Theodore Roosevelt National Park


Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The plan from the start was to see North Dakota from end to end. Entering the state on its far western border from Highway 85 (two hours later than planned) because of the hunt for the Geographic Center of the U.S., I’m tempted to call it a day. Snowfall in the Western part of the state has been unusually heavy over the 2008-2009 winter, meaning road conditions demand attention.

But not enough to override the recognition night is about to throw its protective cover.  And with that dimming comes glorious shadows, wildlife stirrings, sunset kaleidescopes, and the overall suspense that lovely, unexpected things happen when the light wanes. Joy spreads through my tired limbs leaving no room for thoughts of the creature comforts of a motel room. I drive into T.R. National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th President in 1901. He said “I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”  The Park includes Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch and was designated a National MEMORIAL Park in 1947. It didn’t achieve full National Park status until Jimmy Carter gave the approval in 1978.


Mule Deer

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

See what I mean about lovely surprises?

Of Rattlesnakes & The Geographic Center of the U.S.

Clamoring on the steep incline under the weight of my heaviest film camera (reserved only for the most promising of discoveries), slipping twice to one knee on rime ice, I hitch one last gasp of frigid oxygen as my head lifts my eager eyes into perfect position to feast on the conquered monument. Sheepherder’s Monuments!? !*&#@%! “This is NOT the Geographic Center of the United States of America??!!” My lips are too numb to spew anything out, but my mind handles it beautifully in their stead. “I climbed all this way, alone in the middle of Greenland, South Dakota for THIS!?” Kicking the fence while hanging on with one gloved hand to steady my footing, the shards of ice and frozen atmosphere target the only opening to my skin, right down the back of my neck. And if there’s any justice, hopefully into the dens of a few sleeping rattlesnakes.

“Sheepherder’s Monuments or stone Johnnies survive the days of the open range. These stone columns were probably built to indicate distance and direction to waterholes and provided the sheepherder with a pastime while herding his flocks.”

The Geographic Center of the U.S. is not where you’d expect. Furthermore, it’s not where my 2004 Atlas said it would be. After spending an hour-and-a-half combing the area, I know. North of Belle Fourche (Bell Foosh), South Dakota on Highway 85, just South of Junction 168, my Atlas in bright red said: “Geographic Center of U.S. Marker”.

From setting my sights on a grandiose solo road trip self-portrait at the geographic center of the United States of America, the search dwindled to looking for something as tell-tell as a unique T-Post in the frozen fence line. Incredulous the grandiose was not forthcoming, I became desperate to find something and perplexed as to what could have happened to a marker of such importance. Blood pressure increasing, my eyes landed on the remnants of an old paved road. No gates, no signs, with just enough pavement and old footings to indicate something of note stood here at one point, I excitedly drove around the site to get my bearings. Perched above the disintegrating pavement and towering above the prairie was an area surrounded by a menacing fence. Without question this was something the Department of Interior had gone to great lengths to protect — I’d discovered it after all.

Confused? So was I. So here’s my best shot at an explanation. But I warn you, there’s not a lot of authoritative research to rely on and a lot of what follows is disputable. In 1959 the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey officially designated a point 13 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota as the Geographic Center of the U.S. (which includes Alaska and Hawaii). The location was surveyed at: Latitude 44 degrees, 58 minutes North, and Longitude 103 degrees, 46 minutes West.  Any marker grander than the requisite USGS benchmark in the ground was up to the state of South Dakota to provide and maintain. Around the same time, maybe AT the same time, the Department of Interior built the Monument marker and fence (since it’s on Bureau of Land Management land) for the nearby high-plains cairns of Sheepherder’s Monuments. The State of South Dakota then proceeded to build a picnic area, restrooms, etc. on the site and sold tickets billed for seeing both monuments. Recall previously I mentioned the footings for buildings and the video shows restrooms.

