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Category — Books

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

Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie

What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?

I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).

Buffalo Bill: The first superstar to go viral.

Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.

And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.

His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.

“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”

In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.

Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.

He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.

McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?

In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.

March 8, 2012   No Comments

Getting Lost in Shangri-La

I got Lost in Shangri-La (Harper 2011) for a few days last week. What’s not to like about Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction book about a plane crash in New Guinea in 1945? It’s a World War II story with adventure, intrigue, danger, a daring rescue mission and a head-turning WAC, who is among the Americans who survive a plane crash in a remote canyon peopled by Stone Age tribes not listed on any maps and rarely seen by modern-day humans that gets its name from the 1933 James Hilton novel that captured my imagination as a kid.

Margaret Hastings gets her photo taken with a tribal child after a plane crash in the New Guinea wilderness in 1945.

That’s about all I’m going to say about one of the most interesting and eccentric tales of the Pacific War. On a personal note, my father was stationed on the western coast of New Guinea, an island known for its incredible natural beauty and, as Zuckoff writes, “a gift-box assortment of inhospitable environments,” for five months in 1944. Like many stationed there, he left after conracting malaria in August, several months before this incident happened, but most surely he was aware of the rumors of the hidden valley GIs called Shangri-La, and he must have read or heard news reports about this incident while recovering back in the States.

What I found as interesting as the book itself was how the author came across and pieced together the whole story, which happened sixty-seven years ago. Zuckoff’s interest was piqued after finding a newspaper story about the incident, which, mostly because of Margaret Hastings, the Women’s Army Corps survivor, got lots of contemporary press in the waning days of WWII, while researching something else. He found one living survivor, who had kept a diary and his memories, which in turn led him to the families of the other survivors, many who had journals, documents, photographs, letters and personal details about the strange story. Using these first-hand materials, Zuckoff was able to bring the very human story to life and render it in a way that it almost reads almost like a novel.

Dozens of black-and-white photos throughout the book really help advance the story, and Zuckoff posted a contemporary documentary film of the event on his website, which I’m not going to link to here because you need to read the book before you watch the film. Great page-turner for a vacation or to snuggle up with for a weekend.

January 25, 2012   1 Comment

John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions

When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

January 22, 2012   No Comments

Johnny Otis’ Other Hand Jive

Johnny Otis died Tuesday. He was 90. The great bandleader and songwriter was also an impressive visual artist, and I spoke with him about it in 1995 for Blues Access magazine.

They only met briefly, long, long ago. But Johnny Otis hasn’t forgotten Mr. Charlie or his dogs.

"Mr. Charlie's Dogs" (click to embiggen.)

“It was on one of our trips down South in Mississippi. We pulled into a rural gas station/restaurant. It’s 1950, and here’s a big bus painted with all kinds of carnival things – Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan, Little Esther, all that stuff in bright red colors.

“A young guy was running the gas station. It shook him up – all he saw was a bunch of black people getting off the bus. I saw him run in and make a call on the phone. I don’t know what he thought this was – the invasion of the rhythm and blues creatures,” Otis is saying during a phone interview in between bites of the leopard shark he’s munching at his Sebastapol, California, home.

“Right quick here comes this big honky with two terrible looking dogs,” he continues, emphasizing the word terrible. “We got back in the bus, and he just looked at us, and we froze. He just walked around us. The dogs looked at us and growled and growled. Oh, he loved the way he was terrorizing the black folks. I had a P-38 under my belt, and I thought, ‘If Charlie gonna start any shit, I’m going to take him with me’.”

“I remember him standing looking at us with a grin, then he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. It’s that image that’s in my mind. We got our gas, and we left. That was it. We always referred to that as ‘Mr. Charlie’s Dogs’.”

It is a story worth retelling, but you won’t find it in the Johnny Otis songbook. He rather chose to remember Mr. Charlie’s Dogs in a 1986 acrylic-on-canvas painting. It’s in Colors and Chords (Pomegranate Artbooks), a new book on Otis’ art. “Mr. Charlie’s Dogs” is on the cover of this issue.

To his considerable achievements over the last half century – as bandleader, musician, hit songwriter, community activist, organic grocer, occasional preacher – be sure and add visual artist.  Otis’ talent has manifested itself, especially during the last 10-13 years, in paintings, lithographs and sculpture detailing contemporary black lifestyles, his music milieu and socio-political themes.

