It is just past daybreak in the Badlands, and the spectacle of another sunrise is beginning to play out once more across the haunting, jagged cliff faces of South Dakota's ancient hills. The sunlight is peeling away the night and painting the rock the color of ash and gold.
In another few hours, the sun will be overhead, and the shadows and the textures will melt away. Until then, we must stop and look and marvel.
South Dakota is more than the Badlands, of course. It is the great stone faces of Mount Rushmore and the dark blankets of evergreens that give the Black Hills their name. South Dakota is a great bearded buffalo, Wounded Knee and a building covered with corn.
But nothing, perhaps, is more breathtakingly unique than the Badlands, a national park and national treasure that encompasses 160 square miles of desolate, savage beauty.
Even now, park rangers explain, the Badlands terrain must submit to wind, rain, frost and rivers _ the power tools of erosion that shape our rugged western landscapes. In South Dakota, we are told, this work lasted more than 300-million years.
"Some people don't want to think about that at all," says Kathy Steichen, a ranger and interpreter at Wind Cave. "I suppose a lot of them _ creationists, I guess _ want the Earth to have a much shorter time frame than what the geologists think. Sometimes we just say the cave is very old, so (visitors) can ignore the geology and just go with the beauty. And that's a good way to see the park, too."
The 100 linear miles of jagged pinnacles, buttes and canyons (only a fraction of which is within the park) do assault the eye, seeming to come out of nowhere. First-time visitors may feel overwhelmed by the tortured skyline that is streaked with red, white and yellow stripes.
It's even more overwhelming if they consider that those markings represent millions of years of sedimentation and layers of volcanic ash.
The rangers in charge of the Badlands, and its neighbor, Wind Cave National Park, emphasize the harsh realities of geological forces that made these places so noteworthy _ floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glaciers, shifting continental plates, emerging mountains. About 50 miles apart as the eagle flies, the two parks experienced many of the same natural phenomena with radically different results.
The park caretakers refrained from applying mystical labels to everything. The topographical features viewed from scenic turnoffs in the Badlands, for example, are identified with prosaic, descriptive names: Prairie Winds Overlook, Cedar Pass, Cliff Shelf.
Park officials feel no need to employ hyperbole. The Badlands has drawn a steady stream of about 1.2-million annual visitors during the past decade. An upward spike in attendance did occur during 1990 and '91, when the movie Dances With Wolves _ filmed in the vicinity _ induced an extra few hundred thousand people to take a look.
The Badlands seems rugged but are wearing away at blistering speed, if you time them with the geological stopwatch.
"Erosion is one of the few things around here that we don't have to worry about," says Badlands superintendent Irvin Mortenson.
"It's part of the landscape and, yes, it's a dynamic landscape. The wind and rain may shorten some of these buttes and peaks by half an inch a year. Additional sediments keep moving the Badlands wall to the north. But the geologists tell us we still have another half-million to a million years left."
At Wind Cave National Park, officials have labeled some of the underground tours and physical features with fancy nomenclature, but they show relative restraint.
For instance, a 1-hour expedition through a section of cave that displays several representative features has been dubbed the Garden of Eden Tour. But most Wind Cave attractions are described matter-of-factly. In several locations, moisture has eaten the limestone so as to leave almost precise, cobwebby shapes known as "boxwork." Shiny flat spots called "flowstone" wear skinny stalactites that seem to drip fairly.
Examples of aptly named "frostwork" resemble scotch pines sprayed with silver paint. Helictite "bushes" might be mistaken for the dried stems and twigs of a garden in winter. "Popcorn" formations glow white in the cave's artificial illumination and appear good enough to eat.
Amid all this chaotic metaphor, visitors have to keep reminding themselves that these bizarre features resulted from the long-term effects of random water torture applied to common limestone.
In the Badlands, imagination comes into play when we are asked to picture an unfamiliar, prehistoric world. Peculiar-looking mammals roamed there 37-million years ago, when the Badlands was a draining seabed overgrown with jungle vegetation. Fossilized remains hint at populations of saber-toothed tigers, piglike oreodons and early versions of the rhinoceros and camel.
Then our fantasy must jump ahead to the arrival of humans, just 12,000 years ago. These were people who subsisted for awhile on woolly mammoth meat in a setting nearly identical to the one visitors see now. Long after that, the Arikara Indians came along. They were run off by the Sioux late in the 18th century. In the Badlands, the Sioux (or Lakota) ruled for another hundred years, but those were hard-pressed years.
