Boom times are coming to eastern Montana. We stopped early in Sidney when we saw a new motel. It, along with another, had just been completed a month before and another was coming next month. There was also a grocery store too new to be in the phone book.
The next morning at breakfast, I met a fellow from L.A. who said he was in town with a partner buying property. He said the North Dakota oil boom was moving east. Thinking of Maiden and other gold mine towns, I asked if he wasn’t afraid of a bust. He said he planned to be out in seven years.
Then we drove into North Dakota, and we saw what he meant. Entire new communities had sprung up near the towns. In some cases they were permanent housing, but in most cases they were either manufactured housing or mobile home parks. Farmers weren’t just getting rich on oil. They were earning more per acre by leasing out property for oil-related companies to use for headquarters, housing and equipment than farming.
Maiden’s gold boom lasted about ten years. Deadhorse, Alaska is still going long after the fields were initially expected to run dry. It would be interesting to see these towns ten or fifteen years from now. The temporary buildings will move on with the workers. But who will stay in those hotels and buy in those stores?
We were in northwest North Dakota in 2000 for the state fair (really great!), but this time it was to see the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park has three parts: North, South and Elkhorn Ranch.
Roosevelt first came to the area in 1883 as a sickly young man and returned east strong and healthy. When his wife and mother died on the same day, he left political office in New York and came back to Idaho to ranch. The severe winter of 1886-87 wiped out his herd, however, and he returned east.
During Roosevelt’s Presidency, some two hundred and thirty million acres came under Federal protection in some form or another such as National Forests, National Parks, memorials and preserves. This park was created to commemorate that achievement.
We had seen the original home on the range early in our trip, and we had seen deer and antelope play, so we looked for buffalo while walking in the North Unit, but all we saw was buffalo scat. It was a beautiful day, however, and it was one of the few “nature trails” where I actually learned rather than just seeing signs for what might be found in the area.
For example, I knew about bentonite clay when I worked for a company that had oil wells. It is very water absorbent and slimy when wet. This was the first I had seen it close or knew that it was used in nearly one thousand products including cosmetics and laxatives. I guess it lubricates well drills and other things.
We finally did see buffalo roam in the South Unit, lots of them. And we had the unexpected pleasure to find ourselves in the middle of a prairie dog town.
Most of what we had seen was truly badlands, so we were anxious to see what attracted Roosevelt the rancher. It was not convenient. There are roads in from the east and west and our GPS wanted us to go from the east but that involved fording a river that was still so high the ranchers were avoiding it. Instead we drove back thirty miles of dirt road to come at it from the west, but the road was well maintained by oil companies.
There is not much left of Elkhorn Ranch, but we could see its beauty walking along a trail still quite evidently used by cattle. It lies along the Little Missouri River valley which is quite wide and flat at that point but is surrounded by the rugged Badlands. Along the way, we met a skunk, the first we had seen in the wild, but fortunately he did not contest our passage.
It was already late in the day and we had a long drive ahead. However, we took time to eat sandwiches we had purchased in Medora. No one else had signed the guest register in two days, and it was a wonderfully peaceful spot for dinner. We drove on and arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota by the light of a full moon.