Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Moody, hey?

Rolling, roiling, rumbling Northern Plains mobile car wash coming to greet me, August 2005.

No. "Not Moody, hey?" Maah Daah Hey, eh?

A trail in western North Dakota: Maah. Daah. Hey. True! In North Dakota, Land Of The Frozen Dead.

It's Mandan for something like The Enduring Place. With or without the capital letters. Take your pick.

But being in North Dakota, people have lots of odd ideas about it.

Advice to a prospective North Dakota hiker.

Someone on a Reddit forum was told that since we're getting into the fall season, and he wanted to hike the Maah Daah Hey Trail, he should be worried about marauding bears and lions intent on putting on fat for the winter. So I had to contribute my six cent's worth. (Excuse the staccato style.)

You're talking about North Dakota. No bears. Period.

Forget about lions. You can probably find one in a zoo, if they still have any zoos in the state, but you're not going there.

I was born in North Dakota and spent my first 28 years there. Residents like to think of it as the wild west, but it isn't. The eastern 2/3 of the state is farmland and the rest is ranch land. Grass and dirt. That's about it.

Undisturbed prairie comprises about 2% of the land, as of 20 or so years back, and less all the time. Most of that is along the grasslands of the Little Missouri River and in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Enjoy it while you can.

Look out for oilfield workers while you're driving on the back roads (the gravel ones). I had a couple of close calls while driving, but absolutely nothing while hiking. No wild animal goes looking for a fight.

If you are extremely lucky you might see a coyote or a rattlesnake. There are mule deer.

It's getting cold so don't expect too much in the way of snakes, but watch the ground, especially if you are threading your way along a narrow, overgrown patch of trail. I stomp as I walk through that stuff, and go slowly. Snakes will get out of your way if you show respect. They're deaf, but they feel vibrations through the ground, and do not want to be stepped on, ever, for any reason, but are really pleasant in their own way.

Water will be your big issue. There are a few stock tanks, but the water, if there is any in the tanks, will be polluted by cow snot, dead birds, and floating bugs, which will also be dead. The campgrounds have pumps, which will be your best source, but they are at long intervals, and off-trail a mile or two, at least the ones I've been at. The well water is alkaline, but drinking it didn't affect me, and at least it's clean. For most of the year, unless it's frozen, the Little Missouri River is flowing mud.

Not an exaggeration.

The dangerous animals are cattle and bison. You probably won't see bison outside the national park, but you could encounter cows at any time.

When I was there in 2005, I had a confrontation with a small herd (8 - 10 cows and a bull). I finished my day's hiking and when I returned to my car, it was surrounded by the cattle. I kept the vehicle between me and the bull, so I was safe, but it wasn't happy to see me. It butted my car several times, which annoyed me. I threw some small stones at it but that didn't help.

I finally started up my car and gently rammed the bull a few times (more of a slow, gentle, but insistent push), to let the bull know that I was both ornery and stronger than it was. Note that I was not trying to hurt it. Aside from the moral issues, I didn't want to be on the hook for several thousands of dollars of livestock damage and maybe a felony conviction for animal cruelty.

The cattle finally went away, but if I'd been out on the prairie, on foot, alone, with nowhere to go, it could have gotten more than interesting.

You need to be most careful with hunters. It's all too easy for someone to make the wrong kind of mistake. Find what information you can on the hunting seasons, and dress like you don't want to get shot by accident.

There are enough trees so you can hammock camp, if that's your thing. No, seriously. I did, on my second trip. No problem.

Poison ivy should be winding down, but it's all over hell, often in wildly improbable spots, such as high up out on the open prairie far from water. Watch out for ticks in brushy areas (likewise winding down about now).

Nice place. Low key. Quiet. You may see bicyclists.

So where the eff then, Eff? And what, exactly?

According to another interpretation, "The term 'Maah-Daah-Hey' comes from the Mandan Indian language meaning 'Grandfather' and the trail symbol of a 'Turtle' comes from the Lakota Indian's symbolic meaning of long life and patience," according to the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.

So what the heck. Here's some more from them. See the bottom of this post for the linkie-poo.

Construction of the 96-mile long Maah-Daah-Hey Trail began in 1995 and was finished in 1999 in accordance with a three-partner effort between the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation Department (NDPRD), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).

