Temperatures topped out near 100° Fahrenheit. Bug guts covered about half of the windshield on our mini-van. And a thin film of dust covered everything else. We felt cut off from the rest of the world, with mobile data and telephone signal either weak or non-existent. It was every bit of the “Dry and Dusty Dakotas” stereotype much maligned as a “Flyover State” — except we drove every mile from its eastern border to its western border.
And I loved it. Truly, sincerely, and completely.
My affection for the Dakotas is well-documented. But I was particularly excited to visit the western part of North Dakota on this road trip because I haven’t spent any significant time in this area since I was probably ten or eleven years old. That was when my parents borrowed my grandparents’ RV and drove us from Jamestown to Medora, to camp out for a couple of days and attend the Medora Musical. Consequently, it felt like a special sort of symmetry to bring my kids along with me for this trip. To rediscover my love for western North Dakota — and to pass it along to them.
We all saw the World’s Largest Buffalo and the World’s Largest Holstein Cow together back in 2008. But those memories seem to live more through the photographs of them than through the actual memories of them. So even revisiting these old favorites was special. But the further west we got, the more excited we got. The high plains stretch out into buttes and badlands, just past Dickinson. And when we caught sight of a herd of bison grazing on a hill just inside the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we all cheered out loud.
We got to our destination — the Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch — just in time for the kids and me to go out for a walk as the sun set through a clear blue sky. It was spectacular! We took a ton of pictures and just felt happy to be together in such a unique setting. It was sort of sad that Marci wasn’t with us for that sunset, but it also worked well for her to get some much needed alone time while we shot as many pictures, sang as many songs, and talked as much about rattlesnakes as we wanted (none of which tend to be Marci’s top activities).
The next morning, we woke up and drove to the National Park Visitor Center. I asked the ranger where we might have the greatest likelihood of spotting some bison. Then he got a twinkle in his eyes, smiled, and made a motion with his hands spreading out to his sides, like one might signify a sparkling lake. “Everywhere,” he said. And sure enough, we saw multiple herds as we drove through the park. Also some prairie dogs. We did a couple of short hikes — but mostly we drove. Partly because of the hot, dry and dusty conditions, partly because that’s just the way the park is laid out.
It was good to get a 24-hour pause on our travels to the west. But after a full day of hanging around the North Dakota Badlands, we were ready to follow the sun and see what else we might discover.