The Running Country

At first glance, South Dakota's Badlands National Park might seem as still as stone, but look closely, wait patiently, and watch it dance.


By Jeff Rennicke


It had all the earmarks of a good old-fashioned stand-off. No one, it seemed, was going anywhere anytime soon. For days I had been hiking alone through the wild heart of the Sage Creek Wilderness, following buffalo trails pounded deep into the prairie soil by years of passing hooves and side-stepping plops of buffalo droppings as big as garbage-can lids. I had seen plenty of buffalo as I sat for long stretches, watching small herds in the distance drifting as easily as cloud shadows across the long horizons, glimpsing a lone bull that disappeared as if into stone before I could look again. But I hadn’t seen a single one of the park’s largest and most famous residents up close, until now.

Moments earlier, I had stepped too quickly into a blind draw, nearly stumbling straight into a 2,000-pound mound of fur and horn—a lone bull buffalo bedded down for a respite from the wind. I saw it flinch, a rippling of muscle and hide. I saw its head, the size of a wagon wheel, swing slowly toward me, fixing me in its slow stare. I backed away quickly and headed up the trail, hoping it wouldn’t charge. It didn’t. Instead, it began to chew.

As far upstream and down as I could see with my binoculars there were only steep banks and high water. Heavy rains had Sage Creek singing full-throated and wild, eliminating most of the easy places to ford its waters. With the bull settled in, there was nothing I could do but wait it out. A meadowlark sang. The wind blew. The bull patiently chewed its cud as still as the landscape around it. I sat down to wait. Let the stand-off begin.

At 64,144 acres, the Sage Creek Wilderness is the largest protected prairie wilderness in the country, part of the park’s North unit—the wild heart of South Dakota’s 244,000-acre Badlands National Park. Few landscapes in the National Park System are as iconic as the Badlands—the deep, silent canyons, the rock spires, the color-banded cliffs. It is a landscape of stone and light. At first glance, it can seem a land frozen in time, a postcard in stone and silence. But slowly the motions of the living land come into focus. “[T]here was so much motion in it,” Willa Cather wrote about the prairie in My Antonia, “the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” But to truly see that “running” country, we must slow down and look.

Stepping down the trail from the Sage Creek Campground, I enter a seemingly silent world. Yet over the first rise, a series of sharp whistles split the air: prairie dogs.  With a maze of underground tunnels spread out over dozens of acres, prairie-dog towns are a focal point of prairie life. “Watch for rattlesnakes,” the ranger at the visitor center had told me. “The prairie rattler loves the prairie-dog towns. They would just as soon leave you alone as bite you. We’ve had people step on them and not get bitten. But they will bite if they are provoked.” I keep my eyes out, but what I am looking for is a ghost.

Black-footed ferrets once seemed locked in the eternal predator-prey dance with prairie dogs. But as prairie dog populations, once numbering in the hundreds of millions, were deeply reduced through poisoning and farming practices, ferret numbers too began losing ground. By the late 1970s, they were thought extinct, only a few ghost-like reported sightings making them the most endangered land mammal in North America. Then, in 1981 about 100 were discovered in Wyoming, raising a small spark of hope. A few ferrets, captured, reared in captivity, and bred, slowly nursed that hope back to life and in 1994, the Sage Creek Wilderness and Badlands National Park became the focal points of reintroduction efforts.

For the most part, the reintroduction has been successful—one of four species brought back since the creation of Badlands National Monument in 1939 including the bighorn sheep, the bison, and the swift fox. However, in 2008, researchers confirmed the presence of sylvatic plague in prairie-dog towns within the park, yet another threat to the prairie dogs and so to the thin strand that ties the black-footed ferret to survival.

Skirting the edge of the prairie dog town, I had stopped beneath a gnarled cottonwood at the bottom of the creek bed to savor the thin slivers of shade. Lounging in the grasses, I let my eyes slowly focus on the furrows of the gray bark, following its patterns up the trunk until the gray suddenly took on a more feathered look. I looked harder. My eyes slowly made out a trio of great-horned owls peering down from the branches, silent as the stars.

Later, I topped a rise just in time to see a dust cloud and a small herd of pronghorn on the move at its base, wild animals moving as easily as a dust devil across the prairie with undeniable grace, 60 or 70 miles an hour, heads held high, making it look effortless. “I beheld the rapidity of their flight,” wrote Meriwether Lewis while watching a similar scene in 1804, “which appeared rather the rapid flight of birds than the motion of quadrupeds.” It was a moment of pure movement, raw, flat-out, undiluted speed, their gait eating up the miles, the whole country zooming along with them.

I watched through my binoculars until long after the herd had been swallowed by the horizon and imagined them, out there, still running, running.

Even the rocks, the bare bones of the badlands, are not completely still. Camped in a small canyon on the edge of the Sage Creek basin, I listened all night to the clatter of stones slipping loose in the rain, ticking down the canyon walls. “The badlands are, in essence, melting away,” a park volunteer told me on a geology walk. With temperatures that swing from -40° F in the winter to 116° F in summer, windstorms that scour the land like wind-blown sandpaper, and occasional flash floods capable of stripping soil down to the bedrock bones, the Badlands on average erode as much as an inch a year, one of the fastest eroding landscapes on Earth. “In 500,000 years, this could all be gone,” the park volunteer said, waving his arm out at the distant buttes.

