Going to the Badlands
Before there were rocks, there was prairie. Lush, vast prairie, waving with grasses and seeds, tickled by scampering mice, commanded by heavy-hooved buffalo, thick with soft dirt and gentle winds, ribboned with clear streams. A land of nourishment and sustenance and peace, woven by the strong hands of the Great Spirit, a land where he declared there would be no quarrels between men. But the people from the western mountains came, and wanted this land for themselves. We tried to tell them the land was not theirs, not ours, not anyone’s – it could not be owned. But the people from the western mountains did not listen. Finally the Great Spirit heard our cries of desperation and he opened up the land into a wide, dark canyon, and the wide, dark canyon swallowed up the mountain people and all of their possessions. And into the canyon with them fell the dancing prairie grass and the bubbling streams and all the animals.
Now the land is wide and vast and barren. Carpets of rock and gravel roll out all around us, a wasteland where nothing can grow or graze. The wind whips harshly and the seeds fall on infertile ground and the air whispers the voices of the mountain people, promising they will be back to claim it. “Mako sica,” it is – bad land.
- Lakota Legend
Thirty million years ago, central South Dakota was covered in prairies. Over the next many millenia, wind, water, and ash carved and sculpted the land into rock, river, and grass patterns that became home to saber tooth tigers and three-horned protoceras, and later to nomadic tribes travelling in the wakes of mammoths. In the eighteenth century, these tribes settled and united to form the Great Sioux Nation, which occupied eighty million acres of the Great Plains. The Sioux people lived in peace for many decades.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, white explorers from the eastern US colonies began to traverse the land. Initial encounters were amiable, but as the influx of pioneers increased, so did the frequency and ferocity of clashes between natives and newcomers. White settlements sprung up like weeds across the area, and Sioux warriors recurrently raided towns and farms. In the 1860s, the US government got involved, establishing impermeable boundaries around the Sioux Nation. But the boundaries were largely ignored. By 1890, various treaties had segmented the Nation into smaller Native American Reservations that remain today, sprinkled across the mako sica.
Since then, South Dakota has been developed into the state we know today – carved with highways, strip malls, and sewage systems. But 242,756 acres of it remain under federal control as Badlands National Park, a patchwork of rock and prairie that sees one million visitors each year, most of whom describe the landscape as vast, bleak, savage, and beautiful.
In March, I had a week off of school, and I wanted to spend it finding somewhere new. Vermont to South Dakota: it’s not that far, really—30 hours of driving each way. And there’s so much in between—that’s half the point in itself. I would go through New York, Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I would stop along the way, see what there is to see, talk to whom there is to talk to. I packed up my guitar, a stack of notebooks, a change of clothes, and got in the car.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I am no history fanatic. I did not go to the Badlands to find the ghosts of Sioux chiefs or collect fossils of prehistoric animals. To be honest, I’m not totally sure why I went at all, except to say that I had an urge—have an urge: this feeling that the world is so huge and I know so little of it, this impulse to wander and to wonder, to explore all the highways and windows and diners and peaks and potholes and stories packed into this planet. There is so much that I feel like I can’t waste any time not going out and exploring.
But at the same time, the self-centeredness of this motive nags me—I could be spending my time serving, giving, helping. Instead, I am doing something that I want to do, something that has no positive implications for anyone but me.
I don’t know what constitutes Reason Enough to do something, go somewhere, indulge a fancy. I don’t know if doing something simply because I want to do it is legitimate. I don’t know if I have to legitimize myself in the first place. What I tell myself is that people have to make a full self-investment, fill themselves up to their capacity of perspective and understanding of life in all its forms in order to give back most effectively and positively to this overflowing world. I think I’ll stand by this theory until the world tells me something different.
So, in the middle of March, I drove by myself to the Badlands.
On Friday morning, I leave Vermont: eight hours to Toronto. The sun still floats in its morning softness, and the sky is ice blue—too chilly to roll the windows down, but not enough to stop me from opening the sunroof. Wind grabs at my hair and tosses it in tangling swirls, and the main streets of the small New England towns look freshly painted and smell of pancakes, and the trees are budding in anticipation of April, and it occurs to me that I feel like a blimp, a hugely inflated blimp, light and floating and free in the air, driving fast, no schedule, no time contraints, no expectations. Pedestrians smile at me, singing at the top of my lungs, dancing with my steering wheel, going wherever I’m going.
A stop sign, with two choices: right or left, North or South on Route 9. Right. Two miles until I’m supposed to turn onto County Highway 23—thank you kindly, MapQuest. The trees thicken as I go, and the hills rise higher and higher along the road until the Route feels like a tunnel—a long tunnel: miles always feel longer on windy roads. Then the forest breaks: Lake George. Its surface looks slick and strong—skateable. I pull onto the shoulder, park, and walk toward the Lake, glassy and smooth. But five toe-taps on the surface reveal that the ice is too fragile, and that, come to think of it, the lake is not on the map I printed. Nor was the town nor—shit—the right turn.
I get back in the car, turn the music lower, edge the sunroof closed a couple inches. Head back the other way. Lake George twinkles like a fairy tale dress in my rearview mirror.
It is easy to convince yourself that you have it all figured out. That you know how to navigate the world around you; that you can get yourself from here to there with the sunroof open and the wind a little colder and sharper than comfortable; that frozen lakes can bear the weight of your body; that you know where you’re going, or why, or how. But one thing about the world is that it is very big. It is much bigger than you — you and your plans for exploration and your theories on living and the capacity of your mind. Do you ever feel like it is so big you can’t even take another step? Do you ever feel like it is so big that you want to take a million steps at once?
Midday, I cross into Ontario, Canada. A small woman sits in then Customs booth, a pair of reading glasses drifting atop her loofa of dyed red hair.
