Dispatches From the Road: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Meadow, Badlands National Park. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

“Why? They call them the Badlands for a reason,” the reporter replied when I mentioned I wanted to spend some time in the national park in South Dakota.

Other than saying my father talked about how he loved the rugged grandeur of the area that he’d visited while stationed nearby with the Army, I didn’t have a ready response.

But when it comes to travel, my father is usually right.

Work had called me to Sioux Falls, near the state’s eastern borders with Minnesota and Iowa. I decided to fly into Rapid City on the other end a few days early to visit Deadwood and Mount Rushmore – and to load up on fudge from the Black Hills – before heading to the park just north of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Native Americans used the area as hunting grounds for thousands of years. The area is full of artifacts and fossils.

Extreme temperatures, lack of water and difficult terrain led the Lakota people to dub it “mako sica,” or “bad land.” French-Canadian trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” meaning “bad lands to travel through.”

By the mid-19th century the Great Sioux Nation had displaced the other tribes, but their reign didn’t last. The federal government seized territory and forced them onto reservations. Many thousands became followers of Wovoka, a prophet who had a vision that wearing Ghost Clothes and doing the Ghost Dance would make Natives impervious to bullets. The white man would vanish and the hunting grounds would be restored.

In 1890, a band of Minneconjou Sioux, seeking refuge in the reservation, crossed into the park while pursued by Army units.

Soldiers caught up at Wounded Knee Creek and ordered the group to remain. Accounts of what happened the next day vary. Some claim a fight broke out while the Army tried to disarm a tribal member. A shot was fired, but it’s unclear from which side.

Wildflowers, Badlands National Park. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Surrounded as they were by a large group of heavily armed troops, it seems unlikely the Native Americans would start a fight, and some claim the soldiers wanted to enact revenge for their loss at The Battle of the Little Bighorn 14 years earlier in what is now Montana.

In the end at least 150 Native Americans were killed, a large percentage women and children. The cavalry lost 25 men.

The last major confrontation in the federal government’s war against the Plains Indians, Wounded Knee, more massacre than battle, also effectively ended the Ghost Dance movement.

In the ensuing decades homesteaders who moved into the area had to get creative if they were to eke out an existence.

Grass was a rare commodity in many of the plots, and in some the only virgin sod sat on the tops of high islands left behind after the areas around them eroded away.

The sides of these high grassy tables were too steep for cattle to climb. Enterprising homesteaders waited until the grass was ready to cut, took apart a lawnmower, moved the pieces to the top, re-assembled the machine and cut and baled the grass. They hitched the bale to a cable stretched from the rim to the lower prairie and slid the grass down to where their cattle could eat it.

Badlands National Park. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

The grassy tables remain, chewed by bighorn sheep and deer, the only animals that can climb the steep sides. But the homesteaders are long gone, driven out by the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s and recurring grasshopper infestations.

On my first visit to the park I had only a few hours to spare. Do I take the main paved road to sections of the park that promised the best views, or the small dirt road to a place called Roberts Prairie Dog Town?

I took the one less traveled by, and it made all the difference.

Scores of prairie dogs poked their heads out of burrows and dove back. Some dashed across the grass.

But the bison were the main attraction, more than making up in number for the sole beast this bureau chief encountered on an earlier trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Bison on the Dakota prairie. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Most wandered about, munching grass, but one rolled in it, entertaining a growing crowd of onlookers.

After getting my fill I wandered across the road and down a game trail. A grassy valley opened at the bottom of the hill. I hiked for a while, carefully avoiding huge bison pies, accompanied only by a light breeze.

Turning back, I was struck by the different shades of purple rock rising from the green field.

Looking out later over miles of rocky earth interrupted by small bits of grass, I understood why they’re called the Badlands but also why my father loved the area. The landscape could not be much different from the lush woods, lakes and mountains of his native northwestern Maine, but they both ooze beauty and promise solitude.

On my way out I followed a sign for a mixed-grass prairie into an empty lot. The rolling grass, dancing slightly in the wind, was hypnotizing.

But the grasslands can also get a bit monotonous, and after a few miles back on the interstate I knew that to stay awake on the four-hour drive to Sioux Falls I would need coffee, open windows, loud music and more than a few dips into my dwindling fudge reserves.

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