Hyper-reality and the Desert of the Real

Flying into LaGuardia, the City shimmering outside the airplane window — labyrinth of light beneath squid-ink sky.  Bridges spanning black waters, buildings silhouetted against dark vistas, boulevards radiating in concentric directions. Circuit board of the digital economy.

“City of hurried and sparkling waters!” sang Walt Whitman, “city of spires and masts!  City nested in bays! my city!”

But it’s not my city.  Not anymore.  Never really was… Continue reading “Hyper-reality and the Desert of the Real”

Hyper-reality and the Desert of the Real

Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

In 1978, Al Arnold became the first person to run the 146 miles from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney in the High Sierra.  Since then thousands of runners have completed a “crossing” in one form or another.

Contemporary runners face epic challenges in Death Valley:  brutal temperatures, fierce winds, and endless mountains  – valid reasons for the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon to tout itself as the “toughest footrace in the world.”

Runners take on these challenges to show the world that we still have the physical endurance and strength of spirit of our ancestors.  That we haven’t lost their determination and grit.  That in a world of wondrous technology, we haven’t gone soft.

In reflecting on his experience in Death Valley, Al Arnold once said, “If reincarnation is true, then I must have lived before as some kind of scout with an army or with pioneer settlers.  I really feel that you could drop me almost anywhere in the world and, barring human adversity, I’d survive.”

Interestingly, it was a scout who undertook the first documented crossing of Death Valley and the High Sierra.  The year was 1849, and the scout was named William Lewis Manly.  He was leading a group of pioneer settlers, or “emigrants” as they were then called, on an ill-fated shortcut from Salt Lake City to the California goldmines.

Arnold might well be Manly’s reincarnation, as they share the qualities of endurance and commitment.  Yet their experiences were quite different.  Arnold’s crossing was an achievement of training, discipline, and audacity.  Manly’s crossing was a venture gone wrong, a lesson in hunger, thirst, and fear, and a quest for survival.


Continue reading “Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley”

Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who have long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  What does it mean to you?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people.  Even Sun was a person.

At one time many people lived at Koso Hot Springs in the Saline Valley, on the eastern side of the Inyo Mountains, not too far from Owen Lake and what is today the town of Lone Pine, California.

The people were going to have a race.  In this race they bet their lives.  Mudhen dug a pit and built a fire to cook those who lost the race.

The people headed to the starting place in the southern part of Saline Valley.  There was a marsh with willows and other plants, and many of the people went there to gather leaves to eat and branches for arrows.  Coyote went with them.

The race started, but Coyote was busy sucking the sugary sap from the willow stems.

Frog went over to Coyote and struck him.   “What are you doing?  The race has started.”

Coyote ignored him and kept eating.  Frog got angry.  So he urinated on Coyote.

Coyote emerged from the willows, and found that all the people had gone.  He started to run; but he was way behind.  As he ran he saw Frog ahead of him, sitting under a creosote bush.

“Why aren’t you running?” Coyote asked.  Frog didn’t answer.  So Coyote stopped and urinated on Frog. Then he went on.

Now the people were getting close to Koso Hot Springs.  Coyote could see the dust far ahead, at least twenty miles away, so he picked up the pace and ran as fast as he could.

While they were running, Frog caught up with Coyote and then took a flying leap and bounded over him.  While in midair, he made sure to urinate on Coyote.

“Stop it!” Coyote shouted.

The people were nearly to Koso Hot Springs.  Frog took a final jump and landed right at the edge of the fire hole.  He won the race.  Coyote came in second, close on his heels.

After the race, the firetenders threw the losers into the fire. Only Bear and Sun remained. When they started to drag Bear to the fire, he roared, but they pushed him in.  Now only Sun was left. The people started to talk.

“We’d better leave him or they’re won’t be any light,” they said.

“No way,” Coyote shouted.  “If he had beaten me, he would have thrown me in.  We must throw him into the fire.”

Coyote took hold of Sun.  When he did this, Duck, Woodpecker, Nighthawk, Chipmunk, and all the other people ran for the house.

