Badlands National Park

I visited: Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Like most National Parks, the history of land ownership is complicated and fraught, and this is especially true at Badlands. The legal specifics confuse me, but presently the South Unit of Badlands is “held in trust” for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Badlands Wilderness overlook

I haven’t seen most of the world or even most of the country—so far I’ve only visited eleven of our National Parks—but I think I can safely say that Badlands is the most colorful place I’ve ever been. Nearly every minute the sun illuminates rock layers in different pastel shades. Sunsets at Badlands are sublime.

This was my third visit to Badlands, and I’ve never found its environment to be particularly hospitable. When I came with Steve and Allison in July 2019, we camped in a tent in what turned out to be a severe thunderstorm. Ask me for the full story in person sometime, but suffice it to say that sunrise found all three of us damp and huddled in our Civic, swearing we’d never attempt to camp in the Dakotas again. I came again with Steve in November 2020, and after a pleasant day full of hiking, our second morning in the park involved temperatures cold enough that we were reluctant to hike more than a few hundred feet from our car for fear of getting stuck outside. This summer Badlands was hot and dry, with temperatures creeping toward triple digits.

An unnamed pullout

But still, those colors. I never dreamed Badlands would become one of my favorite places in the country, but I haven’t found anywhere else that feels this much like immersing yourself fully onto another planet. The extreme temperatures add to the effect, almost like a warning that I shouldn’t get too comfortable here. The longer you look, the wider the color spectrum spreads, your mind scrambling to come up with as many synonyms as you can find for words like pink and brown and gray.

The park brochure for Badlands greets you with a few quotations from early visitors, including this grim rumination from Thaddeus Culbertson: “Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water—without an animal and scarce an insect astir—without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.” On this visit I remarked to Becca that in spite of its steep geology and severe climate, I’ve never associated Badlands with loneliness. It occurred to me that I’ve only ever visited the park with people I love. In the last year-and-a-half of pandemic I’ve spent more time alone than ever before, and I’ve felt and thought about loneliness more, too. I think I was better at being alone when I was younger, and I suspect the opposite is true for a lot of people. The reasons for my trajectory are complex. In some ways I think I was more stable and secure then, but I think my younger self was also less capable of intimacy. Not for lack of sincere effort—I was honest and transparent, but there were entire rooms of my inner life I couldn’t share because I had only barely peeked into them myself.

Becca was the friend who introduced me to Dr. Gloria Willcox’s Feelings Wheel, a simple tool for expanding our emotional vocabulary and giving us greater specificity to describe our emotional lives. On this drive through Badlands, which was Becca’s introduction to the park, I nearly talked her ear off about the contours of my life and the dilemmas I’m facing. We took only short hikes, mostly in silence, because the heat was so stifling. I have been to Badlands enough times now that I recognize specific formations and overlooks, but the colors are different every time. I hope that my capacity to love and connect with other people is becoming richer and more nuanced, too.

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