Badwater (a Kinship Series Essay)

Listen to the story narrated by Daegan Miller. Content note: This essay contains strong language.

—A quick prickle of skin.

My entire High Plains life is piled neatly in the dirt, there on the ground beside my shirt; I’m in shorts and boots, only. My eyeglasses, thick, lie on a flat rock nearby, so that I can pour pan after pan of cold well water over my dusty head, water that licks cleanly down my shoulder blades and into the small of my back before raining onto the cracked earth. I’ve been out of potable water for hours, I am parched by the heat of a scorching July day, and I can feel each drop as it hits my thirsty, elated skin. Then a prickle, colder than the breeze: something comes through the sagebrush. Something coming, but the world is smeared in my nearsightedness.

It began like this: I lied when the ranger asked if I had packed in enough water, a gallon per day, for my three-day trip—all the water out in the Badlands was bitter, he said, too alkaline to drink, and the Little Missouri was so silty that it would clog a filter. I also chuckled when he warned me about the buffalo. “If you see one, don’t run,” he said. “They’re nearsighted, it’s their mating season, and the males get a little crazy this time of year. If you know what I mean.” I was a little crazy, too: twenty-four, as wild and free as I’ve ever been, fresh from a monthlong solo hike of Vermont, I was attending a National Endowment for the Humanities–sponsored, six-week summer seminar at North Dakota State University in Fargo on the history and culture of the Great Plains, although at some point I decided that I had had enough of the seminar room—I had lived nearly my whole life in the Northeast, and I needed to get out, on foot, away from the chaos of concrete. To see the land at night. To measure its length against my body, hear the insects and the sound of an easy wind, smell the prickly smell of silver sage at dawn, taste noon’s dust, and learn, with my skin, the way the sun burns its way across that immense sky. I wanted an adventure, and so I packed my bag for the Badlands protected by Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in far-western North Dakota: food, stove, and three quarts of water went into my pack, along with my copy of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, an account of growing up on, and never quite fitting into, the plains. I packed my bag, told a little lie, and was off.

Then a prickle, colder than the breeze: something comes through the sagebrush.

Suddenly cold, I grab for my glasses—slap them to my face, watch as a thirsty buffalo emerges into the clearing at whose center lies the well from which I drink. Behind the leader, the sage rustles and tosses with the bulk of a few dozen dark-brown humps. I glance at my gear on the ground and then back to be fixed in the gaze of the buffalo’s eye.

Theodore Roosevelt came to the Badlands in 1883 to hunt buffalo; he had been an asthmatic, sickly child, and so he was a devotee of the rugged life. Shooting and fishing and fighting—these, he thought, had beaten the softness from his body, had hardened him into a man. When he arrived, he was stunned by the austere beauty of the landscape—“the ground is rent and broken into the most fantastic shapes”—as well as the craggy beauty of the cowboys whose vitality he coveted. “Sinewy, hardy, self-reliant,” he wrote of the white men he encountered in North Dakota, “their life forces them to be both daring and adventurous, and the passing over their heads of a few years leaves printed on their faces certain lines which tell of dangers quietly fronted and hardships uncomplainingly endured.” Roosevelt was there to front danger, but he went mostly luckless and bored, until, only a few days from his departure, he spotted his prize: “His glossy fall coat was in fine trim, and shone in the rays of the sun; while his pride of bearing showed him to be in the lusty vigor of his prime,” Roosevelt wrote of the buffalo he finally encountered. And then he shot it. It was hard work cutting off its head, but he wanted a trophy to show his friends back east. Today, you can walk into his estate, Sagamore, on Long Island, and see it for yourself: the buffalo’s head is still there, hanging on a wall. Roosevelt was twenty-four and looking for adventure.

A deep, living, liquid brown; a wild brown, a free brown, a color all its own; an eye that flickers and sparks, that takes me in as I stand; and that is how we remain, eye to eye, in the sage- and dust-scented air of a Dakota summer day.

A close-up of an American Bison's face, with its eye front and center.
Gaze of the buffalo’s eye. Photo by Aleksomber, 2020.

Imagine a square at whose center is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which was created, in 1947, as a memorial to the twenty-sixth president, who, after his hunting trip, bought himself two different ranches, parts of which are still preserved, in the vicinity of today’s park.

“During the past three centuries,” Roosevelt wrote in 1889, “the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its effects and importance.”

Imagine that at each of the square’s vertices is today a reservation. Fort Peck (established in 1871) in the northwest. The Crow (1868) and Northern Cheyenne (1884) reservations below it. In the northeast, Fort Berthold (1870). And in the southeast, Standing Rock (1889) and Cheyenne River (1889).

It was this violent taking of “waste space,” Roosevelt was sure, that made American men “the mightiest among the peoples of the world,” and it explains why he spent so much time, in the mid-1880s, playing the life of a frontiersman out on his ranches.

Seven different pens to build a nation: six to keep people in, one to keep them out.

By 1901, when Roosevelt assumed the presidency, white American men had taken the country, had killed and cleared the American Indians from most of it, had decimated the buffalo—there was nowhere left to go and little left to shoot. So Roosevelt, the conservation president, would come to preserve more than 234 million acres of land, in part, to preserve a place to roam, prevention against “a certain softness of fibre” that came with too much civilization, and so ensure the supremacy of white American manhood, forever.

