The Badlands. That’s where the bad guys always tried to hide in the old westerns we watched when we were young. One look at the landscape and you can see why. It would be easy to disappear in these hills. You would have to want to catch someone pretty bad to follow them into The Badlands.
We drove from Saint Louis to the Badlands two days. Once we arrived, the most direct route to our campground was through the Badlands National Park. I was glad that we had gotten the Lifetime Senior National Park Pass before we left, since the $20 entry fee was waived. We stopped at the first overlook in the National Park and the view was spectacular. It was like being on a strange planet. The barren hills contrasted with grassland to create an otherworldly landscape.
But after a long drive, we were anxious to settle into to our campsite. We continued on to our campground, just outside of the National Park and the little town of Interior, South Dakota (population 94).
Our campsite was shady and relatively roomy. We had electricity and water at the site. The White River bordered one side of the campground and Lost Dog Creek bordered the other.
Our first morning in The Badlands, we had a short list of things to do nearby. We started with a bicycle ride down the road. We found a break in the fencing where we could climb a small mound of earth. The hills look rocky but they are actually soil, mostly clay. There was a lot of rain around the time we were there and the soil was soft.
Nick quickly scrambled up to the top of the mound as I looked for an easier route. I found a gentler slope, covered with wild flowers. I was almost to the top when I stretched my hand out to steady myself on the mound and saw a SNAKE where I was about to place my hand! I let out a shriek and quickly retreated down the hill.
The bicycle ride back to the campground was downhill, but a strong headwind made the ride a challenge. I’ve never worked so hard to bike downhill! We packed up Arvie for a day trip and headed out.
The campground was not within biking distance (for us) of any of the local sites, so we knew we would have to drive Arvie to see any of the local sights. That means disconnecting from the electricity and water, as well as securing all of our stuff so it doesn’t careen around when we drive. It’s not a big deal, but it takes a bit of effort to get ready to go.
Our first stop was a real Prairie Homestead. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided thatch reached the age of 21 could file a claim for 160 acres for $18. They had to build a home and farm the land, and live on it for 5 years in order to gain ownership. Many of the settlers in The Badlands lost their $18 bet and forfeited their farms due to the harsh weather and other difficulties.
This homestead was purchased by Edgar Brown in 1909 when he was 55 years old. He moved to the land with his wife and son. This is one of the only remaining homesteads in South Dakota and its remarkably well preserved!
The original sod house was built into the side of a hill, with dirt walls and a dirt floor in the oldest part. The later living room addition was slightly fancier, with wall paper and a wooden floor. I could imagine how hard it would be to live in the tiny, dirt home.
Our next stop was the missile Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The visitors center was a sober reminder of the Cold War and makes you wonder just how often our government came close to deploying a weapon of mass destruction.
Our final stop of the day was the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in The Badlands National Park. In the fossil room, a scientist explained to us that fossil poaching is.a serious problem in the park. We watched as another scientist worked on separating a fossil from the rock that encased it, surrounded by display cases of their completed works.
The visitor center had interesting displays to explain how the unique landscape was formed (by water, of course). Because of the soft nature of the “rock”, the Badlands are eroding rapidly. It’s estimated that in 500,000 years they’ll be gone.
On our last full day in the Badlands, we decided to drive Arvie to Wounded Knee. Instead of turning right as we exited our campground towards the National Park, we turned left. The road quickly narrowed and the grass and shrubs grew right along the side of the road. There were no shoulders at all, which made driving Arvie a bit of a challenge. We saw a few road signs indicating that we were in Oglala Lakota territory.
At a stop to get gas, we noticed that all of the customers were Native American. Paying for our gas at the counter, Nick told the clerk that we were headed to Wounded Knee. The man suggested that we pull off at the overlook on the hill that descended to the official site. He said the overlook was where the Native Americans went to remember their ancestors, not the official site.
We drove on and soon found ourselves at the overlook. We walked into the tall grass and felt the sadness and solemnity of the place.
Wounded Knee was not a battle. It was a massacre. By 1890, Native Americans had lost their battle to retain their lands and their way of life. The Lakota had been a nomadic people, moving from place to place with the seasons. Now they were forced to live on a reservation.
About this time, a great medicine man had a vision of hope. He spread the word about a “ghost dance” that would summon the spirits of the dead. The dead would fight with the living and make the white colonists leave.
In December of 1890, the settlers in South Dakota were getting increasingly nervous about the ghost dance, believing that it was a war dance. They asked the Army to come in and get the Native American population under control. When the Lakota heard that the Army was coming, a band of them took off from the reservation in fear. The Lakota were tracked down and the Army convinced them to make a camp at Wounded Knee, until things could get sorted out.
Once the Lakota were settled at Wounded Knee, the Army insisted that they give up their weapons. Some of the men began to ghost dance. The Army thought they were preparing to fight. One young, deaf Lakota man refused to give up his gun. A shot was fired and all hell broke loose.
The Army had positioned rapid fire light artillery Hotchkiss Guns around the camp and began firing them. When it was done, 25 cavalrymen were dead from friendly fire, along with 90 Lakota braves and 200 women and children.
We pondered the horror of the story as we walked through the tall grass in this beautiful setting. We visited the site of the mass grave. We headed back to our campground wondering how 20 of the cavalrymen could have been awarded the medal of honor for such a dishonorable act.
It was sobering to be in the place where the massacre occurred, and to drive through Lakota country where this tribe still lives. Out time in The Badlands had come to an end, but the experience will stay with us forever.
Next stop, the Black Hills!
Lynne, Nick and Bella