Tag Archives: theodore roosevelt

WRT III, Part 3: The Threshold of Freedom

5 Aug

My Yellowstone adventure concludes with a long goodbye. Amy and Bob bolt the next morning to catch their flights from Bozeman, while Rob, Alex, and I set out to deepen our explorations of the park’s highlights. We take more trails along the Grand Canyon, one down to a rainbow-enhanced view of the Lower Falls, one out to Point Sublime along its southern rim, and explore another set of thermal features at the putrid Sulphur Caldron and the explosive Mud Volcano and the travertine fountains at Mammoth Hot Springs. An attempt to plunge deeper into the Hayden Valley along the Mary Mountain Trail is foiled after two miles of hiking. We see a bison on the trail ahead of us, and while we try to wait it out, it prefers instead to plop down in place and wallow about in the dirt, seemingly taunting us. We’re forced to turn around.

Turning around was never an option for another group that made its way up this valley in the early years of Yellowstone National Park. The Mary Mountain Trail doubles as a portion of the Nez Perce Trail, the approximate route that Native American tribe followed on its five-month flight across the West now known as the Nez Perce War of 1877. Displaced from their native Oegon valleys after the U.S. government broke a treaty, the Nez Perce repeatedly outfoxed the army over the course of a 1,000-mile trek across the West. They first sought to join up with their old allies the Crows in eastern Montana, and the party of men, women, and children trekked across the young national park and disrupted a few pleasure-seekers. Later, rebuffed, they turned north to seek out Sitting Bull and his Lakota in Canada, and very nearly pulled off a great escape. Instead, they were surrounded and surrendered 40 miles short of the border, leading Chief Joseph to declare he would “fight no more forever.” The U.S. government promptly broke the terms of the surrender and sent the Nez Perce not to a reservation in Idaho, but to Oklahoma.

Today’s West bears little resemblance to the one that was a wilderness refuge for the Nez Perce. The road out of Yellowstone offers one of the park’s famed traffic jams in Mammoth Hot Springs. We revel anew at Bozeman’s development rush, enjoy a few final beers; Alex heads out on an early morning flight, and Rob and I have a more leisurely morning at a café before I start my way back east. Along the way, I take a short detour south off my route on I-94 to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeast Montana. On these lonely hills overlooking the meanders and cottonwoods of the Little Bighorn River, a combined Lakota and Cheyenne force annihilated George Custer and gave the Native Americans their greatest victory of the Plains Wars. Like the Nez Perce flight across the Northwest, though, it only delayed the inevitable for the Lakota and Cheyenne.

Today, the Little Bighorn site sits on a reservation for the Crow tribe. (In a reminder of how complicated tribal alliances could be, Crows served as scouts for Custer and denied aid to Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce.) My stomach churns as I gaze upon the abject depression of Crow Agency, the town two miles from Little Bighorn: crumbling trailers, a few burned-out relics, desperately patched roofs. It is the most downtrodden place I have ever seen in America; Detroit’s destitution may be on a greater scale, but at least there one can see a difficult but plausible path forward. Here, it’s hard to find that hope, and a glance at the data later shows me that the Crow Reservation’s poverty rate is only a fraction of several other tribal nations in the West. Native Americans have kept the harsh land around Little Bighorn, but won no freedom to prosper here, and the rest of America shoots through it at eighty miles per hour, stopping only for gas or a visit to this reminder of the past. Little Bighorn now remembers the dead from both sides and offers up a few wishes for peace. Peace to what end, I wonder as I meander along the Greasy Grass Ridge and ponder the scattered gravestones. I can aspire to understanding and struggle for empathy, but the reality of Native American consciousness will always be beyond my reach.

