Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 27, 2004 The Badlands.

I have finally made it to the Badlands. It is simply awesome here. Didnít I say that about the road getting here? Well, I think each place is going to be more awesome than the previous one, as I travel through the west. Iím traveling in the right direction Ė if Iíd started in California and headed it east it would become more and more ordinary as I progressed. Iím used to the town landscapes of the east, not the stark harshness of the prairie and the sharp barren hills of the Badlands silhouetted against an intense blue sky. Yesterday it was clear, and the hills were brilliant white, the shadows black, the sky pure blue. As I prepared dinner the almost-full moon rose over the gray prairie against a backdrop of blue and purple. This morning it was cloudy, and the sandy hills blended into a gray sky. When the sun shone through, the hills jumped out white against the heavy clouds behind.

The silence here is deafening. And I donít mean that sarcastically. When I can get away from the people and the cars, the lack of sound makes me wonder if my hearing has simply disappeared. I rode my bike down a dirt road that isnít traveled much. A mile along, the only sound, when I stopped to look at a group of pronghorn antelope, was the buzz of insects and the occasional chirping of birds. The antelope watched me carefully as they grazed, trotting neatly from one patch of grass to another like the Lippizaner stallions I didnít see in Mitchell. When I remounted my bike, they sprang away in a bouncing jump, all four hooves pushing off the ground at once.

Yesterday I met a woman who has bought a home in Interior, population 67, the small town near the south entrance to Badlands National Park. Iíd ridden my bike to Interior to pick up groceries, and wondered about the tiny town with its two bars, two motels, a campground, an RV park, a church, a few houses, and a lot of trailers. The woman was about my age, dressed in a pretty flowered dress and sandals, her arms laden with silver and turquoise and bead bracelets, her long crinkly graying hair pulled back with a colorful beaded barrette. She said Interior was simply crazy. Most of the people there are ranchers. The few jobs are seasonal, in the RV parks, the motels, the bars, the restaurant, or the park itself. Itís not just that everyone knows everyoneís business, she said, everyone is involved in everyoneís business. She grew up in Spain (though I think she was born American, from her accent), came to the US for college, and stayed, straying to this area because she loves the Badlands. Sheíd spent this summer bartending, but the bars are about to close for the winter. Unless she can get a teaching job in ďthe Res,Ē as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is called, sheíll be going elsewhere for the winter to make some money so she can return to her house for the summer. I wondered whether children who grow up in Interior stay there. She didnít know for sure, but said that her friends in the town had grown up there. She said what people do there is have fun - get drunk and have as much fun as they can. She didnít elaborate, and I didnít ask.

This afternoon, after the sun came out and the clouds had blown off, I found myself on top of Saddle Pass. I walked a few miles across plateau and plains, and found myself looking down from the top of the pass to the road and a parking lot below. I wasnít going down Ė my car was parked back where Iíd begun walking and I preferred to return by plateau than by road. But it was splendid at the top of the pass, the sun shining in my eyes, clouds scudding across the sky. It was almost warm in the brilliant sun, but the wind howled at my back and the air was cool. It made me want to do sun salutations, stretch my arms up into the sky and reach for the clouds, the warmth on my face, the prairie far below me, my back arched against the wind pushing me from behind. Or turn around and let the wind whip my hair out of my face, gazing at the plateau Iíd just crossed, patches of grassland spotting the dried white mud. The pages of my notebook flipped in the wind, my t-shirt billowed around me, even my backpack ballooned with air as the loose straps flapped in the wind. There was no sound but the wind rushing past my ears, drowning out the cars on the road below, the people talking as they considered climbing up to the perch where I saw cross-legged making my notes.

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