When I started this little quest of mine, there were a handful of sites that I knew I absolutely must see. I wanted to see Alaska’s glaciers and the tundra. I wanted to see giant sequoias. I wanted to see Devil’s Tower. And I absolutely wanted to see the Badlands.
Badlands. Badlands. BADLANDS. Oof, what a name! The word itself evokes harsh visions of a struggle for survival. If you’re a writer, you can’t go wrong if you include “Badlands” in the title of your Western novel. “Death on the Badlands”. “Terror on the Badlands”. “Vengeance on the Badlands”. “Ghosts of the Badlands”. Kick-ass names for what would hopefully be kick-ass books. And the name is so appropriate for the place. The Badlands of South Dakota is its own metaphor, exuding toughness and courage and evil and triumph. Even the native tribes of old didn’t like this place. “Mako sica” the Lakota Sioux called it: Badlands.
And boy oh boy, Badlands National Park doesn’t disappoint. The elements scar this land like battery acid on new jeans. Water gouges at the exposed ground, leaving an eerie, yet oddly beautiful, jagged landscape. Dust chokes the lungs when the wind picks up. Even the dirt itself is harsh: when dry, it’s a hard, crusty material, unsuitable for supporting life. Add a little water, it adheres then hardens like concrete. Add more water and it becomes an unnavigable slick.
The Badlands is really nothing more than a separation between two levels of prairie. To the north is the high plains, to the south is the low plains. Erosional forces slowly move “the wall”, separating high from low, to the northwest. In the interim, infrequent rain scars the dividing line. And it’s not really dead, there are plenty of trees and shrubs and grasses and deer and rabbits and hawks. It’s just another facet of nature at work, acting in its own way. It is ugly, it is bad, it is dangerous, but it is beautiful. “Cool as shit” would be an apt phrase.
The first day I went to the Badlands was intended as just a drive-through. I had visited the Crazy Horse Memorial earlier that day, and was running out of daylight, but I wanted to swing by the Wounded Knee site, and then take a short drive up this little trail labeled, innocuously enough, Sheep Mountain Table. What a wretched mistake! The Sheep Mountain Table road is a horribly rutted, muddy, dead-end trail. I ended up slip-sliding my way around, fearful of getting stuck, finally finding my way out with a filth-sodden rental car. What a mess!
The next day was much better: I got out of the car and hiked along The Wall for a few hours. So utterly fascinating, yet still so dangerous. Dehydration is a serious problem, as is the choking dust and the burning sun. But, as I said, immensely cool. It’s like a stroll through the Mos Eisley spaceport or something. Definitely a place to be experienced! Life, and especially nature, is not all sweetness and light. Some parts are tough, but that’s part of the fun. Get off your butts, get out of your car, take a rough trail, and put some toughness into your life!
For some good shopping, stop at the Cedar Pass Lodge near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. They sell locally-made native art, really nice stuff. Got a few pieces for my collection.
For a good laugh, take a stop at Wall, South Dakota. This tourist trap spells “kitsch” with a capital K. Ludicrous gift shops, overpriced crappy restaurants, biker bars, the whole nine yards!
For a good cry, go to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s not the history that’s the real sad part, it’s the surroundings. If you doubt that true poverty exists in America, go to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
For a good beer, go to the Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City. A most excellent place! Also take a walk amongst the statues of the Presidents, and shop in some of the neat stores downtown. Rapid City is one of the better small-city downtowns left in America.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the Dakotas. I’ll make other posts about the other National Park Service sites in the Dakotas in the future, but for now, I can only recommend that you go and visit, if nothing else, The Badlands.
[All photos on this post are originals © 2008 America In Context. To see more original photos of The Badlands, click here.]