The second audiobook I consume on this road trip is The Last Campaign, which follows Robert F. Kennedy’s doomed 82-day campaign for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy, amid the primary campaign rush, took far more time than his aides wanted to visit the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, often cited as the most poverty-stricken in the nation. Thurston Clarke, the author of this 2008 book, notes that Pine Ridge’s poverty and suicide rates had not changed since 1968; it is one of dozens of moments when RFK’s campaign themes, just like Joan Didion’s road trip, feel like they could have taken place yesterday instead of two generations in the past. Between the tale of the slaughter of the American politician I may admire above all others, ruminations on the plight of Native Americans, and a short, gut-punching novel on abusive family dynamics named One of the Boys with which I follow The Last Campaign, I am in a thoroughly morose mood by the time I pull into the Painted Canyon Overlook off I-94 in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the American racial reckoning that began with George Floyd’s murder, I’ve been struck at times by the jarring juxtaposition of the natural beauty of my northern Minnesota haunts with the fraying world around me. I’ve been busy enough to forget those plaintive thoughts on this trip, but they return here as I gaze out on my escape in the Little Missouri badlands once again. How can a world capable of such sublime majesty be so depraved? How can we preserve such beauty so diligently, share it with our families and cultivate an appreciation for it in our children, even as we neglect so many other lessons of our history? Is my flight into the wilderness in times of trouble a meek retreat, a dereliction of duty to meet the call that inspired Roosevelts and Kennedys? In my writing, I revisit an old fictional friend who shares these neuroses and have him wrestle with them all on his own trip west.

Through him, I revisit one of my favorite columns of all time, Roger Cohen’s Ways to Be Free. A phrase he draws from William Finnegan on surfing gnaws at me throughout this trip, a description of a cathartic encounter with the natural world: “ferocious ambivalence, the threshold of freedom.” For adventure-seekers out in the wilderness, ferocious ambivalence describes the power of the elements that can overwhelm them, the way those elements can come to life and take on personality traits, at times loving, at times vengeful, indifferent to human comfort and even life, always imposing their presence. To feel that power of nature is to be liberated, if only for a moment. But that phrase can describe a very human way of moving through the world, too: the raw power that courses through the surfer taming the wave, the hiker powering to the summit, the writer hitting upon the perfect phrase. It captures both the intensity of the feat in the moment and the coolness one attains by making such conquests routine. This, too, is a form of freedom, a culmination of pursuit as fulfillment.

My earliest experiments in writing were obsessed with idea of freedom. What did it mean to be free, to live in a free society, to have political freedom? Freedom became a philosophical term, a question of will or escape from coercion or realization of potential. Lost was that raw feeling, the knowledge of the power its pursuit can bring. I realize that, in recent years, I’ve felt precious little freedom. Freedom, in its commonly understood sense, is not the end goal: lives need guard rails and direction, and while there are occasional twinges at loss, many decisions that close off options are mature moves toward a life of purpose. But freedom remains a delectable treat, and humans need to feel it; not in some Western myth of a clean slate free from the past, but through a push that knows we can learn from it and transcend it.

I spend the last night of my trip in Jamestown, North Dakota (home to the world’s largest buffalo!), in a hotel room that overlooks that agent of empire known as the interstate highway. I collect my notes and gaze out at my fellow travelers shooting across the country in the night. I head home from there, exhausted, box up my apartment and plow through work emails, lapse into the usual routines, any immediate lessons forgotten in an everyday slog. How quickly the freedom fades; how quickly the usual annoyances return.

Freedom is never a permanent state. It comes in quick jolts here and there: a first night in a new bed in the house where I’ll write the next chapter of my life, the freedom of a back road after a wrong turn through a construction detour, a jaunt to the Twin Cities that gives me a moment on a bench beside Lake Harriet and a wistful gaze out of an apartment window at a lit-up Minneapolis with raw, fresh scars on its skin. I set out on this road trip to find something, but that ferocious ambivalence never needed finding on some distant plain. It’s been here all along. I just need to live it, to cross that threshold with the imperative that such ferocity demands.

