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.
We got on I-94 and headed west, following the park’s southern boundary. Along the freeway’s embankment, we saw silver sage growing. Now that we knew what it was, we began looking for a spot that we could gather some.
We exited the freeway and headed north through a patchwork of Forest Service land and private inholdings. Cattle guard fences generally betrayed which was which. We passed herds of them quietly grazing.
We also saw oil wells. While there are no oil wells in the park, they litter the National Grassland and its inholdings all around the park boundaries.
As we pulled into the muddy parking area (just outside the park boundary) for Petrified Forest Trail, there was one other car in the parking lot. Beside it were two women, one of whom was changing her pants. She had pulled on a new pair by the time we parked and climbed out of the Jeep. They were a lesbian couple from Minnesota who had hiked to the petrified forest. The one who had been changing her pants showed us how muddy they were from slipping and sliding on the mud. She asked if we had trekking poles. We said no, and she wished us luck because she thought we wouldn’t get far without them.
We thanked them, shouldered our day packs, and headed for the gate to the park. Looking back, we had misunderstood exactly what they were saying. We’d assumed that they’d been mountain biking on the trail, since they were reattaching bikes to the back of their SUV. In all likelihood, given the experience we were about to have, they had been hiking.
We let ourselves in through the gate and signed the hiking register. There the couple was: Pam and Kathy from Minneapolis.
Ahead of us, the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness stretched for miles. The afternoon had turned resolutely overcast, but the cool temperatures were perfect for hiking.
The first few hundred yards traversed rolling prairie, but then the trail began to climb toward the Petrified Forest Plateau. The path was muddy, with some sections of standing water.
The gumbo mud of the North Dakota badlands is tricky, particularly the day after it rains. It is formed from wet bentonite and its slipperiness isn’t immediately obvious since a dry crust forms over mud, which is still viscous and extremely slippery underneath. As we climbed up the side of the plateau, we crossed a particularly muddy stretch, and we could see a mess of footprints left by hikers who preceded us.
We tried to hug the edges of the trail proper so that we could get traction on the grass along the edges, but the trail widened and steepened, and soon there was no more grassy edge, just gentle drop-offs on either side while the main course rose much more steeply toward the lip of the plateau. Were the ground completely dry, this section of trail would have been nothing. Easily traversed and not thought of again. But on this day, the bottoms of our boots were already caked with layers of sticky mud, which then slipped against the mud on the ground.
Sean was carefully making his way along a route to the right while I tested a route to the left. Suddenly, my feet went out from under me. Luckily, I braced myself and flung myself forward so that I only put my right hand down with a thick splat into the gumbo. My sunglasses fell off into the goo, and my telephoto lens fell out of my pocket into the mud. But I had prevented myself from falling completely into the mess.
I righted myself and carefully picked up my lens and glasses. Sean came over to give me a hand. He took my mud-covered glasses. I held my muddy lens in my muddy right hand…no need to get my left hand muddy too.
We decided to turn back. There really wasn’t a chance we were going to make it up the final steep, muddy fifteen or twenty yards to the top.
In the image above, you can see the stretch of muddy trail, churned up with many footprints.
We carefully made our way back to the prairie portion of the trail. All the while I carried my lens, which was beginning to become glued to my hand as the sticky mud dried.
Back at the car, we washed off my glasses, and I did my best to carefully wash the lens. Ultimately, it was just fine, save for the dried mud that still, nearly six months later, fills its surface nooks and crannies. Luckily, none got into its mechanisms or onto the lens or protective glass.
While I washed my hands and boots, Sean stepped away to a small, lovely silver sage plant and cut some sprigs. Our excuse for snipping some from Forest Service land was that it would probably soon be dug up to make room for an oil well anyway. Dubious logic, certainly, but also in keeping with the problematic spirit of Forest Service land use. The sprigs now hang, dried, on a hemp rope in our front closet.
With our hike to the petrified forest unexpectedly aborted, we found ourselves with the rest of the afternoon to kill. There wasn’t enough time to go out and back to Elkhorn Ranch, and we’d done the top-list hikes we were able to do in the South Unit. So, we decided to go to Montana, since neither of us had ever been there. Specifically, we wanted to see the town of Wibaux, some thirty-four miles west of Medora.
