MEDORA – Nobody likes to be up before 7 a.m. on a Saturday in summer.
But such was the case in mid-July when my friend, Erik, and I rose from our tent to tour Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The sun's slanted rays greeted our entrance to the park at Medora. The car climbed the Badlands hills and cruised the grassy flats of a prairie dog town.
This isn't Fargo.
Erik and I met 20 years ago in kindergarten at Fargo's Longfellow Elementary and stayed friends since. We've both lived most of our lives in the Fargo flatlands but moved in and out of Bismarck, Minot and Watford City in recent years.
But Erik had never been to Medora. Ever.
I only first saw Medora and nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park four years ago. I blame the hunter-gatherer tendencies of my parents in planning family vacations: If there are no wild game, walleyes or juneberries to be had, we're not going.
But I knew the Badlands from deer hunting and invited Erik to a weekend in western North Dakota. He was in.
The trip came with the caveats that we be up by 6:30 a.m. and he drive. Erik agreed.
Wildlife is fairly active at dawn, unlike most people, so I thought we'd have a peaceful morning with few other tourists and maybe see some deer, bison, perhaps a secretive elk.
About 200 bison took us by surprise.
We had just seen a small herd with calves near the Little Missouri River when we rounded the road and came upon the rest, plodding across the prairie dog town of Beef Corral Bottom.
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Calves nursing, playing, staying close to mom. Bulls rolling in the dirt, browsing the ground, one scratching its head on a roadside bench.
And here we were, perched by the car, watching the majestic beasts and twitching prairie dogs.
Ya don't see that every day.
"Seeing more than 100 bison all at once is an experience I will never forget," Erik said.
We continued on from the bison herd and took in the rest of the park's creatures and scenery, but little from the rest of the day compared to the herd of hundreds of bison.
I later counted them all from a photo taken atop Wind Canyon: 196 bison.
Amazingly, we saw none of the park's feral horses, but a miscreant badger by the side of the road on our way out of the park was the real bonus of the trip.
Ice cream and some trinkets in Medora ended the morning for us. The afternoon took us to White Butte, North Dakota's highest natural point, where the trail showed us blooming prickly pear, purple coneflower and blood-sucking mosquitoes.
We ended the day with burgers and cold drinks in camp at Buffalo Gap Campground, a shaded oasis with flush toilets on the Little Missouri National Grassland. At $6 a night, I'll be back.
"It was a great experience for me, having never been to the Badlands," he said.