Sunday, August 22, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt's Park

Aug 22, 2010

Today was our Medora Day. Medora is a little town which is the entryway to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Medora was founded by the Marquis de Mores, a VERY handsome man (we saw his photo, and he looked like a movie star!) who came here from France. He built a meat-packing plant and convinced the railroad to open a depot in Medora (which he named for his wife, who was from New York.) His father-in-law bankrolled his many ventures here but ultimately they failed. The town, however, stayed, partly due to the interest taken in it by Theodore Roosevelt (who arrived here 2 years after the Marquis and was friendly with him.) The town trades very heavily in its connection to Teddy R, and it currently bills itself as “historic Medora”, with all the little touristy buildings (souvenirs, fudge, snack bars, etc) made to look 100 years old.

We spent all morning in the national park, skipping the visitor center at first in favor of the Scenic Loop Drive. The first stops included a prairie dog village and a wonderful scenic overlook. I can never understand why I think prairie dogs are so cute—I wonder if people from places without squirrels think our squirrels are cute!

But the big stars (and I mean BIG) of the morning were the bison! I first saw them down in the valley near the river (the Little Missouri River runs through the park, the town, and next to the Medora Campground where we stayed last night.) A whole herd of them, which seemed to be moving directly toward the Cottonwood Campground (which is the park’s campground).

As I zoomed in to take their photos, Joey said, “Look ahead!” and there was another herd parked right next to the road just ahead of us. So we stopped and gawked and took photos with all the other tourists.

I should add here, “all the other tourists” may give the impression that the park was crowded. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Almost every stop we made, we were the only ones there, or perhaps there would be one other family. A crowded stop had 3 cars at it, and for most of the scenic loop, we were the only car we saw. It was really nice not to have a lot of people around; when we turned off Mo’s engine, there was not a sound other than the wind and the crickets as we looked out over this unworldly vista below us.
One stop was a 360-degree view of the countryside around us. We could see oil wells on the horizon (past the boundaries of the park), I-94 below us (the interstate runs runs right along the border of the park, and at one point, there is a park bridge over the highway), and nothing else but badlands. The three of us (Roxy went on these little jaunts) loved it, and the hot sun was greatly mitigated by the breeze.
We spent several hours on the loop (we also saw some beautiful wild horses near the road as we drove) and were headed back to the Visitor Center area for some lunch when we passed the Cottonwood Campground area again. The herd of bison which had been down in the valley earlier had made their way through the campground and onto the meadows next to the highway. Several bison remained on the road to the picnic area/campground, and of course about 6 or 8 cars and campers were stopped with all of us taking photos. Roxy, who had been uninterested during our earlier bison encounter, suddenly looked out the window, saw these huge creatures only a few feet away, and went nuts barking at them. Apparently she was telling them to get off the road, because they did, and we headed down to look at the picnic area and check out the campground.
We had not stayed at this campground last night, because it has no electricity or showers, and we were coming off a two-day drive and expecting a hot night. The campsites were really pretty, however, much larger than the parking-lot style we’d had last night, and we were considering staying there tonight. Our interest was increased by encountering a few stragglers from the bison herd, who were trotting through the actual campsites to catch up with their friends. When we went around into the picnic area, we met them again, having their own picnic. Roxy was outraged and let them know it, but we went back out (having to make our way around yet more bison in the road) and had lunch in the parking lot next to the visitor’s center instead.

After lunch we went into the center. It has a small but very interesting and well done museum about the park and about Teddy R’s interest and connection to the area (he owned an interest in two ranches here.) We saw not only his own stuff--rifles, clothing, models of his ranch house,etc—-but the skeleton of a crocodile-like dinosaur which was found in the South Unit, and information about the bison herds. We spent about 30-45 minutes enjoying the exhibits and the air conditioning. (Luckily the breeze was blowing right through the camper so Roxy was okay, too.)

We then decided not to go up to the North Unit of the park. Although it supposedly is prettier, we felt happy with the beauty we’d seen, and the North Unit is an hour drive each way. I was feeling lazy, and wanted to have a little quality time in Medora, if such a thing were possible. So we went into town (literally two blocks from the national park visitor center) and stopped to ask a few questions. It turned out that one of the stores offered free wifi (and even computers) so we parked by it and found a connection, and I posted the blog I wrote last night (the campground wifi had gone down and I couldn’t get anything from it, which was why i hadn't posted it earlier.) Then we walked on the street and had some ice cream, and discussed our next move.

We voted to come back to the Medora Campground (with the heat at 94-degrees, we decided electricity was a good thing!) and to wake up early tomorrow to drive to South Dakota. We also decided to do something VERY touristy tonight—we are going to the Pitchfork Steak Fondue Dinner. This was apparently seen on “Best of” on the Food Network—a big selling point, LOL! The steaks (you get a choice of 12 oz rib steak or 9 oz NY Strip) are speared onto pitchforks and fondued “western style” in boiling oil (!) This is served with a “fixins bar” of baked potato, beans, veggies, etc. We will also be “serenaded with western melodies performed live by the cast of the Medora Musical.” It should definitely be an experience, LOL!

So now we’re at the Medora Campground with the AC on while I write this, and Joe finishes his book. Despite the AC it is way too hot, and I have a fan going as well. I washed up a little bit when we got here, and wow, our hot water is HOT—all from solar heat during the day (I’m not sure where the tank actually is but it was hotter than my shower this morning.) The good news is, the weather is supposed to break tonight and tomorrow is supposed to be 20 degrees cooler.

After dinner addendum: well, THAT *was* an “experience”, LOL! What a bizarre scene! There must have been about 250 people there (including 3 tour buses). We were very glad that the lady who greeted us as we came in suggested sotto voce, “get in line QUICK!” We did indeed, which meant that 30 minutes after the dinner gong rang, when there was STILL a long line of people waiting, we were finishing up our meal. It came as no surprise that a steak which has been “fondued” is NOT the best steak you ever ate—too well done by far. We were handed a color-coded plate and we made our way down the line of veggies, potato, cole slaw, garlic bread, baked beans, etc. And then we walked up to the cowboys with the steaks in front of them, and they speared us a steak to go with our meal. The steaks themselves were cooked in big vats of oil and I took photos of the pitchforks full of meat and the cooking process.

We ate at long LONG tables with everyone else, and watched the other people and watched the sun going down on the badlands landscape around us. That was the nicest part of it all—the restaurant/theater was on top of a high butte and between the parking lot and where we ate, as we walked, we had a 360 degree view of the landscape. A very beautiful “restaurant” with a bizarre “concept” and (unsurprisingly) mediocre food. I did it so you don’t have to-—no need to thank me!

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