My Bison-tennial

Posted February 12th, 2010 at 5:33 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m beginning a new regimen today, aimed at increasing the frequency and reducing the length of these blogs. It’s a challenge, since I can really get cranking on these stories from across America. Quite a few foreign students of the English language have praised the extended narratives, colloquial insights, and word definitions as delicious, five-course written “meals” and first-rate language-learning tools. But after weighing feedback from readers and editors over the past year and a half, I’ve come to see that the average, time-crunched Web visitor hasn’t the time or patience to digest an epicurean feast. So, knowing full well that it’s harder to write short than write long, I intend to post thrice weekly. When a subject hollers for greater depth, I’ll break it into a tray of short, tasty courses.. So keep a sharp eye out for new postings! 
My Bison-tennial
The first distant peak is in sight on our odyssey through the Endless West. But before we head into the imposing Rockies, a pause to admire an old and formidable companion to Plains Indians and westbound white settlers.
One that numbered in the millions
More than 60 million brown, shaggy, hump-backed American bison, better known as buffalo, once roamed from what is now Pennsylvania to the Rockies out West. Their name, adopted by what is now New York State’s second-largest city– also way back east– attests to what was once the creature’s enormous, unfettered range.
By 1830, however, the march of white settlement had driven the great herds west of the Mississippi River and cut their number by a third.
For many tribes of nomadic Plains Indians, the buffalo provided meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter and trade, sinew for thread, even dung for fuel. The source of their survival, in short. Before Spanish explorers introduced the horse to the Great Plains, lodge-dwelling Native Americans stalked the buffalo on foot. Disguised in buffalo hides, they snuck up on their prey, often driving the startled beasts over cliffs.
As Ben Red Elk points out in a videotape that I picked up at a trading post in Nebraska, the Indians honored the great bull who led each herd, calling him “Tahtonka” ― father. “Tahtonka would come,” Ben Red Elk told us in one of the captivating stories passed down orally through generations of native people. “But [to make him appear] the vision must be danced and sung. Tahtonka would come, and they danced the vision of the food.”
Once tribes got the horse, or more often, smaller, faster ponies  captured from herds of wild mustangs, the hunt grew easier. Then whites with rifles moved into the plains, slaughtering buffalo and bringing whiskey to trade for hides, which were soon floating by the millions down the Missouri River to St. Louis.
Next came another horse ― the “iron horse,” as Indians called it: scary, smoke-belching trains across the plains. “They brought gentlemen hunters who slew for so-called sport,” Ben Red Elk notes with sadness. “The prairies began to rot with wasted carcasses.”
Sport-shooting from the windows and observation decks of trains provoked Indian skirmishes in the iron horse’s path. But it was a mild outrage compared with what lay ahead. The U.S. Army, committed to protecting pockets of white settlement, migrants heading west, and prospectors seeking their fortune on Indian land, vigorously pursued a devastating strategy: exterminate the bison, and the warring Plains Indians could not survive.
Remember that estimate of 60 million free-roaming buffalo?
By 1890, fewer than five hundred remained throughout the West, mostly in scrubby back country, in zoos and rodeos, and in make-believe, cowboy-and-Indian pageants like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Bison bones scattered across the prairie were gathered to be ground into fertilizer.
The Army proved right. Nomadic tribes could not survive on jackrabbits. Close to starvation and enfeebled by whiskey and the white man’s diseases, Indians were driven onto reservations far from home. Their warrior leaders were killed, chased into Canada, or forced to surrender.
Today, many Americans get their first and only look at buffalo in the wild at Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming. There, amid erupting geysers and stinky mud pots, bison herds run free, right through the brutal winters and head-high snows. 
Come spring and summer, when the tour buses arrive, ignorant or foolhardy visitors sometimes coax these temperamental, horned animals right up to their cars. Park rangers describe clueless parents, seeking the perfect photo souvenir, trying to hoist a child onto the backs of resting buffalo ― even “tame” bears that have learned to beg for treats. 
At Yellowstone and elsewhere on the Plains, you’ll sometimes see a curious, stationery cloud of dust. The dust ― or clods of mud if the ground is wet ― are kicked up by bison, wallowing on their backs and sides in an effort to ease the sting of flies and ticks, or to relieve the itch that comes with the shedding of their winter coats. Deep, unexpected depressions in the earth throughout the prairie began as such wallows.
Several American coins, including the “Indian head nickel” produced from 1913 to 1938 and the new Kansas and North Dakota state-series quarters, depict the buffalo. Indicative of the boundless early range of these creatures, the buffalo also appears on the Manitoba provincial flag in Canada and on the coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

It’s easy to see why one feels “buffaloed” when intimidated or stymied, for a single American bison, snorting and pawing the ground, is a regal and dangerous figure. Why getting “buffaloed” can also mean getting tricked or fooled makes less sense, since the buffalo falls toward the dimwitted end of the animal-intelligence scale. (See running off cliffs, above.)

Carol and I got a close look at American bison south of Manitoba and far to the east of Yellowstone, on the windswept Dakota plains.
In 1958, little Jamestown, North Dakota, looking to lure tourists off the east-west Interstate-94 superhighway, crafted the “world’s largest buffalo” ― a three-story, 60,000-kilogram beast ― out of steel-reinforced concrete. A living adult, male buffalo weighs “just” 900 kilos.
A restored frontier village sprang up there. And then, in the early 1990s, the National Buffalo Museum, dedicated to the massive herbivores whose herds once stretched to the horizon.

At the museum, you’ll see mounted buffalo heads, warm buffalo robes so big that they’re now used for rugs, and, out back, a small herd of live bison. Among them, the biggest attraction: White Cloud, a 13-year-old albino “white buffalo” ― so rare that many Indians consider her sacred.

The museum’s owners also operate a wholesale bread store in town. So, to spice up the animals’ boring diet of grass and hay, the museum’s founder, banker Bob Mountain, told me, about once a week the bison are fed a truckload of bread and rolls. “We drink the coffee while we serve them doughnuts,” Mountain said.

The buffalo is no longer an endangered species. Besides herds that run wild in Yellowstone and other national parks and a few other clusters like the one in Jamestown, more than 300,000 buffalo are raised domestically for their meat, which is leaner and lower in calories and cholesterol than beef. And speaking of beef, only 10,000 or so buffalo are purebreds, thanks to a couple of centuries of inbreeding among roaming bison and cattle.

All in all, the buffalo is back and thriving. Save for those who prosper from casino revenue, however, the same cannot be said for the Indian tribes whose survival was tied to these shaggy stampeders of the Great Plains.

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Odyssey  A long and most eventful journey. The word is taken from the wanderings of Odysseus in Ancient Greece, who took ten years to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War ended.
Unfettered  Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.

The Endless West II

Posted February 8th, 2010 at 3:40 pm (UTC-4)
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Saddle up! We leave Texas in our dust on our trip through the vast American West. Time to head north, across the Red River into Oklahoma.


The West is full of ghost towns, once abuzz with miners, merchants, and even fancy concert halls with gas lamps and red-flocked wallpaper, then abandoned to the elements once the oil or ore played out.

But one boomtown still thrives. Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is one of the most prosperous and sophisticated small towns in the land.

All over Oklahoma, scattered across the sagebrush, one used to see thousands of simple oil rigs called pumpjacks. Driven by “bullwheels” hitched to powerful engines by long thick belts, pumpjacks look like giant praying mantis insects. They bob up and down, up and down, day and night, day after day, sucking oil out of vast pools under the ground.

As long as the oil holds out, that is. Today in these parts, the pool has pretty much dried up, and most pumpjacks sit idle and rusting.

But once, one of the world’s largest oil reservoirs — the Mid-Continent Field, reaching up into Kansas and as far south as Mexico — bubbled directly beneath eastern Oklahoma and the rough-and-tumble town of Bartlesville. Though the region used to be official “Indian Territory” — where the federal government had forcibly resettled whole tribes of native Americans from distant homelands — Indians had paid scant attention to the stinky, foul-tasting, black goo seeping from rock formations and the dry prairie itself. They used some of it in balms but mostly avoided it.

But whites knew all about its other, lucrative uses — for kerosene, petroleum jelly and, by the turn of the 20th Century, the gasoline that powered a transportation revolution. Ever since Edwin Drake drilled the first well back in Pennsylvania in 1859, prospectors were looking everywhere for oil.

In 1904, a former barber named Frank Phillips moved to Bartlesville from Iowa. He founded a bank and had the good fortune to strike oil on his land. Phillips became a millionaire overnight, and he and his brother formed their own oil production company. Phillips Petroleum became the giant, international Phillips 66 oil company that merged with Conoco Inc. in 2002 and moved the company headquarters to Houston, Texas. Still, little Bartlesville thrived and produced an array of fine homes and cultural attractions.

The native tribe thereabouts did well, too. Much of the oil was discovered on Indian land, and whites who wanted to tap it had to negotiate leases from the Osage. It wasn’t long before Osage Indians were the richest tribe in the United States. This was long before casino gambling enriched a number of tribes, including the Osage.

South of town, Frank Phillips bought a big ranch that he called Woolaroc (for its woods, lakes, and rocks). Today it’s a museum, wildlife preserve, and cultural center that tells the story of the Old West. And of the “Mother Road,” the now-romanticized, two-lane U.S. Highway 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles that runs through these parts and from which the oil company got its name.

But Bartlesville is known for more than oil. From the 1920s into the 1960s, the Phillips 66 Company sponsored the most famous semi-professional sports team in American history. The Bartlesville Phillips 66ers basketball team was composed of former college stars who took jobs with the company. They regularly defeated top collegiate teams and other semi-pro teams like the Ambrose Jellymakers, named for a Denver, Colorado, producer of jams and wines. The Phillips 66ers even defeated a U.S. Olympic team that would go on to win a gold medal in London in 1948.

And Bartlesville is home to an odd-looking building designed by America’s most famous architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a 19-story skyscraper, largely made of copper. “Price Tower,” Wright’s only tall building, was built in 1953 for a company that made pipe. The quirky Wright delivered a cantilevered design, inspired by the structure of a tree. Inside, one finds few right angles. Special furniture had to be designed to fit into it.

In Frank Lloyd Wright tradition, the building leaked and was drafty. He was an imaginative architect but a lousy engineer. Nonetheless, the folks in Bartlesville call Price Tower, now an arts center, “innovative” and “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.”

You won’t find many city slickers out on the Woolaroc Ranch, though. Indian exhibits, 30 varieties of native and exotic animals, and a Colt firearms collection are the draw. And a big bullwheel in the oilfield engine house, which the hands fire up for visitors as a noisy testament to the world’s richest oil boomtown.

A Piece of the Prairie

One-third of North America, stretching from what is now Indiana in the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains, and northward from Texas deep into Canada, was once uninterrupted prairie, where Plains Indians hunted free-roaming bison, elk, and antelope. Much of that prairie has since been obliterated by cultivated farms, cattle ranches, and bustling cities and towns.

But two stands of the ever-shrinking tallgrass prairie remain in the state of Kansas.

A “sea of grass,” the first Europeans called the never-ending grasslands. Others called it “Great American Desert,” though its rolling, sandy hills were often lush with flowers and grasses. Seeing few trees, the first visitors thought the region unfit for most cultivation. These days, the tallgrass prairie is the rarest and most fragmented ecosystem in North America.

One piece survives in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, whose limestone and shale eroded into grass-covered hills too rugged to farm. Millions of American bison, called buffalo, roamed freely there, and then ranchers brought their cattle to graze.

In 1996, the nation’s only tallgrass preserve was established when the owners of the 4,000-hectare (9,900-acre) Z Bar-Spring Hill ranch sold their spread to a private organization called the National Park Trust — and deliberately not to the state or federal government. If the feds got hold of it, the ranchers grumbled, they’d want more, adding, “We do not want anyone to tell us what we can or can’t do with our own land.”

So the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve became the nation’s only privately owned national park. Don’t tell the Z Bar boys, but it’s managed by a federal park service ranger!

Tallgrass shoots can reach your waist, depending on rainfall but the individual plants aren’t much to look at. It’s the totality of it all: the wildflowers, arrays of big and little bluestem, switchgrass, or Indiangrass — and the sunrises, sunsets, and summer storm clouds roiling above — that give the place its lonely, majestic character.

Ninety kilometers to the north, on another former cattle ranch, lies a larger remnant of the prairie. This one gets few visitors because it’s operated as a research facility by Kansas State University and the worldwide Nature Conservancy.

This Konza Prairie Biological Station is named for a Kansas Indian tribe. Scientists there study three critical influences on the sweeping prairie: grazing by large ungulates like buffalo and antelope; the effects of the region’s fierce climate (blizzards, droughts, gully-washing thunderstorms); and fire, which the researchers deliberately set from time to time. Controlled burns are useful because nitrogen-rich shoots, tasty to roaming buffalo or cattle, emerge in the aftermath.

I can picture an antelope outrunning, and a meadowlark flying far from, a prairie fire. But a gopher or grasshopper or shrew? I’m told the lucky among these small creatures burrow underground before the flames race overhead. And one species of hawk flies right into the smoke, looking for unfortunate critters that are scurrying for shelter.

Fire, even more than a scarcity of water, is the reason why one sees few trees on the prairie. Grasses and flowers regenerate. Woody plants are toast.

Like parts of the African savannah and South American pampas, the Konza Prairie and Tallgrass National Preserve have never been plowed. And the conservation groups that own them intend to keep it that way.

Middle America, Precisely

Even though a lot of Kansas feels “western” — towns like Dodge City were notorious hangouts for cowpokes and gunslingers and loose women — when you reach Lebanon, Kansas, you’re only halfway to California. Or to Florida; Maine; Washington, D.C.; or Washington State, for that matter.

You are literally in the center of it all: America’s “centroid,” as scientists call it. A milo field right outside tiny Lebanon is the precise center of the U.S. land mass, ignoring separate and far-distant Hawaii and Alaska.

Twenty years ago or so, the milo farmer, Randy Warner, mounted a GPS device onto his truck and drove around his fields, looking for the exact spot where 39 degrees, 15 minutes north latitude crosses 98 degrees, 35 minutes west longitude, as calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS told Warner it had put a brass plate there, but he couldn’t find it.

Aside from occasional geography nuts (e.g. Carol and me) who search out such places, there isn’t much excitement in these parts. In 1999, though, Warner helped crews spread 700 bags of marble dust in his milo field as an “X marks the spot” representation of America’s midpoint for “The X Files” science-fiction movie. About 100 folks from Lebanon helped out. That’s a third of everybody in town.

Indeed, Lebanon could be the model for what some call “dying rural America.” It has steadily lost population, lost its grade school, car dealership, and even the community hall where movies were once shown. The town gave up its annual Lebanon Anniversary parade years ago; not enough people were interested in planning or walking in it. So the pace of life is slow. A typical headline in the local paper, the Lebanon Times — circulation 540 — reads, “Dorothy Fisher Has a Wonderful Birthday.”

Talking with Randy Warner, I got to wondering how geographers pinpointed his field as the precise center of the far-flung United States before global tracking satellites soared overhead. They did not, certainly, do what I would have done: stretch a string tightly across a U.S. map from northwest to southeast, and northeast to southwest, then stick a pin where they crossed. That wouldn’t have made sense, since the nation is anything but a rectangle. Not only do our borders wiggle, but the string from Florida would have to cross a lot of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, a retired USGS field chief told me that in their spare time, six veteran topographers laid a map of the United States onto a thick piece of cardboard. Then they carefully cut along the outline. Finally, gingerly, they kept setting and resetting the cardboard cutout on a thick pin of some sort until it balanced.

That very point, tracked down in Farmer Warner’s field, was declared the midpoint of the country. (Sounds to me more like America’s center of gravity, but what do I know?) Amazingly, computer and satellite studies later confirmed that the spot pinpointed in Lebanon was correct!

So I can’t tell you how many angels can balance on the head of a pin, but I know where your cuticle would point if you could lift up the original United States and balance it on your finger.

Oregon or Bust

What is by many accounts the greatest peacetime migration in world history took place in the expanding United States in the 1840s and ’50s, when there were only three states west of the wide Mississippi River.

From way across country in the Pacific Northwest, both a government-sponsored surveying expedition and trappers working for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company had sent stories back east of lush, green valleys ripe for farming. When the American economy slid into two straight depressions in 1837 and 1841, thousands of families pulled up stakes and headed west to Oregon in covered wagons, bent on finding them.

This delighted the federal government, which was seeking settlers in the Great Northwest to keep it out of British hands.

An estimated 400,000 people made the trek from Missouri to Oregon. Throughout the West, their wagons wore ruts in the earth that are still visible more than 150 years later. The migrants jammed their wagons with tools and food as well as bedding, plows, rifles, and meager family treasures. Their loads often weighed 700 kilos (1500 pounds) or more.

Little did they know that they would have to discard many goods beside the trail in order to lighten the load through sucking mud and up steep mountain paths. They learned how to hitch their livestock, ford rivers, and spread out and rotate positions in line so that fewer of them had to breathe the choking dust kicked up by the horses and oxen that pulled their “prairie schooners,” the bony milk cows that tagged along behind, and the many family members who walked beside their wagons, all the way to Oregon.

The voyagers started in early Spring, when grass was green and plentiful. They pushed hard, six days a week, knowing that they had to reach the Rocky Mountains before the deadly winter snows. Hostile Plains Indians killed some of the migrants, but many more died from cholera carried in contaminated drinking water.

Nebraska rivers like the Platte, wide and shallow, were quite passable until it rained. Then they would rise and rage and sweep away settlers and animals and wagons. When the sojourners reached Scotts Bluff in western Nebraska — still a landmark that the Washington Post newspaper once called “an American Gibraltar above the Great Plains” — excitement abounded, for the travelers knew that the great mountains and a big trading post for restocking their wagons lay just a week ahead in Wyoming.

Nebraska has erected signs marked “Oregon Trail Auto Route,” and many landmarks of the old trail can still be seen. They include Windlass Hill, so steep that settlers had to lock their wagon wheels and almost slide down to next valley.

It is one of many places in Nebraska where neither pavement nor plow has buried the Oregon Trail.

Have you heard the story of the Three Little Pigs? The one in which a big, bad wolf tries to huff and puff and blow down the pigs’ houses? The first two, made of straw and sticks, were child’s play. But the third was made of brick. No matter how hard he blew, the wolf could not topple it. So the story ends happily — for the third little pig.

There have long been lots of such sturdy brick houses back east. But recreating one was nearly impossible on the wild Great Plains, which had rich soil but little clay to make bricks. As in the wolf story, tornadoes and howling winter winds made short work of anything built of sticks or straw. Lumber was out of the question; there weren’t enough trees.

So the prairie newcomers built homes out of the land itself. Ordinary, everyday prairie sod. Or what the locals cheekily referred to as “Nebraska marble.”

These cheap, safe, and warm houses became “soddies” — strong as a brick home and equally fireproof. Here are the specs:

Sod, first of all, is not dirt. Or not all dirt. It’s mostly tufts of coarse grass, clumped into the soil and held together by the grasses’ tight, twisted network of roots.

A homesteader like William Dowse, the man who built a Nebraska sod house that I visited, took his “breaking plow” and sliced long strips of grass and earth into rows about 35 centimeters wide. Then he took a sharp spade and sliced these long rows of grass and earth into slabs a little less than a meter long.

