Where the Buffalo Roam: Dakotas Road Trip

By Jenna Schnuer

In western South Dakota, a buffalo nibbles grass on the side of a road. One sight of the behemoth, its spindly legs supporting its bulk as if by magic, and I’m hooked. Three weeks into a drive from New Jersey to Alaska, on what I intended to be a quick detour into Custer State Park, a rush of giddiness takes the wheel. The West can wait.

During my first full day at Custer, which turns out to be as grand and vast as a national park, I lap up its quiet.

As I stand on the porch of my cabin in the Blue Bell campground, it’s easy to pretend—save for the shouts of the guys playing touch football across the campground and the sharp cracks from the campfire two cabins down—that there isn’t anybody else here.

I had spent the previous week catching up with a friend on the Dakotas’ tourist circuit, namely Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore. Days of chatter left me aching for the comfort of solitude. It seemed the perfect cue for a jaunt through the quiet side of the Dakotas, which I had long considered a place to see once and move on from, forever.

In the late afternoon, I set off from my cabin on Custer’s fantastical Needles Highway. The 14-mile road winds around granite spikes that pierce the air and crosses through tunnels cut into the hills. Daylight’s fading. I pull into a small parking area across from the Cathedral Spires trailhead, near six of the park’s most stunning eroded towers.

Hiking solo seems a bad idea, but I convince myself there’s time for a short trip. A few steps in, a man walking a fluffy Pomeranian that looks more like a Madison Avenue shopping partner than a hiking companion cautions, “I wouldn’t go too far. It’s getting dark.” His worry returns me to reality and, after I pass signs warning of rattlesnakes and step over downed trees that threaten to slide off the trail’s steep bank, I turn back.

At the parking area, the man, his wife, and the dog linger next to two touring motorcycles, beasts that rival buffalo in size and, in these parts, domination of the land. I crave their story.

I ask the couple, Kirsten and Charlie Daye, if the pup enjoys riding. Taz—“as in the Tasmanian devil,” says Kirsten—owns custom-made goggles and a rhinestone-encrusted helmet. He sits in a carrier behind Kirsten. When the weather is good, he pokes his head out. She slips the goggles over Taz’s head and, just like that, he’s transformed into a bad-to-the-bone bike dog.

The next day I head up U.S. 90 toward North Dakota. Just 70 miles from Custer, near Sturgis, famous for its annual motorcycle rally, I pull off at Bear Butte State Park. There’s one other car in the parking lot, but as I start walking up the trail through the prairie grasses of Bear Mountain, I’m alone.

Bear Butte could be the quietest place I’ve ever been. Prayer cloths flutter from tree branches, left behind by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and others who consider this land sacred. My cell phone rings and I cringe; I can’t help but feel like an interloper. The sun’s heat—overwhelming here—beats my energy down. I retreat to my car.

Back on the road, on U.S. 85, I’m in the midst of a drag race between the oil tank trucks rushing to pick up loads in northwest North Dakota around Williston, ground zero of the controversial oil boom, where new fracking fields blaze so brightly they show up on NASA satellite images.

When I tire of following one of the monsters—most stacked an impressive two tanks long—I crank the volume on my music, step on the gas, and swing into the lane of oncoming traffic. I lean forward, as though tipping my forehead toward the windshield will encourage my car to go faster.

The gold prairie against blue sky shines brilliantly. Though the Dakotas don’t own the “Big Sky country” nickname, they’re members of the club. The land seems to go on forever, too. The combination makes the buttes look like mere bumps on the flat vista, rather than masses that, at times, stretch up into the sky more than 3,000 feet. Tears, unexpectedly soaking my cheeks, are the only response I can muster.

The stillness that settled down on me at Bear Butte holds for my first few days at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named for the conservationist president who tested his mettle ranching cattle here as a young man. For the most part, I’m a solo act until a guy shows up at my campsite’s splintered picnic table. His earth-toned outfit camouflaged against the landscape, he looks like a birder.

“Did you see a map? I lost my map.”

I’m well into finishing the day’s third cup of camp-stove–brewed coffee. Less complete is my plan for the day. Hike the Petrified Forest loop? Or head to the prairie dog town? Behind me, the day’s sun, already startlingly bright, lights up the badlands’ buttes, ringed by horizontal bands colored coal black, brick red, and clay tan.

Until this interruption I’d been pondering those buttes—and the sagebrush that’s hiding, in my mind, a thousand rattlesnakes. The guy at the next campsite barely missed stepping on one yesterday.

In front of me, the man shifts his weight from foot to foot. He paces. He dances in place to an anxious tune.

