The change from Nebraska to South Dakota was so subtle we didn’t even notice until we realized we were on reservation land.
“We’re in South Dakota!” I grinned. This was my first time in the state, and one of many firsts for me on this trip.
We drove north through Rosebud Indian Reservation until we got to Mission and turned west. We’d passed a gas station, but prices seemed high so I suggested we skip it. Surely there would be another gas station between where we were and Badlands National Park.
You’d think I’d never been on a road trip before.
There are two cardinal rules of road trips: go to the bathroom before you have to, and never pass a gas station when you’re below half a tank in the middle of a place with no cell service. It was not my first rodeo, yet here we were coasting down hills because the distance-to-empty was precipitously low.
Jim watched the fuel gauge and I watched the scenery. We entered the Pine Ridge Reservation and for the first time in more than 24 hours saw arable land. In the Midwest it’s rare to drive more than an hour or two without seeing a field, a farm, or a town. Technically, South Dakota is the Midwest, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.
We were headed towards the Pacific Ocean, and I knew from that point on, until we reached Minnesota on our return visit, the sight of fields would be more of a rarity than a certainty. This was unknown territory and I gazed out the window in wonder.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into Wanblee’s gas station. Jim didn’t say a word, but then again, he knew he didn’t have to. I wasn’t about to make that mistake twice.
We filled up again in Interior, South Dakota, at Cowboy Corner, a relic of a station with mechanical gas pumps, a painted horse, and the shell of a covered wagon. In the background, the spine of the Badlands beckoned.
It was our fourth day, our fourth state, and our third night camping.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the Interior entrance to Badlands National Park was a madhouse. We’d already picked up our National Parks Access Pass, which would get us into that park and all future ones for a year, and now we needed to find a place to sleep for the night.
We dodged Junior Rangers and families, finally making our way to the counter. I asked about campsites and the Ranger pulled back and eyed me like I was all sorts of crazy. “Oh, they’ve been filling up every night.” He looked at the clock. 4 pm. “They’re probably all gone by now.”
Our plan had been to camp at Sage Creek Campground, which was free and first come, first served. However, that was clear across the park and he told us it would take at least an hour to get there. We tried Cedar Pass Campground, since it was right there. Pulled up behind an RV. An RV that took the last spot.
Crap crap crappity crap.
We turned around and drove towards the other end of the park. I don’t think I can describe how frustrating it was to take one of the most scenic drives in the country and not stop at a single overlook or pull-out.
If we found a place to sleep, we’d have time to drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. For now, we needed to get to Sage Creek.
Despite my tension, as we neared the campground I could see where it got its name. The landscape had migrated from bluffs and spires to calming sage-colored ripples. We turned off the main road and down into a relatively flat plain filled with bison and tents.
So many tents.
The campground itself was one big oval. There were a few sheltered picnic tables, some tables without any cover, and a couple of pit toilets on opposite sides of the oval from each other. It was basically just a field, and campers staked their claim wherever they could find an open spot around the outside edge. (We learned later why no one camped in the middle.) It wasn’t quite a free-for-all, though. There’s a code among campers, one that includes allowing a certain amount of space between you and your neighbor.
We circled twice, finally deciding that a space we weren’t sure about really did have enough room for our tent. Other hopeful campers circled after us, and we realized we’d gotten the last spot.
It wasn’t the first time we’d underestimate the popularity of a place, nor the last time we’d luck into the last place available to sleep for the night.
What I’ve failed to mention is that outside that oval, a whole herd of bison was milling about as casually as a bunch of cows along the side of the road. But these weren’t cows. They were bison. Those HUGE GIGANTIC TRUCKS of the animal kingdom. The ones they warn you about with big signs. “Stay away,” they say. “These are wild animals and they can kill you,” they say. And then they put a campground IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BISON.
We gamely attempted to ignore the beasts while we set up camp and made dinner. As we dined on Wisconsin brats and bagged salad, we noticed a ranger stopping to talk to each camper before approaching our table. She was inviting everyone to the evening program, where she’d be demonstrating how to throw an atlatl.
