INTERIOR, S.D. — What took place along the jarring 5-mile stretch of gravel road should have been the highlight of a trip into Badlands National Park.
Most any other time it would have been.
This time, it was the prelude to the big show.
After turning off Badlands Loop Road with the goal of finding wildlife unique to the 240,000-acre area in southwestern South Dakota, my wife, Michelle, and I noticed traffic at a standstill less than a quarter of a mile onto the gravel road. With the setting sun casting shadows, all we could see were silhouettes at the top of the first hill. Immediately, we knew we were in for a treat.
A herd of bighorn sheep had been grazing on the prairie grass, and now we were in the middle of them.
They ignored us for the most part, walking back and forth across the road while eating grass nearly every step of the way. The lambs, several of which were fitted with radio collars, bounced and played until one of the rams ushered them in a new direction. The herd moved in unison at a leisurely pace with a couple of the older rams taking posts on the edge, keeping watch over everyone.
We sat for the longest time, quiet and still. We didn't want to impede on their territory. We wanted to marvel at their elegance.
Once they moved on, so did we. My truck's suspension was put to the test by the uneven terrain all the way to Roberts Prairie Dog Town. We had been here earlier in the day and been treated to a show by the prairie dogs popping out of their holes and racing from one hole to another.
Now, there were no prairie dogs to be seen. They were all underground as the sun continued to fall on the horizon.
Much like earlier in the day, three brown spots were visible far off across the prairie. We estimated the American bison were at least a mile away, possibly more, and each seemed to be moving in a different direction. How big were they? Even in a viewfinder of a camera with the lens zoomed to the max, they seemed small.
But they were moving. That was enough to hold my interest.
We sat for the longest time and watched two of the bison move slowly in opposite directions. Neither was headed our way. However, one bull began making slow, steady progress in our direction. So I told my wife we should just sit and watch what he does.
Thankfully, we never budged.
Moving at a gingerly pace, the bison bull crept closer and closer until we were able to see the heavy tufts of fur hanging from his front legs and the size of his horns became visible.
He continued sauntering forward, coming close enough we could hear his steps and snorts. We estimate he was within 35 or 40 feet of the truck, but he never turned to approach us or attack us. He didn't care we were there.
The bison crossed the gravel road and disappeared down an embankment. As we backed up and turned to head back to main road, we looked down to see him standing on top of a large rock surveying the grandeur of the beauty below.
After that, he was gone and so were we.
We drove back to our cabin as the sun faded out of sight and a star-studded night unfolded. We marveled at the pictures we captured of the bison, even all the fuzzy ones where my excitement made a steady hand impossible, and toasted our good fortune.
Seeing such a majestic, wild animal up close would have made the trip worthwhile on its own, but there is so much more to behold in the Badlands.
The sharply eroded buttes and pinnacles are breathtaking, while the mixed grass prairie seems to stretch endlessly. You have to take the time to stop at the overlooks and get off the beaten path to truly enjoy what the Badlands has to offer.
By doing so, you may come face-to-face with an awe-inspiring beast that truly is an unforgettable moment.