Like many of my story and essay postings here it has been a few years that I originally wrote the followig piece. I offered it then to a select few followers who either voluntarily allowed me to enter into their emails with it or ones that I volunteered to recieve them. Okay, many of them had little choice in the matter, but they were well recieved just the same. At the time this particular essay fell a bit flat for many, I took some time to revive and revise it and offer it here and again for your, I hope, enjoyment.
As I drove across South Dakota I found myself doing something I have done many times in the past. I tried to imagine the land, as it was when the first human looked at it from that very spot, granted it is much easier in some places than others. I was brought back to the present by a truck passing me and I noticed that I was far below the speed limit and apologizing to the driver of the truck for forgetting where my right foot was. I saw myself standing in the prairie grass looking at the rolling hills with nothing around me but the sky, a couple eagles, some buffalo, a prairie dog or two and the wind. It is something that I do to help pass the time, driving for a living is not something that creates mental stimulation. I have done it in many states and once in a while it gives me an eerie feeling, today was one of those days. I think it just had to do with the area that I was driving through. States with a rich heritage and an uncertain, unsteady start for lack of wanting to use politically correct or un-politically correct words always makes me think just a little differently when I pass through them. That and standing at a rest area outside of a small nearly forgotten town in Southwestern Montana made me remember things and even inspired me if only just a little.
I was reminded of a trip that we took as a family in the summer of 1980. My Step Father, my Mother, my Grand Mother and myself in a Plymouth Volare’ crossing the country on our way to Washington to visit My Aunt and Uncle and cousins. Crossing South Dakota we were as, we were the entire trip, the typical tourist family. We hit a prairie dog village and slipped into an area of South Dakota called the Badlands. I passed the Badlands today, I even stopped at a place called the Badlands Travel Stop and I could not help but be reminded of that first trip. I was the typically bored teenager and it was hotter than… well you get the idea, and of course the air conditioner of the Volare’ was four /fifty-five if you have ever had that kind or a similar air conditioner then you know what I’m talking about. I remember going down into the valley where the badlands are and I fell asleep. I can’t remember how many miles that we went to get through the area but I remember waking several times and seeing pretty much the same things.
I was later that trip when we were watching a movie when it started. It was a western and the first words out of my mothers’ mouth were ‘that looks like the Badlands.’ I suppose that it probably could have been or maybe was supposed to be. The fact that it was a spaghetti western and filmed entirely in another country and not the US I was finding it hard to believe. I wish I could tell you how many places and things that reminded mother of the Badlands but I can say it was nearly an everyday occurrence, for quite a while. About two years later when it was a joke for her to bring it up and be wrong, I was watching a documentary and as she walked by she spouted off her then famous line, laughing afterwards as she had come to do. Probably more for the fact that she had been wrong so many times and was preparing for me to inevitably tell her that it was not then thinking it a funny joke. Then stopping she looked longer at the program, ‘no,’ she said after a second, ‘that’s not the Badlands.’
It was my turn to laugh then, seeing as how it was in fact a documentary on the Badlands, if you know anything about my mother, you know that she is as gullible as a millennium is long. Sure I could have strung her along and made out that it wasn’t and pointed out the things that reminded her of the Badlands, but for some reason I just couldn’t make myself do it.
So for those eerie feelings, my mother, and the Badlands I promised myself that I would write the following.
I don’t know what it is about the lower South East section of Montana, North Eastern Wyoming and North Western South Dakota areas that draw me. Every time I pass the little big horn I feel it, it holds me as I pass across the back side of the black hills. It keeps me looking at the hills that fall and rise before me. I wish that I could explain it; perhaps it is the spirits of those that came before me. Perhaps, it’s the fleeting brush with history that holds me for those miles. The black hills, the devils tower, each in their turn hold me as I go past, and finally the last to hold me is the badlands.
Spirits of those that have come and gone before me send a shiver up my spine as I look out over the buffalo roam. Yet the buffalo roam as it once was is long gone. Perhaps it is its past that haunts me. The only ones left in most of that roam are the deer and the antelope and even they have less space to play than before.
I stand atop the wind battered hill and looked out over the rolling hills, holding my arms to my side parallel to the earth beneath my feet. I feel the rush of wind as it gently makes its way into my hands and through my fingers. Each time it blows it’s as if the land is breathing, each pause an inhale, then the gust, exhale. I move my hands in an attempt to catch it, if only just for a micro second. My arms move with each breath up and down riding on the wind. On the next exhale I begin to think, if I move my arms just so, if I could somehow catch that breath it would lift me from my earthly chain. But just as I feel the next exhale I know that there is no way that that could happen, my arms move with the wind only to fall back into place. I have not moved an inch; it is always then that they come.
I feel them rushing through my fingers forcing them to move as if each one was waving at the other in a slow motion action. I close my eyes and let them take me. I hear them calling in each of the earths’ breaths. They are calling out to me, using a name that I do not recognize and saying things that I do not understand. Spirits of things that have come and gone send a shiver up my spine as the earth exhales. Yet somehow I feel that I have heard them before. They point to me and try to tell me of what has come and gone and it is only from here that I can hear their voices. Opening my eyes to look out over the land again, only this time I see it as it was before man carved his mark upon it. Long before the ribbons of concrete and asphalt were laid, before the houses and barns, before the tee-pees and even the horses. Back to when only the native and wild animals wandered over the hills. It is this place that they have been calling me to, I hear them clearly now, telling me what it was before. The spirits rush in front my eyes showing me everything they have been trying to show me, they tell me it is the buffalo roam.
