Mississippi is my home. Having lived here all my life, it’s certainly what I know and love. However, I also have a mountain man’s heart. Jeremiah Johnson comes to mind (based on beard quality alone) or, in a non-fiction world, perhaps John Colter. This Southerner’s heart has always longed to explore.
There is a sense of freedom that comes from exploring new places be that a stretch of the Chunky River that you have never floated or a section of the Appalachian Trail that you have never hiked. There is also an energy that comes when experiencing these new places. For me, that feeling is almost electric, all my senses seem to be heightened, exaggerated. It’s almost sensory overload and I think that is why the memories of those places remain so vivid.
Memories in general have always amazed me. Especially the “why” behind what triggers certain memories at certain times. This past Friday as I lay on the table rolling into the tube of an MRI machine, I was struck with a vivid memory of hiking the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park with my son, nephew, and brother-in-law. Why did that memory come then? I have a hypothesis.
I’ve dealt with neck and back issues most of my life, partly due to injury (the “stupid tax” paid for those “hey, watch this” moments) and partly due to age and to genetics – thanks Mom and Dad! The MRI was being done to examine the discs in my neck that are causing issues. So why the Badlands memory?
I think it’s tied to the age portion of why I was having the MRI. I remember the surreal feeling of hiking in the Badlands. It is a beautiful place, but different. It is a beauty that seems to be wrought from struggle. The muted hues of those buttes, gullies, mesas, and hoodoos speak to the age of the place, to the hidden mysteries of what those lands have seen.
Diane Weddington, who spent the Fall of 2001 in the park as part of the Artist in Residence Program, captured the essence of the aged landscape in her poem “Badlands I”:
"...The lines of age are never earned
and most often hide secrets
best left as silent regret.
The wind knows everything
And is indifferent."
Surrounded by the thumping noise of the MRI at work, I thought about why I was there. Like the Badlands, my “lines of age” had not been “earned easily” and as we hiked the Notch Trail that day, I thought the same of that landscape, molded and shaped by the hands of time.
As I thought about the hike, I remembered the sense of closeness I felt to my traveling companions as we made our way along the precarious trail. Thinking about how hard it would have been to traverse that landscape alone as an explorer headed west, I was happy to have company. I was also keenly aware of the entirety of my surroundings, my heightened senses processing each sight and sound as we hiked.
Our hike ended at the “Notch.” The opening stands over a sheer cliff and offers seemingly unending views of the White River Valley. Watching the shadows of the clouds dance across the prairie below, I felt small, insignificant relative to the immense landscape that stretched out before me.
For a time Friday, I was not in the tube of an MRI machine, I was standing on the edge of a mountain of silt, shale, and sand gazing at rich blue skies across an endless grassland, the wind blowing across my face. Perhaps that’s another reason for the timing of the memory.
I remember after our hike we drove through the park with the windows down. I was taken aback by the volume of wildlife in such a seemingly desolate place. Mule deer were bedding down in the meadows at day’s end as bighorn sheep stood silhouetted atop each ridge anchored against the wind that seems a constant in that place. The words of a different poem came to mind then:
"Take a ride across the badlands
Feel that freedom on your face
breathe in all that open space..."
Although, I would classify myself as more of an “Outlaw Country” fan rather than a fan of what passes for country music today, I think those words from the Jason Aldean song “Fly Over States” accurately capture the feeling of the Badlands. Those open spaces do fill you with a strong sense of freedom.
We are blessed to have wild places like the Badlands and I believe we are made whole in both the exploring of and, in this case, the remembering of these places. I look forward to seeing you out there in our great outdoors.
Email outdoors columnist Brad Dye at email@example.com.