Mary Clark, Traveler

Encounters with Animal Royalty – the Lions of Botswana and Zimbabwe


African Lion (Panthera leo) by, 530-934-3873,

It was his eyes that drew me in – focused on the distant horizon, unblinking, looking for what he was hearing.  A mature Botswana male lion, the largest of the big cats in Africa, had stopped suddenly, fifteen yards away, intensely still, listening.  Gazing outward, he moved his mane from side to side, passing indifferently over our near presence in the open-air jeeps.  Turning to his left he moved into the meadow, gradually fading as if he were Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie, Field of Dreams, his sandy coat indistinguishable from the tall grasses.  When he reappeared, he knew where he was going, across the field, towards the stream.  After first roaring to scare off any crocodiles, he entered the waters, swam a short distance, re-emerging to shake the water off.  And, again, he disappeared into the grass, hopefully to find his mate. This was not our only encounter with the African lions, but because of his proximity, it is my strongest memory

African Lion (Panthera leo) by, 530-934-3873,

Since my return, I’ve been asked if we were afraid being that close to the king of the jungle.  Truthfully, I wasn’t.  They seemed accustomed to our presence and disinterested in what we had to offer.  And, despite movies to the contrary, lions don’t create the most danger to humans in Africa.  That distinction would go to mosquitos that kill hundreds of thousands a year.  Lions aren’t even the most dangerous big animal in Africa.  That would be the hippopotamus which takes down 3,000 humans a year. Lions come after elephants and crocodiles, killing 200, primarily by sick males or when its testosterone levels are up in musth.

But lions are a danger to every other animal in Africa as they can wrestle down antelopes with ease, cape buffalos with some effort and with a little help from other lions, even a giraffe or elephant.  We saw two leopards squeezed in some branches of a tree, having been chased by a lion that was still roaming the area.  The Okavango Delta in Botswana is known for its large Cape buffalo herds.  They like the water and lions don’t but have adjusted to be close to such tasty fare.  There’s also a large population of impalas, cousins to our deer but with more dramatic horns on the male and a white circle on their rumps.  Impalas are the breadbasket for the animal world of southern Africa, including lions, and they are the most common animal we saw.

Certain prides are known by trackers.  At our first camp in Botswana, we heard a new pride had been seen in the area.  It was always tricky to find them although they had their favorite hangouts.  My husband’s jeep was the first to see a pride of females and babies, causally crossing the road.  I had “lion envy” as I had not gone out that afternoon.  But the next day, we found two male lions lying in the tall grass.  The head of one was up as he sleepily surveyed the nearby humans.  The other was deep into an afternoon nap with only his raised foot giving him away.  Our guide thought they were brothers and had just eaten.

Botswana has a healthy supply of lions today, thanks to conservation efforts and governmental policies. It is one of four countries that have seen an increase of about 12% in lions as opposed to the remainder of Africa where the lion population has decreased by 60%. The politics of saving the lions is complicated. No one disputes the numbers of lions have decreased dramatically from approximately 500,000 in 1950 to an estimated 20,000 today.  No one argues that Photo Safaris brings in needed revenue and provide employment to many.  And it’s undisputed that lions do kill livestock.  Solutions to declining numbers have included banning hunting completely, breeding lions in captivity for trophy hunting, and predator proof fences.

Anti-poaching efforts also are used by all the countries and we saw a jeep full of soldiers doing just that in Botswana.  Our guide greeted them and told us safari guides often give assistance to the anti-poaching efforts by notifying authorities when they see poachers.

Our last encounter with the lions was in Zimbabwe in a wooded area with a pride of lionesses quietly following its leader.

She slowed down and crouched.  The others followed suit.  Her muscles were taut, and her eyes focused past us where a herd of impalas was grazing.  Slowly, she stood and crept silently forward.  We held our breaths, waiting for a kill.  But the impalas must have had a warning and moved on.  The lionesses relaxed and led the pride on to follow the herd beyond our vision.  It is those moments that need to be preserved for future generations of lions and viewers. Hopefully, the efforts to save the lions will do just that.

Some photos are courtesy of Gary Kramer, our tour leader and photographer extraordinaire.

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Volcano Climbing Becomes a Family Tradition

I’m in the yellow jacked on the right at the top of Pacaya – 1975

View of path and valley below

In 1975, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in Guatemala City where he had a medical study grant. We fell in love with that beautiful, green country that sported mountains, lakes, beaches and three active volcanos, Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya.  Not thinking too much, we decided to climb Pacaya for a new experience.  It had been dormant for a while and was considered an easy volcano to ascend.