Though they were nothing but earth and grass, these were called “bricks,” so in that sense, pioneer houses were made of bricks! Grass ones, weighing about 45 kilos (99 pounds) apiece.

Settlers stacked the sod bricks atop each other, grass side down — first rows straight, second rows crossways and so on up — to form the walls of the house. Where they wanted a window, they’d put a heavy plank between rows to hold the sod above.

Somehow, somewhere, the builder would find enough trees to cut wood for windows, doors, and a frame for the roof. The last was the tricky and dusty part. The homeowner would lay the last strips of sod across the roof frame. As a result, one of prairie housewives’ biggest complaints was that little clumps of soil would keep falling from the ceiling onto their nicely swept dirt floors. And into the soup! To catch them, the settlers would tack muslin material beneath the joists.

Talk about sturdy. When a tornado ripped across the Dowse property in 1941, it blew a barn, a windmill, a chicken house, and some sheds to bits. But the soddie was unscathed.

Over time, families up and left most these soddies and moved on. By the time others arrived, society had advanced enough that they could write away to the Sears or J.C. Penney company and have a whole new, wooden house shipped, in pieces, to them on the prairie.

Never again would dirt clumps in the soup be a worry.

Last Nebraska Stops

Nebraska contains both Midwest-style cornfields and the dry, dusty canyons of the Old West. And you know you’re in the West when you get to the town of Ogallala and see the sign for Boot Hill.

Back in the 1870s, Ogallala was a boomtown like Bartlesville, but not because of oil. It was a cow town, a raucous marketplace for steers on the long cattle trail up from Texas. From there, the Union Pacific railroad shipped the steers off for slaughter in Kansas City. “Shooting up the town was quite a common sport,” wrote Ogallala pioneer settler Harry Lute, of the alcohol-fueled violence that often ensued among the heavily-armed cowboys, in town after their long cattle drives.

Boot Hill was the crude burial ground of 100 or so people — a remarkable number for a town with a permanent population only slightly higher. Some died of snakebites or typhoid or in childbirth, but most were the unfortunate recipients of western justice at the end of a gun or a rope. Horse thieves, card cheats, and gunslingers too slow on the draw were buried with their boots on. Thus the name.

“No church spire pointed upward here,” wrote cowboy Andy Adams in 1875.

Which is precisely why author Larry McMurtry went to Ogallala to research what became Lonesome Dove, his best-selling novel about the legendary cattle drives. And why a TV network produced a highly rated mini-series about the drive, the drovers, Ogallala, and Boot Hill.

“Nebraska’s Cowboy Capital” has grown into a tame town of 4,400 people, not counting tourists, passing hunters, and visiting boaters. Once a year, thousands of cattle, worth millions of dollars, are still sold at Ogallala’s livestock auction.

But Boot Hill has not grown in more than a century.

Something else in Nebraska that hasn’t grown, either, surprisingly, is an amazing procession of sand hills, up near the South Dakota border, 2,000 kilometers from the nearest ocean. There are more than a hundred of these hills, some 125 meters high and (get this!) 30 kilometers long.

These are far different from beach dunes or the great sand seas of Saudi Arabia or China. Many are covered with hardy grasses and flowers. If spring and summer are particularly rainy, you’d swear you were in the lush, green hills of Ireland.

But it’s a fragile beauty. The soil is so loose that cattle wearing a trail, or off-road vehicles vrrooming, along them can tear open the earth’s skin and cause a “blowout” in which sand re-emerges and overwhelms the vegetation. To keep their porous land from eroding or washing away in a flash flood — and fences and telephone poles from falling over — Nebraska Sand Hills residents have adopted the curious custom of tying old tires together. You see strings of them everywhere, and they’re not exactly a scenic wonder.

The sand was formed less than 10,000 years ago during a period of warming and drying, when wind gathered up grains of rock that had broken off the Rocky Mountains and carried them 640 kilometers (400 miles) east across great flatlands before depositing them in huge piles. Because this sand is too heavy to be carried more than a short distance by the wind, the grains actually bounce along the landscape. Since hardy plants (or tires) hold most of the sand in place these days, you don’t run into many sandstorms. But geologists say it’s only a matter of time before another warming period (sound familiar?) kills off vegetation and loosens the Sand Hills to drift far and wide.

Make no mistake: this is barren country. To this day, even counting all the people from little towns, fewer than 1,000 people live in some of the counties that touch this inland sea of sand.

As one Sand Hiller, as they’re called, told me, “When you’re here, you’re nowhere.”


Flocked  Flock is a small tuft of fiber, and flocked wallpaper containing flock is not flat as a result. It is decorated with colorful patterns of flocking that one can feel.

Homesteader  An American pioneer who had been granted a parcel of land in return for settling the vast expanses of the American West.

Prairie Schooners  Heavy pioneer wagons with arching wooden bows that supported billowing canvas covers that gave the wagons a vague shiplike appearance.

Raucous  Loud and disorderly, and often a bit lewd, as in some of the hootin’ and hollerin’ inside a western saloon when dusty cowhands reached town after a long cattle drive.

Specs  Specifications, as in the blueprints and other particular requirements for an engineering job.

The Endless West

Posted January 21st, 2010 at 11:34 pm (UTC-4)
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Many moons ago, I posted a blog called “Where the West Begins.”  It pointed out that at one time or another, just about every town west of the Mississippi River has claimed to be the jumping-off point for a trip through that immense region of romantic legend.

My choice was Fort Worth, Texas, since, as I wrote then, “Fort Worth emerged from the prairie sod as a classic ‘cow town,’ a cattle-drive stockyards stop on the great Chisholm Trail.  And even today, Fort Worth’s ‘uptown cowboys’ in white and black Stetsons still holler at rodeos and ride mechanical bulls and line dance to the ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’ at clubs like Billy Bob’s” in stark contrast to the sophisticates in Dallas, just to the east.

Throughout West Texas, huge stores sell nothing but hats and boots, belts and western shirts, jeans and even saddles.  In places like Amarillo, the hub city of the panhandle-shaped protrusion of northwest Texas, folks wear their broad black or white hats just about everywhere but church.  The wind’s usually blowing there, and I asked a cowpoke how he kept his big hat on.  “I make sure it’s good and snug and fits ever’ crease of my head,” he replied.

If you draw a straight line from Fort Worth up to Canada and down to the Gulf of Mexico, the West takes up about half of the United States.  That’s about four million square kilometers (3.1 million square miles) of breathtaking rock formations, arid wasteland, snow-covered peaks but also ubane metro areas.

To give you a sense of this enormous and diverse place, I’ll relate a few stories from my travels.  It will take me more than one posting to do so.

Down Mexico Way

Let’s start down around Brownsville, at the very southern tip of Texas, where the United States, Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico converge.  Lots of ordinary people live there, raising spinach, strawberries and such.  But this is also very much the turf of the U.S. Border Patrol, whose agents are on the prowl for illegal border “runners,” contraband, and smuggled humans.  It’s also home to predatory bandits on both sides of the border who pounce upon illegals, stealing what little money they have and sometimes killing them for good measure.

From Brownsville, the U.S.-Mexican border snakes 1,300 kilometers (807 miles) northwestward along the Rio Grande River to El Paso.  Then, with a couple of jags, it mostly straightens and shoots west through the desert, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  In all, that’s a 3,700-km boundary that needs watching.  Despite the talk of a double fence and hi-tech network of security cameras the whole way, only about 19 kilometers’ worth are in place.

In the scrub brush far from border cities, there are no barriers at all.  One can simply walk over the line admittedly into forbidding terrain.

So U.S. and Mexican agents drive rugged off-road vehicles, scouting the border as best they can.  Each month in the Brownsville sector alone, they nab 2,500 or so illegal aliens.  Most are young and looking to cross into the United States for just enough time to earn money at odd jobs or to steal goods to sell for U.S. dollars.

The Border Patrol used to send out lots of roving patrols, rounding up whatever illegals they could find.  More recently, in hopes of discouraging illegals from even trying to cross over, the strategy has been to saturate the boundary in populated areas with agents in stationary positions, illuminated at night by lights so powerful that their posts look like desolate football stadiums.

What happens when people are caught dashing across these no-man’s lands?

Almost nothing, which helps explain why so many young Mexicans and Central Americans try to sneak across, over and over again.  They are taken to a holding cell, where their identities and criminal records are checked.  If they’re not on a wanted list for serious crimes, they are driven to the bridge across the Rio Grande and set free.  They simply walk back over to Mexico.

Others, often older and determined to start a new life in the United States, pay polleros  Spanish for “chicken herders” and also often called “coyotes” exorbitant sums to help them elude patrols and get over the line.  This has led to tragic accidents and mass suffocations in the blistering summer heat involving illegals whom the heartless coyotes wedged into trucks like cattle.  So border agents hunt coyotes with special ferocity.

It’s hard, sometimes deadly, often sad work.  “You have to believe in what you’re doing,” one Border Patrol agent told me.  “Your heart really has to be in it.”

Some Like it Hot

Extreme South Texas could fairly be called Mexican-American.  Ninety percent of the residents of Brownsville, for instance, speak Spanish as their first language.  So it’s not surprising that there are little Mexican restaurants on many a corner as far north as cosmopolitan San Antonio, where spicy “Tex-Mex” food is actually a tourist attraction.

Tex-Mex combines such staples as flour tortillas with hearty Texas-style barbecued meat that’s been broiled over an open flame.  Since Mexico’s many regions offer endless varieties of peppers, there’s an infinite choice of recipes.  Mexicans use a lot of pork, but Texas is beef country, so that’s what you’ll get in most eateries.  Fajitas, made with steak, shredded cheese, and piquant salsa, for instance, are a San Antonio invention.  Two other staples on many a Tex-Mex plate are rice, seasoned with a few tomatoes, onions, or peas; and a gloppy concoction called “refried beans.”  Like tamales stewed meat stuffed in ground cornmeal dough and cradled in dried corn husks these beans are fried in lard and are incredibly fattening.

Little wonder San Antonio routinely ranks in Men’s Fitness magazine’s listing of “America’s Fattest Cities.  In 2009, it placed third, and two other Texas cities Houston and El Paso also made the Top 10.

All sorts of Texas immigrants influenced the tradition as well.  Germans and Czechs inspired the popular habit of serving Tex-Mex tacos and the like with lots of good beer.  There’s even a strain of Tex-Mex music, in which the accordion originally a Northern Europe instrument joins the traditional Mexican trumpets, fiddles, and mariachis.

Décor is one more part of the experience.  A typical Tex-Mex place is festooned with colorful hanging sombreros, serapes, paper flowers, and quite often, Christmas lights all year long.  Somehow, these vivid and lively surroundings, enhanced by a frozen beverage made with tequila, make what one San Antonio chef called “the rich food of the poor” all the tastier.

The Hangin’ Judge

One of the legendary figures of frontier justice was a crusty old frontier judge whom actor Paul Newman played in the 1970s movie “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”  Bean was known as “the law west of the Pecos” a river in Southwest Texas that in the 1880s separated civilization from the truly wild West.  So firm was Judge Bean in his rulings that everybody called him “the hangin’ judge.”  There was even a hanging tree out front of his saloon, which doubled as his courtroom.  The bar, plus Bean’s home in the opera house that he built, and a cactus garden out back, are now part of a Texas welcome center in the tiny town of Langtry, near the Mexican border.

Most of the time, Judge Bean dispensed justice while sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch.  His law library consisted of a single volume of state statutes.  Often as not, according to accounts, he’d have the book upside down and just pretend to read from it.  The illiterate defendants didn’t know the difference.

After his verdict guilty, mostly he would fine most offenders, stick the money in his pocket, and invite everyone, including the defendant, in for drinks on the house.

Even though he was the “law” in West Texas, Bean made a dollar any way he could.  Once, he staged a world heavyweight match that had been banned in Texas.  He moved it to a sandbar in Mexican territory in the middle of the Rio Grande River.

Bean named his bar the “Jersey Lily” and the town “Langtry,” out of fascination with actress and singer Lily Langtry, from Jersey, England.  He never met her, but he saw photographs and read articles about her.  The old bachelor stayed up late into the night, writing Lily letters.

Sometimes she wrote back!

Judge Bean built the opera house in hopes that Lily would one day come visit and sing.  No luck there.

At one time, 1,700 people lived in Langtry.  They were railroad construction workers who soon moved on, leaving Roy Bean as the only permanent resident.

Even though it’s still in the middle of nowhere, the town is growing again.  When I visited a few years ago, 30 people lived there!

Ouch and Double Ouch

Wide-open West Texas spaces aren’t good for much other than drilling for oil and raising cattle.  The latter is more of a sure thing, so Texans raise millions of “cows,” as they call them all.  Something like 40 percent of all the red meat eaten by Americans comes from cattle raised in West Texas.

And just as in the western movies, ranchers still brand their calves to make sure the ownership of each animal is clear.  Afterward, however, they don’t usually get together and sing the way Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers did on the silver screen and TV.

Clint Eastwood played a cowhand in the television show Rawhide that glamorized cowboy life.  But the “rope, throw, and brand ‘em” part of a cowboy’s responsibilities referenced in the show’s theme song is anything but glamorous.  It can be downright unnerving to visitors, since cows, separated from their calves that have been herded into a pen, are bawling mournfully for their young ones the whole time.

The first task is heating the branding iron not in a crackling fire, but using a butane torch.  It’s cleaner and easier, and there’s not much wood to waste on fires in West Texas anyway.  When the iron’s ready, a cowboy opens the gate into a big ring, and a single calf is driven out.

No sooner does it think it’s off for a romp than a skilled roper flicks out his lasso and snares the calf around the neck.  That brings the young animal up short and puts the first glint of terror into its eyes.

Then two other cowboys hustle over and toss the unfortunate calf onto its side on the ground, while a third cowhand ties another rope around three of its hooves.  In a flash, it’s dragged to the cowboy with the branding iron, restrained with more ropes so it can’t kick anyone, and seared with the hot iron.  Not red hot, since that would leave an open sore that would get infected, but hot enough to leave a permanent mark on the calf’s tough hide.

The idea of such a mark is an ancient one.  Egyptians branded oxen on the rump as early as 2000 B.C.  Today in Texas, famous cattle brands are as well known as corporate symbols.  Slaughterhouses carefully check for them, but a clever rustler can alter one.  A “1,” for instance, can easily be made to look like a “7.”  That’s why many brands are deliberately elaborate.

But back to our miserable calf.

In less than a minute, the creature is branded, vaccinated, gets its ears cropped, and, if it’s male, endures castration.  The neutered bull-calves will become gentler “steers,” content to grow fat and tasty.  Calves’ ears are distinctively clipped so the hands can quickly tell the males (right ear notched) from the females (left ear cut).  In large Texas herds some reach 2,000 head each animal also gets a numbered “bangle tag,” similar to a plastic luggage tag, stapled to an ear as an individual ID.

An aside: You may have heard the cowboy song that trills, “Yippy ti yi yo, get along little doggies.  It’s your misfortune and none of my own.”   These doggies, pronounced “DOAG-ees,” aren’t canines.  They’re orphan calves whose mothers died, perhaps while giving birth.

To top off branding day, there’s one more procedure that must seem like a pastureland frolic compared to what the calf has already been through.  It’s a huge injection of vitamins and antibiotics.

About a year and a half from this day, when the calves have grown into fat and sassy adults of 450 kilos (almost 1,000 pounds), just about all of the males, and some of the females, too, will be sides of beef, hanging in a processing plant.  Many heifers female calves who have yet to produce their own calves and a very few unneutered bull-calves will live on as breeding stock for future generations of beef on the hoof.  But these days, most ranchers rent bulls with proven bloodlines for stud.

All in all, branding day is a most unpleasant occasion on a calf’s calendar, and no treat for squeamish visitors.  For ranch hands, though, it’s just another day to rope, throw, and brand ‘em!

Don’t Fence Me In

It has often been written that the Colt pistol tamed the American West.  Others say it was the plow, which turned empty grass prairies into cultivated farms.  Or the railroad, which brought refinement east from San Francisco and west from Chicago.

But a strong argument could be made that it was, instead, an object no bigger than your second toe that truly gave men and women mastery over the rugged western countryside.  It was a sharp metal barb, tied every few centimeters along two twisted strands of wire.

Barbed wire, or “bob wire,” the white settlers called it.  Plains Indians, who had roamed the prairie freely for centuries, called it “the devil’s rope.”

Farmers who had moved west wanted to protect their precious water and keep great herds of cattle and American bison called “buffalo” from trampling their crops.  They wanted fences.  But there was not enough wood in the West to build the quaint rail fences they were used to not enough stones for walls, either.  Stringing plain wire did not work.  Burly beasts easily trampled it and rumbled on.

The settlers found their answer in barbed wire.  An Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden had invented the most successful variety.  A young farmhand would climb Glidden’s windmill with a strand of wire in hand.  He’d slide the sharp, curled barbs down the wire from on high.  Others below would space them and hold them in place with a second piece of twisted wire.

Barbed wire was a big seller.  A man named John Gates sold 12 million kilos of it a year in Texas alone after a simple demonstration.  He herded about a hundred longhorn steers into a corral in the San Antonio plaza and bet everyone that not a one of them would break out.  The crowd whooped, dogs barked, and the steers were scared half to death, but none broke out of the pen.

Ranchers loathed barbed wire.  Their herds had always run free, since steers need endless stretches of the dusty plains to search out vegetation.  During cattle drives to railheads, cowboys simply picked the shortest route never mind whose land they had to cross.

Deadly range wars were fought over barbed wire.  Sometimes fencemen would drive in posts and tack up wire from huge rolls on their wagons, only to have cattlemen follow right behind and tear the fences down.

Barbed wire would first be used in wartime by both sides in the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century, and thousands of men died among barbed-wire entanglements along the trenches of World War I.  Barbed wire was also a haunting symbol of suppression at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

You still see it throughout the American West, doing the same job it did a century ago.  And if you’d be absolutely fascinated by 200 or so varieties of this prickly wire, take a trip sometime to the little Texas Panhandle town of McLean and tour a museum devoted to the devil’s rope and some artifacts of old U.S. highway 66 that runs through the Texas Panhandle.

While you’re there, you’ll also get a good look at historic artifacts of Route 66, the old, two-lane highway from Chicago to Los Angeles that’s been subsumed by modern interstate highways in many places but still runs through McLean.

Little Armored One

Well, we haven’t even gotten out of Texas on this first leg of our western expedition.  I thought I’d close with a personal story that amused me.

One day, Carol and I were driving down one of the forever-long roads that folks in Texas are always building.

“Eeek,” Carol shouted.  “An aardvark!!!”

Of course it wasn’t the little burrowing African animal whose long, sticky tongue snatches termites.  Texas has millions of termites, but likely not a single aardvark in the wild.

What we saw and nearly turned into road kill was another odd-looking animal that ranges from Texas all the way down into South America.

It’s an armadillo.  There may even be a country song about the armadillos of Amarillo.

The locals call them “Texas speed bumps” or “anteaters on the half shell,” referring to the ugly little creatures’ scaly bands that look like a lobster’s belly.  But these are more leathery than brittle.

Ugly?  Check out their rat-like tails.

Even though they’re sturdily plated, few armadillos survive an encounter with an automobile.  While they can scoot pretty fast, they kind of hop when they’re excited – right up into your bumper.