White explorers who ventured into Sioux territory at first cursed its steep, barren cliffs. French fur trappers called this rough portion of the vast western landscape mauvaises terres a traverser _ "bad lands to travel across." The Sioux also struggled with the raw conditions, and they shared the trappers' sentiment. Their phrase was more succinct: mako sica, or "bad land."
Wise Oglala Sioux elders might have read a portent into those words because the late 19th Century brought the white's massive western expansion across the prairie and with it, destruction of the once-huge buffalo herds, broken treaties and an onslaught of armies, pioneer families, miners and cattle ranchers.
The Native Americans resisted this movement for more than 40 years but finally succumbed on Dec. 29, 1890, when members of the Seventh Cavalry massacred some 200 men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek. That spot in the Pine Ridge Reservation is marked by a simple monument about 25 miles south of the Badlands scenic route.
On the scenic route itself, a turnoff invites visitors to pause at the Journey to Wounded Knee Overlook. There they can stare out upon a still-forbidding expanse and imagine the desperate trek undertaken in December 1890 by 350 followers of Chief Big Foot _ 150 grueling miles from their Cheyenne River encampment to Wounded Knee. A day after their arrival on Dec. 28, soldiers surrounded the exhausted families and systematically shot most of them.
Nearly a decade before that, two white settlers and suspected horse thieves named Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise in a Black Hills prairie. When they approached the source _ a small hole in the ground _ legend has it that the gusts of wind from the hole blew Jesse's hat off.
That's how Wind Cave got its name. Scientists eventually determined that the wind is created by differences in the outside atmospheric pressure and the pressure below.
On the Garden of Eden tour one afternoon, ranger Michelle Marsh explained that the cave doesn't always create a breeze; often it inhales.
"Every time the weather changes on the outside, that upsets the input and output of the wind flow at the natural entrance (the one discovered by the Binghams)," Marsh said. "Today, the air is blowing out of the natural entrance. Two days ago, the air was blowing in."
Marsh said that two groups of serious caving hobbyists explore and map the cave. Their measurements of changes in barometric pressure at the natural entrance, she said, indicate that the 78 miles of cave mapped so far represent only 5 percent of the total.
Wind Cave became a tourist attraction shortly before the turn of this century. Entrepreneurs blasted out passageways and set up lanterns.
A few hundred feet above the caverns, the rest of Wind Cave National Park is just as interesting. Rippled prairie rich with grass and wildlife, scattered pine trees, farmland and potential farmland. Bison graze on a deep-green spring carpet of rolling prairie grass, a non-cave zephyr riffles wildflowers and buoys the wings of soaring hawks.
A lot of America used to be like this. Anyone privileged to stand on a windy Badlands butte or follow a path in the seemingly endless prairie covering Wind Cave National Park can pretend it still is.
If you go
Getting there: The Badlands National Park is about 75 miles southeast of Rapid City, S.D. and about 3 miles south of I-90. Nearest major airport in Rapid City. The park marks the gateway to the scenic wonders of the West for those making the traditional American cross-country drive on I-90. That highway stretches from Boston to Seattle, and the Badlands provides the first fully satisfying answer to the eternal question: "Are we there yet?"
Those who prefer cutting corners can fly to Rapid City, usually with a stop _ and perhaps a change of planes _ in Denver. From Rapid City Regional, the Badlands is but 75 miles away on I-90, a relatively short trip through magnificent prairie.
The Badlands park is easily accessible along the Badlands Loop Road (Route 240) that twists through the heart of the most scenic part. The 32-mile road includes numerous parking areas and scenic overlooks, but no service stations, so be warned to gas up before leaving the town of Wall, near the western edge of the park, or I-90.
When to go: The park is open year-round but is at its most attractive in late spring, when the prairie grass is still green and sets off the rock formations in most dramatic fashion. Winter and summer bring extremes of cold and heat.
The most scenic times of day to drive the Loop Road are just after sunrise or shortly before sunset, when the sun is low and the contrast between sunlit and shaded portions of the formations is more distinct.
The park also includes developed nature trails and a visitors center at Cedar Pass.
Those who want to give their 4-wheel-drive vehicles a workout may venture farther west into the Sage Creek Wilderness Area and then south on South Dakota highways 590, 589 and 27. After all that rugged driving on gravel roads and two-tracks, the adventurers are rewarded by eerie silence and some of the most awesome views in the Badlands.
