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Jambo Bwana 7: A Week with Elephants

Monday, June 27
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

We wake up at 5:20am, which gives us just barely enough time to throw our clothes on and make it to the trucks leaving at 5:45 for the 15-minute drive out to the relocation unit. It’s just before dawn, still pretty dark, and as we near the top of the hill where the watering hole and stockade are located, we notice large, very large, slowly moving forms and shadows in the misty, gathering light. As my eyes become accustomed, I realize it’s a herd of elephants. Big, wild elephants of all sizes. They are here, it seems, to hydrate at the two water holes and greet the orphans as they are released for the day. We spend some time watching them in the gathering light before and after the orphans are let out of their enclosures. The sun rises soon after six, and we begin to see more clearly a large number of variously sized elephants scattered among the two water holes.

Some of the elephants are wild, some ex-orphans who have returned to the wild, and after some kibbutzing around the water holes and the hay strewn near the stockade, the orphans and ex-orphans and wild elephants head out for the day together, accompanied by the keepers, who walk with them. They will wind up at about 11 a.m. at the mud and watering hole a few miles south and then back to the enclosures at 5 p.m. for the night. The elephants spend the rest of the day roaming, grazing and learning from the others how to survive in the wild.

Benjamin Kyalo is project manager of the Ithumba Orphan’s Unit, and he explains to us the process that allows the elephants themselves to decide when they want to leave for the wild herd. I immediately trust him, and we will spend the next four days watching this incredible story unfold under Benjamin’s expert direction.

We get our first view of a baby named Wiva. She was born to Wendi on October 15, which makes her eight months old. Wendi was brought to the Trust as a newborn left for dead in the Imenti Forest in 2002 and was hand-reared at the nursery in Nairobi. After coming to Ithumba, she made the transition and is now one of about 30 ex-orphans who remain in the area and are now part of the wild herd. Watch a video of Wiva and her guardians here.

She is an example of an elephant raised completely in captivity but now free, and she remembers the keepers who raised her and is friendly with them, even with the baby around. Elephants love baby elephants, and Wiva is tended by at least five other females, but we are introduced to Wendi right away, because Wiva is looking for mama’s milk. We will see them many times in the next few days. Geoffrey points out two wild dogs at the edges of the elephant gathering, but neither Billie nor I can see them.

Up close, we can see and feel their scaly bodies, hard yet somehow soft, too, and built to hold together their weight and withstand the rigors of the Kenyan outback. We can also observe up close the temporal glands behind their eyes, which secrete chemicals that we don’t fully understand yet but we are learning that it has to do with their emotions.

The mudhole at Ithumba was used by all the elephants at one time or another.

Their ears are almost paper thin, and the skin behind them very soft. One stops over to show us her trunk and how cool it is. We can also hear their deep, rumbling voices. Elephant researcher Dr. Joyce Poole has observed that “greeting rumbles or bonding rumbles, in particular, show an extreme range in the frequency of calls.” And many of their rumblings are too low in frequency for humans to hear. Elephants have also been found to “hear” rumbles from long distances through vibrations they feel in their feet.

There are probably 30 or 40 elephants here, and the big ones soon head over for the lucerne next to the stockade. It is meant for the young ones, but today the bigger elephants push the young ones out of the way, grabbing huge chunks for themselves and taking off to munch without interruption. Soon, they are heading off down the road in small groups before disappearing behind a ridge, and we climb back in the trucks for the drive back for breakfast.

Lois stopped in to our tent to talk about how the safari was going, and we have a good conversation. Overall, we tell her we are delighted at what’s happening. We are completely comfortable with the way things are transpiring. Breakfast includes eggs over easy with bacon, alongside cereals and fresh fruits, juices and coffee. We sit and watch some wildlife coming through the camp until 11 a.m., when we are driven out to where some of the wild elephants are again waiting for the orphans at the mud hole.

The water trucks were busy every day at the various waterholes.

Tsavo East is pretty dry, and it’s winter, so the Trust has built water holes of stone for the elephants around the area. They need to be cleaned and refilled, often more than once a day, and the Trust keeps them serviced with a truck that drives up to the water hole right into a herd of larger males. The elephants are obviously used to this, and they stand around waiting. The water truck is a constant companion here, either at one of the water holes or at the stockade or heading between them. The wild elephants are patient as the attendant fills up the holes.

We spend an hour just watching. The mud hole here is much larger than the one at Umani Springs. It’s a real mud hole, and there is elephant action everywhere: I’m standing looking at the mud hole, a pond with maybe a twenty-yard circumference and mud all around it, and elephants are splashing and throwing mud everywhere. At one point, the young orphans are coming in for their bottles stage right while the big males stand at left at the water hole silently gazing over at us.

It’s an amazing scene, the elephants throwing gray sludge on their backs until they turn a darker shade of grey. There is a kind of pecking order going on, with elephants waiting for others in some cases and not in others. At certain points it seems that some of the larger elephants are holding a class in mud slinging for the orphans to show them how it’s really done.

One friendly guy, taller than we are, walks right up to us. He’s an ex-orphan and friend of Benjamin, who’s also standing with us, and this male elephant is right next to us, checking us out with his trunk and talking with Benjamin while larger males eye us from about thirty feet away and another line of elephants passes just beyond us. I’m surrounded by elephants and as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.

A busload of Kenyan schoolchildren in their blue outfits are standing around the orphans, and some of the more adventurous get to feed the young orphans their bottles. Education at a young age is an important part of the Kenyan conservation effort, and I wonder to myself how many of these children’s families might be involved in poaching, or which of these kids might become poachers themselves, given the right economic circumstances. It’s a vicious cycle, and I find it hard to blame the local Kenyans hired to kill elephants for ivory, none of whom are the main beneficiaries of the wealth that comes from those tusks. (Watch the mudhole scene here.) On our way back to the compound, we pass a jeep with six rangers, all armed with machine guns, just a reminder that we are not in Disneyland and the elephants here are not necessarily safe.

Later in the afternoon, back at the stockade watching the young ones coming back in, I ask Benjamin if any keeper has ever been hurt by an elephant, and he says no. Elephants always announce their intent before charging, he says. And the keepers learn each of their vocal mannerisms so they can tell if an elephant is expressing pleasure or displeasure. Elephants, he adds, are smart and observant enough to know which humans to trust and which to avoid.

Wiva is a wild elephant born of Wendi, a Sheldrick orphan who returned to the wild.

A group of twelve comes walking in, a reddish stain running along parts of their backs. Six head right into the stockade for their bottles, and the keepers direct the others, probably ex-orphans, out to the water holes. I spend some time just watching one of them drink. I love the way the trunk can just suck up water and then deposit it in her mouth or anywhere else she wishes. One of the keepers says that larger elephants can take in up to five liters of water at a time into their trunks. He sucks the liquid into his trunk, then lets it rise above him, drops it into his mouth and then dips back down into the water. Very elegant.

Besides the milk formula and acacia bark, pellets form a big part of the orphan diet. I think they’re made of alfalfa, too, and they seem to be the same or similar to the ones we let the giraffes take out of our mouths or that horses eat in the states. The elephants love these little pellets. I spent a lot of time just watching them eat every last one they can get their trunk on. It’s time-consuming to keep grabbing one or two at a time, but they don’t seem to mind. This afternoon, one orphan moves quickly to chase another one off some pellets – she isn’t nice about this – before a keeper brings calm to the situation. God, do these ellies love their pellets.

And as I’m caught up watching one of them scrounge up the pellets, another one outside the compound comes up behind me waving his trunk. The others warn me of his approach, but I’m standing right next to a road grader, and with two steps I’m behind it in time to get a movie of the waving trunk before a keeper comes up and restores order by moving him toward the water hole. Hard to say, but he seemed pissed.

Later, the wild elephants move away from the water hole, and a lone baboon and a couple of warthogs take their turns, watching carefully and purposely in all directions each time before dipping their heads into the hole.

I wind up sitting and talking with Mondaii and Geoffrey about Trump – they can’t believe him, either — and about how much they want to come to America. Mondaii wants his youngest daughter, now five, to have the chance to be educated here. Geoffrey doesn’t have a specific reason, but he wants to see what America is all about. All they know is what they see on television.

On our way back to dinner, Mondaii drives us over to the water hole, where a couple of wild elephants are throwing water and mud over themselves as the sun is setting. It’s completely quiet, the only sound is the water falling around their shoulders in the fading light. A warthog behind them on the far shore completes the picture.

