Most of what we know about our nation’s natural history comes from a book– like a third-grade picture caption of a pilgrim pulling up in a boat, or a reprinted map of the wagon train route.
We can’t experience the past like we once could because so little of it has remained the same.
It’s not like you can find a real hitching post anymore, or jump a ride on a freight train heading south.
And that’s precisely why visiting a prairie felt like the most authentic thing I’ve ever done, save for throwing a piece of bread to an alligator in Florida when I was 10 — back when the Deep South was the Deep South.
This was a real prairie I went to — a tall grass prairie in Oklahoma– where there was nothing but grasslands and Buffalo.
If you’re used to farmland or forests, these dry treeless plains will seem like a beautiful but formidable wasteland.
The plains used to remind weary travelers of the ocean — the same panorama of earth and sky and ever-changing clouds.
And the view from each rise seemed exactly like the one before.
They tired of it on their way west, like a sailor might tire of the endless blank horizon on the sea.
The only thing that might have broken up the Yankee’s monotony as he traversed the plains was a big herd of Buffalo, an incalculable multitude, which would have appeared like a dark wave in the distance.
Some accounts say the herds were 25 miles wide, and took five days to pass a given point.
Nobody knows how many Buffalo there were when America was discovered, but some estimates put it at 60 million.
By 1889, it was estimated only 285 wild buffalo remained alive in the United States. The herds had all been slaughtered for their coats, or their tongues, or just because.
Today, there are about 200,000 buffalo and that’s a number that we’re proud of.
It was almost a surreal experience to pull into the Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in Oklahoma-not too far from the Kansas border.
A quarter-mile down the road, we saw our first buffalo herd, standing thirty feet away from the car.
They looked familiar to me, having seen them plastered all over football helmets for most of my life, but they are much more majestic in their natural element, back in the tall grasses of the Great Plains, their dark coats a lovely contrast to the honey-colored grass.
It was a beautiful thing, really, to see a buffalo wandering around his native land, knowing he belonged there, that he was free to live the rest of his natural life in this windy, grassy sea, needing no shelter other than his shaggy coat and fearing no human predators.
But what I loved most was seeing America this way — acres and acres of America as it once was, without any blight, without the threat of obstruction from a towering gas station sign or the endless roof of a strip mall.
I could picture life from a different time — when Indians roamed the plains, when pioneers set out to tame the Wild West and passed by here in wagon trains.
And here’s something very interesting: A handful of preservation groups are in the process of returning parts of the Great Plains back to their wild state.
They’d like to see one giant fenceless region called Buffalo Commons in the Plains and the idea has taken off.
American bison are being reintroduced to the wild in states like Montana and South Dakota, where today they roam freely.
Tour companies are signing up participants for wildlife safaris, and there’s already wolf-watching trips and self-guided bison tours in North Dakota.
It’s a unique form of eco-tourism, one in which everybody wins, especially since it’s taking place in communities where the population has thinned.
My motivation to applaud this effort has less to do with a sudden interest in joining the green movement and more to do with a desire to know that parts of this beautiful country will be preserved somehow.
Perhaps I’m at a point in my life where I’m starting to care more about the world I’ll leave behind for future generations, but really, we all deserve to live on a planet where somewhere the buffalo still roam.
And, okay, because you want me to say it, where the deer and the antelope play.