OUR NATIONAL PARKS
A land where names wear well
Who needs hyperbole? South Dakota's national parks can speak for themselves
A pair of hikers watch as the early morning light splashes across Badlands National Park, in South Dakota.
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.