Former Missoula resident Steven Rinella‘s extremely entertaining new book, American Buffalo, examines the iconic animal of its title from a variety of angles, and describes Rinella’s adventure hunting a buffalo in the Alaskan wilderness. Rinella grew up in Michigan, currently lives in Brooklyn and Alaska, and is a regular contributor to such magazines as Outside and Men’s Journal. His previous book is The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. I recently interviewed Steven Rinella via email about his favorite buffalo meat dishes, his experiences with “luck journalism,” and a moment of worry over a pending mushroom-induced illness that gave him an idea for his next book.
NewWest: It seems like your whole life had been building to the buffalo hunt you describe in American Buffalo–your lifelong interest in buffalo coupled with years of experience hunting made it possible for you to carry out this hunt. Does it seem that way to you? And if it was a lifelong aspiration, how did it feel after you’d completed it?
Steven Rinella: I have to divide that question into two pieces, because my relationship with buffalo had a trajectory of its own – it was quite distinct from my life-long relationship to hunting. With hunting, it’s hard to think of my lifestyle as having built up to one particular trip or challenge. I cringe at the thought of getting to a particular place or time and thinking, “there, that’s it for me.” But I would agree that my hunting knowledge facilitated the buffalo hunt; that is, it made it possible for me to comprehend it and to have success at it.
As for the second part of that question—about my interest in buffalo— I’d have to say “definitely yes.” I became engrossed in the animal back in 1999, when I unearthed a buffalo skull while bowhunting for elk in the Madison Mountains. It was about twenty miles north of Big Sky, Montana. The discovery inspired me to spend years learning everything I could about that particular animal (I had it radio carbon dated, and statistical probability suggests that it died around 1750 A.D.) and also the species in general. When you start digging into the buffalo’s history in North America, you uncover some startling and phenomenal information about a long and rich relationship between the creature and human hunters. This relationship goes back to the late Pleistocene. After a certain amount of studying, I knew that I had to dive into that world, to forge my own version of that relationship. The hunt was certainly a culmination of that desire. And it felt great.
NW: What did you learn about buffalo from hunting, killing, dressing, and eating one that you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t had that opportunity?
SR: Tons of stuff. But the thing that sticks in my mind most vividly was the immensity and versatility of the animal and its parts. I’ve butchered moose, bighorn sheep, caribou, Dall sheep, elk, bears, you name it. But when I climbed down to that carcass lying in the snow, miles from any roads or help, I knew that I was engaged in something damned serious. It was the real world, right there. And it was a big world. I could barely even tip the head. The thought of rolling the animal over was ludicrous. Even when they’re removed, you can barely lift one of the hams clear of the ground. To do so, I had to load them one at a time into my backpack and then put the pack on while sitting and then try to get to my knees. I remember this one moment in particular, when I whittled away a pound a meat for lunch and fried it in rendered buffalo fat. That was a big meal, and I was stuffed. I hadn’t been eating much, and I actually felt a little sick from the gluttony. Then I looked up at what was left of that carcass. I was staring at that same meal multiplied by about 500. It was an amazing feeling of plenty.
NW: Did you meet any of the other hunters who won a permit to hunt a buffalo in Alaska or did you hear any of the stories about the other four people who succeeded in killing a buffalo (out of the 24 who received the permit in 2005)?
SR: I heard one story. I verified that it’s true, but I can’t say how. An Alaska state trooper killed a bull near the Copper River, and he killed it on land where he wasn’t supposed to be hunting. He was traveling by boat. I’m reluctant to give more detail than that. I don’t talk about this at all in the book.
NW: How long did it take you to eat the buffalo you killed, and what was the best meal you had out of it?
SR: I polished it off in one year. That includes, or rather excludes, a couple of hundred pounds of meat that I gave to my Alaska friends. I owed them because they dropped me off and picked me up in their raft along the Copper River, which took a couple days on each end. The time frame I’m talking about— one year— wasn’t coincidental. For me, much of hunting comes down to freezer management. I’ll be conservative with game meat through the winter and spring, to make sure I have enough for my own regular meals. Come summer, I’ll either get looser or tighter with the flow. It just depends on how much I have. If I’m sitting pretty, I’ll start partying with it and giving it away and making sausages for friends to take home. If I sense an impending meat crisis, I’ll keep the great bulk of it for me. (Nowadays, “me” includes my wife, Katie.)
