On the breeze, I could smell the soft scent of sage and the sweet citrus aroma of the yellow gumweed flowers growing along the edge of the cracked streambed. I kicked up the gray dust from the ground as I climbed the steep path to a narrow opening about 15 feet up the wall of rock.
As I made it to the ledge, an amazing sight unfolded before me. I looked out over the landscape that a moment before had been completely hidden. The cliff face at my feet dropped off to a gorge filled with spires of eroded rock and open bright-blue sky. The shadows from the clouds meandered across the landscape, alternately highlighting and muting the red and brown layers in the rocks below. Looking out at the scenery of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, all I could think was, I’ve never seen anything like this.
That sentence resounded in my mind as I felt the powerful presence of the buffalo at Custer State Park, the patriotism of Mount Rushmore and the vision of the Crazy Horse Memorial while on my trip through South Dakota to see the 2015 Buffalo Roundup as a guest of Shebby Lee Tours.
This was a record year for the roundup. Early editions of the event were small affairs, meant only to count and care for the herd of buffalo that reside in Custer State Park in the Black Hills. There were no audiences early on, but this year, an estimated 21,000 people attended, a record number for the 50th anniversary of the event. It was by far the favorite experience of the trip for many in our group.
Roundup day started out cool and foggy. Driving into the park, we could barely see the trees in the field or the road in front of us. Once we made it to the new viewing area, added just this year, I took advantage of the free time to walk around and talk to many in the crowd. I was surprised to hear from many of the locals who returned year after year that they would get up around 4 in the morning to come out and get a prime spot to watch the buffalo.
It was a little later than normal when the buffalo made their appearance, but the spectators were ready for them. The crowds on the far hill started cheering as the buffalo suddenly came thundering over the hilltops in what seemed like endless numbers. They poured down the hillside toward the creek and the small trees at the base of the hills when suddenly a herd of deer started to run straight into their path. Then, at the last moment, the deer veered off. At about the same time, a small group of about 15 buffalo split off from the main herd and were allowed to stay in the valley as most of the herd was driven through the gate. Onlookers were then treated to a special sight as the cowboys then herded up the mavericks and ran them just on the other side of the fence from the crowd.
“I think that was the best part about it, though,” said Barbara Andrisani, one of my fellow tour passengers. “It was unscripted; it’s unpredictable.” Every year is different from the one before, but without fail, the practiced cowboys are able to guide the bison into the corrals.
Once the entire herd was inside, the crowds began to make their way down to the corrals to get closer to the animals. Others headed to the Buffalo Arts Festival for more events, including a dutch oven cook-off, or to peruse beautiful handmade jewelry and artisan products.
Tribute to Freedom
Though most of the people in our group loved the Buffalo Roundup, others came just to see Mount Rushmore. We were fortunate enough to see the monument both during the daytime and after dark when we attended the evening lighting ceremony. After a morning of walking around the park, Sandy Elliott said to me, “This [Mount Rushmore] was my favorite part of the trip, even above the buffalo. It was on my bucket list.”
For others, the monument held personal significance. At the evening ceremony, we listened to the story of sculptor Gutzon Borglum and heard how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were selected to appear on the monument as a tribute to their contributions to the cause of freedom.
The lighting of the faces was subtle as the ranger finished the story’s telling. Then, all of a sudden, you noticed the larger-than-life figures as the monument was completely lit. Their countenances stood as a striking backdrop to the final representation of freedom in the ceremony. As a conclusion, all of the veterans in the audience were invited to the stage to take part in the lowering of the flag for the day. These men and women who had fought for our nation’s freedoms were able to share in the history that Mount Rushmore represents and were thanked for their service.