Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) was created in 1947 to protect the unique badlands of North Dakota and honor the president who felt most at home there. Theodore Roosevelt is famously quoted as saying, “I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota”. It was here first that he experienced the ruggedness of the terrain which challenged and shaped his character and the unabashed slaughter of the prairie animals, specifically bison, which led him to be one of the most celebrated conservationists the country has ever seen. In his time as president he saw the establishment of five national parks, 51 federal bird reservations, four national game preserves and 150 national forests protecting over 230,000,000 acres of public land.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a combination of badlands, cut by the Little Missouri River, plains and prairie. There are three units, the North Unit, South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit. I spent my time in the South Unit as it contains most of the established trails. It is also where the main visitor center is located and is closest to the town of Medora where I was staying.
As an aside, the town of Medora has an interesting history. Established by a French aristocrat Marquis de Mores bound on making money in meat packing, a general store and other ventures. The businesses ended up failing but Medora remained relevant as the seat of Billings county and as a cattle town and a base for local mining operations.
Fast forward to the 20th century and enter Harold Schafer. He was a successful businessman from North Dakota best known for owning the companies that made Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach and everyone’s favorite Mr. Bubble bubble bath. He loved Medora and in 1962 began purchasing and restoring buildings in the town starting with the Rough Riders Hotel. In 1986 Harold and his family formed and donated all Medora assets and a sizable amount of cash to the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the preserving the experience of the badlands, the historic character of Medora and the heritage of Theodore Roosevelt and Harold Schafer.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Medora. The town is extremely clean, well maintained, has very nice shops and restaurants, has a live musical seven nights a week (I missed this but maybe next time…), a meticulous campground (where I stayed), the Little Missouri Saloon, where I saw Quenby and the West of Wayland Band (kick ass country), and town-wide free wi-fi which reached all the way to the campground. Oh, and the entrance to the South Unit of the National Park is in Medora.
Now to the run. I was helped immensely by Justin Data, a.k.a. The Home Brewed Runner who had recently run 50 kilometers in the park. Through his blog post (http://thehomebrewedrunner.blogspot.com/2016/06/getting-lost-and-loving-it-in-theodore.html) and Facebook exchanges he really helped me focus down the route. He also helped me really get a handle on what I was going to experience – the heat, terrain, animals, lack of trail markings and isolation – you are really on your own. He also scared me enough that I bought a Garmin GPSMAP 64st handheld GPS and corresponding 1:24,000 scale digital topographical maps. Read his post. He’s a very entertaining writer.
I developed a clockwise loop staring at the Peaceful Valley Ranch and taking the CCC Trail, Jones Creek Trail, Lower Talkington Trail, Upper Talkington Trail, Rim Trail, Upper Paddock Creek Trail, and Lower Paddock Creek Trail back to Peaceful Valley. In my plan about three quarters of the way through the run was the option to add an out and back to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center via the Painted Canyon Trail to refill on water. I programmed the route into the GPS before I started and it was a good thing I did.
I started the run before 7am to help avoid some of the heat. It was forecast to be in the high 90’s and the badlands offer no shade. As I was advised there are many areas in which the trails are not well marked. Many of the trail markers get knocked down by bison who use them as scratching posts. Replacing them by the maintenance crew is sporadic at best. In addition, and most confusing was that many of the hiking trails were crisscrossed by game trails. Sometimes I would come to an intersection and have anywhere from one to three options on a direction to go and not be able to see the next trail marker (if there was one). Often the game trail was more defined than the hiking trail so more than once I chose incorrectly. I learned to refer to the GPS frequently to make sure I was on the pink line on the screen. I do not know how to navigate via compass and topographical map. I had them with me as a backup but would have been lost on numerous occasions without the GPS. I need to take an orienteering class soon.
At the intersection of the Upper Paddock Creek Trail and the Painted Canyon Trail (around mile 20) I had a decision to make. I stopped completely for a few minutes to evaluate the situation. I was balancing the extra 4.2 miles round trip to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center with how much water I would need to finish the marathon. I decided to play it safe and endure the extra distance to make sure I didn’t run out of water. It was a wise move. Even though the diversion meant I would be out in the heat longer I would have run out of water before finishing. Safety first.
During the run I had to dodge two herd of bison, one lonely bull bison who took his time meandering down the trail, one green-yellowish snake of some sort (lucky it was not a prairie rattler), biting black flies and a deer. There were also lots of cool birds and interesting insects of which my knowledge is limited. In the end I ran 30.5 miles in one of the most interesting and challenging places I’ve ever been.
The best part about my time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not the amazing landscape, the fulfilling run, or the free wi-fi. It was the words of wisdom and encouragement from an older gentleman I met at the campground.
Clay is a veterinarian and a member of the Hoof Trimmers Association (as noted proudly on his hat) from South Dakota who was on vacation with his extended family. He came over to talk to me about my rooftop tent. No one else from the party came over. I think the universe sent him.
When I shared with him the details of the National Parks Marathon Project he got genuinely excited for me. He is not a runner but appreciated the type of courage it takes to break away from professional life and take on an effort like this. Despite what I implied he said that 44 years old is still very young and that I had a lot of life ahead of me.
He offered many pearls of wisdom but two in particular stuck with me. First, he said that “everyone needs an adventure in life”. It gives you perspective and makes you appreciate what you have. He said, “this is your adventure”. He was so genuinely excited for me that it gave me energy.
And second and applicable to everyone, he said that despite your age and ailments “you only feel old once you start having regrets”. The words hit me like a train. I’ve thought a lot about them since then. They keep echoing. I don’t want to have regrets. There is only one life. Live it the way you want.
So I offer Clay’s advice to you. A grizzled, aged animal doctor from South Dakota has found the fountain of youth. Don’t have regrets. Let’s do our best to adhere to his words.