Armadillos are prehistoric creatures, 300 million years old.  In his famous 1980 book on Texas, American author James Michener devoted a whole chapter to them.  Perhaps, too, you’ve seen Charles Russell’s classic Old West painting of Plains Indians on horseback, shooting arrows at fleeing buffalo.  Somebody made T-shirts out of this, but on it, the Indians are shooting at giant, galloping armadillos.

Truth is, armadillos are more fright than flight or fight.  Attacked, an armadillo will curl into a ball, hiding its little pink head and soft belly under its armor.

The reason that I know a bit about these pocket-sized dinosaurs, other than Carol’s alarm at encountering one, is that we ran into a fellow named Jalepeño Sam.

As his name suggests, Sam Lewis makes great chili.  But he also raises armadillos near San Angelo, Texas.  Not as food though I have heard that some Texans toss armadillo meat into their stew but as pets and to race.

Sam showed me an armadillo up close.  I declined his invitation to cuddle one.

These mammals have no teeth, but their long snouts and powerful front claws can quickly burrow into sandy soil to escape predators or paw after food.  “They’ll latch onto a worm with their sticky tongues and suck him out of the hole,” Sam told me, “just like a kid eatin’ spaghetti.”  Armadillos also eat bugs and lizards and little snakes.

Sam races these critters at county fairs, chili cook-offs, and that sort of thing.  He brings his own portable wooden racing pen, about 12 meters long.  Set a couple of armadillos in there at one end, and the first thing they’ll try to do is dig.  They can’t tunnel through the floor, of course, so Sam gets them off and running.


“Well, you get in there with ‘em and blow on ‘em,” he told me.

“You blow on them?” I replied, amazed.

“Yup.  An armadillo doesn’t look like he has hair on him, but he has coarse hair.  You excite the hair on an armadillo, and he’s gone!”

Armadillo races.  Little doggies.  Boot scootin’ boogies.  Jalepeño chili.   Part of the American West, Texas-style.


 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Festooned.  Festoon is a French word for a wreath or garland, and originally to festoon a room was to hang many of these decorations.  The term has since been broadened to describe lavish interior decorating of all sorts.

Railhead.  The end of a railroad line and often the staging area for the shipment of materiel in war zones or livestock in remote areas.  In the American West, cowboys sometimes had to drive cattle thousands of kilometers to reach a place where they could be loaded onto trains heading for eastern slaughterhouses and markets. 

Rustler.  A livestock thief.

Serape.  A long, colorful shawl traditionally worn by Mexican men.
Tequila.  One of several potent Mexican “mescal” liquors made from the fermented juice of the spiky-looking agave plant.  Legend has it that you’ll find a worm in the highest-quality tequilas, but this is a marketing gimmick by certain brands.
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Posted December 29th, 2009 at 8:20 pm (UTC-4)
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For some reason, this is the time of year that I think of Boston, the unofficial capital of America’s northeast New England region. That’s odd in a way, since I’ve never spent the holidays there, and now’s when the gray skies and snow and slush set in for the winter. One memory that I have of Baahston, as the natives call it in their flat New England twang, actually traces to a day in April, when I was astounded to see an awful lot of homes still displaying festive outdoor Christmas lights. I suspect it has something to do with prolonging a little cheer, since snow in April is not unusual at all.

Any time of year, though, Boston oozes history.

If freedom were a concrete thing, something that could be seen and touched, Boston would be the place for the seeing and touching. The Cradle of American Liberty is an endlessly fascinating living-history museum of the 17th and 18th centuries. And it is so much more: a city whose libraries, colleges, medical centers, museums and parks, and architecture compare with the best on the globe.

In my experience, Boston is the nation’s pre-eminent walking city, built to a human scale that, remarkably, has been preserved. So many roads and streets follow the routes of old cow paths — or permit only one-way traffic — that only a longtime Bostonian can decipher where they lead. Locals say that what sometimes seems like their superior Brahmin bearing stems not from their pedigrees or intellectual accomplishments — though the streets are crammed with smart, cultured people — but from the simple fact that they know the shortcuts!

Superhighways skirt the city, save for one that cuts right across renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” of serene parks and greenswards on its way across the Charles River. Approval of that concrete intrusion into the lovely Back Bay neighborhood, and the decision to raze an entire old community of homes in the West End in the name of urban renewal, are seen as so misguided that historic buildings and green spaces are doubly and triply protected today.

None more so than the 16 sites on the Freedom Trail, a self-guided walking tour of 15 Revolutionary War and other colonial sites conveniently marked with red bricks or a red line down the sidewalk. National Park ranger tours cover six of the locations, including Paul Revere’s house, the Boston Massacre site, and Faneuil Hall.

An interlude to explain each of those:

• On the evening of April 18th, 1775, Boston silversmith Paul Revere caught a rowboat ride across the Charles River. In Charlestown, fellow revolutionaries plotting against British rule had seen a pre-arranged lantern signal — “one if by land, two if by sea” in the bell tower of Christ Church across the river in Boston. “The British were coming! The British were coming!” — by sea. Revere borrowed a horse and galloped to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn two other men whom we now call patriots — Samuel Adams and John Hancock — that British forces were on their way to arrest them. This adventure was later made famous in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that begins, “Listen my children, and you shall hear/of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and that millions of other kids and I recited in school.

• The Boston Massacre had ignited the colonists’ revolt five years earlier. A brawl between citizens and British soldiers on a March day after a boy had thrown a snowball at a sentry — I told you winter lasts into Spring in Boston — erupted into gunfire in which five colonists died. The first volleys of the American Revolution had been fired.

• Faneuil Hall, now a sort of tourist jumping-off point, is the town market and meeting hall where the flames of revolution were first ignited.

Visitors are wise to bring sturdy shoes to Boston, as there is yet another fascinating walking path to be trod: the Black Heritage Trail on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. Beginning on a short street where African Americans once occupied all of the houses, it passes Boston’s first interracial school, a house that was a stop on southern slaves’ Underground Railroad to freedom during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Open to visitors is the African Meeting House, the oldest black church in the nation that is still standing. The structure, known early in its history as the “Black Faneuil Hall,” served as a church, school, and nexus of the anti-slavery crusade. Abolitionist orators, including a former escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, declaimed from its pulpit.

Ironically, given Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, the thrall of segregation was once so strong that for the dedication of the African Meeting House in 1854, blacks were forced to sit in the balcony while whites occupied the premium pews below.

The story of Boston as a settled place begins with John Winthrop and his band of about 750 pious Christians called “Puritans,” who sailed in 11 ships from wicked England in 1630, with a charter from King James I in hand, in search of what they called “a city upon a hill.” The charter entitled their “Massachusetts Bay Company,” as it was called, to occupy a sliver of land near the mouth of the Charles River that reached, at least in theory, as far west as land extended.

They had no way of knowing, of course, that the land stretched all across North America to the Pacific Ocean.

Other English religious dissidents called Pilgrims had preceded the Puritans to New England, founding a settlement called Plimouth, south of Boston. Upon landing, Winthrop and his Puritans spread out, forming separate settlements that included Boston, named after a town back in Lincolnshire, England. It was a crude place, built among the marshes in what would one day be called Boston’s North End. So full of swamps and brambles was the neighborhood that Bostonians derisively referred to it as the “Island” of North Boston. Houses were scattered in no apparent order on hillsides and in dales, so that streets — the same streets one struggles to navigate today — wound to and fro in no logical pattern.

The Puritans were a smart bunch. A fellow named Cotton Mather, the son of a pioneer minister, for instance, became an astronomer, botanist, and such an astute student of physics that he would be elected to the British Royal Society clear across the Atlantic.

The Puritans had expected to farm in the New World, but they soon realized that the sea held out their best shot at wealth. By the late 1600s, Boston merchants were sending cod to England, importing manufactured goods, and distilling rum, which they traded for West Indian sugar and slaves. We don’t call entrepreneurship “Yankee ingenuity” for nothing.

(The term “Yankee” has long been around as a sometimes-unflattering name for folks living in the New England states. Specifically, for “Connecticut Yankees,” referring to the state just south of Massachusetts. In 1889, humorist Mark Twain published a novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “I’m a Yankee of Yankees — practical, yes,” the leading character, Hank Morgan, described himself, “and nearly barren of sentiment.”)

Somehow the slave trade was reconciled with the Puritans’ holier-than-thou religious beliefs. Until the colony grew too large to be kept under the church’s thumb, dissent from stern Puritan teachings was not tolerated. Free spirits like Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson, who argued for religious tolerance, were banished, as were Quakers and members of other faiths. Williams founded a whole new colony next door, called “Rhode Island,” even though it’s part of a peninsula.

Those who persisted in questioning the church’s teachings, including a woman named Mary Dyer, were hanged.

But eventually the Puritans caved in. Cotton Mather himself opened holy communion — the sacred ceremonial sharing of bread and wine meant to signify the body and blood of Christ — to Baptists and Lutherans. Methodists and Anglicans built their own churches in the North End, and people of many political leanings moved to town.

Few of these people, though, could be characterized as freewheeling or carefree. Early Boston was a prim and proper place, just as it seems to be today. The people aren’t prickly, exactly, but neither do they appear eager to welcome you. The word “starchy” comes to mind when you meet them. Maybe it’s their lofty education level. After all, there are something like 60 highly rated colleges — including Harvard University, the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning — right in Boston and its suburbs.

While some Bostonians prospered in the “triangle trade” of fish, molasses, finished British goods, and slaves, others suffered and chafed under British rule. When George III imposed several new taxes, including the 1765 Stamp Act levy on legal documents, many in town simply refused to pay. A committee of firebrands who called themselves the “Sons of Liberty” — Paul Revere was one — led street protests and a boycott of British goods. King George lifted the Stamp Act but imposed new tariffs on goods like paper and tea. In 1773, Revere and a few dozen other Sons of Liberty, poorly disguised as Indians, took out their wrath against these taxes by dumping a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.

The “Boston Tea Party” only steeled the Crown’s resolve to assert control. Parliament ordered the harbor closed and installed a military governor, Sir Thomas Gage. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, talk of revolution spread. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, authorized the recruitment of a colonial army.

Paul Revere’s ride and guerrilla-style skirmishes followed. In one, at the North Bridge in nearby Concord, the British tasted blood, the deaths of 70 men, and defeat for the first time. The colonists’ victory there would be immortalized as the “shot heard ’round the world,” signaling the start of a full-blown revolution. In the summer of 1775, colonial commander George Washington — later our independent nation’s first president — arrived in Cambridge across the river from Boston. He plotted strategy while the British laid siege to Boston through the bitter winter. Come spring, Washington directed a skillful bombardment of British ships in Boston Harbor, forcing thousands of Redcoat soldiers and their Tory supporters to flee Boston for good.

From that point forward until independence was achieved seven years later, Boston was spared further fighting. Two centuries later a Bostonian would remark to me over coffee that had the British realized what riches the vast continent would later reveal, they might have fought harder and longer, bringing in whatever reinforcements were necessary to hold onto the rebellious colonies.

Imagine it! We’d be bowing and curtsying to Queen Elizabeth whenever she flies across the “pond” to visit us.

After the Revolution, control of Boston fell to a new aristocratic class of merchants and artisans who built mansions on Beacon Hill and striking new public buildings downtown. Charles Bulfinch, for example, created a magnificent new, gilded-dome Massachusetts statehouse before moving to Washington to work on the U.S. Capitol. The members of this new gentry were soon dubbed, derogatorily, “Brahmins” — like the educated elite of British India — as if they were a snooty, contemptible upper class.

As more colleges sprouted, Boston became America’s undisputed intellectual capital and, at least to some in the North, its conscience as well. It was there that the abolitionist and women’s-rights movements first flowered.

Bluebloods would keep political control of the city until 1884, when Hugh O’Brien, the first in a long line of Irish mayors, took office. Poor Irish Catholics had arrived by the tens of thousands in the mid-1800s. Most lived in slums in South Boston and, if they were lucky, found menial jobs as ditchdiggers on canals and railways. At almost every turn, they were greeted with loathing and violence. Signs reading “ONLY PROTESTANTS NEED APPLY” abounded. Mobs attacked Irish settlements and even burned down a convent, and priests were denied permission to enter the city’s charity hospitals to administer last rites to the dying.

For the Irish, neighborhood politics and service as police and firefighters were the only road out of poverty and into power — and they took it with vigor. Who could forget “The Singing Mayor,” John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who would croon “Sweet Adeline” in barbershop-quartet performances? Or the “Mayor of the Poor,” James “Boss” Curley, Boston’s four-time leader who once ran for city council from his jail cell — and won. He also won a mayoral race while serving as a U.S. congressman, and kept both jobs! Free on bail after a conviction for mail fraud, Curley hurried home on the train from Washington in order to organize his own mayoral victory parade.

A departure from the ward-heeling, cigar-chomping Irish “pol” was millionaire Boston businessman Joseph P. Kennedy. ”Honey Fitz’s” son-in-law, he made some of his millions running illegal whiskey during Prohibition in the 1930s, when sales of booze were, wink-wink, illegal. Kennedy’s second son, John, later to become the nation’s youngest president, was the first of a long line of idealistic but shrewd Kennedy politicians, serving to this day, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946.

As Boston politics evolved, so did its landscape. An estuary known as the “Muddy River,” off Boston’s Back Bay, was an open sewer for 150 years. But it and its surrounding fens (from which Boston’s iconic baseball stadium, Fenway Park, gets its name) changed for the better once landscape architect Olmsted moved his offices from New York to a Boston suburb in 1883. Appointed Boston’s park commissioner, he wasted little time reshaping the city’s topography to solve drainage problems and create “public pleasure gardens.” His resulting “Emerald Necklace” would include three delightful parks, including the pentagonal Boston Common — now America’s oldest public park — on a spot where sheep and cows once drank from a frog pond and British and colonial soldiers both trained.

Indeed, Boston is America’s city of firsts. It was the nation’s first commercial center, first significant port, the seed ground of the Revolution. It was the first center of learning, the first place where immigrants in large numbers debarked.

Why, then, did New York and Philadelphia, and, later, upstart inland cities like Chicago, become megalopolises, and not Boston?

Unfavorable geography in the form of those fens hemmed the city in. Boston’s distance from the heartland discouraged the development of good roads. Though it quickly became the hub of all of New England, and even though it built its airport practically downtown, Boston never had the land to create a giant air hub.

And did I mention the bleak winters?

But the answer also lies in the Boston mindset, its love of things old and tested, and its suspicion of too much change. Boston relishes its role as the trustee of a good portion of America’s colonial heritage, and it approaches modernity with caution. Even visitors take comfort in knowing that they can leave Boston, perhaps for 20 years, and return to find most of the places they love still intact.

Boston remains difficult to reach and tricky to get around in, and the natives seem to prefer it that way. It’s part of Bostonians’ character, almost as if they are saying that it does a person good to feel a little discomfort. Don’t let a little thing like a traffic jam or a blizzard slow you down. Lace up your boots and get on with it. April’s theater, ballet, and festival season will be here soon enough.

There’s an ironic twist, though. At the same time that Boston remains enraptured by its past, it has also been the center of remarkable intellectual innovation, owning in no small measure to those 60 exceptional colleges. Computer and biomedical miracles begin here, and Boston is one of the nation’s three top venture-capital cities.

The vagaries of innovation produced boom-and-bust cycles, however, leading to a gradual loss of population. The 1950 federal census counted more then 800,000 people inside city limits. In 1990, the count was down to 575,000. And it’s within a few hundred people, one way or the other, of that figure right now.

Other reasons for the decline? Winter. Winter. Winter.

Yet Boston has managed to get wealthier as newcomers of means — and graduates of those acclaimed colleges — moved into and refurbished whole neighborhoods.

Boston’s cuisine has never been much to write home about, unless home is somewhere else in New England. Scrod — a fish so mysterious that you’re served cod one time, haddock or some other species the next — is big. So is New England clam chowder, distinguishable from other varieties by its thick broth made with cream.

And then there are Boston’s famous beans. In 1883, Boston’s young baseball franchise, the Red Stockings, changed its name to avoid confusion with a Cincinnati squad of the same name. Boston’s team became the “Beaneaters.” And there are still “Beanpot Classic” sporting tournaments. But one is hard-pressed to find a bowl of dark, slow-baked, steeped-in-molasses beans in Boston any more.

Thanks in no small measure to the “Cheers” television show, which played for 11 top-rated seasons into the 2000s, Beacon Hill, where the real Cheers tavern still draws tourists, is Boston’s best-known neighborhood. Its well-kept buildings and impeccably presented residents — with their faintly British accents, gray and tweed suits, and red-silk ties and ascots — are stereotypical of the Hill’s Brahmin past. Less well known are the warrens of students and young working people on Beacon Hill who can afford the rent and dig the vibrant nightlife on Charles, the Hill’s one commercial street.

Photographers like Carol, searching for a neatly packaged skyline shot of the city, will be frustrated. Boston’s tall buildings — including designer I.M. Pei’s shimmering John Hancock glass-front tower, New England’s tallest building — pop up in widely separated clumps. So shutterbugs often settle for a lovely shot of a few skyscrapers in the distance, behind an inviting armada of sailboats zipping to and fro along the Charles.

Years ago when I briefly lived in Los Angeles on the West Coast, I was struck by how many people yammered on and on about their various avocations — hiking on Big Bear Mountain, skateboarding in Santa Monica, scuba-diving near Catalina Island — rather than their jobs.

Bostonians are a bit like that. Many of them either have a place on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket, or visit friends there as often as they can. Cape Cod is a scorpion-shaped peninsula of Massachusetts, whose ring of dunes and beaches is unmatched in New England. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are islands lying south of Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound. More upscale than the Cape, both are full of heaths, cliffs, biking and hiking trails, saltbox houses, and a precious commodity in this day and age: peace and quiet. Nantucket, in particular, is a town in the midst of the sea, full of cobbled lanes and byways, open moors, and delightful shops that milk visitors’ fascination with the days when the place was a thriving whaling port.

In any season in Boston, the baseball Red Sox and local politics are likely to dominate a conversation over coffee or lunch. Then, to prove that this is indeed America’s walking city, Bostonians are liable to finish their coffee and cranberry muffins on a long stroll through the Common or the Public Garden, as if they were discovering them for the first time.

Not so often in the winter, however.



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!) 

Fen. A swampy bog or marsh. 
Saltbox. A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear. 
Tory. Tories were American colonists who supported the British side during the American Revolution. The name is taken from a British political party that was an opposition party to the Whigs. 
Ward Heeler. A “machine” politician, part of a clique that controls a city or party for its own ends as much as to serve the public. The “heeler” part of the term refers to the legwork that menial party members are ordered to perform around town. 
Yammer. To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.

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Sex Scandal!!

Posted December 9th, 2009 at 6:22 pm (UTC-4)
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Sorry, there is no juicy sex scandal that I know enough about to describe. But in these harried, information-overload times when Americans are gravitating to short, sensationalist stories, partisan rants, and celebrity gossip, I had to get your attention.

Shocking J.Lo News!

Don’t have that, either. Instead, I want to bring you up to date on the sickly state of American journalism, which appears to be in irreversible decline. Above a recent eulogy for the profession by columnist Michael Gerson, the Washington Post called it “Journalism’s slow, sad death.”

Come on, I can do better than that.

“Journalism is Toast!”

“Newsroom Carnage!”

