2000s Archive

Going to Extremes

Originally Published June 2005
Barren and unforgiving or shimmering and sublime? The beauty of Badlands National Park is in the eye of the beholder

Suddenly the buffalo charges us. It’s late morning at the 777 Ranch, on the far western edge of the White River Badlands, that spectacular cache of eroded gullies, jagged peaks, and dramatic gulches that spreads across the southwestern quadrant of South Dakota like a giant baked Alaska. I have driven 25 miles south of Rapid City to see how a herd of 1,500 bison copes with this geologic phenomenon in the midst of their native prairie.

“The buffalo and the Badlands evolved together,” says Mimi Hillenbrand, who runs her family’s 24,000-acre ranch with a mixture of hard-nosed economics and big-hearted love. “Those animals can actually crawl around the Badlands. I can’t get mad if a big, wild bull gets up in there and I can’t get to him.”

She has loaded me (and her dog) into a souped-up buggy and driven us out into the middle of the herd. It’s mating season, when the bulls scratch after the cows in the dirt, and rumble and moan like an approaching tornado. One feisty bull urinates on the ground, then rolls around in the puddle. “It keeps away the bugs,” Hillenbrand says.

But not the girls. With 850 cows and 65 bulls, the rituals of a buffalo sock hop are fairly indelicate. “This time of year, the cows get crabby and the males get aggressive,” she says. “We had a bull turn over a four-wheeler. And we lost a horse recently when a buffalo disemboweled it. If a buffalo’s tail goes up and it’s not pooping, it’s ticked off.”

And just like that, a tail goes up and a bull turns toward us. “I think we’d better get going,” Hillenbrand says. “Hold on!”

We scoot down the hill as the buffalo starts chasing us. The curve of the horns seems menacing all of a sudden, and the eyes are fierce and black. The dog starts barking. I am looking back at the lumbering speed of the bull when suddenly our buggy hits the edge of a gully and, for a second, seems to catch air.

This is the Wild West today: Once white men roamed on horseback, slaughtering buffalo for sport; now we breed buffalo for low-fat burgers and try to outrun them in golf carts.

The story of the Badlands began 35 million years ago, about halfway between now and the dinosaurs. The shallow Western Interior Sea, which divided the continent into eastern and western land masses, drained away, leaving North America whole. A subtropical environment developed on the seabed, creatures gathered, and their bones fossilized in the mud. Half a million years ago, erosion sliced deep into the earth, leaving an enormous gulch and the most extensive collection of fossilized Oligocene mammals on the planet.

Nineteenth-century travelers didn’t care about the fossils; all that mattered to them was how difficult it was to move stagecoaches through the area, particularly the 60-mile stretch of cliff that runs along the northern border. French trappers called the area “les mauvaises terres à traverser” (“the bad lands to traverse”), and the Lakota tribe added the moniker to their own language: “mako sica” (“bad land”). The region has had an image problem ever since.

Peter Norbeck, the U.S. Senator from South Dakota who dreamed in the 1920s of turning the area into a national park, understood the name game, and proposed to Congress that it be called Wonderland National Park. When that fizzled, he suggested Teton National Park, based on what was believed to be the Lakota word for “bad prairie.” (Téton is actually French for “breast.”) Finally, he just gave up, and the Badlands they remained.

Congress rejected his application altogether—with Grand and Bryce canyons, there was enough erosion in the park system already, they said—and so the area became a lesser National Monument in 1939. Almost 30 years later, 133,000 acres of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation were added, and the Badlands eventually achieved national-park status in 1978.

Today, the unfortunate name contributes to a fascinating dynamic: Nearly one third of visitors to the park don’t find it attractive, estimates chief naturalist Marianne Mills. “My father came here,” she explains. “He said that it was one of the least interesting places he’d ever seen, and we should just give it back to the American Indian.”

Mills, a cherubic polyglot who majored in math and musical theater and is herself a fraction Native American, finds the Badlands mesmerizing. “I think it’s a place of tremendous beauty, and that’s coming from someone who loves trees and water more than anything. If you like the play of light and shadow, it’s one of the best places in the world.”

One of the most appealing features of the terrain is the juxtaposition of the stark formations—made of rock so soft it hardly qualifies as rock—and the pristinely gentle prairie. The smoothness of the grass serves to make the eroded pinnacles and delicately colored layers of rock even more arresting, like some subterranean drip castle full of arches, dikes, tiny hidden windows, and knobs that appear ready to topple over in the next breeze.

“What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious otherwhere,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright after a visit in 1935, “a distant architecture, ethereal, touched, only touched with a sense of Egyptian, Mayan drift and silhouette.” They were endless trabeations, he continued, rising into pyramid and temple, “exquisitely chiseled in endless detail, they began to reach to infinity spreading into the sky on every side.”

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