My husband and me at the beginning of the climb of Pacaya – 1975

On a clear Sunday morning, we quickly followed the gentle rise of the path that gradually increased its incline.  As we neared the top, climbing became challenging, the dark sandy volcanic soil sinking with every step.  The ground warmed beneath our soles.  And finally peering into the crater, we saw only smoke.  But when we turned around, the valley of Guatemala City lay below.  It was an airplane view except our feet were securely planted on ground, shifty though it was.  Our son carried on the family tradition in 2007 when he was in the Peace Corps there but had to turn around when the heat burned the bottom of his shoes.

Pacaya remains the only active volcano we have ascended but there have been other experiences around the world.  These were recalled after watching “Fire of Love”, a documentary about Marcel and Katia Krafft, two vulcanologists joined by marriage and their love of volcanoes.   The two were fearless and lived for the next eruption.  Wearing astronaut like coverings, they approached moving lava and magna, took samples of hot gasses, and even sailed a specially designed boat on a river of acid.

I learned the difference between red, friendlier volcanoes that are more predictable with lava flows following distinct patterns such as old riverbeds.  Gray ones are more dangerous, unpredictable, spewing smoke like a diabolical cauldron.  Mount St. Helens, in the state of Washington, was a gray explosion that broke off the entire side of the volcano when it exploded and sent rivers of lava down through homes and communities.  The broken crater is easy to view on the airplane approach to Portland, Oregon.

Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District

My encounters with volcanos over the years cover several countries.  Since 75% of the world’s volcanoes reside in the Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile chain that follows the outline of the Pacific Ocean, I have flown over many dormant and active ones across Central and South America, with the most dramatic being views of some of Chile’s 2000 volcanos. In 2014, we hiked around part of Osorno, a perfectly formed volcano in Chile’s lake district.

From my home in Quito, Ecuador in 1973, I could see Cotapaxi, a sculpted volcano along the Pan American highway.  Behind me was Pichincha, a peaceful volcano during my stay but one that erupted in 1999 covering Quito in several inches of ash.  I also regularly passed the snow-covered volcano, Cayambe, third highest mountain in Ecuador, on my way to visit my Peace Corps brother in Otavalo.  The bus always stopped in the town of Cayambe which had food stands selling the local potato soup served with popcorn on top.  I have introduced that recipe to grandchildren.

In Costa Rica, Arundel was quite active, warming the hot springs for swimming at Hotel Tabacon near its base.  Each pool posted its temperature with some too warm for me to enter. The hotel staff offered to wake us in the middle of the night if there were volcanic eruptions.  During the day, large boulders could be seen tossed out of the crater.

My most powerful view of an active volcano came at night on a cruise ship around the Big Island in Hawaii.  Red hot lava could be seen flowing from the Kilauea Volcano into the ocean, sending steam into the air.  The boat kept its distance as the steam could become poisonous as it hits the water.

Diego Clark and Walker Clark carrying Luka Clark. Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal.

Fabricio, Diego, Luka and Walker Clark eating marshmallows cooked in hot crevices. Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal

View of Guatemala Valley below Pacaya Volcano – Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal

Forty-seven years later, almost to the day, the family Guatemalan climbing tradition extended to the third generation.  Our son and his family climbed Pacaya this summer.  Their pictures of the path upward were familiar.  The two older grandsons, 9 and 7, walked on their own.  Our son carried the three-year-old.  This was the third volcano our daughter-in-law had climbed this season.  Marshmallows were provided to roast in the red-hot vents in the heat below.  It is no longer possible to climb to the top of the cone, but the photo of the valley below was the same as ours decades earlier.

While climbing an active volcano sounds dangerous, scientist have learned the signs of an approaching eruption.  Guatemalan officials will shut down the climbing of Pacaya when an explosion seems imminent.  Hopefully, it will remain open to climbing for our next generation.   The view is worth the effort.

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Cape of Good Hope – Africa’s Final Destination

I’ve stood at the base of the South American continent and watched boats pass through the Straits of Magellan. At the bottom of Australia’s continent lies Melbourne, a charming city I explored more for its offerings than its location.  But to best experience the dropping off point of a continent, the Cape Point on the Cape of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa delivers with the vastness and loneliness of the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the peninsula on three sides.

