Archive | October, 2014

On The Road ( American Style).

28 Oct

We’ve just been on an epic American road trip — over 3000 miles in 15 days. OK, I admit it, we cheated and went by coach. But it still counts doesn’t it? We crossed the Great Plains, meandered through the towering mountain ranges and traversed the High Desert country of western USA. We were driving along the routes of the settlers and pioneers of previous centuries, who travelled ever westwards in search of a new life. It was fabulous- for us that is, not for them. Thinking back on it now, I can conjure up vivid images of endless landscapes, huge skies and constantly receding horizons. Despite the cop-out of going on a guided tour, it was still a fabulous, mind-expanding experience I feel.
Road trips and America seem to go hand in hand. This country/continent is so vast and, outside the big cities, so empty, that the traveller is liable to be overwhelmed and swallowed-up by it all. It’s almost as if one becomes part of the landscape. One gets a great sense of one’s own insignificance in the great scheme of things. The feeling can be powerful. I felt it even though I was sharing the experience with 40 other travellers. We were a large group and had a large coach which ate up the miles, but we were still easily consumed by the vastness of the lands that we were passing through. Somehow, one never gets that feeling in Britain, a crowded island with equally crowded roads. The M1, M25 or the A1 just bring up images of: roadworks, congestion, accidents and traffic jams. I dread having to drive along them. Instead of being a means of escape, they are something I want to escape from. I imagine it’s like that in America’s big cities — all those 6 lane highways filled with constant streams of traffic.( I had a brief experience of that in Miami and Orlando, on an earlier trip.) However, in the wide open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah it is a completely different story. The empty highway, stretching to a distant horizon, represents freedom rather than captivity.
Sometimes as I gazed at the never-ending prairies or got a crick in my neck trying to see the tops of mountain peaks, I had to pinch myself just to check that it was real. You see, I had done this American road trip many times before in my imagination. Countless films, songs and books had taken me on vicarious journeys through this same epic countryside. The classic “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac or, on a lighter note, Bill Bryson’s humorous “The Lost Continent”, both, in their different ways, take the reader on great journeys across the length and breadth of the USA. The road movie is a major film genre, from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider” in the 60’s, “Paper Moon” and “Five Easy Pieces” in the 70’s, to films like: “Thelma and Louise”, David Lynch’s “The Straight Story”, “Sideways” and “Little Miss Sunshine” in more recent decades. The genre typically has the main character(s) travelling from place to place and the experience giving them a different perspective on life from that of their everyday existence. The film is about the journey rather than the destination. The time taken on the road places the traveller in a sort of vacuum. It’s a no-man’s land, situated in-between two worlds. The miles that have to be covered allow ample time for reflection such that it becomes an emotional as well as a geographical journey.
A lot of popular music, especially from America, covers much of the same territory. I have been taken on countless journeys courtesy of my radio or stereo speakers. Songs about hobos and about life on the open road. Songs about travelling but never quite getting there, or about returning home but not getting the anticipated reception. Then there are the restless songs about constant wandering or songs about escape, with the road representing freedom and the hope of a better future. If I listed all the titles, we would be here all day. Just off the top of my head I think of : “24 Hours to Tulsa” ( Gene Pitney), “Hit the Road Jack” ( Percy Mayfield), “On the Road Again” ( Canned Heat), “Route 66″ ( The Rolling Stones), ” Fast Car” ( Tracey Chapman), “Ramblin’ Man” ( The Allman Brothers) and “Me and Bobby McGhee” ( Kris Kristofferson). Then of course there is Bruce Springsteen’s most loved song ( at least by me) “Born to Run” or, on the same album: “Thunder Road” — “–roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Sometimes it seems as if I’ve always been on the road in America, travelling the wide-open highways that are such a contrast from the often crowded roads of England. Maybe reading those books, listening to those songs and watching those road movies had a lot to do with my constant yearning to travel, ( apart from my dad being a railway- engine driver that is.) In one way or other I have been journeying through America for most of my life, despite only actually ever been there in the flesh twice. I clearly remember one night in the mid 1970’s, just after I had purchased my first pair of headphones, staying up late and unwinding by listening to Joni Mitchell’s latest offering “Hejira.” I soon left my everyday world of school- teaching and family- life to enter the alternative world of the American highway. Wikipedia tells me that the title is a transliteration of the Arabic word “Hijra”, which means “journey”. I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that it was a wonderfully restless album full of road- trip imagery such as: highways, small towns, motels, cafes, skies and deserts. I got sucked into that world and temporarily forgot that I was actually sitting still in a semi-detached house in north-west Sheffield. The album was largely written by Joni while on a long trip by car from Maine to California. She explained that the album has “this restless feeling throughout it. The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Thus I listened to lines such as :”A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”, “I’m driving in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some cafĂ©” or on the last track ” You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms, Or this baggage overload, Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads.”