I can’t really name a favorite meal that I had. It was an old animal, so pot roasts really worked well on it. I made stock with some of the bones and braised the meat in it; that was some of the best, most flavorful, meat I’ve ever eaten. I got a kick out of the marrow bones, because you don’t usually get a femur the size of a beer bottle out of wild animals. And I liked the pemmican I made. Not that I liked how it tasted; rather, I liked the idea of it. Just mix air dried and pulverized meat with rendered fat, at about the same ratio as mixing instant oatmeal with boiling water. It’s very practical and frugal. And it’s essentially archival; it’ll never go bad. I still have a couple pounds in my freezer, just to see how long it lasts. It still tastes as good (or bad) as it did in 2005.
NW: In one interview, you called this book “luck journalism,” because you were lucky enough to win a permit to hunt a buffalo, which became the central action of the story. Have you had other experiences with “luck journalism”?
SR: Not to this extent, no. But that’s an interesting question nonetheless, because I do a lot of travel writing for magazines and a good story often relies on the occurrence of the unusual or unexpected. One time I was in the Philippines to report on my participation in the initial descent of a river by a group of Americans in the Central Highlands of Luzon Island. This was an assignment for Outside magazine, where I’ve been a contributor and correspondent since 2000. I didn’t really get along with the folks I was with; there was no open hostility, but it was clear to everyone that we weren’t hitting it off. Basically, our differences could be attributed to radically different aesthetics and world views.
Anyway, we were in the homeland of an indigenous tribe known as the Kalinga. They’re fairly autonomous from the federal government, and it’s customary to ask their permission before trespassing on their land. They allowed us to raft their river, but only on the condition that we take along two of their teenagers as “guides.” These kids showed up in nothing but cut-off shorts for a week-long trip, and they’d never been in a raft. These kids didn’t speak a word of English. The emotional and logistical highpoint of the run was this 5+ rapids named after a drowned water buffalo carcass that was floating in a back eddy. So, when we got above the rapids, my companions halted the trip for hours and hours to study the rapids and lay out what seemed like a dozen contingency plans. They really sucked the fun out of it.
After about six hours of this, someone turned around and started screaming, “No, No.” I looked, and here comes these two Kalinga kids in that raft, barreling toward the rapids while kneeling in the center of the raft and shaking paddles above their heads. They shot that rapids totally old school, like a couple of rogue, mutinous pirates. It was genius and gorgeous. My appreciation for the feat did little to mend my relationship with my companions, but I felt blessed and lucky to have a trip with such a bizarre highlight. It turned an otherwise boring story into something with a crystalline moment of beauty. Luck journalism.
NW: You do a lot of traveling in the book, to Alaska to hunt buffalo, to Oxford to have your buffalo skull’s DNA analyzed, to North Dakota to try to see a white buffalo. How did you decide if each buffalo-themed trip was worthwhile for your research?
SR: I did a lot of trips that never made it into the book. My editor had me cut out 100 pages. I watched whole weeks of my life, not counting research and writing, perish at the press of a delete button. Generally, though, I use a simple method when making these decisions. If it’s interesting to me, I make the trip and write it. If not, I don’t. I can’t feign interest just because I imagine a reader needing or wanting to know something. I’m a selfish writer in that way. For instance, I knew people would read the book and ask, “where’s all the stuff about Yellowstone Park?” At the time, though, I was feeling bored about the park’s buffalo. They only make up 15% of the continent’s wild buffalo, but they absorb 99% of most peoples’ thoughts about the species. That’s the sort of thinking I do when it comes to deciding what’s “worthwhile.”
NW: American Buffalo covers so much territory—a travel and hunting narrative with forays into natural history, anthropology, biology and other topics. Were there books that influenced you in its structure? How did you hit upon the right mix for American Buffalo?
SR: I didn’t have a structural guide. I think the book came out that way because that’s the only way it could have come out. I don’t sit down and think, “I could structure my work this way, or that way, or that way.” I see only one way, and then I go for it.
NW: Why did you decide to reveal in the first chapter that you’d succeeded in killing a buffalo?
SR: It’s difficult to explain. I just felt as though I should, because I didn’t want to frame the book as a page-turner leading up to the animal’s death. I wanted to get it out of the way, and let people know that this is a book with a dead buffalo in it. Also, the first chapters are packed with historical and biological information, and I wanted to offer a taste of the adventure to come.
