It was 103 degrees outside and we were melting. “Where are the trees? There aren’t any trees here,” moaned Leah. There were no shadows to hide from the relentless sun. Even the clouds had forsaken us. Fortunately, they had drifted into the distance, providing the coveted contrast that landscape photography almost always requires.
With the mercury steadily rising over the Black Hills of South Dakota the past few days, and the forecast not cutting us any slack from the heat, we bit the bullet we dodged in Belle Fourche, and decided to leave early the next day for Badlands National Park.
Except it was almost noon by the time we got underway. We really did try to get leave on time, but life got in the way, and in a small way it was a small blessing. We mapped a route to our destination with a way-point to Walmart, since we needed an assortment of groceries and dry goods, and I needed a new camera chip, having filled the last chip with nearly 4000 shots–half of them from StreamingThruAmerica locations.
“Make sure when you format this chip, that it’s compatible with your camera,” the associate advised. “Otherwise, you have three days to return it.”
“When are you planning on doing that?” Leah asked.
“As soon as we get back to the truck,” I answered, “I’ll insert it into the memory card slot, and I’ll know right away if it’s working.”
That’s when I discovered that I left the camera battery charging in the Airstream.
So we rode back to Rapid City to retrieve the battery and stow the groceries. “But if I hadn’t bought the chip in the first place,” I rationalized, “then we would have driven all the way to Badlands, and realized that the camera was useless. No battery, no camera; no camera, no photos; no photos, no blog.”
“Right! Meanwhile, it’s cooking outside! And we’re going to get there, and not be able to do anything. Why don’t you put that in your blog?” Leah announced with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The heat had definitely taken a toll on human relations. From that moment, neither one of us felt like making the trip, but we also couldn’t imagine missing a National Park, so we d(r)ove into the fire, hoping to adapt to our inhospitable surroundings, much like Badland’s earliest pioneers.
We drove across a 45-mile stretch of I-90 East, counting 60 Wall Drug billboards and road signs along the way.
“We should go there,” Leah informed.
“It looks like another South of the Border,” I hedged.
“But it looks like fun,” she tempted.
“We’ll see,” I relented.
We arrived at Badlands National Park during the hottest part of the day. Even the bugs were in hiding. Crossing into the park at the Pinnacle Entrance, we took an early side-road to Sage Creek Basin Overlook in the hopes of spotting wildlife along the prairie. But the animals had better ideas other than baking in the blistering sun.
Instead, we admired the scarred lunar landscape of Pinnacles Overlook,
and claws of vulcan mounds crawling across the Hay Butte Overlook. It resembled a box of burnt streudel.
We backtracked through Roberts Prairie Dog Town–mindful not to pet a varmint potentially infected with bubonic plaque–and continued along Badlands Loop Road to Ancient Hunters Overlook, trying to imagine early tribes scouting the lowlands for buffalo,
much the way I was location-scouting for worthy photographs of black Pierre Shale.
We continued our air-conditioned trek to Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the surrealism was so profound, we had to leave the comfort of the cab to explore by foot…
leaving us to wonder how 35 million-year-old fossilized soil could weather into something so beautiful, yet other-worldly.
Burns Basin Overlook, while stunning in its desolate vastness, was beginning to look like every other overlook. I feared we were becoming “geo-jaded”.
But that feeling quickly faded after we sighted a bighorn sheep lounging on a breezy slope, surveying the best way to Wall Drug.
I stealthily walked around the cliff edge as far as I could to score the best possible angle without falling into the abyss.
It was a standoff–both of us locked into position. She remained frozen as a statue, but I held my crouch under the blazing sun until my subject finally cooperated.
Leah was waiting in the truck with the air conditioner running. “I can’t take much more of this,” she vented. “It’s just too hot out there, and I can’t even bother to get excited about any of this. You’re out there taking pictures while I’m stuck in the truck, and it’s not fun for me.”
“Tell you what,” I negotiated, “We’re at the point of no return, so we have to finish the park drive. But I’ll make it quick, and I’ll buy you an ice cream at Wall Drug on the way home.”
Fortunately, the road opened up to grasslands on both sides, and a 45 MPH speed limit. We made good time until we arrived at Panorama Point, and the light was perfect.
“Go ahead,” she conceded, “we’re already here.” I tight-roped across a knife-edge ridge as far as I dared…
to capture the enormity of the jagged peaks.
Just around the bend, I discovered the Big Foot Pass Overlook, on the right side of us,
followed by the White River Pass Overlook on the left side of us.
It was overwhelming.
We ended our tour at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, where Leah enjoyed the film presentation, while I strode across the prairie grass for a closer look at The Wall.
I kept my promise to Leah, driving to Wall just as the weather was quickly changing.
The silos at the end of town re-created an ironic juxtaposition to the Badlands scenery.
Rain clouds gathered against gray skies, and the temperature dropped enough to cool rising tempers. But after a diet of Badlands drama under theatrical settings, I found it nearly impossible to buy into the Wall Drug über-kitsch experience.
Occupying 76,000 sq. ft. of retail space in downtown Wall, it’s a fascinating rags-to-riches story from the Great Depression, and it stands as a titanic testament to American consumerism.
But it’s really a shit show, with “wall-to-wall” tourists.
Still…the donuts were fresh, and the 5⊄ coffee was hot,
…and most importantly, it brought a smile to Leah’s face.