Western Road Trip: The Badlands

It isn’t that far from Murdo, South Dakota, where we stayed after Wisconsin, to the Badlands. This is really the only reason to stay in Murdo, which is a strange little town of motels, two relatively ok restaurants/bars and kids driving around in pick-up trucks. We were quite happy to get back on the road from here.

We headed to Wall, which is one of the gateways to the Badlands National Park. All the way there we saw the billboards advertising Wall Drug – a drugstore and mall that became famous because the guy who owned it bought lots of billboards… But we weren’t interested in shopping – we had a national park to see!

Now I knew the Badlands had some impressive earth formations, but what I didn’t know was just how huge the area was. It took us over an hour to drive through the national park, though that was partly because we were pausing to take in the view, walk about a bit and stopping for Bighorn sheep crossing the road.



The walking around was limited, partly for fear of rattlesnakes which are pretty common in the Badlands – they love rocks. Still, in or out of the car it was an amazing experience being in this bizarre landscape.



The rock formations were made by erosion, and all the colours are differently aged fossilized soil. The yellow earth (not quite come out in these pictures) is 67 million years old(!) and was originally black mud from beneath the sea (which used to fill the area between the Rockies and the Appalachians). Each tower of rock is called a Butte, and these occur in quite a few parts of the West, but the Badlands is the biggest and best example of this kind of eroded landscape.

The National Park is actually in a few sections, with two sections based in the Indian reservation, so we only saw a fraction of the area really.

However, we made up for this by visiting two bonus museums that we hadn’t known were there till we drove past. First was the prairie dug-out house, which might have been my highlight of the day. As a child I was a massive fan of the Little House on the Prairie books and now I actually got to visit a real-life prairie house like the one Laura Ingalls lived in. I remember that in one memorable episode their cow came through the earth roof, and I can quite imagine how that would have happened now.

  
This prairie dug-out belonged to the Brown family, who moved to the Badlands area around the turn of the century. The Homestead Act at this time let homesteaders settle on 160 acres (with a requirement that 5 acres must be plowed for crops) for a $20 application fee. After 18 months they were entitled to buy the land for 50 cents an acre. However, many families couldn’t survive on this poor land (it’s since been determined that 160 acres in the Badlands area will only support 8 cows) and abandoned their claim land and buildings. The Brown family didn’t do too badly though and was able to extend their home using one of their neighbours’ abandoned cabins. I loved being able to walk around their old home, and watch the chickens and prairie dogs in the yard (or, in this chicken’s case, in the house).

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The second museum was in the middle of constructing its exhibits but they let us see the work in progress, which was fascinating. This was the Minute Man missile museum. It turns out that during the Cold War there were three missile bases built underneath the Badlands area, and that these were active until relatively recently. It was pretty surprising for R, as this means that they were probably active while he was walking around on top of then when he visited as a child.

It was all quite sobering. The sketched out exhibits all did an excellent job of explaining the process of launching and detonating the missiles, and really brought home to me how mankind really was teetering on the edge of total destruction during this time. There was one panel that listed the near misses – using Russian as well as American sources. These sources suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis was an even closer call than I’d been taught. Also that the film War Games is based on a true story… Scary stuff.

How to build a museum exhibit!

As we drove on our way, through the edge of the Badlands national park we had a lot to digest. I was awe-struck by so much of what I had seen and learnt. The ancient landscape, with earth millions of years old preserved the fossils of creatures that had either died out or survived through struggle and adaptation. As I stood on a walkway looking up at one of the more impressive formations, the stillness and hush reminded me of standing in a cathedral. I completely understood how native Americans could see this as sacred land, before they too had to struggle to survive, reduced to living on reservations and working out deals with the national parks service. The Homesteaders too impressed me. Imagine traveling by wagon from Nebraska, into the unknown of South Dakota and arriving to such an unimaginable sight as the Badlands. It must have been tough, scratching out a living in this isolated place. And then, less than a century later we came close to destroying it all. Well, we almost brought about human extinction; the Badlands were here long before we were, and I imagine will remain long after we’re gone.

But there was little time for such thoughts. We were back on the road, heading to the Black Hills!

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