A Bully Visit to TR’s Legacy (September 2019)

The establishment of the National Park Service is justified by considerations of good administration, of the value of natural beauty as a National asset, and the effectiveness of outdoor life and recreation in the production of good citizenship.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

We have long admired Theodore Roosevelt.  Not simply because he was the 26th President of the United States.  No, it has more to do with his physical and intellectual vigor, his forceful pursuit of progressive reforms in early 20th Century America, and, of greatest importance to us, his championing of conservation.  Neither reform nor conservation were particularly popular causes during America’s otherwise mean-spirited and rapacious Gilded Age and it took courage to carry them forward.  Which is not to say that everything he said or wrote or did during his action-filled life sits well with modern sensibilities.  But all human heroes can (being human) be seen as flawed, either in the moment or in retrospect.  The question is whether that hero did society, despite their imperfections, more good than harm.  With respect to TR’s role in conservation, that to us is an unequivocal “yes.”

President Theodore Roosevelt & John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California, 1903. [National Park Service photo]

Today there are more National Park Service units, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory than to any other American.  As president, Roosevelt created five national parks and, after signing the landmark 1906 Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, used its special provisions to unilaterally create 18 national monuments.  He also created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests (100 million acres worth), 51 federal bird reserves, and 4 national game preserves.  In all, during his presidency he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.

Although he’d had naturalist inclinations in his youth (he would eventually donate 622 carefully preserved bird skins to the Smithsonian), TR’s journey to ardent conservationist probably began when he first stepped off the train at Medora, Dakota Territory on September 8, 1883.  To celebrate the 136th anniversary of this seminal event, we did a hiking / roadtrip to visit some of TR’s legacy within the National Park system.

Day 1 – We flew into Denver and then drove to Rapid City, South Dakota across seemingly endless expanses of grassland.  This is too often derided as “fly over” country.  But it’s worth visiting on the ground if for no other reason than to experience the immensity of the sky above and the distant horizon all around.  That evening we were treated to a full-on, fully electrified and illuminated Great Plains thunderstorm.

Heading north to Rapid City

On Day 2 – which was rainy and overcast – we visited Mount Rushmore only to find TR’s stone visage shrouded in clouds.  Below is what we would have seen on a clear day. We then swung by two of TR’s creations – Wind Cave National Park (1903) and Jewel Cave National Monument (1908) – before retreating to our hotel in Rapid City to wait out yet another exceedingly energetic thunderstorm.

Mount Rushmore on a clear day

Day 3 was a long drive out to Devils Tower National Monument (TR’s first, in 1906) – again in rain and clouds – for a brisk, windy, damp hike around this monolith on the Tower Trail.  Thrusting up out of the rolling, forested hills, it’s an awe inspiring piece of geology. We had no trouble seeing why it qualified as our first national monument.

The LovedOne contemplates a cloudy & wet Devils Tower

On Day 4 the weather cleared and the sun shone and we drove south to Badlands National Park for a full day of hiking on the Castle and Medicine Root Trails.  The sharp contrasts between the overarching blue sky, the luxuriantly green grasslands, and the stark whiteness of the badland’s baked soil was enthralling.  We finished up with a quick visit to the Minuteman Missile National Monument – one of the 450 ballistic missile sites deactivated by treaty in the mid-1990s.  But not to worry, there are still 450 fully loaded and active silos out there. 😦

Days 5 through 7 found us driving north to Medora, North Dakota for a visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a hike (under sparkling blue skies) on the Jones Creek and Roundup Trails.  Our hike was cut a little short when a herd of buffalo decided to graze on the Roundup Trail.  But the colorful scenery under the artfully clouded blue sky was magnificent! 🙂

The train station in Medora, North Dakota
Roosevelt’s Maltese Ranch cabin

By Day 8 we were back in Rapid City for a loop hike in the Black Hills Wilderness to the summit of Black Elk Peak, South Dakota’s high point.  There was some cloudiness but no rain and the clouds cooperated (somewhat) by parting artistically at opportune moments.  That evening, back in Rapid City, we were treated to another brief, but exceedingly intense, thunderstorm.

By Day 9 our salute to TR had run its course and we made our way back to Denver for the direct, but still strangely long, flight home.  Despite the weather’s vagaries, this was an excellent trip to see some amazing scenery and revel in the legacy of one of America’s greatest personalities (and presidents). 😀

Bully! TR in 1910 [Library of Congress photo]
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