I can’t remember when the Badlands first crossed my radar. I’m sure it was from Instagram and one of the many travelers I’ve been following for the last couple of years. Regardless, this National Park was a must visit for me. I was planning on staying at Sage Creek Campground, a free campground in the park. It was my first place, though, without the regular “luxuries” of previous campgrounds - no running water, no fires, no camp host (which isn’t necessarily a luxury, but it was a change). The no water thing, that’s what scared me a bit. In retrospect, I don’t know why. It really wasn’t that big of a deal. But there was something about having water provided that tethered me to civilization in a way. This campground seemed like a challenge, but one that I wanted to take on. Mostly because as I headed West, there were a lot more Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camping opportunities available, which meant free and secluded, but without most amenities. Sage Creek seemed like a good intro into this since there were still picnic tables, pit toilets, and trash collection.
My drive to the Badlands was rough. It was basically five or six hours in and out of rain and a constant, heavy wind. I guess that’s the Plains for ya. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized my upstairs (aka, my Thule cargo box) had shifted dramatically on the roof rack. But, about three or so hours in, out of nowhere, these magnificent fields of sunflowers started popping up. Personally, I think sunflowers are kind of a weak flower. They always make me think of that shitty Elizabeth Arden perfume everyone wore back in middle school and they’ve just never been particularly spectacular to me. I’m more of a peony girl. But, seeing acres of bright yellow amongst the grey sky backdrop was really exciting.
I arrived into the park as the storm was starting to let up. My drive west onto the muddy washboard road absolutely annihilated the car wash I’d opted for as I was leaving Chicago, but the vast prairies with subtle rock formations made it all worth it. Little did I know that this was nothing compared to what I would see the next day. Sage Creek was pretty empty when I arrived. It was kind of a mud field after the storms from the previous night and day of. Again, I was so thankful to have brought my rain boots. Since I was there at an optimal time, I was able to grab a pretty choice picnic table area (those, I learned, are prized) and set up my tent just in time for it to rain again. While I was setting up, a guy shaking out his tent footprint asked if I knew what the forecast would be. He’d apparently been there the night before and it was a rough one. The storm pummeled the campground and he didn’t get much sleep between the lightening, the heavy rain, and the wind. This was Danny, my first traveler friend. Danny is from Oakland, had been on the road for about five months, and was making his way back home.
I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally meet someone of the same ilk as me. I’d been on the road for about two and a half months, but because I’d been either traveling with friends/family or staying with people for the grand majority of my time, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to meet any travelers. We must have talked for a good 30 minutes as he was letting his tent dry out about what he had seen, what I had seen, what our thoughts and experiences had been, and it felt so incredible to talk to someone who had so many shared ideas and impressions of this country as me. We parted ways as the storm started to approach, I took a nap under the sound of the raindrops, and then ended up kind of making it an early night - sleep apparently was a necessity.
My first morning in Sage Creek offered up one of those storied experiences of the West. I woke up about 5:30, got a quick glimpse of the sunrise over the Plains, and promptly fell back asleep. An hour later, I woke to whispers around my tent and then clearly heard the word “buffalo.” I unzipped my window and saw this enormous bison 50 feet away. I grabbed my phone, put on my wellies, and quietly walked over to watch him. There was a circle of folks doing the same. The morning light was incredible and made the grasslands behind him glow.
Here’s the thing about bison in this campground - they’re there most all the time. I can’t say that I ever got tired of seeing them, but the novelty began to wear off some as the days went on. Like, I’d still watch them because I truly have never seen such a majestic creature before and it’s hard to avert your eyes when something that large is standing yards away from you. But, they graze through the field every morning and evening so they’re kind of like your neighbors. Sometimes they’d stop and scratch themselves on the picnic tables’ canopies. A few times they got pretty close to people’s tents - I can’t decide if that would have freaked me out or if I would have sat and watched out of my window in awe. Every time one came through the campground, though, they’d command quite an audience. I’m pretty sure these bison were looking around, watching all of these folks stare at them as they ate their breakfast or dinner, and wonder, “what the fuck are THEY looking at?”
After my initial introduction to the campground bison, I got to my morning ritual of making coffee and breakfast. After awhile, Danny came over to my picnic table to bring me a gift. He’d taken his vintage Polaroid 250 Land Camera out to document the bison and brought me a picture as a souvenir. This really touched me. Not only was it just so goddamn cool, but it was the first gift I’d received on the road from a stranger. To this day, that photograph is placed in my driver’s side visor and every time I pull it down to shade my eyes from the glaring sun, I am reminded of him. We sat for awhile, drank coffee, and further discussed our experiences, feelings, and observations from our travels.