As we sit up on the balcony looking over Tsavo East with a glass of Amarula, it’s dawning on me the scope of what we are seeing. Wow.

Our stay at Ithumba continues here. Watch more videos of the elephants here.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 6: A Week with Elephants

Sunday, June 26
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

After an early breakfast, we left Umani at 8:45 a.m. for the drive to Ithumba. Though it is no more than 60 kilometers as the vulture flies from Umani to Ithumba, our route takes us 240 kilometers, most of that distance on dirt roads of varying degrees of quality. That allows us to stop in a little village on this Sunday morning and then to meet Peter and Jambi at a point along the way to transfer the food (and more importantly, the Amarula! – we have all gotten a taste for it) for the four days in Ithumba. It takes us about four hours on thoroughfares that ranged from mediocre pavement to almost non-existent dirt road. For awhile, we are on the infamous A109, the Mombasa Highway, the main road between Mombasa and Nairobi. It is narrow, super busy, super hazardous, and even on Sunday morning clogged with huge trucks, cars, four-wheelers and motorcycles.

Beyond Nairobi, the two-lane A109 links the Kenyan coast to the land-locked countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan. More than half of all goods traded in the East African community come via this highway. Dangerous? In 2013 alone, 3,179 people lost their lives in traffic accidents on the combined Mombasa–Malaba Road. That’s ten times the number of highway deaths in the entire U.S.

This is along the main street in Kibwesi, a hub town on the Mombasa highway. The irony was not lost when I saw this.

We stop in Kibwezi, described by Mondaii as a hub town upon which smaller villages rely for goods and services. I would hardly consider it urban. Population of about 5,000. As we walk up the main street, many locals are decked out in their finest duds – it reminds me of going to church in the 1950s in America when everybody dressed to the hilt for services. We are the only white people I see during our short time there. After almost an hour, while some of the women in the group are buying dresses and material, my back is going out. Somehow Mondaii shows up with one of the rovers so Billie and I can rest our bodies.

There is no pavement nor sidewalks, and you can see by the large gouges in the red dirt that when it rains, it just takes out more of the street. We pass shops advertising everything from a butchery (with a dog sitting outside the front door) to a photocopy shop, nail salon, electrical and electronic supplies, propane gas tanks, banks and clothing booths. Many advertised that they accepted M-Pesa, the phone-based money transfer service exploding in Kenya and Tanzania. Many Kenyans have cell phones, but there are few smartphones. Bars and restaurants line the streets, and there is a huge open area where people are walking and meeting and kids are playing. As we sit in the car, a huge herd of sheep pass along the way amidst the general clamor.

Another shot along the main street of Kibwesi.

At one point we are accosted by a thin, emaciated fellow with bad teeth who hadn’t taken a bath in awhile and was hefting a piece of metal pipe in his scrawny right hand. He is obviously not happy with our presence, and Geoffrey immediately takes him aside and reads him the riot act as we walk on. Mondaii also talks to him after he continues to shade us, and I watch later as he skulks around the outer edges of the group. Later the drivers tell us that he was an addict and upset that we weren’t giving him money. We are cautioned not to take pictures of people because they will ask for money.

We get back on A109 and head south, more heavy traffic in both directions. Mondaii talks of his wariness about the growing Chinese influence in Kenya and other African and Asian countries today. The Chinese government is providing funds to rebuild the historic railway, and as we head south we begin to see evidence of the train construction all around Manyani Junction as well as a rejiggering of the intersection with new infrastructure.

I had read about hijackers along the highways, and Mondaii said that a few years ago, when he was driving a van/type bus on A109, that thieves on the side of the highway threw rocks at him, which made him swerve and crash the bus. Although nobody was hurt in his case, these kinds of attacks happen here often, we are reminded. The thieves don’t mind killing people just to loot their bags.

When we stopped for supplies at Manyani Junction, we heard the Shiloh Tabernacle choir on Sunday morning.

Manyani Junction is where we hook up with Jambi and Peter before heading north to Ithumba. It’s a wonderful moment. You can see the new railway being built here, giant infrastructure changes and heavy equipment. Vans like the one Mondaii was driving when attacked, are lined along one side of the intersection, and Chinese motorcycles pass us in all directions. People are gathering at a restaurant on another corner. The highway is slowed in both directions. Across the access road is a large tent with Kenyan worshippers singing what sounds like American gospel music in Swahili harmonies. Large vultures with enormous wings take advantage of the winds above us. I manage to get a video of the junction before we climb back in and head for Ithumba. (Watch a video of our stop at Manyani Junction here.)

We leave the bustling highway, and from there it’s a long, quiet drive through the countryside, punctuated by encounters with lots of smiling people who wave as we pass. It reminds me a lot of the drive from Belize to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. Mondaii is an experienced driver, carefully treading in some places where the road has washed out. I forgot to get a picture, but we went by one building that advertised itself as the World Trade Center. As we get closer to Tsavo, we begin to see strange volcanic rocks jutting up from the landscape like giant stalagmites. It is winter, and Tsavo, though not that far away, is a much drier climate than Umani Springs.

East Tsavo is a large park, 8,000 square miles, and it includes Kenya’s principal elephant population, currently numbering about 12,000. It’s the only park in Kenya that offers the space elephants need for any real quality of life.

Mondaii also stops a couple of times to show us baobab trees. It’s the most widespread of the Adansonia species, and he shows us a couple examples of their immensity and also to note that the wood is not as substantial as it appears, though they live a long time. They are symbolic in many ways of Africa, and they will become a presence in Tsavo in the next few days.

From the second floor of the Ithumba central building, you look down over the entire countryside over West Tsavo to the hills that finally point to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it was easy to notice the baobabs sticking above the rest of the canopy of greyish, dry shrubs and bushes. No matter where you look here, you always see the baobab, filled with the legends and myths and mysteries of Africa.

The camp is great, much more like what I imagine a safari camp would be than Umani Springs, though it’s pretty cool to have both experiences. (And we learn there is another, newer Sheldrick camp on Ithumba Hill that is more modern and includes a swimming pool and higher views over the park.) Our tent sits off the ground, has nice rugs on wood floors, a thatched roof built over the tent, an area behind the beds to store gear and a zippered entrance to an outdoor bathroom with a six-foot stone wall surrounding it.

We loved our outdoor facility at the rear of our tent at Ithumba.

I was kind of dreading the outside toilet facilities. I get up at night, and I was concerned about sitting on the throne outdoors in an area where we know baboons, monkeys and other animals pass through day and night. But it turns out to be pretty neat. Taking a shower is a real pleasure, the water always perfect and Ithumba Hill looming behind, and our little enclosure makes a fine bathroom. Plus, we can see the Milky Way while sitting on the toilet. That just doesn’t suck. And we didn’t see any baboons, at least around our tents.

A thirty-second walk takes us to the large, open-air building that serves as dining room, living room and second-floor deck, a place where we can eat, relax and literally and figuratively, technically and mentally, recharge our batteries. Taking all these movies of the elephants eats the iPhone’s battery at a prodigious rate, but I’m able to keep ahead by recharging between each session and transferring the .MOV files to the laptop, and, so far, it’s been pretty easy to keep both phone and computer ready for all occasions. I wind up taking way more film than I planned. I’m still looking through it. But I’m really glad I did.

We go out to meet our new orphan friends for the first time at 5pm. This facility is a lot different from Umani Springs. The topography is completely different – there is no hint of forest here. The Ithumba Unit is one of two places (Voi is the other) where orphans reunite with wild elephants and other ex-orphans and make their way back into the wild. After they are transferred here, they continue to spend the nights in the stockade and days in the wild. It can take several years, but finally each one will one day decide to leave the stockade and not return. (Watch Sakuta greeting us here.)

The first group of five saunters past us into their pens for their bottles, all moving at a steady clip, and a couple of minutes later another group of five comes into sight and follows them into their pens for their milk. This is going to be fun. We get to spend time just watching them in their enclosures eating their pellets and stripping the bark from the saplings left for them to enjoy, which they certainly do.

The care of these orphans is an amazing, 24-hour-a-day process. Baby elephants need their mother’s milk to survive. After years of trial and error, Daphne Sheldrick came up with a formula that included cocoanut oil. To make these elephants welcome again after the trauma of losing their family and friends, the keepers feed them at three-hour intervals day and night, keep their colorful blankets and food available, play with them, console them and get them ready, ultimately, to become a wild elephant.

