Exploring North Dakota; across Plains, Badlands, Find History, Beauty
Byline: Fred J. Eckert, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
It's not normally one of the first places that come to mind when one conjures up an image of an interesting travel destination.
Forget that funny business about humorist Dave Barry poking fun at some foolish folks who were pushing the idea of changing the state's name to Dakota, as if doing so would somehow make potential tourists less likely to figure out that the state is located far up north, just under Canada, where, of course, during much of the year the weather is very cold.
The surprising truth is that North Dakota is an unexpectedly interesting travel destination. It has some great scenery, lots of history and plenty of fun things to see and do.
A good place to begin discovering what's so nice about North Dakota is where I did, in Medora, a nearly picture-perfect tiny town in the southwestern part of the state that has the look and feel of the Old West.
During the drive to Medora from the East, I was favorably impressed while seeing some truly beautiful color and light scenes of tall, bright, yellow prairie grass against the glow of a late-afternoon sun. Then about seven miles outside of town on my right, Painted Canyon suddenly appeared, throwing off a kaleidoscope of colors. I instantly realized why so many people consider the badlands such a beautiful area.
It was just outside Medora that a future great American president used to ranch; he credited his North Dakota experience with changing him from a sickly, weak young man into a hardy person and strong leader. He even said that were it not for his North Dakota days, he never would have become president of the United States.
The Medora area loves him as much as he loved it, and today many things in and around the town are dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt.
One is the ruggedly scenic 110-square-mile Theodore Roosevelt National Park, whose South Unit entrance is at Medora. Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin, the original cabin from the first ranch he owned in North Dakota, is just behind the visitors center and is open for tours. However, the real highlight of this section of the park is driving the 36-mile paved scenic loop, where you are certain to see prairie-dog colonies up close and hear them chatter, will likely see some buffalo and antelope and maybe see wild horses and elk.
During the day, the shale and sandstone cliffs of the badlands have a haunting beauty. Teddy Roosevelt called it "a desolate, grim beauty."
"And then," as John Steinbeck put it so well in "Travels With Charley," "the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black. It was so beautiful that I stopped near a thicket of dwarfed and wind-warped cedars and junipers, and once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. I can easily see how people are driven back to the Bad Lands."
I thought of that Steinbeck passage one evening as I sat at an outdoor picnic table dining on a Western steak at the Pitchfork Fondue while looking out over the badlands. Next on my agenda was attending a performance of the famous "Medora Musical" in an adjacent amphitheater. Looking down over the glow coming from the canyons below, I could understand why the amphitheater was named Burning Hills.
The "Medora Musical," one of North Dakota's leading tourist attractions, is an acclaimed and very professionally produced two-hour song-and-dance extravaganza featuring Western and historical themes devoted to Teddy Roosevelt. The family-friendly patriotic show also features some nationally known variety acts.
Performances are held every evening during the warmer months in the 2,900-seat amphitheater carved into a badlands canyon. …