This piece was published on Next Avenue on April 1, 2013:
Deeper Travel: Getting to Know a Place From the Inside Out
By Lori Erickson
These days, you hear a lot about travel bucket lists and the 50 or 100 places to see before you die. I’ve checked off my fair share of those landmarks, but I’m now at a stage where I’d rather return again and again to the places that speak most loudly to my heart.
Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one of those destinations that keeps calling me to return, despite the fact that it has treated me badly almost every time I’ve visited. I’ve toured the park in the height of summer, when temperatures were in the 90s and the prairie wind felt like a giant blow dryer. I’ve hiked its peaks in pouring rain, when sheets of water made each step slippery and treacherous. I’ve even been so foolish as to visit in January, when the wind chill was below zero and a fierce nor’wester sliced through the warmest of coats.
Despite the extremes of heat and cold and the harshness of these 244,000 acres located just east of the Black Hills (one of the world’s richest fossil deposits), I keep returning because I’ve been to few other places that evoke in me the same sense of awe. Frank Lloyd Wright described the Badlands’ power this way after visiting in 1935: “What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere … an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”
My dozen or so visits to the Badlands have taught me an important lesson about traveling. While few things give me more pleasure than exploring a new destination, as I’ve grown older I’ve become less satisfied with a superficial introduction to a landscape. A brief visit feels more and more like a pleasant chat with a stranger at an airport. While the experience may be enjoyable, it doesn’t penetrate deeply.
It’s only when you’ve known a friend for many years and have a shared wealth of experiences that you understand her true character. I would argue that the same is true for a park, a mountain or a stretch of coastline. We need to return to a site again and again to even begin to know it. Each visit can help us sink a little deeper into its mystery and sacredness.
Getting to Know a Place Deeply
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not ready to relinquish my copy of 1000 Places to See Before You Die — but increasingly I’m drawn to destinations that require effort and time to experience. I remember relatively few “scenic overviews” along highways, but I can vividly recall plenty of hidden waterfalls and flower-carpeted meadows I’ve seen on daylong hikes.
There’s also the fact that it can take a number of visits to experience a locale at its best. That was certainly the case with the Badlands. When my husband and I went last summer, for example, 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. The air was ripe with the scent of sun-warmed sweet clover, meadowlarks serenaded us, hawks soared overhead, and we realized as we walked that it was a primeval landscape. I imagined that this place hadn’t changed much in 50,000 years ago.
The dreamlike mood continued into the evening as we enjoyed one of the sunsets for which the Badlands are rightly famous. Where we live in Iowa, our oh-so-rare spectacular sunsets last just a few minutes, but in tallgrass prairie country like South Dakota, the show can stretch on for an hour. On that particular evening, one of those lingering, luminescent lightscapes stretched across the darkening sky, brightening the Badland’s jagged peaks.
There were about 50 of us watching from lawn chairs or sprawled on the grass by the campground. Hardly anyone spoke as we simply enjoyed the play of light across the ridges. At one point a park attendant drove by in a pickup truck and leaned out his window to visit with us for a few minutes. Nodding in the direction of the sunset, he said with obvious pride, “I get that show every night.”
After all my visits, I thought I knew the Badlands pretty well, but on that day I discovered something new: the gentleness that exists within its extremes. Part of what kept drawing me back to the Badlands was its harshness, but that visit showed me that this region can also seduce with warm breezes, blooming prairie flowers and a choir of songbirds. While I had enjoyed all my other trips, this was the one that shines the most brightly in my memory.
I will certainly return to the Badlands, though I know that last, transcendent experience will likely never be repeated. Next time it will probably be too hot, too cold or too windy. But I know that whatever the conditions, the Badlands will teach me something I need to learn.
Tips for Going Deeper in Your Travels
On some trips, all we want to do is hang out at the pool with a piña colada. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want to experience a destination more fully, consider these suggestions.
- Before traveling, read books about the place you’re going to visit. Guidebooks give practical information, but a novel or history of the destination can provide deeper and richer background.
- Try to visit a favorite locale in a variety of seasons and types of weather. If you always visit during the summer, experience the landscape in the grip of winter. If you usually go in winter, come for the summer heat. Try to see the site’s beauty even in inclement conditions. As people who scale a mountain or bike across a continent know, challenging experiences draw us out of our normal routines and dangle more than just comfort or luxury.
- Don’t think you’ve experienced a region when all you’ve done is drive through it. When you find a site you love, walk it. Even better, find a spot to sit for hours. Watch the sunlight shift across the sky. Listen to the bird songs and sense the rhythms of life in the forest. Let the place deeply imprint upon your mind and heart.
- Seek out places that aren’t the most fashionable or popular. Much of the fun of travel lies in discovering the quirky, the overlooked, and the hidden.
- Forget about email (and Facebook). Resist the urge to post pictures and comment about your trip as it’s happening. Focus on where you are and don’t dilute the experience with distracting thoughts of what’s happening elsewhere.
- Be open to serendipity. If you can, don’t book accommodations for every night of the trip. This way you can follow up on unplanned suggestions and stay longer in a place that speaks to your heart.
- Ponder this: “What is it that I’m seeking by traveling to this destination?” Simply asking that question can teach you something about yourself and about the place you’re visiting.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.