The Badlands, or on the Way

{As we begin planning our course for this year's summer adventure I am drawn back to last year's trip.  Thousands of miles revealed so much more than mere and intimate landscape; and there are a few stories yet to tell...}

Wild territories remind us and recall us to the unexamined territories in our own hearts and minds; and they open up places within us that we don’t even know that are there.
                                                                                       ~   John O’ Donohue

It is prairie out here, some farms, some cattle and the road is smooth and straight; but it rises and falls gently with the land it traverses, every mile we pass similar to the one before and at once fresh and new.  

I love new territory, I love the anticipation of a place not experienced before. I love the feeling that I will discover something, even if it has already been gazed upon by a thousand or a million people before me.  
Our trip was to last thirty days, during which time we were to drive what amounted to more than 6,000 miles from our home in far northern Illinois to my home state of Oregon, down through California, almost to its southern tip where we would make the turn east and back toward the Midwest.  

It was a journey of five; myself, my husband and our three children, ages six and under.  Every night was scheduled and there was not a hotel among them, withholding the few nights we would spend with family, we would camp every other.  So in actuality it was a journey of six, the five of us and our pop-up camper Ollie, which was lovingly named for my late and intrepid grandmother.

Badlands National Park in the southwestern reaches of South Dakota was our first destination.   As a girl from the Northwest who settled in the Heartland there are places in between that I have experienced many times and others missed altogether; South Dakota was new territory.  

We set out early, on an early July morning.  Most of our first day is spent on familiar stretches of interstate 90 in Wisconsin and Minnesota, crossing hundreds of comfortable miles.  We reach the South Dakota border late in the afternoon, storm clouds and restless children on the horizon.  Four states in a single day we announce, not bad!  Of course the landscape never changes suddenly at state borders, but the crossing always announces a familiar anticipation that newness is at last afoot. Our first night we camp in Sioux Falls, feeling content and accomplished.
I like to travel with a road atlas, my husband is more of a gps man, so together we always know where we are, or presumably at the very least, where we are going.  However neither of these affinities protected us from the debacle of our second morning.  So eager, on day two, to get back on the highway, we fail to get fuel before the onramp. And after merging into the stream of westward flowing traffic we quickly discover that we may not have enough gas to reach our next opportunity to fill up.  One of the great things about traveling our country by road is that the perception that everything is readily available from the interstate is actually false and, that, we find, is one of the beautiful things about South Dakota.  So by the chance aid of a timely highway sign we end up in the tiny, and never otherwise would have seen town of Montrose.   

Such are my favorite exits from the roadway, heading off in an unplanned direction, wondering if you are going to find what you are looking for. When you do and it is always a little bit of a surprise and always a little bit exactly what you expected.  As we pull into Montrose, some ten miles from the interstate, we breathe a mutual sigh of relief at the archaic looking gas station on the main corner of town. Our second thought; I hope it’s open...And it is.  

My husband goes inside, no pay at the pump here, and emerges with a list of can’t miss local places given to him by the clerk.  If only we had time to visit can’t miss local places, this accidental visit to an out of our way little town makes us wish that we could.  Makes us wish that we could abandon our month long schedule and just wander small roads with no particular destination.  As we leave town, gas tank full, and attempt to make our way back to the interstate we talk about the pleasure of setting out on a trip with no plan at all, a trip planned only as time set aside to explore accidental destinations.  
We find our way back to the interstate, only having made a mild detour, and re-join the westward migration.  My attention falls to our fellow highway travelers.  Trucks towing fifth-wheels and tiny sedans with New York license plates, packed so the windows are full.  I think to years behind me, to college and soon thereafter, when that was me, and I think about all we have in common on the road - setting out to see something, to arrive some place.  I think about the miles we are crossing and how they have been crossed by multitudes of peoples by different means for so long.  

I read aloud the description of the geologic formations in Badlands National Park and I think about how lucky we are to have been alive to be witness to them.  In a total of one-million years they will have come and gone, as the National Park Service website says, that is pretty short in geologic time.  I wonder to myself at all of the vast formations of the earth that came and went without our knowing, without our seeing.  

We spend the day driving, hundreds of mils through a softly varying landscape and I wonder what will be revealed in another million years hence, what beauty would we be in the midst of, long after our privileged time.   Gradually it settles on me that we are mere transients here and all of the wonders we revel at are not grand products designed for our reveling. But that we have met, design and observer at a mere moment in the infinite process of change.  
We arrived at Badlands National Park in the late afternoon. We purchase our National Parks Pass from the ranger at the gate, anticipating the many more parks and places we will enter and visit.  The entering of a park is somewhat like the entering of any new territory, the land does not change suddenly at its borders, there is always something grand and beautiful on the side from which you are entering, but the border itself elicits anticipation and suddenly you are looking in a new way.  Immediately there are signs that indicate wildlife and we were looking; arrows pointing in the direction of vistas and we are looking, other visitors looking and we look out in the direction they gaze.  

The campground is simple, but elegant in its spare arrangement of modest picnic shelters set against a jagged backdrop.  It is all we need for our single nights stay, and indeed it is all we would need for ten nights.  It is hot and travelers large and small are restless.  We set camp quickly, and head back into the adventure.  
The Badlands were so named by ancient peoples because they were bad lands to pass through and indeed there is something wildly rough and intimidating about them and yet something delicate and wondrous about them too. Perhaps it is knowing that they were shaped by wind and water, that their sandy contours change almost daily, but this is false comfort. They feel almost breakable, and then appear the signs beware of Rattlesnakes, and you feel the hot wind on your face and look down over unmarked and unbarricaded ledges and you remember that nature and time are always to be respected.    

Although hints of their strangeness meet you upon approach, once inside its heart, this landscape is a consuming and otherworldly place.  The formations seem to rise sharply from the land, but really they are the remains of what has been worn away by the accomplices of time; they are the strange arrangements of what has been left behind, of what is still here. They did not rise up, but are what is left from what has been worn away.
We spend a number of hours hiking and climbing among the formations, the pathways are general suggestions.  The views change quickly, sometimes offering broad open vistas that reveal the soft prairie territory that reaches out beyond the strangeness, and sometimes opening only enough to entice us onward.  The farther in we go the more immersed we become; fascinated, but respectful.  As the shadows grow, we too begin to grow weary from the heat and approaching hunger; it is time to retreat.  We travel the winding road back to the campground from Castle Trail - taking in the last views of the day under golden light.
The campground is full and active, but pleasant and comfortable.  Comfortable for eating and sitting and letting children run about; comfortable for chatting in low tones and thinking about what is next.  As night falls the immensity of the sky becomes present and the darkness as consuming as the formations were in the light. The darkness continues to fill our imaginations and eventually ushers us to sleep.

Indeed the Badlands have enticed us onward.  Onward they brought us from our rural home and onward farther they send us.  After hiking and playing and eating, star gazing and sleeping it is time for us to depart.  We leave in the morning heat, making our slow way back to interstate 90 and again, joining the constant westward movement.  

With gratitude,


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