NW: You come up with such wacky, yet accurate, similes and metaphors to explain or describe things in American Buffalo. Is that something you work at?
SR: No, not really. I definitely don’t sit down and deliberately try to come up with wacked out descriptions. Instead, I just sit there and try to visualize an appropriate simile or metaphor, and then use the first that seems to fit. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a minute or so coming up with a description. That should not be taken as a boast about being a fast writer. I’m actually quite slow. I struggle horribly with organization. I generate great heaps of paragraphs, then can’t figure out where to put them.
NW: There are a couple of chilling paragraphs about your fear of the wilderness when you describe how abusive your dad was when you were growing up. I thought that passage was really powerful, and I have a few questions about it. Was it difficult to write? Did you debate about including this? Do you plan to write about your father again at greater length?
SR: I wouldn’t have written that if my dad wasn’t dead. I wouldn’t have wanted that to be his legacy, if in fact he had to live with his own legacy. But now that he’s gone, I’m more comfortable discussing various aspects of his personality. And I’m sure I’ll discuss more aspects in future work. After all, he had a profound impact on me. Quite likely, he impacted me more than anything else. He was a tough guy to be with, and I think he was rather unhappy. He grew up in difficult circumstances. He was essentially forfeited by his parents and then raised by his grandparents, who were themselves abusive. He had to work ever since he was a little kid. He even had to pick up coal at a rail yard, which seems like something from a Dickens novel. He never finished high school. He went off to war at seventeen years of age. He killed men, and watched dozen of his own friends get killed off. His experiences overseas left him shell-shocked. You’re just not going to come out of those experiences and start acting like it’s the Cosby Show. You might be a good hunter, but probably not a good dad.
NW: How did you get your start as a writer for Outside and other magazines?
SR: Getting started with good magazines and book publishing requires tons of luck, among myriad other things. I tend to think in terms of how I might have avoided getting into magazines. I wouldn’t be writing for a living if I hadn’t gone to graduate school for an MFA; I wouldn’t be writing for a living if great writers hadn’t selflessly taken me under their wing; I wouldn’t be writing for a living if I wasn’t writing about the things I was born to write — that is, the things I know very well; and I wouldn’t be writing for a living if I had been afraid of being financially screwed for a lot of years. It’s important to keep in mind that no two writers make it the same way. Everyone’s story is different, so they’re all equally illustrative and irrelevant.
NW: You’ve said your next book is going to be about the Nez Perce War. How did you get interested in that topic?
SR: I was in the Bitterroot Mountains with an ex-girlfriend and we were hunting mushrooms. We found seven edible varieties and ate them all. After finishing them up, I realized that I’d almost certainly misidentified a couple specimens. I expected a poisoning bout to come on at any moment. I didn’t know how bad it would be, but I knew it was coming. I started to get symptoms and couldn’t tell if they were psychosomatic or not. So I went for a walk and ran into this sign that marked a portion of the Nez Perce Trail. That was it. I knew at some point I’d write that book.
NW: You seem to be attracted to Western topics, even though you grew up in the Michigan and live in Brooklyn. Why do you think that is?
SR: The first book I wanted to write was about the Great Lakes, where I grew up. I got done with school, in Montana, and moved to Michigan to write the book. I spent four months traveling all around there in a pickup, burning endless gas and sleeping in the back. I visited loads of places that I wanted to write about, and filled a couple notebooks. But then one day I just couldn’t handle it. I was miserable. Nothing seemed exciting to me. It all seemed so distant and played out. I started to fish every day, and my project faltered.
I felt so guilty about my lack of productivity that I flew back out West and started a book there, in a small room that I rented from a single woman who lives up Rattlesnake Creek outside of Missoula. I immediately felt better, felt awakened, and I finished my new project. But I’ve never been able to think of myself as a “western” writer. All in all, you see, I’ve spent most of the last ten years in various towns around Montana and Wyoming. I built up a lot of experiences that I’m now tapping into. It will take me awhile to write that all out.
A few years ago I bought a cabin on Prince of Wales Island, in southeast Alaska. I like to hang out there now, and I’m sure I’ll write about that some day. But that won’t make me an “Alaskan” writer. And I still want to do that Great Lakes book, but I’ll sure as hell never be a Great Lakes writer. I suppose my long-term goal is to write about a lot of things in America. As for Brooklyn, I’ll be here a while longer but I probably won’t write much about it. All of my friends here are writers. They seem to have this place pretty covered.