Saturday, 5 July 2014

Buffalo Bills 3

               ‘Never work for a man who has electricity in his barn. You’ll be up all
                                                                               Anonymous cowboy

The energy to where Robyn and I were headed was all Orwellian nuclear. It wasn’t in Victor, The End of the Trail, home of the Knot Pine Supper Club, and the Big Hole BBQ. It wasn’t in the Snake Range Targhee National Forest, Land of Many Uses. Nor in the Swan Valley, an Idaho Gem Community. Nor was it along the Big Lost River, nor the Four Winds Saloon nor the Big Butte in Butte City. Before Robyn and I found the energy, we would avoid engaging in the twenty-seven prohibited activities, at the rest stop overlooking the Snake River, and pass through endless amber waves of grain and green groundswells of potatoes, combines and dust devils and windmill farms, and the smell of a dead skunk. As we swerved around the dead porcupine, a bird bounced off our windshield. Manage Wildlife.  
“Once I lose my mind completely, I can concentrate on fly-fishing.” I said.
We pulled into Arco up South Front, and took a left onto West Grand. First loan free. Future Home of the Lost River Medical Center. No Fireworks. But there had been, of course. The first clue was a restaurant we passed. Pickles Place- Home of the Atomic Burger. A second arrived with Kaolin, the owner of the Deli Sandwich Shop.
“The #20 all meat combo on a white bun is the local favourite.” She said. Robyn and I ordered an eight-inch submarine, and asked her to cut it in half. Not all the numbers were big in Arco. The 2010 census recorded 417 households, with a median income of $27,993. One of its only physical features was Number Hill, the face of a rocky promontory where every Butte County High School class had painted its graduation year on the face since 1920. Kaylyn had three sons, each at a different Idaho university. She told us some of the history of her town.
“It was the first city in the world to be lit by atomic energy.” She said. “Even if it was for only five minutes.” Originally known as Root Hog, the town had materialized at the crossroads of two stagecoach lines, along the Big Lost River. The civic leaders applied to the U.S. Post Office for the name of ‘Junction,’ but the Postmaster General chose to call it after a German inventor of radio transmission vacuum tubes. Kaylyn didn’t mention the other history, the scary one.
In 1957 the Army began constructing the SL-1, an experimental prototype nuclear reactor designed to produce electric power for remote Arctic stations. It was conceived as a 3MW boiling water reactor that used highly enriched uranium fuel and standard components transportable by air, and requiring a minimum of on-site construction. Simple.
The reactor building was quarter inch steel, almost forty feet wide and fifty feet high. Access was by ordinary doors. The system operated at three hundred pounds per square inch, with a small core assembly of forty fuel assemblies, which gave the central rod an abnormally large reactivity. It was controlled by a sixty-ton crane, with a five-inch steel shield and a nine-inch thick lead glass window to protect the operator.
The SL-1 was shut down on December 21, 1960, to repair a problem with sticking control rods that had plagued the reactor for the previous two months. Its restart occurred on a Tuesday, January 3, 1961. It was cold in the Idaho desert that day, about 27 Celsius degrees below zero.
At 9 pm, three plant workers entered the reactor compartment to reattach the control rods to their drive mechanisms. When Army Specialist John Byrnes, 27 years old, manually lifted the eighty-four pound main central control rod, it became stuck in the extreme cold and, in breaking it loose, he accidentally withdrew it 26.25 inches, 3.25 inches too far. Actually, Byrnes didn’t withdraw it the final 3.25 inches. At 23 inches the exposed rod emitted a huge integrated neutron flux, instantaneously sending the reactor prompt critical. The core fuel rod took only 100 ms to travel the final 3.23 inches.  Fuel material reached explosive vaporization temperature, fuel plates swelled and cladding failed. The core power level peaked at 20,000MW for 4milliseconds, forming the large steam bubble that lifted the surrounding mass of water at 50 meters per second. The resultant pressure wave water hammered into the core head 34 milliseconds later, ejecting the head shielding at 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and propelling the pressure vessel out of its support structure at 160 feet per second. The entire five-ton reactor vessel and the upper control rod drive mechanisms jumped ten feet skyward, to collide with the overhead crane and the ceiling of the reactor building, before settling back into their original positions.
Specialist Byrnes was killed instantly by the steam and water that sprayed him onto the floor. The 26 year-old shift supervisor, Navy Seabee Construction Electrician First Class Richard Legg had been standing on top of the reactor vessel. The withdrawn central control rod impaled him through his groin and exited his shoulder, launching him into the air, and pinning him to the ceiling.
The third man, a 22 year-old trainee named Richard McKinley, was later found alive, but he died en route several miles to nowhere, and was returned to the SL-1 hot zone. The nurse who accompanied him was found to have received a significant radiation dose and years later diagnosed with some disease believed to have resulted from her exposure. Even if the three men had not died of traumatic injuries, their radiation exposure from the nuclear excursion would have still left them with no chance for survival. The body of Specialist Byrnes was left on the floor for another day until a recovery operation could be planned; that of Electrician First Class Legg would dangle from the ceiling for another six days.
The corpses, once removed, were emitting over 400 rad/hr, too hot for a normal burial. All were entombed in lead-lined caskets, sealed with concrete, and placed in metal vaults with a concrete cover. Other remains buried in the Idaho desert may or may not have been human. The radioactive gold 198Au from Byrnes's gold watch buckle and copper 64Cu from a screw in his cigarette lighter later confirmed that SL-1 had indeed gone prompt critical.
It was the world's first (and the only American) fatal reactor accident. The cleanup of at least 35 acres of poisoned scrubland continues to this day.
“Did you know that the reactor would go critical if the central control rod were removed?” A scientific inquiry had asked, after the accident.
“Of course.” Replied the reactor operators. “We often talked about what we would do if we were at a radar station and the Russians came. We’d yank it out.”
The ambulance used in the transport of Richard McKinley was later decontaminated, and driven for several years at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. It’s a Feeding Frenzy.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Buffalo Bills 2

                               'It will feel better when it quits hurting.'
                                                                 Cowboy Proverb