My eyes bugged out and I scarfed my brat. Jim smirked and said something along the lines of “So, you want to go see this?” and I replied “YES YES YES I WANT TO SEE THIS!”
Before you think I’m totally off my rocker, I’d read about atlatls in my teens. I think the first time was in Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children book series. Anyway, these spear throwers were one of the first hunting tools used by humans, as in 30,000-years-ago first tools. This ingenious invention could propel a dart more than the length of a football field. Most importantly, it could pierce the thick hide of a bison.
We made our way across the campground, dodging bison pies along the way. Kathleen the Ranger had already begun her demonstration, explaining the physics of the instrument to the growing crowd. Kids stood in front and we all followed along with rapt attention, distracted only by a heckling prairie dog that chirped incessantly anytime she spoke.
After her demonstration, we threaded a path back through the minefield of giant piles of dried poop and jumped in our car. We were in the Badlands and we were going to see the sunset. Driving back along the main road, we figured we’d pull over at one of the many overlooks we’d passed in our rush to get to the campground. Most of the road in that part of the park was on the rim, so we knew there wouldn’t be a bad place to stop.
Unless we had to because there was a giant bison in the middle of the road.
I realize that “giant” and “bison” are redundant, but I feel the sheer size of these creatures needs to be emphasized. Often. They. Are. Giant.
A line of cars coming the other direction stopped as the beast sauntered a few steps, turned a bit, strolled a few more, and began loping towards us. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. Jim backed up slowly. Did you know that bison can run up to 40 mph? That’s as fast as a horse, but these suckers are the biggest mammals in North America and have an average weight of 1,400 pounds. Our SUV, our suddenly petite Jeep Cherokee, was perched on the spine of a butte and that charging animal had more than enough power to push us over the edge. The beast slowed, and as we looked to our right we saw the reason for his aggression.
He had a friend, and she was stranded on the side of the road all by herself.
When we’d backed up far enough (thank goodness there were few cars behind us and they backed up, too), Mr. gathered up Mrs. and they loped across the road to the other side. Exhaling, we drove until the next overlook and watched a glorious sunset over a wild and majestic land.
I’ve had a lot of early morning visitors while camping. Deer. A roadrunner. Rabbits. Turkeys (jerks). But, until this morning, never in my life have I stepped out of the tent and almost immediately come nose to snout with a creature as tall as our SUV and strong enough to smush me with one prairie-tearing hoof.
The sun edged over the ridge and I heard magpies for the first time. I listened, blinked, and there he was. “Nose to snout” might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
We’d staked our tent a few feet from Jeannie the Jeep and on the other side of the road a bison was munching his way around the campground. Another early-riser and I stood on the safe side of our respective vehicles and marveled at the sheer size of this creature. Here and there, more bison were making their way through the dew-covered grass, ripping it out of the ground with their massive jaws.
As the morning progressed, one strolled up to a picnic table and used it to scratch an itch. Another stopped right next to a tent and dropped a pile of poop. All of this was within swatting distance of people who were advised by the signs next to the pit toilets to keep 100 yards away from these animals.
It was surreal and frightening, yet peaceful. Another oxymoron.
The campground began to awaken. I noticed a couple of women next to us had a bike rack similar to ours on the back of their car, and I watched as they popped the trunk – with the bike rack still attached.
Three nights in a row we’d removed our bike rack so we could get into the back of our vehicle for our camping equipment, only to have to put it back on the next morning, fighting to make sure it was stable enough to handle the drive.
You’d think two fairly intelligent people would realize that if the bike rack is attached snugly enough to keep from falling off when you’re driving on bumpy roads or at speeds up to 75 – 80 mph, that it might possibly be secured snugly enough to stay in place when you open the trunk.
I don’t know who those two ladies were, but I thank them. There’s no telling how long it would have taken us to realize that we could leave the darn thing on. When you camp as much as we did on this trip, mostly one night at a time, having one less task, and an onerous one at that, is a HUGE deal.
Jim was up by seven and we were at our first overlook, sans bike rack, by eight. We’d decided to get up and go and would pack up the site after we’d explored.
“That’s distracting,” he said.
“I can see out the rear window.”