We aren’t quite as pampered here as we were by Peter at Umani Springs, but that’s not a complaint. The beef with several different fresh veggies are all prepared just right and are perfect after a long day on the road. And Lois and Renae, who each bought a colorful African dress in Kibwesi, give us a fashion show. Amarula and early to bed.

Our stay at Ithumba Camp continues here. Watch videos of our Kenya trip here.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 5: A Week with Elephants

Saturday, June 25
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park

We wake up at 6:20 a.m., too late to make the early elephant visit – and the only obe we miss all week. Happy to report that Billie is feeling better. At breakfast, everyone says that the morning visit had a completely different vibe from yesterday, when the animals were friendly and quiet. The wild elephants in the forest visited the stockade last night, which apparently upset the matriarchs. Two females, Sonje and Murera, have become matrons to Mwashoti, and as soon as they were let out of their enclosures, they bolted to the young one, flaring ears and letting everyone know of their concerns.

The Umani facility is for elephants with special needs. Several, like Mwashoti, have been caught in snares, which limits their ability to stand up. One leg down makes it more difficult, but the Trust is still hopeful these elephants will someday return to the wild. After watching a video of the snare wound that Mwashoti endured just a few short months ago, it is amazing to see that this vicious wound is hardly visible except in a limp by now.

Elephants love their mudbaths.

We’re out for the 11 a.m. feeding and mudbath. Watching the orphans’ enthusiasm is just as exciting as yesterday, and I get that overwhelming feeling of great joy as they begin to accelerate to make it to their bottles of milk and the way they noisily make their way through the five liters and get a second. Though I have seen this before on YouTube and yesterday in the flesh, it’s still something that makes me so infinitely happy. And alternately, very sad since when these guys and girls get back into the wild, they might be hunted for their tusks, which become more prominent each and every day. One of them trumpets just before getting his bottle, and the unthrottled roar pierces the quiet. It is magnificent. (Watch this scene here.)

Researcher Joyce Poole writes of elephant trumpets: “The sound quality is highly variable and might be described as squealing like a pig, screeching, roaring, shouting, yelling, crying, and even crowing like a rooster.” (Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, p. 83) This one sounds like the squealing pig. We will hear many of the others throughout the week.

On the way back we pass the cement pond and finally spot the crocodile, a small fellow, who’s sunning himself along the edge. He slides into the murky water before we can get very close, but Angel got a photo that authenticates that it is not a monitor lizard. Our question has been answered over lunch today, the Kenyan version of pizza, with a crisp crust.

Geoffrey and Mondaii are worried about tsetse flies being around in the area of a planned nature walk, which would have gone up another side of the large hill where we went last night for the Sundowner, so that is cancelled, and we all spend some down time in the afternoon. At one point, I’m kinda lethargic in my swing. Idly scanning the mud hole area with binoculars, I spot Julia trying to get cell service. Nodding off, I wake up and, scanning the area again, see the big baboon we keep hearing at exactly the same spot. I wonder, “WTF,” before finding out Julia is now sitting nearby and fine.

Sometimes elephants can just be ... funny!

The 5pm feeding is great fun, and I get some videos of the gang arriving, and spend some time talking with Philip, the head keeper, about the animals here. As several of us are filming a group coming in, a baboon brouhaha takes place in the forest close to us. It’s really loud and sounds vicious and spiteful and nasty. With baboons, we find out, you never really know. As someone mentions, baboons will squabble about anything.

At one point, we allow the ellies to pick up pellets from our open hands, which gives you a sense of the power of the trunk, which has two main lobes, those “fingers” inside. I never tire of watching them incorporate these appendages, which they use much the same way we use hands and arms. Not as efficient, perhaps, but they have learned how to make the most of them. And maybe, they are more efficient than ours.

At the Sundowner everybody talks about their favorite moments of the day while we watch the mongooses and bush babies and the genet grab their snacks in front of the lights. I find out later reading Dame Sheldrick’s book that feeding these animals is a kind of tradition here – they do a similar thing at Ithumba.

Dinner includes some great mushroom cream soup. (A note about Kenyan soups. We are served cream soup every day, generally some kind of veggie turned into cream, and it’s always yummy.) Today’s menu includes pork spareribs and more of those fresh, crispy veggies, as always, exquisitely prepared. We find out there is a national school for safari chefs, which is not so surprising, since safari is a big source of income for the country and its citizens. Afterwards, we are all singing again before we retire, the three songs Mondaii is teaching us, especially “Jambo Bwana.”

The flashlights appear again as we begin to walk to our lodges. It’s so wonderful to be so well taken care of, and we are sad that we must leave Peter and Lefty and the others tomorrow, but happy to continue our journey with Geoffrey and Mondaii in the drivers’ seats of the Land Rovers.

We head for Tsavo East National Park here. Watch videos of our adventures here.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 4: A Week with Elephants

Our first morning with the Umani Springs orphans was pure magic.

Friday, June 24
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park
Kibwesi Forest, Kenya

People go on safari for different reasons, and there are enough to accommodate diverse palates. The most common and best-known are the “Big Five” or “Big Six” safaris. In Kenya, that means going to the savannahs of the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park and spending the day in trucks marking off the Big Six list: generally, lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus. It’s similar to what we did in Yellowstone in the years we spent watching wolves and grizzlies.

(Mondaii tells us a great story about a group that wanted to see the Big Six. It took him less than an hour to find examples of each. They took photos and were ready to come back to the camp and hang out the rest of the day.)

This week is different. Instead of trying to see all the animals, on this safari we get the chance to see one species up close and personal. (The second week of the safari heads to Masai Mara, where you get those amazing photos of the sun setting with a giraffe or lion standing before it.) And when I first realized, while riding to and from the elephant stockades, we wouldn’t be going on game drives or seeing other animals, I was a little disappointed. But not for long.

We have done adventures before, with mind-bending results. In 1999 and 2000 we traveled to Brooks Falls and McNeil River, respectively, two areas in southwest Alaska where dozens of brown bears gather and tolerate each other and the humans gawking at them while they fatten up on the salmon bounty at both areas. We spent a total of eight days over two trips in the wild with the great bears in their native habitat doing what grizzlies spend most of the time doing, and I learned that it doesn’t include chasing and eating people – unless provoked by said humans.

We felt privileged to sit among brown bears at McNeil River and Brooks Camp in Alaska in 1999 and 2000.

And we spent half a dozen Octobers in Yellowstone chasing the wolves in the early 2000s after they were re-introduced into the park. We were able to observe animals in a pack and how they relate to their surroundings and each other. One incredible, cold morning, on a hill overlooking the Lamar Valley, we watched for an hour as a mother grizzly and two cubs overcame seven wolves and took over an elk kill site. Powerful stuff.

So the chance to see another species, especially the largest land animal, up close was persuasive. Like brown bears and wolves, elephants dominate their ecosystems. I had left Alaska understanding that humans, especially since the advent of the repeating rifle, are the apex species – no doubt about that – but that we might not be the smartest in the sense of how we have adapted to our environment, and we loved seeing that kind of thing in nature.

Brown bears just want to be left in peace. Any so-called “attack” is nothing more than a living being protecting itself and its family or near enough starvation to actually entertain consuming a human. Brown bears can and do kill people if necessary, and so do elephants, but both, for the most part, are pretty docile. And when there is conflict or competition, animals always pay the price for their actions.

The final reason why I succumbed didn’t dawn on me until later. It goes back to seeing those first films of those orphans run for their bottles and watching their absolute joy for life as they went through their day. It reminded me that I was orphaned young, too, and how much I hated that word, how much I wanted to rid myself of its stigma, of that dread feeling of not being part of something. Seeing them become reintegrated into society with family and friends is a big part of it for me.

We’re up early today, and I grab a quick cup of strong Kenyan tea Peter has ready for us so we can be out at the elephant stockade at 6am as the guys and gals are let out for the day to roam the forest with their keepers. Just before we get in the Rover, I notice that a bunch of ants had gotten into my left shoe. I spent a little time ridding myself of the intruders, and it was the last insect incident of the trip.

When we get out to the stockade, I notice that the bark has been perfectly stripped from every tree limb that was placed inside their enclosures last night. They head off in a line, and as we leave the stockade behind the elephants, they all turn left at the gate and head for a small clearing the keepers have filled with lucerne, or alfalfa, which has nutrients that the ellies love.

