Good times in the Badlands

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The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo by Marin Stefani ’18.

The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo by Marin Stefani ’18.
The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo by Marin Stefani ’18.

At 5 a.m. on March 13, my alarm goes off. I reach for the snooze button, but then remember something important about today: I am about to go on a four-day trip to Badlands National Park.

After convening in the still-dark Olin-Rice parking lot, the 14 of us begin our trek. The flat, farm-covered landscape feels endless. If it weren’t for the periodic road signs and hyper-conservative billboards dotting the side of the road, I would question whether we were making any progress at all. But eight hours later, a glimpse of our home for the next few days appears: rugged valleys and striking peaks for miles and miles.

We set up our tents and make our way into the park. The day is spent climbing up and down ridges and taking in the scenery. We learn that the rocks are not particularly secure in their places and that one ought to exercise some caution when traversing them. We also learn that the water-starved ground, mostly containing dry grass, is punctuated by cacti. Though it’s of little note to folks with hiking boots, those of us with mesh running shoes start to be a hell of a lot more careful.

Several hours pass and we return to camp to make dinner. Tonight, we are eating burritos. Both camp stoves prove to be finicky, but crew leader and apparent stove expert Max Meyerhoff ’17 fixes them after some tinkering. He will do this same task a dozen more times on this trip. As the onions fry and the canned beans heat up, a few people play card games by the light of their headlamps. When the food is done, everyone eats and then goes to their tents to get a good night’s rest; tomorrow begins a two-day, 22-mile backpacking excursion into the wilderness.

 The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo courtesy of Maya Agata ’16.
The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo courtesy of Maya Agata ’16.

After everyone wakes up, people start packing their bags for two days of travel: tents, sleeping pads, more than enough water and ziplocks of trail mix. We eat a quick oatmeal breakfast, drive to the beginning of the loop and set off on our adventure.

We immediately run into two guys from St. Paul and chat with them about the path. One is cheery while the other seemingly about to collapse, sweating profusely through his crooked neckwarmer. There are sheep grazing in the distance who stiffen up when they realize we’re staring at them. Can you blame them?

We venture through several miles of deep crevasses, wide valleys and undulating hills that test the strength of our quads. No matter the path, the scenery is stunning. In Minnesota, you forget how beautiful topography can be.
We eventually come across a juniper forest, the first trees we’ve seen so far. People squat, crawl and limbo to get through the branches. We stop for lunch on a high-up clearing halfway through. You can’t beat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a view.

When we emerge from the woods, we are met with what would become known as “The Ridge.” Woefully understated by the our guide, this steep cliff face consists of crumbling rock and quite a large drop. It’s a tough climb on its own, but it’s made even worse by our heavy backpacks. We stay still for a long time, contemplating how we’re going to get over this thing.

Max, Francesca Rankin ’18 and crew leader Maya Agata ’16 make the first move. They are careful to make sure every rock they grab onto is sturdy enough to support their body weight. Everyone watches attentively, too tense to speak. They finesse their way to the top, but most of us aren’t all that relieved; we still need to accomplish this feat ourselves.
One by one we climb up the cliff face. Max sends down a rope for people to grab onto just in case someone loses their footing. He stands at the top of the ridge, ready to help hoist people up the final stretch. After reaching the summit, Marin Stefani ’18 joins Max in helping lift people up. It’s a picturesque example of the teamwork you read about in brochures but are not sure actually exists. After what feels like hours of intensity, everyone makes it to the top unscathed. Many of us echo that it was the first time we had actually felt in mortal danger.

 The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo courtesy of Maya Agata ’16.
The Macalester students explore the Badlands. Photo courtesy of Maya Agata ’16.

We take a moment to collect ourselves and then we’re off again. We spend the next few miles walking through a meandering, dried-out riverbed, hoping that the rainclouds in the distance don’t come any closer. We exit onto some lowlands, and it’s not long before the sun starts going down. We set up camp and inhale some rice and beans. Between the muscle soreness and the coyotes howling, it’s hard to fall asleep tonight.

The start of the hike the next day is tough. The wind is violently whipping in every direction, the sky is covered in clouds and everybody is still sore from yesterday. But we push on, and as the weather starts to improve, we come across a field of bison. The next hour is spent taking roundabout routes, trying not to incense them. Having not spent much time around animals bigger than dogs, I’m losing my mind. But Maya, who spent three months in Botswana and was used to dealing with them, insists they were just like bees: don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you.

Once we’ve gotten through Bison City, the rest of the hike is lax. We finish the last eight miles without a hitch. Though we’re all pretty achy by the time we get back to the vans, the group is in good spirits. Even Ojashvi Rautela ’19, who rolled her ankle in the last mile, has a big smile on her face.

We drive to our final campsite. We set up camp uncomfortably close to several bison, but there are outhouses here — a worthy tradeoff for those of us who were not particularly psyched to defecate in the great outdoors. I go to sleep that night not only content about finishing the long journey, but that I signed up for this trip in the first place. I was originally planning to sit on a couch for a week straight and play video games. At the last second, I signed up for something I had never done before. It wasn’t always easy, but I’m glad I let the Badlands challenge me. It was a tremendous experience, even when I felt like I was going to die.