I'd been on a long, sweaty driving trip for two weeks, and when I started noticing come-ons for the World's Largest Buffalo 100 miles west of Jamestown, North Dakota, I understood immediately that it was my destiny to visit it.
I cruised slowly through Jamestown's pleasingly junky Frontier Village, a tourist concoction with fudge shops and a replica of an old saloon, and parked where a long concrete walkway led to the base of the statue. I had the impression the long, broad walkway had been designed for crowd control, so that the vast numbers of people lined up to see the World's Largest Buffalo would be neatly confined to the pavement rather than trampling the grass and each other. But on this day only 15 cars' worth of family members were roaming Frontier Village. While they killed aliens from outer space in the coolness of the video arcade, I braved the hot sun glaring off the white cement and approached the ominous brown statue alone.
Almost everything is strange about a 26-foot-tall, 60-ton cement buffalo with a bad paint job. That someone had the idea to build such a thing and was able to persuade the town council to allocate a significant amount of money for it is mind-boggling. But what I found most unsettling was how isolated the World's Largest Buffalo seemed. In the 36 years it had been there no one had ever found it necessary to place the big guy in any context. He stood alone in the middle of a broad half acre of cement, without so much as a shrub nearby. There was no appropriately oversize ecosystem--no 26-foot-tall stalks of big bluestem, no five-foot-wide leaves of prairie dock, no 100-pound butterflies. And apparently nobody had convinced the town leaders that, since bison were herd animals, they ought to raise taxes to pay to construct another dozen buffalo. The disturbing absence of context led to the 120,000-pound question: why a bison?
The gigantic bison looms alone in Jamestown, but it isn't alone in its world. The midwest is well populated with colossal monuments, many of other animals vanquished by civilization. An enormous bald eagle graces a park in Remer, Minnesota, an immense loon sits on a concrete slab in Mercer, Wisconsin, and the world's largest prairie dog perches on its hind legs in Kansas. On my bulletin board I have a picture taken by my father of my teenage brother standing in front of the world's largest prairie chicken, in Rothsay, Minnesota. (Ever the prankster, my dad lined the photo up so that it looks as though the gigantic grouse is trying to peck my brother's head open. No wonder he and I were obsessed with horror movies about ordinary animals grown to enormous proportions.)
The most obvious reason for the existence of these prodigious beasts is that they induce people to leave the interstates and visit towns and cities they might not otherwise. I understand that. But it's hard to get around the fact that it's still a weird plan. If it seems ordinary to you, you must be a native-born American who went on a lot of road trips as a child. And if you doubt that creating unseemly sized statues of animals or pieces of food to attract visitors is uniquely American, try imagining a town in France that would invite clientele to its vineyards by erecting an enormous cement grape in a city park.
In The Colossus of Roads: Myths and Symbols Along the American Highway University of Minnesota professor Karal Ann Marling offers a scholarly accounting for the existence of roadside attractions like the buffalo, Paul Bunyan, the Jolly Green Giant, and various Indian chiefs. Searching for the origin of the gargantuan-animal phenomenon, she gives credit to (or blames) the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. "Huge statues of bison and elk, bear, and moose...stood in pairs, gravely guarding the bridges that linked the fairgrounds with the streets of the city," she writes. "These giant effigies were metaphors for the passing away of the American frontier; art preserved in pallid likeness what progress had destroyed....[The exposition] ostensibly honored the discovery of the western border of the known world by Christopher Columbus....In fact, it was the rapidly retreating woods, rangeland, and prairie west of Chicago that the frontier imagery of the Fair commemorated."
With this as a jumping-off point, one might conclude that Jamestown built the World's Largest Buffalo to celebrate the area's natural heritage. But what a buffalo standing alone in a sea of cement ends up symbolizing is lack of understanding of that heritage. The settlers didn't recognize why a prairie might be as good a thing as a pasture planted with northern European grasses. They didn't see the complex relationships between big, obvious animals like bison and small, tender plants that depended on the herbivores to move their seeds around. And they couldn't quite grasp the idea of an ecosystem. They saw the bison because they were impossible to miss. After the teeming hordes of real ones were gone they erected one really huge one that was impossible to miss from I-94.
Marling admits that those people with the desire to create and display "lurid, monster fauna" are mystifying to those of us who lack it. "Such creatures still flank the highways of the Midwest, and words are still unequal to the task of explaining their presence," she concedes.
Troubling as I found the humongo buffalo, I was an American tourist who'd left the highway to see it, and as such no one had to tell me what to do. Even as I was feeling bothered by the beast, I was nevertheless documenting its presence with a whole roll of color film. Any sort of artful photos were out of the question: after all, the World's Largest Buffalo is just a big hunk of brown concrete standing in the middle of nowhere. I shot it from a distance, I got in right under its head for a close-up of its face, and, yes, I walked underneath it to take the mandatory, if juvenile, picture of its enormous testicles, where someone had painted the initials "DV" in white. As I strolled back into Frontier Village I glanced toward the herd of live bison released by the town council in 1991 into a pen between the village and the interstate. I ignored them, bought a buffalo key chain, and was out of there.