We chatted with a few other travelers who were near - a couple who’d been married a few weeks prior and had just left Chicago for a month-long road trip honeymoon and another couple who had also just left Columbus, Ohio for life on the road for an undetermined amount of time.
After breakfast, I decided to drive through the park and check out what it was all about. The storms from the previous few days had finally passed, leaving the sky an absolutely brilliant cerulean blue with huge, bright white, fluffy clouds. It was the most perfect day of my time there. As I drove along the washboarded dirt road that eventually led to a much smoother paved road through the park, the landscape changed dramatically. It was so unexpected. I’d stop to get out, observe and take pictures, and then drive along some more to see another formation or landscape that was so much more breathtaking that what I’d seen previously. The Badlands just kept one upping itself. And there was wildlife everywhere - in addition to the bison, there were fields of prairie dogs (ps, they have the plague apparently - there are signs warning park goers of this at each entrance, but without any explanation of how to deal with this information), bighorn sheep, WILD HORSES. Lots of cars just pull over to the side of the road and watch them go about their business.
Watching the bison was probably my favorite, but as far as entertainment value goes, the prairie dogs take the cake. That first day, I pulled over after seeing these beautiful, tall flowered plants (which I later found out were mullein). When I got out to try and capture them, I heard all of these chirps. I turned around and saw a vast field full of prairie dogs. These guys don’t stand still much - they’re running around from hole to hole, getting up on their hind legs (this is a protective behavior to make themselves appear larger to predators), sometimes they do this backflip-like thing that never ceased to be hilarious. The chirping is loud as shit, especially if there are a few hundred of them all together. And, really, it’s pretty damn adorable.
After I had my mind blown by Mother Nature, I went back to the campground. It was about 4pm and it was totally dead. It wasn’t until the next day, I guess, that I realized how transient Sage Creek is. I was there for four nights (it would have been five, but I’ll save that story for later) and that seemed like an eternity compared to most everyone else. I observed that usually around 5 or 6pm, cars, trucks, RVs, vans, etc drive into the campground, find a spot to stake their tent or park their home on wheels, hang out for the night, and then usually by 9 or 10am the following morning, most of those folks packed up and left to continue on their way. So, by nature of this, Sage Creek was where I met a lot of folks on the road. Some had short road trips planned, sometimes with a new final destination, sometimes just back from where they came. Others were planning to be on the road for a few months or longer. But, I got to talk to all kinds of people, make new friends, and share stories and travel experiences from the road. Danny helped a lot with this. He’d talk to anyone and I benefited from this as it also made me more comfortable to approach folks - sometimes with him and sometimes on my own. That afternoon, I met a couple of dudes who were meeting up with each other as one headed back to New York and the other was on his way to his new home of Seattle. The couple from Ohio ended up coming back to camp for the night after spending too long driving through the park to make it to their next destination in daylight. And, I also met Michael and Erica.
Michael and Erica showed up in their awesome VW Vanagon sometime in the early evening. I noticed their New York plates and went over to see where they were from. Turns out, like five miles from me. They left Greenpoint the day before I did and over the next few days, we discovered that we’d been in some of the same campgrounds, sometimes within days of one another. Michael is a designer, mostly working on creating logos, and switched his work over to freelance a few months before they took off so he could work from the road. As such, they plan to travel for a year (if I could only figure out how to make money on the road, I’d damn well do it for as long as I could, too).
That night, there ended up being a guy with a fancy telescope set up in the campground. There also happened to be an astronomer. Chris, of the Ohio couple, also knew a thing or two about the sky and it made for a spectacular star party. I saw my first satellite, the Andromeda Galaxy through this sweet telescope, the light pollution across the plains of nearby Wall (the closest town to the Badlands), which looked like a beam of light shooting into space, and really just millions of stars. The Milky Way was so clear and spanned a huge swath of the sky. Being able to see the night sky so clearly has always been humbling. When I was in middle school, I’d sleep over at my best friend’s house and we’d sneak out after her mom went to bed. Usually we’d just go to the park that was close by to hang out and, every time we did, I’d lie on a picnic table, stare up at the sky, and think about all that was out there. I still do this every time I’m presented with stars of epic proportion (not that they were all that epic in the San Fernando Valley, but you know…you work with what you’ve got sometimes). This was the most epic night sky I’d ever seen in my adult life. Plus one yet again for the Badlands.