“Purpose of your visit?” she asks me, face to her computer, flopping an open-palmed arm toward my window. Does she want a handshake? A high-five? She lowers her glasses. “Passport.”
“Oh.” I shake my head at my silly self (a gesture for her benefit only—she was entirely unclear, how was I to know she wasn’t trying to be friendly?), and scramble among the objects on my front seat until I find the small blue booklet. I smile the way you do when meeting someone’s grandmother as I hand it to her.
“Purpose of your visit?”
“Oh. I’m going to South Dakota.”
She looks at me over her glasses. “Purpose of your visit?”
“Oh. Um. I just want to see the Badlands.”
She types something. “Owner of the vehicle?”
“My parents.” I laugh a little, for some reason embarrassed.
She nods and returns my passport, mechanically wishing me a good day. I drive away with something sour in my lungs: the exhaust of this huge car, the fact that I get to drive it across the country. There is something about privilege that makes me feel guilty. A big house filled with toys and books and an overflowing pantry; a world-class education at a school that employs someone to clean my bathroom, offers quinoa in the dining hall, a library with over a million books—a friend once compared it to living on a cruise ship; the freedom to go anywhere, do anything; the feeling that no door in the world is closed to me. The What-To-Do when you are blessed with this much is something I have no concrete answers for.
There is a parable in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Three servants receive a number of talents from their departing master. He returns to find that two of the servants have put their talents to good use and doubled their worth. The third has buried his talent, thinking he might protect it. The master scolds this servant and praises the others, urging that to be a faithful servant of any master, one must grow his talents.
Tollbooths make me want to be anarchist. How do they get away with making me pay to drive my car? I guess I don’t really understand how it works. It just seems kind of Big Brother-ish. Who is behind that curtain giggling gleefully at all the people scrounging for nickels in the crevices of their car seats?
In a small town in Ontario, the tollbooth has no attendant and no ticket machine and no long metal arm to stop drivers from going through. Just a bent wire basket with a sign above it: “$1.10 COINS ONLY.” Ha. I put in two quarters and a Canadian coin of unidentifiable value, look left, right, behind me, and hit the gas. It’s safe to say I’m on the run.
Sometimes when I’m driving, I pretend I’m in a movie. In recent scenes (earlier today) I have played the young musician off to make it big, the scorned lover leaving everything behind, both the pursuer and pursued in a highway car chase. In the current scene I am a fugitive. Running from the law. Answering only to the wind. Leaving behind nothing but three coins and my dust.
My grandmother used to call my sister and me Calamity Jane. I was never quite sure why, but it made me feel like a cowgirl, which I liked. Not until about a month ago did I realize Calamity Jane was, is, an iconic figure of the West – the ultimate female outlaw. Calamity Jane was one of the best shots and most adept riders in the Wild West, fearless and fearsome. She was known for wearing men’s clothes; drunkenly riding bulls down the main streets of cowboy towns; defeating her best friend’s murderer with a meat cleaver; saving a stage coach whose driver had been shot with an arrow and whose passengers, six men, were too petrified with fear to take the reins; spraying tobacco juice straight into the eye of the star of a play whose ending she found too corny; hawking her ten-cent autobiography from the steps of Town Hall; swearing like a sailor; getting belligerently drunk; following any exploration or adventure with endless nerve and courage.
Our culture romanticizes people like Calamity — people who go against norms, break convention, rebel against the typical. Troublemakers, agitators, and outlaws are the heroes of our tales, the subjects of movies and books, media sensations. Even if we don’t support the antics of front-cover celebrities, the back-door scandals of politicians, the revolutionary statements of radicals, we luxuriate in their naughtiness, admire the proverbial middle finger they give to a system we find ourselves following submissively. In some way, I think, we all wish we had a little more of that in ourselves: something bold, audacious, a little bit reckless – badass, if you will. But most of us, though we ooh and ahh at the mavericks, stay on the path we’ve always walked. We keep driving along the highway where our Mapquest directions tell us to go.
Sometimes I fear we are living in the generation of the conveyer belt. We are told what “the top” is– the CEO office, the front page, the penthouse apartment – and how to get there – SAT scores, a hefty resume, a strong handshake. I’m glued to the conveyor belt just as, if not more, securely, than the next person. But the Isabelle of my imagination is hurdling wildly off the path. She is gallivanting through the West, running amuck with cowboys and outlaws, galloping across rivers and over mountain passes. She is the modern cowgirl, in a fraying straw hat and muddied blue jeans, shooting whiskey and taking off on horseback to the next town and the next trouble: wherever the wind beckons.
The truth is, I am not Calamity Jane. I am a privileged, educated, rule-fearing observer of the world. I will never remove both feet from the moving sidewalk; my name will never send shivers down the spines of children and cowboys alike; I will never fully and tightly grab the hands of the wind and go wherever it leads.
But I will seek rushing rivers and craggy cliffs, meet desperadoes and gunslingers, lie in tall grasses and scale mountain faces. I’ll get as far as I can before the belt whisks me and my conventions back to reality again. I’ll write about it, and maybe someone will pay a dime for it someday. I’ll do it all with Calamity Jane in the front seat of my car: scared shitless, but occasionally letting her take the wheel. At least, this is what I tell myself.
Something flashes in my side mirror. What? Oh geez. No way. Shit. What will my mother say? The forthcoming disappointed sigh is sure to be torrential. I roll down my window “Hi…” Charming smile. Do I even have a Charming Smile in my repertoire?
“Afternoon, miss.” The Officer has a high tinny voice and a thin but friendly smile.
82 in a 65. When you try to beat the system, you get caught.
A couple hundred miles into Ontario, tracing the St. Lawrence River southwest on Highway 401, my directions lead me off an exit ramp to Military Road; the next direction tells me to get back on the highway. This is confusing—why would I stop just to start again?
