Cuny Table

In the language of the Lakota it's called mako sica which literally means “land bad.” We call it “The Badlands,” and have turned some of it into a national park where rangers charge visitors a fee just to drive through. It wasn't always so.

For nearly 10,000 years, only the brave and well-prepared dared enter. It was a place of death and despair, at least until a 19th Century railroad baron convinced would-be homesteaders that they could make a good living on the flats along the White River near a town they named Scenic. It was a lie. By the 1920s nearly all the settlers had either died or left in despair as the Lakota knew they would. 

Scenic today is all but a ghost town, virtually deserted – hot and dusty in summer and miserably cold and windy in winter. It was never really scenic either. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation lay to the south and east and is where many Lakota live. This now is their land, just a tiny sliver of the vast prairies they once called home. It is all the government said they could keep, at least until the 1940s when the army took even more of it away to make a bombing range.Church Atop
                    Cuny Table

In the 1970s the bombing stopped and the land was returned to the Lakota. Now only a few cattle and some wild ponies graze there.

Yet, it's not all desolation. Above and throughout the Badlands are the tables … flat patches of prairie that have not been eroded away. These are true prairies with the grasses of buffalo, wheat and grama, all perfectly adapted to a harsh, dry, windswept climate. Among the largest is a table named Cuny, after the ranching family that that has lived there for over 100 years. It is also the easiest table to visit. A highway passes east to west over the top of it.

Until very recently, you could even get a meal there at the Cuny Table Cafe (with two booths and one table) located in a low tin building near the end of a gravel road. The cafe was run by several members of the Cuny family who could tell you a lot about the Badlands and ranching. You didn't go there to eat, although the food was good. You went there to learn. And, perhaps, understand. Sadly, it's all gone now.

The highway, officially BIA2, is generally known as the Cuny Table Road. It is the only real road up there, but if you can find your way to the other dirt tracks (all of them called roads) you will be treated to unique views of the Badlands. One spot that's not too difficult to reach is a road that runs parallel to BIA2 about a mile north of it. As you approach Cuny Table from the west, pavement rises out a valley and just as you reach the top of the table and as BIA2 turns east there is a small dirt road on your left going north. Follow this road for about a mile and it will also turn east passing near the edge of the table. This road is the southern boundary of the Stronghold Unit of the Badlands National Park. A short hike north from the road will reward you with some spectacular views.

For me, like many locations in the Badlands, this is a place of contemplation. How often have you heard the cliché that it's a small world? No. It's not. We've just made it seem small with our cars and airplanes. Looking north from Cuny Table you can just make out Plenty Star and Sheep Mountain tables, Cuny's closest big neighbors. If you tried to walk to either of them in summer without water, you would die. That's the Badlands the pioneers and native Americans saw. … an inhospitable place that was difficult and dangerous to cross. We should not forget that.

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