As a young boy growing up in the ’50s, I was fascinated by the circus. Toby Tyler, written by James Otis was a bedtime favorite, and fueled my fantasy of running away to join the circus. Alas, over time, the circus has fallen out of favor as family entertainment.
After incessant criticism by animal rights activists and the advent of video gaming and media streaming, the 1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon (with 367 wooden and metal pipes, 2 drums, a cymbal, and a 17-bar glockenspiel) which once heralded the arrival of the circus train…
has now been relegated to a circus museum with fifty other antique circus wagons within the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion…
at Circus World in Baraboo, WI,
conceived on grounds known as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers,
who launched their first circus tour from Baraboo in 1884.
As we walked the grounds,
we realized that the circus is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s more than the costumes;
more than the animals;
more than the performers;
more than the sideshow attractions;
and more than the music;
It’s a longing for our youth,
and our feelings of wonder before we were forever trapped in our responsible, adult bodies.
Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…
Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…
Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…
From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,
with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.
At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.
As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.
While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.
With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.
Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.
Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.
After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.
Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…
was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.
Despite being disarmed,
it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.
There was a time 10 years ago, when Scenic, South Dakota was for sale–yes, all 10 acres of the town and 36 acres of the not-so-scenic, surrounding property.
It was originally offered up for $3M by Twila Merrill, local rodeo legend who earned a tough-as-nails reputation for never being thrown from a bucking bronc from 1956 to 1963, but with her health fading, it was time to sell.
She eventually sold the whole kit and caboodle to a Filipino church group for just shy of $800,000 in August, 2011.
Ten years later, Scenic looks unchanged. There is scant evidence that parishioners ofIglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) are welcome at this ghost town, although the pastel-colored Adirondack chairs on the porch suggest that a resurrection of activity is possible.
Back in the day, Scenic was a thriving hive of entertainment, with a full-scale rodeo arena, a racetrack, a manicured baseball diamond, a theatre and a dancehall.
Main Street was home to a General Store,
and a requisite saloon which was thoughtfully annexed to the town hoosegow.
It should be noted that Indians were allowed inside Longhorn Saloon, but only after Twila bought the joint and painted over “NO” on the marquis.
Meanwhile, the culture crowd would gather at Sam 2 Bulls.
Off the main drag, there’s an assortment of incongruous buildings: a couple of standing churches, a few warehouses and barns, a defunct gas station, and a post office behind a dedicated monument featuring a pterodactyl that defies logic or explanation.
Leah and I rolled through Scenic, on our way to an outpost of Badlands National Park known as Sheep Mountain Table, located in the Stronghold Unit within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
At 3,300 ft. elevation, Sheep Mountain Table is the highest point in the park.
The good news is that we could drive to the top.
The 6.5 mile road was hard-packed and serviceable all the way to the top of the table, albeit a single lane and a handful of hairpins. Once we arrived, there wasn’t much to see on the surface except tall grass, road tracks and traces of spent and unexploded ordinance scattered throughout this one-time gunnery range used by the USAF and South Dakota National Guard. The wind was blowing furiously,
which kept us anchored a careful distance from the ledge overlooking the Cheyenne River Valley.
But there was much more to explore on the other side of the table, which we could reach by hiking 2 miles or driving the rutted terrain…
so I drove…pitching and rolling along…
until we arrived at an open plateau with dramatic vistas to the west…
and the White River Valley to the east.
These Badlands were once considered sacred to young Sioux braves who would trek to the tables for prayer and self-reflection as they approached manhood.
That’s when it occurred to me that Scenic, South Dakota was rightfully named, not because of the town’s location, but because of the Badlands omnipresence and its omnificent landscape. And that may also explain why the Filipinos invested in Scenic.
Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.
Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.
The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.
The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…
until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…
According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”
Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.
We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,
and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,
and valuable mineral deposits.
Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.
Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…
while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.
Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.
Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.
Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;
touring a gold mine on the edge of town;
and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…
which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.
On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.
Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.
When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,
and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.
Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.
Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.
However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.
There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:
A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;
In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;
There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;
But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill,honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:
Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;
and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.
Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.
Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.
But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…
from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.
Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.
He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…
and declared it Mount Roosevelt.
All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.
Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.
And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…
The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:
To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,
while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”
In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.
Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.
Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.
The gorge was aglow,
while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.
I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…
and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.
There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…
but the landscape has been inalterably changed.
Big skies are forever interrupted,
and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.