Coyote dragged Sun to the fire. Then he paused, and before pitching him in, he looked to see which way was the house and made sure to fix that image in his memory.  Then he pushed Sun into the fire.  All went dark.

Coyote ran in the direction of the house but despite his precaution, he couldn’t find it. He ran around in the dark, shouting for help. The people in the house heard him, but didn’t answer, because they were angry with him for extinguishing the light.

All this happened in the fall.  Coyote traveled around all winter looking for the house.  He stumbled around in the snow, fell off mountains, and got lost.  He went way back in the High Sierra.  He crawled around, feeling with his hands, until he recognized Mt. Whitney.

“This is where I used to go and this is the trail I used to follow,” he said.

He crawled around on his hands and knees until he got close to the house again.   While he was looking for the house, the people inside reconsidered.

“Maybe we should let him in,” Frog said.  “He’s smart. He might tell us how to get the sun back.”

After this, they answered Coyote when he shouted and invited him inside.  They fed him the plants they had been gathering all winter, until he regained some strength.

Coyote started to talk. “There are a lot of different kinds of people here. Some of us ought to know how to make the sun.”

The people said, “You’re right.”

Some of them started to shout, and a little light appeared.

Coyote noticed this and said, “When I shout, the sun will come out.”

Coyote shouted loudly, and it became completely dark again.

Duck said, “Quack,” and every animal made his noise, trying to bring Sun back. When Duck quacked, a little light, like dawn, began to show.  Duck quacked again, and the light got brighter. The third time Duck quacked, Sun came out.

The people saw that it was springtime.  They emerged from the house.  Everything was green.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source:  http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/
Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who had long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  I thought this one might be helpful to people running in relay races….what do you think?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people. They had no fire in this part of the country.  It was cold.

Lizard was lying in the sun, trying to keep warm.  He looked up just as a particle of ash, blown by the south wind, drifted slowly to the ground.  It looked like the burned stem of a bulrush plant.  All the people came over to look.  They wondered where it had come from.

Crow thought he smelled smoke, but no-one could see anything.

Coyote walked by and pointed at the ash.

“What’s this?” he asked.  The people all shook their heads.

“You don’t know what this is?” Coyote asked, “This is ash from a fire in another country.”

They stared at him blankly.

“We need somebody to fly up in the sky,” Coyote said, “to see where it came from.”

Chickadee jumped up into the air, flapped his tiny wings, and flew a little ways up.  But he quickly tired and fell back to the ground.  Then Woodpecker and Blue Jay tried, but after a little bit they fainted and fell all the way back to earth.  Coyote put some water on their heads to wake them up.

Then Hummingbird said, “I can do this.”  As all the people watched, he soared high into the air and hovered there for quite some time, turning first to the west, then the north, then the east, and finally the south.  Coyote craned his neck and squinted, trying to see where Hummingbird was looking.  Then Hummingbird fluttered back down.

When he was on the earth again, everybody gathered around. They wanted to know what he had seen.  He told them of a big body of water far off in the south. There were many people on the shore, he said, dancing around a huge fire.

“We must go there,” Coyote said, “and get that fire.”

They all started running toward the south. They ran all day without taking any breaks until they reached a mountain peak, where they rested during the night.  The next day they ran until they reached another mountain.  On each mountain, Coyote stationed one of the people. They kept running, they did not walk, until they had crossed nine mountain peaks and sat on the tenth.  From this vantage, they could see the water that Hummingbird had first spotted and the fire burning brightly on its shore.

Evidently, the people there were having a big celebration.  They were dancing around a giant bonfire. Coyote trotted down the mountain and ripped a handful of milkweed from the ground with which he fashioned a fake beard. Then he joined the people and danced with them around the fire.  The old women eyed him suspiciously, especially the fake beard.  They weren’t stupid, they worried that he was going to steal their fire.  But their chief didn’t notice.  As Coyote danced, he moved closer and closer to the fire and then he leaned his head over the flames until the beard caught fire. As soon as it was lit, he ran off — and the fire in the camp went out.  The old women howled in dismay — and the people took off in pursuit, desperate to recover their fire.  It wasn’t hard to follow Coyote, his burning beard glowed as brightly as if he were carrying a lantern.

