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DEATH VALLEY: An Impressive Land of Contrasts

IMG_4806I really did not know much about Death Valley, other than its name, its role in westerns as a harsh landscape, and the image of 20-Mule Teams trudging across its terrain.  That impression was confirmed when I heard that parts of Death Valley were used as a backdrop for scenes of isolation in Star Wars on the planet Tatooine.  The basics were clear:  Death Valley must be a harsh desert that offers scorching heat, little water, and not much else. People must have died while trying to cross its expanse, giving rise to its name.



SOME FACTS ABOUT DEATH VALLEY: Geology, Biology & Climate

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

I have wanted to visit this remote locale for some time and see its wonders for myself.  In preparing for my trip, I learned some details about Death Valley.  Herbert Hoover named it a National Monument in February 1933.  By September 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work for the next nine years making the area more accessible to visitors by building roads and buildings and installing water and phone lines.  In 1984 the area was named an International Biosphere Reserve.  In 1994, Death Valley was expanded by over one million acres (darker green area on map) and upgraded to National Park status, becoming the largest national park in the contiguous United States with 91% of its lands designated as a wilderness area.

IMG_4897IMG_4649Death Valley National Park covers close to 3.4 million acres and is traversed by almost 1,000 miles of road.  Of that total, roughly 350 miles are unpaved, often requiring four-wheel drive vehicles.  Many of the existing roads were built in the 1930s and follow narrow serpentine routes across the countryside.  My favorite drive in the park is actually part of the entry portal from Lone Pine, California (the closest California city).  It traverses a windy, steep path through a canyon offering many dips and sharp turns with signs noting that the grade at times ranges from 5% to 9%.  There are several mountainous drives throughout the park alternating with long straight stretches across flat open spaces.



IMG_4836IMG_4835Spending several days in Death Valley, I am now aware of how expansive this place really is and the great distances separating one key location from another.  Although the area looks desolate, it actually covers three biotic life zones and is home to over 1,000 plants, several found only in Death Valley.  Typical animal life includes coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, cougars, and mule deer. On my trip, I enjoyed sharing the road for a few minutes with a couple curious coyotes.


The area’s great extremes are seen most vividly through its wide variety of geographical features.  Within its boundaries are lakes, springs and aquifers; mountains, valleys and canyons; and deserts, sand dunes and salt flats.


IMG_4828IMG_4697Other extremes are also evident throughout the park.  The highest temperature recorded was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913; typical summer temperatures range from highs around 120 and lows in the 90s. The average high temperature in July (the hottest month) is 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  In the winter, low temperatures at some locales consistently drop below freezing. There is very little rain in the area, with the valley floor receiving less than 2 inches a year; some years, no rain makes it to the valley floor.  On my trip to Death Valley in February 2015, I enjoyed a high of 82 degrees. With blue skies and slight breezes, it was a glorious visit! I also loved seeing the many “Sea Level Elevation” signs!



Technically, Death Valley is a graben, not a valley.  A graben, from the German word for trench, is a depressed block of land bordered by parallel fault lines.  This technicality clarifies that Death Valley was formed more by plate tectonics, mountain uplifts and volcanic activity than by erosion from winds and water rushing down canyons.  Geologic history shows the area was formed by alternating major periods of volcanism, sedimentation, tectonic deformation and glaciation.  When the large lake that once covered the valley floor started to dry up about 10,500 years ago, the many salts and minerals were left becoming today’s salt pan that covers more than 200 square miles.

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

Much of the area around Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells sits at sea level.  Badwater Basin allows access to the great salt pan and is the lowest point in North America (8th lowest in the world), sitting at 282 feet below sea level. Fifteen miles from Badwater lies Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park, rising to 11,049 feet.  The vertical drop from Telescope Peak to Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.  This fast uplift from the floor to the mountain peak kept the more traditional v-shaped valleys from forming. Telescope Peak is in the Panamint  Range, one of three mountain ranges in the area that keep rain out of the valley through what is called the rainshadow effect, meaning storms lose their rain as they travel over the mountains.



SOME HISTORY: Mining Efforts & Father Crowley

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

Despite these extremes in geography and climate, the area has been home to Native Groups as early as 7000 B.C.  Most recently the Timbisha Shoshone have been in the area for at least a 1,000 years.  As is fairly typical for America, the history of the area is often ignored until settlers or miners move into the region. Mining is one of the draws to Death Valley, starting in the 1800s.  Some of the ores and minerals mined in the area included gold, silver, quartzite, lead, and dolomite, but never in great sustaining abundance.

IMG_4682Borax was the primary mineral that offered commercial success in the area. The iconic 20-Mule Teams hauled borax 165 miles from the Borax Harmony Works near Furnace Creek to the railroad near Mojave.  These grueling trips took 10 days and were only conducted for six years from 1883-1889.




IMG_4857An earlier mining operation was conducted by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company that worked lead-silver mines intermittently from the late 1870s until about 1900.  In 1877, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns were built to provide a suitable fuel for two lead-silver smelters.  These ten kilns, beehive shaped masonry structures that stand about 25 feet high, were built by Chinese, Indian and Mexican laborers.  These airtight kilns charred the trees, creating charcoal, a substance that retains the shape and texture of the wood but is converted to 96% pure carbon content.  As a result, charcoal burns slower and hotter than wood, providing the greater heat needed to refine ores.  These kilns, however, were only used for two years. Documentation is missing to suggest why—either a closer source of charcoal or another fuel altogether must have been found.   These kilns’ limited use and their remote location makes them the best preserved kilns of their type in the United States.




IMG_4871The drive out to view the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns follows Emigrant Road to the Wildrose Campground and then goes another seven miles; the last four miles are on a gravel road.  The twists and turns of the road and its various vistas are breathtaking—and worth the drive, even if one never makes it all the way to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.





Distant View of Sierras from Road Leaving Kilns

Distant View of Sierras from Road Leaving Kilns




In 1904, two prospectors found quartzite laced with gold, and a new gold rush was on.  Soon there were over 2,000 claims in a 30-mile area.  Although several camps were set up, the main town established was called Rhyolite for the silic-rich volcanic rock prevalent in the area.  The town boomed with buildings springing up everywhere. A stock exchange and board of trade were formed.  There were houses, hotels, stores, two electric plants, foundries, a hospital, an ice plant, and a school for 250 children.  A three-story bank building was constructed and various entertainment opportunities were set up as well, including an opera house and an ice cream parlor. Population reached 10,000 residents. In 1907, electricity was brought to town, and a mill was built to handle 300 tons of ore a day.

Bank Building

Bank Building

Bottle House Rebuilt by Paramount Studios for a Film

Bottle House Rebuilt by Paramount Studios for a Film

IMG_4910IMG_4909However, over the next several years, finances took a down turn.  Mines closed, banks failed, and newspapers went out of business.  By 1910, there were only 600 residents left in town, and mill production had dwindled to almost nothing.  The main mine closed in 1911, and electricity was cut off to the town in 1916.  Now all that is left of Rhyolite, this once booming mining town, are some of its buildings, at least the foundations and outer walls. Of the several ghost towns in the area, Rhyolite is the best preserved.  It sits in Nevada, just outside of the Death Valley National Park boundary line but remains a popular attraction for Death Valley visitors.



 Area Near Rhyolite En Route to Las Vegas




Mt. Whitney Not Visible from Death Valley

Mt. Whitney Not Visible from Death Valley

By the early 1920s an interest in Death Valley and the entire area was growing for its natural wonders as a tourist attraction.  Father J. J. Crowley served the Owens Valley and Death Valley areas in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1919, he was given this remote parish that served four counties and 30,000 square miles of desert.  His area ran from Bishop, California, to Barstow, California, and included both the lowest point in the country (Badwater Basin in Death Valley) and the highest (Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra).

Eastern Sierra Nevada as Seen from Lone Pine, California

Eastern Sierra Nevada as Seen from Lone Pine, California

For a time, Crowley served as the priest for Fresno, California, but returned to the Owens Valley in 1934.  Devastated by the changes brought to the area by the diverting of water to Los Angeles, Crowley became determined to build community and emphasize the natural wonders and activities of the region.  His efforts brought success, triggering the creation of a new dam. Some water was slowly returned to the area and tourism started to grow, especially in Death Valley, which had just been named a national monument in 1933.

Father Crowley is perhaps best known for his efforts coordinating what was called “The Wedding of the Waters.”  This three-day celebration in October 1937 commemorated the completion of a paved road from Mount Whitney to Badwater Basin, connecting the highest and lowest points of the country through the city of Lone Pine.  Lone Pine, California, sits today on Interstate 395 and serves as the portal to both Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and Death Valley.

