Badlands, Buffalo, and Binds

After rolling past miles and miles of green and golden North Dakota farmland since leaving Minnesota’s lake country, the landscape started to lose its orderly patterns and give way to something a little less agriculture. A little more wild.  The whine of the engine straining to pull the camper alerted me to the changing elevation as the ribbon of asphalt passed beneath my tires.  I was within striking distance of my campground, so I hadn’t planned on stopping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park yet, even though it was on the way where I would be setting up camp for the next few days. I was saving the Park for the next day.  I spied the sign stating that I had entered the park boundary, but I still was not prepared for the stunning scenery that opened before me around the next sloping curve.

Painted Canyon Overlook.  “Theodore Roosevelt  credited his experiences [in Dakota] as the basis for his groundbreaking preservation efforts and the shaping of his own character.  As president 1901-09, he translated his love of nature into law.  He established the US Forest Service” and helped protect over 230 million acres of land through the founding of national parks, monuments, forests, and reserves.  The Park was established in 1947 to honor his efforts. -NPS brochure

With over two months on the road, I keep checking in with myself mentally, to challenge my reason for continuing on.  Is it just stubbornness to complete what I started out to do or am I still having fun?  When I rounded that bend, and the sheer vastness and ruggedness of the badlands stretched out before me, my breath caught and my eyes watered.  Here was my answer.  In fact, I’ve had that same physical response several times on this trip.  When something is so beautiful, so profound, that it moves you to tears, that is something worth enduring a little discomfort for.  

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” (original author unknown) 

How can something so beautiful be called “badlands”?  What’s so bad about the badlands?  According to the NPS website, the arid, soft sedimentary, rocky and broken terrain was described as “bad” or “bad to travel” by Lakota, European explorers and French traders alike, so the name stuck.  There are other areas in North America called “badlands” which all share similar terrain.

A butte (pronounced like “cute”) is a small hill with a flat top.  They are formed by erosion and are constantly being shaped by wind and water.  They usually have a hard layer of rock near the top, covering sandstone, limestone, or clinker.  Clinkers are created by fire when coal, formed of ancient trees buried in the badlands, catch fire from lightning or wildfires.  They add the beautiful orange and red hues to the badlands.  Buttes are formed as erosion removes surrounding material, unlike mountains, that are formed when land is thrust upward. -NPS website

With this teaser of the Park ingrained in my brain, I tried to manage my expectations for the Buffalo Gap Campground in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, a few miles to the west of the park.  Well, there was no need to lower expectations because the grasslands were just as spectacular as the rest of the badlands!

If you zoom in to just left of center on this photo, you will see my pop-up and motorcycle set up in the Buffalo Gap Campground in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.  Unfortunately, you could hear the traffic from the interstate from the campground, but the views were stunning and the campground so well-kept (and free hot water showers to boot!) that it made up for the nuisance. 
Sunset over Little Missouri National Grasslands from Buffalo Gap Overlook Trail.
Nightfall happens pretty late up at this latitude.  This photo was taken from my campsite in Sentinel Butte, ND at 10:15 pm.

Since I was camping on the south side of the park (the park is big enough to encompass two time zones!), I rode the south unit scenic loop.  Typically a 36 mile loop, it was a roughly 26 mile out-and-back route, due to a road closure, on the day I rode it.  The whole road was freshly asphalted and seemed to be melting a bit in the heat.  I had gotten an early morning start, but by the time I exited the park, the mercury hit 100 degrees.

Prairie Dog Town, one of the first stops on the scenic loop, was so much fun to watch!  The Black-tailed Prairie Dogs would sit up out of their mounds, pausing to look and listen for predators.  They are plant eaters and get all the nutrients and water they need from the plants growing in their “towns.”  They’re actually rodents, not dogs, but their bark earned them the canine name.
Feral horses roam free in the Park.  Even though they are untamed, they are not technically “wild” since they are descended from domesticated animals.  By the late 1800s, ranchers turned out horses on the open range to live and breed.  When they needed horses, they’d round them, and their offspring, up for use on the ranch.  A small band of these horses continue to roam free in the park as part of a historic demonstration herd. NPS website  

As I approached another prairie dog town on the loop, I remembered reading that buffalo are often seen near prairie dog towns where they find a continual supply of new grass shoots and can wallow in the loose soil.  This “dirt bath” helps stop insects from biting and creates a layer of dirt that forms a protective barrier from ticks and lice.  The numerous piles of crap in the road were also a good sign of a potential buffalo sighting 🙂

There were signs at the beginning of the road that directed drivers to quietly stay in their vehicles and to wait for buffalo to clear the road if they were encountered.  Given that it’s currently mating season (the rut is from late July to Sept according to the NPS), I didn’t want my bike to be mistaken as a challenge to a frisky, 2000-lb, 6-ft tall bull, so I stopped the bike and got off to join another biker who was doing the same a few feet away.  People were getting antsy to move on and trying to inch forward- why would you want to rush this moment?  When will you ever experience something like this again?!  OK, remember this statement. . . it will come back to bite me in the arse later in this story. . .

