The Alien Badlands

I’ve heard people claim that they’ve visited the Badlands and found them disappointing, declaring them colorless and lifeless.  All I’ve really managed to do in reply was stare and stutter my dumbfounded objections.

From my first glimpse of the Badlands, rising suddenly from the prairie, jutting their spires and turrets, like alien sandcastles, into the blue South Dakota skies, I’ve been in awe and wonder of this magnificent place.  And colorless they are not.  In the midday sun, in the late summer, the grass and flowers are innumerable shades of pale greens and yellows.  The rock formations are tans and beiges, with a pink undertone that contrasts gently with the foliage.  Here and there dark green shrubs and trees dot the hillsides.  In the morning sun, the pink undertones disappear, leaving an off white base that sometimes gradients into rusts and yellows, and at other times does so in stripes.  The green grasses and foliage seem more blue and contrast more sharply with the various yellow flowers, which at first glance you might dismiss as all the same, but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be a riot of shapes and sizes, in various shades of yellows.  And all the while the sky dances overhead, quickly shifting to clear skies, to dark clouds, lightning, thunderstorms, rainbows, volumous white clouds, whispy smoky clouds, pendulous blue clouds and sometimes all at once in different directions.

Lifeless…in the midday heat, it may seem quiet, but for the occasional calls of prairie dogs and the snuffling of any bison that might come near enough.  Stand still long enough and hawks will swoop lazily across the sky.

I stood in the 100 degree heat and photographed the moving landscape as the sun and clouds played across the crags and niches.  As I readied myself to move on, I heard a scatter of pebbles and turned to find a bighorn sheep and her kid scrambling out of the canyon only twenty or so feet from me.  Not everyone sleeps in the heat.

Towards evening the bighorn sheep came out of the canyons in groups of ten and twenty and thirty, mostly ewes and kids with the occasional ram.  As I bedded down for the night, other creatures awoke, scurrying and calling in the brush and just out of sight.

In the sunrise, the birds rose with the sun, calling more loudly and often as the sky brightened.  Rabbits climbed steep rocky slopes as if they had velcro footing.  Chipmunks ran faster than any I’d seen, making me think of sonic hedgehogs and blurred passings.  Pronghorn antelope crested hills to look me in the eye before deeming me harmless and passing by.  Bighorn sheep descended back into the valleys and bison lumbered by unconcerned with any of the morning bustle.

By midmorning it begins to quiet again, the sounds of people and cars filling the air around the roads.

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