Rewinding nearly two decades, back to when I was a child in the very early 60’s, I was already fascinated by travel across the great expanses of the North American continent. I distinctly remember one Monday evening when my sister and I were excitedly waiting for the TV engineer to arrive and put up our ITV aerial. We already had BBC but we were now desperate to acquire the Independent Television channel because it had exciting American programmes such as “Wagon Train”. This was a popular western series about the adventures of settlers heading west in covered wagons to start new lives as farmers, ranchers or prospectors. “Wagon Train” was screened on a Monday evening so it was a race against time. In those days of only 2 channels and no recording or playback facilities, you had to catch a show when it was screened or miss it for good. (We didn’t then realise that there would be endless repeats on daytime TV at a future date.) Would the engineer get the new TV aerial up before that night’s episode? He did, thank goodness! We kids were given special permission to stay up late to see “Wagon Train even though it was a school night. It didn’t finish until 9-30pm, half an hour past our usual deadline!
“Wagon Train” which screened from 1957 to 1965 told the stories of travellers heading west in covered wagons from post Civil War Missouri to California or Oregon. It was set in the 1870s. The wagons travelled through the plains, deserts and Rocky Mountains led by the gruff, but good at heart Major Seth Adams ( Ward Bond) and guided by the dashing, buckskin-clad frontier scout Flint McCullough ( Robert Horton). For some reason, Robert Horton was one of my earliest heroes, beating even Cliff Richard into second place! I was only 10/11 at the time — that’s my excuse. The series also featured comedy turns from a grizzled old cook called Charlie B Wooster ( Frank McGrath.) Each episode concentrated on the characters on one particular wagon. The wagons were pulled by teams of horses and met many dangers on the way including: dust storms, drought, hunger, disease and attacks from bandits or “Indians.” In the latter instance the wagons would go into a defensive circle to fight the attackers off. For some of the travellers there was a happy ending, but for others there was not. It was all extremely exciting in the context of my short, sheltered life and maybe planted some early seeds that eventually resulted in me making that recent North American road trip.
In reality, the pioneers heading west had to endure much tougher conditions than those depicted on that early TV series. I found this out on my trip. We seemed to constantly criss-cross the Oregon/California Trail. First of all we visited Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, an important staging post on the settlers’ journey, as well as being a cavalry fort and a Pony Express station. Later we came across the historic trail again as we passed through part of Idaho and stopped at the National Oregon/California Trail centre in the tiny town of Montpelier. I found out that the TV myths didn’t always match reality.
For a start most settlers purchased 4 to 6 oxen rather than horses to pull their wagons. Oxen were stronger and cheaper although a lot slower than horses. Also, they were less likely to be stolen by “Indians” or bandits. Oxen could easily feed off the prairie grasses. In fact the slowness of these beasts suited the pioneers as they invariably walked beside the wagon which was filled with their essential possessions and provisions. Many walked barefoot. Only the old and sick would get a ride. Between 1841 and 1900, over 300,000 Americans of all ages and types sold most of their possessions, purchased wagons and headed west on an epic 2000 mile journey. The journey took 5 to 6 months. The Rockies had to be crossed before the winter set in otherwise disaster loomed. Many didn’t make it. 1 in 10 died on the way — from cholera, poor sanitation, starvation, exposure or accidents. Many were buried on the trail to protect their bodies from scavenging wild animals. “Indian” attacks were fairly rare and in fact, in many cases, especially in the early days, the native Americans helped the white settlers travelling across their land.
At the Oregon/California Trail Centre there was a lovely exhibition of beautiful hand-made quilts. We learnt about the importance of quilts on the treks. What would you say the 4 main uses were? Well, first of all they kept the travellers warm. Secondly they provided privacy as they could be turned into screens. Thirdly they could be traded with the Native tribes. Lastly they were used as burial shrouds when someone perished on the trek. All of this sort of information made us feel very humbled as we re-boarded our luxury coach to be transported effortlessly on to our next comfortable hotel.
It was a great road trip. Thank you to Travelsphere, our tour guide Dean, and our driver Ching for organising it all and making it so memorable. We saw lots of stupendous scenery, met kind and interesting people and learnt heaps of fascinating history. In a way this trip joined up lots of different episodes in my life and made sense of them. All those travel books, songs and movies now got recalibrated in my mind. The experience was no longer a second hand one. I have now gained my own personal memories and photos. Like all great road trips it taught me a lot and helped to put my everyday life at home into sharper perspective. That’s what all good travel is about. It wasn’t always relaxing and it certainly wasn’t a holiday in the “resting by the pool” or the “lying on a beach” sense, but it was a truly fulfilling experience.

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Native Americans-Myths, Memories and Questions.

9 Oct

I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”