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Zaleski: A great ride through a beautiful place

One of the best ways to see North Dakota’s Badlands is on horseback. A family trail ride south of the Medora Riding Stables took us into back country, and close up to the unique features of a landscape an Army officer in the 1870s called “hell with the fires gone out.”

It was hot, but not hell. It was especially beautiful because rainfall had been exceptionally heavy in June. Grass was belly-high on the horses. Great swaths of sweet clover were in yellow bloom, wafting intoxicating scent across the trail. Wildflowers — cone flowers, some sort of lupine and dozens of others I could not identify — splashed the hills and buttes with colors up to the windy heights, which usually at this time of year are baked brown. Prickly pear cactus displayed lemon yellow and pale orange blossoms as big as silver dollars — spectacular in the intense sunshine.

The ride was supposed to be two hours but stretched beyond three, in part because my 8-year-old triplet granddaughters (experienced riders since age 5) were not strong enough to prevent the big quarter horses from stopping to graze on the lush grasses and clover. That’s a long time in the saddle for a grandfather who had not been on horseback for a lot of years. Still, the ride in the Badlands was magical, not only because family was along but also because the trail took us deep into one of the most unique environments in the country.

Among the surprising finds were groves of tall ponderosa pines, gnarled cedars and aromatic junipers, interspersed with shimmering summer-green leaves of ash trees, spikey bull berry bushes and dense clumps of tall blue-gray sage. The temperature dropped noticeably where the trees shaded the trail.

In scarred canyons, dry washes and along the steep sides of buttes, stumps of ancient petrified trees defied heat and wind. Yellow rocks and soils were stained black where rushing water had exposed coal seams. In other cuts in the hills, scoria strata glowed red and orange in the broiling July sun. I’m still a little sore from the saddle. One leg is not working just right. Sunburn is fading, but memory of the sun’s sting is not yet gone.

But this will not fade: A family outing in an astonishingly beautiful place; the wide-eyed awe in three newly minted Badlands cowgirls. They will hold it all in their memory banks, and tell the stories to their grandchildren.

Zaleski is the opinion editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at