The Badlands


"I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands.  What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere."  

     — Frank Lloyd Wright


As I have mentioned, I recently accepted a new position in Rapid City in the Black Hills in South Dakota. My family and I will soon be packing our things and relocating from Wisconsin where we've lived for the past four years.

Last week, I drove out there to look for a new place for us to live. We may need to rent for awhile until we find the place that we are looking for. However, with two dogs and three horses, finding another place to buy or rent will be challenging.

On my trip out there, I was fortunate to be able to stay overnight at my wife's sister and her husband's cabin located on a lake in southwestern Minnesota. I awoke early at 4AM as I usually do, intending to get an early start for the day. But try as I might, I just could not get my car started. How odd.That has never happened before. After about ten minutes, it finally turned over weakly, choked a few times and stayed running.

Whew!  That was a relief!

I was not looking forward to the possibilty of finding someone to help me with jump starting my car early in the morning in the middle of the Minnesota prairie.

Then I took a look at the thermometer and understood immeditately why I had so much difficulty getting my car started. It was -21 degrees F (-29 C)!

Needless to say, I did NOT go for a run that morning!

As I drove westward on Interstate 90 through the open expanses of the Great Plains of central South Dakota, I was reminded of an experience a few years earlier when we still lived in Wyoming. Some friends from the Midwest were visiting and we were traveling through the desolate plains just east of Shoshoni, WY.

One of them looked into the distance and commented: "You know, there just ain't nothin' out here!"

To which I replied and without a second thought: "Yes, and isn't it GREAT!"

No one said anything but they all looked at me as if I was crazy. It didn't bother me. I am used to getting such looks and of being thought of as a bit odd.


The wide open is certainly not a place for everyone. Some people are uncomfortable, while others genuinely feel agorophobic. And yet there are others, like me, who appreciate nature's beauty and who take great comfort in the broad expanse of nothingness. I can almost envision the herds of bison that darkened these plains from horizon to horizon for tens of thousands of years until they were decimated in the late 1800s.

Although I might not want to live on the unprotected wind-blown prairie without a tree or landmark in sight (been there, done that), I am glad that there are still places in the lower 48 which are not paved over with asphalt or developed into subdivisions and strip malls.  

While in Rapid City, I did a few early morning runs during the week but most of my days were filled with getting my office ready and looking at properties.

On Saturday, I  headed back home to help with the packing and get more of our stuff. But I wanted to enjoy the balmy +40 degree weather before I returned to frigid snow-covered Wisconsin. So I took a side trip and got off I-90 at exit #131 and drove south  to Badlands National Park

The Badlands, or Maka Sica, as this region is called in Lakota, are located in southwestern South Dakota. The National Park is comprised of about 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires along with the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States.


It was a sunny, beautiful, cloudless and windless day. The sky was that brilliant pure deep-blue that one infrequently experiences outside the arid West. I looked forward to doing some trail running before I got back to Wisconsin. We have had an especially cold and snowy winter. For months, I have been eager to get off the roads and do some trail running again.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center I purchased an annual park pass. At $30, it was a bargain. I am sure that I will return here many times to explore the trails and extensive wilderness this park has to offer.

As I left the visitor center, I was greeted by a friendly black billed magpie. Such a curious bold bird! Their cheerful inquisitive calls always lift my spirits. In Native American mythology, magpies along with coyotes and others animals often appear as trickster figures. Well, this little guy (or gal?) sure had fun tricking and taunting me. Despite how unfraid he appeared, he simply would not allow me to get a clear picture. He would land in the open only a few feet away. Then, just as I lifted my camera to take a photo, he flew back into the thick branches of a nearby cedar!  

To him, it was some sort of game. When I appeared bored, ignored him and started walking away, he would land right in front of me again. Probably all that he wanted was a hand out. After a few rounds of this, I decided to get in the car and go do what I came here to do.  



