Range Life

There’s something about wide open spaces that makes time slow down. The vastness of the sky stretching around the endless hoop of the horizon overwhelms and dims our sense of clock time. There are only four times out here: sunrise, sunset, night and day. After that all is one open expanse of light and land dancing around together, indifferent to anything so mundane as the railroad time schedules that form the basis of our concept of “time”.

The vastness and timelessness of the Badlands makes the improbable seem less. Wall Drug, I’m pretty sure, would never have worked anywhere else.

After land and light there is only wind. It never stops, or at least it didn’t in the two weeks we were here. It ranged from a gentle breeze to a howl that drowned out every other sound and whipped a fine dust into the air. The sky was often hazy from the smoke of fires in California and elsewhere in the west.

Sunset over the Badlands, SD photographed by luxagraf

the bus, buffalo gap national grasslands, wall, sd photographed by luxagraf

panorama, buffalo gap national grasslands, wall, sd photographed by luxagraf

the bus, buffalo gap national grasslands, wall, sd photographed by luxagraf

Camping in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, the area south of Wall SD, known as “the wall” is unique. Free camping with a view, less than ten minutes from to a town that has a dump station, free water, free swimming pool and a small, but decent grocery store is not something you find very often, which might explain why we stayed two weeks.

The first week we were out here was hot, in the high 90s. We can only run our air conditioner if we have hookups, which we obviously did not have, so the free public pool in Wall was a daily necessity. Every afternoon the kids and I would pile in the car and drive the ten minutes to Wall and go swimming in the deliciously icy cold pool for a couple of hours.

buffalo gap, near Wall, SD photographed by luxagraf buffalo gap, near Wall, SD photographed by luxagraf the bus, buffalo gap national grasslands, wall, sd photographed by luxagraf
snake, buffalo gap, near Wall, SD photographed by luxagraf
This little guy seemed to think the magnatiles box was the best collection of rocks he’d ever slithered through, I must have chased him (or her) out five times.
pool, wall, SD photographed by luxagraf pool, wall, SD photographed by luxagraf
eating pork chops photographed by luxagraf
I love this photo because there’s no plate, no silverware, no napkins. It makes it seem like we just eat giant slabs of greasy meat with our hands. Which, apparently, we do.
eating pork chops photographed by luxagraf
And this is how we all look most of the time, wild-eyed, feral and covered in grease.

Lest you think we’ve given up on seeing the sights, we did one day drive into the Badlands National Park proper. The first overlook on the drive in gives you a view of the other side of the Badlands from what we could see at our camp. After that you wind down into some of the more colorful of the formations.

panorama, badlands np overlook. photographed by luxagraf
Sorry for the poor panoramic stitching, but this was the only photo that even halfway turned out.

Badlands NP photographed by luxagraf

Badlands NP photographed by luxagraf

It was pretty, but also very crowded. I’ll take a slightly less expansive view and no crowds any day. We did get to have a close encounter with some big horned sheep though. It started off normal enough, Olivia spotted some bighorns up on a hill and we stopped to watch them for a minute. They’d wandered by our camp a few times already, but they never got too close.

Bit Horned Sheep, Badlands NP photographed by luxagraf

Eventually a Yellowstone-style traffic jam started to happen as more and more cars stopped to watch the sheep. We jumped back in the car and went on to the visitor center. On our way back the sheep had decided to come down to the road.

One day Lilah and Elliott and I decided to go for a hike in the Badlands. We found a trail that lead out to a juniper flat about three miles away and was somewhat off the beaten path. It turns out though that nearly everything beyond pavement is well off the beaten path in the Badlands.

hiking, Badlands NP photographed by luxagraf

hiking, Badlands NP photographed by luxagraf

This is not a place people hike. It might be that after mid morning there’s absolutely no shade anywhere until late evening. The midday sun is fairly intense, and after an hour or two you want a break. We went a couple of miles and in that distance saw no one and found only a single cottonwood tree to rest under. It was the only shade for miles and all the grass under it was trampled down and matted with clumps of fur from sheep, cattle and quite a few other things that had rested under the same tree.

We ate our snacks, contemplated going the rest of the way to the juniper flats, but we remembered resting under a juniper tree in Chaco and decided the cottonwood was a good as it was going to get for shade, so we started back.

Lilah’s shoes were giving her a blister so she walked all the way back barefoot, which I think made to two hikers we met at the trailhead, who were geared up with all the latest tech from REI, feel a little foolish, which, let’s face it, they should.

None photographed by luxagraf

baby cliff swallow, badlands, np photographed by luxagraf
At the trailhead there was a pair of cliff swallows nesting under the overhang of the sign.

A day or two after our hike, storms started to blow in more regularly and we got not just a break from the heat, but downright chilly, especially at night when it started dropping into the 40s — a little reminder that winter comes early up here.

Storms over the Badlands, SD photographed by luxagraf

From our campsite at Buffalo Gap we watched a lot people come and go. Most people only stayed the night, but a few hung around longer. The sort of people who come camp out in a place like this for more than a night are generally our sort of people, which is to say, people who live full time on the road.

One day a family with some kids pulled past us and parked their rig in a spot a little ways beyond us. They stopped by to say hi one evening and we got to talking and next thing you know all the kids had made friends and were roaming the range in a pack, the way I think kids should.

If I have any hesitations about living the way we do its the occasional thought that I should be giving our kids more opportunities to roam the neighborhood with a pack of friends the way we did growing up. There’s two problems with this notion of mine though. One is that no one back home lets their kids roam anywhere, let alone wander the neighborhood by themselves, so if we hadn’t done this our kids still wouldn’t be roaming the world in packs they way I think they should.

The other problem is that the whole idea that this is what kids should do is predicated on the assumption that my childhood was somehow a “correct” one, which, for all I know, is completely wrong.

One thing I do know is that this trip has erased any sense of shyness in our kids. They’ll march up to pretty much any kid they see and try to make friends with them, which they didn’t do before we left, and is really more than I can say for myself.

Whatever the case, I do love it when we meet people our kids can hang out with for a while, it’s even better when we get along with the parents too, which we did. We hung around Buffalo Gap a little longer so the kids could have more time together. Community is harder to come by when you live on the road, but when you find it, it tends to be tighter knit and you value it more I think. At least I do.

At the same time those moments of friendship and community don’t last as long and before too long we needed to start south and Mike, Jeri and their family needed to get to west before the cold comes, and it comes early up here.

After two weeks Buffalo Gap had started to feel a bit like home, much like every place where we’ve spent more than a few days. But we did what travelers do: we pack up, say our goodbyes, and head down the road for the next place we’ll call home.