Reemerging into Wyoming, I began to realize that something was terribly wrong. Something was wrong, even before all my money fell into Jackson Hole.
There was little hint of it along the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway south of Yellowstone, although I’m sure he had a hand in it. There was no insinuation of it in the clouds, billowing over the large rock breasts of the Tetons, looming almost fourteen thousand feet above us, although there was some kind of big American thunder battle going on. Some of the rocks in the range were almost three billion years old, but what was wrong was much younger than that. The bighorn sheep-eating Shoshone used to climb to ‘The Enclosure’ on the upper slope just below the peak of Grand Teton, for vision quests, before the fur ran out.
Whatever fur still existed would be ahead of us, in the enclosures in Jackson, along with what was left of the vision. Some of it may have still existed at Jenny Lake, but I couldn’t be sure, because we couldn’t find a place in the parking lot. Or maybe that was why the epiphany occurred, about what was wrong.
Below the thousand pristine acres of Jenny Lake alpine water, were a thousand less-than-pristine acres of parking lot, full of SUVs and RVs and ATVs and other acronyms, and luggage racks and bike racks and ski racks and board racks. The authenticity they had all come to see, was destroyed in their droves.
Tourists still swarm from Wild Bill Hickok’s real gravesite to the modern patch of kitschy Americana downtown Deadwood, or to the town of William Cody, who transformed Hickok’s tragedy into farce. Behind the Ben Cartwrights, the Daniel Boones, the Huckleberry Finns, the Roy Rogers, and all that dirt road manufactured charm and innocence, is an industrial machine.
The American dream is an assemblage of Orwellian infrastructure, artfully concealed behind a Rockwellian romantic human façade, the space within which we render technology invisible to our senses, while retaining its instrumental capacities.
The Rockwellian veil is the new substitute for authenticity, for living in Nature, for facing death with dignity and courage. There is no requirement for truth, or redemption. We live in a manufactured innocence, a studiously maintained aura of the small-town heartland ideal.
The proportions of the Orwellian heartland defy our spatial intuition. Its pace of evolution defies our sense of time. Humans are blissfully unaware of how much steel surrounds them wherever they go. The real America has become a land of cryptic conversations between radio-frequency ID scanners and software and passing railroad cars, serially numbered energy-efficient widgets manipulating infinite data, completing the veil and sealing the last reality leaks. The interfaces have thickened and acquired intelligence in proportion to our desire to convert Orwellian reality into Rockwellian innocence.
Of those still too poor to do all their shopping in Whole Foods, there are still visceral encounters with back-end realities like the factory-farm processed pink slime world of Tyson Fresh Meats and Cargill Foods.
The veil may still be imperfect, but the special effects are improving. The arms race between technological forces pulling us out of Eden, and the camouflaging forces striving to return us to a simulation of it, is entering its endgame. Marketing narratives are becoming more sophisticated, and American pop culture continues to recycle the long-term memory of Rockwell’s sensitivity.
There are also new enemies of affirmation and redemption, the political progressives who seem exist only to deny bourgeois principles of innocence, loyalty, courage, virtue, self-sacrifice, love, faith, community, or achievement of any kind, are ascendent. Their myth of the nonexistent American yesteryear has itself assumed mythic status by now.
However the sentimental Rockwellian myth persists because it is useful and necessary to maintain the industrial equilibrium and momentum.
But those who want a more seamless illusion must pay more. In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, described the birth of this deceit in the pastoralized estates of the rich.
Which is how Robyn and I came into Jackson Hole, the most complete Rockwellian veil vale in America, an artificial heartland Eden so impeccable that only the superrich could afford to live there.
Teton County is the wealthiest in the country. Wyoming has no personal or corporate income tax and relatively low property taxes thanks to mining revenue. Even the artificial hearts are Orwellian. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney had a single one-off special defibrillator manufactured by Medtronic with the Wi-Fi feature deactivated, so no one would be able to kill him online. One late night television host was less kind. What better place for a guy who has had four heart attacks than… thin air, rugged hiking and all-beef dinners? Why don't they get some snow for him to shovel…
Robyn and I drove onto the lined pavement of North Milward Street, beside the stream, to the Inn on the Creek. We were made welcome by English and German and Swiss and Welsh flags and shutters on a Tudor beam and riverstone façade, flowerpots, Lindsay, and two ducks. Five months earlier, I had trouble booking the place. Thank you for your interest in Inn on the Creek. Sorry we are booked for the nights you are interested in. Unfortunately, we do not take a waitlist in case of cancellations. We would like to invite you to stop by the property while your in town to take a tour. A week later I took advantage of a cancellation, and booked a ‘creek-side’ room. Broke is what happens when a cowboy lets his yearnins get ahead of his
We headed down to the Town Square statue of John Colter on a bucking bronco, and the elk-antler U-shaped arches at each corner of George Washington Park. Ski hill topiary topography rose in the background. Rows of Rockwellian shops lined the square, lined with SUVs and their luggage racks and bike racks and ski racks and board racks. Hide Out Leather Apparel, Turpin’s & Co., Pendleton, Alaska Fur Gallery, Wyoming Outfitters, Jackson Mercantile, Rare Gallery, Wyoming Country Outfitters, Belle Cose, al-ti-tude. Robyn posed for a photo, hiding behind a bronze cowboy named ‘Slim,’ and then said she would meet me later. There were illusions of the Old West- a complete Conestoga wagon on a storefront roof, the Saddle Rock Family Saloon complete with cigar store Indian and Uncle Sam, wagon wheels on the outside of the benches on the boardwalk, fractal white Christmas lights, horses and stars and lanterns and pines and stained glass, and mountains and an Indian headdress and fire hose. A bronze Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Becky hovered over a bronze park bench. There was a big bronze moose, a bronze Indian bronze Winnie and Pooh in a hidden corner enclave. Redford and Newman sported Wyoming t-shirts as Butch Cassidy and Sundance in one shop window, near a building mural of a young girl riding a bucking bronco carpet. Davies Reid Rugs Made for the American West. A re-enactment of a gunfight occurred in the late afternoon. There was an undertaker, a hangman, and big-bellied gunfighter. The guns, all Colt Single Action Army issue, were loud. A gun and three of a kind always beats three of a kind.
Gunslingers in the Old West took advantage of the empty chamber by stuffing it with a rolled-up $5 bill. If they came out second best in a duel, they could still pay for a decent burial. A red stagecoach with black horses and yellow-rimmed wagon wheels rolled by. I wandered into a shop selling Mexican onyx rock sheet panels, backlit to show off their orange hearts. In another, was a real triceratops skull, on sale for $458,000.
I told the salesclerk I was looking for something a little more compact, and wandered into the watch place next door. The owner was from Lima, but any innate disposition to negotiate had been thoroughly expunged. I had selected a new tough guy timepiece and asked about a discount.
“It’s only a watch.” He said. “Harrison Ford lives here. He has over three hundred.” I had no reply to that. Even with a whip in one hand and a lightsaber in the other, there was no way I was getting a discount. Besides, I had to check it out with Robyn.
We met in time for our reservation at the Snake River Grill. This would be the most shi shi place on our trip. I had seen people lining up in late afternoon, while I was trying out the triceratops. Under the red and bray and black and white siding, and the logo of an Indian riding a Snake River cutthroat bareback, we entered a world of tinkling glass and clanking cutlery and popping corks and hubbub. Our waitress’s name was Berry, and how could it not have been. Berry had served Harrison Ford, and told us about his three hundred watches. It must be hard to keep a secret in Jackson. The clientele were sporting a few watches themselves. And a good percentage of the precious stones of the planet. An elderly black guy with a turquoise stud earring was seated with a blonde a third his age, at the next table. He never looked at anything but her torso. She never took her eyes off the menu. Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit.
Berry did us proud. I had the buffalo carpaccio with giant Spanish capers and arugula on toast (and a sixty dollar buffalo steak), and Robyn had a grilled shoestring potato-encrusted halibut, as good as anything I've cooked at Kenny's cabin in Barkley Sound. Berry nodded, as she poured out a 2010 Domaine Boissonnet Gigondas.
“You get it.” She said. I looked over at Turquoise. She had ordered Dom Perignon. The emptier the barrel, the louder the noise.
Robyn and I said goodnight to Berry, and retired to the extravagant comfort of our creekside room, back at the Inn. We had lived a day of Rockwellian splendor, blissfully unaware of the Orwellian infrastructure that had made it all possible. But the bridle was about to come off the nightmare.
Trucks. There were trucks. Not just the odd downshifting gearbox or the rattlesnake hiss of an occasional airbrake, but the full cacaphony orchestra of the industrial cathedral, rig after eighteen-wheeler after transport after tractor-trailer after flatbed after pickup. Even the plumbing groaned all night, in protest. There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. But there hadn't been much of either, next morning at breakfast. All the guests were cheerfully discussing their plans for the day, and the owners and staff were cheerfully egging them on. Casey, the owner pouring our fresh-squeezed Rockwell, asked how we slept. He was the astute one. His wife presented me with our Buffalo bill, with the same eye contact that Turquoise's escort had demonstrated in the Grill, the previous evening.
Casey came running after us, on our departure.
“Y’all like Champagne?” He asked. I nodded. He was back in a minute with a bottle of Domaine Carneros.
“Sorry about your sleep.” He said. Nice guy, Casey, although real Champagne would have been better. In the end it appears that Casey lost more sleep than we did.