“Readers Dump J.Lism for Infotainment!”

In his mournful dirge for the “Fourth Estate,” Gerson likens Washington’s journalism museum, the Newseum, to a mausoleum housing “the artifacts of a declining industry.” They include the final front pages of newspapers around the country that gave up trying to compete with showbiz mags and blogs; “citizen journalists’” raw footage from disasters and crime scenes; online videos of cute kittens and stumble-down drunks; unreal reality-TV shows; spittle-spewing talk hosts who think President Obama is a native of Kenya; and hosts of the opposite political persuasion who mock the hairspray and spray-on tans of certain Republican congressional leaders.

Gerson even dredged up a phrase that hasn’t seen sunlight since my college textbooks were published half a century ago. The “journalistic tradition of nonpartisan objectivity,” he calls it. Way back when, we debated whether journalists could stifle their inner biases and report “just the facts” of what they saw or uncovered. Nowadays, a whole lot of people who call themselves journalists don’t even try.

If you like your “news” drenched in conservatism, your view of the world from the United States would be filtered through Fox News Channel’s ranter and weeper Glenn Beck, Time magazine’s September 28 cover boy. He despises “tax and spend” Democrats, just about all forms of government, and, apparently, President Obama, whom he calls a “racist.” Or if you’re firmly camped where liberal fires burn, you can’t wait to watch MSNBC host Keith Olbermann toast his Fox competitor, Bill O’Reilly, as his “the Worst Person in the World” every couple of days.

Sometimes Washington’s all-“news” radio station — you’ll soon see why I keep putting the word “news” in quotation marks — breaks in with an urgent-sounding update from CBS — the network that once brought us such straight-arrow journalistic lions as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

When the update “sounder” played the other day, I expected to hear the latest developments from the search for a Washington state gunman who had walked into a diner and executed four local police officers who were completing paperwork over their morning coffee.

Had he been identified? Caught? Shot?

Or perhaps what we once called a “bulletin” would reveal details of President Obama’s troop buildup in Afghanistan.

Nope. CBS was almost breathlessly breaking in to tell us that golf star Tiger Woods did not meet with Florida Highway Patrol officers, despite promises to do so, two days after crashing his luxury automobile into a hydrant and a tree outside his villa.

Oh, the humanity!

Then it was back to the station’s regularly scheduled programming, including “Knuckleheads in the News” (dimwits and drunks who get into predicaments) and 18 minutes or more of commercials every hour.

You see, current wisdom — an oxymoron — holds that information consumers have the attention span of (supply your favorite cliché:) a fruit fly, a gnat, a goldfish, a squirrel, a three-year-old, Paris Hilton.

Gotcha with another celebrity mention!

So my forthcoming list of developments, quotes, and observations about what everyone seems to agree is the moribund world of journalism had better be pretty snappy. That’s a challenge, up against blogs about the mother of octuplets, the season premiere of “The Bad Girls Club” on cable, and that “Hot Celebrity Daddies” Web site.

But stick with me. Toward the end, I’ll reveal seven makeup tricks of the world’s top supermodels!

No I won’t, but if I knew them, I’d figure a way, just to keep the numbers churning, whatever that means.

So here are palatable bites about journalism while it still has a pulse. Regrettably, they do not include secrets of Freemasonry never before revealed! I’m working on that, too.

• The Washington Post, long admired as a newspaper of national scope that carries stories from all over and staffs its own bureaus in big media centers, just announced that it is closing its last three domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. “The fact is we can effectively cover the rest of the country from Washington,” the Post quoted its executive editor, Marcus Brauchli.

Sure it can.

• Just about every day, there’s a story like the one from December 2, when the Gannett Corporation — already tightfisted — announced it was cutting 26 more newsroom jobs at its flagship USA Today newspaper and 11 at USA Weekend. The double whammy of limpid advertising revenue and reduced travel by Americans had already bumped USA Today from its top perch in U.S. newspaper circulation. (The paper counts on a ton of readers at the nation’s motels, many of which pass it out gratis each weekday.)

And a day later, the Washington Times, a feisty, conservative daily with a superb sports section, announced it would soon slash 40 percent — 40 percent — of its workforce and concentrate on politics, national news, and “new-media platforms,” including its online talk show. Acting publisher Jonathan Slavin said the Times would be switching from a paid subscription and newsstand product to a free giveaway, distributed to and near the offices of “Washington policy and opinion makers.” All this, he said, to “keep pace with the dynamic economic changes of the news business.”

Right. Dynamic. Tell that to the dozens of sports, business, circulation, and other staff members soon to join the legions of journalism’s unemployed.

• Several dailies, such as the Detroit News in Michigan and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in West Virginia, have eliminated or drastically downsized their state capital bureaus. Even the Columbus Dispatch has slashed its statehouse coverage, and it’s published a couple of blocks away in Ohio’s capital city!

• And if you think things are dire in the newspaper world, you should hang out in the offices of American news magazines. Once fat with ads and loaded with in-depth reflections on events of the week, they are now no thicker, some weeks, than a pamphlet and have taken to chasing the same infotainment gossip as do the grocery-store tabloids. U.S. News & World Report doesn’t even offer print editions any more, save for monthly rankings of colleges, cars and the like. Newsweek dumped general coverage in favor, mostly, of think pieces by elite commentators.

As for the granddaddy of news mags, it was a 60-page-or-so Time issue a couple of weeks ago to which I was referring with the pamphlet analogy.

Here’s one reason it got that way: when last reported, ad revenue at Time Inc.’s publishing division, which prints stalwarts such as People and Sports Illustrated as well as Time, was down 30 percent compared with the same period last year.

• Talk about dinosaurs! Consider local radio news. Two decades ago, I directed a 24-person radio operation here in Washington — and it wasn’t even an all-news station. Today, in the era of gluttonous ownership conglomeration — one company, Clear Channel, Inc., alone owns 900 U.S. stations, including seven in Washington — today’s typical radio “newsroom,” if you can call it that, often consists of two people at a central “news service,” feeding three or more stations. Or a “morning zoo” co-host, yukking it up about the First Lady’s slacks or some burglar stuck in a chimney.

• Until recently when stories about painful newsroom cutbacks came along, though, there was always a comforting balm: papers and stations could still count on coverage from the Associated Press, the cooperative news agency that kept trained reporters on staff or on call in every decent-sized town. Then, a month or so ago, came word that the AP was cutting 10 percent — 300 journalists — from its workforce.

It, too, had little choice. The Associated Press makes its money from fees collected from client newspapers and stations, which are fast losing the ability to pay them.

• Ad revenue for network and local television is also slowly slip-sliding away — much of it to cable, whose top three “news” channels are enjoying lusty profits and viewership gains. No wonder. As Michael Gerson points out, cable “news” outlets “have forsaken objectivity entirely and produce little actual news, since makeup for [talk-show] guests is cheaper than reporting.”

He also reiterates something that I’ve pounded here many times:

As people’s lives get more frantic and the media pie fragments into thousands of narrow slices, news consumers turn to stations, networks, papers, and Web sites that comport with their political preferences. Some folks are “customizing” Web pages, making sure that everything that hits their eyeballs matches their favorite subjects and political preferences.

That’s like working in an ice-cream shop, where you can pile cones high with your favorite flavors and eat to your stomach’s content. It’s yummy, if not so nutritious.

But ice-cream scoopers soon crave some substance: a crunchy carrot, maybe, or chicken soup. Unfortunately, Americans who read and listen only to what they agree with show no signs of tiring of this fare. As Louis Menand wrote in the November 2 New Yorker magazine’sTalk of the Town,” “The market for news is narrowing down to those who need an ideological fix” in a media spectrum in which “bias is increasingly taken for granted.”

I, on the other hand, have always delighted in picking up the paper and reading the unexpected — carefully vetted and artfully written stories about all sorts of things I didn’t even know were happening — rather than searching out, over and over again, viewpoints that I already share.

And I’m hardly the first to worry that selective media surfing has fed the nation’s growing incivility. As legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes in his newest book on information in a democracy, the Internet “is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another.” Americans are increasingly getting their information, Sunstein notes, “in a customized form, by subscribing to e-mails and RSS feeds on their favorite topics and skipping subjects they find less congenial.”

RSS stands for “really simple syndication,” which in and of itself has a worrisome ring to it.

Michael Jackson! Rihanna! Johnny Depp!

Just perking you up.

• Newspapers were late to the Web party, assigning many talented writers and creative graphic designers to mount online pages so that the papers could “rebrand” themselves in the online world. But when they tried to charge readers for this content, few people paid. All the while, to publishers’ everlasting alarm, advertisers and subscribers deserted newsprint editions in droves.

• Read this, too, traditional journalists, and weep: The person who, three years running, has ranked as young people’s No. 1 source for news is Jon Stewart. He is a comedian with not a whit of journalistic training. Stewart has been a French horn player, a busboy, a bartender, a puppeteer, and a stand-up comic. While his show, on cable’s Comedy Channel, features on-site reports from news hot spots, both the backdrops and the “reporters” are phony, part of the shtick, a few meters away on the same set.

Makes me wonder, to present a parallel, what I’d be doing today if I had learned about the events of my youth from the TV marionette Howdy Doody.

From this point forward, I am indebted to the legwork of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Each March, it publishes an exhaustive “State of the News Media.” This year’s was gloomy enough. Media moguls must be quaking at what lies ahead in next year’s report.

Just some of the grief for the news biz:

• Publishers whose print products are hemorrhaging readers and ad dollars have yet to figure out an online business model that works. Their print-trained reporting and production staffs aren’t hip to embedding attractive video components into their Web sites, which their sales forces don’t know how to sell anyway.

• Already nervous about their own fate — with good reason — journalists are troubled by the careless reporting and loosening of standards in the world of “new media.” Seasoned print and broadcast editors were once proud “gatekeepers” of timely information. While this turned some of them haughty and indifferent to stories of interest to young people and ethnic communities, it comforted readers, viewers, and listeners that somebody, somewhere was asking questions and checking facts.

Now, as one content manager told the Pew Project, news consumers must judge the veracity of reports for themselves, allowing for “all sorts of unfiltered, untrained, and unethical yahoos to donate public comments.”

That is a bit harsh, but, as the Pew Project concluded, “power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions. By “individual journalists,” it refers to not just free-lance writers and expert commentators, but also a stampede of bloggers, photographers, neighbors with cameras and palmcorders — competing for face time with singing hopefuls, reality-show aspirants, and owners of performing pets hoping their acts “go viral” on TV or social media Web sites.

They aren’t all “yahoos,” but neither are most of them trained to impartially collect and present the day’s news.

• Journalistic outlets aren’t swarming over big news events or producing in-depth analyses the way they once did. This is not just a factor of dwindling money and scarce bodies. There’s simply a shortage of time in city rooms where scribes have been given the added task of writing blogs and appearing on television, and in TV newsrooms where reporters have been ordered to carry their own cameras and sound equipment to save the stations bucks.

So what’s to rescue real journalism? You’re asking me, in the midst of a global recession when thousands of publishers and editors can’t stanch the bleeding?

They are still talking about creating new revenue streams by charging for their exclusive Web content. The world’s most famous publisher — and Forbes magazine’s 37th-richest American, Rupert Murdoch — whose News Corp. owns the Wall Street Journal financial paper and the New York Post tabloid, recently called the online search engine Google a “parasite” committing “kleptomania” for giving readers free access to News Corp. papers’ online content.

Google replied that it would come up with a way to tighten its “checkout” feature to allow publishers to charge a few pennies to a few dollars for stories. And on December 2, Google announced that it would cap the number of free news articles accessible to any reader in one day at five.

Another salvation scenario envisions a takeover of traditional news outlets by nonprofit corporations. Various new partnership arrangements, such as the sharing of news footage by local TV competitors, and the alliance of some networks with search engines like Yahoo, are also in place. But even a nonprofit needs advertising revenue to keep the presses rolling, switch on cameras and mikes, and pay the men and women who gather and report the news. Who says a nonprofit or a newly formed partnership will be any better at finding revenue sources than today’s media barons?

I hope there will always be a place for thoroughly reported news and thoughtful analysis, untainted by political cant. But after listening to the “Mike and Mike” radio show on the ESPN sports network this morning, I’m thinking the struggle against the forces of spin, gossip, and cheesy pictures may already be lost.

Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic were discussing the explosion of voyeuristic fascination with Tiger Woods’s early-morning accident, which leering scandal sheets insisted was precipitated by emotional fallout from Woods’s admitted marital “transgressions.”

Greenberg recalled a similar, hang-on-every-word buzz over another megastar, O. J. Simpson, during the long trial in 1995 in which he was charged with killing his wife and her friend. The frenzy would be compounded when a Los Angeles jury acquitted the actor and former pro-football hero. Some people inundated talk shows with complaints that “everything is O.J. this, O.J. that.” What about serious matters such as the war in Bosnia?

“I guarantee you,” Greenberg asserted, that “if there were only two media outlets back then, one covering nothing but O.J. and the other nothing but Bosnia, 99 per cent of the audience would have tuned to the O.J. station. The bottom line is that journalism is a business” that gives people what they want rather than what they need to know.

And so it is to this day — only more so, given the welter of “old” and “new” media outlets alike that are spewing chit-chat, hearsay, and tittle-tattle.

So tell me: Do I need to dig up salacious details about the love child of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for you to read my next post?

[Editor’s Note: Don’t answer that! 



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)
Fourth Estate. The press. Britons of the 17th century referred to three “estates of the realm”: Lords Spirtual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons. Pointing to the press gallery in the House of Commons, the effusive Whig orator Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”

Kleptomania. From the Greek, meaning an impulse to steal. The word is often applied to shoplifters who seem driven to lift items, even without an economic motive.

Oxymoron. Contradictory terms side by side. “Deafening silence,” for instance, makes no sense. How can silence be deafening?

Shtick. A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a “bit.”

Straight-arrow. Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a “straight shooter.”

Tightfisted. Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.

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America’s Main Street

Posted November 20th, 2009 at 11:58 pm (UTC-4)
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In February, with the nation in the throes of a deep recession, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It provided for $787 billion in one-time-only federal “stimulus” payments to states, cities, and private employers to spend on reinforcing bridges, modernizing schools, and the like.

Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty recently announced that his city will spend $30 million of the $123.5 million it received to, as he put it, help make Pennsylvania Avenue a “great street.”

That caught my eye, since I thought Pennsylvania Avenue already was more than a great street — a thoroughfare so majestic that people call it “America’s Main Street.” People the world over certainly know who lives in the big white house in the 1600 block.

But not ALL of Pennsylvania Avenue is grandiose. The part that knifes northwestward beyond the White House, ending abruptly at a downtown cross street, is filled with attractive but undistinguished office buildings, restaurants, and traffic circles. And another extension — eight kilometers [five miles] long — shoots southeastward from the Capitol, across a polluted tributary of the Potomac River and into the heart of Anacostia, Washington’s poorest neighborhood, adjoining the Maryland state line.

This stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is no Main Street. Past clumps of humble houses, cluttered convenience shops, payday-cash-advance stores, and streetcorner churches, the avenue widens into four lanes here and becomes little more than a drab commuter funnel into and out of town.

It is here that Mayor Fenty intends to spend the $30 million on new medians and curbs, improved traffic signals, and “rain gardens” — plantings in depressions along the street designed to absorb storm-water runoff. The project “is strongly focused on reestablishing historic neighborhoods,” Fenty told the Washington Post, “and will create a unifying place where [residents] can come together to shop, visit, play, learn and live without being separated any longer by extreme traffic conditions.”

Whether this will be enough to turn this overlooked stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue into a “great street” remains to be seen.

That’s just about everything I know about Pennsylvania Avenue outside the ceremonial corridor. But over many years in Washington, I’ve learned a lot about the central core, which once was also a grungy, dog-eared piece of road that bore no resemblance to the American Champs-Élysées that it would become.

All nations have a place for common celebration and public sorrow. America’s is a broad, shimmering boulevard that has become symbolic of the American democracy. “The Avenue,” as this 1.6-km [one-mile] corridor is known, has been shaped by a couple of centuries of flooding and hooraying and weeping and any number of facelifts. Here, presidents and bookmakers, northern Yankees off to fight southern rebels and soldiers home from foreign fronts, slaves in chains and women’s suffragists on prairie wagons, racist klansmen and civil-rights leaders have all passed in life — and more than a few in death.

The Avenue has been a hallowed place and a shabby disgrace. It’s been pondered and poked fun at, sketched and reconfigured, torn up and torn down more often, from what I can tell, than any other street in the land. Over the years here, we’ve bought the freshest fish, drunk the cheapest booze, caught the quickest cab, and followed teams of “hill horses” pulling passengers along the Avenue and up 15th Street on the longest streetcar ride in town. We’ve changed presidents on the Avenue, collected great art, tattooed love to Mom and other women, driven sleighs, and built our own Great Wall of enormous, neoclassical federal buildings.

On the Avenue we’ve cheered heroes like aviator Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh and chased villains like John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Listened to the Boss here, too. Not the musical Springsteen, but the charismatic reformer Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the governor when Washington was run solely by Congress as a federal territory in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Even at its tackiest, Pennsylvania Avenue has always been a place to be and be seen, though President Gerald R. Ford once joked that when Richard Nixon resigned and he got the job in 1974, he had to move into “public housing on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

One hot, sleepless summer night in August 1963 at the Willard, the “Hotel of Presidents” on Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street, where the FBI had wiretapped his room, Martin Luther King Jr. put the final touches on his speech to cap off the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The added language began, “I have a dream.” Twenty-five years later, a new city common built at a wide spot of the Avenue was named Freedom Plaza in King’s honor.

Beloved humorist Mark Twain wrote in the Willard, too. So did Julia Ward Howe, who penned the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861 after watching Union troops drill during the U.S. Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant regularly met with federal job seekers in the hotel’s lobby, inspiring a new word, “lobbying,” that has become synonymous with federal supplications and influence-peddling.

First Wife Lady Bird Johnson put in several appearances on the Avenue in the 1960s, contributing flowers for planting and fussing over tulips already in place. At one celebration, she was greeted with huge placards reading, “I like Linden.” A punning play on her husband, Lyndon’s, name, the signs were touting the fragrant new linden trees that Lady Bird had provided.

Three decades later, following the latest in a long line of wholesale makeovers, this central stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue finally achieved the full measure of dignity and charm originally envisioned for it — two centuries earlier (1791). The city’s temperamental planner, Frenchman Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, plotted axials and vistas in the briar patches and alder bushes below Jenkins’ Hill — which would become Capitol Hill after he sited the “Congress House” there. L’Enfant was confident that his design would impart an elegant and fitting symmetry to the new capital city.

L’Enfant drew Pennsylvania Avenue as a straight shot from Jenkins’ Hill northwestward to what he called the “President’s House.” It remained a clear connection until the 1830s when, according to legend, President Andrew Jackson threw a fit at Congress and ordered the Treasury Building — a mammoth rockpile of a structure — plopped just to the east of the White House, blocking the sight line to the Capitol. The true story is that Congress put the Treasury there just to save a few bucks, since the site was already government land.

So much for L’Enfant’s wistful vista. Today instead, we have a sort of National Dogleg in which traffic and pedestrians must detour three blocks to the north up 15th Street before reconnecting with Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.

