Day 38

Saturday, July 2, 2005Badlands Backcountry
Miles: 4432Holy crap, it's windy here!

For some reason, yesterday seemed like the real start of our trip. Maybe it was the fact that we started actually tracking our expenses, but its probably just the fact that we've reached the larger, more majestic west and a lot of the reasons we decided to take this trip in the first place, such as the Badlands. It could also be a completely arbitrary feeling.

We woke up this morning thinking it was significantly later than it was(7:30, though the sun had been up since 4:30 and our neighbors had packed up their tents shortly thereafter) but with a renewed sense of adventure. The Badlands National Park has fairly lax backcountry camping rules, and since it was such a beautiful area (and the KOA was really not within the same geological region) we figured we'd give it a shot. We only own one real backpacking backpack between us, but we have some nice canvas shoulder bags that hold our tent and sleep mats nicely.

We set out to the park to check in at the contact stationh day, and make sure our understanding of how it all worked was correct. The basic rules:
  1. check in at one of two registration areas so the rangers know approximately where they lost you if your family calls them to ask
  2. get at least half a mile from any roads or trails and set up camp so you can't be seen from any roads or trails
  3. don't do anything ecologically stupid
  4. don't piss off the bison
  5. bury your poo
Sounds like a deal! Can't beat that! While there, we also registered for a 3.5 hour guided tour in a "rarely explored" part of the park at 7:30 thenext morning. That ought to get our butts moving.
So we hustled back to civilization (the KOA), paid them to make us some pancakes (no cleanup!), and made a deal with the owners that if we were packed up and out by 11 they'd give us our money back for tonight. We were wicked slow at packing up, but we made it with five minutes to spare. Perhaps the most annoying thing about this trip, and probably the main reason our ancestors stopped being nomadic, is the amount of daylight you waste getting all your crap together.

Since we were committed to morning activities tomorrow and wanted to be sure to make it to Mount Rushmore for fireworks tomorrow evening, we used today to explore the rest of the Badlands loop road and (against the recommendations of Keath's coworker who grew up in Rapid City (hi Kate!)) check out Wall Drug. It was far less terrifying than anticipated, but the ice cream line was far more treacherous than could be conceived. Anyway, we picked up some essential camping supplies (like a shovel, per rule 5) and headed to the lesser known but far more practical Wall Food Mart.

When we returned to the park, we headed down Sage Rim Road, a dirt road spur that ends at one of the check in stations. Though beautiful and scenic, this wilderness area was just that – regular old wilderness. There were significantly fewer cool rock formations and significantly more fields of wilderness. Not where we wanted to camp. But, we saw many prairie dogs, bison, birds, and what we believe to be Long Horned Sheep. So we were very glad we did the drive. We also saw that the bison threat is more pronounced in this area. Bison like fields, they are not fond of high, rocky things.

We found the other registration point, near the smaller backcountry area. We were back in the Badlands proper. Formations abounded.

We checked in (put our names on a sheet of paper and listed our general direction of travel), suited up, and headed for the setting sun. Since there were no hiking maps to speak of, we recorded distances from a pedometer and directions from a compass and tried to maintain as straight a path as possible. There were some lovely formations that we climbed along only to find them ultimately impassible and/or treacherous to descend on the other side. Fortunately, along one of these dead ends, we came face to face with an enormous deer atop a formation. Our later research was inconclusive as to whether it was a Moose Deer or a very large, lone, Long Horned Sheep. No photographic evidence survives, as it was as surprised by us as we were by it, and it stodded away before we could get a camera out. Impassible bits or now, the hike out was a lot of fun. We avoided prickly pear cacti as best we could and scrambled up the crumbly dirt. Much of the fun came from walking along ridges and looking down to see our shadows trooping along the bottom of the valley.

We finally found a path that led to an opening and a barely passable decline to a nice open field with flat bits that were neither drainage ditches or covered in cacti. We were just past a half mile, and surrounded by rocks on all sides, so we set camp, walked around for a bit, watched the sunset, and set the sleeping bag out to dry. (Apparently, Ceridwen's water bag leaks when in actual use.)
We sat out for a while, punched this entry in to the blackberry (no - there is no cell service whatsoever out here) and wondered what animal howls like a coyote but in the register of a toy poodle. The stars were plentiful and bright and several times during the night we braved the gale force winds to look at them. Our tent bent in the strong wind, but the stakes held and all was well, except for the lack of sleep due to the fierce winds and the rather uncomfortable feeling of having your tent bend in on you and really fine sand blow on top of you. Also, this far out in the wilderness, stars actually give off light.