I don’t even need a map. Just point me west. It wasn’t until the next day, after I was home again, that I realized that — serendipitously — my retreat had taken place on President Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday.
What I knew was that I needed to go. Go. Go. Go. Away to the Badlands. So I went. To the northern Badlands. To Dunn and McKenzie counties.
Where I saw snow. Snow on the Killdeer Mountains.
The Killdeer Mountains which at one time were part of a proposal for a huge Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s true. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself in the book “At the Open Margin.”
The Killdeer Mountains where the last grizzly bear in North Dakota was shot long long ago.
State Highway 200, where long long ago I saw a Snowy Owl. Not the first Snowy Owl I had seen because we saw them on the Slope County farm where I grew up, but the first in a long while. This would have been sometime in the late 1990s when my children were young.
Then because I can and I do not need a map, I drove on backroads, gravel roads, dirt roads, mud roads, until I found U.S. Highway 85 and again headed due north. I wanted to ground-truth what I had been reading about and hearing about Highway 85. I wanted to see for myself the new bridge and I wanted to see for myself what the traffic is like these days in “The Bakken” through the northern Badlands. I wanted to know. I wanted to see. I wanted to hear. Or, more the truth: I wanted to not hear. I wanted to not see. I wanted to not know.
And I can say this about Highway 85: It does seem a little safer now for drivers. It does seem like the now industrialized landscape has calmed just a bit. There are more roads than ever before. There are more signs on ranch roads reading “No trespassing, no oil traffic.” There are still flares in the night sky. It does seem a little safer now for wildlife. It does seem a little more like there is an acknowledgment that Highway 85 cuts through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. It does seem a little safer for travelers to take the turn into the park and get off the damn highway.
And so, there I was. In the North Unit. With almost no one else, just as I expected in late October. Just bison. And birds. And quiet. So, I drove to the campground. I wanted to know if the campground was as quiet as I remembered. Despite Highway 85. Despite the Bakken. Despite the new bridge. It was a fairly still day. And it was quiet, perhaps quieter than when the old metal bridge was there. Just me and the Little Missouri River.
And as I proceeded on the park road, it was quiet at all the pull-outs. There was snow. And evidence of snow in the gumbo clay. And fall colors. And birds. And bison. And mule deer. And cannonball concretions.
And when I arrived at the Oxbow Overlook, just as I had told myself, if I would just keep going and not stop for every bird, every deer, every bison, every view, every memory, there would be no one else there. But the bighorn sheep. The bighorns where I have come upon them countless times.
“North Dakota is fairly privately owned, but there are a lot of gems across the landscape when you get out and start looking around at “our public lands”(emphasis mine) …” Jacob Lardy, land management specialist with the ND Department of Trust Lands (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022, pg. 23)
“In summer, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department documented the first time bighorn sheep ewes leading their young through a wildlife crossing that runs under Highway 85 in western North Dakota. The trail camera photograph is significant because wildlife literatures suggests ewes are less likely to use an underpass because they don’t feel comfortable, fearing predators might be hiding in the passage. Yet, the photograph shows adults leading young safely through the crossing and instilling in the latter that the underpass is indeed safe. Plus, it keeps them off the busy highway, where a number of vehicle-bighorn accidents have been documented in the past.” (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022)
My day’s partial birding checklist:
- Sharp-tailed Grouse.
- Ring-necked Pheasant.
- Swainson’s Hawk.
- Red-tailed Hawk.
- Black-billed Magpie.
- American Tree Sparrow.
- Dark-eyed Junco.
What I know I have learned from my elders. I have learned from dozens of field guides still on my shelves. I have taught myself. I have learned from more people than I can list. I have taught my partners. I have learned from my siblings. I have learned from scholars and I have learned from idiots. I have taught my children. I have learned from friends. I have learned from being on the ground. I have listened. I have dreamed.