Where the Buffalo Seekers Roam

A dream drags RhondaK into a Bay-area wide quest for the elusive symbolic buffalo

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click to enlarge BISON STALKING: RhondaK hits the jackpot at - Lowry Park Zoo. - Susan F. Edwards
Susan F. Edwards
BISON STALKING: RhondaK hits the jackpot at Lowry Park Zoo.

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.

The Plainsmen Gallery on Sunset Point in Clearwater has been open since 1983 catering to that most American of arts —- the Western style. While it might be easy to dismiss as sentimental, the more accurate word would be powerful. Loaded with symbols, half-naked men in poses of ecstatic passion and in all price ranges, the gallery is friendly to the collector, the novice and the merely curious.

The only buffalo on the premises, however, is a painting of a white buffalo. I'm told there has been a strange run on all that is buffalo.

My buffalo dream is hardly my own.

From there I get lost in St. Petersburg which leads to a fortunate find near the Wagon Wheel Flea Market.

In front of the Nickel City Bar & Grille is a large rendering of a magnificent bison.

I step out of the Jeep directly onto someone's false teeth. In the great tradition of hunting, this could mean only two things: this joint is so rough the tooth fairy is a regular — or this place serves some seriously stiff drinks.

Fortunately, it is the latter. With an 8-by-14-inch menu of shots that range from the Leg Spreader to the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against the Wall, the joint promotes tooth loss. Inside against the wall is a white buffalo head. Apparently it wasn't always white. Story goes that a drunk set it on fire with a lighter and its current appearance is cosmetic not prophetic.

Beyond the false teeth, the portents at Nickel City are few, but the pizza is worth a stampede on 19 to get there.

In Kenneth City on 54th Avenue, Armstrong's Western Trend's sign reads, "low carb diet not working? Our jeans go to 60!" It's styled as a sort of Western depot complete with 7-foot cactus and a red stagecoach, and its air of torpor is completed by rocking chairs on the porch. Opening the door floods the senses with high-end suede and leather. Richly embroidered, beaded, fringed clothes drape racks near walls filled with boots and hats.

But buffalo can be found only on bolo ties. The one I buy has a horned skull with feathers dangling from it. BOLO is also the acronym for Be On the Look Out. I take this as a sign that I'm getting closer.

The tie doesn't grease my entry into Buffalo City Bar & Grille, where the only buffalo in evidence is on the neon matchbooks. Buffalo here means Buffalo, New York, as in Tony Marsh on Wednesday nights who swings with Sinatra and the Bossa Nova.

Which is why the men drinking beer for breakfast at Peggy's Corral are such a cheap and funny thrill on the second day of my quest.

"Buffalo," says the man with the antelope in his pants, "They're all over the ceiling."

And so they are. Next to the photographs of breast-flashing women and even one of a woman shooting a beaver from a kiddy pool, are pictures from Sturgis — herds of bikers with herds of buffalo. An ill-advised closeness, as a buffalo has no problem disemboweling a Harley or its rider.

I look for more literal signs.

"I've been beaten, kicked, lied to, taken advantage of and laughed at but the only reason I hang around this crazy place is to see what happens next." I can barely read it around the black bra stapled in front of it. But the sign that means most to me is the one that says $1.00 Bloody Marys on Sunday with free food.

The antelope man says, "Come back on Sunday. There are about 400 bikers here and each of them knows everything."

In two days I've been lost numerous times trying to trace an odyssey through Mapquest.com and the Florida Road Atlas. Maps aren't unlike dreams. They suggest only the roughest outlines of reality. People are kind but unreliable. They'll guide you using common landmarks that disappeared years ago, like the silos, where I'm supposed to turn right.

Backtracking down 41 to the Buffalo Creek Golf Club, I get lost three times looking for silos. Maybe they meant Sisco, a restaurant supplier that also traffics in buffalo meat.

There is no actual Buffalo Creek, but the plush green of the Manatee public golf course is marked at the entrance with a white buffalo on gray granite.

In Native American mythology, the birth of the white buffalo heralded peace on earth and returning prosperity. It has even been likened to the second coming of Christ.

The last recorded white buffalo died in 1959. None other were known until one was born on Aug. 20, 1994, on The Heider Farm in Janesville, Wis.

Inside the Buffalo Creek pro shop, the majestic shaggy head of a brown buffalo hangs over the office door. No one there knows its origin. Purchasing a towel with a buffalo head on it for my growing buffalo relic stash, I couldn't meet his glassy gaze.

From Buffalo Creek, I leave the alluring backcountry and take 41 to Poppers in Palmetto, a hot sauce store featuring such delicacies as Sphincter Shrinker XXX Sauce.

