Chasing The Buffalo

Written by David Dentinger

Illustrations by Jillian Piazza

Bison, or American Buffalo, are incredibly powerful animals. They can run as fast as a horse and are able to jump a six foot fence. Despite being herbivores, millions of years fighting off wolf packs have made them ornery. Punctuating this attitude are two massive horns sprouting from a skull shaped like a battering ram on males and females alike.

Countless signs in Yellowstone inform:

MANY VISITORS HAVE BEEN

GORED BY BUFFALO.

DO NOT APPROACH BUFFALO.

However, if you spend your winters working on a narrow valley property on the West End of Catalina Island and you've got a (mostly) wild bison wandering through your camp for kids, necessity may override established wisdom. Calmly and quietly observing a large brown bovine is not really in the wheelhouse of middle school students, so the trick is usually to drive that animal out of the area as fast as possible. The process is often haphazard, terrifying, and exhilarating, much like chasing a dream.

I don't claim to be an expert in chasing buffalo nor dreams, but as I look back at the last ten years of my life, I realize I've done quite a bit of both. Please don’t ever follow the animal-related advice herein unless you absolutely have to, but in that extreme case where for one reason or another, you need to chase a buffalo, here's what I've learned: 

Chasing buffalo is a closed-toed shoe activity

Once in Yosemite National Park I saw a man approach a black bear within thirty feet, snap a dozen photos on a big digital SLR, then stand up, stow his camera and calmly turn his back on that bear and walk away. Madness. The wise do not turn their backs on breaking waves, black bear, or bison, and neither should you.

You must be vigilant, looking and listening carefully not just at the animal but also at the surroundings. Where are safe places to run, where might that buffalo end up if you try to drive it back, and most of all, how is this animal responding to me? You need to be sensitive to the feelings of this buffalo if you are to wrangle it.

Once you decide to move toward a buffalo you should NEVER get closer than seventy-five feet. This is because a buffalo can charge at thirty-five miles an hour and on average you can only sprint at a paltry sixteen so you’ll definitely need a head start if things go sideways. You also need to be prepared for one of several possibilities:

1.   Buffalo slowly ambles away, as it realizes maybe this isn’t the perfect place to hang around. This is what ideal bison chasing looks like: calm and tranquil movement. Imagine a patrol cop chasing teenagers out of the skate park at 2 AM. They don’t actually want to catch anyone because the paperwork isn’t worth the time, but they do need to disperse those jokers.

 

2.   Buffalo gallops away in a random direction, sometimes in the desired direction, sometimes in a much less convenient direction like toward a campfire bowl full of singing children, or thundering across the sand toward a couple dozen night snorkelers taking a break on a dark beach (I’ve witnessed that last one twice in my career).

 

3.   Buffalo stands its ground, snorting, head shaking, foot-stomping, tree-thrashing, or wallowing. If these things start happening, expect a charge and back off immediately. Look for the best place to evade this animal. Fences. Sheds. Accessible trees. Trucks. The ocean.

Remember, at all times, any of these three conditions can instantaneously switch to one of the other two. Flip-flops are not going to cut it and hiking boots are less than ideal. The only way to handle this is through the flexibility afforded by a good running shoe. Cardio strength helps too, but a buffalo relocation chase is more of non-tackle football game than a marathon. Long saunters punctuated by short sprints.

Surprising a bison is a good way to get

gored on your morning run. 

Flexibility is an easy concept to comprehend, but an incredibly difficult skill to master. When your boss is a jerk, when people screw you over, when your apartment turns out to be a nightmare with walls, you choose how you deal. No matter what problems loom up ahead, the belief that you can deal with them if you so choose is perhaps one of the greatest powers you can possess. When you’re running after a thousand-pound quadruped, flexibility means good shoes, healthy joints, and a sharp eye. Everywhere else, flexibility is having faith in yourself.


The happiest people are the ones who accept and embrace where they are and what they’re doing. And if they can’t do that, they change it. It is your life. If you don’t like how it is unfolding, you’ve got to strap on your running shoes and get out of there, or go chase that buffalo away and find out what the world would be like without him messing around in the valley of your life.

Be loud and carry golf ball-sized rocks

 

Surprising a bison is a good way to get gored on your morning run. So when I say we want to scare the bison, I don't mean the rapid-fire jump shock of an average slasher film. Our goal is to create in the bison's heart an atmosphere of sustainable dread: the beast isn't exactly sure what's going to happen, but it doesn't want to wait around and find out.

 

Announce your presence, loudly, long before you get anywhere near that animal. Let it and everyone else know what you’re up to. If you worked on Catalina between 2012-2017, I trained you never to raise your voice at a child to get them to comply with your instructions. This is the moment where you get to throw all that out the window and let your undiluted, rage-fueled pedagogy out into the world. Tell that bison exactly what you want it to do and be sure to keep up a steady barrage of sound so it doesn’t forget you’re there.

