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Zaleski: Western North Dakota Badlands beautiful in November

MEDORA -- November flattens the hues of the North Dakota Badlands. Dry breezes and early season frosts bleach the color out of summer's grasses, tall sagebrush and rock-clinging cactus. The low slant of fall sunlight mutes the red, yellow and bla...

Jack Zaleski

MEDORA - November flattens the hues of the North Dakota Badlands. Dry breezes and early season frosts bleach the color out of summer’s grasses, tall sagebrush and rock-clinging cactus. The low slant of fall sunlight mutes the red, yellow and black of scoria, clay and coal vein layers of wind- and water-sculpted buttes. In the deep draws, tough ash trees have lost the bright green, then yellow of leaves, and stand gray and dark, their branches tangled into impassable thickets.
But a closer look - on foot - finds November’s unique natural beauty, replete with color, life and light. So it was a few days ago when my wife and I hiked into the rugged lands just off West River Road, a few miles south of Interstate 94, in the area bordered by the historic Custer Trail.
If colors look dull in a drive-by, they glow during a close-up walk-through. Winter-ready grassland color shifts like moving water from pale yellows to tans and browns to sun-lit reds on higher ground that’s not been grazed. Rugged, ancient junipers shout out shades of green, accented by riots of berries that shine like blue pearls, and fill the cool air with perfume. Sage, still holding leaves, displays green to silver gray as the light changes. Break a leaf and the magical aroma clings to your hand all day.
We walked for miles on deer trails and cow paths, mostly through places we’d walked before and have become familiar with over the years. But every walk at every season seems new. The landscape changes, mostly slowly and subtly, but sometimes quickly and violently, as when a downpour soaks the hills’ soft clay, loosening huge scoria boulders that tumble down slopes, tearing out fences and snapping off trees. Every time we walk, we find startling evidence of rapid erosion and displaced rocks.
Medora and the Badlands are obvious summer destinations. But for outdoors enthusiasts who might like a truly unique and challenging landscape, fall and winter are good times to hike. And if solitude is on the agenda, there is no better time of year.
Looking for a really good steak (or other fare) in a relaxed, western atmosphere? The restaurant at Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch has it all. It’s a few minutes north of I-94 off the Buffalo Gap exit. The five-minute drive seems longer on the winding scoria road that crosses a couple of cattle guards along the way. It was an adventure at night for us. (“Where the hell is it?”) It’s worth the drive.
Lots of selections on the menu. A full bar and lounge. Casual service - that means no hurry, and no dress code.
Nothing fancy. Nothing snooty. Good food and drink, good people, good time.
Zaleski is the opinion page editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com .

Related Topics: MEDORABADLANDS
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