The west is a lesson in sensory overload. Landscapes in this part of the country defy reality and seem to exist in an illusory world straight out of a fantasy movie. You peer out into the vast spaces contained within the national parks and you repeat to yourself over and over, how is this possible? How can a place be this sublime? What am I even looking out? And it’s this questioning, caused by such immense beauty, that makes our parks so special, so worthy of visitation.
The Badlands are an eroded landscape of prairie and sculpted sandstone formations. After hours of driving through grassland and corn, you’re finally treated with an abrupt change in scenery. Pinnacles, towers, mounds, fins, and castles, are but only a handful of shapes that these white and pink formations assume. Deep ravines and shadowy canyons lace the terrain, beckoning one to park and explore. Hiking through the Badlands is like being transported to an alien land. You look left, right, up and down, in the attempt to make sense of such a magnificent landscape. Coyote dens pocket the grasslands while clay bottoms, as white as snow, show the way. Today summer returned. The temperature rose back up to eighty and the sun seemed determined to roast me. Low humidity takes a while to get used to. So dry, lips chapping so quickly under the noontime sun. I did about three miles, hopping off trail to explore side canyons and ravines. I sketched one formation that I’ll call the shark’s fin.
It’s hard to leave. There’s so much to see, so much to do. Before exiting the park, I stopped to peer towards the north escarpment. Yet again I found myself staring in disbelief.
The drive out of the Badlands and prairie and up into the Black Hills is incredible. At about five thousand feet in elevation, you’re treated to a world of Pine, Spruce and Aspen, interrupted by granite monoliths nicknamed the needles. The road to Custer State Park winds through some of the loveliest forest lands I’ve ever seen. The smell of evergreen, sweet in the rarified air, is instantly noticed. Once upon a time, I experienced my first rock climbs not far from my campsite adjacent to Sylvan Lake. Time waits for no one. It’s mild up here but the night is windy. I’m beat. From 1880 town, to Wall Drug, to the Badlands, to the Black Hills. My body is ready for bed. My first night of camping. A change, a relief, from the skeeviness of budget lodging. Where are the Indigenous people? All you see is the rampant commercialization of a way of life, a tradition, and a culture that became extinct so long ago. Wounded Knee, the reservations at Pine Ridge and Rosebud. I wish I could spend some time with members of the Lakota tribe again. That would complete my trip….