BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
This rock (all 9.9 ounces) fits perfectly into the palm of my hand. It was my constant companion when I solo hiked a portion of the 144-mile Maah Deh Hay Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). TRNP is wild and beautiful—buttes, badlands, and grasslands that overlook the Little Missouri River. You might see bison, elk, rattlesnake, wild horses, and the occasional mountain lion. It’s big sky country (sorry Montana, but North Dakota has you beat). A park brochure I picked up advised hikers to carry a rock or two (and some bear spray) in case they encountered a mountain lion. So I picked up this gem of a rock (I already had the bear spray), and it instantly felt like an extension of my hand. No, I can’t throw a 100-mile-per-hour “rockball” like Nolan Ryan or Aroldis Chapman (in his heyday), so who knows how I would’ve fared if I actually met a 200-pound mountain lion, but the rock provided me a bit of solace as I hiked for hours and hours—a tiny figure amidst tall grass and badland hills.
Before my son was born, my wife was kind enough to allow me to satisfy my wanderlust and explore the western United States for a week or three at a time. There’s something primal and damn wonderful about being alone in the wilderness—and being alone on the road, a thousand miles or so away from anyone you know. In the city, it’s hard to find a moment alone, and then when you’re out west in a national or state park off the beaten paths, it’s hard to find a moment where you’ll see another soul—at least that’s how it was in North Dakota before the fracking frenzy. It’s so empowering (and overpowering), with the big, blue sky enveloping you to the horizon (unblocked by buildings and trees), the possibility of becoming “lunch” for some megafauna, a crumpled map in your backpack, and just your legs and wits to take you where you want to go. And the first sight of a herd of wild horses or bison as you reach the top of a hill will most likely be one of the most powerful natural experiences in your life.
As I said, I never saw a mountain lion while in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, although I did have an unplanned speed date with a massive bison as I crested a hill. It didn’t go well. I quickly found that we did not have much in common. I must have said the wrong thing. He looked up from his grass lunch and snorted several times, pawing the ground angrily. I backpedaled slowly toward the Little Missouri River, my eyes never leaving this riled-up fellow, fully aware that buffalo can run 40 miles per hour.
I strongly encourage you to leave your friends and family behind, jump in the car, and head west. Take a long hike, soak up some human and natural history, savor the sound of the wind in the prairie grass and trees, enjoy the feeling of being a tiny speck in the wilderness, and be sure to bring along a rock for company (and “protection”). You won’t be sorry.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.