Sunday, April 26, 2009

Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 2

At the conclusion of last week’s posting, John Steinbeck, on a autumn, 1960 trip around the United States which he later described in Travels With Charley, had reached Down East Maine and the easternmost point of the United States. Having pledged from the outset of his trip to travel to the “rooftree of Maine,” he continued north and inland on U.S. Route 1 around Cobscook Bay and up along the St. Croix River where Champlain and his band of French explorers landed in 1604 and which now constitutes the border with Canada. Finally he had entered the vast and seemingly endless forests of northern Maine. This week I pick up Steinbeck’s trip as I follow his route through the northern tier of Maine, and his continuing journey back across New Hampshire and Vermont on his way to upstate New York and all points west. Thanks go out to my wife for sharing her fantastic collection of Maine postcards and for making available these fine reproductions.

It rained as Steinbeck and Charley continued north along the eastern edge of Maine. From time to time he would pull off the main highway to explore the narrow gravels roads where the dense pine forests crowded in on all sides. The Great North Woods of Maine, a thinly populated area of forest and lakes where deer, bear, moose, and other wildlife outnumber human inhabitants by a considerable margin, reminded him a great deal of his own native northern California. The forest stretched to the horizon in every direction, and even today they continue to reclaim areas that were farmland not that long ago. “The forests are marching back, and where farm wagons once had been only the big logging trucks rumble along.” Lumbering and paper manufacturing continue to this day in the small towns of Woodland, Brookton, Eaton, and Danforth.

The landscape began to change as I followed Steinbeck’s northerly route. At Weston the forests receded into the distance and I began to drive past apple orchards and neat farms with cultivated fields of hay and corn. At Hodgdon I arrived among the checkerboard patterned potato fields of Aroostook County, the largest in the United States and referred to locally as simply “The County.” Everyone knows what you are talking about.

Steinbeck visited Aroostook County at the height of the potato harvest. Having driven through miles of seemingly endless forests, Steinbeck emerged into “fields with the crumbly friable soil potatoes love.” Throughout the eastern part of the county, near the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Mars Hill, Presque Isle, and Caribou, he watched as mechanized potato diggers moved across the fields and flatbed trucks filled with barrels of the starchy tubers raised dust on gravel roads running along berms used to protect the fragile crop from the harsh weather of northern Maine. Before departing Sag Harbor, Steinbeck confessed that his journey would reveal its design as he traveled. Now, on the thumb of America protruding between Québec and Atlantic Canada, he had finally found his answer. “Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.” Of course, Steinbeck was no stranger to potatoes. Suffolk County, on the eastern end of Long Island, is another leading potato-growing area in the United States.

As I traveled northward across The County in early July the white and purple potato blossoms were just beginning to appear in the fields. New Potatoes were available at some roadside stands, and in the towns I passed through there was already talk of the upcoming autumn harvest. Schools throughout northern Maine close for a month so that the children can participate in the harvest, and just about everywhere I looked I saw potato barns and equipment sheds at the ready. The business district of Caribou was crowded with the offices of potato growers, brokers, and shippers, and large potato warehouses stood beside the railroad tracks running through town. The pickers – many of them are still French Canadians from nearby Québec and New Brunswick – would not arrive for several more weeks.

Having reached the top of Maine at Van Buren, Steinbeck turned westward along the St. John River, which like the St. Croix earlier on, forms the border with Canada. I followed this same route as it passed through the lumbering and paper mill towns of Madawaska and Upper Frenchville, to Fort Kent and the northern terminus of U.S. Route 1 (which begins at Key West). These communities were established by Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and although they are situated on the American side of the river, they have a great deal in common with their Canadian sister communities. One still hears a French patois spoken on the downtown streets.

At Fort Kent, Steinbeck turned south on State Route 11 and so did I since this was the only route of return unless I wanted to go back down Route 1. The Great North Woods with its many rivers and lakes envelops the intruder with pine forests. I proceeded down what Steinbeck called “the long reach of Maine,” through the small towns — Walgrass, Eagle Lake, Winterville, Portage, Squa Pan — well known to fishermen and hunters but to few others. Even today this area is much the same as Steinbeck found it almost fifty years ago; it had once been more settled, but many of the farms and settlements have been abandoned to the ever-encroaching forest. “Maine is just as long coming down as it is going up, perhaps longer,” Steinbeck confessed.

The town of Masardis is situated at the confluence of the Aroostook River and St. Croix Stream, and here the forests once again give over to fertile farmland and potato fields. “What I remember are the long avenues in the frost, the farms and houses braced against the winter,” Steinbeck wrote. “The flat, laconic speech in crossroad stores where I stopped to buy supplies.” He lamented that the “treasured and nostalgic picture of the village store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gathered to express opinions and formulate the national character, is very rapidly disappearing.” Today this is very much the case. Even in rural Maine these “Ma and Pa” stores cannot compete with the larger chain stores that seem to spring from the earth in even the smallest towns. Though one can still find an eclectic assortment of foods and other necessities, many of these small general stores have turned into video rental emporiums in order to survive. Luckily, one still finds the occasional local old-timer or two biding their time over a cup of coffee and solving the problems of the world.