   ‘It was nice to meet you both and I am sorry about your lack of
    adequate sleep at Inn on the Creek… The noise aspect is variable from
    guest to guest with the vast majority expressing a contented night's
    rest.  As proprietor of Inn on the Creek I attempt to ask every guest:
    how did you sleep? This pertinent question allows me to evaluate the
    responses and make improvements for our guest's experiences at the
    Inn… This summer Jackson is experiencing a major highway
    reconstruction project that effects tourists and locals alike. And to add
    to the bustling nature of Jackson is the revival of the construction
    industry that has been dormant the past four years. Personally I never
    felt that I would welcome back all the noises associated with
    construction…  for your desire to sleep with the window open and the
    use of no fan or a/c I can empathize.  My wife and I live on the slopes
    of Snowking Mountain, one mile from the Inn, with no a/c, prefer the
    windows open for the fresh wonderful mountain air but use a fan to
    quiet the outside nightly activity of hooting owls, screech owls, the
    coyotes howling, our dogs barking at the wandering moose and deer,
    and yes late night traffic noise from the valley below. I like the
    wilderness sounds! So back to the noise issue.  I honestly feel that had
    you nighted at other Jackson lodging establishments along the same
    route with your windows open and no "white reduction noise" efforts
    that you would experienced similar discomforts. Closing windows and
    using a fan definitely reduces outside noise issues. I would say the
    majority of our guests utilize those techniques and succeed in
    securing a restful night.  That being said, I know this offers you no
    appeasement. Can I stop traffic from 10:00 pm to 7:00am?’

No, Casey, you can’t. The Orwellian is inexorable, the Rockwellian fragile, the world noisier, the sign on the Inn that morning prescient. Vacancy.
Before we left Jackson, Robyn wanted to have ‘another look round.’ We stopped into an art gallery of track lighting and Old West memories.

    Woodrow F. Call: There's durn people makin' towns everywhere.
    Gus McCrae: And it's our fault, too.
    Woodrow F. Call: Our fault?
    Gus McCrae: Well, we chased out the Indians, didn't we? Hung all the
                         good bandits. Did it ever occur to you that everything we
                         done was a mistake? You and me done our work too
                         well, Woodrow. Hell, we killed off all the people that
                         made this country interesting to begin with, didn't we?
                                                                        Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Perhaps not all the people. The diva dressed in leather and silver and turquoise behind her desk was interesting. Above her oversized Stetson hung two pink and purple cartoons of cowboys and cowgirls, playing pool and pinball.
“Just looking.” We said, in reply to her inquiry. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back into your pocket. But I did buy the watch and, while I was doing that, and not paying attention, Robyn left and returned, with a short rope, a sweet smile, and a hot brand.
“You have to see this.” She said. Of course I did. She took my hand and led me down the boardwalk, providing a glimpse at how painful this was going to be. We entered another gallery, another dimension. He had half glasses, and half a smile.
“Turpin.” He said. “Ron Turpin.” I was thinking Dick, as in highway robbery.
“You from Vancouver Island?” He asked. I nodded.
“I used to be a guide there.” He said.
“Really.” I said.
“Yep.” He said. “Shot a lot of bears in your back yard.” There seemed to be a lot of that going around. I was wearing my Preserve BC Wildlife t-shirt. But it isn't hunger that drives millions of armed American Males to forests and hills every autumn, as the high incidence of heart failure among the hunters will prove. Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how.
“You must have a disabled brother in Bozeman.” I said. For a flicker of a moment, he looked annoyed. Ron used to take his pleasure in the destruction of the rare and beautiful, but somewhere along the carnage, he was reborn as a sculptor, and a missionary. Ron carried his message to China, but I suspect there was too much noise for his signal.
“I’m a Christian now.” He said. Oh joy. He pulled out the bronze.
Robyn likes frogs. I had to admit that this one was masterfully done. I asked him how much. He told me, like he was lining up on a bear. I offered him less, but I had no negotiating room. Anything I did now would only make me look tighter than the bark on the tree outside in the sidewalk.
“It isn’t worth fussing about unless the bone is showing or you ain’t got no feeling in it.” He said. I bought the frog.
“God bless.” He said, as we were leaving. It was too late for all that. All my buffalo bills went ballistic in Jackson; my money had lasted about as long as a rattler in a cowboy’s boot.
On our way to the exit, Robyn and I went by the Cowboy Bar's tan and blue and tin and neon bucking bronco marquis, to visit the old Wort Hotel. Inside the men's room was blonde cartoon cowgirl cleavage on a wooden rocking horse, with a feather duster for a tail. But the only authenticity in Jackson came in the form of the bronze couple hugging at foot of stairway, wrapped around the bannister at the bottom of the staircase with the big elk head on the fireplace at the top. At first it looked like an embrace of joy, until you looked down, at the broken bronze wagon wheel beside them.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Buffalo Bills 1

