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Category — Travel

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

Quanah Parker’s Star House

I have a thing about old buildings, especially ones where history took place. Whether it’s standing inside Buffalo Bill’s hunting cabin outside Yellowstone Park in Wyoming or listening to Randy Newman at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, for that matter, old buildings have a way of making history come to life. This is especially true when those buildings are in out-of-the-way places that you have to seek out.

The Star House's red roof is lower left center, not far from the railroad tracks and behind the amusement park. Only in America. (Click to bigginate.)

That’s why I want to go to Cache, Oklahoma. Yeah. Really. I just finished S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), which traces the story of the fearsome, decentralized Indian nation that once commanded huge swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico until its leaders surrendered to U.S. forces in 1875.

As with all books about the European/American extermination of Indian tribes from the Great Plains in the late 19th century, Empire of the Summer Moon tells a sad story about a miserable, irredeemable period in U.S. history. I realized how little I knew about the Comanches or the Indian wars in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwynne masterfully points out the pros and cons of both sides.

The book drops you into the Texas frontier in the early 19th century as whites sweeping westward begin tangling with those tribes and their lifestyle on the Southern Great Plains. Gwynne’s descriptions of the tribes’ nomadic life are as breathtaking as his exploration of how the Spanish, during their ill-fated attempt at conquest of the Comanches, among their many mistakes, unwittingly gave the Comanches the very thing – horses — which the Indians would then use to drive out the Europeans and stave off, at least for a while, their own extinction.

But the magic of Empire of the Summer Moon is how all this history weaves into and around the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs. Apparently, if you grew up in Texas, you know the story of how Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanches in 1836 at age nine in a brutal massacre against her family’s compound – she witnessed the torture and murder of her grandfather and gang-rape of other women during the incident.

Click on this to get a close-up of the immediate area.

Cynthia Ann was spared, eventually married Chief Peta Necona, had three children and was completely assimilated into the tribe for 24 years before being recaptured by famous Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family. Incomprehensible as it seemed to everyone at the time,  Parker rejected white society and tried to escape many times as she was shunted through a miserable life among her relatives. She never saw Quanah or her children again and finally starved herself to death in 1870.

Her first son with Peta Necona was Quanah. Six feet tall, with long hair, a stately mien and steely stare, Quanah Parker was a highly regarded, especially fearless and murderous chief of the notorious Quahadi Comanche band. Parker fought ferociously and killed and tortured many who chased the Quahadi before finally surrendering at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1875.

For the last thirty years of his life, he lived out the life his mother could never accept. Perhaps more than any other Native American chief, Parker had moderate success living within the constraints of reservation life.  Though uneducated, he had great persuasive skills, and he traveled to Washington to lobby Congress on the behalf of his tribe. He was a founder of the Native American Church Movement peyote religion.

Perhaps the best expression of his desire to live in the white man’s world was the house he built near Cache, Oklahoma. It was a ten-room, two-story structure, a place where the great and the unknown came to pay their respects to the old chief. President Theodore Roosevelt dined at Parker’s house, and his table was always filled with people who wanted to meet the great chief.

Quanah Parker

There is an old photo of the house surrounded by a white picket fence in the book, and near the end, Gwynne says that he found Parker’s Star House, behind an abandoned amusement park near Cache. Beyond the peculiarly American irony of its location, this got me very excited. I quickly went to Google Maps and typed: Cache, OK. I moved down to the local level and began scanning, found a park northwest of town, and there it was, right behind what looks from the air like an old amusement park.

But what guided me to it so quickly were the stars on the red roof. You see, one story says that old Chief Parker, perhaps in a religious vision, had stars embedded in the roof of his home like those he supposedly admired on uniforms. The Star House. So I like to think that Parker himself helped guide me, lo these many years later, right to the spot.  I have to see this.

Read about our 2014 trip to see the Star House here.

December 10, 2011   3 Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 10: Mt. Lassen National Park

Monday Oct. 17, 2011


Boulder CO

Joss House, Weaverville, CA.

We got up early Sunday morning, had breakfast with the sea lions one more time and drove down 101 to Arcata, where we turned east on state 299 to Redding. It was another great drive, 299 parallels 36, the snaky road we drove over to the coast, generally about thirty miles north. It goes up and down through winding, spiraling mountain passes and deep river valleys. The Trinity River Valley was as scenic as the road was circuitious. It’s a big rafting and fishing area. In Weaverville, a historic old mining community, we stopped at Joss House Historic  Park, centered around Joss House, the oldest continuously used Chinese temple in California. We also read that at the end of 2012, the state will no longer be able to keep up this park.