Standing there in the forest in the hay, we have our first experience actually up close and personal with them, and it is amazing. (Watch the scene here.) Dawn is creeping into the forest, and here we are, eight tourists, two drivers, six keepers and 11 elephants in a pretty tight area. And we just walk around among them in wonder, feeling their trunks, scratching their ears, looking into their eyes, watching and listening to them eat, asking questions, learning to stay out of their way and just marveling that we are actually in the wild more than 9,000 miles from home communing with another species. This is what we came to do, and it feels soooo good.

The keepers seem as gentle as the elephants, able to communicate with words and gestures, keep order and put up with our insistent questions, and we have many. They are always calm and collected; I never see one of them panic at any time. Philip, head of the Umani unit, is the first of two keepers to tell me that elephants are as smart as humans, maybe smarter, and yes, the keepers get very attached to the animals, and yes, the animals get attached to certain humans. These elephants have been traumatized. Some were rescued while circling their dead mothers and screaming, “WTF?” and then brought back to an unfamiliar place, the nursery.

Think about it. These animals have no good reason to trust humans, knowing our treachery, and here are these men who walk with them, talk with them, feed them, sleep with them, comfort them when they’re lonely in the darkness, in effect becoming their surrogate family. Keepers are moved around in sleeping quarters so animals, or keepers, don’t get too attached to each other. We are witness to so many instances of the marvelous interaction between these humans and animals. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I would seriously consider giving up the ghost right this minute if I could come back as a keeper in a green Sheldrick tunic.

By the time we return for breakfast, dozens of vervet monkeys have taken over the lodge area, playing and jumping around in the bushes, along the edges of the swimming pool and out on the lawn. Scientists have studied vervet communication, and the species, which is widespread in Kenya, has been found to incorporate extensive patterns of communication. Young ones learn vocalizations from older relatives and siblings, which one to use to say “watch for a snake,” for instance, or “watch for another predator.” No doubt all this is taking place, but for us, it’s just thirty minutes of sitting and observing the entire troupe, which must number at least fifty, sweep through the area, over the deck chairs and around the pool, often with little outbreaks of action, before finally dispersing into the trees.

After breakfast we take an hour-long hike to the actual Umani springs, the underground aquifer that supplies the water here, before heading over to the mud bath in an open area a short walk from the lodge at 11 a.m. Soon, we can see the orphans at the edge of the forest, each one spotting the keepers and beginning to run for the milk formula bottles. I’ve said it before, but watching the pure joy emanating from every ounce of these creatures as they head for their prize are still perhaps the best moments of the entire experience. It connotes unabashed, overwhelming enthusiasm for life itself, and it just overwhelms me. Some of them get the bottles from the trainers and then hoist them with their trunks, others pick them up themselves and suck in the full five liters – it takes about thirty to forty seconds to drain one — before trumpeting for another. Orphans finding their way back into real life. (Watch the orphans run for their bottles here.)

Then they make their way over to the mudhole, where the orphans step in and slap mud onto their bodies. One just splays himself out into the natural sludge and works his limbs clumsily while trying to cover his body. The hole is not that muddy, and it’s not easy for them to cover themselves. But once they do, they walk over to a pile of dirt nearby and throw it on themselves happily before disappearing with the keepers back into the forest.

One of the keepers mentions again that since these animals can be here for a few years, the keepers switch off so that the animals don’t become attached to one trainer over another, which can be dangerous for the animals and complicate their return to the wild. It’s hard on the keepers, too, to keep from becoming too close to the animals for whom they are father/mother/matron/friend/companion. When I ask about intelligence, he says, “very intelligent, more so than humans.” No arguments here, so far.

The cement pond: Did a crocodile or a monitor lizard slither into the cement pond? Inquiring minds need to know.

Back at the lodge, lounging around before lunch, I look up just in time to catch something slither into the little cement pond on the front lawn. Some of the others got a longer look and identified it as a crocodile. At lunch Mondaii argues that it was a monitor lizard, which I never knew would have existed here, but they do. Peter, the chef, contends that it was a crocodile, and at dinner it becomes a kind of meme for the group: Step up and give your opinion: Was it monitor or croc? Most are going with the latter. I’m not the only one to think Mondaii is putting us on.

One thing we notice is that Peter, besides cooking great food, also makes our napkins into animals, a different one each meal – he tells us later that he has 30 choices so he can do a different one for every meal for longer than a week. Lunch today is a ham sandwich, spinach lasagna and a dessert made of raspberry and mango with the same salty chocolate cookie we got yesterday with vanilla ice cream. Billie is a little tired and doesn’t come for lunch. Peter is concerned and takes her a plate of food.

The Kenyans’ general warmth, friendliness and gentle ways are infectious. We get the chance to really get to know Geoffrey and Mondaii, our two drivers. Geoffrey is 33 and has been a driver/guide since he was 19. Mondaii is 49, with a wife and four kids, the youngest about kindergarten age, and who he really wants to be educated in the United States. Since I’m the only other male in our group of eight, the three of us develop a pretty close bond, and I like them immensely. Miss them both.

Not a bad place for a shower.

There are a couple of swings hanging from the acacia trees that surround the main building, and I take advantage any chance I get to just swing. During the afternoon siesta, I keep hearing a loud male voice outside coming from different locations. I’m guessing that it is the caretakers keeping the elephants in line, but I learn at dinner that it was a large male baboon out near the mud baths trying to find his mates. On our ride out to Umani, we had driven past a small village that had a dozen baboons running through the area, and we are getting used to expecting animals to be around. Baboons are known thieves, and someone tells us that they will run from men, but not from women. Huh?

It still feels surreal to be in a place so nice and modern. Umani Springs was opened just a few years ago, and apparently one of the British royal family has stayed here. Lois says it’s nice enough that some people get here and don’t want to see animals just because it’s such a nice resort. I could see that. But the Trust runs this as an adjunct to the orphan rehabilitation area. In order to stay here, you must pay for the entire resort, which allows only eight people, and bring in your own food, which is prepared by a safari chef trained for this experience. In that regard, Peter is the best, serving us an array of dishes that are tasty and plentiful.

At 5 p.m we are back at the stockade for the arrival of the orphans. I spend some more quality time with Mwashoti, and he seems to warm to Lois and I, sticking his trunk out to check us and letting us pet him and talk with him. I get so caught up in filming him taking his milk, that I’m not paying attention and quickly turn around to another group coming in right behind me, passing on their way to their pens, milk and saplings. Two of the “troublemakers” follow the others into the wrong area, and the keepers bark at them and point him in the right direction while we scramble to stay out of their way as they find their own enclosures. (Watch the whole scene here.)

Our Sundowner tonight takes place on a wooden deck that faces the Chylulu Hills, a volcanic mountain range and national park that fills the sky to the south and west as the sun sets. The hills are volcanic and considered still active, the last eruption in 1856. The hills separate the Tsavo plain from the Amboseli plain to the west. We’re looking at the eastern flanks. The western side is operated by the West Chyulu Game Conservation owned by the Maasai.

The drive to the deck is brutal, even for Kenya. At first it’s almost straight up, with the Range Rover lurching and digging desperately for any traction during the first few minutes of the climb before it finally levels off nearer the deck, which is about halfway up the hill. At one point, the angle seemed so great, it appeared we might flip over. But Mondaii keeps the tires digging into the soil, and it’s worth it. The deck looks down into a gorgeous valley with the hills across from us, and the drama of the sun fading behind the hills as they turn different shades of blue and gray is just wonderful.

Peter has set up a table with snacks, drinks and ice that was packed in an old-fashioned looking wooden box. Very Out of Africa. What I called Amaret last night is actually Amarula, a South African liqueur with an elephant on the bottle, and it really catches on with everyone and becomes a big part of this trip’s lore. And we were so happy to find it’s available here in Boulder, too. Every time I sip it, I’m back on the deck here or on the second floor of the main building at Ithumba.

But the view also clearly shows that we’re not that far away from the rest of the world. As I find out later on Google maps, Umani Springs, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from the Mombasa Highway to the north and east. Giant power lines bisect the valley below, much as they do across the American West and many other wild landscapes we have visited, which gets the group into a discussion about landscape photography.