Danny left the next morning. So did the couple from Ohio. I was sad to see Danny go, but he had just a few weeks to get back to to the Bay Area and still had a lot of ground to cover. Before he left, he took everyone’s picture in front of our cars/vans as a momento. He also took me through his Polaroid camera to show me what to look for when I came across one - I was dead set on acquiring one of these to have an analog way of capturing the rest of America I had yet to see.
That day, Michael had to do some work. Usually, that means Erica has to hang out and bide her time until he’s done with things. So, I invited her to come drive around the park with me again. And this was how we became buds. I’d planned on doing a hike, but this was her first time seeing the park, so we did a lot of stopping to check out overlooks and walk around. By the time we eventually got to the visitor’s center, we’d talked about all kinds of life shit, compared notes on travels and living in NYC. Our friendship was solidified on that drive, but the hike never happened because it had become uncomfortably hot. Instead, we ended up driving into Wall to get some ice cream because, by this point, I’d realized how much I’d fucked up by not eating more ice cream on the road and was on a mission to remedy that.
Wall is weird. It is the home of Wall Drugs, which, from what I can tell, is just some enormous tourist trap. There are signs on the highway for it in like Minnesota. Essentially, it’s a huge block with all kinds of crap made in China for sale. You want a magnet with your name on it? Done. What about a bison shot glass? Done. You want a Stetson hat? Done. Oh, you’re not that classy and you want some ugly ass straw cowboy hat that’s been bedazzled to hell instead? No problem - Wall Drugs has you covered. This place goes on forever. I also noticed after awhile that there are all kinds of foreign kids working there. They must have some sort of work exchange program for the summer. All I could think is, damn, can you imagine if you finally get to check out America and you end up in Wall, South Dakota working in some weird tourist place for the summer? I hope they at least had a few killer parties where they had the opportunity to get white girl wasted. Oh, and the ice cream was just ok.
That night, Michael, Erica and I made a plan for the next day over burritos and, boy, was it a big one. We woke up at 5am and loaded into their van to drive around the park at sunrise. One of the more magical things about this park and, I realized later, also the Plains in general, is that the look of the landscape changes hour by hour. In the morning light, the grass glows a deep yellow. The greens are more vibrant. The hills have a softness to them. As the day progresses and the light of the sun becomes sharper, the richness in color starts to fade, leading to a kind of bleakness, a hardness. It’s still pretty in its own right, just different. As the sunlight starts to wane, the richness returns, but there are more pinks this time. They’re subtle, but they’re woven into the grasslands. I know a thing or two about photography so this concept of magic hours isn’t new. But, I guess that I’d never had the opportunity to really observe it before over a landscape where it was so apparent. And this was one of my favorite things about the Badlands. The play of light was magnificent.
The smoke from the fires to the West had settled in again on the park, so the sunrise that morning wasn’t as dramatic as it had been in days previous. But, regardless, it was still amazing to drive around in that time of the morning. There was hardly anyone there, so it felt like we had the road to ourselves. In that light, the formations took on a softness just like the hills by the campground and the layered colors were more vibrant. This was Michael’s first time driving through the park. It was kind of cool to witness two different people’s reactions to seeing the Badlands on separate days. It brought a newness to the experience each time. We did finally do a hike for a bit where we walked out onto a new part of the park I’d not yet been and it looked like what I imagine the moon to look like. It was a vast expanse of these formations with jutting rocks and deep canyons. The trail was marked by numbers so that you didn’t get lost in the abyss.
We drove back to a relatively empty campground (it was noon so folks had moved on), ate some lunch real quick, and then headed out in my car toward the Black Hills. Michael had been counseled to see the Crazy Horse Memorial by a friend who’d described it as can’t miss. Mount Rushmore was also close by so we were going to tick off a few must-sees in one fell swoop. When we arrived, we paid our admission at the entry gate and could see the Crazy Horse Memorial a bit away. Since we were all under the impression based on Michael’s friend’s recommendation that we’d see the stone carving up close, we joked that we’d get into the visitor center and not get to see it much closer than we did at the gate, negating spending the admission fee. Well, that was in fact the case. This memorial was weird, man. We felt got.
