Friday, February 19, 2010

Perils of Plein Air Painting: Where the Buffalo Roam

In an earlier "Perils of Plein Air Painting" I related my experience with a stalking bull. I'll compound that singular episode with this tale which includes a whole herd of bison. It seems I have a penchant for hoofed animals.

In the late 1990's I was privileged to go on an 18 day painting trip in the west with three artist friends that included painting in the Grand Teton N.P. We traveled west from Michigan in a relatively new Subaru loaded heavily with painting gear and very light on personal effects. We were crowded but happy as we looked forward to our grand adventure. One day, we were painting along Mormon Row in the park, a dirt road where a few abandoned historical farms are back dropped by the Teton Mountains. We'd been painting for sometime in an open area and, needing a break, I volunteered to take the car and drive approximately 5 miles back to the Visitor's Center for refreshments for everyone. This done I started back to the group only to find, as they came into view 3/4 of a mile away, a herd of about 20 free roaming buffalo headed straight for them. Realizing their peril, I gunned the motor on the car not sure if I could reach my friends before the buffalo did. Stones flew as I drove like a mad woman along that road. It should be noted here that such big animals cover a considerable distance quickly even when walking. Don't ever let their girth and short legs fool you.

I literally reached my friends just as the first cow reached the road opposite them. The gals were backed up as far as they could go against some brushy saplings and an old rickety wire fence. With the car between the bison and my friends, they piled in with arms and legs flying, leaving all our gear outside. I quickly moved the car down the road a bit giving the buffalo plenty of room.

Laughing somewhat hysterically with relief we watched the herd checking out our easels and overturned chairs. Somewhere we have a photo of a cow with her nose in my painting smelling the wet paint. Apparently finding nothing to be anxious about they left everything in good shape and slowly moved off headed for their destination, on our side of the road, a lush grassy park.

We returned to our gear, finished our paintings and packed up the car. The afternoon was early so instead of turning and heading back towards pavement, we decided to do some exploring and continued further down the road. We were to find this was an unfortunate choice.

The road ends at the last farm house next to a large wilderness area. We drove into a turn around and discovered that a second wave of bison were following us down the road. This group of about 30 bison had blocked the road from side to side. We backed up into the front yard of the abandoned farmhouse next to a tall bush and rusty windmill to await their passing.

Just then, a ranger driving a truck seemingly came from nowhere and made an attempt to ease through the herd. He wisely gave up the idea turned around and went back the way he'd come. The four of us looked at each other and said, "great!". To our dismay, the herd turned towards the farmhouse where we had taken refuge. Things were definitely not shaping up in our favor. We were cut off and totally surrounded by huge hairy beasts. If you've ever had such an experience you can appreciate how small you feel in a compact car when you are looking directly into the eyes of enormous wild beasts that could conceivably turn your car over if they decided they didn't like you. We very much wanted them to like us.

At this time, I had a cell phone conversation with my elderly parents back in Michigan. My Dad was delighted to hear about our predicament. He always did have a weird sense of what was "fun". Laughing, he said, "I hope they don't bed down to chew their cud, you might be there for a few hours". As I was the driver, I didn't dare look at the others. I was sure by this time they hated me and if looks could have done it I'd be dead. Somehow, the fault of this day was becoming solely mine.

That day I learned several things that I didn't know before. First, I developed a greater appreciation for how zoo animals must feel with people looking at them in their cages. Second, I was shocked to see a cow buffalo lift her front legs and sail over a four foot fence as easily as an agile deer. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself that an animal that big could become so easily and gracefully airborne. Obviously, a fence is no protection when buffalo are on the move.

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