Saturday, August 10, 2013


I fell asleep under a clear sky full of stars with the roof of my car opened up to the sky. As I slept, drops of water started to fall on my face. In my sleepy state I was very troubled as I dreamt of hundreds of birds relieving themselves over my head. I was finally woken from this nightmare by a nearby lightning strike and realized that I was about a minute away from the bottom falling out. I jumped out of my bed and grabbed the glass for the roof and climbed on top of the car to replace it. The wind was picking up and lightning was striking in the field a couple of miles away. Once I was safely back in my car I started mopping up all the water that had gotten in while I dreamt of birds. Luckily I put a polyurethane coat on all the wood in the car so it hadn’t soaked in.
After the storm cleared it was morning and I got my first good look at the park as I drove up to a trailhead. The rock is soft and owes its ridges and slopes almost entirely to the action of water. Rather than forming by the force of a river coursing through the landscape, the hills of the badlands are sculpted by the draining of water on their peaks deposited by rainfall. This gives the feel of an inverted canyon, the prairie is the base and you climb the walls.
The rock is streaked with white and brown and red set into the greens and yellows of the prairie. The earth is much softer than it looks and you can see ridges where many hikers have gone before because their footfalls will have flattened a path. The prairie grass is about knee high and underlain by and accumulation of dead grasses that crunch under your feet as you walk. As the wind blows the seeds in the needle-and-thread grass rattle and it sounds like there are insects churning in the grass. This morning the rain has soaked into the earth and the porous hillsides turn to mud under your feet as you try to climb. I choose a trail leading to Saddle Pass but can’t find the first marker so I just wander off into a small canyon.
The first slope that I try to climb gives way under my feet and I sink my hands into the mud. I try again and get a feel for how slippery the ground is. On the way down the other side I manage to stand and slide on my feet down the hill leaving two six foot long streaks in the mud. When I reach the creek bed at the bottom of the canyon I see narrow deep holes punched in the soft mud beside the water. As I follow them to dryer ground they become hoof prints. I follow them until they scale a wall too steep for me; I’ll have to find another way up. While I follow the creek further looking for an easier climb I find a snake on a rock trying to eat a toad (warning: link leads to a picture of a snake eating a toad...). It looked as if the snake had caught a toad but was unable to ingest it and it had swollen after death putting the snake in quite a predicament. At first I think that the snake is dead but as I watch it it suddenly lunges into the creek, toad in mouth, and tries to swim away. I let it be and continue around the bend and find a point to climb up to the grassy flat.
The grass hides large pits in the earth so I watch my footing carefully as I march toward the opposite side of the field. I am so focused on my steps that as I approach the edge I don’t notice a female pronghorn below watching me. I look down at her and she looks up at me and we stay there, neither of us moving for a minute. I take a picture but want to change to a longer lens on my camera. I put my bag down and look down to unzip it and the antelope starts to leap up the ridge until I look up and make eye contact and we are locked in stillness again. I try to change the lens without breaking eye contact but can’t get the alignment right. I look down without moving my head hoping the pronghorn won’t notice but she bounds right up a 15 foot wall and into the next field as soon as I break eye contact.
I slide down into the next canyon and make my way over to the wall where I can see the holes the pronghorn punched as she climbed. I manage to wedge my boots into a crack where water has been draining from the field and climb slowly up the wall. The edges of the grass are always lined with cacti and I almost fall onto a pile of them as I pull myself up over the edge. The pronghorn is nowhere to be seen but I saw roughly what direction she headed so I follow. Along the way I happen to run across the actual trail that I’m supposed to be hiking on.
After I reach the other side of the field I walk up and down the ridge searching for the pronghorn. Finally I see her about 300 feet away walking near another creek. I make my way over trying to stay out of view and finally come over a hill 50 feet away and she spots me. This time I’m careful not to break eye contact as I come down the hill. I descend carefully, trying to make sure of my footing before putting weight on each step. About half way down I slip on some loose gravel and go tumbling down the rest of the hill. When I jump up at the bottom I see the pronghorn hopping away in the distance. This time I don’t find her again.
I rejoin the trail and hike the rest of the way to Saddle Pass. The ground has already dried and curled up and cracked again under the sun. The trail becomes white hard dirt scattered with black stones and the sun comes out from behind the clouds and starts to warm the back of my neck. I throw some stones off a cliff and no matter where I throw them they clatter down the walls and splash into some unseen pool of water below. The trail leads up to two large towers at Saddle Pass. Climbing the western tower I’m rewarded with a spectacular view of the hills receding into the prairie.

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