I got a real good glimpse at the Meaning of Life when I was in the Badlands last month. Needless to say, that’s not what I was expecting to return with; I would have been happy with some decent Instagram pictures and a shot glass that proved I’d been there. But when Life gives you Divine Insight, you make Divine… Insight… drink.
For starters, I’d never been to the Badlands. In fact, being from Minnesota, pretty much all of South Dakota had always been little more than a painfully long stretch of highway between the Twin Cities and the Rockies. Not that I maintain these aspersions, but that’s what I was thinking from the passenger seat as my girlfriend hightailed our asses west along I-90 en route to Badlands National Park, where she promised I would be amazed. “It’s magic,” she told me.
While I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the landmark, I’d heard from several people how terrific it was – tales of camping at the park in the ’60s, close encounters with bobcats and bison, special points off the beaten path that I just had to see – “It’s magic,” they all said. Plus, I considered myself an outdoorsy guy anyway – I’d peed in the woods, eaten apples at an orchard – I knew I would appreciate the grandeur of Mother Nature, regardless of what state it was in. Still, seven hours of “Life Begins At Conception” billboards picturing diaper-clad infants wearing a fireman helmet or holding a sunflower only tempered my hopes for South Dakota’s attractions. I also found myself losing my previous affinity for both firefighters and sunflowers. When we passed the “Help Control the Wildlife Population: Wear Fur!” advertisement, all I wanted was to get to the Badlands, see a bobcat or whatever, and get out of South Dakota.
The sun was just finishing its orange and red goodbyes as we turned left off the interstate onto the long, winding road that led to the park and campgrounds. If you’ve never been to the Badlands, it’s a curious site as you meander deeper into the park: First, you come upon a handful of blunt, flat-topped rock outcroppings that jut out of the horizon like giant, crooked molars. After a day’s worth of flat farmland and prairie grass, these instantly become the coolest thing you’ve seen in South Dakota. Then, as the road snakes left and right, you will see more and more of the rocks as they grow closer and closer. And as you approach, you will notice the strange striated streaks that cut horizontally across the faces of all of the rocks, like some titanic ochre-dipped paint brush took one thick, swift pass along the cliffs.
The strangest part, however, is that before you notice it happening, you are suddenly just in among the formations. Where they had been distant, slowly approaching sights before, they’re at once surrounding the road and pulling you further in. In a word, it’s incredible. But as awe-stricken as I was, snapping madly in every direction with my Nikon SLR, it was hardly a spiritual experience. No, that occurred as we pulled around the next bend.
Quickly, but with great stealth, the sky had sunk into deep blues and purples, and the brightest stars began to outshine the light of dusk as brilliant specs above us. I didn’t need any more convincing, South Dakota was more than just a painfully long highway – I was impressed and satisfied, so I thought. I was shooting a picture of the early night sky (because who wouldn’t want look at some amateur pictures of the stars as seen through the sunroof of a Dodge Caravan?) when I heard Sarah gasp next to me and hit the brakes. The car halted, I quickly wheeled around to look at her. She stared straight ahead with her mouth making this wide “O”, like she was about to say “wow”… or drink out of a really big straw.
I turned to look out the windshield and I, too, started to drink out of the big straw. In front of the van, not ten feet away, standing on the shoulder was a flock of bighorn sheep. I called them rams, but everyone who knows about big goat-looking things with curvy horns calls them bighorn sheep. Whatever they might have been called, I’d only ever seen them on the Discovery Channel – always charging at one another and slamming heads with a loud crack. But here they were, very much not on the Discovery Channel, very much right in front of our van. They stood still, four of them, all looking right at us, cast in sharp white contrast against the night sky by our headlights. Sarah killed the lights and let off the brake, slowly rolling forward.
Gravel crunched and popped underneath our tires as the van slid up alongside the flock. They were on the right side of the road, so as we came to a stop next to them, the ram-horn-big-sheep stood right outside my window, now softly and more naturally visible in the ambient glow of after-dusk. Three of the sheep kept their gaze forward, eyeing me with suspicious sideways glances. One of the horn-goat-sheep-bigs, though, tracked me as we approached and was now looking directly at me as I kept drinking out of my now humongous imaginary straw. I clicked the automatic window switch and pierced the heavy silence with an obscene whirring sound from the window motor.
The goat-foot-sheep-horns took no notice, however; they all just stared straight ahead, except one, the one that was looking right at me with its hypnotic, goofy goat eyes. I stared right back, still holding my camera. I wanted to take a picture, but was worried if I did I’d be committing some unforgivable violation against the sanctity of Everything. So I just sat there, wondering what it was thinking, whether it cared what I was thinking, and if my side-impact airbag had ever been ram tested.
I think in that moment both Sarah and I were waiting for a sign, some Divine signal that this event had meaning and was concluded. I began to feel increasingly connected to the whole of life on Earth. I started to realize that all creatures, sheep-eyed-goat-horns in particular, had magic in them. And I had magic in me. I belonged here, on Earth, in the present. Up to then, I’d never been especially religious, but there, starting eye-to-goofy-eye with that animal, I began to sense God in everything.
As if on cue, one of the pack began to stir from behind the leader, something was about to happen. We watched, transfixed, unable to surrender from our reverie. Whatever happened next would be an Answer (capital “A”) to whatever question we were thinking but could not ask. The sheep behind took a step forward, then another. It began to stretch its head toward its companion in front, who still looked stoically through my very soul. The trailing bighorn stretched its neck ahead and began to bow – BOWING! KNEELING! This beast was in the process of committing some sacred ritual, I could feel it!
Then it happened – the event that I will remember forever. The moment that incontrovertibly gave me the Answer: The sheep bending low leaned forward, craned its neck, and licked the testicles of the lead ram. Then again. Each time its long ram-horn-curvy-sheep tongue flicked out and prodded the fuzzy regal ball sack of its buddy, causing that hairy coin purse to dangle back and forth, back and forth.
Sarah and I both furrowed our brows, we stopped drinking from our straws. We looked at one another for the first time since coming upon the animals, both of us crinkling our noses and frowning like some wandering cosmic fart had wafted in through the window. I clicked my window up and snapped some pictures, not at all worried what noises the machines made. We pulled ahead and down the hill on toward our campsite.
I slept beautifully that night, secure that I had, at least for an instant, seen the Answer. Not when the animals – humans and bighorns alike – were modeling for one another in picturesque poses, but the ball-licking. That was the Answer. Of course there’s not a God. And of course there is! And it’s laughing at us, all of the time. And it’s when we pretend that it is not laughing at us that we are at fault – that is our sin. We can begin laughing along at any time, that is our salvation and our reward. It’s because everything is sacrosanct that nothing is, that’s the joke – get it? Cool, me neither!
Whatever you think, whether you’re laughing now or not, you’ve got to go to the Badlands. It’s magic.