If this were the only day of our vacation I would not feel cheated. Geology and time have created a marvel that we have managed, so far, not to destroy. There are pure, terrifyingly inspiring places in this land, places of twisted trees and layers of geologic record, of civilizations come and gone and reminders that, as a being, I am no more permanent than a breath.
I do not fear death here, in the middle of wonders, because I’m going to die anyway and better surrounded by nature than in a cubicle.
There is no sense in trying to describe this place. It’s like explaining color to the blind, or taste to someone with no tongue.
The same sites change with the angle of the sun, with the most beauty coming out at sunset, which we chased across the park like kids chasing a rainbow. We’ll upload a million pictures after the trip. Still, they won’t do justice to a minute of being here.
Yesterday’s ramble through Native American hopelessness led me to a change in our schedule, which I have so far left to Jenn for the most part. We took an 80 mile detour from our plan to visit a place called Wounded Knee. I’m not sure what to think or feel about it. They have their heritage and culture, I have mine. We cannot hope for a better past but the future has no map.
We have driven 684 miles so far. A good percentage of that has been on gravel, both in Pine Ridge and in the park. Conata Basin road, a long drive through a bowl almost completely surrounded be the cliffs and hills of the park has been my favorite of the gravel roads. We did it twice, once in bright day in and at sunset.
We did find one small island of cell reception, under a Verizon tower on a gravel road, which was fortunate because Jenn’s credit card company had locked her card because of our flurry of odd charges and the fact that we had no reception when they called to check them with her. Note: before you travel most card companies have an easy phone menu to notify them.
I imagine that French trappers and Lakota Indians without the benefit of internal combustion engines and gorgeous paved roads found this part of the world very bad indeed, but we find it stunning and glorious. Terrains I’ve seen before were typically green or brown or gray. This terrain is also white or pink or red or gold, depending on where you are in the park and the time of day you are looking at it.
As a fellow fed, I need to give a nod to the Park Service. Despite a sequester, years of underfunding, and a drought, they clearly are dedicated to keeping this place fit for visitors and to save the environment from us, as much as possible. As a person with a disability, I am PARTICULARLY grateful for their efforts to make the park as accessible to me as possible: More on that in Day Three.
We started our day by circumnavigating the whole place, taking in the Buffalo Gap Grasslands to the east and west of the park itself. I should mention here that our day started with a knock on the door from the motel manager telling me that my credit card had been declined. I have an exceptionally zealous fraud department, so I knew I needed to call them, but from where? Cell service is non-existent here.
My circumnavigation strategy had us going north out of the park, then west almost to Wall, SD, then south back into the area of the park called Sage Creek. My first navigational mistake occurred when we crossed the east-west artery we were supposed to take and ended up on … you guessed it… another gravel road. Poor Chris, poor Hertz Rent-A-Car, then the detour became worth it. Up ahead, barely visible through our cloud of dust, was a cell tower.
I pulled over, called the credit card people, told them I was in the wilderness, which made them laugh, got my card working again then set out for an incredible day. I could not live out here. There is too much … space, but it is gorgeous, and I am very glad it exists and that we are prevented from completely wrecking it.
The Buffalo Gap Grasslands are just as their name implies, a vast pastureland of tall prairie grass, as far as the eye can see. I wonder what it is like here in winter. Probably so cold, your bone marrow freezes.
When we stopped at an overlook for lunch, Chris helped out a guy who was driving a motorcycle across the country… for his work. He needed promotional photos of the bike, so he posed while Chris worked his magic with the guy’s camera. Everywhere we go, Chris ends up taking people’s pictures, and they UNIVERSALLY comment that the photos are great. That is not an accident.
From the overlook, we finally saw Sage Creek, and it was a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the prairie.
Our loop continued south and east, skirting the southern boundary to the Badlands. The crazy, craggy peaks are visible for miles, but they still seem to sprout from nowhere as you drive the prairie. At some point, we saw the road that we had decided would carry us back into the park, Conata Basin Road, and here, we found the flattest straightest thrill ride I have ever been on.
The Conata Basin is just that, a bowl-shaped stretch of land that is surrounded by Badlands formations on more than three sides, with Pine Ridge to the south, Badlands to the north, and Buffalo Gap its east and west boundaries. It once had a tiny homesteading “town” (page 200 of http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/badl/hrs/chap7.pdf), but now it is home to prairie dogs, endangered black-footed ferrets, and other wildlife, and at least one rusted out car.
Believe it or not, after all these adventures, it was still only about 2:00 PM, but we were tired and returned to the motel for a siesta. Soon, though, we decided to make the trip out through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to visit the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Pine Ridge in daylight is both worse and better than at night. The blight is more evident, but so are the hopeful signs of schools, a chamber of commerce, bed and breakfasts and even joggers. Contemplating how to “fix” a genocide will make your brain hurt, but you cannot be here and not wonder what might have been if only we had left this culture alone. I don’t know that they would be any better off, but it seems very unlikely they could be doing any worse.
Almost as an afterthought, GPS tells you that you have arrived in the town of Wounded Knee. It barely rates as a crossroads. We kept going along the road for another quarter mile, wondering if we had somehow missed it when, on a tiny sign was a herald of a historical marker. There, to our left, was an odd “overlook” with no gorgeous vista. Cars were parked in it, and people were milling around, but the site was an open field, with just a few small stands set up for Lakota to sell their crafts and jewelry. Only a sign, not like anything the Park Service typically erects, tells you that you have arrived at the place where the U.S. military slaughtered between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women and children.
After Wounded Knee, I wanted to cry, but we opted instead to retrace our Conata Basin drive and re-enter the Badlands at sunset. It was a REALLY brilliant idea.