"You can pet a buffalo," Viktoria said with a wink. "Pet a buffalo?" On the way to the kitchen, I stopped in my tracks. I have an instinctive love for animals, and the thought of caressing a baby buffalo made my eyes light up. But I have also seen viral videos of the consequences of petting a wild animal. Maybe Viktoria had found a place where people keep buffalos as pets. Any resistance I had going to Zion National Park vanished and was swiftly replaced with excitement. "Well then, let's go! I'll request time off from work."
Within two weeks, we were on the road. Destination: Zion Mountain Ranch, Utah, just a few miles outside Zion National Park. I had no clue what to expect. As usual, Viktoria had researched and planned our vacation down to a T. She enjoys that aspect and especially loves surprising me with fun things to do throughout our trips over the years. When we arrived at Zion Mountain Ranch, I knew she had found a unique resort for our stay.
The ranch is a family-owned, authentically western destination that sits on Zion National Park's east side. It features premier lodgings, a farm-to-table restaurant, an organic garden, and farm animals. Its 600-acre meadows are also home to a herd of roaming buffalos. I had only seen these iconic animals in the cowboy movies I had watched as a kid with my great uncle. Now, I imagined myself as one of those cowboys, on the back of a horse, side by side with the Native Americans in the wandering plains of the wild west. And who knows, I might even have a chance to pet a buffalo as I do with my cat at home.
At the front desk of Zion Mountain Ranch, the friendly manager welcomed us. After giving him my ID to check-in, I wasted no time in asking him about the buffalos. "You'll see them," responded the manager with a reassuring smile, "they come and go, but you'll see; they will make sure to stop by to say hello." He then proceeded to give us instructions on how to get to our lodge.
Our cabin sat on the edge of the ranch with a panoramic view of the majestic surroundings. Inside, the simple furnishings blended well with the rustic environment. The Native American tradition inspired the decorations, and of course, there were many artifacts to honor the buffalo. We had all the amenities we could wish for, including a cozy fireplace that, in addition to being romantic, came in handy at night when the temperature drops significantly.
Lunch was at Cordwood, the onsite restaurant. On our way there, we met chickens, ducks, horses, and dogs wandering around in the warm sun. The restaurant sources organic ingredients that come partly from the ranch. The menu offers a fantastic buffalo stew. I ordered it without hesitation after I had seen the dish fuming with splendor at the table next to us. I had a momentary breakdown as the meat melted in my mouth. Were the exceptional flavors and tenderness of the buffalo stew the reason my eyes began to water? Or was it the sense of guilt from eating my soon-to-be friend, the roaming star of the wild west plains?
Over the next few days, Viktoria and I explored Zion National Park. One of the advantages of staying at Zion Mountain Ranch is its proximity to the park's east side entrance, which is less crowded and easy to access. I could go on describing the many "wow," "oh my gosh," "that's unbelievable," "so amazing," ecstatic expressions that Viktoria and I made as we drove along the rocky walls of the park. Pictures do not do justice to the depth of the natural beauty of Zion National Park. It can only be experienced in person, as you are immersed in its sublime elements.
What about the buffalo? On the second day, I could see them from afar, with the hope that at night they would roam around our lodge. By the third evening, I was hopeless that I would make any contact, let alone to pet them. But then, it happened. On the last night of our stay, I was outside gazing at the edge of the ranch as the sun slowly melted behind the meadows. Then I saw them. The buffalos were near the fence bordering the main road.
"They're here! They're here! "I shouted to Viktoria. Within minutes, the buffalos were standing in front of us. "Nice to meet you, my friend," I said to one of them, "what's your name?"
"Mr. Panko" was grazing and looked sideways at me. He had the characteristic hump on his back and a large head, rounded with strong horns curved upwards. He had a long mane like a real punk. It became clear that Panko wanted the right distance between us, a "respectable distance." I understood and observed him from a few feet away, taking as many pictures as I could.
That night I fell happily asleep. I dreamed of being Iron Cloud, a Native American on the Utah Plains. The buffalos were all around me. I pet Panko. He smiled at me as only a buffalo could. Viktoria was right again. You can pet a buffalo. At least when you are asleep. Good night, and sweet buffalo dreams.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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