- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

It’s not normally one of the first places that come to mind when one conjures up an image of an interesting travel destination. North Dakota?

Why? 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. You descend seven stories in an escalator.

Medora also offers a number of other Old West town and historic attractions and has a fine golf course, the Bully Pulpit, which is set against a scenic badlands backdrop.


The Roosevelt connection is by no means the state’s only or even main draw for American history buffs. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s last command post before he headed off to Montana and death at Little Big Horn was at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck-Mandan.

I enjoyed visiting his house at the fort, but North Dakota is better known as the best place to connect with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The bicentennial of their epic journey of discovery across America is still being celebrated.

Just north of Bismarck, I visited America’s premier Lewis and Clark attraction, Fort Mandan. It was at Fort Mandan that Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery spent more time than anywhere else during their journey, wintering in the 1804-05 season and making friends with the area’s Mandan and Hidatsa Indians.

Visitors see a replica of the original fort, which burned down not long after the expedition moved on and which actually was located at a site about 10 miles away that now lies under the Missouri River.

Looking at this authentic replication of the expedition’s meager facilities and tools and the explorers’ clothing and then imagining how they coped with the bitter winter in such conditions helps visitors understand why Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “undaunted courage” to describe the quality that drove them.

At Fort Mandan, they met and signed up a remarkable young Indian woman who, with her baby on her back, would accompany them and assist for the rest of their long journey. Her name was Sacajawea.

Much myth surrounds her, including the mistaken belief that she guided Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.

Her name is spelled and pronounced a few different ways — partly because Lewis and Clark were terrible spellers — and her tribe is sometimes listed as Shoshone and sometimes as Hidatsa.

Most scholars believe she was born Shoshone in what is now Montana and then later was adopted into the Hidatsa tribe.

Other sights associated with Lewis and Clark, Indians and the American frontier we enjoyed visiting include:

• Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where Sacajawea lived and which features a fully furnished earth lodge of the kind in which she and Indians of her time lived. A park ranger gave us a fascinating explanation of the Indian way of life. (Did you know they used buffalo hoofs for a doorbell?)

• Three Tribes Museum in New Town and Five Nations Art in Mandan, both of which contain impressive displays of Indian arts and crafts and good gift shops.

• On-a-Slant Indian Village, where you can see four reconstructed Mandan Indian earth lodges.

• Near the Montana border, Fort Buford State Historic Site, where Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull were imprisoned, which contains four of the original buildings, and the expertly reconstructed Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.

The scenery I saw driving through the state was of yellow prairie grass and wide open spaces containing large farms and ranches and seemingly endless fields of sunflowers (North Dakota is said to have more sunflowers than any other state), as well as vistas of 130-mile-long Lake Sacagawea.

In the state capital, Bismarck, the must-see attraction is the North Dakota Heritage Center, whose holdings span from the age of dinosaurs to the present and include one of America’s largest collections of Plains Indians artifacts.

In front of the center stands a large statue of Sacajawea. It is claimed that there are more statues of this young American Indian woman than of any other woman of American history.

While in Bismarck, I experienced what for many is the highlight of a visit to North Dakota — attending an Indian powwow. They are held throughout the state during the warmer months.

A powwow is an Indian tradition of coming together to renew old friendships and make new ones and to sing and dance in a great competition. The sound of the beating drums and the sight of so many performers in traditional outfits make a powwow a moving and colorful celebration.

The experience is something quite different and very interesting — just like North Dakota, a place Teddy Roosevelt fondly called “a world of beauty and color and limitless space.”

• • •

For more information, call North Dakota Tourism, 800/435-5663, visit www.ndtourism.com or send e-mail to [email protected]

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