Through the Wall

C1_3356.JPGSouth Dakota’s plains of grass and corn and sunflowers stretch smooth and gentle for hundreds of miles until they reach the Wall. Half a million years of water and wind have carved a jagged rampart here that runs about 80 miles long. In another half a million years, it’ll be gone. But for now, the heart of Badlands National Park looms over the ground like the steeples and rooftops of a petrified city. Their sides reveal around 70 million years of history, including millennia of human conflict and reverence that continue today.

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_C1_3379.JPGA loop southward from the interstate swoops through the park’s northern, busier half, giving the bulk of visitors a good sample of the land’s various personalities. One section near the main entrance holds a grove of junipers and cottonwoods, thanks to falling rocks that have compacted the ground enough to catch the rainwater they need. In other sections, erosion has gouged sharp ridges of chalky, crumbly, barren rock bleached enough to reflect a second dose of the sun’s heat. Toward the end of the loop, the smooth Yellow Mounds and prairie dog towns with thousands of yipping residents show a softer side. It isn’t all cuddly, though. During our drive, a coyote darted across the road and disappeared into one of the towns, then ran back a second or two later with a motionless prairie dog in its jaws.

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_C1_3399.JPGIt’s around this point that the road forks. Most people end their visit here, following the paved highway to the right straight out of the park. For the few who stay, the road forward becomes gravel for mile after brain-rattling mile. That was our path. A deeply sculpted butte with a spectacular reputation, Sheep Mountain Table, waited at the end.

The road cuts through pastures and actually exits the national park for a while, passing by a mostly abandoned, creepy little town called Scenic. We got there in the late afternoon, giving it an eerie sort of light. The strangeness continued as we crossed back into the park: The carved slopes in this single area sport countless mushroom-like formations that looked like a crop of foot-tall Stonehenges. They’re essentially tiny buttes, capped by rock that’s more wear-resistant than their skinnier bases. We were alone. A mile or so and the mushrooms were gone. The rutted road soon became impassable for anything but four-wheel-drive trucks. The last couple of miles would be on foot.

Somewhere along this final stretch, we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a century-old monument to the damage the United States has done to the Oglala Lakota tribe. Its residents are exceptionally poor and wounded by alcohol sold by the millions of cans across the state border in Whiteclay, Nebraska — an ongoing lawsuit by the tribe aims to put an end to that. (For more information about it, I recommend the University of Nebraska’s nuanced, well-done reporting here.)

The government pushed the tribe into this reservation as part of a treaty it soon broke by taking the sacred Black Hills nearby and other lands. U.S. forces killed at least 150 adults and children near this section of the Badlands in 1890; the Wounded Knee Massacre would be the final real conflict between the indigenous people of the Plains and this country.

This suffering and other cultural history have made the area sacrosanct to tribe members. Some have tried to work out a way for the tribe to manage this section of the park instead of the U.S. National Park Service, though the effort seems to have stalled. Still, showing respect while here strikes me as an absolute requirement. We walked quietly on the gravel as bright blue birds flitted around. They seemed to be keeping an eye on us, or maybe just keeping us company. Tantalizing vistas occasionally appeared to one side or the other, teasing what waited ahead.

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IMG_2634.JPGIt wasn’t until the last few dozen feet of the road, which ends at an overlook, that the full splendor of Sheep Mountain Table opened up around us. The only sounds were a soft wind rustling the junipers and some buzzing bugs. I just stood there for a few moments staring in slightly misty-eyed awe.

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IMG_2655.JPGI stayed as long as I could, but daylight was fading. It was the perfect ending for the day. We drove back to the hotel in Rapid City under the slimmest sliver of a crescent moon.

Thanks for looking. Up next, let’s talk some more about those Black Hills.