Let’s start at Treasury and take a virtual stroll down the Avenue, weaving between yesterdays and today as we go. The block numbers that I’ll reference coincide with cross streets. Thus, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest sits at the corner of 11th Street, and so forth.

Before we head off, a brief explanation of that “Northwest” designation: It refers to one of four quadrants into which the nation’s capital was divided when the city was laid out in the late 1700s. Back then it was a whole lot bigger — a diamond-shaped federal district straddling the Potomac River and carved into four sections on a map. For it, the federal government had claimed land from Maryland, including what is now the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood, as well as taking most of Alexandria and Arlington across the river in Virginia. The Virginia piece proved so tangential to the business of national governance that Congress gave it back it in 1846. As a result, the city is left with all of its original Northwest and Northeast territory, and far smaller Southwest and Southeast quarters. The core of the Avenue that we’re about to explore lies entirely in the Northwest quadrant.

In the 1400 block — literally right in the middle of the broad boulevard — lies Pershing Park, a verdant green space in which landscape architects managed to hide a water cascade, a skating rink, and what looks like a historic stone vault but is actually rather new. It holds the rink’s ice-making Zamboni machine.

Across the street stands the massive Department of Commerce Building — noteworthy because it was the first structure completed in the sweeping, Depression-era Federal Triangle project of the 1930s that obliterated blighted, dangerous neighborhoods. How dangerous? One block, just off the Avenue on 7th Street, was known as “Murder Bay”!

From the air, you can see where the Federal Triangle gets its name.  Its parade of behemoth buildings marches up Pennsylvania Avenue, south on 15th Street to Constitution Avenue, then back eastward to the point that it intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue again at 6th Street. This triangle of stone effectively walled off the commercial heart of the city — Pennsylvania Avenue — from the National Mall and wretched Southwest neighborhoods below.

In the 1300 block, there’s another huge interruption. Not a park this time, but the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza. Everything from demonstrations to chili cook-offs assembles there. It’s a wide spot in the road, and it would have been wider had President Nixon had his way. He envisioned a parade ground of Moscow-like proportions that his minions called “National Square.” Critics called it “Nixon’s Red Square,” fought the planned demolition of venerable structures such as the National Press Building, and mocked it as a wasteland so vast that visitors would have to crawl across it, crying “Water, water” in Washington’s broiling summertime. Washington Star columnist Don McLean suggested that the Treasury Building be torn down instead, thus restoring the Avenue’s White House view.

When Nixon left office, the National Square scheme faded away and died.

The 1100 block is dominated by the 1899-vintage Old Post Office Building, a Romanesque hulk that critics called a “cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill.” The Avenue’s “old tooth” and its 96-meter [315-foot] bell tower were marked for demolition to make way for another Federal Triangle building, but it survived when the government ran out of construction funds.

Pausing again on the tour — you can stop and rest your feet for awhile — have I told you the story about Carol, the Old Post Office, and Santa Claus?

When Carol worked in radio sales, she roped a friend who looked like Santa into posing for her professional Christmas card at one or another Washington landmark. This was always weeks or months in advance of the holiday, and one August day she decided it would be neat to plant her bearded pal, in full costume and waving, in a window of the Old Post Office tower.

Up he went as Carol positioned her camera on the street below.

Minute after minute passed with no sign of Santa, when Carol noticed an unusual bustling, heard sirens, and beheld a helicopter circling the tower above. “What’s going on?” she asked a sweaty patrolman.

He replied, “Some nut job in a Santa suit is up there, about to jump out of the tower.”

OK, up and at ‘em. Off we go!

The north side of the Avenue’s 900 block is entirely consumed by the F.B.I. headquarters building, named for the bureau’s long-serving, dictatorial director, J. Edgar Hoover. This colossus, too, drew the enmity of critics. “A monstrosity,” said one. “A monument to Big Ego” — Hoover’s — wrote another. But his elephantine building could not be derailed. Shops originally planned for its streetscapes were nixed by the security-obsessed agency, and the building looms, a bleak and impregnable fortress, to this day. A popular tour of the FBI’s renowned crime lab and “G-man” artifacts — tommy guns and like — disappeared, too, in the skittish days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation.

There’s not much in the 800 and 700 blocks, site of the ornate National Archives Building and the moving U.S. Navy Memorial, left to suggest the days when a teeming marketplace stretched the length of those blocks. Center Market, it was called. It included a long, brick indoor pavilion that brought people into town, via horsecart and streetcar, by the thousands. Across the street to the north was a mercantile row, Market Square, where dry-goods dealers, glassworks, tanners, and even two woolen mills took root. So, too, did some of the city’s first black-owned hotels, shops, and restaurants, including a place called Beverly Snow’s Epicurean Eating House. Wagon trains clogged the Avenue, fistfights abounded, and, wrote historian Richard Lee, “a growing number of embalming establishments appeared near the Market. Stacks of wooden coffins, upended on the sidewalk, announced their presence.”

Running behind Center Market, along what is now the dignified Constitution Avenue, was the foul City Canal, which residents called the “B Street Main.” It was Washington’s open sewer of choice. Market butchers routinely dumped poultry innards, rotted fish, and animal carcasses straight into the canal. A successor to a trickle of a waterway called Tiber Creek, which originated on what is now Capitol Hill and meandered torpidly to the Potomac, the canal was, according to Frederick Gutheim in his Washington study Worthy of the Nation, the source of “agues and bilious fevers causing a high death rate.” Even presidents fled its “smells and malarial mosquitos,” he added. “An indescribable cesspool,” someone else called it.

Those who excavated the area in preparation for the Federal Triangle had to sink pilings well below the vestiges of this creek-turned-sewer, and it’s said that one can still open a trap door beneath, say, the Justice Department Building and find running water.

Promenaders on Pennsylvania Avenue also once saw human commodities — gangs of shackled slaves being led to auction. Guests at Avenue hotels were invited to keep their human chattel chained in the basement while they slept or dined or moved about the city. This was in the early 19th century, when Pennsylvania Avenue also got the city’s first water main, gas lamps, house numbers, streetcars, and smallpox epidemic.

Down a block or two, only a sliver of the esteemed, neoclassical National Gallery of Art — but an entire façade of its modernist East Building — face the Avenue. The Gallery — a gift to the nation from wealthy art patron and former treasury secretary Andrew Mellon — replaced the old headquarters building of the American Colonization Society, which helped freed blacks reach what was trumpeted as an African workers’ paradise in Liberia. Gone, in order to build the East Building, are a long-standing tennis court and 120 climbing rose bushes planted as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification blitz.

The blocks closest to the Capitol, once a cluster of raucous boardinghouses and cheap souvenir shops, have been denuded of structures, save for the Capitol Reflecting Pool, opened in 1971, and a somber Peace Monument, installed in 1877 as an ode to navy dead of the Civil War.

There have been countless other noteworthy events and special places — gone and still to be seen — along what planner L’Enfant called the “Grand Avenue.” A few:

    • So turbulent was springtime flooding that President Thomas Jefferson once joined a crowd trying to save three men swept up in the current and clinging to sycamore branches. Then came ankle-high dust. “The slop on the Avenue dries in an hour,” New York Herald reporter George B. Wallis once wrote in a poem.
    Invisibly drying, but drying so soon,
    The mud before breakfast is dust before noon.
    • In 1873, the Baltimore & Potomac, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built a gingerbread-looking passenger terminal right on the Avenue, next to Center Market. It grew notorious for two reasons: Grimy tracks, sheds, and coal yards ran up to it from the south, right across what were then the Victorian gardens and footpaths of the National Mall. And in 1881, President James Garfield, waiting for a train to take him on a seaside break to New Jersey, would be mortally wounded by a disappointed and deranged office seeker in the B&P station’s waiting room.
    • Just how bedraggled did the Avenue become from time to time? “Pennsylvania Avenue is not the oldest street in the world,” the Washington Post wrote in 1911. “It merely looks so.” The paper noted that “one may sit down at Shoomaker’s [saloon], but one would rather not. Those who are on their feet when the building falls down will have a much greater chance of getting out.” And if the Murder Bay name did not tell enough of a tale, consider that the neighborhood next door was known as “Hooker’s Division,” only partly because Union General Joseph Hooker had marched his troops on the Avenue up the way.

    Pennsylvania Avenue did achieve Pierre L’Enfant’s dream as the nation’s premier promenading route, and not just on presidential Inauguration Days every four years — sooner if a sitting president has died. It was during such a parade in 1961 that John F. Kennedy is said to have looked from his open convertible at the disreputable array of liquor stores, cheap hotels, and X-rated movie houses along the Avenue and barked to an aide, “It’s a disgrace. Fix it.”

    That a public-private corporation, working with federal funds and investor dollars, would do in the years to come.

    Among the Avenue’s parade memories: 1857 — New president James Buchanan as captain, almost literally, of the ship of state, “sailing” toward the White House on a miniature version of “Old Ironsides” — the frigate U.S.S. Constitution. 1861 — In the first of four funeral corteges for assassinated presidents, weeping crowds watching the casket of Abraham Lincoln being borne toward Union Station for its mournful ride to Lincoln’s home in Illinois. 1905 — American Indian chiefs, marching with incoming president Theodore Roosevelt and the “Roughriders” with whom he had served in the Spanish-American War. 1919 — Workers constructing a temporary Arc de Triomphe across the Avenue for the gala return of our World War I hero, General “Black Jack” Pershing, and his men. 1926 — In robes and pointy wizard hats, an estimated 30,000 brothers of the Ku Klux Klan, the merchants of racial hate, marching past police lines and gaping crowds. 1966 — In a procession of quite a different color, the Poor People’s March, which had begun far away in Mississippi, passing in humble review. Two years later, some of its walkers, mule-wagon riders, and others would build a shanty town called Resurrection City in a far corner of the National Mall. It was soon destroyed by authorities. Later that year the smoldering ruins of much of downtown, torched during riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., would be plainly visible from well-patrolled Pennsylvania Avenue.

    And then there was January 20, 1977, an Inaugural Day so cold that the lips of some band members froze to their reeds, on which new president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, walked not just part of the way but the entire route from the Capitol to the White House. On this day, “I’d lined up Cinderella in a skimpy little fairy outfit” [for a photograph], my former VOA colleague Lou Buttell told me. “It’s a wonder these poor kids didn’t get frostbite.”

    Nobody thought to ask Pierre L’Enfant or George Washington, or to scribble his answer with a quill, why Pennsylvania was honored as the namesake of the most prominent street in the new capital. It just suddenly appeared in 1791 in a letter by Jefferson, the author of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Sure enough, when Washington’s successor, John Adams, became the first resident of the White House nine years later when the capital city became a reality, it was up “Pennsylvania Avenue” that he rode.

    One theory has it that the designation was an appeasement to the state in which the Congress had been meeting. (Philadelphia wanted badly to be the capital.) Perhaps Pennsylvania, then a buffer between the merchant North and planter South, was a compromise choice. Or it could have been geographical progression. The three broadest avenues traversing the heart of Washington — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — lined up in descending order, north to south, just as the states do.

    Over the years, the Avenue has been usurped by Constitution Avenue, just below it, as the nation’s ceremonial corridor for most parades and funeral processions. The latter route runs straight to Memorial Bridge and thence across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. And Constitution Avenue is lined with government buildings, Smithsonian Institution museums, and the open National Mall. It’s better suited for crowds than commercially active Pennsylvania Avenue.

    But it is still Pennsylvania Avenue that fires the imagination. In the cowpaths and brambles along the Potomac lowlands, Pierre L’Enfant — more artist than planner — foresaw a city of incomparable scale, harking back to Versailles and broad Parisian boulevards, including an epic diagonal between two of the three seats of democratic government. After generations of scruffiness and several episodes of renewal, the Avenue today is again powdered and pressed and dressed for a world to come see.

    But a question remains: Is it a living place, especially after sunset, when the bureaucrats and tourists have mostly gone to their homes and hotels? Well, it’s not as lively as old Murder Bay. But thousands of people now live on America’s Main Street, in expensive townhouses overlooking monuments and the Mall. And of course Pennsylvania Avenue’s extremities — those neglected reaches in Anacostia — are alive at night, if down on their luck. Just as Congress and private entrepreneurs spent billions on impressive government buildings and spiffy commercial spaces on the Avenue, Washington’s mayor will soon send his storm-drain and crossing-signal crews across the river, hoping to get a “great street” started where the parades seldom go.


    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

    Ague. A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.

    Bedraggled. Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.

    Bilious. Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.

    Supplications. Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.

    Suffragist. A supporter of suffrage, or the right to vote, especially for women. Those who mocked the most radical, female supporters of women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century preferred to call them by the derogatory term “suffragettes.”

    Tommy gun. A .45-caliber submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson, that became the weapon of choice of both gangsters and federal agents during the “roaring” 1920s.

    Torpid. Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.

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    Neapolitan Colorado

    Posted November 2nd, 2009 at 5:51 pm (UTC-4)
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    More than a year ago in my first post, I mentioned my childhood love of “View-Master” wheels containing tiny, 3-D color transparencies showing exotic places and peoples around the country. I pushed the little spring that advanced the photos so many times that several viewers broke and had to be replaced. I was mesmerized by the scenes illuminated inside these little contraptions, never dreaming I’d see most of them for real.
    My favorites were the vivid shots from Colorado, far from my ordinary surroundings in Ohio. My father had moved there, way out West, where I had beheld the Rocky Mountains once as a four-year-old during a train trip that Mother and I took in her unsuccessful attempt to put the family back together.
    The View-Master’s teeny depictions of Colorado’s mighty Pikes Peak, the forever-deep Royal Gorge, and the red-rock Garden of the Gods made the return trip to Cleveland bearable.
    Later in life, my heart would beat a little faster when Colorado’s first snow-capped Rocky Mountain peak came into distant view.This often followed many days of driving across plains so monotonous that westward-migrating pioneers called them The Great American Desert — endless stretches of land that were nearly treeless, uninhabited, and completely unfit for farming.
    Although people associate Colorado with the towering Rockies, its eastern third is indistinguishable from table-flat Kansas to the east. That’s why I call the state “Neapolitan Colorado.”Not after Naples, but with the frozen dessert in mind.
    Neapolitan ice cream, so named because a lot of early ice cream-parlor proprietors were Italian, was the first imaginative ice cream flavor, lining up mundane vanilla, rich chocolate, and luscious strawberry side-by-side in cartons and individual square slices.
    Unremarkable eastern Colorado is my vanilla, the spine of soaring Rocky Mountain peaks down the middle the rewarding chocolate, and the bumpy plateau to the west — next to Utah, where more Rockies pop out of the earth once again — my strawberry.This Neapolitan slice of the American West isn’t quite a square, but it’s close.  Colorado is a tad wider than deep.
    It is a visual treat, shimmering in the fall, when the lemon sun shines through the thin mountain air, backlighting yellow and gold aspens on 10,000 hillsides. It is a feast for the senses in spring and summer, when evergreens glimmer against a stormy afternoon sky, streams hurry down from the Continental Divide into meadows filled with wildflowers, and mountain zephyrs refresh the air.
    And Colorado astounds in the winter, when America’s highest state, 2,072 meters (6,800 feet) above sea level on average, sparkles under blankets of snow.
    Wait, you say, the nation’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley, rises in Alaska, and one high glacier follows another below as you fly overhead.  Nevertheless, Alaska’s mean elevation is 3½ times lower than Colorado’s.Remember, Alaska starts out at sea level; even the lowest parts of Colorado are high plains.And its capital, Denver, in the shadow of the great mountains, isn’t called the “mile-high city” for nothing.It’s precisely one mile (5,280 feet or 1,609 meters) high.
    All three of the state’s “Neapolitan” regions harbor bear and elk, bison and beaver, coyotes and mountain lions that first lured hunters and trappers westward — as well as all manner of predatory birds, whitewater trout, and woodland snakes.
    Colorado has always been among the wildest parts of the West, yet outposts like Denver, which supplied the gold camps and railroads, became almost instant, genteel cities whose street grids were copied from eastern models.

    Today the communities along the Rockies’ eastern Front Range form a single “strip city” from Fort Collins, on the Wyoming border, 240 kilometers (150 miles) south to Pueblo, the place to which my father scrammed.The population of the five-county region in and around Denver doubled between 1960 and 1990.In the synergy that comes with growth, all the new people helped create jobs, especially in construction and service industries.

