Somewhere on the road to Devils Tower – Bleached buffalo bones strewn on the prairie. Adorable bighorn lambs dancing on Badlands cliffs. Real-live buffalo dining at dusk.
Now it’s June whatever, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s Tuesday. I’ve lost the thread. We pulled out of western Nebraska on Friday after three days in Cody, which touts itself as “A Town too Tough to Die.”
We followed U.S. 20 west through the Sandhills till we hit Merriman, where we turned north toward South Dakota. After miles on Nebraska 61, you’re on South Dakota 73. The Welcome to South Dakota sign is the only indication you’ve swapped one state for another. The rolling, waving prairie grasses of Nebraska’s fabled Sandhills cross the state border with you. Not for too long, though.
Once you’re in South Dakota, it’s fewer than 70 miles to Badlands National Park. You don’t have to get that far to see the landscape unfold in spectral, otherworldly wildness. The Badlands, in a word, are badass.
The world opens up to reveal a panoramic phantasmagoria of startling proportions. Maybe I heard that somewhere. If so, I apologize. Sandstone spires and towers, looking as if they were left behind by a lost civilization, offer startling testimony to the awesome power of erosion.
We are deep in the Western Inland Sea, where the mammoth mosasaurs held sway 70 million years ago. Now we are at the trail head for the Cliff Shelf hike. It is an easy stroll, mostly along a forgiving boardwalk. We start out on a dirt trail, imaging ourselves hardy adventurers. Apparently, the prairie rattlesnake is a fearsome force in the Badlands.
These signs are ubiquitous:
A concerned fellow traveler called out to us from the upper trail with a word of advice concerning the rattlesnake terror.
“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s hot enough for them to be out.”
We took appropriate caution and completed the walk without incident. We got back in the Behemoth and drove to Cedar Pass, where we stopped at the general store.
It wasn’t long before I got to witness the singular danger of the prairie rattler. I stepped outside the store, and couldn’t help but notice people gaping and tittering. Turns out a rattler, apparently seeking the coolness of the shade, was holed up underneath a Wisconsinite’s SUV. The emergency call went out.
Three big rigs rolled into the Cedar Pass lot. Two law enforcement rangers from the National Park Service, assisted by a frightened emissary from the Jackson County sheriff’s department, arrived to save the day.
The snake had to be eight-inches long, Ten tops. The largest of the trio, a brawny ranger, corralled the serpent with snake-handling tongs, walked across the road and tossed the little fellow into the grass. I was relieved.
If it takes three gun-toting gendarmes to subdue a rattler no wider than my ring finger and free us from the snake terror, that’s OK with me. Glad to see my tax dollars employed so judiciously.
Better safe than snakebit.
Later we clambered about some adjacent buttes, then attended a night program. Max clambered about the lower ranges of a nearby butte while we heard the story of a young Sioux warrior trapped in the hills by a thunderstorm, seeing visions of thunderbirds and whales which turned out, scientifically speaking, to be Brontetheres and Mosasaurs. Then we got a sky tour. I learned how to find Saturn. Find the Big Dipper, then ride down its handle, Arc to Arcturus, spike down to Spica, hang a left to Saturn.
Two rangers, both women and at least one an astro-physicist, wheeled out large and expensive telescopes and we divided into two lines to gape at the great globulous cluster of Hercules and a pockmarked crescent moon.
At the conclusion of the night program, we followed signs to RV parking. We were too late to pay for the full hookup, which we are too cheap to do in any case. We slipped in surreptitiously and parked on the macadam lot. Illegally I suppose, but what choice did we have?
We awoke Saturday safe from harm having saved $28. We proceeded to Cedar Pass Ranger station and jumped right into the maw of junior ranger hell. Trying to coax Max to sit in something other than a misshapen lump while writing his letters is enough to turn the mildest parent into a raging tyrant. OK, maybe not the mildest.
The worst part is it’s my fault. He has inherited my terrible posture. Poor kid.
The metamorphosis from Laid-back Dad to Mr. Chide is an ugly one. I am a monster. I prod, cajole, threaten. You might think he’s 12 or 13.
Guess you don’t want a badge, I say. Max gets upset. I don’t blame him.
I need to work on this father-son war. I need to stop driving him like a mule on an old tenant farm. Wheedling, shaming, hollering, drop-kicking Junior Ranger booklets. Someone stop me.
We persevered. On our way to acquire the badge we stumble upon a junior ranger program. We join in. Along the way I argued with Becky. What the hell is the matter with me. I noted it would be a funny film scene to have have a full parent-on-parent meltdown in the middle of a junior ranger program.
Becky agreed, but didn’t think we should act as prototype.
Max got his badge. We grabbed a hiking map. Did the Notch, then Saddle Pass. Strenuous as advertised? Not at all. The scenery is staggering, in a word. Don’t know where it stacks up in continental landscapes, but it is hard to surpasss.
After hiking the Saddle, we drove out of the park along 240. We stopped at the Pinnacle Overlook, where the assembled crowd was transfixed by bighorn sheep grazing with their kids. Sure beats Wall Drug, which is where we landed next. Now we were in the wheelhouse of the tourism madness. We’l spend the next 48 hours here.
Have you dug Wall Drug? Guess we have now, Ted Hustead’s monument to kitsch-driven Wild West consumerism. Have to admit it oozes a certain eccentric curiosity. Wall Drug is a series of trinket purveyors connected by a common purpose. Out in a central common area is a jackalope, a covered wagon and diorama breaking down the major turning points in American history. All strands converge on Wall, S.D., to celebrate the apotheosis of history in 1931. Along the way, the Revolutionary War somehow lasts until 1789, despite the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
We got a bottle of wine at the Wall Food, then decided to return to the park for a sunset picnic.
We took the less-traveled Sage Creek Road, which turns into a dirt-and-gravel country thoroughfare leading into the Badlands. A sign posted just outside the entrance warned that Prairie Dogs have PLAGUE! Stay in cars etc etc.
When we got to the Sage Creek overlook, it was filled to capacity. With buffalo. They are magnificent, hulking creatures. Kind of made me wish I had an old blunderbuss to take three or four out just for sport.
We stopped just off the overlook entrance, took some darkened, fuzzy photographs and ate some cheese, drank some wine and apple juice.
The bison left. We stayed. Again, I suppose, without sanction. But we harmed no one, left no trace and treated buffalo and prairie dog alike with the utmost respect.
Woke up around 7 a.m. Thunder crackled above. An ominous shield of darkness swept in from the west. Thought maybe we should find a less exposed place for breakfast.
The bison were back, though. It was breakfast time on the mixed-grass prairie. We bid them adieu before driving down into the park, where imposing stone walls gave us a bit of cover.
Then it was off to the true heart of tourist darkness, Rocky Raccoon’s Black Hills and Gutzon Borglum’s granite tableau on Mount Rushmore. We exited the park via Sage Creek Road, thinking perhaps we’d get another glimpse of buffalo before we left the Badlands for good.
Instead, we got a look at this fellow (no kids, though):
This rugged terrain with its staggering beauty might’ve been bad lands for the early white settlers, but they’re a damn good place to spend at least a day or two. And the Native Americans seemed to do OK here for 11,000 years or so.