The rattle snakes must have felt they weren’t being cut their fair share and laid claim to the area. Either the Department of Interior, the state of South Dakota or both, closed and abandoned the Sheepherder’s Monuments’ area in the mid-1990’s.  Solo road trippers, caution is ALWAYS justified and should NEVER be disparaged. What you don’t know can kill you. There were no signs warning of rattlesnakes. Had I gone in any of the 3 other seasons of the year…well, I was wearing hiking boots. Given that I’m here to tell this tale, I learned a lesson and should I be faced with such a situation again, I will recall this hell-bent mission to see something and hopefully make a good decision.

Eventually the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce approached the National Geodetic Survey with a plan to build a new concrete and granite marker IN the town of Belle Fourche making it easier to share the marker with the world. The National Geodetic Survey agreed to the new location and contributed the stainless steel centerpiece of the monument. It was unveiled in 2007.

The original marker STILL LIES 13 miles North of Belle Fourche off highway 85 on someone’s fence row, seldom visible, and is but a footnote in history, if that.  It’s the marker I want to see.

The official bronze mark made in 1959

The original USGS benchmark made in 1959 — NOT my photo.

Of Rattlesnakes & The Geographic Center of the U.S.

From the top of Sheepherder’s Monuments. While not locating the Geographic Center of the U.S. marker, seeing Sheepherder’s Monuments, in retrospect turned out to be a very exciting find. I’m glad I made the trek.

Aces & Eights

Walking around with thumbs hooked in my front belt loops makes it difficult to fire off shots. Camera shots of course. Spending a good deal of time with nose to pistol case windows, my mind plays out a fantasy of swishing down the dirt streets with a long, black duster one side tucked to reveal a fancy hand-tooled holster and matching silver plated, ivory handled Colts. It would be difficult however to win a gun fight with my black hat tipped this low over my eyes. The same tender spot on my forehead would likely result from tipping the hat back and forth, similar to the stocking hat incident in the Badlands. Not cool.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Burned to the ground in 1879, Deadwood was rebuilt on the burned out remains. The original town sits about 10 feet lower than street entrance today.

Resistance to the Wild West aura of Deadwood, South Dakota is futile my friend. You will be sucked in. And glad for it.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, in the 1870’s lawlessness defined Deadwood. Illegally settled on Native American Land as a result of Custer’s discovery of gold in the Black Hills, gambling, prostitution, gunfights, and general mayhem was the order of the day. Which is juicy enough, but the town gained its current fame upon the murder of James Butler Hickok, aka Wild Bill in 1876.


The Historic Adams House was built in 1892 by Deadwood pioneers Harris and Anna Franklin. Local contemporary press described the home as “the grandest house west of the Mississippi.” Today the house operates as a museum devoted to the history and culture of the Deadwood area.

Deadwood Courthouse on a March Morning

Deadwood Courthouse on a Modern March Morning

While in several notable gunfights, Wild Bill was NOT an outlaw, although his penchant for gambling overlapped nicely with his law enforcement duties. [You know that deserves a chuckle.] Wild Bill had many callings: abolitionist, facilitator of the Underground Railroad Movement, lawman (serving as a US Marshal at Ft. Riley, Kansas for a short period, sheriff of Hays, Kansas and marshal of Abilene, Kansas), gambler, veteran of the Union Army in the American Civil War, and scout. Holding the infamous “dead man’s hand” of two Ace’s and two 8’s, (the 5th and last card having been undealt), he was gunned down from behind by Jack McCall during a poker match. Wild Bill was 39. McCall hanged on March 1, 1877 for the murder.

Wild Bill’s life began in Illinois. He traveled from there to Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), New York, Wyoming, and South Dakota. An interview published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1865, another by Henry Morgan Stanley a Welsh journalist and famed African explorer in 1867, and later being cast as the hero of the earliest dime store novels, resulted in Wild Bill becoming one of the first international celebrities. For someone aged 39 at a time when most travel was at 3-7 miles per hour, his life covered a whole lot of ground.

