A novelist turned compulsive traveler tracks a peculiar quarry all across America
Okay, let’s start off with a big one, a major triumph. February 27, 1989. We spent the previous night in a Best Western in Durant, Oklahoma. Now, after a quick breakfast, we’re packed and on our way. This is southeast Oklahoma, just a few miles north of the Red River and the Texas border, and we head northeast on U.S. 69 and U.S. 75 for thirty-two miles to Atoka, then cut east on State 3 for another thirty miles. At Antlers we pick up U.S. 271, and we’re going northeast again.
Okay, let’s start off with a big one, a major triumph. February 27, 1989. We spent the previous night in a Best Western in Durant, Oklahoma. Now, after a quick breakfast, we’re packed and on our way. This is southeast Oklahoma, just a few miles north of the Red River and the Texas border, and we head northeast on U.S. 69 and U.S. 75 for thirty-two miles to Atoka, then cut east on State 3 for another thirty miles. At Antlers we pick up U.S. 271, and we’re going northeast again. It’s a pretty drive on 271, but it figured to be; the road has a dotted line next to it on the map, Rand McNally’s indication of scenic beauty. We pass through Finley and Snow and Clayton, and then something makes me abandon 271 and head due north on Route 2.
“I think this’ll be more scenic,” I say. “We get to cross Sardis Lake this way, and we’ll be going through Yanush.”
“Sounds good,” Lynne says.
“Of course we’ll be missing Tuskahoma and Albion, but we’ll be hooking back into 271 in about twenty miles anyway, at Talihina. The road less traveled and all that.”
“You’re the pathfinder,” she says.
We proceed about half a dozen miles on 2, across the lake and through the town of Yanush. A little ways outside Yanush Lynne spots a sign on a small frame-wood building, and we go back and look at it. BUFFALO VALLEY HEAD START PROGRAM, it says. Something like that.
“Some kind of administrative district,” I tell her. “Maybe there’s a stream in the area called Buffalo Creek. You throw a handful of stones over your shoulder in this part of the country, one of ‘em’s odds-on to splash in something called Buffalo Creek.”
A couple of miles farther we head east again, on Route 1. This will run us right into Talihina and 271, but before it does, we come round a bend and come upon a batch of houses. Some of them have signs, and all the signs say BUFFALO VALLEY.
It wasn’t just a school district. It’s a community, no question about it. I don’t know what you’d call it, a hamlet, a wide place in the road, but it is definitely a community. It even has a population, for God’s sake.
That hasn’t always been the case. Some of our best Buffalos have been deserts compared with this place, and few have been so abundantly supplied with photo opportunities. Buffalo Valley clearly exists, and it has people living in it, and it even has signage to tell the world what it is.
“Where’s the camera?” I want to know. “Where are our Buffalo shirts?”
“Somewhere in back. I didn’t think we were going to need them today.”
“Neither did I. Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma! It’s not on any of the maps. It wasn’t in the industrial-strength atlas. We weren’t even looking for it, we just wandered off on a back road, and... and—”
“And here it is.” Her eyes are shining. She has never looked more beautiful. “It’s as if we were led here,” she says.
Wordless, we locate and put on our Buffalo T-shirts. Lynne grabs the camera, and we pile out of the car. I strike a pose in front of a sign. COLLINS BAR-C RANCH, it says. BUFFALO VALLEY OK.
Lynne snaps a picture. Now it’s her turn, and I hurry her across the road. There’s a white house set back a hundred yards or so, but out at the road’s edge is one of those large signboards they have at service stations that usually proclaim special rates on brake jobs. But this sign announces BUFFALO VALLEY TAX SERVICE.
Where better to pose a retired accountant? Lynne stations herself beside it and smiles hugely, and I take her picture.
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.”
“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.
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.”
“At last count. There may be more. Scattered all over the country.”
“Like our friends.”
“Twenty-five or more. I think we should go to some of them.”
Lynne thought for a moment, then shook her head. “I think we should go to all of them,” she said.
Buffalo, Alabama, is on the map. It’s in east-central Alabama, three miles north of Lafayette and not far from the Georgia border.
It was our third day out of Florida when we hit Buffalo, Alabama. It was to be our first Buffalo—we weren’t counting Buffalo, New York; we wouldn’t count it until we bagged it in the course of our travels—so the anticipation was enormous. We had spent the previous night in Eufaula, a charming antebellum town, and we drove up to Buffalo, skirting Phenix City and passing through Opelika. North of Lafayette we kept watching for highway-department markers. Every town in Alabama has a green sign at its limits, stating its name and population.
Not Buffalo. Our first Buffalo had deen delisted. It was still on the map, but the highway department had taken it off the books. We would have missed it altogether but for a sign hand-painted in irregular white capitals on the gray stucco wall of an out-of-business gas station. BUFFALO ALA., it announced. It looked like subway graffiti, only not as neat.
