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Category — History

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

Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium

This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

September 3, 2012   No Comments

We Watched a Man Named Armstrong Walk Upon the Moon

Neil Armstrong (NASA image)

Neil Armstrong: August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012

Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don’t you know he saw it
On a July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Young girl in Calcutta
Barely eight years old
The flies that swarm the market place
Will see she don’t get old
But don’t you know she heard it
On that July afternoon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon

The rivers are gettin’ dirty
The wind is getting bad
War and hate is killing off
The only earth we have
But the world all stopped to watch it
On that July afternoon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Oh, I wonder if a long time ago
Somewhere in the universe
They watched a man named Adam
Walk upon the earth

– “Armstrong” by John Stewart
From the LP Cannons in the Rain (March 1973/RCA Records)
Listen to the song here.

August 27, 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