The hills roll before my feet, the grass bending gently to the easy breath of the earth. Its breath becomes thick with smell of high prairie flowers as it invades my senses. My mind cannot go past the sensation that it brings to me. It forces me to remember early mornings filled with a mixture of fragrances and moisture. From overhead I hear the cry of an eagle, as it searches for its next meal. Flying close to me I feel the air from its wings as it passes over me.
It began from somewhere beyond my line of sight beyond the last valley behind the mountains in the distance. Slowly the wind begins to carry the vibrations and sounds. I start to shake from the movement of the earth beneath my feet. A cloud of dust rises over the distant hills moving towards me. I look up into the sky as an eagle flies over and off to my right. To my left a prairie dog sticks its head out of its home looking about quickly before disappearing again.
Off in the distance, tall spires of soft rock cut by wind and water tower above a desert floor and stand out beyond the rolling hills. Buttes standing above the desert floor appearing gray and forbidding, smaller mounds scattered about pointing towards the sky. Gray and red cliffs off in the distant complete the boundaries of the rolling hills. The features of this land were long ago decided by the forces of nature. The ground moves beneath my feet, I am lifted, if only for a brief moment, from my chain of gravity. I turn toward the sounds and watch as dust begins to roll up above the distant hills. At the top of one rise is a small group of antelope standing together as if they were huddled to protect each other from some unseen danger. Their heads up in the air, noses sniffing the wind as it passes them. Off in the distance thunderclouds roll in over the mountains. Another rain is coming with another change in the land. Lightning streaks across the sky and turns the air thicker. The clouds roll on and over the prairie blocking the sun as they pass. At the bottom of a hill three buffalo stand proud and defiant against the growing wind. Lightning strikes in the hills and they move solemnly away from their sheltered valley. Wind catches their light brown manes as they moved. A rumble came from beyond the hills. Lightning strikes the ground where the buffalo had stood. The rumble growing louder as it approaches. The air filling with the sound, as hooves beat at the ground. It comes as they crest over one hill then another, moving over the land. A sea of buffalo spill out over the rolling hills and miles behind the lead group. They tear at the ground as they move along. Carrying for miles, the sound echoed off the hills and back again. Stretching out over the hills they seem to be moving as one. Swiftly going past the rock spires, and down onto the desert floor. They separate briefly as they make their way around the formations of soft rock. Searching one cut after another looking for a place to ride out the coming storm.
Before the afternoon turns to evening the herd will find what they are looking for and begin to huddle closer. As the rain begins to fall they will be ready for whatever nature is going to throw at them. Rain pounds the ground forming small puddles among the prairie grass. Each drop of water is life blood for the land it hits. It does not take long for it begins to form tiny rivers from puddle to puddle as it searches its own level. Each tiny river meets with another and yet another. Soon the rain washes over the hills and into the small valleys pooling together. What is not surrounded by hills runs off and on to the next valley and the next. Each rain river cuts a new mark into the ground, giving life as it goes. Every animal of the prairie has sought out what shelter there is to be had. Where there are no wind breaks they lay down next to each other creating their own.
Thunder shakes the air following each lightning strike. Thousands of strikes lightning crossed the prairie tearing at the ground and splitting trees. The prairie had been dry and one strike finally started a fire. Despite the rain the fire grew from one tree to another burning quickly and spreading to the tall grass. The animals began to move over the hills again trying to stay ahead of the fire. Some of the slower animals were quickly taken over by the all-consuming fire.
Fires move quickly and this one was no different, separating mothers from their foals fathers from their mates the old and sick left behind. The rain lasted all day and the fire burned for another week across the hills and to the river. It burned to desert flats around the soft rock spires and wind formed canyons and it burned to the rock strewn landscape that separated the prairie from the foothills of the mountains.
Surviving animals moved from the prairie and made their way in search for grass and water. They gathered on the next hills and began their migration again stragglers showed up for days and fell into the migration as if nothing had happened.
At the bottom of a hill three buffalo stood proud and defiant against the breeze that blew across the hills. They stood alone and looked out over the hills, as if looking for the rest of their herd. Elk walk past the buffalo as they continued their migration, deer mingling with antelope as they too grazed the prairie grass. Eagles fly over the hills in their constant search for their next meal. Animals of the prairie make their migration from winter to summer or summer to winter. Moving, always moving, driven by the need for better grass or more water. Prairie dogs play on a knoll overlooking it all, paying no attention to anything or anyone else.
Spirits of those that have come before rush past me pointing to it all, as if to say, this, this is what I was, this is the Buffalo Roam. The tall spires of soft rock cut by the wind and rain stand out among the rolling hills. The features of the land were decided long ago by natures design. Eagles fly over the land in their constant search for their next meal. Elk graze at the prairie grass as they make their way over the hills. They are part of the animals of the plains and all making their migration from winter to summer or summer to winter. Each step they take lifts the dust from the ground catching in the breeze carrying it away. Moving, always moving, driven by the need for better grass or more water. Prairie dogs play on a knoll overlooking it all, paying no attention to what goes on around them.
I look at it still each time I pass and see it as it now and was then. Both versions have their own beauty to point to for without one the other would not be as they are today. It is these things that I see as I look past the progress of people. I feel the surroundings take over in my mind. I see it as it stood with just the trees and grass. Past the string of telephone poles, the ribbons of blacktop, and the houses. Stretching out over the rolling hills and on to where they touch the sky. The place they once roamed is still here though it may be different. The Buffalo that live today are still the majestic animal they once were. You can still find them in many places throughout the west. There are fewer of them and they no longer roam as many places as they once did, but they are and should always be a part of this land. Visit the lands they once roamed and see if you can still see them as they covered the hills and valleys.