Badlands, retrospective.

(And by retrospective, I mean it happened a while ago.)

I like maps. I had spent hours visually analyzing the selection of westward route choices — freeway? state highway? around the cities or through? risk? reward?

I left Maine in the morning. I climbed the Poconos/Adirondacks/Appalachians (and feel free to let me know which mountains I was actually crossing). I skirted the Great Lakes. Quick change, pizza, bed, and toaster waffles. I rolled over the grassy midwest, detoured north to close the door on a nagging old relationship and rescue my art, waffle iron, and Nintendo 64 from the gaping abyss of a six-month-old break up.

I (full disclosure) nibbled an Adderall and as the sun set, like a cowboy a thousand miles too far east, drove west. Rolling hills flattened out into infinite planes. Perhaps I’ll build a mathematical matrix to represent the great plains of South Dakota along I-90. The buffalo herd is at (103, 37), don’t kill too many or you won’t be able to carry them back to your wagon.

As fortuitously incidental, and thanks to a suggestion from what essentially turned out to be a flavor of the week, the Badlands rose around me as the sun rose from behind me.

Camera and tripod in hand, amphetamines in blood, and awe in heart and mind, I slowed my pace to absorb this strange, stolen glory.

Badlands, sunrise.

I did not go out the way I came—avoiding cities, creativity and efficiency in route—in the North and out the South. Into the heart of Pine Ridge, the largest and most fundamentally heartbreaking and devastating open air human prison in my personal memory. The eighth largest reservation in the country, but I experienced it as eternal. Hidden by miles of barren lands and political gambits from the public eye and consciousness, I was in a world where the buffalo roamed free but the people were fenced in. Inversion, pen.

Entering Pine Ridge, I saw the land browner, surrounded by fences, geospatial politics delineating land appropriation and supremacy. Leaving Pine Ridge, I saw the grass grow taller and geologic formations more impressive. Public use land, preservation over reservation, imposed government over indigenous freedom. In and out, in and out, the boundaries increasingly clearer, then fences increasingly higher, or perhaps this was just my imagination, or my anger growing.

I move through a small town, which perhaps once thought it could attract tourists, but instead showcases only dilapidated pick-up trucks and run-down buildings.

Passing through

The dirt road, as it has been dirt since leaving National Park boundaries, left my small town behind in a cloud of dry red dust and I, like every else, forgot and neglected her, leaving her to waste away as per socioeconomic hierarchies required.

My radio blared the Oglala Sioux tribal station, the only station I could get. As I moved between fences—free like a buffalo, penned in like the Sioux—what I can only describe as chanting and, unimaginatively, traditional music (honest or cliche?) accompanied me on my objectively stunning yet subjectively depressing drive.

I came to established farmland, to bigger, ostensibly wealthier small towns, to state highways, eventually to Wyoming, to gas stations offering “cowboy coffee” with a handwritten sign next to the hazelnut and French roast, eventually to cities and interstates and, short hours later, within view of my snow-capped Rockies. I followed the spine of the Continental Divide until I crossed into my little hamlet, South Dakota far behind me, as it so goes.

2 Comments to “Badlands, retrospective.”

  1. There ought to be a way to bottle that feeling.

  2. National Geographic, this month’s issue, cover story, “The Spirit of Crazy Horse” or something like that, article and photo essay worked up over a space of years.

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