Sometimes yelling isn’t enough. Sometimes that thousand pound critter mocks you with those big blinking brown eyes and just yawns. A prepared bison chaser will have scooped up a couple of rocks on the way over to this encounter and will utilize their best judgment in determining whether it's worth chucking them at this animal. Golf ball-sized rocks are ideal. They are large enough to throw far and maintain a proper distance from the animal but small enough to remind the animal that it needs to leave - not cause it lasting harm.

 

Your story and your ideas are worth sharing loudly. Every human carries hidden wonders within; adventures foreign and domestic;  interests so acute

they become passions; eyes and ears that have beheld secret and special truth. Each of us has so much to gain in the search for the words, songs, and the art that can pass our stories on to others, forging connections and igniting inspiration. It does not matter if no one ever sees or understands the stories we tell. The process of finding a way to talk or sing about our lives is one of the best, one of the only ways we can truly comprehend our experiences. A good exercise for anyone is to identify those greatest tales, the memories that light up the cortex like a Christmas tree with crystal clear recollections flashing between neurons. Hang on to those smiling sunrises, glowing auroras, and fleeing quadrupeds when you're sad, stressed, or lonely and let them bring warmth to the storms of your heart.

 

Just as we thoughtfully collected rocks to connect with that buffalo, it is possible to collect stories. Travelling to strange exciting places, investing in dramatic hobbies, or just taking time to explore outside, any of these are ripe opportunities for harvesting powerful memories and life-changing experience. We can even gather stories to tell without living them. The older I get the more I realize we are what we read. A solid newspaper, an enchanting novel, a trashy magazine, each of these leaves its mark upon the reader. Maybe what that influence is doesn't matter, just that we keep marking up our minds and our souls with what we're passionate about. Imagine if you could fill out a resume with all the things that really make you who you are: backpacking, diving, sailing, beer preference, best friends, your high school band, that collection of stories that make you a person worth listening to. One day I hope that's the resume employers will want to see, not where you worked, but how you've lived.

No one will ever teach you how to chase a buffalo

 

My company’s policy for chasing a bison was never written down. It vacillates between “let maintenance deal with it” and “at the discretion of directors” which are both variations of “the liability risk here is making us uncomfortable, but we need that bison gone”. It's one of those dangerous little camp jobs that need doing but the insurance company will shit a brick if ever they find out.

 

I learned to chase buffalo because I watched older veteran program and maintenance staff doing it and it looked scary, but also fun. If you hang around camp as long as I did, eventually you find yourself in a position to join in on such a chase. No one ever gave me permission. No one ever told me what to do. One day, I just tagged along.

 

During Harry Potter’s first Halloween at Hogwarts, a troll is found wandering the dungeons. In a wonderful scene, Harry, Ron, and the prickly Hermione take on that large, dangerous beast in a bathroom and emerge victorious. The chapter ends with these words:

 

“There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them”

You are a human being. You are an apex predator. 

Chasing a buffalo is the same. Once you’ve been on one such harrowing jog through the chaparral with your island brethren, you’ve proven to yourself and each other that you can move that great mountain of a beast. You level up in trust. From then on, when such a thing needs doing, people will be banging on your door at 7:00 a.m. to stand against the buffalo ambling down the road toward the soccer field. And so you pull on your pants, lace up your shoes, grab a rock, and stride out into the morning sun.

 

No one will ever teach you how to live a good life. No one will give you permission to chase a dream. No one can. Think critically about what adventures you take on, the stakes are no more or less than life and death, but no matter what, have them. The crazy idea, the spontaneous jaunt, the half-baked scheme, these are the only things that stand out through the years. Your dreams are worth chasing because you learn so much about the world and yourself whether you realize them or not. You can't come home empty-handed from that journey. Dreams are the brightest, thickest threads in the tapestry of your life. Follow them.

You're bigger, tougher, and scarier than you think you are

Unless armed with a weapon, a human on foot is physically powerless against a buffalo. It is the largest land animal in the Americas. Those four legs are rippling pillars of muscle. The horned head can topple trees and the animal outweighs a human by 1600 pounds or more. “MANY HAVE BEEN GORED BY BUFFALO”. They deserve to be respected and a little feared. But so do you.

 

You are a human being. You are an apex predator whose civilization has transformed the structure of this entire planet. You are the pinnacle of billions of years of evolution, possessing (as far as we know) the sharpest mind of any species that has ever walked this Earth. You are arguably the best endurance running species on the planet. You really are special from your first breath to your last.

We got to where we are as a species by connecting with one another. We find ways to reach out into each other's minds and hearts, passing on ideas and stories. We are born to learn, listen, sing, and speak. A simple solitary melodious voice has the power to reshape the world, to echo through generations. We have a freedom no bison will ever have.

 

If you are calm, careful, and willing to go out and try - you, on foot, can drive a buffalo away with nothing more than running shoes, a bad attitude, and a few rocks.

If you are flexible with your lifestyle, a hunter and gatherer of stories, and ready to try your hand at the unknown - this world is yours. You are enough. Tall enough, tough enough, smart enough, mean enough, and wise enough to chase a dream. If you don't believe it, challenge that insecurity, and challenge insecurities in others. Chase away that fear wherever you find it. Exhort and hype and encourage the belief that if you want something, it is time to go run it down.

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