Half a mile farther on we came to Jack Tomlinson’s general store. Just beyond it stood a two-acre lot with nothing in it. A large and forceful sign proclaimed the property a private club and assured us that trespassing was strictly forbidden.
“What’s that?” I wondered. “How can that be a club, and who would want to trespass there, and why would anybody else want them not to, and what the hell is the point of that sign?”
‘That’s to keep the riffraff out,” Lynne explained.
We didn’t ask Jack Tomlinson about the private club—maybe it was a secret society, maybe you’re not supposed to talk about these things—but we did learn something about the town. It had originally been called Buffalo Wallow, he advised us, because there was a place over yonder where you couldn’t get anything to grow, and the conjecture was that this was because buffalo used to wallow there. The town itself had dwindled when the railroad stopped providing service north of Lafayette.
We put on our Buffalo shirts. We took pictures—with Jack in front of his store, and by ourselves in front of the Buffalo sign.
Our first Buffalo!
Buffalo, Mississippi, was almost as much of a surprise as Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma. It did not just fall into our laps, however, or we into it. It, too, was given to us, but we had to do a little work for it.
We were in Mobile, to visit Lynne’s mother, but it turned out she had gone off on her own to visit friends in Lucedale, Mississippi. There was something on television that evening that I found irresistible, or at any rate less resistible than a visit to my mother-in-law. Lynne felt restless enough to go to Lucedale alone. I wished her Godspeed and turned on the TV and put my feet up.
She came back the next morning bursting with news. Alone in the car on the way back and starved for companionship, she’d put on the CB radio. In among the bursts of static she’d heard two truckers jawing about something or other, and one of them mentioned Buffalo, Mississippi. She cut in with a breaker asking for information on that very place, and before their signal faded altogether, one of them managed to say that he wasn’t actually sure, but he thought there was a place called Buffalo near McLean or McLain or McClayne or something, she wasn’t sure just what.
McLain, Mississippi, is on the road from Mobile to Hattiesburg and wasn’t much out of our way, since I’d been planning to drive up to Meridian so that we could check out the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. (It’s housed in an old railway building, a fitting memorial to the Singing Brakeman, and I’d have to say it’s well worth a visit: pictures of Jimmie, drafts of songs, and tapes for sale you can’t get elsewhere.)
A lady at a gas station in McLain directed us to Buffalo. We didn’t have to go more than a few miles. There were no official signs, but we could tell when we were there. The woods were posted against trespass by the Buffalo Hunt Club, and there was also the Buffalo Baptist Church and a vast graveyard that called itself the Buffalo Cemetery, Inc.
"This one’s not on any of the maps,” I told Lynne after I’d taken her picture in front of the big old boneyard. “Or in any of the atlases.”
“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.
Tentatively, though, we’ve crossed it off our list. Same goes for Buffalo Gap, Texas, the one in Travis County. We’ve already been to Buffalo Gap south of Abilene. As a matter of fact, we’ve been there twice because we liked it so much the first time. We found a great restaurant there, Judy’s Gathering Place, run by Judy Laughter Nalda, and decided that either she or her restaurant alone would be worth a detour of several hundred miles. But that’s in Taylor County. In fact, it was once the seat of Taylor County, until the railroad (does a subtle pattern begin to emerge?) passed fourteen miles north of Buffalo Gap, to the great detriment of that town and the great advantage of the new town of Abilene. The County Commission had to vote to transfer the county records and all to the new county seat, Abilene, and the commissioners dead-locked, 2 to 2, and the chairman cast the deciding vote for Abilene. When he got home, he found that somebody had murdered all his chickens.
In Buffalo, Missouri, we opened a bank account. We might have done this earlier, but it’s a rare Buffalo that has a bank in it. Our eighth Buffalo had a perfectly nice bank, and a perfectly nice woman helped us open a savings account with an initial deposit of twenty dollars. When she found out about our Buffalo hunt, she got into the spirit of the thing right away and scurried around, presenting us with every promotional item the bank had handed out in the past dozen years. We drove off with two Buffalo Bank caps, a Buffalo Bank outdoor thermometer, several embossed pencils, and a Buffalo Bank plastic fly swatter.
Buffaloville, Indiana, is deep in southwest Indiana, midway between Santa Claus and Lincoln City, site of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, maintained by the National Park Service. We spent a couple of hours at the memorial, then pushed on to Buffaloville. A highway marker pointed the way from three miles off, but when you got there it was hard to tell you were there. No signs, no business establishments, just a long-abandoned gas station and a dozen or so scattered houses. We took a picture in front of the gas station, not one of our choicer photo ops. Three girls, probably eleven or twelve years old, came to see what we were up to. We asked them what they could tell us about Buffaloville.
“This is it,” they said.
Did they like it here?
No, it was terrible, they said. They were all from elsewhere and would have preferred to be anywhere else. There was nothing to do and no one to do it with, they reported, and the local people were terribly prejudiced. Once a black kid had come to town for some sort of school athletic event, and they’d run him straight out of town.
