Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Interior, South Dakota - a frontier town on the edge of the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, and less than a mile from the Badlands National Park, was going to be home for a few days. Larry, the ranch and campground owner, checked us in and warned us of the 105 degree forecast for the day. Warning duly noted, we headed for the desert.
The stillness here is intoxicating, and it's a tonic for body and soul just to immerse oneself in the quiet barren tranquility. Peach cactus sprung at our feet, kingbirds seemed to guide us, perching a few yards ahead, then fluttering on only to be found further down the trail, and swallows made there homes in the baked desert mounds.
The temperature did climb as predicted, and after a few hours in the sun and constant hot breeze, the idea of an ice cold beer in the shade started to sound pretty good - time for a stroll to the Wagon Wheel , downtown Interior , where a few of the locals along with some passing bikers, sat in the quiet one-room bar shooting the breeze, while the friendly barmaid swatted flies. A crock pot full of burgers , along with some fixings were set on the pool table with a handwritten sign that said "all u can eat, $8.00".
The bikers were just a few of literally hundreds of thousands that were heading to Sturgis that week for the annual Harley Davidson Rally, and the road west would soon turn into a long stream of chrome and beard from morning to night and as far as the eye could see into the horizon.
The locals were just a handful of Interior's population, which totals at 67.
After washing the dust down, it was back to the Campground for "Cowboy Stew", and here a word of warning for the vegetarian. If you are heading this direction, and I recommend you do - be prepared; options are slim, and in some cases, non-existent.
I keep to a vegetarian diet , but come dinner time, I found myself with a choice; stew or no stew, and after a few miles hiking in the desert heat, I knew that my road-food stash of nuts and berries just wouldn't cut it, so with a shrug of my shoulders and a belly that just needed filling, i grabbed a plate.
The stew was cooked slow over 8 hours- steak chunks and nine vegetables. Hearty stuff. Uncomplicated and delicious. Barb, the quiet spoken woman of the house, made sure the plate was full until I said stop.
Laying in the tent in the growing dark, I listened to the constant wind across the barren land and drifted off with images of ancient peoples with their ancient songs and stories shimmering in my mind's eye.
In the mornings, the sourdough pancakes and coffee formed the foundation for a good days hiking, and a sign in the kitchen proclaimed that the sourdough starter for the pancakes was used on a frontier wagon train over a hundred years ago. I'm glad they left the recipe here. Barb was once again at the ready with coffee pot and watchful eye for any empty plates and cups that needed filling, while in the background the matriarch, a small slight grey haired woman, hovered at the stove with a pitcher of pancake batter.
Bleary eyed bikers and fellow road trippers filed in from the morning sun, and we ate our fill before heading out to explore.
Jeremiah Smith , in 1823, gazed upon the badlands for the first time and was the first white man to do so.
One hundred and eighty six years later I looked out onto that eery moonlike landscaoe for the first time, but how strange it must have been for Jeremiah. I at least had heard and read about the badlands and so had an incling as to what I could expect, but for Jeremiah, he may well have wondered if he'd somehow slipped into another world.
It is at once prairie and desert, submerged and elevated; canyons formed by ancient rivers long dried up, and hills eroded over centuries of inexhaustable winds, blindly taking everything but the hardest substances with it. Jeremiah could have been forgiven for turning and running.
This was a hunting ground of the Lakota, who had named it "White HIlls"- a neighbor to the Black HIlls further West. French trappers referred to it as "les mauvaises terres a traverse" or "bad lands to cross". The name " Bad Lands" stuck. So much so that the Lakota began to use the term, due to the new trading relationships that were cultivated with the trappers.
Once again while laying in a tent in the shadow of the main ridge later that night, my mind wandered to the bare feet, moccasins and bison hoof that had trod right where my head lay , now part of a working ranch with a campground attached. How many had woken as I had that morning to a sunrise over an open grassland, the distant landscape eroded over aeons; the quiet , eery mounds pressing into the sky above ? And over how many centuries? Once again, the constant, gentle wind lulled me to sleep.
The wind seems to own the land here; 20 million years of it rushing across the sandstone and prairie had created it's unique moonlike character, and I 'm guessing it must be a force that man and beast has to reckon with every day out here - the flat landscape lending itself to snowdrifts in the winter, and rapidly changing conditions in general, but of course these are the very things that bring us here - the unique serenity, the bejeweled night sky unlike anything a city dweller can possibly see, and the wide open window to another time.