Badlands National Park in western South Dakota is one my favorite places on earth, despite the fact I’ve had some miserable experiences there. I’ve visited the park at least ten times, usually in the height of summer when the temperature is in the 90s and the prairie wind feels like a giant blow dryer. I’ve made the mistake of trying to hike its peaks in pouring rain when sheets of water made each step slippery and dangerous, and I’ve driven through the park in the winter when the temperature hovered at 10 degrees and a fierce north wind kept me from stepping outside my car even briefly.
I keep returning because even at its harshest, there is an ethereal, transcendent beauty to the Badlands, particularly at sunrise and sunset. That’s what keeps bringing me back, despite the heat, despite the bugs, despite the fact you have to drive forever to get there.
But after ten visits to the Badlands, I finally got it right. The last time my husband and I visited, the temperature was in the 70s. We took a long hike on the park’s Castle Trail, which winds among the rugged buttes and across the prairie. As we walked, one stunning vista after another unfolded, as meadowlarks serenaded us and hawks soared overhead. The air was cool and unbelievably fresh, and we realized as we walked that it was a primeval landscape. If humans had never evolved on the earth, this place would still be the same. Other than a few roads winding through, it was essentially as it had been for millions of years (though each year, of course, the rains and wind erode a bit more of the soft rock, gouging the formations a little deeper and sharper).
I remembered architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s words about the landscape after visiting it in 1935: “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands…What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere — a distant architecture, ethereal…an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”
In the evening we enjoyed one of the sunsets for which the Badlands are rightly famous. Where I live in Iowa, our oh-so-rare spectacular sunsets last just a few minutes, but in tall grass prairie country like South Dakota the light show can last for an hour. That evening, one of those seemingly endless, luminescent, slowly changing extravaganzas spread across the darkening sky, vividly illuminating the Badland’s peaks. There were maybe 50 other people in the campground watching with us, all of us in lawn chairs or sitting on the grass, hardly anyone talking much as we simply enjoyed the panorama. At one point a park attendant drove by in a pick-up truck and leaned out his window to visit with us for a few minutes. “I get that show every night,” he said, nodding in the direction of the sunset.
That evening I realized as never before how, if we’re able, it’s important to return to a holy site again and again. Each visit can take us to a new layer of experience, allowing us to sink a little deeper into the mystery of the place. After ten visits I thought I knew the Badlands well, but that day and night I discovered something new: the gentleness that exists within its extremes. While I had enjoyed my other visits, this one was exquisite, blowing away the cobwebs of too many days with too much to do. Our time there filled up a deep reservoir within me that I didn’t even realize was empty.
And I realized this as well: there are times when the best, most authentic, form of worship is simply to set up a lawn chair and watch.
Badlands National Park is located just east of the Black Hills in western South Dakota. It consists of three units. The best known and most easily explored is the North Unit, which includes 64,000 acres of wilderness and the Badlands Loop Road, which winds through some of the most scenic parts of the park. The other two units are located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and are managed under a cooperative agreement between the Oglala Lakota and the National Park Service. For information once you enter the park, stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which is open year-round.