Crowley’s three-day event was a dramatic public relations dream.  It involved the entire county and participants included the United States President, the California Governor and historical figures and their descendants from the local area.  For example, descendants from both the Donner Party and the Lost 49ers who wandered in Death Valley for months were involved.  Each night was marked by feasts and extensive entertainment.

The actual event moved water from the mountains to the desert in a relay reminiscent of the carrying of the Olympic flame.  For this event, the water was drawn from Lake Tulainyo, the highest lake in the Western Hemisphere.  An Indian runner scooped the water into a gourd and ran it down the mountain to the start of the paved road at the trail head to Mount Whitney.  He handed the water—called “crystal clear tears of the clouds”—to a man on horseback who rode for five miles and handed off to another man on horseback for a seven-mile stretch.  They rode along the highway that was lined with close to 100 cars.  That night, the gourd was kept safe in a bank vault.  The next morning the Governor handed the gourd to a veteran prospector who used his burro to move the water to a covered wagon that had been driven through Death Valley in 1849.

From there the relay gets even more inventive.  The water was carried by a 20-Mule Team, a stagecoach, and a railroad, staying overnight in the Talc Company for safe keeping. The next day, after an early morning mass in Lone Pine, the gourd was handed off to a 1938 Lincoln Zephyr that was driven to the dedication summit where Western Union had set up a temporary telegraph, so the President of the United States could signal the ribbon cutting where the roads were joined together.

Telescope Peak Seen from Charcoal Kilns

Telescope Peak Seen from Charcoal Kilns

The car ride then continued delivering the gourd to a plane that flew toward Telescope Peak.  En route, the water from the gourd was dumped over the Badwater Basin.  As the clear mountain water hit the lake at the lowest point in the park, the gathered crowds cheered, and a flame was ignited signaling the completion of “The Wedding of the Waters.”  The flame triggered spotters—including a boy scout troop—to light their torches back along the entire route, sending the completion signal back down the line to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney.  It must have been quite a spectacle!


Photo from Death Valley Jim's Website

Photo from Death Valley Jim’s Website

Father Crowley died in 1940, after hitting a steer with his Model T-Ford on one of his many trips throughout the state.  An overlook in Death Valley near the western entrance is named in his honor, and a memorial cross is displayed further down into the valley, reachable by a short hike.  The Father Crowley Vista Point was my first official stop on my trip into Death Valley.  I did not learn his story until later, but I can certainly understand why someone who so loved the communities and the natural wonders and activities of the area would be so honored.

Father Crowley Vista Point

Father Crowley Vista Point



TWO POPULAR DESTINATIONS: Artist’s Drive & Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

DV Trip MapI spent two days playing in Death Valley on this trip, and I need to go back many more times because I left so much unseen.  Staying mainly in the middle of the park, I did not make it yet to Scotty’s Castle, Dante’s View, the Devil’s Gold Course, or the Racetrack Playa, to name a few of the popular destinations. Some of these are only reachable via four-wheel drive vehicles or hiking. Other than the locations already mentioned (Crowley Vista Point, Harmony Borax Works, Charcoal Kilns, Badwater Basin and Rhyolite), I also visited Artist’s Drive and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  Both were impressive.

IMG_4705IMG_4712Artist’s Drive is a paved one-way nine mile scenic loop through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills that cut into the Black Mountains. The drive itself starts from Badwater Road and rises to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon. The Artist’s Palette is on the face of Black Mountain and showcases various colors of rocks:  red, pink, yellow, green and purple.  The colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals, such as irons salts, tuff-derived mica, and manganese.  The entire Artist Drive Formation is evidence of a violent explosive volcanic period in Death Valley during the Miocene epoch.









Variations in light and in local rainfall enhances the ever-changing colors of this canvas that at times does seem to be painted by artists.  The best viewing would be in the late afternoon.  I was there a bit earlier than that, but the sights and colors were still dramaric.  [In Star Wars, the Artist’s Drive area is the locale for some of the scenes where R2D2 is being abducted by Jawas.]


IMG_4668The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, located on the western side of the park just past Stovepipe Wells, are one of three sand dunes in Death Valley.  The other two are Ibex Dunes and the Eureka Dunes.  Of the three locations, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are easiest to get to, so they remain one of the most popular locations in the park.  The dunes rise 100 feet, changing with every wind storm and breeze.  At times, the trunks of the dead Mesquite trees visible in the dunes are totally covered by sand.   [In Star Wars, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were the backdrop when R2D2 left C3PO after their escape pod crashed on Tatooine.  I can almost see them trudging along.]







IMG_4641IMG_4775Traveling through much of the park myself this February, I was constantly impressed with how varied the landscape was.  I could drive 15 miles through a narrow, steep canyon and then another 20 over a long flat stretch of road.  It was not always easy to get from Point A to Point B without re-tracing my steps.  For example, the 27-miles leading to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns went mainly to the Wildrose Campground and then on to the kilns; to get to other popular locations in the park, I needed to head back over that same route to reconnect with Highway 190, one of the main roads through the park.


I am not complaining!  I loved those drives, where I often saw no other cars so could enjoy not just the vistas but the solitude as well.  But those roads also made me wonder about all who traveled this land before the roads.  What native peoples lived here? What specific events gave this beautiful area its deadly name?  With a little research, I learned that the ordeal endured by The Lost 49ers gave rise to the park’s name.  I also learned that the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in this area for hundreds of years and continue living here to this day.

Here is the story of The Lost 49ers:

In 1849, a group of emigrants seeking the gold fields in California arrived in Salt Lake City too late to follow the traditional route into California if they wanted to avoid the fate of the Donner Party (1846-1847).  Rather than staying in Salt Lake City until spring, the group decided to take the Old Spanish Trail that promised a passable more southern route.  After several weeks making slow progress, a man showed up with a map claiming a short cut that would take 500 miles off the trip.  About 20 wagons decided to try the short-cut and ended up spending at least two months wandering in what later came to be called Death Valley.


This group splintered further, and one cluster was terribly weakened and arrived in the current area called Stovepipe Wells.  To continue their journey, they killed several of their oxen, smoking the meat on the fire built from their falling-apart wagons.  This group then continued on foot, eventually coming out near the present day city of Ridgecrest, California.  This event is now commemorated as California Landmark #441.  Its plaque offers this explanation:  “Near this monument, the Jayhawker group of Death Valley Forty-Niners, gold seekers from Middle West, who entered Death Valley in 1849 seeking short route to the mines of central California, burned their wagons, dried the meat of some oxen and, with surviving animals, struggled westward on foot.”

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

The other splinter group was blocked by the Panamint Mountains when their first attempt across the range proved impossible. The group returned to the valley and sent two men out in search of safe passage across the mountains. Thinking the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada, the group in the valley expected their scouts to return quickly with supplies and help. When their absence dragged on to over a month, several families struck out on their own to find a different passage over the mountains.  Two families with children waited to be saved and were not disappointed.  The two scouts finally returned and led them out.  As they left the valley, one woman turned back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”    This statement generated the name for the area, even though only one person died from those who waited to be rescued.



The Timbisha Shoshone call Death Valley home:

What is called Death Valley today was called “Burning Land” by the Timbisha Shoshone who have lived in the valley since “time immemorial” as explained by the tribe’s oral history.  This name makes perfect sense, especially given the volcanic activity evident throughout the park.  Lava rock formations are strewn along many of the roads and fields, and signs of recent volcanic activity can be viewed at the still active Ubehebe Crater in the northern part of the park.

IMG_4671IMG_4868The Timbisha still live in the valley today, after enduring struggles and hardships initiated by the miners and other developers and explorers who diverted water, displaced the tribe off their traditional lands, and introduced new plants that compete with native vegetation, especially the mesquite trees. The mesquite trees had always been the life source for the tribe, providing food as well as building materials.  The Timbisha cared for the new sprouts in the spring and cleared debris from the base of the mature trees. The tribe was sustained by cakes made from ground mesquite pods throughout fall and winter.

The mesquites continue to be in trouble because local developments (past and present) have diverted much of the area’s water and the introduced tamarisk (salt cedars) dominate the usage of what water is left.  The mesquite trees, once so prevalent across the area, are now stunted and dying. The Timbisha Homeland Act, which Congress finally passed in 2000, has set aside lands for tribal use and made possible The Mesquite Traditional Use Pilot Project that is working to restore the mesquite to healthy existence in the valley.


