Friday, September 11, 2009

Day in the Badlands

This fall I finally set aside two weeks for a driving vacation. I left on a Saturday morning, and returned on a Thursday afternoon so I could have a three-day weekend at home before going back to work. I drove 700 miles on the first day, all the way to Badlands National Park. After such a long drive, I did not feel like pitching my new tent for the first time, so I found a cheap and smelly motel room, opened the window, and headed back into the park.

I thought I had seen badlands before because I had seen a few buttes from the interstate. Badlands National Park blew me completely away. It is continual "bad lands to travel across," a fur trader's living nightmare. The landscape goes up and down, undulating like a 19th-century seascape, and much of it is sandy and treacherous besides. In addition, there are prairie rattlesnakes. One sign noted that if we were careful and hiked very quietly, we might have the privilege of hearing the warning rattle before the snake struck. O, the joys of communing with nature!

On that first evening I walked the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, where I saw some extremely habituated wildlife, breathed in the juniper, took in the views, and watched for prairie rattlesnakes. It was quite relaxing. As the sun set, I drove up to a scenic overlook and took some night pictures, and then I attended a ranger presentation on the night sky. The Badlands are, fittingly, a "dark place," and if the moon is not too full, one can see a lot of stars. On this night the moon was nearly full, but there were still a few constellations visible to the naked eye. They had telescopes available for visitors, which was a wonderful thing for them to do for people, but I left early. It was late, and there were a lot of digressions in the presentation, and I decided to go away and sleep.
I got up for a sunrise hike but slightly misestimated the time of the sunrise. I was at the trail at 6:20, but 6:00 would have been better. At any rate, getting up early was the best thing to do. Temperatures were unusually cool in the Badlands, but it was still hot, and it was still dry. I hiked on the Castle Trail only from 6:30 to 8:15, but by the time I returned, I was quite warm, and I could not have gone much farther without packing additional water. If I return to do the Castle Trail/Medicine Loop hike, I will pack along more than a gallon of water, no matter how early I start.
The slanted rays of the morning sun allowed me to see the colors of the Badlands formations more clearly. Later in the day the sun is so bright that the cliffs seem almost white. In fact, I took an evening photo of a cliff that I thought was white, and I was surprised to see several different shades of tan when I opened the image up later.

The Castle Trail is a marked walkway in which you follow posts, not a groomed trail. When you reach one post, you look for the next one, and you follow whatever path looks best to get you there. Jumping around on the rocks is genuinely great fun; of course I wore heavy boots in case of rattlesnakes, but I could still jump around pretty well anyway. There are a few sinkholes that look like prime rattlesnake habitat, and I avoided those. Since there is so much erosion, you can see all kinds of different layers of rock, and you can often see the root systems of the prairie grasses. The very tippy-top of the Badlands formations is where ground level once was, but so much has eroded away through the work of ancient rivers and the ever-present prairie wind, that now the ground level is significantly lower.
After my hike, I went on a geology walk with a ranger and a group of smart-alecky older travellers much like myself. I am not sure whether we learned more or laughed more, but I suspect the latter. I learned that to prevent plague, South Dakota parks have been spraying flea powder into prairie dog towns, right into the tunnels, and that this process makes the prairie dogs highly indignant and aggravated. I learned that an early park geologist (Ferdinand V. Hayden) was known to the Sioux as "Man who Picks up Stones while Running," because he would see them coming and try to run away, but he could not bear to leave his fossil finds behind so he would stuff them into his bag as he ran. The Sioux actually left him alone because they thought he was completely crazy for being out there without food or water, and after all, crazy men are touched by the holy spirit.
When we finished talking and laughing ourselves silly, and hiked out to the end of the Door Trail and checked out yet another phenomenal view of seemingly endless badlands, I headed on out. I scooped the rest of the main drive through the park, stopped at a few overlooks, and drove up to Wall for lunch. (Later I also found women's jeans without spandex at Wall Drug, so Wall proved useful to me on this trip. Most department stores no longer carry 100% cotton women's jeans.)
I decided to drive down to the south end of the park to see the visitor center run by the Oglala Sioux. Although it was a good visitor center and I enjoyed visiting it, I would not have gone if I had had any idea how long it would take to get there and to get back out again. The roads were in poor condition, and it took simply hours. I thought it was interesting that the visitor center was located in an area so far from the rest of the park, and I wondered whose idea that was. I did not reach Wind Cave National Park until nearly 6:00. Luckily, my tent assembled easily, and I spent some time lying around staring vacantly until it was time for the evening ranger presentation.

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