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6: Medora, North Dakota
Monday 9/25: It was late on a rainy afternoon when we crossed from Montana into North Dakota. A bright red layer appeared in the tops of the hills. We’d see more of it in the coming days.
We stopped for the night in Medora, a tourist town outside the entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Medora might be a vortex. My phone’s Google navigation app kept misleading us. A map of the town that our hotel gave us was unreliable too. Because Medora was trying to look like an Old Western town, it had no neon signs and not much street lighting.
The tourist season had ended. Aside from the ruinously expensive Roosevelt Room only two restaurants were open; and they were just bars with pub food. We walked to Boots Bar And Grill, braving dark wet wooden sidewalks, and sat at a table made out of a Jack Daniels Whiskey barrel. We’d arrived 20 minutes before the kitchen closed. I ordered a salad; it was loaded with bacon and feta cheese, and was accompanied by a chewy roll. On our way out we met a gray-bearded man who had driven there with his grandson; they couldn’t find a hotel. We gave them our map and directions to our hotel, and we saw them there later.
We’d planned to do laundry tomorrow; but I discovered that the nearest laundromat was in Dickinson, a 35 minute drive out of our way. Later I found out that Dickinson has a notable dinosaur museum; so perhaps we’ll wash our clothes there on our next trip.
Tuesday 9/26: I got up early and had breakfast at Medora’s Cowboy Cafe (they close after lunch.) My first non-motel breakfast of the trip; French toast and ham and black tea. I pulled my bike off the car and rode up to the park’s south unit Visitor Center. The ranger at the counter told me that bikes are allowed only on paved roads, not on trails. He gave me a map of a bike trail that detoured around the park.
While I was looking at it, a young woman came over to talk. Her name was Ruth. She was riding across the country, as our daughter Alice and her friend Kyle had done, and had mistaken me for a fellow biker. We went out to look at her bike; it had a steel frame, small wheels (because they were easier to find in third world countries), and 30 gears. It was loaded with camping equipment. She’d gotten wet in last night’s rain, so she’d put her down sleeping bag in a drier. She had sectional bike maps like Alice’s in a transparent case on her handlebars; she’d started at Washington’s Orcas Island and was riding to New York. I wondered if she was traveling solo, but I couldn’t think of a way to ask this question that wouldn’t sound critical. I complimented her on her adventure and wished her luck. She went back inside to buy some postcards. I slipped a twenty into her saddlebag, acknowledging the many good Samaritans who’d helped Alice and Kyle during their adventure, and left.
I tried the road into the park but it was steep and without shoulders; TRNP is a very hilly park. I found a nice but short bike path that led west from the park’s south entrance over a nearly dry river to the Maah Daah Hey trail. This trail was a muddy mess and not for me; I doubt that Ruth came this way either.
I returned to the Cowboy Cafe for more tea, and read my Enigma book until Pat was ready. The waiter came over and suggested strawberry rhubarb pie, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. A la mode. So then I had to take a nap in our room to sleep it off, while Pat visited the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
We finally got on the road to the park in mid-afternoon. We saw beautiful vistas of rolling hills, terraced badland buttes and sinuous, delicate-looking trees whose leaves were turning gold.
We stopped for a short hike into the hills. The Lower Paddock Creek trail crossed a large prairie-dog town whose residents heralded our approach with warning peeps; “Look out! Look out! The monsters are coming!” The broad, inclined field was cratered with tunnel openings. Chubby tan prairie dogs peeked out of them, stood on their hind legs on the watch for approaching danger, or lay within easy diving range of their holes. They looked like big gerbils. Their holes looked like little volcanoes; they’d built up the rims with clay scooped from the surrounding ground. Crumbs of red sandstone were scattered around the mounds; the prairie dogs had carried it up from their tunnels. Later we found some buttes with layers that were the same color.
Past the prairie dog town, the grass was longer and I saw pale green flowering bushes — sagebrush, Pat guessed. The trail split into several parallel trails where hikers and horseback-riders had tried to get around mud. Some hillsides had thin seams of coal that had washed onto the trail. Pat found some juniper berries. We saw a little short-eared rabbit whose fur exactly matched the ground. He froze, until he realized his camouflage wasn’t working; then he turned and dove into his hole.
The way got rough and muddy. We went back to the car and took turns scraping gumbo off each others’ boots with a stick, and put them in plastic bags to deal with later. Walking on snow would really clean them well, and I suspect we’ll see snow again — maybe more than we’ll want.
