Treasures of the Dakota Plains

Veering from Highway 385 onto 79, then onto the first unmarked road heading east, the Badlands are nowhere to be seen but the expansive Pine Ridge Indian Reservation offers enough gems to keep my camera clicking.  The reservation is 2.7 MILLION acres, more than twice the size of Delaware and is home to the Oglala Lakota American Indian tribe, descendants of such famous warrior chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse.

Dry Goods Store

North of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota

Originally part of the Great Sioux Reservation established under The Treaty of 1868, the reservation faces grave challenges. I left the reservation with photographic captures that are evocative, beautiful and especially poignant when you contrast them with the harsh reality of the human lives there. Passing the photos on to you for enjoyment, in essence taking away only the good from a place whose “bad” is in such opposition, doesn’t feel right to me. Love may be what makes the world go round, but awareness is what makes the turn worthwhile. From the Indian Youth Organization website:  “With the exception of Haiti, life expectancy is lower here than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere (men – age 48, women – age 52), infant mortality rates are the highest in the United States, and many families have no electricity, telephone service, running water, or sewers and must use wood burning stoves to heat their homes.”  There are several grass roots organizations assisting with agricultural education and well-water management. If you’re interested in more, check out the website Running Strong for American Indian Youth.

Plains Indian Burial Platform

Surrounded by steep drop-offs to the Badlands, this is a scaffold burial platform (representational).  Edward S. Curtis photographed one of these in 1908 and Captain Lewis noted the expedition’s discovery of one in his journal dated April 20, 1805.  “I walked on shore.killed two deer, wounded an Elk and a deer; saw the remains of some Indian camp, near which stood a small scaffold of about 7 feet high.underneath this scaffold a human body was lying, well rolled in several dressed buffalow skins and near it a bag.containing sundry articles belonging to the disceased. – Captian Lewis”

Edward S. Curtis, courtesy

Edward S. Curtis 1908, courtesy

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Longhorn Saloon, North of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Asanpi Bleza "thin milk" in was a Brule indian whose body was discovered in 1948 by John

This took some research.  The sign was too much of a temptation to ignore so I pursued the arrow into a high plains pasture overlooking the edge of the Badlands. Asanpi Bleza “thin milk” was a Brule Indian warrior and the only known casualty of those seeking refuge in the stronghold during the Wounded Knee era. His bones were found by John Swallow, Sr. in 1948. Since Asanpi Bleza died without ceremony or burial, the family in 1948 conducted rites for him near the spot he was discovered. 

Memorial erected on sight of Asanpi Bleza's remains

Memorial erected near discovery of Asanpi Bleza’s remains by John Swallow, Sr. in 1948.

By this time I’ve traveled via dirt road completely around the South Unit of the Badlands (meaning the reservation, which is NOT part of the National Park although they are purportedly working on some agreement). There are no access points for the sunset shot I plan to capture so I head to the North Unit.  Clarification — there are no LEGAL access points. I’m aware I’ve been trespassing at certain points of the day, although I never knowingly violated posted signs. And every footfall has been VERY respectful. I’m certain that makes no difference, but I feel better about it.

The latter part of the day has been dreary and my hopes are not high for the glorious spread of slanted end-of-day rays so needed by the gray, bland Badlands. Racing around without a good map of the Park (yes, they’re open 24/7 but the entrances are not staffed this time of year, so no maps are handed out as you enter),  I find this:

The Badlands?

South Dakota Badlands. The Unexpected.

Not what you expected of the Badlands?  Me either.  A treasure indeed.

The day ends with this:

Mysterious Light Source or God's Mirror?

The Badlands

The perfect ending to a perfect day.  Since I’ve previously made a complete post based on this one shot, I won’t bore you with a repeat.  If you’ve not read about all that transpired for this to magically insert itself into my camera, click here (it’ll be worth your time).

The day actually ended with this:

Hacked and Cold

Weary Solo Road Tripper. No heat in her room. Too tired to care. Wall, South Dakota.

Road Trip Hedonism

Despite the never. ending. desire. to. stop. at. every. single. sight. of. any. interest. whatsoever., after the exploration of Lindsborg, Kansas there was nothing left to do but drive towards Sidney, Nebraska. From Salina, Kansas to the Colorado line where I turn north is just a bit shy of 300 miles which I know has to be driven all in one sitting, else I’ll not make it to Sidney for the night. This knowledge does not preclude the strong temptation to take a minor detour at highway 83 south of Colby, Kansas to revisit Monument Rocks. I resist assisted by the vision of what I captured there on my last pass through the area on my Tour of the West last October.

Kansas? YES, Kansas

Monument Rocks, Kansas!?

The next morning in Sidney, Nebraska my plan for the next two days is formulated: make Badlands National Park, scout the area, capture a sunset, arise early the next day for a sunrise, then head to North Dakota. From here to Buffalo Gap, South Dakota is about 3 hours, which will leave me more than sufficient time to find a great spot in the Park for the sunset shoot, given the fact it’s 7:00 a.m. and I’m already wheels up.

