Long before Buford, the tiny Wyoming town with its own zip code, became an international sensation, it was a required road-trip stop. We'd discovered it one morning after taking a quick left at Cheyenne and heading west on Interstate 80, then realized we might need gas before Laramie. Buford, located between the two towns, looked like our sole option.
It was only after we pulled off the highway that we spotted the sign announcing that Buford, at an altitude of precisely 8,000 feet above sea level, had a total of one inhabitant, as well as a convenience store with a gift "shoppe." We didn't wind up getting gas there after all, although we did stock up on beef jerky, postcards and other essentials of the road; the cranky clerk refused to give me the advertised 4 percent discount for cash because I had a $100 bill. (Today, of course, that denomination would barely fill the tank.) "Now we know why no one else wants to live here," my young niece observed.
Still, we were so perversely charmed by the setup that we made Buford a regular stop on our summer trips and collected as much information about the spot as we could. Buford had been established in 1866 as both a military and railroad outpost, and may — or may not — have been the second town in Wyoming. At one point, it may — or may not — have had a population of 2,000, now definitely dwindled down to one. It certainly had some great bad souvenirs, as well as a modest three-bedroom home, a couple of sheds, a circa 1905 schoolhouse, a shelter holding a collection of post office boxes (and a $500 a month contract with the U.S. Postal Service to service them), a cell tower (and a $200-a-month contract with the cellular company), some abandoned vehicles. It also boasted a view of the highway and empty prairie on one side, passing trains, more empty prairie and distant peaks on the other.
And so when we heard that Don Sammons, the man who'd owned Buford for the past twenty years and served as its unofficial "mayor," had decided to auction off the entire ten-acre property — an auction that attracted attention around the globe — it was clearly time for another road trip.
By 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 5, an hour before the scheduled auction, the lot was full of cars that actually ran — a rare sight in Buford. There were TV camera crews, too, including one from CNN and one from Japan. The reporters kept stumbling over each other as they tried to find someone to interview; a local in a cowboy hat who'd driven over from Cheyenne did his best to oblige. The store, which was largely cleared of merchandise and had fliers advertising an Albany County clean-up day for August 2011, was just selling T-shirts, some featuring Sammons looking much more like a mountain man than he does now. On this day, he was sporting a lot more hair than he has in the photo on the newish billboard along the side of I-80 advertising "Buford, Population: 1," as well as a dark suit that echoed the Secret Service look of the Williams & Williams auction-house employees.
Sammons is ready to retire, he told me; he wants to write a book about his time in Buford and buy some beachfront property. (The bookshelf in the three-bedroom house — a remodeled double-wide — held a book on how to retire in Mexico or Costa Rica, as well as a video on Lasik surgery.) In the meantime, he's bought a new place an hour south, near his son in Windsor, Colorado.
The people eying the place he was leaving included a Wyoming man now living in Maine whose wife wanted to open a karate school — or was that Pilates? The wind that blows, hard, in Buford made it difficult to hear. A pair of women from Denver thought the old schoolhouse might make a good artist's studio but decided it was too small. And there were two mysterious men, knit caps pulled low against the cold, their man-bags making it very obvious that they weren't from Wyoming.
The auction, which included online bidders from 46 countries as well as several hardy souls gathered in the parking lot, started at noon and $100,000 and ended eleven minutes and $900,000 later. One of the man-bag bidders, a native of Vietnam who declined to be identified or interviewed, landed the prize. "Owning a piece of property in the U.S. has been my dream," he said in a statement handed out by the auction house.
A very windy, dusty piece of the American dream.
Last Friday, the Associated Press finally identified the successful bidder: Pham Dinh Nguyen, a businessman who runs a trade and distribution company in southern Ho Chi Minh City, had flown to this country for the first time just to bid on Buford, and had kept going until he snagged the prize. "To be honest, I do not have a specific plan for the town," he told a state-controlled media outlet in Vietnam. "But I think we Vietnamese should not feel inferior. Nothing is impossible!"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
And his purchase, which is slated to be finalized in early May, makes one thing very possible: a permanent green card. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "entrepreneurs (and their spouses and unmarried children under 21) who make an investment in a commercial enterprise in the United States and who plan to create or preserve ten permanent full time jobs for qualified United States workers are eligible to apply for a green card...You must invest $1,000,000, or at least $500,000 in a targeted employment area (high unemployment or rural area)." It doesn't get much more rural than Buford.
"Frankly, I just see Buford as part of the United States: a large and potential market for Vietnamese goods," Nguyen told the Vietnamese media. "Buford is likely to be the showroom for such goods."
One that could definitely use a perkier cashier.