Thursday, September 17, 2015

Side Dish: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum 9/4/15

When you’re a history geek, you’ll step into anything. Museums, libraries, birthplaces, gravesites, obscure patches of dirt: it’s all equal in the eyes of the historian, and personal judgments should never get in the way of inquiry and investigation. As I’m the sort of person who would drive sixteen hours to see the very alley where a famous figure once took a drunken piss, it was not too outrageous to suggest that while grinding our truckster’s tires to dust in search of mammoth bones, it might not be a bad idea to spend a few hours in a Shrine of Lies. I speak, of course, of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas (located within the sprawling campus of Southern Methodist University). Fine, “lies” might be exaggerating the point by half, but “shrine” is more than apt. Hell, even that might be underdone. This is a coliseum. A world unto itself. The sun, the moon, and all the stars under heaven in service of a president’s monomaniacal vision. Both state-of-the-art and senses-staggering, this is a building whored out to singlemindedness. In that sense, it’s a presidential landmark like any other – Republican and Democrat alike – but given how fresh his reign of error remains, it’s impossible not to snicker while being wholly, utterly in awe.

Awe? At a Museum of Dubya? Yes ’m, with no apologies. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this might be the most impressive building in America; a bloated, unabashed Greek temple set down right in the heart of Lone Star country, all with the one and only goal of kicking your ass. And while the mission in Iraq was not even remotely accomplished, it sure as shit was on this day. I all but registered as a Republican on the way out through the gift shop. My mouth was agape. My heart full. With every turn, I knew instinctively why so many turned to National Socialism. The cult of personality has rarely been so stunningly, beautifully rendered. From the opening marble to the closing rose garden, this is how it’s done. Not truth, per se, but naked glorification. As a nation, we may want for heroes, but here’s one without all the complexity and ambiguity so common to the modern type. Bush has been prepped, powdered, and coated in love. Served hot and wide-eyed, alongside a heaping helping of potato salad and baked beans to complete the metaphor. Even Goebbels himself may have tsk-tsked the presentation as a tad much.

The question remains: should a nation erect temples to mediocrity? Does every Chief Executive, by mere virtue of having been elected to the post, deserve a rock and roll celebration poolside, with beer and titties for all? I mean, the Dubya Experience is not, in the classical sense, a historical site. Rather, it is a privately-funded, rubber-stamped, wholly-authorized version of what remains a very contentious period of time in the recent past. We come not to learn, but defer to the party line. There are papers and records and emails about, but they’re conveniently in the back. We’re here for a show, and Lord Almighty, we are not disappointed. After walking through a metal detector (I thought he supported concealed weapons?), and paying no mind to the armed guards circling about as if waiting for any excuse – snide remark, conspiracy theory, utterance about the Florida recount – to pin your ass to the wall, visitors plunk down $16 a head (plus $7 for parking) and begin the journey. Thank the stars at least some of it is about baseball.

Yes, there’s an exhibit about baseball. Not entirely unexpected in a George W. Bush museum, given that he owned 3% of the Texas Rangers and always acted as if he himself plunked down the $800 million for the franchise. And while we’re at it, stop saying “you” traded Sammy Sosa. That’s the GM’s job, and you just put up your boots while eating nachos. I’m guessing the majority owners never even let you peek at the books. Still, the display - “Baseball: America’s Presidents, America’s Pastime” – is a fun, insightful ride through the game we all used to love before concussions and pigskins took over the joint. The presidents are transformed into jumbo-sized baseball cards (for example, John Adams has a packed statistical resume, while Benjamin Harrison was simply born, then died), and we see photos and artifacts that show each man’s dedication (or indifference) to the game. For example, Taft and Harding clearly loved the game. Hell, I imagine Warren G. would have been content to waste any number of afternoons that weren’t related to Teapot Dome. LBJ, on the other hand, or Carter, just look awkward, and I still suspect Reagan wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t in some sequel to that Grover Cleveland Alexander movie.

Still, who couldn’t love all the signed balls and bats, as well as a letter from Don Larsen to Eisenhower, just after his perfect game, hoping Ike survived his massive heart attack? And who could blame me for wanting to steal that ball signed by every president since Carter? We also see Dubya’s “big pitch” during the post-9/11 World Series, a title which, one must recall, went not to New York, but Arizona, proving that God exists and he is NOT a Yankee fan. Even Dubya’s baseball card collection is included! It would be cute, except that the childish, aw-shucks appeals occurred when George was well past his 40th birthday. This little display is about as inspirational as learning that an elderly FDR still played with tinker toys. Which he did, so back off. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of fun before the fall, almost as if Cooperstown had added a new wing for the faithful. The organization is flawless, the presentation eye-catching, and all signals the undeniable maxim that while they’re shitty at running a government, Republicans sure do have the museum thing down cold. Sure, they botch wars and disaster responses, but who else could design such gorgeous, private-sector glass cases?