Steinbeck returned to civilization at Millinocket, a bustling lumber town and, since the early 20th Century, home to the Great Northern Paper Company, one of the largest paper mills in the United States. “The mill towns, with all respect, are a knot of worms. You come out of serene country and suddenly you are tossed and battered by a howling hurricane of traffic,” Steinbeck observed. While in Millinocket he also noticed that “the air smells of chemicals, the rivers are choked and poisoned.” Although the Federal Water Pollution Clean-Up Act of 1972, led by U.S. Senator (and former Maine Governor) Edmund Muskie, who grew up near the paper mills in Rumford, has brought about an improvement in the air and water quality around Millinocket and elsewhere. I could still detect the strong, sour smell of fermenting wood as I drove through town. The paper mill has now fallen on hard times, filing for bankruptcy in 2003.

“For a time you fight your way blindly in the mad crush of hurtling metal and then suddenly it dies away and you are in serene and quiet countryside again.” Neither Steinbeck nor I had any good reason to stay in Millinocket any longer than was absolutely necessary, and we both quickly escaped back into the all encompassing forests. “And there is no margin or overlap. It is a mystery but a happy one.” Steinbeck had originally planned to visit nearby Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, but the threat of an early winter storm forced him to finally turn west and begin his long trek across the United States. “I had dawdled too long and it was getting cold and I had a vision of Napoleon at Moscow and the Germans at Stalingrad. So I retreated smartly.” He followed State Route 16 through the woods for almost 30 miles as it skirted countless lakes and ponds. There was little evidence of human habitation; just a few scattered houses, trailers, and cottages among the towering pines and shorter hardwood trees. “It’s very odd — I haven’t been very far from New York yet but I seem to have been on another planet.” It is still very much like that today. Back on U.S. Route 2, he retraced his route through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The autumn colors, so radiant just a few days earlier, had already begun to fade, and in some places the evergreens were encrusted by hoarfrost and the mountains quieted by an early snowfall. He spent a night along the Connecticut River, at Lancaster, New Hampshire, and that evening he wrote to his wife telling her that he had driven “rough and twisty” logging roads and described Maine as a “monster big state” and “a big empty place where people have been.” The next day he drove across Vermont and passed into New York near Rouses Point, on the northern end of Lake Champlain, leaving New England behind on his way across America.

Reluctantly, I left Maine behind and made my own way back across New Hampshire and Vermont to Burlington where I caught a plane home to Washington, DC. As I drove I thought back on my trip through Steinbeck’s Maine, a country still going back to forest. Several decades later and I was surprised, actually pleased, to find that so little has changed since John Steinbeck and Charley drove these roads. Both he and I mused about the places and the people we encountered along the way. Steinbeck needed to go on searching, to rediscover his America and figure out where he belonged. I am content to remain in Maine and perhaps this is why I choose to return here year after year. In Maine I have found the flavor and taste and sound of America. I need not look any farther.

NEXT WEEK: Entr’acte III - A Day on the Bay

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 1

I am already on record as a strong advocate of road trips to rediscover America. I learned this lesson from some of the best. Back in the January 19 posting ("Entr’acte I - Way Up in the Great North Woods") I made a reference about listening to John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley while driving through a blizzard in western Maine. In fact, I was traveling down some of the same roads that Steinbeck and Charley traveled back in the autumn of 1960. This reminded me of a previous trip I made through that region when I was purposefully following Steinbeck’s route through Maine on his great cross-country road trip, and I vowed that I would revisit this subject at the appropriate time. So this week’s and next week’s essays are a revision of an essay I wrote in the wake of that earlier trip and which was originally published in 2001 in Steinbeck Studies under the title "A Country Gone Back to Forest: In Search of John Steinbeck’s Maine." I want to express my continuing gratitude to Professors Susan Shillinglaw and Robert DeMott, two eminent Steinbeck scholars whom I first met at a gathering at Harvard University and both of whom were in part responsible for encouraging me in my own Steinbeck research and for overseeing the publication of the original essay. I look forward to seeing them again in late May at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association, in Boston. That said, it’s time to hit the road for Part I.

In 1960, John Steinbeck planned a road trip across the United States. "I’m going to learn about my own country," he wrote to a friend. "I’ve lost the flavor and taste and sound of it." Steinbeck was not the first or the last writer to consider such a trip. In 1951, Holiday magazine asked E.B. White to drive from coast to coast and write about what he discovered in postwar America. He set out from his home in Brooklin, Maine in September of that year, only to get as far as Pennsylvania before abandoning the trip and returning home claiming he was not prepared for such a trip "except in an ambulance." White preferred to stay home and write about life on his saltwater farm in Maine, a frequent topic in his essays and columns. I can’t say I blame him. As much as I find like road trips, there is something very appealing about a small farm on the coast of Maine.

