- Historic Sites
A novelist turned compulsive traveler tracks a peculiar quarry all across America
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
“Well, I can see why,” she said. “Our first Buffalo isn’t a town any more, and our second Buffalo has a negative population. The only people who live here are dead.”
Some people, informed of our pursuit of the wily Buffalo, just don’t get it. If they’re not nonplussed, neither are they plussed.
When pressed, I am apt to explain that the Buffalo hunt is a matchless vehicle for serendipity. Chasing a Buffalo, one finds something unsought but by no means unappreciated.
In June 1988, for example, we were heading east after having spent a month in Sedona, Arizona. We drove through Colorado and into Kansas, passed a night in Garden City, then headed south, detouring to have a run at Buffalo, Oklahoma—the large one, in Harper County, at the eastern end of the Oklahoma panhandle. En route to it, we stopped for a look at a private museum in the house where the Dalton Boys holed up. There’s an underground tunnel from the house to the barn. Once a posse surrounded the house, and the Daltons scuttled through the tunnel, emerged in the barn, got on their horses, hooted at the lawmen, and rode off.
After logging our sixth Buffalo, we proceeded eastward across northern Oklahoma. We were going to be very near Bartlesville, so we stopped at Woolaroc, the museum and wild-animal preserve established by the founder of Phillips Petroleum. We could have spent several days looking at his collections of Western art and Plains Indian artifacts—they’re that good and that well displayed—but we wanted to get to Buffalo, Kansas, before nightfall.
We had time, though, for a stop at Coffeyville, Kansas, where there was a second Dalton Boys museum. This one was housed in one of the banks that they’d tried to rob and where they met their Waterloo. Emmett Dalton, youngest of the gang, was the sole survivor of the raid. He took a load of buckshot in the back and was not expected to live, but he pulled through, got out of prison in 1907, went to Hollywood, wrote his memoirs, appeared in films, became a screenwriter, and then made his fortune in Los Angeles real estate. (I’m not making this up.)
Now if you were to set out to visit the two Dalton museums, or even Woolaroc, you’d very likely have a good time. But it’s just not the same as coming upon them while looking for something else altogether. You have to take time to smell the flowers, certainly, but the whole point of your life can’t be sniffing around flower beds. The time you take to smell the flowers has to be taken from something else.
My friend Don Westlake understood immediately. “It gives the illusion of direction and purpose to something that has neither,” he observed. “It makes it possible to decide whether to turn left or right at an intersection, and you don’t even have to flip a coin. And there’s something else.”
“Yes,” he said. “The name of the town is very important. The fact that it’s Buffalo you’re going to that makes a difference. I mean, you could do the same thing with Springfields, but who would want to?”
The more Buffalos you find, the more other Buffalos you find out about.
By the time we left Florida, in February 1988, our list of huntable Buffalos ran to around forty. As I write these lines, we have managed to visit fifty-one Buffalos—and we have about two dozen to go. Not only have we found Buffalos we didn’t know about, but we have kept finding out about Buffalos we didn’t know about.
I feel like one of those physicists looking for smaller and smaller particles. The mere fact of our search must be creating them. Microscopic Buffalos, smaller than quarks and twice as crafty, are sprouting all over the landscape.
Every once in a while we’ve been able to rule one out. The atlas of a 1911 edition of the Britannica supplied Buffalo Meadows, Nevada, situated due north of Reno in Washoe County. More recent maps don’t show it, and a visit to the public library in Reno cleared things up. Buffalo Meadows had existed, all right; but then the railroad went somewhere else, and in 1913 the town ceased to exist.
Of course, there might still be a community there, a couple of tumbledown houses. Maybe we ought to drive through, on the rather uncertain dirt road that wanders in that direction. If nothing else, we ought to be able to log a Ghost Buffalo. It wasn’t a drive we much wanted to make this time, but I suspect we’ll get there sooner or later.