Our wild backyard (no mowing necessary)

I have a pretty awesome backyard. It won’t make Better Homes and Gardens and no one will be calling me up for tips on how to get my grass so green or my flower garden so colorful and free of weeds. There will never be a plan to install a water feature with those fancy fish or a walking path made of perfectly smooth river stones. There will be cow poop and there will never be a white picket fence.

But your backyard might have one. Your yard may have the neighbors swooning and strolling by slowly as they walk their lap dogs or bike ride with their children. It might be the perfect spot for a BBQ complete with margaritas and a big umbrella over your table. You probably grow the most pristine daisies along your immaculately placed paving stones. Better Homes and Gardens is more than likely dialing your number right now.

And that’s pretty awesome too.

I do enjoy a good yard, no matter the condition, especially in the summer. So this weekend I ventured out a bit from the red gravel road to take in some of the big back yard that we all share, and it turned out that our lawn, the one we co-own, hadn’t been mowed either, so I didn’t feel so bad about mine.

For those of you who live in North Dakota, you have probably heard of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. If you haven’t, well I’m going to tell you about it, because it is where I tested my cowgirl, girl scout, Pilates, camp cook, photographer and reptile handler skills this Labor Day weekend. (Because we don’t get enough “middle of nowhere” out here in my little house in the hills the other five days of the week.)

In a nutshell, the Maah Daah Hey is a 125-mile multi-use trail, which stretches throughout public land in the Badlands of North Dakota from the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Watford City to the South Unit near Medora. This well-groomed, well-marked, gorgeous trail sweeps in and out of the clay buttes, winding across the valleys, crossing rivers and streams, cutting up the sides of steep cliffs and meandering through the trees. Even experienced in pieces (which is what we did for two days) this trail is not for wusses.

We chose to take the trail the good old-fashioned way, via the back of a trusty horse. Just a side note here to those wild men and women who think that taking a pedal bike out for a stroll through this rugged, unforgiving, majestic country is a good idea—may sweet Jesus be with you.

Anyway, the public has been enjoying this trail officially since 1995, but its name is taken from the Mandan Indian phrase meaning “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” Which is fitting, because it has been said that this trail actually has been around for hundreds of years, serving as a trade route for the American Indians. So the Maah Daah Hey, I think, is and has been a true gift to those of us who wish to experience and exist in an untamed, unsettled, wild as the wind adventure out in the backcountry where it is not uncommon to ride for a day and not see another human soul (but a couple that belong to beasts).

And for those of you who prefer not to venture out of the fence and mowed lawn, it sure photographs nice and looks lovely hanging above a mantle in a pretty frame.

But there is nothing like being out in it really. Nothing.

With my crew of three pretty great wilderness guys (husband, dad, father-in-law), four horses that were lucky enough to prove themselves worthy of the climb, several bottles full of water, lunches pre-packed and labeled with names (because I give the people what they want), necessities like knives, matches, band-aids and, of course, toilet paper, we hit the trail that starts at Bennett Creek Camp and ends up there again.

And in those twelve miles that took us and our necessities past unaware deer grazing in a brush patch, out in the open to spook a lone coyote in the sage, over an unsuspecting, and rather angry rattlesnake in our path, down low to photograph the purple flowers growing unpredictably out of the hard, baked clay, and up high to see it all from a distance, I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be.

We plodded along for a few miles, snapping photos, basking in the scenery, chatting about previous rides, catching up. And then our voices silenced, our horses fell in line, and we were quiet for a while, alone with our thoughts for a few miles, bodies moving with the rhythm of the animals underneath us.

We got off to stretch our legs and walked the horses up steep cliffs, we took moments to let our mounts splash and dunk their noses in the creeks. We pushed on toward camp, letting the trail and markers guide us.

Even as I stretched my kinked back after nearly 7 hours in the saddle, my bony ass aching and my ankles stiff as we rounded the final mile back to camp, I couldn’t help but feel extremely fortunate to be breathing this wild air, without a sound or a footprint that didn’t belong there.

And my hope in the human race was restored a bit when we got back to camp to find that there was a multitude of others, in tents, in campers, in extravagant RVs, who were looking for the same connection with this land. I will admit at first I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t have the campsite to ourselves, as if we were the only ones allowed this little piece of heaven, the only ones who deserved this quiet and solitude in which I get to live every day.

But then I came to my senses. Because I have been blessed with a backyard full of these wild things. My family has lived happily without immaculate lawns and flower gardens untouched by hungry critters. We have given up late night trips to the market and the option of take out when we don’t want to cook in order to be able to exist and live in a natural and somewhat untamed environment. We sweep our floors a little more, we swat more flies, we see more mice (and an occasional raccoon may or may not have entered my parent’s home and rearranged the décor), but that is a small price to pay for the quiet simplicity of country living. We have been blessed.

So where on earth did I think the white picket fence people go to get away from it all when they don’t have a place like ours to run to? Where do they go when the constant stream of suburban life has reached its limit for the month? Where did I think the girls with horses locked in stalls go to ride like the wind? Where do the dads bring their sons to teach them to build a fire, use a pocketknife, shoot a bow? Where do the mammas take their daughters to teach them the names of the wild animals and flowers? Where do ranchers, and daughters of ranchers go to take in the beauty of a different landscape without the distraction of fences that need fixing and hay that needs moving? Where do husbands go to reconnect with their strength and hardy instincts?

