We enjoyed a yummy breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express and then headed out for our final big haul across South Dakota today. Our destination — the Badlands.
We made it past Rapid City and even managed to avoid Wall Drug (having pretty well “seen the elephant” there as kids — along with the giant jack rabbit, free ice water, and many other charms). Soon we were rolling into the spectacular, desolate vistas of Badlands National Park.
The badlands of South Dakota differ from the North Dakota badlands we saw at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are starker and drier, with less vegetation. They are just as beautiful and impressive. Massive, striated buttes and peaks stretch out across vast horizons, many eroded into fantastical castles and spires. These are the eroded remains of an ancient inland sea which covered the land about 75 million years ago. Over the millennia this land has played home to ocean and jungle, dinosaurs and other exotic extinct creatures, and finally desert, tough and crazy homesteaders, and one of America’s most famous national parks.
We spent several hours driving the park’s scenic loop, admiring the Badlands from the various great overlooks. Neither words nor photos can adequately capture the magnificent scale, fantastic formations, and timeless dessicated land that unfolds before visitors to this unique place.
There is human history here too, though most of it isn’t very happy. The Indians hunted in the Badlands, but like most people, avoided too much travel through the dry and difficult terrain. A famous exception came in 1890. For over a year the Sioux Reservation had been rocked by terrible trouble. The Sioux people, already forced to live on reservations, were being displaced and pushed aside to make room for homesteaders. Desperate for the return of the buffalo and their native ways, the Sioux were gripped by a spiritual uprising called the Ghost Dance. As we wrote about in The Two Graves of Sitting Bull, the uprising took a horrible turn on December 16, 1890, when Indian agency police moved in to arrest Sitting Bull at his camp near Mobridge, South Dakota. In the resulting gun fight, Sitting Bull, seven of his followers, and six Indian police officers were killed.
The surviving ghost dancers decided to flee south under the leadership of Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot), a half-brother of Sitting Bull who was a respected chief known for advocating peace and reconciliation with the whites. The group swelled to over 350 people, all trying to make it to the Pine Ridge Reservation where they could band together with tough, savvy Red Cloud and his people. But they didn’t make it. Instead, they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry (Custer’s old unit). Weary and ill with pneumonia, Spotted Elk ordered his people to put up no resistance.
They set up camp near a creek called Wounded Knee. Most people know what happened next. On December 29, 1890, the troops attempted to confiscate the weapons of the Sioux. Some of the people began to do the ghost dance. Others refused to give up their weapons without compensation. Someone fired a shot. Any actual fighting lasted a minute or two at most. The army officers could not restrain their men, who used machine guns to fire into the milling crowd of exhausted Indian civilians. Over 250 Indians and 60 soldiers were killed (the latter mostly by friendly fire).
Though we weren’t equipped to do so, you can visit Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and find buffalo herds, fossils, and the sites of ghost dances and other Native American history in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. Most of this area is accessible only via unpaved roads deep in the park’s interior and/or hiking on ancient buffalo trails. The park service asks that explorers be experienced wilderness trekkers and know what they are doing, which left us out. An additional hazard is thousands of shells and unexploded ordnance from the Air Force bombing and gunnery range that blasted a large portion of this incomparable landscape and Indian homeland from the 1940s to the 1960s.
As for us, we were pretty parched by the time we reached the end of the park loop and the cute and inviting Cedar Pass Lodge, where we relaxed with BLTs and icy Cokes. The gift shop here was truly superlative, with a great selection of books, Indian art, jewelry, and classy gifts. We took the time to go through the park visitor center, which has good exhibits on the geology, flora, and fauna of the park.
Touring this park took most of the day, and was well worth it. Afterwards, we had a long haul to make it to our final overnight stop back at Al’s Oasis in beautiful Chamberlain on the wide Missouri. Our dinner was a fitting one. After spending so many days on the road learning about, searching for, and seeing buffalo, tonight we ate them, in the form of delicious buffalo burgers. Washed it down with a slice of apple pie.
The Badlands was our final sightseeing stop on our 2009 trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail through Nebraska and the Dakotas. I adore reading, but there is nothing like seeing places with your own eyes, feeling the heat or the cold, and learning the local lore to truly make the history of our great country come alive. On this trip, I got an unforgettable sense of the sweep of time, from ancient seas to dinosaurs to the millennia of Indian history to the explorers and pioneers who sought to conquer the wilderness and bend it to human will.
The road trip blog entries have been really popular — thank you! — and starting after the holidays we will be blogging about many of the other Lewis & Clark sites across the country that we have had the opportunity to visit. And here’s to more adventures on the trail in 2010!