Good Times in the Badlands
Hunter, angler, photographer, writer, and silversmith, Jillian Lukiwski has forged her way on a path less traveled. This fall, she ventured to the Badlands of South Dakota, where the conditions swing from blazing hot days to take-your-breath-away cold nights, to put our new fall apparel to the test. Read about the trip in her own words.
I experienced South Dakota for the first time in my life one year ago when Robert and I traveled there in the heart of the upland season to work our dogs on pheasant—one of the wild wonders of the state. As soon as our truck rumbled over the state line from Wyoming, I felt a sense of homecoming. Some places reach out, grip me tightly at the roots of my soul, and dive deep like some unseen force that is greater than gravity. The connection I feel to this state isn’t just because it’s unexpectedly and mysteriously beautiful, there’s an ineffable sense of sacredness that seems to hover over the land here—nothing radical or potent or specifically religious in nature, just a gentle sort of holiness that seems to permeate the sky and the earth, something quiet and pure that stitches all living things together.
Robert and I were delighted to recently find ourselves in the state again. We began our visit by spending some time in the world famous Black Hills. These ponderosa pine blanketed hills rise up out of the surrounding grasslands quite abruptly to a height of over 7,000ft and are considered sacred lands to the Lakota Nation. On this visit, Robert and I, armed with a tent, sleeping bags, and camping sundries, spent a stormy night on a quiet lake hemmed in on one edge by granitic monoliths. Our campfire hissed in the wet weather, we watched the hulking stones at the end of the lake slide in and out of heavy fog. Tater made a warm nest out of our sleeping bags while we cooked dinner over bright coals that flickered in a wind that brought the rain in sideways from all directions. In the morning, all was calm, the surface of the lake was pocked with erratic patterns of concentric circles, geometric proof of feeding trout. We set up our rods and spent some time catching fish while our breakfast cooked over the campfire, and the mist slipped through the friendly pines.
“Some places reach out, grip me tightly at the roots of my soul, and dive deep like some unseen force that is greater than gravity.”
– Jillian Lukiwski
Contrary to popular belief, it can actually be quite magical to experience a place in dreadful weather, it brings new textures to light, it reveals the hidden personality traits of a landscape. While walking through a pine forest, the silhouettes of deer emerged from the statuesque silhouettes of trees, stones, and shrubs. The bird songs blended with the percussion of rain dripping from branch tips, a pair of widow-makers creaked and gossiped in the wind like grumpy old ladies, a chipmunk rattled off insults at Tater—the world was at once muted and bombastic in the heavy weather, we saw the Black Hills with new eyes and reveled in the landscape with fully engaged senses.
At Sylvan Lake, I couldn’t believe a dramatic landscape existed beneath the obstinate blanket of fog. Visibility was roughly 20ft so we took the opportunity to order hot drinks and warm our bones by a fire in the beautiful and nearby historic lodge. When the low clouds finally lifted, the temperature remained around freezing but we bundled up and headed out anyway. We loaded our fishing gear and Tater Tot in a canoe and paddled out to a rock that resembled a swimming turtle (which seemed fitting since the turtle plays an important role in the Lakota story of the creation of the world) and we fished there for a while, mesmerized by the ancient landscape and the simple beauty of trout slurping bugs off the surface of dark water.
Thoroughly chilled to the marrow of our bones, we left the Black Hills behind and dropped down into Custer State Park where we couldn’t seem to stop singing snippets of “Home On The Range” as we watched for wildlife. We saw pronghorn standing stoically with their white rumps turned into the sharp wind. We watched bison graze their way through tallgrass prairie. There was a time when American bison crossed the country in groups of tens of thousands. They shook the foundations of the earth. They’re such fascinating relics, these icons of the West. We never grow tired of seeing them.
From Custer State Park we made our way back through the Black Hills and pressed onward to an area we hadn’t yet explored, the badlands! It was in this wind and water-carved expanse of stone that the sky broke open, and we witnessed the ebullient face of the sun for the first time in days. The light stunned us and in the light, the beauty of the badlands unfurled in full contrast and chroma. Unimaginable colors erupted from textural folds and creases in the landscape, and we took our time exploring in the warmth and sunshine. Bighorn sheep sat like wise sentinels on stone shelves and mule deer bedded down in the calm of the ravines. Everywhere we looked everyone and everything basked in the break in the weather.
On our route back to Rapid City, we passed through a boarded-up town that felt full of gold rush ghosts and the echoes of South Dakotan pastimes. I found myself wondering about who lived in these little towns on the edge of the grasslands. I wondered about who took the time to plant lilacs on the side of the old saloon and who served up ice cold drinks to weary travelers? We were road weary, ourselves, after better acquainting ourselves with this fine state and we decided to start the long journey home to Idaho. I think Robert and I will always prefer to explore places that seem simple at first glance. We’re always willing to sit and wait for beauty to emerge from a landscape. It’s how we choose to live—a little slower, a little richer. South Dakota grants us the kind of time and space required for prospecting and unraveling the secrets of the natural world. We don’t need all our days to be sunny, we don’t need beauty to be blatantly obvious, the wild spaces that tend to tightly hold our attentions are the sort of spaces that require us to invest our senses deeply and practice a kind of togetherness that has made us best friends. South Dakota manages to bring us together and take us deeper each time we visit, and ultimately, that’s the reason we love the state like we do.
I’ve heard it said that South Dakota is where the West begins and I am beginning to find some truth in those words. South Dakota is where the mountains of the West begin to jut upwards out of the skin of the earth, where the elk begin their migratory paths, where massive swaths of public lands cut massive holes in the map of the country. This is where the indefatigable majesty of the West springs up and flows forth until the land meets the Pacific Ocean. Maybe the Lakota Nation is right, maybe this little corner of the country truly is “the heart of everything that is.”