There has to be places like this for us. They must exist for us to stay human.

So as we watered and fed the horses, put up our tents, grilled our pork (and the angry rattlesnake), built the campfire, cracked open a beverage and settled in for the night, I took a moment to look around at my fellow campers who drove for hundreds of miles, from Omaha, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Fargo and even just down the road from Watford City, to exist for a few days in a place that looks the same as it did when our ancestors hunted whitetail and jackrabbits for supper, drank from the river, used the strong back of a horse to get a day’s work done and walked to get somewhere (because they definitely weren’t crazy enough to try it on a bike).

And I smiled, because there we all were, looking up at the same sky glistening with the same stars that have been hanging there for a million years in a landscape that has been soaked in the swamp, beaten by the wind, cut by glaciers, baked in the sun and battered by the water to form a world that is simply marvelous really.

A marvelous, breathtaking, ruthless, wild, wonderful backyard.

Simply untamable–just like us, it turns out.

And it’s all ours neighbors! Now go out and live in it.

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In honor of the ride in beautiful country, I thought I’d share my version of a couple classics. Enjoy!  Red River Valley Medley

For more information about the Maah Daah Hey trail, or to contribute to the project, visit the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association Website at www.mdhta.com

*Oh, and a quick note about the Mountain Biking thing, for those of you who like that sort of thing 🙂 The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) recognized the Maah Daah Hey  with their most prestigious award, the IMBA Epic Ride of 2001. In addition, a national women’s sports magazine named the Maah Daah Hey Trail among their top 18 outside sport destinations in the country. So go get ’em, I just won’t be joining you until I get that gym membership I haven’t been talking about…

100 thoughts on “Our wild backyard (no mowing necessary)

  1. Jessie, I am wondering, do you wear chaps, too? I’ve never used them, but imagine they might make a 7-hour trail ride a bit nicer 🙂 Fun post and pictures, you all look great! I love your line “..I give the people what they want.”

    • Thanks hippybaby. I actually do have chaps (shotgun chaps) handed down from a family member that run the full length of my leg, but thought they may be a little warm for an 80 degree day. They are sure nice on cool fall and spring rides.

  2. Jessie, thanks for the awesome description of your backyard and the trails. I figured the name was a native name but didn’t know for sure. I’d rather have your backyard vs. a white picket fence. 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed this. It’s hard to believe that during my hectic round the clock rush our life, someone is enjoying riding horses in the wilderness and camping. Takes me back to when I was young and would go riding with my grandfather in his wilderness back yard. Thanks for your post.

    • Ahh, SD! You will have to come up north for a visit. And I agree, it is so worth the hard winters…I even find I look forward to them. Is that weird? I think it’s because summer’s are so busy here from trying to cram everything in, that winters give us a much needed hibernation period. Thanks for stopping in!

  4. Wow, this was a great post! Great pictures, too. It sounds like an awesome place to go to. I’ll keep it in mind for future vacations and expeditions. 😉 Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  5. Back yards you do not have to tend are the best. Having grown up in middle of nowhere mountians of North Idaho, I can relate. We didn’t do as much horseback riding( and nothing on that scale) but the snowmobiling opportunities in winter were fantastic.

    • Oh, Idaho is so beautiful. I lived out in Missoula, MT for a bit and tried my hand at skiing. I look a bit out of place flailing down a mountain, but developed an appreciation for that rugged land. We try to get back west each year for skiing. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I envy you your remote location–trapped as I am in suburbia. That’s where I am now (though I have neither the picket fence nor the BH&G flower bed), but someday, I am determined to pull up roots and put them down someplace distant, someplace quiet, someplace where I can wear the Milky Way like a rope of pearls around my spirit every night.

  7. Awesome pictures! Looks like great fun, riding horses in all that wilderness. I’m from the Pacific Northwest in Washington State. I love the desert, but couldn’t live without my big trees and all the green!

    • Thanks hamster. I think the landscape in which we grow up really gets ingrained in us, don’t you? I have lived in the mountains and the flattest plains and can’t seem to get enough of my buttes and sage.

    • Thanks for stopping by. Isn’t it great that we have such diverse and open spaces in this country? I am a landlocked girl, but do appreciate a good beach too…maybe someday I’ll try surfing 🙂

  8. Jessie! What amazing pictures! I have a new appreciation for nature these days, I recently moved from Florida to California, and the land is more than spectacular here, to say the least.
    Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with a spot in the sand in the Florida Keys, but coming from flat land, this has just been amazing!

    Congrats on making Freshly Pressed! I look forward to reading more of your adventures 🙂


  9. I am from beautiful BC, Canada……but I have to admit your photos are spectacular!!! I love the great wide open too….I get into the back-country every chance I get…

    I am new to WordPress, as you can tell from my very plain profile, but I look forward to seeing more of your pics in the near future… Thank you for posting!!

