No more buffalo, blue skies or open road
No more rodeo, no more noise
Take this Cadillac, park it out in back
Mama’s calling. Put away the toys
– James McMurtry
You’ve seen them on the hillside beneath Bass Lake Grade, broad-shouldered ruminators from another time and place, their massive, bushy heads cropping grass on the hillside.
Each spring we waited for the birth announcement scrawled on plywood, “It’s three girls.”
But no more. After 40 years, “Buffalo Will” Neunam gave up his herd in December.
In a nod to modernity, Neunam sold his buffalo on eBay. “A cow and her calf go for about $1,500,” he said by phone. “I should have got more for the big bull, but it was a package deal.”
Neunam, a fit 79-year-old with a weathered face, knew that transporting 15 bison, including the 1,500 pound alpha bull (aptly named Ornery), wouldn’t be easy. The buyer’s buffalo transporter showed up with two trailers and too much attitude shortly before Christmas.
Neunam lured his old friend Ornery into his “catch corral” with food and was preparing to goad the bull into the first trailer when the driver dismissed him.
“He told me he’d take care of it,” said Neunam. “He had that cowboy mentality, thought he could do anything.”
Neunam attributes his affection for bison to the Cherokee and Cree blood in his veins, which may also explain his distain for “know-it-all cowboys,” like the driver, who entered the catch pen with a sheet of thick plywood, determined to force “Ornery” into the trailer.
The ensuing brawl lasted more than an hour. It’s not hard to imagine Neunam rooting for the bison.
“That bull threw him up in the air three times,” said an amused Neunam. “He had him on the ground and could easily have gored him but didn’t.”
The driver later complained that the bull broke his arm, a claim the Neunam doubts. “He just needed an excuse because that bull got the best of him.”
They settled on loading the cows first, a strategy that backfired when a calf got separated from its distraught mom, causing the still-angry bull to push through Neunam’s patchwork field fence to rectify the wrong.
The driver fled with an epitaph, vowing never to return.
Neunam subsequently found Donnie, an experienced cattle hauler who took a calmer approach, baiting the herd into the trailer with far less histrionics.
Neunam admitted that keeping the herd safe, healthy and contained on his 33-acre El Dorado Hills Ranch was a struggle at times.
Every day he put on his rubber boots and hiked into the pasture to feed the herd, pitching flakes of hay over a fence that a series of belligerent bulls abused over the herd’s 40-year history.
The problem, said Neunam, is that the grass on the other side of the fence looked greener when they were hungry. The beasts could push through his field fencing at any time, and did so on several occasions over the years, thankfully never getting onto the freeway.
To keep his buffalo from roaming, Neunam spoiled them with generous portions of hay, about two bales per day, and special treats — loaves of stale bread donated by the food bank.
When the price of hay rose to $22 per bale, Neunam said he knew it was time. He and his wife Marlyn live on a fixed income, too much of which was going toward the care and feeding of bison.
In 2010 friends of the buffalo threw a “buffalo benefit” for Neunam that helped pay the feed bill for a while. He tried to find buffalo sponsors over the years, but nothing ever worked out long term.
“We’re not destitute or anything like that,” he said. “I just had to be realistic. If something happened to me I couldn’t expect my wife to take care of these guys.”
Neunam is a retired iron worker and a jazz cat. In the 1960s he routinely performed at Sacramento’s hippest nightspots; the El Rancho in West Sacramento, the Sacramento Inn and The Town and Country Inn, playing guitar, singing or playing bass.
He also gigged in Lake Tahoe’s active casino lounge scene, and wistfully recalls heady times when “Sinatra was at Cal-Neva, Wayne Newton was working the lounge at Harvey’s, and I was at the High Sierra lounge (now the Horizon).”
He never pretended to be in Newton or Sinatra’s league, but says he was known around town as a crooner, the “white Nat King Cole.”
Neunam regularly performed at Powell’s Steamer Company in Placerville on Sunday afternoons. A recent format switch to rock music left Neunam and his fellow jazz cats without a venue. Boo.
He loved sharing the bison experience, especially with children. Over the years many classrooms were on the fence line gaping at the majestic prairie creatures.
One story Neunam loves to tell has “a hundred school kids lined up at the fence there, with me out in the soggy field with the buffalo, explaining how unpredictable they can be.”
A young bull decided it was a good time to “show” what Neunam was “telling.”
“That bull just let out after me,” he said. Smiling at the memory, he described his younger self scrambling desperately on the wet grass in slippery new cowboy boots worn specifically for the occasion.
“I was dancing around a pole out there one step ahead of this mean bull. He just about got me,” he said. “Those kids’ eyes were big as saucers.”
The bison now live on a Lake of the Pines ranch. The buyer invited Neunam to visit his herd any time, but he hasn’t yet taken the offer.
With a garage full of Native American art projects, a ranch littered with old cars and tractors in various states of suspended animation, a vintage World War II fighter plane in pieces and a 40-year-old honey-do list, he has plenty to keep him busy.
Neunam also plans to take Marlyn on a vacation, something that’s been difficult and rare during the 40-year reign of the buffalo.
“Sure, I miss ‘em,” he said, “But it’s time to move on.”