Billings County, North Dakota (Our First ND County)
I write this post in a much different way than I usually do, and it may set the tone of The Iowa Gallivant going forward. I looked ahead and thought about the beautiful pictures we took and most of all the photos that Beautiful Badlands ND graciously let us use from their own stock on our hike to Elkhorn Ranch. Before I revisit what our phones and shutters captured, I must write from memory only before adding the pics and put myself in the same place we were in during the last days of the Spring Season of Western North Dakota-2019.
A young man settled here, that I shall not compare myself to, because I am nowhere in his wheelhouse of talent and time period he so passionately was remembered in. Out east, he was already a well-known New York politician raised in the security of privilege. In the Badlands near Medora, he became the very make of the land itself and found healing in the ruggedness of North Dakota. His therapy was countless hours of labor in the ranching life. The medication for his ailments was constant adventure and vigilance from the elements and bandits. Through all of it, he still managed to exude the eloquence of his sorrows, delight, exuberance, and the constant swirling emotions we all have no matter our upbringing. This was our quest into the grassy trails for Teddy Roosevelt. Little did any of us know that we were his anniversary party.
Mike and Mary of Beautiful Badlands ND greeted the group on this excursion after our supper at the Pitchfork Steak Fondue adjacent to the Medora Musical. This facility sits atop of what is already a scenic overlook to the Badlands and we were about to see more of its majesty from the rural setting that Mike and Mary have studied, documented, written about, and amazingly photographed over the course of their kinship with the area. The evening they were about to highlight for us was the essence of education folded into pure local hospitality.
It’s a long drive. No shade at all in that, and that’s one of the main reasons why the guided trek through this land is such a memorable one. Traveling through the constant change of geographical wonders, wildlife, lighting, natural aromas, and the range of skies is like taste testing a slow cooked pot of chili over the long course of simmering. You expect what your senses will experience, but with each tip of the wooden spoon it gets better over time as your patience rewards you with fulfillment.
Many stops were taken along the way to view the powerful landscapes of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands. In one break, Mike showed us the sudden change in land by just the length of a road. One side was the familiar views of the Badlands and on the other side was the rolling verdant grasslands that literally stretched for millions of acres.
Many of us picked up on the aromatic breeze that was sweeping through with the ancient formations towering over us. The very breezes that helped form them over the course of countless years and seasons of both average and brutal weather patterns. The scent was wild sage and it was surrounding us. Mike told us to pick some of the leaves and rub them together. With cupped hands, a few of us mimicked his technique releasing the herb’s oils. It smelled like the unofficial bouquet of the Badlands and I can feel its positive sharpness clearing its way into my sinuses when I think about it to this day.
From Mike and Mary’s tutelage during the hike and whole weekend my wife and I learned terms like “the golden hour”, “the blue hour”, and “shadows are your friends.” They are pros when it comes to photography and they pour their knowledge onto everyone that comes into contact with them so they too can capture this wilderness in the most breathtaking ways possible. The painters palette was set as we were all in the middle with the blending of the colors that were changing by the minute.
Near a primitive campground was the Elkhorn Ranch trailhead. The interpretive markers could keep anyone on track and so did Mike and Mary. We all had questions and listened to as many of them and the replies as possible. My wife and I close to each other hearing the stories, tales, hardships, and accomplishments of Roosevelt’s time on this land. On the trail I didn’t say much and kept my ears open for the next nugget of knowledge about the ranch’s history. In the time we had with Mike and Mary, they pointed out the wildflowers, the changing of the riverbanks from the time of Teddy and seasons he endured. Where Roosevelt’s cattle would have been grazing and where he would have been rescuing stubborn calves. Catching thieves and bringing them back to old west justice nearby. And always pointing out where you can take talented photos of Elkhorn.