Sales gal Julie Smith tries to help me locate the Bison Hot Sauce. The cute, petite blond with amazing blue eyes tells me the story of the "Go Buffs" buffalo shirt her mom wouldn't let her wear in Texas because the back of it featured a buffalo's ass.

It was too saucy.

"You were supposed to meet me," she says, pulling her shirt closed to reveal a brightly embroidered buffalo. The turquoise jewelry she's wearing clicks together mystically. "The buffalo is a totem. It has a message for you. You have to find out what it means."

A sloppy quick search of the Internet shows I need tai chi to sooth my wandering spirit. Magickal Melting Pot (magickalmeltingpot.com) advises, "When you are attracted to buffalo you are being asked to renew your connection to higher power through prayer and thankfulness for all you have. In doing so, you will attract more into your life. Buffalo teaches that what you need will always be provided."

Many Native American practices dictated that all living things have something to teach us. Many people carry fetishes of these objects to remind them of this wisdom. Animal Speak by Ted Williams refers to the buffalo as, "abundance, prayer, healing, good fortune."

My first right turn inside Bradenton's South Florida Museum takes me to the sort of sight that brings pilgrims to their knees: a diorama featuring a life-size model of Bison Antiquus, the type of bison that roamed Florida more than 11,000 years ago, when Clearwater was as far from the beach as Orlando is now.

There is a tendency to think of the buffalo as a symbol of the American West. But no culture owns the bison, and many have been nourished by it. To primitive people, the bison was a Wal-Mart with every part of it functioning to keep people fed and clothed.

As a food source, it's regaining popularity. High in iron, low in fat and carbohydrates, it was recently hailed by Reader's Digest as one of the top five foods women should eat.

Bradenton lawyer Claflin Garst Jr. is one of the largest local suppliers. He has a herd of more than 90 head at his Gap Creek Ranch.

Office manager Carol Atkins came up with the Gap Creek tag-line, "Put something wild on your menu tonight." She also won a Manatee County ribbon for her buffalo jerky. After I buy some buffalo sausage and two buffalo meat cookbooks, she gives me a photo of Buffalo Bill Cody.

When I leave, I get lost again, ending up at the Seahorse Oyster Bar and Grille in Cortez. The cheap cold beer is perfect for regaining a sense of direction.

"I did some reds and ended up in Europe," owner David Jenkins offers, trying to provide solace to a weary traveler. The guy next to me is in town fundraising for a major northern university. He calls himself a professional schmoozer and is in town hunting the big game of wealthy alumni worth millions.

The way to Bee Ridge road is endless, tight and rough. By the time I get to Evie's Western Putt Putt, I'm shaking. Worse, there are no buffalo. There are murals of cowboys eating ice cream and banana splits. On the course are boxes marked TNT and one red stagecoach filled with kids trying to rock it over. I'm so tired I'm not sure what I'm looking for anymore.

I have one more place to go. A private buffalo farm off State Road 70, near Bradenton, where I might be able to see some live bison up close.

An hour later through accidents, detours and traffic worse than U.S. 19, I find the gravel road. The Jeep rolls like a horse. The sun is setting. I'm near two cities and one major highway, but it is quiet here. And I see them. About 20 of them in all sizes.

Nothing prepares me for the sweet, solid sound of their teeth against the grass. Or their blocky, familiar silhouettes against the setting sun.

If this is an answer to everything, it might be that there is no straight way to get to anything. That maps are merely suggestions. That dreams are just reminders to pay attention. And if you take the time to talk with strangers, your world becomes a universe. And perhaps, finally, that there are mysteries — like the happy spread-legged naked lady in the baby pool — best left stapled to the ceiling of a bar.

Lowry Park Zoo, 101 W. Sligh Ave., Tampa, 813-935-8552.

Buffalo Graphics/Dennis Karchner, www.buffalographics.net.

Gap Creek Buffalo Meat, 4804 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, 941-748-1287.

South Florida Museum, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton, 941-746-4131, www.bishopplanetarium.org.

Plainsmen Gallery, 2450 Sunset Point Road, Clearwater, 727-726-5100, www.plainsmen.com.

Buffalo City Bar & Grille, 5631 Park St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-549-9454, www.buffalocitybar.com.

Nickel City Bar & Grill, 7658 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park, 727-545-9325.

Buffalo Creek Golf Course, 8100 Erie Road, Palmetto, 941-776-2611.

Evie's Golf Center, 4735 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota.

Peggy's Corral, 4511 U.S. 41 N., Palmetto, 941-729-5442.

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