The Badlands

Last October, my homebrewing friend Michael asked me if I wanted to do a short weekend trip to the Badlands. Being a huge fan of the Terrence Malick film, and having spent one night there on a summer road trip, I happily agreed.

The Badlands are a strange world of eroded, clay-rich mud formations in South Dakota. They rise mysteriously out of the great plains, and exist in a peculiar desert microclimate. Their name is appropriate - this is an area of little or no water, with maze-like eroded washes in which one can easily get disoriented. Few people go backpacking here - in summer the heat is oppressive, and the lightning storms deadly. When it does rain, the clay soil is transformed into slick, slippery mud, clinging heavily to boots and coating every thing that touches it.

And that's just the landscape.

Fortunately, as we were hiking in early November, rattlesnakes would be the least of our worries. At this time of year they should all be curled up in their nests. Typically, they have a very narrow temperature range in which they are active. Outside that range they are far more docile. I set off, reassured that the only thing we had to deal with were the buffalo.

The scale of the formations is a little hard to represent in images. From certain angles, they appear to be distant, jagged mountain ranges. In fact, they are much like miniature mountains, eroded into intricate details, joined by ridges and saddles, with elusive trails disappearing as the soil dries and crumbles away.

We spent the first forty minutes of our hike, trying to find a short cut up onto the main range - a place known as Deer Haven, where we planned to spend the first night.

It was pointless. A waste of energy. We'd manage to carefully climb up one mound, only to be faces with an impossible path down. The area is home to a lot of Bighorn Sheep, which are famous for their ability to scamper up near-vertical rockfaces. We were more likely to slip over. We needed another plan. We checked the map and decided to hike around the southern limit, where the land rose more gently up to Deer Haven. It meant a longer hike - once again we were carrying all our water, and a few Surly Benders for the first night - and we would arrive in darkness, but realistically it was our only option. There was simply no other way we could get up there.

We followed a faint trail through some burned-out pasture. I was glad we weren't hiking in summer. This would be perfect rattlesnake territory.

As the sun set, we approached the foothills of a large, crescent-shaped formation. It was really getting dark. We could hardly see in front of us. Michael stopped me as a skunk waddled along a wash below us. We didn't want to frighten him and get squirted.

Eventually we got to a small patch of grass half way up the hill. It was getting too dangerous to continue, so we decided to pitch the tent right there, on top of what appeared to be some kind of animal trail; probably deer. We didn't have much of an option. Above us were mud mountains, below us juniper bushes, and beside us, what appeared to be the entrance to hell.

We were hungry. And thirsty. Time for Michael's terrific backcountry Chicken Curry and beer. Unfortunately, Michael forgot to bring a spoon, but I managed to improvise a solution for him - my (unused) toilet trowel.

We awoke to the early-morning sun, creating fantastic colours on the multi-layered surfaces of the Badlands.

We scouted around, trying to find a good path up. It was very clear we were not on any kind of human trail. Could we follow it anyway? It seemed unlikely that it led anywhere we wanted to go. The top of the crescent formation was lined by a wall of rock, some five to ten meters high.

Thankfully, we were leaving the tent where we pitched it, planning to day hike around the upper plateau. As we only had a couple of days, it made far more sense to do this than to have to carry our packs around as well as our water supply.

After hunting around the rock face, we found a small crack which we were able to scramble up. It seemed to be the only viable route. What we didn't realise was that to the east, a much gentler climb would have got us exactly where we wanted to go.

Still, with a little effort, we made it, and the rest of the day's activities could begin.

The top of the plateau was riddled with tiny washes, flowing slow and impossibly winding courses which became ever wider and deeper.

I felt we were moving at a snail's pace. We might walk a kilometer, but progress about 300 meters. After a while, the washes thinned out, and it was possible to climb up out of them, to take a more or less indirect route - and get a better view.

Around this point, I started to feel water running down my back. At first I thought it was sweat, but as I got more soaked, I knew I had another problem.

Cactii are very common in the Badlands, and apparently at some point, I had laid my platypus on a few spikes. Four tiny holes were leaking my precious water supply.  I hastily put the platy in a bag to collect the drips. Every mouthful counts. We didn't expect to encounter any water supplies, and the heat, even in November, was rising.

Whichever direction we walked, we would suddenly come across a chasm blocking our path. We could see where we wanted to head - the end of one formation, which we hoped to skirt around - but the path there was impossible to determine.

Suddenly, we heard a thundering rumble. We turned in time to see a small group of bison running out of a wash. They are fearsome beasts, weighing up to 1000kg, yet moving fast. We decided to stay out of their way as much as possible. Sadly, my camera broke at this point. All I had left was the tiny camera on the iPhone, so their massive power will not really be visible in the photos above and below.

