The Upper Midwest is dotted with little nowhere towns like Buffalo, Wyoming. Yet they have a particular draw. What ultimately brings people to these places?
I stand with my grandma outside her Camry in Gillette in late August, jacket clutched around my body, eyeing the dense fog that followed us all the way from South Dakota. The rainy season in the upper Great Plains is unmistakable; the rain we slogged through from Sturgis to some unnamed, broken-down little hick-infested slum on the eastern side of Wyoming was nearly going horizontal in flatter areas, and the water permeated our car so badly the brakes squeaked for weeks afterward.
We’re getting gas, or my Grandma is at least ( I joined her out in the damp, frigid air as a sign of solidarity), preparing for the final stretch of road before we reach Buffalo. For miles, there’s nothing to see but the red dunes covered in heath and sparse grass, the occasional antelope doing little to alleviate the road hypnosis that characterizes road trips in Wyoming.
The fog is close enough to breathe in. The place we’re in seems like limbo; everything is a stark, though undeniably beautiful, gray. The moisture in the air instead of amplifying sound seems to muffle it in a space of quietness around you, only the whir of car engines and steady thrum of the rain on your roof to keep you company. The sun seems to have died somewhere, resting in its cosmic deathbed somewhere behind the curtain of clouds. Everything feels simultaneously far away yet all too close when it finally becomes near enough to hear, to see. This is a place of privacy, for solitude.
My grandma and I wander inside the gas station to pay. There are little differences you notice when you go into familiar franchises in other states, just different enough to remind you that you’re not home, just different enough for the uncanny valley effect to kick in.
This year the fog has enveloped the Upper Midwest so thoroughly that it’s a miracle if you can see half a mile in front of you in flat places.
In years past, we could see the Bighorn Mountains from Gillette, but this year the fog has enveloped the Upper Midwest so thoroughly that it’s a miracle if you can see half a mile in front of you in flat places. The space in the sky that usually holds the mountains is a solid gray, and I wonder for a second if they’re even still there.
My grandma and I climb back in the car, shaking the dew from our hair and starting the heater right away. We get back on the highway heading west, and face the oncoming wall of fog.
Buffalo is the kind of town that feels desolate at first glance. Decades old hotels, secondhand stores, and dusty breweries occupy the storefronts downtown, dotted between shops closed for the season and others with their windows boarded up and a shadow where the welcome mat used to sit. This version of the town is in striking contrast to the one to which we are accustomed; tourist season is over, and the town is settling in for one of the harshest winters in the continental nation.
For years now my family has gone to Wyoming in the summer, so we are no longer so foolish as to think that Buffalo is as empty as it appears. Buffalo is equal parts interesting and downright strange if you know where to look. There’s a bookstore downtown that stocks nothing but Longmire novels and puzzle books. A grocery store on the way out of town has more exotic fruit than any Family Thrift in Rapid City, yet I’ve never seen a food transport truck coming to or from Buffalo’s direction on my many trips. A fishing shop downtown sells plaid shirts for hundreds of dollars each. A Chinese restaurant that was shut down with a health code violation sign on the door the first day we arrived was inexplicably open for business the next day. A Family Dollar we dropped by reeked of burnt plastic, and an employee was sitting on the curb outside the store eating a cup of Ramen noodles with a vacant stare.
One’s initial impulse upon seeing the town is to question the sanity of the people who live there. Why would someone choose to live somewhere where the winter is enough to freeze the cattle where they stand, where the people could come straight out of a Stephen King novel, where the ground literally opened up seemingly without reason last year?
Small towns aren’t so much weird as they are true to themselves.
Well, consider this: maybe that’s why they live there. The little Shutter Island-esque towns are some of the most interesting places you’ll ever go, because for every oddity you see, there’s an equally amazing place tucked away somewhere. For every understocked bookstore you come across, there’s a place across the street that sells books that are decades old and bound in leather and twine. For every questionably stocked grocery store you visit, there’s a cabin in the woods somewhere with rusted gas pumps outside that sells caramel rolls the size of a dinner plate.
The small towns may just be queer byways on the path to your real destination, but to a more careful eye, they are like a magnifying glass into human behavior. What’s more personal, an overcrowded city or a village where everyone knows everyone? And what do people do when they get comfortable with being known personally? They start acting like themselves, and more often than not, the true nature of a person is more eccentric and novel than it would seem. Small towns aren’t so much weird as they are true to themselves. Yes, Buffalo is a strange little town tucked into the foot of a truly wild mountain range, enshrouded from the view of ignorant onlookers by the all-permeating fog, but, at the same time, it’s shockingly familiar.
Sage Preble is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pine Needle.