Lois explains both sides of the argument, how some photographers would eliminate the power lines from their shots, even by manipulation, to present a more wild picture, while others, like Edward Weston, would never alter a photo. I subscribe to the second view, since the power lines are important to understanding the landscape, too. But with cellphones and apps, that’s all kind of inconsequential by now—people can modify their photos simply and instantly. Later, we will find a poorly disguised cell phone tree on a hill overlooking Ithumba. And we’ll see more power lines bisecting the wilderness miles away on our breakfast trip to Tiva River there in a few days.

The Chylulu Hills are a perfect place for a Sundowner.

The drive down is sometimes almost straight downhill, but much more pleasant than the ride up. Dinner tonight is lamb with veggies, potatoes, green beans, carrots, all fresh and prepared perfectly. Dessert is a nice, fruit mousse, and afterwards, we sing quietly, with Mondaii and Geoffrey leading us: “Jambo. Jambo Bwana.” The crocodile/monitor meme goes viral with the group and will continue until we unravel the mystery of what’s lurking down there in the cement pond.

Julia took a photo at the mudhole, where you can sometimes get cell reception, and she showed us a leopard track that was yuuugggeee, larger than a human hand. Last night we heard lots of strange noises around the resort, including a couple of hyenas. We find out that someone watches the camp all night, both to make sure we are out of harm’s way and, perhaps just as importantly, to keep the roaming animals off the grass lawn, which they love and will destroy quickly if allowed to linger. Billie still isn’t feeling well, and Mondaii suggests we serenade her after dinner, which we do before retiring. It’s a nice moment to see her wave back at us while we’re singing.

Sunrise over the cement pond.

Our elephant adventure continues here. Watch videos of our trip here.

June 21, 2017   No Comments

Palo Duro Canyon: The Heart of Comancheria

October 28, 2014.

After breakfast, we went up to Ft. Sill and spent some time at the museum on the original square there. The fort was on the highest point in the area, and as we drive along the square you can see the lower elevations below on the east. We find the old fort cemetery, which contains the remains of Quanah and Cynthia Ann, finally together, prominently buried alongside American soldiers he fought and some of his chiefs and friends.

Quanah Parker's gravestone in Ft. Sill Military Cemetery. (Click to enlarge.)

As Gwynne relates, Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah’s mother, was one of the most unfortunate individuals to walk the earth. In 1836, at the age of nine, she was taken with four other captives by the Comanches during a raid on their family compound in a dangerous area of west Texas, and watched as the Indians raped the other women and tortured, scalped and killed others before she was led away into Comanche territory, where she was integrated into the tribe for 24 years, rose in stature, married the chief, Peta Nocona, and had three children, including the first-born Quanah and brother Peanut.

Cynthia Ann and her younger daughter Prairie Flower were recaptured by Texas Rangers, including future cattle baron Charles Goodnight, in December, 1860, and spent the last ten years of her life trying to return to her Indian family, the rest of whom she never saw again. Prairie Flower died in 1864 of pneumonia, and Cynthia Ann, distraught and disillusioned, died of influenza and malnutrition in March of 1871 and was buried originally near Poyner, Texas. It’s a story that, like the Alamo seige, have become part of Texas history and myth.

Her journey wasn’t over yet. In 1910 Quanah had her body moved to Post Oak Mission Cemetery several miles west of Cache. When he died in February 1911, he was buried next to her, but it wouldn’t be their final resting places. Their bodies were moved in 1957 to the Fort Sill Post Cemetery.

From that cemetery, we took Quanah Parker Road outside the fort a few miles to the Apache Cemetery, where Geronimo and many of his family, friends and warriors are also interred. We also drove through Rucker Park, a nice area that looks like an old-time park like Swope Park in Kansas City, inside the fort.

The grave of the great chief Geronimo is located in the Apache Cemetery outside Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday afternoon we drove to Canyon, Texas, just a few miles west of Palo Duro Canyon, our final destination, about three hours west of Lawton. This was our chance to drive into the area once known as Comancheria. The tribe commanded a huge swath of what is now the American Southwest. At its peak, Comancheria included much of the western part of Texas and Oklahoma, the southwest portion of Kansas, southeast Colorado and the eastern half of New Mexico.

Most of it is rolling, mostly flat plains, but we skirt the southern edge of the Wichita Mountains, declared a wildlife refuge after T.R. visited. Mostly this end of the “mountains” is a series of volcanic cones sticking out of the rolling prairie for 40-50 miles along the highway. We drove through Altus and Hollis, both in Oklahoma and both looking down on their luck, with boarded-up, historic downtowns and a Subway that was open 24/7.

The crossover into Texas offers no change in scenery. Small towns, depressed for the most part, and a Subway in every one. Clarendon was especially loaded with huge white crosses every couple of blocks and other reminders about how Jesus saves while the rest of us will lick hellfire.

Mile after mile of plains. No wonder white people were swallowed up in Comancheria and never came out. As flat as it is, and with the route we take, we never really notice that we are leaving the rolling plains and entering the Llano Estacado, the “Staked Plain” that begins in the middle of the Panhandle and extends west into eastern New Mexico. Quanah, before his surrender, commanded the Staked Plain and the Palo Duro canyon, a giant fissure that cuts through the Llano Estacado, which we will visit tomorrow.

We pull into Canyon after dark and find the Best Western almost immediately. There is a restaurant, Thundering Buffalo’s Grill and Saloon, next door, and after depositing our stuff in the room, walk over for dinner. The food is mediocre, and my fried catfish has heavy breading and some strange blend of hot sauce. But even more interesting, we’re in “dry country.” I have to fill out a form to become a member of the restaurant in order to get a drink. Texas leaves this to counties, and this county only has one restaurant/liquor license — Thundering Buffalo’s. Yes, we are back in a place where businesses stay closed on Sunday and everybody drinks at home.

The next morning after breakfast we visit the Panhandle Plains Museum on the campus of Western Texas A&M (they’re the Buffaloes, too) and tour it for a couple of hours. A truly amazing place, one that we will return to tomorrow. We walk for hours and never really find everything. One of the best museum experiences I have ever had, hands down.

Photography is encouraged, and there is an interactive old west town as well as an area that celebrates the oil industry, with a giant drill rig they brought in and another area that lets you feel like you’re working in an oil production area. Pretty amazing stuff. And in the midst of the paleontology and oil exhibits, students had put up shrines to everybody from Michael Jackson to Robin Williams, which made the whole area even more surreal. Dinosaurs, Comanches, Western towns, Texas Rangers, oil barons and pop star shrines. Oh, my.

Overlook into Palo Duro Canyon near the Main Entrance. The canyon, most of it private land, cuts a jagged swath 130 miles along the Llano Estacado. (Click to enlarge.)

We drove out to Palo Duro Canyon in the early afternoon. Seeing part of a deep canyon that stretches for hundreds of miles along the Llano Estacado makes it easier to understand why the Comanches utilized the area and why, within a year of Quanah’s surrender, it would become a major portion of Charles Goodnight’s famous cattle empire. We stop for a bit at the gift shop, which rests rustically along the canyon’s rim at a particularly scenic overlook.

Inside, there are some wonderful films with a lot of Comanche history running in places throughout the gift shop, alongside the books, chimes, jewelry and Palo Duro paraphernalia. I find a “distressed look” canyon cap. We drive to the end of the road and back and decide to return at sunset and see if the light is better. Just as we’re ready to leave, we find three beeves, Texas longhorns, grazing in the tall grass near the entrance, reminders of the Goodnight ranch that quickly replaced Quanah’s hide-out the year after he surrendered.

Miss Billie and Miss Sookie along the Gypsum Trail inside Palo Duro Canyon. (Click to enlarge.)

The canyon is only ten miles almost directly east of our hotel, ten miles of seemingly endless, exceedingly flat land severely disrupted by the canyon. We head out again at sunset to see if we can get some colors we couldn’t get at midday. We don’t succeed as much as I had hoped, but driving down in the canyon again is wonderful, and we hit a road we hadn’t found earlier. The canyon area accessible to us is mostly for campers and hikers, and we decide that tomorrow we’ll leisurely hike a few of the trails and get a better feel for the canyon from ground level.

Looking up out of Palo Duro Canyon at one of the buttes. (Click to enlarge.)

