For weeks now, we’ve been looking forward to the badlands of North Dakota.
Our hosts had begun to mention them with ever increasing frequency, but none of us really knew what they were. When we asked, the response was rarely more than a small shake of the head and the reassurance that, “when you see them, you’ll know”. The landscape changed so slowly that at first we didn’t realize we were approaching them. Over days, the vast expanse of empty grasses morphed into some strange hills we hadn’t seen before. They were perfect half spheres, sometimes with a flat top. Bit by bit, they got larger, rolling into one another as the flora turned from lush, tall grasses to scrub that stubbornly clung to exposed rock in an increasingly alien-looking landscape.
And suddenly there we were, dropping our bikes to scramble onto a perfect little cliff inviting us to sit and enjoy the view. The hills rose up in layers of different colored sediments, sand and silt and clay and ash that had been deposited over millions of years in environments ranging from forest to savannah, flood plain to subtropical forest and shallow seas. More recently, a mere half million years or so, erosion had carved out the craters and valleys below us, where the most contented horse in the world now relaxed alone in a sea of green and yellow. Half a mile or so away stood a tiny brown house, all but hidden behind a rock formation.
When we finally (reluctantly) got moving again, rocky hills beckoned us to to climb and play, and since we were only ten miles or so out from our destination we gleefully threw our bikes down once more to go bouldering. Pro tip: I would generally recommend sneakers instead of bike shoes if you’re rock climbing but hey, we did keep our helmets on. Some of us were admittedly a little more cautious than others. I may or may not have googled how to treat rattlesnake bites before I waded through the thigh-high grass… okay fine I absolutely did. An older man at a diner in the middle of nowhere the day before had cautioned us that around here the beasties chase you. And sure, he might have been having a bit of fun at the expense of us city slickers, but I was taking no chances.
It wasn’t until we’d finally drunk our fill of the beautiful landscape and felt ready to get a move on that we realized why they call the badlands… well… bad. The road melted into gravel, then grassy trail, and finally we were struggling to move through land that had no aspirations whatsoever of becoming a thoroughfare. Streams had carved out thin, deep grooves in the petrified mud that tried to bite into our tires and bring us down, and when I shifted just a bit to avoid one, I realized exactly half a second too late that I was headed into a very deep ditch with no room or time to avoid it. I sailed forward. My bike did not. I was launched over my handlebars, which slammed into my pelvis with a sickening thud. Ugh. They’d told me I needed to wear a helmet for this trip, not a chastity belt.
With nowhere to go but on, we pushed forward. Google Maps assured us we were on route. Our eyes assured us we most definitely were not, because we were fenced in on someone’s ranch. A very unhappy man confirmed that for us just as the highway came back into view, shouting that we were trespassing on his neighbor’s land and we had better get a move on the way we came. That wasn’t an option; we had barely managed to get into this mess, let alone out the same way. We yelled back apologies and asked if we could just pass by, the road was right there. He was having none of it. Eventually we just scrambled forward and hoisted our bikes over the fence to hightail it out of there before he got any more upset about our blunder… or worse, called the neighbor. Away we zoomed, flying down the gently curving mountainside into Medora, where we would encounter the most expansive whack-a-mole game in the country. But that’s a story for another time.