Imagine that out in front of you, as far as the eye can see, is an enormous amount of grey matter. That squiggly, squishy, weird material that composes our brains, but instead of in the shape of a brain it is spread out all over the ground. And instead of being squishy and slimy and grey, it is hard, calcified, and pasty white. Add some pointy pinnacles and towers of chalky rock reaching for the sky and some deep gorges, and you have a pretty good visual of Badlands National Park.
It’s no wonder this alien landscape acquired the name of Badlands. The ground is completely arid, the weather is extreme, and very little life is supported in the area. In the grassland surrounding the park we saw more bison, coyotes, and a few prairie dog towns. After spending the night in a primitive campground that was basically a dirt field, we drove through the park and stopped to “hike” around on the brains. Since the ground is so hard and there are no trees or plants to speak of, the “trail” is marked with little posts that are numbered, and you have to tromp around looking for the next number in the sequence. It was a fun diversion, but we needed some more adventure so we attempted to scramble up one of the spires. We made it to the top with much difficulty, since every handhold we found would crumble if we applied too much pressure. Once at the top we realized there was no getting down the other side without serious injury or death, so we carefully climbed down the way we came, with Andrew making a ladder for my feet out of his hands.
Our next destination in mind was Chicago, and so we hightailed it across South Dakota and into Minnesota on the boring interstate highway. We drove all night until we hit the Mississippi River and then spent the next several hours trying to find a spot to camp. It wasn’t until about 3:30 AM that we finally found some kind of park on the flood plain where we could pull the trailer and sleep. I awoke the next morning to the sounds of Trumpeter Swans, and pulled myself out of bed to see just how lovely the park was. It was a beautiful place to camp, and we let Zephyr play more Fetch the Stick and swim while we attempted to cook a hearty breakfast, only to discover we were out of fuel. Blurg. We were unable to make our coffee, and as we drove through the small riverside towns we discovered that coffee really hasn’t caught on in rural Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
Caffeine migraines aside, I was really enamored with the Mississippi border towns in this region. When I think of the Mississippi River I always picture the South, and I was unprepared for the beautiful foliage and rolling hills of this area. I am sure the winters are frigid, but the fall weather was lovely and I can easily picture myself living in a little farmhouse with a red barn in the back. Although I think I’ll wait until they open up some more coffee houses.
Our only real stop on the way to Chicago was Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. The Effigy Mounds are Native American burial grounds from pre-Columbian days, and we spent an hour hiking with the dog through gorgeous oak and aspen trees that whispered with the voices of ancient spirits. We marveled at the burial mounds built in the shapes of bears, relaxed in the warm sun that was tempered with a cool breeze, and enjoyed amazing views of the mighty Mississippi River before getting back on the interstate and heading to Chicago.