Storming into the Badlands - James F Carr Photography & Design

Storming into the Badlands

Crossing the central plains can be a lonely experience, even on a major route like Interstate 90 during Memorial Day weekend. And the flatness of middle America is a little uncomfortable for someone who grew up on the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains. And even though I’ve traversed America’s flatlands before, I’ve never taken a route so far to the north. By the end of my first day on the road, I had already traversed Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. After an unfortunate encounter with rural fauna in the latter, I arrived in Minnesota, where I would overnight in my bruised vehicle at a chain truck stop.

A wall of rain falls from dark storm clouds over Interstate 90 in South Dakota.

The Road to South Dakota

I woke up early the next morning and began the long drive across Minnesota and South Dakota. My first major destination was just a full day of driving away. After months of planning, though, I was starting to worry that my first trip would be a bust. The first day of my trip ended with an accident. The second day started with dark skies and rain. I would chase the rainclouds (or they would chase me) for most of the day. Things seemed ominous.

My chosen route would avoid most of Minnesota’s well-known lakes. Instead, I would skim along the southern border, just north of Iowa. The only planned stop was near Chamberlain, South Dakota to see the Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture. Road construction required an unexpected detour through the town and back up the interstate. The massive stainless steel sculpture and view of the Missouri River were worth the effort, though. “Dignity” is a beautiful piece of art intended to honor the native people of the region. I was happy to learn that it seems to be viewed positively by the Dakota and Lakota people. After hours of driving, it was good to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery. The weather would keep me moving, though, as the wind and rain made for a brief visit.

Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture overlooking the Missouri River near Chamberlain, South Dakota.

I was getting anxious to stop somewhere for more than a few minutes. Concern over the weather wasn’t helping the anxiety. As I got closer to my destination, the clouds grew darker and darker. At the last rest area before Badlands National Park, the sky turned black and rain poured down in waves. Spectacular bursts of lightning momentarily illuminated the landscape. I was only 45 minutes away and conditions did not seem favorable. The storm quickly blew over, though, and I was back on the road. It wouldn’t be long before the first signs of the Badlands would appear to the southwest.

A panoramic view of Buffalo Gap National Grassland as viewed from the scenic overlook along Interstate 90.

Entering the Badlands

Despite my anticipation, I made one more quick stop. Badlands National Park is largely surrounded by Buffalo Gap National Grassland. A large hill provides a scenic overlook with a panoramic view of the northern flank of the grassland. There was finally a significant break in the clouds and the late-day sun was setting what was left aglow. It seemed like I timed things perfectly for my entrance into the national park. After lingering for a few minutes to enjoy the expansive view, I hopped back in the car for the short trip to the park entrance.

This was my first visit to a US National Park. I’d been to locations that later became national parks (New River Gorge in my home state of West Virginia, for example), but this was my first honest-to-goodness national park experience. After rolling up to the entry gate, I had what would be the first of several pleasant experiences with National Parks Rangers. Throughout my trip, I was struck with how friendly and helpful the employees of our national parks were. It honestly made me consider whether this might be a great vocation to one day pursue. Getting paid to be out in nature in some of America’s most beautiful landscapes seems like it could be a great gig.

Large dark clouds hang over Badlands National Park near Pinnacles Overlook.

As it turned out, I arrived at the perfect time. As I parked at Pinnacles Overlook, a massive band of dark storm clouds was making its way over the landscape. This was just the kind of dramatic sky that a photographer dreams of. It was nearly 7 PM and the low sun was perfectly positioned to backlight the clouds. It created a warm diffuse light that washed over the scene in front of me.

This was an amazing way to enter Badlands National Park for the first time. The beautifully eroded landscape stretched out in front of me. It almost looked like a city of pyramids, each made of alternating tan, pink, and red layers. The threatening skies served as a dramatic backdrop. This strange and beautiful place seemed almost like it had been constructed, rather than shaped by the slow processes of nature. It felt architectural.

Looking back toward the town of Interior from a ridge between Saddle Pass Trailhead and Castle Trailhead.

As I navigated the main park road, new and interesting vistas appeared at every turn. The road rose and fell and wound its way through the angular formations. Almost every view looked like a scene from a surrealist painting. Looking back at these images, I realize how much my landscape photography has been influenced by 20th century artists like M.C. Escher, René Magritte, and Salvador Dalí. This evening at the Badlands provided an amazing palette for my photographic canvas. The contrast of angles with soft lines, the feeling of endless spaces, and the expression of the improbable were like a fresh box of pastels. The relative emptiness of the park made it feel like my own personal studio with the landscape and sky as my muse.

Late-day godrays break over the horizon behind Badlands National Park.

I’ve heard people say that Badlands National Park is small. What it lacks in physical size is more than made up for in experience, though. It provides opportunities to interact with the landscape and explore its history and geology. I think I exploited every pull-off and trailhead parking lot I could find. Because I was traveling with my dog, I couldn’t take advantage of the park trails, but I could imagine walking out among the mounds and pinnacles, seeing and touching Nature’s handiwork. It is a stark landscape that reveals aspects of our world that are hidden in more lush environments.

Nightfall in the Pinnacles

The waning sunlight would make the scenery even more mysterious and magical. Canyons grew dark as light just grazed the tips of the pinnacles. The cloudy sky slowly became darker and darker shades of blue while a narrow band of yellow and pink diminished on the western horizon. The exposed bands of color of the eroded pinnacle walls became more pronounced. The previously sun-washed pink layers became an almost crimson red. There was a stillness that fell over the park. Far-off storms occasionally interrupted the calm with flashes of lightning and the faint sound of thunder. Except for the rare passing car, I felt alone.

Thick clouds blanket the sky over the pinnacles as the evening light highlights rain showers in the distance.

Beyond the scientific, geologic, or meteorological explanations for any of this, the experience brought to mind more metaphysical questions. How did any of this happen…and how did I come to be here at this particular moment in time?

The lights of a passing car create a trail along the park road in the waning evening light.

I once heard that Ansel Adams pre-composed all of his photographs. While I love his work, I’m not one to meticulously plan every aspect of my photographic outings. I believe in serendipity and making the most of the opportunity with which you are presented. In some respects, I do think that you will arrive at the time you are supposed to. A place will reveal itself to you in the way that it chooses…and in a way that will provide you with what you need, if not what you are searching for.

After chasing the fading light throughout the evening, it was eventually too dark for even the longest of long exposures. I only made it through a small part of the park that evening. I had time to come back, though. I would find a place to rest for the night and return to the Badlands during the day. That’s another story.


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