When many outsiders wonder how and why the Timbisha have remained in the valley even after being displaced so many times since the mid 1800’s, the tribe is surprised.  What is called Death Valley is their home, and they see its many virtues and have always lived in harmony with its extreme conditions.  As Pauline Esteve, Timbisha elder and former Tribal Council Chairperson wrote: “The Timbisha people have lived in our homeland forever and we live here forever. We were taught that we don’t end. We are part of our homeland and it is part of us. We are people of the land.  We don’t break away from what is part of us.”



I certainly appreciate that sentiment.  We are all part of the natural world around us and should value and protect it.  Wouldn’t that be great?  I just wish we could officially change the name of this great national park from Death Valley back to Burning Land.







If you have not visited Death Valley yet, you should do so!  Just be careful, carry lots of water, and maybe avoid the summer months.

Another Hillerman Navajo Mystery!

tony hillermanI do not remember when I first read a mystery by Tony Hillerman, but it was probably in the mid to late 1980s.  I do remember that he quickly became one of my favorite authors, and I voraciously read all of his 18 novels* that feature Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, officers in the Navajo Tribal Police.  He died in 2008 at the age of 83, and it seemed the many adventures of Chee and Leaphorn were over as well.  Thus, realizing as I did over the holidays, that his daughter Anne had revived the characters in a new novel I was excited.  Reading that new mystery brought back all the reasons why I loved Hillerman’s work.

Two of My Interests Are Integral to the Core of Hillerman’s Mysteries

I have always been fascinated with tribal cultures since I was kid.  Back then, I liked Mingo better than Daniel Boone and Tonto better than the Lone Ranger.  I rooted for the Indians in most westerns, and one of my favorite shows was Broken Arrow (repeated on Sunday afternoons 1959-1960).  I applauded Dances with Wolves (1990) for giving a more thorough view of tribal life rather than just reactions to encroaching settlers, cowboys, and soldiers.  But I also knew I did not really know much about Indian Cultures then and now, even if I read Linda Eldridge’s The Round House (1988) and Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993).

Dance Hall of the DeadHillerman’s novels allowed me to come to know and understand his key Navajo characters, initially Joe Leaphorn, then Jim Chee, and finally Bernie Manuelito as well as numerous other more ancillary characters.  His works also immersed me into daily life on a reservation as well as the broader cultural and religious sensibilities of several tribes.  His main focus was always Navajo, but he also explored Zuni and Hopi characters, history and teachings.  I cannot claim to really know tribal culture from reading Hillerman’s novels, but I do have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the depth and complexity of Indian cultures and some key differences between tribes and the dominant white culture because of reading his novels.

Hillerman himself once explained both what he shared in his novels about the various tribes and why:  “It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures. I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.” Hillerman presented these lessons about tribal cultures through the characters he created, primary and secondary, Indian and White, good and bad on all sides—the complexity of living was always at the heart his characters.  The award he most prized and that impressed me since he is a white guy after all was being named Special Friend of the Dinee by the Navajo Nation (1987).

Drive to Albuqueque 060I have also always loved the landscapes and vistas of the Southwest, traveling there at least once a year through the 1990s.  I am rejuvenated by the sights and sounds of the deserts and mountains, overwhelmed at times by the vibrant colors, and awed by the isolation (not loneliness) of the area. I have visited the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Chaco Canyon, have smelled the rains and enjoyed the sunsets, have attended a Pow Wow in Gallup, and have driven through cities such as Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Shiprock, and Tuba City.  This area—this Indian Country that even has its own map from AAA—fascinates me, and I return there as often as I can just to experience the area.

desert sunrise

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

No wonder I like Hillerman’s novels.  This Four Corners Area is backdrop for all his mysteries.  But more than that:  this landscape is actually a unifying character of his mystery stories, as he calls his novels. Nature—the land, the weather, the isolation, the history—is an integral part of tribal life from the morning salutation to the sun and the sacred lands and stories to the celebrations and rituals that mark the passages of life and death for his characters.

Hillerman moves easily from descriptions of landscape into the actions and even the thinking of his characters; these descriptions help the readers stay immersed in the land that is such an integral part of tribal life.  Through nature descriptions it becomes clear that distance, silence, solitude, patience, waiting are as consistent and integral to life as are sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and dust storms.

Listening WomanThe simple act of waiting for rain captures the truth of living in the area but also how patience and expectation are just part of life. The following excerpt is from Listening Woman (1978):

“The thunderhead that promised a shower to Tuba Mesa in the morning had drifted eastward over the Painted Desert and evaporated—the promise unfulfilled.  Now another, taller thunderhead had climbed the sky to the north—over the slopes of Navajo Mountain in Utah. The color under it was blue-black, suggesting that on one small quadrant of mountainside the blessed rain was falling. Far to the southeast, blue and dim with distance, towering clouds had risen over the Chuskas on the Arizona-New Mexico border. There were other promising clouds to the south, drifting over the Hopi Reservation. The Hopis had held a rain dance Sunday, calling on the clouds—their ancestors—to restore the water blessing to the land.  Perhaps the kachinas had listened to their Hopi children. Perhaps not. It was not a Navajo concept, this idea of adjusting nature to human needs.  The Navajo adjusted himself to remain in harmony with the universe.  When nature withheld rain, the Navajo sought the pattern of this phenomenon—as he sought the pattern of all things—to find its beauty and live in harmony with it.” 

sacred clownsThis power of his landscapes is frequently noted when his work is reviewed.  In response to Sacred Clowns (1993), Newsweek concluded, “This is Hillerman at his best, mixing human nature, ethnicity, and the overpowering physical presence of the Southwest.” Or as the Denver Post said, “He makes the desert come alive.” Hillerman also acknowledged the importance of Nature, scenery, and landscape to his stories, but also how challenging it is to capture the truth about the area in words and even in photos. At least his many descriptions throughout his novels help readers see the land for more than just miles to drive through.

LandscapeIn Summer 2007, Hillerman wrote the introduction for his daughter’s book Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn.  He had encouraged her to capture in text and photos (by Don Strel) many of the vistas pertinent to his mysteries.  But he knew that capturing the true essence of the area is not really possible.  As he notes, “Alas, there isn’t a way to show in photographs the key cultural beliefs that made me rate traditional Navajos the world’s most humane culture.” 

In trying to explain the connection between the Navajos and their land, he told a story of the time in 1868 when they completed the Long Walk, trudging 300 miles in a little over a month to get back home.  Being released from forced captivity, the tribal leaders had been given the option to move to a place where the farming would be better, the desolation less, and presumably the life easier.  The Navajos wanted to go home.  He offers this conclusion to the story and to his introduction:

“One of the commanders of the Army troops who escorted the Navajos wrote about the moment in this report to Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman, who had headed the commission that freed the tribe from captivity: ‘We paused for a rest there, and when the Navajo saw their mountain on the western horizon, the whole column broke out in shouts and tears of joy.’  But how can you show that in a photograph?”

Quite Simply, Tony Hillerman Is a Terrific Story Teller

In more literary terms, Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels are well written and offer engaging action and suspense.  The dialog is always believable, and the action unfolds at a steady pace. Hillerman keeps on track with unraveling the mystery of the plot, but also adds in humor and a little romance to keep the stories from becoming lost in police procedures. He also offers some insightful commentary on the dominant white culture.  In this example from Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), he shares a comment on a typical worker, here represented as an FBI agent who typically does not like working with the tribal police:  “The FBI people always seemed to be O’Malleys–trimmed, scrubbed, tidy, able to work untroubled by any special measure of intelligence.”

The main stories are told with intricate detail, making the twists and turns seem logical and realistic. The thefts, crimes and murders of modern life are effectively balanced against tribal teachings and traditions, sings and celebrations.  Readers are as likely to be taken to an archeological dig, a traditional hogan, or the local trading post as they are to go on road trips to local cities or Washington D. C. and into meetings with FBI agents. The mystery and intrigue of each story keep the readers turning the pages, often staying up late just to see how things turn out.

skinwalkers filmFor me, the best thing about Hillerman’s mysteries are his believable and very likeable characters.  His first protagonist—eventually after some revision—was Joe Leaphorn.  This Indian has a masters in anthropology, so he understands but does not fully believe in the stories and teachings he was taught in his youth.  His attention to detail and his need to make connections and seek solutions make him a good cop.  [In the several films made of Hillerman’s novels, Wes Studi (in the sunglasses) does a remarkable job becoming Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Adam Beach plays Chee.]

