Badlands, Wounded Knee … and Snow

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After a whole day sidelined by a migraine and not getting out of my hotel room, I was all better and ready to get back on the road. First up was Badlands National Park. Wow– truly spectacular. Though the car kept beeping about how cold it was outside (35-37 degrees) and there was alternating rain and little snowflakes, I got out at every viewpoint. The weather was actually a bonus because the colors of the rock — pink, beige and light blue — stood out in contrast. Apparently, on sunny days they just all blend together. And of course, a gloomy overcast day is best for photos. I had visited the National Grasslands Center first thing that morning and learned that the black-footed ferret was the most endangered mammal in North America. I didn’t get to see one of those, but on the route between two viewpoints, a whole herd of bighorn sheep — including babies! — were grazing right along the side of the road. Traffic slowed to a halt and just as I was about to continue on, a sheep who looked young-ish decided s/he wanted to cross at that very moment.

 

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After doing half of the Loop Road in the Badlands and deciding it was too wet/cold to hike, I decided to make the nearly 2-hour drive to the Wounded Knee massacre site. On the drive over, I was thinking about why I decided to go there and it was partly out of guilt. I had spent considerable time and money on making sure that I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in both Missouri and South Dakota. She was a pioneer girl and I loved her books but she also represented the encroaching of the white settlers into Native American lands, their displacement and great suffering for centuries. I wanted to make some effort into visiting a site that was sacred and of great significance in history for Native American people.

It was located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, along winding, narrow roads. Much of the time, I was the only car on the road. You could tell there was a lot of poverty — a lot of trailer homes, car after junky car sitting alongside houses, obviously deteriorating. No big buildings or development that I could see. There was beautiful open land with horses and cows grazing freely. The bighorn sheep was my first encounter with animals that day. On rural route 2, I saw two dogs running down from a house out of the corner of my eye. One started crossing in front of me and I swerved to the left. Thankfully, when I looked in the rearview mirror, it was still hanging out on the road and I hadn’t hit it.

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I left my Garmin alone and routed the drive according to the paper map. Signs along the road got increasingly fewer. Finally, a small highway sign indicated a historic marker 1,000 feet ahead. When I finally got to what should be the site, there was a handlettered sign and not anyone in sight. This couldn’t be it, could it? Why wasn’t there a visitors center and a monument and signage and everything I’d come to expect from a major historic site? I drove further, turned around and came back. Then I saw 2 men walking across the road and waving at me. I got out of the car and we talked for a few minutes. They were of the Oglala Cheyenne tribe. Maybe it was ignorant of me to ask, but I wondered why the U.S. government hadn’t put up a lot of information and a monument at the site. One of them said, we don’t want the U.S. government anywhere around here. He said that where we were standing and all around was where the massacre had happened. And then he pointed to a hill where the cemetery was and said there was a marker for the mass grave up there and I was welcome to visit. So I thanked them and when I got to the hill, another man was at the marker, holding it with his head bowed. From what I could tell, he was another visitor, but said he had read a lot on the massacre and it obviously meant something very deep to him. The two men I had been speaking with climbed up to the hill. They were also trying to sell small handicrafts — a windcatcher, bracelets — so I bought a bracelet and then played with their dog. She was so cute and they said she was going to have puppies soon.

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A few hours later, I was driving up the mountain from Rapid City, and it was like winter had already developed. Snow falling steadily with the trees and houses and stores already coated in about 2 inches or so. The drive was beautiful and I’m glad my hotel is off the tourist path, up a small mountain road, across from a historic steam train and with a beautiful view of Rushmore itself. Though it was impossible to see because of the snow and haze. Well, it will be a nice surprise for tomorrow which is predicted to be sunny again.

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