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 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 millenniums 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 hold water. 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 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 mouth.

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_C1_3399.JPGIt’s around this point that the road forks. The paved highway to the right takes most people straight out of the park. The road forward becomes gravel for mile after brain-rattling mile. That was our path. A deeply sculpted butte with a spectacular reputation called 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 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, complex 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 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, as if they were keeping an eye on us, or just keeping us company. Tantalizing vistas occasionally appeared to one side or the other.

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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 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.

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Nebraska

_C1_3166.JPGI was born in Missouri, but I’m from Nebraska. It was home from third grade to college graduation. I wrote my first essay, took my first photo on a digital camera, spent hours after school in quiz bowl practice, picked up a trombone for the first time, went to prom and grew up, mostly in a town right outside Omaha with cornfields down the street from my house. But I never saw the state’s Sandhills like this, splashed with millions of yellow flowers.

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_C1_3157.JPGOne-fourth of the state, or around 20,000 square miles, is covered with sand dunes held in place by a blanket of grass. These Sandhills are probably most widely known for their cranes and their ground water: The political fight over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which has gone on since my college days, raged the loudest here thanks at least partly to the hills’ high water tables. The hills, as I found out, also erupt with native plains sunflowers when conditions are right.

Gentle hills and fields might what many people imagine when they think of Nebraska, but I spent most of my Nebraska years in the more urban east near Omaha and Lincoln. Almost two-thirds of the state’s 2 million people live in or around those two cities. Lincoln, home of good friends, my alma mater and the state’s towering limestone and marble capitol, was my first stop this trip.

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IMG_2613.JPGThe photographic star of this leg, though — besides the eclipse — was Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. It’s been called the world’s best zoo, and I was always thrilled as a kid when I got to visit its aquarium and huge, living indoor rainforest. I’ve missed its vivid colors and relatively spacious exhibits since my visit to Tulsa’s zoo three years ago. I’ll never get tired of going.

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_C1_2779.JPGNext I swung by Omaha’s historic Old Market. Shops, restaurants and breweries line its cobblestone streets, including in one of my favorite spots, the Passageway.

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After that, it was back to Lincoln for a bit, then west and north through those old Sandhills. Much more rugged scenery in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota was up next.

The eclipse

_C1_2959-Copy.jpgThe dimming of the sun was imperceptible at first, even as the moon gnawed it into a crescent. But slowly the light changed. Colors became less vivid and more gray. A few minutes before the sun was completely blocked, everything looked as if I were wearing sunglasses. Pieces of light in trees’ shadows took on the same crescent shape as their source. And in the final seconds before totality, the day darkened by the second around me as the sun’s last sliver disappeared. The moon seemed to lock into position, leaving only the white tendrils of the sun’s outer atmosphere and an orange glow along the horizon.

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_C1_3032.JPGIt’s easy to see why early humans greeted solar eclipses with fear and alarm — who wouldn’t think the world was ending? I stared at it trying to convince myself that it was real: an inky black, almost perfectly circular hole seemingly speared through the sky itself, surrounded by filaments of light like a cosmic flower. For almost three minutes in the middle of the day, Venus and some stars flickered, crickets chirped, the orange glow illuminated columns of rain to the south. I was literally jumping around with excitement. Between photos, at least. I worried obsessively for days that clouds would block the show. But the clouds cleared, and in tiny Exeter, Nebraska, I saw my first total solar eclipse.

_C1_3084-Copy.jpgIf you missed it, you get another shot in 2024. I have much more to share from the trip to Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota this past week and a half, so stay tuned, and thanks for looking.

Dan