In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Badlands
Joanna Brooks

[p.179]When our marriage got dark and sinewed, like plums past season, Dave decided to spend a month with his brother and sister-in-law in Cheyenne. I stayed in Minneapolis to finish my nursing internship at Mercy. It was August, bottom of the ninth.

Times like this, that telephone is a cruel instrument. Its satellites circle the earth like false moons. You might believe that seven hundred miles separates nothing but bodies. Don’t.

Dave watched the sky in Cheyenne and I watched in Minneapolis. “Sirius, the Dog Star, of the constellation Canis Major,” I read straight from the encyclopedia into the telephone. This was cyclical, I tried to tell him, seasonal. Dog Days.

“Supposed in ancient times to cause heat and pestilence,” Dave replied. Sitting at the table, worrying the newspaper. The old fan limping along, the dark kitchen, niece and nephews asleep, mouths open.

The kids liked having him around. They rode him in the TV room until he broke like a nag. He piggybacked little Sharie around, lifting her over the heads of her two brothers.

Dave’s own daughter is six now, living with her maternal grandparents in Tacoma. Cheyenne is 1,200 miles from Tacoma. I checked.

[p.180]Linda said the kids loved him. “He’s been good for Sharie.”

“Can I talk to him?” I said.

“He’s outside. They’re knocking a wasp’s nest down off the side of the house.”

I could hear Linda squeal, sliding the door shut behind him, and the kids, they went crazy watching wasp bodies slam into the glass.

“He’s right here,” Linda said. “You want to talk to him?” I could hear Dave chasing the kids around the room.

“No,” I said, “not right now.”

“How you two doing, anyway?” Linda moved into another room, out of Dave’s range.

“I’m not sure how healthy the distance is. Seems like distance was the problem in the first place.”

“He misses you,” Linda said, tentatively.

“What’s he doing with his days?”

“Helping Dave hang drywall.”

“I want to see him, Linda.”

“Do you really think it would make it easier?”

“Easy has nothing to do with it,” I told her. “Never has.”

“There you’re right,” she said.

The worst part of August was this: coming home from twelve-hour days and falling asleep in front of the television and then waking up hours later with the lights all on and the doors unlocked, the anchorwoman reading the nightly news for the second time. Droughts and hostage crises. That’s the worst part of it all.

Dave calls me at work. The page comes just as I’m catheterizing this poor pregnant woman named Consuela whose husband eats off her lunch tray.

“What are you doing?” Dave says.

“Do you really want to know?” Consuela’s husband is flipping the channels on the TV monitor.

“Probably not. I have a proposition to make.”

“Sure,” I say, trying not to sound expectant. “Meet me half way,” Dave says. Consuela’s husband lands on Sanford & Sons.

“Half way would be what?”

“South Dakota,” Dave says.

“No Rushmore, Dave. No camcorders, no KOA.” Consuela is [p.181]sleeping now, on her side. Her husband claps along with the laughtrack.

“No, farther east. Badlands.”

Badlands dry, hot, and grassy, all goblinish with silt. I check my schedule. I find a substitute for Friday. We agree to meet at the north ranger station within twenty-four hours.

Picture this: driving across the great plains, windows down, a 1974 Dead bootleg in the deck and my backpack in the back. I’ve loaded up on every available truck stop stimulant—caffeine, cross-topped bronchodilators, ginseng—just to keep me safe and awake and I’m shaking. That’s how goddamned white trash happy I am. Real low-bellied, like my car’s catching sparks off the asphalt.

Every so often there’s a little gas station, strung out along the highway like Christmas lights. A little red and green gas station. Some nice old paroled child molester clicking his dirty nails on the counter, his completely unknowing second wife reading Prevention magazine. The clock on the microwave blinking. These wide fields. This big dark sky. Just like Christmas.

I make it to the Badlands by 3:00 a.m., park, and try to sleep in the backseat.

Dave rolls in at 4:00 a.m. and taps on my window.

I climb out of the car and we hold each other a bit. I’m still rattling. All that amphetamine. The place is so quiet. Little stars, flat, flat, flat.

“Sorry, I stink,” he says. It’s a stupid thing to say. But most things we could say at this time would fail utterly, would fall dull to the ground like bunk fireworks.

“You want to sleep in the Bronco? There’s probably more leg room,” he says.

“Sure.”

We sleep until the heat of the sun through the car windows wakes us.

Stronghold Butte is in the south half of the Badlands, in an area they call the Palmer Creek Unit. Palmer Creek is about fifty miles out from the nearest ranger station—thirty miles on gravel roads and the rest, the Forest Service map tells us, is navigable only in four-wheel drive and is completely impassable in weather.

The map’s spread on the hood. It’s noon-ish, main ranger station, far north edge of the park. Two little girls in pink rompers and plastic [p.182]sandals splash each other with water from the drinking fountain, like birds. The trailers line up for spots at the developed campsite, about 500 yards down the road. Good Sam club. Christian motorhomes with perversely joyful Christian drivers looking for a decent Christian hook-up.

