“An endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
After a week in Montana and Wyoming, I hitched the camper for one of the last times on my six-week excursion and headed eastward across a vast range of nothingness. Wyoming is a land of solitude, lazy tumbleweeds, lost cattle, and farmlands that roll into miles of uninhabited prairies. The lonesome cowpoke makes himself at home here, but few else dare to try.
Along hundreds of miles of straight and flat highway, I could count on two hands the number of homes I saw. Where their inhabitants fill their tanks with gas, I could not say. Where they stock up on groceries is beyond me. Perhaps Instacart delivery men dangle from helicopters above their desolate homesteads and hand off a month’s worth of food in midair. That’s what I imagined in my mid-drive delirium. Wyoming’s distant farmers have my utmost respect. Their level of peace, or perhaps stir-crazy madness, I can never fathom.
Over eight hours later, in the stifling mid-July heat, my mother and I reached the small town of Wall, South Dakota, just northeast of the mighty Badlands National Park. In the arid, dry 100º weather, we popped up the camper in the Sleepy Hollow Campground as quickly as we could and hopped back into the trusty Nissan Titan, desperate for the chilly relief of AC and a cooler full of water.
Without delay, we set aside our wishes to stretch our legs and rest after a long and grueling day of driving, and we drove yet another 20 minutes to the park entrance without music and without speaking. We hoped in our quiet lethargy that our far-too-hot destination would be worth the extra mileage.
We passed through the park headquarters onto a road surrounded by—you guessed it—more grasslands that seemed to stretch uninterrupted for miles and miles. Confused, we looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “well….where is it?”
All at once, without warning, the prairie in front of us dropped out of sight as if the world was collapsing in on itself, falling deep into the earth’s innermost core, where tan peaks of sandstone quivered in the midday heat waves. Bands of red, orange, purple, and yellow layered the otherworldly maze of buttes and canyons, revealing prehistoric pockets of sediment frozen in time.
The Badlands are a monumental museum of history, littered with artifacts you can find without digging. Strangest of all is the park’s contradiction to its natural surroundings, clear evidence, according to Frank Lloyd Wright, of divine intervention, a site too unique, too remarkable to be a mere environmental coincidence. In our speechless awe, my mom and I agreed with his assessment.
We lazied through its labyrinth of pinnacles and gorges, laughing at peeping prairie dogs and missing not one opportunity to share our bewilderment at our surroundings as the sun set on what would be my final day of adventure after a month and a half of road tripping across the U.S. Beyond fitting, it seemed, to close the curtain on my trip in one of the most shocking landscapes I had ever seen. How could a green, grassy South Dakotan wasteland be hiding such an ethereal treasure?
We left Badlands National Park near sundown, peaking in our rearview mirrors at one final glimpse of the mountaintops being swallowed by the grassy knoll of the prairie’s high perimeter. One last bucket list stop, one last view, and nowhere else to go but home.