Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
I’ve had a lot of early morning visitors while camping. Deer. A roadrunner. Rabbits. Turkeys (jerks). But, until this morning, never in my life have I stepped out of the tent and almost immediately come nose to snout with a creature as tall as our SUV and strong enough to smush me with one prairie-tearing hoof.
The sun edged over the ridge and I heard magpies for the first time. I listened, blinked, and there he was.
“Nose to snout” might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. We’d staked our tent a few feet from Jeannie the Jeep and on the other side of the road a bison was munching his way around the campground. Another early-riser and I stood on the safe side of our respective vehicles and marveled at the sheer size of this creature.
Here and there, more bison were making their way through the dew-covered grass, ripping it out of the ground with their massive jaws. As the morning progressed, one strolled up to a picnic table and used it to scratch an itch. Another stopped right next to a tent and dropped a pile of poop. All of this was within swatting distance of people who were advised by the signs next to the pit toilets to keep 100 yards away from these animals.
It was surreal and frightening, yet peaceful. Another oxymoron.
The campground began to awaken. I noticed a couple of women next to us had a bike rack similar to ours on the back of their car, and I watched as they popped the trunk – with the bike rack still attached.
Three nights in a row we’d removed our bike rack so we could get into the back of our vehicle for our camping equipment, only to have to put it back on the next morning, fighting to make sure it was stable enough to handle the drive.
You’d think two fairly intelligent people would realize that if the bike rack is attached snugly enough to keep from falling off when you’re driving on bumpy roads or at speeds up to 75 – 80 mph, that it might possibly be secured snugly enough to stay in place when you open the trunk.
I don’t know who those two ladies were, but I thank them. There’s no telling how long it would have taken us to realize that we could leave the darn thing on. When you camp as much as we did on this trip, mostly one night at a time, having one less task, and an onerous one at that, is a HUGE deal.
Jim was up by seven and we were at our first overlook, sans bike rack, by eight. We’d decided to get up and go and would pack up the site after we’d explored.
“That’s distracting,” he said.
“I can see out the rear window.”
It felt a little odd to leave our stuff in an open field where bison roamed and pooped willy-nilly, but we were anxious to actually see these Badlands beyond our brief sojourn the night before.
The length of time it takes to drive from Sage Creek Campground to the entrance of Badlands National Park while stopping at every single overlook is three hours, give or take a few minutes. This allows time to read each wayside exhibit, take innumerable photos of prairie dogs, wait out the tour bus throng when you have the misfortune of reaching an overlook at the same time one is present, and stare in slack-jawed awe at each serrated, striated, stupefying view.
The landscape is a lesson in geology. Bands of color represent the epochs, from the compressed ancient seabed that makes up the nearly black Pierre Shale, through the fossil soil of the yellow mounds, to the light gray volcanic ash spires of the Sharps Formation. When your eyes roam the horizon you see lines that cut straight through each peak like a printer that’s running out of ink.
It’s a harsh land, yet somehow humans have lived in this environment for more than 11,000 years.
The Lakota, the last semi-nomadic peoples to live here, called it mako sica, or “land bad.” They survived by hunting bison on horseback and using everything they could from the animal.
Then French fur trappers came, followed by American soldiers, miners, and settlers. The cultures fought desperately for a stake in what each considered home. On December 24, 1890, Chief Big Foot, despite being ill with pneumonia, led 350 of his people through the Badlands to escape the United States Army. Their retreat ended five days later and 50-some miles to the south at Wounded Knee. The Army slaughtered nearly 200 native men, women, and children that day, and the free roaming of the Lakota Sioux ended once and for all.
Since the passage of the Homesteaders Act in 1862, settlers had been steadily arriving, trying to make their own way in this unforgiving environment. It was rough going. They created a checkerboard pattern on a land that didn’t play games. Their 160-acre stakes became known as “Starvation Claims,” and they lived in tar paper shacks and burned cow chips for fuel.
Most of them didn’t last. To put it into perspective, today’s ranchers in this area of South Dakota need thousands of acres and heavy equipment to survive. As we looked over a land ill-suited for agriculture, I could only imagine the fortitude required to stay and make a life.
We parked in the crowded lot of Burns Basin Overlook and stepped up the boardwalk, passing a “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign. Along the way to the top, a snarl of tourists hunched in a semicircle. As we approached, we could hear the rattle.
At the top of the walk the tour guide fretted with her hands covering her mouth. “It’ll strike!” she said, as her charges leaned closer to get a picture. I confess; I probably got a little closer than I should have, but it was my first rattlesnake in the wild and there were people in front of me, so I figured I didn’t have to be faster than the snake…
At the top of the overlook the boardwalk expanded to provide more room to view the panorama. We oohed and aahed, then headed back to Jeannie and noticed a couple hiking where there was no path. An Aussie gent from the tour bus pointed at them Invasion of the Body Snatchers style.
