Before I tell you my story, let’s clear up one thing: the correct term is bison, not buffalo, for the North American branch of the bovidae family. Early American settlers called them ‘buffalo’ because of their similarity to the African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo. And still today, locals in South Dakota and Wyoming continue to use the term buffalo to refer to what are actually bison – even though it is a different animal, not merely an interchangeable name for the same animal.
Back to my story: I had driven through the Needles Highway in Custer State Park and was circling back toward Keystone, near Mount Rushmore in mid-afternoon when I noticed a couple of cars ahead of me had stopped on the road. Off in the distance was a lone buffalo. “Wow,” I thought. “A sighting.” I had heard the chances of catching a glimpse of them was greater in the evening and I had decided not to take the longer ‘wildlife’ route where they were known to reside. I slowed the car and took a picture of what appeared as a brown speck in the distance.
Around the next curve, those two cars stopped behind some others, who had stopped because there was not just one, but two or three – it seemed a family was near the road, and was headed across. “My lucky day,” I thought. Better than a far-off sighting. I rolled down the front windows and started leaning out to shoot pictures with my iPhone. My dog, Gunter, started moving his head toward the open passenger window, sniffing with interest.
Just then, I saw several buffalo walking on the other side of the highway and I realized that the line of cars had stumbled upon a group. The convoy of summer sightseers kept moving slowly along the road as the occasional animal moved from one side of the paved thoroughfare to the other. Another line of cars in the distance, coming toward us in the oncoming lane, had also slowed to a crawl.
Before I knew it, the animals were coming right up beside the car from behind and I quickly jerked my head inside and close the windows, lest they get interested in the dog or agitated by him. I wanted a good close-up shot, but had also seen the signs saying “Buffalo are aggressive. Keep your distance,” so I let the cellphone drop beside me. The buffalo kept coming and the line of cars kept creeping along and I was astonished at the number of animals. We seemed to be in the midst of a herd. The brochure had mentioned that the park was home to 800 of them, and we were surrounded by several dozen. A female bison was nursing her calf right in front of my car and another animal was sniffing the backside of yet another. This was wonderful. An unexpected encounter with wildlife in their habitat.
Just then I was forced to stop my car from crawling forward as a very, very large bull walked right in front of the vehicle. “Okay, just wait,” I thought, not wanting to do anything to upset him. But he didn’t move. In no time at all, two others, among the largest in the group, had positioned themselves to the left and behind my car, and they didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “Lie down,” I said to the dog, thinking he might be an attraction. Other animals were moving past the car on all sides. “Perhaps these big guys are clearing a path for everyone else to pass through,” I thought. “This will just take a few minutes.”
By now, there must have been 100 to 200 animals all around the two lines of cars, flowing through every available space. The vehicles in front of me were long gone and I was holding up a long line behind me but I couldn’t move without hitting an animal. I started to wonder whether buffalo could turn over a car and whether my car insurance would cover such an eventuality, but still I waited. The three buffalo around my car were actually as high as the car, a small Subaru SUV, and the snorting bull in front began to touch his head against the front hood. This was getting scary. My dog was very relaxed in the back. Perhaps the buffalo thought the car was an unknown white animal?
The minutes were ticking by. I was feeling responsible for the cars piled up behind me and so grabbed the park brochure and started dialing the ranger number listed there. Surely they would give me some advice. Or send someone out to handle the situation. Maybe they already knew this herd had trapped a bunch of tourists and were on their way. Just in case, I dialed the number. Nothing. There was no phone signal in this part of Badlands National Forest.
A tinge of panic started to creep over me. I had been trapped and not moving for 10 – possibly 15 minutes and had no idea how this episode would end. I was feeling foolish and wise at the same time. This wasn’t a game park adventure. These animals had probably seen people and cars frequently, but still, it was a chance encounter in the wilderness. I was doing the right thing by staying put and not risking a commotion.
Just then I heard some motors revving behind me and became convinced that a rescue mission had arrived. I saw in my passenger side mirror, two motorcycles – one with a couple on it – snaking their way up beside the line of stopped cars. The buffalo began to move and the bull in front of me turned and headed toward the grassland. I immediately inched my car forward where he had been and the others followed him crossing behind me, between the cars that were now also crawling forward. Everyone was finally moving. The two guys on Harley-Davidsons had effectively herded the herd of buffalo off of the road.
To see how this dramatic tale ends, please click this link.
About 20 minutes later, at a rest stop, I saw the motorcyclists had also stopped and I rushed up to thank them. “You saved the day,” I said. “You must be from around here. I had no idea what to do in that situation.”
The driver who had been in the lead answered. “Hell no. We’re from Florida. Never seen a buffalo before. We just wanted to get by the traffic.”
The next day, when I did meet someone from the area, she told me that pickup trucks often herd buffalo and the motorcyclists unwittingly played that role. She also assured me that a large group of buffalo could indeed overturn a car and I was right to have stayed put and lucky that all ended well.
When I told my son about the encounter over the phone a couple of days later, he ventured that the buffalo were giving me a gift – and it was up to me to determine what that was.
“Patience,” I answered. “They were teaching me patience – which has never been my strong suit.”
GOON DOG’S VIEW: