When I left home on Thanksgiving Day 2001 I had a shotgun, a box of shells, a game vest, a gallon jug of water, a cooler, a propane stove with a small bottle of propane, a bottle of red wine and a wooden camping box made for me and given to me by my friend Ken Rogers. My camping box had the essentials for cooking a campfire meal—frying pan, paper plates, a coffee pot, a coffee cup, coffee, a boy scout silverware set, a carving knife, plastic cups, paper towels, aluminum foil, a spatula, matches, a big sharp fork and various other campfire cooking thingamabobs.
In the cooler I had ice, a six pack of beer (PBR, I think) a pound of bacon, some already scrambled eggs in a Ziploc bag, a half a pound of hamburger, a potato, some butter, a bottle of orange juice and some oversized Pillsbury biscuits I had made the evening before. All that was neatly tucked into the back of my Jeep alongside a tent, a sleeping bag and a self-inflating air mattress.
My plan was to hunt pheasants way out in western North Dakota, and then spend Thanksgiving night camping at Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The forecast was for daytime temperatures in the 50s and nighttime temperatures in the 20s. Perfect late fall camping weather, if a bit nippy when I crawled out of the sleeping bag in the morning, because I wasn’t hauling firewood and it was illegal to pick it up in the park.
It was to be my first Thanksgiving all alone in some time, and I had spurned a couple of invitations from family members to join them. I didn’t feel like trying to pretend to get into a festive or even remotely thankful mood. I had been a widower for almost two months, I suffered from anxiety attacks—a common symptom of grief, I had been told—and my best hours were when I was off by myself in a place with no walls or ceiling. I was not particularly morose, just subject to fleeting bouts of sadness which I could fend off reasonably well by being somewhere I really liked to be, generally by myself. It was my third escape to the Bad Lands in the two months since Rita had died, and I knew the trip would help me continue the process of healing.
I headed west, crossing the Little Missouri River at Medora, and kept going until I came to the Camels Hump Butte exit, where I headed north into Golden Valley County. There, I drove rather aimlessly along the west edge of the Bad Lands, wheat country with long single row shelter belts. I stopped several times and walked, alongside a shelterbelt, down a shallow coulee, along the edge of a CRP field, mostly for the sheer joy of walking in shirtsleeves on a November day under a mostly-cloudless blue sky. The shotgun was loaded but went unused for much of the afternoon, until a silly rooster pheasant went scooting across a prairie road a couple hundred yards in front of me at the end of a shelterbelt. I walked to where it had entered the ditch, took the shotgun off safe, and stepped into the ditch. The pheasant erupted with a loud cackle not ten yards from me, and I shot it.
After retrieving the pheasant and putting the gun and game vest away in the back of the Jeep, I headed generally east and south on gravel roads, not exactly sure where I was but knowing that I would either run into the Bad Lands or I-94 at some point. Turns out it was the Bad Lands. I came to a T in the road on which I was heading east, and looking ahead I realized I had run right up against the beginning of the Bad Lands. I pulled off on the approach at the T, got out and crossed the fence, and walked about a hundred yards east, and found myself in one of those places where there’s a sheer drop-off right down into a Bad Lands canyon. The prairie continued a bit on my right, but ended in the magnificent ruggedness of the Bad Lands in front of me and to my left, and I realized if I sat down, I could hang my legs right down into the very western beginning—or end—of the multi-millennial work of the wind and the Little Missouri. And so I did.
Behind me, the sun was probably 15 or 20 degrees above the horizon, just low enough to begin casting long shadows across the landscape in front of me, and it was fascinating to watch them move across the Bad Lands floor, changing the shape of the landscape as the sun drooped further and further down, and west. Having cased the gun, I decided to go back to the Jeep and get a beer and relax here a while. But when I popped open the back of the Jeep, there was a pheasant lying on top of a propane stove, between a cooler and a camping box. And I immediately decided this would be an ideal spot to have Thanksgiving dinner.
It was no problem setting up for dinner. It took me two trips from the Jeep to carry the camping box, stove, pheasant, water jug and bottle of wine to the edge of the canyon. I cleaned the pheasant, dropping the entrails over the edge for a coyote or a magpie to have his own Thanksgiving dinner. I washed the bird, split it into four pieces, set the stove on the ground, lit it, scooped some butter into the frying pan, and fried the pheasant. And ate most of it, right out of the pan, dabbing a couple biscuits in the greasy juice in the pan, washing it all down with red wine. With my feet dangling down into the Bad Lands and the rest of me observing from the prairie. I finished as the sun slid behind Camel’s Hump Butte for the night. I tossed the bones and leftovers down with the entrails, wiped the frying pan mostly clean with a couple paper towels, and carted my gear back to the Jeep.
Without a doubt, that was the greatest Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever eaten. That was 13 years ago, and I’ve bored everyone in my family with that story countless times, but they still nod and listen politely each time I ask, about this time of the year, “Have I ever told you about the best Thanksgiving meal I ever ate?”