There is no shade here, where Lydia and I have stationed ourselves. Upon feeling my arms start to burn a little, I wanted to sit down to write somewhere that offered some relief from the sun, but I saw none. It’s our second day in the same spot, about one mile in on the Castle Hill Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Lydia has set up her easel and is attempting to capture the beauty of this location with her painting. We had run out of time and patience here yesterday, as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was nearing 5:30 in the afternoon. Today we made sure to cook a big lunch before coming out and even brought our overnight gear to do some camping. The Badlands has very low light pollution and is reputed to be a spectacular place to witness the night sky.
The park is this beautiful mixture of a desert-esc landscape and lush prairie land. The desert like portion is a light tan mixture of silt, sand, and clay that is baked hard to the ground. This mixture both rises up as large fragile cliffs resembling giant sand castles and also erodes away to form deep crumbly ravines and trenches. It is truly awe inspiring to be here and witness these other worldly formations.
Of course there are other things that set the mood here. Walking down the trails one traces big horn sheep hoof prints and passes signs reading “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” Yesterday on our outing we had the pleasure of encountering a group of 5 or 6 big horn sheep, all sitting and admiring the landscape around them and then later grazing on some of the prairie grasses. They are all around here. It is a treat having only left Vermont a couple weeks ago and to be among such unique creatures! In our few days here we have also witnessed bison herds and communities of prairie dogs, yipping and barking and running about.
The prairie also lends its own unique beauty to The Badlands. The park actually borders Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, so looking out in to the distance all one sees is miles of open, lush grasses moving in the wind. I never realized how beautiful a sea of grass could be. It’s easy to forget, especially as a landscaper, that grass holds its own sovereign and wild space on this earth. As the prairie meets the desert scape of The Badlands it thins and dries, bleaching in large swaths to the same color as the sand, silt, and clay around it.
The weather here also sets a certain mood. There has been a constant wind and big storm clouds always on the horizon, though mostly we have had fair weather over our heads. When clouds fade and the sun comes out the heat rises instantly, and the dry air makes it feel a bit like a small desert surrounded by grasslands.
For Lydia and I being in The Badlands right now represents a big accomplishment. It feels as though we have made it out west. We have been working tirelessly these last couple years trying to build the van interior in to a home while paying for all of the mechanical work that comes along with wanting to take an ’82 Vanagon all the way from Vermont to Alaska. Managing to have enough energy and money at the end of the day to live our lives was difficult. We only left on this trip a couple weeks ago, and we are just starting to feel out what van life looks like for us.
The weather in the park reminds me of how this trip has been for us thus far. Fair weather over our heads, but dark and unknown thunder clouds always somewhere on the horizon. Fair weather over our heads because we have been having lots of fun and are so happy to be making this shared dream a reality. It has been so liberating to take each day as it comes, having no set schedule, no major deadlines, and no expectations of whats to come. But every day there is an unknown. Where will we sleep tonight, will the van have any problems today, when is the next time we can shower and do laundry, etc. In a sense we have stepped out of our comfort zone of a home with an income and friends all around us and in to a whole new world of unknowns.
Our new lifestyle has had me thinking of a title of a book written by a Buddhist Nun named Pema Chodron. It’s titled “Comfortable with Uncertainty.” I think that is really at the heart of how we are living right now, and I think the truth is thats how all of life is. When are we truly certain of what the next moment will hold? Within the routines and structures we create at home and in our lives we find a sense of security, but at the heart of life, if one really looks, is this deep, ground shaking uncertainty. I remember one time I went to the public library in Montpelier, VT to listen to a Buddhist Nun speak about death. She said, “We all walk around pretending we know when we will die, but the truth is we don’t. We make all of these plans and ideas up in our heads but we could die tomorrow.” I think she was just bringing our attention to that uncertainty at the heart of each moment. This trip has been in a sense an encounter with that uncertainty, and for this reason has had me thinking of death from time to time.
The Badlands has been our third National Park/Monument we’ve visited thus far on our trip. We also stopped in Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa and Indiana Dunes National Seashore. I think it was at Effigy Mounds where my first reflections on death started to arise. The reasons for this are clear. Effigy Mounds is considered to have been both a place for refuge as well as ceremony and burial. Some of the mounds take the shape of bears while others are more simple, just mounds of dirt. Some of the mounds are even filled with the bones of the ancestors of the Mounds People of the current Midwest. A note, more like a prayer than anything else, from a Ho-Chunk woman as you enter the park reminds one that the old ones spirits will watch over you as you walk through the space. As Lydia and I walked slowly and respectfully passed the biggest of the bear shaped mounds in the area two turkey vultures circled over us, bringing my mind to a place of reflection on a topic I have not reflected on much at the young age of twenty-eight.
