Although legislation to establish a National Park in the White River Badlands of South Dakota was introduced into Congress by Senator Peter Norbeck in 1909, the measure stalled and was almost destroyed completely by a Park Service in its infancy after 1916. The Badlands would not be declared a National Monument until 1939 and would not become a National Park until November 10, 1978 (two days before I was born).
Badlands National Park would be the first that I would visit for a second time. I’d already spent a cold, exhilarating January afternoon there with my friend Lisa over ten years earlier. That earlier trip anticipated my move from Ann Arbor to Chicago and this one felt that it helped mark my tenth anniversary in the city.
Prairie Sunflowers, Cedar Pass area, Badlands National Park
With the exception of a lovely long weekend in Florida in March with my parents, by Labor Day 2014 Sean and I had not taken a real vacation in 2014. This was due both to the whims and vagaries of his firm and that the summer months are busy at Openlands. (For comparison, by Labor Day 2013, we’d already visited the Virgin Islands, California, and Florida and had driven around the whole of Lake Michigan.) It was past time for a vacation. It was time to sleep in a tent.
We decided upon a trip to the Dakotas (and Wyoming). We’d hit three parks: Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt, plus three monuments.
Eight years ago this week I visited Badlands National Park in the middle of January with my friend, Lisa. It was an impromptu Martin Luther King weekend road trip inspired in part by an article in that week’s New York Times about Marta Becket and her Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California. Lisa, who was also my supervisor, and I had been intrigued by the story of the aging dancer and the performances she gave at her inn in the Mohave Desert.
For an afternoon, we fantasized about the possibility of adding a few vacation days to the long weekend and making the 66-hour round trip drive.
After that idea was justifiably set aside, we still had the road trip bug. Both of us were going through hard break-ups at the time and we needed some space from an Ann Arbor winter with its North Sea skies. Also, we’d each be able to talk through our emotions with the only other person who was in a similar place at the moment. As the weekend approached, we decided to leave the destination unplanned, but to head south. If it came to it, we figured, we could always find a Holidome near Louisville and spend the weekend bathing our sorrows in a hot tub and alcohol.
The immediate origin of this project was a trip to Akron, Ohio that Sean and I took in July 2010 to celebrate the marriage of friends. Although for years I’d seen the sign announcing Cuyahoga Valley National Park as I’d driven the Ohio Turnpike from the Midwest to New York, New England or D.C., I’d never really had the opportunity to see the new park.
But there we were with the valley rolling north into the distance clearly visible from our downtown Akron hotel room. We decided to get up earlier than we needed to the next morning in order to have a chance to drive through the park on our way back to Chicago.
And such has it been. Save for two family excursions to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, my other encounters with the National Parks have involved spontaneous, almost foolhardy, reroutes of trips that had nothing to do with visiting a National Park.
But each pell-mell trip, whether it be a drive from Kittyhawk to Ann Arbor diverted through Shenandoah National Park because “we’re in the same state so why not?” or deciding suddenly to truck it to Badlands National Park in the middle of January because a massive snowstorm was blocking routes south, resurrected the nagging little voice that at thirteen had been certain that I would see Arches, Glacier, Olympic and all the others before I died.
At 31, driving through Cuyahoga Valley on a warm, sunny Sunday summer morning, I asked why not see them all?
Why not indeed?