I needed a break.
From screens, schedules, a hair brush, even indoor plumbing. I just needed to get away from my normal routine for a little while and get lost in the wild.
A few days beforehand, my agency announced we were closed the Friday and Monday of Labor Day weekend. A surprise four-day weekend presents the opportunity for some big adventure, so Luke and I decided to pack up the 4-Runner and drive eight hours west to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Here, the word “moonscape” is a part of the common vernacular. If that’s not the embodiment of “away,” then I don’t know what else is.
We set out after work on Thursday night and made it to Sioux Falls at midnight. The next day, we showered thoroughly, knowing it would be our last one for a little while, and continued our westward journey across the prairie at 80 miles-per-hour. Gradually, the billboards for Wall Drug became an ever-present part of the landscape and the gas stations and restaurants transformed into mini movie sets from old western films.
Finally, we could see alien rock formations cutting sharply into the horizon. Badlands National Park – one of the most unusual places in the world, is often treated as a pass-through attraction for road trippers on their way to Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone. We were no exception when we first visited six years ago. Seeing this landscape at sunset left a deeply romantic impression on us and we always vowed to come back and give it the attention it deserves.
The park is essentially one big free-for-all. There are only a handful of marked hiking trails and two campgrounds located within its boundaries – one is privately operated and the other is unregulated. Everything else is considered the “backcountry” and you’re free to hike and camp wherever you wish. There are some rules in place: you must sign the trail registry (so the park rangers know when to come look for you) and you must camp 1/2 mile away from a marked trail and not be visible from the road. Otherwise, the world is your oyster.
Initially, we thought we’d camp in the backcountry, but given my slight fear of the dark and pronounced fear of large, wild animals roaming freely, we decided to sleep at the Sage Creek Campground located on the western edge of the park’s north unit. The set-up is basic: an open field in the middle of a circular road where cars can park overnight. There are about 10 picnic tables, two pit toilets and a small herd of resident bison who aren’t phased by the presence of humans. To illustrate my point, we heard loud snorts and heavy hooves outside our tent early one morning. We unzipped the door to see a massive bull passing by not more than 10 feet away.
Hiking around the Badlands is a different kind of experience altogether. Most of the national parks we’ve visited have well-defined, well-marked trails with maps or wayfinding signs to follow. Here, you simply pick a starting point and go however far you wish in whatever direction you choose. We wanted to explore the prairie first, so we parked at the Sage Creek Basin Overlook, signed the registry and followed a faint trail through sharp, shin-deep grass that cut lightly into our legs. We used our big, white truck parked high on the hill as our reference point and followed the steady trail of bison droppings forward.
We walked for a few hours, hoping to reach the massive formations in the distance, but we miscalculated the mileage. It was still early evening, but the sun was quickly falling out of the sky. We stopped at the edge of a cliff to admire a milky white stream below us and the silence and beauty all around us. There was no one in sight – no traffic, no people, no animals. There was only the orange light from the setting sun, the red and gray piles of ancient rock sticking out of the endless prairie, and the two of us, breathlessly taking it all in. Sharp formations tore into the horizon in the far distance, reminding me of just how old and wild this land is. It has experienced many rebirths and transformations. What remains today is still a work-in-progress of what it’s destined to become.
With this bit of perspective in mind, I’m glad we decided to stop short of our intended destination. It gave us the chance to stop our blind march forward and evaluate what’s truly right for the situation at hand. It also gave me the ability to fully absorb and appreciate the freedom I sought by coming here in the first place. I just needed to give myself the opportunity to actually see it. Also, it got really dark really fast and we weren’t prepared to bumble around blindly knowing the bison responsible for our way-finding droppings would surely return for the evening.