“They’re degrading the surface!” he shrieked. “They’re degrading the surface!”
His outraged hue and cry became our all-purpose mantra any time in the future we saw people going where they weren’t supposed to go. Group walking right by the ‘Do not walk here’ warning? “They’re degrading the surface!” Lady making a snow-angel next to a sign telling her to stay on the sidewalk? “She’s degrading the surface!” Somebody cutting in front of a line of cars at the exit? “He’s degrading the surface!” You get the point.
We continued toward the entrance of the park. At some overlooks, the buttes melted into the plains. At others, the spires’ permanence seemed undeniable, even though geologists estimate they’ll all be gone in another 500,000 years.
At our last stop, the Fossil Exhibit Trail, we glimpsed the morbid sense of humor of the National Park Service. One sign detailed how mammals were “Dying to become a fossil.” The Welcome sign to the short trail informed us that animals could Move, Adapt, or Die, with a picture of a dead oreodont, its legs straight up in the air, illustrating the last option.
Have I mentioned how much I love our National Park Service?
We took the long-way-around-shortcut back to the campground through Buffalo Gap National Grassland. It didn’t save us any time, but we got to drive faster, and anyone who’s dealt with traffic and short mileage vs. clear lanes and longer distance will choose the latter every time. Thankfully, our tent and bikes were upright and pie-free, so we loaded up for our next destination.
When I began talking about this trip and the potential route we’d take, a friend of mine from high school told me she had relatives along the way. Her Great Aunt Alice had lived in New York, but then a cowboy – a literal cowboy – came to town, swept that city girl off her feet and brought her out west, and she’s been there ever since. My friend put me in touch with her Aunt’s son Paul and daughter-in-law Linda, and that’s how we ended up on a cattle ranch near Whitewood, South Dakota.
None of us were sure what to expect. All they knew was that a member of their family had friends coming through, and all we knew was that a friend had family in a place we’d be traveling.
Little did we guess that we’d be staying with the descendants of homesteaders. Paul’s grandfather came out from Ohio in the late 1870s. When he got to Bismarck by rail, he sent his stuff south on a bull train of oxdrawn wagons. He walked, and even though the “Indians wouldn’t let the white man cross” in Pierre, he somehow made his way west and claimed a homestead. That original ranch was quite a ways east of Sturgis, but after the blizzard of 1949, Paul’s dad, Ray, vowed that he wasn’t going to stay another winter on the prairie. That year, “It started snowing January 1 and Dad didn’t see the ground until mid-May.”
That’d do it.
Ray picked up and moved to Whitewood. Shortly after that, he took a fateful trip to New York City and met an organist named Alice.
Paul was working when we got there, so Linda took us on a tour of their ranch. It’s extensive, but don’t ask how many head they own. I did, and it was like I’d asked how much money they had in the bank. As a matter of fact, it was exactly like that.
You don’t ask farmers how many acres they own, and you don’t ask ranchers how big their herd is. In this family’s case, both subjects were off-limits, since they raise cattle and grow the feed that sustains them. This is more economical than buying the feed, but it also means they never get a vacation.
Most ranchers get a break during the summer, and most farmers get a break in the winter. By doing both, this family has no down-time, and they’re OK with that.
We met some of the “girls,” as Linda called the cows, and Jim noticed there was one red lady in the sea of black angus. They were a bit surprised when she was born with that color hide, but the neighboring ranch had red angus, so they figured somebody must’ve “jumped the fence.”
I thought I might be a little uncomfortable seeing the cows, but they seemed, I don’t know, happy. Later I found out that Paul and Linda are big followers of Temple Grandin, who transformed the world of cattle care, and they designed their system based on her guidelines.
Before heading back to the house for dinner with Paul, their two sons, and their daughter Kay, a literal Rodeo Queen, Linda took us to their church in Nisland.
Built in 1930 as Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church, the exterior is a simple white clapboard building with a tall spire. It’s an architectural style you’ll see frequently in places where Germans emigrated, and Nisland’s population was so German services were only conducted in their native language until 1941.
The interior’s pulpit and intricate altar reminded me of the Lutheran church my grandparents attended in Lafayette, Indiana. Because of the smaller size of the congregation in South Dakota, the church in Nisland went through several changes. In the mid-70s the church joined Village Missions, a non-denominational organization that supports churches in rural areas. As of 2018 they were in more than 230 North American communities.
Dinner that night was pork (not beef), potato salad, and watermelon, served with iced tea and water next to family photos and a box of Gideon bibles. I sat across from Alice and could see why a rancher would want to take the feisty New Yorker home with him. Paul told stories and Linda served cake. This was the postcard picture of rural America, a romanticized Norman Rockwell-painting made real.
Their gracious hospitality gave us a glimpse into a different way of life than I’d experienced, and an even greater appreciation for the people who grow and nurture our food.
None of us had been sure what to expect, but as Jim and I went to bed, we thought it had turned out all right.