On our week-long travels around South Dakota, we become accustomed to seeing two types of scenery through our coach windows: jagged granite hills and gorges quilted in evergreen pine forests and radiant fall foliage, and flat golden and grassy prairies that spiral towards the horizon.
Occasionally, however, the landscapes change dramatically, morphing, abruptly, into something trippy and other-worldly.
And nowhere on our journey is stranger, or more photogenic, than the Badlands National Park.
Compared to other gems in the United States’ parks system, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the Badlands is relatively overlooked, although it covers more than 1000 square kilometers of southwestern South Dakota (more territory than New York City).
This morning, having driven east for about an hour from our base in Rapid City, we start seeing flurries of bizarre rocky features jutting out of the prairies and into the big blue midwestern skies.
“This doesn’t look real,”
says a Texan a few seats in front of me, her glasses pressed against the window as our coach ventures along the Badlands Loop.
Spiriting 50 kilometers through the park, this two-lane highway has a series of designated panoramic vantage points and trails that skirt and overlook the peculiar hotchpotch of pinnacles, pyramids, buttes and spires.
Comprised of soft sedimentary rocks, they’ve been carved by the elements over millions of years, and as we pull over from time to time, clambering on ridges and walking wooden boardwalks, bits of the Badlands remind me of Tatooine, the harsh desert planet from Star Wars.
While that movie wasn’t filmed here, a few other sci-fi flicks were, including Armageddon and Starship Troopers (though partially set in South Dakota, and the neighboring state of Montana, the 1973 crime thriller Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Space, was mostly shot in Colorado).
Artists and designers have long drawn inspiration from the Badlands’ landscapes, notably Frank Lloyd Wright, the late, pioneering American architect behind dreamy buildings such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
He has been quoted as saying: “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands…”