The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.
Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;
engaged us with public art created by local artists…
as we rode through neighborhood parks.
The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…
Rainbow Falls and Dam…
and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);
while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…
at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.
Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.
This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.
“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.
Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–
–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.
Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…
So much about North Cascades National Park reminds me that I’m at a very remote place in America. For starters, there’s limited phone service here which makes GPS plotting a nightmare, and probably explains the frequent mile markers that line North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). It’s the only road that winds its way through the park, and connects all the entities that encompass Stephen Mather Wilderness.
Of the 684,000 acres that Lyndon Johnson and Congress set aside in 1968, 94% of the land has been designated as wilderness. Of the remaining 6%, there is no formal camping and only a handful of designated trails, which may help to explain why the park hosts an average of 30,000 visitors per year compared to 2 million visitors per year at Mt. Rainier National Park.
By the time Leah and I reached the Pacific coast, we learned that the Cedar Creek Fire was burning out of control within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest–threatening the eastern entrance to North Cascades NP, and compromising Winthrop’s air quality, nearby. To make matters worse, North Cascades Highway had been barricaded between mile marker 170 and 185, which meant that if we managed to visit the park–which was always part of our original itinerary–we had no way out.
SR-20 road closures are not breaking news to the people living east of the North Cascades. They’re used to it. In fact, every year from late fall to early spring, SR-20 is closed because of drifting snow across the road (measuring 12 feet) and the high risk of avalanches in areas of steep terrain. Anybody wishing to travel to Seattle must settle on traveling I-90 through the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass.
One week before our anticipated arrival, we phoned a park ranger to voice our concern about likely dangers, and help us determine if our plans were realistic. In return, she gave us a website address to track the daily conditions of the fire, and she reassured us that, “Every day in the park is unpredictable. It all depends on which way the wind blows.”
By the time we were scheduled to visit the park, the Cedar Creek Fire had merged with Cub Creek 2 Fire to become America’s largest forest fire with over 100,000 scorched acres and still burning wildly. Leah and I had an important decision to make: either we risk a visit, or we make alternate plans. There really wasn’t much debate. We were determined to stick to our plans, while well aware of the ranger’s mantra.
We camped outside the park in Rockport at an unusual location dotted with dated, theme cabins, a shuttered restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a smattering of weedy RV sites overrun by rabbits.
After unhitching, we drove a half-hour to Newhalem, the site of a company town owned by Seattle City Light and the residence of employees working on the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project–a series of three dams and power stations along the Skagit River–
providing electricity to Seattle since Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously started the first generators in 1924.
As of this summer, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has petitioned Seattle City Light to remove the Gorge Dam in order to restore treaty-protected fishing rights to sacred grounds known as The Valley of the Spirits–a 3-mile stretch of the Skagit River area that has dewatered since the dam’s creation–causing the disappearance of bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead, and consequently threatening the existence of killer whales in the Puget Sound that depend on the fish to survive.
If Seattle City Light hopes to win a new 50-year license to operate the dams, they must demonstrate that the dams cause no harm to the environment. However, regulatory agencies have noted that the dams limit fish passage, affect the water temperature, and prevent much-needed, mineral-rich sediment from reaching the river beds where salmon once spawned.
The following day, our excursion took us deeper into the park, where a faint scent of smoke was in the air. It wasn’t bad enough to impact a full day of activity, but it still managed to drop a smoke bomb on our vistas, turning the “American Alps” into an American disappointment.
We started our exploration at Diablo Lake, created by the Diablo Dam finished in 1930. While the smoke offered an impressionistic vision of the mountain, water and sky,
I much preferred clearer conditions the following day.
Nevertheless, we took advantage of calm waters,
and beautiful scenery.
Feeling like a hike nearby, we followed a trail that followed Thunder Creek,
providing the following views:
until we reached our turn-around point at the suspension bridge…
and reflected on flowing riverscapes north,
and south of the span.
The latest news on the Cedar Creek Fire brought tears to my eyes. Officials proposed closing North Cascades Highway for the remainder of the year. I immediately recalled the time four years to this day when we crossed the Continental Divide at the Vermilion Pass–outrunning the BC wildfires on Kootenay Highway–with the mountains ablaze on both sides of us (see Smoke and Mirrors).
While I had no interest in repeating history, I wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour detour that would return us to I-5 in order to reach Spokane to the east. But if that was to be our only way out, I was determined to travel the North Cascades Highway the next day for as far as the law allowed.
