Knowing that my time in Wind Cave National Park ran short, I set out for another hike in the prairie. It was a mild and overcast day, the sort of the day the widlife would be out and about (without heavy rain or harsh cold to prompt them to seek shelter among trees or in ravines.) With my wide-brimmed hat, and backpack with sketchbook, water, etc, I jumped into my vehicle, with a planned destination of Highland Creek or Centennial Trail, both of which begin in the eastern part of the park, off of NPS 5, our dirt road “widlife loop.”
The previous evening, I had taken a saunter from Wind Cave Canyon to Bison Flats Trail, a trip which began practically outside my doorstep, and brought me across rolling prairie. Coyotes barked and howled back and forth in the graying evening. And of course, the prairie dogs did their backflips and high-pitched yelps of warning as I approached.
Now, I drove to the north end of the park and turned left onto road 5, prepared for more encounters with the prairie fauna, especially the large and charismatic. Greeting me on the rolling hillocks of prairie were three bison, one of whom struck a dramatic pose, with the waving grass around her, and the backdrop of angular orange-and-purple mountains behind. I started a pencil outline for an image in oil pastel, but the subject kept moving. And her cousins advanced towards the car, and I pressed the pedal and moved on.
At the bison corralles (so named for their role in the annual roundup) a throng of bison stood, moved in their slow amble, and watched the coming vehicle, distracted from their pursuit of grass. One was in Highland Creek, lapping up water.
I decided to go farther, to the trailhead of Highland Creek Trail. As I drove the car higher up and toward the open field, a herd of bison appeared. In my apparent naivety, I still hoped to hike on Highland Creek Trail, and pulled from the road onto its pull-off.
The bison were a good few hundred yards away, and had their own business to attend to—or so I thought. With confident strides, the herd advanced toward me. The young ones, some yearlings, who looked like pygmy bison, RAN towards the mobile mineral deposit. They licked their lips as they ran, as though my vehicle were an ice cream truck. The bigger bison kept to an even walk, but also had their pink snake tongues dangling at the ready. The young ones reached me first, and the lick-fest began, like a Tootsie Pop convention. With the car's aluminum shell and glass windows separating me from then, I grabbed my camera from its holster and set to taking photographs. The car gently rocked under the barrage of licks. A larger bull bison swung his head to the side, and pushed one of the young ones away—a backhanded slap from a sledgehammer head. His larger size made this side of the car rightfully his, but his code. I knew it was quite unsafe to try to get out and hike, or even to open a door or window. I hoped that they would lose interest after a few licks. But it was not to be. Instead, through my rear window, the horde of salt-hungry thunderbeasts advanced. I restarted the engine, and very slowly backed out from the parking space. The bison, young and old, stepped aside for the moving vehicle, sometimes just an inch from its path. Nonetheless, they respected the metal beast in motion. I drove slowly down the road, And noted through the rear-view mirror that the bison followed. But when I sped up just a bit, they quickly vanished into the distance. Despite their fondness for salt, they wouldn't expend precious energy on running to catch it, save for the youngsters, rambunctious as children are.
En route back, I tried to pick up Centennial Trail, but found that it had its own crew of bovid guardians. The one in the creek was preoccupied in slurping water, but the others started their saunter towards my salty goodness. Grudgingly, I drove back south. I elected to try Cold Brook Canyon trail, since it was the only trail in this park which I had not yet hiked. After a flat and unexciting mile out to the park's boundary fence, and another back, I was still ready for more adventure. I and my wheels went back north, to the other trailhead of centennial trail. The southern trailhead was pleasantly nestled under a clump of ponderosa pines. Passing the signs at the trailhead that warned of bison, ticks, and rattlers, I went downhill.
In the valley, with walls of red rock ahead, I met a trio of bison. Their heads to the ground, munching tufts of tannish-yellow grass, the ongoing quest of the herbivore. I felt the beckoning of opportunity, and reached for my sketchbook. A medium-sized bull posed before me. He lifted his head and evaluated the bipedal ape. I backed away, until he lowered his head and resumed the grass mission. I went to my knees in the grass, and opened my sketchbook, and set to work with the pencil. The wind ruffled the pages as I went. I laid out the animal and its environs, and went to brushes and india ink. Once I was stationary, I became colder, and my one leg started to go to sleep, with weight on the knee, mooshed into the grass. I shifted my weight to the other knee, then stood upright for a bit. This wasn't a temperature-regulated studio. Out here in the field, I had to earn every line, and every stroke from dip pen or brush. I marveled at how Conrad Martens, George Catlin, Mark Catesby, and John William Lewin did it. Before cameras, this was how scientists and journalists and documentarians made field records. It still has its utility, although I had to acknowledge that one could shoot more than a hundred pictures in the time it takes to draw one. Today, I hear the debate over whether GPS will make people forget how to use maps. The debate over whether calculators would make people forget how to do math happened mostly before my time, but some of it carried over into my young days. But whatever debate happened over whether cameras would make people forget how to draw, it had ended before my parents were born. While artists lost some jobs to cameras, they also felt a new freedom, and took up abstract expressionism and the like.
I completed my drawing while munching a chocolate-flavored energy bar, which helped raise my body temperature (and made for a luxury not shared with the artists of yore.) Then I walked onward. A little further on, where I followed the trail dipped down to meet the stream, I met a large bull. This one scared me more, with his size. I shook a bit when he stared my direction, to make his judgement. I was either significant (as threat or competitor) or not significant. I backed away slowly, reducing my percieved level of danger. I needed to forgo the trail and bridge, and find a different place to cross the stream. Luckily, the bull lowered his head back to the stream, and resumed his drink. And I found another stream crossing, with only a little muck having penetrated my boot when I arrived on the other side.
I walked onward down the path, until it was time to turn around. As I came back, I walked behind the great beast. He strode through the path hewn by the stream. His muscles rippled as he walked. I had to admire the power of Tatanka—and try to keep my distance. As he turned and veered, and I strove to maintain a seperation of more than 100 feet, and so stayed well away from the trail.
The bull, in confident strides, approached the others. The three bison eyed each other, and stared and held ground, but took to sharing the space of the field. As this occurred, I continued efforts to keep far away, but also to get a few pictures. I still shuddered when one bison or the next stared in my direction. I looked to the forested areas and considered escape routes from a charging buffalo—I had learned that putting a barrier between them and me was wise, but had also seen the video where bison deftly went around the tree, to catch the man who had angered him, scooped him up with head and horns, and threw him into the air, like a rag doll. (Luckily, the man suffered only minor injuries.) Not wanting to be the next one, I kept clear, and walked along the edge of the fence, at the boundary of the field.
I passed by in peace, and back to the vehicle. Upon returning to my residence, I felt some weariness from the thrills of dodging bison, I ate some bean soup but fell into a short nap before I finished my tea.
It is glorious to be able to go for a walk near “home” and encounter the bison, the buffalo, the American icons, in their natural habitat leading their natural lives, and dodge them in one place then the next. It made me feel alive. And glad to be where I am, and to have experienced perhaps my last immersion in the grand prairies of Wind Cave. My next destination is Timpanogos Cave National Monument. A new cave, with new mountains, new forests, new territory, new people, and a new city nearby. I am not sure how long I can keep up the uncertain and unstable life of the vagabond ranger, but I must acknowledge that it has its moments of joy. I walked with Tatanka.