I admit. I'm an Eastern greenhorn.
On my first ever trip past the Missouri River in 2002, my husband (who'd been born in Colorado and visited out west several times), my daughter and I decided to hit a few landmarks along the way. The Corn Palace was one, since I’d run across that oddity (to me) on some type of “Don’t Miss” travel tips. Amazing. We stared at the outer walls, the detailed panels, and toured the exhibits inside. Wow. And all for the birds... and squirrels, or whatever.
Wall Drugs was another, of course, due to all the signs we’d seen starting in Wisconsin. Mount Rushmore, too. I was stunned that we could glimpse part of the massive stone heads from the highway. We also drove through Custer State Park to see buffalo (from a distance, I'm not that stupid!) and hoped to see a moose or two. Nope. We saw prairie dogs, hundreds of them. I could have watched them pop in and out of their holes for hours. Cute little buggers. No moose in Yellowstone, which was to be the highlight of our trip when we planned it.
But... But! Or should I say BUTTE? We all were far more fascinated by the Badlands. We loved it.
And I mean big time “l-o-v-e” as in “we have GOT to stop here on the way home again” love. Totally unexpected.
Why? Well... Sure, the Badlands have a ‘rugged beauty’ and ‘striking geologic deposits’ according to the National Park website. It’s nice to know that ‘ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse and saber-toothed cat once roamed here.’ Yes, it’s astonishing that it covers almost a quarter of a million acres, that it includes mixed-grass prairie. And that ‘bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets live there today.’ All nice to know.
I think it was the unspoiled nature. There were few trails. Few guideposts explaining the area. No fences, from what I recall. We stood there, staring, as if we'd been transported back into a timeless past. I can't explain it any better than that. And photographs don't do it justice.
My husband found a side road off Interstate 90. We drove to the rim of the Badlands, near a ranch -- I was so jealous, thinking of someone living right on the edge of this stunning gift from God. We parked. Got out of the car. Stepped to the edge. Of course we didn't try to make our way down (not stupid, not us.) Just gazed out across the miles and miles of incredible wind and water shaped rock formations.
I tried to include this feeling in my own writing, when Lily (born/raised near Chicago) sees the West for the first time in Double Crossing. The endless prairie, the Rockies, Donner Lake, California. But... But sometimes words just don't do that feeling justice.
So I found this painting by Thomas Eakins, of two cowboys standing on the rim of the Badlands. Maybe these two considered it a barrier to where they wanted to go. Maybe they stood in awe like my family did. Maybe those unexpected wonders are the best feelings of all.
Here's a brief excerpt from Double Crossing, with Lily and Ace -- the sequel Double or Nothing will be out soon.
“I shouldn’t be out here with you. Alone.”
“Is that right.” Ace scratched his stubbly chin. “I won’t bite.”
“I don’t feel comfortable at this altitude.” I twisted to face the view. No doubt he would try to kiss me again despite his boyish mask of innocence. “These sheds make me nervous. Did you say it might snow? I ought to get my oilcloth cape, I’m so cold.”
“Here, this might help.”
He draped his fringed buckskin coat around my shoulders and then gripped the rail on either side of my hands, his warmth behind me. Ace didn’t brush his rough jaw against my neck or press against me. I leaned back and realized he’d left space between us. Perhaps he was learning manners after all. We stood there for several minutes in companionable silence until the weathered boards came to an end.
Breathless at the gorgeous view, I drank in the deep blue lake nestled between sloping shoulders of green. Thick pines marched along the shoreline. Gleaming snow frosted the high, rocky peaks on all sides. How strange that such a beautiful place could be so far away where few people would see, unless they traveled along this rail line. Ace leaned toward my ear.
“Donner Lake. Wagon train got stranded over winter twenty some years ago.”
“I read about the trial of those who chose cannibalism in the newspaper, Mr. Diamond,” I said. “Don’t remind me now and spoil the view....”
Meg Mims is an award-winning author and artist. Her first book, Double Crossing, won the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel from Western Writers of America and was named a Finalist in the Best Books of 2012 from USA Book News for Fiction: Western.
Meg also wrote two contemporary romance novellas, The Key to Love, and Santa Paws – which reached #6 on the Amazon Kindle Bestseller list for Dogs.