There’s a difference to the flatness in South Dakota. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Dakota by Kathleen Norris, but I think I could have driven for days through South Dakota and never tired of seeing much of nothing.
Much of nothing. It feels like nothing, the long stretch of road with wide skies and bare prairies, Wall Drug signs on a repeat track, and then the horizon surprises you. Both God and man are doing their best to keep things interesting out here. We drove from Sioux Falls to Mitchell, home of the World’s Only Corn Palace, with its Free Parking and Free Entrance and Gift Shop, all advertised for miles and miles in between the Wall Drug signs and Firehouse Brewing Company’s many red fire trucks parked alongside their billboards. Where did they acquire so many cool fire trucks is what I want to know.
Outside of the billboards, there is much of nothing, much of the same thing, anyway, so much of the same thing stretching for miles and miles. I kept singing that in my head, too, as I drove, “I can see for miles and miles, I can see for miles and miles,” by The Who, who must have been talking about this stretch of highway.
I’m in love with it. I’m in love with the way everything is laid bare, everything can be seen, nothing is hidden. But that isn’t true—for as much as you can see, there’s so much to be anticipated over the next horizon you don’t even realize exists yet because it stretches out so long ahead of you, the earth curving even as it seems to be flattening out in front of you.
We pulled off for a scenic overlook, where the statue of Dignity, a stunning sculpture of an indigenous woman, holds ground and greets the sky above the Missouri River. This is an amazing view. We all said wow, and I probably said it six times.
I broke my brand-new Ray Bans sunglasses in the visitor center, and I know I shouldn’t care about things but it almost made me cry. I ordered them from GlassesUSA a month ago, and the customer service folks there came through for me big time, offering to exchange them if I mail back the broken pair. Thanks, GlassesUSA!
I spent far too long grieving my sunglasses and cursing the cheapies I happened to have in the truck while continuing our course across South Dakota, toward the Badlands. I kept wondering what could possibly be so bad about the badlands. All I saw for miles and miles (and miles) was grasslands waving, scrubby trees, fields that had to be maintained by someone, somewhere in this vast wilderness of much of nothing. Of course I know, from Kathleen Norris and from the evidence across the plains, why the badlands are so bad: it’s rough terrain, rough weather, extreme temperatures, unyielding, insistent on being just as it is. Beautiful. Raw.
“We just gained an hour!” I declared to the boys in the back. “We’re on mountain time now.”
“Mountain time?” Henry said. “I don’t see no mountains.”
It stayed that way, and then suddenly it wasn’t. Suddenly, it’s as if the earth has crumbled away, eaten at by an ancient sea until only the most solid stone remained, jutting up and separating the high plains from the low plains (or high prairie from the low prairie… I can’t remember now).
Every bend through the Badlands National Park offered another stunner of a view, the rock cliffs extending for sixty miles.
We pulled into the first parking lot to hike the Notch, Window, and Door Trails, short little treks that offered a window, notch, and door view. We parked the truck and opened the doors.
“Woah, it’s hot,” we said, and continued to say, over and over again the rest of the day. It alternated between “Wow” and “It’s so hot.” It was a thousand degrees. Okay, 100. Close enough. The wind was spectacular. The rocks were otherworldly. The heat was intense.
Frankly, I gave up on hiking after the first three trails, but we did pull off for a few more overlooks. We stood in the middle of a field of prairie dogs and listened to them yip. We gasped and gawked and oohed and ahhed, and then we crawled into Wall to eat ice cream and browse the massive gift shop, where we had our first family spat on the trip over buying replica revolvers and Risk for Europe as souvenirs.
Worst. Parent. Ever.
Eventually, we moved on, out of the air conditioning, into the slow heat of evening, sweating and irritable, with our free Wall Drug bumper sticker and no other souvenirs. Showers helped. Food helped even more. It’s amazing how missing out on the most basic needs of survival can affect us, and how quickly we feel better once they’re met again.
Oh, wow, sorry for how terrible I was just then, I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was hot. I was tired.
For there being so much of nothing, the Badlands did not disappoint.