One of the problems with going home is that in a mobile society, many of us have multiple homes to return to. One of my favorites is the badlands of North Dakota. I go back there to bowhunt for mule deer with my brothers. That fellowship of pleistocene ritual is wonder enough, but layered over the top for me is the emotion of going back to the badlands. My first call as an ordained pastor was to Williston, North Dakota, and I fell in love with the wide, dry, rugged land.
Western North Dakota is what geologists call “negative topography.” That means that once upon a time the surface of the ground was more or less level, far higher than it is now, and what would eventually become vast prairies were laid down in successive layers by a warm inland sea where mosasaurs and other primal creatures did epic battle. Their bones eventually settled in the mud at the bottom of the sea. Depending on the sources of inflowing water, the mud was brown, or white, or black, or reddish. When the waters dried up, these great prairies became lush grasslands. Here and there a river cut the surface and over time erosion began to carve the surface down, layer by layer, into canyons and coulees. The multicolored layers of clay and dirt and sandstone opened up to reveal a riot of color and eye-numbing designs on the sides of the canyons. As the runoff cut deeper and deeper channels, the winding canyons twisted and turned back on each other until this deeply carved area -- miles and miles and miles across -- became a navigator’s nightmare. You can literally walk in, turn around once, and be lost. The designs, the canyons, all look the same.
Mule deer love it here. They sleep in the junipers on the north facing slopes and graze in the sage on the coulee bottoms. Coyotes and rabbits and rattlesnakes all have a place in this severe wonderland. I wounded a rabbit with an arrow one hot day and followed him into a narrow washout where he retreated to hide. I crawled six feet inside the small cave, dark and dry, where he had disappeared before I remembered rattlesnakes. I backed out slowly without injury, but a few minutes later saw a six foot rattler slide through that same hole.
Before he led the charge up San Juan Hill or got himself elected President, Teddy Roosevelt had a ranch just northwest of the canyons we hunt. In later life he was fond of reminiscing about how his time in the badlands made him strong.
Because the landscape is carved from the flat surface down, not lifted up like traditional mountains, it is deceptive to drive to the badlands. You drive and drive across flat prairie and it sucks you into the illusion of flatness. You think it will go on forever. Then suddenly you come around a corner (why have a corner in flat country? you wonder) and the bottom drops out and you run down the coulee into bottoms where the rust and cream bluffs tower over your head. The farther down you go the deeper it gets and the higher the canyons, until the bucks are sitting on a shelf a hundred feet above your head and watching you drive by, confident that you are blind to their presence, and you are.
Strange things live here. Bighorn sheep and mountain lions make an appearance from time to time, and in Teddy Roosevelt National Park there are herds of bison. Even the geology takes on a life of its own. There are towering buttes with flat tops where a tabletop of flat, hard sandstone protects the clay underneath from being eroded away. By some strange geological happenstance here and there you can find something that look like gigantic cannonballs, two and three feet across, dark brown and waiting for battle. Swallows nest in stands of wavering sculpture that look like drunken mushrooms leaning on each other for support, but the whole formation is made out of clay. Here and there a seam of coal shows through. Other places there are dark red, sharp-edged scoria rocks, formed when one of those coal seams caught fire and baked the clay around it.
I knew a man once who made his spending money as a boy digging that coal. He and his brother parked a wagon at the top of the bluff, and one brother climbed down to dig the coal. He’d fill a three gallon bucket they had tied to a hundred twenty feet of rope. The other brother waiting at the top pulled the bucket up and dumped it in the wagon. They repeated this process until they got a wagon load, then drove the horses twelve miles to town and sold the load for five dollars.
You can still find old cabins, broken down and mostly rotted, here and there in the badlands. Some homesteader in the early 1900’s, probably poor, probably from Denmark or Finland, came to try his luck at the American Dream. They almost all failed, for the badlands don’t suffer fools lightly. Brutal winters, scorching summers, desperate men avoiding the law and nearly every other pestilence known to humanity has taken up residence there at one time or another.
The weather here can be ornery, too. It’s not unusual to get a week of beautiful 50 degree sunny weather in the middle of winter when the winds are right. But don’t let it put you too much at ease! Frequently those warm spells give way to a blizzard, and in an afternoon the temperature can drop fifty degrees and usher in two feet of howling snow.
I used to take my daughters to the badlands just south of Williston when they were about five and eight. We found slides in the clay formations, wore the backsides out of our pants, learned about cactus and bull snakes, and I taught them to shoot the replica Henry .22 I bought just for the purpose. There’s something just right about a lever-action rifle when you’re in that kind of country. I’d like to take them back. It’s probably one of the first real homes they have to go back to. The summer they were seven and ten we camped with them in the north unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park, in a campground we had all to ourselves. All to ourselves, that is, until sunrise when a bachelor herd of bison wandered in, about thirty males all testosterone and determination to show each other who was the baddest. This was the first night we ever let the girls sleep in their own tent. My wife and I watched breathless as the snorting, heaving, wooly behemoths came within six feet of the girls’ tent. The girls were transfixed, fascinated, in awe of a spectacle that is just a little different in person than on Animal Planet.
So now and then I go home to another home, to commune with the windswept buttes and yucca plants, to see a few mulies, to hear coyotes sing and to sleep out in the open country with my brothers. I climb the buttes and lay in the grass, avoiding the cactus, to scan the coulees below for mule deer. We walk ten or twelve miles in a day, or maybe we sit in one spot and never move more than a hundred yards. Just like it did for my ancestors thousands of years ago, it depends on the deer. We get up in the early dark and sit by the fire after sunset, carrying jerky and water to get us through the days. And after a few hard days it will be time to pack it all in and come back here, come back home, come back to the ones I love most. I’m excited.