For me the East turns into the West when you cross the Missouri River – not the Mississippi River. The endless farms trail off into the eastern edge of Missouri River and farmer caps give way to cowboy hats once you cross the zig zagging Missouri.
I love the West. It’s free. It’s hasn’t been fully tamed or broken. The land is largely free of fences, pavement and concrete.
The wide open West feels open, fresh and free. It unfolds the mind. You can become lost and found in its mind numbing expanse.
In the Chuck Wagon’s Trail
I was 21 when I first discovered the badlands. I was fleeing the grind of a regimented business curriculum and a full time job in advertising. I was up to my eyeballs in shit and trying to sell shit to others before I fixed up an old 1974 VW camper bus (the “Chuck Wagon”) and said – fuck it I’m heading west (or some loose equivalent). It’s still the best decision I ever made.
The wide open West was the perfect place to shed all the clutter. With each mile going West of Minneapolis/St. Paul I put more sky and land between me and all the crowds, posers, billboards and the ads designed to clutter your consciousness and make you ill with insecurity – all the happy bullshit. I left all the shoulds for all the maybe I coulds.
After crossing endless expanses of cornrows and finally the Missouri River in the middle of South Dakota I came upon the “Badlands”. They looked like the bottom of a gigantic ocean that had been drained. And that’s basically what happened a few million years ago, followed by a few hundred thousand years of wind erosion.
I felt like a space traveler who had landed in a completely alien and exotic world. I parked my VW craft along the fringe of the badlands and walked deep out into the canyon on a long narrow ridge. I came to the farthest tip of a ridge and sat down. I was surrounded by a panorama of eroded ridges and steep cliffs.
The sun was beginning to set. The colored layers of rock through out the canyon grew deeper in color as the bright white washed light of the mid day sun turned into a cloudy mix of yellow, red and purple.
The colors grew even more rich and vibrant after I smoked a joint. Nature was putting on a remarkable show that no amphitheater could rival and I had a front row private seat.
I absorbed every changing tone and color in the clouds and in the layers of colored rocks surrounding me. The canyon filled up with darkness from bottom to top once the sun slid off the horizon. The fireball sunset soaked the clouds in rich deep colors of red, maroon and purple blue as the clouds moved over the canyon like flowing lava above me.
When the fireball slipped completely under the jagged horizon the clouds and sky grew dark blue and then black. I had stayed for the entire light show. In the blackness surrounding me I could no longer see the ridges from the steep cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet into the canyon below.
In such total blackness it would be suicidal to try walking back to the Chuck Wagon. I was going to have to settle in for the duration of the night on this narrow strip of ridge with steep cliffs on to my right and left.
I laid back against the hard clay soil that had once been the bottom of the ocean. I watched as stars appeared through gaps in the clouds. The clouds were blowing away and night show was replacing the light show.
I think we often stay very busy to escape ourselves. But tonight I had all night and there would be no running away, no turning on the TV, calling a friend or reading a book. I was straddling the hard clay ground and exposed naked below 100 billion galaxies filled with 100 billion stars. I could almost let go and drop into them.
This moment on the edge of the world under the endless eternal skies that contain 100 billion known galaxies was all mine and mine alone.
I had plenty of time to think against the black infinite star light sky. I thought how it was my choice and mine alone that took me out of the maze of rigid college curriculum at night and the treadmill of selling advertising during the day. I was beginning to realize that life was not a multiple choice test but an endless essay.
I could feel my predictable life giving way to seemingly endless possibilities. Tomorrow would be a truly fresh day.
Flashback – Twenty plus years later
As I write about my first night in the Badlands, I’m seated at my table in Destiny parked in the middle of the Badlands on a gray and windy morning on October 18th 2007. Looking out my window I see the pure and endless desolation. Like an Indian on sacred land, I have retuned to a special place of discovery and renewal.
Years ago I never understood what people meant when they said they “found themselves”. But when you’re lost and don’t even know it how could you? But when you run out of excuses and catch up with yourself, you will have found yourself. And hopefully the person you find is someone you love and want to be with or you’ll keep running.
Ever since my first night in the Badlands over twenty years ago I have carried my first realization of true personal freedom with me. That first night in the Badlands left a gulf between me and conventional life that was as deep and wide as the gaping badlands.
That night I felt I had escaped the maze, or as they call it these days the “matrix”. From that night on I felt free to zig zag and wander and I did for several months. I was a free rat.
In time I returned to college and finished my degree in marketing and I re-entered the “rat race”. But like a dog that’s once tasted red meat they can never really be content with dry dog food.
I’ve made my share compromises and sacrifices to be able to navigate the “real world”. The world only bends to our will so much. But I’ve remained conscious that my life and where I’m at is the result of my cumulative choices. I no longer wear the hypnotic straight jacket of abiding by conventional wisdom.
Successful people learn who they really are and what the world really is and manage to make them work together. As I sit on the edge of the Badlands writing about what matters most to me, I can say I’ve been largely successful.
I’m the writer and creator of my own story. I largely write the plot and choose the characters rather than being just a extra. Life is an adventure if we have the imagination to conceive it and the guts to live it.
Twenty plus years later, I’m still zig zagging down the road of life like a rat free from the maze.
Next Stop – 1880’s Town