2000s Archive

Going to Extremes

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On top of this geologic spectacle, the Badlands have dramatic weather—blistering summers, shivering winters, and always, always the wind. “I have never been anyplace else where the wind genuinely makes me decide how to face my day,” says Mills. “Our winds blow at twenty-five to thirty miles per hour pretty constantly, and commonly gust at sixty. I only have to walk a hundred yards to get to my workplace, but if it’s January and the wind is blowing from the north, I have to completely cover my face and eyes because I will get frostbite within that distance.”

There are few picnics in the Badlands, she says. Talking outside can be difficult. She passes some of her favorite days just sitting by her picture window, watching a storm go by.

So, what do the badlands have to offer? Few restrictions, for one. Unlike in many parks, visitors can drive on the limited roads that circle the vistas, walk on a handful of nature trails, or venture off into the backcountry. Here, the Badlands become truly wild, a span of untouched American wilderness where you’re just as likely to kick over the fossilized jaw of an Archaeotherium, a prehistoric sort of warthog, as stumble into a Native American prayer nook.

This idea of wilderness, so central to human spirituality since the days of Moses, is a big part of the Badlands mystique—especially to the Lakota, who use the remote spires and hideaways of the park for vision quests. In a vision quest, a person camps alone for three or four days, fasting, drinking only water, and looking for guidance from the spirits of the buffalo, the wind, and Mother Earth.

Worshippers often leave behind a small offering, like a brightly colored piece of string, as a sign of their quest. As Mills says, “We ask visitors if they do find something that looks like a rag, that they not remove it. It’s not garbage. It’s someone’s prayer.”

The other thing the Badlands have in abundance is animals—in addition to buffalo and bobcats, there are black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest mammals in North America, and about 80,000 prairie dogs. Prairie dogs—which look a lot like hamsters, only bigger and plumper—are the bête noire of the American West: a nuisance, a charm, a necessity, and, in the end, the only mammal more abundant here than the bewildered tourists anxious to push on to Mount Rushmore. One dawn, I join Greg Schroeder, a wildlife biologist, as he sets out to trap the noisy rodents and ship them off to Ted Turner’s South Dakota ranch.

Turner wants to reintroduce black-footed ferrets but needs more prairie dogs. Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct before a small population was discovered in 1981. Today, more than 250 of the lithe, nocturnal mammals live in and around the park, the largest population in the wild. The reason? Prairie dogs—their principal source of protein.

Schroeder explains that many ranchers dislike prairie dogs because they feed on the same grass as cattle, but he dismisses as an old wives’ tale the idea that cattle can break a leg by stepping in a prairie-dog burrow. Is he the only person in the Dakotas who loves them?

“I don’t know if I have an emotional attachment to them, but I understand they have a purpose, and that many animals rely on them. They just have to be controlled.”

In a small field beyond the park’s entrance, Schroeder traps the dogs in a sprawling herd of metal cages, sprinkled inside with pellets of oats, corn, and molasses. On this morning, he picks up a handful of dogs and adds them to cages of more than 300. He catches mostly juveniles, he says, and the population will quickly rebound.

Asked why the Badlands is considered the prairie dog of national parks, Schroeder defends the scenery as he did the creature. “There are too many people whose idea of beautiful is a city park. Everything is well trimmed, lush, and green, with mowed grass everywhere and birds singing. Or they think nature should be the rushing water of Niagara. All of nature is not like that. What’s beautiful about this place is the resiliency of it. We will be over one hundred degrees in the summer; in the winter it’s cold to the extreme. And yet nature still finds a way to survive. And thrive.”

The other unwritten parallel between the Badlands and the great wildernesses of the world is that visiting the area can be, well, ascetic. Few people make the park a destination, as compared with Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Many stop by for an afternoon on the way to Mount Rushmore, about 90 minutes away. The only motels in the area are of the swimming-pool-in-the-parking-lot, free-doughnut-in- the-lobby variety. For lovers of camp, a visit to the nearby Wall Drug shopping complex, made famous by its signs littered around the globe—“100 Miles to Wall Drug,” “2,534 Miles to Wall Drug”—can be fun, with its city block full of plastic bobble-head cowboys and genuine rawhide toilet seats, along with “free water.”

It would be fair to say that amenities in the Badlands are sparse. In a week, the only fresh vegetable I see is iceberg lettuce. One night, I drive two hours to and from Rapid City to eat at the fabulous Corn Exchange. It’s run by a transplant from New York City’s West Village.

The one true local delicacy is bison. Buffalo were reintroduced into the Badlands in 1964, and the park now has a herd of about 600. Nearby, at 777, Mimi Hillenbrand raises hers for slaughter; the market had bottomed out a few years back, but has picked up again recently. “The public is way interested,” she says. “Buffalo is healthy for you, and it’s awesome meat. But people don’t know how to cook it.” (Because the meat is so lean, I discovered, it’s best to cook it medium-rare; because it’s naturally redder than beef, people tend to misjudge the color and cook it too long.)

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