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In a Badlands way

Beauty of South Dakota park will leave you breathless

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BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. -- They stand, the Badlands, a mystery, Mother Nature's misfits, if you will.

They rise up from the great plain, all at once moonscapes and fairy villages, pyramids and children's sandcastles. They are breathtaking, even from afar. Are they rock? Sand? Mountain? Desert, you wonder?

If first sight of them doesn't knock you back in silence, you are indeed jaded.

The Lakota, the original people of the Badlands, called them mako sica. To the French trappers, they were les mauvaises terres a traverser.

But imagine the language the Czechoslovakian homesteaders had for them. The U.S. government lured Czech immigrants here to settle the land after taking it from the Lakota in the late 1800s. Few could make a go of it in that harsh environment. A display at Badlands National Park interpretive centre says of that dismal failure to settle the west, "The government was willing to bet 160 acres against $18 you'd starve before five years was up."

That's a good place to start your tour of the Badlands, at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. No matter how dorky it feels, be sure to watch the film, Land of Stone and Light, about the 99,000-hectare park. It's well worth the time no matter how keen you are to start driving the park's 46-kilometre scenic loop.

So much life goes on in the park, but you likely won't see it outside of the movie. A park ranger tells us the animals are far smarter than humans and know enough to take refuge in the heat of the day.

But take the ranger's word for it; there are mule deer (we saw one at dusk, sure of it by its distinctive ears), prairie dogs, prong-horned antelope, coyotes, buffalo, porcupine, bighorn sheep, foxes, rabbits (saw one of those, too, again with the ears) mountain lions, frogs and after much work to reintroduce it, the nearly extinct black-footed ferret, in the park.

Do not make yourself miserable looking for the animals. (But if you find you do, here's a hint: Best chance of seeing some of the 800-strong buffalo herd is on Sage Creek Rim Road, and here's another: There are an enormous number of prairie dog towns on Canata Road on the way to Scenic. But that's another story yet to come.)

Gazing at the rock formations will keep you busy for hours. You don't even need to get out of your car -- and with an average daytime high of 33 C in August, that's just as well. Pull into the lookouts along the park loop and watch the light dance across the rock changing the stripes from pink to purple to grey to yellow to white.

Do not become alarmed if a storm blows in. That's pretty typical, and it won't last long. You can watch a storm a long way off across the plains, the dark streaks of rain, the flash of lightning. It's a fabulous sight to watch the Badlands go from grey and threatening under clouds to gleaming in brilliant sunlight.

The Badlands are beautiful at any hour, but at sunrise or sunset, they are stupendous. That's why it's a good idea to stay in the park. Cedar Pass Lodge offers historic cabins near the Ben Reifel Centre and the less attractive Badlands Inn about two miles away. Less attractive it may be, but arguably the inn, a 1960s-style motel really, offers a better view of the Badland's peaks.

The lodge also has a restaurant (the Indian tacos are tasty and enormous, the chardonnay downright cheap and cheerful.) If you're lucky, you'll get Amber as a server. She'll serve up interesting tales about the lodge, such as the story of the restaurant's ghost. Staff believe it's the man who built the lodge, now keeping an eye on things while "nicely" haunting the place. He's been known to make a cold wind blow through the kitchen, open and close doors and lay a hand on staff members' shoulders.

He's not quite as cheeky as the ghost at the inn who is said to pat the maids' bums.

When you are ready to tear yourself away from the beauty of the Badlands, start driving the park's loop east to west for one last look and turn left at Canata Road. It's gravel road so give a thought to those Czech homesteaders who struggled against even more strenuous circumstances. Watch for the myriad of prairie dog towns on both sides of the road. At Highway 44, turn right and head to Scenic, population 20.

Not quite a ghost town, Scenic is the real west. Main street is as hot and dusty a road as Clint ever knew. You'll know for sure you are truly in the west when you see the longhorn cattle skulls on the roof of the Longhorn Saloon, established in 1906.

LeeAnn Keester can tell you all about it. She's across the street at the Longhorn Store. Her mother was busy working on a rodeo career -- one of the few women to ride bareback bulls back then -- when she bought the bar in the 1960s just to keep it open. LeeAnn runs it now, but she usually opens it only in the weeks before Sturgis bike week in August.

South Dakota's wide-open spaces always draw these modern cowboys, but even more so during bike week when thousands of motorcyclists descend upon the state.

LeeAnn's got a million stories about fun times in Scenic. Ask to see the two-and-a-half-metre Watusi cattle horns tucked behind a counter. A taxidermist messed up the skull, and now LeeAnn is waiting for a steer whose skull matches up with the long horns to "die of natural causes."

Check out the crafts at Tatanka Trading Post. It carries local artists' work. (Always ask if the artist is local. South Dakota is a hotbed of native and other artists. It's worth making sure you are seeing their work. We found baskets from Pakistan and polished stones from Korea on our travels.)

Before you leave town, head to the post office and chat with Kathy Jo Jobgen, only the seventh postmaster the town has had in 102 years. The cowgirl-turned-postmaster ranches about four miles out of Scenic and will tell you all about life with 300 head of Black Angus, 10 horses and two corgis.

Wounded Knee Massacre National Historic Site is about an hour's drive south of Scenic on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The reserve is one of the largest in the U.S., with 46,000 Lakota people living on about 800 hectares, and one of the poorest with about 85 per cent unemployment.

It's also the site of the last fight of the Indian Wars. That was the massacre at Wounded Knee, an enduring symbol of betrayal for many North American native people. That's the story you come to this reserve to hear.

The Lakota people have set up shades, arbours covered in cedar branches, on Highway 27 along the approach to the massacre site. On the day we visited, storytellers Egan Tallman and Kathy Elk, members of the Oglala Lakota (full-blooded, she says proudly) are at the last shade before the cemetery, selling crafts and telling the story of the massacre. You are expected to buy crafts after hearing the story, but the work is beautiful and the tale is worth it.

Egan tells of the United States Seventh Cavalry opening fire on 350 Lakota men, women and children, the last of the Sioux to turn themselves in to be sent to reserves in Nebraska, on Dec. 29, 1890. His voice has that steady lilt of a natural storyteller, but it is the historical photographs of the bodies of the 300 killed being tipped into a mass grave, that are most gripping.

After telling us the story, he gives us sage (one of the four sacred medicines along with cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass) to use to bless our visit to the cemetery. There is the grave of Little Bird who was a babe in arms when she was pulled alive from the mass grave. She lived to 30 and was brought back to be buried in her homeland. Some grave markers are newer, stark white stones for soldiers who served in the Second World War and Vietnam.

Just down the road, we see the Red Cloud Indian School and Heritage Centre's world-renowned collection of Native American art. The Jesuits started the school here in 1887.

With Egan's story of the massacre still swirling in our heads, it's tough to miss that in the centre's Holy Rosary Church, modern native artwork of the Stations of the Cross depict the Romans arresting Jesus as soldiers in U.S. Cavalry uniforms, a lasting revenge.

Next week, on to South Dakota's Black Hills territory.

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