So after encountering a dynamic, holy shit ceiling with faces and names and lights and graphics, we enter the main event. The big time. Somehow, against all expectation, it involves 9/11. Oh sure, we get a few displays of happier times; those few months before the worst domestic attack since Pearl Harbor, when Bush giddily sent us refund checks to help explode the deficit, and the biggest thing on his plate was whether or not to use stem cells for research (shockingly, he said no). A little No Child Left Behind here, a false claim that the economy was running on all cylinders there, with nary a word of concern on the matter. But since there was but a single spring and summer of a Bush presidency without Dick Cheney’s war-inspired erection to obliterate the sun, nothing else in this museum could ever hope to compete. So, then, a wall of noise and flame. Actual pieces of the World Trade Center. An endless sea of names. The bullhorn. Without question, it’s a masterful presentation, and it’s enough to make you forget everything from 9/12 forward. But before you click your heels in salute, you remember. Iraq. The Patriot Act. The calls for obedience. Shock and Awe. Again, the museum gets it all right – how we felt, how we cried, and how we roared for revenge – but it’s precisely how good it appears that we should always remember how it actually wasn’t.

There are interactive displays, detailed maps, and so many eye-popping, colorful blips that it’s easy to forget that there could ever hope to be another side to the story. The proud push of propaganda has its say, and it’s as straight, no chaser as we’re legally allowed to see in an afternoon. Good lord, there’s even a mammoth wall display that pretty much concludes that Bush is the Second Coming of Rachel Carson, and good luck finding a better steward of the land. On the opposite wall, a Katrina memorial of sorts, though I’m still looking for any mention of that now infamous FEMA director. If we believe the light show, Katrina was conservatism at its most compassionate, almost as if God himself sent that hurricane in order to give Dubya another chance to reinforce his inevitability as Savior. Also nearby is a reminder that for all he did or did not do, he stuck us with Justice Alito for the next 500 years. Chief Justice Roberts, while conservative, can at least be respected for his unquestionable brilliance, but Alito pretty much stopped listening years ago. His opinions are already written and stuffed in his nightstand.

Still more remains. Pics and portraits of Africa. State dinners. Official White House china. Ball gowns and tuxedos. A replica Oval Office, not quite life size, that never fails to give one goose bumps. And there, through a side window, is a replica Rose Garden, where Bush will no doubt be buried, though, given his genes, it’s altogether possible he’ll outlive the building itself. Certainly the university that chose to honor him. In all, while more Mecca for the Right, and sad, shiver-filled reminder for the Left, it’s a trip worth taking, if only to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that absent 9/11, the Bush presidency would have been a shrug-filled footnote, perhaps remembered after historians tired of debating Chet Arthur. But we do have 9/11, and Dubya’s eight years are still as miserable as any in recent memory; more so in light of the financial meltdown during the administration’s final months. But it was never dull, and for many visitors, no doubt, it will remain the focal point of emotional and historical memory. And since the paint is still a bit wet, we know that once decades have added some rust and wrinkles to the enterprise, we’ll see it all again with the proper level of scrutiny. For now, Bush: The Musical, will suffice.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Elephantine Journey: Waco Mammoth Nat'l Monument 9/5/15

When word came down – at 2pm, July 10, 2015, to be exact – that President Obama had again used the Antiquities Act to officially welcome Waco Mammoth National Monument into the NPS family, the die was cast. Sure, it might make more sense to hit Santa Fe, New Mexico again, given its proximity, or perhaps use a single overnight stay to at last secure the “stamp-and-run” obligation that is Yucca House National Monument in Southwestern Colorado, but there never really was a choice in the matter. Waco Mammoth was declared, and with the infrastructure already in place, the welcome sign affixed, and (most importantly) the passport stamp safely tucked behind the counter, the journey became a done deal.

