It was the center of a hot summer that the detour arrived, snuck up on us, dead left, or west. Always head west. A quiet night passed in Minnesota, far from the lakes, close to home. A campsite at Blue Mounds State Park was what we knew it would be: small, too close to toilets, carved close to other campers.
We passed the afternoon dragging through the tall grass, straining for the bison in the fields, perplexed by circling birds. Open and uninspired. Perhaps unfair, but it was how it felt. I was in desperate need of fall, and talked about the ghost buffalo, and omens, and blood soaked soil. It wasn’t remotely frightening. The sun was too high.
Back at home, after one night, and it wasn’t enough. It isn’t ever enough outside. There was limited time, before the cuts would set in, to try to fix what was crushed. A few fleeting days, still in the middle of summer. The urgency was like sweating youth.
So it was west, it was four hours, it was crashing onto asphalt and coffee-flavored sugar and smoke breaks on the side of Interstate 90. It was the fear of the last good time before everything changed again. It was the promise of Deer Haven, of a patch of grass stuck in the desert, of a night spent sharing ground with fawns.
Siri screamed at us to exit on Big Foot Pass Drive, and as a perennial Sasquatch enthusiast, I mindlessly obeyed. Six or so miles of gravel and dust and swearing at Siri spit us onto the paved roads of Badlands National Park, at an entrance without any fees or permits or bureaucracy in sight. Bigfoot would never do that to us.
Weariness was settling in, something was wrong, it was the claustrophobia, the confinement, it was everything is bad again. The only cure for prison is to remove the walls. To be outside.
Late afternoon greeted us with tiny dull pencils on the sign-in sheet and notices of company far ahead on the path. Within the first hundred or so steps, there was a solo adventurer, cool as snow runoff in the spring, sitting reading a paperback in the brush. There were no comforts, no fees, no stickers, no permits. One parking lot left behind.
There was just open.
The mint and pink Casio kept catching my eye, ever-watchful to try to time the steps and the distance and the aching realization of how much of a drag extra weight is. Of how much what you need to survive will slow you down. There is no levitation when you’re tethered to sustenance.
Snow Peak titanium cups clanged as a warning to rattlesnakes, or as a sanctus bell singing a prayer to them: do not hurt me. Ahead, another couple roamed, pulling each other back to the path, though there wasn’t much need to stay straight and narrow. This was true grasslands, with easy vantage. We could see they were following the trail, so we strayed.
Nestled in a natural carve-out of the rock, camp was made. A campsite without rules, or guidelines, or site numbers. Without company. Only the wind, which was picking up, running fast, without the burden of a past. The sky turned dark, so we waited for rain that never came.
It was a dry thunderstorm, the kind of spectacle the desert gives you, perhaps as an apology for the lack of water, or maybe a mocking of your eternal thirst. We sat and watched it roll for hours, massive clouds and dramatic claps, shifting colors and undulating forms. It receded, beyond the spires and sandstone, cut by the ridges until the seeming power of the storm was slashed into nothing.
I can’t tell you why I’m so scared in the night. I know there’s nothing out there, not really. Nothing that wants anything to do with me. Is it ego? It’s much deeper than that, much more simple. Id. The basic stuff. The stuff we think we grasp but it’s much too big. It was so hot, the night was soaking, the uncomfortable reminder that we can’t shed our skin.
After fitful starts and stops I’d fallen asleep, only to awake in the center of night in the center of summer. Sweat had dried, bodies caked with salt, water you can’t drink. I unzipped, that familiar sound, when you pull the slider as fast as you can to keep out everything you don’t want in. Stretching up, the night was cloudless, and the stars a chorus, a silent hymn. The sound of them so loud it filled my head, drowning out the tapes I’d been playing.
So it was a haven, for those of us unweaned, desperate to cling to material comforts and routine. A soft place to sleep on hard ground, a comfort in an actively hostile place, a reminder that there are higher vibrations beyond the ones that force us forward. A tiny respite. Just for one night.
Location: Badlands National Park
Trailhead: Conata Picnic Area
Date: August 2021
Length: 1 night, 6 miles out and back
Difficulty: Easy, great for beginners