The clouds were racing past the crater area that blew in 1914-15 when I took this shot.

Redding is in the Sacramento Valley, but soon we were back on the road heading toward the north entrance to Mt. Lassen National Park, which we had passed on because of some bad weather on our way over to the coast. The park takes in a dormant volcano that last blew in 1914 and 1915, and you get to see exactly what happened at the first major stop. A short trail offers up boulders shot from the crater three miles away and panoramic views of the blown top. The road circles the mountain and goes through some geothermal areas with the familiar smell of sulphur reminiscent of Yellowstone. Nice 30-mile drive.

The back side of the crater area. There is a walking trail that winds up to the top there.

We stopped in Chester for what turned out to be the last broasted chicken order at a fast-food place closing this afternoon for the season, and we were in Susanville by about six pm. Stayed at the River’s Edge Motel there. Nice place, fifty bucks with the cash discount, andWe got up early, had breakfast at the place across the parking lot from the motel and drove leisurely down to Reno, about an hour and a half drive through the high desert, where we caught our plane and were home by seven.

The mountain, though it has been quiet for awhile, is monitored for earthquake activity.

Our mission had been to make The Wild Trees come alive.

Mission accomplished.

November 12, 2011   No Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 5: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwoods Pk.

Tuesday, October 11
Cedar Lodge
Rio Dell, CA

Here’s a link to a photo page of our day in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, including some that show just how eye-droppingly huge the Dyersville Giant is.

We had breakfast at Tonetta’s Coffee and Bakery, along the main street of Rio Dell and, as far as we can see, the only restaurant in town except for a pizza joint across the street. But it’s a nice little place. Billie gets a croissant breakfast sandwich while I opt for the biscuits and gravy. There is so much gravy, I can’t see the biscuits. Nice little spot in an old building downtown, and it has a drive-in coffee window on the east side. A few jokes shared with locals hanging out drinking coffee.

One tree down and another root carcass. You just can't figure out how they got in these twisted positions.

As we got out on 101 toward Humboldt Redwoods State Park, we began to really notice the difference between the forests we have been going through so far and this, the first of three old-growth redwood forests we will be visiting. The first thing I notice as we exit 101 and drive into the Avenue of the Giants was the darkness – you could only see a short ways into the forest. Some of the trees are only a foot off the road. Shafts of light break through sometimes to the forest floor.

Just outside the park, we stop at a place outside Pepperwood that advertises a “room inside a live redwood.” It’s behind the business, a souvenir shop, and is a small room that, indeed, is inside a live redwood tree. That’s all I’m going to say. There are a few sculpted pieces of redwood, and some redwood timber stacked close by, and we’re off in a few minutes into the park itself.

Just to give you an idea how large these trees really are.

The Avenue of the Giants begins about five miles south of Rio Dell on Highway 101. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the largest safe area for redwoods in the state, 53,00 acres of old-growth redwood forest, the third largest state park in California. More than 100 of the 137 trees over 350 feet tall are here, including the Stratosphere Giant, at 370.5 feet the tallest known living redwood until three taller ones were found in Redwood National Park, including Hyperion at just more than 379 feet.

The locations of these trees are a highly kept secret, and scientists who study these trees want to keep it that way. At first I didn’t like that attitude, but I understand their concerns that amateur climbers would seek them out and, if not kill themselves, endanger the trees themselves.

It is, as advertised, an avenue of giants, redwoods lining the road and as far as you can see into the forest on either side. We had read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that talked about an albino tree, a redwood Christmas tree, in a grove off the avenue. We followed the directions in the article and wound up in the right grove. But after walking around the parking lot area for ten minutes trying to recreate the writer’s instructions, we gave up for the time being on the albino tree.

Another fallen giant begins its next phase.

Our first real, jaw-dropping stop was at the Founder’s Grove, home to the Founder’s Tree.

The Founder’s Tree is just a short walk from the parking lot, and then you follow a half mile loop trail out to the Dyerville Giant. Founder’s Tree is indeed, at 346 feet, still a giant. The height to the lowest branch is 190 feet. We walk around it, take some photos and head off counterclockwise, spending about an hour taking in the enormity of this redwood grove.