WRT III, Part 1: The Winning of the West

31 Jul

Can I tell I’m starved for an adventure? I drive so manically out of Duluth on the first day of my trip to Yellowstone that I don’t take so much as a bathroom stop until I reach a rest area in Oriska, North Dakota, some four and a half hours into my drive. The road is monotonous, my mission singular, and I have an audiobook of Joan Didion’s notes on a road trip across the American South to carry me along. Written observation as inspiration for my own notes: I can only dream they will live up to her prescient ability to diagnose American fault lines 50 years ago. Her observations on race and on Southern and Western attitudes are just as relevant today. We are still the children of the late 60s.

I perk up some after I cross the Hundredth Meridian and enter the West: not Didion’s California West, but the West of wide open spaces and enduring frontiers. The flat plains turn into hills that march upward in steady ranks, farm fields give way to grazing pastures, and a few stray buttes dot the landscape here and there. Salem Sue, the towering cow that welcomes visitors to New Salem, offers a formal welcome to this wilder country. I slow my roll when I approach Theodore Roosevelt National Park to drink in the changing landscape, the lands that commanded the loyalty of Native Americans, the fed the dreams of American settlers, and create an outlet for modern-day thrill-seekers. This trip is a deep plunge into the West, in all its complicated history.

I first set eyes on Theodore Roosevelt four years ago, when a friend and I pulled into its Painted Canyon Overlook on the tail end of a grand western road trip. That glimpse left me hungry for more, and this trip has given me the excuse I need to spend two nights deep in its harsh but detail-rich hills. These badlands along the Little Missouri River enraptured a young future president in the 1880s, and after several untimely deaths in his life, he came back here to find freedom. On this first leg of my western road trip, I follow in his footsteps.

There are a few different categories of national park. The first captures features that are true natural wonders of the world by any standard: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone. A second category is more of a glorified state park: sure, they can be lovely, but there isn’t always much to distinguish them from their surroundings, and they may be the products of political patronage. Voyageurs National Park, the closest to my northern Minnesota home, falls in this category; there’s not much to distinguish it from the neighboring, more remote Boundary Waters. I’ve heard similar sentiments for places like the Cuyahoga Valley or Virgin Islands National Parks. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun to visit, but no one will pretend they belong in a category alongside Glacier or the Great Smoky Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt, however, occupies a third category, along with places like Joshua Tree and Isle Royale and a lot of Alaska: they preserve unique, lonely wildernesses. They have little in the way of famed attractions, and instead invite their visitors to simply wander in and explore. Camping in the time of Covid only heightens this raw, wild feel: the Cottonwood Campground, where I’d made reservations months ago, is closed, but the backcountry is open, so I adapt easily enough. I arrange for a permit, park in a small lot next to a deep, nearly dry wash named Jones Creek, and start to hike the requisite distance away from all features for a backcountry camp. Just a short ways in, I have to divert up a hill to avoid a bison that lounges a bit too close to the path for comfort, but after dodging it, I see a faint path running up a small valley across the creek that I decide will serve my purposes.

Crossing the steep-banked gully of Jones Creek poses a challenge, but eventually I find a crumbling path that guides me down along its fetid pools for a spell before it offers a pathway up into the valley I’ve claimed. I stake my tent in a meadow just beyond view from the wider Jones Creek valley and find a perfect hammock spot in a copse of trees. I bliss out there until my campsite comes into the shade of the neighboring hills, make my dinner, and later rock-hop up a craggy slope to enjoy the sunset down Jones Creek with my nightcap. My bison friend has ambled along the opposite bank of the creek and nibbles about here and there. A collection of coyotes howls at sunset, the birds chirp away into the dusk, and the lowing of the bison comes at the steady pace of a loud snorer. When darkness falls, though, the sounds die away, and when I wake in the wee hours of the night, I hear nothing but silence: pure, pristine silence for the longest stretch of time I have ever heard.

