In 1962, Mike Cowdrey was a 17-year-old SLO High School junior and member of the track team who briefly held the California state high school track record for the 330-yard dash. If it wasn't for his speed, he might not be alive today.
Now 72, Cowdrey recalled the early days of the Madonna Inn, when a small buffalo herd was added to the inn's roadside attraction—a menagerie of animals that included a lioness, an ostrich, and an elk. The three buffalo—two bulls and a cow—grazed the south-facing pastures of Cerro San Luis.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- LONG TIME NO SEE This buffalo, mounted and displayed at the Madonna Inn, charged and nearly killed local author Mike Cowdrey 55 years ago.
Cowdrey had a "deep fascination for the buffalo-hunting culture of the Plains Indians," so when he read a small notice in the daily paper about the addition to the Madonna ranch, "at dawn the next morning, having hiked around from the Foothill side of San Luis Mountain, I was happily trespassing in the upper reaches of the Madonna buffalo pasture."
As a point of reference, in 2000, a study confirmed that Yellowstone's buffalo population is more dangerous than its grizzly bears. They charge, gore, and kill when approached.
- Photo Courtesy Of Mike Cowdrey
- BEHIND THE WIRE Mike Cowdrey and his friend Joel Premselaar stalked a small buffalo herd on Cerro San Luis, which was part of the exotic animal menagerie Madonna Inn had in the early days of the iconic motel's existence.
"I learned pretty quickly that buffalo were very fast," Cowdrey said, "and it was important not to get caught in the open too far away from a tree to climb or a large boulder to get behind because the bulls especially would charge anything that moved."
For months, Cowdrey spent every weekend stalking these buffalo.
"I made photographs and sketches, in the process learning about these interesting animals," Cowdrey remembered. "The younger bull chased me at any opportunity and had trapped me several times in oak trees near the brush line of the mountain—on one occasion for half an hour before he gave up and allowed me to escape."
After sharing his photos, sketches, and stories of his buffalo exploits with his friend and fellow track team member Joel Premselaar, the pair decided they'd venture out together.
"One weekend in January, 1962, I took him along," Cowdrey said. "Joel brought his mother's small Brownie 'Hawkeye' box camera to record the day."
Cowdrey and Premselaar came upon the buffalo almost immediately and had the good fortune to find a drift-fence—"about 100 yards long, five strands of barbed wire on lichen-covered wooden posts"—between them and the herd. It provided a little bit of barrier and safety.
"As always, the buffalo were very nervous around human presence," Cowdrey recalled. "The younger bull bluff-charged the fence a couple of times" before the herd wandered away and up a nearby hill.
"Joel and I rolled under the barbed wire and cautiously followed them," Cowdrey said, noting that they found the herd "grazing only about 100 feet past the crest."
Cowdrey nervously glanced around, looking for an escape route should the bulls charge, but the closest cover was the fence at the bottom of the hill they'd just climbed.
"Joel, we need to get out of here," Cowdrey told his friend.
- Photo Courtesy Of Mike Cowdrey
- CHARGE! Seventeen-year-old high school junior Mike Cowdrey captured this shot with a Brownie "Hawkeye" box camera in 1962, three years before the buffalo was killed on Highway 101.
"OK," Premselaar responded. "Just a couple more pictures."
Then Premselaar extended the camera to Cowdrey: "Here, why don't you shoot a couple frames?"
Just as Cowdrey grabbed the camera, "the younger bull pivoted on its right, rear hoof and came straight for us on a dead run," Cowdrey remembered. "Buffalo can outrun a horse. A human on foot in the open stands almost no chance at all. It was track season and both of us were in good shape, which is the only thing that saved us."
They pair sprinted downhill about 125 yards to a deep gully.
"Behind us, as we ran, we could hear every thudding hoofbeat and grunt from the angry bull," Cowdrey said. "I can recall seeing Joel perform a championship vault across the open gully, and I was right behind him, running on air. The bull, however, couldn't make the leap, so it had to check its momentum before jumping down into the gully."
Luckily, the bull's hooves slipped in the loose dirt as it ascended the other side, which gave the boys an extra few seconds to cover the remaining 50 feet to the fence.
"As I watched Joel scurry under the wire, it occurred to me that I had never seen a photograph of a charging buffalo, and I was holding a loaded camera in my right hand. I glanced behind us and in memory can still recall the scene like a stop-motion film: The bull was just clearing the edge of the gully on its second try. It was 50 feet away, and I had all the time in the world. I looked down into the viewfinder of the camera, framed the picture, clicked the shutter, laid down on the ground, and rolled under the bottom strand of the fence. As I stood up on the other side, the bull was already right there, tossing its horns on the barbed wire, snorting, and angrily butting its head against of the posts in frustration."
"What were you thinking? Premselaar yelled. "Were you trying to get killed? That bull almost pinned you against the fence. I thought he had you! What would I have told your mother?"
The berating continued the entire 45-minute hike back to their neighborhood.
Madonna's buffalo experiment continued for a few years, but eventually the buffalo discovered barbed wire wasn't much of a barrier for them. They escaped frequently, sometimes wandering as far away as Los Osos. In 1965, the young bull that had charged Cowdrey and Premselaar escaped, wandered onto Highway 101 in front of the inn, and was struck and killed by a woman driving a Volkswagen Beetle.
Alex Madonna being Alex Madonna had the young bull's head mounted, and it still resides in the inn's "Buffalo Room." Cowdrey, who went on to study anthropology at UCSB and eventually became the Curator of Anthropology at the University of South Dakota, continued his fascination with Plains Indians.
He's written nonfiction books about Native American culture, including Arrow's Elk Society Ledger: A Southern Cheyenne Record of the 1870s, and the coffee table books American Indian Horse Masks, which won the 2007 Wittenborn memorial Book Award and the Bronze Medal Independent Publishers Award coffee table category, and Horses and Bridles of the American Indians Vol. 2: Bridles of the Americas.
Cowdrey eventually returned to SLO and continues to do consulting work on matters concerning Plains Indian culture and artifacts. He makes a point of steering clear of buffalo, though he gamely visited his old nemesis, now safely hanging on a wall in the Madonna Inn. Δ
Do you know where the buffalo roam? Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at firstname.lastname@example.org.