Sorry for the delay in posting...to say that Interior, SD (population 67) is in the middle of no where is an understatement and with that cell service and wifi access were often just out of reach! After a LONG 14 hour drive from South Bend, IN, I arrived Tuesday night in Oacoma, South Dakota. As I crossed the Missouri river I was welcomed by "Dignity", the beautiful new 50 foot art installation gifted to the people of South Dakota by artist Dale Lamphere. I had read about it several months ago and had no idea I was going to drive right up to it on my journey!
After a much needed sleep and regroup, I headed out at first light to take on the remaining 100 miles to Badlands National Park. After seemingly thousands of miles of corn fields and several hundred miles of grazing Black Angus cattle, to see these razor share spires and buttes rise up out of nowhere on the flat horizon was startling to say the least. There are really no words to describe this 244,000 acre fossil bed that was once an ocean floor (and once you wrap your brain around that, the structures, textures and dimensions actually start to make sense). The magnitude of the pinnacles and sprawling grasslands can't be captured in photos, nor can the ever changing color of the stone and grass that continues to change before your eyes as the sun moves from East to West. They are imposing, but also, in a strange way, comforting to this Vermonter that was feeling a bit vulnerable and exposed in the endless flat landscape and immense sky. Badlands definitely lives up to it's name for the rich, intimidating, severe beauty. Wildlife was everywhere from bighorn sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs, to the illusive Bison I didn't manage to spot. I was immediately warned upon arrival of rattle snakes and black widow spiders, as well as how to manage a Bison if I ran into one face to face (As the cow lover I am, I was hoping, but will have to wait for Theodore Roosevelt N.P.).
Despite the relentless sun and mid-nineties heat, the park crowd continued to grow throughout the morning. Badlands isn't a tourist mecca like Yellowstone or Yosemite, the location and elements make it not for the faint of heart. That being said, the people were incredible! For my first major stop on this road trip, I couldn't have had a better, more authentic encounter with the National Parks "crowd"! Everything about your individual identity falls away the minute you enter the gate. You are no longer from Vermont, Texas, or Ohio, your race, ethnicity, religion, gender, identity, or country of origin are inconsequential as you are now just part of the tribe that's "at the Badlands". The only way to describe it is if you entered a place where every person you came into contact with was a Red Sox fan, except your team you all follow is the National Parks Service! Strangers literally hi-fiving each other because they made it to the Badlands! This is what America should look like outside of those park gates.... Who are these people? Not who you may expect if you think people choosing to be National Park tourists are all outdoorsy adventurers decked out in all the right gear by Patagonia and toting along 2 mountain bikes and a kayak (nothing against Patagonia, they are my favorite company and gear after all). Sure there was a handful of these fine folks in the "crowd", but the majority of the people I saw and talked with were retired and elderly couples, families piling out of mini-vans, and foreigners from a vast variety of countries. This is the vacation of working class people - they aren't going to resorts, on cruises, and taking flights around the world. These are the people who aren't afraid to pack some sandwiches, layer up the sunscreen and bug spray, and drive countless miles to see breathtaking natural beauty with there own eyes and LEARN about what it is and why it is important to protect and preserve. I talked with people from Russia, Japan, Iceland, Nova Scotia, and Dubai who were blown away with this place and so knowledgeable about our country's history, geography, and current political climate. Yes, the world is paying attention to us and they are as worried as we are!
I found myself on my first day touring overwhelmed with where to begin and how to capture a landscape so foreign to me. I'd make a sketch, move locations (which usually required driving between trail heads and lookout points) sketching some more, setting up to paint, changing my mind, escaping the heat, then getting back at it. I'm use to painting outdoors, in fact I prefer it when I can, but I wasn't prepared for the attention I was going to get from on lookers :) tourists and rangers alike were so curious and asked lots of questions, which was great and allowed me to share my project, but didn't make for great "getting into the zone" painting time. Lesson learned - sketching in public spaces where steady interruption and conversations can abound - set up easel or serious painting in a more secluded spot to get some work done! All is not lost, I made several great sketches, have two starts to paintings, and took hundreds of photos for creative brain food - the Badlands will be immortalized in my off hours over the next couple days!
After a very long, extremely hot, but totally satisfying day, I headed back to my campground for my first night camping solo and not totally sure how that was going to be. Me being me, I was friendly with the neighbors, chatting to those near by my site and those I crossed paths with on the trails. Ironically, at the site directly across from me was a giant burgundy school bus turned camper with a guy traveling alone with his dog. Well, it is a small world because this bus was owned by Peter (and his dog Ellie) who happens to be an artist and art teacher from New Hampshire and is traveling across country visiting National Parks on his way to California! Needless to say, I was able to spend my evening comparing notes and crazy parallels in our lives sitting at a picnic table in South Dakota. So, a shout out to Peter and Ellie for making my first night camping on the road a total success, hopefully I'll see you in Yellowstone in a few days!