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September 1998

Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands

Theodore Roosevelt ventured into the North Dakota Badlands an East Coast city Boy. After the land got through with him, he had the fortitude to run a nation and the insight to preserve more wildlands than anyone in history.

It is a low whistle, a sound I could almost mistake for birdsong. Almost.

Caught in midstep, my right foot just a few inches off the ground, I slowly swivel my head toward Tom, who stands still as a tree trunk among the sagebrush 30 yards to my left. He whistles again and then points at the tangle of cottonwoods just ahead.

Without moving, I search the stand of trees. At first I see nothing, just a maze of branches and leaves. Then, slowly, as if materializing before my eyes, the unmistakable dusty-brown outline of a huge shaggy head begins to take shape. I follow the outline to the crescent-shaped horns at the top, then back down to the square, leathery nose.

In between, there is a pair of black eyes peering through the branches. The eyes are staring straight at me.

It is September. Autumn along Paddock Creek in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Drops of dew are strung like diamonds in the sagebrush. The cottonwood leaves, yellow as butter- scotch, rattle quietly in a morning breeze. The trails are empty this time of year, and dust devils and buffalo droppings outnumber windshield tourists. Elk bugle from the roadside. Coyotes prowl the campsites and yip at the stars.

Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I have come to North Dakota’s Badlands seeking just this kind of solitude. We’ve also come to be part of the park’s two-year 50th anniversary celebration. The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established on April 25, 1947, and the North Unit, almost 80 miles away, was added in 1948.

It makes sense that this place needs two years to celebrate an anniversary. The Badlands is a place where time holds new meaning and seems to stretch as far as the North Dakota skies. The hills wear their age etched in the wrinkles, like old skin, that wind down their faces. The canyons wear it carved into their cliffs. This is a landscape created and sculpted by time, a place where events and celebrations have no beginning, no end.

It makes less sense, at least at first glance, why the park was named after Theodore Roosevelt, the only one of our 56 national parks to be named after a president. Roosevelt was born in New York and lived most of his life on the East Coast. He spent only about three years in North Dakota before being elected president and returned only twice for the briefest of visits during his administration. As a fledgling rancher, he nearly lost his family inheritance to the whims and weather of this rugged land. Though he fought hard for the protection of millions of acres of parks, refuges, and national forests, this backwater section of remote North Dakota was not one of the areas he championed.

Still, something about these time-sculpted hills touched Roosevelt deeply, molding his vision of the human relationship with nature, a vision that would make him the first conservation-minded president in United States history. What was it about this dusty collection of buttes, box canyons, and open spaces once described as “hell with the fires out” that so appealed to Roosevelt? What did he see in the place he described as a “land of vast, silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains, where the wild game stares at the passing horseman?”

It is a question I would love to sit down and ponder, but at the moment I am more concerned with the wild game staring at me through the cottonwoods.

The big bull lunges out of its hiding spot, stirring up a whirlwind of dust and leaves. It is out of the trees and in full view before my foot can touch the ground. Thoughts of the steep, cut-bank creek we just passed flash through my mind and I half-turn preparing to run. But then the buffalo stops. Something in its movement is awkward, off-balance. It takes another step, its nose dropping almost to the ground.

“It’s injured,” Tom says, the bull glancing his way at the sound of his voice. It is obvious now that the bull had come to the cottonwoods seeking refuge, a place to heal, or to die. Disturbed from its hideout, the old bull stands defiant in our path, eyes blazing so wide we can see the slice of white above each eye like crescent moons. Its right foreleg curls like a broken twig.

We back away slowly, trying to make it clear we are no threat. It watches us suspiciously, then swivels, hobbling off through the brush toward another nearby stand of cottonwoods where it backs in tight against the tree trunks.

“Oh, that’s a hard thing to see,” Tom says as we climb around the backside of a hill to get out of sight. “I know it is part of the natural process, but still it’s hard to see a proud old warrior hurt like that.” The last we see of him, the buffalo is lying down, framed by the trunks of two old cottonwood trees, autumn leaves tumbling down around him, and the knowledge of the coming winter deep and sure in his bones.

We crest a ridge and find another hillside dotted with buffalo. Downwind and distant enough to be invisible to them, we sit for hours, content to spend the morning watching them graze their way across the horizon like dark clouds against a sky of green.

It was buffalo and the itch to hunt them that first turned Roosevelt’s gaze toward the North Dakota Badlands. Once, the plains rumbled with the hoofbeats of close to 60 million of the beasts. Like the floods that flash across the plains after a rainstorm, they flowed across the land in immense numbers. Even as late as 1873, herds big enough to blacken 50 square miles were reported in the western Dakotas. But they were vanishing quickly, due in large part to a government-sanctioned policy aimed at controlling the remaining native tribes by eliminating the animal they so depended on.

At 3 a.m. on September 8, 1883, in a pouring rain, a 25-year-old TR stepped from the platform of a train station onto the empty streets of Little Missouri, North Dakota. He had heard there were still buffalo in the Dakota Badlands and he meant to hunt them. He had also heard the sad stories of “sportsmen” shooting from trains and leaving the carcasses to rot, the bleached bones littering the plains like driftwood. It was a bloody chapter in the history of the American West, “a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” he wrote.