In order to keep heading for our planned destination, we had to continuously traverse washes, hoping to find a way out. We couldn't really follow a map as the Badlands change with continuous erosion. Supposedly perennial streams had long since dried up, and mini canyons had appeared in-between the marked contour lines.

As we walked, I noticed regular bison trails - heavily trodden tracks they had made on their way between who knows where and somewhere else. I started to wonder about the nature of the trail, as I have done many times while backpacking.

I often wonder when and where a trail begins. In whose footsteps are we walking?

While walking around the

Sioux Hustler Trail

, I wondered who had planned such a circuitous route. Had the Forestry Service really planned it, or were we walking on a path once traversed by hunters or fur traders. Naturally, the inclusion of the word "Sioux" in the trail name led me to believe that once, before they were all but killed off, the Sioux might have marked that path.

But then, what trail did they follow? In all likelihood, they too would have hunted, and followed the tracks of moose, bear, or beaver. Are we then often following in the footsteps of animals? Trails marked out as animals made journeys from a source of food, to a den, to water. Trials which later we would walk while hunting them, and later still while finding routes through the forest.

In a recent post on

Chris Townsend's blog

from his hike along the Pacific Northwest Trail, I noticed the following sentence, which resonates with my thoughts:

When possible I followed faint animal trails - made by bears or moose or elk - but these never went my direction for long. 

In the Badlands, I found the opposite to be true. I began to think,

surely the bison know where they are going? They have to drink, eat, get home.

But more importantly, they have to navigate through this labyrinthine terrain.

We decided to follow the bison. And to our amazement, their trails led us on intricate paths through and around every wash. Suddenly we were moving freely, with ease, out destination growing ever nearer, with bison as our co-pilots.

Before we knew it, we were there. The grasslands of Sage Creek opened out before us - but it was too late.

It had taken too long to get there for us to risk going any further. We had a long trek back, and I was dreading the twisting, winding washes we would once again have to negotiate. We'd have to start conserving our water supply anyway, so it would have been foolish to continue. We stopped for lunch, and began the journey back, following once again in the footsteps of bison.

When we arrived at the top of the rock wall, we hunted around for the crack which marked our way down. It looked a lot steeper and I decided the best way down would be to do a mud glissade. I threw my trekking pole down ahead of me, and gingerly slipped back down.

A sudden noise startled me. I looked up just in time to see a rattlesnake launch itself from a hole in the wall near my head. It flew into the air, writhing around, seeming to hover for a moment, before it fell the the ground, mouth wide open, its hooked teeth on display, eyes cold and mad, its tail shaking with that terrifying death's throat rattle. I'd never seen a rattle snake before, let alone scared one. It's a sound I'll never forget.

I had inadvertently stumbled into the rattlesnake's lair. I was an intruder, and it was letting me know. I wanted to tell it I meant it no harm, but I didn't think it wanted to listen. As much as one might want to anthropomorphize the reactions of animals, they remain coldly efficiant at getting what they need - the rest is silence, ambivalence.

When I threw my pole down, it had hit the side of the crack, which I now saw to be covered in holes, one of which the snake had propelled itself at me from.

Now it was coiled, ready for attack, blocking our way down.

I managed to get my pole back, and considered hitting it. My knees were trembling. I didn't think I had a good angle on the snake to kill it, and I was worried what would happen if I failed. I'm not really into killing animals, innocent or otherwise, so there was only one other option. Retreat.

I hauled myself back up the crack, away from the rattler. Back at the top we were stuck in a staring match. Michael tried throwing stones at it, which I thought was a bad idea - we might wake up its mates. A couple of the hit near the snake, and it began to move. It slithered up the wall, entered the same hole, and stuck its head out, slyly looking at us, daring us to try again.

Perhaps we should find another way down.

We skirted along the ridge. As we were about to give up hope, we found another slim crack, and lowered ourselves down, wary all the time. Fortunately, this time, we got down safely.

Back at the tent, the sun was once again setting, leaving us with a colourful end for our brief escapade.

The next morning it rained, making the journey out hard going as mud clodded up on our shoes.

The Badlands really are fantastic. I have never been anywhere so utterly alien and strange. I can't think of anywhere this unique in Europe. It is yet another of America's great landscapes - the kind of thing that the country does so well.

We plan to return again this November, to try and find the right trail to the top of the plateau, and to walk further into the Badlands, following the footsteps of giant beasts.

--Gear Note--

This was one of the last trips I made before starting to go ultra light. Most of the gear used was old and heavy. My shelter was the old, reliable Haglöfs Genius 21. My backpack was a large Halti from Finland. Only my sleeping bag gives some indication of the way forward: a Western Mountaineering Antelope. Too warm for the nights, but lighter than my synthetic Haglöfs bags. I also used a NeoAir (long) for the first time, and was, at that time, entirely happy with it.

The "Return to the Badlands" trip later this year will be much more interesting gear-wise, so I'll save the detailed reports for then!