The most dedicated ones enter South Dakota’s Custer State Park by 3 a.m., beating sunlight into the valley by a good three hours. As the stars fade, the visitors turn up their jacket collars and lean on the wooden fence, confident of the view they’ll enjoy once the midmorning action starts. Undoubtedly, these are the same people who made hotel reservations inside the park four or five years ago, knowing that calling a mere year ahead of the Buffalo Roundup probably won’t turn up any vacancies.
By the time 1,000 or so bison appear at the head of the valley and head for the corrals, up to 15,000 people will cover the hills in two viewing areas, easily making this one of the largest groups to assemble anywhere in South Dakota during the year. Fall 2015 marked the 50th roundup, in which park personnel bring in most of the herd for vaccinations, vet checks and selective culling that sells off a few animals to keep the herd size proportional to the available grazing land.
By turning the roundup into a spectator sport, Custer State Park proved ahead of its time. Over the last decade, entrepreneurial farmers and ranchers across the Midwest have learned that urban people will — in a move directly descended from Tom Sawyer’s painted fence — pay to help with agricultural chores. It’s been coined “agritourism,” but Custer State Park dialed this one in long before consultants gave it a catchy name. If you can run a herd of American icons through a valley with whip-popping cowboys giving chase, you have a crowd-pleaser. (Good show-business rule of thumb: Never question what Buffalo Bill Cody figured out 130 years ago.) Today, the roundup anchors a fall weekend in the southern Black Hills, complete with an arts fair, a Dutch oven cook-off, a Volkswalk up Crazy Horse Memorial and more.
Like all things cowboy, the roundup has long fascinated Europeans, especially. During this year’s event, I climbed into one of four camera trucks filled with more than a dozen international journalists. But I admittedly had the most fun at the expense of one or two American writers from the coasts, who were quite impressed that I knew how to open a pickup truck’s tailgate and asked questions like, “Does the park shave the bison to keep their hair that short?”
Even if stylish haircuts have nothing to do with it, the bison undoubtedly trump the cowboys as heroes of the roundup. The herd was nearly to the corral gates when a few rogue cows decided freedom was too sweet to give up, even for a couple of days. They turned in a creek bed and broke back south between pickups and horses. In a moment, the entire herd was pouring after them like a muddy flood from a broken levee. “You picked the right year to come,” a cowgirl yelled as she loped past our truck. “They usually walk home like milk cows.”
A cheer rose from the hillsides as the plucky bison extended the fun for another half hour. Once more into the breech, the cowhands turned the leaders and got the herd running again in the right direction. Once more, the bison vetoed the plan and spun off to the east until they were no more than ants climbing a distant hill. A journalist in another truck shouted, “Buffalo: 2, cowboys: 0!”; another cheer rolled down from each side of the valley; and the 50th anniversary roundup went into double overtime. Frustrating ranch work never made better theater.