I get to the Badlands campground mid-afternoon. I haven't camped in many years and want to give myself time to set up. As I drive around the site looking for a spot, I notice many collapsed tents and others being dismantled by their owners. Even the people in campers and trailers are battening down the hatches. The wind has grown fierce and constant, a steady 50 mph with 60-70 mph gusts. It's a hot, dry wind blowing in a clear blue sky, a warm day in mid October. People say it's unusual for South Dakota and wonder why it isn't snowing. I wonder what's behind that wind.
I somehow get the tent set up behind a slight rise in the prairie. Three stakes at every corner and an absolute struggle, a wrestling match, to get the poles in place. The tent bows with every gust, but stays in place. I feel I've accomplished something where those other young campers couldn't. Yet another victory for old age. I rig a tarp to keep my stove lit and make a cup of french press coffee first and then a meal. The sun is gone by now and the warm temperatures of daylight have vanished. I read for awhile, write for awhile, just sit for awhile, finally accepting the inevitability of the sleeping bag for warmth.
My mind is quiet and content as I lay awake in my tent. Leslie asked me earlier in the day if I was missing home yet. No. Lonely? Some. But I understand "lonely" as part of the trip, the process. Kind of want to see if I can stand myself. To spend time alone. But tonight the story is the wind. Howling, shrieking, threatening to break tent poles, gusts that lay the tent to the ground with me in it. Reading impossible. I consider moving to the car, but don't. I lay awake, belly up, the stars bright above me, letting the wind have its way. I've smoked some and I'm easy, expansive. I think, The Wind. To experience this wind. This is why I'm here.
I drive around the park the next day, stopping at turn offs and walking . There are many tourists in the park who also stop, but most get out of their cars, make a picture, a selfie, and leave. I have read the literature and have some understanding of the formation of the Badlands - what happened geologically for it to look as it does. But even with that knowledge, the landscape is like nothing I've seen before and while superlatives come to mind - forbidding, mystical, etherial, harsh - words can't begin to convey the place. Nor can photographs. Brutally hot in summer, brutally cold in winter. But people live here, and have for over 11,000 years. Mammoth hunters, nomadic buffalo hunters, homesteaders and pioneers. In my tent last night, I thought of us campers as modern-day nomads - hauling our lives with us, slowly across the landscape, capturing images and feelings if not buffalo and elk.