The cavities inside trees were cavernous indeed.

If there is a religion in nature, this is its cathedral. In 1917, after viewing this and some other like groves, the Save-the-Redwoods League was formed in 1921 to preserve these primeval forests, and this was one of the first. Today, 51,00 acres are preserved here of the 189.000 acres protected in California in a large number of state forests.

There are places, Katmai, McNeil River, Denali, McCarthy in Alaska, Yellowstone, Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef among them, where you understand immediately why they have been set aside. But we have never been in anything like this, an ancient forest. No trees in here have met the sawblade. These trees fall when they’re ready. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see many of those collapsed trees, some whose trunks fade into the darkness and flora. Some trees have come to rest in the crooks of other, still standing trees. Others have been hit and tumbled and are strewn haphazardly, like giant building blocks cast aside.

We found one tree that had been burned almost completely at the bottom – we could walk through it and stand inside it — but it still grew just fine above twenty feet. Fire can take a redwood, but the redwood can come back, too. Redwoods send down thousands of pine cones containing millions of seeds, but only a few of those find the right conditions for growth. Since none have been cut, we don’t really know how old many of them are.

Billie offers a hint of perspective of the immensity of the Dyerville Giant.

As we walk farther along, the trail loops around a series of fallen giants until it finally reaches an especially huge uprooted tree. There is no identifying marker, but we know it’s the Dyerville Giant, which until 1991, was indeed the Giant of this grove. But it fell in that year, after at least one of these other redwoods hit it on the way down to its demise. The Giant was more than 370 feet tall. Now it lies horizontal. It will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, to eventually fade back to nothing, all the while providing nourishment for hundreds of species on the floor.

I literally gasp at its immensity. You can walk along the Giant to the top, 275 feet from the base. The rest of it broke up and is scattered somewhere around here. Some of the top branches are almost mulch already, just twenty years later. The major sections might take hundreds, thousands of years to pass away.

The Giant's Burl and a little view of its length along the floor.

After that opening gambit, we get back on the Avenue before stopping at the park’s headquarters, where I quiz a volunteer at the desk about wildlife (yes, there are plenty of critters but mostly in the western part of the park away from the roads, including bears and mountain lions), and he gives me specific directions for the albino tree. In front of the headquarters is Weather Rock. It’s never wrong! Everybody should have one.

Farther down the Avenue, we pay seven dollars to enter a little locally owned “park” that lets you drive through the Shrine Tree. Poor thing is being held up by wires today. But a particularly American kind of place. Corny but fun, and we got a good picture of the two of us at the Keebler mansion.

Later, after an outdoor lunch at the Avenue Café in Miranda, we took a good walk on a trail off a side road off the Avenue that took us past the Tall Tree. It was measured in the 1950s and was an early candidate for the tallest tree in the world, but has been taken over many times as taller ones were found. But it was a very large tree in a quiet, secluded grove on a trail that winds along some unnamed creekbed. Nobody out there with us but those old trees. It was in this area that Telperion, another giant that figures in one chapter of The Wild Trees, fell in the 1990s.

And we followed the guy’s instructions to the albino tree (stop at the white line, walk down a path toward a creek and across to the other side and look back across the creek). It was kind of interesting but not much to look at it. The albino, which doesn’t produce its own chlorophyll, instead gets its nourishment from the redwood it’s latched to – kind of a vampire of the redwood — and it isn’t very impressive. This one would make a mediocre Christmas tree.

After leftover dinner from Hunan Village last night, we drove up to Ferndale again. But first we drove west on Centerville Road for Mendocino Point, advertised as the westernmost point in the United States. We didn’t make that, but we did stop at Centerville beach just as the sun set. Our first look at “the vast Pacific” was memorable.

The beach was fronted by those concrete things they use to keep terrorists from running car-bombs into government buildings today. Vans and RVs are parked along the edge. We pull in and walked to a place where we could walk around the concrete pads and onto the beach. Neither of us was sure we weren’t looking at land, but soon we realized that what we thought might be little walls actually were big waves crashing in. Loud, strong, relentless waves.

