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The Beautiful Badlands

A visit to one of America's great natural monuments, where one traveler is reminded of our impermanence.

The Beautiful Badlands
by Dave Karlotski

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Dear Rudy,

The Badlands of South Dakota rises up out of the grass like a wall of multicolored rock. The road winds along the wall for 20 miles as the bands of color alternate between coral and bone; up close, the wall expands into a maze of stone towers and cones, of delicate rock ribbons and ridges.

The land smelled like fall and looked like an undiscovered moon. Stone spires rose up out of the prairie like icebergs carved from the rock or the half-buried steeples of windowless cathedrals.


Closer still, the surface of the rock wore a skin of cracked clay that crumbled when touched. It's disturbing that such a vast piece of stone architecture is just a transient layer of beauty on the move, a frail mud-mask illusion of permanence. I could brush the whole of the Badlands away with just my fingertips and a little time.

There's something more about the Badlands, though; when I finally laid eyes on the wall I felt like I'd come home. I know that's crazy. Maybe a place as beautiful as this starts to short-circuit the brain and excite nonsensical emotions. Or maybe I was a changeling-child after all, and being raised by people and dogs was not enough to mask the grind and throb of rocks in the streambeds of my blood.

I had to face down a buffalo on the way to the campground. I wasn't sure if it was going to yield; we stared at each other and considered the fact that I was much smaller and not protected by doors or windows. It let me go, but around the next corner there was a whole herd in the road. At that point I learned that my motorcycle makes buffalo stampede; so far they've always stampeded away from me. I felt guilty at first, but since I couldn't help it I came to think of it as good fun, and I think they enjoyed running around.

Northern lights

After dark I listened to the coyotes and the low rumbling the buffalo make that sounds like the earth quaking. The sky was so huge and bright with stars that the handful of constellations familiar to me melted away, lost in the finer structures of light like tigers in the grass.

There wasn't a cloud or blemish on the sky except a low glow on the northern horizon. I thought it was city light at first, but the town to the north wasn't big enough for the glow and its light wouldn't throw shifting spokes and spires into the sky.

It was the Northern Lights, which I had only seen once before and years ago. They were ghostly and faint, their features flowing slowly and best seen out through the corner of my eye; first they were a low arch, then more like a ribbon, then high pillars of light marking one of the old roads to the Silver City. In their forms and configuration they looked much like the wall of the Badlands.


Savvy Resources for the Badlands:

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