'Throttle up and start cruising,' the North Dakota motorcycle map recommends. Sage advice I conclude while steering the Gold Wing out of the small town of Williston. The vast prairie does beckon in a beguiling manner, yet one can't help but feel a slight sense of unease upon departure. You see, in this part of the United States, leaving the confines of town brings a whole new meaning to being on your own.
Highway 2 soon has us rolling west, but only for a few miles before we veer left on Hwy 1804. The route's unusual four-digit number matches the year in which the famous explorers Lewis and Clark began their epic journey west. They were the first white men to set foot in this region. Rolling comfortably on the big Honda, I try to imagine what traveling in these parts must have been like over two hundred years ago. Wilderness was the rule back then. The intrepid explorers literally had to fight their way across the prairie, whereas today, one can efficiently motor along on a good highway. A short time later we pass by the Fort Union Trading Post at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. This reconstructed fort, originally built in 1829, commemorates one of the earliest settlements in this region.
On Hwy 58 we head south across the Missouri River. The road nearly straddles the border between North Dakota and Montana before finally falling away into Big Sky Country. After about twenty miles, we suddenly see our first buffalo. Grassland, bison and open skies - my prairie preconceptions realized!
A short time later, we cross the Yellowstone River and dive straight into the Little Missouri National Grassland. Though it seems we are completely alone here, we're surprised at a photo stop by the sound of an approaching motorcycle. Wrrrooom!!! A lonesome rider aboard a KTM passes by. Who was that masked man? A local rancher out for a spin or a curious explorer like us? We'll never know, he's long gone. Once back under way, we cruise lazily on a straight highway drifting over the soft hills of the grassland.
As we approach I-94 near the town of Beach, the idea of more traffic holds little appeal. Avoiding the 18-wheelers and complacent SUV drivers, we opt instead for the nice country road running parallel. When we reach Medora, we pull into the Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit Visitor's Center and, to our surprise, find ourselves almost eye to eye with a bison casually strolling about the parking lot. Yep, this is definitely the prairie. There's a magnificent view down into the Badlands before us. We see the Burning Hills: smoldering underground coal veins, ignited by lightning or grass fires, have baked the surrounding rocks into red clinkers. Nearby, the Painted Canyon may seem lifeless but it actually offers some very dynamic scenery too, for those who keep returning. Erosive processes, loosening clay and sandstone, carry off a few inches of surface every year and thus the canyon face is constantly changing.
From the South Unit we head north on Hwy 85. Crossing the steel bridge spanning the Missouri River, we reach the Northern Unit of the Roosevelt National Park. As I'm paying the $ 10 entrance fee, the ranger warns us about bison. 'Take care,' he says, 'they don't like motorcycles.' Sanja and I discuss the wisdom of even entering the park and decide to take our chances. According to the ranger, most of the bison congregate near the end of the 14-miledrive. We'd worry about that I reckoned when the time comes. Apart from wildlife and natural beauty, the park has another enticing attraction: Tight curves! After so many arrow-straight prairie byways, any incidence of a winding road is a real blessing. Halfway through our tour of the park, we stop at the River Bend Overlook and take in a marvelous view of the colorful, rough badlands along the Missouri River. Preparing to leave, I look up and can't believe my eyes - there's a huge bison grazing right next to the road! I then remember the warnings in the leaflet we were given at the park entrance: 'All animals in the park are wild and unpredictable. View them from a safe distance. Bison seem tranquil, but they are wild and if disturbed may attack you.'
Nervously, I turn the big Honda around, all set for escape. Flight is the only real option when a beast that size decides you're expendable. Passing by our hairy adversary at the maximum safe distance would entail driving into the left lane and moreover, there's a sizeable patch of sand covering the road. After a few minutes, a ranger in a pickup truck slowly rolls past. No problem for him, the animals are used to cars. After another ten minutes or so, with the bison showing no interest in wandering off to greener pastures, we decide to give it a go. With one eye looking out for any oncoming traffic and the patch of sand in the road, and the other focused on the bison, I slowly make my move. If it attacks now there's no chance to turn around. As soon as possible I open the throttle to get away. We're lucky, the bison doesn't seem to have given us a second thought as we pass. Maybe it was much ado about nothing, but a quick stop afterwards to calm down and mop our brows seems a necessity.