    But their cars also turned Interstate Highway 15 into a still life twice each weekday and filled what had been sweet air with a brown haze so ugly and noxious that Denver enacted some of the nation’s toughest emission standards.  Not that it had much choice.It was regulations or an end to its beloved mountain view.
    Yet Colorado also built the world’s largest airport, Denver International, in the 1990s specifically to attract more trade, industrial development, and jobs.The state gave lucrative tax incentives to high-tech companies to locate in the state; they, in turn, attracted thousands of Californians, Texans, and others who had lost work or were fed up with their lifestyles.While Coloradans once flaunted bumper stickers that read “Don’t Californiate Colorado” and joked that it would be great to discourage newcomers by posting billboards urging, “Think Utah!” and “Have You Seen Las Vegas?!” — they met the incessant growth with resignation, investing heavily in light rail, sports facilities, and schools to accommodate the influx.
    So the Colorado of today bears little resemblance to the almost primordial place (by comparison) that I visited as a child.  But just when I’m about to despair about the ribbons of concrete and tracts of indistinguishable houses when I visit, I’m in a magical place in the mountains, amid evergreens and babbling rivers and precipitous drop-offs into sheer ravines.
    Of course, I’m by no means alone in the Wild. There are people ahead of and behind me in four-wheel-drive vehicles — every second Coloradan owns one, and the local joke is that everyone else drives motor homes.They’re off fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, and star-gazing.The state even did away with its tourism-promotion board, figuring that the word had been amply spread that Colorado was a special place.
    Colorado’s new arrivals are notorious for their “last person in closes the door” attitudes towards further growth.But responding to statewide poll after poll, Coloradans still rate the quality of life high, the beauty of the mountains unsurpassed, the appeal of easy access to outdoor recreation irresistible, and the benefits that newcomers bring — nicer restaurants, cultural activities, big-league sports — worth most of the headaches.
    The state’s parallel courses — trumpeting conservation as well as growth — are well illustrated in Pitkin County, southwest of Denver in the Central Rockies.A state road heads south from Interstate 70 into it, and then divides.The eastern tine winds through ski resorts like Aspen and Snowmass on its way to spectacular Independence Pass and its serpentine switchbacks, far above the tree line.Beset by heavy snows and avalanches, the pass is closed from late autumn to early May.
    Yet thousands of people, including retirees and “lone eagles” whose professions enable them to telecommute without ever venturing into an office, have moved into this area.
    The other tine down from the interstate highway meanders far from any resort.You’ll see fly fishermen casting in the sparkling Crystal River and then come upon my favorite spot in all of Colorado: 
    It’s Cleveholm Castle, whose tale begins with a benevolent industrialist who not so much tamed as refined the wilderness.
    In 1892, Cleve Osgood, a cousin of President Grover Cleveland, had grabbed $40 million in Colorado coal claims and controlled the West’s only steel mill, in Pueblo.Osgood moved to New York, bought an entire city block, built a mansion on it, and began hobnobbing with fellow nouveau-aristocrats.Osgood also coveted a summer address as big as the West, so in 1899 he bought almost 8,000 hectares (19,000 acres) of the wild Crystal River Valley and built Redstone, an American feudal kingdom with a bachelors’ inn, a schoolhouse, a performance hall, and 84 frame cottages for his workforce.  The cabins were tiny, but they included fancy fixtures for their time, including bathtubs with running hot water.
    Towering over Redstone stood Osgood’s summer castle, Cleveholm — named for him and the Swedish word for “home.”The “Lion of Redstone” and his Swedish wife stuffed the manor with trophy heads, Tiffany lamps, ruby velvet drapes, and leather wall coverings.  Osgood even built his own railroad spur off the Denver main line so he could bring in his New York pals in private coaches.
    Cleveholm still stands, off the tourist path in a field of columbines across from the red-rock mountain from which it was carved.A dude ranch house, a resort, and a bed-and-breakfast inn in turn, it’s very “Colorado”: at once wild and sophisticated.
    It was not mining, and certainly not tourism or outdoor sports, that first brought white settlers to these mountains.Except for the Santa Fe Trail to the dry and dusty southeast, which skirted south into New Mexico, most great migration routes and early railroads bypassed Colorado’s spine of peaks — it has a stunning 54 “Fourteeners,” or summits higher than 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) along the Continental Divide.The pilgrims turned north instead, toward hospitable passes in Wyoming.
    The Spanish, who had moved north out of Mexico and claimed much of what is today the southern half of Colorado, simply stopped when they reached the Rockies.Not just the imposing pinnacles deterred them.Marshall Sprague pointed out in a U.S. Bicentennial book on Colorado that the Spaniards’ custom of forcing Indians to build them pueblos and work their farms simply did not work there.They found few natives to enslave, since Comanches and mountain Utes were elusive horsemen who prized their freedom to roam and fought the idea of planting Spanish vegetables to the death.
    Besides, the high country’s growing season was so short that early explorers had to either shoot and catch their food or carry it in.So it was at the San Luis Valley that the conquerors stopped their expansion into “Colorado” — Spanish for “red,” a name that they first applied to a river that runs through the region.
    That same river rushes down into Arizona, where over eons it unearthed the brilliant sandstone layers that line the majestic Grand Canyon.
    It was gold that opened Colorado’s mountains to settlement and began a boom-and-bust cycle — later applied to silver, oil, and uranium as well — that would torment the state for generations.John Babsone Lane Soule, an Indiana newspaperman — first wrote the words “Go west, young man” in the title of an editorial he penned in 1851.The line is often attributed, incorrectly, to New York editor Horace Greeley.The astute Greeley did journey to Denver and returned musing about the “intoxication of success” in the Colorado goldfields.This was sure to be followed by “the valley of humiliation,” Greeley wrote.  “Each season will see thousands turn away disappointed, only to give place to other thousands, sanguine and eager as if none had ever failed.”
    He got it exactly right.
    The United States first got its hands on part of Colorado in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.Incredibly, Louisiana stretched that far west from what are the hot and swampy Louisiana lowlands today — and as far north as the Canadian border as well.The French, from whom we bought Louisiana, paid little attention to the high country, other than to dispatch a few trappers.
    Nor had any known American ever seen the Colorado portion of these vast new holdings.When a U.S. expedition under Captain Zebulon Pike first spied the Rocky Mountains in the distance, Pike assumed they must be about the same height as the old eastern Appalachians.The Rockies proved to be three and in some places four times higher.Pike and his men tramped all through the mountains, looking for the sources of the Arkansas and Red rivers — they never found them — and more than once had to slog around precipitous canyons like the Royal Gorge, 380 meters (1,250 feet) deep in spots.Eventually they ran into a squad of Spanish soldiers, who promptly arrested them and hauled them off to jail in Chihuahua.
    Still, Pike came away with one of the nation’s most famous landmarks named for him: Pikes Peak, now the dramatic backdrop to the city of Colorado Springs.
    In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and the new government opened trade with the United States through what is now southeast Colorado.  “Mountain men” like Jim Bridger were some of the first to veer off the trail in search of animals to trap for their fur.Tales of these men and the country they tamed thrilled their countrymen back east and gave Americans their first inkling of the wonders that lay beyond the prairie.Before long the fur trade was connecting remote reaches of the high Colorado mountains with the most fashionable salons of London and Paris.
    By the mid-1800s, thousands of Americans were pressing westward into these alps.What is now Colorado was a geographical mishmash — part of it in Utah, some in Kansas and Nebraska, a sliver that was an extension of the Texas panhandle, and a lot in a sort of no-man’s land that Mexico had relinquished.But after solid veins of gold were discovered.“Pikes Peak or Bust” cries rang out.And in 1861, as the nation split asunder in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln declared Colorado an official U.S. territory by presidential proclamation.Its almost perfect rectangle abutted seven states, and at “Four Corners,” Colorado’s boundary intersected those of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico territories.It is the only spot in the nation where four states meet, and Four Corners remains a tourist curiosity — perhaps America’s most remote.
    Eastern Colorado became cattle and cowboy country, the railroad connected Front Range towns with Cheyenne up in Wyoming, the Utes — Colorado’s last indigenous Indians — were forced out of the mountains, and on August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted to the Union as the 38th state.  It was less than a month past the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding; hence Colorado’s nickname as the “Centennial State.”
    A century later more than 25,000 Coloradans worked in oil and gas, including shale-oil fields.Denver’s skyline exploded with more than 1.8 million square meters (20 million square feet) of new office space owned or leased by energy-related companies. 
    But then again, a bust: By 1988 more than 14,000 petroleum jobs had disappeared, and the state had had it with the yo-yo nature of economic fortunes.  Soon it was offering incentives to bring in high-tech firms and building Denver International Airport as the main economic “port” of the Mountain West, yet resolving to save its stunning environment at all costs.
    The $4.3-billion airport features the largest public-art program in American history.Its own roofline of 30 peaks — symbolizing snowy mountaintops — has become one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols.The airfield, which can land 100 planes an hour in weather that would have closed old Stapleton Field, covers 53 square miles of eastern Colorado prairie.That’s twice the size of New York City’s Manhattan Island.(Let that sink in for awhile!)
    Denver, replete with imaginative new skyscrapers and grand old structures such as the 1892 Colorado red-granite and Arizona-sandstone Brown Palace Hotel, has turned into the most elegant city between Kansas City and San Francisco.
    Denver’s two newspapers, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, fought a brutal, two-decade circulation war for supremacy in one of the nation’s last two-daily cities.The more regional Post, whose readership reached into Kansas, Wyoming, and New Mexico, prevailed.The News, Colorado’s oldest newspaper, closed earlier this year, two months short of its 150th anniversary.
    Wild Rocky Mountain National Park, which had opened in 1915, remains Colorado’s most-frequented attraction.The park straddles the Continental Divide and contains 78 summits of 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) or higher.In and around it, hot springs, dude ranches, rodeo rings, old mining and gambling towns, and wildlife sanctuaries add to the high country’s appeal.
    Colorado’s western plateau — the “strawberry” in my Neapolitan slice — is full of wind-carved spires, more than a few dinosaur bones that bring paleontologists back year after year, and massive rock domes. Grand Mesa, for one, is the world’s largest-flat-topped mountain.  To its south, near the rim of Mesa Verde, prehistoric Anasazi Indians once built the largest cliff dwelling in North America, stayed for a few centuries, then disappeared without a trace.
    You want “champagne powder” snow at fancy resorts?Ghost towns?The continent’s tallest sand dunes?A narrow-gauge railroad ride amid high mountain passes?A tunnel through eight kilometers (five miles) of solid rock to an old gold camp that was once called “The Richest Square Mile on Earth”?  
    Colorado — level plains, looming mountains, and craggy plateau in one — is full of such memorable destinations.Its mountains are more spectacular than imagined; its climate sunnier and drier, cooler in summer and warmer in winter; its sunrises and sunsets more inspiring; its cities more cultural, and more fun.
    If I still had my View-Finder collection, I could prove it to you!

     (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)
    Hobnob:  To associate or hang out with someone, especially of high social stature.
    Mesmerizing:  Enchanting, almost hypnotic in its appeal.
    Primordial:  Primitive, primeval.
    Switchback:  One of the winding curves that enabled first railroad trains, and then cars, to make it up — and down — steep mountains by slowly zig-zagging around them.
    Yo-Yo:  First made popular in the 1920s, Yo-Yos were toys in which two weighted pieces of wood or plastic, connected by an axle, were lowered, raised, and spun in creative ways by means of a string attached to the axle.To “yo-yo” is to constantly change direction, first in favor of, then against, something.

    BYEW-tiful Beaufort

    Posted October 16th, 2009 at 5:36 pm (UTC-4)
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    Carol and I have visited Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, many times.  Sizeable yet quaint places, both of them, storied in history and full of old fortifications and photogenic magnolias (Charleston) and tidy squares filled with oak trees draped in Spanish moss (Savannah).
    Yet every time we go to either place or tell friends about our visits, someone is sure to remark, “They’re gorgeous.  But you really have to see Beaufort.
    That’s Beaufort, South Carolina, pronounced BYEW-fort, as in “Beautiful Beaufort,” which Carol and I took to calling it the moment we drove into town.
    This Beaufort should not be confused with a smaller town of the same name up the coast, though people do indeed confuse them all the time.  That one, which regards the “Beau” in its name in the French way you’d expect, is Beaufort, North Carolina.  It doesn’t help that both BYEW-fort and BOW-fort were named after the same English nobleman — Henry Somerset, the Second Duke of Beaufort.  He was the palatine, or most important dude, among a group of proprietors upon whom the king had bestowed the southern part of Carolina Colony before it was split in two in 1712.  The duke’s dad, the First Duke of Beaufort, had earned the title after some French adventure near Beaufort Castle in Champagne during the War of the Roses. 
    These dukes were BOW-forts, and nobody in Beautiful BYEW-fort can explain why their town ended up mangling the name.  Just to be different or ornery, perhaps.
    Beaufort, a town of just 13,000 or so people, is the jewel of the Sea Islands in South Carolina’s “Lowcountry” — one word — called that because its many estuaries and saltwater marshes reminded Spanish, French, and British colonizers of the Low Country back in Northern Europe.  South Carolina has a high country, too, which the natives call the “Highlands.”  The state capital, Columbia, is up that way.  Wealthy Lowcountry rice, indigo, and cotton planters routinely fled the hot, humid, no-see-um-infested marshes to “summer” up there in the cool mountains.
    No-see-ums are tiny but bedeviling sand gnats that don’t bite so much as make a beeline, or a gnatline, for your eyes and ears.  The only defense is a hearty “Beaufort salute” — a stern wave of your arm to shoo their squadrons away.  We got to be quite good at it.
    To put Beautiful Beaufort’s galleried antebellum showplaces, verdant parks, and seaside promenades in perspective, one must take a long and satisfying dive into its rich lore of plantations and pirates, tempests from the sea, rebellions, and all manner of military occupations. 
    Most of these tales are lusty and true.  Disregard the pirate part, however.  Spanish and French buccaneers did duck into nearby coves, but they mostly steered clear of settlements.  It’s BOW-fort up the road in North Carolina that can properly boast of depredations by the pirate Blackbeard— Edward Teach — and the like.
    Still, old stories hang in the air in Beautiful Beaufort, begging to be spun by masters such as Larry Rowland.  He’s Beaufort’s pre-eminent historian, a professor emeritus at the state university’s branch in town, and the author, along with former colleague Stephen Wise, of a three-volume account of the life and times of Beaufort County.  I expected him to speak with the lilting, cultivated drawl that so becomes educated South Carolinians, but detected no accent at all.  That’s because, while his mother’s side of the family goes back 330 years in town, whole generations ended up in New York State during the many long years that things took a dreadful turn in the Lowcountry.  Those years, I shall shortly describe.
    Beaufort, South Carolina’s second-oldest city (to Charleston), was the in-town home of wealthy coastal planters — a term by which they’re sometimes known.  “Plantation slavemasters” works, too.  A thriving port prior to the Civil War of the 1860s, Beaufort boasted the best natural harbor south of New York.  Beaufort’s sound was discovered in 1525 by a Spanish explorer who, before sailing away, named the area La Punta de Santa Elena, or Santa Elena Point.  In 1566, the Spanish settled on the island that includes present-day Beaufort, and for a short time it was even the capital of their Viceroyalty of Florida.  But the Spanish soon lost their affection for the watery, bug-biting surroundings and abandoned them for more pleasant quarters along the Florida Peninsula to the south.  In 1562, French (Protestant) Huguenots sailed into Santa Elena Harbor, renamed it Port Royal, and founded what would be a short-lived colony.
    Port Royal remains the name of the island that includes Beaufort Town, and, just to further confuse things, there’s a hamlet called Port Royal just below Beaufort as well.  But Port Royal Town is now “Beaufort,” thanks to those British BOW-forts.
    Like the Spanish before them, the French colonizers had few problems with indigenous Indians, who were a peaceable lot related culturally and linguistically to Creek tribes in the western interior.  But then along came the British, coveting the Sea Islands.  They allied with a much more ferocious native band called the Yemassee, who helped them take control of Port Royal, only to viciously turn on the British population a few years later.  Over a few terrifying days in 1715, the Yemassee slew one in four European settlers of South Carolina. The people of Beaufort were miraculously saved only because a warning reached them.  The entire populace fled to safety aboard a cannon-equipped ship in the harbor.  The Yemassee then burned the town and surrounding plantation dwellings to the ground. 
    In revenge over the next 20 years, South Carolina militiamen and British Redcoat soldiers virtually exterminated the colony’s Indian population, leaving only archeological artifacts, buried bones, and place names like “Yamassee” and “Coosawhatchie” as evidence of native culture.
    The British intensified port activities in Beaufort.  But its island location stunted real growth.  To reach mainland raw materials and markets, one had to maneuver past other islands and up shallow rivers.   Savannah, by contrast and to its good fortune, sits at the mouth of a good-sized river that winds far into the hinterlands.  And Charleston lies on a neck of land from which two rivers reach into the interior.  Viable markets as well as maritime towns, they soon left Beaufort in their wake.
    So Beaufort became a sultry, out-of-the-way place where passions boiled and plots were hatched — the cauldron of a brewing revolt against northern rule from Washington.  Volatile “fire-eaters” — eloquent hotheads furious about cotton tariffs, laws that thwarted the spread of slavery as the nation moved westward, and what the firebrands considered federal interference in their local affairs — cried out for secession, or withdrawal, from the American Union.  The most vocal of them all, Robert Barnwell Rhett, a U.S. senator from Beaufort, is known to this day as the Father of Secession.
    Several of the authors of the ordinance of secession passed at the 1860 South Carolina Constitutional Convention naively thought that separation from the Union would go peacefully.  Rhett, working among equally stubborn Yankees in Washington, no doubt knew better.
    It is not a coincidence that the first name of the main male character in Gone With The Wind, the overarching novel and later film about the U.S. Civil War, was “Rhett.”  Author Margaret Mitchell chose it because it so clearly reflected southern antebellum history, even though rascally Rhett Butler was more of an opportunist than a fire-eater.
    Beaufort planters had played a key role in the explosion of cotton as the cash crop of the entire South.  After their phenomenal success with a particular strain of cottonseed on Port Royal, Hilton Head, and the other Sea Islands, King Cotton— and the slave culture that went with it because the picking and sorting were so labor-intensive — dominated the economy of the entire South.
    Hilton Head Island, which I just mentioned, commands the southern part of Beaufort County below the Broad River.  Once a rural backwater — one of the poorest places in North America — it bore no resemblance to the flashy golfing, retirement, and beach resort destination it has become.  Suffice it to say most of genteel Beaufort wants no part of Hilton Head-style glamour, glitz, and day-and-night buzz.  And since Beaufort County is already getting plenty of tax money from Hilton Head motel stays and property levies, there’s no great urgency to overdevelop Beaufort Town’s antebellum serenity.
    Once civil war broke out up in Charleston as South Carolina militiamen fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in 1861, the Union Navy and Army quickly subdued, occupied, and put to good use the valuable deep-water port of Beaufort — sending most of the affluent white population scattering in their wake.  The Yankees transformed South Carolina’s Sea Islands into an auxiliary of the Port of New York.  Men and goods and war materiel to blockade other southern ports and mount expeditions into the belly of the South radiated from suddenly bustling Beaufort. 
    And prosperity continued under Northern-imposed “Reconstruction” of the defeated South.   For 30 years, Beaufort was run by African-American Republican politicians and white Yankee merchants.  And just as things were slowing down, rich beds of phosphates — important to agriculture as fertilizer — were discovered in creek beds nearby.   An entire fleet of phosphate carriers left Beaufort each week, laden with phosphates for ports all over the world.  When steamships replaced most sailing vessels, the deep-water port of Beaufort — already the 10th-largest on the Atlantic Seaboard — showed every sign that it would one day outpace haughty Charleston and Savannah.  And when Yankee-trained engineers built a railroad bridge that finally connected Beaufort with the mainland in 1873 — and millions of tons of coal from the southern Appalachian mountains began fueling steam vessels berthed at Port Royal — still more riches for Beaufort seemed assured.
    But several jolting turns of fate reversed its fortunes in a flash and put Beaufort nearly to sleep for the better part of a century. 
    In 1893, a catastrophic hurricane submerged South Carolina’s Sea Islands and sank the entire phosphate fleet.  Two thousand people died.  Five more hurricanes followed in short order, souring Beaufort’s reputation forever as a reliable shipping center.  The U.S. Navy abandoned Port Royal Island and moved to Charleston, and the phosphate industry took off for Florida. 
    As if that weren’t bad enough, world cotton prices declined so dramatically that cotton growers and traders lost money, no matter how many fields they planted, in all but two years of the first two decades of the 20th century.
    “So the years between 1893 and 1940 delivered dismal decline to Beaufort,” Larry Rowland summarized for me.  “All the old industries were gone.  Shipping disappeared.  The last lumber schooner to leave Port Royal Sound was in 1925.  And the Port of Beaufort closed in 1933.”  The town’s population declined from 35,000 in 1890 to 21,000 in 1940.  (It’s even lower today, you’ll recall.)  One half of the African-American population of Beaufort County left as part of the Great Migration to the industrial North, in search of jobs.
    But Beaufort was rescued by the United States Marines. 
    Marines had been stationed in the area since 1891.  As the security detail at the Port Royal Naval Station, they served bravely during the onslaught of hurricanes and tidal waves.  Then in 1915, Parris Island, next door to Beaufort — named for Alexander Parris, treasurer of the original South Carolina colony — was designated as a Marine Corps “recruit depot.”  That’s an odd name, since one imagines sergeants behind a table, passing out literature and delivering recruiting spiels to young men (and later women) interested in a military career.  Instead, this “depot” is the center of rigorous — and I do mean rigorous — military training and inculcation of new recruits.
    Marine boot camp, in other words.
    The mass influx of recruits during world wars I and II rivaled the Union occupation of the Civil War, with the obvious difference that the latter two takeovers of the local economy were most welcome, indeed.  During the Second World War, 240,000 Marines trained at Parris Island at a time when only 21,000 people lived permanently in all of Beaufort County.
    As Larry Rowland puts it, “That’s a whole lot of commerce and business and exchange and rented rooms.  And what it did for Beaufort was provide a middle class.  After Reconstruction, except for some doctors and lawyers — black and white — everybody in the area was either a poor black or a wealthy white landowner.  That’s not exactly a healthy culture.”  Officers, enlisted officers, and civil servants stationed at Parris Island not only spent their money in town; many also retired or returned there and opened bookstores and bars and gas stations and the like.  And a surprising number of young Marines somehow have found time to take classes at the state university branch.
    No wonder Beaufort watched nervously, with fingers tightly crossed, as the Pentagon closed 99 bases and 55 other military installations across America beginning in 2001 as part of its “BRAC” — Base Realignment and Closure — program.  “If the Marines ever left, we’d be a ghost town,” Rowland told me, exaggerating at least a bit, for effect.  “We’d be down in Hilton Head with our hands out.”
    Fortunately, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where, as the Corps puts it, “We Make Marines,” was the only significant Marine facility east of the Mississippi River and, thus, spared from closure. 
    Carol and I saw only a few uniformed Marines in town.  That’s because, it was explained, upscale Beaufort is an expensive place for a Marine private or corporal who is busy elsewhere anyway, executing pushups.  Check out the bars on the fringes of town on a weekend night if we wanted to rub noses with jarheads, we were advised.  Or cross the Broad River Bridge and drive 45 minutes down to livelier Savannah, where Parris Island Marines on leave go to unwind.
    We passed on that opportunity.
    Already eclipsed by Charleston and Savannah industrially, charming Beaufort is left hiding in the bulrushes.  None of these three southern charmers is “right close” (as the locals might say) to the main north-south Interstate Highway 95 that carries a ceaseless flow of traffic from the populous Northeast all the way to the tip of Florida.  But high-speed Interstate spurs off I-95 whisk travelers to Charleston and Savannah.  By contrast, you can hardly find the name “Beaufort” on highway signs, and one must locate and then navigate an old U.S. highway, full of traffic lights, and wind 40 kilometers [25 miles] to reach Beaufort.
    But it’s worth it, and Beaufort’s isolation is part of its allure.  “There’ve been lots of schemes to link the Sea Islands to Charleston and Savannah,” Larry Rowland told me.  “But bridges are expensive.  We just couldn’t afford it.”
    So Beaufort, appropriately and successfully, touts its relaxed pace and southern charm — even though many of the old families are descended from Union soldiers and Yankee traders.  Rowland’s great grandfather, for instance, came to Beaufort from Maine in 1866, a year after the war ended, in a schooner loaded with food and dry goods.  He started several businesses, including a grocery store and cotton gin.  Rowland points out that the only reason many old-time southerners, who had fled the Yankee invasion, returned was to be buried outside St. Helena Episcopal Church or the Baptist Church of Beaufort.  The living among the planter class had little property to which to return anyway; it had been seized by the Federal Government. 
    So unlike many small southern towns in which an oversized statue of a Confederate soldier looms in the courthouse square, Beaufort has only a small one — not even erected until 1903 — that, as Rowland puts it, “you’ll never find unless you look carefully.”  Carol and I did find quite a few small Rebel flags fluttering next to tombstones in a prominent Beaufort cemetery, however.
    And on one leisurely stroll through town — unrushed Beaufort and unhurried strolling go well together — Carol and I counted 40 “Tara”-style mansions of the sort made famous in Gone With the Wind: the classic kind with white columns, wrap-around verandas, and nearby azalea bushes and moss-draped trees.  Let’s see.  Was this the Barnwell House (1785)?  The Fripp House (1832)?  The Sams House (1810)?  The “Little Taj” (1856)?   Union General William Tecumseh Sherman slept in one of them at the successful close of his “March to the Sea.”  Another was a makeshift hospital.   That one’s called “Secession House.”  Ghosts prowl this one over here.  You can picture the fire-eaters toasting rebellion and fine ladies fanning themselves all over again.
    We managed to get out of town without trying a local delicacy — only because we didn’t know about it until later.  It’s Frogmore stew, which, curiously, contains no part of a deceased amphibian.  A classic African-American gumbo made of shrimp and crabmeat, perhaps smoked sausage, onions, potatoes, corn, and assorted greens, it takes its name from the tiny fishing community of Frogmore on nearby St. Helena Island.  This is the most notable home of the Gullah people, whose story is worth one last diversion. 
    “Gullah” is a colloquialism for what is now Angola in southwest Africa.  Or rather, Angola is the Latinized version of what sounded to Portuguese colonizers’ ears like “N’Gullah.”  Nearly half of South Carolina’s African slaves came from there, and their culture survives with its own Creole patois with words from English, Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba.  The remoteness of the Carolina Sea Islands helped preserve a separate Gullah culture that endures and is still studied by anthropologists.
    Beaufort dozes, but also stirs seductively.  Shrimp, art, house-and-garden, and soft-shell-crab festivals — even a credible international film festival — liven things up.  (Parts of many movies, including “Forrest Gump,” “The Big Chill,” and “The Prince of Tides,” have been shot right in Beaufort, after all.)  Beaufortonians have racked up so many “best” ratings from magazines that rank visitors’ experiences — “Best Small Southern Town” (Southern Living); “One of America’s Best Art Towns” (American Style), and so forth — that they take their appeal for granted.
    The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls Beaufort one of a dozen “Distinctive Destinations” in America.  Yes, distinctive, unforgettable — and of course beautiful — Beaufort, South Carolina.