Thursday we headed back to the canyon after breakfast and hiked three of the many trails. All were great. One took us through an area of gypsum rock along an idyllic stream. Another passed by an old homesteader’s earthen home. We spend the rest of the afternoon at the Museum again. I found several areas I hadn’t yesterday. Another fun way to spend two hours. We eat dinner at Feldman’s Wrong Way Diner, a goofy place that had miniature trains running above our heads.

Friday morning we find ourselves at dawn at the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo. We head north and find Lockhart for breakfast and rush hour in Denver before finally disembarking in Boulder. Comancheria has been good to us.

A stop at dawn at the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, about 25 miles northwest of Palo Dura Canyon. (Click to enlarge.)

December 25, 2014   1 Comment

The Star House and the Empire of the Summer Moon: An American Story

Our first view of Quanah Parker's Star House, in Eagle Park, Cache, Oklahoma. (Click to enlarge.)

October 27, 2014.

The whole point of this trip was to see Quanah Parker’s Star House in Cache, Oklahoma. In 2011, Billie and I both read S.C. Gwynne’s breathtaking Empire of the Summer Moon, the story of the American subjugation of the Comanche, the most powerful and dangerous of all the Native American tribes, of Cynthia Ann Parker, the white girl who was captured by the Comanches in 1836 and integrated into the tribe before being recaptured in 1860, and of Quanah Parker, Cynthia’s half-breed son, who lived the first half of his life as a hostile Comanche warrior and the second half as a cattle rancher, businessman, fierce and controversial advocate for his broken people and founder of the peyote religion.

Quanah surrendered in 1875. By the late 1880s, the chief decided that he needed a house that fit his stature as the head of the Comanche nation, not the tepee in which he had been living at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. The government turned down his request, but financed by some rancher friends, the Star House was built as a home for his seven wives and numerous children and grandchildren and a place to entertain guests in a style befitting his stature.

This view of the front porch shows severe roof deterioration. (Click to enlarge.)

When Gwynne related in his book that the Star house still existed, I went immediately to Google Maps and found it within thirty seconds of zeroing in on Cache, Oklahoma. In a final ignominy, Parker’s once-splendid, two-story wood home, probably the finest of any vanquished Indian chief in history, now sits on concrete blocks, decaying in exquisite isolation in the back end of Eagle Park, an amusement park and rodeo complex that closed in 1985,  along Cache Creek about five miles south of where Star House was originally built.

And how was I able to find the house so quickly on Google Maps? That’s one of the best parts of the story. Quanah, for reasons only known to him but generally assumed to be his love for military uniforms, had large white stars painted on the red roof on his home, a feature that gave the house its name. For me, it was a Biblical “Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus” kind of moment. It was as if Quanah, in his infinite wisdom, through his messengers S.C. Gwynne and Google, left a tangible sign for us. Beseeching us to check it out. Urging us to stand inside it. Asking us to stop by.

Quanah Parker's Star House view from Google Maps. After seeing this, I knew we had to go see this place.

And we wanted to stand in that house, that unique, strange slice of American history, and then drive through what was once Comancheria. The Empire of the Summer Moon, the enormous swath of land controlled by the Comanches, a tribe with no formal leaders nor centralized seat of power, made it the most difficult for manifest-destiny-driven Americans to penetrate, overcome and control. We wanted to spend a couple of days exploring Palo Duro Canyon, Quanah’s last Comanche stronghold.

Almost four years later, on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, we headed off on the more-than-500-mile drive from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Lawton, Oklahoma, our first destination. It was a long day’s drive, one of those that, if you decide to travel the Great Plains, you have to do occasionally, so great is its immensity. This one was made somewhat easier by the fact that we found four-lane highways all the way south across Kansas to Wichita, where we picked up I-35 to Lawton. Still, it was after dark when we finally found a Best Western at a great price for two nights as we were running out of gas.

After reading stories, I found out that the only way to get inside was to contact Wayne Gilson at the Trading Post Restaurant and Indian Store in Cache. With his sister Ginger, Gilson inherited the property after the death of their uncle, Herbert Woesner. I had called Wayne in early October and told him of our plans, and he said to contact him sometime during the morning of the day we wanted to see the house. Monday was fine, he said, but Tuesdays were dicey because he had a medical treatment that afternoon.

After breakfast, we visited the Museum of the Western Plains and the Comanche Museum in Lawton. At the latter, we talked to a Comanche named Junior Saupitty. When we told him where we were heading, he told us about the problems the tribe had been having with Wayne over the house’s stewardship. The tribe would like to work on the house, clean it up and maintain it at the least, but so far that’s not been an option. The tribe would rather buy it outright — according to several sources, it has offered a million dollars — but nothing has been negotiated.

Wayne told us to meet him at 1 p.m. at the trading post. We drove early out to Cache along the Quanah Parker Parkway, Highway 62 — it’s about 15 miles west of Lawton. I had hoped to be able to get to the home’s original site after finding the coordinates on the Star House Wikipedia page. I found a road on Google Maps that seemed to lead out to it. But when I mentioned it to Junior, he warned me that though the original foundation still exists, the property is inside Ft. Sill and off-limits to civilians.

He was right about that. The road I had found on Google Maps that would lead to the site was gated and closed where I had hoped to enter, so we drove a couple of miles up the highway just to get a feel for the area. It’s beautiful, mostly undulating woodlands at the southernmost point of the Wichita mountains, a series of rocky outbursts along the highway that are all part of Ft. Sill, the oldest continuously run of the many forts once built in the Great Plains during the Indian subjugation. There’s a nice little mountain north of the Quanah property.

We got to the trading post at about 1 pm. Wayne was sitting in a booth, waiting for us. He had told us that everybody has to clear out of the trading post before he can take us out to the house, but there was nobody in the restaurant, so when I introduced myself, he was ready to go. He instructed us to follow him in the car, and we passed the locked gate into the strange, elegiac remains of Eagle Park. Heading down a bumpy dirt road, the house popped up on the horizon but then just as quickly disappeared as we headed down a hill along the winding path.

This view of Eagle Park, from the front yard of the Star House, shows an amusement park rusted and rotting back into the earth. (Click to enlarge.)

We pass a few isolated buildings and the ruin of what was once a rodeo arena. Over to our right a ferris wheel, narrow-gauge railroad, Tilt-a-Whirl, skating rink, bumper cars, concession stand, dance hall and other buildings are rusting, rotting and slowly disappearing back into the weeds and forest from whence they came. We finally pull up in front of a gated fence that leads to a ghost town, all buildings from the 19th and early 20th century hauled here by Herbert Woesner, who added the old town as part of Eagle Park. It was probably pretty cool back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Right next to us is a Wild Mouse ride that hasn’t been touched in almost thirty years, now exquisitely tangled and gnarled with bushes, trees and weeds. Next to it is an ancient, crumbling opera house, leaning precariously, from about the same period as the Star House. Across the way is a wooden church building, a newspaper office, one-room school and a few others scattered around the property. We stop at a fenced-in area that includes the old buildings. Even on this late October date, it’s almost eighty degrees.

I can remember riding a Wild Mouse ride back in the days when Eagle Park thrived.

Walking a few yards past the fence, we turn and get our first view of the house. Two of those same stars I saw on Google Maps are easily visible even from the ground. A horse grazes to the left of the front porch, just as there might have been when Quanah and his family lived there at Ft. Sill. (Wayne tells us later that the horse is there to keep the grass down around the house.)

Once we get inside the house and the foyer, Wayne sits down, relaxes, warms to his subject and works into a long spiel about the house and how it finally wound up in its present location.

It’s quite the story, one that Glenn Frankel also tells in the book The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend. (John Ford’s strange western film The Searchers is very loosely based on her story.) Quanah himself searched long and hard for his mother’s grave and had always wanted to have her buried close to him. He finally found her plot near Poynter and got her remains moved to a small cemetery at the Post Oak Mission near the Star House in 1909. The remains of her daughter Prairie Flower were moved as well. Quanah died a year later and was buried next to them.

In the late 1950s, the army wanted to use the land where the Star House and the cemetery were located for a firing range for the then-new M-65 Atomic Cannon, which had been used to actually shoot a nuclear bomb into the air and let it explode a couple of miles downrange at the Nevada Test Site as part of the Upshot-Knothole series of tests back in our “fear of Ruskies” days.

Long story short: Cynthia Ann and Quanah were re-buried, hopefully for the final time, in the post cemetery inside Ft. Sill alongside many of their comrades as well as the soldiers they fought before they surrendered. The test site was never used, and Atomic Annie, the cannon that fired the test bomb in Nevada, sits at Ft. Sill amidst a large field of old military hardware.

