Monday, July 01, 2013

The Badlands of South Dakota

Mid June 2013

      Before beginning this trip I had what you'd call an intuition that I should make sure to go to South Dakota. I really didn't know why and indeed even as I was about to drive into South Dakota I still didn't have any specific expectations. I was aware that Mount Rushmore was there, but that wasn't terribly significant for me.  I just had this gut feeling that I needed to spend some time there. In general though, if there is a National Park within reach I point myself in its direction. So when I saw Badlands National Park on the map, I put it in my sites and took aim. I'm mean seriously, with a name like "Badlands" how can you not be drawn to it! 
Night sets on the Badlands

Well it was here that I would point to as the "Unofficial Official beginning" of my trip. This is where the  real type of new discovery that I'm looking for on this escapade began. On the way to the park I  stopped to have a  quick look at some early settlers' sod houses to appreciate their simplicity and the ingenuity of basically living "in the ground". Afterwards, as I approached the park a wave of excitement rose from the tips of my toes up to the top of my skull. Actually it might better be described as "Joy". As I pulled away from the entrance gate and got a glimpse of the landscape ahead I actually let out an involuntary giggle, like a child about to enter Disneyland.

The bottom of an ancient ocean
I will, of course, post more photos when I get a chance to process them, but it really is a place that must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Millions of years ago there was an ocean in what is now the western mid-west so today as you travel through the park you are actually driving on what was once the bottom of an ocean. It is striking and surreal. A desert like ancient sea floor punctuated by sheer, multi-color banded mini-mountains jutting sharply into the deep blue skies accented by the nearly glowing rich green of the lush grasslands.

Being late in the afternoon I did an initial drive-thru along the 24 mile road through the park taking it all in and trying to mark out some exceptional spots to come back and photograph. The scenes are so striking that you really have to be careful not to dive off a precipice as you drive the long and winding road staring at the painted imagery before you.  

At the western end of the park is Sage Creek road, which after 13 miles of kicking up dust clouds, lands you at the camping area. It's also where the 2000 lb. Bison otherwise known as Buffalo like to hang out. After an evening photo session in the park I made my way back to the camping area and since it was late I decided not to set up the tent and instead slept in the van. Around 2 am I was awoken from a dream where I was stuck at the wrong end of a driving range under a barrage of golf balls. As it turns out, back in the waking world we were being pelted by a hail storm. A win for me and my steel tent! Although I did feel bad as a watched the mad scramble happening all around me as the soft tenters scurried for cover. 

In the morning I awoke very early, around 4:15am, with the hopes of getting some nice sunrise shots. As I rubbed the sand out of the eyes I was pleasantly rewarded. The sky was a glow with vivid pinks and oranges dancing through the clouds. I quickly grabbed my camera and as I was about to get out of the van I was startled to see two huge buffalo grazing not 10 yards from me! Not wanting to risk their wrath for disturbing breakfast I decided to forgo the sunrise shots and instead took aim at these two natives from the safety of Mage. But the excitement of the morning didn't end there as later a bird flew into the van. Fortunately, with a towel and some soothing verbal reassurance I was able to extricate the little bird from its temporary cage and set it on its merry way. 

Over the next few days I had a field day exploring the park and taking photographs. If you drive straight through the park it should take about 35-40 minutes. In reality, for me, it took about 5 hours since every 1/4 mile I would have to pull over to capture images of Bison, Long Horn Sheep, Prairie Dogs or just another captivating landscape just begging to be appreciated. 

One of the drawbacks of playing a photographer in such a place as this photographer's wet dream is that all patterns of normalcy are thrown right out the window. The best shooting light is very early as the sun is rising and then again a little before and after sunset. But there is also so much to shoot throughout the day as well as doing recon to find areas to shoot the next day. Then, if you are a glutton for punishment like myself, you take it upon yourself to do night photography into the wee hours of the morning. The whole time in this park I didn't so much sleep as take naps in between sessions.
Floating over Badlands
It was, of course, all worth it though! I can only hope my future stops will be as rewarding as this one.......