So what if that meant nearly 2,000 miles and four days/three nights of heavy driving in a state that all but swallows a man’s will at the border of your choosing? This was the latest, greatest star in an ever-expanding constellation that has all but defined our lives since May 2009, and dammit, it would be added to the firmament. Thankfully, these are in situ fossils we’re talking about here (unlike the lesser lights of Agate and Hagerman), as age and tire wear can no longer justify a trip across the seven seas to see another blasted fort or Indian ruin. If the NPS is to survive and thrive for generations not used to taking historical value on faith, the dust and din of the obscure must yield to a little excitement now and again. Yes, the NPS can risk being sexy. And as we’ve said before, who but the hopelessly crabby doesn’t dig a fossil? Even if it isn’t an actual dinosaur.
While not a T-Rex or some other ferocious lizard that sets adolescent hearts aflutter, the animal in question, the Columbian Mammoth, is bizarre and distinct enough to command a site of its own. Entering North America about 1.8 million years ago, the Columbian Mammoth (and their descendants) ate, shat, and delivered their young for centuries, until finally becoming extinct around 10,000 years ago. This would place the creature firmly in the Pleistocene Epoch, and as such, it was one of that era’s largest inhabitants. While not as famous as its distant relative, the Woolly Mammoth of icy legend, the Columbian “managed to grow to more than 14 feet in height at the shoulder and weighed up to 10 tons.” Not as well-loved, perhaps, but sure as shit the bigger deal (by as much as 8,000 pounds).
The origins of the site are as expected, involving the usual accidental discovery by dedicated locals and eccentrics. In this case, in 1978, two men found a femur in a ravine near the Bosque River (at the northern outskirts of Waco), which was then sent to nearby Baylor University (the Strecker Museum, to be exact) for identification. Once classified as the bone of a Columbian Mammoth, a more expanded dig began in earnest. For the next two decades, students and volunteers alike scoured the site, excavating what remains the only nursery herd of Columbian Mammoths ever found. Given the sheer number of animals involved (and their proximity to each other), scientists concluded that a catastrophic event, such as a flood or mudslide, must have swiftly buried the creatures where they fell. The event, they say, occurred approximately 65,000 to 72,000 years ago. A long time, yes, but not so distant that it takes on the qualities of the unreal. In geologic time, it’s practically yesterday.
While visitors to the National Monument do not get to see the legendary nursery herd (those fossils are safely housed at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum Complex), enough fossils remain to satisfy adult and child alike. As mentioned, the fossils have been left in their “original position within the bone bed”, all protected from the elements by a climate-controlled “dig shelter.” Visitors use a suspended walkway above the dig site to look down upon the discoveries. No further excavations are planned for the site, and given the layout, visitors can bear witness to near-mythical creatures, long passed from the earth, in their natural state. Bones in a glass case are all well and good, and often necessary, but they mean that much more when they can remain forever undisturbed as they were found. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that in situ fossils are really the only way to observe the past, even though such sites are decidedly rare (South Dakota’s privately-run Mammoth Site is another example).
While the National Monument is not exactly conveniently located (as if the mammoths had a choice about whether or not to expire next to a future interstate highway), the hidden spot makes for a more satisfactory visit, as does anything hard-earned. Open to the public only since 2009 (the site was managed by the City of Waco and Baylor University until the Park Service joined the partnership), the buildings, exhibits, and signage reek of the modern, which is so often not the case with the NPS. Unlike true dinosaurs like Scotts Bluff or Chiricahua NM, Waco Mammoth has the sort of new car smell that helps visitors focus on the meaning of the site, rather than its embarrassing trappings. The Welcome Center, though small and limited in scope, will certainly have to do, as the NPS only controls the dig site itself. Expansions and upgrades, if deemed necessary, will have to come from the will (and pockets) of Waco and Baylor.
While no NPS rangers were lurking about (it’s likely none ever will, given how the interests are divvied up), the young lady who acted as tour guide on this hot summer day was more than up to the task. She was knowledgeable, cheerful, and held the diverse crowd of wheelchair-bound and toddler together with all the confidence of an old pro. Tours occur every half-hour (adults pay $5 per person), and upon leaving the Welcome Center, visitors walk about 300 yards down a smooth, level path to the dig shelter. Before reaching the final destination, however, the guide sits everyone down in an amphitheater of sorts to explain the size and scope of the creatures we are about to see post-mortem. It’s a brief, layman’s lecture, but sufficiently informative nonetheless.

Of course, it goes without saying that any NPS aficionado worth his or her salt wants more. An expensive, state-of-the-art movie, perhaps. More displays. Lights, thunder, bravado. But given that the site, as an official park unit, is less than two months old, all complaints should bear in mind that in the years to come, things will only get better. As it stands, Waco Mammoth National Monument is an important addition, and the sort of subject matter than doesn’t seem to get enough attention from an organization so devoted to vistas and long-forgotten battlefields. Here, visitors don’t have to stretch their imaginations to wonder why the official seal has been slapped on a sign: it’s science, man, and we all just instinctively get it. As Americans, it’s important to remember that our identities are ever-tied to the past, even a long, distant past that took place without us.




Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Day the Earth(lodge) Stood Still: Knife River Indian Villages Nat'l Historic Site 8/30/14