The first leg of Steinbeck’s trip took him from his home in Sag Harbor, at the far eastern tip of Long Island, through New England and to the "rooftree of Maine." As it turns out, Steinbeck and I share a common understanding that any good road trip does not necessarily proceed from Point A to Point B by the quickest or shortest route. "It is not unlike me," Steinbeck wrote," that in heading toward the west I should travel east. That has always been my tendency." Mine, too. Some forty years later I headed out on my own trip through northern New England and Maine, driving many of the same roads Steinbeck traveled and trying to catch a glimpse of the landscapes and people he encountered along the way.

Having begun my road trip in Burlington, Vermont, I joined Steinbeck’s route at St. Johnsbury, in northeastern Vermont, where he turned east on U.S. Route 2, crossed the Connecticut River, and continued through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, past neat rural New England villages, toward Maine. As I was traveling in early July, I was not treated to the brilliant autumn colors bursting into flame that so impressed Steinbeck; the White Mountains were now a symphony of greens and grays. The roadside stands that offered Steinbeck golden pumpkins, russet squash, and baskets of red apples were now festooned with summer vegetables — golden ears of corn and red ripe tomatoes. The towns and villages I passed through were much the same as Steinbeck saw them (things change very slowly up in this neck of the woods) yet the shops and motels that were shuttered when he passed through were now open and brimming with guests who had escaped Boston and other northeastern cities during the Independence Day holiday. Indeed, I was also seeking respite from the heat and humidity of Washington, DC.

Steinbeck, who was driving a truck equipped with a small camper, spent his first night parked beside a small stream in the White Mountains. Lucky to find a vacancy, I spent the night in a small motel in Randolph, at the base of Mount Washington, in the Presidential Range. The next morning I awoke to beautiful weather – an azure blue sky with wispy white clouds high above the dark green summits. Route 2 enters Maine near Gilead and for the next several miles parallels the rock-strewn Androscoggin River, and from here Steinbeck rushed toward Deer Isle, on the coast, where his friend and agent Elizabeth Otis spent her summers. In his haste to reach the ocean, Steinbeck did not fully appreciate the beautiful countryside he was driving through; it appears that he paid little attention to the Oxford Hills of western Maine, where over the past three decades my family and I have spent our summer vacations, or to the Androscoggin River valley where logs once jammed the river for miles on their way down to the neighboring paper mill towns of Rumford and Mexico. These are blue-collar towns Steinbeck would have been very comfortable in. Nor did he take time to explore the rich farmland of the upper Kennebec River valley as he continued on toward Bangor.

I, on the other hand, was in no rush to reach the coast, and I drove leisurely from Gilead to Rumford and Mexico, once home to the largest paper mill in New England and still very much company towns although the paper industry in these parts has seen better days. I continued east on Route 2 through several small farming communities — Wilton, Farmington, New Sharon, Norridgewock to Skowhegan — and past cornfields and apple orchards along the Sandy and Kennebec rivers on my way to Bangor. This route probably saw more traffic when Steinbeck passed this way as it served as a major route across the state. Today, Interstate 95 is the main route in and out of Maine and Route 2 sees mostly local traffic, including logging trucks and summer visitors heading toward the more remote areas of western Maine.

Steinbeck did not make it all the way to Deer Isle in one day as he had planned and he ended up spending the night in a small motor court on the outskirts of Bangor "for the sake of a hot luxurious bathing." I chose a small motel very much like the one I imagined Steinbeck must have stayed in, and I could almost picture Charley and him in the next room, his camper parked under the tree outside my door. After a hot shower to settle the day’s dust, I passed on Steinbeck’s tumbler of vodka; I was quite happy with a bottle of warm beer that had been my copilot since I left Burlington the previous day.

Steinbeck got lost the next morning amid the confusion of stop lights and truck traffic funneling through Bangor on its way south toward Portland, or along the Airline Highway eastward to the Canadian border at Calais. Interstate 95 now runs through Bangor, accommodating most of this traffic, yet I was still forced to contend with heavily traveled roads and traffic lights trying to get out of the city. And once across the Penobscot River in Brewer, I encountered a seemingly endless chain of fast food restaurants and strip malls – mostly built since Steinbeck’s visit (unfortunately some things do change). Like Steinbeck before me, however, I was relieved to finally locate U.S. Route 1A to Ellsworth and the coast.

Fortunately, along this route I had an experience similar to one described by Steinbeck during the early part of his trip. An early morning breakfast at a roadside diner would seem to be the logical place to eavesdrop on the comings and goings of the local population. Such is not the case, however, and I have encounter similar situations throughout New England. "Breakfast conversation is limited to a series of laconic grunts. The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast," Steinbeck wrote. "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." This is what I chanced upon at a small diner near Lucerne-in-Maine. The booths situated along the front wall were empty and the few early morning customers, mostly truckers and workmen, sat on stools at the counter drinking coffee and eating breakfast. I joined them and ate in relative silence; all one heard was bacon sizzling, forks scratching plates, the whooshing of the ceiling fan, and the constant hum of traffic out on the highway – heavily traveled in the summer since Ellsworth, at one time the second largest lumber-shipping port in the world, is the gateway to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

