Where the Buffalo Roam

Notes from a journey into the most famed national parks of the West—from the pungent geysers of Yellowstone to the majestic peak of Grand Teton.

Writer Wallace Stegner called the national parks “America’s best idea.” Composed of 59 protected areas in 29 states, the national parks are home to some of the most stunning natural beauty in the world, let alone North America. And for 10 days in July, 26 Flying Longhorns got an intimate view of three of the most celebrated parks—Yellowstone, the Badlands, and Grand Teton—plus less-trafficked gems like South Dakota’s Spearfish Canyon and the scenic Wyoming towns of Cody and Jackson.

One very lucky Alcalde assistant editor went along for the ride. Below, notes from a bucket-list-worthy adventure into the wild.

Day Two

Badlands National Park, Ben Reifel Visitor Center (Interior, S.D.)

We arrived at the Badlands visitor center just as a little boy was taking the oath to become a junior ranger. His chin barely reached the countertop of the ranger desk as he puffed out his chest and repeated, “I promise to explore, learn about, and protect special places like Badlands National Park.” The boy’s eyes brimmed with pride as the park ranger swearing him in—a jolly white-bearded man with ruddy cheeks and a pot belly under his khaki uniform—presented him with a badge and certificate. “Congratulations,” Ranger Santa said solemnly. “You must help us take care of this wild place.” Then they high-fived.

Day Four

En route to Mount Rushmore (Keystone, S.D.)

Today our tour director made the fatal error of accidentally referring to UT as “T.U.” while we were on the bus. A battle cry went up and all 26 Flying Longhorns thrust the Hook ’em Horns into the air. Our naturalist, Carolyn Emanuel, had wisely packed a CD of UT fight songs. “Texas Fight” blasted at full volume over the bus’ stereo as we brandished a burnt-orange flag and sang lustily. While the 14 University of California-Santa Barbara alumni traveling with us were visibly bewildered during this episode, before long they, too, were eagerly hooking ’em wherever we went.

Day Five

Tatanka: Story of the Bison (Deadwood, S.D.)

Tatanka is a Native American cultural center funded by actor Kevin Costner, who filmed the 1990 hit movie Dances with Wolves nearby. During our visit, a 94-year-old Sioux chief spoke with our group about his service in World War II, where he was wounded and watched friends die. Several of his children and grandchildren are also veterans, the chief told us in a soft but steady voice, and he said matter-of-factly that he plans to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery following a traditional Sioux ceremony.

When we were back on the bus driving to our next destination, everyone was unusually quiet. “What I can’t wrap my mind around,” said traveler Nancy Willerson, “is how he could risk his life serving the country that betrayed his people. That’s the definition of selflessness.”

Day Six

The Cody Inn (Cody, Wyo.)

In line for the breakfast buffet at the Cody Inn, a fellow hotel guest spotted my burnt-orange shirt. It turned out he, too, was a Texas Ex. Soon we were chatting about favorite spots on campus and the football team’s future.

This was only one of many chance UT meetings on the trip so far: we also met two Butler School of Music PhDs while hiking on a mountain in South Dakota. It turns out that no matter where you are, wearing burnt orange starts a lot of conversations.

Day Seven

Yellowstone National Park (Teton County, Wyo.)

Today we spotted no fewer than 51 buffalo, plus a smattering of elk, deer, coyote, eagles, and even a rattlesnake (observed from a comfortable distance, I’m happy to report). A debate arose over whether we ought to start a fresh buffalo count for tomorrow: “What if we see the same buffalo again?” one traveler pointed out to a chorus of laughs. Since Yellowstone covers an astounding 3,472 square miles, I doubt it will be a problem.

Watching the legendary Old Faithful geyser erupt in Yellowstone—as it has roughly every 91 minutes for centuries—was unforgettable. Rather than elbow through the noisy throngs of tourists watching the geyser from the usual spot, our naturalist recommended a short hike that yielded a peaceful view of the eruption from above.

Day Nine

The Snake River (Jackson, Wyo.)

Everyone bundled into rafts for a placid early morning float trip down the same river where former vice president Dick Cheney likes to fly fish. Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford also have homes in Jackson, a ritzy but low-key vacation town.

Our sharp-eyed guide pointed out at least 15 American bald eagles perched in trees over the water. I was surprised to learn that juvenile bald eagles appear larger than adults because their feathers are fluffier, and that a type of duck called the merganser employs an adorable “daycare” system in which one mother duck babysits several broods of babies while the other mamas take a break to preen.

Though the scenery was riveting, the gentle rocking of the raft nearly lulled me to sleep. Tomorrow I fly back to Austin, and I think the whole trip may feel a bit like a dream.

Photos by Rose Cahalan.

 

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