I could show you my antelope," he offers, raising up from the barstool to unbutton his pants. "If you blow on it, you could turn it into a buffalo."
As the guys around the bar at Peggy's Corral on U.S. 41 laugh, I consider that this isn't the spiritual or even practical slant I was looking to find. But the idea of this pilgrimage is to be open to the language of the land. And in this case, the language is that of a good sport who isn't scared at all of men out drinking their breakfast. In fact, I join them.
It began as a dream. A man came to me and told me to find the bison. "And there, RhondaK," he said, "you'll find the answer to everything." While the word everything seemed a bit all-encompassing, I had been carrying around the basic psychic-friend questions about "matters of the heart, life's destiny and career path." Following a dream is cheaper per minute than seeing a psychic. And about as promisingly ambiguous.
My only companion on the search for the buffalo is my 1998 Jeep Wrangler. The two-day pilgrimage begins at the corner of Columbus and Central avenues in Tampa. Here stands a plaque honoring the African-American soldiers who passed through these parts on their way to fight the misnamed Spanish-American War in 1898.
Dubbed Buffalo Soldiers by the Indians in the West for their hair, their big coats or their bravery — or perhaps all three — two regiments camped here in Tampa Heights in 1898.
According to University of South Florida Special Collections Librarian Phil Camp, the best source for the experience of black troops in Tampa during the Spanish-American War is the USF Anthropology Department study Soldiers and Patriots: Buffalo Soldiers and Afro-Cubans in Tampa, 1898. Having that many soldiers in town created some troubles, including saloons and bawdy houses that refused to serve the black troops. One incident involved two black and four white soldiers who forced the barkeep of the Saratoga Saloon to serve them all drinks at gunpoint.
The search for the bison at Lowry Park Zoo conveniently comes with a map. I find the five bison in a pen with a beat-up beer keg. I feel a strong kinship immediately.
Behind me a speaker blares on and on about the red fox while in front of me are the largest land animals in North America. This is what you forget from your childhood. When you stare at the animals in the zoo, you are seized by this amazing love so wordless that you almost can't breathe. A love so powerful it transcends the reek of shit. It simply doesn't matter anymore.
Looking for signs at the Lowry Park Zoo is easy. The meaning, however, is up to the dreamer. Could "Wash your hands after you touch the animals" mean everything? Or "please touch/feed at your own risk"?
Souvenirs are simply a carryover from ancient times of seeking a relic to show off after a successful pilgrimage. A sort of I was there and I've got the knuckle of an uncorrupted saint to prove it. But the Mold-A-Rama doesn't have a buffalo. The gift shop, likewise, nada.
From the zoo I've mapped out a course to Palm Harbor. Last year, a buffalo named Big Daddy held Tampa Bay in awe as he escaped and eluded capture. Artist Dennis Karchner had been in the neighborhood for only two weeks when it happened, and to him it seemed a sort of synchronicity. Karchner owns Buffalo Graphics where he freelances as an illustrator/graphic artist. His logo, his tattoo and the coin around his neck all represent the buffalo. He made an 11,000-pound buffalo sculpture — that would be two-and-a-half Cadillacs to you — that is permanently installed in his old high school in Pennsylvania.
Riding around Karchner's neighborhood in Palm Harbor, I see a sign: Consciousness Blossoms. I order a mango lassi at the vegetarian restaurant and find myself in the house of Sri Chinmoy, a poet, artist, flutist and revered holy man.
On my table is a placard that reads, "If you make a mistake in spite of your best intentions, remember this mantra: The past is dust."
Every good quest needs a soundtrack. Any pilgrimage in the Tampa Bay area will likely pass a Circuit City. As fate would have it, they're out of Malcom McLaren's Buffalo Gals, and my eye settles on a soundtrack with wagon trains on it for a 1969 movie musical called Paint Your Wagons.
The drive to Clearwater on U.S. 19 is utterly transformed by the sound of Lee Marvin singing "Wandrin' Star." One song complains that civilization isn't so civilized, which totally puts driving in Pinellas County into historical perspective. Singing show tunes at the top of your lungs in a drop top on a brilliant Sunday — life-affirming even as brakes squeal and the sound of crashing vehicles fills the air.