Of course there were stops to make along the way. When we reached Ross Lake at milepost 134, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs along the Ross Dam Trail. With so little traffic on the road, we were not expecting the parking lot at the trailhead to be a challenge. But then we weren’t anticipating a mule train either.
They were preparing to cross the dam to perform trail maintenance further up the Pacific Northwest Trail.
We crossed a dense forest…
to the edge of Ross Lake and across the dam road,
where we were soon joined by the pack leader and company…
for views of Snowfield Peak and distant glaciers.
Of course, we had to dance around the mule poo on our return to the parking lot before continuing our quest.
Our next destination took us to milepost 158, where we intersected the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail at Rainy Pass on our way to Rainy Lake for an easy, 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible hike, until we encountered a tree across the trail within 500 yards of the trail’s end.
Unfortunately, physically disadvantaged people could not appreciate the crystal clear water of this alpine beauty,
or enjoy a distant look at Rainy Lake Falls cascading 850 feet into its namesake lake.
Shame on the NPS!
We reached Washington Pass Overlook–our final destination at milepost 162– to ogle the Liberty Bell Group,
and Kangaroo Ridge–
the defining point between Western Washington and Eastern Washington.
And that’s when I saw it! In the distance, midway along the stretch of highway, 8 miles away was the end of the road. I steadied myself for the shot.
We had completed our mission. There was nothing more for us to see before returning west to resume our journey east on August 5th.
By August 10th, the road closure was lifted, and low-speed, one-way traffic resumed in both directions. But I was unconcerned and didn’t mind. I had already arrived at Glacier National Park.
It was our last day on the Olympic Peninsula, and we intended to visit the San Juan Islands, but time and weather never allowed it. Getting an early start in the rain seemed risky given the distance we’d need to travel, and the ferry reservation was an added hurdle and inconvenience.
Instead, we hoped and patiently waited for the early morning weather to abate. There was news of improving conditions by mid-morning, so we chanced a trip to Whidbey Island, where we were rewarded with thick, dismal skies, (yuck), and no rain in sight (yay)!
We drove to Mukilteo, where we just missed the 10 o’clock ferry to Clinton by 6 cars (damn!), but we were poised at the front of the boat for the half-hour ride to Whidbey Island at 10:30 AM (yay!).
After docking, we completed the half-hour ride to Ebey’s Landing, site of the Nation’s first National Historical Reserve (1978),
and a stunning landscape that befits the gateway to Puget Sound (wow!).
Just outside the Jacob Ebey homestead (now the Visitor’s Center) in Pratt’s Preserve…
stands a reconstructed blockhouse, originally built in 1854, and one of four still standing (who knew?). The blockhouse was built by Colonel Isaac Ebey to defend his claim against insurgent Skagit natives, who naturally resisted the pioneer settlement. Unfortunately, Isaac’s father, Jacob was beheaded in the cabin by a Skagit warrior in retaliation for the murder of one of their own chieftains (hmm…).
On the edge of the prairie, tangent to the Sherman-Bishop Farm…
is the trailhead that follows the bluffs along Admiralty Inlet.
We steadily climbed the bluff which gave us a birds eye view of Perego’s Lagoon–half wet, half dry–(huh?)
with a salt residue that could have resembled the surface of a different planet (odd)…
until I spotted the pentagram that an ambitious soul had designed from driftwood logs (very odd!).
While the landscape was certainly impressive, something was still missing (huh?).
Where were the picture postcard views of Port Townsend and the Olympic Mountains across the water that were hiding behind overcast skies?(right?)
Nevertheless, our spirits were undiminished. We finished the Bluff Trail (phew!), and continued by F-150 to the historic waterfront of Coupeville, Washington State’s second oldest community, and it’s teaming with century-old buildings (nice!).
Our stroll down Front Street, once a beehive of maritime commerce,
brought us to a gentrified collection of bookstores, wine tasting rooms, gift shops, ice cream shops and coffee shops (sad).
Discovering the birthplace of Seattle’s Best Coffee was of particular interest to me, as I served this coffee exclusively when I operated my boil-and-bake-from-scratch, bagel bakery in Denville, New Jersey (really?). Their company and my franchisor later became symbiotic partners when both companies were acquired by AFC Enterprises in 1998.