We finished the scenic loop drive around the park. As in Yellowstone, we’d find cars stopped in the middle of the road to look at wildlife; then we’d look around for what they were looking at. We saw two buffaloes; one was rolling on his back on a hilltop. We saw three wild horses and some deer. The low golden sunlight lit the landscape beautifully.
We drove around Medora and confirmed that only the two bars were open. So we went to the other one, Little Missouri, for dinner. Pat gave the grilled chicken salad a good report; I had a mediocre, partially burned pizza. We realized that a large party sitting next to our table had been at the Boots Bar and Grill last night. The Little Missouri had flocked red wallpaper, gilt framed mirrors and crimson ceiling lamps. The music was country western. Cowboy hats and dollar bills were pinned to the ceiling beams. The waitress explained that this had become a local custom, like the snapshots of customers in a barbershop.
Wednesday 9/27: Breakfast together at the Cowboy Cafe. The walls are covered with photos of cowboys, rodeos, etc. Pat reminisced that she and her mother used to watch rodeos on TV. I wonder if Montana stations cover rodeos live any more? I might watch that show myself.
We drove up to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit, after a short detour due to Siri not mentioning the exit from I-94 that we needed to take to get on SR-85, and due to me trusting her too much. We noted three Buffaloes loitering around the little visitor center. Pat asked the ranger whether they were a permanent feature for entertaining tourists. “Uh-huh,” she said in a bored voice. But she had good advice when we asked about a short hike. “The trails are full of water, except for the Sperati Point trail that starts from Oxbow Overlook at the end of the road.”
We drove across the park, which differed from the South Unit. The stripes on the sides of the badlands clay mounds were more colorful. We learned from a roadside sign that the mounds can slump down or tilt when undercut by surface water. A shifted mound’s stripes match stripes higher up on neighboring mounds. We saw broad grassy meadows and stands of various trees, in particular one with gracefully arching trunks and branches whose delicate leaves flicker and sparkle in the wind. Its leaves were turning from bright green to gold. We stopped at a campground at the edge of a small forest of these trees; it was beautiful. We also saw lots of buffaloes and some deer, but no prairie dogs.
We stopped to walk out to a viewpoint over the Little Missouri valley. It had a beautiful fieldstone shelter that had been built by Works Progress Administration craftsmen in the 1930s. The river below meandered thru forests of the green-gold trees. It was the final destination of streams that found their way down thru the chaotic badlands on each side. There is no way to adequately photograph such a huge and wonderful view; but we tried.
The Sperati Point hike was a good one, taking us across a saucer-shaped prairie to its raised rim for a view down the length of the Little Missouri’s canyon. Pat spotted wild rose hips and what looked like drought-stricken blueberries. There was also a type of sprawling bush with fuzzy pale green leaves and wicked thorns. We noticed several buffalo-sized depressions in the tall grass. On returning to the car, we discovered that yesterday’s mud was gone from our boots.
7: Williston, North Dakota
We drove back out to SR-85 and followed it northwest to Williston. Road construction obstructed our path; as darkness fell, we groped our way into the city later than we’d hoped. We checked into El Rancho Motel, close to Pat’s niece Dannyelle’s house.
While Pat went on to their house for a short visit, I worked on our laundry. The first challenge was to find the laundromat. It turned out to be a nondescript cinderblock building wrapped in darkness in the parking lot. Here were two washers and one usable dryer; there was no change dispenser or soap. By the time I had gotten everything together, someone else was using both washers. So I had dinner at the Williston Brewery next to our motel. It was much nicer than the bars in Medora, but it was still a bar. I ordered a chicken sandwich that turned out to be tall and messy. The music was ’90s pop, a nice change from country western. Four young men were partying at the next table, swearing and guffawing; what fun to be young.
When I went back into the laundromat a man in huge camo shorts was looking in the dryer. On my way back and forth I saw a man drag an empty beer keg outside the bar next door and pause for a smoke. Pat returned soon afterward, and in due course the laundry was done.
Thursday 9/28: We made eggs with mushrooms for brunch at Dannyelle’s house. Most everyone who lived there was either in school or working. So we explored the neighborhood on foot. It was a perfect sunny afternoon. Attractive houses line the wide, shady streets. A hint of winter; the fire hydrants have red and white poles bolted to their tops so the firemen can find them in snow.
