'Buffalo in the Path of Totality', by Jack Vening

Interior of an empty bar

Photography by Sophie Gleeson. Supplied by author.

“It’s sort of like the Fourth of July, but tripled. We are going to have concerts, people shooting off fireworks in the dark of the midday sun, loud noises, and strangers.” —Barb Eidlin, The Southern, Jul 24, 2017


1.

When I lost my job I was in Wyoming. It was just after the day manager of the Royal Inn, the cheapest motel I could find in Casper, came by my room to give me the wifi password as he was switching out of his shift. “They’re coming to spray for bugs in here tomorrow,” he said, “So you’ll need to keep everything off the ground for 24 hours. If they say it’s poisonous, it ain’t. It’s not that kind of spray.”

Like everyone I spoke to, he didn’t sound like he lived in the West, but he had the permanent tan that you come to see in places where most people, at some point, have worked in an oilfield. I read the email as he stood in the doorway, and he was still there when I finished it.

Really, I’d lost my job the moment I’d told my boss I was leaving to burn my neck across North America for two months, and that they could expect me back in July. Now it was July, and I was as poor as I’d ever been. The last of it went first to the Royal Inn, and then to my flight home five days later. Whatever remained in my pockets seemed to disappear at anything louder than a whisper.

Earlier that day, Sophie had left for Los Angeles, while she could still afford to see it. We’d been driving around the Western States for two weeks without much of a plan – orbiting Central Wyoming for the last of it, heading northward past the old oil fields at Salt Creek, past the boarded-up stetson stores in Greybull, skipping Powell, skipping Cody and its nightly rodeo, up through the pass at in the Beartooth Mountains where snow still clings, and dipping across the line into Montana, which was, at that point, mostly on fire. Then we turned south, curving back through the great parks to Casper. Sophie was done with the West; now she wanted to see the Getty and the weed dispensaries, and the strong men who stand in the surf at Venice Beach. At Casper Airport, I’d left before she could get all the way through security. It was too sad seeing her stand in line to be x-rayed, barefoot, with all the other strangers.

On the way into town, my driver had asked me what on Earth was I doing here. Hadn’t I heard that the good bars in town—including the Wonder Bar, inside which John Wayne had once ridden a horse—were closed for renovation? An oil executive had bought them after selling off his assets, and was turning them into something new for the people of Casper. Hadn’t I heard that, like everything in Wyoming, oil was slowing down? Optimists said there could still be about a billion barrels of the stuff still sitting in the earth forty miles north at Salt Creek—which had been producing since the end of the 19th century—but they couldn’t deny that the fields there had been steadily slowing since the Great Depression. Men and women once travelled to Casper from all over the world to work the fields of Wyoming. The executive had jettisoned at the right time.

Once I was done losing my job and the day manager had gone home, a change came through, dropping the temperature about 30 degrees fahrenheit in an hour. It was now cool enough to go find pizza and beer, and to complain about the wifi strength and how the floor was making the soles of my feet black. There’d been oil workers at the motel a week ago, the night manager told me, and traces of them were still being found everywhere. Oil people were still everywhere if you knew where to look. The wifi was bad because of the storm that was coming in; long clouds over the mountains in the south, a big wind blowing down all the south-running roads, making the flags work, tossing dust into the motel carparks and across famous bars under renovation. Then I told her I’d just been fired, and we waited in the silence that comes when two people know they have nothing the other wants.

Exterior of a house with shadow of woman

2.

On August 21st, exactly a month after I left Casper, a thin band of Wyoming will be subjected to a total solar eclipse. The Great American Eclipse, the first of its kind in a century. Across the country the moon will be seen to intersect in some way with the sun, but it’s hard to overstate how much money this means for those points of rural America touched by the path of totality—the latitudes where the sun is covered wholly by the moon—on its way from Oregon to South Carolina.

Casper is just about as close to the centre of eclipse totality as you can get. In the week leading up to the eclipse, the hospitality industry in town, whose two breakfast restaurants already struggle to accommodate everyone, becomes a fever dream. A janitor at the airport said locals were renting their houses out to strangers for about a thousand dollars a night. See Hopskinville, a town in Kentucky lucky enough to be the closest to the most concentrated point of eclipse. Here, AirBnBs are listing at about $7,000 for the weekend, with one as high as $21,000.

The big black eye of the totality zone will move diagonally across Wyoming, the most sparsely populated state in the Union, catching a handful of lucky towns as it passes. Here, the sun will completely disappear, creating a brief, perfect dusk. Birds will go into evening song. Bees return to their hives, midges and mosquitos come out, sometimes dogs get anxious. In the few minutes a total eclipse can last, orb spiders have been observed taking down their webs for the night. This will happen in Jackson, already full of tourist money. It will happen in the sandy hills of Dubois, and in Grand Teton, where the buffalo get so close you can hear their breathing through your closed windows, and if you wanted you could reach out from your car and pluck the dried mud from their backs.