          ‘For it is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our
           nation and our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more
           representative of America than is Disneyland.’
                                                     John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Uranium. Steinbeck was wrong. A halo only needs to drop a few inches to become a noose. Yellowstone, the authentic, would become Disneyland. And Disneyland would become America. And America would become a theatre of manufactured experiences, a virtual video game, the myth-making machine of a lost generation, dominant hand out, searching for the signal, missing on the open range.
“We call it a drive-by shooting.” Said Richard, at breakfast next morning, referring to the way the licence plates and telephotos hurtle through the park. Richard was Nancy’s husband, a local fly-fishing guru, holding forth at the head of the breakfast table. Nancy served up omelettes and fresh muffins, and fruit. We had been joined by the Texans, and another couple from Colorado, heading to Mount Rushmore.
“We’ll be there by tonight.” He said. Richard ignored him, and continued his dissertation.
“During the construction of the post office in Gardiner in the 1950’s.” He said, “They found a Clovis obsidian projectile point dating from eleven thousand years ago. Yellowstone arrowheads have been found as far away as the Mississippi, which gives you some idea of the traffic.” I made an observation about the traffic.
“Three million visitors a year.” Richard said. “Two million in July and August and a million the rest of the year.” I sucked in my breath.
“Hell.” He said. “That’s the same number of campers that stay in the seventy-nine Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts each year, if you’d rather sleep near a Borscht Belt imitation of a bear, than the real thing.”
“I think I’d rather sleep near Yogi.” Said the woman from Colorado.
“Hello, Mr. Ranger, sir!” Said her husband. “I loved the cartoons as a kid, and wondered about the location of Jellystone, and pic-a-nic baskets.”
“Disney ruined us more than Hanna-Barbera.” Said Richard, speaking to Robyn and I.
“Your bucolic swim in the Yellowstone last evening has become a Casey Jr. Splash n' Soak Station. America is a Magic Kingdom of Manifest Destiny, the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’  Disney World is laid out like a wheel of fortune, with Cinderella’s Castle at the hub, and spokes out to a Walt Disney World Railroad perimeter of inauthenticities. The first stops are Liberty Square, the Liberty Belle Riverboat, and the shops of Main Street, USA, with an emporium of souvenirs, a confectionary of sugared sweets, and at least three food outlets selling ballpark hot dog and fries, and other fare. Frontierland is a chimera of the Old West, with romanticized versions of cowboys and Indians, rivers, mountains and fauna. Animatronic grizzlies play banjos and washboard bass in the Country Bear Jamboree. ‘Thunder traveling over the Mountains’ Chief Joseph had become the rigor mortis reincarnation of Big Thunder Mountain. Once, when Disney saw a Frontierland cowboy walking through Tomorrowland, he built a series of utilidor tunnels to keep his version of America’s past from intruding on his vision of America’s future. Adventureland represents the mystery of foreign lands, like Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Park Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland, and now the Nintendo video game, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Then there’s Disney's Wilderness Lodge, Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, and Fantasyland’s Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and the Enchanted Forest.”
“And the real authentic future?” Asked Robyn.
“The real future is Disney’s Tomorrowland.” Richard said. “At least that one’s accurate. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster ride.” He turned to the duo from Denver.
“All you’ll see, on your way across Wyoming, is gas well, gas well, big ass oil rig…gas well, gas well, big ass oil rig…”
“A man’s got to have more than that.” I said. “He needs something to believe in. Whatever happened to ‘take only what you need and leave the land as you found it?’”
“You give people a choice between truth and beauty.” Richard said. “They’ll take beauty every time. That’s why they let Disney get rid of the dirt and the bugs and the danger, and the need for redemption.” The guy from Colorado was getting antsy.
“Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let’s go.” He said. “We’re burnin’ daylight.” And we all shook hands, and went our separate ways.
Robyn and I kissed Nancy goodbye. She gave me some home baked ginger cookies, ‘in case the glove compartment’s hungry.’
We headed back south through the Roosevelt Arch. For the benefit and enjoyment of all the people. Robyn and I drove by herds of elk bums in the faint dawn light. The hawk that flew his loop de loop in front of our wagon was a hot damn. And there was more of that further south.
The alpine lakes and pines and waterfall and river would have felt at home in my Northwestern Ontario birthplace, except for the lazy buffalo lying on the warm sulfur caldera crust, the hills and jets and baths and lagoons and horizons of vapour steaming over green and boardwalks and dead sticks and trees, on yellow mud panoramas and brown mud flats and bubbling mud volcanoes, cauldrons of copper and hot ponds of blue opals and white opalescence, streaked banana and avocado jelly moulds, and the deep sapphire nuclear heavy water pool trapped in snow white crystal crunch we photographed our profiles on. Robyn and I were first domesticated in Rotorua, New Zealand and it was almost the same, but for the pines and buffalo. And the tourists.
The largest active geyser on earth, the Steamboat, awaited in Norris Basin. It erupted while we were still high on the hill that would take us there, and we still had to look up. It exploded at the epicentre of the world’s largest supervolcano, the one that was threatening to do it again. The Yellowstone caldera had erupted three times in the last 2.1 millions years. The first was the most violent, ejecting almost six hundred cubic miles of planetary material into the atmosphere. The second, a tenth of that, was still large enough to cause a significant impact on world weather patterns, and cause the extinction of numerous North American species. The last occurred just over half a million years ago, a thousand times more powerful than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, creating a caldera a kilometre deep and 75 by 45 kilometres in area. Since this last supereruption, there have been at least thirty smaller cycles that have filled in the concavity with ash and lava, flattening the bowl into the platelike landscape that Robyn and I were standing on.
There were earthquakes, hundreds of them, at least six with a Richter magnitude of six or more, in historical times. One in 1959 came in at 7.5, killed twenty-eight people, and caused large cracks in the ground, and geysers to erupt. Earthquakes came in ‘swarms,’ 250 over four days in 2008, and as many over two days, in 2010.
The Norris Basin was closed temporarily in 2003, because of increasing water temperatures, new fumeroles, heightened geyser activity, and the discovery of a structural dome of swelling magma six miles underground beneath the surface, a ‘pancake-shaped blob’ of molten rock the size of Los Angeles, pushing toward the earth’s surface. On March 10, 2004, a biologist discovered five dead bison that had inhaled toxic geothermal gases. Two years later geologists reported that the flow of the Mallard Lake and Sour Creek Domes had risen faster in the previous three years, than at any time since records began in 1923. Experts have informed the public that there was no increased risk of a volcanic eruption in the near future.
“So there’s no possibility of another eruption?” Robyn asked.
“Possibility is a big word.” I said. “An age-of-the-universe word. Probability, however, is a word just waiting to bushwhack you. If Yellowstone goes off again, and some people think its not that far away, there will be a layer of ash ten foot deep a thousand miles away. You’ll see lava in the sky, and millions of people will be homeless.”
We continued our drive south, toward the most famous geyser on earth, the one you could set your watch by. There were areas still black from the previous season’s fires.
“These weren’t the worst ones.” I said. “In 1988, a third of the park burnt down. On ‘Black Saturday’, August 20, 1988, they lost more than 150,000 acres, two of the twenty-five thousand firefighters, 120 million dollars, 345 elk, 36 deer, 12 moose, 6 black bears, and 9 buffalo.
“But that’s the way this ecosystem works.” Robyn said. Lodgepole pine cones open only with fire, and their seeds are held in place by a resin which the flames melt and disperse. The Douglas Fir thick bark protects the inner part of tree, and the grasslands had a natural burn cycle of a quarter century. Fire is a part of nature.”
We came across a sign, better suited to a turnpike than a park. Gas… Food…Lodging… Right Lane.
“It seems like an overpass.” Robyn said.
“It is too!” I said, and our wagon pulled off into a spiral, through a series of numbered parking lots that would have been better attached to a automobile plant. There were about that many cars, from all over America. I found the Old Faithful Inn, and the clock on the wall that indicated the time of the next gusher, and Robyn found the shops. The rock fireplace was four stories high, backdropped by lodgepole and beam and centred by an elk skull and two Arts and Crafts lanterns.
The amphitheatre outside, surrounding the geyser launchpad dome was big enough to host the second coming of Christ and, when Old Faithful arrived on cue, there was that much water that it mingled into the white clouds hovering above. Bubble bubble whoosh.
“About as much water as our oil well hit in Texas.” I said, a story better left untold. The one that should be told was coming after us, however. Not long after our visit, Barack Obama shut down the National Park Service for two weeks in a de facto neo-monarchical violation of what even the English recognized as a Charter of the Forest in 1219, two years after King Henry III signed the Magna Carta. The Park Service morphed into the paramilitary wing of the Democratic National Party, and spent more money trying to close down the great outdoors, than they would normally do in keeping them open. Mark Steyn had it right.

   ‘The most extraordinary story is the tour group of foreign seniors
    whose bus was trapped in Yellowstone Park the day the shutdown
    began…  pulled over photographing a herd of bison when an armed
    ranger informed them, with the insouciant ad-hoc unilateral
    lawmaking to which the armed bureaucrat is distressingly prone, that
    taking photographs counts as illegal “recreation.” “Sir, you are
    recreating,” the ranger informed the tour guide. And we can’t
    have that, can we?  ordered back to the Old Faithful Inn, next to the
    geyser of the same name, but forbidden to leave said inn to look at
    said geyser. Armed rangers were posted at the doors, and, just in case
    one of the wily Japanese or Aussies managed to outwit his captors by
    escaping through one of the inn’s air ducts and down to the geyser, a
    fleet of NPS SUVs showed up every hour and a half throughout the
    day, ten minutes before Old Faithful was due to blow, to surround the
    geyser and additionally ensure that any of America’s foreign visitors
    trying to photograph the impressive natural phenomenon from a
    second-floor hotel window would still wind up with a picture full of
    government officials. The following morning the bus made the two-
    and-a-half-hour journey to the park boundary but was prevented from
    using any of the bathrooms en route, including at a private dude
    ranch whose owner was threatened with the loss of his license if he
    allowed any tourist to use the facilities.’