The little pink girls’ mothers go into the ladies’ room. And their husbands stand holding beers, talking about septic tanks and pro football, in the same position they’ve occupied every Sunday afternoon on their goddamned Christian lawns.

I watch them and yes that’s some kind of union, but it’s none I’d ever know how to go about. I grew up Christian, Mormon actually, but not of the RV variety. I’d say I’m more of an off-road vehicle. My faith—it came when I got stuck in mud on a back road and the snow started to fall. You understand? It was me and the cold stars, like little precious earrings, winking—no help at all. And the one-eyed parolees chewing on Bud bottles and lying in wait. And me on my hands and knees in the mud trying to prop the wheels up on rocks or boards. That’s when God came down the road with a hook and a length of chain.

Dave’s got his compass out and he’s making measurements. I thumbnail 1,500 feet worth of elevation on Stronghold Butte. The Butte wraps around horseshoe-shaped, rising more gently on the inner curve. Trails from the road are sketchy, but it’s flat. Five miles out and five miles back, plus the climb.

The worst we’ll encounter, we guess, is cactus on the approach. Maybe a prairie rattler. The climb may be a little more unpredictable. It’s sandstone. It breaks off in your hands. But up top that butte, we’ve heard, it’s acres of gold grass. All the Badlands north unit sand castles are so crumbly they forbid close inspection; this southern Butte, strong-backed as a bull, begs us climb.

We decide on it. Dave goes to fill the water bottles and I’m sitting on the front bumper of the car. I’m still watching the Good Sams roll in, preserved perfectly and plastic in air-conditioned comfort. Like bugs in jars. And if I ever wondered or wavered, nothing’s wavering now. I know I want no other path than this one—this sticky and difficult. That’s all I know now, in this heat, watching Dave walk back towards me with water in his hands.

Desire’s a furious thing. When I know what I want, I want it from a place so strong and low in me that it shakes off words.

[p.183]Most women will tell you they just want a man to treat them nice. I tell you they’re lying. There’s nothing nice about love in these parts. It’s farther than nice and more dangerous.

Years ago, when Dave and I first met, back in Utah, I was a shiny college girl. He had just dropped out and was working as a bike mechanic. Nine months I hung out around that shop, watching him shave ounces off each component of his bike, taking it apart again and again and again.

One night when the shop’s dark and the wrenches are all hung, gears and chains all in place, and we’re sitting on stools, he says he loves me.

The next day his ex calls. Pregnant.

I could see no honorable way to carry on with him, so we carried on dishonorably instead. That winter she would wait outside his apartment, rubbing her hands in front of the car heater, drinking 7-Eleven coffee and waiting for me to leave.

When she went into labor, these thoughts went through my head.

Any woman who won’t admit how bad it gets doesn’t deserve anything like love.

She probably wouldn’t want it anyway.

By 1:30 p.m. we’ve driven deep into Palmer Unit. Dave’s at the wheel and I’m surveying the scape, trying to decide where we should begin our approach. I spot a pair of tire tracks heading back through the barbed wire.

“Right here,” I say. Dave pulls onto the shoulder and I get out and undo the latch on the barbed wire fence. Dave rolls about fifty feet into the brush before I spot the cactus. It’s everywhere. We can’t handle multiple flats way out here, so Dave throws the Bronco into park, and we decide to thread our way back to the Butte on foot.

Starting out, we’re quick on the approach. Clearly this plain gets the winter run-off. It’s full of silt and shallow river beds, shades of where the water used to be. About half a mile in, the incline begins, but not as we expected it. Instead of a flat gradual ascent, we find between us and the Butte a twisting series of hills, each higher than the last, each separated from the next by a steep, cactus-filled ravine. I take to one ridgeline and follow it back, managing to find a few narrow points at which I can just hop across the ravines. Dave’s going his own way, winding around about one hundred yards to my west.

[p.184]”How you doing?” he yells.

”I’m fine.”

“I think you’re going to have to come up here eventually,” he says.

“Nope,” I say. “I can see the way out from here.”

Both his hills and my hills take us around to the Butte’s inner edge. We jump down into the creekbed and follow it, serpentine, back and up. With every turn, the channel gets narrower and the walls get higher, until we have to turn sideways to pass through. The walls are about six feet high now, and I can’t even see Dave, though I can hear him just behind.

“What would happen if we ran into a bobcat right now?”

“He’d probably win,” Dave says.

The slope gets steeper and the walls shorter. It’s no longer hiking; it’s climbing now, knees and elbows and back muscles. I grab some scrub and jump up onto the rounded edge of the Butte. This rare elm tree’s right on the edge. It’s surrounded by a stand of black-eyed Susans. Dave’s right behind me. We come up over the edge at the same time.

It is beautiful. It is beautiful—so wide you’d forget there was a world below, the gold grass bubbling, light swimming through it like fish. From down below, it looked like the top was narrow, maybe a hundred yards across. It’s got to be at least a mile wide. There was no way to see this from down there. There was no way to tell.

Dave’s drinking his water, breathing hard, and I take off my pack and unscrew the lid from my bottle as well. The water is warm.

