City woman, cowgirl town
Medora, N.D. I've resisted the insistent call of Medora, ringing in radio commercials and coaxing from roadside billboards, since I moved to North Dakota three years ago. I am a hardcore big-city girl, whose idea of a weekend getaway involves sat...
I've resisted the insistent call of Medora, ringing in radio commercials and coaxing from roadside billboards, since I moved to North Dakota three years ago.
I am a hardcore big-city girl, whose idea of a weekend getaway involves satisfying her cravings for snarled traffic, churning crowds and other often-reviled trappings of metro life.
So why should I travel to a place where I don't get cell phone reception and where, I'd heard, tourists nibble on steaks off of pitchforks?
But this summer, I finally caved in. After three years, I had mustered the courage to go West and go retro. I purchased a straw cowboy hat at Target, though I suspected I'd look a little more obviously out of place wearing it than heading out in, say, a glitzy up-do. With some trepidation, I left behind my makeup bag and
high-heel shoes. I was ready for a long weekend in the wilderness.
Even the most inveterate urbanite can't help falling for the majestic sweep of the Badlands or the charming sprinkle of wooden-fa?ade antique stores and ice cream shops that are Medora.
I felt just a hint of claustrophobia after a leisurely stroll took me and my traveling companion all around the city in less than 15 minutes. It was time for the pitchfork fondue.
Now, I have to admit I'd slightly misunderstood the concept behind this staple of the Medora experience. The open-air dinner, on a hill overlooking the town and the surrounding natural beauty, indeed involves impaling steaks on pitchforks and frying them in oversized pots of oil. But then you get to savor your steak out of a perfectly civilized plastic plate, with bacon beans and baked potato, while sipping wine out of a plastic cup.
After the dinner, we ambled over to the Burning Hills Amphitheater, the setting for the famed Medora Musical. It whisks audiences back to the North Dakota ranching days of President Roosevelt, a somewhat intimidating time travel itinerary for this thoroughly modern theatergoer. But in fact, this rollicking musical revue - Roosevelt impersonator and Old West backdrop aside - is firmly rooted in the present day.
The spirited band of charismatic young singers and dancers, known as the Burning Hill Singers, strings together a musical expedition to the very origins of country western. But I am pretty sure I picked up on a tune by slick pop country boy band Rascal Flats, too. And the center of the very loose plotline is a spunky 19th-century heroine who's recognizably 21st century: She travels the country solo and, just as her brother believes she's returned to small-town North Dakota to open a charm school of sorts, she unveils a rowdy dance floor.
Besides, the featured entertainment for the evening was an act by Kenyan acrobats in midriff-baring spandex outfit, who did the limbo under an impossibly low-slung flaming stick to high-energy disco beats.
Later that evening, we traveled back to the Old West from present-day Kenya at the Little Missouri Saloon, a cozy establishment featuring ceilings decorated with rows of cowboy hats. Yes, they did have the likes of pop starlet Jessica Simpson on the juke box. But that night, we listened to a low-key two-piece country band and watched couples spin across the small dance floor. The weathered front-man peppered me with "yes, ma'ams" when I walked up shyly to him to request a Merle Haggard song.
The next day, we visited the historic Chateau de Mores, the 26-room house of a visionary French marquis who ventured out in the late 19th century to launch a meatpacking business. Here I found an Old West figure I could readily relate to - the marquis' wife, Medora, plucked out of New York City high society and transplanted amid the prairie.
For three summers before the collapse of her husband's business venture, she lavished staggering energy and expense on carving out a sophisticated existence in the Roughrider State. Hence the fluffy bedding and exquisite china preserved in the fascinating interior display.
But my big-city ways were put to the test most decisively in the stunning Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which I spent a good chunk of my vacation exploring. My cowboy hat didn't embolden me enough to try the horseback riding. But I did boldly wade through muddy trails on a rainy afternoon, the air achingly flagrant with wet leaves and petals. I held my breath as a buffalo ambled onto our path and traced constellations on a night sky pulsating with stars.
But when my companion suggested a midnight foray up a hillside deep in the park's interior, I balked, imagining the buffalo from earlier in the day charging out of the darkness. I preferred to stay in the hotel room and read a fashion magazine, under the reproachful gaze of a deer in a framed photo by someone named Cowboy Lyle.
If you go
If you want a vacation filled with hustle and bustle, Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park are not for you. But if shopping, a quiet drive, hiking or a horseback ride would help settle your life, perhaps you could consider North Dakota's top tourist destination.
Summer Medora attractions include:
- A 45-minute one-man play about Theodore Roosevelt, "Bully," starring Minneapolis' Timothy Shawn
- The Medora Musical
- A weekend play, "Recollections of Murder and Mayhem in Medora" (through Aug. 12)
- Free Old West talks by locally famous cowboy Lyle Glass
- Horse or buggy rides
- The Chateau De Mores State Historic Site, home of the aristocratic family that settled the area in the 1880s
- The Harold Schafer Heritage Center
- The two-year-old North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, its 36-mile loop road and lengthy walking and horse-riding trails
Call (800) 633-6721 for more information on Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
- Don Davis, Forum Communications
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-552