11 pm, Badlands SD, on the phone with David.
“Dude, I was supposed to be driving an hour past the Badlands tonight to a campground. I couldn’t help it. I had to stop. The family fell asleep and I turned down the road by Wall Drug but I can’t find the entrance to the rim. Should I do it? Is it worth it?”
Our gas tank was on E, our refrigerator wasn’t working and this was not the plan.
By this time Mathilda had woken up and it seemed like she wasn’t too thrilled with what was happening. But she’s used to my psychosis by now. David’s voice led me to two cell towers and a dirt road on my left with no signs. It looked like trespassing. We pulled in and drove slow. This road was filled with craters that seemed happy to wreck our night if we gave them the chance. As we crawled along the old dirt road, I thought of the campsite that we were supposed to arrive at for a stay that we already paid for. I thought of my kids sleeping in the back. I was questioning my own judgement. I remembered that when we checked the weather earlier, there were 40+ MPH wind gusts expected in the morning. “This is probably a bad idea. I've got to try." After what seemed like a 30 minute crawl, we pull up to the rim of the Badlands.
“Okay I passed the cell towers. Should I turn left or right?”
We could see people out to our right, so we choose left and as we start taking our wide turn in the dark I hear Mathilda yell, “Is that the edge?! Is that the edge!?”
“No, chill out.” I responded.
It was the edge.
“Okay, we’re here. Thank you.” Click.
Our camper was about as unlevel as it gets. The rain was beginning to come down and after all that, the work begins.
Heat… not working properly. Oh well.
Coffee set up for the morning.
By this time, it was well past midnight. I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer so I stepped up to the edge of the chasm and the feint white light of the moon coming through the clouds exposed a drop off that made it hard to breathe. I could hardly sleep waiting for the sunrise. It was only a few hours away.
For months I had a specific picture of this moment in my head. I would wake up before the sunrise while it was still dark out and I would patiently make my coffee and set up a chair and a side table. I would recline and watch the sun creep over the horizon as I sat in complete silence. My expectations were way off.
I woke up before my alarm around 5:30am and I felt like I got hit in the head the night before. You know, that all consuming three to four hours of sleep feeling. Rather than chill and clear, I stepped out to a grey sky and a petty drizzle being forced into my face by a wind that never took a break. Rather than reclining in my zero gravity chair with a hot cup of coffee while watching the horizon light on fire, I was on Facetime with my grandparents trying to show off this intense burst of light that would only last for a few seconds before it hid behind the clouds for the day.
“I called to show you the sunrise. I know you’ve always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon to see it, and since you haven’t gone, I wanted to show you this.”
“Curtis, we did go to the Grand Canyon.”
The color disappeared, I was still on Facetime. It was cold. It was windy. It was not what I expected.
It was perfect.
Clinging tightly to expectations and plans ruin the Badlands rather than exposing the significance of their belonging on the journey to where we think we want to go. Sitting still and accepting what comes reveals a uniqueness and brilliance in it all, rather than frustration and disappointment.
"For the first two days of the trip, forested hills and fertile farms made up the landscape. The fourth and fifth days we drove through the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. It was magnificent country all the way, except for a portion of the third day. On the third day we drove several hours through the Dakota Badlands, where nothing is green or growing. No trees, no water, no towns. The only sign of life was an occasional vulture cruising for carrion, but even that vulture was more like a reminder of death. The only visual interruptions to the tedium were huge signs telling us to be sure to stop at Wall Drug, an unlikely oasis in the middle of the Badlands: Wall Drug." The Pastor, Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson was a pastor in Maryland and each year he would take a trip out to Montana. Montana was the destination. Montana was the intended place to make the impact on him that he desired. He wanted healing and restoration and perspective and clarity. I mean, don’t we all?
I read these words earlier this year in his book, The Pastor. Around the same time, a friend of mine, David was boondocking on the rim of the Badlands with his family for the second time. For Eugene, the Badlands were a hinderance to his journey out west. For my friend David and his wife and five kids, they were a destination. I had to see and decide for myself.
Our destination is California for a few months to get a ministry started and to do some good work with some cool people. The Badlands, unexpectedly became a beautiful and necessary interruption to our well formulated plans.
In The Pastor, Eugene goes on to describe a time in his life that was synonymous with the Badlands. Times of nothingness and times of hardship. Times of frustration and times of absolute destruction of plans. This combination became a time of refining and growth that couldn't be found in safe plans and comfortable living. The badlands can be endured, or they can be used.
For us, we’ve been travelling for a month with our black F-350 and our 39.9 foot renovated 5th wheel from Maryland. So far, we’ve encountered an oil leak, breaking slide outs, burning coffee on a toddler’s hand, a propane leak that filled our camper with gas overnight in the 15 degree weather, my friends son’s limbs shutting down and losing mobility during a snowy lake plunge half way through a hike, our refrigerator wouldn’t get cold when it was warm outside and then decided to freeze everything once we reached colder climates.etc., etc. Even as I write this, we have a tail light out and it’s not the light bulb. There’s always an interruption.
The badlands are frustrating. The badlands are the in-between times. They are the painfully mundane, the screwed up plans and the unexpected problems. They are the waiting and the traffic and the missed turns.
They are pulling up to the rim of the literal Badlands at 11 at night with my wife yelling, “Is that the edge?! Is that the edge?!”, while the kids are starting to wake up in the back.
The badlands accompany the risks that we take and the uncertainty that inevitably comes with those decisions. The badlands are the arguments created and the arguments surfaced in the mess of it all.
In the badlands, there are also the little footsteps in the morning punctuated by warm little arms wrapping around my neck. The badlands are the long, difficult days that get finished off with a rich conversation that was long overdue and worship and prayer. They are the perfect meal of tuna and pita bread at a random campsite off of I-90 that let us in to rest and eat for an hour. They are the time that you’ll never forget with grandpa on Facetime as you miss the sunrise you’ve been waiting for. The badlands are the mundane. They are the painfully tedious. They are the necessary interruptions on our journey that can either be an obstacle to get around, or an oasis to dwell in for healing and recovery. The difference is in our choice.
For me, in the badlands, I'm beginning to find a realization of my life’s smallness and insignificance and the fullness of comfort that comes with knowing who’s Hands I’m in. The badlands are a necessary pit-stop on the journey that transform into a temporary destination. They are a welcomed and uncomfortable oddity that bring with them awe, and with awe, restoration. The badlands rids us of all expectation and they recalibrate our priorities.
What I wanted was chilled air and clear skies to make way for the perfect sunrise. What I got was a moment with family, a burst of light and the perfect reaction of my daughter and wife in the morning when they got the chance to witness the chasm for themselves. The Badlands are worth it.
Recently, we’ve been listening to a song called “Lean Back”. Not the one by Fat Joe, Remy Ma and the Terror Squad in 2004, but by Maverick City Music. Here's a line from the beginning:
“You brought me here to rest, you’ve given me space to breathe, so I’ll stand still until it sinks in.”
As the Dakota Badlands are shaped by the winds and rains and inhabitants and time, God, mold me. Shape me. Not as I wish to be, but as you created me to become. Let the necessary elements of life rid me of the unnecessary layers that have been placed on me over time in order to reveal your Glory.