Medora, N.D. One by one, as the five of us round a bend in the trail, our eyes follow the sweep of land to the northern horizon and we see them.
They're a mile off across the pale shortgrass prairie of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A herd of 75, maybe 100 animals. A scattering of brown lumps on the landscape.
We are nearly 600 miles from home, visitors in an ecosystem that could hardly be more unlike the boreal forest we have left behind. And nothing symbolizes the plains, the Badlands, quite like bison.
We had seen a few single bison on a morning drive through this much-overlooked national park in western North Dakota, but nothing like this.
"Oh, wow," one of the kids says, taking in the sight of so many bison.
"Whoa," says another.
That is all that needs to be said. The rest is up to your eyes and ears. We follow the trail to its high terminus overlooking the Little Missouri River. A woman already there puts down her binoculars and says to us, "If you're quiet, you can hear them."
We become quiet. We hear them.
It is the first time any of us has heard bison, and the sound that rolls from their voluminous lungs is unlike anything we expected. If you close your eyes and stand in the stifling July heat, just listening, you might think you are on the African Serengeti, listening to a pride of lions.
More than anything else, the sound a bull bison makes is a deep, deep growl. A resonant, full-bodied, totally bass rumbling.
The bison mill about, grazing, growling, dust-wallowing. A couple of the bulls are doing some head-butting. This is the beginning of the bison rut, park officials have told us.
There are perhaps 200 bison, plus calves, in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, and they stay here thanks to a stout fence that surrounds the place. Calves were born in March and April, and they nuzzle their hulky mothers seeking milk.
When you see 100 or 150 bison in one place, the congregation transforms the prairie. The land is no longer grass and prickly pear cactus and sage brush. It is suddenly alive, defined by the mere presence of these huge beasts.
What must Lewis and Clark have thought in 1804 and 1805, when the land was crawling with bison? Nobody knows exactly how many bison roamed the prairies, but estimates put the number at 30 to 70 million.
Standing at this overlook, I listen and try to imagine 70 million, 30 million, 1 million, even a half-million.
And I try to imagine the arrogance of my ancestors, who in a few short years nearly wiped out bison for their hides, their meat, for the sheer thrill of watching them fall.
Two days later in the park, we pull over to let another herd or the same one weave past our vehicle. Our windows are down. We can hear the bison breathing, hear them tearing plants from the prairie as they eat. Some pass within 10 feet of us. Bulls, infused with the mood of the rut, walk along with their mouths open, long strands of saliva swinging from their lips, tongues dangling. The air is full of growl.
The sheer mass of these animals astounds us. The humped backs of the larger bulls pass at eye-level as we sit in the van. These are the largest land mammals in North America, 2,000 pounds of steak and horn and hump. One of them has a broken horn and a bloody gash on his dusty flank. We shrink in our seats, afraid to move.
The herd passes.
Our interaction with these impressive creatures is at best superficial from an overlook or a vehicle, in a fenced national park. Still, we come away from these encounters feeling as if we have something in common with Teddy Roosevelt, that we have somehow touched our American past.