"The vast Pacific": Jeff Bridges as Lewis Tater in Hearts of the West

Billie says: “Is it the vast pacific?” an old Jeff Bridges joke between us. But indeed it is. The waves hit, spread and scatter, coming closer to our feet with every crash. I look around, and there’s the full moon rising behind us, the sky in the west pink and blue and foggy at sunset. And what is that with its head down in the grass on the bluffs just below the moon? Cow. From a Buttercup mansion. And these waves crashing in, coming ever closer. The phlegm of an angry ocean. Mesmerizing. And a little unnerving, too.

Full moon fever.

And then, in full moon fever, we drove back and literally bellied up the bar at the Palace Saloon, which reminded us both of Nebraska taverns back in the 1970s in Seward (Heumann’s, where I worked for a couple of years during college) and Lincoln (Casey’s, a legendary place that Billie frequented around the same time). I managed to get a little buzz from a couple of gin and tonics before our ride back to Rio Dell with the full weight of the moon hanging over us. Oh, yeah.

Next: Eureka, Trinidad, Patrick Point State Park, Arcata, Crescent City.

October 31, 2011   No Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 4: Truckee, Donner, Highway 36

Sunday Oct. 9
Cedar Lodge
Chester CA

Kokanee salmon at a spawning area, Tallac Historic Site, South Lake Tahoe, CA.

Our first on-the-road day begins with breakfast again at Ernie’s before we drove up the west side of Lake Tahoe. We stopped at the bridge where we had seen the crowds of people, realizing it must be a salmon spawning site. Indeed it is, and there are hundreds of fish at this location. They climb up out of the lake, spawn somewhere above, die, and then the runoff from the mountains sends the young back into the lake next year. And we get to go up and over that incredible short spur once again south of Vikingsholm. It reminds us of that spur north of Escalante on Highway 12 in central Utah.

The southwest area of the lake is pretty undeveloped beyond Vikingsholm, but there are more residences and strips as we get farther north. From there it’s a short drive to Truckee. Kind of an interesting place, it’s just two miles east of where the Donner Party was trapped in 1849, it’s kind of like Ward with a tourist area that comprises a historic downtown district and an interstate highway dumped through the back end of downtown. Truckee is one of those places that was once famous but now is left for tourists to ponder its past while wandering three blocks of restaurants, souvenir shops, bookstores and clothing stores. There is an incredible adaptive reuse of a gas station that is now a clothing store that is really cool.

Clothing store, once a gas station, in Truckee, CA.

We walk the entire strip and around some other back streets before stopping in a place that advertises banana cream pie. It’s not our favorite, but not too bad. An Amtrak train pulls into the station about the time we get there. A few passengers get on and off, and it’s gone in five minutes. Busy place on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Then we climb to the Rocking Stone, which doesn’t rock anymore, but is famous for once teetering at the touch. Nice view of town and the valley and mountains beyond in Nevada from the Rocking Stone.

Truckee, CA from the Rocking Stone above town. To the right behind us, I-80 roars by.

The Donner site is perplexing. The museum is under construction, there are no historical artifacts, just a monument and the museum. This is one of those pieces of history that, today, has lost all its context and is impossible to imagine at this place at a point in time. Luxury homes dot the hillsides and forests, above bustling Interstate 80 less than a hundred yards away and Truckee two miles down the road. It makes me wonder about living in Truckee in the winter, however. Is it like Ward?

The drive north up to Chester was through a huge forest, though at times we dropped down into areas of pastureland and large cattle ranches. Near the north end, we drove through an area filled with deep canyons and heavy vegetation. We saw three small forest fires, one near a home that might have been controlled. Incredible that it’s this lush in October.

The Donner Memorial, Donner Pass, CA.

We drove back and forth along Chester’s main drag, past the airfield and strip malls, but we couldn’t find a motel except for a Super 8 at $89 a night. That’s too much, and we consider heading west, not knowing the next town with a motel would be Red Bluff, more than an hour away and far past Mt. Lassen National Park, which we want to drive through on Monday. We saw the huge dormant volcano sticking up a couple of times on the drive to Chester, and we’re pretty excited about seeing another recently blown volcanic area tomorrow.

But we find the Cedar Lodge at the far end of town west of the turn-off. The sign says No Vacancy, but I pull in anyway, and a nice woman at the office says she does have a room with a queen for fifty-five dollars. Paying her cash gives us five dollars off. She recommends La Casita, the local Mexican restaurant in town. Dinner was fine, but all the place served were wine margaritas, which tasted OK but packed no tequila punch whatsoever. Bummer.

