Dispatch From the Badlands
Photos and words by Carmen Aiken
On the dotted line to Sheep Mountain Table, I suddenly brake. Something tilts in my nervous system, tugs. The summer’s off-pavement riding has me forgetting the sweetness of an emptiness’s quiet when your contraption and all the nonsense it carries is, for a moment, still. What do you matter? The rocks rest as they wont to do, I suppose, the world ticks to its own endless motion, even as it’s stupidly being timed and quantified on devices it doesn’t give a shit about.
There’s no wind. I am riding the road into the South Rim and the sensation gnawing at me is a shade to the left of every gut feeling ignored that I’ve barely made it out of, and the irrational exhaustion from hunger or thirst, and the ears thrown back just when there’s some sound or pressure drop or my cross of space owned by the dead.
No wind. No traffic. No bison, no bird, just me between quiet rock, firmament. Here the soft evening reds have vanished, the peeling arroyos busted open. Nothing but walls of stone, then sun, these supposedly the same stuff I’m made of but one of us is gonna keep on and I remember again, keenly, it won’t be me.
There are no clouds. I go oninto the crush of the formations, tires, sun, careful conservation of energy. Just me and the Badlands.
Earlier this year I moved to Minneapolis. My life with my bikes here has not lived up to my hopes, mostly, or how my life with bikes existed before. Maybe, yes, absolutely Chicago finally left me hard and emptied out and tired, but I knew a lot of it well. I rode everyday, built skills on reclaimed landfill pumptrack, rode made up centuries on a single-speed and backpack camped on my Varsity along the lake. Now, kind of awful suburban commutes had me mostly out on weekends and too much bike noise, currently ratcheted up to level 17, had me questioning my own signal. What the fuck was I supposed to enjoy, on my own and for myself, again?.
Practicing for Land Run 100, I sought out gravel roads within a fifty-mile radius or so (I recommend the scenic Cannon River Valley and it’s well-lit Inn) and realized my proximity to the Badlands. Drive 500 or so miles from Chicago and enjoy St. Louis or somewhere in Ohio. But here, with a heavy enough foot, I could hit emptiness in no time, give or take seven hours.
So I went.
I didn’t ride to the Badlands. I planned on using the roll I bought with timid bikepacking hopes damn near a year or so ago, loaded up front in the new configuration for touring I liked. I didn’t see many vehicles with bikes on my way in and suppose the ones I saw zooming west headed off to race. I’d done the 2018 version of leaving a note, texting a couple friends and some family I’d be gone. I finished work at 10 PM and was at the Dakota border around 10 AM.
Before more or less spontaneously deciding to vanish, I finally did take the bike out packed up with shelter, did a few commutes with my cheap blue tent tied lashed via bungee to the rails on my saddle, and filled the panniers up which had taken me through the Blue Ridge and the Mississippi valley and city streets, then figured I’d be ready. I love this bike, bought it specifically so I could tour and also to ride gravel which is I guess to say the diminishing amount of events where I can ride in a place with myself, basically, and the matter of time or other people should not exist for as long as I can keep that possible (given my hourly wages and hyper-inflated costs of these events, well, we’ll see).
That place I go, however, remains to me of utmost importance.
Arrival: evening. I rode away from the Sage Creek campground quick. I figured to explore where to go before gearing up, planning to backcountry bike camp.
My legs opened up and the air settled with the sun near extinguished, a golden hour the West does so well, and I found a path split through the grass. From a distance it seemed like singletrack but quickly revealed itself to be bison track. The hoof indentures and their jolts soon let out to rocky surfaces, cracked earth about wind swept stone crests.
It’s another planet.
No, this planet. I’ve fallen from time. Sage air, rocks burnt slick as glass.
Though maybe a half mile from the road, being lost seemed imminent. Carefully I worked my way back, found the bison’s clean middle parting in the grass. On the other side of the road I sat under a formation, bike on dirt, caught my breath in the violet hour, decided to stay camped where I was and ride wherever I could.
I started out to the South Rim early. The US Government made it bombing range but it was home, a place belonging to a a people. It sits in the Pine Ridge Reservation, stretches almost to Wounded Knee. In high school history I learned barbed wire was invented in DeKalb, IL, a suburb of Chicago, depending on who you ask. Somewhere I remember hearing without it there is no frontier, and thus no suburb.
At the exit from the park towards Scenic, the faintest trace of path appeared along the wire dividing the Badlands from the rest of us. Still overcast out, and beneath me mumbled the tangle of prairie plants so distinct from the green fields of corn or soy beyond the barbs. The tracks faded and I stopped just short of the cliff’s edge, the heard of buffalo suddenly looming.
Soon after a rancher slowed for me as I ground on, the clouds gone and the wind on the gravel road without pause.
Y’alright? You set up for water and stuff? I nodded quick, smiled. I rose through the cracked earth, I curved down.
On my return from the Rim, thrumming in salted and seared skin, a man with a horse trailer told me I had more in me than he did. He pulled up as I ran water over my neck, back in Scenic, a town of a gas station and pentecostal Latinx church. We filled our vessels out of the pump behind the post office in a quiet breeze and he asked polite questions about my bicycle and my journeys.
Mostly I knew I was selfish in some ways and stupid in others, which maybe adds up to some kind of courage. At first I was smug and couldn’t believe I saw no other cyclists around me. And then there were no other people at all. Not on the gravel road or asphalt highway, farmhouses spread far, towns for motorcycles to refuel at, and so then it was being stupid, forgetting sunscreen, never eating or bringing enough food. Knowing exactly that those stones and the wind would coax out the same emptying and hopeless skull speak, and every one would echo across the emptiness.
Selfishly I rejoiced at being alone, if only because I could ride into a place with no other option than to keep riding, and no people with their enjoyment of being mano-a-bicycle I am less interested in. There’s a trend in my bloodlines of our baser selves striking out, to hell with everyone, but it’s an ugly thing to be a pioneer. A in the overloud enthusiasm of being a single one, the only one, given the quiet acceptance of the remainder of the quiet lonely ones in the world. The Badlands, I think, belong to no one, and how on earth could I make any meaning of only one of me with all it holds.
I let the water dry on my shoulders and caught back some energy coming off the paved highway onto the rock road to the table. I crouched into the curve, ready to fall further out of time, knowing somewhere nothing would stop me if I just kept going.