There are about 1500 bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota. In 1978 I had the good fortune to witness several hundred stampeding. The country was rolling grassland with scattered clusters of trees mainly in the little valleys. Traffic had come to a stop on the two-lane road because of the herd grazing on the slope above us. People had gotten out of their campers and cars to watch and take pictures. Dad wanted to get some reference photos as he'd always wanted to do a buffalo hunt sculpture.
I have no idea what spooked them. A few of the farthest got it into their minds to start running, and the rest accelerated down the hill within seconds. A couple of hundred tons of hairy cattle were coming straight at us. Most of us took the prudent course of getting back inside our vehicles. My father and I hunkered down behind our car, thinking that an early '70s Chevy was probably large and heavy enough to discourage a bison.
Whatever slight additional risk there was outside the car-remember, the bison is the most dangerous large mammal in North America-was well worth it. A suspension would have softened the visceral experience way too much. We got to experience the dust rising from the road as the herd ran over the asphalt. The vibrations were strong enough to be felt in our teeth. When a huge bull bounded across the road we could feel each hoof strike as a separate ringing blow of hammer against anvil. The herd poured around both sides of our car for less than half a minute. It was over. Nothing left but the haze of their passing, the odor of cattle, and hoof prints the size of small plates driven into the earth as deeply as my palm.
Dale Austin, May, 2008
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008