People of DarknessJim Chee was introduced in Hillerman’s People of Darkness (1980).  In many ways, he served as a foil to Leaphorn.  Chee, as a younger more idealistic tribal officer, provides a nice counter balance to Leaphorn’s perspective on tribal teachings.  Chee truly values the ancient teachings and is training to be a singer or medicine man even as he works as a cop.  Through his voice, readers are offered deft comparisons between tribal life and the dominant culture represented by such things as big cities, wealth and success, and FBI agents.

In the later novels, readers meet Bernie Manuelito, a young Navajo woman seeking advancement in the tribal police, moving for a time to work for Border Patrol. These characters—and the other secondary characters who populate their world—seem very real. I not only care what happens to these people, but would like to sit and share a cup of coffee with them as well.

In really simple terms, Tony Hillerman is a great storyteller!  In these two videos, Hillerman talks about his storytelling and reads excerpts from some of his novels:

Tony_HillermanNot surprisingly, over the years, I made a point to read all of Hillerman’s novels. He was not as prolific as some writers, who churn out their tomes on a fairly quick schedule.  Some of Hillerman’s novels came out just one year apart, but often there were two to four years between books.  I got in the habit of watching for the next Hillerman novel to appear.  In 2008, upon his death, I was devastated at the loss of his talent, his humanity, but also at the thought of not seeing Leaphorn and Chee in action again.  For a short time, I still watched for a new novel, hoping that perhaps one had been in the works upon his death.  After several years, I stopped looking.

Anne Hillerman’s Mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter

Then, around Christmas 2014, I noticed that there was indeed another Hillerman novel featuring Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn, and Bernie Manuelito.  Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne wrote Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013.  I was thrilled but also a bit dubious.  Would she capture the balance of nature, character, action, and Indian culture that is such a trademark of her dad’s work?  Would the dynamics of the characters meet expectations for those of us who know and love the characters from the first 18 novels?

Apparently, Anne Hillerman was a bit hesitant about taking on the challenge of continuing her dad’s work as well, even though fans kept asking if there were remnants of his stories left to be published.  Finally, according to the acknowledgements at the end of her novel, she finally tackled the project with encouragement from fans as well as her dad’s editor.  As Anne notes, her mother also applauded her efforts:  “My mother, Marie Hillerman, continually encouraged me to write about the characters Dad created, assuring me that Tony would be happy to see them live on.”  At that point, Anne began three years of research to ensure she was as detailed and accurate about the landscape, the procedurals, the tribal culture, and the characters as her dad had always been.

spider woman's daughter coverWith the publication of her mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman proved she did indeed get it right.  First, her protagonists are the characters her father had created.  Joe Leaphorn, now retired as he was at the end of her dad’s series, is still taking cases as a private investigator.  Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito both still work as Navajo Tribal Police, now as a married couple as they also were at the end of her dad’s series.  Their relationships and interactions seemed true to the characters, for the most part.  Chee says “darling” and “beautiful” to his wife a bit more than I would have expected, but heck they’ve been married for several years by now, so his past hesitant silences would have diminished over time.

The complicated relationship between Chee and Leaphorn–built on respect but also on the interaction between an elder supervisor and a younger subordinate–was evident and nicely explored.  Secondary characters were a good blend of characters from the past series and those new to this novel. Through the characters, the tribal culture and its past and present implications unfold, helping to move the story forward.  The family/tribal relationships as well as the importance of cultural artifacts play their part in solving the story’s mystery.

Anne Hillerman also uses Nature as a recurring backdrop for the story.  I like her dad’s descriptive flair a bit more than hers, but I expect that is partly a sense of familiarity with his presentations.  Anne’s descriptions evoke place as well as offer commentary on the characters and their actions.  Anne offers this description early in the novel as Bernie gets started in the investigation:

“Today, since she was starting from Window Rock, she took the quieter scenic route, which hugged the New Mexico-Arizona border, climbed over Narbona Pass, and then dropped into the open landscape of the reservation.  Normally she loved the panorama of scenery, the play of shadows along the Black Creek Valley a bit west of the sprawling town and the vast, empty country that stretched east—shades of brown, gold, and red meeting the dome of blue sky.  The cool ascent into the Chuska Mountains brought the vanilla fragrance of the ponderosas through her open window and, on a clear day, climaxed with a view of Dinetah from the top of the pass.  Today, though, instead of the beauty around her, she noticed how her old Tercel struggled with the climb to the summit.” 

In addition to the characters and her use of nature, Anne Hillerman also makes Spider Woman’s Daughter her own well-told story.  Her primary protagonist is Bernie, an independent tribal officer who is taking the lead on the investigation even as she has been told to take a few days off. For her dad, Bernie was a primary character, but the bulk of the story was never from her point of view.  For Anne Hillerman’s readers, through Bernie, they become aware of her roles as a young wife and a loving and devoted daughter and sister as much as her role as police officer.  Bernie’s family and work responsibilities and her need to balance the different demands they place on her expand the view of modern reservation life—and help solve the crime.

Anne Hillerman’s plot has two dominant threads:  the primary crime that assaults the reader in the first chapter as well as some relationship intrigues when Luisa (one her dad’s characters) seems to be missing in action.  Each thread keeps the readers curious enough to keep seeking resolution. There is also more deliberate attention to the relationships between the main characters and how those are better defined by the end of the novel—not strengthened really but made more obvious.

Anne Hillerman’s mystery is well written and serves as an excellent next mystery in the Navajo Mystery Series started by her dad over 40 years ago.  I expect her dad would applaud her efforts as well, given his love of storytelling as well as Indian culture.  If you have not yet read any of the Hillerman novels, I suggest you do.  You could really start anywhere to taste the flavor of the characters and culture that inhabits all 19 of the mysteries.

thieft in timeAnne Hillerman suggests that her dad’s A Thief of Time (1988) is a nice pairing with her novel because it served as a platform on which she built her story.  My advice would just be to pick a novel and get started reading.  As Tony Hillerman’s home state paper Oklahoma City Oklahoman says, “Readers who have not discovered Hillerman should not waste one minute more.”

Me?  Having finished Anne’s Hillerman’s mystery, I was reminded how much I really like these characters.  So now, I am re-reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery stories in order.  I am also pleased that I can once again expect another Hillerman mystery will surface starring Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernie Manuelito.  At least I hope Anne Hillerman will be writing some more mysteries in the years to come.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*The 19 Hillerman Mysteries

 Blessing Way, 1970

Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973

Listening Woman, 1978

People of Darkness, 1980

The Dark Wind, 1982

The Ghost Way, 1984

Skinwalkers, 1986  

A Thief of Time, 1988

Talking God, 1989

Coyote Waits, 1990

Sacred Clowns, 1993

The Fallen Man, 1997

The First Eagle, 1998

Hunting Badger, 1999

The Wailing Wind, 2002

The Sinister Pig, 2003

Skelton Man, 2004

The Shape Shifter, 2006

Spider Woman’s Daughter, 2103—by Anne Hillerman

 * * * * * * * * *

Marilyn Stasio’s NY Times article effectively reviewed Tony Hillerman’s life and work on his death in October 2008.  You can also learn more about him on Wikipedia.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: A Review


First OneI keep being surprised that Alexander McCall Smith is a man.  You see, he writes a series of detective novels called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency—and he seems to capture the heart and soul of the main character Precious Ramotswe so well that I keep figuring a woman must have created her.  The whole series focuses more on relationships and life than on the mysteries to be solved. However, there is a social conscience as well, as background issues surface periodically such as AIDS, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and women’s rights, adding texture and awareness to the stories.  Each novel also takes the readers on a wondrous visit to Botswana in all its complexities.

Each novel centers on solving a mystery or two of some sort.  But these mysteries are not anything as grand as a pre-meditated murder, car chases, or acts of espionage.  The mysteries solved by Mma Ramotswe tend to be simple problems of everyday people. She is helping people, not just solving crimes. The interactions between the characters unfold at a leisurely pace with patience and courtesy.  As Booklist notes in its review, “The brilliance of this series. . . is that what may seem like tiny cases expand into considerations of virtue, love, ambition, greed, and evil.”

Blue ShoesIn the first novel in the series—The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)—not only does Mma Ramotswe open her agency with an inheritance from her father, but she solves several cases: finds proof about a philandering husband, brings a con man to light, and returns a kidnapped boy to his family.  In the seventh book in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006), the detective investigates the irrational fear taking hold of the employees at the Mokolodi Game Reserve and the problematic blood pressure readings being given by a doctor.  In the fourteenth book in the series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, Mma Ramotswe investigates the rightful heir to an inheritance and determines who is undermining the success of a newly opened business, and why.

