A figure of myth and a whirlwind of contradictions, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, is one of the most fascinating characters in US history. Born in 1858, he was a blue-blooded New York aristocrat and Wild West rancher: a big game hunter, pioneering conservationist, physically reckless advocate of “the strenuous life”, prolific author, gung-ho war hero and Nobel Peace Prize-winner. The original cowboy president, Roosevelt was a founder and hero of the National Parks movement.
He also declared that if forced to select just one “chapter in all my life”, he would take “the memory of my life on the ranch, with its experiences close to nature and among the men who lived nearest her”. He would, he said, have never been president without his experiences as a rancher in the 1880s, in the remote badlands of North Dakota.
Writing in Century magazine in 1888, he expresses contagious relish for this extreme landscape of dry, often spectacularly coloured clay-and-coal soils: “Across their white faces the seams of coal drew sharp black bands, and they were elsewhere blotched and varied with brown, yellow, purple and red. This fantastic colouring, together with the jagged irregularity of their crests, channelled by the weather into spires, buttresses and battlements … gave them a look that was a singular mixture of the terrible and the grotesque.”
My Theodore Roosevelt pilgrimage began with a visit to his largest and best-known image – at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, near Rapid City, South Dakota. Conditions were ideal: uncrowded, sunny, cool – with a reverential calm like that of a cathedral. Alongside the dignified, 60ft-tall faces of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, Roosevelt stares out with the characteristically aggressive expression that leads Cary Grant, in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, to say: “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.”
Passing out of the Black Hills up the spectacular, zigzagging Spearfish Canyon, you take the highway north to Medora, North Dakota, where Roosevelt ranched, gradually arriving at something that might be badlands – crumpled, eroded vistas of red earth, grey mud and pale grass, splashed with yellow and gold and dark junipers. French trappers called them les mauvaises terres à traverser, lands hard to traverse, but “bad” is also sinister: the Sioux name was Makoshika, “land of bad spirits”.
In high season Medora, a small town consisting largely of attractions run by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, is apparently thronged. I was there in early autumn, and so missed the open-air Medora Musical, hosted by “Theodore Roosevelt”, and the chance to shop at Teddy’s Bears. We checked into the Rough Riders Hotel – on the site of the De Mores Hotel, where Roosevelt stayed as president in 1903 – which, with its western-style wood and leather, wasn’t rough at all.
Medora is the gateway to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where you can see herds of buffalo (protected after the slaughter of the 1870s and 1880s) and deer, as well as communities of prairie dogs, known as “towns”. Driving through it at dusk only enhanced my sense of the strangeness of the landscape formations.
My priority was to see the little-visited Elkhorn Ranch site, 35 miles north of Medora on a dodgy dirt road. This is where Roosevelt, grief-stricken after the deaths of both his wife and mother in a single day (his wife from a post-natal complication, his mother from typhoid) in 1884, had chosen to build his ranch-house. It is where, he said, “the romance of my life began” – his preparation for a return to political prominence.
I had fretted that the Elkhorn might be inaccessible. But, despite heavy rain, a sympathetic ranger at the park’s visitor centre waved us on. As we started slipping and sliding over the muddy, gravelly road, I wondered if this had been wise – but the country was breathtaking. The road became rough and alarmingly skiddier, so I put the car in low gear – probably why, as we pulled into the parking area, the car began to fill with the acrid smell of burning plastic.
The site is relatively small – 218 acres of lightly wooded meadowland surrounding the now-vanished ranch-house (taken apart after Roosevelt left) by the muddy Little Missouri River. Only the foundation stones remain – nature has reassumed command. It’s a remarkable, sheltered spot, filled with birdsong, which Roosevelt the ornithologist loved. In his 1885 book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt describes tired ranch hands in rocking chairs on the veranda “gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset”. Indeed, the buttes are extraordinary, a primer in geology – in places I counted 19 distinct bands of reds, greys, sandy yellows, whites, blacks in garish succession.
To eat in proper Rooseveltian style that evening, we headed to the almost-empty Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch, where the steaks of its cook Robin had been recommended. After a bottle of Moose Drool, a very palatable Montana beer, I had a bison T-bone, followed by a thoroughly American slice of apple pie. The night was cold but the welcome was warm, and we had the manly glow of feeling that we’d had an adventure, however minor, and fulfilled Roosevelt’s motto (which I brought home on a fridge magnet): “The joy of living is his who has the heart to demand it.”
Philip Horne is a professor of English at University College London. He is currently working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt
Rough Riders Hotel, rooms from $169 (£117) a night, www.medora.com/rough-riders
Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch, www.buffalogapguestranch.com
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, www.nps.gov