    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

    Depredations.  Plunderings, often by a conquering army.
    Jarheads.  A nickname for U.S. Marines, used fondly by the Marines but with great care by others.
    Rigorous.  Thorough and strict.
    Spiel.  An extravagant speech or monologue, often carefully rehearsed.

    Raining and Straining

    Posted October 2nd, 2009 at 3:29 pm (UTC-4)
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    Last time, while enjoying my way across South Dakota, I mentioned that my ultimate destination was Seattle, Washington.  Just as life is (hopefully) a marathon, not a sprint, my goal was to amble around all three of the Pacific Northwest states a bit in order to refresh my impressions of them.  Seattle was the finish line.

    Note that I said THREE states, referring to Washington, Oregon, and enough of Northern California to be included.  You could throw in the Canadian province of British Columbia, which is assuredly in the Northwest and, last time we looked, borders the Pacific Ocean.  But hey, this is not Ted Landphair’s Anglo-America, much as British naval captain James Cook would have liked to hold us to his 1778 claim of all the lands north of the Columbia River in the name of the king.

    Idaho, which is up that way, too, sometimes horns into definitions of the region, even though you’d have to drive or tramp at least 725 kilometers (about 450 miles) from any place in that often-overlooked state to watch the sun go down over the Pacific.  We did drive through Idaho’s northern panhandle, which, perhaps longingly, keeps Pacific time.  And Idahoans, like Oregonians and Washingtonians to their west, are nuts (or beans) about coffee.  That’s where the “straining” comes from in today’s title.  Rain band after band off the Pacific, and frequent fog and mist in the mountains of Idaho as well as the coastal states, put people in a mood for a long conversation over a tall mocha java.

    But sorry, Idaho.  Love your potatoes.  God bless your daredevil kayakers and whitewater rafters on the Snake and Salmon rivers.  And let us know some time why Aryan cults seem to dig your woods.  But you’re a Rocky Mountain State, and we were just passing through.
    Our journey to Oregon and Washington, and warm memories of California’s Sequoia country, confirmed the region’s association with trees.  Enormous green ones, by the millions or maybe billions.  Washington is the Evergreen State, and on the Oregon flag there is a stand of Douglas firs next to a prairie schooner — a wagon with a billowing cloth roof in which many an early traveler arrived on the Oregon Trail.

    Everywhere you go, the scent of evergreen needles, fresh-cut timber, and the tangy smell of Pacific pine cones amazes, braces, and lingers.

    Deep in the woods, especially amidst the lowland fog in the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges and the rainforest in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the smell of new-fallen rain refreshes, too.  (Magically, soaring glaciers somehow rise out of the warm mists.)  West of the mountains that follow the coast, the days — sometimes day after day after day — can be drizzly and dreary; the Olympic Peninsula, in particular, is lapped by moist ocean air that rides above the Pacific’s Japanese current; the Peninsula endures an average 371 centimeters (150 inches) of rain per year.

    But despite what the locals tell you, the average annual rainfall in Seattle and Portland — both well inland — is one-third that, and 13 times less than the rain totals on Mount Waialeale on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, the rainiest spot on earth.  Except in the wintertime, Pacific Northwest cities don’t stay damp and gloomy for long.

    Smells of the sea remain in one’s memory, too, for the people of the Pacific Northwest take to sailboats, cruise ships, fishing boats, and a veritable armada of ferries as readily as they travel by car.  Beaches are plentiful but often far too rocky, and the water too nippy, for swimming.  The faint odors there are of kelp and fresh driftwood, including whole sodden trees washed downstream and into the sea from logging camps.  There is the smell, too, of halibut, tuna, and Dungeness crabs hauled ashore in giant trawlers and tiny fishing boats, as well as that of salmon smoking on grills along the piers and in commercial smokehouses in every good-sized coastal town.

    There’s often a bouquet in the air, too, around the thousands of hectares of apples, cherry, and loganberry orchards and strawberry fields.  Oregon and Washington are leading producers of zesty peppermint and of flowers grown for bulbs and seeds.  The forests, canyons, and mountain meadows abound with wildflowers — lupines, fragrant lavender, Indian paintbrush, phlox, and aromatic wild roses.  And the Pacific Northwest boasts cultivated perennial gardens on the scale of southern England’s.  Portland isn’t called the “Rose City” for nothing.

    And what of the ever-present scent of coffee from thousands of coffeehouses, espresso bars, carts on the street, booths inside grocery stores, and ethnic restaurants?  My VOA colleague Art Chimes tells me that he once pulled into a Seattle gas station and found, right in the island containing the gasoline pumps and window-washing fluid and Squeegee, a narrow espresso kiosk from which a barista was busy handing lattes out the window.

    America’s addiction to upscale coffee began in Seattle in the 1980s and spread like a pandemic south and east.  Now there are, what, maybe 25,000 specialty coffee shops across the country?  Residents tell you this is a byproduct of the area’s high-tech sophistication and laid-back lifestyle.  (Washington’s official motto, taken from the Chinook dialect, is Alki, meaning “by and by.”)

    And then there’s that rain.

    Tea houses have sprung up like spring rhododendrons, too.  Perhaps it is not the product alone, but also the process (more straining) that fascinates the region, for it is the epicenter of a microbrewery tsunami as well.  Portland, which pours coffee and tea with the best of them, also boasts 50 or so microbrewereies and twice that many brewpubs.  “Craft” brewers can be found throughout the rest of the region as well.  The eruption in the number of small, neighborhood breweries coincided with the buyouts and consolidations of nationwide brewing companies marketing pasteurized, pale (Northwest aficionados say “watered down”) lagers and “light” beers.  Regional breweries like Pyramid in Seattle, BridgePort in Portland, and Humboldt in Arcata, California, grabbed a niche with stronger ales, porters, stouts, and pilsners — also often bottled but not usually pasteurized.  Taste, not a long shelf life, is their forte.  I love eccentric Northwest brands such as “Hair of the Dog” out of Portland and “Mia and Pia’s” from Klamath Falls, Oregon.

    Somehow, despite the idle chatter at the brewpubs, coffeehouses, tea parlors, and Internet chat rooms, work gets done.  A surprising amount of it, considering the region’s woodsy and marine traditions, is on farms and ranches east of the Cascades.  There, the smells include those of new-mown wheat and alfalfa hay, mounds of freshly harvested potatoes, cattle clustered at feed lots, and sheep bunched together for shearing.  The rain shadow cast by the coastal mountains leaves these flatlands relatively dry and warm, producing a long and frost-free crop season of 250 days or more each year.

    The Pacific Northwest’s imposing snow-clad peaks — Ranier, Hood, Baker, Shasta — have no special scent save for the bracing air of the great outdoors.  It is in the high country — and in the region’s deep ravines, along its wild seashore, across the wooded San Juan Islands above Puget Sound, on thousands of freshwater lakes, and throughout the length of the wide Columbia and wild Snake and other rivers — that hunting, fishing, rafting, birding, and jouncy off-road driving are passions.  The Snake cuts a gorge along the Oregon-Idaho border that is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

    Of course, the Spaniards who first poked around the coast of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1500s were not interested in sights or smells.  They were looking for glory and gold.  They claimed the lands but did not bother to establish settlements along the rocky shore.  British explorers like the aforementioned Cook, searching for a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, followed two centuries later.  Russian trappers sailed there, too, eventually establishing a colony at Fort Ross in Northern California.  When the sea otter supply played out a few years later, most Russians departed for home, leaving behind a few churches and other structures.  Fur traders of many nationalities soon followed into the Pacific Northwest’s interior.  They included Robert Gray, a Yankee trader from Rhode Island, who crossed the bar of the Columbia River — which Gray named after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva — in 1792.

    The pathfinding expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sent west to map the wilderness by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, followed that river to the sea 13 years later.  John Jacob Astor made a fortune from his Pacific Fur Company, established in 1811 by his minions in Astoria, the Oregon country’s first permanent settlement at the mouth of the Columbia, and the first American town west of the Rocky Mountains. 

    A concerted incursion of other Americans, led by Methodist and Catholic missionaries and “mountain men” from the Rockies, began in Oregon soon thereafter.

    That’s “ORR-ih-gunn,” by the way, not “ORR-ih-GONE,” if you want to keep peace with the locals.

    The trickle became a human tidal wave beginning in the 1840s with the arrival at the land office at Oregon City — now a suburb of Portland — of farm families from the Midwest.  They had trudged from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to what were advertised as the “gates of Eden” in the fertile Willamette Valley.  Imbued with “Oregon fever,” they came mostly on foot, leading their teams of mules, horses, or oxen that pulled all their worldly possessions.   To their surprise, it was not the rugged Rocky Mountains that proved to be their greatest impediment, for a broad and gentle pass through them had been found in Wyoming.  The most arduous climb was indeed at Eden’s gate, over Oregon’s Blue Mountains, which offered no passes at all.

    All the while, the Americans sought to push the British northward, preferably to latitude 54° 40’ in the Yukon, and James J. Polk sounded a rallying cry in his successful race for the U.S. presidency in 1844: “Fifty-four-forty or fight!”  Knowing that its claim to the Pacific Northwest rested largely in the hands of a few Hudson Bay fur company traders and the valiant Northwest Mounted Police, the British took what they could get in a treaty struck two years later.  It conceded all lands south of the 49th parallel (save for the protruding southern tip of Vancouver Island) to the United States but, in return, put an end to Americans’ designs on Canadian territory.

    In 1848, the Oregon Territory, including what is now all of Washington and much of Idaho, was organized.  Settlement proceeded in two distinct clumps: one to the south of the Columbia around Portland, and the other along the eastern shore of Puget Sound.  In 1853, the northern reaches broke off as their own territory, named “Washington” after the first U.S. president.  Truncated Oregon became a state in 1859; Washington lost some of its lands to Idaho Territory and waited 30 more years before becoming the nation’s 42nd state.  For much of this period the bulk of Northern California was a wilderness, but the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Sacramento spurred rampant development.

    In the years since, the Pacific Northwest’s economy has grown largely because of its timber and agricultural riches, its extensive mining, hydroelectric and nuclear energy production, aluminum smelting and refining, and, later, aerospace and computer industries.  The economy has also benefited from tourists like Carol and me, drawn to the region’s boundless natural wonders that include volcanic peaks like mounts Ranier and Hood, and the remnants of Mount St. Helens — a volcano that erupted in 1980 and around which, despite some forest regrowth, barren hillsides and charred timber can still be seen.  Today St. Helens is the official “national volcanic monument,” though the closest that visitors can get is an observatory eight kilometers (five miles) away, where the still-steaming lava dome, crater, and landslide deposit can be seen.  Crystal-blue Crater Lake in southern Oregon is set in the depression left by the explosions of another, now-extinct volcano.

    A comprehensive tour of the Pacific Northwest might begin, though, in extreme Northern California.  This is a land far different from the rest of the Golden State.  It is a trove of national forests, wild rivers, precipitous mountain roads, and craggy coastline akin to green Oregon.  The far-northern California counties are a dense, woodsy place where not just ice and deer pose road hazards; so do gray-pine cones, which fall like rocks and damage vehicles and noggins.  From there, reservoirs, dams, and aqueducts divert water to the state’s arid Central Valley and on to glittering Southern California.

    Close to the Northern California coast looms the majestic Redwood Forest, home to the world’s tallest — and some of its oldest — trees.  One, called the “Immortal Tree,” is thought to be 950 or more years old.  The Redwood Highway, or “Avenue of the Giants” through Humboldt Redwoods State Park leads visitors past and even through living trees.  They grow there and only there, in the humid coastal climate of Northern California and southern Oregon.

    With all that grandeur, no wonder Humboldt County is California’s “art capital,” with more artists per capita than any other county.

    Up in Oregon, pretty Portland is a remarkably self-contained city by design.  Under Governor Tom McCall in the late 1970s, and with the cooperation of county and suburban officials, it drew a simple line around the metropolitan area.  This boundary has expanded outward, but its rigid purpose is still largely in place.  Inside the line, carefully controlled urban growth is permitted.  Outside — sometimes even on the other side of a street — forests, farms, and open space must be maintained.  Developers howled at this idea.  They warned of a loss of jobs, but the opposite has occurred.  Factories and high-tech campuses arose, and both the population and home prices soared without unchecked sprawl.

    Still, downtown Portland is home to the nation’s largest urban wilderness in Forest Park.  The city even tore up a downtown freeway and replaced it with a delightful riverfront park whose many festivals have helped keep residents in town and downtown alive at night.  There’s also a long, dedicated transit mall, much of which is closed to automobile traffic.

    Oregon even has its own Mardi Gras, of sorts.  It is the annual Graffiti Weekend each July in Roseburg, gateway to Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves National Monument.  The name springs not from scribbling on building walls but from the 1973 movie “American Graffiti,” director George Lucas’ popular paean to the 1950s.

    In Eastern Oregon — wheat and high-desert country — ranchers raise everything from antelopes to llamas to reindeer.  And the land across the Columbia in eastern Washington is just as remote and dusty until one reaches the irrigated orchards around towns like Pasco and Walla Walla.  The latter’s name derives from an Indian word for “many waters.”  So important is agriculture in the area that an official of the local chamber of commerce once sent me a list of tourist attractions that included the sweet onion.

    Spokane, farther north along the Idaho border, rightly brags about its picturesque falls and an imposing clock tower erected by the Great Northern Railway. A lot of railroad and mining barons built beautiful homes near it during the “Age of Elegance” at the turn of the 20th century, just as “country leisure” brings lots of newcomers to little Washington towns from Spokane to Seattle to this day.  (I recently wrote about one of them, a new city called Sammamish, in a VOA feature story, at

    Seattle, an increasingly prominent and globally competitive city in the midst of a metropolitan area of 3 million people, is the region’s most notable crossroads of peoples, cultures, technologies, and transportation.  It is a place where Yakima apples go out and New Zealand kiwi fruit comes in; where tourists from across America come to buy salmon at Pike Place Market or get on a cruise ship to Alaska; where more than 500 international firms have a presence; and where the value of goods shipped to far-off Japan is nearly double that sent to nearby Canada. 

