The Buffalo Ghost of Livingston
copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2000
A buffalo haunts the lobby of the Murray Hotel in Livingston. The ghost is rarely seen of course but everyone knows that it exists. A buffalo in a hotel is one of the better kind of ghosts without a doubt because there can be so much enjoyable speculation about how it got there and why it would bother to become a ghost about it. What is more, no one can claim that the spectral departed is a relative of theirs (even in Montana) and no one has ever claimed that it spoke to them or that they believed it to be a member of the hotel staff until it laughed hollowly and vanished through the wall.
On a particularly dark night you could be forgiven for thinking that you had seen the ghost - and that it actually was playing silly buggers with the wall - for the simple reason that the walls of the hotel lobby are covered with the stuffed busts of animals including one of a massive buffalo. No one will confirm or deny whether that particular buffalo is the originator of the ghost story but the less imaginative will, of course, claim authoritatively that there is no ghost and the story was just invented by the over-inebriated imagination of a few local cowboys.
Others say that it’s not surprising that the spirit of the buffalo haunts the lobby if half of it’s physical remains have been stapled to the wall. One wonders at that point whether it is the other half of the buffalo which does the haunting or whether it is just the front bit wafting out of its immaculately stuffed remains when it feels particularly bored. However, two things militate against the original theory behind this. The first is that it is definitely a whole buffalo that does the haunting and the second is that it does it exclusively in the lift.
In most buildings, fitting a buffalo into a lift would appear to be a pretty tall order and this particular lift is no exception. In fact attempting to stuff a buffalo into this elevator would account very easily for the demise of the animal, not to mention of the lift itself. It is a small lift - a very small lift - and it has those old-fashioned hand-pulled metal doors which contract and expand and which would be completely incapable of closing over a buffalo’s behind. But the dear departed of this planet are not limited by physical laws and it would appear that the buffalo fits whatever part of its non-anatomy is required into the lift together with the passengers and lets the rest of it ride up and down through the ceilings and floors as required.
‘So what does the buffalo do in the lift?’ I enquire of everyone I can find but there is no answer.
‘Does it breathe on you?’ Nobody knows.
‘Do you have to stand in the middle of it with your head peeking out over its back?’ Not a word.
‘Does it fart?’ And everyone quietly changes the subject.
Perhaps the whole truth of the matter is that no one has actually seen the buffalo but everyone has smelt it.
All over Montana and the surrounding states there are ‘Buffalo Jumps.’ These are not Western gymkhanas but ancient sites where the local Indian tribes used to chase buffalo over cliffs. In the days before the Indians had horses it was pretty difficult to get enough of the migrating buffalo to get them through the winter and even if you did shoot a dozen or so they were spread all over the plains and hard to drag back home.
So the Indians developed a system for herding the buffalo towards a particular spot. They would do it very quietly so the buffalo did not really notice what was going on until the last few hundred yards when the Indians ran at them in a kind of half circle to stampede them towards the edge of a precipice. If they were lucky, the buffalo got up enough speed not to be able to stop and a good proportion of them went over. Then, all the carcasses were in one place and the tribe could do all the work of skinning, chopping and carrying in one go.
The first buffalo jump that Jonathon and I ever came across was just over the Montana-Canada border. It’s called ‘Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump’ and it has a jolly decent museum all about the life of the plains Indians which kept us amused for hours.
The name? It’s quite simple. Apparently one of that particular tribe of Indians decided that he was tired of watching the buffalo jump from the top of the cliff and wondered what the spectacle would look like from underneath....I gather that he only did it the once.
With the inescapable logic of the Canadians who have bi-lingual signs everywhere, this national monument is also known as ‘Le Precipice à Bison Head-Smashed-In.’