The house’s story continued, however. It was already rotting by the 1950s, and the Army suggested blowing it up or moving it. Laura Birdsong-Parker, one of Quanah’s daughters who owned the house, chose the latter. It was divided in half, jacked up on flatbed trucks, and left for the winter. Then the two sections were moved to a vacant lot in Cache and reattached, without chimneys, porches or running water.

Birdsong-Parker contacted local historian Woesner, an old friend, and traded the house for one that had amenities. Woesner loved the house and had it moved it to its present location, near Cache Creek west of town in the back of his new amusement park, and added the porches again after he moved it to the park.

This wheelchair apparently belonged to the family, was used by his wife and might have been used by Quanah himself. (Click to enlarge.)

Woesner kept the place up at first and made significant improvements,  hoping to eventually use it as a centerpiece for the park.  Eagle Park opened around 1960 and enjoyed a 25-year run before a series of what Wayne explained were skyrocketing insurance costs forced the family to close it in 1985.

The famous dining room, with the table from which Quanah entertained many famous people, including those he fought before surrendering, and from which he never turned anyone away. (Click to enlarge.)

And so, like so many buildings that go unused in the Great Plains, Eagle Park and Star House have been basically left to the elements. After the park closed, upkeep became even more difficult. Woesner gave tours of the Star House, and Wayne continues the tradition. He estimates 3,000 people a year visit, all by appointment at the trading post, and he only takes donations, so he doesn’t make enough for even basic upkeep that he knows the house desperately needs.

Star House, which will be 125 years old in 2015, has had no foundation for at least the last half century. The paint is peeling, and there are holes throughout the ceiling and roof. The stars on the roof that led us to the house are seriously faded, the roof color more orange than red. I know that preservationists can do wonders. On this one, they’re going to have their hands full.

At the Comanche museum, Junior had reminded us of the weather’s toll on the home: Over the course of each year there are variations of freezing sleet, high winds, wild temperature fluctuations, snow and rain in Oklahoma. The house has no gutters. An entire section of the roof over the porch has no shingles. It’s just a section of exposed original wood with a tree leaning over it. Visitors aren’t allowed on the second floor, and even looking up a stairway from one of the rooms downstairs made it seem that there were good reasons for not wanting to go up there. The fact that we could still walk around inside on the first floor seems nothing short of a miracle.

Still, it was easy to see how cool it would have been with a picket fence around it and his seven wives and little Quanahs running around the property and up and down the steps. The rooms are spacious, with ten-foot ceilings, some with original wallpaper. Even in its sad shape today, it literally oozes history.

Wayne takes us into the dining room, pulls away the tablecloth and explains that this is the original table where Parker’s guests would dine with the chief, who according to the stories, never turned anyone away from his table. When I ask if it’s the place where Teddy Roosevelt sat, Wayne said that, according to his research, and apparently he hired someone to do the history, he can’t authenticate that Roosevelt actually visited the house when he stopped in Cache.

This is one of the big stories of Star House. We do know that Roosevelt spent time with Parker during a huge wolf hunt that Quanah attended. We saw a pair of earrings at the Comanche museum the president gave to Quanah’s favorite wife during the 1905 excursion. Quanah and TR are pictured together, but not inside or outside the house.

Many history books, including The Empire of the Summer Moon and The Searchers, mention it as fact that Roosevelt dined at Quanah’s table, so the story persists, and it certainly makes the chief’s story more compelling. Frankel’s account even mentions that Quanah found large wine glasses, larger than the ones Roosevelt served him at the White House, for the president’s visit.

But the only sources I can find in the books are recollections of people, mostly family members, years later recalling that Roosevelt supped at Star House. Wayne says his researcher was looking for newspaper stories that mention it. I can find no contemporary accounts that verify that Roosevelt dined there, either.

Wayne took us through the first floor, showing us the entrance room, dining room and kitchen, both part of a single-story addition to the original home, a living room/parlour area that led to Quanah’s bedroom and his favorite wife’s bedroom across the hall. Inside, you definitely move into the past. You can almost imagine how the house appeared back then.

Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche chiefs. (Click to enlarge.)

When we asked about the house’s condition, Wayne said that he would like to do more upkeep, and that he has gotten many offers to buy the house. Since suggestions have included using it as the centerpiece of a casino complex along State Route 62, which runs past Cache, I can’t completely blame him.

Though he can’t keep the house up, and it’s now listed as both a historic and an endangered structure, like his uncle, he is reluctant to allow a museum or the tribe to take over. Frankel suggests that it’s because of Herb Woesner’s statement that it remain where it is. Selling it would also entail moving it, or somehow losing control of the building.  As Wayne says, “things are at an impasse.”

All in all, it’s an amazing, bittersweet experience that leaves me feeling helpless, since it’s doubtful the house, in my mind at least an important piece of American history, will last many more years in its present location/condition. But until the impasse is broken, looks like it will remain the way it is. A quietly deteriorating piece of Americana in rusting Eagle Park.

(Read part two of our trip through Comancheria here.)

December 25, 2014   2 Comments

Waging Heavy Neil

I was at Oskar Blues in Lyons the other night, and an acoustic quartet performed an exquisite version of “Harvest,” introduced by the singer asking, more than once, “what does this song mean?”

I felt a little like that after finishing Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), a generous, rambling slog through the peculiar brain of Neil Young, filmmaker, model train guru, hater of mp3 sound, lover of old Cadillacs, and, oh, yeah, one of the foremost songwriters and singers of his (my) generation, and the author of “Harvest,” which he doesn’t explain.

I have read a lot about Young and listened to countless hours of his music, and, back in the rockcritter days, alternately praised and thrashed him over the years. (Full disclosure: I’m a big enough fan that I once wrote a column “The 15 Worst Songs Neil Young Ever Wrote.” And here are a couple of recent reviews of Denver shows, at Wells Fargo Arena in 2007 and Magness Arena in 2009.)

But Waging Heavy Peace just tickled the shit out of me, all five hundred often repetitive, desultory pages. Young is obsessive, impatient, curious, difficult and impulsive, often at the same time. He ambles through his life like a locomotive through one of his massive, museum-quality toy train layouts on his California ranch. He writes with great passion of trying to gain perfection in the way model trains slow as they climb hills, of the power of sound and intricacies of his electric guitars and amplifiers, of the biomass fuel that will allow all those old Cadillacs we’ll be driving around in to get 100 miles to the gallon or his Pono sound system that he argues will give digital music the same power as analog vinyl album once did. And yeah, he shares a few stories about the music he made that all of us carry in our DNA by now.

Given the meandering style and day-to-day detail in the book, I’m guessing there was no editing involved. If you’re expecting a chronological dissertation or explantion of his songs, you might be disappointed. “If you are having trouble reading this,” he even warns at one point, “give it to someone else.”

His arguments about sound quality and how digital files fail listeners are persuasive, even if their frequency makes them begin to sound like commercials. But this issue particularly bothers Young. “I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of mp3s or some other source of bad sound grating on my nerves and affecting my conversations,” he writes. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and Puretone (later Pono) or something like it is available worldwide to those who love music.”

The title even refers to his battle against bad sound quality. When someone asked him if he was waging war on Apple, he said no, but he was waging heavy peace.

In a sense, Young’s is testament to the notion of being able to control your own life. All of us want to do that, but few have the option to actually make it happen. “I will use my own money when I shouldn’t because I hate waiting,” he writes. “That may be why I spent so much money and built so many things. I just like to do it myself. I hate waiting for approval, because I have my own Approve-o-Meter. It works like a charm.”

But what I really admire about Young is his sense of nostalgia, his respect for the past and his absolute devotion to his family, his collaborators, his friends, and his infatuation with trying to make things better for himself and others. He writes warmly and openly about long-time collaborators he has lost along the way, especially Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and David Briggs. I knew of his model-train obsession and association with Lionel, but his stories of building a transformer so that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, could run a model train are more moving than any of the revelations about the music.

“I accept that I cannot have every dream come true at once. Life is too shoet for that,” he writes.

That doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying.

March 6, 2013   No Comments

Another Great Book About What Happened on 9/11/01

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in custody at Guantanamo.

Much has been said and written about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which even has its own feature film. But about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who actually planned and executed the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001? Not so much.