But I take the exit—following the conveyor belt. On Military Road, the Sweet Tooth Bakery has neon green walls and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths with vases of fake flowers. Behind the corner counter, in a shirt matching the walls, stands a pear-shaped man with fuzzy red hair, an apron, and two tattooed forearms.
“Hi,” I say. “Can I just have a cup of coffee?”
He smiles at me. “Yeah, I’ll just have to brew you a fresh pot,” he says, with a sing-songiness as if he’s telling a joke.
I smile, too. “That’s fine.” He turns to the coffee maker behind him. “Can I also ask you directions?”
“I think we can arrange that.” He drags out the “I” and taps a spoon of ground coffee into the pot.
“Well, I’m trying to go 401 West, but my directions told me to get off here.”
“Oh fuck no, you just gotta keep going right up there.” He turns and points to the door of the bakery, a smile tilted up his left cheek. “Where are you going?”
“Really?” I flip through the pages of my directions. “Toronto.”
“Oh yeah, you just keep going 401, can’t miss it. You’re only about three hours and forty-five minutes away.”
I look up at him, surprised. I though I had at least five hours to go. “Really?”
“Yeah, yeah. Well.” He flips a switch on the coffee machine. “Depends. How heavy is your foot?”
“I’ve already gotten a speeding ticket today, so it’s feeling pretty light.”
He laughs and turns toward me. “So, Toronto.”
“Well, actually to South Dakota.”
“Huh. Why South Dakota?”
“I don’t know.” I look down at the counter. “I’m on spring break. And I guess I just want to see what it’s like.”
The man nods, slowly, as if something is just making sense to him. “Ohh,” he says, leaning back against the counter. “You’re one of those—how old are you?”
“Yeah…yeah…yep.” He nods again. “That’s a good thing,” he says, drawing out the ‘oo.’ “That’s how I used to do it. Just—” he circles a pointed finger through the air—“ehh”—and jabs it once—“here. That’s the way to do it.”
I agree as he pours the fresh coffee into a patterned brown Styrofoam cup. A man in a red sweatshirt walks in the door, hands in his grease-smeared front pocket. They greet each other and the man in the apron gestures to me. “Be careful man, she’s one of the normals.” We laugh. “Yeah, you’re pretty close to Toronto,” he says, handing me the cup.
I thank him and head toward the door as a family enters. A small girl in a puffy coat that prevents her from lowering her arms to her sides stops in her tracks and stares up at me with glistening nose and eyes. I wave at her. At the door I turn around. “Wait,” I say. “What town am I in?”
The man in the apron laughs and reaches his colorful arm toward the counter. “Lacaster, Ontario. Greatest place in the world. Here. Take a souvenir.” He holds out a business card.
“Thank you.” I smile, retrieving the souvenir. Outside I reach into my pockets and panic when my keys are not there. Shit. They must be on the counter. Or did I go to the bathroom? I look up trying to remember where I’d had them last. Across the street, my car is parked and running. I shake my head at myself, get in, keep driving.
When we used to go fishing with dad, he would wear his special fishing sunglasses. They were purple and green and gold on the front, reflective, so you could see your tiny self in them when you looked up into his soft suede face. When we’d reached the creek and settled our feet in the gravel on the edge of the ice-cold water, he would unloop the glasses from his neck and balance them on our noses–hardly big enough, so the glasses rocked back and forth precariously, like a huge parka on a tiny nail. The whole world changed. Everything was soaked in color, like you’d stepped into an oil painting—jewel green leaves and grass, rainbows rippling across the swells of the current, the sky almost purple. You could see straight through the water, right to the sheens and shadows of the rocky creek bed, and the silver glints of fish slicing through the deep dark holes on the other side. We never caught much. Dad would adjust our elbows and count us down like a conductor as we cast the line back and forth—and a-one, and a-two—and a great phoomf when we laid the line out on the water, the fly at the end glinting in the sun. More times than not, the hook got tangled on a bramble or a clump of watercress, or the back of our shirts. There was technique and grace required, a precise flick of the wrist, but the arc of our cast and the placement of the fly was not what mattered. We were seeing things differently, standing in a space we’d never occupied.
On the side of the highway, reflective yellow diamonds stand on posts every few feet. Some are soldier straight, some flattened like trees in a hurricane. In the sheet of overcast sky, a small hole forms and through it a rainbow appears. The sun shines in streams on the highway through Claringville and Barkham and Oshawa and Kitchener—populations of fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand people. Some sort of anxiety comes over me—the places I will never see, the people I will never know.
I stop in Chatham, at an exit with two buildings, a gas station and Stop 21 Diner. The Diner is lit by windows and a buzzing florescent bulb above the counter, at which a baseball capped man with rolled-up sleeves leans over a plate of eggs. A waitress stands on the other side, speaking to him quietly. A young girl with a bony face and shoulders pours me a cup of coffee after nervously asking what size I want and how I take it. As I leave the diner, the man at the counter hunched over a now-empty plate, I wonder where they go when the diner closes, and how many days they have done that.
I stay the night in Toronto and don’t know what this “poutine” business that all the fast food places offer is.
Even if you miss the turn, you can find another way out of the city. You can trust there will be a nice blue sign on a steady metal post with a solid white arrow pointing you toward the highway. In some ways, the world directs you itself.
Today is Toronto to Somewhere, Illinois. The highway is straight and flat and there aren’t many people on it, so you can look out the window for longer than usual and see what you see. Farmland, mostly, punctuated by billboards, many of them on their last, but no-less-excited, legs: “African Elephant Safari, just 21 Miles,” “Don’t Miss the Auto Mall,” “Tropical Gardens!” It is grey March in Canada.