It was started back in 1948 by this crazy dude named Korczak Ziolkowski. He’d worked on Mount Rushmore as Gutzon Borglum's assistant and was fired for some reason. I’m guessing it was because he was crazy. He was then hired by some of the local Native American tribe leaders to carve an even more impressive stone memorial to Crazy Horse. It’s supposed to be something like five times as large as Rushmore when it’s all said and done. But here’s the deal. It was supposed to be completed 30 years after they began. They’ve now been working on this thing for almost 70 years and they really don’t look like they’ve made much progress. Crazy Horse’s face is done, and you can see some progress over the years, but nothing that’s definite in the way of what the memorial is supposed to look like aside from the face. From the get-go, they’ve been very adamant about not taking any federal funding, which I can appreciate. But, basically this guy’s family has taken ownership of this, run the non-profit that funds the construction, and something just doesn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but feel like they’re taking advantage of this in some way. There’s this whole cut-rate video they show you about the history, the construction, the Ziolkowski family, and they have a heavy hand with the “look at all the good we’re doing for the Native American tribespeople,” which feels a little too “me doth think he protest too much” to me. I’d be very curious to know what the Native American tribes who were originally a part of this think about it now. We didn’t see the stone carving really any closer than we did at the entrance gate. However, I did neglect to mention that if we wanted to pay $125 ($105 of it that would be tax-deductible), we could take a van up to the memorial and see it just a few feet away.
We left feeling deflated and went to a nearby mountain town to get some ice cream (this was much better than Wall Drugs, if you were wondering). We drove over to Mount Rushmore and made the decision that if we could see it from the road, we weren’t going to pay the admission fee to go into the park. Clearly, we’d been burned. We did see it from the road and, in retrospect, we probably should have gone in because I later found out that you can actually get really close to the monument there. Maybe there’ll be another time. It was getting late anyway and we had to make a stop in Rapid City on the way back to the Badlands to get a few things for dinner.
That night we concocted what has proven to be one of our favorite meals - two boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese (one regular “cheddar” and the other white “cheddar”), sautéed kale and tomatoes, and cut up rotisserie chicken. Michael, Erica and I have met up several times to camp together since the Badlands and we’ve made this meal at least once every time. It is only getting better. Seriously, this was the first camp meal I made where I was like, goddamn goddamn. Rotisserie chicken has become my new staple.
We hit the rack on the early side that night since we’d had such a long day. I was sleeping soundly until about 4:30am when a wind storm hit the campground. It woke up me and I tried to ignore it for what seemed like 30 minutes, but it was probably like 3. I hadn’t staked the guylines down on my tent so it was twisting and bending in all kinds of ways. I got up, staked it down in hopes that would do the trick and allow me to head back to sleep. Well, it didn’t. The wind only got more violent and there were times where I was like the meat in a tent sandwich. I started to worry that it might do some serious damage to my tent, so at 5:30, I finally gave in, got up and started packing everything up. Everyone in the camp was doing the same. Not one tent stood a chance except for some Eureka situation at the far corner of the field - those folks waited it out until probably 7:30 before calling it quits. I have never experienced wind like I have at the campground that morning. It was violent. The sand and dirt pummeled your face like some sort of microdermabrasion procedure. I’m sure it took a year off my skin. Taking my tent down solo was kind of a harrowing experience in that I was lucid enough now to be really worried that something might tear and that was the last thing I needed - a broken home. Thankfully, it came down okay and Michael got out to help me when he woke up and realized what was going on. I haphazardly threw everything into my car and joined Erica and Michael in their van to figure out a plan - the original idea of staying in the Badlands for one more night was definitely out of the question now. I was super thankful for their shelter and the damn fine coffee they made me. Ultimately, we decided to head back to Grand Rapids, find a coffee shop with wifi, and figure out where to go from there.
So, that was the end of the Badlands for me. Mother Nature decided that four nights was enough and it was time for me to move on. This National Park was the beginning of something new for me. Sure, I’d been blown away by nature before that point, but nothing like I was here. This place is special. The formations were a process of millions of years of the Earth’s work and it’s pretty incredible to just stare off into them and consider what all they’ve seen. More than that, I guess you could say this is where a different chapter of my trip began. It was the first place where I was solo for an undetermined amount of time, living out of my tent, figuring out how to cook for myself on my camp stove, and also being able to be present with the incredible gift this Earth gives to us. It was the beginning of a very humbling experience. It was the beginning of a different experience altogether. So, for that reason and many others, the Badlands was a really significant and awe-inspiring place. By far and away, up until that point, it was my favorite stop so far.