All of which has contributed greatly to my being able to gracefully retire and follow my whim in pursuit of images, impressions, and memories.
I missed you, and that’s the truth. It’s why I wanted to see you again. But you sure don’t make it easy–playing hard-to-get with me. You had me waiting over 40 minutes outside your gates before you finally greeted me.
After the way things ended between us four years ago, I expected better, but I guess I was wrong about us. I realize that we got off on the wrong foot during my last hike, but that’s because I woke up on the wrong side of your park. If only I had paid more attention to your signs, then maybe I wouldn’t have driven myself crazy driving through your forest like a maniac in the first place (see An Olympian Apology).
While I’m grateful for all the photogenic landscapes that you provided in the past…
I’m here to make amends and some new memories…with your cooperation, of course.
You might think I’m asking a lot of you, but it would go a long way towards rebuilding our partnership if you could spare me a blue sky and high clouds during my stay.
In return, I promise to leave no stone unturned…
While in your presence, I will pay respects to your ancient trees and forests;
I will tread lightly through your Hoh Rain Forest;
I will resist the Sirens of your noble beaches;
I will appreciate the beauty of your mountains views;
I will treasure the pristine waters of your alpine lakes;
and I will appropriately distance myself from your wildlife, as you have requested.
My one-week stay with you was delightful, thanks to your moderate temperatures, and your smokeless, blue skies. I sensed you enjoyed it too, because I caught you basking in your own sunlight.
I hope that we can remain friends, because I find you so intriguing. I’m amazed that you have so many different ecosystems to juggle, and you manage them all so effortlessly.
Leah and I had a lot of ground to cover during our brief visit to the Oregon Coast. With so much to see and do before we moved on, there was little time to waste. We immersed ourselves in seaside activities until we were Ore-goners.
We set up our first camp site at South Beach State Park, and made a beeline to the beach. After 10 weeks and 9,000 miles on the road, we were finally celebrating “sea to shining sea.”
The following morning, we visited Yaquina Head to play in the tidepools;
observe the seabirds,
study the sealions;
and visit Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet), projecting its light beam 19 miles out to sea since 1873.
And then we were off to Newport’s Historic Bayfront,
where we lunched with our safari buddies Brenda and Michael, who drove from Portland to join us for the afternoon.
On our last full day at South Beach, we played nature tourist. We gawked at Devil’s Punchbowl;
the Seal Rock;
and Cook’s Chasm.
We combed the black sand beaches, searching for sea glass gems;
and we were entertained by surfers braving frigid waters along Beverly Beach to round out our day.
Typically on moving day, it’s clean-up, hitch-up and safety check before moving on to our next destination. Once in a while we’ll break up the drive by stopping for lunch at a roadside dive, but mostly we’ll snack in the pickup. However on this particular day, on our way up the Oregon Coast Highway to Cannon Beach, we were eager to stop at Tillamook Creamery.
And we were not alone. Hundreds were passing through the overhead exhibition windows with us…
before earning a taste of Oregon’s finest ice cream.
Once situated at camp site #2, we were free to roam the shore to explore a different kind of scoop, but still a rocky road…
along Ecola State Park.
Our evening was reserved for clam chowder at Dooger’s in Seaside, and then a walk along their lively beach at dusk.
The area is also filled with history. Leah and I spent the next day time climbing through the gunnery emplacements at Fort Stevens,
intended to protect the mouth of the Columbia River.
We also discovered the Peter Iredale, or what was left of the four-masted steel barque sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906 en route to the Columbia River.
Nearby, the Lewis and Clark Historical Park offered a replica of Fort Clatsup,
and a glimpse of early 19th century housing for Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark,
and their guide Sacagawea and son, Baptiste.
Finally, a day of walking through Astoria gave us wonderful examples of coastal living…
and coastal culture,
But a hike up 164 steps to the tower of the hand-painted Astoria Column…
offered us a scenic perspective…
that prepared us…
for our crossing to Washington’s Olympic National Park.
When Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano exploded approximately 7,700 years ago, the mountain collapsed into itself and created a caldera–not a crater.
Subsequently, the caldera–not the crater–filled with rain and snowfall, giving birth to Crater Lake–despite not being a crater.
Craters, on the other hand are formed by the outward explosion of rocks and other materials from a volcano.
Given the current r/age of woke, caldera supporters from around the world have voiced their concern that calderas run the risk of becoming extinct because they’re misunderstood and so often mistaken for craters.