This area is full of unique geological formations and cultural resources. Native Americans used the area for annual hunting trips from the surrounding prairie. The MDH Trail passes by Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site on the Little Missouri River as well as General Sully's Trail and the CCC Historical Site. Since its inception, the Maah-Daah-Hey Trail has become recognized as a premier non-motorized trail and has been featured in many national publications.

  • Length: 96 miles
  • Grade: average 8%, maximum 20%
  • Surface: primary soil, secondary crushed rock, compacted
  • Amenities: Camping areas, corrals/hitching rails, fire rings, historical sites, parking, trailer parking areas, picnic areas, resorts/ranches, restrooms, interpretive signs, directional trail access information, trail intersections, trailheads, non-potable water

Directions. The trail runs from Sully Creek State Park south of Medora, north along the Little Missouri River, ending at the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

But the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association has better info, you ask me. At least more recent. Here is a bit. (Link below.)

Q: Where does the trail begin and end? A: US Forest Service Burning Coal Vein Campground, located about 49 miles south of Medora on East River Road in Slope County, begins with Mile Post 0. From there, the 144 mile trail winds its way to its northern terminus at the US Forest Service CCC Campground in McKenzie County, located 20 miles south of Watford City, off Highway 85.

Q: What are the conditions like on the trail? A: various times of the year, the trail may be impassable due to snow, ice, high water, and mud. Users of the Maah Daah Hey Trail system share the same space with horseback riders, hikers, and bicyclists.

Lots more info at the Trail Association site.

Note that the Trail Association says a good way to avoid snakes is to make noise: "As for snakes, noise will help...", but all snakes are deaf, so no. They are quite sensitive to vibrations transmitted through the ground though, so just use the snake telegraph and stomp. They'll get your message.

Getting to the trail is a matter of following the highway. Generally speaking, it lies between the city of Dickinson and the Montana border to the west. If you aim for Medora, which lies on I-94 west of Dickinson, you'll bump into the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which will get you on track.

Section 1: CCC Campground to Bennett Campground.

Northern half of the trail.

This was a long time ago, around four years before I started blogging, so I didn't hike with the intent of recording anything, except for having a camera along.

Recently I've decided that I need to weed my garden of archived photos, and just a couple of days back I finished going through my Maah Daah Hey images. I did pull a lot of them together for a tiny presentation I gave at the 2005 ALDHA-West Gathering, following my 2004 and 2005 trips.

Cleverly, at the time I carefully edited the images and then saved too-small versions of them, which I've had to upsize by over 200% to fit my current format. Either that or start over from the beginning, but since well under half the population of Earth reads my blog, even the really clever posts, I decided to go with what I had. (As they say at Despair, Inc., "Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.") So that's why the images are sort of OK, but not as OK as usual.

And it's really hard to find a map of the place. The map fragment above may originally have been from the U.S. Forest Service, though it was used in more than one place, and may or may not be in the public domain. It's now available only on the Web Archive as far as I know, and not in an honestly decent size, but is readable. If you squint.

Photos, then. Let's see 'em.

Start here. Just west of the CCC campground along the Little Missouri River.

Mmmmm — rock. Swirly.

Live squeaky toy. Prickly. Doesn't squeak.

Negative elevation, with cactus. Anything could be happening down there.

Didn't expect to see this, did you?

Small wash, dry mode.

OK — this is a bit more exotic. No railing, no barricade tape, no armed guards. Want to touch? Perfectly fine.

Suck this if you need iron.

Former tree. From when North Dakota was a land of mighty forests.

Oil storage.

Bentonite? Excessively sticky and slippery when wet. With bush.

Cactapus and other prickly-pokies.

Who can say? Yet another UST (Unidentified Stationary Thing).

Ed. Let's call this one Ed and take it home for the cat.

Descending to the trail. See it down there in the heat?

A pleasant climb near the northern end of this section.

You could call this a plinth, if dried mud can be considered plinthy.

Along the spur trail connecting Bennett Campground to the main trail.

Seriously edgy upthrust.

A grand trailside upsweep, about 50' (15m) high.


Horned toad.

Once you catch them, which isn't hard, they sort of say "Meh," and give up.

Color v. colorless.