Every novel in the series intertwines several cases that need the detective’s attention against the lives of the primary characters.  Mma Ramotswe solves her clients’ problems with patience, a good sense of humor, keen observations and an understanding of human nature.  She spends some of her time reading her favorite book, The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen, reflecting on the problems at hand, and drinking a cup of red bush tea. There is enough suspense and complexity in the problems to keep the readers engaged, but the real intrigue is seeing the primary characters interact as their friendships grow.

Grace Makutsi is Mma Ramotswe’s quirky, somewhat critical even prickly secretary who wears large thick glasses and aspires to being an assistant detective.  She can be intrusive and outspoken, but she has a heart of gold and a willingness to help.  Mma Ramotswe’s neighbor is J. L. B. Matekoni, the best car mechanic in Botswana and owner of Speedy Motors.  He is kind, honest, and very soft-spoken, almost shy. He is a generous soul, always willing to help.  He treats cars and their owners with respect and can easily read what a car reveals about its owner.  Mr. Matekoni’s cautious courtship of Mma Ramotswe unfolds over several novels and helps bring to light some of the sorrow and misery of Mma Ramotswe’s past.

Mr. Makekoni has two apprentices—Charlie and Fanwell—who grow up a little throughout the novels and are featured in several cases throughout the series.  An occasional character is Mma Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage. Her skill is talking others into volunteering for various tasks to help the orphans.  She is a friend and confidant to both Mma Ramotswe and Mr. Matekoni, and the orphanage grounds become the setting for many scenes throughout the novels.  Other characters surface and become part of this extended family of sorts as the novels evolve.

Each character is finely drawn and seems so very true to life.  The behaviors and idiosyncrasies of these people remind most readers of people they know.  Throughout the series, the characters build their friendships, pulling readers along with them on every risk, insight, and adventure.  Finding how their lives unfold through whatever situations erupt in each novel keeps the readers turning page after page.  These are characters the readers want to know.

authorThere are two other constant characters in these novels that are closely intertwined and work together to add a unique element to the novels.  The first of these unique characters is Botswana itself.  Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and lived for a time in Botswana teaching law at the university. His knowledge of the country’s nature, history and culture are infused throughout the novels.  His respect for the land, its people, and their culture and traditions is evident. Mma Ramotswe is the main voice that champions Botswana and its virtues.

The other unique character that helps Smith and his character Mma Romatswe explore tradition and its role in modern Botswana is her late father, Obed Romatswe. He lives on in her memories and often comes to mind as she contemplates how to solve a case. His lessons to her as a child and her memories of him bring the culture to life. Most of these memories of her father are grounded in nature.  Thus the Botswana countryside—whether a desolate drive to her old village or the sun setting over her garden each evening—becomes an integral character within each novel.  The Boston Globe notes that any novel in the series can be “set apart from the genre by the quality of its writing, as well as by its exotic setting.”

Minor AdjustmentThe following reflection from The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon shows the importance the author and his main character Mma Romatswe share about Botswana, about its importance and influence on all activity:

“. . . and yet all of us had a view from somewhere, a view of the world from the perspective of who we were, of what had happened to us, of how we thought about things. Her [Mma Romastwe’s] view was the view from Mochudi, where she had been brought up by her late father, that great man, Oded Ramotswe. And his view had been the view from where? The view from Botswana, she decided: the view of the world that seemed essentially and naturally right, because it was a view that understood how things really were and how God must surely have intended them to be when He first made Botswana. She smiled to herself as she savoured the idea that God had looked at the world, seen a wide stretch of land, and had said, This shall be Botswana. He had given it the Kalahari; He had given it the good land along the eastern border, and had added, for good measure, the Makadikadi Salt Pans.”

Good HusbandMore than the symbolic aspect of Botswana in the novels, everyday nature is also a constant reminder of the world the characters live in and react to. The desolate roads, the waiting for rain to end the long dry summers, the cattle of the past and the present in fields and streets, the need to be on the lookout for wild animals crossing one’s path especially snakes, the personal garden where husband and wife can sit together—all these elements of nature are a constant in the novels.  More than setting a scene, nature becomes part of the constant, cyclical, certainty of the Botswana way of life that is captured in these novels.  In the eighth novel, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007), this awareness of nature is captured:

“They were just coming to the end of winter now, and there were signs of the return of warmth, but the mornings and the evenings could still be bitterly cold, as this particular morning was. Cold air, great invisible clouds of it, would sweep up from the south-east, from the distant Drakensberg Mountains and from the southern oceans beyond; air that seemed to love rolling over the wide spaces of Botswana, cold air under a high sun.

“Once in the kitchen, with a blanket wrapped about her waist, Mma Ramotswe switched on Radio Botswana in time for the opening chorus of the national anthem and the recording of cattle bells with which the radio started the day. This was a constant in her life, something that she remembered from her childhood, listening to the radio from her sleeping mat while the woman who looked after her started the fire that would cook breakfast for Precious and her father, Obed Ramotswe. It was one of the cherished things of her childhood, that memory; as was the mental picture that she had of Mochudi (her home village) as it then was, of the view from the National School up on the hill; of the paths that wound through the bush this way and that but which had a destination known only to the small scurrying animals that used them. These were things that would stay with her forever, she thought, and which would always be there, no matter how bustling and thriving Gaborone might become. This was the soul of her country; somewhere there, in that land of red earth, of green acacia, of cattle bells, was the soul of her country.”


If you have not read any of the novels in this series yet, they are worth your time and effort.  The first book in the series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, was published in 1998. The Plain Dealer praised it as “One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years.”  That review can be applied to any of the fifteen books in the series.  Other reviews capture the heart of the series as well.  The New York Times Book Review concludes, “Smith’s big-hearted Botswana stories. . . [allow] his readers to escape into a world of simple, picturesque pleasures and upstanding virtues.”   The Daily Mail (London) declares the series “Wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive. . . [with] wit worthy of Jane Austen.”  There is good reason for the novels to have achieved international acclaim.


Jill ScottHBO Film SeriesYou might also want to watch The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seven-episode Original Series created by HBO in 2008.  This film version of many of the novels is well done as it captures the heart and soul of the characters and the location.  The casting and acting are impressive; the characters come alive for me just as I envisioned them.  Jill Scott, especially, brings Mma Ramostwse to life as a living breathing character of traditional build and proud of it. She is quick to smile and courteous to a fault, as is tradition in Botswana.  US Weekly gave the series Four Stars.  Entertainment Weekly concluded it was “Feel-Good Television.”

TearsOne of my favorite cases from the book series is told in the second novel, The Tears of the Giraffe (2000), and it was included in the fourth episode of the HBO series called “The Boy with an African Heart.” This case involves the disappearance of a young American years ago in the Botswana plains.  CCH Pounder beautifully plays the American mother visiting this country her son loved so much, trying to discover his fate.   The interaction between mother, detective and landscape is compelling.  This one case/novel/episode captures the essence of the entire series.

Overall, the film adaptation is not 100% faithful to the novels’ characters and cases, but it is true to the essence of the written series as it captures the novels’ main action and characters.  The main difference is the inclusion of a new secondary character, a gay hairdresser named BJ whose shop is next door to the detective agency.  He is a delight and fits right in with the intent and feeling of the series. Other changes are minor as might be expected moving print to visual media.  Perhaps the most impressive element of the HBO series is that it is filmed entirely on location in Botswana.  The color, the vibrancy, the openness of Botswana truly come alive as the stories unfold in this wonderful locale.

This following video is called Making of HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and it shows the spark and heart of the characters and the stories.  Maybe it will entice you to give the novels a try. Or at least to watch the HBO series.  Enjoy!

This second video is called the Gem of Botswana. It shows aspects of the country and culture that are captured in the books and the film series.  It shows how compelling Botswana is as the locale and the heart of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  I would love to visit Botswana some day and enjoy a cup of red bush tree under the shade of an acacia tree.  In some ways, it would feel like going to visit a good friend.

If you have read or seen any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, what do you think?  If not, I encourage you to give the novels or the HBO series a try.  You’ll be transported to Botswana and meet some fascinating characters.  You might want to slow down, appreciate life and nature around you, and enjoy a cup of red bush tea while you’re at it.

What books or film adaptations can you suggest?  There is at least another month left of summer!


