The Sky Is Not the Limit

Gone Summering, July 1998


The Sky Is Not the Limit

Look, up there, it's the Dakotas' main attraction!
By Louise Erdrich


And Don't Forget the Terra Firma

The 244,000-acre Badlands National Park is probably the most striking intersection of Dakota sky and Dakota earth in the two states. On a map, the Badlands looks like a schematic of a saurian skull crammed in the landscape — a nifty metaphor for a region that began forming its present physical characteristics as the dinosaurs were hightailing it to oblivion some 60 million years ago.

Getting There: United, Northwest, and Delta fly to Rapid City, the jumping-off point for the Black Hills and the Badlands (expect to pay about $320 from the West Coast, $475 from the East). The park's Ben Reifel Visitor Center (605-433-5361) is an hour southeast of Rapid City; take Interstate 90 to exit 110 at Wall and follow signs to the park entrance. The fee is $10 per vehicle.

On Your Own: The web of hiking trails that starts a half-mile northeast of the visitor center is an ideal introduction to Badlands natural history. For those immune to vertigo, the three-quarter-mile Notch Trail rewards a narrow traverse along a ledge with good-lord views of the White River Valley's moonscape. Or, for a solitary communion with the Dakota skies, try the five-mile Castle Trail, where the bighorn sheep, bison, and pronghorn antelope may be many, but other hikers are blessedly few.

Outfitters: American Wilderness Experience (800-444-0099) runs custom horsepacking trips ($250 per person per day) and set four-day itineraries ($690 per person). Aspiring Indiana Joneses will want to take advantage of the park's daily interpretive hikes, which offer fascinating insights into the geology and archaeology of the area.

Where to Stay: There are only two campgrounds, both without shower facilities, in the entire park. The Cedar Pass Campground (sites, $10 per night), near the visitor center, has water and flush toilets. The Sage Creek Wilderness Campground, on the other hand, has pit toilets and no water, but is free. The 22 thirties-era pine cabins of the park's Cedar Pass Lodge (doubles, $47.25; 605-433-5460) are more comfortable, but also very popular: Make a reservation at least a month in advance. — J.H.

A patch of sky is not enough, or a wedge, a rectangle of blue between buildings. Specks of sky. Not enough. The only adequate sky is all sky, a tallgrass prairie heaven tarp that stretches down on every side and quiets the heart.

I love crossing the country from the East Coast to the Great Plains, driving blearily through the dark pines of Ontario or the guts of the rust belt, up through the weird, shouting Wisconsin Dells and on, to Highway 210 in Minnesota, where the Red River Valley starts. The sky's a sudden presence. Air touches down on all sides. You see to the end of the world. Distance melts off into mirage, a jitter of shaking air on hot dust. There are no limits but the earth's curve. Sounds travel as far as the ear allows. Vision stretches as far as the eye can strain. Pure sky pulls you right out of yourself and yet bears down so close it seems crushing. Or alive.

Heat of summer. A dust storm magnifies the sun so that it fills the sky. Quaking red. Quenched. Going down in a mirage of fake oils due west, the sun's a bloody Jupiter. Clouds, color, a collision of winds and temperatures, a confusion and a blending of light.

A dark summer morning. I drive to Fargo and halfway there stop the car. I can't believe what I'm seeing. Not a cloud to the east where a sparking sun rises. But directly over me, as though divided with a compass, the sky splits. A storm boils out of the west and a black curtain drops. Against it, the rising sun ignites four fierce rainbows. Through the arcs of color, lightning stalks back and forth, stepping through rainbow hoops like a circus walker on dreadful stilts. Distant licks of rain. Horizon of surging dark. And yes, just to the right, a baby pure sun continues to rise.

Lastly, a word for the ordinariness of the Dakota sky. The casual glimpse of pure space at the end of the street, or looming silently above the artfully eroded promontories of the Badlands. Sky of simple authority, blank. Unadorned and unremarkable. Just the white sky. A fullness locked into my bones. I can't help it the way we can't help love — I need that sky. More changeable than mountains or even the sea, mutable, malleable, ever different. The sky is the scape for the mercurial, the unfixed personality. For me. Without it, I am left with a stubborn acuteness, a want. Not a ceiling or a roof, it goes up forever. And not a wall, though it floods down evenly on every side to meet the ground. Not space, not empty. Yet a shelter. The spirit's gallery, filled with the art of constantly changing weather.

Louise Erdrich's most recent novel, The Antelope Wife, was published this spring by Harperflamingo.

O n   t h e   F o u r t hThe utmost in corny, over-the-top patriotism? Absolutely. But if you simply must wrap up Independence Day with the rockets' red glare, where better than beneath the chiseled likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt? Yes, for the first time in history, the keepers of Mount Rushmore plan to launch pyrotechnics above the presidential Fab Four, to celebrate the completion of the monument's $56 million restoration. Call 605-574-2523.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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