There are two ways to enter the US from Ontario to Michigan: the Bridge and the Tunnel—the choice is obvious. Under the Ambassador Bridge, the continent’s busiest international border crossing, the Detroit River looks the same color as the sky – greyish blue and glassy, shatterable. The US Customs Officer asks me where I’m coming from.
“Toronto,” I say, my elbow out the window, in perfectly chilly fresh air.
“What’s in Toronto?”
“A lot of things,” I say. His computer-focused expression does not change. “I’m on my way to South Dakota.”
He gives a small “Ha” and chews his lower lip. “South Dakota. Why South Dakota?”
“Because I want to see the Badlands.” I look out the windshield.
“Where are you from?”
“Ver—well, Missouri. But I go to school in Vermont.”
He looks at my passport. “From Missouri, go to school in Vermont, going to South Dakota.” Bobbing his chin with each phrase. “Really? South Dakota?”
“Yeah. Spring break.”
“Mhm.” He chews his lip again and looks down at his computer. “So you’re an adventurer sort.”
I pause. “I don’t know. I—”
“I mean, you know, you live in Missouri, you go to school in Vermont, you’re driving—by yourself, it looks like—to South Dakota: you’re one of those types.”
I laugh, shake my head, pull my arm back inside the car.
“Why d’you go to school in Vermont?”
“It’s a good school,” I answer.
“What do you study?”
“I’m an English major,” I say, anticipating the good-luck-with-that eye roll I usually get in response.
He moves his hands in a juggling motion. “English…teaching? English…what?”
“Writing. I guess.”
“Ah.” The officer nods and leans out of his booth to hand me my passport. “One of those.”
I laugh again, tuck my passport into the cupholder. “I don’t know.” I shake my head. “Who knows.”
“Well, you know, we get a lot of people through here everyday, and not a lot with that kind of character.” He looks me in the eye for the first time. “So. Keep on.”
I thank him, and take his advice, pulling back onto the highway. A light blue mattress lies curled up in the median of I-94 West. I take a bite of a Twizzler. My hands are still sticky with the Diet Coke that exploded when I untwisted the cap. What type of person are you if you like to use Twizzlers as a straw?
In Detroit, I have to pee so badly I don’t think I will make it. I ask for a bathroom in five different establishments – a phone service store, two gas stations, a donut shop. All of these places have papers stuck to the door that read, “NO WAITING INSIDE AT ALL,” and plexi glass screens between the counter and the rest of the store, and all of the employees behind them shake their heads, sympathetically, pointing me to the next possible restroom. They can tell I am desperate. Finally, mercifully, Apollo’s Coney Island takes me in. A customer, middle-aged, black male, bounces from foot to foot by the bathroom door, chanting about the wrath and the second coming.
Midwestern cities have similar demeanors. Around Lake Michigan on 94 West, I pass Used Car Lots and Bass Pro Shops and Longhorn Steak Houses and Best Westerns. Flat rows of one-story shoe box buildings the color of dead grass, faintly illuminated signs for fast food and adult super-stores looming above, their eye-catching colors languishing from the weight of clouds and exhaust fumes. On the GPS screen, I move the little arrow forward of my current location, seeing how far is left. Then I move it back to where I am. Trying to focus on here, not there.
Time to stop. I exit in St. Charles, IL, and pull into a 7-Eleven. It is 10 pm and I am hungry and tired. When I open the door, a red-shirted man steps out from the counter with his arms flapping at his sides and his shirt untucked.
“You like some chicken wings?” he says, showing both rows of teeth and a glinting stickiness on his chin.
“I don’t eat meat,” I say. I pride myself on being a subtle, un-self-exclamatory vegetarian, but now is not the time for standards.
“Oh, girl,” he says, laughing. “You one a those.”
I shrug and examine the refrigerator of fruit.
“You like this?” He holds up a poster of a tube of cheese and chili with flames around it, boasting a flavor blast or the ultimate cheesiness or something that makes my stomach churn.
“I don’t think so.”
He laughs again. “You one a those, choosy girl. You one a those.”
At the counter, I hand him a granola bar and an apple.
“Where you from, you girl?”
“Vermont,” I say.
“It’s up north, by Maine.
“By New York.”
“Ha!” He leans back from the counter and cackles. “How old you girl?”
“Twenty-one.” I hand him a five.
“Ha! You look like you seventeen! Ha!” He bends over, supporting his amused self on the counter. “You one a those girl! Ha!” He laughs as he hands me my changes.
“Thank you,” I say.
The Best Western in St. Charles is under construction, so the front office has been temporarily relocated to the basement (a fact that takes me seven minutes of wandering, guitar clunkily in hand, to discover). The rooms’ doors open to the outside, and drunk people engage in drunken shenanigans outside my door as I go to bed.
You haven’t been to St. Charles, Illinois until you’ve been to Colonial Café (since 1901), Arpit Patel tells me at the front desk of the Best Western (whose complementary breakfast (instant oatmeal and eggs the consistency of applesauce) is served in a windowless basement, dust raining onto the Styrofoam bowls). Arpit points me in the direction of the Café with a sharp-voweled, adenoidal Indiana accent: “quick left, you’ll be there in a jiff.”
The flyer inside my menu exclaims the notoriety of the Kitchen Sink sundae (since 1976), and offers a bumper sticker as a prize for consuming the entire dessert (six scoops of ice cream, two bananas, etc.). My server Lisa has wide blue eyes and a voice like a Disney princess and clasps and re-clasps her hands when she takes my order and later when she asks if I’m still “werkin’ on that.” I ask Lisa if she’s ever seen the Kitchen Sink conquered.
