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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Badlands

It’s been a long time since I could accurately remember how old I am. I celebrated another of those increasingly meaningless milestones in good Rapid City fashion, starting with a local brunch and a trip to the Jenny Gulch on Lake Pactola in the Black Hills. It’s a spot where local teenagers go to show their total disregard for personal safety by drinking and jumping off the cliffs. I may be getting old, but I don’t turn down a good challenge and it was a fun time all around. The black hills are absolutely gorgeous and it was great to get out in the sun and on the water for a day.

I had noticed on the way in from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, just at the left edge of sight, that the land took a turn for the strange. It looked like the plains just kind of disintegrated at the jagged edge of the horizon into some great unknown. My girlfriend had told me about the Badlands and I was dying to check them out. I finally got my wish the day after my birthday when we rode 70 miles out of Rapid in the morning to the small town of Wall, SD where route 240, the Badlands Loop, began.

Riding into the Badlands is a bit like entering Bizarro World. A lot of towns throughout the US have little patches of crazy looking rock formations that they call “Hell” or “The Devil’s Playground” or silly things like that but the Badlands is the only place I’ve ever seen that actually transports you fully into another type of geography that makes you question the reality of solid ground. It literally looks like the land, made up of layer upon layer of sedimentary rock, had been doused in acid and left to melt away for hundreds of feet to the valley floor below.

The result is a network of towers and canyons that look to be made of a mud that could melt at the first sign of rain but which feels totally solid underfoot. Adding to the strange sense of the place were the bones of failed farms that littered the valley below, testament to the harshness of life within the bounds of that unnatural geography. When we rode in, the temperature was warm but not uncomfortable. Upon our entry to the national park, it immediately seemed to climb ten degrees and the sun seemed to double in intensity.

We twisted and wound our way past the reddish towers of the park for miles and miles until finally the shimmer of heat from the asphalt revealed level ground. Deciding to avoid the fierce headwinds of I-90, we took a right onto the backroad of rt 44 west towards Rapid.

The road quickly descended to the valley floor and shot like an arrow through an unending desert of bare yellow rock and sharp brown grass beneath a scorching sun. Waves of heat rising from the black pavement seared the nostrils and I actually found it better to ride with my leather jacket on because it blocked the searing wind from finding my flesh. After 50 miles without so much as a gas pump, we finally found a place to rest and rehydrate.

As painful and uncomfortable as the heat was, I still enjoyed the ride. Perhaps it’s the masochistic side of me, but a good hard ride really makes me feel like I’ve earned the experience. Years from now, you can bet that I’ll remember the badlands and how appropriately they are named because of the pure hell it was to see them that first time.