This past weekend, I visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
This was – by far – my least-planned trip ever. I had been feeling pretty restless – the combined result of the usual stresses of my day job and frustrations regarding my haunt. As a result, I was feeling restless and decided to go away for the weekend.
First Crack at “Roughing It”
For a trip of any significant distance or duration, I usually planned a detailed itinerary many months in advance. I started planning both of my trips to Canada and my trip to the Bahamas nearly a year out. These itineraries contained detailed flight information, full contact information for my accommodations, an estimated budget, and a detailed packing list.
I think I just really enjoyed thinking about the trip.
This time was different. I conceived of the idea to take a trip only 4 days before I departed. (Though I would have left sooner but for my work obligations.) I barely packed anything at all, and more than half of the stuff I did pack was for my dog. Nevertheless, I realize now that I still over-packed.
The most radical part of the trip might have been that I didn’t have hotel reservations. I had been reading about free ways to sleep overnight and figured I’d spend the night at a highway rest area. I’m happy to report that I had no problems with other travelers. I do need to figure out better ways to get comfortable in the small cab of my pickup truck and to better regulate the temperature.
On my way out there, I stopped at the rest area just past the Minnesota / South Dakota border on westbound I-90, about 10 miles east of Sioux Falls. I got there at 2 am Saturday morning. There were a few other vehicles coming and going, but only one other car – sporting 3 kayaks on its roof and Massachusetts plates – was staying overnight. I only slept for four hours that night. Since I arrived after and departed before they did, I never got a chance to meet the owners of the car. But I felt a small connection to them. Obviously, I didn’t know much about them, but we were doing similar things. We must have been kindred spirits.
Though they may lack the distinctive majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the buttes are beautiful and distinctive in their own way. Words fail to describe their beauty, and not being a geology expert, I’d mangle any attempt at it. I should let pictures do most of the talking.
Regrettably, I wasn’t able to see much in terms of wildlife, apart from some bighorn sheep. I was hoping for something a little more exotic, like a rattlesnake or scorpion. This was the closest taste I’ve had to desert life, so far. The Badlands get twice as much rain as a true desert, but half as much rain as I’m accustomed to at home.
I imagined in my mind that the Badlands would be little more than a road that went through some scenery, and that I’d encounter occasional vehicles pulled over to the side as I did in Jasper National Park. I wasn’t expecting the formal park atmosphere that exists. Nor did I expect there to be so many tourists there.
I had planned to camp out in the park overnight, but between the number of tourists and high winds (sustained at 20 knots, gusting to 26 knots), I opted not to spend the night there. When I finished, I drove through the night and arrived home around 5 am this morning.
A Moment of Panic
I confess that my lack of preparation did lead me into a precarious situation. The park contains numerous parking lots and wide shoulders for people to get good scenic views. At only my second stop – minutes after my arrival – I had not yet grasped the size and scope of the park or the challenges of navigating the buttes. I didn’t know how many other spots down the road, or what the terrain would be like elsewhere.
At this second stop, hundreds of other tourists were crawling around the buttes like a colony of ants. I decided to hop out of my truck and explore.
I took the formal paths as far as they went and kept going off the trail – as many other tourists were doing. From the parking lot side of the buttes, it seemed a relatively simple thing to navigate my way through the back side of the buttes to the opposite end of the parking lot. But about 20 or 30 minutes in, I knew I was in trouble.
For one thing, the off-trail terrain is treacherous. I’m not in the greatest of shape, my ankles are weak on account of old sports injuries, and I was alone. Though the area was crawling with tourists, the terrain rendered assistance difficult in the event of injury. I wasn’t carrying water, and my dog had to remain behind in the truck.
It felt like I had winded my way through the labyrinth pretty far and deep into the terrain. But I could also see that I wasn’t making much progress moving toward the other side. The more I hiked, the further away it seemed to be. Eventually, I realized I was in over my head and backtracked to the truck.
The terrain of the Badlands is deceptive. Looking back at my GPS log – I didn’t hike very far at all. Next time, I’ll be better prepared.
Remy, the Nomadic Dog?
My dog – a 2 year old Labrador retriever, spoiled by creature comforts – did remarkably well on this trip. The trip lasted a total of 35 hours, and she spent the overwhelming majority of that time cooped up in a pickup truck. But she seems patient and cut out for a long-term travel lifestyle.
Despite being “man’s best friend”, the world is not very dog-friendly. Dogs don’t seem to be allowed anywhere. Traveling solo with a dog is especially challenging, since there’s no one else to watch over her when I need to go into a store or other facility.
It’s a Small World, After All
While I was driving through the park, I came upon another vehicle with three kayaks on its roof. (I had seen another one earlier, but it had Pennsylvania plates.) I snapped a picture and later confirmed that the plates matched – it was the same vehicle that I spent the night with at the Sioux Falls rest stop!
Admissions Price and Relative Values
It didn’t occur to me that I would have to pay an admission fee to enter the park, but I was more than happy to pay it. $15 gets you a 7 day pass to one of the nation’s greatest nation treasures.
Earlier, I took Remy to the park to get her some exercise. For her exemplary behavior, I decided to reward her with some ice cream, while also getting myself a quick lunch at a local fast food joint. But when I realized that the cost of a single greasy meal was about the same as what I paid for a 7 day pass to the Badlands – I realized that we have a truly perverted way of valuing different goods and services. There’s no way the value of that parks pass is comparable to a fast food lunch.
This was the first trip I took under the banner of being an aspiring nomad. South Dakota, the Badlands, and especially the rest stop near Sioux Falls have earned special places in my heart and feel like a second home.
I feel some pangs of regret in rushing back home. I was exhausted on account of little sleep, and earned scrapes and burns from hiking slips and falls. After I got home, I slept for 5 hours in my comfortable bed and soaked in my hot tub. I worry that I may be too soft and am not cut out for life as a nomad. But I think it’s going to be different when I no longer have a home to come back to. Right now, my luxuries are here and available to me. Why shouldn’t I look forward to taking advantage of them?
Pain and discomfort are tolerable when they are tied to positive experiences. They’re like battle scars. I think I will be okay once I really get on the road and have nowhere to come back home to.