But that melting of buttes and cliff walls does have one advantage: Every raindrop, every flash flood, has the potential to unearth a treasure. “Because of the speed of erosion, new fossils emerge from the rocks every year,” says park ranger Larry Smith, “making the park one of the world’s most important sites for paleontology.” The White River Badlands contain the world’s richest Oligocene fossil beds, dating from 23 to 33 million years ago.

“Some people are disappointed when they find out we don’t have dinosaur fossils in the park,” Smith says. “This area was under a shallow sea during the age of dinosaurs.”

There may not be dinosaur bones, but there are certainly surprises. In a wet spring, reports pour in of newly exposed fossils—things with names like Archaeotherium and Subhyracodon—all out there and often found first by visitors. “It is such a big park,” Smith says. “We couldn’t possibly find every bone ourselves. This is a place where park visitors can play a really important role in paleontology. They can be our eyes in the field.”

Sometimes, those eyes spot something amazing. In June 1993, two park visitors from Los Angeles were looking for scenic spots to photograph near the Conata Picnic Area in the eastern end of the park when they noticed a bone sticking out of the ground. Because it was thought to be the fossilized backbone of an Archaeotherium, a pig-like creature that stood nearly six feet at the shoulder, the site was nicknamed the “Big Pig Dig.” Although it was later confirmed to be the bone of a hornless rhinoceros known as a Subhyracodon, the Big Pig Dig would eventually unearth more than 15,000 bones from a menagerie of wild creatures—three-toed horses, turtles, saber-toothed cats, and more—before the dig was completed during the 2008 field season. 

As I slip into my sleeping bag the last night of the hike, it seems I can feel the motions of this land beneath me. I glance up at the first clear night sky of my trip, a symphony of stars so close it seems I could stir them with an outstretched finger.

Set far from any major city, Badlands National Park, with its predominance of cloudless skies, dry air, and low light pollution, is domed by night skies that seem to shimmer with stars. “Our national parks are some of the last places in the country to still have dark night skies,” volunteer astronomer Ron Kramer said at his nightly astronomy program at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater a few days earlier. “Even with the naked eye, you can see galaxies 2.2 million light years distant on a good night in Badlands National Park.” This was a “good night” in the Badlands. (For more on preserving the parks’ wondrous night skies, see page 38.)

Like the park itself, that night sky at first seemed still. Then a meteor slashed across the field of stars, and another, and another. I thought of Ron Kramer at his interpretive talk describing the speed of the spinning Earth, the rush of our orbit around the sun, the hurtling of our galaxy through the universe, and suddenly even the sky did not seem still. It, like the landscape around me, was dancing.

We too often think of our national parks as postcards, still shots of beautiful scenery, unchanged and unchangeable. But that can be a narrow view. We don’t really preserve anything when we create a national park, not in the way we preserve something by floating it in a jar of formaldehyde on a museum shelf. We preserve only the opportunity for the processes of nature to continue. And nature, however silent, never stops. Slow down enough, look closely enough, and the smallest movement of the Badlands becomes apparent. Everything, that is, but one bull bison.

Hours pass in our stand-off. The bull shakes off the flies, even stands once, but then lies back down, set in the middle of the trail blocking my crossing of Sage Creek and the hot shower that awaits at the end of the trip just beyond. I consider shouting to get him to move or tossing a stone nearby to startle him, but I don’t. Instead, I sit, waiting, content in the knowledge that even in this land of stone and stillness, if you look closely enough, wait patiently enough, everything moves, even the one lone bull buffalo blocking the way home.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS: Badlands National Park

Considering how far away Badlands National Park is from just about anywhere (110 miles from Sturgis, 280 from Sioux Falls, 30 from Wall), the daytime temperatures (a 92-degree average high in July), and the long travel times between gas stations and medical help, this is a good place to come prepared. Most people fly into Rapid City Regional Airport and head east on Interstate 90, or the more scenic State Highway 44. Be sure you have plenty of gas, water, and food. A dining room and limited supplies are available at the Cedar Pass Lodge, which also serves as the only lodging in Badlands National Park. There are two campgrounds—Cedar Pass, which has flush toilets, and the more primitive Sage Creek. Keep a safe distance from all wildlife, including bison, which can be surprisingly fast, and be prepared to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. For more information, contact Badlands National Park at 605.433.5361; www.nps.gov/badl.

SIDETRIP: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

“THREE… TWO… ONE…”

After the quiet wilderness of the Badlands, thoughts of the end of the world and ballistic missiles can seem like something out of science fiction. But just off Interstate 90 (exit 131), only miles from Badlands National Park, science fiction meets reality at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Established in 1999, the site consists of two units—Delta 09 (a missile silo site) and Delta 01 (the launch facility). During the height of the Cold War, nearly 500 Minuteman missile silos bristled the Great Plains, a quiver of ballistic deterrents, each capable of delivering a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead (120 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II) to a target 6,300 miles away in just 30 minutes.

The Cold War is over and tensions have eased, but at Minuteman, you can tour the once-top secret facilities where the end of the world awaited only the touch of a button and the turn of a key. The visitor contact station, which features exhibits and an orientation video, is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday during the summer and Monday through Friday the rest of the year. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/mimi.

Jeff Rennicke teaches literature and writing at Conserve School in Wisconsin's North Woods. His last piece for National Parks focused on Isle Royale.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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