I’ve read stories about men sleeping in the desert and seeing stars. We see some at home, but I’ve always known there were plenty more to see. The problem is, I’m afraid of the desert. For water scarcity reasons. Tonight we found ourselves sleeping on a low plain in the badlands. And as we laid there in 90 degrees at 10pm, the children falling asleep around us, we watched the stars through the breezy top of the tent.
First, we spotted the big dipper, then the milky way, and as the darkness allowed by hundreds of miles of open land revealed: the sky is full of stars. If you had to say that cookies and cream ice cream is white or black, what would you say? That’s how the sky looked: a swirly upside bowl of speckled black and white, and I couldn’t say which was more prominent, the black or the white.
We found ourselves sleeping in South Dakota’s Badlands because we got brave and excited this morning. We fell asleep in that bleak hotel in Nebraska and we got great sleep. I think the dire accommodations inspired us to lose consciousness as quickly as possible.
In the morning, we descended on the tiny hotel breakfast like locusts. I love feeding kids at a hotel breakfast because the answer is always yes. Can I have four servings of scrambled eggs? Yes. Can I drink 16 ounces of cranberry juice? Yes. Can we all have more giant waffles? Of course. I’m sorry for all the mean things I said about your rooms, hotel, your breakfast made up for it.
We drove as fast as we could, first north through Nebraska, Iowa, and into South Dakota, then we took a sharp left turn and turned west in Sioux Falls. Stopping along the way only to be delighted by out of date western roadside animatronic reenactments.
As we drive, Caleb and I keep a keen eye to watch how the landscape changes. We want to be able to say, “Ah! This is Nebraska. This is what it looks like.” As we turned west, South Dakota looked pretty much like Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri: wide, green plains; and we had followed the Missouri River (fancying ourselves like Lewis and Clark-looking for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific). In Missouri, the river and the highway run like best friends, holding hands for long stretches, letting go and skipping away, but always coming back together. But in Champaign the highway bows a loving goodbye to the river with a glorious low bridge. As we looked beyond the bridge, we gasped, “This is South Dakota!”
The hills are yellow with buffalo grass; big and soft and empty, except for black cattle. Only occasionally we found a clutch of trees. It is an entirely different landscape and we were delighted. Missouri looks different from Tennessee, but the yellow hills of South Dakota are totally foreign. We shouted with joy at every new mile. Geography brings real joy to us. I think even our kids think we’re ridiculous. We point out geographical oddities with glee, but I’ve noticed that Moses has been exclaiming “Wow!” without even looking out the window. We’re all working on it.
Also, the speed limit in South Dakota is 80mph, so we bounced across the hills, and in a few hundred miles we started spying dry, red and white striped mountains in the distance. The Badlands!
No one needed prompting to look and gasp. I smiled for hours as we drove through the strange striped mountains. They go on for miles, and you can imagine hunters standing on top of the rocks overlooking the mountains and plains for bighorn sheep (if your mom makes you think about these things.)
The thing we blithely didn’t take into account when we planned this trip was the heat. I don’t think the badlands are considered a desert, but with no shade and 103 degrees, the whole day was underscored by a quiet feeling of low-key panic: we are camping tonight in this heat. Without trees, the sun feels like a patient, malevolent power in the sky.
So we drove to Wall Drug for ice water. Wall Drug is a whole thing. It’s like a basic drug store took over the whole western town. They own every storefront on one side of the street, you can walk through inside from store to store, excepts it’s all justWall Drug. It’s wonderful and kitschy, and we managed to get out without buying anything.
As the sun finally set, we drove back to our campsite, grateful that the temperature was back in the eighties. We stopped to hike a fossil trail, and we discovered a quiet pink world just off the boardwalks. Within a few steps all signs of the trail and road were gone and we were alone in a dusky alien landscape. It was my favorite part of badlands. The kids climbed and explored and Caleb and I took pictures of Leo, because we can’t stop.
And that’s how we found ourselves sleeping like cowboys in the badlands. As I watched the stars, trying to fall asleep in the heat, I kept telling myself, “You’re just like a cowboy, you can do it.”
And, boy howdy, we did.