The geyser Nazis had repealed the Charter of the Forest. An English peasant had enjoyed more freedom on the King’s land in the 13th century than a freeborn American did in a public national park in the 21st. The Japanese and Australian tourists that had come to see the authentic ‘land of the free’ missed it. The truth didn’t live here any more.
The metaphors chased us through the southwestern portion of the park. We crossed the Continental Divide three times, the Snake River flowing off to the Pacific on our right, the Yellowstone on our left, streaming to the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico. The signs on the shoulders ordered us to slow down. We saw wildlife from afar, Until we hit them with our car.
There was one more national freak to celebrate, before Robyn and I ejected out the bottom of Yellowstone.
“It was just about here.” I said, stopping at the top of a steep slope. “Shoshone Point. The last stagecoach holdup of the Old West. Forty of them, actually. The man was as sharp as a mashed potato, but even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while.”
In 1876, the year Wild Bill Hickok was assassinated, holding his poker Dead Man’s Hand in Deadwood, a 23 year-old petty criminal left there for Idaho, where he got to reading a story about the James-Younger gang. Edwin Burnham Trafton resolved to become a criminal of no small notoriety, but he remained an inept amateur, and ill-equipped for the task. He always got caught, his prison sentences approached a century, and his only luck came because of his likability, in the form of latent leniency.
In 1889 he was sent to the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise for rustling cattle, returned for robbing a store in Rexburg, and again for stealing more cattle. On one occasion Ed tried to set up another man. He wrote out a suicide note, signed the man's name to it, and headed to the cabin to murder him. But Ed was captured creeping  by the owner, who got to read his own fabricated suicide note. A decade later, Ed concocted what he thought was an absolutely foolproof plan to rob his mother of ten thousand dollars. She had him arrested and sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary. No reporters took any notice, possibly because of Halley’s comet, passing overhead.
In 1910 a U.S. Mail carrier opening came available for ‘a good, honest, trustworthy man,’ in Yellowstone. They hired Ed because he knew the area. When Yellowstone was dedicated as a national park, it meant that any crime committed within its boundaries would be a federal crime, which, one would think, would be some kind of deterrent. When tourists arrived at Yellowstone, they were required to leave their firearms with park rangers. Automobiles were prohibited in the park. Instead, a regular schedule of stagecoaches, drawn by a team of four horses, was established, to carry up to eleven passengers on a four-day tour.
On July 29, 1914, Ed Trafton, still on parole, robbed all 40 stagecoaches of the Yellowstone Stagecoach Company in a morning. When the first stage arrived, Ed ordered the driver to pull it behind a rock outcropping where it would not be visible to the other approaching coaches. Wearing several layers of extra clothes and a black mask, he ordered the passengers to disembark and place their valuables on a blanket he had spread on the ground. Ed told them his ‘partner’ was covering them from a nearby rise, and that he wanted ‘cash only.’ He asked the women to ‘hide their jewelry,’ refused to take one young girl’s money because she was ‘too pretty to rob,’ and returned one elderly lady’s cash because ‘you look like you need it more than I do.’ His hijinks and joking earned him the sobriquet of ‘The Merry Bandit.’ Ed even pulled down his mask for photos, and one victim later made the comment that it was ‘the best 50 bucks I ever spent.’ Ed’s assembly line got away with three thousand dollars from 165 passengers. But no one paid much attention, because of the breakout of World War I.
Less than a year after the robbery, Ed was turned into the local police in Jerome, Idaho, by his wife. It seems that Ed, while constructing an armoured car to use in the planned kidnapping and ransom of the president of the LDS Church, was also having an affair with the neighbour’s wife. No one read about his sentence to five years in Leavenworth, possibly because of the sinking of the Lusitania.
When Ed got out of prison, he went to Hollywood in an attempt to sell his story. In 1924, he died with his boots on, while eating an ice cream cone. They found a note on his body. This will introduce Edwin B. Trafton, better known as Ed Harrington. Mr. Trafton was the man from whom Owen Wister modeled the character of 'The Virginian. Ed also claimed that he rode with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the Wild Bunch, but it is a matter of record that he did build Wister’s cabin, when the author moved to Yellowstone in 1912. The verdict, like most things associated with Ed Trafton, is still awaiting authentication, and redemption.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Wheels of Fortune 8


                         ‘It’s a howling wilderness of three thousand square miles, full of
                           imaginable freaks of fiery nature.’
                                                                                              Rudyard Kipling

