Hunting Buffalo

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In no time at all we’re back in the car, and in not much more time Buffalo Valley is a speck in the rearview mirror. For miles, all through the day, all the way into Arkansas and on to Hot Springs, we keep babbling at each other.

“It’s really amazing. I mean, it’s like it was a gift.”

“I know. We weren’t even looking for it—”

“Because who knew it was there to look for? According to the maps, there’s only one Buffalo in Oklahoma, and we hit it last year.”

“In Harper County, and then last month we picked up the one in McCurtain County, which isn’t on any map, but I found it in the marketing atlas in the library.”

“The industrial-strength atlas.”

“Right. So who thought there would be a third Buffalo? Buffalo Valley! I think it’s our first Buffalo Valley.”

“Is it? I think you’re right. What is it, our twenty-sixth Buffalo? I want to note it on the back of the Polaroids.”

“Put down Latimer County. Twenty-six Buffalos. That’s got to be a record.”

“No question.”

“I mean, we’re getting good at this, don’t you think? When you can just drive right into an unrecorded Buffalo without even trying—”

“You’re right. Pretty soon we’ll be able to find ‘em in our sleep.”

I can explain. I spent June 1987 at a writers’ colony in Virginia, working on a novel called Random Walk. The book chronicled a group of people walking across America, and there was a lot of geography in it. Throughout the month, when I wasn’t actually typing, I was most often studying a map.

One thing I noticed: There were a lot more Buffalos than I’d suspected.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I’d always known it wasn’t the only one of its species. There was a Buffalo, Wyoming. I knew that, and I knew there were a couple of others, although I wasn’t too clear on where they were. Now, looking with purpose in the index of my Rand McNally Road Atlas, I found there were Buffalos as well in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. There were three Buffalo counties, in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, and three towns with Buffalo as part of their title—Buffalo Grove, Illinois; Buffalo Center, Iowa; and Buffalo Lake, Minnesota.

Eighteen towns named Buffalo!

It soon developed, though, that I had merely scratched the surface. Several scenes in Random Walk are set in Texas, and I was estimating how long it would take my serial-killer character to drive from Wichita Falls to Abilene, and what route he ought to take, when I noticed the town of Buffalo Springs a little ways southeast of Wichita Falls. I was still light-headed from this discovery when I spotted Buffalo Gap just fourteen miles south of Abilene.

One thing I noticed: There were a lot more Buffalos than I’d suspected.
 

The index, then, was not the last word on Buffalos. They were apt to hide in plain sight, right smack in the middle of a map. I went through the atlas page by page, state by state. I stared long and hard at every map, like an astronomer scanning the skies in a search for new stars.

Later that summer I was booked to work two writers’ conferences, one in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the other in Muncie, Indiana. The two were separated by a scant hundred miles, but they were scheduled three weeks apart. Lynne and I rose to the occasion, taking three weeks to drive from Yellow Springs to Muncie, proceeding first to Buffalo, New York, then cutting across Ontario to Detroit, then rambling up through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and down through Wisconsin and, oh, here and there.

After the Muncie conference we took another week getting back to Florida. For a while we had been thinking about leaving Florida, where we had been living for two years after many years as New Yorkers. We didn’t want to stay in Florida, but neither did we know where we wanted to live next.

 

“Maybe we don’t have to live anyplace,” I said. “We could just live on the road. We’ve been living out of this car for the past month. It hasn’t been so bad, has it?”

“Where would we go?”

“I don’t know, but there’s a pretty big country out there, and we’ve got friends scattered all over it. We could just go anywhere.” We fell silent for a few moments. “You know,” I said, “there are twenty-five Buffalos.”

“That many?”