How the Buffalito Came to Be

A bunkhouse was what I had in mind – a little cabin – to be a guest bedroom for when holiday or celebration company fills the Buffalo and our house. Such buildings of small stature recall all sorts of little structures – playhouses, tree houses, Virginia Woolf’s writing hut, Thoreau’s cabin, potting sheds, small studios.

Our cabinetmaker, when he built the cabinets and bookshelves in this house, adapted to the simple materials and needs here with flexibility and imagination. When he returned a couple of years ago to build a few more bookshelves, he told me he had a little free time, and I asked if he would consider a bunkhouse. He thought about it for a few days, and then asked if I had considered a gypsy wagon?

I hadn’t. But right away I was intrigued. I had a picture in my mind of Emily Carr’s caravan she called “The Elephant,” and an Internet search revealed ornate constructions, recreations of historical “vardos.” We were thinking something simpler – a bed, a chair, and a table for work – a movable structure as “green” as we could make it.

From his research, the cabinetmaker knew the walls would be slightly narrower at the bottom than the top – a trademark of such wagons. Like building a house, you consider roof, walls, and windows. No plumbing, though thoughts of a lamp and a little heater made electricity appealing. I hoped for a tiny front porch. In planning conversations, we’d enter a made-up space – putting the bed at the back end, and hooks along a wall by the door, so you would hang up your jacket and be there. I loved those early meetings – drawing on a scrap of paper at the kitchen table with a rush of ideas.

The cabinetmaker and his assistant ingeniously solved all kinds of challenges – from exact dimensions to the materials for the curved roof and inside paneling. To hold the wagon, they had a frame welded to the axle of an old truck. These craftsmen made windows with the appearance of mullions – with screens for the two that open – and a paneled door with a window. They designed the sturdy built-in furniture. And they engineered a way to build the whole thing in the workshop in winter weather, then dismantle and finish it outdoors.

When the cabinetmaker went back to his real work, the painting fell mostly to me. A warm yellow on the rough cedar exterior with battens gives it texture in the sunshine. Inside I used milk paint on the plywood floor and on the sturdy table, set of shelves for a guest’s belongings, and a platform for a futon with bedding storage below.

Now succulents grow in two pairs of old hiking boots on the tiny doorstep, giving the wagon a lived-in look. In summer, it’s surrounded by a tilted-over, wild cherry tree and a small garden full of daffodils, then daisies and lavender. In winter, a little lamp on the table comes on in the evening, and the Buffalito glows – a welcoming sight on a dark night.

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