The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Tears of the Giraffe

Morality for Beautiful Girls

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

The Full Cupboard of Life

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Blue Shoes and Happiness

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

The Time for the Traditionally Built

The Double Comfort Safari Club

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe


NATURE CALLS: Musings of a Roadside Naturalist (1996)*

I have never hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon nor climbed past Yosemite’s Vernal Falls. I have not camped out in the wilds, ridden rapids or climbed steep canyon walls looking for petroglyphs.  But I have stood in dinosaur footprints, waded in the Colorado River, and walked through the ruins at Chaco National Park.  As I see it, such wanderings qualify me as a naturalist, even though I don’t often stray far from the roadside.  What matters is that I seek Nature’s comfort and spirituality.

monument valley 2Fortunately, this quest is not difficult.  At the beginning of every summer, I take off for a Nature and Solitude Retreat, just to rejuvenate my soul. On those trips I head for the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or maybe Canyon de Chelly. One year I toured the Acoma Pueblo; this year I visited Monument Valley. But I could just as easily delight over a drive along Route 66 or down the Big Sur Coastline.  Where I go does not matter—as long as I focus on Nature.

monument valley 3

Cactus along Route 66, Arizona

Cactus along Route 66, Arizona

Big Sur Coast, California

Big Sur Coast, California

red tail hawkpeacock arboretumI don’t even have to go on a trip to experience that refreshing connection.  At least once a week, I spot a red-tailed hawk circling over my morning commute.  Any weekend I can breeze through the Los Angeles County Arboretum, finding peacocks on display or some new flower in bloom. On the morning of the Northridge Earthquake, at about 6 am, most of us from my Chatsworth apartment complex were still sitting out by the cracked pool, avoiding the shattered darkness of our homes.  But as the morning brightened, there it was:  a tree in bloom, offering a silent protest against the morning’s jarring destruction.  Even the mocking birds were chattering away like it was any other day. How could my spirits not be lifted?

Morning of Northridge Earthquake

Morning of Northridge Earthquake

sunflower vaseBut being aware of my natural surroundings is not automatic.  I am often rushed and pre-occupied. If I can forget a loved one’s birthday, I can certainly block out the Wonders of Nature without much effort.  Therefore, I try to remind myself to stop and smell the roses. Although an obvious cliché, it’s still good advice. For a start, I try to consciously put nature on my agenda. At night, instead of watching the same old reruns again and again, I take a walk and notice the moon and the stars.  It’s best to make a wish!  Or I try to get up fifteen minutes early to feed the birds outside the window or to notice the bright blue sky before the smog settles in for the day. The colors and sounds and textures of Nature are always there, if only we take the time to notice.  Even the little things help, like putting a fresh flower on my office desk.

horses in NVWhenever I do plan activities away from home, I always keep Nature in mind. It’s easy to do; after all, Nature is just waiting to be explored. For example, for me, a trip to Las Vegas is not complete unless I also visit Red Rock Canyon that lies about 20 minutes outside the city. On my last trip, I was lucky:  I won $20 and saw a herd of wild mustang that calls that area home. Another time, I ventured a bit further—maybe two hours—to the Valley of Fire. Yes, it is as spectacular as it sounds.  I especially like the rock formation called Elephant Rock.

Wood Duck, Lithia Park

Wood Duck, Lithia Park

The point is that everywhere has some natural setting to escape to. Whenever I travel, I check for parks through cities, counties, and universities. For example, there’s a great arboretum at Washington State University in Seattle and some extensive rose gardens in Portland, Oregon. Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon, is a wondrous place.  Perfect for leisurely strolls. If you get there early enough, you may awaken the many ducks and swans that make the ponds their home. Bring bread crumbs!

Finding such places to visit is easy enough by checking tour books and maps of the area. Of course, AAA is a great source for such materials. But I also contact the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, since “birders” tend to know the prettiest areas to visit. In fact, any locals you can talk to will often give great advice. Without it, I never would have discovered a back road to Gold Beach, Oregon. But is proved to be a stupendous drive, full of gorgeous wildflowers and numerous butterflies.

Desert Sunrise

Desert Sunrise

Knowing where to find Nature is not the only thing that allows for a grand adventure.  I also need enough time. Time to wait, to notice, to watch. It’s hard to really enjoy Nature if you have to watch the clock so you can rush off to an appointment.  To allow a leisurely pace, I usually figure I need a four or five hour block of play time. The plan usually includes watching a sunrise or sunset, but such scheduling is not always possible.

sunrise 2

quailI do try, however, to schedule times during early mornings and late afternoons because I am interested in more than just scenery.  Those are the times when more animals and birds are active. For example, outside Tucson, Arizona, I once shared an evening picnic area with a large covey of quail, some persistent jays and a squirrel.


yellow headed blackbird 1yellow headed blackbird 2Anytime of day, however, can give me a slice of Nature to make my own. For example, it was about noon on a hot desert afternoon when I say a coyote.  He was too hot to care that I was following him along the road for a mile or so.  Eventually he slowly wandered away into the brush, but he was forever captured on the pages of my journal—along with the yellow-headed blackbirds I fed at a parking area in Yellowstone National Park, the bear I saw at a distance at Yosemite National Park, and the golden eagle I watched along the highway as it soared against an azure sky in New Mexico.

utah praire dogFinally, to make the most of my sojourns into Nature, I always bring along two things:  a camera and a journal.  Binoculars are a nice addition as well.  These items help me capture my thoughts, ideas, and experiences for later reflection.  Besides, sitting quietly for the few minutes it takes ti write that journal entry or to contemplate the best photo angle is often all it take to entice birds and animals back into action.  Sometimes right at my feet.  For example, on an afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park, I took the time to entice a prairie dog out into the meadow with me. This species is an endangered animal that lives only in Utah, making the encounter all the more special.

bryce 5

Patience is such a great companion.  But perhaps the best tool for an effective Nature Adventure is simply a fine-tuned sense of Wonder.  As Albert Einstein says, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead, his eyes are closed.”  When I look with my heart as well as my eyes, I am never disappointed.

I invite you to be a Roadside Naturalist whenever you can.  It is a great adventure!

Where are your favorite places to travel and enjoy Nature?

*END NOTE:  I first wrote this piece about being a Roadside Naturalist 18 years ago.  This year, when I once again took a long driving trip into Nature, I was still contemplating Nature, Wonder and Spirituality. Thus, I decided to share my earlier musing via my blog.

Topic Z: A Day at the ZOO

Some Opening Comments: antelopeI know that not everyone is enamored of zoos.  In fact, the very existence and actual operation of zoos is frequently criticized. In many ways, I agree with the complaints.  Ideally, wild animals would stay in the wild.  But, unfortunately, many animals are now endangered. Habitats are routinely diminished by encroaching farm lands and road construction, and some animals are being plundered by hunters and smugglers.  Some preservation efforts are underway, such as creating nature preserves to protect the animals in their native environments, but there are no guarantees about their success.  I would love to be able to visit such places to see animals in the wild, but such travel is not likely for me (and many others)*. 

Thus zoos have become a way to showcase wild animals while also learning about them in order to help preserve those at the zoo as well as in the wild.  Unfortunately, over the years, not all zoos have been run as humanely as they should be.  I remember once years and years ago visiting a zoo where the big cats were confined in small indoor cages, where all they could do was pace—it was a sad disheartening experience.  Many complain that the lack of space and natural habitats available via zoos is unfair to the animals, so limiting in fact that reproduction is not even possible.  This latter complaint is especially raised regarding elephants.  Other complaints look to the mistreatment of the animals behind closed doors when they are not in front of the crowds, whether having to perform or not.  These concerns are compounded when “zoos” are small or privately owned, where the animals are often seen as being exploited to simply make a buck.

betty white bookFortunately, more and more zoos are providing open spaces and natural habitats as the norm when animal exhibits are being constructed.  And more and more organizations and individuals are committed to monitoring and improving the overall living conditions for the animals.  These public zoological gardens and aquariums have been in existence since roughly 1870.  In 2013, there were 223 North American zoos accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.   As Betty White explains in her book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo (2011), “Increasingly, the good zoos find themselves taking on the role of ‘protectors’—or better yet ‘conservers’—rather than merely ‘collectors’ of wildlife.” 

Given this broader context, even though I understand the problems associated with the confinement and treatment of animals, I share Betty White’s appreciation for “the positive changes that have taken place in the whole zoo community over the past few decades, and the critical role they play today in perpetuating endangered species.”  


