The bison were calling to me. Ever since I moved to Minnesota in 2005, I imagined great herds of noble buffalo waiting in some distant plain, munching the tall bluestem and porcupine grass, and when I would wander out among them, they would lift their great woolly heads and bellow a prairie welcome.
On our trip to the bison country of South Dakota last year, I learned that it's still possible to have a bovine-human encounter in the United States. I also learned that my children did not share the same depth of passion for the experience.
Bison once ranged through North America in almost unfathomable numbers, possibly as many as 60 million, but they were nearly exterminated in the 1800s by wanton hunting and the federal government's systematic effort to suppress the Plains Indians, who depended on bison for just about everything. Fewer than 1,000 remained when the 20th century dawned.
Since then, the North American bison population has rebounded to about 500,000, according to the National Bison Association, thanks to conservation efforts and the growing recognition of the culinary and health advantages of the other red meat. For me, they represented wild America, a living link to a vanished prairie culture, and I didn't think I could call myself a Midwesterner until I had smelled a real buffalo.
Although the 3,000 bison of Yellowstone National Park are the nation's best known herd, the most reliable place to see the buffalo roam is much closer to home.
Last August, my wife, 9-year-old daughter, 6-year-old son and I loaded up the car, pulled out of our alley in Minneapolis and headed southwest. Our first stop would be Blue Mounds State Park, a strange quartzite protuberance that juts out of the prairie just north of Luverne, Minn. My first order of business was the resident herd of 50 bison. When we arrived, I could see a scattering of dark blots against green grass and rocks. I could forget about getting any closer. The fence around their 250-acre pasture was high and posted with signs: "Bison - Keep Out."
I saw my next bison in Mitchell, S.D., this time a small, overcooked slab of one, on a plate. Two hundred miles west of Mitchell, we turned off the highway at Cactus Flat and drove south toward Badlands National Park. At the Big Badlands overlook, the prairie plateau abruptly drops off into a steep chasm, as if you have reached the end of the Earth. A vista of jagged eroded peaks and buttes stretches to the horizon, but to my dismay, not a single grazing beast was visible.
The next day, we headed west to the Sage Creek Rim Road, where we had been assured that bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope and you-know-what tend to congregate. Our car rattled over a cattle grate and there they were, perhaps 80 bison of all ages, lounging in a field just off the road. This time, no fence divided us and them. We stopped the car and watched.
The National Park Service warnings were everywhere. "The animals are wild - and they can attack. Never approach a bison closely. They can run more than 30 miles per hour." These bison looked lazy. But when they moved in our direction, they got bigger, fast. From the rear, a bison could be confused with a cow or a bull. But up front, their horns, head and hump of muscle make them battering rams on hooves. As soon as I saw their tongues, long and black, I ordered the children into the car and we drove away.
This was enough bison for the rest of my family. Still, I wasn't satisfied. We headed west, to Custer State Park, 73,000 acres of the Black Hills dedicated to hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding, scenic drives and wildlife watching, most notably the nation's second-largest public buffalo herd.
The children had a different objective: to participate in the park's daily gold-panning demonstration. Park staff members give everyone old-fashioned metal bowls, show you what to look for and then you try your luck sifting the silt of Grace Coolidge Creek for a shiny flake of gold or a glistening red garnet.
As soon as we entered the park on Hwy. 16A, the lords of these hills made their presence known. The column of Winnebagos, SUVs towing camper trailers and kayak-topped hatchbacks abruptly stopped. A regiment of massive brown and black mammals had taken over the road. The bison trotted across the lanes and between the vehicles, mothers chased by light-brown calves, teenage buffalo sprouting short horns and hoary old bison granddaddies snorting and swishing their tails. There was nothing to do but let them clear off the road.
The visitor center came into view, and we slalomed around the buffalo to park. My wife and I escorted our children into the center's safe stone walls. This was the headquarters for the gold-panning demonstration for which my children had endured a 600-mile road trip.
It was then we learned the painful news. Gold panning had been canceled, and one glance outside explained why. Bison were occupying the creek. The herd didn't usually hang out on this end of the park, but wherever they wanted to go, that's where they went. As we watched from the visitor center porch, the bison kept trotting out of the woods and into the parking lot and the road and the driveway and the big lawn and down into the stream to slurp. Two of them lay on their backs, stuck their hooves in the air and took a noisy dust bath in the maintenance building parking area.
The kids were upset. "I'm sure they'll be gone tomorrow, and then we'll be able to do the gold panning," I said. But they weren't. For a second day, the activity was canceled.
That night, after our fire had burned down, the stars came out over the rugged hills and I marveled at the inexhaustible beauty of our world. But my daughter was still sore about the bison interfering with her prospecting. We walked together through the darkened campground to fetch water from the pump. "I wish they would just leave," she said. "Why do they have to be there?"
Then came an urgent cry. "There's bison in the campground, there's bison in the campground!"
Word of the invaders raced through the tents, RVs and camping trailers. Some campers ran for cover.
My daughter and I tiptoed along the wall of the shower building. We peered around the corner.
Eight feet away from us, an immense bison was standing at the water pump. He lowered his head. We heard a loud slurping noise. My daughter didn't have to say anything. First they had muscled us out of the gold-panning creek. Now they butted ahead of us in line for the pump. Tooth-brushing would have to wait. Finally, the animal had his fill and lumbered off and disappeared into the night.
Slowly, we approached the pump. I looked down. The bison had left a little hunk of fur. It felt coarse to the touch. I dropped it back in the puddle.
The next morning, we called the visitor center and got some good news. The bison had ended their occupation. The nocturnal visit to our campground was probably part of that migration. We drove back to Grace Coolidge Creek and marveled at the transformation. Where the buffalo had roamed now lay hundreds of dung piles. That didn't matter to my two young prospectors, who sifted and waded and got thoroughly wet and filthy.
It's the nature of good vacations that you keep finding places to stop on your way home. We pulled over at the Jeffers Petroglyphs state historic site, which is in the middle of nowhere in Cottonwood County, Minn. The site's staff members have set up a demonstration project that involves using an atlatl, an early hunting tool that's a combination of sling and spear. For target practice, a Styrofoam bison sits on wheels out in the tall prairie grasses.
My son and daughter chose their weapons and eagerly approached the phony buffalo. With the pent-up tension of a bison-obsessed vacation, they took aim and hurled the spears with all their might. They missed.