2016

IMG_4867.JPGAnother trip around the sun is over. I’ve been trying to think of some kind of theme to bring it all together in this post, but mainly it’s been another year of change, working a new beat at work and walking some new trails. It’s been full of contrasts, too, both out in the big world and in my small one. We got tiny mushrooms and 300-foot sequoias, moments of quiet and blasting fireworks, shots in natural and artificial spaces. And I hope I caught some nice moments in the middle of some major trouble and upheaval these past 12 months.

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IMG_8071.JPGThanks for tagging along as I explore and keep trying to get better images; your attention’s always a privilege. Here’s to a happy and full new year.

Dan

The Gems of America

IMG_1713.JPGHappy 100th birthday to our National Park Service, the federal agency that oversees and protects hundreds of national parks, monuments, preserves, recreation areas and other places worth seeing and saving.

The history of these parks is complicated, as histories usually are. They’re all infused with the countless forcible removals of Native Americans — Yosemite Valley was still home for some indigenous people until just a few decades ago — and one of their most important early proponents also helped inspire the Nazis. Today their maintenance is billions of dollars behind, and researchers have found the effects of climate change are decimating the conifers in the Rocky Mountains and poisoning the wetlands in the Everglades.

But these parks still protect thousands of square miles of every biome the continent has to offer. They span deserts and forests and rivers, and they hold our highest mountains, our lowest basins and our oldest trees. They gave an example for other countries to follow, setting aside their own natural treasures. As longtime National Park Service specialist and Nez Perce member Otis Halfmoon put it, “they are truly the gems of America.” They also do something less visible but crucially important, in my mind: They show us how small we are.

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IMG_4323A little humility seems all the more valuable to me these days. Now go visit some parks and help the National Park Service take care of them.

(If you don’t recognize these photos, they’re tiny pieces of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, Yosemite National Park in California, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and Hot Springs National Park and the Buffalo National River here in Arkansas.)

Temple of Giants

IMG_4651.JPGYosemite Valley is full of superlatives – the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, some of its highest cliffs, the continent’s tallest series of waterfalls – but these remarkable things are only there because of what isn’t. Billions (if not trillions) of tons of the valley’s granite were ground away more than 1 million years ago. A river started the job before glaciers took over, scouring off Half Dome’s other half, carving El Capitan’s 3,000-foot heights and leaving cliffs tall enough to scrape the clouds. Granite’s a tough rock, and this specific granite is as ancient as the dinosaurs. But sculpting it into some of the biggest and most recognizable formations on the planet took the strength of water.

Yosemite National Park now is defined more by rivers of liquid water rather than frozen, with spring snowmelt tumbling down falls that fill every valley with mist and sound. Some are huge and iconic – Bridalveil Fall accents the image of Yosemite Valley every visitor sees, and Yosemite Falls drops almost half a mile altogether. Countless smaller falls are tucked away in hidden corners of the valley, glistening threads running down distant ravines or vanishing into vapor high above the valley floor.

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IMG_4593.JPGOur first taste of Yosemite Valley’s scale was the football-field-size cliff that breaks through the forest across the valley near its entrance, streaked black from lichen and water. Tiny cars drove along the road at its base. On our side of the valley, another smooth granite outcropping sloped toward the floor at a gentle angle. Still, standing on it, seeing the earth drop away and looking out over a valley thousands of feet across was enough to get my heart pumping. The feeling didn’t go away during my four-day stay in one of our first national parks.  “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” famed naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

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IMG_4638.JPGBefore seeing what Muir meant, we had to actually get there, with a stop in Arizona to pick up my mom. That meant a whole lot of driving, passing through Roswell (and stopping at the International UFO Museum, obviously), across the Rockies and a dust-blown desert in bloom, and between stands of wind turbines that often stretched to the horizon. In California’s Central Valley the turbine groves were replaced with miles upon miles of tree orchards and vineyards. Occasionally a semi drove past hauling trailers filled to the brim with garlic or oranges.

Then it was back up the mountains to Yosemite’s Wawona Campground.

