Part 2: The Badlands

Hey, folks! Good to see you. It’s time for Part 2 of my Roadtrip West series wherein I recount some of my adventures in the month of July. To catch up, check out Part 1: The Road.

From Sioux Falls, SD, we drove an easy four and a half hours to the Badlands National Park.

The Badlands was where this trip cohered for me. It was where I started really feeling the joy of it — not just casual enjoyment but the pure sense of flight. I’m not sure why I wanted to see the Badlands so much. It’s not everyone’s highest park on the list for sure. Visiting it in July was kind of madness — when we got there it was 103 degrees. I have discovered that I can no longer handle that kind of heat, if I ever could. There is no shade, no shelter to speak of. It does what it says on the tin. This is not a place that welcomes humans.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much.

A panorama from one of my hiking attempts.

To navigate the Badlands in summer, you must become crepuscular. I love that word. It means inhabiting the liminal times — the cool, clean dawn and the gentling, warm palm of evening. My first attempt at hiking in the park ended abortively because I got so hot despite my moisture wicking clothes and bucket hat that I started seeing sparkles on the edge of my vision. We retreated, went back out that evening, and had a blast.

Our campsite, and also the only picture you will likely get of the S.O.

Sleeping at night was easy, after the storm had cleared the first night. We had the right gear for it — our tent is designed to catch maximum breezes. During the day, once we’d figured out hiking wasn’t a thing we could stomach, we drove into the nearby town of Wall, stopping at all the awesome overlooks along the way. I learned so much about geologic time during this visit. At one stop I read about how the carbon and minerals of a long-dead tropical jungle had contributed to the colorized stripes of the hills, about how other layers were made by inland seas now vanished, other forests, other whole biomes dead and passed away, what is left of their bones now revealed by wind and water and time.

My first view of the Badlands.

There was a sense as if I was standing in the presence of something immense. I could feel time and it felt not like something to struggle against, but something to let pass through you. Life, constantly reinventing itself.

The full moon, colored by fire.

We were, as I mentioned, already seeing smoke from the fires in Oregon at this point. It colored everything just a little, including the full moon on the second night we stayed at the campgrounds. It was terrible, and it was beautiful. Which is a bit like all of life, really.

The morning we left we got up very early. It was dark. The campground was mostly still asleep. We packed up our tent and went to watch the sunrise.

Everything was very quiet in the desert. There was wind, moving in the cottonwood trees, the hissing clack of their leaves. There was the hoot of an owl, distantly. The sky was pink as the inside of a seashell. I thought of the sea that had died so long ago. Just one sea. Only one. Yet so vast, so full of life, and all that life now scrubgrass and stone.

We got in the car, and continued west, towards Yellowstone.

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