We got back to the motel in time to watch the final episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. An extremely satisfying season ender. Don’t know where they’ll take it from here, but the finale had all of the great tension-and-release that we’ve come to expect from this intense program.

Monday October 10
Cedar Lodge
Rio Dell, CA

This is along state 36 west of Mt. Lassen, all volcanic. You can see the cloud cover we found all day.

We had caught a glimpse of Mt. Lassen Sunday afternoon as we were driving toward Chester. It was magnificent in the sunlight, with a snow-capped peak that looked like it had blown its top. Today we had planned on driving through the park on the thirty-mile highway that traverses it, but it was socked in this morning and raining pretty hard, and radar online showed no real break, so we decided to forego the drive and hope to catch it on the way back.

Instead we drove west on state 36 through an area created by old lava flows, now overgrown with shrubs, trees and flora, to Red Bluff, which is in the Sacramento Valley. We didn’t make the correct turn at some point in Red Bluff and wound up on Interstate 5 for a few miles before finding a crossroad that passed through a pleasant, ten-mile stretch of horse ranches before hooking up on 36 again.

The rest of the drive was wonderful. It wound up and down through a hundred and thirty miles of mountain rainforests, high passes and torturous, zigzagging canyon descents and construction zones. It took four hours to drive the one hundred and twenty miles. With almost no traffic, and even though it was overcast and foggy 99 percent of the way, the drive was almost ridiculously scenic. Talk about a snaky road; it seemed like we were going downhill for the last seventy miles.

Horse country, north of Red Bluff after we got lost. This was a great road to get unlost.

The Humboldt Gables Motel is the first one in view as we pull into Rio Dell, a small town just a few miles north of the north entrance to the Avenue of the Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where we’ll spend the next couple of days, and a heavy-set guy sets us up for two nights for about sixty bucks a night. And again, paying cash saves almost five bucks a night since he doesn’t have to process the credit card. This saved us about fifty bucks this trip.

On the innkeeper’s suggestion, we pack out our bags and then drive out to Ferndale, a real oddity in this seaside area. We wind up on this wide plateau with huge Victorian ranch houses finally giving way to a Victorian village, a couple of blocks of which is on the historic record.

Nothing looks particularly promising for a place to eat, however. We find out the town and the mansions on the ranchland, called Butterfat mansions, were built around the ranchers. So we drive over to Fortuna, which offers, finally, Hunan Village. The food is great, and we get to-go boxes that will give us another meal along the way. We are very excited about tomorrow.

Next: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwood State Park.

October 29, 2011   No Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 3: Vikingsholm, Tallac Historic Site

Saturday, October 8
Apex Motel
South Lake Tahoe, CA

Upon the advice of our proprietor, we walked a block down to Ernie’s Coffee House, a large but warm and cozy breakfast nook, where we plan our day. We are interested in seeing Vikingsholm, a historic summer residence tucked away beneath some cliffs a few miles farther up the west side of the lake.

Emerald Bay, with the tea house island near South Lake Tahoe, CA. (click for larger image.)

A controlled burn near the highway north of town is blowing some smoke across to the lake. And after winding past Tallac and noting a bunch of people on a bridge near there, we drive up this breathtaking, short spur that leads to views of something I had briefly read about, something about a a tea house on an island. That’s what it looks like we’re seeing in this small, secluded bay, and soon we are in the Vikingsholm parking lot, located near a huge outcrop of rocks overlooking Emerald Bay and Fannette Island, the tea-house island.

The way to the home, which sits directly below the rock outcropping, is a mile walk down and back along a fairly steep incline, with warnings at the top for people not up to a walk like this. All in all, we find the walk less difficult than advertised, and well worth the effort, as it winds down through a nice forest.

At the bottom is a castle-like home built by Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight in 1929. The coast here reminded her of her native Norway, and she built it with local materials. It’s a strange kind of American Craftsman-style, 38-room home, parts of which contain no nails or spikes. It’s quite lovely, almost completely hidden among the trees from above, and we take a lot of pictures as we stroll the grounds. The back was also the entryway, with small rooms as part of an enclosue that made an impressive entrance after the ride down. Emerald Bay is a popular lake boat tour stop, and a steady stream of tour craft, from small motorboats to a couple of paddlewheelers, circuit Fannette Island all day. Even in the off-season, it’s a popular spot.