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IMG_4929.JPGMore than 4 million people pile into Yosemite every year, and nearly all of them head to Yosemite Valley, which stretches across a paltry 1 percent of the park’s 1,200 square miles. I couldn’t blame them. I also couldn’t wait to see parts of the park many of them don’t visit. Wawona, which sits 30 winding miles south of the valley and was home base for four days, was the first of three non-valley stops.

We were mostly alone when we hiked partway up the nearby Chilnualna Falls trail one morning. The steep and rugged path wove between house-sized boulders and precarious trees up into some of the park’s official wilderness. The air was sweet from ponderosa pines and cinnamon-colored incense cedars that towered more than 100 feet overhead – even the trees are oversized in Yosemite. Chilnualna Creek’s rapids were never out of earshot. On the way back down, a group of a couple dozen seniors passed us looking as if they did this every day.

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IMG_4736.JPGNext we swung back around to Yosemite Valley; though the valley visitor area is packed with thousands of people during the warmer months, a nearby, little-used trail runs 5 or 6 miles past Mirror Lake into the valley’s quieter upper end. Almost no hikers went further than the crowded lake shore. Half Dome soared almost a mile overhead, the occasional cloud hiding its peak. The sun was bright and the breeze was soft. An hour or so passed, the stream flowing quietly nearby. The path seemed to keep turning away from the rest of the valley as it passed stands of aspen and pine. We started to wonder if the trail was still actually going anywhere. Eventually we joined a family of four wondering the same thing. We kept going.

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IMG_4778.JPGNear where the valley transitions into the smaller and steeper Tenaya Canyon, a sturdy bridge over gushing rapids came into view. Egg-sized granite stones formed little islands in the stream where more pines and cedars grew. Mosquitoes wouldn’t let us enjoy the scene for long. As we finally turned back toward the rest of the valley, we came across a few more hikers. Each asked us if the trail was actually going anywhere.

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IMG_4867.JPGLast came the giant sequoias, relatives of the coastal redwoods. Of the two, redwoods are the giants in terms of height, soaring to almost 380 stunning feet in some cases and holding the record as the tallest trees in the world. Giant sequoias are their heftier cousins, slightly shorter than coastal redwoods but making up for it with their colossal trunks. They’re one of the largest known single organisms and can weigh in at more than 1,000 tons – that’s 10 blue whales to you. They can also be prodigiously old, living up to around 3,000 years. They’re so well adapted to forest fires that they actually need them to reproduce. In the meantime, they can get so big that their own tremendous girth is often what brings them down.

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IMG_4877.JPGIt’s difficult to describe the feeling of being among a group of sequoias, even one as relatively small as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. I could only crane my neck all the way back and try to take in how immense these living towers are. Even the young, “small” ones stand out from the surrounding full-grown pines, imposing and powerful. Yet their bark is spongy and soft, well suited to keeping out flames and the bugs that have decimated conifers throughout the Rockies (thanks partly to climate change, some researchers have found). Strength through softness, my mom said. Like the water that shapes the valley.

We took one last drive through Yosemite Valley before leaving. Long before Muir and others like me walked here, indigenous Miwok people and other tribes lived within the valley’s walls for some eight millennia. Settlers violently took it from them, with the last village removed around when my parents were born. Those people’s descendants are still around. I hope I at least honor their home well.

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IMG_4806.JPGOn the way home from this crazy road trip, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument was the final major stop. Dust rose from the dune field like steam in the wind on the way to Yosemite. It seemed fitting, in a way, to venture into the field on the way home, almost a sequel to last year’s trek to the Great Sand Dunes. The two places shared the same odd, muffled quietness, though White Sands’ dunes are much smaller. The missile range where the first nuclear weapon was detonated is next door, and an occasional jet broke the silence. The wind-sculpted gypsum sand, pure white and soft as sugar, radiated heat in the sun but stayed cool to the touch. Shadows of puffy clouds sailed across sand waves.

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IMG_4998.JPGA brief stop there, then it was back in the car. All in all, it was a trip full of beauty and bigness and way too much driving.

Thanks for looking.

Dan