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July 12, 2013

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The Strenuous Life

We harvested buffalo just north of the small southwestern North Dakota town of Bowman. It was our first time harvesting in North Dakota, and we drove up the night before to meet the Director of North Dakota’s Meat Inspection Program and her Senior Inspector. Though a lot of paperwork had passed between my desk and theirs, it was the first time they had actually walked through the Mobile Harvester. They liked what they saw and we spent an hour and a half ironing out the slight differences between South Dakota’s meat inspection regulations and North Dakota’s.

The whole crew was tired when we hit the sack, but we were up at five o’clock to get out to the buffalo ranch by six, and be set up by seven. The inspectors were there by seven-thirty and we checked and cross checked to be sure that everything was just right. Before Jerry and the Senior Inspector drove out to shoot the first buffalo, we all stood at the rear of the Mobile Harvester and went through the safety procedures. Shane went down the list. “Always be thinking safety. We got sharp knives, guns, slippery floors, and heavy buffalo on high rails. Steady is better than fast. Everybody think.”

Jerry drove the semi and carefully shot the buffalo, Shane and Cory were on the skinning floor, and my brother, Scott, and I were there to move the heavy offal barrels, hides, and heads away from the harvester as the animals were processed. By the end of the day, we had moved over two tons of not very pleasant material to sanitary places. It was hot, dirty, and windy work, but the day sped by. By three o’clock, eight perfect buffalo carcasses hung cooling in the refrigeration room of the Mobile Harvester.

The inspectors were gone for the day but they would be back the next

day to do it all again. We finished sterilizing the harvester and pulled it out of the pasture. Everyone was tired and needed a bath, but the skinners were the most tired and ready to go into town to eat and get some serious rest for the next day of harvest. But Scott and I weren’t ready to quit, and it occurred to me that we were only sixty miles from one of America’s most interesting historical sites. “You every been to Medora?” I asked.

“What’s Medora?” he asked.

“Medora was just an old cow town. But the area is all about Theodore Roosevelt. The national park is named for him and he had two ranches in the Little Missouri River badlands.”

“How far?

“Hour by the asphalt and maybe two by the gravel.”

We took the gravel and as soon as we turned west the land changed from huge islands of grain fields to rolling prairie that soon became the breaks of the Little Missouri River. Our gravel road converged with the deep and beautiful portion of the badlands near where Deep Creek and Sand Creek snake down from the south. In a matter of a few miles we left the grain fields behind and burst onto the high ground overlooking the hundreds of square miles that were the domain of Theodore Roosevelt between 1882 and 1887. Here, not forty miles from where we had harvested that day, was the site of Roosevelt’s first meeting with the last of the great herds of buffalo that for centuries have defined the Great Plains.

Roosevelt arrived here when buffalo numbers were at their lowest ebb. The remnants of the millions had found temporary refuge in the rugged badlands that stretched out in front of us. Even then it was a stronghold of pre-industrial Great Plains habitat and the place where a frail young Roosevelt developed the character not only to become the 26th president of the United States, but also to formulate a model for living a vigorous life. Ten years after he left his badlands ranches, he gave a famous speech in Chicago where he articulated his belief that the character of all Americans should be forged in the furnace of physical hardship and energetic exertion.

He named the speech “The Strenuous Life” and he began by saying:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

Roosevelt turned out to be a tremendously successful president. He could be kind, political, and intellectual but he was also forceful, pugnacious and doubtlessly the president that best understood the natural world. Along the side of the gravel road that we traveled toward the tourist town of Medora were turnouts overlooking the land where Roosevelt learned, and lived out his belief in the Little Missouri Riverstrenuous life. I recognized some of the designated campsites and trail heads as places where Roosevelt hunted day after day in the pouring rain, where he gathered cattle for weeks at a time - sometimes spending thirty hours straight in the saddle and wearing out a half dozen horses. He worked, sweated, and slept under the stars with the common cowboys in the land we drove through. Occasionally Scott and I could see a parenthesis of blue where the Little Missouri River made a turn far below and I wondered if, in the sub-zero winters that did not phase him, Roosevelt had crossed the ice clogged river at that very spot. We crossed drainage after drainage and noticed a trailhead and parking lot at each intersection. But the camping areas and parking lots were empty. For thirty miles through Roosevelt’s training ground for a strenuous life we did not see a single person.