Vikingholm, showing some of the intricate inlay work. (click for larger image.)

We also took a short walk a little past the house. A guy was in the stream taking pictures above a pool, and we are introduced to the Kokanee salmon. It’s spawning season. Last week South Lake Tahoe hosted the Lake Tahoe Kokanee Salmon Festival. The Kokanee here were introduced by holding ponds at the Tahoe City Fish Hatchery that overflowed, or so the story goes. Three years later, the freed salmon returned to the streams, and they have integrated into the ecosystem. All in all, a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Last night we caught a glimpse of the Tallac Historic Site as darkness descended on the forest. This time, walking among the tall trees with the sunlight streaming through the gaps, we got a quick glimpse at a past time of opulence in the early days of the white occupancy of this area. Three family summer cottages were here, and walking among them, you can easily imagine their heyday.

The Tallac site is really something. It’s in a deep forest along the shoreline. It was quiet, the almost full moon rising over the State Line high-rises in the late afternoon, a scene out of an era that, with our relentless need to redevelop, is disappearing. I guess I know I’m old when I realize this. But like Ojo Caliente before it was re-developed, this is one of those places you just don’t see much of anymore. The buildings, all made of wood with high ceilings and interesting ridges and roofs, are definitely of another time. Nobody would build houses like this today. Nobody.

Gardens at the Pope estate in the Tallac Historic Site. (click for larger image.)

The Baldwin estate, now the museum, closed for the season, was smallish, with nice gardens amidst the redwoods. Baldwin ran the casino that used to sit on one part of the park.

Next door, the Pope estate was particularly fascinating, with lots of small buildings behind the main house, which faced the lake, for the servants and help — a blacksmith shop, dairy, school room and tiny apartments for the seamstress, maid, butler and other full-time servants. The grounds included intricate gardens and lakelets and waterfalls. A table seemed to be hewn from one tree, with the branches woven into the cover.

The Popes even had a boathouse for their own boat, with tracks that ran 100 feet out into the lake, so that the boat could be hauled to land without the guests even getting their feet wet. Along the beach was a marooned sailboat, slammed into the sand with a Jolly Roger flag waving at a precarious angle. Wonder what happened there?

Next door to the Pope estate was the best of the lot, Valhalla. The home is the only one in actual use today, set up for weddings and receptions, one of which is going on during our visit. The Valhalla boathouse has been converted into a community playhouse, which, to my mind, is an enlightened way to “redevelop.”

Another view of the Pope estate. (click for larger image.)

We also walked around the area where the resort the Baldwin’s operated once sat. The buildings there didn’t have stone foundations, and today the forest has taken it all back, leaving folks to guess where the buildings stood. The only clue, which took us awhile to find, was a circular lagoon you can see near the front porch of an old photo on display. Another reminder, that like Tikal, given enough time, the natural world will take back what we have built and return to its natural state. That’s a little encouraging.

Hallway between the servants and main house at the Pope estate. (click for larger image.)

After the walk, we returned to Orchid Thai. We wound up in a corner next to a local couple who, according to the guy, had started drinking at 9 am to watch a football game. The woman, a bleached blonde who kept having to hitch up her jeans to keep her butt crack from showing, used to work at Orchid Thai, knew everybody who was working on this night. While we were perusing our menus, she suggested the pumpkin curry, which Billie got and was great. When the guy couldn’t figure out if Singha, the Thai beer, was like Sing Tao, the Chinese beer which he hated. I explained the difference. He interrupted his champagne to order one.

Another group came into our little nook, and one of the women was having a birthday. When they started singing happy birthday, the couple started in singing, and we all wound up doing a rousing chorus. The blonde, who was bombed out of her mind, helped everybody in the booth order, and finally, when they began taking pictures, she dropped onto somebody’s lap while the boyfriend took pictures of the whole kit and caboodle. We left after telling them that we hadn’t had that much entertainment in a restaurant in years.

Next: Truckee, Donner Pass, Chester.

Some smoke from a controlled burn north of South Lake Tahoe from the Tallac site.

October 26, 2011   1 Comment

A Night with Uncle George Na’ope, Kumu Hula

George Na'ope, kumu hula.

George Na'ope, kumu hula: Feb. 25, 1928-Oct. 26, 2009.

