to reload their guns took to flight, the bear pursued and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river; two of the party betook themselves to a canoe and the others seperated an concealed themselves among the willows, reloaded their pieces, each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity they struck him several times again but the guns served only to direct the bear to them, in this manner he pursued two of them seperately so close that they were obliged to throw aside their guns and pouches and throw themselves into the river altho’ the bank was nearly twenty feet perpendicular; so enraged was this anamal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled take refuge in the water, when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him; they then took him on shore and butchered him when they found eight balls had passed through him in different directions.

Grizzly bear talons

Lewis measured grizzly bear talons at over 4 1/2 inches in length

That wasn’t the end of the Corps’ close encounters with grizzlies. Lewis recorded that George Droulliard was very nearly caught by a bear on June 2. On June 14, Lewis himself was out hunting when he came face to face with one of the animals he called “these gentlemen:”

I selected a fat buffaloe and shot him very well, through the lungs; while I was gazeing attentively on the poor anamal discharging blood in streams from his mouth and nostrils, expecting him to fall every instant, and having entirely forgotton to reload my rifle, a large white, or reather brown bear, had perceived and crept on me within 20 steps before I discovered him; in the first moment I drew up my gun to shoot, but at the same instant recolected that she was not loaded and that he was too near for me to hope to perform this opperation before he reached me, as he was then briskly advancing on me; it was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me; the river bank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water; in short there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster untill I could charge my rifle; in this situation I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing untill I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner terned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water    the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defence he sudonly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me.

Lewis climbed back on shore, no doubt with his legs trembling, as he watched the bear run away at full speed. “The cause of his allarm still remains with me misterious and unaccountable,” Lewis wrote. Still, he counted his blessings: “So it was, and I feelt myself not a little gratifyed that he had declined the combat.”

In the end, the Corps learned that grizzlies were best avoided, though it didn’t stop an incensed bear from treeing Private Gibson during the return journey in 1806.

Private Gibson in a tree

Private Gibson treed by a bear (illustration from Sgt. Gass's Journal)

Favorite bear joke:

In Montana, tourists are warned to wear tiny bells on their clothing when hiking in bear country. The bells warn away MOST bears. Tourists are also cautioned to watch the ground along the trail, paying particular attention to bear droppings to be alert for the presence of grizzly bears.

How can you tell a grizzly bear dropping?

It has tiny bells in it.

Grizzly bear sign

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A great day!

We had breakfast and bid adoo to the Comfort Inn, then gassed up, bagged some grub for lunch, and headed for points west. As we left Bismarck behind, the scenery began to change from the prairie and river valleys of the Missouri country to a drier, more desert-like country with interesting sculpted buttes. We were entering the breathtaking badlands of North Dakota.

Painted Canyon Overlook, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is heralded by the Painted Canyon Overlook, a large highway pullout where you can preview the stark, rugged, multi-colored buttes and marvel at giant rock formations as far as the eye can see. A few weeks after returning home, we watched the Ken Burns documentary on national parks, and this site was the one that kept coming to mind as the talking heads rhapsodized over the transcendent experiences available at national parks. I couldn’t help wondering if any of these people had ever actually visited a national park. If so, I’d like to know their secret for contemplating nature while sharing the grandeur with a busload of screaming, giggling teenage girls snapping cell-phone pix of their male counterparts pretending to hump one another.

Theodore Roosevelt on a cattle roundup, 1883.

With courage undaunted, we proceeded on through the cute western town of Medora to the main entrance of the park. Towering buttes surround the visitors’ center, where we watched a short film and saw some good exhibits about Theodore Roosevelt and his time in the Dakota ranchland in the 1880s. Roosevelt, a 25-year-old Harvard graduate and scion of one of the wealthiest families in New York, came out west on a hunting trip while trying to cope with crushing grief — his mother had died suddenly of kidney disease on the same day that his wife died giving birth to the couple’s first child.

Roosevelt ended up falling in love with the place, buying into some ranching ventures and living in the Dakotas for several years. In this forge of personal tragedy and hard, adventurous work, he quite literally became a different person. Not only was he more rugged physically, but he eventually returned to New York braver, more confident, and commanding beyond his years. Roosevelt often said that if not for his time in the Dakotas, he would never have been president. We got to see some of his guns, his western clothing, the shirt he was wearing when he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1912, and the tiny “Maltese Cross” cabin where he had his ranch headquarters in 1883.

The spectacular beauty of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Then it was off into the park on the spectacular scenic drive. It’s hard to describe the beauty of the rugged canyons and splendid, fantastical mountains here. Roosevelt used the phrase “savage beauty.” All around us we saw striated buttes and amazing eroded rock formations. After stopping for a while to watch cute prairie dogs squeaking and playing around their burrows, we had lunch in a beautiful cottonwood grove near the Little Missouri River.

More grandeur at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park drive is 36 miles of great overlooks and scenes that just seem to build and build. In some places, red scoria rock was visible, the product of lignite coal fires burning far underground, which bakes the rocks to a bricklike red. We spied some antelope (or possibly muledeer — hard to tell) tiptoeing along a ridgetop, and  thrilled to the sight of a lone buffalo high on a grassy hill, eating grass and twirling his tail.

View of the Little Missouri River at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Every stop had a new explosion of wildflowers. Wild horses roamed within view, though in a reminder that this was reality, not paradise, we also saw a horse down near the road. One of many highlights was a short hike through Wind Canyon, a spectacular site with the Little Missouri River running through a beautiful canyon carved with rugged rock formations. Here we saw two antelope race along the hills opposite, while another crossed the park roadway right in front of us.

Maybe Ken Burns’s talking heads are right after all. This is a great place, even if you do have to listen to your fellow Americans bicker with their kids amidst the beauty. Compared to some national parks I’ve visited, it wasn’t even that crowded (the North Dakota location isn’t “on the way” anyplace else). I loved thinking about Teddy Roosevelt coming here to heal his broken heart, and the way this land shaped his character and the destiny of our nation.

Buffalo taking their ease near Peaceful Valley, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The amazing grand finale was yet to come. As we neared an old ranch site called Peaceful Valley, where they outfit visitors for trail rides, we came upon a herd of 15-20 buffalo! This herd appeared to be mothers and calves, some lying around in the grass, others grazing and posing for the nickel. Some were close enough to the road that you could have reached out and touched them (if you were a damned fool). Once so ubiquitous on the plains, a few hundred once again roam free in this park. I was thrilled to see these magnificent animals alive and doing so well.

Wowed beyond belief, we did ourselves proud in the gift shop, then reluctantly made our turn for the south and peeled out for our overnight stop in Bowman. We stayed at a cute, comfortable motel called the North Winds Lodge, and on the owner’s recommendation, ate supper at a steakhouse in town called the Hawk’s Landing. This meal turned out to be the best one of the entire trip — a real feast of coconut shrimp and cajun pasta with chicken, shrimp, and sausage. Highly recommended!

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is truly the equal of anything this country has to offer. What a fun and satisfying day.

For more reading, check out Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands from the National Park Service.

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