Under a Badlands Sky…


One of my favorite autumn rituals has become my now annual trip down the road to visit the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park just outside the ever-expanding limits of my home town.

These days, more than ever, I believe this park to be a blessing and a gift, a reminder among the chaos of a bustling industry to slow down and remember the best things in life.

The sky…

The grass…

The quiet, wild things.

I like to visit those rugged buttes to be reminded that I am one of those quiet, wild things and last week I took my Little Sister along on a little hike so that she could remember that too.

See, Little Sister has just recently come into some major responsibilities after graduating from college last winter. And with her new teaching degree in health and physical education, she has found herself in a small school outside of our hometown writing lesson plans, leading jumping jack sessions, chasing around adorable kindergarteners and helping seniors prepare for college while working on getting a master’s degree in counseling and guidance.

I’m tired just thinking about it, but so proud of this woman who, in my mind, should still be 8 years old and following me up the creek to the forts we built behind the house.

I still find it a little disheartening that when we grow up that seems to be the first thing we give up…walks to nowhere.

And building forts.

But that’s what the ranch does for us, and places like this park. It provides us with a reason to walk to nowhere, to climb to the top of a hill and look down,

to notice how that jet leaves a white streak in the sky and to wonder where it’s going…

while we find we’re happy to be right where we are.

Happy to point out the small deer crossing the road or a chipmunk below our feet instead of worrying about deadlines and messy kitchens to clean.

Happy to notice how the sun shines through the changing autumn leaves on the river bottom instead of how the end tables need dusting and the windows need a wipe.

Happy to trip on a rock as we make our way down from the buttes, happy for a near-miss incident that we can laugh at together, thankful we made it in one piece.

Thankful that we’re not sweeping right now.

Or doing paperwork.

Or making dinner.

Thankful that someone set aside a place for us to go to get away from all of the things that seem to matter so little when it comes to a choice between watching the leaves change or watching a television screen.

Thankful that we can walk to the river and talk about the time Little Sister broke the tire swing as it flung her out over the coulee and dropped her in the creek. Thankful she survived the fall, though she was certain she was dying.

Thankful she has nearly forgiven my reaction of hysterical laughter.

Thankful that years later, though those jets could take us anywhere, we still chose to be out under this beautiful and familiar sky…

Together.

And then we sang “Home on the Range”

Good Monday to you! It looks like the weekend brought with it some real summer weather that is likely to stick around for a while. Like 80+ weather and a few more pasty North Dakotans sporting a pink hue. The season’s in full force and I feel like soaking in the sun off of Lake Sakakawea and climbing the buttes in the evening and sitting on the deck with a burger and beans.

I do not feel like mowing the lawn again, which seems to have grown seven more feet toward that hot sun while I was away in Medora for the weekend.

But it was a great weekend of music and strolling through the streets of this historic tourist destination in the heart of the Magnificent Badlands. (I capitalize because it deserves capitalization, that’s how Magnificent it is). Singing in Medora has been one of my best gigs, and each visit I thank them over and over again for allowing me to put on my fancy boots and sing for my supper and for people from all over the country who pass through on their way to finish their life-long dream of visiting all 50 states, to spend a wholesome family weekend with their children, to bike the trails of this rugged country, or, you know, to sip wine and make requests of their local musicians…

And then take a walk around the the restaurant in an attempt to peddle my CDs as the other innocent patrons are trying to enjoy a quiet meal.

Oh, you’ve gotta have fans…super, small town, best friends, former english teacher, former agriculture teacher, mother and mother-in-law fans. They bring the party.

And I can’t over-emphasize that statement enough.

Thanks Roughriders for not kicking us out. I hope you’ll have us again.

But that’s the thing about places like Medora. It is truly an escape. A town on the edge of the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, home to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite places, it is town founded on preserving the adventure and spirit of the old west.

So on a stroll along the boardwalks and through the gift shops, you will see cowboy hats, you will see boots, you may see a horse and rider and you might happen upon a jewelry store on your way to a reenactment of an old shootout (complete with historic guns, a piano, some saloon girls and volunteers from the audience who are related to you) and promptly spend all of your singing money on turquoise and silver…and then on some coffee mugs, a blanket, a scarf and a witty plaque that says something about how the woman of the house is in charge…

Yes, I bought that.

And then promptly took husband’s advice that perhaps our rapidly draining bank account is a cue to step as far away from the temptations of retail as possible and out into the wild place on the edge of town that has been preserved with the wildflowers, grasses, rivers and wildlife that were here long before the train, barbed wire fences and, you know, jewelry stores.

So we hopped into in-law’s mini-van and drove the loop through the South Unit of the park. And we were not alone as cars with license plates from California, Washington, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming drove slowly down the pavement, pulling over to catch a prairie dog squeaking at his neighbor with passion,

a lone antelope meandering through the sage brush,

a group of wild horses grazing on the flat

and of course, a herd of mighty bison rolling and panting and sunning themselves on the baked clay. 

I have lived on the north edge of these badlands nearly my entire life and am making plans to plant myself here for good, but each time I roll through what we call “the brakes” on my way home from a town somewhere or a vacation to the lakes or the mountains I always slow down.

I always hold my breath.

I always experience an overwhelming feeling of  awe and wonder, because there’s no place like this here on earth. And even though it’s right here in my backyard, I think I will always feel like a tourist.

I think I will always stop to take a photo of a bison kicking up dust, a reminder of a wilder time in our world.


I think I will always slow for that antelope and wonder if he might be headed for the river.

I think I will admire the wild horses and squint for the new colors blooming despite the rocky and hard clay of the landscape.

So as we rolled back into Medora and prepared for another evening of music, I took notice of how many songs I sing about the buttes and the wind out here. I recognized all of the cowboys that make their way through the lyrics, all of the old boots and saddles and guitars they carry with them.

I realized that the music, my music, paints for me a picture of this world I have sprouted from, this landscape that people have on their bucket lists of places to exist in and stop to photograph or hike to the top of.

So I sang with my eyes closed and then opened them to see the guests flushed from their hikes, re-hashing the day, cutting into their steaks or walleye and talking about that bison that crossed their trail, that trail ride on the back of a horse, the cliffs that have sluffed off of the buttes due to the wet seasons, the family photos they took and the muscles they got re-aquainted with out here…

And I sang more songs about cowboys and horses and standing in the prairie wind and falling in love out here and being pushed to leave but pulled to stay. Songs about eagles and dancing in the meadow and the cold North Dakota winters and at least one song about my dogs and mail order brides and a woman who took a moment to step off the road in an attempt to find herself.

And then we sang Home on the Range.