And likewise — what's going on down there? Bugs, snakes, ticks, poison ivy, and nothing.

Tempting to edge out there and see whatever, then try to get back.


Medora and her pet marquis. Plus artillery.

You may wonder what a "Medora" is. That's the name of the main town on the trail, near the trail's southern terminus.

It was named after Medora von Hoffman, a young woman from New York City, who married a wild hair from France, specifically Antoine Amédée Marie Vincent Manca Amat de Vallombrosa, Marquis de Morès et de Montemaggiore. And he must have been a charmer, this guy, someone who could talk the legs off a table and leave it sighing for more. Because he did talk Medora's father, Louis von Hoffmann, a fat-cat banker, into supplying a wad to finance his scheme to subvert Big Meat by slaughtering cattle way out west and shipping the butchered remains in refrigerated rail cars to Eastern markets, instead of shipping live cattle.

Well, he got the business going, starting and operating both a slaughterhouse/packing plant and the Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company, for a while, but the opposition of Armour and Company, and the like, and the dislike of urbanites for grass-fed beef and some other misfortunes ultimately caused the business to fold.

Meanwhile Mr Fancypants Marquis tried to lord it over the area, got into various squabbles and ultimately ended up in a shooting match with one ne'er-do-well named Riley Luffsey, plugging said Riley somewhat past the point of extinction. Legal affairs dragged on almost forever but de Mores was finally acquitted of murder, and Luffsey had to remain dead.

Among all these events, de Mores and his wife entertained various high-class visitors to the wild west, and that included some hunting. I've fuzzed the exact details over the decades, but let's go with this version: At some point one hunting party consisting of de Mores, Medora, and some friends had to return empty-handed to the chateau, but Medora went out again later, and came back with a bear. A dead one. Which she had personally shot.

So not a wuss, this gal, flouncy skirts or no. Try managing a rifle while riding sidesaddle, guys.

Eventually de Mores returned to France, mucked around in politics, and then on a railroad scheme in French Indochina (what we now call Vietnam), and finally ended his career in a north African shootout surrounded by a bunch of Tuaregs who were either better shots than he was or had more ammo on hand.

I know some of this because of hands-on experience. I used to work for the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND), in the history museum.

My job title was "Museum Assistant", but informally I was assistant museum curator. When I started there in 1972 the outfit had about 12 permanent employees in the museum building in Bismarck, and one or two or three at the biggest historical sites. One of those was the de Mores site, whose caretaker at the time was Egel Lakken, a pleasant barrel-chested gent who kept things tidy, clean, and trimmed to perfection.

Back at headquarters at the main museum, it was only Norman Paulson and me. We were the only full-time, permanent, "headquarters" museum staff.

I got to do a lot of boring stuff and some interesting stuff, like researching a whole mess of firearms. I've personally handled a couple of Henry rifles, each worth a zillion dollars by now, and ever so historical as precursors of the Winchester lever-action rifle which you've seen in every cowboy movie ever made. But my favorite oddity was the Jenks underhammer cap-and-ball rifle. Very rare and goofy. Too bad I can't find a link to an image of that one.

Eventually someone came up with funding to build a visitor center (i.e., branch museum) in Medora, near the Chateau de Mores, the two-storey wood-frame house that de Mores built. Well, it was up to Norman and me to do something.

As it shook out, I did most of the research and design for the project and wrote all the text to go with it. John Beck, a local crazily-talented jack of all trades did a lot of custom carpentry and restoration on various items, including virtually rebuilding the one remaining coach from the Medora/Deadwood stage line. He worked at the state museum for a couple of winters until he got tired of it, and during the summers he and two brothers ran their own history museum. He also restored old cars (self-taught), did oil paintings of historical subjects (self-taught), raised u-pick berries, and u-cut Christmas trees. And designed and single-handedly built his own solar-heated house. In the 1970s.

Norman dithered a lot. He had an enormous amount of historical knowledge, especially about the Custer Trail, but living on a pittance and being ignored for years on end finally beat him down. Shortly before I quit there was a statewide salary survey. Two people stood out, and made every newspaper in the state.

