Walk Beneath a Long Dead Sea: part 1
Note: This article was originally published in 2012
Over last summer I found myself with a distinct excess of time. My wife was away in Greece, my job super flexible and the money was ample. There were few places for me to travel to that I was interested in and only a day's drive away so I fixed a course to the Badlands of South Dakota. I had been there once before, as a child mind you, a child so young as to not remember a thing. This was the perfect opportunity to return and see what I had missed. I am somewhat of a cheapskate and I was going alone so I opted to book a room online through Econo-Lodge in the small town of Wall, South Dakota. This is home to the famous tourist trap Wall Drug and also the town my family and I stayed at when I was a child. I loaded up my Jeep Liberty with food and snacks and a suitcase full of enough clothes to last me the weekend. I left my home in Lincoln, Nebraska early in the morning so as to be in Wall just in time for dinner, and also allowing me enough time to visit my favorite attraction in Nebraska, Ash Fall Fossil Bed (expect a post on this in the future).
It was nearing five o'clock in the evening, I had just rediscovered where I was on the map, and I was driving down the a lonely stretch of highway when I saw it.
The jagged peaks rose from the flowing fields of emerald grass like a worn saw blade. The sky was a deep blue, behind me were hundreds of miles and a soon to set sun. The sight was impressive but I was dead tired and my left arm was sun burnt from hanging out the window all day so I drove through the park on a winding highway and called it a day. I grabbed a bite to eat at a BBQ place across the street and walked down to the Wall Drug store for some overpriced sun screen and I hit the hay.
The next morning I rose, stopped at the gas station for a doughnut, picked up some protein bars and headed back towards the remnants of a prehistoric ocean. The morning was a little humid and clouds still lingered from the storms the evening before. Driving south, I passed the park entrance, which was closed and had a sign posted advising to come back later and pay upon my exit. Good deal. After about ten minutes of driving through vibrant green prairie I came to the edge of a shear plateau that looked down into the valley of spires and spines, to the east the sun was attempting to peer through the ashen clouds that slowly meandered along the horizon.
State and National parks can be hit and miss when it comes to that feeling of true wilderness. I was happily surprised when I was greeted by a massive, dare I say herd, of wild turkeys that seemed to care very little of my presence. Just a little farther up the road I encountered a large field of prairie dog burrows. I sat and watched for a while and saw the heads of the residents poke up from time to time. I have seen my fair share of turkeys but never had I seen wild prairie dogs before. I was giddy, my adventure was off to a good start. I found a parking area nearest the trail head of the longest trail where signs warned to not venture to close to the wild bison and bighorn sheep. After stepping onto the asphalt I took a deep breath of fresh air, looked at my map, and headed in. I was standing at the base of a cliff much like the one I had previously looked down from. The way up snaked through a series of tall, rocky columns. The earth looked hard packed but to my surprise it was soft and loose. The spires and rugged landscape are the product of the ancient inner sea drying
up and leaving the sandy floor exposed to the elements and time. I scrambled up the steep slope, almost slipping once or twice, it was less of a hike and more of a climb and the trail was nearly non existent, only marked vaguely by orange markers. Wind and water had whipped to and fro through the slots and crevasses of the rugged range, molding shapes out of the barren soil; all around were tiny petrified toadstools sprouting from the ground.
Higher I climbed until I pulled myself up and over the final ledge. Before me was a wide open prairie half encircled by the almost alien crags. Millions of years ago I would have been standing upon the bed of a shallow sea; a home to a multitude of prehistoric sea life.I stood and imagined the the depths above me, a metaphor for the depths of time that also encompassed my surroundings. One of my favorite authors, H. P. Lovecraft, capitalized the theme of feeling insignificant and alone in the universe with his tales of cosmic horror. I sat for a moment and basked in the remoteness I felt. Eons have passed through this place, through all places, and there at that spot, I was alone in the vastness of time, like being adrift on an endless sea.
That ancient sea once teamed with life of all kinds; primitive sharks, Pleisosaurs, Mosasaurs, a multitude of fish and crustaceans. This inland sea, also known as the Cretaceous sea way, existed over 100 million years ago, when North America was divided into two small sub-continents. Time and Earth however, are always changing and eventually the rise of the Rocky Mountains lifted the sea floor through 2,500 feet of water along a 2,000 mile expanse. All that remained of this once great sea were a series of brackish lagoons that would eventually give way to the Great Plains. With time it would be decided that the age of reptiles would end and give way to the a new kingdom of mammals. While the great sea way is impressive and worthy of note, the Badlands are highly recognized for their fossils from the Oligocene, another remnant of the a age long past and another reminder that we are but a scratch of the the surface of the Earth...
I am going to opt to end this here and make this a series of two or three posts. During my trip I saw nearly all there was to see of the Badlands National Park and there is quite a bit for me to talk about and think about. I thought this would be an appropriate cliff hanger, leaving you just before I begin my trek into the interior of the the Badlands plateau. I would also like to state that this is my first time writing something like this and if any of you readers have any questions or comments, maybe tips on writing and keeping interest, please, don't hesitate. Thank you very much for taking the time to read of my travels, I hope you have enjoyed it so far and that I have left you a little something to think about.