Close Encounters in the Galápagos
A sail through one of the world’s wildest places to see blue-footed boobies, penguins, and sea lions wrestle starfish.
Vermejo is over 550,000 acres of wild New Mexico land — and a natural home for the reinvigorated, majestic North American bison.
LOOK AT AN everyday photo of an American bison, and you will see a husky quadruped with a hearty brown coat, no more or less exciting than any of the other wonderful species in the animal kingdom. A cow in a more rugged outfit. See a bison in person, though, and you will be overwhelmed by its unmistakable majesty — by the animal’s grace, dignity, and depth — all of which you feel so profoundly when you’re a stone’s throw away. In their presence, there’s something you sense but cannot fully explain, perhaps best described as the animal’s soul. Sitting in the bed of a pickup truck near a herd, so close you could almost pet their woolly fur, you understand why someone like Ted Turner, the CNN founder and billionaire, has devoted a portion of his life to their restoration after centuries of overhunting almost eradicated the animal. You also understand what makes Vermejo such an absolute privilege to visit. It’s the result of Turner’s devotion: an over 550,000-acre bison reserve, luxury retreat, and overall ode to natural American beauty. Both the bison and its habitat here need to be seen up close to be believed.
Vermejo is an unfathomably massive and stunning piece of land — almost the size of Rhode Island — that straddles New Mexico and Colorado in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Stand on any peak and gaze out vast distances, and a local guide will tell you that the size of Vermejo is everything the light touches. The Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes once roamed these hills and valleys before the land exchanged hands between Spain and, ultimately, the United States of America. Turner, who has had a lifelong fascination with, and love for, bison, bought the property in 1996 when it contained a small herd of less than 100. He now has about 45,000 bison across 17 properties throughout the U.S. He’s also methodically strengthened the ecosystem at Vermejo to make it even more hospitable for the bison and as close as possible to what nature intended.
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Since then, Vermejo opened up as a luxury hotel, in part to make it a sustainable enterprise that can survive Turner, who is in his 80s. Conservation is expensive and often done at a loss. For example, there is no real profit in the ongoing restoration work of thinning out sections of native ponderosa pines to reduce tree density, which helps the forests become more climate resilient; but it’s essential for the health of the environs all the same. Still, though the property is open to guests, it will never really become a crowded place as its full guest capacity is about 70. It is also a four-hour drive from the nearest major airport, with a 36-mile driveway (basically a gravel road) just to get from the closest highway to the main lodge. On my drive up Vermejo’s dusty trail, I had to stop to let some antelope amble across as well as swerve away from a thick, green rattlesnake sunning itself on the open road. It’s not a speedy journey.
The bison aren’t the only draw. The entire property is tended to with regenerative care. Invasive species like salt cedar, Chinese elm, and knapweed are killed so that around 1,000 native flora can thrive. This is better for the environment and lets animals who have evolved to live in this climate thrive in the atmosphere they are made for. On a drive with one of Vermejo’s resident biologists, Tricia, there’s a chance to spot bison, but also elk, antelope, deer, feral horses, red-tailed hawks being attacked by a kestrel, a coyote hunting a gopher, and ravens. She repeatedly reminds me of the rare isolation and expanse of this place, a piece of land so big you’d probably never cover every square mile. “There might not be another person right here for months. There’s part of this land that hasn’t been touched for generations,” Tricia says on one evening walking up a cresting vista to catch the sunset. “You could spend a lifetime and not touch every hill.”
Tricia serves as part of one of Vermejo’s other great resources: its guides. Vermejo offers a full range of woodsy activities, from shooting clay pigeons (I hit one!) to fishing trout, all of which can be a little intimidating for the average city slicker. Vermejo’s people make it possible. On a fly-fishing excursion, I tell my kind guide Sam that, as a Manhattanite, I’ve never even held a fishing rod, let alone used one. He never once makes me feel like a dope. We take a small boat out on a big lake for hours, and even though I don’t hook anything, there’s something about sitting there, nowhere to go, no one to see, water lapping at the hull, that feels more important than actually snagging a catch.
Fishers will find happiness here. Though there are multiple properties on the land that guests can room in, including Casa Grande, where Turner stays himself when he’s on the property, the best is undoubtedly the Costillo Fishing Lodge, which has easy access to all the best trout spots. It takes approximately 45 minutes to drive from the main lodge toward the mountains, nestled in the high country behind native white aspens with leaves that turn bright yellow and red in the fall. But it feels like a world away: one of the joys of traversing over 550,000 acres of property is how different each of its various segments can be. The high country has pure alpine air and incredible views, and the Costillo Fishing Lodge gives you an astounding sense of privacy and peace.