“Oh, plenty of times, hun. Folks in this town can pack it away!” An old couple at the next table turn and offer their affirmations—“If there’s one thing the people of St. Charles have, it’s big ole gut!” On my way out they wish me happy trails.
In Sparta, Wisconsin – population 9,522 and the Bicycling Capital of the World – a man on the radio tells me he “knows what I look for in my Amish furniture.” I take his word for it. Ginny’s Cupboard, a soda shoppe in town, has a jukebox and faded posters of Elvis on the walls and a 1940’s-style Coca Cola cooler under the lace-trimmed window. What history!, I think, eating my sandwich at the counter. Leaving, I read the script on the door – “Family Owned and Operated since 2003.” I am a decade older than the vintage bar stool I just sat on.
It is a rare feeling to have no responsibility except to watch the road in front of you. I’m not sure if I like it. It’s counter to my nature, to the natures of most people I know—we are conditioned to make, move, produce, never stop driving to reach goals. When we stop, we fear boredom. We fear stillness.
Across the Mississippi, into Minnesota. The river is muddy and still, the only apparent motion the small wake behind a paddling bird. It begins to snow, gently, then in thick sheets. Soon the entire highway is white and the sky is white and the sun low in the distance is white. A pick-up truck sits in the median, its nose tilted downhill and its wheels dizzily askew. Power lines, windmills, smoke stacks grumbling cotton ball gasps, the dry fields transformed by the snow into a barren moonscape. The body of a dog on the shoulder, its fur now blanketed in white. I feel bulky and encumbering, propelling head-long through this pastoral scene, a slash down the middle of a Dutch master landscape. I aim for the light, thinking I might reach it before it vanishes behind the horizon.
It is evening when I cross into South Dakota, not any closer to the light than I was three hours ago. A girl in a blue sleeveless shirt flashes a thumbs-up from a billboard for a diesel station, her speech-bubble voice exclaiming from bubblegum pink lips, “Awesome Restrooms!” Behind her, a ground-planted sign wobbles in the wind: “TRUST JESUS.” The speed limit changes to 75 miles per hour.
On top of the horizon lies a strip of neon fuchsia, like someone has highlighted the lowest line of sky in bright pink, the clouds above it blue-grey tie-dye. In a few miles, a bright orange Lion King sun, round and blazing, appears in the middle of the stripe of pink, and in one mile, less than a minute later, it is vanished. Night.
Ten miles into the state, I pull off the highway, heading into the downtown area of Sioux Falls: Cash Casino, Taco John’s, Mickey’s Paw Shop, Golden Pawnshop, Boxcar Casino, Rockin’ Robbins Casino, a Mobile Station with an ATM. Sioux Falls is the biggest city in South Dakota—165,000 people. I didn’t know it existed before planning this trip.
I drive zigzags through the small city center, past dark restaurant windows, asleep on a Sunday night, and neon-splashed bars, humming low blue lights. My brain tells me I can go anywhere I want, but a clenching in my stomach prevents me from venturing into a bar, alone, at night, female. I stop somewhere that’s open 24-hours—plastic-wrapped forks, soda fountain, handfuls of ketchup.
At a hotel on a street perpendicular to Main, Joe stands behind the front desk. He has two chins, three when he looks down at his computer, and a pair of minty blue eyes.
“Well, there’s only one thing to do in Sioux Falls,” he says when I ask him what he likes to do around here. “And that’s drink.” He laughs, hand on his belly.
He asks what brings me to Sioux Falls. “I’m going to the Badlands,” I say.
Joe nods and rumbles a pleased mmm from the drum of his stomach. “They found the biggest t-rex ever out there, you know,” he says.
I lean over the counter. “Really? Whoa.”
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and pulls his concierge blazer tighter over his round middle. “Yeah, the big feller, the one in the Chicago museum, real big guy. They’ve got a big site out there where you can see the dig and all that.”
That’s so cool. “That’s so cool,” I say. “Do you know where?”
He moves his lips right to left and chews on the inside of his fleshy cheeks.
“You know,” he drawls, “I don’t exactly remember.” He types something into his computer. “But that is something I can look up for ya.”
It is quiet for a minute while he types and scrolls. He can’t find it. “That’s ok,” I say. “I’ll ask someone when I get closer.” Joe apologizes again, hands me my room key, and hopes I enjoy my stay.
When I reach my room on the third floor, the phone rings.
“Ms. Stillman? Joe, from the front desk. It was Faith. Faith, South Dakota. Where they found the dinosaur.”
“Faith,” I say. “Awesome.” I am nodding emphatically, to no one. “Thank you so much.”
“Of course, of course. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
For three hundred miles across South Dakota, the earth is flat. I-90 cuts through wide brown land, an armful of buildings clustered next to the two-lane highway every 20 or so miles. Long-armed sprinklers stand like robots in the middle of unplanted fields—no corn, no wheat, just spiky brown grass. A flock of bleached white and ink black birds descend and land on a nearby pond, the ripples they create the only movement for miles. Above, the sky is a dome of stony blue. It looks bigger than 180 degrees, more than a hemisphere. Bigger than any sky I’ve seen.
I stop several times along the way. Farmer, population 11: St. Peter’s Rock Grotto, built with rocks from the Black Hills. Mitchell, 16,000: the World’s Largest Corn Palace (as advertised every few miles along I-90), which turns out to be a gymnasium whose outside is decorated with colored cornhusks. Murdo, 492: a quiet diner adjoined to the Pioneer Auto Show, where an older woman and her granddaughter feed French fries to a Barbie, and I order a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (Skippy and Smuckers on Wonder bread) and a side of veggies (canned green beans) from a man who speaks just above a whisper.
In between, the highway is one long line, a flat heart rate, still.