Of all the historical pairs to capture the public’s imagination over the centuries, few can match the grandeur, legend, and sheer magnificence of Lewis & Clark. It is, after all, impossible to imagine one without the other, and they are as inextricably linked as Washington to the founding, or Lincoln and the Civil War. Their status as an unbreakable tandem is so complete, in fact, that few today even bother with their first names, as if granting them individuality somehow spoils the romance of one of America’s great couplings. And while their astounding journey from St. Louis to the Oregon coast was a textbook example of teamwork and sacrifice, such details have faded with time, allowing the numerous companions and fellow adventurers to recede into the mist, leaving only that solitary pair before us, as if to stand evermore as the foremost example of the American character.
And while far too many begin (and end) their investigation into the Corps of Discovery with the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (forever and always “The Arch”) or perhaps Pompeys Pillar in Montana, there’s a bevy of beauty to be found in that unlikeliest of historical havens: North Dakota. In fact, the Peace Garden State contains what might be the pre-eminent site for Lewis & Clark enthusiasts, especially if one is willing to grant that if our duo has been eclipsed in popularity, it has been at the hands of the mysterious Sakakawea. You know the story - the Native American woman who saved the trip; the versatile proto-feminist who, by virtue of her bloodhound sense of direction, kept doom at bay; the sweet (yet strong) mother-to-be who handed a pack of bedeviled white men their collective asses. A mix of myth and half-truth that fits the driving narrative, but whose ambiguity gives the official record keepers several layers of hives.
But here, at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Sakakawea lives. Or lived, and also where she first encountered Lewis & Clark as they prepared to disembark for the winter. A Shoshone woman, Sakakawea was married to French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau (hired by Lewis & Clark as an interpreter), and both lived among the Hidatsa people before heading West. All waited out the cold months at nearby Fort Mandan, where Sakakawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, nicknamed “Pomp” by Clark. Corn, beans, and squash were also traded among the groups, and more than keeping everyone intact before the journey began anew on April 7, 1805, a legend was born. History, as such, would never be the same. Therefore, the initial meeting and subsequent hardships along and beyond the Missouri River (Sakakawea, along with her husband and child, would later return to Knife River in August of 1806) became “an event,” and would stand as one of the few times cooperation won out over bloodshed. 
So as one comes to Knife River, shame surrenders to admiration, and even a bit of celebration is allowed to peek through the clouds. The Mandan and Hidatsa people succumbed to the way of all Indian flesh, of course, but as the site stands, it is the anti-Washita, the counter-Sand Creek. No last stands or cheerless surrenders, but a way of life preserved, protected, and yes, even defended. The impressive earthlodges (picture an igloo of dirt and grass, with enough room inside for a football game) are long gone, leaving behind subtle craters in the landscape, but as one sees them from the air, they are the defiant, perpetual fingerprints of a people who inhabited the region for over 500 years. The stories of those seemingly silent centuries are no match for encounters with Jefferson’s journeymen, we arrogantly assume, but one can fairly imagine them here. For imagine one must, as the concrete yields to emptiness, and the literal becomes but a faint dream.
Knife River’s visitor center is one of the more uniquely shaped buildings in the NPS family, appearing as a mighty eagle, rather than the usual musty box overdue for an update. Inside, there are the usual exhibits (clothing, pottery, and the like), but also one of the system’s sternest rangers; a woman on the verge of retirement using her golden years not for leisure, but rather as a means to hound young children to the brink of madness with a sadistic orgy otherwise known as the Junior Ranger program. As she pushed a charming English boy through the paces, treating each requirement as a life-or-death struggle with nature itself, she was the eternal taskmaster; a woman so hell-bent on breaking the lad down that she would not have been out of place in Full Metal Jacket. Still, it’s a relief to know that Junior Ranger badges aren’t just given away these days, and only the best and brightest will do. It would not have surprised me to have seen a bunch of sweaty, moaning kids doing calisthenics down by the river.
The site’s film, a first-hand account from a woman named Buffalo Bird Woman, was introspective and sad, but her sense of loss quickly gave way to (our) excitement, as just beyond the exit stood a replica earthlodge. Authenticity is always preferred, but in lieu of the impossible, we’ll freely accept the kind of substitute that features an absurdly heavy buffalo hide that acts as a front door. Once inside – and it’s not so easy getting inside – the present-day takes a vacation, and for once, a genuine home stands before us. It’s roomy, comfortable, and reflective of a living, breathing culture, even if said culture vanished well over a century ago. There’s a wisdom to the presentation, and we know for certain that these tribes, unlike many that roamed from place to place in search of game, were here for the duration. Permanence is the order of the day (even if it’s always an illusion), and there’s no doubt these people did not give up easily.
Continuing on beyond the earthlodge, visitors will encounter the Lower Hidatsa Site (also known as the Awatixa Xi’e Village), which, to the naked eye, appears as little more than unending grass. Should the site have built more earthlodges to bring it all a bit more to life? It’s an interesting question, and not without a great deal of merit. Or is one lone example, set apart from sacred land itself, enough? It’s a similar argument related to the forts of the NPS system. Ruins or replicas? Dreary foundations or freshly painted walls? For every Fort Union Trading Post (North Dakota), there is a Fort Union (New Mexico), where the lonely, abandoned feel is unmistakably eerie, and unlike anything experienced at a full fabrication. One speaks to rot and decay, the other, a resurrection. Must our history be always “as is”, or a “what was”? Admittedly, when we drove the short distance to the Sakakawea Site, now pressed against the Knife River, we longed for the perspective a dash of housing would have provided. Their daily view, then, could have been our own.

Like so much in North Dakota, Knife River Indian Villages NHS constitutes much sturm and drang in service of a mere whimper, though it would be unfair to label the experience a disappointment. The historical value, given its ties to Lewis & Clark, is without debate, and few can damn a National Park site so removed from modern intrusions. If there’s not much to see, at least it’s quiet. Sure, the evils of energy exploration greeted us as we neared the entrance, but for a state now fully immersed in its own downfall, it could be far, far worse. And so it is, just a few hours west. The Upper Missouri River gets nowhere near the press as the mighty Mississippi, but as this site demonstrates, our American story is impossible without it. Trade, travel, and expansion had their roots (and ultimate future) on this beguiling lifeline, and as our distant past proves, those with sense sat at its side, often for centuries at a time.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Buckskin & Beaver: Fort Union Trading Post Nat'l Historic Site 8/31/14

