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Roosevelt's home on the range

DESTINATION: NORTH DAKOTA

Teddy found solace in the wild beauty of the badlands that now are a national park. It is here where the buffalo roam.

July 20, 2003|Joe McElwee | Special to The Times

Over time the land instilled in Roosevelt a passion for conservation that became a hallmark of his presidency. From 1901 to 1909, when he served as the nation's 26th president, TR established five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 wildlife refuges and the U.S. Forest Service. Though fate played a role in his ascendancy to the White House -- he was vice president when William McKinley was assassinated -- Roosevelt later credited those early years for some of his success. "I would never have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," he said.

Roosevelt artifacts fill the Medora Visitor Center. Steve summoned me to a white undershirt hanging behind glass and pointed to a hole, smaller than a dime, in the chest. A placard explained that Roosevelt wore this shirt on Oct. 14, 1912, in Milwaukee, where a would-be assassin shot him before he was to give a speech. Thanks to the thick text in his coat pocket, he survived.

A short walk out the visitor center's back door leads to the restored Maltese Cross Cabin. The three-room bungalow is constructed of logs retrieved from train accidents and boat wrecks on the Little Missouri River. After hunting and ranching all day, Roosevelt retreated to this cabin, where he read two or three books a night.

The main attraction of the park's South Unit is a 36-mile paved loop road. Scenic overlooks and myriad trail heads line the winding drive. Experienced hikers take trails such as the 16-mile round trip to the Petrified Forest, but with the temperature hovering between 80 and 90, we strolled down the Coal Vein Trail, just four-fifths of a mile.

Sixty million years of geologic forces created the landscape before us. Back when the Rockies were in their infancy, streams carried eroded material east, where they spread across the Great Plains. Successions of dry and wet periods through the millenniums encouraged plant growth, which then was compressed into coal under layers of sediment. Time sculpted these layers into the badlands.

At one overlook, I slipped my arm around Anne Marie's waist and gazed across the valley. Twisting spires, saw-toothed ridges and yawning chasms filled the horizon. Sunlight illuminated the mountaintops in a soft alpenglow. Lavender shadows filled crags in the canyon like a rising tide. Anne Marie sighed and looked up at me. We smiled.

Prairie home companions

Back in the car, we headed toward the Beef Corral Overlook and the nearby prairie dog town, one of several in the park.

"Whoa, check that out," Rebecca said, laughing and pointing out the window. Knee-high piles of dirt speckled a field where perky, buck-toothed critters popped and dropped from their holes. Kicking up puffs of soil, the chubby rodents scurried to the top of their earthen mounds, tossed their paws overhead and squealed.

Ranchers loathe these ravenous varmints because they consume precious crops, cowboys complain that their tunnels can break a steer's leg and health experts implicated the animal in this summer's monkey pox outbreak. To us, though, the sight was reminiscent of a silly amusement park game.

"It's a real, live whack-a-mole arcade," Rebecca said.

Seventy miles up U.S. 85, we arrived at the 24,000-acre North Unit, about half the size of the South Unit. We traveled along a 14-mile scenic drive.

At the Slump Block Pullout, flat-topped mounds of earth that looked as if they had been slashed with a scythe poked from the valley floor. These were remnants of bluffs, their bases eroded and the tops shifted to low ground. A sharp eye can piece together a slump formation and match bands of red clay, gray bentonite and black scoria.

In early evening we headed back toward our campground in the South Unit. On the horizon we spotted the Four Corners Cafe, where we grabbed a booth and perused the menu.

"I'm ordering ostrich," Rebecca said, tapping the menu.

Sure enough, in bold letters under "Chef's Specialties" was ostrich burgers. Served with ketchup and melted cheese on a sesame bun, this scrumptious delicacy tasted just like -- what else? -- chicken.

The next day we strolled the wood-planked walkways of Medora. Clapboard houses with gingerbread detailing lent an authentic Old West atmosphere. Cowboys tipped their Stetsons as they carted visitors across town in horse-drawn buggies. Banjo music drifted from the swinging doors of a saloon. We filled our bellies at chuck wagons and an ice cream parlor.

At 8:30 we joined the audience at the Burning Hills Amphitheater to see the "Medora Musical" ($21 or $23 for adults, $13 or $14 for students). Highlights of the show included trick roping, clogging, yodeling and a knee-slapping hootenanny. Rebecca and I laughed as a fiddler broke a string. Anne Marie waved her hat to the beat. Steve groaned at his family's antics.

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