Theodore Roosevelt: Backcountry Mysteries

While at the Ranger Station in Medora, we were talking to one of the rangers who suggested that we spend a night in the backcountry near the petrified forest. We are going to ask you to do a little bit of math here. It is $14 per night to stay at Cottonwood Campground and you are surrounded by people. It is free to spend a night in the backcountry and you are surrounded by no one. Which would you choose?

We opted for a night in the backcountry.  We took an exploratory hike into the petrified forest without our packs to help us decide where to camp. After about a mile of hiking you come to a fork; left or right. We went right. There was petrified wood but we didn’t really see anything that knocked us of our feet, or offered a good camping spot.  We went along the left fork and found a great spot on a bluff that overlooked miles and miles of badlands. We hurried back to the car to eat a quick dinner on the Coleman stove.

Our dinner consisted of spaghetti, red enchilada sauce, kidney beans and canned crabmeat.  Why you ask? We don’t know, we had the cans and wanted some warm food to put into our bellies. It was surprisingly good and we haphazardly loaded our packs for a one-night stay in the backcountry. We knew we would be back early in the morning so we threw only the essentials in our pack, opened the buffalo gate and began hiking fast.

200 yards down the trail and I realized that I had left our backcountry permit at the car. I dropped my pack and told Trevor to continue along the trail, as I would return quickly. I ran to the car, grabbed the permit and decided to also grab a quick picture of some vibrant clouds behind the car. As my back was turned to the park gate, I heard a loud snort. I turned to see two buffalo bulls. I waved at Trevor to come back and he hurried along the trail as I took video of one of the bulls rolling in the dirt. They are massive beasts. We watched them walk closer and closer to the trail, we were safely outside the fence, but realized that they would be on a direct course with my backpack. One of them stopped, sniffed and continued along the way.

We hiked back in, grabbed our (luckily untouched) bags and hurried towards our destination. It was difficult to hike, because as soon as we hiked up the hill we got a better view of the chromatic sunset behind us. We would snap photos, walk a hundred yards, turn around, snap several more photos and continued along in this manner way until we found our bluff overlooking the badlands.

There were massive trunks of petrified wood that were four to five feet tall and larger in diameter than the length of our arms. The sun set behind them and we traipsed around taking photos, adjusting our camera exposure and trying to find the right balance between skies of pink, red, and orange with wood that had been turned to silica and ranged in color from white to red, orange to black, and shades of brown.  The colors were mesmerizing and after we had gotten our photographic fill, we retreated to our camp chairs and watch the sun fade across the sky.

We sat on our mesa enjoying our wilderness as darkness fell. A pack of coyotes let us know of their existence and we called to them in return. We asked Siri if a coyote had ever killed anyone, but due to the lack of service she did not respond. We eventually retired and fell asleep.

Around midnight I awoke to the sound of what I was convinced was war drums.  The beat was consistent and constant—BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba… I lay on my back with eyes open and wondered. After resolving that we were not in danger I convinced myself to go back to sleep and the sheep once again took me back to bed.

In the morning, Trevor and I discussed the noise. He too was awoken by it. Were we over an underground river? We walked around our site to see what we could discover and discovered nothing. The mystery remained unsolved and then the noise stopped.  Without answers we continued towards the petrified forest.

After walking around and exploring these massive six-foot tall trunks, we hiked up to overlook our surrounding area. We came upon another mystery. All of the petrified wood was on the same horizontal plane in the ground. Under it was dirt and above it was dirt, as the ground eroded away the wood was slowly revealed as the land faded away from erosion. When was the forest there? How long had it been hidden under the ground and dust? How did the dust come to cover it? Was it a flood plain? Was it a volcano? We were standing in a prehistoric forest. Hike up 100 feet and you are standing on the dirt and debris that covered that forest.

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.” As we stood overlooking the petrified forest on one side, we saw some hikers on the other. Teddy’s words could not have rung more true. We had only been out for one night, but I already felt a sense of lonely freedom. That freedom was being interrupted and disturbed. It was time to go. We hiked back to our tent, packed up and made way to the car for a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

As we drove out, one of our mysteries was solved. We passed some oil drilling equipment.  Consistent and constant thumping, midnight to 8am. Sounds like something that was on a schedule. Like a drill, PUMP-pump-pump-pump-pump-pump-pump-pump-pump. The mystery about the wood remained. How long it had been there? What had covered it?