Edward McPherson at Literary Hub:
‘‘Ready to go back in time?’’ the guy sitting beside me says, rather dramatically. He’s from Long Island and is also an amateur. We’re in a dusty Suburban pitching itself headfirst down a sharp slope into the Badlands. Through the cracked wind- shield, I see a moonscape eroded out of the prairie: a mottled topography of red, brown, black, yellow, green, and gray studded with naked buttes—the sediments of the sea, silt and clay deposited and then worn down, epochs later, by water and wind. In places, the buttes are scorched and collapsed by burning coal turned into ash. Nonnative sweet yellow clover has choked out the prairie grass that usually grows between the desolate washouts and draws; in parts, the clover stands waist-high. Above, sparse thickets of cottonwoods, maybe a green ash, a few ponderosa pines. Below, baked beaches where alien outcrops of rocks bloom in strangled, man-sized shapes. A landscape of hard eternity, home to rattlers, bull snakes, prairie dogs, pheasants, foxes, coyotes, pronghorns, bobcats, mule deer, minks, and ever-thirsty toads. My companions and I are dressed in paleontologist chic: tan pants, wide-brim hat, long-sleeve button-down, boots, bandanna. As our vehicle lumbers down the hill to the desolate floor, we pass a rock layer known as the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary, a thin line of tan clay beneath a band of coal that pinpoints the ‘‘sudden’’ geological moment when the dinosaurs disappeared.
These aren’t the Badlands of South Dakota, which are thirty million years younger and far more popular. These are the Badlands that in 1864 Brigadier General Alfred Sully of the US Cavalry, busy marauding against the Sioux, described as ‘‘hell with the fires out.’’