By Neal Justin
The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune
On some nights in the North Dakota Badlands, there are forces more threatening than the coronavirus.
Fifteen minutes before the cast of the “Medora Musical” was expected to launch into its opening number on a July night, an executive who had clearly drawn the short straw shuffled onto the outdoor stage to announce that impending lightning was forcing them to scrub that evening’s performance.
As the roughly 700 spectators filed out of the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, one teenager allowed herself a moment of sarcasm — “Supergood!” — before cajoling her companions to stop for ice cream on the way home.
If the attendees were taking the cancellation in stride, it’s only because this tiny tourist town that President Teddy Roosevelt once called home offers so many other options.
While live entertainment is all but dead in most parts of the country, Medora is offering a full slate of shows, from cover bands at Boots Bar & Grill to a former mayor performing magic tricks at the Old Town Hall Theater.
Part of the reason locals are so bully on opening their doors is that the area remains relatively COVID-19-free.
There’s been only one confirmed case in Billings County since the pandemic started, according to Justin Fisk, marketing and communications director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which runs almost all the shows and hotels in the area.
“I’m not more worried about it than someone spreading the flu during Cowboy Christmas,” said businessman Travis Enders, referring to the city’s annual winter carnival. As owner of the local wine bar, Uncork’d, Enders recently opened his doors to live music. Face masks are optional.
Bill Sorensen, who does a magic show and “sermonizes” during the Medora Gospel Brunch, is more cautious than most, practicing social distancing whenever he can.
That’s not easy for him to do.
The former Bismarck mayor is so beloved in Medora that the Old Town Hall Theatre’s main stage is named in his honor.
“It’s easy around here to step outside, look in any direction and be alone,” said Sorensen, who has made several adjustments to his act, including halting assistance from audience members. “But we’re still mindful of people trying to be careful.”
Perhaps the only town celebrity who can match Sorensen in popularity is Joe Wiegand, a Roosevelt impersonator who puts on a one-man show several times a week.
“You’d better untie your shoelaces,” he warns. “You’re about to get your socks knocked off!”
But Wiegand is careful not to get too close.
“I miss handshakes and hugs,” said Wiegand, while the town’s other Teddy impressionist and his partner, who plays Edith Roosevelt, posed for pictures behind a nearby barrier and joked that they were wearing masks as if the former First Couple were battling the 1918 flu pandemic.
At the Gospel Brunch, staffers handle most duties on the buffet line, from pouring coffee to handing out salt packets. The outdoor musical has paused a popular tradition that allows children on stage for one number. Capacity at most shows is around 50% to assure that strangers don’t sit too close to one another.
Still, there are risks.
Most North Dakotans don’t wear masks, as I discovered during the eight-hour drive from Minneapolis to the Montana border.
I chopped up the journey on Interstate 94 into three days, leaving ample time for stops along the way, doing my best to avoid groups and stay outside. It wasn’t tough.
At Fort Abercrombie, where military men fought off invaders during the U.S.-Dakota war, a guide provided a tour in a golf cart, followed by one of her colleagues offering a private oral history in a gazebo.
In picturesque Jamestown, I had the Louis L’Amour writer’s shack, a shrine to the novelist’s work, all to myself. Bismarck’s North Dakota Heritage Center, one of the finest free museums in the country, was practically deserted the morning I arrived.
It’s a mostly flat journey, but patience pays off. When you arrive at Painted Canyon, just a few miles from Medora, the scenery suddenly becomes romantically rugged. It’s akin to when “The Wizard of Oz” switches from black-and-white to color.
Outdoor activities in Medora are buzzing, which was evident during a visit to the jaw-dropping Bully Pulpit Golf Course and its “little cousin,” Little Bully Pulpit Mini Golf, where kids waited in long lines to take their turn.
Not everyone is ready for a road trip. Fisk estimates that visits will be down 30% to 40% this year. Traffic at the neighboring Theodore Roosevelt National Park is minimal, at least compared with the crowds at South Dakota’s more famous Badlands National Park.
Still, people are coming. On one night at Rough Riders Hotel, Medora’s premier lodging, guests had checked in from Texas, Oregon, Colorado, California, Oklahoma and Florida.
“When you’re ready,” Fisk said, “we’re here for you.”