Whenever I mentioned that my wife, two young daughters and I were planning a summer trip to North Dakota, the response was always the same: "Why?"
"Family vacation," I'd reply, but the truth was more complicated. Without ever having seen North Dakota, I'd developed a strange obsession with it, building it up in my imagination until it became a stark, mystical kingdom, part Wild West and part Midwest, empty prairie, Indian reservations and the ghosts of millions of slaughtered buffalo. I wanted, finally, to see it. I wanted to show its certain beauties to my family. And I wanted to play golf there, not least because three of the best courses in the state can be played for one fee of $135 (see page 50).
In the first week of August, we flew from our home in Massachusetts to Chicago, rented a minivan and lit out for the territory of the imagination. According to my research, these three packaged courses—Hawktree, Bully Pulpit and the Links of North Dakota—enjoy national renown and stunningly low greens fees. They are situated along an L-shape route that would take us from Bismarck to the Badlands near the Montana border and then up to the northwestern corner of the state. Something odd happens when you head west from Bismarck. For the first few hours the land is pretty much what you've gotten used to this side of the friendly state capital. Then you crest a hill and suddenly find yourself in a sandstone wonderland reminiscent of the Grand Canyon (minus the Colorado River): mile upon mile of startling buttes, dry canyons and cliffsides striped in sienna, rust and lilac.
Amid all this natural beauty we found the touristy town of Medora, where Theodore Roosevelt developed his love for the West. Medora has wooden sidewalks, sandstone formations so close you feel you can touch them, a superb miniature golf course and a log cabin said to have belonged to TR, which was where we bunked for a night in spare comfort. From there we drove a quarter mile to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The girls were thrilled to see wild horses a few feet from the car, a solitary bison, deer, rabbits, hawks and two prairie-dog burrows (or towns, as they're called), from which the little guys emerged to rear up and bark their lungs out at us.
The crown jewel of Medora is Bully Pulpit Golf Course, a three-year-old Michael Hurdzan design. So on our second day in town it was Mom and the girls off horseback riding and Dad off to the course. The front nine is challenging and picturesque, with inventive bunker placement, wide-open holes lined by buckbrush and sage, and the occasional kingfisher diving about. The back nine brings you right into the Badlands, earning the course its name. The fifteenth hole, for example, is a tyrannical par three played from hilltop to hilltop, usually with a two- or three-club wind blowing from right to left. Miss short, long, left or right and you're dead.
North Dakota had been enduring what one native called the worst drought since the "dirty thirties," but Bully Pulpit remained in fine shape. Harry, the course's octogenarian starter, heartily welcomed me, and a ranger named Bud filled me in on bull snakes (not venomous) and prairie rattlers ("'bout so big," he said as he spread his arms to five feet, "but, you know, they have to be coiled to strike"). Fortunately, I encountered neither.
Next we headed northwest, through cavorting, barren terrain that changed subtly every ten miles or so. The landscape was two-lane highways, pickups going eighty-five, towns of three buildings, mile-long freight trains, oil pumps working on either side of the road, hawks on hay bales and weathered farmhouses set miles apart. It was all alien to my eyes, as if a drier, vaster, emptier beauty had just been invented and was being offered for our consideration.