Morning traffic jam in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
I hung out watching the mixed herd for 30-45 minutes before they moved to one side of the road and cars could resume passage.  Herd size in the south unit of the park is currently set between 200-400 buffalo, and 100-200 for the north unit. NPS website
The land behind me at Skyline Vista was once a continuous plain, but the Little Missouri River carved away the material in between the plateau where I’m standing and the valley below, creating the Little Missouri Badlands.

By the time I made it to the turn-around point on the scenic loop, the temperature had hit 100 degrees and the asphalt at the last overlook was sticking to the bottom of my boots like chewing gum. I don’t have heat shields on my bike, so my legs were burning up from the heat coming off the engine.  I had just started the return trip back down the road when I glanced down and saw my engine and battery warning lights lit up.  My stomach tightened a bit as I saw that my voltage under load was only 11 volts (it should’ve been 14).  

This isn’t good. 

The road is all twisty, with no shoulder, for the 15 miles left in the park, with only a few scenic overlooks providing a place to pull-over.  I can’t shut off the engine, because that won’t be enough voltage to get it started again.  Can I outrun the battery drain?

Shoot, what to do….what to do…? I know…I’ll call Mike!

I had been volunteering once a week at Burnout Alley, a motorcycle garage back home.  Mike, the owner, is a walking encyclopedia of bike knowledge and is super patient with people like me trying to learn bike maintenance.  I had already warned him that I’d have him on speed dial for this trip.

I called him from my helmet as I kept riding.  I knew cell phone coverage was spotty, so I talked fast to give him all the info up front.

Me:  Mike, I got a serious question!  I’m riding in a desolate national park, my engine and battery lights came on and I’m down to 11 volts.  There’s really no place to pull over and I don’t think I can get bike assistance out here.  

Mike:  It could be a few things, but sounds like your stator is going out.

Me:  How long can I go on 11V?  Should I keep going or stop?

The call drops.


In the absence of adult supervision, I decide to make a run for the park exit!  There’s no way they’re gonna get a tow truck on these inclines and twisty roads to get my bike out easily or quickly, so I gotta get as far as I can before it dies.

I put on my flashers and start passing cars as it’s safe to do so.

And there they are.  The buffalo herd.

Just hanging out on the road.

Damn!  There are four cars in front of me, and the first one is in a face-off with the biggest bull in the herd, about 5 feet from its front bumper.  Neither one is moving.  

Voltage:  10.5

Ugh!  So, this is how the trip ends…my bike dies in the middle of the buffalo herd and Big Boy Buffalo is gonna trample it while I run across the field of buffalo land mines! Suddenly, my mind recalls memories of me regularly jumping the curve and riding through my rental house lawn in San Antonio in order to park my bike in my garage without having to move my car out of the driveway. Surely I can ride this bike through that buffalo pasture to the other side. . .   

Come on people, somebody make a move!

After about 5 minutes (though it feels like an eternity!), a park ranger truck shows up on the scene and nudges the bull buffalo just enough that he stomps angrily to the side of the road and faces off to the road in general.  The ranger drives off and traffic starts inching on.

Stop taking pictures and MOVE!!

Now I’m even with the buffalo, about 4 feet away and all movement stops.  The buffalo looks at me and I start laughing in my head a little.

I recalled my thoughts earlier in the day as I mentally chided the cars who were antsy and just wanted to get past the buffalo herd.  Hmm, you never know what another person’s motives are for being in a hurry, do you?! 

The car in front of me looked up in his rear-view mirror and saw my predicament and inched up, allowing me to move forward and the next car in line to become the unsuspecting victim of the buffalo’s angry gaze.

Traffic finally started to move, and once my air cooled engine got up to 35-40 mph for a few miles, the engine dissipated some heat, the warning lights went out, and the voltage came back up to close to 14V.

Whew, crisis averted. . . for now.  I made it out of the park, and back to within cell phone coverage, and called Mike back.  I checked the battery connections as he advised, but they were all good.  Ironically, I had just given my voltmeter to Missy, along with a box of other stuff, to mail back home for me, so I couldn’t read the voltage at the stator so he could help me to troubleshoot the problem.  And of course, there was no place open to buy another one.  Although the bike was working now, I wasn’t going to ignore this warning sign.  The nearest Harley-Davidson dealership was a 2-hour ride to the north, so I decided to take my chances and packed up camp a day early, and headed towards the dealership the next morning.

Two hours is a long ride though. . .

How did it turn out?  Stay tuned. . . 

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