When I moved back to North Dakota ten years ago, I hiked the Little Missouri River from Marmarth to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Altogether I hiked 173 miles, with a 65 pound pack (three gallons of water) in what was called the second hottest summer in North Dakota history. I’ll be posting a series of photos, memories, and reflections about that trek. I was 51 years old.
This is a column I wrote at the midway point in 2006:
Today, Aug. 6, I reached the halfway point of my Little Missouri trek. At about 3 p.m. I walked into Sully Creek State Primitive Park. Hey, it has water, so it is not primitive to me. Thoreau said he went to the wood to reduce life to its lowest terms. That’s what’s happened to me. Food. Tent. Good shoes. Above all, water. It has been so hot that for the first time in my life I cannot keep enough water in me. I’m drinking a couple of gallons a day, but there are times when all I can think about is water.
The Little Missouri River is surprisingly clear this year, but I’m not ready to drink out of it, not with cows standing in it and eliminating their wastes into it. It may come to that in McKenzie County, but I hope not. So I essentially travel from artesian well to artesian well. An artesian, as I am sure you know, is a well you tap rather than pump. The pressure is supplied by gravity. There’s water in the hills along the Little Missouri. For the last 125 years, those who have tried to live here have spent a great deal of time attending to water. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that almost every bottom, every bench of grass between the river’s s-curves, has or had a flowing well. My job is to find as many as I can. And fill up. I can’t say my life depends upon it, but at times it feels that way.
These wells take several forms. Some are old tractor tires sealed up at the bottom. I’ve stopped at several made of concrete and several of heavy iron. Most these days are brown or blue fiberglass or plastic. A pipe comes up from the ground and spills glorious (often cold) water into the trough. Sometimes the water has a mineral taste. Sometimes it smells like sulphur. Sometimes it has a rusty look. But in no instance have I rejected any water from any well. Nor has the well water had the slightest ill effect on my body. A few ranches just let the trough fill, spill over the lip and create a spongy mess that makes it hard to get close enough to get the water. Most create a safety valve that draws off the excess and channels it into a draw, or down toward the river.
This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about artesian wells, but for the past week this has been just about the most important thing in my life. At 2 p.m. with the temperature at 96 degrees and not the slightest breeze, my eyes are scanning the territory for a water trough. I’ll walk half a mile out of my way to get to one. I’ll wade the river, climb up the opposite bank to get to one. At almost 100 yards, I can usually tell whether they are running or not. When they are, particularly when I can see the glint of running water in the sun, it’s a kind of ecstasy. I frequently move into a kind of trot as much as that is possible for a tired 51-year-old with a 55-pound pack. When the well turns out to be dry, it is a little heartbreaking. There have been moments when I felt like crying. But, a couple of more miles, a few more oxbows, and there will be another opportunity. That is the faith by which I walk the Little Missouri River.
Starting Aug. 5, I have been removing my shirt and soaking it in every well, and where that is not possible, in the river itself. This has a double use. It’s a simple form of laundry. And it cools me from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, which perspires away my internal water supply. With this regimen, and perhaps a couple of comparatively cool days ahead (80 degrees is paradise), I should make it.
So far, this has been a glorious and clarifying journey. When it is too hot to walk, I hole up and read Walden. When it is too hot to read Thoreau, I just sit in the river and doze. Needless to say, the scenery is sublime (or supply your highest term of appreciation). The moon has been so bright that it casts an eerie night shadow. And the coyotes have provided their evening concert just before dusk. I have walked into only one rattlesnake, a huge old Badlands veteran, and it chose not to strike. I have had just four encounters in a long week, Marmarth to Medora: with a pleasant rancher on an ATV; with the marvelous Robert Hanson of the Logging Camp Ranch, a charming, graceful philosopher of the Little Missouri River Valley, who stirred up some pink lemonade and asked whether it would violate my code to be invited into his kitchen; with a young, aggressive absentee landowner, who offered me bottles of cold water and explained that everything (“I mean absolutely everything”) in the world is for sale; and Aug. 5, with a very startled woman in a golf cart. “Hi, mind if I hike through?”
I’ve shed some weight and some notions. I’ve made some plans and reset the priorities of my life. I’ve thought through some situations that were tripping me up. I’ve dreamed – awake and asleep. But the best thing is that I’ve spent hours and hours just being. Just sitting on a bluff, or sitting in the river, or lying with my head on my pack, saying to myself, “So, this is life.”
The phrase that keeps recurring to me is that this is a humbling form of confidence building, and a confident form of humbling.
One more word on the wells, each one an oasis in this semi-desert country. Robert Hanson, who has been out here for at least half of the settlement period, and who never says a thoughtless word, explained to me that almost every well represents a former homestead. A low log cabin built more than a century ago, with a corral and a well, on a bench of grass in an oxbow of the river. You’ve seen them on postcards of the old Badlands, so squat and low-tech and romantic. Hundreds of small ranch homesteads were here once. Every one was a monument to the American dream. Today, there are only 23 ranches on the river between Marmarth and Medora, and almost all of them are occupied. You can still see a few slumping shacks here and there in the valley, and some ancient corrals. But mostly the wooden structures are gone, and what remains is the well alone. What once provided water to a pioneer family now waters cattle. There is something beautiful and melancholy in that. As I fill my water bottles, and splash cool water on my face and neck, I try to imagine the people who proved up here in the decades after Theodore Roosevelt and the Marquis de Mores left. Who were they? What brought them here? What were their lives like? When did they move on, and where did they go? What was their final assessment of this land?
I am drinking with ghosts.