I was in the Badlands last week with my 14-year old, a rising high school freshman. It was quite a week.
I remembered sometime in the middle of the trip that I’d gone to the Badlands when I was six months pregnant, exactly 15 years before to the weekend. I insisted on sleeping on the ground and going about my business as usual, just with a thicker sleeping pad and a sturdier set of trekking poles. Back then, I was just trying to process how impending motherhood would fit in with my preferred lifestyle.
And last week, I was just trying to process how motherhood would fit in with my preferred lifestyle.
I learned a lot, about both him and myself, which is still unspooling. It wasn’t my ordinary “go smell gross and have absurd experiences” kind of trip. It was quieter, less unbounded. My usual intention on my trips is to shine a light into the natural world and the tendencies of humanity at large. This one turned the flashlight into the corners of myself, my parenthood, and my insecurities.
If the Badlands trip 15 years ago was about how to keep my self while trying to produce someone else, this trip was about how to surrender parts of myself and my own best-laid plans to provide space for the development of my son’s true self. He is not me; he prefers hotels with glass elevators to tents, and air conditioning to cool breezes. And yet, like me, he is obsessed with animals and wildlife. He just doesn’t want to sleep next to them. We did a bit of both.
He was open to my kind of experience, but oddly, I struggled to find the energy to show him. Our cruise through the Badlands also reminded me, gently, that I’m still recovering from some upheavals and pain. The last 18 months has seen the death of my beloved grandmother and the illness and death of a good friend. Other friendships ended, which while necessary, was painful.
I spent the first part of the week in a panic because I wasn’t feeling the way I usually feel about being in one of the country’s great natural areas. I had gotten used to doing this a certain way, but this trip decided to show me a different part of myself this time, and taught me — again, gently and slowly — that when you allow death to make you TOO panicky about living life, you get tired. The white rocks and the prairie dogs kept whispering at me to step back a little. I heard them, finally.
Not every one of my trips is a thrill, but they are always, always, a lesson.

8 thoughts on “Badlands, the Sequel

  1. What a beautiful, introspective post — and what a gift you’ve given your son by sharing this trip with him! I hope you have found that being a mom hasn’t forced you to surrender your sense of self, but rather has amplified it.

  2. Wise words “that when you allow death to make you TOO panicky about living life, you get tired. ” Yes, deathly tired. It sounds as though you’re finding the answers to that.

  3. Very thought provoking Jennifer. I like to retreat into nature (very small scale compared with you, like a two hour walk in the countryside or a National Trust garden) and whilst it usually almost instantly restores me, sometimes I’m a little impatient that I don’t immediately feel amazing. It’s a big ask that by simply stepping into a woodland it can transform our state of mind (even our health) and sometimes my expectation is unrealistically and foolishly high. But like you say, there’s always something to be gained, something to be learned, that make these little ventures worth repeating.

    1. You hit on something different between our two countries: the “two hour walk in the countryside.” The English countryside is a good deal more walkable than the U.S. countryside, is my understanding, due to land use policies and laws. One day I want to come to England (I’ve been there once but in the very cold winter) and experience such a thing. I think the differences in how and where we seek nature across countries and geographies are fascinating. If I wanted to walk for a couple of hours in nature, I would seek a state park, large municipal park, or national park — or, of course, a body of water, which is public regardless of who owns the land on either side.

      And yes, I’ve come to realize that the calm that comes with being in the natural world is pretty variable for me. I have to feel free, and not obligated in the near term to anyone or any other activity. I think that might be why I struggled in the Badlands. (Also, of course, the continuing sadness over the death of my friend.) Anyway, the feeling doesn’t always hit like a truck. It’s more subtle, sometimes something I don’t realize until I’m back among cars and noise. 🙂

  4. Yes, like woodlands and forests are different – some you suddenly come across at the edge of a field and they’re thick and dense and dark immediately and much the same all the way through. Others you enter more slowly, a small tree here and there, as the density of vegetation increasing until finally you’re in the thick of it and surrounded. I guess the way nature impacts us psychologically on any one day on any one trip varies much like this difference between forests.

    A few years back our family stayed in a yurt in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. It was a great experience (the mice droppings and slightly leaky roof were a step too far for my wife – one night we ended up sleeping under the kids’ bunk bed to shelter from the drips!) but what made me think of it was the river that flowed past, a short walk down the hill from yurt, and contained a cage (like you might take a dog to a vet in) on a rope in the middle of the stream. This was our refrigerator… A side of me loves this kind of living and if I had the financial means I really think I could live that way for long periods of time…

    1. Ahh!!!! I love that! What a story. It’s funny how those memories pop up, unimpeded by things like leaky roofs. (Sometimes, for me, extreme things like that only add to the mysticism and memory of the event, but I’m weird. 🙂 )

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