Jack and I adore watching the prairie dogs, of which there are many along the back highways of South Dakota. We pull over and sit a few minutes, and once they get used to us, the TV show starts right up. “Welcome to KDOG, the number one viewer choice for Black Hills entertainment!”
We got pretty good at spotting the little mounds and holes of earth among grasses that signals one of these encampments, and congratulated ourselves on being good hunters.
And then we passed the buffalo….
Three Wildlife loops and two hikes into our stay in Custer State Park, we’d seen neither hide nor horn of the great bison. Since Jack had never seen a buffalo in his entire life, I was beginning to feel a failure as a tour guide.
One night just about dusk we set out to do the Wildlife Road inside the park, confident that our ability to stay up past 9 pm would be rewarded.
And we saw white tailed deer, and we saw mule deer, and we saw long horned sheep, and we saw antelope, and we saw what we think was a black foot ferret. You know you’re jaded when you pass a herd of antelope, glance over and go, “Eh, just antelope” and accelerate. We were hunting buffalo, after all.
So when I came upon a man driving the other way, stopped in the middle of the road taking a picture to one side, I was mildly annoyed. “Outta my way, son, we’re huntin’ buffalo!”
As we accelerated past him, Jack looked back and said, “Oh, it’s one of those big black things.”
“A bear?!” I shrieked, driving faster. Our windows were down.
“Nah. You know.” He made gestures with his hands, describing something that could have been a VW bug or a breadbasket. “What do you call the things we’re looking for again?”
“Buffalo,” I said, already scanning the horizon. Then it dawned (or dusked) on me. “That was a buffalo?”
“Yeah,” said Jack. “Right next to the road. Maybe ten feet away.”
So I’m sure there is a life lesson in here somewhere, kids. Don’t look too hard for something or you’ll miss the fact that it’s standing eight feet off your right shoulder as you scan the horizon. On a positive note, Jack said he could count its curls, and now he’d seen a buffalo that close, he never wanted to see another in such proximity again.
This guy was enjoying the sun a ways off the highway as we traveled route 2.
And this guy was at the entrance to the park when we came back.
with his family
They aren’t actually penned in. A stretch of road that must be near their rounds has a cattle crossing grid at each end of it, and this hog wire fencing on one side. I think the rangers must have gotten tired of cleaning up buffalo and tourist parts from close encounters.
And in keeping with the spirit of the adventure, when I finished photographing the distant buffalo off highway 2, this prairie dog was about two feet from my feet, scolding me. “What am I, chopped liver?”