Passing the turn-off to ScottsBluff I again resist the urge to veer. Rather than see it with my own eyes once again, I pacify myself with this capture also from the Old West trip.

Scott's Bluff, Nebraska

Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska

It’s okay.  You can admit you had NO idea Kansas and Nebraska held such topographic wonders.  I didn’t either.

On these trips the human condition, its vulnerabilities and the multitude of cracks in its infrastructure become painfully apparent. I over-generalize. It’s MY human condition that rises so painfully to the surface. A small sign off highway 385 near Alliance, Nebraska calls my name – something about Car Henge. At the mercy of my hedonistic road trip tendencies, I’m off on a chase – a sucker for the weirdness of the American back road experience.

Car Henge. Alliance, Nebraska

Carhenge which replicates Stonehenge, consists of the circle of cars, 3 standing trilithons within the circle, the heel stone, slaughter stone, and 2 station stones, and the Aubrey circle, named after Sir John Aubrey who first recognized the earthworks and great stones as a prehistoric temple in 1648. The artist of this unique car sculpture, Jim Reinders, experimented with unusual and interesting artistic creations throughout his life. His desire to copy Stonehenge in physical size and placement came to fruition in the summer of 1987 with the help of family. Thirty-eight automobiles were placed to assume the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring approximately 96 feet in diameter. The honor of depicting the heel stone goes to a 1962 Caddy.



WAIT!!!! It gets even MORE Fun!


I'm not sure what statement this is supposed to make, but it was entertaining.

The Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, NEXT….


Schizophrenia & Solo Road Trips

Two days of silence broken only by moments of brief connection with the sounds coming from the truck and the schizophrenic collision of every day thoughts has ceased. Sheryl Crow wrote a song “Three Days in Rome”. Maybe I’ll call mine “Two Days In.” Two days in and I’m glad to know I’m really not — schizophrenic. Kinda catchy.

Moments of clarity have returned, sighs of relief, deep breaths surge to my core, all fear and trepidation are gone. I’m reminded of my own capabilities and of what I’ve got stored down below ready for retrieval if or when I ever had to have it. I can interact with each and every person with whom I come in contact with no interference of expectation or environment, of who they are in the world or who I am. All pretense has faded away, there is no lost effort on how to act or what to say. Mere faith in myself is replaced by power and empowerment. The jumble of thoughts has stopped. I’ve been returned to myself. PEACE.

At different times in my life, it’s taken 5 days to get here. Those days are not fondly recalled.

Now that you know WHY I take these trips and you’ve heard the story about my encounter with the mysterious light source, let’s discuss the trip!

The first day’s goal was Sidney, Nebraska which would put me spending the next couple of days in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. I made Sidney alright, after 15 hours of hard driving. Had it not been for Lindsborg, Kansas, the drive would have been an easy 12.

But it’s a road trip and the day is sunny and warm (65 degrees F.) and I’m free on the open road, and curious. Seemingly innocuous things tempt me. Like a roadside sign about “Little Sweden” that I’d seen numerous times and never felt the urge to pursue.

Bethany Lutheran Church. Lindsborg, Kansas

Bethany Lutheran Church. Lindsborg, Kansas

See? Manjit, I told you it was sunny and breezy and a perfect day for exploration!  Lindsborg, Kansas is just South of Salina on Highway 135. It’s known as Little Sweden, U.S.A. because the first settlers of the valley came from Sweden establishing the community in 1869. The shops are filled with hand-made (right in the shops) and imported Scandinavian crafts and art.  I’d love to go back for Svensk Hyllningsfest, a celebration to honor the Swedish immigrants who settled the area. It’s only held every other year and is scheduled for October 9, 10, 11 of 2009.  I’m just glad all I have to do is write the name of the festival and not pronounce it.


Mingenback Art Center. Several metal sculptures on the grounds were captivating. If only I’d had the time to visit the museum — next time!

But I did have time to eat.


Vegetarian Panini, Swedish Style

Lingonberry Shortbread Cookies

Lingonberry Shortbread Cookies

As you know I’m not a vegetarian, but this sandwich at the Courtyard Bakery & Bistro on Main Street sounded so fantastic on the menu, I couldn’t resist. Besides I’m on this diet and I figured by going with vegetables I could afford to eat both of the Lingonberry cookies. I swear I did not dip the sandwich into the cucumber hollandaise sauce included on the side.  I did eat both cookies. This was one of the 2 most memorable meals I had during the 8 days on the road, not including the “meal” of truffles at The Chubby Chipmunk (more about that later).  Actually “memorable” is not the most accurate term. I had a few “memorable” meals. More accurately, this meal was one of the 2 BEST.


Swensson Park. I enjoyed the above meal here.

P.S. A National Geographic Photographer, Jim Richardson lives in and works from Lindsborg, Kansas

Mysterious Light Source or God’s Mirror?