Another reflection that has been on my mind this trip is development. It’s been remarkable how much of the land in our country is either developed or privately owned. To think that all this land once looked like these parks not to many centuries ago is a hard thought to bear. Geologically speaking all of this development, even our human species at that, is very young. Actually geologically speaking Badlands National Park is a very young formation also. It is only twenty six- seventy five million years old, which is only a fraction of the age of this planet. On that time scale it was just a very brief time ago all the land in this country was wild. The landscape off I-90 for the last 800 miles has been endless farmland. Though beautiful in their own right, these farms offered us no refuge. And that is what these grasslands and this park are to us right now. Refuge. And not just to us. The entire local ecology and millions of visitors each year find refuge here. We and all our animal relatives need wild spaces more than maybe we can understand at any given moment.
When we first entered the grasslands we stopped at a scenic viewpoint off the interstate and I could feel instantly the difference. Things felt truly sovereign, things felt health and hopeful. Things felt honored as what they were, not as what they could be used for. The constant drone of “progress” one feels as they see farmers driving these huge farm fleet vehicles over thousands of acres of tilled land or sees construction vehicle after construction vehicle tearing up and fixing roads had magically passed.
I felt the same thing as we drove in to Iowa over the Mississippi River in to Effigy Mounds National Monument. As we walked respectfully through this sacred site and out to a viewpoint over the mighty Mississippi, bald eagles circled over us. This river and its banks were their home. I was honored to be in their presence.
The animals need this wild land for habitat. It has been heart breaking for us thus far on our trip, especially Lydia. Most of the animals we’ve seen have been dead on the side of the road, struck by a car and left on the pavement. How disrespectful is this? We see it every day and put it out of our minds, but imagine if this was somebody’s pet or even a person? We would be horrified. These beautiful creatures deserve more respect than this. One gets the sense that in these parks and grasslands they can be at peace, and are given more respect.
I think Lydia and I feel the same about being here. I am so thankful to those who protected these wild lands. They could have so easily been gobbled up and developed like all of the other millions of acres around us that used to hold this same wild sovereignty.
That is another part of what makes this trip so important. It is in a way a reclamation of our own lives, our wild sovereignty. It’s hard with work and life to not just get caught in this constant drone of “progress” that surrounds us. In this state of mind sometimes the days blur together and pass unnoticed, leaving one to wonder ten years later where their life has gone. There is a poster on the wall of the barn home where we lived and farmed these last three years before hitting the road which helped wake me back up to how I should be living. It reads: Peaceful, Mindful, Wild, and Free.
After a couple hours painting and writing in this same spot, Lydia decided to wrap up her painting and I put away my notebook. We walked slowly through the late evening heat another half mile down the trail and set up camp. It was a beautiful cloudless evening, and Lydia and I laid down together and watched the light turn orange and the sky different shades of blue and purple. The sun danced over all the different prairie grasses and played with the shadows on the other worldly cliff sides.
Dinner was a little less romantic than I anticipated, as I realized with frustration when I opened the food bag that I had forgotten the can opener for the can of beans and our stove was nearly out of fuel for cooking pasta. Luckily the fuel was just enough to cook some extra al-dente pasta, and after a little brainstorming we found a flat head screw driver in Lydia’s painting gear and grabbed a rock from nearby and pounded our way in to the beans.
We slept that night under the stars. No tent, just our sleeping bags and the open sky. This is always a bit intimidating for me at first. Also without sleeping pads on the hard clay I found it hard to get comfortable. The moon rose and the sky turned dark. Mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and we hid in our sleeping bags until they lost interest. Then we would stick our heads back out and peer up at the night sky until they discovered us again. Since the moon was rather full we actually couldn’t see to many stars, but the moonlit sand castle mountains were indescribably enchanting. The chorus of the evenings wind and moon light was made complete by the distant yipping of a pack of coyotes. The night drew on, as I drifted in and out of sleep.
Somewhere in the late late evening, I awoke startled by a horrified screaming from Lydia. I rolled over and hugged her. “Whats Wrong?!” I asked as I realized she was in a bad dream. My heart was pounding. “Oh,” she said, “I was dreaming you were getting eaten by coyotes and I needed to scare them off, I was trying to save you!” The she started to laugh and apologized, embarrassed that she had screamed out loud. As my heart settled down I rolled over on to my back, and to my amazement I could see the entire Milky Way. The moon had set just enough, and the sky had exploded in to a band of thousands of tiny dots.
As I lay there gazing up at this vastness in front of me, something in my mind shifted. In a moment it became so clear how vulnerable my human life is, how small even our planet is, yet simultaneously how incredibly vast and expansive it all is. My earlier meditations on death at Effigy Mounds came back to me, and I remembered something I read about saints and the great wisdom holders on this earth. The writer had spoken of these great beings going to join the stars upon dying. I saw for a split second in my minds eye a much bigger universe than my day to day one. One where I could embrace both life and death in my thoughts and heart as a great opening in to the vastness of the universe. One where I would be foolish to believe there could ever be anything other than deep and wild mystery.