karen-buffaloWhere have all the buffalo gone?

You see, I first visited the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota in the late 1980s—before legalized gambling returned to Deadwood—and I remember driving through Custer State Park and having to stop as a magnificent herd of American bison crossed the highway.

Now I have returned, telling my wife she won’t believe it when we see these awesome animals. There are more buffalo here than there are Black Hills Gold collectibles or Wall Drug billboards.

Only today, I’ve driven all through this park—and at 71,000 acres, that’s a lot of driving—and haven’t seen one lousy buffalo. Custer State Park claims almost 1,500 of those critters, but I can’t prove that to my wife.

From the Needles Highway to the rolling meadows to the pine-scented forests … no buffalo. For that matter, I haven’t seen any pronghorn or elk either, only a couple of wild burros.

Which was an adventure itself.

“What’s that?” asked Lisa, having awakened from her nap after an exhausting trek through Wall Drug. Lisa enjoys the cheese factor of vacations.

I’m more into nature and history. In fact, right now I feel like an old buffalo hunter from the 19th century who saw those vast herds on the Plains, who took part in the near-extinction of the buffalo and who now is wondering what happened, a poor fellow reduced to gathering buffalo bones.

Only I haven’t seen any buffalo bones, either.

Anyway, back to the wild burros …

Lisa had pointed down the road. “It’s a hitchhiker with a peg leg,” she announced, prompting me to wonder if perhaps she should visit an optometrist.

Because “it” had turned out to be a couple of wild burros, not Long John Silver; one  stuck its head through my window and swiped my apple.

So now I’m minus one apple and my credibility as a tracker of buffalo. At a visitor’s center, a park ranger informs me that the herd is well off the main roads today. Bison are migratory animals. The park doesn’t control ’em. This isn’t Bear Country U.S.A. (that tourist stop’s just down the road near Rapid City).

That’s all right. Custer State Park isn’t the only buffalo melting pot in South Dakota. I’ll drive over to Sturgis, check out Fort Meade (where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first officially played at military functions), then head up to Bear Butte State Park.

Bear Butte remains sacred to the Sioux and Cheyenne, and I have been assured it has its own buffalo herd. Of course, I don’t see any, and when I finally interrogate a park ranger, she informs me that the herd is only a handful of animals and she doesn’t know where they are.

The way my luck’s going, I could probably drive through Sturgis and not see a single Harley-Davidson.

Not that any trip here is ever wasted. Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Prairie Edge in Rapid City, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, the 1880 train, Crazy Horse Memorial, trout streams … the Black Hills is loaded with sites, history and, these days, gambling dens.

Once I hit Deadwood, I’ll check out the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Besides, despite my run of bad luck, I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the heart of Deadwood, I’ll be able to find a buffalo burger.

Apparently, that’s about as close as I’m going to get to see any bison on this trip.

Road warrior Johnny D. Boggs recommends Cedar Pass Lodge at Badlands National Park and the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood.

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