In 1885, what is now the town of Wibaux was known as Mingusville. In early summer of that year (likely, the exact date is unknown), Theodore Roosevelt needed a place to stay while searching for stray horses. He entered Nolan’s Hotel to get a meal and a room.
I was out after lost horses…It was late evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face.
…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as “Four Eyes”, in reference to my spectacles, and said, “Four Eyes is going to treat.” I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, “Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,” and rose, looking past him.
As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head…if he had moved I was about to drop to my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.
– Theodore Roosevelt quoted in Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 1979
Next morning, the ruffian left town on a freight train.
After seeing Wibaux, we headed back toward Medora, noting that the approach to the Little Missouri badlands was just as dramatic from the west as it was from the east. Up on the plateau above the park’s southern entrance, a lone bull bison grazed in the cloudy evening. We watched him, and Sean captured some video of him and the road construction that was ongoing in the park.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Back in camp, we started a fire and tucked in to a dinner of hot dogs and baked beans. As it had the night before, the temperature began falling rapidly. We knew that this night would be even colder than the last.
We climbed into our sleeping bags, and I read Roosevelt’s “The Strenuous Life” speech and his “Speech at Grand Canyon, Arizona, May 6, 1903” before falling asleep.
I awoke before dawn. The heat packets that I’d strewn into my sleeping bag had long since gone out, and I was stiff and chilly, but not cold. Sean was sleeping soundly as I crept out of the tent and slipped on my boots.
The morning was crystalline, and hoarfrost covered the plants. The only sound was the occasional truck on I-94 crossing the bridge over the Little Missouri upstream from the campground. I started coffee in the percolator over the campstove while the morning sun crept down the bluffs to the west.
While the coffee was perking, I walked down to the edge of the river and spotted fresh coyote tracks in the mud by the bank.
I sipped my coffee and waited for Sean to emerge from the tent. When he didn’t, I got restless and decided to take a walk south through the empty walk-in campsites along the river. The morning sunshine, finally falling on the campground, lit the hoarfrost magically.
As I strolled back to our campsite to see if Sean was awake yet, I passed the camper at a site across the main campground road from our site. A small woman in her mid-seventies, dressed against the cold in a sensible fleece and hat, was puttering about, tending to post-breakfast chores.
She called a cheerful “Good morning!” as I emerged onto the road.
“Good morning. It sure is a cold one.”
“Sure is. Were you in a tent last night?” she asked.
“We were. We’re just across there in the small green one.”
“Were you too cold?”
“We were ok. We had little heat packets and we have those warm mummy sleeping bags. This was our second night.”
“We just got here yesterday. We came up from the Black Hills.”
“So did we. Were you there in the snow they got?”
“We headed into Rapid City when it started. You?”
“We went out to Devils Tower so we missed it. We were at Wind Cave until Wednesday morning.”
“Oh that’s a beautiful park,” she said. “Did you go into the cave?”
“We did. How about you?”
“We did too. My husband Angelo has MS. But they accommodated us, and we were able to go down the elevator into the Garden of Eden Room. A ranger took us down for a private tour. And we were down there for forty-five minutes. It was great. Angelo could never have managed a regular tour. He’s mobile, but he gets tired.”
“Oh that’s so great that you were able to see the cave.”
“I’m Brandon. Good to meet you.”
We settled in for a chat, and my usual reticence toward gabbing melted away.
“Are you on a vacation?” Liz asked.
“Yes, we’re doing ten days in the Dakotas, camping and visiting the Parks. We live and work in Chicago.”
“Ah, we’re from Cleveland.”
“Three cheers for the Midwest and the Great Lakes! We’re both from Detroit, originally.”
“We’re practically neighbors.”
“We’re on a mission to visit all fifty-nine National Parks in sixteen years, so this trip will add three.”
“We only have one more Park to go and we’ll have been to all of the National Parks that you can drive to.”
“Oh wow! Which one do you have left?”
“Olympic. That’s where we’re headed. Today we’ll continue on and spend a few days in Yellowstone. Then we’ll continue on through Glacier toward Washington State and to Olympic.”
