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  • Writer's pictureBeth Hildebrand

America Is Still Beautiful: Beauty In The Ashes

It had been raining hard all morning right after we left Mitchell, South Dakota where we spent the fourth night of our trip.  The rolling, grassy hills on both sides of the highway went on for miles, but it was difficult to see how far because the fog and rain kept our view limited.  But after a couple of hours, the rain stopped and the clouds began to break as we pulled off the highway to go to our main destination of the day, and our first campground site at the Badlands National Park.




As we drove into the park we all kept saying the same word, “Wow!”  That’s such a common word, but what we saw took our words away and that’s all we could think of to say.

We found a parking lot, unloaded our cooler, made some sandwiches and got our hiking boots on along with our very stylish hats to go do some exploring. (Hey – ya gotta do what ya gotta do to not get sunburned!)

Our kids were at the top of the rocky, even chalk-like, mound quicker than us parents got to the foot of it.  Once we were at the top of it we were amazed.


We climbed, jumped down, balanced, and our son even ran, as we looked around with awe and wonder. This place is a kid’s, or kid at heart’s, dream to run on this huge playground.  There’s really a place like this in our country?  What in the world were we standing on?










None of us had ever seen this place before – not even pictures.  I honestly had never heard of it until we started mapping our trip.  It was nothing like I had ever seen before.  They were jagged, white structures that were high but not too high to climb to the top (even though it could be a little dangerous).  It was a free roam national park.  I learned that some parks have a rule that you must stay on designated trails while there’s others where you can walk, climb, or run wherever you want to.  That sounds more fun doesn’t it?

The stones underneath my feet kind of crumbled when I stepped on some of them.   Some places were trying to hold onto the last few drops of dampness from a previous rain where the color was a light tan instead of a ashy white and gray.  At these badlands, it kind of felt like I was walking on the moon.  And I was inside a little bit.  It was somewhere I never thought I’d go.  It was big and I felt small.  But it was tangible and touchable and climbable.

Can’t we look at the mountains we have to tackle in life that way?  When the challenge is so big and you feel so small but once you start taking steps forward, it becomes tangible?

After we played a while, we needed to get to our camp site and set up our tent for the night.  It was the most beautiful landscape to enjoy from our site – again, nothing I imagined.





We found out when we got there that the ground was very wet.  There were even some big puddles on our lot but we found a spot that was on dryer ground and set our tent up there.  We soon learned from the campground host that it had rained that morning and a few days prior to our arrival.  There was still a risk of a thunderstorm but it stayed south of us.  We could see the lightning in the far distance but the clouds stretched out to us and helped give the most glorifying sunset behind the sculpted rocks.













God’s artistry in the Badlands was one of the most spectacular I’ve seen.  This “…land was radiant with his glory.”  (Ezekiel 43:2) The colors were bright yet calming.  The sky was a palette and God’s paintbrush had colors of pink, purple, and yellow on it. The light reflecting from the structures and the storm behind them gave our eyes a different piece of art – even though just a couple hours earlier we looked at that same spot and it looked so different.

He had a massive canvas to work on because this looked like a massive view to cover.  As Teddy Roosevelt once wrote, “Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.”

How could this be bad lands when I see this radiant sunset?  When I hear the word “BAD”, it usually has a negative connotation, doesn’t it?  Bad – not good, awful.  This terrain was anything but that – it actually become one of my daughter’s and my favorite places we visited.

After sunset, the park ranger spoke at the small amphitheater near our campground about the land we were on.  This 244,000-acre park in the Great Plains of southwestern South Dakota is a spectacular stretch of heavily eroded sedimentary rock layers of red and brown fossilized soil, sculptured by runoff in the drainage of the White, Bad and Cheyenne rivers.  Researchers say this terrain is the result from a volcano where the ash from it formed into these rock formations  millions of years ago.  After years and years of water and wind, it’s become what we see today.  There’s also areas of mixed-grass prairie filled with prairie dogs and rams we saw the next day as we drove 25+ miles out of the park.

But they’re still called “Badlands” and why is that?  Well, it’s because when the first settlers discovered this land on their horses and covered wagons, they found it very difficult to go over and through them.  It was a hard terrain to get through.  They didn’t even know there was still so much more to see on the other side!

If I was with them I’d probably call it bad too.  It was rough.  It seemed impossible to get through.  It makes me think of challenges I’ve had in my life where I felt that way too.  I really hope in the future, when I go through difficult times and challenges that seem impossible to get through, I’ll remember this place of sanctuary to me – where I’ll envision the beauty in the midst of the rocky terrain and that God can and will still show me beauty in the rough ashes surrounding me.

When in difficult times, because life’s not always easy, I want these words David wrote to come to my mind while envisioning these lands – “I am radiant with joy because of your mercy, for you have listened to my troubles and have seen the crisis in my soul.”  Psalm 31:7 (TLB)

You may have heard the saying, “There’s beauty in the ashes.”  That’s what it was in those historically volcanic, ashy structures in South Dakota.  Beauty.

God keeps His promises:  A few thousand years ago He promised, “I will give you beauty to replace your ashes.”  (Isaiah 61:3)

He still keeps that promise today.  

In many ways. 










If you’re ever that way, make time to go there.  Knowing what we know now, I’d go back there in a heart beat.

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