One hugely positive change since we left Medora in the spring has been the institution of no-blow crossings in Medora. In a town where several coal trains pass through every hour, the horns blowing at both crossings in town and echoing through the hills were a real nuisance. Now, unless you're really paying attention to the low vibration they create, you'd hardly notice them. This is a very welcome change, and a small victory for preserving the wilderness character of the badlands. Plus, you won't hear them from the Cottonwood Campground when you stay there.
The ability for North Dakota to return a budget surplus during a massive recession can be measured by the alarming pace of oil production in the badlands.
Just a few years ago, we would make the drive to and from Dickinson with few waypoints to mark the way. For instance, we knew which communications tower was 1/3 of the way from Medora and which squirrel nest tree was 2/3 of the way. There were that few landmarks on the open prairie. Now, almost the entire route is dotted with the yellow lights of oil wells, and occasionally, the blinding light of a gas flare. We used to gawk in awe at the number of stars that could be seen from the road, but now, there are as many oil wells as stars in the sky west of Dickinson. Light pollution has infiltrated one more of the ever-shrinking list of dark places in America. Already, 2/3 of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way at night where they live. (More information on the night sky in national parks)
Light Pollution. Medora is starred.
Where does it stop? The answer: it doesn't. They are drilling new wells every day. We used to look out across the grassy plains and see, incredibly, nothing, which was always the amazing thing about North Dakota. Now, the potential for that experience is quickly being lost. I try to imagine how Theodore Roosevelt, who came here for the vastness and solitude, would react if he saw it.
Why not slow down production and sustain it as a source of income as long as possible? The price is only going to go up. But no, the greed of today demands that the one-time harvest commences. The "boom" is in full swing. How hard will it bust when the oil is gone? Most of the workers aren't even from the state; they will just go home. Most of them just bitch about how cold it is anyway. When they go, the landscape will be empty again. What will be left?
One consequence of the oil industry has both positive and negative effects on Medora itself. The newly-expanded Rough Rider Hotel, a brand new building built ridiculously close - probably maliciously close - to the national park housing, is open this winter ostensibly to accommodate oil workers. The "Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation," an obviously capitalistic, monopolistic corporation masquerading as a 501(c)3 non-profit runs the hotel as well as many other businesses in Medora. The positive thing is that the Rough Rider Hotel's restaurant is open on Fridays and Saturdays, which means there is a fine dining option in easier walking distance than any place any other time in my life. If you go, just be prepared to reach deep into your wallet for the $30 entrees. If you're thinking of staying there, the rooms are expensive but very classy. Obviously, they're trying to shift the demographic toward a wealthier crowd. In so doing, they are slowly succeeding in an effort to reshape Medora from the rough and ragged town it was in 1884 to something like more like Disney Land: nice but phony.
At least you can still go in the park and see something real, original, primitive. That is, if you are in a place where you can't see or hear an oil rig just outside the boundary fence.