“Painting was something I just did, mostly as therapy in between gigs,” he explains. “What are you going to do when you’re off for a month? That happens in the music business. Can’t go fishing all the time.”

His active art life dates back to 1945, when he began sketching cartoons of band life for fun. “As we would be riding along in the bus, I would just sketch a little something funny, and everybody would laugh. And it turned into a request program about what happened the night before, something naughty or something sexy or something ridiculous. Most of them have bit the dust by now except for the ones in the book.”

Colors and Chords offers a couple of works, including the brooding, moody “Nat Turner” oil painting, from the early 1960s. Then Otis didn’t paint for a long time. “The only time I feel really emotionally inspired to do any artwork is when I’m in music,” he admits. “When I’m out of music, shit, I’m miserable.”

The late 1960s and early 1970s were lean years for the Johnny Otis Band. “That was when the British Invasion occurred, and we couldn’t get a goddam job. We weren’t working with the band for a stretch of years. As I think back, coincidentally, I didn’t do any art work to speak of, either.”

It wasn’t until 1979 that we went back to art in earnest. “We were working again,” he says. “We were playing all the time.” And Otis went on a tear, creating in many media, echoing Picasso and cubist painters and native African styles in his brightly colored, primitive, plastic and wood sculptures. Being immersed in music also stimulated his visually creative style.

“I went into an art store to buy a little pad of paper, pencils and pens, and I see all these colors, all these paints, and I said, ‘Shit.’ They were a magnet. It just happened like that.”

Otis believes that music and painting and sculpture have much in common. As a major chord is made up of the tonic, third and fifth notes, he sees the same triad in the three primary colors. And as you find out in music, there are new, interesting shading possible by mixing the colors or the chords.

That thinking can be readily seen in a whimsical oil painting of a band called “Olive and the Primaries.” “These are not true-to-life characters,” Otis says. “These are composites of musicians I’ve seen and heard. Olive’s breasts are shaped like olives, and the members of the band have faces in the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.”

Some other Otis paintings – Boogie Stompers,” “The Blues,” “Little Esther” and “Silas Green” – capture the immediacy and intimacy of the Otis band itinerary: fairgrounds, juke joints and clubs of the chitlin’ circuit. Otis rarely focuses on the star, instead weaving a wealth of detail, from the Super Dog stand in “The Blues” to the long, gold watch fob dangling from the waist of the dancer in “Little Esther.” That comes from the unique perspective he gets as bandleader; while we’re watching the band, they’re checking us out, too. “From my vantage point at the piano and up on the bandstand, I see a panoramic view, left to right – the bar, bartenders, dancers, waitresses, patrons, hangers-on.”

Like any artist, Otis doesn’t want to talk much about what motivates such work. “How do I know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I do whatever strikes me. I don’t have any boundaries about style. I just like to throw that shit around on the canvas and paint.”

Still, he’s giggling with anticipation at his next work. “The cartoon I’m going to do tonight is for my fishing buddies. One of us was charged with fixing the bait, and he fucked up, and we were so mad.” He laughed again.

Besides his current fishing jones, Otis is particularly proud of his band, which is working regularly on weekends at a local supper club called Lena’s and choosing assorted dates elsewhere. “The band is so strong,” he enthuses. “Every instrument has an exceptional person, and the singer is great.”

That he’s so excited about music should mean that he’s painting or sculpting again, but during the hot summer of 1995 Otis chose fishing. He prefers cooler weather so he can fire up a little wood stove in his home studio, where he’s working on a couple of large-scale paintings “If I can keep the pot belly full of wood and coals, I can paint for a long time.”

We received a letter from Otis soon afterwards and published it in the magazine:

I really like Blues Access a lot. Thanks for the article on my art. The bright colors on your covers is a good format. It makes the publication stand out against other magazines.

I hope the page-after-page of ads means you’re enjoying commercial success. And if you’re that successful, I think we should arrange a loan. Two or three hundred thousands dollars should be about right. Let’s do it in small bills — in cash, OK? And no IOUs please, because I’m allergic to paperwork.

If you ever get up to the California boondocks, let me know and we’ll hook up.

Johnny Otis

Sebastapol, CA.

January 20, 2012   No Comments