Yet this caldera is not giving up so easily. It may be dormant today, but that doesn’t mean it won’t blow its top in another thousand years if provoked.
And the caldera experts say they have solid, supporting evidence that science is on their side,
convincing them to champion a campaign that calls attention to the ‘Calderas Matter‘ cause.
There are also plans to petition the Department of Interior for a Caldera Lake name change to assure accuracy in earth science, eliminate caldera bias, and restore caldera dignity.
Eventually, a hearing conducted by the National Park Service will help to decide the matter, and weigh the importance of the Mount McKinley/Denali precedent as part of the woke defense.
The strategy may seem twisted to many skeptics,
and naturally, the Caldera Committee members acknowledge the uphill struggle–
considering that Crater Lake (aka Caldera Lake) was declared a national park by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902, which amounts to overcoming 120 years of fake news.
Nevertheless, Leah and I were immediately dispatched by the Caldera Committee to Crater/Caldera Lake for a routine site inspection,
but what we observed was anything but routine.
The day after our arrival, an ill wind blew in from the east bringing smoke from the Bootleg Fire,
which settled over the caldera like a blanket of blur, and interfered with our investigation.
We had little choice but to comb the mountain in search of alternate evidence, and found it on the backside of the caldera in the shape of giant pinnacles that rose up from the ashes to vent the volcanic gases.
Additionally, we followed the Pinnacles Trail to inspect Plaikni Falls,
and observe the habits of local insects.
We also trekked to Annie Creek to judge the wildflower growth…
against the ash canyon.
Ultimately, there will be a public forum on the issue, but the final decision will always come from those in high places.
Kissing the edge of the Ashley National Forest at the intersection of Wyoming and Utah lies Flaming Gorge.
Once underwater and formed over a billion years ago, the Precambrian Uinta Mountains showcase the dazzling red cliffs of a glacial gorge cut from a river system that also carved the Grand Canyon, courtesy of the Green River.
The Green River ends at the dam wall constructed in 1958,
and completed in 1964 as one of four storage units for the Colorado River Storage Project.
The dam impounds Wyoming’s largest reservoir,
providing water storage and hydropower generation to seven states,
and offers 91 miles of water recreation bliss behind its wall.
But scenically, the clear cool water is the perfect foil for a mesmerizing landscape of vivid colors and mountain formations.
Following the footsteps of Major John Wesley Powell and company, who explored the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, Leah and I set off on our own geologic survey…
for a closer inspection of castle rock…
and notched peaks…
which is more than enough to inspire future geologists.
While spending time with friends in Cheyenne WY, Leah and I scheduled a side trip across the state line to visit Scotts Bluff in Gering, NE. Nebraska was not originally part of our travel plan, nor did we consider Nebraska when we set out to explore America four years ago, but we caved to public opinion and we are now happy to endorse Nebraska as a state with a meaningful attraction.
This Bluff is a Butte, or this Butte is a Bluff? It don't amount to a hill of beans.
A wide range of arrangements are only future cliff-hangers for cave-dwellers.
Making mountains out of molehills or taking the high road, We all plateau on the summit or the plain.
Monumental achievement can only be measured at the peak of a towering task.
U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Victor David Westphall III and 16 Bravo Company soldiers under his command lost their lives in an ambush at Con Thien (“Hill of Angels”), a combat base near the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
But Victor “Doc” Westphall shaped his grief differently than 58,000 other Gold Star families who were looking to find meaning in their child’s death from a senseless and unpopular war. He and his wife Jeanne would dedicate the rest of their lives working to fulfill their son’s legacy by honoring ALL victims of the Vietnam War.
When sons or daughters die in battle, parents are confronted with the choice of what they will do to honor the courage and sacrifice of that son or daughter. Following the death of our son, Victor David Westphall, on May 22, 1968, in Vietnam, we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.
With $30,000 seed money from David’s life insurance payout and another $60,000 in savings, Doc commissioned Santa Fe architect, Ted Luna to design a chapel on his Moreno Valley hillside property off U.S. Highway 64 in Angel Fire, NM.
After three years of sweat equity, Doc presented the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel…
to commemorate the loss of his son.
The spartan, triangular-shaped chapel was intended as a non-denominational sanctuary, with the exception of a towering cross-like torchiere at the vortex.