On the other hand, the thought of stalking and bringing down such a big, powerful creature appealed to the hunter in Roosevelt. He saw a buffalo hunt as “genuine sport,” requiring “skill, marksmanship, and hardihood in the man.” Simply getting to the remote, out-of-the-way places where the buffalo roamed was no easy task and certainly no undertaking for any man “not of an adventurous temper,” as TR put it. Trophy hunting was, according to one biographer, part of Roosevelt’s “cult of manliness,” and the chance for a trophy buffalo hunt was an opportunity too great to pass up.

Despite the late hour, TR set about looking for a guide almost the moment he stepped off the train. No one was too anxious to slog into the backcountry with the youthful “Eastern punkin-lily,” however. Even so, TR persisted with the same determination that would get him through a week of riding in torrential rain and sleeping on the wet muck, all without spotting so much as a single buffalo track. “By Godfrey, but this is fun!” Roosevelt would say to his guide as they rode through the rain. The guide’s reply is left to historical conjecture.

Eventually they spooked an old bull that raced out of sight. Following its tracks led them to a herd.

“I myself am not, and never will be, more than an ordinary shot,” Roosevelt once wrote, “for my eyes are bad.” Through the pouring rain, the mist of his own excitement, and the jostling of his galloping horse, he proved himself to be correct, missing several shots as they chased the herd across the prairie for days.

Finally, on the third day of tracking the herd, they stalked to within TR’s range and he got his buffalo, an old bull brought down from 50 yards with three shots. TR celebrated with an impromptu dance around the carcass of the old buffalo that was stretched out on the prairie.

His thirst for big-game hunting earned Roosevelt the nickname “Bloody Teddy” among some detractors who thought he cared less for conservation than for maintaining a steady stream of animals to pursue. Even John Muir confronted Roosevelt about his penchant for hunting. “Mr. Roosevelt,” Muir asked during a camping trip the two shared in the Yosemite area of California, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” Caught off guard, Roosevelt could offer little in his own defense.

Perhaps the answer, if there is one, lies more in Roosevelt’s deeds than his words. As president, TR left a legacy of conservation that still stands as an environmental yardstick. He passed the Park Protection Act, widely credited with saving the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, from total destruction at the hands of poachers, and reintroduced buffalo in the park to keep them from going extinct. He set aside 18 new national monuments, including Devils Tower in Wyoming, Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Washington’s Olympic, the latter two eventually becoming national parks. He established five new national parks, including Mesa Verde and Crater Lake. His efforts to halt the slaughter of birds led to the establishment of the first 51 national wildlife refuges. Compared with previous administrations, his designated three times as many forest reserves, some 194 million acres.

Roosevelt did more to further the fledgling conservation movement and preserve wildlands than any person before him. He was, as naturalist John Burroughs saw, “as far removed from the game butcher as day is from night.” Even to this day, however, TR’s accomplishments are often clouded by his love of killing.

“We still get a lot of that today,” Bruce Kaye, chief of interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, told me. “People come to the visitor center, where we have TR’s guns on display and interpretive signs talking about his hunting trips, and they say, ‘How could he have been a hunter? I thought he was a conservationist?'”

The answer closest to the truth is that he was both.

Ours are the onlY footprints in the dust as we head off on the Achenbach Trail a few days later in the park’s North Unit. The trail winds like a slithering snake through a stand of old, flood-rubbed cottonwoods. Although it is autumn the sun feels like a blast furnace, beating down on the backs of our necks and heating the air until it feels sharp against our nostrils. It has also baked the Little Missouri River almost to stillness, reducing it to a thin slice of gray water.

There may not be much water, but there is mud. With his first step, Tom sinks halfway up to his knees. I slip my boots off, unsnap the buckle of my pack’s hipbelt, and step into the cool, slick gumbo of the riverbed. The mud sucks at my feet with each step. Once I am used to the sensation, I notice the tracks. The nearly empty riverbed is a highway for wildlife-the dog-like tracks of a coyote, the stitchings of some waterbird, the deep-set tracks of buffalo, the heart-shaped traces of mule deer.

There is a deep silence here, interrupted only by the slow gurgling of the river, the soft swish of grasses blowing back and forth in the dry wind, and two muddy hikers clambering up the far bank. Except for a coyote that yips in surprise when we suddenly top a rise, it’s so silent that you can almost hear the clouds bumping into each other in the deep-blue sky.

It was, at least in part, the silence that drew Roosevelt back to the Dakotas in 1884 for what would be his longest stay. In one tragic day in February of that year, Roosevelt lost both his wife, who died in childbirth, and his mother. Already reeling from a series of defeats in the New York legislature, the deaths put his life into a tailspin. For solace, he left the bustling East Coast and headed for the deserted Badlands, where he bought a ranch, the Elkhorn, on the banks of the Little Missouri River.

“We led a free and hardy life, with horses and with rifle,” he wrote. “Ours was the glory of work, and the joy of living.” The hard labor and open air were good for his health and rejuvenated his sagging spirits. The land began to heal him.

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