Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hoofing it across the prairie into the Badlands

Spending the afternoon and night in an air conditioned room at Motel 6 in Bismark was a godsend -- I posted to the blog and David caught up on sleep. After an overnight snorefest, we awoke on Wednesday, July 20, to find our laundry was still damp despite hanging on the clothesline we strung across the room for 16 hours. It was that humid.

Fortunately, the weather broke as we crossed the Missouri and temperatures dropped into the 70s. However, the 100-degree-plus heat wave moving east was sucking all the air out of the upper Midwest and with westerly winds of 45 miles per hour or more arrived with the cool.

David did some research and found a few scenic drives in western North Dakota on the Internet. We started west, plowing into a head wind, on "Old Red Old 10." The "Old 10" part was clear -- it was the former US 10, which was bypassed by I-94. We haven't figured out why the road is also known as "Old Red."

Salem Sue, the world's largest Holstein, can be seen from miles around from her mountain-top perch above New Salem, N. Dak., which is on both "Old 10" and I-94.

Sue is so famous in these parts that there is an entire line of Salem Sue merchandise available at the nearby gas station and convenience store.

The store also sells bait, of course, but customers are admonished politely not to play with the minnows in the tank -- even if they beg for it.

David stops for a stretch as we plow our way across the rolling prairie.

We noticed old combines have been repurposed as signboards for farms or decoration -- never thrown away. In this case, five of the old harvesters form a potentially sinister coven outside Dickinson with no apparent purpose but to attract tourists with cameras.

After a ten-mile stretch of gravel and a stop at Hebron, the brick city of North Dakota, we arrived at Dickinson and turned north toward some promising byways in the Missouri Breaks north of Killdeer. The westerly breeze was now a crosswind from the left trying to push us off the road. Big trucks roaring southward would create a hole and we'd topple left toward the center line; then, the wind would blast us again to the right. Naturally, this slowed us down. Northbound traffic hurtled by us at 65 miles per hour, while we dipped and swerved at 40 or 45.

Eventually, we made it to Killdeer, only to discover from a local traveler at a gas station that the scenic byways we were heading for were closed under flood water.

As my GPS likes to say, we were "recalculating." We'd been told there was no place to stay in Dickinson to the south, so we called Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about 45 miles away to the northwest -- 30 with the wind on our noses and 15 with the cross wind. There were campsites available, so we sucked it up.

The flag at the Teddy Roosevelt visitor center was straining at the halyard when we arrived.

We made camp in the park but couldn't fail to notice some very large hoof prints in the soft dirt near our campsite.

On our way to dinner in Watford City, the nearest town with food, we met the creature who made the hoof prints and decided to wait for him to find his way across the road.

Watford City, it turns out, is a boom town. Oil rigs are going in all over this part of North Dakota and Watford is where the workers sleep, eat and spend time when they aren't drilling holes, driving trucks, paving roads or doing all the other boom town stuff. Just south of town is an incredible city made up of hundreds of small camper trailers.

Back at the park, our friend Ralphie was waiting ...

... and managed to corner a couple of ladies at a scenic pullout.

We were only "home"for a few minutes before there was a commotion and a few of Ralphie's friends came clumping through the campground ...

... and waded across the Little Missouri River.

David watches the bison cross the river. The river bank was ravaged by the recent floods and by the giant beasts who simply plunge down the eroded banks, leaving scars behind.

Still, the Little Missouri at sunset is a gorgeous sight.

The night in camp wasn't without further adventures. About midnight, we woke to the sound of giant hooves thumping though our campsite accompanied by a growling noise, which sounded like a grizzly bear. It was our bison friend , back to pay us a visit. No harm done, but it took some time to get back to sleep.

In the morning, we got up with the sun to ride the 14-mile scenic road through the park, which was once a ranch owned by Theodore Roosevelt.

The park is set in the North Dakota Badlands carved by the Little Missouri River over millions of years.

The spectacular rock formations this year are set off by unusually colorful, lush vegetation, nurtured by the historically wet spring.

We found the park's bison herd enjoying a feast ...

... in the high pasture above the river valley.

David makes his way down to a stone overlook built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Too late, we found a warning about our campsite visitors. Fierce looking and sounding, they proved to have little interest in humans, but found the park's roads useful for getting from meal to meal. Bison weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds and eat three to 4 percent of their weight daily.

We plan to meet our friend Daniel in Montana on July 27, or thereabouts. He's picking up a motorcycle he bought from someone in Billings that day and will join us to ride through Yellowstone and beyond. So, with time to kill before moving further west, we turned the bikes south, toward the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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