We had just entered the Badlands and were setting up camp, when Fred held up a tiny pocket knife with what he clearly hoped was a menacing look. “I am the Bison Killer,” he intoned.
I snorted. Fred is a tall, fit man with an easy smile and a quick laugh. I suppose he could look fierce if he really wanted to, but I don’t think he ever would. A permaculture expert, he had, on one of our previous trips, refused to lay his sleeping bag down over a mushroom, because he could not bear to crush it.
“That’s your trip name,” I ordered, as if Trip Names were something we did regularly and not something I manufactured for an excuse to refer to Fred as The Bison Killer for the next two weeks, and possibly a long time thereafter.
“You are the Bison Killer,” I said with a sense of ceremony. He snorted and assumed an aggressive posture with the tiny knife, pushing us into another round of giggles.
The thing I admire about Fred is that he seems to meet every new person with curiosity and openness. I can’t begin to match him on that. My first instinct is too often suspicion.
This was demonstrated when we went to one of the overlooks one evening. I was hoping to photograph the strawberry moon over the rocks, but we had to wait for it to rise. We spent some time in the prairie dog towns, where Trav and I photographed the small, charming animals and Fred wandered about, examining plants. We wandered to the overlook about fifteen minutes before moonrise.
There we met Chuck and Suellen.
Chuck was a short man with straight, shoulder-length gray hair and a kind of permanent grimace, wearing a Jack Daniels T-shirt. Suellen was short and rail-thin, with long brown hair and a broad, toothy grin. We had no sooner exited the car when Chuck, as if he’d been expecting us all along, launched into a dissertation on the Badlands knowledge he’d accumulated while living in Wall for the last six years. I stiffened instantly against the flood of words. Overfamiliarity from strangers is one of my interpersonal red flags. But as I set up my tripod, Fred asked questions, which were eagerly received and seemed to helpfully direct Chuck’s attentions. He seemed excited to have found a new audience for his lecture — after all, Suellen had probably heard it many times already.
“Hear that?” Chuck demanded, holding his hand prominently at his ear. “Coyotes. They’ll kill ya, you know. And we got coywolves here too. They’re even worse. That campground y’all are in? While back a guy wandered off from there into the prairie. Found his body a couple months later, chewed to pieces by coyotes. Better watch yourselves. ‘Course, they found out later he died of heat stroke,” he added with a touch of disappointment.
“Well that actually makes sense,” I said without thinking. Chuck did not appreciate my skepticism.
“Listen, coyotes have attacked me PLENTY,” he insisted irritably. ”Rushed me in a tent a couple times. You get enough of ‘em and they’ll take you DOWN,” he warned.
I nodded to show my agreement, hoping that my concession would forestall any further attempts at persuasion. I looked over the rocks. The moon was not rising fast enough. Bored with the bloodthirst of coyotes, Chuck quickly moved on.
“See that herd down there?” he demanded, pointing at a distant but large herd of buffalo. “They got a ton of calves this year, at least thirty. Golden eagles, you know, they cart off bison calves every spring. Just like that. Boom, they’re gone, up in the sky.” Fred nodded indulgently, and began moving toward the edge of the overlook. This latest assertion was apparently enough for Travis, and he abandoned us, wandering down a game trail where he would be free to watch the moonrise, released from the sound of Chuck’s prattling.
I stared after Travis furiously, gazing a hole into his retreating back, for leaving me and Fred alone with this character.
And then even Fred gave up. “Well, I think I’ll head down there and take a look at that herd, Chuck,” he said. I wilted. Chuck barely missed a beat. His witless dialogue continued to pour forth, with me as the lone recipient. And I was stuck up top, desperately not wanting to miss moonrise. I pretended to fiddle with the ball head on my tripod.
I considered leaving the scene myself, of course, but began to wonder if this was their schtick – Chuck would go on and on, driving people down game trails, while Suellen broke into their cars. I was determined to stay topside and protect my purse. Fred was now a mere speck several hundred yards down the game trail. Travis was closer, but his attention was firmly directed away from Chuck and the overlook. Then I saw the tip of the moon peak over the rocks. I silently urged it to hurry up. It did. Three minutes later, I tripped the shutter.
Meanwhile, Chuck had returned to his favored topic and launched into another bloody coyote-killing story. I was sure prairie dogs were next, and I would hear how they stripped a photographer’s corpse clean last week in the Roberts Prairie Dog Town. I decided it wasn’t worth it. Suellen could have my purse and all my credit cards. I’d gotten my shot.
I slung the tripod over my shoulder and headed down the game trail.