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…