I have been fascinated by the West since I was a little girl pretending to be Annie Oakley. Never mind that the lightning fast, ebony horse I pictured myself riding was, in reality, a stubborn old pinto pony. I spent many hours on Flicka’s back riding in the mountain range that was our eastern North Dakota table-top-flat farmstead.

Besides my love for horses, my attraction to the West was fueled by my dad’s stories of growing up on the edge of south-central Montana’s Arrow Creek badlands. His tales of galloping across the badlands and rounding up cows conjured up visions of being a cowgirl and running a ranch when I grew up.

That dream, of course, never materialized. But I do have horses, and I live in the country. Meanwhile, over the years, I have had many opportunities to visit the land of my dreams. The latest is a trip to the North Dakota Badlands, where my family and I spent a few days in the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

We chose to spend the majority of our time in the park’s North Unit, which is more rugged and less touristy. During our hikes there we didn’t pass anyone on the trails and it seemed like we had the entire park to ourselves.

Whether the reason for the sparse number of people was the result of them staying closer to home because of concerns about the coronavirus or because we were there during the work week, I was grateful. Though I am a “people person” and enjoy conversing with others, I also like spending quiet time in nature. I think that’s why the West has such a special place in my heart. When I’m in the Badlands, I'm surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and it reiterates for me how large the universe is and how small I am in comparison. I guess you could say it puts me in my place, which I think is a good thing.

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And although I live in a beautiful part of the state that features golden wheat fields, blue fields of flax and yellow sunflowers, there’s something about the rocky buttes, twisted pines and silty streams of the Badlands that captivates me and brings me back to those days of dreaming about galloping my trusty steed down the dusty trail.

I didn’t ride down any trails while we were in the Badlands, but I did hike on a few. That, in itself, was challenging at times for a flatlander who is used to walking on straight gravel roads. The trails of the North Unit tested my balance and required me to use more muscle, which is another thing I like about the West – it challenges me and brings me out of my comfort zone.

Spending time in the vastness of the Badlands, where there are more bison than humans, breathtaking canyon views and towering, rocky buttes made me realize another reason I like the West: it is a humbling reminder that I am a small part of something much bigger.

Ann Bailey is a Grand Forks Herald reporter who writes a personal column twice a month.