Since Kipling described it a century and a half ago, not a lot had changed. We arrived at the entrance late afternoon, through the ‘Coolest Town in America,’ Cooke City, although the thermometric justification for the honorific was not immediately at hand. There was a dead cat that had definitely reached advertised temperature, and a more foreboding sign of counter-contraceptive chic. Love them Both- End Abortion.
Robyn and I rolled through the gateway, into the Lamar Valley, and ‘America’s Best Idea,’ the first national park in the world, and one of the planet’s most massive supervolcano calderas, larger in area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. It boasted 10,000 geothermal features, half of those on earth, 300 geysers, 290 waterfalls of over 15 feet high, one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America, and up to 3,000 earthquakes annually. Yellowstone is the most prodigious remaining nearly intact ecosystem in the Earth's northern temperate zone, the most famous, finest, megafauna location in the Continental United States.
Some of it was immediately in your face. The first buffalo we encountered, all beard and tail and furry penis and horns with shaved hindquarters, walked down the centerline of the road, and up to my wagon door, checking ID. He was massive, and he wasn’t alone. Behind him were sage meadows full of the oldest and largest public herd of bison in the States, free of cattle genes and inhibition and full of brucellosis and piss and vinegar. Yellowstone was the only place in the country where they had lived continuously since prehistoric times, poached down to two dozen animals by 1902, and recovering so well by 1996, that over a thousand were culled. One of one of the great triumphs of American conservation was fogging up my window, before deciding to lose interest.
“Clearly, we were wasting our time at the National Bison Range.” Said Robyn. “They were all vacationing in Yellowstone.” And she was right. All around us in the meadows on the valley floor, inside quaking aspen and white bark perimeters from where the lodgepole pines climbed the slopes, sitting and sleeping and wallowing and heads down eating, were the buffalo of my Old West authenticity.
Black clouds darkened the rolling yellow hills to grey, and turned the sagebrush into a scouring pad. I got peace of mind and elbow room, I love the smell of the sage in bloom.
Yellowstone is mostly subalpine forest, with 1,700 species of native vascular plants, including 7 conifers, 199 exotic plants, 186 lichens, 406 thermophiles. All sixty-seven original fauna species that ever inhabited Yellowstone are still there- 7 ungulates, 2 bears, 322 birds, 16 fish, 6 reptiles, and 4 amphibians. Two species were threatened, the Canada lynx and grizzly bear, and one endangered.
Since 2005, when Mackenzie Valley wolves from Canada were reintroduced, to some unwelcoming howling from local ranchers, the ecosystem has seem some interesting changes. As the elk population of the northern herd began to drop, the beavers, reliant on the same willow, entered a dam building renaissance. The white pines had come back in a flourish, along with the animals that depend on their pine nuts for food. Grizzlies put on five pounds a day, just from the 50% fat they contain. The pine squirrel is as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. But it’s a bird that the tree actually waits for. The Clark’s nutcracker can hold a fifth of its body weigh in pine nuts under its tongue. It deposits ten seeds in every cache it marks with a stone, thirty thousand across a hundred square miles. Even under the snow it will remember where he left seventy per cent of them, which suits the white bark pine just fine because the other third that escape his memory become disseminated new white bark pines. Which suit the elk as well, because now, they’re looking for new forested areas to evade the thirteen new wolf packs looking for them. However, even though there are still in excess of thirty thousand elk in the park, and the southern herd migration continues to be the largest mammalian migration in the US, the fate of the balance between the elk and the wolves and the rest of the ecosystem had become imperilled by several factors. In 1995, Yellowstone was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger ‘from the effects of tourism, infection of wildlife, and issues with invasive species.’ The invasive species is the western pine beetle, the infections are diseases from local domestic livestock and the real wolves are regional realtors and developers.
In 1871, a year before President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Act of Dedication law that created the park, Ferdinand Hayden presented his Geological Survey to Congress, with a warning what would happen, if the bill failed to become law. The vandals waiting to enter wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have requited all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.
From where Robyn and I emerged at Mammoth Hot Springs, in ‘one of the remote places on earth,’ we were at least a single season too late. The ‘most famous, finest, megafauna location in the Continental United States,’ was overrun with the most prolific megafauna top predator, shopping in its stores, filling up its gas tanks, checking into its hotels, and trying to find parking so it could elbow its way through the lines to the embattled visitor information desks inside its concessionaires. In the same month, a year before Robyn and I joined the line for information, almost a million people had come to the park. From the size of the queue, they had forgotten what they were told the first time. When it was our turn, I took pity on the tired-looking elderly woman in the ranger hat behind the counter, and asked her an easy skill-testing question.
“Where’s Mammoth Hot Springs.” I said. It wasn’t a completely foolish query. The place seemed less of a national park than a national proving ground, and everyone there was trying to prove something. I was just looking for the hot springs. She pulled out a map. On one side was the megafauna map, showing the three hundred miles of paved roads accessible from the five different parks entrances, and the locations of gas stations, stores, campgrounds, and the 2,238 hotel rooms and cabins available in the nine hotels and lodges. None of them had a vacancy. On the other side was a simple drawing. She drew an ‘X’ where we were, and another ‘X’ where we could, if we were smart enough, find the hot springs. I thanked her, one of 3,700 dedicated employees of the howling wilderness.
We drove through the suburbs to the most remote of the three parking lots of Mammoth Springs. It made no difference. We emerged from our wagon into a geothermal hajj, swirling through the cauldrons of crusted calcium in a molten multitude. I caught a blast of Hindi off to my right, with a single phrase of well-enunciated English. Dormant hot springs cone. The world had come to visit a planetary hot spot.
The boardwalks led us into glaring calcite snowfields, glaciers of Greek alabaster terraces, talc quarry ponds with protruding lips, like those at Pammukkele or the Tarawera pink and white terraces, now an exploded memory, Himalayan crystalline salt pitcher plant patios of frozen bone waterfalls, in greens and oranges and pinks, all the steam from which ate the clouds above. Dead trees and their petrified skeletal branches protruded through the white ash surrounding Mammoth Mordor marble temples. We walked a ghostly silence by a white and ochre striated slope, a Nez Percés quilted blanket dropped in flight, and another melting vanilla ice cream sundae boiling with chunky caramel sauce and golden brown meringue, a skin disorder plateau of unstable sulfur crust, tidepools of hot brown fimbria and crystalline crustaceans, and a tall rock gnome like a chess piece of an eleven million year old tectonic board game. It was the perfect superheated Superman fortress of anything but solitude.
We followed a couple of head visors and too short shorts, part of whose daily caloric intake may have been pilfered from the tiny dog on the leash. In this megafauna menagerie, it was better to half starve than be eaten. He wouldn’t have lasted a day without them.
“Almost there now.” I said, taking the sharp turn off the highway.
“Is this the secret swimming hole on the Yellowstone River that our Montana Ale Works waiter told us about in Bozeman?” Asked Robyn.
“The very same.” I said. But of course it wasn’t a secret, so close the Mammoth Springs, and so far from Bozeman. Still, it was a celebration, of free hot running water and pools of Boiling River happy. The French trappers had named the river Roche Jaune, from the native Minnetaree name, Mi tsi a-da-zi. Rock Yellow River. But there were other wild west colours, of yellows and greens and grays and chalk and browns and pale blues. We moved occasionally, to adjust our temperature, along the grass and flowers that grew on the midstream islands. Robyn’s smile soldered the rapids to the white rocks to the shore sage to the sloped hillocks to the bare mountains speculated with pines to the setting sun in the sky. We soaked, almost at the end of our day.
Robyn drove us back into Montana, through the Roosevelt Arch, to Gardiner. It was made of wind and flies. Nancy greeted us at the door of her Gardiner Guest House. She had just returned from the market in Bozeman, shopping for next morning’s breakfast.
“Did you really come all that way today?” She asked. We nodded. She shook her head the other way, and showed us where the homemade cookies were. Nancy was originally from Maine, but her ancestors had come from further north.
“Pur Laine.” She said. Pure wool, as the original Quebecois settlers describe themselves. She introduced us to Jeff and Brandy, the Texans across the hall we would share our bathroom with. It was all good. I asked her where a good place to eat might be. I could tell from her answer it wasn’t nearby.
“I like The Raven.” She said, defending it like the first part of the sentence could have been ‘Except for the food…’
“It’s good.” Said Jeff and Brandy. You plant a tater, you get a tater. We went off to The Raven.
“I wouldn’t expect much.” I said to Robyn. “We’re a long way from a Michelin star.” The blowflies came inside with us, gone with the wind. Insect strips hanging from the ceiling had already caught their limit. The waitress was pleasant enough, but she was our second clue. A big bulky bottled blonde with a button nose, and with what could have been her mother’s horn-rimmed glasses, she poured her daily special welcome into our water glasses, as she wiped down the booth.
“Tonight we have a salmon encrusted with pine nuts with a vanilla buerre blanc sauce and pineapple coulis.” She said. “It’s kinda like Indian. And for dessert we have a huckleberry crème brulee.”
I had the bison sirloin, for twenty-eight bucks. You can put your boots in the oven but they won’t come out as biscuits. It came black, an unimaginable freak of fiery nature, with Barbecue sauce.
“It appears that everything including the toothpaste in Montana is drowned in BBQ sauce.” I said. There was white toast with diagonal grill marks, yellow zucchini mush, and something that resembled potato salad. You plant a tater you get a tater. The waitress returned to inquire.
“Is everything alright here?” She asked. Never miss a good chance to shut up.
“We are rough men and used to rough ways.” I said, smiling with mouthful of buffalo gristle.
“Oh good.” She said. I don’t rightly recall if we had dessert, or if we bought a candy bar next door, but on our way to the candy bar, we met Jim Cole and his moustache. Jim was eighty if he was a day, and dressed head to toe in buckskin, looked as hungry as a toothless coyote. He was selling leather, which he had burned into patterns of grizzlies, bighorn sheep, bull elk and bison.
“Looks a whole lot tastier than my dinner was.” I said. He laughed.
“I come with the restaurant.” He said, and told us of his life as the artist-in-residence for nine years at the Old Faithful Inn, and as music teacher for a hundred voice choir in Missoula for a quarter century. I asked him why he chose to live in Montana.
“I was in Hawaii once.” He said. “But I didn’t want to swim.” Jim was retired, and we retired, via the convenience store.
“My friend and me got a hankerin' for Switzerland chocolate and a good smoke.” I said. We had a Snickers.
Late in the night, Robyn asleep, I looked out, through the crab apple trees, into the dusty back street of Gardiner. The wind was up, and the window open just enough. The leather and feather Indian dreamcatcher over the bed, spun slowly, like a wheel of fortune.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Wheels of Fortune 7

It is humbling to realize that Chief Joseph wrote these words, as gently as they appear, after an ordeal that would have made them impossible for any lesser mortal. A man like that, you dedicate your book to.
On June 15, 1877, Joseph took 800 men, women and children, the faithful that had refused to give up their land to white ranchers, for coerced relocation on a captive reservation, and ran to seek new sanctuary. Following the Battle of the Big Hole in Idaho, they fled from the US Calvary, east through Yellowstone, and briefly captured several tourists, before heading north up the Clarks Fork River.
They made a valiant attempt to reach the camp of Sitting Bull in the Grandmother’s country, almost two thousand miles across four states and two mountain ranges, in an epic flight to freedom. Two hundred Nez Percés warriors defeated or held off the pursuing troops, over 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, in 18 engagements, during which more than 100 soldiers and 100 Nez Percés (including women and children) were killed. The Army ROTC Manual still contains a footnote. In 11 weeks Joseph had moved his tribe 1600 miles, engaged 10 separate US commands in 13 battles and skirmishes, and in nearly every instance had either defeated them or fought them to a standstill.
On October 5, 1877, only 30 miles from the Canadian border, the majority of the surviving Nez Percés were finally stopped, after the six-day Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana. In his surrender to General Howard, Chief Joseph sent an extraordinary message through his soldiers, expressing dignity in defeat. It was one of the greatest of American speeches.

