WATFORD CITY , N.D. -- The bald eagle flies high as the nation's symbol of freedom, but it's the grizzled bison that epitomizes the struggle and survival of the unyielding American spirit.
Unkempt, with patches of fur matted or missing from its wrinkled hide, the big-headed beast grazes on the grassy northern Great Plains, one lazy eye keeping quiet track of me. Its mighty presence endures, as I see quite clearly not 5 feet from where I'm standing. Feeling a surge of nationalistic pride, I'm ready to break into a verse of ``This Land Is Your Land," when I'm joined by 20 to 30 or more of his brethren. Instead of song, I just sit there and laugh at my good fortune.
Laughter was a common response when I told friends I was headed to North Dakota. They would say that my geography was upside-down and remind me that Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota. The most vehement critics were from Minnesota, North Dakota's neighbor to the east.
``We never go there," exclaimed a well-traveled colleague in St. Paul. My favorite reference to North Dakota was offered by Eric Sevareid, the late television newsman, who described his home state as a ``meaningless rectangle on the cold, flat top of our country."
I was beginning to think Sevareid was right as I made my way west across the flat, fecund fields that stretch along the Missouri River. Mile after mile of seemingly endless farmland and untilled grasslands were dotted by the occasional lone tractor and rolled bales of hay, some of them whimsically sculpted into smiling faces or train shapes. Up above, reddish-pink clouds sailed quickly through the vast sky, pushed by the often fierce winds of the Northern prairie.
Just as I began to tire of watching sagebrush fly across the road in front of my car, I came upon a bewildering blend of gorges, clay, silt, and river that French fur traders called ``mauvais terres à traverse " or ``bad lands to cross." Buttes, some as high as 1,000 feet, rise from the valley, ringed in tan, copper, red, even pink tones. Indeed, the badlands are a twisting mass of rock, rough around the edges, that appears out of place, especially after traveling through farmland for hours. Close to the Montana border, it signifies the end of the Midwestern farm and the beginning of the Western mountains. Nineteenth-century settlers who made it this far in their covered wagons would soon have the added misfortune of crossing the Continental Divide.
Heading south from Watford City, I enter the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and soon mine is the only car on the 14-mile scenic drive along the Little Missouri River. I spot mule deer guarding the entrance to the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and continue on to the Oxbow Overlook, where a young Roosevelt on horseback reportedly chased thieves who had stolen his boat. He would catch them 20 miles downriver and personally bring them to justice.
As I made my return trip to the park entrance, I spotted the herd of bison and pulled over. In Yellowstone National Park, this sight would attract a caravan of cars, undoubtedly stopping short so drivers could get their hoped-for ``National Geographic shot." Here, I get out of my car, linger, and laugh, all by my lonesome. And, yes, feel guilty about divulging the charms of this underused park. I should continue to let North Dakota be the butt of jokes as I return quietly year after year.
``The North Unit receives about 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a year," said park ranger Bruce Kaye. ``The South Unit gets about four times that amount."
Compare that with the more than 3 million people Yellowstone accommodates annually. I'm in the visitors center in the South Unit of the park, an hour's drive from the North Unit. Kaye, a ranger at Theodore Roosevelt for close to 20 years, refuses to be shipped anywhere else.
``I stopped answering the phone," he said with a chuckle as he tallied the latest numbers of wildlife spotted in the park. Bison were more than 400, with close to 1,000 elk, 110 wild horses, 25 bighorn sheep, and too many deer and prairie dogs to count. Last summer, the bison population was swelling to record numbers, far more than the 70,447-acre park could handle. So Kaye supervised a round up and bison were sent by helicopter to Native American reservations across the state, like that of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe north of Bismarck , the state capital.
It was the buffalo, of course, that enticed the 24-year-old Roosevelt to make the trek west in September 1883. The big-game hunter came to bag a bison, but was dismayed to find the herd decimated already by hide hunters and disease. He wouldn't even spot a buffalo until his 10th day in the badlands. However, he was smitten with the landscape and the lure of the cowboy culture. Before he returned home to New York, Roosevelt purchased a ranch to raise cattle.
He would return the following year after his young wife, Alice, two days after giving birth, and his mother, of typhoid fever, had coincidentally died on the same day. He bought a second ranch, and learn ed to ride, shoot, and herd. After a sickly and asthmatic childhood, he was savoring the ``strenuous life." He would spend the day on horseback, the night at his desk writing about the experience. ``Ours was the glory of work and the joy of living," he noted.
Conservation and the impact of the lost bison herd increasingly became Roosevelt's concerns. Like other ranchers, he understood the cost of exploiting the land without replenishment. When after the assassination of President McKinley, Roosevelt became president in 1901, he would help establish five national parks, 18 national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges. He would also state that, ``I never would have been president if it had not been for my experience in North Dakota."
The original cabin from Roosevelt's stay at the Maltese Cross Ranch can be found behind the visitor s center. Built of ponderosa pine, it features some of Roosevelt's possessions, like his writing desk and a clothing trunk with the initials ``T.R." His hunting knife, gun, and other intriguing memorabilia like his bloody shirt from when he was shot on the campaign trail in 1912, can be seen in a small museum inside the center.
One of the most popular ways to traverse the South Unit of the park is the way Roosevelt traveled, on horseback, but since I was on the mend from knee surgery, I chose to canoe a 17-mile stretch of the Little Missouri . The water was high enough in May to dictate a leisurely paddle. Put-in was at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, nestled into the buttes of the badlands and, in 1876, an overnight camping spot for General George Armstrong Custer on his fatal march west to Little Bighorn.
On a cold but crystal clear day, I navigate the canoe through the many S-curves of the Little Missouri. I edge alongside the striated rock of the buttes, which gain height as I enter the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Once again, I see no people. But wildlife is abundant. Four white-as-a-wedding-dress pelicans fly overhead. At another bend, three wild horses graze on the shores, their hair mangled and manes longer than the groomed horses we're accustomed to seeing. Lastly, I spot a coyote scurrying up the rocks, high above the cottonwoods that line the river. He peers down at me, surprised, then speeds off to the top of the canyon.
``We who have felt the charm of the life and have exalted in its abounding vigor and its bold, restless freedom, will not only regret its passing for our own sakes but must also feel sorrow that those who came after us are not to see, as we have seen, what is perhaps the pleasantest, happiest, and most exciting place of American existence," Roosevelt wrote at that small desk in his cabin.
His face might grace that massive mountainside sculpture down in South Dakota, yet he would be pleased to know that the park that bears his name in North Dakota offers a true glimpse of a less tarnished America, one that he would want to preserve.
Contact Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton, through his website at www.stevejermanok.com.