See that spot of light? You know the one. Photographers and visual artists may wax on about light, where and when it’s the “best”, and have the world believe they see something more mystical than the average human can appreciate, but you know better. While some indeed possess a highly trained eye for the details, you’ve seen the spot of light too. And your appreciation for it is no less than the artist’s. You’ve been out walking the dog, feeding cattle or raking hay, fishing, golfing, hiking, climbing a mountain, working in your garden, playing with a child, walking in a park, traveling, or merely walking to your car from the office and you glimpse it – a concentrated brightening of something. It’s illuminated by a source of light you can’t readily identify.

I liken the search for the source to that of finding your way with the proverbial rope between the house and the barn in a blizzard or in my case being raised in Oklahoma, one of the dust bowl’s infamous dust storms. You discover there’s a crack the sun has snuck between. It may be a parting of foliage or a break between buildings. It may even be indirect in the form of reflection. Mysterious light is a joy to encounter. Every time I do I’m intrigued by what the tiniest bit of light reveals, from where it sneakily emanates illuminating that which would not otherwise be illuminated at any other time of the year.

Mysterious Light Source or God's Mirror?

South Dakota Badlands, by Tammie Dooley

This winter I caught a bit of stray light on a small tree carving in the backyard. The spot of light hit the carving on the opposite side of the setting sun. Perplexed I walked up to the carving and began examining it. Running my hand along the rope of light I finally traced the source to a reflection off a back porch window. The source was indirect! The setting sun struck the window of the house at just the perfect angle to reflect back and illuminate the carving. By the time I’d completed the treasure hunt, the sun had moved and the entire carving was in shadow. I prepared to photograph the highlighted carving the next day at the same time only to discover what Ruth Bernhard discovered with her famous photograph of the doorknob.

“The story goes that this glass knob, affixed to her garden gate, struck her one May morning for the riotous halo of refraction it displayed. She made a note to photograph it the next day around the same time. But revolving around the sun as we do, the knob refused to glow in just that way the following morning. Bernhard made a notation on her calendar and exactly one May later was at the ready when the knob did its annual ray-dance. This time she caught it, as is her preference, in one take.” — Women In Photography.Org

For the above picture I’d driven most of the day in 20 degree, windy, gray weather to find a spot suitable to shoot the Badlands at sundown. Actually I’d driven 14 hours the day before just to ensure I’d have this day to scout a position for a sunset shoot. In and out of the truck countless times to visit an overlook or hike down some path, without the sun to direct me I had to keep reminding myself if the clouds parted at all, what side of the desolate wasteland would be illuminated by that glorious light of the setting sun. The Park was deserted so no one noticed my repeated drive-bys, turn-arounds, and general appearance of lunacy.

I settle on a spot, park the truck, stack on layers of warmth, cinch down my hood, sling gear on my back and hike through creamy, slick, off white mud, set up my tripod and begin the wait. The wind buffets the camera anchored to the tripod. My eyes and nose flow from the sting of the cold air. My stocking hat keeps slipping down over my eyes from the parka’s tightly cinched hood. The friction of moving it back repeatedly all day has rubbed a tender spot on my forehead that now seems all the more raw and annoying in the cold. Yet I watch and wait.

Having been in the Park all day waiting for this, I will not head to the motel without giving every effort to the goal. The light changes. I look around to identify the source and then return to setting up the frame since I know the magic moment will be here and gone in an achingly quick instant. I take 3 frames. The scene holds. Again I pause to glance around for where the light emanates. There is no crack in the clouds from where I stand. Two more frames and the scene slips away into the monotony of dusk. Reversing the order of the previous actions I trudge back to the truck disappointed I’ve not captured the clich├ęd sunset shot. Taking several minutes to kick and scrape some of the muck off my boots, store the tripod, take off the heavy coat, stocking hat and gloves, I’m now so tired the thought crosses my mind to not review the photos. My heart bypasses that silly idea and in the warmth and safety of the running truck I switch on the camera’s reviewing screen. The 3rd frame takes my breath away. Happy tears come to my eyes at the ethereal capture held like magic in my camera.

There’s never been an instance where I could not follow the rope to the light source. Until this.

I choose to explain the light source as God’s Mirror. And that suits me just fine.

“The most beautiful object is not beautiful unless the light reveals what is there.” – Ruth Bernhard

“Light is my inspiration, my paint and brush… Profoundly significant, it caresses the essential superlative curves and lines. Light I acknowledge as the energy upon which all life on this planet depends”. – Ruth Bernhard

A Preview of the Dakotas

As many of you know, I just returned from an 8-day Solo Road Trip to the Dakotas. Word was the Badlands had snow. I wanted to see this even as I recognized it wasn’t the best time of year to head North. So I packed for the unexpected and directed the truck Northwest determined to find adventure and image treasures. Most of the snow had melted in the South Dakota Badlands, a blizzard caught me near Fargo, North Dakota, it was MINUS 9 degrees for a couple of days, and well, the trip was everything I expected, and more! Undeterred by the lack of snow frosting the rather drab wasteland of the Badlands, I found other treasures.  Unexpected treasures, like the one below.

The Badlands?

South Dakota Badlands — The Unexpected — Delightful!


The Grand Climb


Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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