What will the buffalo do when the sun disappears? We’re told they are unpredictable: shortly before we passed through Yellowstone National Park, a North Dakotan was gored and almost bled out after he’d approached a buffalo in a wallow by the highway. History hasn’t offered many moments of better friendship. They were once hunted so tenaciously that, by the late-nineteenth century, white settlers had slaughtered all but a few hundred living wild in the West. There had been something shy of sixty million roaming North America before European incursion on the continent.

Buffalo hide was springier and sturdier than that of cattle; their tongues were taken but the rest of their meat was left to rot. Once demand had dropped from its high of $22 down to just a dollar a hide, buffalo were hunted for their bones, which became barrels of fertilizer for the East. Then they were hunted so their bodies could be baited and left to poison wolves, weasels, buzzards.

Buffalo could be run down by horse quickly enough if they broke, they could be herded off cliffs, or into hollows. But if a hunter’s shot was clean, a buffalo’s death would not cause the rest of its herd to scatter; they would approach the killed, waiting patiently for it to rise, until they were brought down themselves. Hunters called this “making a stand”. In this way the buffalo fell.

On August 21st, the protected herds of Grand Teton will be in shadow for close to two and a half minutes. If they look up they will be able to see the sun’s corona fully for the first time since 1918, when the last totality zone crossed America so fully. Curtains of plasma washing out millions of kilometres into space. Without glasses, their eyes, black and glossy as oil-seep, will be damaged irreparably.

Landscape with empty building and mountains

3.

There were no buffalo in Casper, but they featured boldly on the State flag of Wyoming, and the State Flag of Wyoming was everywhere. In the windows of the Petroleum Building and the Wells Fargo building, alongside decals celebrating the upcoming eclipse. It flew from the flagpoles at the library and all the unlit homes, where the old men and women of Casper sat in lawn chairs, beer and paper coffee-cups at their feet, staring out their doorways at the rain like they were waiting for something promised. High-walled alleyways piled with old lawnmowers. Convenience stores that sold tomahawks.

The last trip I’d taken to America I wore hope on me like a sail. I experienced the country in the breathless way of someone who could afford to ignore its problems. I left work and found work.

Now, I couldn’t do anything but look for omens wherever I went: the same motorcyclist circling a two-block radius around Michigan Avenue, Detroit, for an hour. A garbage can filled with fireflies. A Coopers Hawk arriving to pull worms out of the ground at a cold state-beach in Monterey as Sophie peed onto the sand. An American buffalo standing over its unmoving calf in the shadow of a mountain; a dead deer, white eyed and bent like a paper-clip, on the dirt road that runs by the lime acetate factory, its nose pointing the way back to our motel – never in my life was there a smell so filling.

Now they told me the sun was going to disappear, and that I wouldn’t be there to see it. What would I give to be on the streets of Casper for just a little while longer, poor as I was, lonely as I was, trying to make sense of it?

That first night, on the road to the liquor store, the scent of rain steaming off the distant highway was so clear it made my eyes water, and I sensed home for the first time since Sophie left. Two men had been sitting on the grass outside the store, calling to me.

“Your name is Jackman from Australia?” one said. “Jesus Christ, I’m only from New Jersey. And that guy right there saved my life.” He pointed over his shoulder into a bush to a third man who was curled up with a cigarette in their mouth. “Not a lot of people would do that. I need three dollars so I can buy a plastic bag to put over his head to keep him dry.”

I gave the men two dollars and some pizza, and we ate our pizza outside the liquor store as the rain began to fall. The man who spoke to me had the oil-field tan. At some point his nose had been badly broken and never reset. “This is my black friend Herman,” he said. “I’ve been working for a little old lady in that place over there behind you. The things she asks me to do, and I’m sixty.”

“You look strong,” I said.

“Strong? Can I ask you a question? Is your mother living? My mother was importing China White into New York Harbour when I was two years old, and I never saw her again. That’s heroin my friend. She got burnt up with a blow-torch. Meanwhile, you’ve got a bed to go sleep in tonight.”

When I got back to the Royal Inn, the night manager was cleaning the floor of my room with a pile of rags. “The mop didn’t work,” she said. My mom is bringing over a steam cleaner tomorrow, which cooks the oil off. I think this is working, though.”

I looked at the space between her shoulder blades and I thought: Wyoming. I wanted her to leave so I could watch videos about eclipses. I wanted to cross the blackening floor to the bathroom and run all my dirty suitcase clothes under the shower until the water got grey. I wanted badly to see a boxing match; a show about an unsolved murder, where everyone was as scared as I was, or a pawn-shop show where finally, finally, everyone gets what they feel they deserve.

But she didn’t leave, and the only thing I could find on TV was a poker tournament, so we watched it together, the night manager and I, as it got dark outside and the wind shook all the flyscreens of Casper.

“See?” she said, holding up a towel for me. “By the third rag, it’s clean.”


Jack Vening is a writer from Canberra. His fiction has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sleepers Almanac, and Best Australian Comedy Writing 2016, among other places. He tweets at @jerkvening.