Blown Away by the Badlands
By D Bowden
Barren landscape stretches farther than the eye can see. Winds are blowing, a howl resounds, and one can almost hear the spirits of the Ghost Dancers as they chant and pray to invisible gods of nature. For more than eleven thousand years Native Americans once roamed this harsh land of deeply eroded buttes, and wide, rugged prairies of stone and little grass. This is a desolate land with few signs of life. No insects. Few animals. The wind chases itself through the shadows like a tired and desperate soul in search of a place to rest. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands." My family and I were also unprepared. Although a friend had informed us about the ferocious winds of this mean land, we didn’t heed her warning.
We had never seen anything like it before. Huge emptiness of prehistoric rock hollowed out by the elements over time. No trees, some weeds, little water. When we arrived at mid-afternoon there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. As we drove into a private campground at Wall, South Dakota, we immediately noticed the odd-looking picnic “shelters.“ They were funny-looking tables with attached half-domes to create a partial roof and back wall Since there were no trees around, my husband and I figured these picnic shelters were built that way to provide protection from the sun in the hot summer months. Shaped like a cart on an amusement park tilt-a-whirl ride, these tables with attached seats were made of heavy iron with wood planking covered in parched and peeling white. Each tilt-a-whirl shelter was fastened to the ground with heavy-duty bolts and screws. ‘The owners probably don’t want anyone to steal them,” I rationalized, “but who would want one of those ugly things?”
After getting over our curiosity and amazement about the dining facilities, there was something very important I needed to do before we committed ourselves for the night. I had to inspect the restrooms and showers to make sure they were up to my standards of cleanliness. If they aren’t, we do not stay! I cannot have an enjoyable time if I am not able to take a shower and wash my hair! Our daughter would not use a pit toilet if her life depended on it. Having flush toilets and the hot water is a must! My husband doesn’t understand this requirement. Men are different though; they don’t care about getting clean while camping. It’s a manly activity. Roughing it gives them a sense of adventure -- a chance to be macho. For most women, camping is far from being a vacation and is merely a continuation of what we do at home, only without the luxuries of sink, stove and washing machine.
Having given the restroom and shower facilities my seal of approval, we were all set to drive around the campground several times and argue about which site was best. Looking back, this deliberation was pretty ridiculous considering that one campsite looked as barren, dry, hard and dirty as the next. Finally agreeing on a place to pitch our tent, we went to work setting up our temporary canvas and nylon abode. Hammering the stakes into the hardened earth was like trying to drive straw through a concrete wall. The thin, aluminum spikes bent like blades of grass and had to be straightened repeatedly. This took considerable time and made my husband very cranky. It was late afternoon when he finally succeeded in getting the stakes into the ground. We raised the wrinkled, mildew-smelling sleeping quarters and breathed a sigh of relief. After unloading the van and unrolling sleeping bags to prepare our beds for sleep, we just wanted to crawl inside our down cocoons and pass out, however, sleep was not yet to be. Children’s whiny voices reminded us that we must feed them. “We’re huuuuggggrrrryyy!” the small ones bellowed. Several yards from our campground stood the famous Wall Drug. The rustic strip mall of connected yellow and brown ramshackle buildings looked like an old western town seen in old-time cowboy movies. Remembering the billboard sign on the highway advertising a cafeteria at Wall Drug, we headed over there on foot in search of food.
Wall Drug is a fairly good-sized tourist trap in the midst of the huge expanse of rocky wasteland. One can find an array of attached mini-stores all filled with tourist bait. Having to walk through a maze of wooden booths and bins of miscellaneous junk, while saying “no” to our begging children along the way, we eventually located the cafeteria-style eatery. Each item was listed and priced individually. We each took a tray and went walking down the serving line, choosing various items. The kids wanted to try everything on the menu and I pointed out that their eyes were bigger than their stomachs because they were hungry. I was tired and my patience was wearing thin. My husband paid for the food while the kids and I went to find a place to sit that would fit all five of us. We all piled into a leather-upholstered booth and waited for my husband to deliver the grub. As we ate our supper, the sun was going down on the western horizon and a strong breeze began to blow.
After eating we browsed through the shops for items we did not need. Tables carved out of tree trunks, stuffed buffalo heads, dark-colored Indian dolls with eyes that opened and closed, the annoying mini-tom-toms that I would never allow our kids to buy and torture us with. Amazing -- all the junk for sale that people are stupid enough to buy like “authentic” Indian dream catchers, feathered tambourines, t-shirts that say “I’ve Been to Wall Drug” across the front in bright-colored letters! How could people waste their money on that crap? We left the shops with a large stuffed toy buffalo for our middle son, and miscellaneous souvenirs for the other two kids, a small dream-catcher for myself, and headed back toward “home.”
