BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK | ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER
We had been driving since dawn. We rolled along through the South Dakota country side, chasing the last remnants of the sun’s golden rays. Red and purple had long since given way to blue and day had given way to night.
There are still places in this country that are dark at night. Really dark. So dark that you can see only as far as your high beams and nothing more. With no map, and no GPS to guide us, we wouldn’t be able to find a campground, much less a backcountry stop. Maybe we were lost, maybe we would have to sleep in the truck on the side of the road. What if we weren’t even in the right place? Did we miss a turn? Did we miss the sign all together?
And then, we came around a curve, and we knew we had made it. We were in the Badlands. The world around us completely dark, but a few, glorious rays of light illuminated the landscape, giving us our first glimpse of this alien place. This place of dreams and stories.
We made our way to an open field along a gravel road. We hurriedly set up our tent in the dark and cooked a meager meal with the stove balanced precariously on the slanting truck tailgate. Half starved, we ate ravenously in near silence.
When we were done, we finally took a breath and looked up at the heavens. It was a perfectly clear night, a chill on the air. Billions upon billions of stars twinkling above.
We starred up in wonder, knowing without question how incredibly small and insignificant we are next to the massiveness that is Milky Way Galaxy. We are but tiny specks in the universe, yet we took comfort in the beauty and simplicity of it all.
That night, I slept on the hard dirt under the trillions of stars. Listened to the coyotes laughing and howling at the moon. Felt the strings that connect me to the Earth grow stronger, and soaked up the history that binds us, as humans, to this place. Reflected on what it is that calls for us to cast off our ties to civilization and to go out into the wild places of the world to explore and have adventures.
We awoke with the sun. Breathed in the fresh, crisp morning air. Said hello to the buffalo grazing nearby.
As we set off chasing rainbows across the plains, I find myself squarely between grassland and badland. Fields of green peppered with wildflowers of every color imaginable surround me.
Then, as far as the eye can see, strange striped rock columns jutting skyward, crumbling as if ancient. A landscape alien in look and feel. As if I walked through a portal at the edge of the prairie and right out onto a distant planet.
I climbed the highest peak and looked out over the vastness, eyes wide, in awe of the land stretched out before me. Scanning the horizon, I see a string of clouds rising up out of an ancient rock formation, like puffs of smoke billowing from a smokestack. As if the crumbling, weather worn tower were hiding a secret deep within.
There are places in this world that are haunting. Once you see them, their beauty is etched into your mind for eternity. Those places become part of you. Your memories of them forevermore woven into the fabric of your consciousness.
Striking and endlessly interesting, the Badlands of South Dakota is one such place.
It is a place where worlds collide. Where lush, rich fields of grass and wildflower and wild buffalo meet dry and desolate wastelands of sparse cacti and the occasional lizard. Where grazing gives way to graveyards for those who cannot escape. Where banded rock columns and canyons stretch out across the landscape in a seemingly endless maze and blue skies go on forever.
A wild and foreboding place, not entirely welcoming. It is known as the badlands for a reason.
The Lakota were the first to call this place “mako sica,” which means “land bad.” The extreme temperatures, ranging from sweltering during the day to freezing at night, the lack of water, and the exposed and rugged terrain earned the badlands its name.
But this isn’t a place you want to leave behind without first getting it beneath your feet.
Walking a place is the best way to get to know it. Your feet can take you where you wish, where roads don’t travel. You can get a completely different perspective from ground level. There are trails that stretch for miles into the badlands. Yet, there is no shade to provide respite from the the harsh sun and the heat. No water either.
Maybe it was too harsh an environment for the masses, but it seemed like the Badlands was a short stopover for most people on their way to Mt. Rushmore, or on to Yellowstone. Many people seemed to simply drive by and and stop at lookouts to snap a few photos, and then they were gone. Hiking trails were empty, but I’m okay with solitude in the wilds. If you’re able, get your feet on the ground. Go out into the badlands and get to know them.