One was the librarian in the historical library. He got something like a 73% increase from one paycheck to the next. Norman came in second. His bump was 69%. He'd started working there about 1957 for $175 a month. When I was hired in 1972, my pay was $450 a month. By then Norman was making around $700 or $750 a month. He shot up to somewhere around $13,500. (My numbers are not correct, but you get the gist of it.)

The cheap-ass part was that both Lyle the librarian and Norman went from making almost nothing to the lowest step in their respective pay ranges. That was sometime in 1975. Nice raises but still a crap deal overall. I quit shortly after all that and ended up back in college after a while, but we did get the museum finished first.

No telling what it's like now. SHSND is a much bigger operation these days. They employ people with actual degrees in their fields. They've redone the visitor center at least once since my days, (see the video link, below, to get a glimpse or two) but we got the original up and running, and with not much more than cardboard, imagination, and a few bits of string. As frustrating and slow as SHSND was then, it was good on a lot of days and fun at times. I'm sure that I wouldn't be able to stand it for even five minutes now. Norman was pretty beat. Great guy but only half there most of the time. For me, the job became a case of clinical depression for pay, 40 hours each and every week. When I was there Norman was in his mid-40s but looked 80. Gone now. Managed to retire and then some, outliving the bullshit. I fairly well hated him, and the place, and everyone in it by the time I quit, but we renewed our friendship later. He died in his actual 80s.

And I have one last, late-surfacing memory: I met the Marquis' grandson. Summer of 1974 I think. Pleasant, humble, small man. He stopped by the museum workroom on the third floor of the Liberty Memorial Building on the state capitol grounds one afternoon. I don't have much to report though. He showed up, stayed a while, talked about this and that, and was gone again. I didn't think that 40 years later I'd feel proud to have been there that day.

Antoine (Tony) de Vallombrosa de Mores: "Louis' son Antoine or Tony was born in 1921. As a child, he visited Medora with his father and made several visits in the 1970's and early 1980's. He died in 1982 without having married or had any children so was the last of the direct family line." (Via the link below.)

Section 2: Bennett Campground to Magpie Campground.

Wide open, no constraints, no people, no limits except for the trail. It goes left.

A closer look. Still no people.

Hike and get slim. But he's hard to keep up with.

Lunch spot.


More dry mud with colorful bits..

Vertical version.

Afternoon toad in the shade.

Bunny pitches a hairy eye my way.

Meh. Just another loser, but I'll keep an ear on him just in case.

Yeah, just as ugly through this eye too. Probably time to leave.

OK, back up high. Looks more like a golf course.

Soft green grass. This state is all close to the ground but surprising lush.

A quick peek over the edge reveals...Oooh. Lookie.

The closer you look the more interesting it gets.

Then sometimes it all opens up.

Late afternoon evidence, quietly decaying in time.

Onward, with markers.

Wending. Trending left, with yet more markers.

Getting high as a high plains drifter drifting.

Resorts, Dakota style.

Sleep with the cattle, rise with the chickens, drink water.

Let us now speak of water? No. Go around.

However, some of it here, and there, is more wet than mud.

And some isn't.

I'll always wonder.

"In memory of Bennett Jay Kryszko, 1968 - 2000."

Opposing traffic.

Back to the trees then.

Section 3: Magpie Campground to Elkhorn Ranch site.

More soon.

Section 4: Elkhorn Ranch site to Wannagan Campground.

More soon.

Section 5: Wannagan Campground to end of my trip.

More soon.

Extra info.

CCC Campground

Bennett Campground

Elkhorn Campground

Elkhorn Ranch Trailhead

Magpie Campground

Wannagan Campground

Legendary biking on North Dakota's Maah Daah Hey trail   (alt. link via the Web Archive)

The Mandan

Despair, Inc.

Map of the whole MDH Trail at the Web Archive

North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department - Maah Daah Hey Trail


Maah Daah Hey Trail Association

Horned toad

Medora, North Dakota

Medora von Hoffman and her pet Marquis  (alt. link via the Web Archive)

Medora Vallombrosa, Marquise de Mores

Marquis de Morès (NPS)

Marquis de Morès (Wikipedia)

Tuareg people

Henry rifle

Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company booklet

Chateau de Mores

Chateau de Mores State Historic Site (YouTube tour / 8:58)

Antoine (Tony) de Vallombrosa de Mores (grandson)

De Mores Packing Plant Ruins