The endless line of cars crept forward in front of us and snaked through patches of pine forest and undulated over grass covered hillsides. After nearly an hour we finally traveled the last few miles to arrive at the viewing area.
The golden grassy hillsides on both sides of the valley were covered with row upon row of people sitting in lawn chairs and blankets behind large wire fences. Many had been there for hours sharing thermoses of coffee and granola bars waiting for the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup in South Dakota. This annual tradition is the last Monday in September and has been happening for over 45 years with an ever increasing audience. Currently about 14,000 people enjoy the experience. There are also festivities, including a local artist and crafters fair, a chili cook-off and live music in the park the weekend prior to the roundup.
As the sun rose higher we started peeling off jackets and sweatshirts. The air was filled with the buzz of excitement and anticipation. The crowd was entertained by an nervous pronghorn antelope pair that had accidentally found themselves trapped by the buffalo corrals in front of them and the huge crowds on the hills on both sides. They ran in confusion seeking escape.
Everyone strained their eyes or trained binoculars on the distant hillside waiting for the first glimpse of the dust cloud that would herald the oncoming herd. A black inky mass crested the hill and plunged down into the valley. As it moved closer the individual animals become distinct.
The herd was surrounded by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback and trucks toward the rear. Two cowboys carried flags, the United States and the South Dakota, between the thundering herd and the fence and everyone paused in their excitement to acknowledge their passing.
In just minutes about 1200 animals thundered past us and filtered through two gates into the waiting corrals. The tired buffalo milled around, quickly finding the waiting troughs of water.The last of the herd passed through the gates which were closed behind them.
The crowd around us slowly broke apart gathering belongings and heading to cars or down to the fences for a closer look. At the corral we saw the buffalo close-up and they moved about slowly, some still breathing hard from the long hot run. Over the next few days they will be vaccinated, tested for diseases and pregnancy and the calves will be branded. About 200 will be auctioned off in a couple of months to help maintain the delicate balance in the park and to bring in much needed revenue.