“We did Olympic a couple years ago. It’s spectacular. We’re headed today to the North Unit, and then it will be time to head back on Sunday. We flew in and out of Sioux Falls and rented a jeep since we don’t have a car in the city.”
“Which is your favorite?” she asked.
“Oh that’s a tough question. I’ll always have a soft spot for Isle Royale since we’re both Michiganders and it’s the park we started the journey with. We were there backpacking with friends in 2011. What about you?”
“It is a tough question. Part of me always wants to say whichever Park I’m in at the moment.”
We both gazed across the river at the multi-hued bluffs in the morning light.
“Have you been to Big Bend?” she asked.
“Oh I love that Park. That is a wonderful Park. We were there last year for my thirty-fifth birthday. I tell people that if you’d told me that I would spend my thirty-fifth birthday in Texas, I’d have told you you were crazy. But that was an incredible Park.”
“We were there at Rio Grande Village for two weeks.”
“Oh I’m envious. We were at Cottonwood, and then backpacked in the mountains and stayed at the lodge.”
“That’s a very special park,” she declared.
We were both silent a moment with our memories.
“Are you going to the North Unit? We’re heading up there today.”
“Ah, we’re not going to make it to the North Unit. I’m just waiting for Angelo to finish washing up, and then we’re going to drive the scenic road for the South Unit before continuing on. After we reach Olympic, we’re going to make our way down the coast toward Los Angeles. My niece lives there. We’ll be leaving our Lance [the type of camper they have] with her. Just before Christmas, we’re flying to New Zealand for three months.”
“No no. We’ll arrive on Christmas Eve and we’ll be there for three whole months.”
“I’m so envious.”
“Well we’re trying to do as much as we can while we can.”
“I get that. My mother is always telling us to travel like this now when we’re young.”
“My family says, ‘You must have so much money’ since we’re taking all these trips now. But the truth is that we saved all our lives. We would spend time in our local parks and all the wonderful outdoor festivals instead of going on big trips. And now we’re able to do all this now that we’re retired.”
“And now you also have Cuyahoga Valley National Park right there at your doorstep.”
“We do. Have you been to that one?”
“We have. It’s what immediately inspired this project. We were in Akron for a wedding, and we could see all the green of the Cuyahoga Valley from our hotel room. And so I said, ‘Tomorrow morning on our way home, let’s leave an hour early and drive through the National Park,’ and that was the inspiration to do this.”
“My nieces always say, ‘Why don’t you just sell your house since you travel all the time?’ Well, we know that we’ll need it. We know that eventually Angelo will need to be at home and cared for because of his MS. So we’re trying to do as much as we can now because it won’t last forever. Our house is paid for and waiting for us for when we’ll need it again.”
“Is the camper comfortable?” I asked.
“Oh very! Here I’ll show you.”
She led me over to the back of the camper and opened the doors. The interior was cozy and surprisingly roomy. Liz explained the storage areas and how parts of it can pop out to make more room for dining and sitting.
“One of the nice things is that it can completely detach from the truck, so that if were somewhere for a while, we can detach the truck and drive around.”
“Is it easy to attach and detach?”
“Ah, it’s easy to detach, but to attach it you have to line it up just right. The only time we ever fight is when we’re attaching the truck and the camper. Then watch out!”
Angelo walked shakily, yet boldly, up the trail from the wash house. He stopped in front of us and leaned on his cane. Liz made introductions. The three of us chatted for a few more minutes. They were ready to get going, so I wished them safe travels and said goodbye.
Back in our campsite, I heard Sean moving about in the tent, so I started a fresh pot of coffee on the percolator.
Over breakfast, I regaled him with my tale of meeting and conversing with Liz. I was feeling slightly ashamed that I had been supremely irritated with them the night before when they’d left their generator running for about ten minutes past quiet time at 8pm. It was taking most of the trip to ease me back into open receptiveness toward other people, something that can often be difficult for my introvert’s soul back in the city.
After breakfast, we packed up our site. Our destination on this brilliant, cloudless day was the Elkhorn Ranch unit and after that the North Unit.
On the way out of the South Unit, we were stopped behind a road crew for about half on hour. It was a motif of the entire trip.
We visited the C-Store one last time for gas, and we were able to make it out of Medora just before a road crew shut down the main road through (and into and out of) town entirely for resurfacing.