“Holy fucking shit,” I gasp, and start backing out of the clearing, backward into the sage. I will marvel, later, at how its branches scrawled my bare trunk and limbs. Slowly, I back away, as the ranger had advised. The buffalo, joined by his herd, follows; they all do, ambling faster than my creep, so I turn and stumble into a brisk walk, which quickly becomes a trot, then an agitated gallop, and finally a mad, zigzagging sprint through the sage. A paved park road is about a hundred yards ahead and is jammed now with idling car-bound tourists who had also caught sight of the herd; it’s toward them, toward my own air-conditioned kind that I bend my course, tearing through the brush, waving my arms and hollering to be let in, hearing instead, once I draw close, the thump of locks slamming down into their catches.

Am I the historical narrative I was born into—and if I am, which events, people, places, and beings are my kin?

I once before had stood looking into a buffalo’s eye, an experience that came mothballed in four generations of family myth. The backstory, as I remember it now, thirty years after my grandmother told it to me, is that my great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant with a sharp eye for opportunity—he supposedly owned the first roller coaster in the United States and was asked to tour with Buffalo Bill Cody but turned him down because he thought Cody a crook—knew Roosevelt in passing, had talked hunting with him, had shown Roosevelt some of his stuffed trophies, and had killed the largest buffalo ever recorded. The proof was hanging on the wall of the family barn in the Catskill Mountains of downstate New York. I remember one day sliding the barn door back on its ancient, pitted iron track and—there it was. I remember being awed and confused by something so big, so foreign, severed from its context in the dim light and moldering smell of the barn. I remember looking into his eye and seeing nothing at all except for my own prickling sadness, reflected in brown glass.

Off to my left I see, out of the corner of my eye, a tree, not much more than a bush, that I’ll remember later as some sort of scrubby, prickly oak, not much more than a sapling, not much taller than I am. But it’s all there is, and I make for it, for its lowest, stoutest branch, of two fingers’ thickness, an easy reach, and in a moment, I’ve swung up onto it, sitting as close to the trunk as I can, hugging it, squatting on the branch as it bows groundward but holds. Holds me. Then they’re underneath.

Who am I, where do I belong, with, and to, whom?

Am I the historical narrative I was born into—and if I am, which events, people, places, and beings are my kin?

Or am I the relationships I choose to make and break, the relationships that will make and break me, those acknowledged, those unknown?

What do I owe the past—to my great-great-grandfather and to Teddy Roosevelt? What do I owe to the American Indians whose lands and lives were taken, whose lands and lives yet persist? What do I owe the still-living sage and the scrubby oak?

What do I owe the buffalo head nailed to the wall in my family’s barn?

A copy of Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow lays next to pressed flowers (aster, prairie rose, and sage) on notes written on lined paper in black pen.
The author’s copy of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, lying on the notes from his trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park next to the pressed flowers he collected. Photo by the author, 2021.

The entire herd drifts beneath and around the oak tree as I perch in its branches, like a strange, flightless bird. They’re so close that I feel their bodily heat against my belly. I taste the muskiness of the dust thrown up from their skin, can see a lone fly strut across a hump; I can feel them low, can feel their hooves plod up through the tree’s trunk and ripple through the leather of my boots. Their smell pricks my nose—the rich smell of fecundity: sweat, earth, and life, a wild smell that envelops the tree. If I wanted, I could dip the toe of my boot just a few degrees and stroke the back of the tallest. But I don’t. It would feel like a violation, and besides, everything is perfect right now. Everything exactly as it needs to be, as I hover a whisper above the buffalo who disappear into the sage.

I sit in the tree for a very long time, long after the herd has passed, crossed the road, and wandered up over the next rise and out of sight, after the cars have released their emergency brakes and dispersed to wherever they were going before they stopped. It’s only once the last brown sniff of buffalo has settled into the dust that I climb down and walk, slowly, back to my gear. Not a thing of mine has been touched. Not my camera, which is safe, not my food, which is whole. My uncapped water bottles remain full. Not a thing has been touched except for my book, Stegner’s Wolf Willow, which bears a muddy hoof print on its cover.

It’s been almost twenty years since my visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but I can easily recall the feeling of staring deep into the eye of another being vastly different than me, of seeing in that eye something wild, unknown, almost familiar, and feeling its deep vitality; of feeling small, insignificant, vulnerable, and so dependent. I have a few pressed flowers in my notebook from that trip—an aster, a prairie rose, a sprig of sage, which still smells, if I hold it just right, slightly of life. If I close my eyes, I can feel the unconditional support of that spindly tree that shouldn’t have held me but did.

On the last night of my trip, water bottles full, I camp on a bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River, opposite an RV park, and feel the purples of the high prairie darken to black as I strip off all of my clothes, skin prickling, arch my back, and howl, full of thanks, long and loud and free, out into the night. From the campground comes shouted swearing, but then a chorus of dogs barks in sympathy, and, way back in the sage-silver hills, the yip of coyote song.

Featured image: The Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Acroterion, 2018.

Music: “Living in My Memories M (ID 1134)” by Lobo Loco. Nature sounds from the National Park Service and Acoustic Atlas.

Daegan Miller is a writer and critic whose first book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, was chosen by Robert Macfarlane as a Guardian Best Book of 2018. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University and was an AW Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “On Care in Dark Times” (April 2016). Website. Twitter. Contact.

This essay is an excerpt from Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, a five-volume collection edited by Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer.