My eyes blinked open as Travis whispered, “What’s that noise?”

Only 24 hours earlier my adult nephew and I had packed up our tent in Yellowstone Park as the sun was only a glowing ember in the eastern sky. We followed the Yellowstone River Valley out of the park as the rising sun illuminated the valley walls. The frothy blue rapids, icy Yellowstone snowmelt, accented the kaleidoscope of multicolored rock formations.

Nine hours later, we arrived at Medora, N.D., gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located in the Mars-like badlands of far western North Dakota. We had made the trip, which would have taken weeks on horseback, in one day accompanied by Willie Nelson and the Doobie Brothers. Our clay- and tan-colored Suburban, which had served as pack horse for the past eight days in Glacier and Yellowstone, was now a comfortable air-conditioned living room.

As we raced across the high plains of eastern Montana, again following the Yellowstone River, my mind attempted to visualize life on this harsh prairie 1,000 years earlier.

With a day to kill before we were expected home, we wanted to get “up close and personal” with the American bison that roam free in Roosevelt National Park. Over the centuries, the Native American people (one of them, our ancestor) had developed a natural life rhythm with the buffalo. Subconsciously, we were seeking a deeper understanding of that man/buffalo rhythm. We wanted to experience these woolly beasts that had been the Plains Indians’ main source of food and shelter for centuries — long before the white man had set foot in North America.

By late afternoon we had secured a campsite in the Cottonwood Camp Ground near the Little Missouri River. The hunt for the buffalo had our pulses racing. Shadows cast by a variety of buttes — Mother Nature’s sculpture garden — lengthened, then turned black, as we hunted in vain. We arrived back at our temporary home as the last rays of light melted into the western sky.

Travis whacked the steering wheel in disgust, “I can’t believe we couldn’t find those buffalo; there are over 500 in the park.”

“We did see some of those wild Nokota Horses,” I said with a smile. “After we saw those horses, I couldn’t stop thinking about thundering through the brush on a bareback horse amid a herd of terrified buffalo. Imagine, trying to kill a buffalo with a wooden spear and a stone point!”

We scorched a couple of brats over an open fire and washed them down with a few beers. A million bright stars decorated the vast prairie sky. We located the North Star, the Big Dipper and Orion, then brushed our teeth and turned in early.

Bound-up in my sleeping bag like a mummy, I raised up onto my elbows and shook the Heineken-induced fuzz from my brain. The predawn light that filtered through the micro-fabric tent gave only a hint of daylight.

“Hear that! What’s that noise outside?” Travis whispered again as a shadow darkened the thin blue wall. He quietly crawled over to the tent flap and ever so slowly pushed it open. “We are right in the middle of that [expletive] buffalo herd!” he loudly whispered. “What are we going to do?”

Now on my knees, I quietly cautioned, “Just sit still and wait! The herd must be moving toward the river as they graze. They’ll pass, I just don’t know how long it will take.”

We sat motionless in our tepee with the blood of our ancestor surging through our veins, and experienced “up close and personal”: Every sound! Every smell! Every movement!

Our hypnotic trance was broken as the gray light flowing into the tent opening was suddenly blocked by a massive head with short curled horns. The bull blinked his large brown eyes as he ripped loose a mouthful of wiry prairie grass. He snorted — sensing something — but feeling no danger, he slowly continued his journey to the river. The herd meandered through the area as other tent campers sat frozen in their flimsy shelters.

“Well, you got what you wanted! Let’s snap a few pictures and head home.”


RJ Smiley lives in Edina.