A wild time on the High Plains

Writer Mary Lee Hagert’s son Kevin stands atop a craggy butte in majestic Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (photos by Mary Lee Hagert/Review)

The national park’s scenic loop is a photographer’s delight, with breathtaking landscapes around nearly every bend. The Little Missouri River began carving out the park’s distinctive badlands about 600,000 years ago.

Mary Lee Hagert
Review staff

I’ve just returned from the Wild West, and I’m not referring to the re-enactment of 1890s gunslingers shooting up Main Street in Deadwood, S.D.

No, I mean the new Wild West, the one that’s cropped up more than a century after the days when drifters got into quick-draw duels on the Dakota Territory’s High Plains.

A vacation in the Dakotas wasn’t on my family’s radar a month ago. But after discovering all the campsites were reserved at our top choice -- Rocky Mountain National Park -- we weren’t sure where to go.

This was already going to be an unusual trip, since only one son, Kevin, was coming along. His twin brother, Christopher, was in Spain with a college study abroad program.

One night a TV commercial featuring sunsets tinged with purples and pinks, big-sky vistas and rugged buttes captured Kevin’s attention. “That’s where I want to go on vacation,” he asserted before the familiar North Dakota tourism logo appeared on the screen.

And so it was, three weeks later, we packed our camping gear and headed west toward Fargo and beyond.

Where everybody knows your name

After a motel night in Bismark, my husband directed us onto state Highway 200, one of those lovely two-lane roads that allow one to feel a part of the scenery rather than merely an insulated, distant observer barreling down the interstate.

We encountered little traffic and just when the distance between the tiny towns was increasing, we noticed the minivan was nearly out of gas.

After crossing miles of uninterrupted agricultural land, we were relieved to spot an aging white clapboard grain elevator surrounded by a handful of houses. Thankfully, it had a country store with two battered gas pumps.

Looking as if it had been around since the horse and buggy days, the store’s wooden floors creaked as we examined the shelves of groceries, and eavesdropped on locals relaxing around worn tables and gossiping about moonshine stills and carousing husbands. They obviously knew everyone in town ... and probably the whole county.

I told the shopkeeper we were grateful his store was open, as we imagined it was the last place to buy gas on the tranquil road ahead to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He said dryly, “Could be; I wouldn’t know.”

As we drove away, Kevin noticed the village’s name, Dodge, and we laughed that we were lucky to be “getting out of Dodge” with a full tank of gas.

New faces, new conflicts

Cultivated fields gradually gave way to craggy buttes, verdant valleys and the sweeping vistas that Kevin had hoped for.

Soon a big semi truck with a tanker zoomed by, followed by several more, and, right on their tails, a line of shiny, half-ton pickup trucks. The sudden heavy traffic in what, to all appearances, was the middle of nowhere, was nothing short of astonishing.

Then we started seeing pump jacks, lots and lots of them, rhythmically moving up and down in grassy fields. Resembling mechanical dinosaurs, the machines were slowly sucking up oil from the underground shale.

Little makeshift encampments had popped up in wheat fields, populated with oil workers living in Winnebago RVs, fifth-wheel trailers and pickup truck campers -- basically anything that could be hauled in on the narrow roads and set up quickly.

The Bakken Basin seemed like a new Wild West, oozing with oil, quick money and an undercurrent of lawlessness. We saw flames shooting high into the sky where wells had been dug, and muscular men moving like ants around huge drilling rigs.

I wanted to take a few photos of the oil patch, but pulling over in the breakneck traffic simply felt too unsafe. Of course there were posted speed limits, but no one heeded them.

I remembered reading about a popular county sheriff’s early retirement in the Bismarck Tribune. Although it was the middle of his term, the sheriff said the timing was right because he had finally secured funding to build a much larger jail in his sparsely populated county. His quotes had a vague weariness to them, and the whole thing seemed puzzling until we entered his county and saw the oil boom craziness.

There were other newspaper accounts about once-sleepy hamlets being overrun with single guys looking for fun and finding little of it. They’re getting into fights and straining small police departments.

I suspected many long-time residents yearned for the days when their towns were less like Tombstone and more like slow-paced Dodge.

A close encounter

At dusk we reached the national park, a welcome island of peace, although even it provided a few unexpected thrills.

Early the first morning, Kevin went on a long run, rounded a bend and nearly collided with a big, shaggy bison. After a brief stare-down, Kevin backed up and dashed back to the campgrounds, grateful that the critter didn’t give chase.

Later that day, we encountered a massive male bison walking down the center of the main park road. A sports car sped right past the bull, which never flinched. But I was driving a bit more, um, cautiously ... nervously lurching the minivan forward in tiny spurts in hopes of maneuvering past the bison without veering off the shoulder-less road. At the same time, my two backseat drivers were noisily predicting that my jumpy snail’s pace was going to annoy the animal.

Of course they were right; I spooked the drooling, snorting beast, and it charged us. Kevin took a couple photos of the oncoming bull as I floored the van on the 30 mph, curvy, ridgeline road. Following our heart-stopping escape, my husband announced he would be behind the wheel next time we drove on that road.

On to South Dakota

After exploring the beautiful park nestled in the North Dakota Badlands and nearby, touristy Medora, we took a peaceful two-lane highway to the Black Hills in South Dakota.

There we went to many of the same places that I visited when I was a child, and all these years later, I discovered they’re still lots of fun.

But nothing could compare to new experiences and astonishing sights -- both the wild and the woolly -- in western North Dakota.

It truly was a wild time on the High Plains.

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at mlhagert@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7820.

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