Beyond Boundaries in Badlands National Park
It was raining–hard–on the morning I left Rochester, Minnesota. It was the third day of my big cross-country road trip and I was headed to Custer, South Dakota for the night. Being an early riser, I was already on the road a little before five in the morning, driving west under steel gray skies and dodging muscular semis while the rain fell so hard I could hardly hear the first few notes of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” a song I played each morning on my westward journey. 8XA9BK4KNP39
By the time I’d crossed almost all of Minnesota, the rain had given way to blue skies and bulbous white clouds, wispy and flat-bottomed as though they rested on a clear pane of glass. Civilization fell away, mile by mile, and soon I was speeding down an open stretch of I-90, where the landscape, open and free, was spread out like a carpet on every side. With the windows rolled down and a fast, fresh breeze rushing through the car, the tension in my body dissipated like smoke as I quickly made my way west. Thrusting my arm out of the window, I let my fleshy open palm ride the waves of prairie wind.
Ahhhh. This is the life.
I’d been on the road a cool four hours before crossing the border into South Dakota and, grateful for the opportunity to use the facilities and stretch my legs a little, I stopped in at the welcome center at Valley Springs. The small white concrete building seemed to be the only structure for miles and honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. Imagine my surprise when I stepped inside to find a modestly-sized room tastefully stocked with brochures and pamphlets touting South Dakota’s most popular and more obscure sites. After using the pleasingly immaculate restroom, I stopped for a while to file through the visitor resources.
A few other tourists were spread across the room, each quietly studying options for sightseeing in South Dakota. Paying them little mind, I did the same. However, within moments, I was greeted by one of the representatives behind the desk who wanted to know where I was going and what I was interested in seeing. I approached her, mentioning my plans to stop in at Mount Rushmore before resting up for the evening. I knew little about South Dakota and honestly couldn’t imagine there was much I’d want to see.
“You should think about stopping by the Badlands,” the woman suggested gently.
I did the math quickly in my head. It was early still, so I certainly had some time to kill. But the Badlands? From the name alone, I was envisioning a vast swath of barren desert wasteland populated by rattlesnakes, tumbleweed, and a random gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger out to settle an old score. The Badlands sounded just–well–bad. Much more a lakes, trees, mountains, and meadows kind of a girl, I couldn’t imagine the landscape would have been a good match for my tastes, but I had time to kill. And if I didn’t like the Badlands, I supposed I could continue on my way.
When I told the woman I was interested, she whipped out a map of the state and traced the route I’d need to take, indicating that the drive through the Badlands would take roughly an hour, and that the route would put me right back onto I-90.
Well, color me surprised. I was going to the Badlands.
Thanking the woman, I was soon on my way again, stopping to fill the gas tank along the way. I could feel myself beginning to appreciate the open stretches of the highway where there wasn’t another soul for miles. Coming from one of the most densely populated of the United States, this level of aloneness was welcome but almost absurd.
I was another four hours on the road before turning onto Route 240, the way into Badlands National Park. I nursed the excitement building in my stomach, allowing it to grow slowly as I passed the iconic sign marking the entrance into the park and then the brown wooden ranger stations. In the distance, beyond a long, wide expanse of low-green wild grass, I could see rugged, earthy peaks intermittently piercing the plane of the sky. After another few minutes or so of driving slowly within the park, I loosened the reins on my anticipation.
The Badlands were unlike anything I’d ever seen in my thirty-odd years on earth.
For almost 360 degrees and what seemed like miles, straight through to the horizon, were massive spires of red earth: some short and round, some tall and peaked, and almost every other size between. Deep canyons plunging into the terrain. Rugged. Barren. Cruel. Mysterious. Vast. Empty. Word after word tumbled about as my brain struggled to make sense of the view. And another word, too, one which I wasn’t expecting, popped to the surface: beautiful.
Beautiful. There was simply no other word for it. Beautiful in its rugged barrenness. Beautiful in its cruel mystery. Beautiful in its vast emptiness. As difficult as it was to find a single word to accurately describe the Badlands, it was even more challenging to understand how it had smitten me upon sight.
A little further into the park, I stopped at a parking lot and strolled out onto a boardwalk taking me almost to the edge of a deep gorge. Although there were a handful of visitors making the walk with me, fear clawed in my stomach as I stopped just shy of the rim and tentatively peered over the edge, expecting a wicked gust of wind to whisk me down over the cliffs at any moment.
Pausing for a photo op or two (okay, fifty) at different spots within the park, including “The Window”, the famous viewpoint overlooking a massive field of the sedimentary rock formations, I tried to capture the feeling of being there through the lens. I’d say I failed but truthfully, it was completely ludicrous to even try. It would be utter hubris to suggest that anything less than seeing the Badlands yourself could possibly equal the sheer mind-blowing experience of being there. I was completely entranced.
I took my time navigating the winding roads of the park, savoring the potential of each bend in the road. What’s next? As desolate as I thought it would have been, I was tickled to learn about the various forms of wildlife in the habitat. An indigo-colored bird here. A mottled brown rabbit there. And a sign alerting visitors to the presence of rattlesnakes. Yikes!
A little over an hour after I’d begun my journey into this strange terrain, I reached the end of the route through the park and the landscape gradually changed. The alien peaks and valleys gave way to rolling green hills dotted with the occasional farm. Emerging from the Badlands was like waking up from a pleasant yet peculiar dream but t,he dream still held me, its fingers digging deep into my skin, refusing to let go.
It felt incredibly satisfying to know that the decision to travel into the Badlands wasn’t one I normally would have made but by moving beyond my personal boundaries, I learned more about myself while exploring a unique corner of the planet. And it’s memorable experiences like this one that remind me to open myself to the unexpected and travel beyond boundaries each time I head out on a new adventure.
Want to experience a bit more of Badlands National Park? Check out the slideshow on Flickr!