North Dakota is well known for, well, nothing. As in there is really not much there except recently for the oil boom. Even that doesn’t exactly fill in the gaps much. As children in Montana, we told terrible jokes about North Dakota. I am sure these were similar to any other rivalry between Georgia and Florida or Jersey and New York. Perhaps it is because of these childhood jokes that I had low expectations for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It just didn’t seem like there could possibly be anything worth seeing on the border between Montana and North Dakota. Endless flat land and scrub brush is all I could imagine.
It took two days just to get to North Dakota from Indiana and then I still faced 300 flat, straight, endless miles across the state to get from Fargo to the park. But North Dakota showed it’s absolute finest and as if to reassure me, gave me an appetizer of things to come starting with my run in Fargo. A solo run on the river path was interrupted to see my first ever wild beaver. I will say that downtown Fargo is not where I would have expected to find it.
I suffered the drive. Like many parks, it is hard to imagine what could possibly be so interesting. They are surrounded by the down right ugly, barren or benign. It is not until you literally turn into their gates that suddenly you are overwhelmed with the stunning display of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork. Within a mile of the park boundary, I saw the first of what would be many bison majestically standing so that its massive outline could be appreciated against the setting sun. If was a relief to be back in the parks as once again any doubts about why I am doing this simply vanished. I wanted to be nowhere else.
In spite of giving myself permission to sleep in, I was up early hoping to see some wildlife. I was not disappointed. Leaving camp, I slowly followed a motorcycle but focused on finding my turn off when a large dark boulder stood up on the side of the road. That boulder turned out to be a buffalo, none too happy about being up before his morning coffee. We slowed. The motorcycle nudged forward to get around it but the buffalo charged the motorcycle. Fortunately the beast missed or I would be checking off the first aid square. It left me a bit hyped up starting my run. I wasn’t going to have a motorcycle to escape with on the trail. Any large dark shadow became suspect. Bush? Rock? Buffalo?
My anxiety was further reinforced by hitting the trailhead, looking up the side of the hill and seeing more buffalo. They were plenty far away but it was clear that they were prolific and the scat indicated they owned the place, including the trail. It didn’t help that the run dipped in and out of a ravine. I dropped in wondering if I would find company and then pop out hoping I wouldn’t find myself in the middle of a herd eating breakfast.
Every fear was finally confirmed when that was exactly what happened. I saw his big brown butt, tail flicking from the other side of the ravine. Perhaps he wasn’t really on the trail. Perhaps the trail would take me to the opposite side of the ravine. Nope. He had found a tasty patch right on the trail and he wasn’t going anywhere. I watched for a while but decided that I didn’t have enough supplies to wait all day. The only option was up the hillside. I like to trail run. I do not like to bushwhack. But given the circumstances, I made and exception. At one point I thought I could finally drop down off the hillside and rejoin the trail but that was when the buffalo locked onto me. The mindless chewing stopped. I scrambled back up the hill. It was a very long detour to say the least and all went well until I came upon a snake 2 miles later. After a good long scream, I actually looked at it. It was not black, red or yellow and did not rattle so I waited until it finally slithered off. For once I was going to be pretty happy to get home without any more animal encounters.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t go look for them from the safety of my car. The park offered up pronghorns, bison, feral horses, and miles of prairie dog towns. The rocky hills seem like a different world from every other bit of North Dakota I saw. I wish I had the gift of photography. I wish I could show how vast the plains are and the way the light changes the landscape. No, it does not have the grandeur of the Yosemite or the waterworks of Yellowstone or the mass of Denali. Instead it feels like an old woman. She is grayed with age, has deep wrinkles and gnarled joints. She has seen it all and sits in stoic solitude on the plain but she has many stories to tell if you are willing to stop and listen. She can tell you about an ice age, a petrified forest, a president’s ranch, the Indian’s chant and the return of the buffalo. She is easily the most underrated and surprising park so far.