BADLANDS/WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARKS, S.D.--In countries where the peculiarities of nature inspire fits of whimsy, the outstanding features of sites like Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks most likely would bear fanciful names.
Castles of the Wind. Heaven's Doorstep. The Master's Tapestry. Oat Bran of the Gods. That sort of thing.
Guides conducting Chinese cave tours tell visitors the stalagmites and stalactites represent eagles and Buddhas, dragons and tigers, pagodas and palaces. The mountains are assigned mystical identities.
Those who oversee Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks prefer to emphasize the harsh realities of geological forces that occurred over millions of years and made those parks so noteworthy--floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glaciers, shifting continental plates, emerging mountains. About 50 miles apart as the eagle flies, they experienced many of the same natural phenomena with radically different results.
Even now, park rangers explain, the Badlands terrain must submit to wind, rain, frost and rivers--the power tools of erosion that shape our rugged western landscapes. In South Dakota, we are told, this work lasted more than 300 million years.
"Some people don't want to think about that at all," says Kathy Steichen, a ranger and interpreter at Wind Cave. "I suppose a lot of them--creationists, I guess--want the Earth to have a much shorter time frame than what the geologists think. Sometimes we just say the cave is (start ital) very old, (end ital) so they can ignore the geology and just go with the beauty. And that's a good way to see the park, too."
People have argued for centuries about the aesthetic failings or virtues of the Badlands. The 100 linear miles of stone wall (only a fraction of which is within the park) do assault the eye, seeming to come out of nowhere--a tortured skyline of jagged pinnacles, buttes and canyons. First-time visitors may feel overwhelmed by so many regiments of knobby or sharp-edged outcroppings streaked with red, white and yellow stripes.
It's even more overwhelming if they consider that those markings represent millions of years of sedimentation and layers of volcanic ash. Or, if they'd rather not think about the years, they can focus on the beauty--if that sort of thing enchants the beholder's eye.
In the Badlands, which became a national park in 1978, caretakers have refrained from applying mystical labels to everything. The topographical features viewed from scenic turnoffs are identified with prosaic, descriptive names: Prairie Winds Overlook, for example, or Cedar Pass or Cliff Shelf.
Park officials feel no need to employ hyperbole. The Badlands has drawn a steady stream of about 1.2 million annual visitors during the last decade. An upward spike in attendance did occur during 1990 and '91, when the movie "Dances With Wolves"-- filmed in the vicinity--induced an extra few hundred thousand people to take a look.
The Badlands seems rugged but needs constant shoring up. Only 30 miles of park roadways are paved, and weather extremes require park employees to engage in a constant battle with cracks and potholes to keep them passable. Meanwhile, all those mighty-looking rocks that make up the scenery are wearing away at blistering speed, if you time them with the geological stopwatch.
"Erosion is one of the few things around here that we don't have to worry about," says Badlands superintendent Irvin Mortenson.
"It's part of the landscape and, yes, it's a dynamic landscape. The wind and rain may shorten some of these buttes and peaks by half an inch a year. Additional sediments keep moving the Badlands wall to the north. But the geologists tell us we still have another half-million to a million years left."
At Wind Cave National Park, officials have labeled some of the underground tours and physical features with a little nongeological nomenclature, but they show relative restraint.
For instance, a 1-hour expedition through a section of cave that displays several representative features has been dubbed the Garden of Eden Tour. One slightly more rigorous probe into some of the cave's larger "rooms" is known as the Fairgrounds Tour.
But most Wind Cave attractions are described matter-of-factly. In several locations, moisture has eaten the limestone so as to leave fairly precise, cobwebby shapes known as "boxwork." Shiny flat spots called "flowstone" wear skinny stalactites that seem to fairly drip. Decent examples of aptly named "frostwork" resemble scotch pines sprayed with silver paint. Helictite "bushes" might be mistaken for the dried stems and twigs of a garden in winter. "Popcorn" formations glow white in the cave's artificial illumination and appear good enough to eat.
Amid all this chaotic metaphor, visitors have to keep reminding themselves that these bizarre features resulted from the long-term effects of random water torture applied to common limestone.
