A few hundred years ago, there were 50 million buffalo on the American plains. Through a few decades of questionably hard work in the 1800’s, and unquestionably good aim, government sanctioned hunters were able to reduce that number to less than 90. Custer State Park became the last vestige of 30 wild buffalo by 1900, when some higher power protected them and allowed them to repopulate. Today they are over 30,000 strong with most of them coming from that originally protected herd of 30 at Custer.
Today, Custer State Park in South Dakota is home to 1500 free roaming but contained in the park bison. What began as a routine effort to gather and vaccinate them has become the Kentucky Derby of South Dakota. Thousands of spectators drive to midwest SD and traverse 15 pre-dawn miles of winding hilly park roads, to eat pancakes in their lawn chairs and wait 4 hours to watch these magnificent animals run for about 2 minutes.
The Buffalo Round-up draws 25,000 to the high ground, where cowboys recreate a scene from the mid 1800’s while people stand in line for port-a-potties. The bison are corralled to a staging area where twenty or so cowboys on horseback ride out across the rolling hills pushing the spirit animals together into one large meandering herd, characteristic of a scene in Dancing With Wolves, except slower.
Unlike DWW, there’s no Kevin Costner and the corralling cowboys are themselves being corralled by 40 or so Ford pickup trucks with dozens of gawkers standing in the trucks’ beds soaking in the western experience, similar to a Ford commercial. Eventually, 1500 wild bison are briefly running across our field of view kicking up a trap of dust and producing mixed emotions.
It is at once the most buffalo we have ever observed in one place, but in the least dramatic manner. Drama finally unfolded and the crowd cheered when a lone hold out was chased out of the brush by a rider carrying the American flag.
Seated in the throng of 25,000 spectators, the single field of 1,500 animals seemed surprisingly small. When we consider that this is all of the bison living in this enormous park and the majority of those in all of the Dakotas, we simultaneously cherish the fact that conservation efforts have enabled this moment and mourn its modest scale. The round up is a celebration of wild bison and of the mythical Wild West, but also a eulogy for the grandeur of what once was and what will never be again.
Back at our camp adjacent to the State Game Lodge, summer White House to Calvin Coolidge, the scene is literally lifted from an Outdoor Life commercial. A babbling brook runs through the rear of our campsite while a fire crackles under the colorful fall foliage of towering oak, maple and pine. We picked up three nights on a late cancellation which is how we can roll when we channel the late great Anthony Bordain’s No Reservations policy. The site is walking distance to the Governor’s Arts, Crafts and Music Festival.
We love a good arts fest and this one does not disappoint. The focus is on 150 artisans celebrating western themes from embroidered kitchen towels to hand forged metal knives in hand crafted leather sheathes. There were wall-sized oil paintings of bison and Navajo painted skins along with jewelry, pottery, rugs, welded metal sculptures and kettle corn. Not surprisingly, we opted for the kitchen towel.
Custer State Park anchors the western vacation getaway of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. Our Florida plates stand out as the exception to the rule among locals who haul their 5th wheel rigs, ATVs, motorcycles, and big-wheeled trucks for weekend getaways. Even as late in the season as we find ourselves, the 71 campgrounds and three lodges are nearly full. We may have lost the Wild West as a practical matter, but we have not lost the desire to escape civilization for the natural world, even if we insist on bringing all of our toys with us.
This area east of the mighty Rocky Mountains and west of the farm belt is properly called the Great American Desert and sometimes referred to as the High Plains. It extends north into Montana and south into New Mexico. It encompasses geologic formations as alien as any planet depicted in Sci Fi, and landscapes sweepingly beautiful in their vastness and monotony.
The Black Hills of South Dakota contained in Custer State Park are an oasis of forest, stream and rolling hills within this desert. We moved quickly through the Black Hills prior in 2018 in Betty, knuckling the tight twisty roads in the 35 feet motorhome hoping that we would return and very glad that we did.