It was at the foundation of what was once Teddy Roosevelt’s proudest domicile that I remember asking my first question of the hike. It was after Mike had us break at the site of what was left of Teddy’s Elkhorn cabin. Roosevelt documented and wrote in incredible detail his whole life and it didn’t waiver here in North Dakota. Mike’s readings of Teddy’s works can span the acres of the region itself and he in total confidence pointed to a group of boulders peaking out of the dirt. They were the last traces of Roosevelt’s front porch.
I asked Mike again to make sure I heard it right. “This was his porch? I can sit right here and be on Teddy Roosevelt’s North Dakota front porch?” Mike’s grin appeared again below the bill of his cap and assured me it was. I sat on the boulder and looked to the direction of the Little Missouri River flowing north to Canada. In that time I wondered how the scene looked when Teddy was here for the first time too. Mike stood by my side as I crossed my legs in the dusty floor of the old ranch as he described the vegetation and ever changing position of the riverbank just ahead of us. I can say with all honesty that for a few moments, sitting on that prehistoric stone, there was a feeling of energy and understanding. At this very spot, Teddy wrote thousands of words and strung them together in the way only he could do. From this spot he wept over the depression he felt for his wife and mother who passed away hence bringing him back to North Dakota. From this spot America’s future president felt healed and credited his time here, right here at this spot and around Medora, for giving him the strength to carry on. It was here at this spot that helped him become one of the most popular and important presidents the US has ever known. It was here at this spot where he was proud to be just “Teddy” and the westerner he was born to be.
My wife and I are never shy when it comes to strolling through the world hand in hand and I couldn’t imagine having these moments without her. Especially when it comes the series of emotions felt at Elkhorn. I also witnessed the essence of Mike and Mary’s partnership with each other as husband and wife and stewards of this splendor they show folks day after day. Mary’s way of floating through the grass as she educates visitors about the plants, insects, animals, and importance of the Badlands is something to behold. The softness of her voice is just above the whirling prairie winds with gentleness a true caregiver would have. All this mixed with a motherly fierceness to protect the land she cherishes. Mike’s mentoring before, during, and after the hikes and fascinating philosophy are expressed with a calmness and the pleasantly gritty rhythm of an old fashioned hand cranked coffee grinder. Their genuineness you pick up on is instant. There is nothing that seems scripted and robotic when it comes to their language of the Badlands.
Days later we found out that the pull of the old ranch was real and with historical merit. Mike’s routine is one of like Teddy’s himself and that is to read as much as he can. Before heading to bed, last weekend, Mike picked up on one of Roosevelt’s passages of his time at Elkhorn. Unbeknownst to everyone in our party, we arrived on the 135th anniversary of Teddy’s initial visit to the site. Even more accurately, we may have been within the hour. There is no greater gift than to reminisce on such an occurrence and to know that we were there with all the respect in the world for the brave man that adored this beloved ranch.
I don’t view Mike and Mary as just guides of the Badlands. Mike and Mary ARE the Badlands. Their faces and sturdy postures are just as heroic as the buttes and valleys they lead you to. The Badlands have been sending monarchs of all species to cradle these lands and the early decades of the 21st century has this couple. We thank them for being the unbelievable assets they are for the surrounding area. In one word about our day and weekend here…Impactful. That’s what the Badlands mean to us.
What was taught here is that we were still in the Midwest even in its furthest outskirts of Middle America. It also told us of ever-changing uniqueness the region has. From the bluffs of Starved Rock in Central Illinois. Shorelines of Michigan. Little Jerusalem of Kansas. The Upper Mississippi Driftless Area. Glacial Lakes of eastern South Dakota. Rolling farmland of Iowa. Nebraska plains. The growing suburban cities that were once home to hundreds and now thousands. The urban centers reinventing themselves to build up the neighborhoods that are eager for progression. This is the Midwest and we are the many who embrace it and welcome the world to do the same. One boulder from the front porch at a time.
Click on the Medora Convention & Visitors Bureau website to start your journey.
Start your Legendary North Dakota trip by clicking on their website as well.