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  • Vita Eruhimovitz

Badlands, South Dakota, Part 1/2

Driving from Minneapolis to South Dakota I stopped at Sioux Falls to use my laptop and finalize the plans. The forecast was cold and stormy in most of South Dakota and Wyoming, so I decided that there is no point changing plans and continued straight to Badlands. I ended up driving through pouring rain and dark for the last hour or two, part of it on a dirt road. I really don’t like driving in the dark, so I was possibly one of the slowest cars on the road. Who cares, I made it. Sage Creek Campground is a very basic secluded campground located in a little basin between hills on the outskirts of Badlands, it is favored by bison and cheap travelers like myself. It was too late and too wet to set up a tent, so I slept in the car, for the first time ever. As a matter of fact it was quite cozy.

Sage Creek Campground

On the first day at Badlands it's been raining all day and the sky was completely overcast, but I was going to make the best out of it. In the morning I walked up a hill by the campground to get a view of the big plateau on top. At this time of the year the hills are very green and wildflowers are in bloom.

I wouldn't mind the cold and the wind too much, but Badlands mud is vicious: thick, and sticky. Going down I had 3-inch mud-wedges on my boots. Apparently what gives this bright-gray mud its unique properties is the volcanic ash, which was deposited here 30 million years ago, forming one of the layers of the geologic formations characteristic to Badlands.

Volcanic Ash Mud

While in photos Badlands' geologic formations look like cliffs, at a closer consideration they are not quite cliffs, nor mountains, and in part not even rocks. My sensation was that these are huge piles of clay slowly oozing down. The very well-visible layering of these formations is a result of deposition and erosion. The oldest exposed layers date back to 69 - 75 million years ago when a shallow, inland sea stretched across what is now the Great Plains. (A lot of great fossils here!) The topmost part of the formations was deposited 28 - 30 million years ago by wind and water in a cooling climate, mixing in ash from volcanic eruptions to the west.

It is interesting to consider the fact that the erosion responsible for these fantastic forms has only began 500,000 years ago. “Only”, that is in geologic terms. (It began when the Cheyenne River captured streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills into the Badlands region. Before 500,000 years ago, streams and rivers carried sediments from the Black Hills building the rock layers, but since the Black Hills streams and rivers were captured, erosion dominated over deposition.) The Badlands erode fast: at about one inch per year. It seems that they will erode away completely in another 500,000 years. I find this number especially interesting as it is conceivable in the terms of the human civilization, which is commonly dated at around 200,000 years.

Yellow Mounds

Unfortunately there aren’t many hiking trails in the park. In dry weather it would be fun to hike beyond the trails, however wet weather makes this into a dubious pleasure. I put my raincoat on and went along the Castle Trail (the only trail in the park of a decent length). After a short muddy ascent (met several hikers covered head-to-toe in mud, but miraculously avoided their fate), the trail meanders on the high plain between the wild grasses and the gorgeous formations. Having a wildflower guide with me I did a bit of a botanical exploration, but my biggest surprise was when I walked into a cluster of cacti. Old friends! But…what are you doing here, and how do you survive the snowy winters? I suppose they are just as resilient as other life-forms here. Contemplating resilience, I thought about the people who survived this land, and how tough they had to be. The native tribes who lived and hunted here at different time-periods: paleo-indians, Arikara, and later the Great Sioux Nation; and the western settlers who pushed through these muddy hills with their animals and wagons.

Later that evening I set up my tent in a rain, but as a Russian proverb says: Nature has no bad weather. While falling asleep I felt that the tent may be blown away, but it survived the night safe and sound.

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