The winds were gusting quite a bit and I became concerned that our friend might have been right. I remember her words “don’t stay there unless you are in something hard-sided or permanently affixed to the ground – like a concrete building.“ Upon arriving back to our campsite, we found that a fancy sort of camping tour bus had parked a couple of campsites over from ours. Nighttime was upon us and still there were many empty lots left. Only two families tent camping-- one of them being us. People began to disembark from the shining hotel on wheels and walk towards Wall Drug. We said ‘hello’ to them and they smiled, nodded and answered us in a language foreign to our own, something that sounded like German. “What nice people” we thought. I looked enviously at their sleeping quarters as we went off to take showers. As my daughter, and I prepared to take our showers, we could hear the wind squealing though the cracked windows of the small, cinderblock shower building.
Walking back to our campsite, we all crawled inside our flimsy shelter and snuggled down inside our sleeping bags for a good night’s rest. My husband told the kids their usual camping bedtime story and after that they were all sleeping quietly. I always have a hard time falling asleep while camping. I am afraid that wild animals might come around and attack us, or that a murderer may come and kill all of us while we sleep. As I laid there, counting sheep for what felt like hours, I watched the tent expand—contract – expand -- contract -- in -– out — in — out. I felt like we were inside a giant cloth lung! How could they all sleep through this wild huffing and puffing? The winds grew stronger causing the “breathing” of the tent to intensify, like an old man with emphysema getting ready to cough us out! Then the canvas sides began to shake violently! The roof of the tent rose up and came down, over and over again as if a huge vacuum cleaner was trying to suck us up from above. We were all awake now, except for our oldest son, then about eight-years-old, who was sleeping peacefully through the commotion. The stakes started pulling up from the ground one by one, and the sides of the tent sagged around us. As my husband was going out the door to check out the “damage” the poles supporting the center of the tent came down and the canvas and nylon collapsed on top of us. He yelled “Wake up! Get out! Get out!” as if we were about to be buried in rubble of stone instead of lightweight fabric. Our daughter and middle son and I clamored out and stood there in the tempestuous winds and waited for direction from my husband as to what we were supposed to do next. Our neighbor’s tent, a modern dome-style type, was also “uprooted” and rolling away, chased by mischievous winds and tumbleweeds. My husband looked at us and realized there was one family member still buried in the debris! Our oldest was still inside, sleeping as if he were home in his own comfy bed. My husband was becoming quite frustrated, probed the heap of fallen canvas and felt our son’s body, then shoved him with his foot and shouted for him to wake up and get out! Still nothing. My husband then had to climb inside and drag the boy out like a sack of potatoes. He carried the still-sleeping boy to the van and threw him inside. I don’t think he woke up during the entire ordeal.
Though this trial seemed like an eternity when it was happening, all of this occurred in a fairly short amount of time. We were struggling to roll up the remnants of our fallen sleeping quarters as the German people were coming back to their bus, laughing and having a great time. As they walked past, they gawked and laughed at our predicament! How dare they laugh at us! ”What are you looking at?” my husband growled at them as the wind blew his hair back and whipped his clothes. He looked like a ship captain on the deck of a great vessel during a raging storm at sea. The German people snickered as they clamored up the steps and into the protection of their sturdy dormer bus and closed the door. We wedged the tent underneath the van, climbed inside our trusty, 1984 Dodge van and scrunched together for the night. My six-foot, three-inch tall husband slept sitting up in the driver’s seat. I lay on the bench seat in the middle of the van and the kids, being small, were quite comfortable on the floor in the back. Our van rocked and shook as the wind roared mercilessly. I worried at times that it might tip over on its side! It was hotter than Hades inside the vehicle. My daughter sleeps like a fish out of water and was thrashing about as if in response to the turbulence, but it’s how she always sleeps. We were all sweating, and our breath mingled together to form moisture that resembled saliva and it clung to the walls of the van. In the morning the interior reeked like serious halitosis. I lay there, uncomfortable and hot, and I watched the darkness turn to the pinkish light of dawn. The winds were still howling when we got up and went to the shower building to freshen up, change clothes and get ready for the day.