Lynne gave each girl a Buffalo Bank pencil, and we got in the car and headed for Santa Claus.
Why were buffalo wallowing in Alabama? And what were others of their ilk doing in South and North Carolina, in Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Maryland and West Virginia? There are seven, possibly eight, Buffalos in Pennsylvania; we’ve been to two of them. There are ten of the beasts in Virginia. Ten! In Virginia! I always thought of the bison as a Western animal, thundering across the plains, supporting the whole culture of the Plains Indians. There are, to be sure, Buffalo place-names scattered throughout the plains states, but why are there just as many in the East?
“If the fool will persist in his folly,” Blake wrote, “he will become wise.” I don’t know about that, but if you persist in anything long enough, you wind up learning something. There were two strains or subspecies of the buffalo, or American bison: the plains buffalo and the wood or mountain buffalo. Thus, much of the East was full of the critters, and it didn’t take the organized slaughter of the plains buffalo hunters to root them out. There seems to have been a universal human response to the beast. When a man saw one, all he wanted to do was kill it.
The Indians were no less savage. They’d doubtless have exterminated the species themselves if they’d had the technology. As it was, their hunting method in suitable terrain consisted of cornering a whole herd and stampeding them over an obliging cliff, slaughtering them to the last buffalo.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I learned early on that the city was not named after the animal and that no bison had ever been anywhere near the area until the local zoo acquired a brace of them. The name of the city, I was given to understand, was a corruption of the French beau fleuve, “beautiful river.” Presumably some English settlers ran into some French trappers and asked them where they were, and the French thought the question related to the Niagara River and responded accordingly.
You know something? I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t think a Frenchman would call the spot beau fleuve in the first place, and I don’t think an English colonist would hear beau fleuve and turn it into Buffalo.
When Buffalo was first settled, there was another town a few miles distant called Black Rock, which Buffalo later grew to absorb. I think Black Rock got its name from the presence of a rock in the neighborhood, and a dark rock at that. And I likewise believe that Buffalo got named after a buffalo. Someone either saw one hanging around, not a far-fetched notion, or thought he saw one, or saw something that looked like one, or something.
There’s a place in Arkansas named Toad Suck. I haven’t been there, not yet, and I don’t know how it got its name, but don’t expect me to believe that toads didn’t have something to do with it. I won’t accept that it was named for an itinerant Rhinelander named Taussig or that there was a plague of tussock moths in the area. There’s a toad at the bottom of this one. I’m fairly sure of it.
I should probably say something about our T-shirts. They appear in photo after photo. Going through our album, you get the impression that these two weirdos have worn the same outfit all over the country. Actually we put them on only to get our pictures taken, and we take pictures only when we come to a Buffalo. We’ve been to national parks and natural wonders all over the place, and the only pictures we’ve taken are these crummy Polaroids of each other standing in front of churches and cemeteries and grocery stores and road signs.
The shirts are made by a firm called New Buffalo Graphics, located on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, New York. It makes twelve or more different designs, and we own three of them. One shows a road sign with a buffalo on it and bears the legend BFLO-XING. Another, dopily surrealistic, shows a reinterpreted Camel cigarette pack, with a bison replacing the familiar humped quadruped and a couple of clarinets sticking up from the opened pack. BUFFALO, the legend reads, JAZZ & GEOGRAPHY BLEND CLARINETS. If you can sort of sense what they’re getting at, don’t drive or operate machinery. Our favorite shirt simply shows a noble bison surrounded by the best municipal motto I’ve ever read. BUFFALO, it says, CITY OF NO ILLUSIONS.
Where will it all end? It’s beginning to look as though it won’t. We’ve been doing this for fifteen months, and I suspect we’ll keep at it for another year before we latch on to a house or apartment somewhere and settle down. We’ll be spending this summer in the northern plains and the Pacific Northwest. There aren’t any Buffalos in Washington or Oregon, but there’s a strong herd in Montana and the Dakotas. By September we’ll be in the Southeast, trying to round up some of the Virginia Buffalos. After that, well, it’s hard to say.
But there’s no way we’re going to bag all of the outstanding Buffalos within the next twelve months. I doubt we’ll get up to Buffalo Center, Alaska, or Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan, and Buffalo Springs, Kenya, would seem to be out of the question. (Once, I shouldn’t wonder, it was a hot prospect for selection as the capital, but then they ran the railroad through Nairobi instead …)
For an ostensibly endangered species, the Buffalo is a resourceful beast. New specimens keep turning up. Just the other day I learned of the existence of a second Buffalo in New York State. It’s called Buffalo Corners, and it’s in Wyoming County near Letchworth State Park, not a hundred miles from the City of No Illusions itself.
I don’t think we’re going to run out of Buffalos or of the urge to hunt them. What began as a lark is starting to look like a lifelong commitment. As long as we can get gas for the car and film for the camera, we’ll never really settle down. It’s no longer a matter of choice. It’s an imperative. When you hunt the Buffalo, you have to let the chips fall where they may.