You haven’t truly seen “the west” until you’ve seen the Badlands.
Why do I say this? I am no expert, but to me, this area had a surreal quality about it. A weather-beaten aged beauty. Lots of dust, and those varying shades of rust, brown, gold I’d always envisioned “the west” to be. I could picture horse herds here more than anywhere else, and bands of Indians (er, Native Americans) roaming the prairie.
On a drawn-out trip out west to visit family in Montana in 2002, my husband, daughter and I decided to hit a few landmarks along the way in South Dakota, plus Yellowstone. The Corn Palace was one, since I’d run across that oddity (to us) on some type of “Don’t Miss” travel tips. Wall Drugs was another, of course, due to all the signs we’d seen. Mount Rushmore, of course—and I was stunned that we could glimpse part of the massive stone heads from the highway. That was a majestic sight. But we all loved seeing the Badlands.
And I mean big time “l-o-v-e-d” as in “we HAVE to stop here on the way home again” love.
Why? We couldn’t explain that. Sure, they have a ‘rugged beauty’ and ‘striking geologic deposits’ according to the National Park website. It’s nice to know that ‘ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse and saber-toothed cat once roamed here.’ Yes, it’s astonishing that it covers almost a quarter of a million acres, that it includes mixed-grass prairie. And that ‘bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets live there today.’ Great.
I don’t know about the other animals, but we saw prairie dogs. Hundreds of ’em. I could have watched them pop in and out of their holes for hours. Cute little buggers.
First of all, a disclaimer. I live in a state known for its “leafies” – oak, maple, elm, birch, ash, pine plus plenty more, and that’s just in my neighborhood. Michigan is known for its forests and Great Lakes, plus all the small lakes in the Mitten and the UP. Green and blue are the primary colors (and I’m not talking green and white for Michigan State or blue and maize for UM). The prairie, as I first caught sight of it when we crossed from Minnesota farmland into South Dakota farmland, was fairly green, mostly brown. Wide open spaces, as the song goes, cottonwoods (I think) that usually grew near creeks or rivers. You could see rain clouds in the distance and never get wet. Very odd to us. Even the trees looked different.
So at first we didn’t notice a whole lot, driving the expressway – being from Michigan, a car ride can be pretty much "same old, same old" boring. Then we turned off to where we’d scoped out Google maps ahead of time. No trees here. Like none. Just a few scattered houses in dry, brown land. I have to say it was the middle of a hot summer, too. Anything above 85 is hot to us. It must have been 90+. And don’t tell me it’s a dry heat. Hot is hot. We drove down a two-lane country road and suddenly the world dropped off.
That’s the Badlands to me.
We stopped the car, although the road curved along the rim’s edge – maybe for a ways, we didn’t know. Or care. We all piled out. Stood on that rim, my husband and daughter closer than I ever could get to the edge. And just stared. Awestruck. The rock formations, the little gullies, the striations in the soil and the way the sunlight hit them just right, giving the browns, gold and rust hues a tinge of purple, blue, rose, even a faint gray brown. It was marvelous. No photograph can do it justice.
I can’t even describe it here all that well. But my imagination lit up, and whether or not any cowboys drove their cattle along the rim or the Indians meandered around the gullies at the bottom, I had a sense of the true magic of “the west.” Yes, the Rockies are just as magnificent. I’m sure there are other canyons that are just as wonderful. I guess it struck me so hard because this was my first visit past the Mississippi River. I’m still a greenhorn. I haven’t seen Wyoming’s Wind River range, or Colorado’s Pike's Peak, or Utah’s Green River area, or Nevada’s desert, or even Idaho and Arizona. We saw plenty of cowboy gear at Wall Drugs. Hats, boots, scarves, chaps, belts, weapons and spurs, you name it.
There was no fence along the rim. A sign here and there, maybe, warning of a sheer drop off and the danger in trying to climb down. On our drive back home from Montana, we chose a spot where we could drive through a larger area (off 240, or whatever they call the roads there) and that was even better. Again, hard to explain the scenery. We parked and walked along part of the gully bottom, saw the interesting types of “greenery” – not sure if they were grasses, or cacti, or some type of heather or what have you – and my husband and daughter climbed to a rocky hill (I’m too chicken and dislike heights) so I could take photos.
Alas, I haven’t scanned those in yet to my computer. But we sure enjoyed our visit out west. To me, the Badlands epitomize what “the wilder west” might have looked like when I thought of “the Hole in the Wall” and other remote spots for black-hat bad guys to hide.
The Badlands do not figure in my book, Double Crossing, which is set for the most part on the transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. But it did win the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel! That's a great honor.
2012 Spur Award Winner for Best First Novel from
Western Writers of America
Astraea Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords
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