Dad taking photoselephant walkingEven though I understand the problems and controversy surrounding the operation of zoos, I love visiting them.  A day at the zoo is always great, even in the rain.  Over the years, I have spent many fun days with my dad wandering various zoos to capture pictures of the animals or visiting special exhibits with family and friends.  

Zoo i n the rain

pandaSome exhibits stand out:  I visited the Panda Exhibit at the San Diego Zoo and saw Ruby, the painting elephant, at the Phoenix Zoo.  Although it closed in 1987 (bought by Sea World), Marineland of the Pacific on Palos Verdes Peninsula, California, was a great place to get up close and personal with sea life.  A visit to Wolf Haven International in Tenino, Washington, provided some glimpses of wolves but also included evening stories around a campfire culminating with some howling from the wolves on site.  Terrific!  


wolf sleeping

wolf 2

mba bird 4For years I was a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The aviary there lets visitors see shore birds up close.  But you can also interact with starfish and sting rays and catch some great views of sea otters, both in an indoor exhibit as well as outside in the bay.  One year (1992) there was a great jellyfish exhibit too, and another year Dad and I enjoyed a catered outing to see local wildflowers.  I love the Monterey Bay Aquarium!  

mba bird 1

mba bird 2

mba bird 3

otter swimming

otter close

Exhibit Program Cover

Exhibit Program Cover

feeding llama 2feeding llamaOver the years, I also have fond memories of the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in Texas.  There, animals were viewed from the car as we drove through the park—and even fed some animals—llamas, zebras and ostriches—through the car windows.  I especially liked seeing the Rhea and its baby following behind and the start of a Crested Crane’s courtship dance.  

feeding zebra



crested crane dance 1

mc elephantmc parrotFor about ten years, I worked at Moorpark College, a mid-sized two-year college within the California Community College System.  It is the only community college in the country that offers an onsite teaching zoo**, where students learn to care for and train animals in preparation for jobs at zoos and preserves as well as in the entertainment and conservation industries.  The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (EATM)—affectionately dubbed America’s Teaching Zoo—operates an on-campus zoo that covers more than 9 acres.  An elephant would occasionally visit the campus, but one never lived permanently as the zoo.  There were plenty of other animals, however, from birds of prey to sea lions and from wolves to tigers.   mc camel

barn owl

mc lion in officeA documentary was made, showing the hard work and dedication involved with participating in this impressive program.  This unique EATM program offered many challenges and surprises for everyone on campus.  For example, Moorpark College was undoubtedly the only campus where the President would be called by a community member and asked to keep the students from walking the Water Buffalo in the neighborhood park.  Or where the sun rose to the bellowing whoo-whoo-whooping of some very vocal Gibbons.  Also, once the aged lion—a long-time mascot for the zoo—died, a new lion cub was donated from a sanctioned breeding program.  It was great getting to welcome this new little guy to campus!  

mc lion cub


donotSpecial exhibits and specific memories are great.  Technology even makes it possible to view some animal exhibits without ever leaving home.  For example, some days I watch the Elephant Cam from the San Diego Zoo and see elephants in real time, including the two youngest–both under 4 years old. But the best days at the zoo are still ordinary typical days, when you can wander leisurely from exhibit to exhibit, seeing a wide range of animals.

Each day will be a bit different from the next depending on what zoo you are visiting, what special exhibits are open, and even the mood of you and the animals.  But if you pause to really watch a minute, to try to communicate and understand, to appreciate what you see, any walk through the zoo is bound to be a glorious adventure.  Of course, you better make sure you show care and respect to the animals!

The following photos are pulled from trips to various zoos including The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Chaffee Zoo (Fresno, CA), Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, WA), Arizona-Sonora Desert (Living) Museum (Tucson, AZ), and the San Diego Zoo.  Let’s get started!

lion yawnLions & Tigers & Bears, oh my! lion nap

lions two

tiger walking

tiger face

bear side view

polar bear walking

bear grizzly

chimpanzeeorangutanChimps, Orangutans, and Gorillas

gorilla relaxing

gorilla mom and baby

gorilla standing

Flamingos & Other Birds

flamingo loneflamingo standing

flamingo flock

crested crane in aviary

night heron

rosette spoonbill

giraffe facecamel close upA Range of Animals that Run, Swim & Fly

turtles on log



bats 2

Bat rosalie

killer whale 1killer whales twoSome Sea Life

sea turtle



hippos and duckshippo surfacingHippos & Rhinos

hippos two

rhino face

rhinos two

lynxcoyoteSome Desert Dwellers

big horn sheep

elephant closeThere Must Always Be a Visit with the Elephants!

elephants mom and baby

If you have not visited a zoo in awhile, take Paul Simon’s advice and see “what’s happening at the zoo”!  (Just don’t believe his assessment of elephants.)   

 What zoos have you visited?

Do you have favorite animals you always visit?

elephants four

*It would not be the same as seeing animals in the wild, but you can visit a great blog–de Wets Wild–to see photographers of animals in the wilds of South Africa.
**The other college in the States that offers animal management training works with dolphins and such, so it brings the students to the ocean; that campus does not have a zoo on its own campus.

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“The quizzical expression of the monkey at the zoo comes from his wondering whether he is his brother’s keeper or his keeper’s brother.”   Evan Esar

“Zoo:  An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.”  Evan Esar

“I am personally not against keeping animals at zoos, as they serve a huge educational purpose, but treating them well and with respect seems the least we could do, and with ‘we’ I mean not just zoo staff, but most certainly also the public.”  Frans de Waal

“Zoo animals are ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.”   Jack Hanna

“Zoos are becoming facsimiles—or perhaps caricatures—of how animals once were in their natural habitat.  If the right policies toward nature were pursued, we would need no zoos at all.”   Michael J. Fox

“It could be said now that all animals live in zoos, whether it is a zoo in Regent’s Park, London or a Nigerian Game Reserve. Perhaps what’s left to argue is only the zoo’s quality.”    Peter Greenaway

“All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon the idea both beguiling and repellent—the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right. Caught inside this contradiction are the animals themselves, and the humans charged with their well-being.”    Thomas French, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

“In zoos, along with the animals, the humanity of man is also prisoned! No cage is humane!”    Mehmet Murat ildan “The zoo kills the ‘wild’ in wild animal.”   Mokokoma Mokhonoana

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”   Mahatma Gandhi

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.  All things are connected.”  Chief Seattle, Suwamish Tribe

“Only animals were not expelled from Paradise.”   Milan Kundera

“If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first art of abstinence is from injury to animals.”  Leo Tolstoy

“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”  Immanuel Kant

“Man is the only animal who blushes—or needs to.”   Mark Twain

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”   Anatole France

Topic X: Xenophobia

Topic X:  Xenophobia*

We all know about phobias.  As a psychological term, phobia means an irrational fear of something specific, but that something is usually innocuous as well as something that others maybe do not welcome but accept as part of life.  I bet you recognize at least some of these fears, even if you did not know what to call them:  

  • Acrophobia (Fear of Heights)
  • Agoraphobia (Fear of Open Spaces or Crowds)
  • Arachnophobia (Fear of Spiders)—and a fun movie!
  • Chionophobia (Fear of Snow)—even without calling it a Polar Vortex
  • Claustrophobia (Fear of Confined Spaces)
  • Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark)
  • Dentophobia (Fear of Dentists)
  • Ophidiophobia (Fear of Snakes)—not just those on a plane
  • Cynophobia (Fear of Dogs)—not just pitbulls
  • Zoophobia (Fear of Animals)—for animals, might this be a fear of zoos?
  • Phobophobia (Fear of Phobias)

If afflicted with one of these or the dozens of other phobias that are out there, most people seek help.  At least they do if the fear is taking over their lives.  A mild case of acrophobia may mean that you will never walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, but you can probably live with that.  The same with never taking elevators, if you have claustrophobia.  But if you are an agoraphobic and you never leave your apartment, you may seek some help.  Certainly, I would think, if you are afflicted to some degree with any of these phobias, you would not typically showcase it in society if you can help it, and you do not encourage your children and loved ones to practice your fearful behavior as well. 

But then we have to consider the worst fear of all:  XENOPHOBIA.  At first, this word typically makes me think of science fiction, makes me imagine worlds where there are literal aliens of which to be fearful. Ripley’s hatred for the alien that destroyed her ship and was trying to take over her body did not seem irrational.  Nor does the fear or hatred of the Borg in Star Trek in both the Alpha and Delta Quadrants.  In fact, this fear of literal aliens is at the heart of many of the early science fiction movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  (I’ve written about that fear of invasion before.) But how apt is this view of xenophobia to our everyday life, to the other phobias that are part of modern society?