   ‘Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in
    my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is
    dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the
    young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead.
    It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to
    death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have
    no blankets. No food; no one knows where they are- perhaps freezing
    to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how
    many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
    Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; My heart is sick and sad. From where
    the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.’

Despite promises made to allow them back on their lands, the Nez Percés tribe was floated on flatboats down the Missouri to bottomlands of malaria and malaise. A quarter of them died over the winter. The survivors were herded into railcars in the heat of the following summer, and transported to the hot plains of ‘Indian Territory,’ where they died more slowly. In September 21, 1904, Thunder traveling over the Mountains was pronounced deceased by an agency physician, who listed the cause of death as a ‘broken heart.’
Just over a hundred years later, an auction house in Reno sold his shirt for almost $900,000. It was made of two deerskins, cut in half behind the front legs. The two back hides were joined at the shoulders to form the front and back of the shirt, and the two front  skins were folded to make the sleeves. The retained forelegs  extended below the open armpits. It was shaped to honour the spirit of the animal.
“That's a pretty special shirt.” Said the auction organizer.
Robyn and I continued on the same Clarks Fork that Chief Joseph had retreated along, down a curve of variegated green hills into a clay valley of winding switchbacks, pines on the inside and hoodoos on the horizon. We were flying under the blue and white puffs through a mountain desert, grey mesas and valley floor invaginations, crevices lined with pines and exploding parasols of yellow flowers. A singular sedimentary strata sombrero strutted a thick rock brim and a sloped rakish ribbon hatband of green forest. Into mist rose a mountain of Commagenean hoodoo gods, Antiochus and Apollo guardians standing vigil over the Beartooth Highway. Nothing lives long Only the earth and the mountains. We skated down past a spindled peak in the shape of a heart rhythm, with a repolarization wave that took us below the clouds into scattered pines, and the Northeast Gate of Yellowstone National Park.

                               ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’
                                                            General Philip Sheridan

Monday, 30 June 2014

Wheels of Fortune 6

   ‘My name is In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder traveling over the
    Mountains). I am chief of the Wal-lam-wat-kin band of Chute-pa-lu or
    Nez Percés (nose-pierced Indians). I was born in eastern Oregon,
    thirty-eight winters ago. My father was chief before me. When a young
    man, he was called Joseph by Mr. Spaulding, a missionary. He died a
    few years ago. There was no stain on his hands of the blood of a white
    man. He left a good name on the earth. He advised me well for my
    people. Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from
    their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as
    they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain;  
    that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth;
    that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or his
    property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the
    Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets; that
    hereafter he will give every man a spirit-home according to his deserts;
    if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a
    bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people
    believe the same…The first white men of your people who came to our
    country were named Lewis and Clarke. They also brought many things
    that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people
    gave them a great feast, as a proof that their hearts were friendly.
    These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs and our
    people made presents to them. We had a great many horses, of which
    we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in
    return. All the Nez Percés made friends with Lewis and Clarke, and
    agreed to let them pass though their country, and never to make war
    on white men. This promise the Nez Percés have never broken. No
    white man can accuse them of bad faith, and speak with a straight
    tongue. It has always been the pride of the Nez Percés that they were
    the friends of the white men. When my father was a young man there
    came to our country a white man (Rev. Mr. Spaulding) who talked
    spirit law. He won the affections of our people because he spoke good  
    things to them. At first he did not say anything about white men
    wanting to settle our lands. Nothing was aid about that until about
    twenty winters ago, when a number of white people came into our
    country and built houses and made farms. At first our people made no
    complaint. They thought there was room enough for all to live in peace,
    and they were learning many things from the white men that seemed to
    be good. But we soon found that the white men were growing rich very
    fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had. My father
    was the first to see through the schemes of the white men, and he
    warned his tribe to be careful about  trading with them. He had suspicion
    of men who seemed anxious to make money.
    I was a boy then, but I remember well my father’s caution.
    He had sharper eyes than the rest of our people. Next there
    came a white officer (Governor Stevens), who invited all the Nez Percés
    to a treaty council. After the council was opened he made known his
    heart. He said there were a great many white people in the country,
    and many more would come; that he wanted the land marked out so
    that the Indians and white men could be separated. If they were to live
    in peace it was necessary, he said, that the Indians should have a
    country set apart for them, and in that country they must stay. My
    father, who represented his band, refused to have anything to do with
    the council, because he wished to be a free man. He claimed that no
    man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did
    not own. Mr. Spaulding took hold of my father’s arm and said, “Come
    and sign the treaty.” My father pushed him away, and said: “Why do
    you ask me to sign away my country? Is it your business to talk to us
    about spirit matters, and not to talk to us about parting with our
    land.” Governor Stevens urged my father to sign his treaty, but he
    refused. “I will not sign your paper,” he said; “you can go where you
    please, so do I; you are not a child, I am no child; I can think for
    myself. No man can think for me. I have no other home than this. I will
    not give it up to any man. My people would have no home. Take away
    your paper. I will not touch it with my hand…” Eight years later (1863)
    was the next treaty council. A chief called Lawyer, because he was a
    great talker, took the lead in this council, and sold nearly all the Nez
    Percés country. My father was not there. He said to me: “When you go
    into council with the white man, always remember your country. Do
    not give it away. The white man will cheat you out of your home. I have
    taken no pay from the United States. I have never sold our land.” In
    this treaty Lawyer acted without authority from our band. He had no
    right to sell the Wallowa (winding water) country. That had always
    belonged to my father’s own people, and the other bands had never
    disputed our right to it. No other Indians ever claimed Wallowa.In order
    to have all the people understand how much land we owned, my father
    planted poles around it and said: “Inside is the home of my people- the
    white man may take the land outside. Inside this boundary all our
    people were born. It circles around the graves of our fathers, and we
    will never give up these graves to any man.” The United States claimed
    they had bought all the Nez Percés country outside of Lapwai
    Reservation, from Lawyer and the other chiefs, but we continued to live
    on this land in peace until eight years ago, when white men began to
    come inside the bounds my father had set. We warned them against
    this great wrong, but they would not leave our land, and some bad
    blood was raised. The white men represented that we were going upon
    the war-path. They reported many things that were false. The United
    States Government again asked for a treaty council. My father had
    become blind and feeble. He could no longer speak for his people. It
    was then that I took my father’s place as chief. In this council I made
    my first speech to white men. I said to the agent who held the council:
    “I did not want to come to this council, but I came hoping that we
    could save blood. The white man has no right to come here and take
    our country. We have never accepted any presents from the
    Government. Neither Lawyer nor any other chief had authority to sell
    this land. It has always belonged to my people. It came unclouded to
    them from our fathers, and we will defend this land as long as a drop
    of Indian blood warms the heart of our men.” The agent said he had
    orders, from the Great White Chief at Washington, for us to go upon
    the Lapwai Reservation, and that if we obeyed he would help us in
    many ways. “You must move to the agency,” he said. I answered him: “I
    will not. I do not need your help; we have plenty, and we are contented
    and happy if the white man will let us alone. The reservation is too
    small for so many people with all their stock. You can keep your
    presents; we can go to your towns and pay for all we need; we have
    plenty of horses and cattle to sell, and we won’t have any help from
    you; we are free now; we can go where we please. Our fathers were
    born here. Here they lived, here they died, here are their graves. We
    will never leave them.” The agent went away, and we had peace for a
    little while. Soon after this my father sent for me. I saw he was dying. I
    took his hand in mine. He said: “My son, my body is returning to my
    mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Chief
    Spirit. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of
    these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that
    your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever
    you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and
    white men will be all around you. They will have their eyes on this
    land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your
    father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” I
    pressed my father’s hand and told him I would protect his grave with
    my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit-land. I buried
    him in that beautiful valley of winding waters, I love that land more
    than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father’s
    grave is worse than a wild animal. For a short time we lived quietly.
    But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains
    around the land of winding waters. They stole a great many horses
    from us, and we could not get them back because we were Indians.
    The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great many of
    our cattle. Some white men branded our young cattle so they could
    claim them. We had no friend who would plead our cause before the
    law councils. It seemed to me that some of the white men in Wallowa
    were doing these things on purpose to get up a war. They knew that
    we were not strong enough to fight them. I labored hard to avoid
    trouble and bloodshed. We gave up some of our country to the white
    men, thinking that then we could have peace. We were mistaken. The
    white man would not let us alone. We could have avenged our wrongs
    many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government had asked us
    to help them against other Indians, we have never refused. When the
    white men were few and we were strong we could have killed them all
    off, but the Nez Percés wished to live in peace. If we have not done so,
    we have not been to blame. I believe that the old treaty has never been
    correctly reported. If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we
    never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed
    that our country had been sold to the Government. Suppose a white
    man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I
    want to buy them.” I say to him, “No, my horse suit me, I will not sell
    them.” Then he goes to my neighbour, and says to him: “Joseph has
    some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.” My
    neighbour answers, “Pay me the money, and I will sell you Josephs’s
    horses.” The white man returns to me, and says, “Joseph, I have
    bought your horses, and you must let me have them.” If we sold our
    lands to the Government, this is the way they were bought…” I only
    ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I
    can not go to my own home, let me have a home in some country
    where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root
    Valley. There my people would be healthy; where they are now they are
    dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.
    When I think of our condition my heart is heavy. I see men of my race
    treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.
    I know that my race must change. We can not hold our own with the white men as
    we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live.
    We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men.
    If the Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If the white man breaks
    the law, punish him also. Let me be a free man- free to travel, free to
    stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own
    teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk
    and act for myself- and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
    Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other,
    then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike- brothers of one
    father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around  
    us, and one government for all. The the Great Spirit Chief who rules
    above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody
    spots made by brothers’ hands from the face of the earth. For this time
    the Indians race are waiting and praying. I hope that no more groans
    of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit
    Chief above, and that all people may be one people.’
                      Chief Joseph, An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,
                                             North American Review, April 1879