I have a long day hike planned for my full day here, but I wake to rain in the morning and issue a few profanities to an audience of zero. I sit confined in my tent for two hours longer than I’d hoped, and I’m restless, a slight agoraphobia rising up; once the clouds clear, I am resigned to hiking in the heat of the day. Theodore Roosevelt’s trails are notorious for turning to slop when wet, and my only choice is to mudsurf down the slope into the Jones Creek ravine to get back to the trail, though the climb back up on the other side is mercifully easy. The bison is gone now, and I head back up the trail and cross the road on to a flat along the Little Missouri River. The trail meanders through an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and after further mudsurfing, I reach a ford across the river by the horse paddocks of the Peaceful Valley Ranch. The Little Missouri is wide but shallow, and the water never clears my knees as I ford it. I don’t mind the water on my feet to cool them down. Soon I come to a meadow occupied by a man and his two daughters; at first I think the girls are the sources of the high-pitched chirps, but soon I realize they’re coming from the crew of prairie dogs. What silly creatures, I think as I watch them popping up here and there, chirping manically at any human who comes close.

The trail meanders up and down washes, past small springs tapped by early settlers, and twists up valleys that nest their way in amid the badlands. It’s a warm day with few clouds, but a strong wind blasts across the park and keeps the hiking pleasant. After some initial crowds, I find myself alone on the Lone Tree Trail, my only fellow traveler a black mustang on a distant hill. The trail follows Knutson Creek up into the highlands as it twists through occasional juniper thickets, knifes up a mud bank, and gradually ramps up to the plateau atop the badlands. Up on this high plain the grassland extends off into eternity, a stunningly open world where the trail is faint and a lone bison grazes in the distance. I work my way back along the edge of the plateau to views down valleys and across a prairie dog metropolis. The midday sun has dried out all of the morning mud, and I plunge back down and complete my 13-mile circuit. I repeat my evening ritual of the day before, amuse myself by naming the hills around the valley I’ve claimed as my own: the Ziggurat, the Slipper, the Parapet, the Monitor and the Merrimack. (I suppose we may need to rename that last one now.) For a second night, an early morning fitful waking gifts nothing but silence. This is exactly how to experience the wilderness.

I rise early the next morning, pack my things, and start on my way across Montana to Bozeman, where I will rendezvous with my fellow Yellowstone hikers. This is the same group I joined on the Lost Coast in California last summer, minus two participants and plus another cousin of mine who missed that jaunt. The drive passes quickly, and before long we’re on a hectic rush around outdoors stores, understocked in the Covid era, and go through our routine of divvying up the load for the hike among our packs.

Bozeman is so close and so far from my hometown of Duluth. It’s an outdoorsy wilderness gateway and a college town, big enough to be a regional center with plenty of amenities but small enough to remain intimate. The similarities end there, though: while Duluth drowns in history, Bozeman has basically none outside of a few blocks along its tasteful Main Street. Most of the city is a sprawling suburban grid, with endless rows of cheap, unremarkable new apartments stretching off into the distance, ready to accommodate its exploding population of young adventure-seekers. In a way, I’m fond of that ethos; it feels fresh, has none of the post-industrial fatalism that sometimes grips Duluth. If Duluth is the Rust Belt reinvention story that struggles to hide its scars, Bozeman is the archetype of the West: a city that can pretend it has no history, the eternal belief in outward escape and a new life on the frontier more than a century after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed.

I’d hardly be the first person to critique the myth of the West: brave cowboys, romanticized bandits, people free to be themselves away from old world wars or Eastern industry and hierarchy. But one can admire their rugged pursuits and still see everything that this picture leaves out: the broken dreams of so many would-be settlers, the decimation of the natives, the bloodletting and anarchy that would now inspire some people to call for the National Guard. The United States is still on the run from its past, still thinks it can start anew somewhere out here in these hills and wastes, and while on the most fundamental level it will always be wrong about that, it can still work its magic. Why else would I be here?