Back at the ranger station we read about how the Sioux did their Ghost Dances up here on Stronghold Butte. How all the Indians did them the winter of 1890—Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute—ed by a Paiute who called himself Messiah. They all left their work, their U.S. Army overseen settlements and took to the hills, believing that if they danced hard enough, the apocalypse would come, taking all the white men off the earth and restoring the fields, streams, and forests to their paradisiacal glory. The Sioux danced up here, on Stronghold Butte. Mormon missionaries from Utah joined the Nevada Paiutes in dancing. “My kind of Mormons,” Dave said. Mine too.

We spend a couple hours up top Stronghold Butte, talking, the sun going sideways, dancing around ghosts. We’re circling around things we can’t talk about—with small, tender gestures and long stories. Dave’s telling this story right now about him and his best friend Bucky, [p.185]back in college, working ski patrol. Something about backcountry and almost freezing in. And he’s laughing this brave laugh that shows me exactly how bad the whole thing shook him down. The story’s not really about blizzards at all. Can’t say what it does mean.

Dave gets up, leaves his pack, and walks out on a little promontory of the Butte, hops a fissure, and sits at the very edge, the ground falling away a thousand feet on either side of him.

“Coming?” he says to me.

I make it as far as the fissure and then my legs stop. “You know,” I say, ”I’d really like to.”

“Okay, just hand me my camera.”

I lean toward him, across the break, holding the camera out. Dave takes it and lies belly first over the edge, snapping photos of the formations.

It’s here in the grass that I realize that Dave will probably spend another month or so in Cheyenne and then go to Washington and end up back in Minnesota around Thanksgiving, hard-ridden and apologetic. And that he’ll never come back completely, that we’ll be sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper with toast and the morning radio and part of him will be far, far away. And that far away part I can’t have is what I’ll fall in love with, desperate and desperate.

What’s shocking is this next thought: I’m not horrified.

Dave finishes his picture taking and, seeing the storm clouds gathering, he says, “Time to head down?”

“Sure,” is all I say. I smile.

When we make it back from the Butte, it’s about 7:00 p.m. and the sky’s a stormy red. Exhausted, Dave drives us the nine miles to the Palmer Creek primitive camp area.

We find ourselves alone at the site.

It’s shouldered by five or six small hills furred knee high with yellow prairie grass. Small trees cling to the hills like jackals. The map shows a spring a quarter-mile south. Stronghold Butte we can see in the distance.

I go for more water and Dave sets up the tent. I head south, hop into the ravine and follow the creek bed for a couple hundred yards. Can’t see the chiggers, but I’m slapping my legs, and every time I knock into a bush the grasshoppers fly up and tangle in my hair. The sun’s red through the storm clouds.

[p.186]I come around a bend in the bed and find a badger there, flat, about four feet long. Our eyes meet and we’re there, the badger and me. The badger has got its belly so low that it’s glazed with sand. So low bellied and fierce that it finds me uninteresting. It breaks contact and waddles off into the brush.

The farther out you go, the more you realize you’re just another animal. Things like chance, instinct, and providence seem bigger, vast as plains. Hopes, dreams, and plans—they look like candy out here. Like sandstone formations. Breaking off in your hands.

I find the spring another hundred yards down. I pump about a gallon through the purifier and lug it back to camp. Dave’s cooking eggs over the gas stove when I get back. We have eggs and toast and coffee and clean up by the time the sun falls.

Dave’s been quiet since we got off the Butte.

“It was beautiful up there,” I say, pulling on a sweatshirt.

“Yup,” Dave says, and from the way he’s hurrying to put the dinner gear away, I can tell that’s all he’s going to be able to say for the rest of the night.

My hands are still swollen from the hike. I sit on the bumper of the Bronco, trying to take my rings off. They won’t come off. I pull and pull, but they won’t come off my poor swollen hands. Dirty strong hands.

“You okay?” Dave asks, rummaging around in the front seat. I nod.

“Cards?” he asks.

This—this is how I want to remember it. Sky all cloudy. No stars. His chin, long in the lantern light, the brim of his baseball cap bent. Dealing cards—hearts, or was it war? The bent antenna on the Bronco yanking music out of the sky and then the raindrops, blunt as locusts, snapping at the rain flap on the tent. The heat broken open.

There are women I know who forget dials and devices on purpose at times like this. Hoping that what couldn’t be bridged in two bodies couldn’t be denied in a third.

A child. I would have told it how it was conceived in Badlands, under a thundercloud, the bison rolling angry in the dust. Those Badlands, I would have told it, many years later, geography lesson, they’re beautiful.

But I don’t need that to remember this.

This—this will seep in where all the that’s stop. This will seep on in. Like fumes, like wild grass, like stain.

JOANNA BROOKS is a fourth-generation Angeleno, the descendant of handcart pioneers, Basques, and Okies. Her poetry, fiction, and critical theory have appeared in Race Traitor, Zyzzyra, Suitcase, South Dakota Review, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She is currently completing her doctorate in American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.