There are places where you never want to live, but you never tire of visiting. For me, the South Dakota Badlands is such a place. The 244,000-acre Badlands National Park is a prime example of magnificent desolation. Here is how the National Park Service describes the Badlands:
“This land has been so ruthlessly ravaged by wind and water that it has become picturesque. (It is) a wonderland of bizarre, colorful spires and pinnacles, massive buttes and deep gorges. Erosion of the Badlands reveals sedimentary layers of different colors: purple and yellow (shale), tan and gray (sand and gravel), red and orange (iron oxides) and white (volcanic ash). …
“The skeletons of ancient camels, three-toed horses, sabertoothed cats and giant rhinoceros-like creatures are among the many fossilized species found here. … Prehistoric bones are still being uncovered today by park officials.”
The landscape becomes awash in those colors whenever the sun bursts through the clouds after rain. Early-summer greenery is provided by the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States. But in the fall, when the grass turns to brown, visitors must look past the obvious desolation to find the life that flourishes there.
The wildlife soon becomes obvious. Thirty-nine species of mammals, from tiny shrews to 2,000-pound buffalo, strive to scratch out a living here. Prairie dog towns stop a lot of human traffic — and also draw predators such as badgers, bobcats, coyotes, swift foxes and rare black-footed ferrets, which were reintroduced into the Badlands in 1994. Antelope, mule and white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep also live here. Hikers should be aware that prairie rattlesnakes also are residents.
Golden eagles and prairie falcons nest on the high, steep cliffs. Also soaring overhead, searching out those inevitable creatures that succumb to the harsh conditions, are turkey vultures, to which I am inexplicably drawn.
A roadside sunflower captured my attention when Ruth and I visited the Badlands last fall . It offered such a stark contrast to the landscape that I had to shoot a photo of it. While I was flat on my belly, with my legs extended onto the road, I heard a vehicle approaching. It was a bus filled with tourists, who stared out their windows at an old guy face-down in this place that smacked of desolation, yet gave life to this colorful sunflower.
Fortunately, no turkey vultures were circling overhead. Later, however, I did manage to capture one with my camera as he was about to leave his perch on a fence post and take a look-about for lunch.