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  Field Notes From
Badlands



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From Author

John L. Eliot



Badlands On Assignment

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From Photographer

Annie Griffiths Belt



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Lily Belt


 

Badlands

Field Notes From Author
John L. Eliot

Best Worst Quirkiest
West of the hot, naked, nearly lifeless clay buttes that comprise the heart of Badlands National Park, the 65,000-acre (26,300-hectare) Badlands Wilderness Area was an unexpected oasis. Well watered by Sage Creek and a maze of other small streams, this rolling, grassy floodplain is made for wandering. I took long day hikes along the creeks, listening to wrens, kingbirds, and other songbirds.
    The Badlands Wilderness Area is the stomping ground for the park's buffalo. There are no man-made paths; hikers often just pick a buffalo trail and follow it. Their trails lead away from a primitive campground normally populated by only a few small tents.
    Three bulls, almost as big as cars, like to hang around the campground. Accustomed to two-legged species, the bison ignore people unless they're surprised or intentionally disturbed. Nearby, there's a small hill, maybe 50 feet (15 meters) high. One day I saw one of the bulls had climbed up there and bedded down in the grass, facing into the breeze and toward the Badlands a few miles away. When the grass is stirring and fluffy cumulus clouds race over the horizon, the Badlands Wilderness is a magical place.


    I met a family who's been ranching on the park's southern boundary for a hundred years. They run a tiny hole-in-the-wall café in the area, which has become a minor mecca for travelers in the know—European addresses appear in the guest book. I called one morning from the park service visitors center about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the east and asked if I could visit. "I've got nothing planned for this afternoon," she said.
    When I showed up, I met her son. He said, a little sheepishly, "Uh, do you think you could come back tomorrow? My daughter's getting married in a few hours." Evidently his mother got the days mixed up. But I went back the next day and spent about nine hours on the family's land.


    I had never camped on a landslide before. But for backpackers determined to pitch their tents right in the Badlands buttes—hot, dry country that will put the fur on your tongue—Deer Haven is the place to go.
    Almost nothing grows in the nearly vertical buttes because plants can't gain a foothold and rain runs off. But when part of a butte or other landform breaks away, seeds can take root and water is retained in the slumped area. That's what happened with Deer Haven. Much of the landslide is now carpeted with junipers and red cedars, a welcome respite from the frying pan of the buttes. 
    Erosion has tempered the slope some, but it was a steep climb with my pack up into the evergreens. Happily, the gully-ridden slope is peppered with a few small flat grassy areas the size of a putting green, just big enough for pitching a tent. I hastily put mine up, just ahead of a big thunderstorm that was bearing down from the southeast but ended up sailing past.


   


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