But Westphall’s vision was running on fumes; he needed $20,000 per year in maintenance expenses, and donations were in short supply, especially after Maya Lin’s national memorial (the Wall) was dedicated in Washington D.C. on November 13, 1982.
Fortunately, the Disabled American Veterans organization committed to funding Doc’s memorial, and ownership was transferred to their foundation. The Disabled American Veterans charity tended “Doc’s” dream till 1998–building a much-needed Visitor Center into the hillside in 1986, and acquiring an additional 25 acres for a buffer zone before reverting ownership back to the David Westphall Veterans Foundation (DWVF).
In 1999, DWVF inherited a decommissioned Huey for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grounds from the New Mexico Army National Guard, acknowledging the impact that the Huey had in Vietnam combat assault, resupply, and medivac missions.
After 17 years of ground service at the memorial, their Huey was lovingly restored…
and returned to its hallowed perch.
On Veterans Day 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson granted the Vietnam Veterans Memorial state park status, which secured state resources for needed renovations and a newly built amphitheater behind the chapel.
In 2007, a commemorative walkway was inaugurated for all U.S. veterans. The dates on the bricks-for-bucks signify the dates of service. Two stars denote the person was killed in action, and one star designates missing in action.
On July 1, 2017, management of the Memorial was transferred from the NM State Parks to NM Department of Veterans Services.
Doc Westphall died in 2003 at the age of 89, and his wife Jeanne died the following year. Both are buried at the memorial.
At the time–during the Vietnam War–I would have registered as a conscientious objector if necessary, as I had no taste for war. Lucky for me, I side-stepped conscription with a college deferment in 1970, and a high enough number (#181) in the Selective Service Lottery held on August 5, 1971. By then, Nixon had ordered phased withdrawals to coincide with Vietnamization. Consequently, fewer numbers were being called up to relieve the soldiers returning home, who received little fanfare and support from society at large.
Approximately 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam over the course of 20 years without America ever realizing its objective–to thwart the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
So many young soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country with honor, and so many paid the ultimate price with their lives. Moreover, far too many came back broken from their war experience. At the very least, we owe them all a debt of gratitude, and above all, our respect.
Thankfully, the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel offers us a place to share our grief, heal old wounds, and bring us closer to awareness and acceptance of our past.
Leah and I were en route from Albuquerque to Taos when I noticed an early road sign for Bandelier National Monument. As we got closer to our destination and signs for Bandelier became more frequent, I proposed that we make it a stop–not for overnighting, but a daytrip to break up the travel monotony–considering it wasn’t more than an hour out of our way.
While there wasn’t hardcore support for the idea, there wasn’t serious objection either, which meant I still had a chance to sell the idea.
“I think it’s been 46 years since I was there–probably some side-trip while visiting Santa Fe during my first cross-country honeymoon trip,” I started.
“I think I was there sooner than that,” Leah commented, “like in the past 10 years.”
“Really? It couldn’t have been with me,” I asserted. “Do you not have an interest in going?”
“I don’t know,” she maintained. “I mean, is there anything there that we haven’t seen before?
I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Would you pass up Niagara Falls because you saw Victoria Falls?”
I said, “It’s the site of an ancient pueblo village. It’s similar to Mesa Verde, and I think you may be mistaking one for the other, because we last visited Mesa Verde when we flew to Santa Fe for Carrie’s wedding 12 years ago.”
“What do you propose we do with the Airstream, ’cause we certainly can’t pull it around the canyon,” Leah asked and answered.
“We can work that out when we get there,” I proposed.
Sometime that answer gets me in trouble…but not this day!
We first passed through Los Alamos (with maybe more nuclear physicists per square mile than anywhere else on earth), and climbed a ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains,
overlooking the Frijoles Canyon.
“Any of this look familiar,” I teased.
We followed a serpentine road that wound around the mountain, carrying us deeper into the canyon. A park ranger stopped us at the park entrance station.
“Sorry folks, but your trailer–nice as it is–doesn’t fit on our mountain roads. To get to our Visitor Center and trails, you’re gonna have to drive to the Juniper Campground parking lot and unhitch there,” he advised.
“Sounds reasonable,” I confirmed.
“You’re prepared to do all this work just to drive the park?” Leah asked.
“You’ll see. It’ll be worth it!” I said.
We walked the Pueblo Loop Trail, passing Big Kiva (a ceremonial underground chamber)…
and the 700-year ruins of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village—
originally a 3-story ring of sandstone rock debris exceeding 400 rooms.
