Travels With Sailor: Badlands
I have never been as cold as I was in South Dakota.
I’m serious. Not ever. Single-digit highs dropped well below zero come evening. Winds howled across the prairies like they were driven by valkyries. On Saturday morning, in Sioux Falls, SD, the temperature gets as low as 30 below, without the wind chill factor.
I pull over to the side of the road, probably around 11 pm. It’s dark as hell, we’re in the middle of nowhere, about 30 miles east of the Badlands, and the moon has waned ever so slightly from the fullness of a few days ago. It’s too difficult to get a sense of the land from inside the truck. The shape of the land on either side of me is lost in its contrast with the headlights in front of me. I want to get outside and stare into the vast darkness of those dark, rolling plains. I wanna know what they’re about.
My dog, Sailor, who loves to be outside — particularly when she’s been cooped up in a truck all day — pees, then immmediately whines to get back in the car. I usually have to coax her back in, but not this time. It’s too brutal.
I’ve several times experienced the sensation of the moisture freezing in my nose. But, until the other night, I had never I actually felt the natural moisture in my face begin to freeze. I let Sailor back in the car and turn on the heat, then cross the road and wander briefly in the dark down a gravel road, until the hum from my truck’s motor is lost beneath the roar of the wind hitting my face. I want to hear what this kind of nature sounds like, and nothing else. My eyes tear up from the force of the cold wind. All I can hear is the wind, and the sky is as clear as I’ve ever seen a sky, the moon as bright and lonely.
At some point, as I’m driving, I witness a million faint pinpricks of light suspended in the blanching cone of my headlamps. I turn my head to make sure I’m not seeing stars, because that’s what it looks like. It isn’t snow. It certainly isn’t rain. It’s as though the air itself has crystalized.
Tonight I was told that one can actually witness the remaining moisture in the air freezing right where it floats. I can’t confirm this with hard science yet. But it sounds like what I saw.
But back to that night: It’s late, and I’m trying to save money, so I decide tonight’s the night Sailor and I are going to have our first go at sleeping under the camper shell in the bed of the truck. I’m fully clothed — jeans, long-johns, thick socks, t-shirt, wool sweater, hoodie, stocking cap. I arrange the truck bed so that we are lying atop a yoga mat and Sailor’s cushy dog bed. On top of that, an open sleeping bag. On top of that, a second sleeping bag, zipped-up over my head, with one warm dog curled up inside at my feet. The first sleeping bag folds over the one I’m zipped into. Not the most comfortable arrangement, but believe it or not, we manage to get warm.
The next day, it’s the Badlands, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” on repeat. Blanketed as they are in snow, the Badlands don’t feel nearly as desolate as I was expecting. I have some pretty introspective moments all the same, and spend almost a full day there, instead of the half-day I’d planned. Sailor and I stumble upon a small group of deer, almost close enough to touch. They are beautiful, silent and woolly. Sailor doesn’t know what to make of them, so she barks and scares them off.
I also spot some kind of wild, spotted snow cat. By the next day, I’ll have seen (and almost run over) so many deer that those first ones we saw lose a bit of their luster.
I bought a book about Crazy Horse today, because I’ve been thinking a lot about him. About the ghost dances of the Sioux. About how the first “subversive” history book I ever read was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and how, at 16, I set it down swearing I would never celebrate another Fourth of July again — an oath I’ve broken roughly 15 times since. (Why is it still so difficult — yet so entirely American — to know how to feel about America?)
After my uncle died, I concocted an image of what he must have looked like that became so vivid in my mind that I can close my eyes and see it immediately. As I have mentioned before, he was dead for a week in the house next door to my apartment before my father discovered him and came bursting through my door. The casket at his funeral was closed.
I realize that the image in my mind very much resembles the images so indelibly pressed into my brain by “Wounded Knee” at that young age — the grainy, sepia images of those frozen bodies, wracked with rigor mortise, sitting up and wide-eyed in the snow, fingers curled. I realize those are the images from which my imagination has borrowed most heavily and I don’t know how to erase them. I actually realized this in a half-formed sort of way before I left on this trip, but the realization has since matured. My only hope is that writing about it somehow helps.
Here in the Badlands, just north of Wounded Knee, I wonder what a spirit really is, and lament humankind’s loss of imagination — the kind of imagination that gave genders to rivers , fable-origins to mountains, divinity to the wind.
The wind has calmed. Despite the interdictions, I stray from the designated trails a few times, only briefly, and am amazed at how fragile the Badland rock is. For a landscape as black and gothic as it is from a distance — it’s thousands of ornate, needle-point peaks and jagged shadows resembling nothing so much as the cathedral at Cologne, or Chartres — it is astonishingly soft underfoot.
More to come later. Some hard-earned (but happy) advice in the meantime: If a bunch of dudes at a bar in the Black Hills challenge you to a game of beer pong, the answer is always yes.