It felt a little odd to leave our stuff in an open field where bison roamed and pooped willy-nilly, but we were anxious to actually see these Badlands beyond our brief sojourn the night before.
The length of time it takes to drive from Sage Creek Campground to the entrance of Badlands National Park while stopping at every single overlook is three hours, give or take a few minutes. This allows time to read each wayside exhibit, take innumerable photos of prairie dogs, wait out the tour bus throng when you have the misfortune of reaching an overlook at the same time one is present, and stare in slack-jawed awe at each serrated, striated, stupefying view.
The landscape is a lesson in geology. Bands of color represent the epochs, from the compressed ancient seabed that makes up the nearly-black Pierre Shale, through the fossil soil of the yellow mounds, to the light gray volcanic ash spires of the Sharps Formation. When your eyes roam the horizon you see lines that cut straight through each peak like a printer that’s running out of ink.
It’s a harsh land, yet somehow humans have lived in this environment for more than 11,000 years.
The Lakota, the last semi-nomadic peoples to live here, called it mako sica, or “land bad.” They survived by hunting bison on horseback and using everything they could from the animal. Then French fur trappers came, followed by American soldiers, miners, and settlers. The cultures fought desperately for a stake in what each considered home. On December 24, 1890, Chief Big Foot, despite being ill with pneumonia, led 350 of his people through the Badlands to escape the United States Army. Their retreat ended five days later and 50-some miles to the south at Wounded Knee. The Army slaughtered nearly 200 native men, women, and children that day, and the free roaming of the Lakota Sioux ended once and for all.
Since the passage of the Homesteaders Act in 1862, settlers had been steadily arriving, trying to make their own way in this unforgiving environment. It was rough going. They created a checkerboard pattern on a land that didn’t play games. Their 160-acre stakes became known as “Starvation Claims,” and they lived in tar paper shacks and burned cow chips for fuel. Most of them didn’t last. To put it into perspective, today’s ranchers in this area of South Dakota need thousands of acres and heavy equipment to survive. As we looked over a land ill-suited for agriculture, I could only imagine the fortitude required to stay and make a life.
We parked in the crowded lot of Burns Basin Overlook and stepped up the boardwalk, passing a “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign. Along the way to the top, a snarl of tourists hunched in a semicircle. As we approached, we could hear the rattle. At the top of the walk the tour guide fretted with her hands covering her mouth. “It’ll strike!” she said, as her charges leaned closer to get a picture. I confess; I probably got a little closer than I should have, but it was my first rattlesnake in the wild and there were people in front of me, so I figured I didn’t have to be faster than the snake…
At the top of the overlook the boardwalk expanded to provide more room to view the panorama. We oohed and aahed, then headed back to Jeannie and noticed a couple hiking where there was no path. An Aussie gent from the tour bus pointed at them Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style.
“They’re degrading the surface!” he shrieked. “They’re degrading the surface!”
His outraged hue and cry became our all-purpose mantra any time in the future we saw people going where they weren’t supposed to go. Group walking right by the ‘Do not walk here’ warning? “They’re degrading the surface!” Lady making a snow-angel next to a sign telling her to stay on the sidewalk? “She’s degrading the surface!” Somebody cutting in front of a line of cars at the exit? “He’s degrading the surface!”
You get the point.
We continued toward the entrance of the park. At some overlooks, the buttes melted into the plains. At others, the spires’ permanence seemed undeniable, even though geologists estimate they’ll all be gone in another 500,000 years. At our last stop, the Fossil Exhibit Trail, we glimpsed the morbid sense of humor of the National Park Service. One sign detailed how mammals were “Dying to become a fossil.” The Welcome sign to the short trail informed us that animals could Move, Adapt, or Die, with a picture of a dead oreodont, its legs straight up in the air, illustrating the last option.
Have I mentioned how much I love our National Park Service?
We took the long-way-around-shortcut back to the campground through Buffalo Gap National Grassland. It didn’t save us any time, but we got to drive faster, and anyone who’s dealt with traffic and short mileage vs. clear lanes and longer distance will choose the latter every time. Thankfully, our tent and bikes were upright and pie-free, so we loaded up for our next destination.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my book, “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2.”