It was the Wal-Mart of its day. A hub of commerce, communication, and frequent, often profound, cultural exchange. Most prominently, there was John Jacob Astor, whose internationally renowned American Fur Company (founded in 1808) came to dominate trade on the Upper Missouri River, quite literally blanketing the region with the latest and greatest in buffalo, beaver, fox, and otter accoutrements. Equally important, though perhaps less celebrated, were the numerous Native American tribes (including Blackfeet, Crow, Assiniboine, and Hidatsa), who supplied many of these valuable furs to white traders and businessmen alike in exchange for cups, knives, guns, pots, beads, and blankets.
Each side got what it wanted. In terms of value, more than enough to go around. Mutually beneficial, damn the odds, especially with so much hard currency at stake. But it was, by all measures, a rousing success. And here, nestled beneath the proud shield of the National Park Service, is a historical fort dedicated not to war and conquest, but rather its implied opposite: the peaceful, profitable exchange of goods and services under a bloodless moon. No savagery, no reservations, no talk of surrender. A brief honeymoon before the bitter divorce.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, tucked away in a region of North Dakota so absurdly remote that its parking lot couldn’t help but sneak across the border into Montana, is everything you’d want in a fort; that is, if you insist on leaving every trace of civilization behind. Sure, there are cars, cameras, and cell phones about, but given the location, this could just as easily be the mid-nineteenth century, with the obsessive, half-mad historical re-enactors who accompanied us on this day like ghosts from the mists of time. Upon entry, there they are, pulling their own weight, making coffee over an open flame, and mucking up the joint with a distinct smell unique to that period before running water.
I for one was glad to have them aboard, as their filthy attire and natty facial hair were a stark reminder that for a man of 1818, declaring war on physical beauty and cleanliness was as inevitable as leaving behind any and all manner of couth. These were hard men, yes, but fair ones. And Fort Union Trading Post was one of the few spots on the frontier where the guns went silent in favor of the till. But it was about more than money. Love, too, was to be had, with intermarriages and adoption often interrupting the packing of wagons. Moreover, there was respect. At the very least, a captive audience. You want a robe, you’ll have to stay for the show. Not into ceremonies and rituals? You can always try Oregon, white man.

While a nearby train track kept things defiantly modern, Fort Union Trading Post traffics largely in a bygone era, allowing for a contemplative journey interrupted occasionally by what might have been the forging of iron. Or maybe it was just a fistfight. I mean, these re-enactors had been out here for at least a week, prancing and dancing beneath the stars, with little to distract them but the daily ritual of ringing the fort’s bell. And that poor kid. While I admire any lad who can kiss away the video games for hardtack, he had to be ready to explode from boredom, especially given his insistence that we were good company. At least he tore us away from the site’s video(s), a grab bag of so-what and who-cares, though it’s doubtful we’ll ever forget the uniquely creepy ranger sidekick. The fort itself was less wooden.
Designated in 1966, the site is a full-scale reconstruction, but painstakingly accurate, thanks to numerous paintings and sketches from the time (those of Rudolph Friedrich Kurz, most extensively). After walking up the hill, the fort’s Southwest Bastion is there to greet you. Designed for defense, it is the twin of the Northeast Bastion on the fort’s far side. The Main and Inner Gates are an impressive welcome mat for visitors, as is the Buffalo Robe Press featured just outside. After passing beneath a painting by Jean Moncravie (a fort employee in the 1830s and 1840s) that acts as a universal symbol for friendship, visitors encounter the rooms of the Indian Trade House (it was dark and dreary and filled to the brim with roughnecks, so we passed on by). Back in the day, these were not only the “display tables” for frontier goods, but storage for ledgers and other business records.

While walking the short path to the main attraction, the Bourgeois House (also the site’s visitor center), one will eye the outlines of the Ice House, Storage Range, and family/employee housing. These were not rebuilt back in the 1960s, though no explanation is ever provided. It adds rustic charm to be sure, but the NPS likely just ran out of money. A teepee here, a wagon there, the massive flagpole dead center, and then the House, which walks a fine line between majestic and ridiculous, given its wilderness setting. That said, the bourgeois (field agent) had to be set apart from the rabble, as he was the man in charge of the purse. Without him, these were just some hastily built walls keeping out the bison. As it stands, it gives the site some hard-earned beauty, and it no doubt reminded our lonely merchants of a sweeter, less-desolate hearth and home.
At any rate, it was nice to get out of the crisp air for a time, even if the aforementioned video presentation had us begging for a sudden Indian attack. The artifacts and displays were an improvement, as I’m fairly certain I hadn’t stood face-to-face with an authentic beaver hat before. Not since college at least. There were heavy robes and pelts to try on, which is more important than you think, as few us can appreciate how insanely warm a buffalo hide truly is. Give me one of these things, I won’t turn on my heat all winter. Then that kid stopped by – damned if I can remember his name, though he took it from an actual boy who lived at Fort Union – and he reminded us why it’s always a pleasure to meet a smart, inquisitive young man on our travels. More so because we don’t have to take him with us.

More than just a warehouse, Fort Union was also the Studio 54 of its day, attracting celebrities and men of consequence from around the globe. In 1830, Prince Paul, Duke of Wurttemberg, paid a visit. Three years later, Prince Maximilian of Wied shacked up for a fortnight. Missionary Father Pierre DeSmet came in 1840; Jim Bridger in 1844; John Palliser in 1847. Yeah, me neither, but try dropping Ariana Grande’s name in Jacksonian North Dakota. But we’ve all heard of John James Audubon, and he was here in 1843 to study mammals. Not one to spend two months in vain, his journey resulted in The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which may or may not be on your bookshelf right this very second. We kid the stars of Fort Union, but it cannot be overstated how the site impacted American life on the Upper Missouri River.
Sure, forts can often inspire all the passionate indifference of the umpteenth Indian ruin, but at Fort Union Trading Post, there remained a defiant sense of accomplishment. You have to want to come here, and there are no accidental tourists. Hearts won’t skip a beat and no one will be stopped in their tracks, but it’s an essential slice of the American story nonetheless; a symbol from a time gone by that doubles as the very essence of our character. We love to kill, yes, but we like making money more. Perhaps only slightly, but it’s just enough to bring a tear to the eye. A snapshot from the smoke and din of history, when our waterways brought us together, if only temporarily, to talk a little business by the fire.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Drilling Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt Nat'l Park 8/31/14