Although Steinbeck passed this way in the autumn of 1960, he realized how different it must be to come here during the summer months. "The summer populations must be large and the roads and highways gorged with refugees from the sticky heat of Boston and New York." I could attest to the truth of this. Summer visitors come to this area of Maine because they expect to find a rocky coastline dotted with small, ramshackle fishing villages and indented with out-of-the-way coves, each home to sailing ships and lobster boats of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. These do exist, but one must sometimes look very hard to find them. The six miles between Ellsworth and the entrance to the park are now crowded with the detritus of modern civilization – gas stations, motels, fast food joints, putt-putt golf courses, water parks, and tourists driving huge recreational vehicles and campers of every description. Much of this did not exist forty years ago when Steinbeck drove through here. Lucky guy!

Steinbeck did not visit Acadia National Park and I was just as happy to pass all of this by and return to our original route – the narrow roads bordered by the ubiquitous lupine and other wildflowers as they cross the rocky peninsula at the head of Penobscot Bay. Here are blueberry barrens and picturesque villages such as the wealthy summer colonies of Blue Hill and Sedgewick with their beautiful homes and well-tended gardens. Steinbeck passed only a short distance from E.B. White’s farm in nearby Brooklin where his fellow writer began his own abbreviated cross-country trip nine years earlier. Having read White’s evocative essays about life on his Maine farm where he lived for years until his death in 1985, I made a brief detour to Brooklin where he lies buried in the local churchyard beside his son Joel who was a master boatbuilder here until his own death just a few years ago.

Arriving at Sargeantville at the bottom end of the peninsula, Steinbeck found Deer Isle "that nestles like a suckling against the breast of Maine." He crossed the old iron bridge "as high-arched as a rainbow" built in 1938 over Eggemoggin Reach, one of the state’s premier sailing waters, and found his way down dirt roads through fog-laced pine groves. "Each pine tree was itself and separate even if it was a part of a forest." He noted that the area reminded him of Dorset, Dartmoor, and Somerset, in the southwest of England. I crossed the same bridge – an impressive structure with its steep-pitched roadway – and from its apex there was a wonderful view of the "isle" with its quiet woods and dirt roads running from the main road to small waterfront summer cottages located on tidal coves and rocky headlands. I imagined it looked the same as it did in back in 1960 - to the north is the solitary outline of Blue Hill; to the east lies Mount Desert Island and 1,500-foot high Cadillac Mountain; to the south are the blue waters and scattered islands of Penobscot Bay. The Camden Hills lie green on the horizon to the west. I found myself once again looking toward Portugal.

While on Deer Isle Steinbeck visited Stonington located at the island’s far southern shore. The town, which is an interesting blend of genteel summer residents and rough-and-ready lobstermen and fishermen, comes by its name honestly. All along the nearby shoreline are pink granite formations and the harbor is filled with small rocky islets. There are also several quarries nearby. Given its location, it is not surprising that Stonington and the nearby Deer Isle Thorofare have long been home to prominent sailors and yachtsman. Steinbeck got into the spirit of the place, purchasing lobsters at one of the waterfront pounds for dinner and remarking: "There are no lobsters like these - simply boiled, with no fancy sauces, only melted butter and lemon, they have no equal anywhere." Today one can still purchase lobsters along the waterfront at a fraction of what one would pay in a restaurant back home (and people keep asking me why I like Maine so much).

Although Stonington is still a working fishing village with lobster boats moored in the harbor and tied up along the municipal pier, Deer Isle is home to a growing summer population and trendy art galleries and restaurants entice visitors to the area. It is not uncommon to see more cars with New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut license plates than ones with local tags. I decided not to stay long, but it would have been a shame to be on the coast without feasting on a lobster (or two). The local lobster coop had just what I was looking for – a typical "shore dinner" including twin lobsters served with steamer clams, corn on the cob, cole slaw, and blueberry pie. Steinbeck enjoyed his brief respite on the island and came to understand why Elizabeth Otis returned to Deer Isle every summer. "There is something about it that opens no doors to words. But it stays with you afterwards, and, more than that, things you didn’t know you saw come back to you after you have left." Many people, myself included, feel this way when they visit the coast of Maine. I return every summer, and I constantly ask myself why I ever left in the first place. But leave I must and I retraced Steinbeck’s return to Ellsworth.