That’s what makes Terry McDermott and Josh Myer’s The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed> such a compelling read and major addition to 9/11 history. It tells the story of the loose terrorism network that finally hooked up KSM and bin Laden, and the decade-long search by a few intrepid FBI investigators to track down the man who conceived and carried out the attacks before they happened. KSM was finally apprehended in 2003 in Pakistan and, after being tortured by the U.S. on numerous occasions, is incarcerated in Guantanamo Prison in Cuba.

I’m not trying to lessen Osama bin Laden’s part of the story. He was the kingpin, providing money and logistical support to a plan brought to him about blowing up iconic American buildings, and his part of the story is told elsewhere, in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and several of Peter Bergen’s books about al Qaeda.

But KSM, whose nephew, Ramzi Yousef (aka Abdul Basit), planned the 1993 bombing of the WTC,  and then spent more than a decade crisscrossing the globe hatching plots of mayhem and death in far-flung places (thank him every time you remove your shoes because of the Robert Reid attempted footbomb, among other plots, including one to blow up several jets simultaneously over the Pacific in 1994.

KSM came to bin Laden and al Qaeda with the crazy idea of taking down the World Trade Centers using airliners as bombs. The book explains how they conspired to pull it off, but as it makes clear, KSM wasn’t actually an al Qaeda operative or member, just a like-minded terrorist whose interests coincided with al Qaeda’s at a critical moment.

The book provides plenty of evidence of the stupendous inefficiency the various agencies involved in American security displayed in the years leading up to the attacks. At one point, they came within a few minutes of apprehending KSM in 1996, and then he disappeared for seven years.

As always, I invite any of my friends who suspect or believe that 9/11 was an “inside job”  to read this book. We still don’t have all the answers, but books like this are beginning to provide a better understanding of what happened that day. More on my views about 9/11 Truth here.

January 21, 2013   No Comments

Miller No Longer Racing Through the Dark

Want to know why cyclists dope? It's all here. So is the story of how David Millar found redemption after being banned from the sport he loved.

David Millar is a Scottish professional cyclist who was arrested by French authorities and confessed to illegal doping in 2004. After serving a two-year ban, he returned to cycling in 2007 and now races for the Garmin-Cervélo team based here in Boulder, Colorado.

His memoir, Racing Through the Dark, came out last year, but it didn’t really catch my eye until all the latest revelations about doping came to light when Lance Armstrong decided against fighting drug charges and facing a long line of witnesses who testified before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, essentially admitting his guilt (though still denying it, of course).

It’s easily one of the best books on professional sports you’ll ever read. Millar’s story is in so many ways compelling. A gifted young athlete who loved to party, Millar’s first drug experiences came with sleeping pills, an addiction those who ride the peleton easily find, given the rigors of life on the road and riding more than 100 miles every day for three weeks. Millar came into the sport staunchly anti-dope, and if you want to understand how that attitude changed and how and why riders do drugs to compete, it’s all here.

Like most athletes, Millar got into the sport because he was supremely athletic and it was fun to compete. He became a star and team leader at an early age, winning stages in the Tour de France and other major races. His team, Cofidis, expected him to compete and win. As it became his “obligation,” injecting vitamin concoctions (called recup) after races to recover from three-week tours escalated to signing up with certain “doctor/trainers” with whom you would prepare for big tours by shooting Erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that occurs naturally in the liver that produces red blood cells. EPO is used by skiers, endurance runners and extreme athletes, but it has been especially prevalent in cycling. Eventually that activity landed Millar in a French jail cell.

Racing Through the Dark exposes the complete hypocrisy of professional cycling teams, most of whom end their obligation to the drug culture by having riders sign a form that promises they won’t dope. When any are caught or confess, the teams wash their hands immediately of the stench. The buck stops with the athlete. This is the same hypocrisy we see in professional sports in the United States. Just this week Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that even though Melky Cabrera is serving a 50-game drug-related suspension, he could still win the National League batting title if his percentage is the highest.

That’s why Millar signed with Garmin, the American team started in 2007 by Jonathan Vaughters, an admitted ex-doping cyclist whose ambitions as a team owner to clean up the sport coincided with those of post-dope Millar. Vaughters’ radical ideas, spurned by much of the cycling establishment in Europe, include drug-testing his own athletes regularly to create blood profiles.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. Garmin-Cervélo fields one of the most competitive teams in the sport. It includes other riders who, like Millar, doped back in the day and are devotedly clean now. One of them, Tom Danielson, lives in Boulder and, post-dope, is again among the world’s top cyclists. Another, Christian Van de Velde, won the Tour of Colorado last month.

There are those who say that the past is done, and there is no need to return to it. But as Millar makes clear, cycling (or baseball, or all other sports) have to face the truth before it’s able to move on.

Which leaves us with the elephant in the room. In a sense, he already has, and I’m not suggesting he go all Oprah on us, but Lance Armstrong needs to stop living the lie everybody knows about now. Armstrong is a legitimate hero for many people, me included. Billie and I started watching cycling in 2003 after watching a particularly memorable Armstrong moment when he carried his bike across a field to catch the other riders after the stage leader, Joseba Beloki, slid and fell on the hot pavement. His books on his battle with cancer are inspirational, powerful works, and his organization is a bulwark in the fight against that disease. It takes nothing away from any of that for him to finally tell the truth and move on.

September 21, 2012   No Comments

2,000 Miles of Bad Road: The Geology of Western Migration

This view in Wyoming's Sweetwater Valley looks west from Split Rock toward South Pass. (Click to enlarge.)

I don’t think I ever really appreciated the amazing journey undertaken by almost half a million settlers in covered wagons between 1941 and 1869 until I read Keith Heyer Meldahl’s Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Dust Trail (University of Chicago 2007). The book follows the route of those people who crossed from Missouri to California through a mostly unexplored wilderness, as scenic and fascinating as it was forbidding and treacherous, to an uncertain future in what would become the state of California.

That’s a story that’s been told before, often and well, but author Keith Heyer Meldahl applies a geologist/historian’s skills to help explain the route as contingency history. “Historians like to talk about contingency – the notion that key events in the past (turning points, if you like) determine the course of subsequent history,” Meldahl writes. And he offers a good explanation of how geologic processes that have taken place over millions of years (and are still continuing today) shaped the routes and indeed the destinies of the emigrants making their way to the gold fields.

Driving along highways today that take us a covered-wagon’s daily mileage in less than half an hour, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have made — or would have even attempted —  this monumental, fraught-with-danger three-month trip. Meldahl explains how the geology made it so much more difficult. “North America’s geological story built the stage and the props, and wrote large parts of the script, for the human drama of the western migration.”

And so he tells two stories, one of the overland journey itself, mostly through the journals of the participants (a great number of people kept them), and the other the tale of how the land came to be.

It’s a great combination. My geology knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond reading John McPhee and taking the Roadside Geology series when we drive Western roads, but his analysis, charts, illustrations, diagrams and photos make it easy enough to understand how our continent pushed westward, creating high mountains ranges, scenic lakes, lush valleys, arid deserts and swift rivers, all which seemed to conspire at one time or another to keep the emigrants from succeeding in their westward quest. At one point he notes that had all these geological phenomena – earthquakes, mountain building, river and valley creation – happened mostly east to west on the continent instead of north to south, the trail would have been so much easier.

South Pass, the one place in the Rockies where you could get a wagon over the Continental Divide.

I had never realized that the science of geology during this period was just beginning to move away from acceptance of the Biblical account of creation to a more scientific way of approaching why the earth looks the way it does. This greatly influenced how the travelers interpreted what they encountered. Today, we see much the same landscape as they did, but we know a whole lot more about the forces that created it.

I found Google Earth to be an excellent companion to Hard Road West. It’s not difficult to trace the emigrants’ route across the broad plains of Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, over that one spot along the Continental Divide into Utah and their twisted paths through some of the most inhospitable deserts and intimidating mountain ranges on earth before entering the Sacramento Valley.

Donner Party Memorial west of Truckee, California, a grim reminder of the dangers of the journey west.

I learned a lot from this book. There are several places where we have driven along the trail, mostly in Nebraska and Wyoming. But reading this one makes me feel like I did after finishing Empire of the Summer Moon – I want to get out and follow more of the trails and cut-offs and routes and see more of the paths of this amazing journey for myself.

March 28, 2012   No Comments