When Lt. John Dunbar requested a transfer to the vast Western frontier, his reasoning, simply enough, was to “see it before it’s gone.” For him, a man hardened by the brutality of war, the fleeting isolation of prairie life seemed the only reasonable option to an existence teeming with disease, conflict, and the rattling din of the city. What he saw (and what we saw, via Dances With Wolves) was a lonely landscape seemingly untouched, yes, but also a vanishing civilization amidst the inevitability of progress. And so it is again, this time in the inexplicably flourishing land of North Dakota. Too often reduced to a mere punchline, or seen as the least attractive destination for man and beast alike, the “forgotten Dakota” (unimaginably cold winters and no Mount Rushmore will do that to a state) is now leading the charge of unchecked, boom town prosperity; a libertarian paradise of deregulation, ad hoc communities, and the seemingly endless bounty of the Bakken Shale. In the blink of an eye, a frozen wasteland has been transformed into an Eden of full employment, sky-high rents, and cutthroat competition. And don’t get me started on the hookers. The rest of America is left standing agape.
But for every paycheck, there is a price. And while deli workers are witnessing never-before-seen wages ($14 an hour at a Minot Wal-Mart) and restaurants are actually turning away customers instead of begging for their business, the energy explosion is not without its critics. Work is good, yes, and workers spend what they earn. Entrepreneurs enter, set down their wares, and neighborhoods are born. But as with most success stories, this is but a one-sided love affair. Instead of permanence, we are left with an unshakeable insecurity. Most of the workers are rough-and-tumble young men, either unattached and carefree, or temporarily unburdened, saving just enough to ensure a well-received trip home. Crime is up. Trailers are inhabited as fast as they’re fastened to the hard earth. North Dakota, then, is less hearth and home than a way station; more lean-to than rock-solid foundation. As such, the oil boom has fostered a Potemkin village on the windswept grasslands. To many, the hammer and nail of coins in the till. In reality, a mere reprieve from the bust to come; a devastated land of rape, pillage, and broken dreams that will leave its victims in worse shape than before. And while the fire in the night warms the bottom line (the 24/7 burn of natural gas dots the terrain like sinister Tiki torches), there’s a sense that the future speaks more to the unborn Dunbars to come than any of the Horatio Algers of the present. 
Which brings us to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Once the only reason any red-blooded American set foot on the Western slab of North Dakota (since its establishment in 1947 as a Memorial Park), it is now a gasping, endangered oasis; a last stand of preservation to counter the tidal wave of commerce. If it survives the explosion – and that is very much in doubt, as we’re only a few years in – it will be left hollow and less vibrant, like a decaying zoo for endangered species on the very spot where they once roamed free. Existing as a North and South Unit (with the free-floating, undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch tucked in the middle), the park is the last, best hope to keep the barbarians from the gate, despite our full knowledge that air pollution fails to respect park boundaries. Even the roads to get from top to bottom (Highway 85, in past years a quiet country lane of sorts) have been compromised, as the endless convoy of trucks has necessitated a lane expansion that would have been ridiculed a mere decade ago. So as one enters and exits Watford City – not an easy task, given the congestion – one is now faced with a journey to the North Unit no longer serene and soothed by child-like anticipation. Instead, we endure; a raucous chore in lieu of quietude. We are pensive as we embark, unable to shake the spirit of the park’s namesake. He built for empire, yes, and revered the push forward. But his conscience allowed for pause; a steady hand of balance, lest we tip too far into chaos. 
Despite the shock and awe of watching the world stripped clean, TR National Park earns its distinction as an unpolished jewel of 70,466 magnificently pristine acres. Curiously, the North Unit, while less popular given its distance from a convenient interstate, is the superior experience, as it possesses more dramatic vistas and a greater sense of isolation. The driving tour is less of a haul (14 miles, one-way), but its stops seem more representative of the whole, as if TR himself scripted a highlight reel of what shaped him so many years ago. As one begins, the usual visitor center (closed on this day, and temporarily moved to a Juniper Campground ranger station a few miles up the road) is left behind, as is any reminder of an encroaching world. Always to one’s left (reverse as you leave) is the Little Missouri River, a grand, life-giving waterway that acts as the perfect complement to the dramatic, otherworldliness of the badlands. While not as uniform as South Dakota’s badlands, TR’s version is arguably more striking, given the color and wildlife that defy the canyon’s exposed barrenness. Whereas the former inspires feelings of detachment, the latter retains a lived-in appeal, a more inviting land for exploration and engagement.

Among the stops are: the Slump Block Pullout (“huge sections of bluff that gradually slid intact to the valley floor”), the utterly unique Cannonball Concretions Pullout, Riverbend Overlook, and the grand finale, the Oxbow Overlook. The drive is unhurried and contemplative, and not without its surprises, as when the landscape turns completely over to grassland before swooping back to the main event near the river. Admittedly, as one looks out over the vast, untamed park, it must be said that it would (in theory) be a genuine treat to leave it all behind at set forth on a long hike or camping excursion. I’d never do it, of course, because I hate bugs and dirt and would rather die than inhabit the same sleeping quarters as a snake, but its ultimate appeal is not lost on me. It is here, of course, where my contrast with a man like Theodore Roosevelt is most nakedly obvious, and if his ghost could come back and have a say, it’s quite likely he’d bar my entry into the park altogether. “My park is a refuge for men,” he’d huff, before returning to his wrestling match with the nearest grizzly bear. Sensing a softness inherent to his moneyed class, TR set out to meet any and all physical challenges denied him in the womanly city. And from that first visit in 1883, he emerged more rounded, more unapologetically himself. He never fully left his upper crust New York life behind, of course (he’s perhaps the only man in history who could get away with reading poetry on the same day he shot a buffalo), but if a man must always be in the arena, that arena cannot exist as concrete and glass alone.