In the Badlands, imagination comes into play when we are asked to picture an unfamiliar, prehistoric world. Peculiar-looking mammals roamed there 37 million years ago, when the Badlands was a draining seabed overgrown with jungle. Fossilized remains hint at populations of saber-toothed tigers, piglike oreodons and early versions of the rhinoceros and camel.
Then our fancy must jump ahead to the arrival of humans, 12,000 years ago, people who subsisted for awhile on woolly mammoth meat in a setting nearly identical to the one visitors see now. Long after that, the Arikara Indians came along. They were run off by the Sioux late in the 18th Century, as the white man pressed American Indians from the Midwest into shrinking territories out on the plains. In the Badlands, the Sioux (or Lakota) ruled for another hundred years, but those were hard-pressed years.
White explorers who ventured into Sioux territory at first cursed its steep, barren cliffs. French fur trappers called this rough portion of the vast western landscape mauvaises terres a traverser--"bad lands to travel across." The Sioux also struggled with the raw conditions, and they shared the trappers' sentiment. Their phrase was more succinct: mako sica, or "bad land."
Wise Oglala Sioux elders might have read a portent into those words, because the late 19th Century brought the massive western expansion of the whites across the prairie and with it destruction of the once-huge buffalo herds, broken treaties and an onslaught of armies, pioneer families, miners and cattle growers.
The American Indians resisted this movement for 40 years but finally succumbed on Dec. 29, 1890, when members of the Seventh Cavalry massacred some 200 men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek. That spot in the Pine Ridge Reservation is marked by a simple monument about 25 miles south of the Badlands scenic route.
On the scenic route itself, a turnoff invites visitors to pause at the Journey to Wounded Knee Overlook. There they can stare out upon a still-forbidding expanse and imagine the desperate trek undertaken in December 1890 by 350 followers of Chief Big Foot--150 grueling miles from their Cheyenne River encampment to Wounded Knee. A day after their arrival on Dec. 28, soldiers surrounded the exhausted families and systematically shot most of them.
Nearly a decade before that, two white settlers and suspected horse thieves named Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise in a Black Hills prairie. When they approached the source--a small hole in the ground--legend has it that the gusts of wind from the hole blew Jesse's hat off.
That's how Wind Cave got its name. Scientists eventually determined that the wind is created by differences in the outside atmospheric pressure and the atmospheric pressure below.
On the Garden of Eden tour one afternoon, ranger Michelle Marsh explained that the cave doesn't always create a breeze; often it inhales.
"Every time the weather changes on the outside, that upsets the input and output of the wind flow at the natural entrance (the one discovered by the Binghams)," Marsh said. "Today, the air is blowing out of the natural entrance. Two days ago, the air was blowing in." On the day she led the tour, the weather was sunny and warm. Two days previously, it had been chilly and rainy.
Marsh said that two groups of serious caving hobbyists explore and map the cave. Their measurements of changes in barometric pressure at the natural entrance, she said, indicate that the 78 miles of cave mapped so far represent only 5 percent of the total.
Wind Cave became a tourist attraction shortly before the turn of the century. Entrepreneurs blasted out passageways and set up lanterns. In Hot Springs, a dozen miles down the road, they established stagecoach excursions to "the Great Freak of Nature."
A few hundred feet above the freakishness, the rest of Wind Cave National Park is just as interesting. Maybe the tourists of 100 years ago pulled the stagecoach curtains when they rode by this all-too-familiar land: rippled prairie rich with grass and wildlife, scattered pine trees--farmland and potential farmland. For a vacationing thrill-seeker it must have seemed like another day at work.
But now the prairie has been restored to mint condition. Bison graze on a deep-green spring carpet of rolling prairie grass, a non-cave zephyr riffles wildflowers and buoys the wings of soaring hawks. A lot of America used to be like this.
Anyone privileged to stand on a windy Badlands butte or follow a path in the seemingly endless prairie covering Wind Cave National Park can pretend it still is.
E-mail Robert Cross: firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now