July 6-13, 2013
From the North Unit of TRNP we headed to Dickinson, ND. We were ready for showers, emails, phone calls, internet searches, AC, a swimming pool, fewer bugs and maybe even TV or a movie. The fracking boom had caused motels to emerge out of the dirt around town like mushrooms after rain. Expensive mushrooms, that is. Fortunately, the woman at the Visitor’s Center guided us to the cheapest place in town and, while still more than we usually pay, it was manageable within our lean budget.
When we registered, the manager, noticing that we drove a pick-up, asked the make and proceeded to suggest American brand trucks: Ford, Dodge, Chevy, etc. We said it was a Toyota and added that we had noticed there were few Japanese vehicles in the state. “Yeah” he said, “people don’t drive ‘rice cookers’ in North Dakota.” We got everything we wanted at the motel except the pool; it was there but sat empty and in disrepair. This was disappointing because the highs had been hovering around 100 for the previous week.
There wasn’t much going on in town. Across the street from the motel, the Pacific Northern Railway, sounding its loud evocative whistle, rolled by the grain elevators and warehouses several times a day. (To hear a recording go to Soundscapes.) The only natural food vegetarian restaurant was closed for the long holiday weekend. However, nearby was a very good coffee shop in a small old stone church that had once been Teddy Roosevelt’s place of worship. “Going to church” became our phrase meaning “going to get coffee”.
The South Unit
After two days of getting cleaned up and refreshed in civilization we drove west to the South Unit of TRNP. Teddy Roosevelt had a ranch there for a several years and North Dakotans seem very proud of their part-time local boy who became president. The South Unit is similar to the North, with bison and badlands, but it also has wild horses, prairie dog towns, and a petrified forest. We found a beautiful campsite along the Little Missouri River with views of the rugged hills.
When we arrived at the campground, while Chris filled our water tank, I wandered the edge of the meadow, photographing wildflowers. Suddenly something near my feet, aggressively recoiled into the grassy cover. It’s common for small rodents, lizards or birds to take refuge when approached but they usually flee with quiet and stealth, this movement was almost violent. I leaned over and looked into the shadows to see what was there. Gradually, the animal came into focus with its large triangular head, its penetrating eyes and probing tongue. A prairie rattlesnake! Yikes!
I backed away and called for the campground host, who confirmed the identification. We all, including his son and Chris, watched it until it slithered away, revealing its rattles last before disappearing, giving lethal meaning to “a snake in the grass”. Later I would discover that it was time of year that rattlers shed their skin. During the process, they often do not rattle in warning (the one I saw did not) and because their eyesight is clouded they may be more aggressive and strike randomly. Was the snake’s violent movement actually a strike that missed rather than a recoil? Scary to think about.
A Fox in the Hen House
Within the park are several large black-tailed prairie dog towns. For our second dinner there, we packed a picnic, chairs, our cameras and a tripod to observe the rodents as the sun set. We pulled into a parking area and began setting up. Suddenly the barks, chirps, yelps, yipping of the dogs escalated to a frenzy. We looked up to see a red fox slinking across the town! All the prairie dogs stood on hind legs by their holes, mostly in groups, broadcasting raucous warnings to every resident. They feel safest that way since the fox can’t sneak up on them.The fox looked unsure, displeased with all the noise and with us being there too. It eventually slipped back into the trees.
Since prairie dogs are active and social, they can be fun to watch. They take amusing poses and engage in playful antics. They are small and won’t tolerate people getting too close, so without a good telephoto lens (and lots of patience), they are hard to photograph. Even so, I got a few decent shots. I went to another town a few days later in the morning.
When Trees Turn to Stone
In a remote section of the park are the fossilized remains of an old forest. Huge cypress trees were partially buried in a flood or by volcanic ash. The upper exposed trunks rotted away but the lower parts, encased in sediment, turned to stone. The surface of the petrified wood was ribbed, multicolored and had patches of druzy – tiny sparkly quartz crystals.
The tree segments were randomly littered over the sandy surface, making it look like an intentional dump for old stumps. Many of the petrified trees are still in the process of being unearthed after thousands of years underground. Some were about to tumble out of the hillsides as if an ancient magic spell had been broken and they were released into sunshine once again. I tried to imagine this arid prairie as the dense watery swampland it once was, with alligators, turtles and lush flora . . . and then realized it probably looked a lot like what we saw a few months earlier in Louisiana and Florida!