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Photos in Medora

In all these years of living in the area, I had never toured the Badlands until last week. Photographer friend Bruce and I headed across the state to Medora last week with the goal of taking photos.

Medora empties after Labor Day. The streets were silent. Most motels were closed. Only two restaurants remained open. We almost had the town to ourselves.

Bruce shoots wildlife with his camera, and animals were plentiful. Prairie dogs. Mule deer. Bison herds. Wild horses. Antelope. Even an enormous bull elk.

Equally interesting were the rock formations. Dull at times during the mid-day, the colors spring to life at sunrise and sunset. An unbelievable array of geological layers, from grey lignite to orange clay, to other-worldly gray mounds of worn sandstone, gave me plenty of odd shapes to capture with my camera.

The cottonwoods in the bottomlands of the Little Missouri River shimmered yellow as the bison herd roamed free in and around the water.

We ambled around the twenty-five mile loop road several times, crawling at a Sunday driver rate up and down the mounds, through the prairie dog towns and down into the deep ravines.

Eventually, we took a remote gravel road. As I turned back from looking at some scenery, I spotted a big rattlesnake coming out of the ditch.

Even from the safety of my pickup, the rattler gave me a shot of adrenaline I'll never forget. I jumped against the seatbelt before calming down and acting like an adult.

Of course, we had to get out and take pictures of the thing. I stayed far away and used a telephoto while Bruce ventured closer, secure in his knowledge that rattlers only can strike from a distance of 1/3 their body length.

After the snake finally slithered into the ditch, we got into my pickup, which, for the first time in 240,000 miles, didn't start.

Under the steady gaze of a huge buffalo, we walked up a hill where the cell phone got service. It wasn't long before a park ranger arrived to give us a boost to get us back into Medora.

The alternator was shot. With no mechanic in Medora, we waited until morning and prevailed upon a local man to charge up the battery until we had enough juice to get to Belfield, fifteen miles down the road. A quiet but efficient mechanic at the Cenex had us back on the road in two hours.

You don't get the feel for the Badlands passing through on I-94, as I have done many times. You have to get off the main road and head out into the back country.

The scenery in the Badlands is austere, but having a camera and traveling with a photographer forced me to scour the rocks, mounds and meadows for interesting views and formations.

In the end, shooting pictures helped me see things I would have never bothered to appreciate had I just driven through the park on a joy ride.

Waiting for a good photo forced me to stand still and silent while we waited for a herd of wild horses to find their way into better sunshine. Meanwhile, I could hear them chew and snort.

The buffalo aren't afraid, and we parked amongst them, so close we could also hear them chew and snort.

To get the best pictures, we started early in the morning when the sun was at a low angle. Then we went out again in the later afternoon, as the sun's rays started to lengthen.

Fall is a great time to go to Medora. The famous Medora musical, which draws over 100,000 people during the summer season, is closed. The roads in the park are virtually abandoned. Coal trains rumble through frequently, and their whistles echo against the hard hills.

The orange baked clay, the golden cottonwood leaves, the bright green grass, the gray sage, the green juniper and the prairie grasses make for many vivid scenes. On a windless day, it is so silent you can hear the pounding of the oil rigs drilling north of the park.

Too often we think we have to drive 1,500 miles or more to see something exotic and awe-inspiring like the mountains or the Grand Canyon.

Yet, just one day's drive away is a park that is as different from home as the moon.

Just watch out for rattlesnakes -- and bring a cell phone.

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