Into the Badlands


Four steps of footsteps, each lighter than the next, tread the packed solid dirt trail leaving just enough space for our boots between the tall grasses. Yellow and brown daisy looking flowers that die into massive dandelion poofs take flight spreading their seeds across the grasslands. Spires erect out of the flat, pointing toward massive thunderclouds blooming on the horizon. Their ominous dark shuffles around, a dull boom echoes in the distance.

Lady seems unperturbed. Tristan, our oldest at 11, leads the way along this two mile loop through lands once patrolled by Sioux Indians, Lakota to be precise. I picture them hiding tiger-style in the tall grasses, waiting for a herd of bison to grow near, then leaping running after them, keeping up the chase until one of the mighty creatures runs panicking off a cliff.

Much earlier in the history of our planet, giant elephant-sized rhinos, saber-toothed tigers and alligators roamed the land, then underwater. All of this history swirls through my early morning mind as we continue further into the loop, the storm now sending bolts of lightning crashing into the distance. I note what little shelter we might escape to in the event a downpour suddenly pours down.

If our two year, Winter, wasn’t along for the journey, I wouldn’t even be concerned. He hears a boom of thunder. “Something happened, Daddy.”

I nod.

“No you like.” He seems cautious but not afraid, referring to himself with the improper pronoun of a young child.

The trail finally loops and we’re headed back. The map says the return portion is shorter, but even with a black sky closing in, the landscape is too grand not to stop occasionally for a photograph. Thunder rolls, lightning strikes, all just behind us now.

Finally we see our van, the trail’s end. Just as we climb in the storm reaches us. Winter falls asleep. Todd Snider pours out of our radio as we drive out of the national park, the lightning show all around.

Back in town it’s once again blue skies and 95 degree heat has dried up the rain as quickly as it came. A rodeo is setting up on the outskirts of Wall, South Dakota. The bars are opening. Stores selling Harley Davidson gear and cowboy boots to fat old retired men who spent their lives crunching numbers or working assembly lines dreaming of this, their freedom retirement. A mechanic dressed in coveralls working his garage changes oil and serves espresso drinks, an unusual combination that works out perfectly somehow. Families argue, driven by the heat and long car rides. The day goes by like a cowboy-themed amusement park surreality.

One by one my own family retires to their individual corners of our Airstream. I stay up, kicked back in my camping chair, head cocked way back, eyes to the stars. Too occupied by the sky, my last yet still unopened beer falls to the ground as sleep closes my eyes and ends my day.