“What map?” I ask.

It’s the second time in five years that John, who introduces himself as an “unpaid botanist” from Vermont, has visited the park to explore—and document—the plant life. Over the years he has turned a store-bought map of the wilderness areas and hiking trails into a diary of the park’s life, filled with notations of the cottonwood trees that grow along the Little Missouri River, the junipers that rise up from the north-facing sides of buttes, and the green and gold grasses—salt grass, western wheatgrass, bluestem—that thrive on a prairie where little rain falls.

“I’m very organized,” John insists. Forgetting things on top of his car and driving off is his Achilles’ heel. His sadness overwhelms him. Replacing that map won’t be easy. He’ll have to restart the project from scratch.

“You’ll find it. I know you’ll find it.” The words feel like the truest thing I’ve said in weeks. “Years ago, somebody stole my bag and a notebook filled with my short stories,” I tell him. “A man found the bag. I got it all back.” If I can’t hand him the map, I can at least try to peel off some of his worry. His pacing slows. He gives me his address and hurries off to resume the search.

Twenty minutes into my hike in the Petrified Forest, I’m trying to make sense of a different map, a photocopied trail guide I’d picked up at the visitors center. The sound of approaching footsteps throws me off. Aside from a sprinkling of spring wildflowers, little other life shows its face out here.

A man in shorts and a bright green T-shirt, a ponytail hanging down his back and a small water bottle in his hand, runs up. He’s dressed as if he’s out for a jog through the suburbs.

I hate that I feel nervous, but nobody knows I’m here. We exchange hellos and names. I keep my distance.

“Is that a map of the trail?” Joseph doesn’t have one. I’m still trying to figure out which path to venture down, so I take a few steps toward him, albeit reluctantly.

Joseph must sense my discomfort. He starts sharing his story. He’s director of the University of North Dakota’s Native Americans Into Law program and getting married soon. “I need to get in shape for the wedding pictures,” he explains. I have a feeling my appearance on the trail surprised him just as much as his did me.

As we walk, sunburn prickles my skin. The glare is exhausting. I’m glad for Joseph’s company. Trusting a stranger suddenly strikes me as a far smarter move than the solo hike I’d planned.

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The trail cuts through more grasslands, then shoots us down a slope of dry cracked earth. A giant’s market of mushroom-shaped rock formations greets us. Red caps several feet wide balance on tan stalks. It’s an otherworldly place that calls for witnesses so, if nothing else, you know you’re not hallucinating from the heat.

A few minutes later, we’re hopping on and off petrified stumps. We point out signs of new life growing from cracks in the long-dead trees. We pop up short hills to take the long view, and, finally, turn back. At the mushrooms again, we swap smartphones and snap photos of each other posing underneath the giant caps, then part ways, friends.

Later, at my campsite, I notice I’ve received a picnic table delivery through the unofficial mail system of campgrounds—rocks and scrap paper.

It’s from John. “Jenna, you were right. I have the map! Thank you for your assurance I would get the map returned.”

The next morning, back in the driver’s seat and bound for Montana, I can’t stop grinning. Though the highways of the Dakotas helped form the outline of my new mental map, the kindred spirits along the way brought these states into sharp relief. 

> Dakota Diversions: 

  • Alpine Inn: This old-school dinner spot in Hill City, South Dakota, serves a set menu of filet mignon, with a potato and an iceberg wedge on the side. The only decision: small or large cut of steak.
  • Tri-State Museum: From an old printing press to rodeo spurs, relics of the region’s pioneer days take center stage at this quirky museum in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, just north of Black Hills National Forest and near the Wyoming border. Also on-site is the Center of the Nation Monument, located at the officially recognized geographic center of the United States. (The actual spot is around 20 miles away on private property, behind fences and through fields.)
  • Rough Riders Hotel: Right outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in Medora, North Dakota, this hotel was built in 1884 and, in 1903, rechristened Rough Riders for the famed cavalry. Guests rest easy thanks to a modern renovation that retained Dakotas authenticity, from braised buffalo osso buco on the restaurant menu to Roosevelt​ian details such as a spectacled teddy bear in each room.
  • Rapid City: Named for the creek that runs through it, this actually slow-paced South Dakota town near Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills invites strolls through its downtown, populated with the statues of Thomas Jefferson and 42 other U.S. presidents.
  • North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame: This interpretive center in Medora salutes the state’s rodeo and ranching culture and Native American heritage. Badlands fossils are also on display, including a full skeleton of a Mesohippus, an ancestor of the horse.

This feature, penned by Jenna Schnuer, originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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