Several locations claim to be THE spot where Wild Bill was shot. I chose this one well, because it made a great shot!

Several locations claim to be THE spot where Wild Bill was shot. I chose this one well, because it made a great pic!

Original Wild Bill Gravesite

Original Wild Bill Grave Site

Wild Bill Hickok? Buffalo Bill Cody? Calamity Jane? Wyatt Earp?  Did they know each other? What were the connections? What was the timeline on these American West Icons?

Let’s start with Calamity Jane – there’s got to be a woman mixed up in all this, right?! Martha Jane Cannary, aka Calamity Jane, a frontierswoman and scout became friends with Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota. While Calamity Jane purportedly claimed they married and Wild Bill fathered a child, these claims have never been proven. Most historical accounts indicate Jane was indeed infatuated with Wild Bill but the romantic liaison was fabricated. Calamity Jane later became a horse rider and trick shooter in 1893 for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. She died in 1903. Her dying wish was to be buried next to Wild Bill Hickok. She now lies interred beside him in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota.

Wild Bill Hickok met Buffalo Bill Cody (purveyor of the Wild West Show that gained international fame in the late 1800’s) during their short but common stint with General Jim Lane’s vigilante Free State Army (“The Red Legs”) in 1855. Buffalo Bill was only 12 years of age, scouting (reconnaissance) for the General. Wild Bill was 21. They became life-long friends, their paths crossing many times before Wild Bill’s demise in 1876. Wild Bill played a part in Buffalo Bill’s show “Scouts of the Plains” along with Texas Jack in 1873. They left the show circuit well before the famed “Wild West Show” began.

Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack, and Buffalo Bill Cody

Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack, and Buffalo Bill Cody. 1873.

In 1871 Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody met Wyatt Earp for the first time in Kansas City. Wyatt claimed Wild Bill helped him become a skilled buffalo hunter. Wyatt met Bat Masterson on the open Kansas prairie during a hunt on which Wild Bill accompanied him. While there’s not much documentation indicating their paths crossed much, Wyatt said of Wild Bill “Bill Hickok was regarded as the deadliest pistol shot alive as well as being a man of great courage. The truth of certain stories of Bill’s achievements may have been open to debate but he had earned the respect paid to him.”

To put all their ages in perspective, Wild Bill Hickok was the oldest being born in 1837.  Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp were 9 years younger than Wild Bill with birth dates in 1848. Calamity Jane, born in 1852 was 15 years younger than Wild Bill.

Mt. Moriah Cemetary. Deadwood, South Dakota. Final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Deadwood, South Dakota. Final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

This shot was literally “captured”.  Fortunately, I wasn’t. Breakin’ the law.

Today Deadwood is a mecca for gambling with every false storefront tucking away a casino. If you’re a gambler, then any time of year works. If you’re not (I’m not), I’d recommend October. This last visit was only weeks ago in March and while it was off-season as far as crowds go, it was also cold enough to keep most people inside. And that’s NOT where you want to be.  October was divine. I had Main Street to myself.  Sitting on a bench one evening, the stars bright overhead, gazing down the lamp lit street, I was transported to another place and time.

I went to bed viewing the scene above from my hotel room window. The black duster thrown over the back of an imaginary chair, the matching Colts on an imaginary table, I slept with a smile on my face.

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Deadwood Decadence & Really Bad Photography

Having taken my share of solo road trips that included sleeping in my car which necessitated sleeping in my clothes, some rather slovenly travel habits developed. Maturity has translated to a bit better overall effort in the personal presentation department on the road, so sleeping in my clothing now is a real treat, especially when I have an excuse good enough to hold all guilt at bay — like the malfunctioning heater in my motel room.

With plans to awaken at 3:30 a.m. for a Badlands sunrise shot (having bagged the sunset shot last night), sleeping in my clothes means I can throw back the covers, tie on my boots, and be on my way to the Park with hardly any time between sitting up in bed and sitting down in the truck. I should have included a bit more time for stumbling around at 3:30 a.m. “Note to self: more time for stumbling around for 3:30 a.m. sunrise shots.”

The sunrise shot was planned to the detail. Dogged by road trip weariness but determined to have bookend shots of the sun’s grandeur on the Badlands, every particular was meticulously given proper attention. Tripod, check. Remote cable trigger, check. Camera settings, check (and re-checked). Alarm clock, check. Wake-up call, check. Husband back-up call, check.

In lieu of a Badlands sunrise, I offer you this. LOL

In lieu of a Badlands sunrise, I offer you this. LOL

Or how about this?!

SURELY you didn't think all my shots were well framed, crisp, artistic. If only you knew the truth. Just to correct that fallicy, check this one out! How do you like this one?!

SURELY you didn’t think all my shots are well framed, artistic, or lucky?  If only you knew the truth. Just to correct that fallacy, check this one out! How do you like this one?!  Taken of the dashboard by accident as I rushed to get the camera in position to take yet another crappy shot of the deer crossing the road (above). 

All efforts to prepare ultimately translated to a BIG FAT failure thanks to the archaic-every-6-months tradition we have here, called a TIME CHANGE — as in “spring forward, fall back”. It’s stupid. I’m stupid. This morning everyone and everything is stupid. Already an hour off from having driven from the Central Time Zone to the Mountain Time Zone, another hour adjustment was just too much for Tammie’s world order. My own failure was soothed only by the failure of others – the motel and my dear husband – they both failed to calculate the time change as well.

Rushing to the Park I get there just in time to witness the zenith of the rising sun. My camera however doesn’t get to participate. As I’m toying with the thought of going back to the cold motel room and taking a short nap, I take a short nap. Thirty minutes later the road to Deadwood calls. After a re-fuel and a cup of coffee, the disappointment gives way to thoughts of chocolate sugarplums and the meeting of a person whose friendship has been cultivated by the internet.

The Genius behind The Chubby Chipmunk

The Genius behind The Chubby Chipmunk, Chip Tautkus. Deadwood, South Dakota

You must be ready at all times to walk through the door of friendship opportunity. Embrace the fact it’s always just around the corner. Your life can be guided in new and wonderful directions like a joyous labyrinth when you recognize one very important fact: If you reach out to people, they reach back. While the success rate is not 100%, when “it” clicks and another person’s life is added to yours (and vice versa) in a meaningful connection of personalities and dreams, it’s like finding that gold nugget at the bottom of your pan.  Not only is it rewarding on its own, but it gives new vitality to the quest for more.

My original discovery of The Chubby Chipmunk is documented here.  It’s a great story that has developed and morphed and grown into a part of my life — made more so by the meeting of the woman with whom I began an email correspondence after my first encounter with her chocolate dream factory in October 2007.  Chip Tautkus, owner/chocolatier of The Chubby Chipmunk and I met over coffee in her shop soon after I pulled into town (mere hours after the Badlands sunrise debacle). We’d arranged the meeting over the phone before I’d left Oklahoma. Neither of us could remember the other from my original visit until we sat down and began talking about what all had transpired for me to have walked through her door that first time. We talked non-stop for an hour. I photographed the shop, ate samples, bought stacks of truffles to bring home and departed with a friendship now forged by a bit of face-time and the indisputable knowledge that the connection made via email was just as significant, just as true, just as “easy” as we’d both already suspected.  We could have gone our lifetimes never having met and had the same rewarding connection. That’s one of the enrichments the internet has given our lives. But getting to face each other just that once was the icing on the cake for a lifelong friendship.  I’m so glad for that day in October 2007 when I walked up to the door and read the hand scrawled note that said “Closed Monday for nut gathering”.  Friendship history.

