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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.”

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.)

After our adventure during mating hour, Hillenbrand drives me to a vantage point on her ranch to show me the remains of Native American tepee rings, small anchoring stones still visible in the ground, like a Sioux Stonehenge. From there, I can only gasp at the wide stretch of prairie, the occasional outcroppings, and the buffalo, which look like small, furry Milk Duds. This is an American West that anyone would find beautiful, and nostalgic.

“Whenever I move my animals and they’re all together, going up and down hills, I think of what it must have been like when there were millions of buffalo,” Hillenbrand says. “I love these animals. They’re smart. They’re still wild. I’ve worked with cattle, and I find them totally boring.”

“So what is American about this?” I ask.

“This is America,” she says. “This is what was here hundreds of years ago. It was always my dream as a kid to come to the West, ride horses, and be where the Indians were. I hope I’m bringing back a little piece of that history. It’s open here. It’s free. And what is America, if not freedom?”

The Details

Go to the Badlands for the scenery, not for the food and drink. But as long as you’re there: The slightly stuffy Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth Street, Rapid City; 800-888-2539; alexjohnson.com; from $99), in Rapid City, was built in 1928, but its faded grandeur (FDR once stayed there, as did Eisenhower) does recall a certain western heartiness. The best food in the region is served at The Corn Exchange (727 Main Street, Rapid City; 605-343-5070), in the historic district, where chef-owner M. J. Adams mixes meat and potato dishes with organic creations made from fresh ingredients. To edify her patrons, she explains terms like “glaze” and “reduction sauce” on a blackboard in the dining room. Closer to the park, the town of Wall has the most options for food and accommodations, centered around the campy Wall Drug, with a mechanical T. rex, Singing Sam the Gorilla Man, and a tepee from Dances with Wolves. The Best Western (712 Glenn Street, Wall; 800-780-7234; bestwestern.com; from $87) may be your best motel option. Inside the park, Cedar Pass Lodge (20681 South Dakota Highway 240, Interior; 605-433-5460; cedarpasslodge.com; from $65) is well located, with basic rooms. That means no phone or TV, so don’t forget to pack the latest Tony Hillerman. For lunch, try the Indian tacos, made with doughy fried bread smothered with refried beans, ground buffalo meat, and the usual smattering of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated Cheddar.