I just read the obit in The New York Times of George Na’ope, kumu hula and the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, at his home in Hilo, Hawaii. He spent his life committed to keeping Hawaiian culture and traditions alive. We certainly didn’t know Na’ope, but Billie and I spent a fascinating evening in Kona with him during a 1990 vacation.

From my trip-notes:

We drive up to the ramshackle town of Kapaau on the northernmost part of the Big Island, and stop at the Puukohola Heiau, a holy place for Hawaiians built in 1790-91 by Kamehameha I. We walk up to the ranger station, where we are given a short talk, with a model, on the heiau’s history, including a story about part of it being made later into a fort. The ranger’s name is Paul Andrade, an engaging Hawaiian man, and with no one else to give the talk to, we spend a half hour chatting with him. A poster of what the heiau once looked like keeps catching my eye while I listen to his stories.

Billie asks him about a book on myths that she saw on the shelf and mentions that it says the author was a man who brought back the real hula, and Andrade said that it was, and that the author was a kumu hula, or a master of the hula.  I had recently written a story about Robert Mugge’s excellent documentary film Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture, for the Colorado Daily, which I mentioned to Andrade. When he asked who was in the film, the only name I could remember was George Na’ope.

“George Na’ope was my teacher for sixteen years,” Andrade says.

It is a nice moment, made even nicer when Andrade mentions that George would be performing that night at the Keauhou Hotel in Kona.

He speaks very emotionally about the hula, originally a worship form, and the loss of the original chants and traditions. Like Na’ope, Andrade represents an element of Hawaiian society that wants to retain its heritage, almost destroyed since the missionaries decided to “enlighten” the populace about the Lord and brought with them the diseases that would decimate the native Hawaiians in a short time. When I asked whether real kumu hulas were performed in the hotels today, he says, rather matter-of-factly, “we have to make a living, too.” But, he complained, it would soon be necessary to be bonded to even appear in the better places.

Andrade is eloquent and quite opinionated, and as we walked out on the front porch, he points south to the scrubby brush and volcanic rock, and says that construction would soon begin on a golf course for a nearby resort out of sight near the water. I imagine green, lush fairways, deep white sand traps and palm trees instead of the shrubby no-man’s land there today. “At least I won’t have to look at the resort,” he says somewhat cheerfully.

He also explains about how George Na’ope would berate him when he didn’t live up to his expectations. How once Andrade had appeared at some live performance without a proper instrument or something, and George had showed up and given him holy shitfire for it. Andrade backs off when I asked if he was kumu hula because he didn’t want us to think he was cocky and he felt that too many cheap kumu hulas were around these days.

Later that evening we drive to the Keauhou Hotel and walk into an open-air bar right on the sea where a couple of women are playing instrumental music. A waitress informs us that George won’t start for another hour.

So we drive back down to Kailua for fish and chips and a walk through Kailua, which is deserted tonight, the complete opposite of last night. When we return, George, immediately recognizable from the film, is playing to a crowd that consists of only three or four tables of people in a room large enough to make it conspicuous. At the next table is an elegant, well-dressed Japanese couple, and there are two women at another table behind us. A couple over by the bar are talking, and an older Archie-Bunkerish-looking man is talking to himself down by the stage.

George, who must be less than five feet and 100 pounds, is one of those charismatic performers (Willie Nelson and Ruben Blades are two others that come to mind) that can make you believe that he’s always singing directly to you. His fingers are covered with rings, and I wonder how he can play the gorgeous six-string custom ukulele he’s strumming. There is a guitarist and bassist backing him up.

Soon Archie Bunker is up, talking and harassing the shit out of George, who has obviously seen this hundreds of times, making cracks back at him between songs and grimacing when he interrupts a tune. Although Archie is drunk, it’s obvious he is knowledgeable about Hawaiian music. “George, he’s the best,” Archie is slurring, twirling around in a kind of stupor. “And look, there’s no one in here. Nobody knows.”

I turn away to the bar just as the woman sitting there falls off her chair. Her companion tries to revive her, and the waitresses all run over. Archie tells George that he’s been watching him perform for twenty two years, and he asks George about old singers I’ve never heard of and requests various numbers.

Onstage, George asks us where we’re from, and what we want to hear. I just want to hear whatever he wants to play, I say, and he does a few more songs. The woman is still on the floor, and Archie is moving over to our table, repeating that that George is the best musician in Hawaii and nobody knows it. We try to be tolerant.