Sugarplum Display

Chocolate Sugarplum Display

Treasures of the Dakota Plains

Veering from Highway 385 onto 79, then onto the first unmarked road heading east, the Badlands are nowhere to be seen but the expansive Pine Ridge Indian Reservation offers enough gems to keep my camera clicking.  The reservation is 2.7 MILLION acres, more than twice the size of Delaware and is home to the Oglala Lakota American Indian tribe, descendants of such famous warrior chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse.

Dry Goods Store

North of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota

Originally part of the Great Sioux Reservation established under The Treaty of 1868, the reservation faces grave challenges. I left the reservation with photographic captures that are evocative, beautiful and especially poignant when you contrast them with the harsh reality of the human lives there. Passing the photos on to you for enjoyment, in essence taking away only the good from a place whose “bad” is in such opposition, doesn’t feel right to me. Love may be what makes the world go round, but awareness is what makes the turn worthwhile. From the Indian Youth Organization website:  “With the exception of Haiti, life expectancy is lower here than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere (men – age 48, women – age 52), infant mortality rates are the highest in the United States, and many families have no electricity, telephone service, running water, or sewers and must use wood burning stoves to heat their homes.”  There are several grass roots organizations assisting with agricultural education and well-water management. If you’re interested in more, check out the website Running Strong for American Indian Youth.

Plains Indian Burial Platform

Surrounded by steep drop-offs to the Badlands, this is a scaffold burial platform (representational).  Edward S. Curtis photographed one of these in 1908 and Captain Lewis noted the expedition’s discovery of one in his journal dated April 20, 1805.  “I walked on shore.killed two deer, wounded an Elk and a deer; saw the remains of some Indian camp, near which stood a small scaffold of about 7 feet high.underneath this scaffold a human body was lying, well rolled in several dressed buffalow skins and near it a bag.containing sundry articles belonging to the disceased. – Captian Lewis”

Edward S. Curtis, courtesy

Edward S. Curtis 1908, courtesy

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Longhorn Saloon, North of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Asanpi Bleza "thin milk" in was a Brule indian whose body was discovered in 1948 by John

This took some research.  The sign was too much of a temptation to ignore so I pursued the arrow into a high plains pasture overlooking the edge of the Badlands. Asanpi Bleza “thin milk” was a Brule Indian warrior and the only known casualty of those seeking refuge in the stronghold during the Wounded Knee era. His bones were found by John Swallow, Sr. in 1948. Since Asanpi Bleza died without ceremony or burial, the family in 1948 conducted rites for him near the spot he was discovered. 

Memorial erected on sight of Asanpi Bleza's remains

Memorial erected near discovery of Asanpi Bleza’s remains by John Swallow, Sr. in 1948.

By this time I’ve traveled via dirt road completely around the South Unit of the Badlands (meaning the reservation, which is NOT part of the National Park although they are purportedly working on some agreement). There are no access points for the sunset shot I plan to capture so I head to the North Unit.  Clarification — there are no LEGAL access points. I’m aware I’ve been trespassing at certain points of the day, although I never knowingly violated posted signs. And every footfall has been VERY respectful. I’m certain that makes no difference, but I feel better about it.

The latter part of the day has been dreary and my hopes are not high for the glorious spread of slanted end-of-day rays so needed by the gray, bland Badlands. Racing around without a good map of the Park (yes, they’re open 24/7 but the entrances are not staffed this time of year, so no maps are handed out as you enter),  I find this:

The Badlands?

South Dakota Badlands. The Unexpected.

Not what you expected of the Badlands?  Me either.  A treasure indeed.

The day ends with this:

Mysterious Light Source or God's Mirror?

The Badlands

The perfect ending to a perfect day.  Since I’ve previously made a complete post based on this one shot, I won’t bore you with a repeat.  If you’ve not read about all that transpired for this to magically insert itself into my camera, click here (it’ll be worth your time).

The day actually ended with this:

Hacked and Cold

Weary Solo Road Tripper. No heat in her room. Too tired to care. Wall, South Dakota.


The Grand Climb


Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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