Badlands NP

The Badlands National Park
South Dakota



The aptly named Badlands is a 243,000-acre National Park in western South Dakota that is rich in American history, primarily Sioux and Lakota. Utilized as a robust hunting ground for thousands of years, paleo-indian tribes occupied the region for sustenance, scouting and strategic protection until the US government violently seized the lands in the late 1800s, giving way to settling by Euro-American homesteaders. The land was briefly used by the military during World War II as a bombing test range and was eventually designated a National Monument in 1939 and then a National Park in 1978. There is a rich and diverse fossil record found in the area that once lay under water and abundant archaeological evidence of the early human inhabitants is revealed through old fire pits and arrowheads exposed by the constant erosion of the colorfully layered rock.


The Badlands are historically depicted as bad land for travel and the area is an endless maze of eroded buttes, spires and pinnacles. Traversing the cookie crumble texture of the wind, sun and water scorched surface is a bit like walking on marbles. Adding any incline to the route exponentially increases the likelihood of slipping, and once momentum begins, you become a human avalanche careening on a thin layer of dirt grapple down a steep slope resembling an Ant Lion’s snare. The powerful sunlight is distinctly deceptive on a cool day and sunburn can result quickly. There is little water in the region and with record temperatures in the almanacs ranging from 114 degrees down to -31 degrees. It’s not the kind of place you want to lose your orientation in.

It is my second time through the park and I wouldn’t have imagined I would have ever returned to the Badlands. I opted for this destination as my first stop in efforts to master the new rig routine. Having never pulled 30 feet of hermit shell behind me at speed for large distances, I wanted a nice flat and predictable leg that I was familiar with to adjust to the task. The roads from Nashville leading to the park are mostly flat, straight and easy to navigate. Straight up cruising and corn. Lots and lots of corn. There is a restaurant along the route with no other title on the massive sign seen for miles. Simply “Restaurant”. This hardly creates a branding issue for the likely 15 residents in a 500-square mile region as there is no other dining establishments anywhere for miles. Simply state you are going out to eat and we all know where to find you.

The “easy route” plan was a workable goal…In theory. And it worked well up to the point I was no longer in territory I was familiar with. I had diverted off the scenic route upon entering the park in search of my campground nestled in the interior of the Badlands. Upon the direction of my GPS, I turned down a narrow one lane gravel lane that shortly turned to dirt. I should have known at the cattle-crossing bridge with large tractor tires on either side forcing and unruly squeeze for the RV that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was trying to focus on the GPS map and drove on until my progress abruptly ended in front of a secured and prominently labeled gate declaring the road…. Closed. Thank you, Google Maps. It was honestly one of the biggest apprehensions I faced prior to starting out and the nightmare came to fruition in less than a week on the road. “Nooooo, you can’t be serious…Already!”. After a brief panic, I sorted it out and adapted and overcame with a tactical Baha through the open prairie and I was back on track heading up the narrow lane with little difficulty…Mastery will be mine!. At least I now know light four-wheeling is possible if required.
I finally located Elk Mountain campground which is in the interior of the park and affords a great view of the spired sediment. The days were spent riding a mountain-bike through the scenery and a couple short attempts up a spire or two albeit, failing miserably with slick soled shoes. The camp would fill up by evening and empty by morning like it was alive and breathing rhythmically. Chasing the sunrise and sunset each day in a quest for the perfect photograph was the visual high-point while high evening winds lulled me into an easy sleep. It was quite peaceful and serene for such a bad land.

While my view was quite picturesque, the landscape was not the most satisfying discovery of my exploration. The most compelling experience on this stop was time spent with Sawyer, one of the camps managers, who stopped by to share a beer and talk art. In yet another example of People Happening, I learned of Sawyer’s passion for organic farming and how he is showcasing his artistic talents by capturing the likeness of organic farmers across the nation. His Gauche work is nothing short of amazing!

As we chatted on about life and adventure over a few beers, Sawyer discretely created away and over a short time had produced three painting as and several sketches of yours truly, Ruck. I was blown away at his speed and accuracy as we were steadily rocking back and forth as the Ruck Rig was buffeted with 35-40 mph winds and I hardly sat still for a moment.

Our sharing spilled late into the evening and as we inspired one another, collaborative ideas began to collide. We honed an opportunity to collaborate on an endeavor in days to come and I am further excited by the many future prospects of our interaction. If you are interested in a commissioning Sawyer for some work, please reach out to me and I will get you in touch with him.

I left the striated stone landscape reluctantly. After several days and my pleasant exchange with the staff, I felt I had made a bit of a home of the interior, if just for a moment in time. I wondered if I would ever return to the Badlands for a third time as I watched the final spires melt away in my rear-view giving way to open prairie. Probably not, I thought. But then again, stranger things have Happened!

Ruck Out…

  1. Such a great initial adventure! So many interesting people for you to meet! Fabulous paintings! Keep the stories coming!

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