Chapter 7 - "the badlands"

As we busted through the border separating North Dakota from Minnesota it felt like I was thrusting my chest forward to rip through the tape in a relay race. Almost immediately the landscape changed into something entirely Big Western. Mid-Western seemed flat, sometimes hilly, but always predictable. The country into which we moved wasn’t called the “Badlands” for nothin’.

It had an bad, bad Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole %$#@ town. A junk yard dog-type of feel. I felt like I was in a Western movie, 410 to Yuma or something with Clint Eastwood in a cowboy hat. It’s amazing how the simple sight of the Wild West can catapult you into a feeling of playing Cowboys and Indians in your neighborhood as a kid. The canyons were wide and unfeeling, jagged and unforgiving. There wasn’t any soft side to this scene, no sensitive grassy knolls on which to spread a picnic blanket and throw a Frisbee. No pavilions for family reunions or swing sets to keep the kids occupied while the adults did some sight seeing. Nope. This place couldn’t have been further from civilization.

Funny enough, there was an exit approaching off of which was a rest area overlooking the “Painted Hills”. We pulled off and there wasn’t a soul in sight. In fact, the rest area was shut down and covered with goose poop, buffalo feces, untamed weeds and get this, tumbleweed. That’s right, 100% natural organic tumbleweed rolling across the abandoned parking lot. We pulled the truck off the side of the road in front of the fenced off area, relieved ourselves next to the truck, and then made our way through a gap in the fence into what appeared to be an old historical site named after F.D. Roosevelt. Apparently, he sectioned off a plot of land and declared it hallowed ground for one reason or another. As we crested the hill, it became quite clear why he did such a thing. It was breathtaking.

The hills were just what they were called, “Painted”…they were carved out like God took his index finger and gouged out deep caverns and sweeping ravines as far as the eye could see. It then looked like God dipped a paintbrush into the most brilliant oranges and reds you could imagine and splashed them on the freshly carved rocks leaving them refined and rustic all at the same time. They reflected the sunlight back at your retina with a radiance that made your eyes squint in order to focus. It was the first time I felt that my eyes needed to adjust to the vast landscape. My lenses just weren’t trained to be needed for such immense and expansive scenery. Initially, I felt my eyes straining to reconfigure, modify and reboot. I can’t explain to you adequately this visual sensation, but I know what I felt, and it felt like my eyes were saying, “I haven’t been tested like this in a long time, hang on, let me dig deep and see what I have packed away that I haven’t needed to this point.” It took several minutes of narrowing my eyes and then widening them over and over again as if to wake them up to this new and glorious discovery, the discovery that creation is bigger than you can take in sometimes. Most of creation has been broken up into city blocks and county plots and 45 acre farms and 200 acre fields of hay or corn or beans. Ponds and little lakes and slender rivers make up the bulk of the heart of America. It’s green and gregarious, manageable and tamed by society. All the sudden you’re telling your eyes to wrap around what can’t be described as anything but infinite. Transcendent.

As my eyes began to adjust, it was like looking through binoculars and finally lining up your eye balls with the tiny glass lenses, getting the two separate pictures to coalesce into one large circle. From there it was sheer ecstasy. My eyes surveyed the aesthetic brilliance of every curve and protrusion, every sharp drop off and gradual shift in rock formation. As I was taking it all in, my friend spoke into the wordless moment, “There’s a buffalo!” At first I couldn’t make out the creature down in the valley between two rock faces. Then finally I caught a glimpse of the ugly, mane of that cow-like creature and stared at it like it was Elvis. You see, I’ve never seen a buffalo in the wild. It’s hard to say how seeing an animal in its natural habitat makes you feel, but put it this way, it’s entirely different than seeing them pent up in the zoo with chlorinated water and rocks made out of chiseled, stained cement. He was just grazing like a normal cow minding his own business. He wouldn’t be the last buffalo we would see in the wild.

The wind was briskly blowing against our beaming faces. It was about 35 degrees. I felt like I could have stayed there for days, but Montana summoned us onward. We turned to leave the vacant national park and I turned to catch one more glimpse of the beauty. Needless to say, that tired feeling I was fighting off only a half an hour earlier seemed to dissipate like a misty cloud. I felt like a new man, ready to conquer the North Dakotan highway.

Little did I know what I was in for…


Jeff said…
Sounds like an amazing trip brother!

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