TO THE DOGS
You hear a name like Roberts Prairie Dog Town and you’re thinking will there be souvenir cups, you’re thinking are the hordes of kids going to ruin this for me. And then you get there and you remember you’re in South Dakota, world capital of modesty and solitude and do-it-yourdamnself.
There is a road that circles the Badlands; it is called—appropriately—Rim Road. But it’s more like a fence attempting to contain this alien wilderness so that we can move around it and lean our arms upon it and talk back and forth about how none of this makes sense. Or maybe it’s more like a ribbon wrapped around an unexpected gift that somebody hands you in a crowded restaurant: you’re not quite sure what to do with it.
Anyway, Roberts Prairie Dog Town is on Rim Road. Just outside the gate, just beyond that concrete ribbon. And at first you think you’re way off, because there’s nothing out here. Just land lumpy like muffin batter. You think you read the map wrong again, got disoriented by its hushed spaces; it was easy to hold the thing upside down for minutes at a time before realizing it. But then you see them: one, two, seven, more, lurching atop their mounds like hunchbacked palace guards.
And you don’t want to say it looks like whack-a-mole, because that’s what everybody says (and also you find the comparison vulgar) but, lord, if that isn’t exactly what it looks like.
The park’s literature explains that Roberts was the name of the family who homesteaded here. The park’s literature doesn’t say how many blizzards they endured, how many hopeless summers. It doesn’t say if they strung sage in the doorway or gathered on the porch for pink sunsets. It doesn’t say where they left to, just one day they did and the land went to the dogs, literally.
Oh, the dogs. With their ink-dipped tails and their bellies bulbous like a child’s teddy bear. Though they most often stand upright their posture is, as your grandmother would say, atrocious. All torpor-weary or scurry-ready.
As you leave the orbit of the rental car, one jumps, yips, and gracelessly tosses his body backward into the air. You remember that people who study this kind of thing call it—appropriately—a jump-yip. You remember that people who study this kind of thing haven’t sorted out if the frenzied acrobatics are an altruistic warning or rather a maniacal strategy to lure others (a distraction, a dummy) up from the underground. No matter, it is a grammar—charged with intention and intensity—all its own.
You walk, slowly out of respect, ten yards, twenty, out into the middle of the ruined field. Now the jump-yips have hit a crescendo and you feel like you shouldn’t be here. But you stay, for ten minutes, twenty, because you cannot believe this has been here all along and you didn’t know. You fold onto your knees, leaning back and putting too much weight on your cheap sandals; they bow like a body bent in prayer. You would like to cry but the wind says not to, you would like to apologize for the intrusion but your language is not theirs. So you smile a dizzy smile, and whisper hello, hello, hello.
Ashley Stimpson is a writer based in Baltimore. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Johns Hopkins Magazine, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Baltimore Style, and the Maryland Natural Resource. Ashley is an avid hiker and aspiring birder.