LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Stars And Your Feet On The Ground,’ writes Theodore Roosevelt, And So We Do!

Monday, Jim and I loaded up the Highlander with our camping gear and pointed it in the right direction — west!

We were headed to our national park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, for a night at Cottonwood Campground. Readers of my husband’s blog know that we are big-time campers. Tenters.  He writes about one of our most memorable trips taken this past winter at the Elkhorn Ranch here and here.

Jennifer Morlock, as usual, on-the-go!
Jennifer Morlock, as usual, on-the-go!

But first, on a beautiful North Dakota Monday, we had some Medora time.  Mission numero uno was to deliver fresh cilantro from our garden to our friends the Morlocks, who run Dakota Cyclery.

We grabbed some lunch at the Maltese Cross burger stand and then did a Medora walkabout, comfortable in the knowledge that the Memorial Day weekend crowd at the TRNP campground would be leaving us lots of spots from which to choose.

Next was a stop to visit our good friends Doug and Mary Ellison at the excellent bookstore they operate. Yup, big surprise. Us and books.

Doug was just back from delivering a Memorial Day address in Belfield. Here we bought a very special book to us, the “2017 Guide to Wild Horses” by North Dakota Badlands Horse, in which our daughter has some of her first published photographs (two). Are we ever proud!

Time to go to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and snag a campsite.

I walked over, taking the sidewalk I walked hundreds of times when we were living in Medora and I was working at TRNP as the museum technician.

I always get a little thrill when I arrive at any of our national parks. To me, these are hallowed ground.

After a hello from National Parks Service Park Ranger Grant (pictured below), I went inside to renew our TRNP Nature & History Association membership (I was on the board in the early ’80s and have been a member ever since) and for a little more memory lane time, including a stop in the library I used to take care of as volunteer and a quick peek at the curatorial room. In the years I was both working and volunteering there, the other staff never did quite know that I was on any given day. Oddly enough, I had a volunteer uniform and wore street clothes most of the time I was working at the museum, and I had two different name tags.

In my capacity as Museum Technician, I cleaned the Maltese Cross cabin several times, and it was a grueling task, one which required great attention to detail and to following museum standards. I came home to our Medora condo filthy and tired, yet with a great sense of accomplishment. The attic has lots of mouse dung throughout.

Although we didn’t take the time to watch the park film (we’ve seen it several times), I paused before the sign with gratitude that my friend, Valerie Naylor, the former superintendent, and her staff had produced such a fine product, narrated by another friend of mine, Terry Tempest Williams. If you’ve not watched it, I give it my highest recommendation. Watch the long version.

A little more chatting with my park friends and time to get to Cottonwood Campground, in the heart of the park, with our renewed TRNHA membership card in hand, as well as a cool item from the gift shop.

My first park photo op was this sandstone formation, which my daughters and I used to call The Sleeping Lion. Some of the rock has fallen in the natural process of erosion, and it doesn’t perhaps look as much lion as it used to.

We snag a terrific spot in the campground and erect our tent.  Here is our bedroom for the night

That darned North Dakota breeze is still blowing, but in this location, we are grateful for it as it keeps off the tiny biting flies that live here in the abundant green ash and cottonwoods. We are just a few steps from our sacred Little Missouri River.

In a site near to us are three young men from Sonora, Mexico, who ask my advice on hiking. I show them some options on the map and warn them about bison and rattlesnakes.

But now, for us, our first hike. We head to Wind Canyon and go bush-wacking (for you nonhikers, that’s lingo for “making our own trail”). Sometimes Jim forges the trail, sometimes I, in nothing but deep silence — just bird and bug song and the ever-present breeze, the song of the spotted towhee and grasshopper and field sparrows.

One of my missions was to take photographs of the abundant wildflowers for my nephew who is in summer biology class and needs these for a project. This involved lots of stopping, and bending, putting the stick in the ground next to the flower, and SNAP. I hope he’s happy that in the course of two days, I took 30 photographs for him. Here is one example of this.

The prairie was ablaze with wildflowers. I used to lug along with me many different field guides until I memorized most of the common flowers and plants and birds.

This is my favorite guide.

And O.A. Stevens “Handbook of North Dakota Plants” is the standard work that anyone who is interested in N.D. plants should have in their library.

Here is a short video that captures the gusty winds of the day, blowing in the little bluestem grasses.

As I mentioned earlier, we have both volunteered extensively in TRNP doing everything from cleaning up trash to trail building and maintenance to library tasks. One project we labored over in the hot sun was the removal of graffiti from the sandstone formations. Therefore, it annoys me to no end when I come across these rude carvings, and Wind Canyon is filled with ’em, even though the signage is very clear that this is prohibited. As my Grandpa Andy would say to his grandchildren, “Fool’s names and fool’s faces, always appear in public places.”  He, too, was disgusted when he would see this kind of defacement. Watch out if I’m in the vicinity. Last year, I witnessed someone in the act of this, and I took a photo of their license plate and reported them to the law enforcement rangers. I was told they paid a fine of a couple hundreds bucks and rightly so

Time to head back to the campsite for more river time.