The literal definition of xenophobia makes this irrational fear sound like all the other phobias.  The basic definition says xenophobia is a fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of anything foreign, strange, or alien.  At first this does not sound so bad, until you notice the word hatred.   That’s a charged word that links xenophobia to its synonyms:  racism and prejudice.  Thus xenophobia must be the most generic version of the phobias listed under the sub-heading “Prejudice and Discrimination,” like homophobia and Islamophobia.

Unlike experiencing other phobias, people afflicted with xenophobia do not often seek help to rid themselves of this irrational fear.  No, they convince themselves that their fear is the norm, and—worse yet—their words and deeds teach by example, thus perpetuating this fear to their children and loved ones.  From my view, it is xenophobia that is at the root of such society problems as hatred, discrimination, prejudice, racial profiling and hate crimes.  It seems that some level of xenophobia is what makes people cross the street to avoid the homeless, complain when people of different colors or cultures move into their neighborhoods, or bully others for their appearance or gender or some other silly superficial thing.  Instead of the love of money being the root of all evil, my bet is on xenophobia taking on that role.

As we enter 2014, my hope for the world is that xenophobia would be abolished.  That those afflicted with hate and fear of anything that is strange or different from themselves would realize that those feelings are irrational and counter-productive, that they would overcome that fear and live a life dictated by the antonyms of xenophobia:  tolerance, acceptance, patience, forbearance, and open-mindedness. The words and deeds associated with these qualities would be worthy of teaching to our children, of perpetuating throughout the world.  It is not a new idea that we should be teaching tolerance and acceptance.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. shared this goal in his “Afterword” to the original edition of Free to Be. . . You and Me (1974):

“I’ve often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they’re on, why they don’t fall off, how much time they’ve probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on.  I tried to write one once.  It was called Welcome to Earth.  But I got stuck on explaining why we don’t fall off the planet.  Gravity is just a word.  It does not explain anything.  If I could get past gravity, I would tell them how we reproduce, how long we’ve been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution.  And one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity.  I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade.  A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive.  It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it.” 

Creating a world of love, caring, understanding, kindness, tolerance, a world devoid of xenophobia, is up to us.  We need to imagine and then create such a world, starting with our homes and neighborhoods.  Let’s help everyone have a happy new year.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”   Bertrand Russell

“I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous orsavage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.”   Michel de Montaigne

“Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that devils us.  It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue, because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen ti what its timpani is saying.”   Anna Quindlen

“I was raised to believe that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.  And that’s how I operate my life.”   Oprah Winfrey

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”  Ralph W. Sockman

“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”   Kahlil Gibran

“The highest result of education is tolerance.”   Helen Keller

“Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.”   Robert Green Ingersoll

“Tolerance is the oil which takes the friction out of life.”   Wilbert E. Scheer

We need to promote greater tolerance and understanding among the peoples of the world. Nothing can be more dangerous to our efforts to build peace and development than a world divided along religious, ethnic or cultural lines. In each nation, and among all nations, we must work to promote unity based on our shared humanity.”  Kofi Annan

“Tolerance is the positive and cordial effort to understand another’s beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them.”   Joshua Liebman

“Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.”   Helen Keller

BTW:  It was a challenge to decide upon a subject to discuss for the letter X.  What would you have written about?  I know very little about X-rays and xylophones.

Topic W: WarGames

220px-WargamesI am not typically a fan of War Films.  Oh, there are some good ones, including From Here to Eternity (1953), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red Badge of Courage (1951 & 1974 on TV), Victory (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Taking Chance (2009).  The War Films I enjoy typically do not focus on the killing and brutality of war; they more typically look at war’s effect on those involved and/or raise questions about the nature of war itself.

Given its subject matter and moral stance, the movie WarGames (1983) could be called a War Film.  In reality, however, it is more a coming of age film that happens to be about the possibility of war.  I was 28 when this film first aired, teaching writing classes in Texas.  My college students liked the film, so I watched it as well, and we had several good discussions on its themes.  Overall, the move was good, fun in fact—and it had a good message about the futility of war.  I had not thought of this movie in years, but I stumbled onto it over the holidays when I was scouring late night channels for something non-Christmasy to watch.

Even though WarGames is 30 years old, it still holds up as a good movie worth watching.  When first released, it earned general acclaim as well as commercial success.  Roger Ebert labeled it “an amazingly entertaining thriller.”  Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 92% rating and described it as “part delightfully tense techno-thriller, part refreshingly un-patronizing teen drama, WarGames is one of the more inventive—and genuinely suspenseful—Cold War movies of the 1980s.” During its first five weeks of being shown in American theaters, it earned over 85 million dollars.  It won the Academy Scientific and Technical Award, and was nominated for three other Academy Awards:  Cinematography, Sound, and Writing Directly for the Screen.

John Badham—already known for directing Saturday Night Fever (1977), Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) and Blue Thunder (1983)—directed WarGames and brought his social commentary about war to the big screen.  The main stars in the film are Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, and Dabney Coleman. The stars play their scenes with a quiet nonchalance, making each new action and the ongoing dialog seem possible, acceptable.  As typical in coming of age films, parents and teachers are a bit generic and aloof, but those characterizations do not detract from the basic story line. Although minor military personnel are occasionally seen as predictable and robotic, the main military characters are as well-rounded and thoughtful as the two teenagers and the disgruntled scientist. 

The basic ideas within the story—computer games seeming real, exploration of computers and artificial intelligence, computer or theoretical problems and mistakes generating real-world problems—all still seem plausible.  The items that date the movie are noticed but can be easily overlooked:  drinking Tab, pull tops from soda cans being used to make a phone call from a phone booth, computer links being generated over land lines, and data being saved on floppy disks.  A world without cell phones is an oddity, but the story moves on!  There is action, suspense, humor, and a little teenage romance to keep everyone happy. As an English teacher, I especially love that the teen resorts to library research to aid his critical thinking and problem solving skills. 

The general story line is surprisingly compelling, especially since the audience had to guess that the world would not really be blown up in this movie.  The basic narrative builds on a teen’s ability to hack into a computer searching for as-yet-unpublished-but-hyped-in-the-media computer games.  From that premise, the action builds slowly, moving quicker and quicker as the pending catastrophe becomes apparent.  The kid accidentally engages a military computer to play “Global Thermonuclear War.” Since the computer also runs the military assessment tool WORP (War Operation Planned Response), the computer’s game moves generate real world actions and progress NORAD’s war status successively from DEFCON 5 (peace) to DEFCON 1 (war).  By the end of the movie, the audience is sitting on the edge of its seat waiting to see how all this will be resolved as the clock ticks down and the launch codes are decrypted. 

The lingering power of the film comes from the questions it raises and themes it explores.  These questions and themes stay relevant even today.  Three basic thematic threads are interwoven throughout the film.  One is the possibility of nuclear war altogether and whether nuclear warheads are a deterrent to an actual war or an accident waiting to happen.  Another is the role of computer technology and artificial intelligence in monitoring and analyzing data regarding world powers and possible attacks. The final thread is about the people involved:  a scientist who is grieving over the loss of his family and who regrets his role in developing technology used for war, the military personnel who argue over the extent computers should be involved in making decisions, and the teens who are trying to grow up and get pulled into the game of war.

The final message is clear:  War is futile.  The computer eventually learns this lesson, and real war—along with the game—is aborted.  Too bad I am not convinced that all the military and political leaders today understand what the computer eventually learned.  In stopping his playing of “Global Thermonuclear War,” Joshua (the computer) says:  “Strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.  How about a nice game of chess?”

Do you have a favorite “War Film” or two that you can recommend?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem.  It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”   Albert Einstein

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”   John F. Kennedy

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”   Dwight D. Eisenhower

“The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution.”  John F. Kennedy

“War does not determine who is right—only who is left.”   Bertrand Russell

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”  Ernest Hemingway

“There was never a good war, or a bad peace.”   Benjamin Franklin

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.”   H. G. Wells

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”   Omar N. Bradley

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”   Carl Sandburg

“War is a defeat for humanity.”  Pope John Paul II

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”   Jeannette Rankin

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil.  But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.  We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”   Jimmy Carter

“It’ll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers.”  Author Unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs

“I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”   Eve Merriam
“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking. . . . The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.  If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”  
Albert Einstein

“’There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.”   James Morrow
“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” 
M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

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