The Badlands, South Dakota

After enjoying some fantastic hospitality outside Minneapolis (dogsnot chili, natural margaritas, and refrigerator pickles, with mandolin music thrown in) I shot west across the Minnesota prairie, passing Paul Bunyan’s anchor along the way. Once in South Dakota I engaged in some crude thermal navigation- I was cold so I headed south the length of the state, and whether by luck or location the next day was warmer as I leaned west on 44.

When I passed through De Smet, South Dakota, I learned that it dubs itself “The Little Town on the Prairie” for being the site of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes. Last summer I saw the Anne of Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island; maybe I’m actually on a lifelong tour of Famous Schoolgirl Heroines and don’t even know it.

The eastern end of the state was full of water. Everywhere were ponds and lakes in the grass that came right up to the road; fences ran down into them and dead trees rose up out of their middles. I asked if these were all recent human-made lakes and was told that they were just wet areas still flooded from the spring. They’re only a long day’s ride from all that dead corn.

At the Missouri River the land collapsed, fell like a cake, deflated like a silk balloon to hang crazily over the strange bones beneath. West from there the land stabilized somewhat, flattened and smoothed itself, but never really got it back together again; then at the Badlands it all came apart anyway and those bones spilled out into the air.

Coming from the southeast the Badlands first appears as a Wall of multicolored rock that rises up out of the grass. It runs for at least the 20 miles that the road follows along, and I don’t know how many more. The bands of color alternate between shades of coral and bone; up close, the Wall expands fractally into a maze of stone minarets, towers and cones, of vanes, ribbons and piers. It is breathtakingly beautiful and a great wonder.

I got up before dawn to ride through and watch the light affix to this thing; the land smelled like fall and looked like an undiscovered moon. Many of the spires rose up out of the prairie like icebergs calved from the slow rock to be carried away by grass currents and cold wind; others looked like the steeples of windowless cathedrals that you could only enter if you lived inside the ground. In some lights there was a blue-grey tint that pervaded, but in others the rock took on warm fleshtones. There were even a few patches of mustard-yellow rock that lent uncanny completion to the rainbow: green grasses, bright yellow and rose stone, then bone-grey, then blue prairie sky and puffy white clouds.

Closer still, the surface of the rock was not hard at all but wore a skin of cracked clay that crumbled when touched. It was disturbing to be reminded that such a vast piece of stone architecture is just a transient layer of beauty on the move, a frail mud-mask illusion of permanence. I could brush the whole of the Badlands away with my fingertips and a little time.

As I walked along one narrow ridge I stepped over holes in the ground, some half the diameter of a person, some the diameter of a person, some twice the diameter of a person, all lined up like fingerholes in a clay flute. Each opening was a chute plunging into the ground and out of sight, ten feet straight down at least but deeper than that I couldn’t see.

There’s something more about the Badlands; finally laying eyes on the Wall, I felt like I’d come home. That’s crazy, maybe just a reaction to the soothing nature of open spaces, or maybe a place as beautiful as this starts to short-circuit the brain and excite nonsensical emotions. I’ve felt that way once before, in the desert: another stone-world. Maybe I was a changeling-child after all, and being raised by dogs and people was not enough to mask the grind and throb of heavy rocks in the streambeds of my blood.

I swore I wouldn’t stop at Wall Drug, and since I’d skipped I-90 and hadn’t been brainwashed by several hundred miles of billboards I almost made it. But when I rode out of the Badlands I was frozen and the wind was a toppling wind, and Wall Drug was right there. I drank their 5 cent coffees all day and waited for the wind to change. It didn’t, so I scurried back to the Badlands. I try not to ride in wind that I have trouble walking in.

The Badlands of South Dakota.

I had to face down a buffalo on the way to the campground. I wasn’t sure if the buffalo was going to yield; we stared at each other and both considered the fact that I was much smaller and not protected by the doors and windows of a car. It let me go, but around the next corner was a whole herd milling around in the road. At that point I learned that my motorcycle makes buffalo stampede; so far they always stampede away from me. I felt guilty at first, but since I can’t do anything about it I’ve come to regard it as good fun, and I think the buffalo enjoy running around.

The campground is in a hollow surrounded by open grassy hills and a stream cuts through the ground to one side. Three herds of between 20 and 80 buffalo drift within sight of the campground, surrounding it. Some, probably the bulls, stand apart from the herds and sometimes wander singly down between the campsites. My only anxiety is of being stepped on in the night.

It’s dark when the wind stops.

I can hear an owl, and the low rumbling the buffalo make that sounds like the earth quaking. Occasionally coyotes sound off. The sky is so huge and bright with stars that the handful of constellations that are familiar to me melt away, lost in the finer structures of light like tigers in the grass. With no tent I can watch the sky as easily as sleep, and staring idly up I see a dozen shooting stars.

There’s not a cloud or blemish on the sky except a low glow that washes out the stars along the northern horizon. I’m so used to light pollution that I assume the light is from the town to the north, but that town isn’t big enough for such a glow and this glow is throwing shifting spokes and spires of light into the sky. It’s the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. I have only seen them once before and years ago.

They are ghostly and faint, their features flowing slowly and best seen by not looking directly at; now they’re a low arch, now more like a ribbon, now they’re high pillars of light marking one of the old roads to the Silver City. In their forms and configuration they look much like the Wall.