And then there are the bison — poised, with eyes like big, black pools. They are migratory and run in herds (they can move at 30 mph). Therefore, to find them, you have to anticipate where they might be, whether by a beloved watering hole or out on a particular savannah with acres of native grass to eat. They are truly wild in a way we don’t see much anymore. There have been attempts to domesticate the bison over the years by crossbreeding them with the European cow to achieve a more docile animal. However, those attempts have largely failed, and Turner’s herd is entirely free of any discernible DNA that comes from domesticated cattle stock. These are untamed animals that resist attempts to tame them.
They belong here on this vast expanse — they were here first. The Great Bison Belt, a sprawling region of North America that ranged from the Arctic Circle all the way down to Mexico, from Oregon over to New Jersey, was their roaming ground, once containing at least 30 million — yes, million — bison. They were a key factor in fertilizing the rich American breadbasket into an ecosystem that’s been able to feed a nation. Or, as one ecological report put it, bison “wallowed, rubbed, pounded, and grazed the prairies into heterogeneous ecological habitats … and shaped the way fire, water, soil, and energy moved across the landscape.” America wouldn’t be America without them. The white man nearly made them extinct, treating them like vermin to be extinguished. This was in part to starve out Indigenous tribes, many of whom relied on the bison for their livelihood, using all parts of the animal from hide to hoof for everything from food to clothes to tools. The bison’s numbers fell so far that there were only about 300 left in the late nineteenth century, but now, thanks to conservation efforts like the one here at Vermejo, there are around half a million wild bison left. Recently, through a new law signed by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (also a 35th generation New Mexican), the U.S. is transitioning about 18,000 acres of bison range in Montana from the federal government back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “With the loss of tribal homelands and the depletion of the buffalo herds, the Plains tribes lost traditional connections with this beautiful animal,” said Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, at a ceremony honoring the transition. “Despite that terrible tragedy and loss, we are still here. You are still here. And that is something to celebrate.” This is a story of survival.
I hoped, in my experience, not to romanticize such an obvious symbol of American splendor, but everything about the bison’s presence made me sentimental. Here, underneath the snowcapped mountains, I just couldn’t help it. Their grandeur is hushed. Though they are capable of great speed, if they are unbothered, they hang around together chewing the grasses, batting away bugs with their tail, and sauntering more than walking, propelled by some inner instinct to move along their range. They are hulking on top, but their legs are lean and powerful, which helps them hit those high speeds.
They bellow and bleat during mating season or when mother and baby look for each other, but otherwise, they are quiet. I saw one baby, a lighter caramel-brown, calmly nursing, and another, probably one day old, peacefully lying under a tree next to its mother, both exhausted from the birth. In the open back of a Ford truck, I felt as though I were in a lost ecological city of Atlantis, one we were actually able to save. It was as if seeing inside a landscape that’s supposed to be read about in books but never experienced up close, something dead comes back to life. This is how the planet once looked, and everything small that stresses you from the “real world” seems to float away in the whistling New Mexican winds.
It’s not lost on me that this experience is a moneyed one — the central irony of Turner’s reserve is that the high prices make it possible to limit the number of people who can come here and disturb this human-free landscape. But that also means that only wealthy people get the privilege. Yellowstone, open and accessible to the larger public, also has bison, but it’s so heavily trafficked you’d never get to feel alone with the animal, not to mention the fact that an animal’s behavior changes when they’re constantly in contact with people. The stakes are high for Vermejo’s hospitality project too. When Turner dies, the land will pass on to a charitable organization, and its ongoing viability rests partly on the hotel’s ability to make money and balance out the costs of conservation. Pricey hunting trips are allowed on the property under the careful and sustainable supervision of the resort, and groups still come to hunt a limited number of elk for meat and taxidermy trophies. Conservation is a complicated endeavor like any other, where money, culture, and tradition intersect, and all are subject to the irrepressible whims of the natural world.
Still, you can’t leave Vermejo without hoping that it’ll never change at all. In an age of constant technological and sociological churn, the most profound delight that exists is to be in a place that’s remained exactly the same. Everything everywhere has been touched by progress, even Vermejo, but at least here, it doesn’t feel that way. We no longer know what it means to have a sense of the unexplored on earth, but in this place, for a weekend, you can pretend to. You hope that if some balance can be restored with the bison, maybe it can in other places too. You wonder how much longer something this pristine can persist and worry that it can’t last forever. And when you finally do go back to that real world, the one that is entirely human, you scroll through all the pictures you took and realize an iPhone photo just isn’t enough.
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Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Born in Mexico City, Ana Hop is a photographer whose work focuses on portraiture defined by her use of natural light and the intimacy she is able to achieve with her subjects.
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