From there he continued further "up the coast" (although locals prefer to say they are going "down east") along U.S. Route 1 through what is even today a thinly populated yet desolately beautiful region. I am curious why Steinbeck had so little to say and write about this area. As I followed his same route along the northern end of Frenchman’s Bay and past Gouldsboro Bay, I enjoyed the roadside fields of lupine and the broad panoramic view of the Schoodic Peninsula and the coastal hills to the south, and of Mount Desert Island and the impressive stone face of Cadillac Mountain at its center. The crowds of summer tourists aimed at Acadia National Park were behind me now as the coastline grew more wild and isolated. Like Steinbeck before me, I passed through several villages – Steuben, Millbridge, Cherryfield, Columbia Falls, Jonesboro, Machias, Perry, and South Robbinston – where lumbering, fishing, and clamming are still the major industries. Millbridge, where the Narraguagus River opens to the sea, claims to be the Christmas wreath capital of the world, and the photogenic town of Cherryfield, also on the Narraguagus River, was once a prosperous lumber town and shipbuilding center. The barque Belgrade, famous for carrying over fifty local men around Cape Horn to the California gold rush, was constructed here, although the town is now hailed as the blueberry capital of the world since nearly 90% of the wild blueberries grown in the United States are harvested in this area (hence the practice of eating blueberry pie after a traditional lobster dinner). By the time Steinbeck came through here in 1960, the blueberry harvest was over. In July, however, the rocky barrens were in full bloom as I continued eastward beyond the Narraguagus where balsam firs began to line the road, and towns and farms grew smaller and further apart.

The whitewashed New England villages giving way to the unpainted and weatherbeaten structures Steinbeck saw as he passed this way. "The houses had a snow-beaten look, and many were crushed and deserted, driven to the earth by the winter." The only town of any size along this route is Machias (including East Machias and Machiasport), another center of the blueberry industry. It was here that the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought when the upstart Americans captured the British schooner Margaretta and convinced our founding fathers of the importance of establishing an American navy.

Having traveled to the easternmost point of the United States, Steinbeck could have turned west at Calais, on the Canadian border, and driven 90 miles along State Route 9, the Airstream Highway, back to Bangor and from there continue his westward journey to California. Instead, he held to his promise to travel to the "rooftree of Maine." Following Route 1 north around Cobscook Bay and away from the sea, Steinbeck paralleled the St. Croix River where Champlain and his band of French explorers landed in 1604. Here he entered the vast and seemingly endless forests of northern Maine. "I felt as Peary must have when he approached what he thought was the North Pole." Ironically, it was here that Steinbeck crossed the 45th parallel, the half-way point between the Equator and the North Pole.

NEXT WEEK: Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 2"

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Grand and Noble Beast

Last week’s essay on the arrival of the cherry blossoms and springtime here in Washington certainly resonated with many of you. Your responses were gratefully received and appreciated and I always enjoy hearing from folks. So please feel free to drop me a line whenever.

I am very sorry for the delay in posting this essay on the American bison. I have been promising it for the past month or so, but it took longer than I expected to get it down on paper. Now it’s time to share it with you. Also, check out the recommended links where I have listed some bison-related websites. Happy reading!

Like most Americans, I grew up hearing stories of how the bison herds of yesteryear covered the prairies from horizon to horizon. As a child I occasionally saw one or two - we called them buffalo back then - in a small enclosure at one zoo or another. I also recall seeing small herds of bison - a couple dozen head at most - pastured and grazing among the wheat fields of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta as I drove across the Canadian prairies during my first major road trip during the summer of 1970. Not anywhere close to the numbers I read about when I was younger, but for an American city boy their numbers were impressive enough. Still, I never really thought much about bison and their place in the pantheon of iconic American symbols. In many ways they have become, perhaps, the most iconic of all. So it is a national shame what we have done to them.

I never encountered bison in the wild until the early autumn of 2004 when my wife and I first visited Yellowstone National Park. We entered the park at West Yellowstone, Montana and after crossing into Wyoming we immediately began to see evidence of the awesome destruction wrought by the 1988 North Fork Fire which consumed much of the timberland in the Madison and Gallatin mountain ranges in this northwestern quadrant of the park. We drove along the Madison River for several miles and soon came across a herd of what I estimated to be 30-40 bison quietly grazing along the river bank. As long as we did not venture too close, they did not seem to pay much attention to us. Bison in Yellowstone may look docile and slow moving, but one should not be lulled into a false sense of security. They may appear to be ambling along, but should one or all of them decide to run, they can clock out at 30-40 mph from almost a dead start. Strong leg tendons also allow them to jump vertically to a height of six feet, and 14 feet horizontally. We saw proof of this a few days later, but during this first encounter we ended up just sitting there for quite a while and watching them as they slowing sauntered along the river. I almost forgot that this stretch of the river is one of the premier trout fishing waters in this area, so fascinating are these wonderful animals.

We also encountered a large herd wandering the grasslands and neighboring hillsides of the Lamar River valley, in the eastern section of the park. Here we roamed the trails around Soda Butte where we found evidence of wallows where bison either bedded down or rolled in the dirt to rid themselves insects and other nuisances. We glassed the surrounding hills and spotted a small herd moving single-file along a deep cut trail above the river. It was beginning its autumn trek from higher to lower elevations where food and shelter would be more abundant during the fast-approaching cold weather months (in the spring they will return to the higher elevations). In the valleys they would gather into larger herds in which rivalry among the bulls would surface.

