Badlands National Park 2009: The Past

Tamy and I recently completed our annual pilgrimage to Badlands National Park in Western South Dakota. This year we visited the park with Tamy’s sister and my nine year old niece. While a family trip may not sound conducive to photography, nothing could be further from the truth. We are all repulsed by the consumerism that grips our every waking moment and revel in the opportunity to slow down, breathe clean air, and ponder what once was. I am very fortunate to have a patient family that supports my need to hike in the woods, stare into emptiness, and make art.

Tamy and I have visited the Badlands nearly every year since 2000. Although I curse the monotonous drive and swear that I will never do it again, I’m sure that I will contemplate the ten hour trek from Minneapolis into the great plains for “just one last time,” in 2010. There is something captivating about the Badlands for me. 

This national park is not iconic... there are no geysers, famous peaks, or permanent riverine canyons. Furthermore, the wildlife, while omnipresent, is not as diverse as the game that can be found in Yellowstone, Glacier, or Denali. Nonetheless, the Badlands holds a mystery for me. The park tells a vivid story about our planet’s ancient past. Buried deep within the crumbling mountains are rich fossil beds that reveal the details about a prehistoric inland sea. There was a time when reptilian “sea-serpents” swam throughout an ocean that once swelled across our continent. These whale-like reptiles left reminders of their dominance in the form of petrified remains that are unearthed each day. As the sea retreated, it was replaced by a dense sub-tropical marshland that was the site of a great mammalian diversification. Thirty-five million years ago, this vast landscape was home to the saber-toothed cat (Haplophoneus) , hyenadon, giant omnivorous pigs (Archaeotherium), two-horned rhinoceros (Subhyracodon), and prehistoric three-toed horse (Mesohippus). When you hike or drive through the canyons of this park, you can see yourself moving through time. 

But there is more to this barren landscape than prehistory. Badlands National Park also tells a story about biologically modern humans, their survival, and their destruction.  This was indigenous land, a place where the first Americans lived, hunted, and survived. The Badlands was a place for the great herds, “a Serengeti for the North.” It remained this way until Europeans tried to tame the land; their failure is why the park exists today.

More than ever, the Badlands has endeared itself to me. This park with it’s striking landscape and big blue skies, hidden stories of what once was, and elusive big game holds a mystery for me that I just need to resolve. 

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