Leaving the breathtaking North behind (and driving right by the Elkhorn site, as only the hearty dare such a venture), visitors drive about an hour to the busier South Unit, which has the good sense of being set right next to I-94. Before heading in (and catching a glimpse of the ultra-kitschy town of Medora), the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and Overlook beckons, offering what is perhaps the best view in the entire park. It’s set apart from the Little Missouri, but nowhere else do the colors of the topography pop and shine as they do here. With that, and all the oohs and ahhs out of your system, the full-tilt Southern experience awaits, although we had the unfortunate timing to begin ours as the storm clouds rolled in. No matter, as the visitor center holds a piece of history so supremely awesome that it would have been worth the drive alone just to see it. Park, schmark, people, I’m standing face-to-face with the very undershirt Roosevelt was wearing when he was shot in Milwaukee, WI on October 14, 1912! And yes, that’s the actual bullet hole. While the knives and firearms were thrilling, this was a real-time connection to the one event that defines the man more than any other: when, despite having a bullet lodged in his chest, Teddy Ballgame insisted he finish his entire speech. And if you know TR, that’s the better part of an afternoon. To call him a stud is to reduce the word’s previous usage to tatters. In fact, this might be the toughest man who ever lived. Screw a mere National Park, the whole country should be renamed in his honor. 
Also located at the South Unit is the restored Maltese Cross cabin, which is best viewed with a spirited ranger tour. While much of the interior is reproduction and approximation, there is the actual writing desk, as well as a monogrammed trunk. Sure, the cabin was never actually located here, but it’s an important piece to help flesh out the story of Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota. After all, he wasn’t just some passive observer, vacationing in “the wild” in order to tell stories back home. He lived as he preached, ranching and hunting alongside more seasoned veterans of the prairie. Most importantly, the experience fanned within him the flames of conservation, which were appropriately channeled during his spirited presidency. It is, after all, impossible to imagine the National Park Service without him. Yellowstone predated his time in office, but had President McKinley not been felled by that bullet in Buffalo (if I’m not allowed to cheer Mr. Czolgosz, don’t ask me to damn him), the Antiquities Act would have been all but a dead letter, if it had been passed at all. It took a vigorous, balls-out champion to give the whole thing an unquestioned legitimacy. And it is here, at the South’s visitor center, where one can feel the man most intently. And if you leave here not fully in love, I’m not entirely sure it’s blood that courses through your veins.
The 36-mile scenic loop drive through the South Unit is, needless to say, a wonderful experience, but with dark clouds and evening settling in, it cannot be said that our time was maximized to the fullest. It felt rushed, if we’re being honest, though it remains a fair assessment to say that overall, it lacked the full vitality of the North. There are some dynamic pullouts (Skyline Vista, Beef Corral, Boicourt, Scoria Point), but too much of the drive was spent cursing the vehicle in front of us, as it held a creepy autistic boy who stood ramrod straight through the car’s sunroof while pointing his camera at everything that wasn't picture-worthy. We glanced to our sides when it was appropriate, but what nature hath wrought paled next to the Rain Man-ramblings of our unfortunate guest. We did see some wild horses near the end of the drive, though we’re certain even they were more trainable than the nitwit we just couldn’t shake. Still, life is rarely as serene as an amble through a National Park, even if that park is surrounded by forces that would, if the political winds would have it, subject this hallowed ground to the sting of the energy lobby’s whip. It’s reassuring to know all is currently off-limits, but forever seems so impossibly idealistic, and it’s only a matter of time – hopefully not while I still draw breath – before perceived necessity will bring the whole enterprise to its knees. The future is more than uncertain, it’s downright perilous.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Smoke on the Water: Pipestone Nat'l Monument 5/24/14