Probably our most impressive encounter came while wandering through the thermal fields near Old Faithful. Here we chanced upon two small rival herds whose bulls were challenging one another for supremacy. This is a frequent occurrence in late summer and early autumn, during the peak mating season and later when the bulls are protecting their harem, and this encounter provided a few anxious moments. While the heifers and adolescents stood by on the sidelines, several bulls began to tangle - jumping up and down, grunting loudly, charging one another and butting heads. Usually it did not take long for one or the other to retreat, but there were two bulls that would not give up. As they continued to struggle they moved ever closer to where we were standing and watching. Unfortunately there was no place for us to go hemmed in as we were by the active geysers and thermal fields. Fortunately, the battle ended before they got too close and the defeated and bloodied bull walked right past us, oblivious to everything else.

After returning home from our trip to Yellowstone, I began to read a great deal on the history and plight of the American bison. Some of the information was contained in general and detailed studies on the Great Plains, North American wildlife, and wildlife and habitat conservation. To this day I try to read everything I can on the subject. Two books in particular stand out and I highly recommend them to anyone who shares my interest. The first is Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart (2002), a copy of which I picked up during a subsequent early spring visit to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including a return to the bison herds in Yellowstone National Park. O’Brien tells of his own effort to restoring life to his cattle ranch in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota by replacing his beef cattle with bison. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) called O’Brien’s memoir a "poignant portrayal of our link to the land, and to each other." I also just finished Steven Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon (2008) which Jim Harrison calls a "boldly original and ultimately refreshing book." An understatement if I ever read one. I think Rinella captures my own feeling about the American bison. "I sometimes imagine that we saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction for the simple reason that the animal provided a handy mirror in which we could see our own innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. Our efforts to use the buffalo as a looking glass have rendered the animal almost inscrutable."

So why are bison so damn fascinating? The American bison is the largest indigenous animal in North America. Often referred to simply as buffalo in common nomenclature following the American Revolution, it is believed that the earliest predecessors of today’s bison moved from Siberia across the Bering land bridge and dispersed throughout the continent. Its primary habitat, however, was the grasslands of what is today the Great Plains stretching from Alberta and Saskatchewan, in western Canada, to the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains) between the Mescalero and Caprock escarpments of the Texas Panhandle. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his party were probably the first Europeans to venture forth on the Great Plains during the mid 16th century and his reports referred to immense herds of a strange breed of humpbacked cattle that ran wild and appeared to be indigenous to the region. "I found such a quantity that it is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains, until where I first found them, there was not a day that I lost sight of them."

The American bison, according to Theodore Roosevelt who had observed them in their native habitat from Texas to North Dakota and understood the threats they faced, is a "truly grand and noble beast, and his loss from our prairies and forests is as keenly regretted by the lover of nature and of wildlife as by the hunter." When the continent was first settled by the Europeans in the early 17th century, the bison roamed from coast to coast. The earliest English settlers along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay encountered herds of bison in the nearby forests. By the time of American independence, in 1776, much of the Eastern Seaboard had been settled and cultivated and the bison herds had moved westward, beyond the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains, to an area between what is now Tennessee and Ohio. American settlers moving west frequently used the established "buffalo trails" to their new homes beyond the eastern mountains. At the beginning of the 19th century, most of these herds had been decimated or driven beyond the Mississippi River to establish what Roosevelt called "the most distinctive and characteristic features of existence on the great plains."

There was no real threat to the early existence of the bison on the Great Plains. There were adequate sources of food and water and these strong and vigorous animals were well designed to handle the cold and harsh winters. The Native Americans on the Great Plains came to count on the bison as a principal source of food, clothing, shelter, and tools. The meat is high in protein whether it is cooked, smoked, or dried. These tribes often fought to establish and defend supremacy over favored hunting grounds, but since the hunting was often done on foot and using only spears and arrows, the bison population was allowed to flourish.

Over two and a half centuries after Coronado first encountered the enormous bison herds on the Great Plains, the Lewis and Clark expedition made its great voyage of discovery from the Mississippi River, via the Missouri and other rivers, to the northwest coast where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean. Already in September, 1804 Lewis reported that the expedition had reached the confluence of the White and Missouri rivers along the Pine Ridge escarpment marking the beginning of the wide Missouri plateau (today south central South Dakota). It was here the expedition first encountered a huge herd of buffalo. "I do not think I exaggerate [sic]," Lewis reported. "I estimate the number of Buffaloe [sic] which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3000."

With the westward settlement following in the wake of Lewis and Clark and other expeditions opening up the Great Plains, the Native American tribes found they had to protect their traditional hunting grounds not only from other tribes, but from white hunters and trappers who brought with them horses and new and modern weapons allowing them to hunt more efficiently and across a larger area. The Native American tribes also began to hunt with horse and guns, and employed the "pishkin," a Blackfoot term translated as "buffalo jump," where tribal members disguising themselves with bison skins snuck up behind a herd and forced it off a nearby precipice and on to the rocks below. Like their new competitors, these tribes operated under the misconception that the immense bison herds were a limitless resource. Yet, while the Native Americans continued to use as much of the animal as possible for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, the new settlers frequently took only the tongue (long considered a delicacy and much in demand) and the hide while leaving the rest of the carcass to rot on the prairies.