The power of this is: it makes you re-understand space. There are spaces you know: space in your bedroom – my space, space I can fill and hold subtly sacred; space in your bag – room to hold another book; space in your life – for a new friend, hobby, lover. Then there is space that is incomprehensible: the Milky Way, the Universe, the Whatever-is-Beyond us. South Dakota feels like a paradoxical combination: inconceivably vast, but something you can fill.
West, through the lower third of the State. Highway 18 cuts through Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a fragment of what used to be the Great Sioux Nation. Rectangular prisms of houses sit far apart from each other and several yards back from the two-lane, twenty-five-mph-speed-limit road. Brown grass, just revived after the northern winter, slouches in the front yards, dotted with piles of sticks and remnants of plastic buckets or tools. Many of the yards host rows of old cars, their wheels sunk into the dirt.
On the corner of 18 and Mission Drive sit the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School and Red Cloud Cemetery, sharing a parking lot. It is 3:00, and students in fleeces and untied shoes flee the school doors with their backpacks unzipped, dispersing crumpled worksheets on the blacktop. They rush to the tetherball court, elbows sharp. I roll down my window to hear their cheers and boos.
I am being voyeuristic, I know. Watching after-school play like a pedophile, visiting a cemetery like a tourist – I ought to have brought my fanny pack and binoculars. In all honesty, I know almost nothing about modern Native American culture. Whether that is the fault of my high school history book or my own ignorance, it is difficult to say. I enter the cemetery, hoping it will teach me.
There is a Sour Patch Kids wrapper on Red Cloud’s grave. The shred of plastic is the brightest thing visible, in uncomfortable contrast to the thirsty brown grass and the rotting wood fence of the cemetery. Small wooden crosses mark the graves, a sign of evangelical troddings into the Native American land. At their bases lie bunches of flowers, once lively petals now matching the gray-scaled landscape. One hand-sized American flag stands alone in the middle of the grounds.
Red Cloud Cemetery occupies a football field-sized space five miles north of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in the heart of the Black Hills (whose color appellation is surprisingly accurate – pine trees do come in black). The town of Pine Ridge, 3.2 square miles populated by 3,308 people, is the tribal headquarters of the Oglala Sioux tribe and the administrative center of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Reservation, a region larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is home to three of the poorest counties in the United States.
For forty-one years, Chief Red Cloud led the Oglala Lakota people as one of the fiercest adversaries the US army faced in its often-violent entry and annexation of the Great Plains region. Attempting to end bloodshed, Red Cloud signed the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, which effectively confined his people into the Great Sioux Reservation; the Treaty also forbade miners and settlers from entering—a rule that proved as flexible as the grasses of the plains. The Great Sioux Reservation, which originally covered most of eastern South Dakota, has since been diced into smaller segments. The Pine Ridge section is now home to between 28,000 and 40,000 people with a per capita income of $6,286, a life expectancy of 48-52 years, and an unemployment rate of 80%.
Strong South Dakotan wind kicks the Sour Patch kids wrapper toward my feet. I pick it up. Sugar lingers inside the bottom corners, and some spills onto the grave of Red Cloud. I look up at the cross of his tomb (he converted to Roman Catholicism during his time as Chief), shove the wrapper in my pocket and walk back through the knee-high grass to my car.
In the town of Pine Ridge, I stop for coffee. A woman sits behind the convenience store counter, her eyes and hands on a laptop, talking to a woman standing across from her in quiet words that run together. Both look Native American, and both seem not to notice me, standing next to the counter for the better portion of a minute. The woman on the laptop looks up. She has pock-marked caramel skin and hair so shiny it looks animated.
“Do you have a bathroom?” I ask.
She nods, lips closed, toward the back of the room.
I use the bathroom, find the coffee dispender, flip the notch. A thin trickle runs out of the nozzle, then stops. There is an inch of coffee in the bottom of the cup. For a second, I panic. Then I move to the soda fountain and fill a blue paper Coke cup. Two men have entered, with crates of Fig Newtons and Pringles to restock the shelves. They stand by the counter talking to the women.
I approach, set the two cups on the counter. “I’m sorry, this was all there was,” explaining the shot of coffee I have presented. I feel like I am taking up too much space. She looks into the cup. “I’ll pay for it anyway,” I say, with a ‘don’t worry about it’ wave of the hand. She shakes her head, mumbles a syllable, charges me. “Thank you,” I say and head toward the door, two hands full. The door has a knob and the knob needs to be turned and my pinky is only just strong enough and as the door flies open the soda cup crunches in my hand and crashes to the stoop, and the soda runs off the concrete threshold and into the dust. I apologize, twice, four, six times—too much? She smiles and says, “Oh, just get another one.” I clarify—is she sure?—I’m sorry, really sorry. The men are watching my face which is fiery red. She turns back to them. I refill my soda as quietly as possible. “Sorry,” I mouth again on the way out, spill-free this time. I leave, as quietly as possible, feeling the Whiteness of my skin.
Walking to the car, I look down at my feet. I am wearing moccasins that I bought at Wild Wedt Trade post on the side of the highway, and I am ashamed.
I drive West again. The mountains of Wyoming rise on the horizon, tough but gentle, strong but friendly. The highway curves North, and I follow. Past Reptile Gardens, a Dinosaur Park, the National Museum of Woodcarving (“Where Wood Comes Alive!”), into Keystone, SD, where a billboard tells me I can have the “Best Vacation ‘Ever!’” A Psychic, the National Presidential Wax Museum, the Presidents’ Alpine Slide. Hotels and resorts and rainbow-colored diners and American flags on every roof, windowsill, mailbox. Forests crawl closer to the highway, and the rocks are half-covered in low grass. When the forest falls away, the faraway hills look black with pine tree bedding. So that’s why they call it the Black Hills.