Entrance fees: $5 per car; $3 per bicyclist, bus passenger or hiker (all good for seven consecutive days).
For more information: Contact the park rangers at P.O. Box 6, Interior, SD 57750; call (605) 433-5361.
Where to stay: Sage Creek and Cedar Pass campgrounds are open from May to October on a first-come, first-served basis; $10 a night, 14-night maximum. No showers. Tent and recreational vehicle sites have no hookups. Cedar Pass group campground charges $2 per person, $20 minimum. Reservations accepted Memorial Day through Labor Day through camp headquarters.
From mid-April through October, 24 cabins are available at Cedar Pass Lodge (Box 5, Interior, SD 57750; (605) 433-5460), on South Dakota Highway 240 in the park ($39 double).
Motels outside the park can be found in Wall and Interior, some of them operating only from spring through fall.
Accessibility: The Ben Reifel Visitor Center and nearby gift shop, restaurant and exhibit areas all are wheelchair accessible, as are the exhibits and restrooms at the White River Visitor Center. Windows Trail and the Fossil Exhibit Trail also are accessible to wheelchairs users. Restrooms and three campsites at Cedar Pass have similar accommodations.
Details on Wind Cave
Getting there: Wind Cave and the nearby Jewel Cave National Monument comprise the underground portion of the Black Hills/Badlands/Mount Rushmore Grand Tour. The caves are about 45 miles south of Rapid City. Scenic route (U.S. 16) includes Mount Rushmore National Monument, Black Hills, scenic Needles Highway bypass and Custer State Park. Direct route from Rapid City, South Dakota 79, is faster, less interesting.
Getting around: Wind Cave National Park and adjoining Custer State Park join seamlessly at Custer's southern border. A drive along the main Wind Cave roads, South Dakota 87 and U.S. 385, rewards with sightings of grazing bison and squirmy prairie dogs, plus the occasional elk or pronghorn antelope.
Hikers can meander on 30 miles of hiking trails, struggling to the top of Rankin Ridge in the north, or strolling amid the soothing swish of prairie grass and groves of pine at lower elevations.
Down below, guided cave tours leave every 20 minutes and vary in ambition from quarter-mile samplers on paved walkways to half-day explorations of difficult nooks and crannies. The more arduous itineraries require mounting up to 450 stairsteps. Visitors in wheelchairs or with other special needs may arrange short tours at the visitor center.
All cavers should wear low-heeled shoes that provide good traction on slippery passageways. No matter what the surface weather, the caves maintain a 53-degree temperature, so bring a jacket.
When to go: The park is open all year, but the visitor center and the caves are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and Jan. 1. Those who can avoid the summer Black Hills tourist crush should experience pleasant weather in late spring and early fall.
Where to stay: Elk Mountain Campground provides 96 camping sites. It is open on a first-come, first-served basis from May through September for $10 a night. More lodging and camping facilities are available in nearby Custer State Park and the towns of Custer and Hot Springs.
For more information: Wind Cave National Park, RR1, Box 190-WCNP, Hot Springs, SD 57747-9430; (605) 745-4600.
Fees: None to enter the park. Cave-tour fees are $4-$15, depending on length and difficulty of tour. Age 62 and older: $1-$7.50. Ages 6-16: $2-$3.50.
Other worthy sites in South Dakota:
+ The most visited of the Black Hills attractions is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, completed in 1941.
This sculpture of presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson is an imposing, incredible sight for first-time visitors. Each of the presidential heads is as tall as a six-story building.
For those who have seen the memorial only from photographs, brace for a shock. Like the Badlands at sunrise, the carvings are riveting.
+ The Corn Palace at Mitchell. Each year, from 2,000 to 3,000 bushels of corn and grasses are used to decorate the outside of the building. A series of photographs inside the Corn Palace traces the 103-year history of the building. Nearby are the Enchanted World Doll Museum and the Soukup & Thomas International Balloon and Airship Museum. The latter houses what may be the world's largest collection of ballooning memorabilia and mementos.
+ Crazy Horse Memorial, located between Hill City and Custer. Visitors can watch work progress on the world's largest mountain carving, of Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse. When finished, the carving of the great chief, astride his horse and with his arm raised and pointing forward, will dwarf Rushmore. The carving is in its 50th year.
__ Information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was used in this report.