Where the Buffalo Seekers Roam

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

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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.

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