Saturday, October 17, 2009


When people talk about the Badlands, most really mean the area in South Dakota designated the Badlands National Park. But, Badlands has a generic description:
A badlands (also badland) is a type of arid terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. It can resemble malpaís, a terrain of volcanic rock. Canyons, ravines, gullies, hoodoos and other such geological forms are common in badlands. They are often difficult to navigate by foot. Badlands often have a spectacular colour display that alternates from dark black/blue coal stria to bright clays to red scoria.

The term "badlands" represents a consensus in North America: the Lakota called the topography "Makhóšiča", literally bad land, while French trappers called it "les mauvaises terres à traverser" – "the bad lands to cross". The Spanish called it tierra baldía ("waste land") and cárcava. The term badlands is also apt: badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which impede travel and other uses. Badlands form in arid regions with infrequent but intense rain-showers, sparse vegetation, and soft sediments: a recipe for massive erosion.

Some of the most famous fossil beds are found in badlands, where erosion rapidly exposes the sedimentary layers and the scant cover of vegetation makes surveying and fossil hunting relatively easy.
Some of the best-known badland formations can be found in the United States and Canada. In the U.S., Makoshika State Park in Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Badlands National Park in South Dakota together form a series of extensive badlands formations.

From Wikipedia

This was taken on US85 southbound climbing out of the Little Missouri River basin located in the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's not much of a climb in or out, particularly compared to the passes in the Rocky Mountains, but what you do see is awesome. I'm not too wild about heights, so for me there is always an element of fear in the mountains. I feel closer to this kind of scenery - it's more accessible and friendly to me. I feel more at home here.

The following pictures are from Wikipedia's entry on the Badlands National Park. While the actual acreage set aside is south of I90 near Wall, SD - the interstate does cross a pretty rugged spot just west of Wall - you get an idea of what the whole thing must be like.

How do you even begin to try to traverse something like this?

Even from I90, one can see rock formations erupted from the flat terrain, craggy snaggletoothed sharp bones of the earth exposed for the ages. I doubt the walls of Mordor have anything on these barriers.

This is the sort of thing you'll see on the interstate west of Wall.

I dunno, I get an emotional reaction from this area that I like. It's dangerous ground for sure, inhospitable, wild, tumultuous and rugged. The ambiance neither is neither inviting or threatening - the effect just is. Millennia were required to shape this - it doesn't deign to notice a mere tubby trucker blasting by at seventy five on the interstate. The mountains can getcha - a slip on the ice, a shift in the built up snow leading to an avalanche, an inattentive or aggressive driver - just a minor mistake completely out of your control can result in death. Mountains don't care, but their capricious nature can take ya out.

The Badlands could getcha just as easily, but I don't get the unpredictable vibes the mountains give me.

Does this remind you of anything? Maybe some scenery in an old John Ford western? Think Monument Valley.

Dances With Wolves was filmed in South Dakota territory - a fact that is driven home on I90 by the signs advertising the 1880 Town near Murdo, where you can view some memorabilia from the movie. The 1880 Town ads can't hold a candle to the Wall Drug ones - if you've ever traveled on that stretch of I90, you'll know just what I mean.

But, I digress. After seeing the area (plenty of times over the past few years), I've come to the conclusion that Kevin Costner shortchanged his movie by not utilizing more of the local terrain. He really showcased the vast, rolling prairie with the grass waving in the wind. But, he missed out on the grandeur of the Badlands. John Ford was a master of setting the mood with the backdrop - that was just one of the techniques in his filmakers' tool chest.

Just as an example: at the end, when the Union troops and Pawnee scouts are looking for the Lakota - that area could just as easily been in the foothills of the Rockies or in the hills of Arkansas. Not necessarily where you might find a Lakota band in the first place. Costner wanted to paint a bleak picture - the scene was winter, he had a howling wolf in the soundtrack - cold, lonely, stark - that was the mood he was looking for in those closing scenes. He had all that in easy driving distance from the ranch location they used, and they did shoot in the winter.

It's just my opinion, but Dances With Wolves could have been a lot more eye popping visually. I suppose considering the big picture the salient points Costner wanted made were achieved, and the movie certainly was a financial success. It's definitely a movie I enjoy. But, this is one area that it missed being a really great movie. Lonesome Dove used correct terrain for great visual and emotional impact, and it was a freaking TV miniseries.

But, I suppose in the end, the authenticity of Dances With Wolves beats the tar out of television oaters like Gunsmoke, where a trip from Dodge City to a local town involves more trees and hills than the entire state of Kansas possesses (as opposed to the canyons and forests near Hollywood, where those shows were filmed). At least Costner got the rolling prairie right. South Dakota certainly looks like what we see in the film, in a tunnel vision sort of way.

In the yes or no columns for the Badlands, put me down as a yes.


Jinglebob said...

Great post! I live not too far north of Wall. My children all went to high school there. Also have a friend in North Dakota who ranches south of Medora where the Badlands are not quite so bad. It is awesome country to ride a horse in. And gathering cattle out of it isn't as bad as it looks as they seldom venture into anything where it gets really bad. There is a good blacktop road south of Wall that loops down and comes back out to the interstate east of there. Lots of scenic overlooks. You might see a bighorn sheep.

Again, a great post.

Jeffro said...

Glad you liked it! Just about every area I travel through has something interesting about it, but I just really enjoy seeing the Badlands.

Dad Bones said...

Always wanted to do a full moon campout in the Badlands, in the summer of course.