America by Space Ship Part 1: The Badlands

Landlock after extended road travel leaves me sourpussed. Only 46% of my person percolates in the present; the rest continues merry wandering in the same rented Dodge Avenger we dubbed the Space Ship, a craft that accumulated 6,158 miles before we reluctantly surrendered the keys to Avis and accepted a deflated bus ride back from BeaverTRON into Portland proper. The other 54% of me has elected to re-visit newly collected haunts. First re-entry point: the strange space of South Dakota, where half the state is a waking nightmare pulled from the pages of Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction masterwork In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; the other half is accessible only by invisible slide. My co-conspirator Dok Z and I Lewis and Clark’d this territory for two days, and my skin still smells of sage and is bronzed orange-red from awesome sun.

South Dakota: we arrived in Murdo sleep deprived and irritable, having narrowly escaped the Corn Palace insect-saturated South Dakota hellmouth. For endless exits there was nothing save for ghost town gas stations daring us to stop to clean the windshield. There we’d inevitably find a wiper and water bucket so thick with unidentifiable six-legged somethings that if a sample were collected and placed on a slide, it might devour the microscope. Aliens have arrived, people. They’re just very small…

Anyway, in Murdo the border of our motel (the only one with any vacancies) was lit with PINK neon, and as we exited the Space Ship the manager was waiting for us, and in some unseen nook or cranny Quentin Tarantino was waiting to film.


Other than the neon it looked like hundreds of other motels, a simple series of windows and doors arranged in rows, a parking lot filled with out-of-state license plates and construction worker pick-up trucks. Manager chap was nice enough, and inside the room was decorated with endless signs listing reasons to be excited about the hand towels, and reminding us to respect the queen-sized bed as a holy resting space.


While I can’t confirm the existence of secret passageways and have never been accused of super-sluthery, I can testify that throughout the night, whenever I looked out the window, the manager was going into one door, before exiting from another completely on the other side of the motel. Attempts to rub the funhouse from my eyes failed. Dok Z mumbled in his sleep about gunshots, then woke and asked if I heard them. Did I hear them? I was busy listening to the argument happening on my face, while negotiating the black cloud that entered the room to cowboy clock my sixth-eye closed.

Whether you’re inclined to indulge the hocus-pocus or are the type to stodgily insist that nothing is real until Mythbusters conducts the appropriate experiment, the fact remains that this motel was plucked from an unaired episode of Scooby Doo, bulging with entities eager to latch on and puppet unprotected people with ghostly tentacles.

In other words: South Dakota is a haunted holy fuck of a state. The 2000 census claims the population of Murdo is 612, and I suspect 40% of these folks have since been eaten.

Burning rubber back on to 90W we learned fast that the western side of South Dakota is equally haunted but wears a prettier face. Amazing scenery does not, however, slow the pimping of the waterpark, an aggressive boil on the butt of family tourism wank that begins blooming in diaper rash earnest with the Wisconsin Dells. It almost doesn’t matter what the Dells are, exactly, because every billboard coaxing your car towards exit doesn’t give a shit about this natural wonder. Advertisements ham-fist tease about dozens of hotels and lodges and mini-person prisons engaging in full-tilt street brawls for the coveted title of most HOLY FUCK water park, each featuring rides that inexplicably reference stinging land-based mammals and insects. Grinning faces of prepubescent youngsters on waterslides and body surfing through furious chlorinated water are framed by screaming comic sans demands to GET WET.

I know what you're thinking: why doesn't the boy have face paint?


Dok Z and I spent several dull-scenery minutes working on the marketing campaign for our hypothetical water park, WET AS FUCK, and while I don’t remember much of the proposed schematics and body pummelling near-drowning excitement, my current fantasy goes like this: at WET AS FUCK, the minute you walk through the hotel doors three retired firemen in Clockwork Orange uniforms immediately render the entire suitcase-baring family WET AS FUCK with the assistance of a firehose. Those dedicated cigar-smoking workers don’t let up until your whole family is unconscious and pressed into the concrete, clothing in tatters, shoes knocked loose, spinal deformities violently corrected. In this state the fam is directly deposited (courtesy of black unmarked van) to the Badlands, which has a way higher amazing-factor than anything involving a plastic slide and pee water.

Badlands National Park: Seriously, wow. Dok Z wasted no time in claiming this turf for his personal pleasure saucer, and I can’t fault him the quick action. We initially choked at the $15 investment required, but less than a mile deep I was pondering permanent relocation. Hiking the Enter the Door Trail exposed us to prehistoric landscape locking the bodies of undusted dinosaurs, and blue sky accented by golden eagles. The trail was not really a trail at all, just a collection of yellow flags tricking your eyes in a half-hearted attempt to direct your party away from permanent LOST status. Signs warning of rattlesnakes further activated my inspection of the dots and dashes pocking the cliff sides. I let the dust sink into my skin, invited it in, harvesting a new kind of high.

Off-camera: sense of purpose restoration


It was in this space that my nose-twitch towards other tourists switched. I wasn’t alone in my awe, and regardless of age or physical ability the terrain was explored with care and appreciation. Kids ran to have their pictures taken between rocks that framed their bodies and scrambled up the buttes, while older folks examined edges for footholds and let their eyes turn skyward on the lookout for birds of prey and incoming saucers. Sure, there was the lone marble-mouthed cell phone jockey blathering day-trader jargon into his sweat-soaked armpit while his unattended children played tiddlywinks with a cougar and plotted their forthcoming angst, but without those kids we wouldn’t have Marilyn Manson, and then what would their t-shirts say?


Dok Z, recasting his vote on the relevance of Creed

According to the National Park Service website, the 244,000 acres comprising the Badlands are “one of the world’s richest fossil beds,” functioning as home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and black-footed ferrets. After exploring the visitor center’s winding corridors and informative, touchable science-things, we picnicked and examined the camping spots while daydreaming of future visits where we’d have the opportunity to linger. Then we traveled into the higher altitudes to spy prairie dogs running across roads and standing on top of little mounds, looking adorable in squeal-and-freak-out fashion. Higher still, a single goat with a collar, ear tag, and bored expression wandered into the road and dared the slow moving cars to accelerate to ramming speed, before enjoying the absurdity of a half-dozen white people ape-footing out of vehicles to ignite the possibility of an animals-attack style YouTube video.

When animals don't attack


Leonard Cohen was an appropriate companion. Next time I’ll stay longer than a day.

Next up: The waiting arms of WALL, South Dakota.



2 thoughts on “America by Space Ship Part 1: The Badlands”

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