Jim loves to swim in the river. I’m more inclined to sit in my chair, sip on a gin and tonic, watch birds and review my notes.

Feeling decadent, we head back into Medora for Manhattans and supper at the Theodore’s in the Rough Rider Hotel.

A huge indulgence is a fine bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet.

A postprandial stroll around the hotel and town ends our Medora day with more good memories.

Lonesome for our dearly departed friend, Sheila Schafer, we make a stop on her porch. Medora has lost a bit of its sparkle without her there.

Back in the campground, I go for a walk while Jim builds the fire. These folks from Australia are on a real adventure!

I grew up in a camping family. My parents took me for my first sleep in a tent when I was 6 weeks old. Later, we had a pull-out camper much like this, and I have many happy memories in campgrounds all across America in it.

We’ve arrived early in the season, so the campground is very quiet and the summer programming has not yet begun.

Here’s the view from our tent for the night. We opt for an early tuck in and tomorrow will be a full day.

We awake before dawn Tuesday morning to the noisy eastern kingbirds chattering above our tent but roll over and try to sleep just a little more. Next time I awake it is to the sounds of passing red-headed woodpeckers and a belted kingfisher, making his way upriver. Jim has the fire started, so I roll out. It has been down to 32 degrees in the night and our cooler is covered in frost.

After bacon and pancakes, we head out for our next hike.

I have in mind more bush-wacking in an area near to the horse camp. I get a quick glimpse of a bull and cow elk, but they disappear into the thick brush before I can get a photograph.

Looking across the river valley, with a view of the designated wilderness area of TRNP.

Deep in the backcountry, we see hundreds of bison that the average park visitor won’t see today. My goal was to see this year’s baby bison, so I’m happy.

I’m not quite sure why I pack the maps because I know this park like I know my own heart. Force of habit, I guess. So far, I only consulted it to show Jim my planned hiking route and yesterday to help the dudes from Sonora.

Channeling our inner mule deer, we make our way down the steep canyon.

We find a natural spring and follow that on down to the Little Missouri River.

Along the way, we find this pour-off and must detour around it.

Our place for sandwiches and an orange is next to this rapids in the river. This video mostly captures the wind noise, but you’ll get a sense of this sweet spot.

Toward the very end of the day, we intersect with the Mike Auney Trail and follow it back to our car.

By now, it is a pleasant 66 degrees and the wind has gone down. Jim eschews a hat or sunscreen and I can see that he’s gotten some sunburn. He is unperturbed by this and having a resolutely great time.

As we neared the end of the hike, Jim said, “I’m worried that my arm will be so tired from moving my walking stick I’ll not be able to lift my Manhattan later.”

The car was a happy site at the end of the trail, and we made our way back to the campsite for a sponge bath for me in the comfort station and a swim in the river for Jim. By some miracle, given the time of year, we had only a few wood ticks. One time a couple of years ago, after a long day hike with friends, we spent the night in the hotel, and by the time we were finished picking them off, we had hundreds in the toilet bowl!

Gentle reader, you will understand why we’ve earned our car’s bumper sticker as shown below.

Back to Medora for cocktails and supper at Theodore’s.  Aren’t we decadent? Turns out we had no trouble lifting our Manhattans.

On another evening stroll around Medora, we cross paths with our friend Joe Weigand (aka Theodore Roosevelt).

Here’s our two-day bird list:

  • Crow.
  • Grackle.
  • Red-winged blackbird.
  • Brewer’s blackbird.
  • Meadowlark.
  • Robin.
  • Cedar waxwing.
  • Tree swallow.
  • Chipping sparrow.
  • House wren.
  • House finch.
  • Golden eagle.
  • Field sparrow.
  • Yellow warbler.
  • Yellow-breasted chat.
  • Western kingbird.
  • Eastern kingbird.
  • Least flycatcher.
  • White-breasted nuthatch.
  • Northern harrier.
  • Magpie.
  • Spotted towhee.
  • Rock wren.
  • Grasshopper sparrow.
  • Yellowthroat.
  • Nighthawk.
  • Northern flicker.
  • Pheasant.
  • Belted kingfisher.
  • Red-headed woodpecker.
  • Canada goose.
  • Orchard oriole.
  • Baltimore oriole.
  • Warbling vireo.
  • Red-eyed vireo.
  • Ovenbird.
  • Wild turkey.
  • Rock dove.
  • Red-tailed hawk.
  • Lark sparrow.
  • Cowbirds.
  • Spotted sandpiper.
  • Sharp-tailed grouse.

That’s 43 different kinds!

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, this is an excellent resource. I’ll write more about this topic another day.

I need nothing more than my Vasque hiking boots, my backpack, my handmade walking stick (a gift from a dear friend) and my binoculars.

“Happy trails to you, until we meet again.”

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