The  trail head was located only a few miles north of the visitor center back towards the interstate. The Castle Trail itself runs in an east-west direction and is a total of 5 miles one way. I intended to run just a few miles of it as an out and back before returning to my car and driving on.

Much of the trail surface was covered with ice or snow. Some places were wet and muddy from the recent thaw due to warmer temperatures. However, it was dry enough in most places that I was able to find a reasonably good surface to run on. At least this time of year I did not have to worry about rattlesnakes. The prickly pear cactus on the other hand was everywhere.

I'd better be careful and not slip on the ice, I thought to myself.  Accidentally landing with my hands or face onto a patch of cactus would hurt!



As I ran, I found myself humming a tune over and over again in my mind. I am sure that all of you have had this happen to you at least one time or another. When it is a good tune, it is tolerable and maybe even helps you focus on your running. It's like having my own personal i-pod in your brain but an i-pod that plays only one song.

At other times, the music may be a catchy but not all that pleasant jingle such as something from a TV commercial.  If  that happens to be the song which is playing involuntarily in your head, it gets annoying real fast. But try as you might, it just keeps coming back almost as soon as you stop concentrating on keeping it out.

There are people that are paid big money to come up with such commercial jingles. They should be locked in rooms with the same annoying jingle they have created playing over and over and over until they lose their minds.

While driving around Rapid City and the Black Hills last week, I was fortunate to have tuned my car radio to KILI radio 90.1 FM, the Voice of the Lakota Nation. It is broadcast from Porcupine Butte on the Pine Ridge Res. I was told that "kili" means "super" in Lakota. During my life, I have lived in many places. Wherever I have resided, I have done my best to immerse myself in the local culture and to appreciate and respect the local traditions and history. 

Well, there was one song they played several times. I couldn't help but be moved by it and begin humming it to myself. The song was "Southern Man" from the album "Harmony Nights" by Alex E Smith, Cheevers Toppah & Nitanis Landry. I don't think that there could be any other song better for me to be listening to as I ran through the Badlands. The music is hauntingly beautiful and it won a Grammy last year. I cannot believe that I hadn't heard of it until now. I am looking forward to getting the whole album.


As I left the open prairie, the terrain became rough and irregular, with sinkholes, eroded gullies and deep arroyos. I stepped cautiously to avoid turning an ankle.

At one point I followed the trail over what I thought was a shallow snow drift. One set of human tracks from last week went over it without difficulty. However, the week of 40 to 50 degree daytime high temperatures had softened the snow considerably.  

Suddenly I sank up to my waist. My feet were soaked from the cold melt water beneath.

I had better be more careful and pay attention, I chided myself. An injury here and now would not be a good idea. I had signed in at the trailhead and let the park ranger know  of my general whereabouts. However, if I was injured or stuck out here, it would have been many hours or even the next day before someone came to look for me. Hypothermia would be possible.

At first glance and to the uninitiated, the landscape appears desolate, barren, otherworldly and even devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Besides my welcome from the magpie, I spotted a hawk overhead and saw many other signs of life. On the ground I noted tracks of  deer, fox and coyotes and other four leggeds.

In one grassy area, a small bunch of fluff jumped up literally from under my feet It bounded towards a nearby sinkhole. He stopped at the hole in the bottom and watched to see what I would do. It was a cottontail rabbit. He never entered the hole but observed me quietly. I took a few photos and then ran on.


After a few miles, I turned around and headed back to the car. The temperatures had warmed in the short time I was out but my feet were still cold from being soaked.

I am glad that my family and I will soon be living back in the the American West that we love so much. Though we will miss Wisconsin and our friends, we are looking forward to beginning the next chapter of our lives. Between the Badlands and the Black Hills to the west, I am sure that we will have many new running trails to explore and outdoor adventures for my family and I to share.

Until next time…inyanka yo!


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2 responses

  1. Gorgeous photos.

    February 25, 2008 at 3:54 pm

  2. Thanks. It was even more amazing to see this in person. The photos do not do the scenery any justice.

    February 26, 2008 at 10:38 am

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