The Badlands – welcome to the land beyond time

The Badlands – State Park – Bring on the Bacon

Dinosaurs were still on my mind as we packed our gear to hit the trail in the morning. Staying in Badlands National Park in a rustic cabin with a guest rabbit who visited every morning added charm to what proved to be a rugged climb up Saddle Pass.  But I digress.  One of the real treats during our stay came to us by way of the Cedar Pass Lodge diner.  Breakfast is buffet all the way in the old West.  While I normally don’t opt for pork, there was something compelling about the bacon.  Bill conceded my point that the land still belonged to the dinosaurs “on average” pausing to bliss out on the best bacon either of us ever tasted.  When I complimented the cook, who sat out back on a stump, he smiled through his handlebar mustache and said, “That makes me want to try a little harder next time.”  The Tao of bacon; my first teaching of the day.

Lunar, Martian, frozen dinosaurs, ancient sea beds?  The Badlands are eroding before our eyes, time rolling down the weathered, red and grey veined cliffs in little pebbles, the occasional boulder.  Just another speck in the cosmos, I marveled at the vast, water carved history of the earth laid out before us, a living topographic map. Struggling up a steep, gravely trail called Saddle Pass, Bill and I emerged onto a prairie floor 1/4 mile above the other prairie below.  The buttes were above us and below us with two prairies stretching in between.  It was as if we emerged onto an African savannah through a narrow opening in the valley of time. I do not exaggerate, the dinosaurs will vouchsafe for me.  Gave a little blood to the land, honored the ancestors and proceeded to the Buffalo Gap national grasslands, stopping at a lovely oasis along the way.

So came my second and most valuable lesson.  The zen prairie dog who never blinked while I snapped several pictures from the window of the car was an elder in a town of chirping, cavorting, scuttling prairie dogs.  There were always sentinels, looking out for the clan, who were very affectionate and frisky; a caring, lively community.  There were miles of these towns along Sage Creek Rim road.  But we were there to see the bison.  It took us almost 7 miles to see a lone bull, standing under a tree and a few more miles to find several small herds, peacefully snacking on prairie grass.  Parked on the dirt road in the middle of two hills of bison, we turned off the car and sat watching the herd.  Bison are unlike cattle: their shapes, the look in their eyes, the grunting noises they make, the shaggy manes and little jumpy tails.  While their rocking horse running gait was sort of comical, they seemed to glide along effortlessly when walking and grazing.  The buffalo calves were goofy and played as comfortably with the big bulls as they did with the females and other youngsters, another peaceful, loving community in action.  I wish I could describe the deep, noble feeling emanating from these large, soulful beings.  White buffalo calf woman gave the American Indians the gift of the buffalo, which sustained them.  The ancestors made their presence known. Again, I was humbled and deeply moved by the peace in the sound of the grass blowing in the wind. If human beings were as loving to one another as prairie dogs and bison are, our world would be renewed.

The Grasslands

Leaving Austin for Brighton, CO at sunset, following the crimson trail while Venus illuminated the evening sky, chased the sun down to Mountain time. Setting out on the first of three long legs of our tour, rolling through the grasslands of Nebraska with miles of sunflowers, corn and sandy hills  – prairie grasslands swaying a welcome to the Great Plains.  Grass fur stretched out like the pelt of a giant beast, wanting to run my hands through fields that look softer than they really are.

Pheasants and grouse popped up from tall grass, thought I saw some sandhill cranes in the distance but mostly hawks circling fields, catching thermals.  This was our only day in the grasslands, the driving destination being Badlands National Park.  Taking a slight detour to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument was the first clue that we were stepping back in time to the land of the dinosaurs. The plains, first covered by a shallow inland sea, then evolving into a tropical forest after the upthrust of the Rocky Mountains, gave way to a Serengeti-like savannah as the climate cooled and dried. Many of the land formations in the park and in the Badlands speak to eons of water’s ebb and flow followed by the wind’s incessant, wearing erosion. Layers of sediment, paleosoils and volcanic ash combine to form the shapes and colors of hills and buttes that look like roaming dinosaur herds, still present as human beings enjoy our brief ascendancy.  Stepping into the context of geological time was conveniently dwarfing, preparing us for the transcendent lunarscapes of the Badlands.  Formed by only 500,000 years of erosion, the Badlands are a virtual hourglass of time, eroding to prairie over the next millennium.  They are like nothing I have ever seen or felt, and emanate a deep and abiding peace.