By Correspondent, Great Escapes
updated 9/17/2004 1:25:06 PM ET 2004-09-17T17:25:06

On April 12, 1805 the Corps of Discovery reached the confluence of the Little Missouri. William Clark shot a hare, noted that the smaller river had the same texture color and quality of the Big Missouri, and made a journal entry that one of his men, Baptiste, had made an earlier 45-mile descent down the Little Mo and proclaimed it “not navigable.”  The expedition then proceeded farther up the Missouri and never made mention again of the lesser stream that issued from black mountains and “a broken country” to the south.

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We, however, turn our Hybrid south, follow the Little Missouri upstream, and head into the heart of the North Dakota Badlands. Soon we’re in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, one of the few parks in the system from which tourists stay away in droves.

At first the road is like a suture line dividing two dimensions and their colors, brown sage flats and blue sky. But as we approach the park the land begins to spread in shelves, in ripples, in straggling eaves. The road looks like an infected scratch across the weathered skin of the plateau, curvilinear in some places, sharply angled in others. It is a lacerated, folding landscape, creased with cream-colored chasms, at the bottom of which streaks of water flash... the Little Missouri River.

North Dakota is the country’s least visited state, undeservedly so, but a blessing for those who make the trek. As we drive 14-mile road through Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Unit (the two unconnected units are 70 miles apart, a unique concept in the system), we pass a medley of multicolored buttes and twisted ravines. Herds of one-ton bison think nothing of striding right in front of the Hybrid, without the traffic jams and engine noise of Yellowstone. Lewis wrote that the buffalo of North Dakota were “so gentle that we passed near them while feeding without appearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention they frequently approach us more nearby to discover what we are.” And despite the near extinction of the bison throughout the great plains of North America, in this park we had the same experience as Lewis and Clark.

Land of the Rough Riders
Theodore Roosevelt found this austere and scrambled country to his liking following the deaths of his wife, Alice, and mother on the same day in 1884; he fled New York for the ranching life before returning to politics. He loved the open space, the ruggedness, the remoteness. He hunted bison, learned to herd cattle through the labyrinthine terrain, and got into fisticuffs in saloons.

Image: Theodore Roosevelt
US Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota
He told his sister Corrine he was living out a dream: “We are so rarely able to, actually and in real life, dwell in our ‘hero land’.” Roosevelt became the country’s 26th chief-of-state in 1901 and later wrote, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”

We continue down the road towards the South Unit, through the Little Missouri National Grasslands, a million acres of emptiness. Late in the day, just off Interstate 94, we exit to the wooden boardwalks and framed buildings of Medora, and check into the two-story Rough Rider Hotel, where Teddy himself supposedly slept. The founder of the town was the Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman seeking New World fortune. He once challenged Roosevelt to a duel, and if the challenge had been accepted history might have been written quite differently, as the Marquis was the better shot.

Now Medora, tucked beneath a towering bluff and gussied in frontier dress, is owned and run by the non-profit Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. It’s a bit like a Western version of Williamsburg, with the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt looming large. It has about 200 permanent residents, but brings in over 120,000 visitors each summer, mostly to see the Medora Musical, a costumed stage production featuring a singing Theodore Roosevelt, the single most popular tourist draw in the state. We’re past the season for the famed musical, so the next morning we decide to sample the other offerings — mountain biking and golf.

Fat tires in the Badlands
We join up with Jennifer Morlock, 47, co-owner with her husband of Dakota Cyclery Mountain Bike Adventures, and go rough riding on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. In 1994 the Foundation invited the Morlocks, who had a prosperous bike enterprise in Bismarck, to open shop in the center of town, rent-free. They decided to move west and make Medora home. “It’s too addictive to give up,” Jennifer tells us.

Video: Bonus mountain bike video In 1999 the Forest Service christened the 120-mile hiking, biking and equestrian trail that runs inside, outside and next to the two units of the park Maah Daah Hey. The name comes from the Mandan Indian language, meaning “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.’' In its short existence the trail has already been ranked as among the top such in the country.

We saddle up, and start riding towards the pass that George Armstrong Custer crossed on his way to Little Big Horn. He described the area we now wheel through as “Hell with the fires burned out,” though it seems paradisiacal to us. We spin up and down a foot-wide single track in landscape not dissimilar to the slickrock outside of Moab, but without the flocks of fat tires. The early French explorers called these bewildering and seemingly endless varieties of landforms mauvais terres à traverse, or “bad lands to cross,” but they are good to us, and we’re tempted to move to Medora. Perhaps there was something in the buffalo steak last night.

We continue our undaunted bike tour to the afternoon, then check out the latest Foundation offering, the Bully Pulpit golf course. In the midst of the bone-dry badlands, with bleached buttes and naked pinnacles that break sky, sits a tableau of bright green grass and 18 holes. It’s a sight as bizarre as the landscape, but in the spirit we take up 7-irons and slice balls across the canyons towards the emerald island fairways.

Most of our balls fall into cactus beds or dusty gulches. Perhaps we should have used the 8-iron. Were Teddy Roosevelt around today, tooling softly about on an electric cart through his “hero land,” he might have carried a bigger stick of a different sort.

The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at  greatescapes@msnbc.com.

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