Cooking was still out of the question since the winds would not allow us to make a fire, though mu hubby wanted to attempt it anyway. We couldn’t get a match to stay lit. Deciding to serve cereal, I searched through our food boxes and found the Cheerios. My husband walked over to Wall Drug and brought back a half-gallon of milk. The only dishes I had brought from home were Styrofoam bowls and plastic spoons. Not good. I could not set a table, so each person had to hold onto his or her own bowl. I made the mistake of trying to pour the little round circles of oats into the bowls while standing outdoors under the shelter table. The Cheerios were immediately carried off to the next state. Using a van door as a shield, I managed to pour everyone some cereal and added milk. I told the kids to go sit at the funny table and eat. That was also a mistake. The cereal AND milk both blew out and away to the great beyond. We started discussing the design of the tables again, which we now believed was a feeble attempt to block the wind, not the sun. The designer failed miserably. We now realized the huge bolts, which fastened the tables to the ground, were to keep them blowing away to Timbuktu! Hungry, we resolved to go eat at the cafeteria at Wall Drug, where we found they have the best pecan rolls in the entire world.
As we packed up and got ready to move on to the Black Hills, the winds died down. We loaded the van and a loud stillness filled the air. We vowed if we were ever through the Badlands again, we would not camp there overnight. Had we learned our lesson? Of course we hadn’t. A few years later, on our way to the state of Washington, we rolled into the Badlands once again, with a pop-up camper in tow.
* * *
I had said that my days of tent camping were over. If the rest of the family loved it, I wasn’t stopping them, but I would let them go by themselves. So, after some debate and discussion we purchased a used 1988 Flagstaff pop-up camper. The interior of this tiny recreational home was quite comfortable. There was a queen-sized bed on one side, a full-sized bed on the other and the dinette table folded down to make a child-sized bed. Screened windows with zippered plastic flaps were all around, providing air, and protection from the elements. There were also curtains to provide privacy. A removable cooking stove could be used indoors or out and there was a sink with water hookup hoses. A small refrigerator kept food cold, and there was a gas heater if nights became too chilly. Our little travel home also had electric lights, cabinets for storage and stereo.
The only things missing were a shower and a toilet.
Since the campground we stayed at before was the only one in Wall, we had no trouble finding it again. We felt experienced and prepared. Invincible! Ah-ha! We had outsmarted the Badland spirits! We didn’t have to worry about driving spikes into the hard earth; we were ready for the winds and whatever the Badlands would dish out. We had a camper!
We found a place to spend the night, parked our little R.V. with no problem, put down the jacks, cranked it up and were all set. We went off to explore some of the sights that hadn’t changed any in the past few years. Rocks are rocks. We went to Wall Drug again for a look around. They still had FREE ice water. The junk was still the same and less interesting to our now teenaged children. Things become less exciting to kids the older they get. When the winds started picking up toward evening, we knew what was coming. But we were ready for it this time.
While we took our showers before bed, the wind whistled through the cinderblocks of the shower house just as it had before. I wasn’t worried. Things were going to be just fine. We sat at the table in our little home away from home, and played cards. The roof began to sway back and forth. “Is the roof okay with it moving back and forth like that? “ I asked my husband. “Yeah, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” I tried to ignore it. I worried that the heavy roof might fall down on our heads and wondered if we would survive something like that. “You sure it’s going to be all right?” I nagged.
“Yes, I said it will be fine!” replied my irritated husband.
“Think maybe we need some extra support or something?”
“Well, it looks like it may fall down, or we might tip over or something.”
“I said don’t worry about it!” He said as he crawled into bed and turned away from the light. The kids and I stayed up a while longer playing card games and then when it got dark we decided to turn in.
Four of us were safely in our beds on the outer parts of the camper, not under the roof. Only our daughter was on the little bed, but she was lying down so if the roof did fall, she wouldn’t be hurt. Hopefully. I laid there watching the roof sway and listened to the creaking noise the posts made as it moved to and fro. The winds grew stronger; the swaying grew wider! Back and forth, back and forth and then the wind because mostly one-sided with great force. The posts strained under the pressure. Everyone else was sleeping like babies, but I was awake all night long watching and waiting for something to happen. I lay there bleary-eyed as the light of sunrise grew brighter. When we got up for breakfast, we found that the posts had bent into a curve and the roof would not crank down! It was stuck. I gave my husband an I-told-you-so look and went off to the bathroom to get washed and dressed.When I came back he was still working on it. Always ready for anything, he carries his tools everywhere he goes. He eventually got the roof to crank down and we went to get our caramel pecan rolls. After that we headed to the nearest hardware store to buy metal posts as back-up, just in case. We haven’t been back to the Badlands since 1995. If we go back, we will not be spending the night. We will pass on through like the wind.