After taking shelter from the wild prairie storm that swept across Cedar Pass campground in Badlands National Park, we awoke to a beautiful morning in our Budget Host motel room. At check out time, we saw the rush of day trippers in minivans with families too young and large to camp in the harsh American Savannah, instead taking shelter in the roadside motels that line the road at each park entrance.
The dirt road to Sage Creek campground took us past Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, where Badlands’ claim of having “more prairie dogs than people” can be verified. We pulled into Sage Creek to find another one of Badlands’ native fauna on display, as a herd of bison lounged near our tent site and approached a family of uninformed campers eating a picnic.
We hiked around the hills to the west of our campsite around sunset. The landscape of South Dakota at high noon appears harsh and desolate, but when the sun sets and one gets to a vantage point on a tall enough hill, the orange-tinged vastness of the Badlands reveals the beauty of an oft-overlooked section of our country.
After our first sleep in the tent, we packed the car to set our course through the southern South Dakota landscape. This day of travelling took us to cultural landmarks that are polar opposites of what makes up the “American” identity. We decided to drive along Bureau Indian Affairs Route 2 to see the Pine Ridge reservation. We stopped at the site of Wounded Knee. On the left side of BIA 2 stood a sign depicting the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Cultural and religious practices of the Lakota, such as Ghost Dancing, were placed in quotation marks, signifying that the Ghost Dance was not real, even to those who performed it. On the right side of the road stood a cemetery, home to the group burial of the massacred, and a museum dedicated to the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1973 that the “white man’s” depiction of history failed to acknowledge. This was one of those moments when white privilege becomes a sobering reality.
We continued our way to Wyoming along South Dakota route 16 to see Mount Rushmore, a “must see” for all patriots. After our encounter with the Pine Ridge reservation, the scene of tourist accommodations, a parking lot that would rival O’hare’s, and the blind patriotism of the visitors, this national landmark seemed utterly absurd. We left promptly. As night approached, we stopped to sleep in the Big Horn National Forest.