Coyote ran to the first person he had posted on the mountain peak closest to the lake and passed the fire to him. This person ran with it to the next one on the next mountain peak, and in this way they passed the fire along. The pursuers were close on their trail, and when they caught up to Coyote, they killed him, and then they killed everyone else who had stopped after passing the fire on.

The fire was relayed from one person to another until it was passed to Jackrabbit, who put the fire on his tail, which turned black from the soot.  Then he passed it on to Rabbit.  As Rabbit ran with the fire, the pursuers used their powers to summon dark clouds and cause hail to fall from the sky.  The hail hurt Rabbit, and he squealed in pain and fear as he ran.

Rat was living alone on the top of Lida Mountain, just north of Death Valley, in a house  surrounded by sheer cliffs.  He heard Rabbit crying and scrambled down the slope.  Rat took the fire from Rabbit and ran with it back up to his house.  The fire burned a red spot on his breast.

The pursuers gathered around Rat’s house. “Catch him,” they shouted to each other, “but don’t kill him.  We want the fire.”  But they couldn’t climb up the cliffs.

Rat took the fire and lit a large pile of brush.  Then he scattered the burning brush all over the country.

The pursuers fell down and died.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

Tales of the Timbisha: Coyote Races

View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

A long time ago, the animals were people.

Coyote’s brother Wolf told Coyote, “I want you to run a race with the five Mountain Sheep brothers.”  The mountain sheep weren’t very fast, Wolf thought.

“Just as soon as you outrun the five brothers,” Wolf said, “I will be there to cut their throats.”

Wolf had picked a certain place for them to start, at the crest of a mountain.  Witnesses were stationed at key points along the course.  As they milled around the starting place, people got to saying that the mountain sheep were good runners.  Then they saw Coyote, looking strong and fresh.

The race started.  Coyote had little trouble outrunning the sheep.  Before they were halfway, the Mountain Sheep were panting, gasping for air.  Coyote got to the end of the course with ease.  He went around doubled over, pretending he was out of breath.  The people saw him and laughed.  He was most pleased with himself.

Wolf was glad.  He cut the throats of the mountain sheep and prepared a big feast.  The people ate until they were full, and then they ate some more.  Coyote was proud.  He became very sure of himself.

“There’s one thing more,” Wolf said.  “I want you to race the Magpies.”

He gestured to a distant peak.  “The race will start way up on that mountaintop over there.  Three magpies will race you.”

Coyote didn’t like the sound of this.

“You’re not serious, are you?” he asked.  “The Magpies are mighty birds.  If I lose, they’ll kill me and eat me.”

“There would be lots of spectators,” Wolf said, shrugging.  “All the people would be watching you.”

So the day of the race came.  The Magpies arrived before Coyote.  Then Coyote came, stepping from rock to rock (as was his superstition).  One of the witnesses sounded the start.  On both sides of the course, the spectators cheered and shouted.

Wolf had told Coyote, “If we win, we’ll get all the pretty feathers of the Magpies.  I want the feathers for my head.  The wings I want for my buckskin suit.”  Now Wolf took up his station at the end of the course and waited there patiently with a long, sharp knife, its blade glinting in the desert sun.

Coyote started.  He tore along on the ground, raising a cloud of dust.  But the Magpies folded their wings against their bodies and dove.  The course was all downhill, and the Magpies hurtled through the air.  When Coyote reached the bottom of the valley, the Magpies were already there, waiting for him.

Coyote didn’t know what to do.  He tried to hide.

“All right now,” the Magpies said, “we’re ready to butcher you.”

“Don’t butcher me right away,” Coyote pleaded.  “Let me go bathe in the cool creek before I die.  That way, I’ll be clean.”  They agreed.

Coyote ran to the creek and dove under the water. He tried to hide under some green weeds that were growing in the running water.  But the Magpies’ quick eyes found him.  They ducked under the water and dragged him out.  They killed him.

Wolf did not get his feathers.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: Coyote Races

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: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

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