“The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
We just returned from the Badlands of North Dakota; one of those bucket-list items for me. As one prone to read history and especially biographies, one of my favorites is the life of Theodore Roosevelt. His life of adventure, reformation, and political successes are the stuff of legend. But there is one part of his journey that is often overlooked. It is the story of grief, sorrow, and the loss of everything that mattered to the man. It’s the resurgence of Roosevelt in the Badlands that changed the trajectory of his life.
It was in Medora, a small town on the edge of the Badlands, that Theodore Roosevelt sought a new life, an escape, and a refuge from the deepest grief of his life. Let me explain.
On Tuesday, February 12, 1884, at 8:30 in the evening, New York Representative Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved wife Alice delivered a girl, their first child. While in session in Albany, he received a telegram with the grand news. Before he could leave, a second telegram arrived. Alice had taken a sudden turn for the worse. He must come home immediately.
He arrived in Manhattan late on Wednesday night. What Roosevelt soon discovered is that his mother was burning up with typhoid fever and his wife was deathly ill from a failing kidney. For the next 16 hours at one bedside or the other, Roosevelt helplessly watched first his mother and then his wife die on the same day.
The Light Has Gone Out
Stunned, disoriented, and confused, the sensation Roosevelt had felt upon his father’s death six years before, now returned. In his diary, he wrote a big thick black X, followed by the sentence, “The light has gone out of my life.” At the double funeral, he concluded his remarks with, “For joy or for sorrow, my life has now been lived out.”
In June, Roosevelt took the five-day journey by train from New York to Medora, North Dakota. He had a cabin and fledgling cattle ranch, purchased the year before, on the Little Missouri River in the Badlands. It was in this vast wilderness, away from the bustle of New York City, that Roosevelt would build a new cabin, hunt big game, rustle cattle, and build new friendships with the hired men of his ranch.
It was a revival of his soul. He wrote in his diary, “I have never been in better health than on this trip. I am in the saddle all day long either taking part in the round-up of the cattle or hunting antelope. The country is growing on me more and more; it has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own…How sound I do sleep at night now…I have felt absolutely free as a man!”
And so began the restoration of the soul of Theodore Roosevelt. Not only was his heart restored, but also his vision. He would return to New York, reenter politics, and later become, arguably, one of the most successful presidents in American history (1901-1908). What can we learn from this episode in Roosevelt’s life?
Lessons from TR and the Badlands
- The Badlands revived Roosevelt’s spirit. God reveals Himself through creation. We experience God’s attributes through being among the mountains, streams, and lakes of creation. Romans 1:20 reads, “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” Roosevelt wrote of his time on the range, “I have felt absolutely free as a man!” The great conservationist John Muir once wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
- Roosevelt built a cabin. Hard manual labor achieves something in our spirit. In a day and age of residual income, freeze dried diets, and fast automated expectations, there is great value in craftsmanship and hands-on challenges. Such work brings joy. Roosevelt reveled in helping with the building of his Elk Horn Ranch log cabin.
- Roosevelt worked alongside his hired hands. There is great value in friendship during difficult times. I have written much on “bloodstained allies,” and I won’t repeat here what I’ve said in the past; but suffice to observe, Roosevelt had great friends in the hired men of his ranch from 1883-88. One of the men, Bill Sewall, would remain a lifelong friend. The Park Ranger who guided us in viewing Roosevelt’s cabin said that it was Sewall who inspired Roosevelt to go back to New York and rebuild his life.
- His conservationist vision was birthed here. Often our greatest tragedies are the steppingstone to a new vision. If Roosevelt had not gone through the loss of his mother and wife, he might never have returned to the Badlands. But it was through his subsequent ranching experiences that he gained a knowledge of the fading west and dying buffalo. It was Roosevelt that envisioned the resurgence of the almost extinct buffalo by preserving the remaining few in a New York zoo. His conservationist vision led to the preservation of over 230 million acres and the birth of our national parks.
Whatever your struggles, whatever the tragedies of your life, may the life of TR in the Badlands inspire you,
For further reading I would recommend:
TR: The Last Romantic by H.W. Brands
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough