Leaving Champion, WI, I literally drove into the unknown. I’ve travelled a good portion of the eastern part of the country by car, if you consider the eastern part of the country to the right of the Mississippi. To the left was a mystery, except for interstitial city hops for weddings and business trips over the years.
Setting out south from the Green Bay area down to I90 to the west of the state, I couldn’t have been more confident, or more ill-prepared. I90 is the longest interstate in the US, beginning in Boston and ending in Seattle. I fully expected services and rest stops generously dotted along the way, though I had made a decision not to let the gas tank dip below 100 miles “just in case”. The drive through WI and into the southern portion of Minnesota (just above the Iowa state line) threw up no surprises.
I stopped in Sioux Falls, SD for the night. It wasn’t a C town but it sounded like it and was the sensible middle stop between Champion and Custer. For any Fargo fans, it’s also the setting for season 2 and I got a looksee at Luverne, MN off I90 on the way. For you Citicard holders, you’ll recognize Sioux Falls as the home to Citibank’s credit card center (no corporate income tax in the state) and is considered a key contributor to the economic growth of the area in recent years. It is also the largest city in SD and accounts for approximately a third of the population of the state.
Seven days on the road had begun to take a toll, so I took advantage of the hot tub at the hotel and hopped back on I90 close to noon, hoping to catch evening sunset in the Bandlands. The weather had been obliging since the start of the trip — piercing blue skies and mid-60s temperature. Perfect walking, sightseeing, and driving weather.
The further I drove into the South Dakotan interior, the more unfamiliar the land looked. About a third of the way into the state, the interstate crosses over the mighty Missouri River (America’s longest now thanks to a recalibration of starting and finishing points). Here you’re officially in the Great Plains and the land starts looking rugged and parched. The ratio of animals to humans suddenly takes a U-turn and the distance between exits grows further apart. In some cases, exits were shut altogether, which at one point challenged my gas tank rule. It was the first time I felt a tinge of nerves on my own, but it wouldn’t be the last over the next few days.
I arrived at the exit for the Badlands National Park a little before 4pm and stopped to look at preserved prairie farmhouse on the way. The brown sod structures and wagon wheel carts stood like sentinels of a simpler time, throwing century-old shadows on burnt grass that supported generations of pioneers I could only imagine. But none of this prepared me for the timeless, almost extra-terrestrial expanse that is The Bandlands. On loop in my brain was the novel and inventive phrase, “Oh My F*cking God…”
The entry gate to the park is seconds from a main parking lot and taking in the first 360, my jaw dropped so low it should have stubbed my toes. Spread across the land as wide as the eye could see were impossibly deep canyons and spires rising like icicles in the sky, a naturally enchanted kingdom laid out like a royal carpet. I felt like I was inhaling freedom – maybe for the first time ever.
I drove The Highway 240 Badlands Loop, a two-lane, paved road that takes you through the north end of the park, stopping several times to take pictures, climb up and down rocks, and dip in and out of outdoor exhibits along the way. The park is open year round, though the hours shorten from September through April. October is a brilliant time to visit – the tourists tend to be older, though some families were running around too, but there were no wait lines, no traffic to dodge, and not many bodies to negotiate.
There were enough visitors dotted throughout initially to make me feel comfortable, but after 5pm, I seemed to be the only person anywhere on the Loop, and the Loop turned out to be an hour long ride. (Kids, do your homework and don’t do as Mom did and just drive there willy nilly this time of year) The territory is so vast, so alien looking that I found myself as a single female with challenged cell-phone coverage, wondering if there was anyone left in the park besides head-popping prairie dogs and a hungry bison or two. The thought of being alone there even with the promise of a pink and peach sunset scared the bejesus out of me and I rushed to find the end of the Loop, stealing seconds for snaps along the way poking my head in and out of the car like my fellow prairie dogs.
I needn’t have been so nervous (she types assuredly in retrospect), but the fear of being a lone woman in the wilderness caught me off-guard. It’s hard to quiet the monkey mind once the threat of imaginary bad guys and cowboy zombies invade the brain. The insignificance of man in a landscape created over gazillions of years slapped me out of my “Run, Forest, Run” mentality and I realized for the first time how utterly unprepared I was for this portion of the country, a lesson that would deepen the next day….