The last couple of years, we haven't stopped in North Dakota--we've pushed farther west into Montana. Medora, North Dakota, has an irresistible pull on us. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an incredible place, a place of painted, sculptured bentonite clay--badlands, really--and abundant wildlife. It's one of the best places we know to surround yourself with bison.
Bison are big animals. Every once in awhile you stumble on a bull who is just...huge.
The really old boys have these huge Afros of black wool that flop out sideways, giving their heads a deltoid appearance, and massive pantaloons of wool that wobble as they walk.
Their horns hook back toward their skulls. It makes me wonder if they'd grow right into the skull if the bull lived long enough. He was a tank of an animal, clearly quite aged. And probably cranky enough to want to be alone most of the time.
A more modestly proportioned cow and her orange calf. The backdrop in this photo kills me.
In the days before a concerted government campaign to exterminate them, bison once covered the Great Plains, looking like a nubbly brown blanket when they were on the move. To break the resistance of Plains-dwelling Native Americans by pulling their food source out from under them, the U.S. Army and private contractors shot nearly all our bison in less than two decades. By 1890, they were all but gone. Before this summer, I’d seen bison only in small groups on private reserves. Our family trip changed all that.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western border of North Dakota has a herd of around 300 bison, with a penchant for hanging out on the park’s only roadway.
They separate and flow around the vehicles, a grunting, breathing, massy river. Golf-ball sized eyes roll, meeting yours as the animals trudge slowly past, an arm’s length or closer away. Knowing that this is one of North America’s most dangerous and unpredictable animals adds to the allure of the experience, at least for me. I've been told that the experience is even more heart-pounding when viewed from the back of a motorcycle. I cannot imagine being on a motorcycle in a herd of bison. Well, to start with I can't imagine riding at high speeds with my limbs and head exposed to the pavement, but riding through a herd of bison? Noooo thanks. You'd think they'd warn you at the park entrance. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here (on motorcycles)."
Ten-year-old Liam, who has been enthralled with bison since he was very young, was a quivering, pleading mess in our first bison roadblock. His apprehension only increased as time went on. “Please, Daddy. Just drive. Just go. Get away from them. Please. I beg you.” But the bison in Medora kept us stalled until well after dark, standing shoulder to shoulder, their backs turned to us, tufted tails switching insolently across their narrow haunches as we listened helplessly to our son’s pleas to get moving. The only thing to do was to relax into it, to inhale the rich, manurey smell of them, to listen to their sonorous grunts, to luxuriate in the texture of dark wool forequarters, shining black horn hooks, and smooth flanks.
The bison issue only intensified when we drove on to Yellowstone National Park. Here, as many as 4,500 bison live, and bison roadblocks were apt to be correspondingly longer. Yellowstone is the only place in America where bison have lived continuously since prehistory. And these animals—the only genetically pure Plains bison left-- seem to know it. They're eerily skilled at moseying out into the road just as you think you're going to squeak by them.
In our week's stay among bison, a funny thing happened. I came to revel in the roadblocks, to look forward to them, and to crow with delight when we encountered them. To me, they were an invitation to join the herd, to watch the evening light drain out against the stark blueblack outlines of the hills and mountains, to slow it all down to bison time, even as our hearts raced at the proximity of these massive beasts. There are few places in the world where animals get to call all the shots. Those are the places I most want to be.
Still I pee. You are as nothing to me.
Still I pee. You are as nothing to me.