The Badlands get their very own post, because a) there is very little to do in Allen, South Dakota so I wrote it already and b) I had so much to write that including it in the general South Dakota post would make it the biggest blog post ever and we all know those can get boring.
So this is embarrassing, but ever since I saw the Badlands on the Bachelor (Farmer Chris’s season, duh), I’ve desperately wanted to go. I distinctly remember Ashley I. pouting on top of a mesa, false eyelashes fluttering in the breeze. I wanted that. And here I was, an hour and fifteen minutes away with absolutely nothing else to do. So Bix and I hopped in the car and drove over the hills and dales and past the cows on the road who were accompanied by a concerned-looking cattle dog and into the itty bitty town of Interior, Pop. 67, for provisions. I stocked up on Pringles and expired baby carrots and a Snickers bar that melted very quickly but skipped over the apples that were, for whatever reason, being sold for the outrageous price of $2.65 while Bixby waited patiently in the car. (Did you know that tiny convenience stores in South Dakota sell liquor? I didn’t buy any, but I could have.)
As I drove closer to the arching rock structures, I pictured myself trotting up and down the plateaus, ruler of the Badlands, queen of South Dakota. It wasn’t quite like that – far too hot, for one, and also too cactusy and friendly towards rattlesnakes. I’d gone a bit overboard with the trails too, because when I asked the ranger what her recommendations were, she said she didn’t give any since it really depended on what you wanted to do. “I like to hike,” I thought, “I can hike,” and I decided I’d do all of them. I nearly did, too. We started with Notch Trail, which had a ladder, so I wasn't sure how far along we'd get. Bix beasted the ladder, partly because he is a beast and partly because “ladder” is sort of a generous description. It was more like round wooden stairs laid on a steep hill, spaced awkwardly and held together with a metal chain, but I can see how that might get tedious to write out. We did trot nicely along that trail, we were fresh and it hadn’t yet reached the 96 degrees the rangers promised. We met a family with southern accents and another dog that had also climbed the "ladder" and this guy named Abi who was moving from Madison to San Francisco and stopping at national parks along the way. He and I wound up hiking together for half an hour or so, because we both knew that solo traveling can get kind of boring, and besides, he shared his chocolate.
Here’s the thing: the Badlands are spectacular. They are harsh and beautiful and utterly bizarre. The word that comes to mind, pretentious as it may sound, is arresting. I felt like I’d been picked up off the earth and dropped onto a grassier version of Mars. The sun is insanely intense and unless you’re on the right side of a rock formation at the right time of day, there’s absolutely no shade. Nothing is soft or comfortable, it’s as if the whole place is mad at you for stopping by, and the only water sources we saw were sad little puddles glazed over with mud. As I’ve been traveling east to west, I’ve pictured the pioneers discovering the places I’m discovering, and the Badlands must have absolutely knocked their socks off, and killed a good deal of them too. I had an overwhelming sense, with my red hair and pale skin, of not belonging. And of course I didn’t have enough water. I don’t know that you could have had enough water. The recommended amount was a gallon, but I had five water bottles, four of which were completely full, in my car, so that’s what I brought, under the assumption that there would be a water fountain, or at least a vending machine, at the other end of the hike.
This was my plan:
Notch Trail (1.5 miles round trip)
Castle Trail (5 miles out)
Fossil Loop at the end of Castle Trail (.25 miles)
Castle Trail/Medicine Loop/Castle Trail (a little more than 5 miles, which would take me back to the car)
Door Trail (.75 miles round trip)
Window Trail (.25 miles round trip)
This way I was only skipping the closed Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and one called Saddle Pass that sounded extremely steep and fairly redundant since I’d be walking past its summit when I did Castle Trail. So I’d done Notch Trail, and since Abi was planning to do a section of Castle Trail as well, we set off together. We talk mostly about our favorite Netflix shows, since we were both deprived of Netflix and couldn’t actually watch them. When we reached Old NE Road, Abi turned back and I kept going, following Castle Trail. Bixby and I stopped to eat lunch, and it got hotter and hotter, and I played “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen on my phone. I was having a fabulous time. I stopped having a fabulous time somewhere after the intersection of Castle and Saddle and Medicine, where there wasn’t another soul to be seen, except probably rattlesnakes, and I kept wondering if grizzles came this far south or east. The views were magnificent, so there was that to appreciate, but I was worried about water since we’d easily gone through three of our five bottles and I wasn’t sure if there would be any water once we reached the other parking lot.
And as it turned out, there wasn’t. There were two unisex bathrooms, although I feel like it’s unfair to call them bathrooms if there isn’t any running water. They were privies. Bix and I flopped next to the signs about fossils, and he attracted lots of attention by panting dramatically and I attracted lots of attention by being the color of a tomato. A couple, bless them, gave us a bottle and a half of water. A bus drove by and dropped off loads of tourists, which I felt both very smug and stupid about, and I considered asking the driver if he carried water bottles and could spare a couple. Two Australian guys stopped by to rub Bixby’s head. They were also road tripping, but in a ridiculous striped van that was only cool because they were driving it. They’re headed to Denver, same as me, and a loud part of me wanted to jump in their potentially air conditioned van and drive away with them. I’m sure Bix would have been on board. But then! The same couple that had given me water came up to me again and asked if I wanted a ride somewhere. They had dogs, they told me, so Bixby could ride in the back of their SUV. It took a minute for me to rearrange the plan in my head, but as soon as I did, I said yes, absolutely, gathered my stuff up and jumped in. Bixby was overjoyed. I was overjoyed. They gave me a Coke, and I was ecstatic. I asked them to drop me off at the bottom of Saddle Pass, because I couldn’t suddenly cut five miles out of the day’s hike and still feel proud of myself, and they did. I said thank you a million times, slurped down the Coke, put on more sunscreen, and mentally prepped myself for the mountain in front of me.
