Stories of the Timbisha

In my first post, I mentioned my journey along New York’s Long Path — but now let’s take a jump out west, to Death Valley.

View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source:

As you may know, the Badwater Ultramarathon is held in Death Valley each July.  It’s a 135-mile ultramarathon from Badwater Basin to the Whitney Portal, famous for the extreme temperatures runners face, and for this reason often identified as one of the world’s toughest footraces.  I ran Badwater in 2010 and 2012 and completed a double in 2014.

Each time I’ve journeyed to Death Valley, I’ve been curious about the harsh but beautiful lands and the people who have long lived here, the local Timbisha Shoshone Indians, who today have a reservation near Furnace Creek.

Historical encounters with Native Americans interest me, because they give us a glimpse of what people were like before modern technology.  For example, consider this encounter, as recounted by William Lewis Manly, a scout who led emmigrant gold-seekers across Death Valley in 1849:

One day I was going up a wide ravine leading to the summit, and before I reached the highest part I saw a smoke curl up before me. I took a side ravine and went cautiously, bowed down pretty low so no one could see me, and when near the top of the ridge and about one hundred yards of the fire I ventured to raise slowly up and take a look to see how many there were in camp: I could see but two and as I looked across the ravine an Indian woman seemed looking at me also, but I was so low she could only see the top of my head, and I sank down again out of sight. I crawled further up so as to get a better view, and when I straightened up again she got a full view of me. She instantly caught her infant off its little pallet made of a small piece of thin wood covered with a rabbit skin, and putting the baby under one arm, and giving a smart jerk to a small girl that was crying to the top of her voice, she bounded off and fairly flew up the gentle slope toward the summit, the girl following after very close. The woman’s long black hair stood out as she rushed along, looking over her shoulder every instant as if she expected to be slain. The mother flying with her children, untrammeled with any of the arts of fashion was the best natural picture I ever looked upon, and wild in the extreme. No living artist could do justice to the scene as the lady of the desert, her little daughter and her babe, passed over the summit out of sight. I followed, but when I reached the highest summit, no living person could be seen.

Manly, William Lewis. Death Valley in ’49 (p. 59). . Kindle Edition.

Manly was intrigued by this Timbisha woman because she was so natural, wild, and fast — she flew off with her children and disappeared from sight before Manly reached the summit — and he was no slouch. If you read Manly’s memoirs, you’ll see that he was curious about the Indians, whom he regarded as the “real kings of the forest” — and respectful.

Technology does so much for us, but the question is whether we’ve lost some of the physical vigor of our distant ancestors — and if so, what we can do to recover it.  Bernd Heinrich writes about running as a way to recover that strength and forge a link with ancient peoples::.

As runners, I think we reach directly back along the endless chain of history. We experience what we would have felt had we lived ten thousand years ago, eating fruits, nuts and vegetables, and keeping our hearts and lungs and muscles fit by constant movement. We are reasserting as modern man seldom does, our kinship with ancient man, and even with the wild beasts that preceded him.

Heinrich, Bernd. Why We Run (p. 10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I agree with Bernd, and judging from what I see ordinary athletes accomplish in trail races and ultramarathons, I believe a lot of that strength is lying just below the surface.

If you keep running with me, we’re going to go backwards in time, on the tracks of that Timbisha woman and her children, and then even earlier.

To a time when the animals were people…

And we’ll see what we find….

Stories of the Timbisha

Welcome to The Long Brown Path

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose

— Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Welcome to my blog!  My purpose is to develop content for articles and books, practice my writing skills, and discover what interests people through their comments.  If you follow me, we’ll go on adventures, some long, some short, some fast, some slow, some on foot, some back in time, some in other directions, wherever the path beckons.

I am borrowing the title from Raymond Torrey’s weekly column which ran in the New York Post from 1918 to 1938.  Torrey was a founder of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and a hiker, conservationist, naturalist, and trail-blazer.  In his weekly column, Torrey shared news from regional hiking clubs, described popular trails, and championed environmental causes.  He was an avid hiker and trail builder, and he spearheaded volunteer efforts to establish a network of trails throughout Harriman State Park.  In 1921, he became an advocate of the Appalachian Trail, and over the next ten years, was instrumental in routing, blazing, and clearing over 160 miles of the trail from New Jersey to Connecticut.   From March through June 1934, Torrey devoted his popular column to describing the proposed route for New York’s Long Path, which was envisioned as connecting New York City and the Adirondacks.

Torrey was an impressive fellow.  He was an amateur naturalist and quite knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the Hudson Valley.  He could reputedly identify 700 different plants, was especially interested in boreal species found at high elevation, and became an authority on lichens.

He was also someone who stood up for what he thought was right.  He had a famous disagreement with master builder and New York power broker Robert Moses over the proposed routing of a parkway across environmentally sensitive areas in Long Island.  After the two men shouted at each other and traded insults, Moses tried to strangle Torrey and then threw a heavy smoking stand at him, but fortunately missed.

Raymond Torrey — newspaperman, free-lancer, nature lover and self-trained scientist — was one of the prime movers in the making of the Appalachian Trail in the New York-New Jersey region. (Courtesy of New York-New Jersey Trail Conference)
Raymond Torrey — newspaperman, free-lancer, nature lover and self-trained scientist. (Courtesy of New York-New Jersey Trail Conference)

Torrey passed away in 1938.  Friends scattered his ashes on Long Mountain, one of his favorite spots in the Hudson Valley, and erected a monument that identifies him as a “Great Disciple of the Long Brown Path.”  He had been such a hard worker, it would take an entire committee of people to carry on his responsibilities.

Torrey had borrowed the title of his column from the opening stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road.  That Whitman became the poet laureate for New York hikers was somewhat ironic.  He didn’t wander energetically through the mountains like John Muir or Henry David Thoreau.  He loved cities and people more than wilderness.   His friend John Burroughs called Whitman “the poet of democracy.”  Whitman referred to himself as a “loafer.”  The Long Brown Path was really a metaphor for the freedom that people have to follow their own unique paths through life and also a reflection of the sense of optimism felt by Americans in the late 19th century.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.  Source:  Wikipedia, public domain
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.  Source:  Wikipedia, public domain

I discovered Torrey and Whitman when I thru-ran New York’s Long Path in 2013.  The 350-mile trail took me 9 days to complete.  It was an adventure:  rough terrain, bad weather, getting lost, running out of water and food, blisters and other injuries, and confrontations with unfriendly wildlife.  By the time I made it to the end, I was in rough shape.  Friends told me I looked like a “mountain man.”

Norwegian Spruce Forest
The author after 250 miles on the Long Path

But I had learned so much.  About myself.  About the wonderful parks and preserves of the Hudson Valley.  And about the history and people of New York, including Torrey and Whitman and many other interesting characters.  From Torrey I learned about the importance of championing land and trail stewardship.  From Whitman, the importance of understanding that everyone follows a different path.

If you follow this blog, we’ll travel together in search of new experiences and insights, and we’re sure to find something interesting.  After all, once you figure out your path, it’s only a question of putting one foot in front of the other…

Welcome to The Long Brown Path