We found a community center with a nice playground, bandstand and skateboard park. There was a swimming pool too, but it held only a stagnant puddle. The park had several carved and lacquered statues with roots, made from trees that I suppose had died or been in the way. Most were of fantasy figures; a witch, a dwarf, etc. The one I liked best was a buffalo.
I met Dannyelle’s two beautiful, friendly cats, Judith and Guy-Guy. Judith had recently delivered kittens; Dannyelle commented that motherhood seemed to have made her more mellow. We unloaded a lot of the Relics; Gwen and Dannyelle especially liked John’s paintings. Gwen remembered watching John working at the easel, and how he’d taught her to shape the brush’s bristles to paint various shapes. “I’d pushed my feelings into a corner, but now they’re coming back out,” she said sadly. Dinner was Domino’s pizza, infinitely better than the pizza at Little Missouri Bar and Grill in Medora.
Friday 9/29: Our motel room smelled like old socks. I’d just done the laundry, and I couldn’t find anything to account for the smell. The motel clerk let us move to a different room. Perhaps the clerk tipped off the housekeepers that we were troublesome; our new room had been liberally sprayed with air freshener. The window didn’t open; so we propped the door open to air it out. But the motel was being remodeled, and an adhesive smell came into the room. We shut the door and hoped for the best.
I was hoping to go biking with Dannyelle. But we couldn’t find a shop that rents bikes. So Pat invited her on a photo shoot while I explored Williston’s bike paths. A motel employee who jogs suggested taking the main trail north to Silver Lake Park, which has a one-mile trail around the lake. This route took me along a swale (marshy area) that is the indefinite shore of the many-channeled Little Muddy River. There wasn’t a lot to see, but it was a refreshing open space. I noticed that much of Williston is on a plateau above the river. The northern part of Williston is lower, and here a broad levee (embankment) defines the margin of the swale. This system seems capable of controlling a large amount of water, tho I saw a few buildings down in the swale whose owners must worry about flooding.
I had ridden halfway around Spring Lake when I noticed a car driving slowly along the road next to me. I realized it was pacing me, and that it was our car. Pat, Dannyelle and Gwen had come to Silver Lake for their photo shoot. We walked out on the strip of land that bisects Spring Lake. Gwen spotted a turtle peeking out of the water. She and Dannyelle bring the boys to swim here and sometimes they catch turtles. Dannyelle rode my bike around the lake a couple of times and decided to look for a bike at the garage sales.
I started to ride to their house. Easier said than done; North Dakota’s mighty prairie wind was against me now. What a good place for sailing and kite-flying this must be! And the lowering sun was in my eyes. By the time I’d reached Dannyelle’s neighborhood the bike trail was far from any road. “Turn right!” Siri said. I bumped across an open field near some warehouses. But it was muddy and surrounded by drainage ditches, so the shortcut didn’t save me much time. Then I had to cross a busy highway. So much for getting my bicycling advice from Siri. Stalked and misled by women; it’s a dangerous life for a little boy.
Pat came out and helped me put my bike on the car. I watched a recording of the Star Trek Discovery premier episode that Dannyelle had made, got some more lap time with cats, and enjoyed Dannyelle’s baked salmon with broccoli for dinner.
Saturday 9/30: We had breakfast at the Smiling Moose Deli; they brought us each a little custom-made skillet of scrambled eggs and goodies on a wooden trivet, with a hot pad fitted over the skillet handle. No need to tell us it was hot.
Pat went back to Theodore Roosevelt National Park with her family. After a frenzy of food prep and packing, they took off in two cars; Gwen and JohnPaul in Pat’s car, and Thomas, Jordan and “Little” Jordan in Dannyelle’s car. The two cars got separated on the way out of town (Pat made sure that Dannyelle could find the park, and didn’t wait for her). They found each other when Pat realized she needed gas. At the same time, Dannyelle needed snacks; and they happened to choose the same gas station. But Pat took off, thinking they would be behind her. She didn’t realize that Dannyelle had gotten confused and turned the wrong way. Pat stopped at a viewpoint outside of the park and waited for them.
They went into the park together. There were no buffalo at the Visitor’s Center this time. Fortunately, this day was a National Park “Free Day” so nobody had to pay to get in. As they drove to a campground day-use area, all eyes watched for wildlife. They saw buffalo, and some large birds later identified as wild turkeys. JohnPaul jumped the fence and scrambled to the edge of the canyon, scaring Gwen. Pat assured her, “He’s fourteen; he’ll be fine.”