One thing: South Dakota isn’t South Dakota without Mount Rushmore. Another thing: it is a truly bizarre creation. Statues are strange enough—petrifying a person in one attitude and expression for other people to ogle for the rest of time—but faces carved into a mountain? It is somehow demonic, a little bit nightmarish, entirely heebee-jeebee-inducing. Brad, who takes my parking fee from inside a little booth, has worked nineteen years at the Mountain, which welcomes two million visitors a year. “Ya need a job,” he says, scratching the coarse white hair of his beard, trimmed with exactitude, as if carved from rock itself. “It’s a great place to be.” He gives me a thumbs up.
It takes about five minutes to traverse the marble walkway, lined with state flags, up to the viewpoint of the mountain. Then, there you are. You look. You see Presidents. You feel slightly uneasy. You take a picture of them. You take a picture of you and them. You take a picture of an old couple from Montana and them. You wonder what to do next. You wonder how long that crazy thing took to make. You stare up at the faces. You turn around and walk back to the parking lot.
I stay the night in Rapid City, where strip malls and superstores blanket the Black Hills.
If you think about it evolutionarily, we’re not meant to stay in one place. We’re meant to travel where we have an instinctual need to go.
Today, I will reach the Badlands. Half of my stomach flutters with excitement, the other with the anxiety of the impending stop—a fear that reaching the destination will rudely interrupt the instinct to go.
Here, you can’t see where the space ends. Miles and miles of untouched land roll before you, and the little clusters of towns and structures and humanity are tiny in comparison. This is how people should live, the right proportion to the world—so you can see around you and feel how small you are. I think that’s why people talk more quietly out here. They take themselves less seriously.
And then, there they are. The grass floor drops out and crags of rock rise up from the sunken land. Shadowy from far away, closer up like a field of drip castles, and closer still a playground of dry, cracked cones that looks as if they’d crumble into dust if you brushed them with your little finger. I am speechless and wide-eyed as I approach.
In the Park: here. I sit on top of my car and look, take in this huge, strange natural formation that has been standing here for years and years, while everyone has been busily doing whatever they have been busily doing. . The wind is strong: I grip the roof rack with two hands. Eighty million years ago, I would have been underwater. You can read the ages of the rocks in their stripes, identical patterns down each peak—sediments left by millions of years of changing ecosystems: sea, tropics, forests.
On the bottom: grey: eighty million years ago a sea bathed the land, depositing a floor of dark mud, which hardened into the Pierre Shale, still home to petrified remains of clams, fish, and sea turtles.
Then: yellow: the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills rose, lifting the ocean floor and exposing the upper layers to air and wind, a reaction that formed amber heaps known as the Yellow Mounds.
Grey: rivers carved their way through these knolls, and their frequent floods nurtured a thriving tropic forest, the Chadron Formation, inhabited by alligators and ancestors of the horse and rhinoceros.
Red: over the next three million years, the climate grew cooler and drier, the forest deteriorated into open grassland, and layers of sandstone and red soil solidified into the Brule Formation stripe.
Grey: volcanic eruptions in the region deposited a thick layer of ash and debris that makes up the Rockyford Ash layer.
Tan: wind, water, and ash carved the top layer, the twenty-eight-million-year-old Sharps Foundation.
All right there, in the glow of my headlights.
I laugh, sitting on top of my car, watching eighty million years stand in the strong prairie wind.
A ten-mile road loops through the Park. Driving through the rockiness, windows open and the smell of warm rain on earth, I feel a lurch in my stomach. Something wants me to go backwards, start at the beginning, do it again; I am at once in awe of the world I have come upon and anxious that I have reached the end. I pull up to a lookout point, over the White River Valley. There, out the windshield, are miles and miles of rock and earth and light and air. My body feels heavy in the seat, my limbs limp and tired, my eyelids drooping. I am sleepy, for a moment I think from the road and the miles, and then I realize I am worn out by the land. I am exhausted by the vastness of the planet, and all the people driving across it who have no idea who I am or what this place is doing.
Think about: we are made up of the same basic materials as the rocks and the oceans, and the forests, and everything in the world. I think part of the reason nature so overwhelms us is that, in some way, it reflects us—in all of our crags and crests and puddles and landslides, all our beautiful naturalness, the entropy of our disarray and the disorganization of our precise patterns—immaculately structured chaos.
Against the windshield, the wipers whine, the wind wails against the glass, my breath.
When you have all this in front of you, where do you even begin? How can you do anything when everything is already so big?
Wall, population 818: just North of the park, infested with tourists in the on season, from May to September, but quiet as a ghost town in mid-March. “Your Window to the West,” according to one of the many welcoming billboards. Wall Drug is a Wild West-imitation heaven of homemade fudge, belt buckles, dream catchers, and cap guns; Gretchen works the register and has for thirty years. She moved here 31 years ago, in pursuit of a rancher; her head shake tells me he is no longer in the picture. During the on-season, she says, fifteen to twenty thousand people visit Wall Drug every day. “And I don’t like being around people,” she says, with another shake of her softly wrinkled cheeks, her voice the same soft volume I’ve noticed is a trend among South Dakotans.
In the grocery store, both cashiers nod at me, staring a second longer than seems necessary. A man and his daughter, and a second later a young woman, enter the store after me, and exchange first-name greetings with the women at the register. I buy a bottle of Calamity Jane brand wine.
Tuesday morning I wake up early and buy a pocket knife. I figure I’ll need it if I come across any particularly vicious-looking tumbleweed. Better safe than sorry. I drive to the park with a raincoat and an avocado in my backpack, and find the head of the Castle Trail. It is ten miles round trip, across earth that is dry and crackly like old people skin, under clouds that move so quickly they look like a time-lapse video. The light changes rapidly, and when I look down, sometimes my shadow is strong and dark and sometimes it is not there at all.
