The North and the Badlands

Our first stop after Nashville was the Windy City – we stayed with friends from Poland who are also travellers; much more than us. They had just came back from a month long tour, including a visit to a country that we literally hadn’t even heard of! They live in a wonderful apartment in a leafy, quiet suburb close to downtown Chicago, and so we enjoyed a few days feeling “at home” – sleeping in, big breakfasts, exercising, doing laundry and hanging out with their enormus cat.

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From there, we were supposed to go to straight up to Minnesota, but instead of taking the direct route, we decided to go around Lake Michigan. Unfortunately for almost the whole day there was heavy fog, so we didn’t really see the lake… But as we were leaving, the fog lifted and we caught a glimpse of the enormous expanse of lake, stretching for miles beyond our horizon.

By the time we reached Minnesota, we were on our 26th state, having almost “completed” the East… but we left ourselves Ohio and West Virginia to visit on our way back to New York.

We stayed with wonderful friends on the edge of the beautiful Green Lake in Minnesota; the first night, we had a true American evening with burgers, a bonfire and s’mores by the lake.

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And the next day, they took us out on the lake to learn to waterski… We thought we were pretty good until we saw the 11 year old kids skiing barefoot on the water next to us! But Louise playing a gig at the town local pub was the perfect way to finish the day.

We had been East, we had been South, and now we were heading to the 48 States’ northernmost point, the Lake of The Woods in Minnesota. As we made our way north through lakes and farmers fields, the towns’ populations got smaller and smaller… one had only 261 residents!

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Unable to take the car into Canada to cross back into the true Northern tip of Minnesota, the southern shore of the Lake of the Woods was as far as we could take our Land Rover. In winter, we would have been able to drive all the way over the frozen lake, but the water was clear and warm and blue beneath the sunny sky, and so we enjoyed our meal at the end of the road.

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The next stop was the Badlands National Park, so from Minnesota we drove to North Dakota, spent a night beneath the stars, and kept on South. The Dakotas are states of two halves: East of the Missouri River is just flat grassland, perfect crop and cattle country (as well as full of oil rigs). But over the river, the hills start to rise and fall and the deep green, rugged and rocky terrain reminded us of Scottish Highlands.

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Mt Rushmore

After saluting the nation’s presidents with a throng of tourists at Mount Rushmore, we took the scenic route to the Badlands. Through beautiful mountains, and much quieter roads, we got to the park late at night – staying at the less popular “primitive” campground on the Park’s West permieter. So far away from cities and civilisation, we were absolutely mesmerised by the sheer number of stars that lit up the night sky as we fell asleep.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am, hoping to see the famous Badland scenery at dawn, but we realised that the hundreds of miles of driving made us a lot more tired than we thought… and we finally made it out of our sleeping bags at 7am.

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After we had our breakfast of oats, (or as Michal calls it, horse-food…), we made the short drive to the park through the national grasslands, and were amazed to come upon three Bison in the middle of the prairie.

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Louise, full of wonder, and thinking they were gentle creatures, slowly walked towards the mother, father and baby bison, hoping to see a little more than just their outlines and take a close up shot…  It was only later that she read in the park guide that you should never approach Bison as they are prone to charge and can run up to 30mph! That was probably the closest encounter that she’ll have with Bison…

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The Badlands, in true American style, is almost a “drive through” National Park! You can drive in one end and through the loop, just stopping at the viewing points, but we wanted to get a little closer to these legendary hills. So we packed our backpack and tried to conquer some of the peaks.

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With its shifting, silty, muddy and ever changing hills, the rich coloured bands of the Badlands are breathtaking, but it is not easy to hike even on a clear, dry day.

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We saw mountain goats perching steadily across the peaks, but we weren’t at all as surefooted. Even in just our short hike, we started to understand why even the Lakota tribe called the place “Mako Sika” – literally land bad. Desolate, with no civilisation for as far as the eye can see, the Badlands literally drop out of nowhere from beautiful green plains, and continue with their chalky, unforgiving rock faces for miles on end.

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But there is something exhilarating about feeling overwhelmed by Mother Nature – knowing that as much as we try, man will never be her master. And despite the fact that a friend told us that one day is enough to see the Badlands, we think that it would be a truly enriching experience to fill up a couple of backpacks and spend a couple of days getting lost among the Beautiful Lands… after all, they’re not so Bad..

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