After a snack in the campground and a decision not to try to get down the canyon wall to the river, Gwen, Pat, Dannyelle and Jordan Jr. went for a hike on a nature trail to the canyon’s edge. Here they saw the wild turkeys again.
Meanwhile, I explored more of Williston on my bike. I saw another bicyclist, the first in four days. My first stop was Railroad Park, a grassy knoll overlooking the Empire Builder railroad station, which still offers passenger service. On the knoll was a retired steam engine with a Great Northern tender and a green and yellow Northern Pacific caboose. I thought I saw a plaque on the far fence, but when I went around to read it all I got for my trouble was “Park closes at dusk.”
I ate lunch on a park bench, and continued east. Beyond the station I followed a disused spur close to the southeast levee where the Little Muddy joins the Missouri. I found a series of what one might charitably call equipment storage yards. Discarded cars and trucks and farm equipment slumbered in the autumn sunlight for me to photograph. (More junkyard pics.)
I rode up into Dannyelle’s neighborhood, but of course they weren’t there. I found myself on the Williston State College campus, and remembered the Paint And Taste class I’d found on the web while planning the trip. I hadn’t signed up for it; but maybe I could find the room and drop in? So I did; the instructor, a young blond woman named Krystal Falcon, was just putting up a sign in the hallway. She directed me to a Jimmy John’s for a quick supper before class started.
When I returned, about 20 people were milling around in the room, filling out forms and getting blobs of blue, white and yellow paint from big pump-bottles onto paper plates. Another woman named Rochelle was serving wine from a makeshift corner bar. “If you have any trouble painting, have some more wine!” I took a glass of a red blend, very tasty, and put it next to my jar of water for mixing with paint. I suppose that if your wine starts tasting like paint, you know it’s time to go home.
A painting of a willow tree in a shaft of moonlight stood on display at the front of the room. Our assignment; paint something similar to this. We made the pictures in layers, from background to foreground. The acrylic paints could be mixed with water and with each other. We had three kinds of brushes, plus Q-tips which we bundled with rubber bands and used for stamping leaves on our trees. Krystal guided us thru one layer at a time; in two hours most of us had presentable pictures.
Sunday 10/1: As October dawned, the lovely fall weather sputtered out; while walking back from my breakfast at the Dakota Farms restaurant to the El Rancho Motel, I saw a dark mass of clouds approaching from the northwest. It socked in and rained all day. Gwen, Dannyelle and Thomas came to the motel lobby to visit and play pinochle with Pat. A motel clerk brought us a pot of coffee. After a while I introduced the subject of lunch. “No! We have to play cards!” Gwen objected.
A short time later, Gwen had to go to work. We went to a grocery to pick up some things, and I got a sandwich to eat in the car while Pat drove me to the library. She went to Dannyelle’s house to teach Jordan Jr. how to play Fish and coach JohnPaul in Pinochle
A librarian showed me where the local history books were. I found no book dedicated to Williston; but from some books about North Dakota I learned the following:
- In 1827, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co. built Fort Union, an Indian trading post, where the Yellowstone River joined the Missouri. The fort had a steamboat connection to St. Louis MO. This community moved east a bit and became Williston.
- In 1887, the Manitoba Railroad Co. owned by James J. Hill extended its line westward from Minot to Williston. This line became part of Hill’s Great Northern railroad.
- Republican progressive Usher Burdick moved to Williston in 1910 and went into business there. He fumbled a bid to become ND’s governor.
- By 1915, Williston was a rapidly growing commercial center. Its first radio station started broadcasting in 1929.
- In 1976, nearby Fortuna Air Force Base detected a UFO on its radar; several townspeople reported seeing it.
- The Bakken shale oil formation that underlies Williston is thought to have more oil than the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Enbridge Pipeline Co. built a pipeline from Williston to Clearbrook MN. In the late ’70s Williston experienced an oil boom. It built new water and sewage systems and new schools to handle the surge in population. Then oil prices dropped and the boom ended. Williston’s population in 2000 was about 12,000.
- By 2016 it had rebounded to about 26,000.
Pat picked me up when the library closed. I got some more quality time with Dannyelle’s cats Guy-Guy and Judith. We had a farewell dinner at Applebee’s with Dannyelle and JohnPaul before heading west into darkness.