When you’ve gone over a year since your last NPS indulgence, and that last brush with the familiar, comforting arrowhead logo was the almost comically uninteresting Chickasaw National Recreation Area, you’re begging for anything to once again ignite the fires of travel. By this point, you’re almost prepared to revisit a nearby site, damn the mediocrity, if only to keep the demons at bay. So, when the opportunity to spend four days and three nights on the road opened before you like a nubile young lady, you took it, regardless of the overall quality of the destination. At first, there was Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument near Silver City, New Mexico, but some smartass decided to start a fire in the Gila National Forest, so circumstances forced a more northerly route. That left but one practical option (unless, of course, you wanted to drive through Kansas yet again for a few non-NPS museums), and while but a single passport stamp, it was still an official punch of the old inkpad. It would have to do. Somehow, it was more than enough. We are nothing without the highways and bi-ways of this great land, and sitting at home over the Memorial Day weekend might have left us with yet another unexplained murder-suicide for the authorities. No, we would see Minnesota. Barely, truth be told, but we’d cross the border nonetheless. We would visit Pipestone National Monument.
Conveniently located in the town of Pipestone, Minnesota, Pipestone National Monument is, above all, a humble, yet powerfully important slice of the American past. And, because we wanted to see it on this fine day, it was (naturally) on fire. Well, not right at this moment, but the site had seen a prescribed burn within 24 hours of our visit, and that left much of the tallgrass prairie decidedly crisp. The burns have been going on for decades, and while restorative and necessary, they can put on a damper on a visit that is expected to be, well, free of ash and the smell of smoke. I mean, really? Our last big trip to Idaho back in 2012 was a hot mess of burning lungs and Beijing-style skies, and here we were again, two years later, and we can’t seem to find a spot in all of North America not consumed by flames. As we arrived at the main entrance, we didn’t quite know what to think, and we’re not simply talking about the conflagration. We’ll admit it: we expected remote, tucked, and off the grid, and here we were, achingly close to roads and homes and gas stations. Yes, the precious pipestone quarries are where they have been for millions of years – and it is our civilization that has built up around them – but once again, our expectations took a little hit. From now on, we’re going to expect every single NPS site – including the National Parks – to be crushed into oblivion by billboards, pollution, and deafening noise, if only to make us pleasantly surprised in a good way when they go against the grain.
Preserved as a National Monument since 1937, Pipestone protects sacred Native American land, both as an apology for past sins, as well as a gift for future generations. You see, Pipestone is where many of the Great Plains Indians – from Sioux to Crow, Blackfoot to Pawnee – acquired the precious material to make the instruments later called “peace pipes” by the white man. The site’s unigrid puts it most succinctly: “Carvers prized this durable yet relatively soft stone that ranged in color from mottled pink to brick red….This location came to be the preferred source of pipestone among Plains tribes.” Such pipes became central to “ceremonial smoking,” which might involve anything from preparation for war to ritual healing and dancing. And while the pipes could take on many shapes (effigies ran the gamut of human and animal forms), the most “popular” (or at least well-known) are the t-shaped calumets. Naturally, the historical record quickly turns to the perspective of the first non-Indian to set foot in the area, George Catlin. Being the egomaniac that was his lot as a condescending paleface, he renamed the pipestone Catlinite,  which has an expectedly silly ring. The subsequent eye-rolling was no doubt universal. The site doesn’t tell us what eventually happened to old George, but here’s hoping someone carved something a little more profane into his headstone. What’s Cheyenne for “asshole”? 
The site’s visitor center, alas, is a relic from another time, and it’s quite possible it dates back to the Monument’s original declaration. The displays range from glorified diorama to “let’s use a font out of style since the Truman years,” though they are redeemed somewhat by the presence of Native artists, who spend their time crafting truly remarkable pieces. As expected, only federally recognized tribal members are authorized to pull pipestone from the area, and the waiting list for digging permits currently runs about five years. That it remains an active site adds to its charm, and for once, the presence of workers in a National Monument doesn’t bring forth visions of dreaded energy exploration. This is their land, and it’s best that they continue to draw inspiration from it. And if they make a little money from their wares, so much the better. The way I figure it, we’ll have paid them back in another 435 years or so. It is the site’s film, however, where things really come together. Titled Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy, the brief, yet informative documentary explores the meaning of the area (and the pipestone) by using the voices of those who matter, not the dry, academic opinions of outsiders. Populated by living, breathing members of various tribes, we come to see that this is not simply history, but an insight into a current (and complex) culture. As one person puts it: “As the cross and Bible are to you, the pipe is to us.” Well said, my good woman.
Out back, a ¾ mile Circle Trail leads visitors through the tallgrass (or at least what remained of it), pipestone quarries, and assorted rock formations. It’s important to remember that the pipestone is not easily captured, lying as it does beneath layers of tough quartzite. As such, the prize awaits only those willing to spend weeks, if not months, pounding away at the rock with sledge hammers and wedges. Despite the instruments, it is delicate work, as too furious a blow might damage the soft pipestone underneath. As the trail snakes through the rock, the sound of rushing water is heard. Soon, one is face to face with Winnewissa Falls. No, we’re not talking about Niagara here, but it is undeniably peaceful, and a pleasant contrast to the charred prairie that came before. Even better, the Falls mask the screams of the unsuspecting, as there are angry snapping turtles about, most of which dine exclusively on young flesh. At least that’s how I acted when I encountered one of the little buggers. Thankfully, several eagle-eyed visitors warned me as I was ambling up the stone steps, and I was able to run in the opposite direction with my tail between my legs. Otherwise, I might not be here to tell the tale. Fortunately, despite the site’s proximity to a town, the center of the Monument is devoid of distraction, and the walk remains a good-natured one, despite the smell of Uncle Joe’s campfire.
Pipestone National Monument isn’t really worth 1,400+ miles of driving all by itself, of course, but until you’re obsessed with passport stamps, you won’t really understand our plight. At the very least, we saw a new state (fine, only a few hundred yards of it) and here was a rare bird, indeed: a Native American site that did not involve a cliff dwelling or ruins. For that alone, we were happy to have a new perspective. There’s a great film, an easy walk, and nasty reptiles for all. And yes, above all, beautiful art; on display and in the mind’s eye. Indeed, NPS, we are glad to be back.