Journey to the West, Part 3: The Badlands

Heading to the Badlands

As we left the lush, green Yellowstone National Park, I noticed immediately just how hot and dry the Great Plains could be. With no AC in the car, we simply took a beating from the sun, burning my right arm and Tommy’s left. It was only Nalgene’s worth of tepid water keeping us cool and comfortable. Smokey the Bear signs leapt up from “3 – High,” straight to “5 – Extreme.” It was a long drive, indeed.

Luckily for us, there were some pit stops on the way to the Badlands, the first of which was Devil’s Tower. It’s a geological anomaly whose origins scientists have hypothesized with relative certainty and wonks have ascertained definitively. (It was aliens.) It’s a massive rock jutting out of the ground, but that doesn’t do it justice. Supposedly, there was once a metamorphic rock out shell, but tectonic activity forced magma straight upward until it cooled, hardened and cast the outer layer of rock aside. The vertical layers of igneous rock pointing to the sky are exceptional to this planet, which is why UFOs land at this spot once a year.

Devil's Tower
If you climb to the top, you’ll find Giorgio Tsoukalos.

It was here I first noticed the ubiquity of our noble United States Postal Service in the American West. Perhaps because in our metropolises we are more likely to be gawking at skyscrapers or snapchatting our Starbucks, or perhaps because hidden deep in our suburban sprawl requiring cars for mobility we lose track of where the nearest USPS is. But along these small stops and teensy towns, you will see post offices front and center on Main Street.

What purpose do they serve? Surely they can’t be that important, right? Conjecture led me to believe that these must be integral institutions to the outside world, a major conduit through which goods and information get in or out of small town America. I figured that a post office here must be much more important than in NYC. Orrrrrr…maybe I was wrong.

My mom has worked for the post office for years now, and I’ve always had a soft spot for it. It’s a romanticized aspect of the US. From the ephemeral Pony Express to the felling of telegraph lines in the Wild West to the a lack of communication causing the War of 1812, the transfer of information has been at the core of our country’s development. Major American institutions rely on the services the USPS once served, but the transition is somewhat abstract. Wall Street, cable news, email, Amazon, Facebook, Craig’s List, Vice News, the Weather Channel. In a way, the nineteenth century analogs of all these things were processed and serviced by our postal service.

But technology changes. Landlines make way for cell towers; accurate almanacs replaced by sensationalist weather.com and newspapers become…Facebook? So it seems that for information, the internet has replaced nearly all physical forms. But in some parts of the country, this isn’t the case. For instance, in rural Montana, some gamers must still purchase physical copies of Nintendo games as they cannot reliably connect to the Interwebs to download or update them. (This is of grave concern, no??)

So I figured this was the case with the USPS; however, it’s not. Turns out the postal service is still integral to much of the US whether you use it personally or not. The bulk of shipping is processed by the USPS, and not necessarily by the private companies like you may think. And without these post offices and the extensive trucking it entails, it would be hard for any city to function, much less a small town.

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Deadwood, South Dakota

And the last of the towns I noticed the USPS was in Deadwood, SD, a town famed for being a Wild West ghost town. Except it’s not really a ghost town, since people live there, and there’s businesses – gift shops, creameries, taverns, restaurants, parking garages. It was somewhere between an absolute tourists trap (a la South of the Border in South Carolina) and a legitimate ghost town. I think it did a really good job of preserving its nature while being accessible.

In any case, we three found ourselves in a restaurants chowing down on some Rocky Mountain Oysters (bull nuts) when we heard an abrupt, “She’s not from here, is she?” from a man pointing directly at Shine. Well yeah the girl with a Chinese accent is not from South Dakota correct. Expecting some ignorant drivel, Tommy confronted him with a terse, “No she’s not. So what?”

And the polite man explained that he noticed she used the European style to cut her meat, keeping the fork in the left hand and knife in the right, as opposed to the American style that requires one to switch hands after every bite. Surprised by a nuanced observation and racism, we conversed for a minute, finished eating our fried testicles and hit the road.

It’s a good thing I make silly, random observations, otherwise these transitions from place to place would be so much harder. After Devil’s Tower, there was another stop, the Vore Buffalo Jump, only a mile or two off the interstate. As has been told in history books over and over, the Plains Indians used to run the buffalo off a cliff in order to kill them in bulk for food and other uses. This was a popular method even before the re-introduction of the horse into North America, as it is much more difficult on foot to take down a buffalo. This place was a cool spot, worth 10 minutes of your time, but probably not worth the hour long tour they were offering. Perhaps cut that down just a bit? Maybe. In any case, it was off to the next destination.

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Badlands

The Badlands get a 110%, three thumbs-up, 9.4 on IMBD rating from me. They are a ridiculously cool place, one that has only a few peers on this grand planet of ours. The Badlands are technically badlands with a lowercase B, a particular landform characterized by its intense dryness and eroded softer soils. It’s steep and jagged and often seen as a moonscape of sorts.

Both the Lakota and the French named the area “bad land” and for that we forever name them Co-Champions of Cleverness. It was for good reason, however, as the flat Great Plains are suddenly interrupted by a seemingly impassable landform. It’s a strange monstrosity jutting out of otherwise flat, grassy, dry and brutally hot terrain. It’s deserving of the name, I guess.

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The map of the park itself is a bit odd. The borders are boxy all around, as if you zoomed in on a JPEG too much and are looking at individual pixels. The middle of the park comes to a narrow stretch dividing the northern and southern sections. The southern part apparently was used as a nuclear testing ground decades ago for the army; furthermore, there’s apparently shrapnel and other dangerous parts still littering that area. Also, there’s no real trails or campgrounds or anything down there, so it’s not for the faint of heart if you’d like to go hiking. There’s one seasonal visitor center and you must detail you plan clearly before you set off (on you own.) Needless to say, it’s at their own risk.

For us mere mortals, we went to the northern portion which had one permanent campground, a visitor center and an amphitheater. It even had wells for water, public showers and a vending machine that eats your money. If it weren’t for the bone-dry air, stifling heat and searing rays of the sun, it would’ve been pretty lavish by camping standards.

As you can probably glean from pictures, the Badlands are dry, dry, dry. The surface is brittle, coarse, dense; this means you will slip and scrape your flesh, especially if you’re wearing worn-out sneakers. It’s also all brown as far as the eye can see, at least for the season we went. There are hawks both perched on the cliffs and swirling overhead; on the hillside are rattlesnake holes and somewhere must be small rodents for food. It’s an unforgiving environment just being in an AC-less car, never mind, ya know, actually being out there.

Even more, as we drove into the park, we noticed a massive plume of grey smoke just above the ridge off in the distance. It went straight from east to west with the prevailing winds, and our best guess was forest fire. It was slightly surreal, having never been in that kind of environment. So we went to the visitor’s center where they reassured it was 40 miles away or so and wouldn’t hit us in a day’s time. They gave us trail maps, and after a quick trip through the museum, we headed out.

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Tommy and I set off on a hike and picked what was apparently the easiest one. Either we’re morons or that wasn’t “easy” because we lost the trail basically from the get-go. We followed the parched riverbed as far as we could until we rounded the only hill we recognized and unknowingly returned to the same trailhead an hour later.

Since it was sundown and Tommy isn’t one to turn down a challenge, he figured we should hike over that ridge over there. Which one?? That one! Well, they all kinda like the same, so I guess we’re going…there? Using my outstretched fist to estimate less than an hour’s worth of sunlight left, I was hoping Tommy wasn’t doing what he was going to do. (He was.

You see, I’m reasonably fit and athletic for most things, yet I’m not a terribly strong individual. I’m the sort of person you look at and go, “he’s probably a decent soccer player,” but never will you confuse me for a rock climber. That’s what Tommy was doing. On the edge of a ridge overlooking a smallish cliff, he looked down 200ft or so to the only road in the park, and mum as a starfish jumped down to a ledge out of eyeshot. We’re doing this, huh?

There were more than a few instances of spiky ledges, slippery footing, steep slides, and dark caves. It was basically 30 minutes of me crab-walking down an area the French figured 300 years ago that people shouldn’t really go. As the surface raked my hamstrings, drew blood from my butt and carved a chunk out of my (exceedingly shitty) plastic watch, the main road came clearer and clearer. My anxiety subsided after a few jumps with poor traction that Mario and Luigi would’ve been impressed with. (Maybe.) We got down to the road, my heart racing, Tommy’s at a calm 70 bpm. Shine swung by with the car, and luckily that little adventure was over. I’d survived the Badlands.

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“Call it a day or flirt with Death?” – my supposed friend

At Night

The National Park Service is an absolutely wonderful organization, and regardless of political stance, it’s an institution that literally everyone would benefit from having. This is a beautiful nation of ours, and with their help, the US protects and promotes these relics. And in more than a few, they have outstanding tours and/or services.

That night in the Badlands, they had an astronomy lesson in the amphitheater, which is one of my favorite things in the world. (My dad used to take me to the observatory when I was 8 or so, and the stars both baffled and gripped me.) If you’ve never seen a naked sky, please do. Unless of course, you hate stars, in which case, please also do. I’ve been fortunate to have been to a few places with gorgeous stargazing, but I’d also been in China for two years, where even the rural regions struggle to open up the heavens at night, what with the smog and all. So having been back in the US only a few weeks, the Milky Way in all its glory hung there mesmerizing. The stars, coupled with the raging forest fire from earlier, which at night gave a third of the visible horizon a distinct orange glow, was simply spellbinding.

The park rangers used laser pointers, mapping out the constellations, giving back stories and highlighting what were stars, what were nebulae and what were satellites zipping along overhead. They explained the Greek background behind Ursa Major and the constitution of various stars. It was insanely peaceful and deeply satisfying.

To cap off the night, some piping hot Mr. Evan Williams was removed from the trunk of the car and doused in a plastic tub of cool well water, as we recounted college stories to the mostly attentive ears of Shine. Eventually, as the bottle became more buoyant in the bath, the tales devolved into over-the-top patriotic ramblings. Sorry Shine; that was utter shamelessness.

 

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