    (We interrupt for a cute Seattle/kid story.  My editor, Rob Sivak, tells me that he and his family love the Northwest — Seattle in particular.  One day, as they were leaving on a trip there, wee daughter Monica asked where they were going. “We’re going to Seattle,” Rob replied.  “Oh,” said Monica, looking puzzled.  “Who’s Attle?”)

    Named for “the Emerald City,” See-Attle ranks third in the nation in percentage of professional and technical employees, and third in percentage of adults who have competed college.  The Boeing aircraft company and Microsoft computers, the region’s largest employers, are among America’s largest exporters.

    Taken as a whole, the Pacific Northwest tests the limits of hyperbole: spectacular, sublime, panoramic, a racial melting pot with a pronounced Asian accent.  And — remembering especially a steaming cappuccino in Seattle, a pint of fresh-brewed pilsner in Portland, a bite into a freshly cut peach near Bend, Oregon, and a blast of cool air in the pines along Lake Sammamish on my recent visit —  the adjective I like best in describing it all is . . .



    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

    Akin.  (Usually used with the preposition “to.”)  Similar to.  Having the same quality as.

    Barista.  From the Italian, it refers to one who grinds beans into coffee, specifically behind a shop counter rather than at home.

    Jouncy.  Bumpy and jolting, bouncy.

    Noggin.  An informal word for one’s head, especially used when describing a knock on, or blow to, the head.

    Paean.  Pronouncded “pee-AWN,” this is a shout or song of praise.  The word was used in hymns of thanksgiving to the Roman gods.

    South Dakodak

    Posted September 24th, 2009 at 4:41 pm (UTC-4)
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    If you’re like me, you sometimes look back at an earlier period in your nation’s history and think, “Those were the days!”  We romanticize the slower pace and what today seems like their relative innocence — even if reality was something else again.  I’ve already told you that I sometimes linger over old photographs — I’m thinking of a grainy one of a family posed in front of an 1870s Nebraska sod house — and wonder what those people were thinking and what their days were like. 

    And even though I’ve never been much into automobiles, I love to read about the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Henry Ford’s Model T, as Smithsonian Institution historian Roger White once said, “put America on wheels.”  Ordinary America, not just big shots who could afford the fancy touring cars produced before Ford’s assembly line came along.

    By the way, South Dakota is the subject of this posting, but bear with me.  It took a long time to get places in those early days, and we’re puttering our way west and will get there by and by.

    With the Automotive Age came a national wanderlust that continues to this day.  People formed “touring clubs” and headed out.  Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, tire baron Harvey Firestone, and even President Warren Harding were among thousands who joined caravans of “camping cars” that stoked the nation’s appetite for outdoor recreation.  They called themselves “the Vagabonds.”  Auto enthusiasts prodded their state politicians into paving, widening, and connecting meandering roads, and auto clubs gave them enticing names like “Lincoln Highway” and “Yellowstone Trail.”

    Then the federal government assigned numbers to many of them, and gasoline companies gave away maps so drivers could find their way clear across the land.

    The mechanized rush hither and yon was on, and people — families, especially — needed places to eat, sleep, and amuse themselves along the way.  Thus was born a disjointed network of one-story “motor courts,” greasy-spoon diners, nightclubs and taverns, and repair shops of varying caliber whose neon signs beckoned weary wayfarers.

    Hang in there.  We’ll be in South Dakota soon.

    My own nostalgia — if that’s the right word, for I wasn’t yet born — peaks at the thought of offbeat and oddball “roadside attractions” of those times that endeavored to separate travelers from their money.  I’m talking snake farms, spooky caverns, mangy zoos, exotic rock and fossil collections, Christian theme parks, muddy fields where dinosaurs were said to have roamed, real and phony Indian trading posts, aquatic gardens (some with “mermaids”), “funhouse” amusement parks, and museums of every description.

    Let us not forget architectural “curiosities” as varied as the entrepreneurial minds that created them: “mystery houses,” a swimming pier inside a blue Plexiglass whale, a restaurant shaped like the familiar figure on a syrup bottle, the “world’s largest” spinach can or rabbit; and what tourists were assured were the world’s smallest church or horse or man.

    What does any of this have to do with South Dakota?

    Well, the No. 1 motoring destination in those early days was the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone — that geologically tremulous place with the spraying geysers such as “Old Faithful,” which is still reliably erupting with a 60-meter-high column of boiling water and steam every hour to hour-and-a-half. 

    Yellowstone sputters in Wyoming, the state just to the west of South Dakota.  But by 1941, the Coyote State itself had a monumental tourist magnet, literally, way out near the Wyoming border.  It was the epic sculpture of four U.S. presidents, carved and blasted over 14 years into the face of Mount Rushmore.

    But to get there, or on to Yellowstone and the Pacific Northwest from the populous East, Midwest, and South, families had to cross the wide, largely empty South Dakota prairie.  Did I say “wide”?  Picture yourself in a noisy, smelly, hand-cranked Model T with the wife and kids, jostling along South Dakota’s early cracked and dusty roads for 550 kilometers — 340 miles — in search of Mount Rushmore.  

    They became eager customers of some of the most abundant and creative roadside attractions in the country.  And the same can be said today, although the quality of South Dakota attractions has taken a quantum leap from the days of dairy stands and pony rides. 

    Carol and I recently crossed the entire state en route to Seattle, Washington — not on a teeth-rattling, two-lane road but on a modern, high-speed Interstate highway.  And while you can’t pull over on I-90 any time you feel like it for a cuppa joe at a roadside diner, or check out an Indian cultural center or Scandinavian church without driving far ahead to the next exit, there are interesting, family-oriented, and quirky places to explore all across South Dakota’s single east-west expressway.

    So many that we took to calling the state “South Dakodak” — a play on the name of the American camera-maker — because of its wealth of photogenic and fun attractions.

    We started, as most visitors do, in eastern South Dakota and worked our way west.  Barely out of Minnesota is the state’s largest city, if you want to call a population of 125,000 “large.”  It’s Sioux Falls, an old slaughterhouse town where at least one stockyard and meatpacking operation survives.  The city gets its name from falls of the Big Sioux River.  Don’t expect roaring Niagara Falls.  These are pleasant cascades, but the surrounding bluffs give one a clue that the terrain is about to change.  Rocks, if not the Rockies, are no longer just our imagination away.

    Sioux Falls is a sort of outdoor art gallery.  Downtown streets are dotted with 50 sculptures, loaned to the city by artists from around the world and replaced in toto every year.  Their creators are paid $500 apiece to deliver them and another $500 to come pick them up if they haven’t been sold.  About 20 percent of the “SculptureWalk” pieces DO find buyers, and you can even lease one for awhile if you like.  Talk about making an impression at a cocktail party! 

    The artists can also earn up to $15,000 if their works win awards in an end-of-season judging.  End of season, meaning before South Dakota’s savage winter snowstorms come a-howlin’ down from Manitoba.

    In Fawick Park stands a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s Statue of David in all his, um, glory.  He is NOT for sale or rent.  Thomas Fawick, an art collector, early automobile maker, and inventor of everything from landing-craft clutches to golf-club grips, donated David to the city and a replica of Michelangelo’s Moses, wearing a few clothes, to Augustana College across town.

    Truth be told, while I admire and enjoy imaginative sculptures, I rarely let out a “wow” when beholding them.  I’m especially unmoved by most “folk art,” which to me looks like something I could have slapped together from metal squares and Popsicle sticks in eighth-grade shop class.

    But I let out wow after wow on a grassy plateau about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Sioux Falls, near the minuscule town of Montrose.  My eye, like that of just about everybody tooling down the Interstate, had been caught by an 18-meter (60-foot)-high sculpture of a bull’s head.  A funky one, with horns of exaggerated height.  A modernist interpretation of the extinct Egyptian longhorn, perhaps.

    So we took the Montrose exit and wound our way up to “Porter Sculpture Park,” which displays a field full of unpredictable, bizarre, and quite lovable works of a fellow named Ron Porter.  There’s a small admission charge, but we found the place unattended, with a sign inviting any and all to come on in.  Porter, who swears he can’t draw or paint a lick but is pretty handy with a welding iron, even touts the park as “a great place to walk your dog.”  I can’t begin to describe all the wacky sculptures — you can see a couple of Carol’s shots of them — but they include much-much-larger-than-life depictions of tools, schools of fish, skeletons and bugs, buzzards, and freaky looking sort-of-humans. 

    A lot of people who are whizzing past Porter’s big bull are heading for Mitchell, a bit larger eastern South Dakota town, there to behold the vaunted “Corn Palace.”  Mitchell was an almost-new town in 1892 when the residents got together and built an extraordinary auditorium entirely — save for its wooden frame — of corncobs.  It was the showpiece of the fall harvest season and that year’s “Corn Belt Exposition,” and a challenger to a “grain palace” established in Plankinton, a rival down the road. 

    Plankinton’s grain-clad structure lasted just two years.  Mitchell’s Corn Palace, though twice rebuilt, pulls in tourists every day of the year to this day. 

    You can walk right in and stroll the corridors, looking at historic photos like the one of “March King” John Philip Sousa and his world-famous band, who performed at the corn-y opening.   The auditorium floor below holds souvenir booths until the men’s and women’s basketball teams of Mitchell’s Dakota Wesleyan University take it over for their seasons. Then the trinket-selling moves to a separate building across the street.

    Several varieties of corn in eight colors — including Indian corn ears in multicolor “calico” — adorn the palace’s facade.  Each April about 275,000 ears of dry corn, for which the city pays a farmer $150,000, are cut, hauled into town, and affixed to the building in thematic designs that differ each year.  Mitchell makes its money back, and then some, on postcards and corn-related souvenirs; the Corn Palace brings in about $30 million a year in all, counting motel stays, gasoline purchased, and corn dogs consumed.  That’s a whole lot more revenue than other prairie farm towns of 3,000 people can boast.

    The “palace” didn’t look so grand in years when severe drought or hailstorms damaged the corn crop.  The town stopped trying to cover the spires and minarets altogether after high winds knocked a couple down.  Hungry rats with wings (pigeons) have been known to strip a section or two of kernels, and a summer of intense prairie sunshine can dull the building’s sheen.

    If you’ve never heard of Mitchell, I guarantee you’ve not heard of Murdo, South Dakota.  That’s a town, named after an early settler and cattleman, Scotsman Murdo MacKenzie, that would almost certainly have dried up and blown away had local Chevy car and John Deere tractor dealer A. J. Geisler not opened a place called the Pioneer Auto Show in 1954.  He then sweet-talked the state into putting an exit ramp at this nondescript town of 600 when the Interstate reached central South Dakota.

    To call the Pioneer Auto Show an antique-auto museum would be like calling the Taj Mahal a pretty building.  True, but inadequate.  As you’d expect, there are almost 300 vintage cars of all descriptions, but also 60 tractors, 60 motorcycles, assorted jukeboxes, a Wurlitzer circus organ, slot machines, toys, an old and intact gas station, and, incongruously, shelf after shelf of rocks.  One of the astonishing 42 buildings cobbled together to make the place, you see, holds the National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame.  (As you would, I had to look up “lapidary” to discover that it relates to the cutting and polishing of precious gems.  Not diamonds or rubies, but prairie rocks and fossilized cross-sections of plants, polished to a fare-thee-well.)

    Seventy-two-year-old David Geisler, A. J.’s son, presides, charming women and kids and even the men who escort them.  He walks people past the old fire engines, pausing to clang their bells; points out classics among the cars — ah-oo-guhing their horns; and spins yarns about everything he passes, including the Elvis Presley motorcycle and the “prairie town” out back.  Don’t get him started about the leather license plate or the eight-wheel “Octo Rod” car. 

    Altogether, the Pioneer Auto Show — plus rocks and such — is more than anyone could comprehend in a short visit.  Which, of course, is the point.

    More manageable, three exits down the road, is a place where the buildings themselves are the draw: more than 50 of them at “1880 Town.”  In 1972, ranchers Clarence and Richard Hullinger began assembling authentic structures from the Dakotas’ “Wild West” era, starting with those that a production company had moved to the nearby plains for a movie shoot.  Filled with period furnishings, the buildings include an old-timey bank, Wells Fargo express office, saloon, blacksmith’s shop, and 14-sided barn.  Costumed marshals, outlaws and a “loose woman” or two mingle with visitors, who can rent western duds for themselves and their kids as well for hammy photographs.

    1880 Town is billed as “the ultimate destination for fans of ‘Dances with Wolves,’” and for good reason.  The producers of that Kevin Costner epic vehicle about a disillusioned, white Civil War veteran in the land of the Indian gave the Hullingers props and photos from their film as well.

    About half an hour onward, you can detour into a different sort of Wild West: the loop road through the South Dakota Badlands.  The Lakota called these 99,000 hectares (244,000 acres) of barren buttes, pinnacles and spires that encircle the nation’s largest mixed-grass prairie maco sica — literally, “land bad.”  Now protected, or at least patrolled, as a national park, this forbidding place also holds the world’s greatest fossil beds of early mammals from — you guessed it! — the Oligocene Epoch.  (And what an epoch it was!) 

    After a drive or hike through desolation, you’re ready for an ice-cream sundae or a cheeseburger and fries.  Even a glass of ice-cold water.  In the 1930s, in fact, free, chilled water was enough to pull people in to a little drugstore in the town of Wall, which wasn’t much bigger than the store.  Today, Wall Drug is so enormous and kitschy that it bills itself — with not a lot of argument from others — as “America’s favorite roadside attraction.”

    It’s really no more than a big-box store for shopaholics, snack-food addicts, and people who are curious what those hundreds of Wall Drug signs along the freeway were about.  Want some cowboy boots and spurs?  Christmas ornaments any time of the year?  Gold bracelets?  “Indian” bows and rubber-tipped arrows?  A stuffed jackalope?  Wall Drug T-shirts that confirm you were there?  You’ve come to the right place.

    And yes, Wall Drug has drugs — the over-the-counter kind. 

    If you need a contemplative break from shopping excess, Wall Drug has even set aside a little room as a chapel.

    You’ll recall that I mentioned Mount Rushmore as one of the powerful magnets that lured early tourists across the farmland and Rocky Mountain foothills of remote South Dakota.  In 1923, the state historian came up with the idea for a REALLY BIG sculpture to promote tourism.  He convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum to take on the project, which was funded from private sources and the federal government.

    Borglum envisioned granite likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt carved into the face of Mount Rushmore.  His plans called for the presidents to be depicted from the waist up, but only their faces — 18 meters each from chin to the tops of their heads — were completed when money ran low.  But the work, for which Gutzon Borglum hired more than 400 unemployed miners as laborers, continued for 14 years. 

    In order to achieve correct scale, Borglum created a studio model in which three centimeters equaled four meters on the mountain.  And translating that model to giant visages required more than mathematics or hammer-and-chisel sculpting.  Using dynamite, whole boulders had to be blasted most carefully, both to protect workers and to be sure a presidential nose was not blown away.

    Today Mount Rushmore, way out in the rugged Black Hills, draws more than 2.5 million visitors a year from around the world.

    Those hills have long been sacred to the Lakota tribe, which bitterly opposed building the monument, arguing that the United States Government had given the hills to the tribe forever in a 19th century treaty.  But whites had won the Indian Wars, and the government brushed aside these objections.

    So, on behalf of native peoples throughout the Americas, the Lakota commissioned one of Borglum’s assistants, Korczak Ziolkowski, who had completed a giant carving of his own on Stone Mountain in Georgia, to create their own mountainside memorial just down the road — sacred hills or not.  “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote in the letter of invitation to Ziolkowski in 1939. 

    Together, they chose Chief Crazy Horse as the subject.  A Lakota warrior, he was infamous among whites for leading the war party of Sioux and Cheyennes that trapped and massacred flamboyant U.S. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 215 cavalrymen at “Custer’s Last Stand” along the Little Bighorn River in neighboring Montana in 1876. 

    When the Crazy Horse Monument is completed a generation or more from now, it will likely be the largest sculpture in the world.  Some time this fall, I’ll be writing about it in a VOA “Only in America” feature story to which I will link in this blog.

    Not far from Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore is Rapid City, the hub of the Black Hills, where you can’t help but come face to face with more U.S. presidents.  Not real ones, as you must have guessed, and not big granite guys.  These are bronze chief executives — 40 of them so far — the creations of five South Dakota artists.  They’re arrayed in memorable poses at downtown streetcorners. Ronald Reagan, for instance, appears in jeans, work shirt, and a cowboy hat, as if he’d just cleared some brush at his Rancho del Cielo in California.  Teddy Roosevelt sports his Rough Rider hat, kerchief, and sidearm.  A smiling John F. Kennedy holds the hand of his young son, “John-John.”  Three other, more obscure presidents — Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison — will join them and the others this fall, along with Abraham Lincoln. 

    Just about everybody has heard of him. 

    Our last stop before leaving “South Dakodak” was a fascinating little park that at last had the feel of good-old-days roadside wonders.  “Dinosaur Park,” featuring “towering dinosaurs of the size and appearance of dinosaurs that roamed Western South Dakota during the late Cretaceous Period!” sits high above Rapid City.   Kids (and spry adults) are actually encouraged to climb on the five really big, painted-concrete, prehistoric reptiles, which appeared way back in 1936. (That’s the Cretaceous Period, isn’t it?)

    A paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines convinced the government to send Works Progress Administration crews to build these creatures during the depths of the Great Depression.  Even the curator of the National Museum of Natural History, far away in Washington, D.C., consulted to be sure the beasts looked plausibly like Stegosaurus, Tricerotops and their ilk from eons ago.  Now, of course, they look like cartoon characters or Thanksgiving-day parade parodies. 

    All the better to create a delightful diversion after a long drive across a wide state.

    I’d like to, but can’t, close by telling you that you’ll find lots of even-quirkier roadside attractions elsewhere, along the narrow state highways that survived the sprawl of Interstate expressways.  The truth is that except in a few short or remote stretches, including some remnants of historic U.S. Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles, most little “tourist traps” that thrived in the early days of motorized travel died of visitor starvation when the Interstates passed them by.  Pockets of development beside exits off the superhighways are now the place to grab hunks of travelers’ cash, and there’s no room there for Indian arrowhead shops or snake farms. Unfortunately.

    One Dakota, Two Dakota

    If you’re curious, South and North Dakota lie in what was once land traversed by nomadic Plains Indians.  The Dakota branch of the Sioux tribes gives it its name.  The United States claimed that land in 1803 as the northernmost part of the “Louisiana Purchase” of vast inland territory from France, even though few French or Americans had dared to live there.

    The discovery of gold in the Black Hills, plus the coming of the railroad, prompted a settlement boom that led to the creation of a defined “Dakota Territory in 1861.  And one gigantic state it might have been had the territorial capital not been moved from Yankton in the southeastern corner, near Nebraska, to Bismarck, far to the west and north.  Sectional squabbling ensued, making two distinct states almost inevitable.  They entered the Union together in 1889, separated by a long, straight boundary just below the 46th Parallel.


    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

    By and by. At some time or occasion in the future.

    Jackalope. The fanciful combination of a jackrabbit and an antelope, with horns as well as long ears Newcomers (or “tinhorns”) to the U.S. prairie were often sent out to hunt the nonexistent jackalope, whose doctored photos they had been shown.

    Kitschy. Lowbow or quirky, but deliberately so.

    Tremulous. Quivering or trembling.

    Vaunted. Famous, renowned.

    Ted Landphair


    This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

    Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

    Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

    Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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