The Métis perfected the "industrial slaughter" of bison in order to sell meat and hides in the Dakotas and Montana, and the bison population decreased gradually until after the Civil War when settlers once again began to move west. But it was the coming of the railroads in the latter half of the 19th century that spelled doom for the American bison. The Union Pacific began in Omaha in 1865 and four years later it had extended to Utah where it joined another railroad from the west thus becoming the first transcontinental railway. In doing so, it split the bison population on the Great Plains into a northern and southern herd. The Santa Fe Railroad and the Kansas-Pacific branch of the Union Pacific further bifurcated the southern herd. Buffalo Bill, an almost mythical character in American history and popular culture, is reported to have killed over 4000 bison in an 18-month period in order to feed the railroad construction crews. The railroads also made it more economical to transport bison-related products to markets back east. Bison hides had been found to be a source of high grade leather and were much in demand in domestic and foreign tanneries. Bones became a source of fertilizer.

The demand for these items grew and as a result more bison had to be killed to meet these demands. The first of the large-scale extermination operations began near Dodge City, Kansas, in the early 1870s, and these soon extended into western Oklahoma and the Llanos Estacado of the Texas Panhandle where Teddy Roosevelt had his first lesson in the dangers facing the American bison. Even though there were traditional Native American hunting grounds in this area protected by treaty, the skin and bone hunters continued to kill millions of bison throughout this area. The two-year period of 1872-1874 marked the peak of the near total extermination of the American bison. By 1875 over 25 million bison had been killed - literally slaughtered for their hides - and the southern herd had been virtually decimated with only a few isolated small herds left in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas. The last of the Llanos Estacado bison was killed in 1880. Five years earlier the herd had covered 50 square miles.

The Northern Pacific Railroad moved across the Dakotas and into western Montana, further dividing the northern herd. By 1881 it had reach Miles City, Montana which became a center for hunters seeking out this herd. By 1883 - just two short years later - there was only one remaining large herd, in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. That year the state passed a law protecting the herd . . . too little too late. A North American herd once estimated number over 30 million had virtually disappeared.

The last of the free-roaming bison in Canada was killed in 1883; in 1891 in the United States. The only moderate size herd - less than 1000 bison - left in North American were in Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, and in a handful of other smaller reserves in western Montana. Samuel Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, saved a few orphaned calves and established the National Bison Range in the Flathead Valley of western Montana. Similar experiments saved the bison from extinction and over 12,000 bison lived in the United States and Canada by the end of World War I. Scions of this herd were later introduced to Yellowstone and it was their descendants that my wife and I watched with fascination during our visits to the park.

Today there is an estimated 500,000 bison in North America although only 4% are free-roaming on government and public land, and up to 10% of these wild bison succumb each year to disease (frequently water-borne vectors), accidents, predators and the weather. The remaining animals are all privately owned. Ted Turner’s half-million acre Vermejo Park Ranch in northeastern New Mexico is home to the only privately owned, genetically pure bison herd.

There are two bison farms only an hour or so north of where we live here in Maryland. Both are situated in the rolling farmland north of Baltimore and along the Pennsylvania state line. We have been visiting one of these - Twin Springs Bison Farm in Lineboro, Maryland - for the past few years in order to stock our freezer with various cuts of high-quality bison meat which contain only a fraction of the fat and calories found in beef. Now I better understand why the Native Americans honored the bison as a mainstay of their culture and traditions. This family-owned and operated farm was establish in 1999 and is now home to a 100+ head herd roaming over 300 beautiful rural acres. During a recent visit to Lineboro the owners told us about the annual bison auction sponsored by the Eastern Bison Association and held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, in Harrisburg. My wife and I marked our calendar and drove up to Pennsylvania on the appointed day.

Sally Ann grew up on Florida cattle ranches and whenever she smells the strangely fragrant odor of cattle country she constantly reminds me that "it smells like home." She had been to cattle auctions before, but the bison auction in Harrisburg was unlike anything I had ever seen before. No longer roaming the open range or pastures, here they were segregated into holding pens based on their size and gender. Before the auction tentative buyers (and those of us who were just curious) wandered among these pens to get a close-up look at the animals before the bidding began. Upon close inspection - close enough to feel the heat and moisture of their breathe - I was reminded just how magnificent these animals truly are. On the drive home that afternoon I thought back on the long and tortured history of the bison and I am thankful that they are finally making a comeback in the United States through sustainable livestock management programs. The American bison is a reminder of what Steven Rinella calls "a frontier both forgotten and remembered."

NEXT WEEK: Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cherry Blossoms Mean Springtime in Washington, DC

The blossoming of the Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, and the attendant National Cherry Blossom Festival, is an annual springtime rite of passage here in Washington, DC. After several rather drab winter months - often cold and wet even if we seldom see more than a few inches of snow that quickly melt - the beginning of spring is usually heralded by the sudden emergence of bright yellow forsythia blossoms, and the dark green shoots of infant crocuses, daffodils and tulips. But it is the arrival of the cherry blossoms - sakura - that signals the true end of winter. Those of us who reside in and around Washington receive regular reports from the National Park Service as to when we might expect the blossoms to peak. When they finally do, residents and tourists from far and wide descend on the Tidal Basin. The Metro subway trains add cars and they are fuller than usual. Schedules are expanded to accommodate the great influx of people and their wallets who come to town to attend the festival and to observe up close and personal the reawakening of our nation’s capital after a long and relatively quiet winter.