Sometimes Archie cries as he sings along with a song George is doing. George says he feels sorry for “the Colorado couple,” but it goes right past Archie, who is explaining to us how he “messes up” a lot. “Am I messing up?” he asks the two women behind us as George struggles through another song. “You want to hear the truth?” one asks back, but Archie is beyond the truth. You don’t know whether to smack the guy up the side of his head or humor him because you feel sorry for him.

He drags George over to our table, and George sits down while Archie tells him again that he is the best singer in Hawaii and look how few people have turned out to see him and isn’t it a shame. Like a 45 single repeating itself over and over.

It turns out that the Japanese couple are hula students of George, and they speak no English. So Archie is trying to tell him that he’ll teach them the language while we talk with George.

George says he considers himself an American first and a Hawaiian second, because, at age 64, he has always lived in the islands under American control. He spends his time recording and transcribing the old hula chants that he even used in his set tonight. He loves studying the history of his people.

All through our trip we have heard stories of the resentment of the Japanese invading the islands, this time with piles of cold cash. But as George explains, there isn’t much Hawaiian music left in Hawaii. All of the real Hawaiian music is now in Japan, and the Japanese are the true audience for real hula today. Most “hula” in Hawaii is done for tourists and bears no resemblance to the original chants and dances.

Later, as if to prove his point, the Japanese man at the table next to us plays along with a chant that George does while his partner, responding to George’s chant, does a hula that is stunning and incredibly sexy in her muumuu.

George smokes tiny cigarettes that fit his hand size perfectly. He says he doesn’t make a lot of money, but he is comfortable enough. He makes one or two trips a year, in three-week spans, playing music in Japan. During those excursions, he doubles his income for the 46 weeks he is in Hawaii, he says.

He says he paid off his Lincoln Continental with the money from his last trip to Japan, and I am left with the image of this tiny man, the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, pulling away from the hotel in a big-ass Lincoln.

George Lanakilakeikiahiali`i Na`ope died Oct. 26, 2009, of lung disease. He was 81.

November 6, 2009   No Comments

On the Trail of Everett Ruess – This Time on Twitter!

Everett Ruess's remains might have been identified, but he's still on Twitter.

Everett Ruess's remains might have been identified, but he's still on Twitter.

So I’m sitting at my computer yesterday and I get an email. It’s from Everett Ruess. He’s on Twitter, and he announces that he’s following me. So I checked his profile, determined he wasn’t a threat or a security risk, and now I’m following him.

Ruess, of course, is the wanderer who disappeared into the Utah badlands in 1934, became a Western environmental icon and whose remains were recently identified and now reside no more than a half mile from my house on the CU campus. Twitter is the popular mobile internet messaging service that allows you to say anything you want as long as it’s less than 140 characters. (Which, if you’re wondering, is exactly the length of that last sentence.)

Wonders never cease. We spend two vacations chasing Ruess around Utah’s hinterlands, and now I’m following him down here on my computer. So far he just quotes (pithily) from his own works, but I’m hoping he’ll start answering some of the many questions left by the discovery of his remains. I won’t hold my breath.

Perhaps this is part of a new social networking trend. Doing some research for “Roots and Branches,” the Americana radio show I host on KGNU, I found that Gene Autry has a MySpace page, where he lives on even though the Singing Cowboy died ten years ago. With the right social networks, you no longer have to die – you can live on in MySpace, Twitter and Facebook. Maybe someone will develop a special app for that.

If you don’t know about Ruess’s disappearance and discovery 75 years later, it is a compelling story. National Geographic Adventure takes far too much credit (one headline reads “After 75 years, National Geographic Adventure solves mystery of lost explorer), which is really stretching it, since the story belongs to a Navajo family who tried to tell people the real story to no avail.

But the magazine’s coverage is excellent, with a short video of the pre-excavation, a photo gallery documenting the site and cache and Dale Roberts’ story about the discovery.

For some journalistic balance, however, The Navajo Times puts the tale of the discovery into its proper context without the Geo hype.

And my own personal feelings about the discovery and its connection to one of my favorite Dave Alvin songs.

Gene Autry is still singing about cowboys and riding Champion on his MySpace page.

Gene Autry is still singing about cowboys and riding Champion on his MySpace page.

May 5, 2009   2 Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments