I'd only ever been to the Badlands in December 20+ years ago, camping in a parking lot in my VW Vanagon on a whistle-stop tour of the US, dropping off and picking up friends around the country in the college break between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Somewhere I have a pile of black and white film negatives and contact sheets patiently waiting for the scanner I plan to buy someday. In the winter everything was white, grey, and black, with streaks of red pushing through the snow in spots. It was beautiful then, and it was beautiful on this visit, though utterly different.
I pushed north from Cheyenne across miles of rolling farmland, forced to cross Nebraska, but only a tiny corner of it, thereby avoiding the time warps I'm certain are spaced at even intervals across its highways, making every trip 17 days longer than necessary. I rolled through tiny towns on secondary roads, quickly learning that a water tower meant gas stations, but that a grain elevator did not necessarily promise the same.
Janet (my Google Maps voice) took me down a 20-mile dirt road, a "shortcut" that rattled the nerves of my faithful car. I found Carhenge along the side of the road, a place I knew of, but wasn't about to go out of my way to see. It was pretty impressive, especially when I learned that the place is as exact a replica of Stonehenge as possible. The circle is built on the site of an old family farm and was eventually donated to the town of Alliance, NE.
I arrived at Badlands National Park with plenty of time to check into the campground, pitch Yoda, and head out for a preliminary driving tour. I made my way up one side of the park loop, and then took my time returning, stopping to watch Bighorn Sheep graze along the side of the road.
The sun blasted down, relentless in its heat and light, burning everything into pale submission. I was surprised and happy to see so much green grass and scrub, and wildflowers pouring over the sides of the roads. There were prairie and pronghorns everywhere, sometimes in the road. Either I've gotten used to seeing animals everywhere, or most people don't get a chance to have that experience very often, because as I was watching some sheep graze, a man and his boys came screeching through the parking lot, hopped out of their car, pointed wildly and yelled "There's WILDLIFE over there!!!!" I said thanks and that I saw them. The family then screamed off to their next destination, quite possibly not hearing me.
After a simple dinner back at my campsite, I spent an hour or two sheltering from the sun under the wooden roof of my picnic table. Between the truly never-ending wind and the energy I spent on avoiding the sun, I came to quickly understand how people lost their minds as homesteaders in this part of the world.
There is no quiet, no shade, no darkness; there is only the incessant wind and the pressure of the sun. This is a part of the world where you learn immediately to always travel with water on your person, where you always cover your skin, and where you always have a Plan B. It is forbidding and alluring all at once.
I visited a prairie homestead just outside the park. The yard was riddled with prairie dog holes, their watchful eyes clocking my every move as their strange chatter filled the air. The buildings were tiny and though I was dripping sweat and drinking water like it was my job, all I could think about was how brutal a place it must have been to live during the winters. It's not the first homestead I've visited on this trip, but it was the smallest, and somehow, the most fragile.
I hit Wall Drug, because you pretty much have to see that crazy place of you're in the neighborhood. I bought beer jelly because I couldn't help it. Someone will be getting a hopefully delightful breakfast treat.
The Yellow Mounds were among my favorite stops inside the park because of their rainbow hues. Many wildflowers and a fair amount of grass grew among them, making the stop seem like an oasis in the desert. I also loved the Door and Window trails, which allowed me to move around and see some of the formations up close, minus any snakes.
I celebrated my last night with a ridiculously long coin-op shower, planning to leave at the crack of dawn so that I could make a pit stop to see some presidents on my way to North Dakota.