The idea of planting Japanese flowering cherry trees on reclaimed land along Washington’s Potomac River waterfront dates back as early as 1885, but it was not until 1906 that there was any serious attempt to learn whether these trees could survive and reproduce in Washington’s climate. It was exactly 100 years ago, in April 1909, that First Lady Helen Herron Taft took up the cause and almost immediately the city of Tokyo offered to donate 2000 trees for the waterfront plantings. The first of these trees came not from Japan, but from a commercial nursery located in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The formal donation of the trees from Tokyo finally came in August 1909, and they arrived by ship at Seattle in December of that year, and in Washington by train in early 1910. Unfortunately, they had been severely pruned for shipping and were found to be diseased and infested with insects. On January 28, 1910, President William Howard Taft ordered all of these trees, as well as their wrapping and the bamboo packing cases, to be burned immediately. Over the years there have been persistent rumors that some of these original trees were spared the flames and were planted at Hains Point, in East Potomac Park at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. There are a few gnarly looking older trees there, but most people in the know believe this story is nothing more than an urban myth.

Despite this rather embarrassing setback, the governments of the United States and Japan worked together to rectify the situation, and in early 1912 over 3000 stronger Yoshino hybrid trees were shipped to Seattle and then by rail in special freight cars, to Washington. The first of these new trees were planted on the north side of the Tidal basin on March 27, 1912, an event that eventually gave rise to the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. These trees still stand to this day. The rest of the trees were planted around the Tidal Basin, and in East Potomac Park situated just to the south.

The cherry trees became the focus of the widespread opposition to construction of the Jefferson Memorial at the southern end of the Tidal Basin, beginning in late 1938. This construction necessitated the removal of a number of the trees along with several mature elms, a key landscaping element in Pierre l’Enfant’s original design for the capital city. Construction continued even as the opposition mounted, including instances when protestors had themselves tied to the trees in order to prevent their removal and destruction. Today, however, the Jefferson Memorial has become a lasting symbol of the National Cherry Blossom Festival and I dare say that no one visiting the Tidal Basin in early spring has not taken a photograph of the Memorial framed by the white and pale pink sakura.

Washington’s cherry trees flourished for almost three decades and came to symbolize the advent of spring as well as the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan. This came to an end on the morning of December 7, 1941, and several of the trees were cut down in the days following the bombing attack on Pearl Harbor. In order to save the surviving trees, they suddenly became known as “Oriental” flowering cherry trees . . . sort of like renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries” during the war in Iraq. The cherry trees declined during the war years as a result of general disinterest and the cancellation of the annual festival until 1947, and the protests against their removal at the Jefferson Memorial construction site vanished. Ironically, the parent stock in Tokyo also fell on hard times during the war, and an important symbol of the postwar reconciliation between the two countries occurred in 1952, when the United States government, through the auspices of the National Park Service, offered to ship to Japan cuttings from the descendant trees in Washington in order to help rejuvenate the original grove of cherry trees along the Arakawa River, in Tokyo.

The Japanese government reciprocated with another gift of 3800 additional Yoshino trees in 1965 as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s program to beautify Washington. These trees were planted north of the Tidal Basin, in the vicinity of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Various breed stocks are also the subject of research conducted at the National Arboretum, and the flowering cherry trees continue to represent the active long-term cooperation between the United States and Japan to ensure the sustenance of these beautiful trees in both countries. In 1999, a new generation of cuttings were planted to guarantee the survival of the cherry trees along the banks of the Potomac River.

As I reported a couple weeks ago, April 1 was pegged by the National Park Service as the day the blossoms would peak. And they did just that! They began to pop out on March 28 and they are expected to remain with us for another week or so, until around April 11. The peak has been quite spectacular this year despite some inclement weather - heavy rains followed by strong, gusty winds - which arrived on the heals of the blossoms. My wife made her annual pilgrimages (she goes as many days as she can) to the Tidal Basin to enjoy and photograph the blossoms in all their splendor (some of which I share with you here). Although I have gone down in past years, I did not go this year. I am not a big crowd person and it is safe to say that tens of thousands make the grand tour of the Tidal Basin on any given day. Instead, I participated in a newer rite of spring here in Washington, DC . . . the kick-off of the new baseball season with a final exhibition game between the hometown Nationals and the bad boys from Charm City - the Baltimore Orioles. It was an opportunity to meet the players and wish them well on what will only be an uphill season. I ate a ballpark dog with a couple of brews and cheered the Nats on to a 5-4 victory. Whether it is the arrival of the cherry blossoms . . . or the first ball game of the year . . . spring has arrived in Washington, DC.

NEXT WEEK: A Grand and Noble Beast . . . finally!!