It’s been a weird winter here. Extraordinarily long. Our first (HUGE) snowfall came in the first week of October. And It’s snowing today. Big, fat, beautiful flakes that I’m trying really hard to enjoy, instead of wishing them away.
We’ve also had a lot of random occurrences of “Spring”. Even in February when snow and winter are generally a guarantee, the season has teased us with 40’s, 50’s… even 60’s. Some of us have already had our first sun burn. (It was mostly from the reflection off the snow at Terry Peak, but it counts.)
Having been teased with Spring and the coming summer ENDLESSLY over the course of the last several months, all of us are getting a little anxious to get out. So, when my photographer friend Bonny said “We should go to the Badlands sometime so I can take sunset pictures.” I responded enthusiastically “Thursday! ?!!” Which, as it turns out, was particularly serendipitous because I wasn’t aware that particular Thursday was both the International Day of Happiness and the Spring Equinox. Truth be told, we all likely would have gone anyway, because we are all somewhat adrenaline junkies, and we trip over each other at almost any opportunity to get out into our beautiful Western South Dakota world (or any part of any world, really). But a forecast in the 50s for Thursday made it all the more appealing.
It’s a beautiful drive, really, once you get past the turn off for the airport. Having lived in the mountains – in some form – all my life, it took me a long time to appreciate the beauty of the wide open prairie and the Great Plains. They are not – as I believed until I was well into my twenties – comprised of the string of cornfields that line I-90 between Rapid City and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
We ate a picnic dinner of gourmet burgers from To-Go boxes and watched a storm chase use out of town in the rearview mirrors. There’s something special about the deep, tumultuous blue of a storm when it pushes past the Black Hills and spreads its color across the sky of the plains. The yellow and gold wild grasses stand in stark and stunning contrast and the world around you immediately becomes a study in hue and texture. Heading east on Highway 44 surrenders you to roads progressively less well maintained and carved wooden signs become the information channel of choice. About 40 minutes from town a sign emerges – with very little warning – directing all those interested to turn right for Scenic, South Dakota. From this direction, the town (or ghost town rather) is the gateway to the Badlands. Once you’ve turned south, and all three blocks of Scenic are behind you, the Badlands begin to open in all their glory. Roads turn largely to dirt, a matter of little importance with the striated sandstone rising in long lines of delicate spines. Our photographer led us to Sheep Mountain, a steep rising plateau with a view to the curve of the earth. The first – and arguably most popular – lookout is marked by a pull-off area line with small boulders and was already populated when we arrived, so we forged on to explore what was at the end of what was now far more ‘path’ than ‘road’. Mule deer scattered as we crested each rise and a sense of urgency became tangible in the vehicle as we watched the sun sink with us in each small valley between.
See the PROFESSIONAL’s pictures here. They are way better. I promise.
Rising out of the last one there was a collective gasp as we all gazed, awestruck, at the scene before us. For miles, as far as you could see in every direction, the sun was painting its gold on the signature spires of the Badlands, each layer of stria being eaten up by the rising shadow.
(Get the good pictures from Bonny. Seriously. They are WAY better. Click here.)
The hue of the light on the red, orange, cream, and pink colored layers was intensified both by the setting sun and the dark clouds gathering far above and behind us. We stood for long minutes until the wind kicked the sand in our faces and Bonny had captured all she could.
The drive home was somber, peaceful, meditative even and all any of us could really say was “Now that was the way to spend a Thursday.”