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Wheels of Fortune 5

       “Why do you not want schools?” The Commissioner asked.
       “They will teach us to have churches.” Joseph answered.
       “Do you not want churches?”
       “No, we do not want churches.”
       “Why do you not want churches?”
       “They will teach us to quarrel about God.” Joseph said.

It’s a long road that has no bends, but there wasn’t one of those to take us there. Charles Kurault had called it the most beautiful drive in America.
“I’m not sure you’ll be able to get through.” She had said, the Occidental Hotel proprietress with the grey hair, in Buffalo the previous evening. “Shoshone National Park is on fire.” We were already concerned about the Idaho flames of the Beaver Creek Fire blocking our trail to Ketchum, and this was another rocking horse worry, that wouldn’t get us anywhere.
“It may still be closed.” Said Buffalo Bill’s admissions desk giant. “But you can’t hurry up good times by waiting for them.”
And so we were on our way up and out of Cody, along U.S. 120 to the junction of Wyoming 296. The one road away from trouble, is straight and narrow, and this wasn’t it either. We rose into puff white and powder blue, beside a pink orange sandstone layer cake escarpment frosted with white icing, tilted like it had slid off a sage baking pan. The earth turned to reveal the floating purple majesty of the Absaroka Mountain anthem, sloped walls of the green Shoshone National Forest falling towards and across us. There had been fire. In hard times the Shoshone subsisted on the tiny tubers of a small low scabland perennial with white and deep pink and rose flowers. The French trappers called them racème amer, from where we got out own appellation. Bitterroot. The man the highway was named for, had shown Lewis and Clark how to survive on them. The Lemhi Shoshone believed the small red core in the supper taproot had special powers had specials powers to stop an attack. They would be proven wrong.
The layer cake turned into a pillbox and the wilderness melted into meadows as we continued the turn. Robyn stopped to talk to two ancient bikers, an elderly couple with head bandanas and sunglasses, rebalancing the important appendages of their Harleys, her sidecar, his white beard. We drove north, past the open veins of a massive orange Aztec temple massif, immobilized by its grass foundation. Clouds moving overhead cast shadows over the pine profiles of prominences, either breasts or anthills, depending on perspective and passion. The wagon curved up, following switchbacks over summits of ochre crumble, which looked into deep lichen valley on the other side. We pulled over at a metal monument set among the white rock and spindle pines, far above the undulating viridescence below, and the far pavilion peaks beyond.
It was an alloyed couple on two metal horses, a rust and white man riding in front, with his bow and quivered arrows, and a white and rust woman riding behind, with her papoose.
“They’re heading away from where we’re going.” Robyn said.
“We’re looking for.” I said. “They’re running from.”
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, in true American fashion, was one of those national monuments named in regretful respectful retrospect, after a profound and unjustifiable governmental atrocity, which had neutered and neutralized the subject of the memorial, and rendered him historically irrelevant. The Chief of the Nez Percés got 47 more paved miles of commemoration than most of his contemporaries, but he would have preferred the bitterroots of his Wallowa winding water homeland to an asphalt river ribbon to exile.
As usual, the whites got it wrong from the beginning. French Canadian fur traders encountered a tribe of more than 70 permanent winter villages spread over a seventeen million acre area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater river basins, extending from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west. They were the largest tribe on the Columbia Rover Plateau, and covered a considerable part of what is now Washington, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.  with a population of around six thousand. The trappers named them the Nez Percés, the ‘pierced noses,’ mistaking them for the Chinook further down the Columbia basin. The Nez Percés didn’t pierce their noses or wear ornaments. They called themselves Cúpnitpelu, the People Walking Single File Out of the Forest, a reference to the time before they had horses.
The Nez Percés, were migratory and traveled in seasonal rounds, according to where food was most abundant at any given time of year. Their Wheel of Fortune spun them through about 300 temporary camps, as far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo, and as far west as the west coast to fish salmon. The Nez Percés kept horse herds, and gathered camas roots and berries in season.
On September 20, 1805, while crossing the Bitterroot Mountains and low on food, William Clark became the first Euro-American to encounter them. His experience was exceptional. These Indians are anti-belligerent and have some other qualities that are rare and commendable. Not only were they well fed, but Clark entrusted their  horses to Walammottinin, chief Hair Bunched and Tied, who would become the father of Chief Lawyer, the Nez Percé that would preside of the Wheel of Misfortune seventy-two years later. Lewis and Clark recovered their horses upon their return from the Pacific. The many kindnesses extended would soon be forgotten, and the white men that came later would be different. One of them, Jacob Miller, made the observation in 1839.  
“All these Indians seem to bear the impress of a doomed race.”  He said. Their story was the same story as would be told by them all.
The earth is our mother. We cannot sell you our mother. Their story is still best told by the chief the highway was named after.