  10. Wow! What amazing pictures. I love your post! The picture of the horse eating is classic. My husband and I are heading out to North Dakota and are definitely going to check out this amazing place. Thanks for the inspiration. God Bless.

    • Oh Acai, so glad I inspired you to pay it a visit. It is pretty amazing. If you can’t make it on the trail, make sure to check out the TR National Parks…north or south unit. You can get a great view of the Badlands from some lookout points and not too rough hiking trails without having to pack in on a horse or bike.

  11. Jessie, your writing brings me back to my second horse riding experience (my first being a horrible one in Medora when I was 14), in the badlands with Marianne, Billy and Linda! The feeling I had riding through that beautiful country was simply put heavenly! It was peaceful, charming, seductive and at times scary! I would do it again in a ND minute but this time would love to take Kent. I know he would love it as well. Thanks for bringing me back to that day…….it was a day some of us weren’t touched by much sadness…….and I will always treasure that day.

  12. Sounds to be a very incredible spot, and never been there, wow, I feel like I want to horse back riding now, #@@%%$ the computer !!

    Beautiful pictures, congrats about being freshly pressed.

  13. Even though I’m not really into horse riding this post reminded me of Finland where I’m from originally. People there are so much more in touch with nature than in the UK where I live at the moment, and it was so nice to read a post about what a beautiful world we live in and that it’s not really all for us humans to use and change how we please!! Thanks for a really nice post, I wish I had a couple of horses and the chance to do the same 😉

  14. Wonderful shots and storyline! I felt like I was on the trail with you (minus the achy back and sore bottom!) Thanks for sharing and congrats on Freshly Pressed! LB

  15. Whoa! I’m totally adding your backyard to my “Places to See Before I Die” list! (Mine’s pretty sweet, too, but more with the rivers and the conifers and less with the angry rattlesnakes.)

  16. The story line and the photos are all beautifully done. The words “No Mowing” caught my attention. I enjoy getting out and sweating in doing my own yards. I am also blessed in having two homes. One in McKinney, Texas, where my primary home is, and one on a lake in East Texas (Cedar Creek Lake) that is a hour and half from my home. The yards are large, the lakefront property close to an acre with a hundred and forty feet of water frontage. Both yards look like images of the grass from the Wizard of Oz. Truthfully, there are times when this sixty-eight year old body would like to look out the windows and see your beautiful views. You are truly blessed in having such beauty at your back door. Thanks for sharing your blog. It was a wonderful adventure.

    • I can just picture your pristine yards! How lovely. Sometimes I wish I had a little less cow poop (and come to think of it, a few less cows) in mine, but it is worth it! Thanks for stopping by.

  17. As I was logging into my blog (lemonelephant) I noticed your picture of the badlands on the front page of wordpress so I immediately had to check it out! I grew up in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park- it was my backyard from age 1-9 and that place holds so many memories for me! The trail you speak of was actually named by my Dad! It took me back home for a second and the pictures have renewed me for tonight. Such a beautiful, beautiful place and how lucky you are to live your life there!

    I am now living my life and raising my family in a big city. It is a shame that my girls can’t roam the land or play in the little missouri for hours on end like I did, as they are definitely missing out.

    • How cool Tasha. I am so glad you stumbled upon your home again! Hopefully you can take your girls out of the big city and out on the Maah Daah Hey soon (or at least to the park). I know they would love it the way you do. Thanks for stopping by.

  18. Absolutely beautiful! You are right, there is nothing like being out in it, not that I would know, but these pictures are stunning. I have never made it to ND, but your post makes me want to go! Thank you for posting!

  19. You truly are blessed! What a gorgeous ‘backyard’ you have. Great pics and a great story! I’ve spent some time in America’s spectacular spacious areas and your piece brought back wonderful memories.

  20. Thanks so much for posting this. I loved seeing it all, it was breath taking and fabulous. I love being out in the country, and living in a small town doesn’t allow you to do that a whole lot, so seeing this was very refreshing. Thanks


    • Oh, I hope someday you do get to experience a ride into the sunset. It is truly blissful. No matter how many times I am on the back of a horse, it never gets old. Thanks so much for visiting and for your words of support.

  21. THAT is your backyard???? How jealous am I??? And may I add- you had some mighty handsome cowboys with you… :o) stunning photos!

  22. We are a couple of women who look at the world in a similar way. I enoyed the way you have taken the reader along on your journey and then culminated with the notion of all of us humans sharing this same sky. I often am faced with and think about this concept of seeking the solitude of a wild place and the reality of our increasing world population. Especially when you ride into a place and then see that others have simply driven in on their 4 wheelers. But, as you say, these places are for everyone to enjoy. After all, this is our nation’s citizens’ land for this nation’s citizens to behold.
    I too am giving up the convience of late night shopping, even day shopping except for between those long runs to town. Right now, I am still in between the two worlds, the hustle of Santa Cruz, CA and our soon to be full time home outside of Mackay, ID. Perhaps I will come over for that hike and cocktail as you suggest. Lovely piece, great photos, wonderful writing. I am happy that I stumbled on your blog today.

    ~Julie Anne Morley

  23. Pingback: A year in review…with you. « Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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