Some questions are meant to go unanswered. Why, for instance, didn't the rattler coiled a mere foot off the trail make me pay dearly for my haste and inattention? Reptile apathy? Divine intervention? Or was he as preoccupied with the approaching storm as I was?
You have time to ponder such mysteries when safely ensconced in your tent, watching the nylon flap like a chicken in a cyclone while black-cotton clouds tumbleweed across the sky. But when the torrent ceases as quickly as it began and shafts of sunlight pierce the clouds, your attention shifts to the magical half-light that follows rain so powerful it can wash away memories. You lift your gritty, sweaty face into the veil of lingering mist and see that the storm has given birth to a rainbow.
It was a fitting climax to our Badlands stay, a cleansing of dirty bodies as well as of the land on which we'd toiled for a week. Our crew—14 American Hiking Society (AHS) Volunteer Vacation participants, plus a handful of national park folks?was basecamped in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. We were there to remove barbed wire and fence posts, remnants from days when cattle roamed the land. Budget and manpower constraints had kept park staffers from doing the work, so they turned to the AHS. This year, roughly 700 good-hearted people signed up for one of the 85 projects AHS offers through its Volunteer Vacation program. The volunteers work their tails off in locations from Alaska to Colorado to Florida, building trails, clearing brush, or in our case, making the Plains less prickly for buffalo, pronghorn, grouse, and hikers.
With so many grandiose locales available, why volunteer to spend time in a place the Sioux called mako sica, or bad land? A sound question, if all you've seen of the park are the foreboding views from the scenic overlooks. Set off on foot into Sage Creek, though, and you encounter terrain foreign to windshield tourists?pastoral meadows and grassy hills; square-edged buttes built of layer upon layer of red, tan, and yellow clay and sandstone; weather-sculpted formations that look like fortresses and castles. Prairie dogs play and bark at passersby who get too close, and tree trunks are decorated with tufts of course, brown hair left by itchy buffalo. The air is filled with song?meadowlarks during the day, coyotes at night?and the scent of sweet sage.
The Celts referred to their Highlands as "the thin place," because there, the barriers between the human and the divine are thinnest. That's why we journeyed to the Badlands: In this thin, wide-open place, there are no distractions, no sense of being hemmed in by mountain or forest. You're free to wander across the gentle terrain, to let your spirit drift on the prairie wind.
After the day's work is done, that is. Each day, we left basecamp by 8 a.m. and divided into teams, one of which pulled wire from posts and rolled it into wheels the size of a tractor tire. Cowboys say barbed wire has a memory because, once free of the posts, it tries to return to its original coiled shape. The result is a maddening tangle of rusty spikes that pierce leather gloves and make your arms and legs look like you tried to stop a cat fight.
The rest of us pulled posts, which meant using shovels and post-hole diggers to loosen soil, then employing a steel-bar-and-chain contraption to force the posts from the ground. We pullers learned early on the joys of Badlands "gumbo," a cruel blend of clay and soil with a texture somewhere between quicksand and Silly Putty. A fence post, when planted 4 feet deep in the infernal stuff, doesn't come up without a mighty fight, a few primal screams, and a healthy dose of blue language.
All day long, the volunteers sucked down water like thirsty camels, watched for snakes, and tried not to sit on prickly pear cacti during rest breaks. We wondered aloud why the wind tried to blow us off the hilltops all day, then died at 3 p.m., when the sun was hottest. At dusk, we compared blisters (on hands, not heels) as we hiked back to camp, tired, in need of a shower, but more in need of food. We ate as a group, and searched out any slice of blessed shade we could find in the tree-thin country?even if that meant dining beside a dried buffalo pie or two. We talked about places hiked and families. We nursed sunburn and windburn and flicked ticks into Sage Creek. And in our little family, we all laughed and felt like we were home.
When you consider the Volunteer Vacation premise—pay your own way, take time off from job or school, supply your own gear, all so you can sweat and toil?you might expect a complaint or two. I heard none the whole week, except for gentle grousing about how wide-open spaces make it a challenge to answer nature's call in private. That's because these volunteers?the college student studying kinesiology, the retired Illinois couple, the flight attendant, the auto-body shop owner, and the rest?shared a common cause: to do something for the land, something tangible and real. In the Badlands, at day's end, we'd look behind us, where miles of fenceline had stood, and see land that bore no sign of human passing. It was as clean and natural as it had been 150 years ago, as if you could gaze back through time. This is as close as you come to helping land heal and grow wilder.
For your efforts, the land repays you. Patch its wounds and nurse it back to health and you become intimate with the place, more so than while hiking or camping there. The land reveals its heart, which is always far from the roads and deep in the backcountry, and lets you touch it. The place is better after your passing, and so are you.
You can't own a piece of a national park or wilderness, but this is close. Make an offering of your sweat and effort and a bond is born that stretches beyond fond memories; it's an emotional link between you and the land that's not to be broken. Just ask any of the Badlands volunteers. Better yet, find out for yourself: AHS Volunteer Vacations, (800) 972-8608, ext. 206; www.americanhiking.org.