You could never grow anything in this land, I think. It reminds me of making mud pies in the summers after rainstorms, and storing them in the fridge thinking they would stay deliciously gooey, only to find them hardened and crumbly the next day. The wind is so strong it blows a folded piece of paper out of my sweatshirt pocket, twice. I sit on a rock and peel an avocado and eat it like an apple. What type of person are you if you like to sit on the ground and look at rocks?
I think just a content person.
In the afternoon, I drive to the town just south of the park–Interior, population 67. At the corner of Highway 377 and A Street, Cowboy Corner offers Lottery tickets, self-serve diesel and gas, and a casino inside–one corner of the store sectioned of by a swinging wooden door, which conceals a single empty table and two plastic chairs. Brown bananas sit in a basket on the counter and racks of candy and beer stand in crooked rows, shadowed, the only light coming from the open door.
Behind the counter a man in a green baseball cap and a beard that hangs five inches off his chin stands with his hands resting gently on the formica surface. He comes up to my shoulder, and his soft leathery face is bejeweled by two bright blue eyes. I ask if he has any coffee.
“Let me…well, doesn’t much look like it,” he says with a content heave of the chest as he picks up the coffee pot. “I can start another pot on, if you’ve got the time.”
“Beautiful day,” he says, scooping coffee grounds into the machine’s well-used filter. I agree, and ask if he’s been outside at all. He has, a little, this morning as the sun was rising.
He tells me he is originally from Michigan, but moved around a lot, ending up in Interior about ten years ago. “I like the spot,” he says. “I like the land. I like the people. I like the lack of people, sometimes.”
I say I can see why—it’s beautiful and there’s enough space and peace to enjoy it.
He nods thoughtfully. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s the space. Every time you look, it’s different, the light changes so fast. Just about goes on forever. I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing as far as I can.”
We chat while the coffee drizzles into the pot, the wind sneaking through the open door – he asks about my trip, I ask about his recent hikes in the area. Then the pot is full, and he pours me a cup.
“Traveling’s a good thing to do,” he says conclusively, as I reach into my wallet. He holds his hand out, his blue eyes squint in a smile. “You just go ahead and take that coffee with you. A little present from Interior.”
The elements in the Badlands are so strong that the rock formations, known collectively as the Badlands Wall, shrink an inch every year, scrubbed away by water, whisked away by wind. In the late afternoon, I climb one of the higher rocks. Up a quarter mile, steeper than a flight of stairs, and the wind so strong I have to grip the rocks with both hands and crouch to my knees when I reach the exposed top. I pee on the top and think about how rare it is to think of nothing but how to get up or down, where to put your foot next. How rare it is to spend your time looking. Just looking, not decoding or deducing or demanding any more of your surroundings than what they offer in the simple act of being.
At twilight, I park my car and sit on the roof and watch the sunset from one of the Park’s high points. Someone climbing the rocks below me laughs, a childlike giggle that echoes loud enough to reach the clouds. In the distance, a car drives through Interior, its acceleration reverberating of the millions of years of rock and dust. Families are probably just sitting down to dinner, or homework, or hockey games on TV.
I put my hands in my pockets. The evening wind is comfortable, but I shiver anyway. Something about the amount of space and time in front of me rattles my bones.
Are you ever overwhelmed with the amount of life there is? All around you and inside you too?
All the times you’ve picked up a fork at the breakfast table and tripped thinking there was one more stair and said hello to someone you never knew and spoken to yourself and spoken to your friend and spoken to something bigger and heftier than you and your friend combined.
All the times you thought a good thought or realized you were late and had to apologize even though you weren’t sorry. All the times you saw someone else in their niche or they saw you in yours.
All the times you pushed in your chair and felt courteous or changed the toilet paper roll and felt like an upstanding citizen or ran with a backpack on down a sidewalk through a puddle and felt silly and free.
All these feelings, just those of being alive. Not being a body and a brain, but being an event, a stripe through time and space, a movement that continues after you are gone—the puddle still rippling and the clock still ticking and the words still echoing and the breakfast table still missing a fork.
Are you ever overwhelmed with the amount of life there is?
That night the wind is so strong the walls of my cabin rattle like someone has grabbed it and is shaking it to see what’s inside. I wonder how wind even works. Where does it come from? When does it end?
At 6 am, I leave Wall and drive into the Park for sunrise. The clouds are heavy above, letting just a small slit of pink brighten at the horizon, widening and deepening in color, like a great eye opening from sleep. At 6:37, a great orange ball of fire peeks over the horizon and the land lightens, deep blue then green, a great foamy sea swelling with rocky waves. At 6:42, the orange fireball has moved through the slit of the eye and is gone behind the low clouds. We turn very fast.
I drive East: home.
There’s not much left to the story. I drove home, a theatrical voice reading a mystery novel over my speakers, my eyes too often on the places outside the window, not often enough on the road in front of me. I didn’t have answers, or epiphanies, or theses. I had learned about tolls and rocks and Reservations; I had learned about land and people and the strength of the wind; I had learned about how others categorize you, how it feels to be alone, how much more there is in the world than you could ever conceptualize. But mostly I had wondered: if I was going the right direction; if what I was doing was worthwhile; if it counted as using my talents; why people do what they do at all; if happiness is a legitimate motive; what it means to be happy anyway; how it feels to sit and look; if the Badlands will be there in another million years. I didn’t come to any conclusions, but letting these questions rattle around in my head sometimes feels like conclusion enough.
There’s nothing I can tell you that you don’t already know—no parting advice I can leave you with; I’m really just a college kid who dove somewhere. All I’ll say is that I think we all have a responsibility, a duty, when we are given the gift of life on this crazy planet, to try to see what it’s all about.