On the Badlands Loop Road

By Mary Alice Haug

Mary Alice Haug's 2008 residency at Badlands National Park, as well as her own familial experiences there, informed her collection of essays, "On the Badlands Loop Road."

1

A bobcat creeps through a patch of caramel and cranberry-tinted grasses, ignoring the two kittens tagging along behind her as she ignores me sitting in the car some twenty yards away. Head erect, ears perked, yellow eyes focused ahead, she prowls toward a smoky-gray formation of clay and volcanic ash that rises from the earth like a jagged-edged pyramid. The morning sun casts the formation in soft light and shadows and tinges the fossilized soils running in horizontal bands, like rose-colored stripes on marble columns in old cathedrals.

I am parked on the side of the Badlands Loop Road, shivering in the cool October morning and wishing I had worn a jacket over my hooded sweatshirt. I fumble for the cup in the holder and sip hot coffee; steam dampens my face. For several minutes, I watch the cats through the open window which frames a landscape of three harmonious elements--the mother, her kittens, and the prairie.

The poster in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center says sightings of bobcats are rare in the park. I momentarily curse myself for not having my camera, but as the cats glide through the tall grass, I realize that I have come to this moment without the need to fiddle with lenses and dials. Without technology’s limitations, I am free to imagine the cat’s soft, sensitive nose sniffing the air and the muscles under her tawny, black-streaked fur rippling with each slow, powerful, yet delicate step. The sight of the cats is an unexpected gift, and I try to burn the moment into my brain so that in years to come their image will emerge from the darkroom of memory to comfort me as it somehow comforts me now.

Finally, the cat slinks down a deep wash, crouches in the grass, and moves her head side to side looking for prey, or perhaps predators. Behind her, the kittens hunker down and watch for a few seconds before pouncing and tumbling over one other. Soon, the mother unfolds herself, stands up, and moves toward the pyramid, her cubs trotting to catch up. I watch until they round a corner to a place beyond roads.