It was pretty big.
Mountain isn’t the right word for it, because nothing in South Dakota is mountainous, but it was certainly steep and not too short. The trail was just a quarter mile, but a lot of that was spent scrabbling up on all fours. I liked it immensely. It was exactly the sort of thing we would have done in college, a big gang of us climbing and reaching and offering each other a hand up, the boys intrepidly leading the way and the girls having a laughing attack halfway to the top. Bix and I did okay on our own though, and it was extremely satisfying to get to the top and look down at the parking lot far, far below us. To celebrate, I took pictures and Bixby sniffed around for animal poop.
We continued on, this time taking Medicine Root Loop instead of traveling where we’d already been on Castle Trail. Where Castle had cozied right up next to the rocks, Medicine danced away from them, offering a landscape view. I imagined Natives stalking through the grasses, wondered what exactly they wore to protect their feet, how they shaded themselves from the blazing sun. We had a bottle and a half of water left, and I wanted to save the full bottle until we met back up with Castle and the half for the walk back to the car, just in case. We were both very thirsty, and the hike was uneventful. My boots crunched along the dirt trail and Bix’s tags jingled merrily as we walked the two plus miles through the prairie. We didn’t see a soul until we got to the crossroads of Castle and Medicine and NE Road, when we were taking a water and shade break. A Mustang drove up and the only person in it got out to look at the sign. We said hi to each other, but that was it. I don’t know what he was doing, but he seemed lost and it made me uncomfortable, so I took off pretty quickly. We only had about a mile left anyway, and it was all trail we’d done earlier in the day with Abi, so I figured it would be fairly quick.
There are “DANGER, RATTLESNAKES” signs all over the place, at the start of each and every trail, and Abi had peppered our conversation with talk of seeing one, but I thought our odds were pretty low, and now that Bix and I had about a mile to go out of a 10+ mile day, our odds were even lower. But of course, exactly in the moment that I was thinking, “Guess I won’t see any rattlesnakes,” a giant hissing came up from the grass, and Bixby and I both jumped out of our skin. A rattlesnake, not too big but very ferocious, lay pretzeled in the grass just off the trail. I’m not afraid of snakes, but I am a rational human being that doesn’t want to be found dead the next day with blackened skin and puncture wounds and my eyes rolled back in my head, or whatever happens to snakebite victims. And I had Bixby to consider, who fortunately seemed about as interested as I was in getting near the snake. We had to go through the grass, obviously, which was tall and thick and very unappealing, but better that than along the trail, which the snake had very clearly designated as HIS. (Or HERS, I have no idea. ITS.) So that’s what we did, waded through the grass, my eyes darting frantically, hoping not to see any other snakes, hoping ours would not decide to chase us. It didn’t, and once back on the trail, I scootched very slightly closer to get an awful photo of it behind some grass.
“PHEW,” I thought, but I shouldn’t have, because almost the very second I turned back around to head further down the trail towards the safety of the parking lot, a Very Large Ram was staring at us from on top of a small ridge, chewing on some grass. The thing about sheep is that there are more varieties than you think about. For most people, the word “sheep” conjures up an image of a wooly thing that says baa. The ram looking contemplatively down at us may have said baa, but his most defining characteristic was the Very Large Set of Horns on his Very Large Head. I later found out that this particular kind of sheep is called bighorn, and for obvious reasons. The picture I had of myself dead on the prairie changed from a snakebitten one to a smushed and pulpy one, bowled over by the horns and then pranced upon with the hooves, Bixby barking frantically beside me, only to be met by the same fate. The thing is, I’m from North Carolina. I’ve researched how to deal with bears of different varieties and alligators and mountain lions and wolves, just in case, and I can handle meeting a snake, obviously, but I was at a complete loss as to how to react to a bighorn sheep that was significantly larger than me and had weapons on its head.
(I just investigated: bighorn sheep can weigh up to 300 pounds, their horns making up 10% of that. Wikipedia later contradicts itself, referencing Rocky Mountain varieties that “occasionally exceed 500 pounds,” and a quick look at the Badlands’ website tells me they reintroduced their bighorns from Colorado. Who knows how big this dude was.)
He wasn’t standing on the trail, like I had initially thought, but I did have to walk in his general direction, up the ridge and past him, to continue on towards the car. Behind me was the rattlesnake, in front of me was the ram. I needed to take some sort of action because I wasn’t interested in hanging out until he decided to leave and/or gore me, so I started to talk very loudly in a friendly sort of way. “Hello, ram!” I said, trying to walk confidently. “We’re just walking up this trail and very soon we’ll be past you. We’re very friendly and not going to hurt you at all. It’s just me and the dog. Hope you’re enjoying your grass!” and on and on, without looking at the ram at all, in case he considered that a challenge, but with my ears in overdrive for the sound of hooves clopping our way. It didn’t happen, thank goodness, and Bixby and I made it the rest of the way to the car, jittery as all get out, with no other animal encounters except the occasional bird flying up from the grass, making me jump every time.
We still hadn’t done Door or Window Trail at this point, and I wasn’t really feeling up for it, but I figured I’m never coming back to South Dakota, and I may as well get the most out of the Badlands while I was there. “Alright, dog,” I said to Bix, and he jumped up, ever eager, and tried to chase some chipmunky things across the boardwalk. I also had an urgent need to tell someone about the rattlesnake/sheep encounter, and fortunately there was an older couple (who had adopted their dog from North Carolina!) at the Window Trail overlook who were completely willing to hear me babble about probably very commonplace wildlife encounters.
And then I drove home, sunburned, salty, and covered in dust. The cows we’d passed that morning were still on the side of the road, but the dog had evidently given up and gone home. Us too, cattle dog.