Driving along a dusty, winding road east of the Bend city limits, things are starting to feel a lot like a scene out of Jurassic Park. I'm heading to see something rare, something mystical. No, not dinosaurs, but something as close to extinction as I'm likely to see in my lifetime.
I'm wondering if I'm still on the correct path. I check the notes scrawled on my notepad and realize I've passed all the landmarks, opened the gate to the ranch and subsequently shut said gate, but it seems like I should be seeing something by now, so I keep driving, kicking up a trail of dust in my wake so thick the scene in the rearview mirror is just a haze of brown.
Then I see one in the distance behind a fence. It's a white buffalo... and another white buffalo. My hosts have asked that I come up to the house before we see these rare animals. It's tough not to linger, but I oblige, heading up to a ranch house where I meet Cynthia Hart-Button, the president of the nonprofit Sacred World Peace Alliance.
Cynthia, 58, is wearing a Pendleton wool cowboy hat and a vest made from buffalo hide when she emerges from the house, followed closely by a pair of dogs. Inside, she introduces me to her husband, Charles Button, a towering yet constantly smiling man with long straight hair, who stirs a crockpot that from the smell of it must contain something spicy. Charles, an accomplished musician and producer who has his own studio on the property, extends his hands and grasps me by the palm, and then I realize he's put something in my hand. It's white buffalo hair.
"We've handed that to a bunch of military guys and as far as we know, they've all come back," says Cynthia with a smile, then goes on to reference the mystic powers the Native Americans attributed to these rare animals.
In a few minutes, I'll see the 14 white bison (and three brown bison) that the couple - through Sacred World Peace Alliance - are charged with caring for. Cynthia says that these are 14 of the 50 or so white bison known to exist in the world, but as of now, there's little chance anyone will see them out at this remote (to put it mildly) spot that's secluded from public view. In the coming years, Cynthia hopes to change that.
"We're looking for a solution and right now and that's to produce a sanctuary where we can have the younger animals there and also have an educational component for the public," she says, adding that the group is open to working with collaborators.
Currently, they're trying to manage the operating costs with donations and the revenue from the peanuts, calendars and buffalo-hair blankets they sell on their website. The fencing alone cost the organization more than $35,000 and the amount of food the animals consume is a cost to consider in and of itself. The couple and the buffalo have been in Bend for about a year and a half now, having moved the animals all the way from near the Grand Canyon. They've been caring for the expanding herd since 2000.
We head down to the pens where the older animals are cordoned off in pairs and some of the newest additions to the herd (three calves born in May) and the females are housed in a nearby pen. First, though, we stop at a nature wheel - a series of circular rock formations near the couple's house - where Cynthia says a prayer in Lakota and then asks me to add a rock to the center, which I do, as she tells me about how she's been working with animals since she was a young child and how, more than 20 years ago, her father told her of her future with white bison.
"My father said on his death bed in 1988 that I'd be taking care of white buffalo," she says, almost matter-of-factly. She works as a spiritual counselor and psychic, and says she's a distant relative of Buffalo Bill. She's full of anecdotes like this and like the buffalo in her care, is a bit of a mystical creature herself.
We make it down to the pens and I get a glimpse of Arizona Spirit, one of the males born to Miracle Moon - the original white buffalo in the line - and I realize how utterly enormous these animals are. As he heads to the electrified fence to take a treat out of Charles' hand, I can feel the vibrations of his footfalls and finally understand why Cynthia had given me some in-depth instructions about how to interact with the bison. Considering Arizona weighs north of a ton, it makes sense that Cynthia doesn't want visitors like myself to aggravate him. I take a step back.
Farther on down the line of pens, I'm introduced to Big Momma, a brown bison that has given birth to many of these white buffalo. Cynthia believes that Big Momma may hold the secret to the white buffalo phenomenon and if she mates with the current brown buffalo she's penned up with, Cynthia will have isolated the genetic pattern that yields a white buffalo. She says she is one of the only people studying white buffalo at the moment.
These animals are docile, but respond well to the Buttons, acting somewhat like oversized dairy cows in their presence, but it only takes an innocent lean too close to the fence line for me to be reminded by Hart-Button that we're dealing with some powerful animals. I'm politely asked to move back a bit. I put down my camera and do so immediately.
As we head back to the house, Charles riding ahead on an ATV, it's clear that this is a labor of love for this couple. In the 18 or so months they've been on the ranch, Cynthia says she's only been able to leave the ranch a handful of times, given that the buffalo need constant supervision. Still, she and her husband are hopeful for the future of these animals they've spent so much of the last decade protecting.
After an hour, I get back in my truck, my white buffalo hair tucked away in my wallet where it remains. I stop at the bottom of the hill and take one last look at the white buffalo as they saunter through their respective pens, kicking up dust into the unseasonably warm December afternoon. It occurs to me, again like those visitors to Jurrasic Park, that I've seen something only a few others have laid eyes on. And that's oddly sad.
To learn more about Bend's white buffalo, visit the Sacred World Peace Alliance at sacredwhitebuffalo.org.