Hail and Bison: How We Discovered South Dakota

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Picture this: it’s evening in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota, and the sun is setting over the Badlands in ribbons of gold and cerulean. Just over the hill, a bull bison stands like a sculpture–still, except for the occasional flick of his tufty tail. The air is rapidly cooling from 110+ degrees to just bearable. Eire, 5 months, waves her arms and gurgles with the delight of being out of her high chair. We are sweaty, grimy, and wearing identical bandanas. It’s our first full day on the road. Life is perfect.

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And then, from over the hill, sweeps a freight train of wind. The temperature drops. Tiny spits of rain kiss our skin, and within minutes they become huge bruising drops that rapidly turn into hail. The bison disappears, and the light dims and greens. We look at each other and without a word start to pack everything back into our truck. Just in time we leap into the front seat with Eire and watch the torrents unleashed over our windshield.

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But we are parked on dirt, in a horse arena. And that dirt is rapidly turning into mud. We skid and slide as we pull onto the gravel drive and make our way to the one structure that stands in this tiny outpost surrounded by wilderness. Hearts pounding in our throats, we listen to the thud-crash of hail on our windshield. It sounds like bottles breaking. What if our windshield shatters? We sing with Eire, trying to hide our terror.

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Hiding in a concrete pit toilet–none too clean–while wondering how much damage hail can actually do isn’t the ideal way to spend a half hour, but we sing our songs and whisper our fears as a thousand hail-dervishes hurl themselves against the walls outside. Misery suffuses us. Why are we here?

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Suddenly, silence. Holding our breath, we creep out to find the landscape transformed by cold white globules up to the size of a baking potato. Our truck sports a new and interesting collection of hail dents, but our windshield is whole. We are safe.

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As we settle into the bed we recently constructed in the back of our truck and huddle together against the cold, wonder fills us. Just two days ago we were back home in Missouri, drinking coffee and petting cats, packing clothes and making granola balls. Working. In the routine. And here we are in a gravel drive surrounded by signs that say “Wilderness area: enter at your own risk”, in the corrugated rock of the Badlands.

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Terror, wonder, sameness. All sides of the same cube. The organic wonder of life on the road, nurtured and springing from life at home. We’ll be in the Black Hills tomorrow, and this wild land left behind us, but the memories will cling to us forever.


  1. Love this post. Makes me want to head for the Badlands and see some buffalo and wide open places 🙂 Sometimes I wonder if the essence of travel is as much about the magic of the moment as the distance traveled, and the fact that no one will experience a place in quite the same way as someone else.

    1. Yes, though we zoomed in a bit. That bison was just standing right by the gravel road as we drove into the back country. It was really scary actually.


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