From a distance we saw several families poking through the cavates, chipped out of porous rock.
We soldiered on, beyond the remnants of the Long House…
lined with protected petroglyphs,
and imagined what it once looked like…
when all that remains are chiseled-out rooms,
once hidden behind adobe walls.
We took the trail extension in anticipation of climbing to the Alcove House…
but Leah chose to sit this one out.
The climb was steep and narrow, and the ladder rungs were on fire from baking in the sun all day.
While Leah enjoyed the shade beside Frijoles Creek, I had an aerie to myself with a nestled kiva,
and sculpted rooms for meditation.
Which may have prompted me to say a prayer or two before my looong climb down.
With rainy weather on the horizon in Oklahoma City, Leah and I opted for indoor entertainment, which brought us to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, home to the most extensive collection of art and artifacts of American West and American Indian culture. With more than 28,000 pieces in its collection, The National Cowboy Museum is an obvious choice for history buffs and art aficionados.
But not for Leah…
“I can’t believe we’re here, she lamented. “This is so ‘not me’.”
“You’re kidding me. We’re talking about a place with the largest barbed wire collection in the world! More than 8,000 different kinds.” I persuaded.
“Barbed wire isn’t really my thing,” she confessed.
“Then how about the turn-of-the-century western town that’s been recreated indoors?” I implored.
“Certainly, you’d be interested in the structures along the simulated street that have been painstakingly rendered according to scale and design?” I wondered.
“This town may even be set up for some shopping,” I offered as an inducement.
“I’ll have to see about that when I get there,” she proposed.
“What about their Frederic Remington collection? I read that there’s an entire gallery devoted to his work,” I advertised…
“There are small bronzes…
and large bronzes…
and paintings, too,” I hyped.
“That might be interesting,” Leah affirmed, warming up to the idea.
“Maybe we can stroll around the garden behind the museum,” I suggested.
“I believe the outdoor space might be as big as the museum galleries…
and we can pay homage to Buffalo Bill while we’re in the gardens,” I encouraged.
“That’s a possibility,” Leah conceded.
“We could also visit the Western Performers Gallery,” I recommended…
“Y’know, we’ll have a look around at all the memorabilia from our TV star cowboys,
and movie star cowboys,” I proposed.
“That could be fun,” Leah predicted.
“And let’s not overlook the western art created by all the great masters and contemporary artists,” I urged.
“Okay, okay! We may as well go through the place since we’re already here,” Leah admitted.
“Finally! So how about a photo of you in front of the wagon?” I suggested.
“Absolutely not!” she insisted.
Once through the entry vestibule, it was difficult to ignore the immensity of the space. Occupying a floor-to-ceiling, window-lit, cul-de-sac at the far end stood the plaster cast of End of the Trail, James Earle Fraser’s iconic 1894 image of a bowed Native American…
and his weary horse, symbolizing the defeat and subjugation of a people driven from their native lands.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” Leah remarked.
Turning the corner, we were met by an impressive stagecoach…and I could see Leah’s layers of resistance slowly fading.
We wandered past Abraham Lincoln,
and Ronald Reagan…
through rodeo trophy rooms, the Native American galleries, the Gallery of Fine American Firearms, the American Cowboy Gallery, and more…
and determined that this was two hours definitely well spent.
As we were leaving, I coaxed Leah once more, “Now can I get a picture of you by the wagon?”
Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.
And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.
In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.
No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.
70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.
Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.
Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.
But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.
But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.
Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…
and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.
Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.
The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.
There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…
But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…
Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,
each one designed with classic architectural details.
and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.
Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.
We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.
Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,
and continued to the Mountain Tower,
offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.
After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.
Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.
In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.
Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…
which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.
Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.
Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.
Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.
The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,
Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.
Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.
Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some. I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”
Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.
And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.
With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,
utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.
But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.
In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.
The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;
there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;
but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.
The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–
put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…
In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.
In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.
Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:
By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.
Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.
Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.
Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”
Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.
Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.
Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.
To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.
By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.
Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.
Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.
Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.
When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.
For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”
Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.
Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.
The Stax building was padlocked.
In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.
The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.
Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).
All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.
It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.
We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,
which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.
We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…
to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.
Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.
The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,
and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.
But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”
Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…
when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.
Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.
Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).
The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.
Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.
Of course, it was a smash hit…
The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.
Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.
Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.
On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.
A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.
Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.
It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.
It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.