Cycling between badlands and prairie in North Dakota.
by David Hanson
You enter badlands carefully. The name alone forces a cautionary pause even before youve set foot between the mounds of crumbly, striped clays and silts. Plenty of those who entered before youNative Americans, French fur traders, early explorersdeemed the austere place a wasteland. Prairies, on the other hand, sound welcoming and benignexpanses of red, green, and yellow grasses dotted with groves of cottonwood and juniper. In western North Dakota, where grasslands and badlands converge around the Little Missouri River, you experience both worlds.
I turn my barge of a bicycle onto the trail and am relieved to find the wind at my back. Three days of gear for our ride requires a pull-behind trailer, and I need all the help Mother Nature can provide. In 1999 the U.S. Forest Service completed the single-track Maah Daah Hey Trail, which begins at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, traverses the remote Little Missouri National Grasslands, and ends at the parks south unit, winding atop grassy, windswept plateaus and plunging in and out of badland canyons for nearly a hundred miles. Fittingly, the trails Mandan Sioux name translates to "be here long."
Turtle-emblazoned trail markers (symbolizing steadfastness, determination, and fortitude) stand out above knee-high grasses. Otherwise, we could easily become lost in the labyrinth of undulating prairie. A product of well-tended suburbs, I had always equated a lack of trees with a lack of nature. But here the emptiness feels so essential. Where water rises close to the surface in shallow gullies and draws, trees thrive; here, the trail turns black with the rich soil. We pause in one shaded area, protected from the persistent wind. Yellow cottonwood leaves shake, their distinctive rustling overwhelming the ceaseless swish of prairie grasses.
With the Pacific far to the west and the Atlantic to the east, most storm fronts dry up by the time they hit these plains. Such low, sporadic rainfall, coupled with cycles of hot summers and long, frigid winters, starves out trees and other vulnerable vegetation. In soils laid down by ancient seas, blue grama, western wheat grass, and little bluestem thrived where deep tree roots cannot take hold. Todays rolling (and sometimes plunging) landscapeand my thrill ridewas made possible when the Little Missouri and its tributaries began slowly but relentlessly biting into these soft depositional layers.
I skid my bike to a stop just above a canyon rim, where the Maah Daah Hey drops off the prairie in a series of tight switchbacks. The crusty silt cracks beneath the weight of my bike as I maneuver around the first corner, and the badlands erupt before me. Wrinkled, lizard-skin cones rise and gullies disappear into a maze of purple, cream, and gray horizontal bands.
A long spine runs southward, its vertical rain-scoured grooves resembling pipe organs rusted and chinked by time. In the low light of dusk, the horizon appears dotted with domes and mosques and temples in shaded stripes one layer upon another.
There is evidence of unremitting erosion everywhere. I pass a gully 15 feet deep where the earth has slumped. At its head a tiny dried creek shows signs of a recent flow: bent grasses and debris caught in sagebrush. A trickle has created a small canyon big enough to park a limousine.
Just past a post marking the middle point of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, we descend to the banks of the Little Missouri. The brown, shallow water takes up less than half of the riverbed. We lift our bikes over the sticky mud and wade across the stream that has almost single-handedly created thousands of acres of badlands.
We stray from the trail when it intersects a dirt road, and soon come upon a ranch where five cowboys are herding cattle through a gate. Feeling like interlopers, we walk our bikes and try not to alarm the horses. To our surprise, the men welcome our approach and inquire about our trip. While the national park units to the north and south of us restrict private use, the Maah Daah Hey Trail passes through "intermingled public and private lands," as one sign states. Later on we meet a group of fathers and sons on an elk-hunting trip who offer us much-needed water as we top out at Devils Pass, elevation 2,600 feet.
The "multiple use" policy has its drawbacks. Prairie dogs, abundant in the national park, dont dot the grasslands along the Maah Daah Hey, and no bison roam outside here; overgrazing, off-road-vehicle use, and even oil wells have taken their toll. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have proposed preserving the remaining 218,000 roadless acres of the Little Missouri Grasslands as North Dakotas first federally protected wilderness area (which would require rerouting the bike trail in some places). Until then, the best wilderness experiences are found down in the tight canyons, where I see only a rugged mix of soil, grass, and sky.
On our last day my load is lighter, but the wind blows from the west, bullying me as I weave across the high grasslands of the trails southern half. A high-pressure front carries dark clouds, and we risk becoming mired in gumbo if the weather doesnt hold up. While the prairie can handle the water, down in the badlands the trail can become a streambed within minutes. But the dark clouds pass and the wind blows harmless puffs overhead. The trail dips in and out of badlands and grasslands, cloud shadows and soft sunlight adding to an otherworldly landscape.
David Hanson is a writer in Seattle.
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