WRT III

16 Jul

I have made a habit, it seems, of long western road trips in even-numbered years. The 2020 edition will take me out to Yellowstone and back over the next two weeks, a trip nearly as long in time (if not in miles) as the 2016 edition, and similar in its scope of natural beauty to 2018. At first glance it may seem a rather cavalier time for a vacation given our national situation, to say nothing of the fact that I’m moving three days after I return. But never have I wanted a vacation more than I do right now, and this sudden push outward is an ideal bookend to one phase of life.

This road trip necessarily makes its concessions to the ongoing pandemic. Plans had to change, fellow travelers have dropped, and added doses of caution will likely prevent me from getting too adventurous in sampling local culture. There will be a lot of meals at rest stops and at camp stoves and in hotel rooms, not in intriguing establishments. Summer 2020 has been best spent in tents and admiring wide open spaces instead of visiting great cities or museums or restaurants and bars.

Fortunately, this trip offers no shortage of wide open spaces. Half its nights will be spent at backcountry campsites of some sort, which are about as socially distant as one can get. The bulk of this trip brings together a five of us from all over the country, which is a calculated risk, but since April, I’ve been pretty insistent that we must take reasonable precautions and find some way to live a mentally healthy life. This thrust westward, even as the national situation deteriorates, is exactly that.

I set out in a car that needs to add some ticks to its odometer to justify its high-mileage lease, well-stocked with coolers and bear cans, and armed with bear spray in the event that any new furry friends draw too close. The weather, for now, looks much more pleasant than my last venture outward, which can only be a good thing. As usual, I’m stocked with a wide-ranging array of audiobooks and a couple of maps. (The real, paper kind that won’t fail me when I lose cell service and have to navigate my way off-trail around a herd of bison, thank you very much.) What more could I ask for?

Like Theodore Roosevelt, whose old stomping grounds in North Dakota will be my host for the first two nights, I head west in a time of uncertainty. In the past I’ve said that I aspire to no great insights in my travel; that I should let them come as they come. But this time? Nah. I really am looking to find something. I don’t know what, and I’ll be fine if I don’t. But in many ways I feel like I’m on the brink of…something.

So, off I go. Updates will follow, as time allows.

Breaking Radio Silence

10 Dec

This blog has been far too quiet in recent weeks, so here is a post for the sake of a post. The end of a semester in graduate school, coupled with some hockey duties clogging up the normal times for free writing, will do that.

In one of my final class meetings today, an instructor gave us all printed copies of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which I wrote about on this blog in March 2014. At the time of that post, I was still coming out of the self-reflective shell I’d encased myself in during my return to Duluth. It’s certainly more tentative than my approach to life these days, and now sets up a more admirable ideal. The quote (which I’ve seen associated with East hockey in the past) will now go up on a wall in my room.

The friend from Phoenix mentioned in that post came to visit me in Minneapolis this past weekend, and my roommate and I (all of us Georgetown alums) had a grand time showing off our state, which our friend termed ‘the last bastion of the American Dream, if it ever truly existed.’ We mused long into the night on matters great and small, and I confided my own goal, which is to perpetuate that dream, such as I can. Of course I remain a critic on a certain level, and will feel comfortable retreating into a little Minnesotan fortress if it all goes wrong. But there is a goal here, and one around which to build a public life. The weekend renewed that push outward, one I explored last fall when I made the trip south for a visit to Phoenix.

My aversion to  the arena wasn’t out of timidity, per se, nor  was it the product of Minnesota stoicism. I had questions I needed to answer, and that required  lengthy retreat from the public realm. It did its job, but left me a bit rusty, and some things take practice anyway. I could make a lovely intellectual case for TR’s hunger, but living it out was a different story. The step forward has to seize upon convictions, and embrace power when it presents itself. So whether we aim to blend great dreams with reality or merely push through the last few weeks of a long, grinding semester: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.