“Where are the people?” Scott asked.

I shrugged. Having the Little Missouri breaks to ourselves was fine with me - but it was kind of creepy too. It was the beginning of tourist season, the tourists came here because of Roosevelt and right there, winding through the country that built that icon of national character, we did not see a solitary American. Not until we came to the outskirts of the tiny town of Medora did we even see a car.

It was early evening and we were tired and dirty but still we had to knock on three motel reception desks before we found a room. We drove around town for forty-five minutes but the streets were nearly abandoned. “Where is everybody?”

“They have to be here somewhere. We got the last motel room in town.”

We need a bath and a change of clothes, but knew, if we went to the room, we’ll fall asleep and not even get anything to eat. Instead, we went in search of the tourists.

When we stopped for gas at the only convenience store in town and we asked where everyone was. “No sign of anyone in the National Grasslands,” I said.

The attendant shrugged. “No, you won’t find anybody out there in the breaks. They stay close to town.”

“Well,” Scott said, “Where are they?”

He looked up at the clock on the wall. “Seven o’clock, he said. “Probably out at the Musical and the Pitchfork Fondue.”

Scott and I looked at each other. “Where is that?”

“Other end of town. Up on the hill. You guys hungry?”

“Starving.”

“You’re going to love it.”

There were several historic sites that we would have liked to check out but they were closed and we would be gone before they opened in the morning. There was a sign for the Musical and the Pitchfork Fondue and we followed a road up the side of butte that rose over the river where it meanders passed town. As the road rose, we began to anticipate the view we would have of the river and of the testing ground for Roosevelt’s strenuous life, and when we leveled off at the top of the hill, we both gasped in amazement. The view was truly incredible, but that is not what we were gasping at. We were suddenly in the middle of a huge, paved parking lot with hundreds of cars, pickups, and recreational vehicles. There was a row of busses strung out between two beautiful modern buildings. One was a gift shop and ticket booth for the amphitheater above the miles of wilderness trails and campsites that we had found completely empty. The other building was designed to match the gift shop and hundreds of overweight people in Bermuda shorts waited in a serpentine line for their feedlot, rib eye steak, deep fried on the tings of a pitchfork.

We parked the car, and not quite ready to look closely at the Pitchfork Fondue, inspected the Musical. It was a play about Theodore Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands. Hundreds of tourists were about to pay for tickets to be spectators of a musical celebrating the strenuous life of Roosevelt. But not before they had a little snack of fatty meat, fried potatoes, and desert.

We walked along the line of grinning tourists that looked more like a line outside a diabetes clinic. A surprising number tapped away at iPhones while below us, and stretching to the far horizon, was all that beautiful river break country - completely devoid of people. The greasy cloud above the fondue kiosk was drawing people like flies, and Scott and I had to have a look. Twenty-five pitchforks, with three or four sixteen ounce ribeyes on each one, leaned up against the railing. A half dozen foreign student workers, sweating profusely and wearing tawdry replicas of cowboy outfits shuttled pitchforks laden with raw ribeyes to the huge vats of boiling oil, and hurried the mud-brown, deep-fried blobs to the waiting plates of clambering tourists.

We were awfully hungry but we just couldn’t do it. I’m not sure what Scott was thinking as we made our way back to our car and down the hill toward our motel room. But I was thinking of two things. First, I vowed that I would do everything in my power to see that none of the buffalo meat we were harvesting there in North Dakota would have a fate like those ribeyes, and second, I was thinking of the last line of Roosevelt’s Strenuous Life Speech:

Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical….. for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.


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