David Brooks and the Sandhills Interns Take On the Badlands / by Mel Ziegler

A very chipper David called up, “Are you guys ready to go?” Three half asleep interns stumbled down the stairs, mumbling some words of agreement.  “Don’t overdo it on the granola, we’re going to eat at the Livestock auction,” David warned.  Well, nobody was listening and we all overdid it on the granola.   We piled in the car and made our way to the Sheridan Livestock Auction where we ran into the most beautiful border collie puppy, and made room for a wonderful second breakfast at the Café.  We watched a couple of cows get unloaded, and decided it was time to start the real road trip: Our journey to the Badlands.  

Of course, no road trip with David Brooks is complete without a couple of educational stops.  First, we stopped at a car wash to try and remedy the damage we had done by off-roading to go bird watching a few days before.  We would later learn that it would take not one, but three different attempts at cleaning to get rid of all of the sand.  A few bird-spottings later, we were in South Dakota.

We drove to the historic site of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Here a deadly conflict took place in 1890 between the Lakota people and representatives of the U.S. government, leaving 150 Lakota men, women, and children dead and 51 more wounded. It is also the site of the 1973 protest in which members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to call to attention the conditions on the reservation. We met a woman selling dream catchers and jewelry who was kind to let us know that Sioux, the name used on the site maker, is a French-given name that translates to “snake in the grass,” and people of Pine Ridge definitely prefer to be called the Lakota.  She then directed us to visit an informational sign on the historic event, and told us about an up-and-coming museum to be opened by next summer. We walked up the hill to pay our respects at the mass gravesite of the victims, which continues to be a community graveyard today for family members funerals.

For many of us this was our first time on a Native American Reservation.  It opened up many questions for me as we piled back in the car and headed for the Badlands.  Slowly, the landscape began to change from rolling grasslands, to magnificent layered rock formations, awesome spires, and breathtaking canyons.  We made our way through the park and found the start of the Saddle Pass trail. Us interns hiked to the tallest peak in sight, after David challenged us to get to the top.  While waiting for David to join us, we spotted him, at least 600 feet below us, chasing birds with his binoculars.  We half hiked, half stumbled down the peak to meet up with him and continue the search for the elusive Prairie Eagle.  Our hiking was cut short when we realized that we all toted cameras along instead of bottles of water.  

By the way, the Wall Drug Store has the best advertising strategies I’ve ever seen.  Immediately after chugging the remainder of the water bottle I left in the car, I saw a sign that said “Free Ice Water” just outside of Badlands National Park.  A few more followed advertising ice cream, lunch, and 5¢ coffee. Sold.

“Are you sure you guys don’t want a real lunch?” David asked. “No,” we said in unison with a mouthful of ice cream. He shrugged and finished his sandwich while we chowed down on twenty dollars’ worth of red raspberry ice cream. We then walked around in awe of this overwhelming landmark in American tourism.  Wall boasted kitschy western storefronts, photo opportunities, an arcade, and walls upon walls of souvenirs.  After falling victim to the clever marketing ploys of Wall, we journeyed forth to Mount Rushmore.  

I’m pretty sure everyone fell into a food coma, so I don’t remember anything from the drive, but I do remember waking up in marvel of the Black Hills National Forest.  Instead of the vast, rolling grasslands we had grown accustomed to in the Sandhills, we were suddenly surrounded by mountains covered in beautiful pine trees. Suddenly, Mount Rushmore was no longer just a picture I remembered in my third grade textbook.  We brought our own binoculars and took turns waiting to examine the monument up close and personal.  This soon devolved into us Photoshopping our own faces over top of the “four most important men in American history at the time it was built” via Snapchat. (P.S. Don’t go to Mt Rushmore at sunset because it’s backlit and you’ll go blind from trying to look at it for too long.)

The time finally came to go back home to the Sandhills Institute.  It was a long, arduous, and hangry drive.  Just before we made it home, we nearly hit three black cows that had gotten loose!  Luckily, Marguerite was brave enough to get out of the car and herd them inside of one of our pastures to stay until morning.  We snuck back into the house around eleven at night, and proceeded to eat all of the leftovers in the fridge.  We ended the night marveling at all of the potential for adventure that lies around the Sandhills Institute.  In just a day trip, we saw a National Park, Monument, and Historic Landmark. We even fostered friendships between aspiring and professional artists along the way.

- Lauren Ballejos