The southern portion of Badlands National Park is jointly managed by the National Park and by the Oglala Lakota. The hope was that one day this section of the park would be the first Tribal National Park in the country. Those plans have not yet become a reality. The northern unit of the park hosts the scientific interpretation of the land and holds all of the associated resources you’d expect at a National Park.
The southern unit is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. At the White River Visitor Center, you can hear the historical interpretation of the people of this area, from paleo-Indians to European settlers to US Army Air Force troops in WWII who used the reservation land for a gunnery range and bombing practice. Just under 350,000 acres were acquired by eminent domain from the Oglala Lakota in 1942 on the pretext that it was “unused, unoccupied, and blighted”.
Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of the Park. Its history is told in signs, tombstones, graffiti and the living words of people who live in extreme poverty, mistrustful of neighbors and governments and directly impacted by changes in climate and habitat for the animals that provide their sustenance. I am grateful to Mr. Apple (age 25) and Mr. Fast Horse (age 13) for sharing their story.
My heart aches for these people, for their wounded dignity, for their invisibility, for their spoiled livelihood. That “living off the land” was ever possible for humans in this place year-round is doubtful, especially after the buffalo herds were decimated by European immigrants. This is an area of seasonal extremes, a place to which you’d make a sacred pilgrimage, spend a time in awe, and respectfully vacate.
To see the land as sacred, wild, and autonomous allows an attitude of humility to flourish and banishes thoughts of domination, extraction and exploitation. It brings truer balance and harmony to the relationship. Perhaps from this new understanding, a more sustainable future will develop for our species.
We entered Canyonlands National Park in The Needles district on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and sought to get ourselves acquainted with the short trails along the main road before heavier traffic arrived. There is a self-guided nature trail showing typical flora & fauna and a Native granary and a trail to a cowboy campground just off the paved road. All around are the beautiful layered and eroded rock formations that give this section of the park its name.
All of these seemed to serve as an introduction to the landscape, but every long view we got that day made us eager to leave the paved road and the congested trail loops and get out further and deeper into this tremendous terrain.
So we decided to head up to our cooler campground for the afternoon and get a very early start the next day on a longer hike.
Steve has been telling me about Hovenweep National Monument for as long as I’ve known him. It’s his favorite. He hadn’t seen it for 26 years, though, and was anxious to know how “progress” had changed it. What he remembered was a sort of shack out in the middle of “nowhere” staffed by a few Park Service rangers and visiting archaeologists. The roads were unpaved, and the ruin sites widely spread apart. We discovered that the roads were updated, because our map dates from 1990. Signs clearly mark the way, but it is still far from any town. The rural school bus was just ahead of us, and free-grazing livestock lined the roadway.
The Visitor Center is new. And the rangers are young and have no memory or pictures of what it used to be like.
The roads connecting the ruin sites are still dirt roads, though. We elected to walk the trails instead, and set off on an 8-mile (round trip) desert walk…which ended up to be a 10-mile one because we veered off the path down a wash and ended up at a barbed wire fence and then retraced our steps. That was an interesting part of the journey of awareness as well. How do you feel when you suspect you’re off the trail? How does your mental state effect your pace, your energy? What does a well-traveled path offer you psychologically and physically? When we had completed this hike, which was the longest of our trip, I felt truly exhilarated. My face was pretty red, I had gnat bites on my calves (that haven’t faded yet), and my knees and hips were a bit sore, but I was thrilled! This desert is a vibrant ecosystem, hosting many interesting plants and animals…including around 2500 human animals at one point, about 750 years ago. Have a look:
Canyons of the Ancients
Initially, when I proposed this trip to Steve, I said I wanted to see “Canyonlands”. I had just finished reading another Ed Abbey novel, The Fool’s Progress, after having submerged myself in Desert Solitaire late last summer. What I began to realize as our journey went on is that the American West is full of canyons of many descriptions. The rock type, the elevation, the water speed and volume – lots of things effect how a canyon is formed and what kind of environment is created around it.
Our campsite in the Black Canyon was visited by mule deer (just as we were setting about making dinner – obviously they were not shy!) foraging for vegetation and shaded by pinyon pines and serviceberry bushes at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Our next campsite was on B.L.M. (Bureau of Land Management) land near Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one canyon west of Sand Canyon. We were on a rock outcropping surrounded by juniper and yucca at an elevation of about 6,500 feet.
Oh, but before we got down to that level, we drove through Telluride. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a swanky ski resort town. The storm the week before had left the mountaintops covered in white, while the spring green aspen leaves were bright in the sunlight. It was a truly spectacular drive!
Descending to drier, warmer temperatures near the Four Corners region brought a dramatic change in the landscape. Steve started getting really excited; this is the country of his heart – the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. He became enamored of this place more than 25 years ago while volunteering on archaeology projects. He seems to thrive in the heat, both physically and emotionally.
We scouted through BLM roads and discovered a campsite on the rim of this little canyon. This is public land. There is no fee for camping here. Cattle were grazing in the area, but this side of the dirt road didn’t have much grass. There were some trails for ATVs and dirt bikes in the area, too, but not near the rim. It was Monday, so weekend recreation was over; we saw only three vehicles in three days. There’s no running water and no latrine, but someone had already made a fire circle and there was plenty of juniper and Gambel oak to gather for firewood. This is just what we look for in dispersed camping.