The Portuguese initially rounded the Cape in 1488, but they didn’t tarry long. Later, the Dutch recognized the tranquil waters of the False Bay sheltered by the Cape as a good stopping point on their way to their riches in the Spice Islands.  They brought slaves from Malaysia to work their gardens and later rice fields that supplied food to the ships. The English also liked the Cape’s location for their expanding empire.  And, of course, there were the native Kwai Son-Koi people who had been in the area for centuries.  The Cape Peninsula and Cape Town became melting pots of cultures.

The drive around the Cape Peninsula requires two hours excluding an array of possible stops to appreciate the white beaches and blue waters, parks, rugged mountain terrain, and inland towns. Because of the relatively mild winter weather, the Cape is a popular place for second homes, including one owned by Leonardo DiCaprio.  According to our guide, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.  Passing around Haut (wood in Dutch) Bay, million-dollar homes overlooked $200 shacks without running water.

On a clear winter day that natives claimed to be like summer, we traveled along the dramatic Chapman’s Peak Drive named for a British sailor, hugging the edge of cliffs where the road had been hewn.  A surprising array of wild animals made their appearance – baboons carrying babies along the side of the road and wild ostriches and domesticated ones grown for their leather.  At nearby Seal Island, sharks could make a feast of the surfeit of seals.  Our guide called it a “McDonald’s drive-through for sharks.”

The most entertaining birds were the hundreds of African Penguins who just showed up at Boulder Beach in 1974.  An elevated board walk takes visitors to the beach filled with the waddling crowd.  There, an impatient mother pushed her mature baby penguin into the cold water again and again.  The baby would quickly circle around and dash out of the water.  Mom wasn’t having it and cut the baby off.  It was quite amusing except for the nearby sea gull that was feasting on a killed baby penguin.  I was startled at the indifference of the other penguins.

At the end of the Cape Peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope so named for the hope that the cape was the turning point east to find India from Europe.  After a funicular ride up to the edge of the Cape, we could finally view the Atlantic from three sides.  Below, a castle like fortress cliff extended even further with waves crashing against it and Black Cape Cormorant bird nests chiseled into its wall.

Behind us was the new Cape Point Lighthouse that functions today to orient ships.  The more traditional lighthouse remains standing but without purpose.  I could only appreciate the thousands of ships that have used the lighthouses over the years as a welcoming sign of a more tranquil bay just around the corner.

Contrary to popular opinion the Cape of Good Hope is not where the Indian, Atlantic, and Antarctic oceans meet.  That point is about 200 miles further east.  But it is the “most south-western point of the African Continent,” a fine title for a remote location. We had our picture taken in front of the sign proclaiming its coordinates.

On the way back into Cape Town, we passed through Simon Town, where a military base on False Bay houses the only three submarines owned by South Africa. False Bay received its name when sailors confused it with Table Bay to the north.  Because of its more tranquil waters, many communities were founded along its shores.  In Simon Town, policemen were protecting health care workers who manned an outdoor clinic giving COVID-19 vaccine shots.  According to our guide, vaccine doubters were numerous here.  Our final stop was for dinner at Fish Bait in Kalk (another Dutch name meaning chalk) overlooking a large marina filled with fishing boats and a sizeable seal looking for a handout. 

I hadn’t expected the wildlife.   The size of the Cape was larger than expected.  And I underestimated the satisfaction of being at the tip of a continent, imagining Antarctica 3,500 miles south, beckoning this traveler to explore her only remaining continent.

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Sleeping With a Hippo in My Bed

Hippo snacking below our tents at Mana Pool, Zimbabwe

In the spring and fall in Paris, I like to sleep with windows open, with an occasional owl’s hoot accompanying my dreams.  Only dogs barking interrupt the night’s peace.  Morning sounds expand with greetings from the local birds – cardinals, wrens, and robins.  Migrating birds announce their arrivals on schedule.  And cars and trucks from Loop 286 start their steady hums.  And, so, I was looking forward to hearing new night and morning sounds from inside our tents in Botswana and Zimbabwe on our photo safari.  What I hadn’t expected was the nocturnal hippo challenging my sleep.

We are all aware that a hippopotamus is described as a large thick-skinned semiaquatic African mammal, with massive jaws and large tusks.  I would put the emphasis on large, as it can reach two tons in weight and 5 ½ feet in height.  It rests in the morning, looks for food in the evening and night.  Its comparatively tiny ears stay out of the water as the hippo rests, never losing track of what menaces might be near. We learned to recognize the shape of the hippo heads that initially looked like black rocks protruding from the water.

What is missing from the dictionary description is the hippo’s easily identifiable sounds. The male honk is the loudest – deep with the lower decibels sometimes equaling 115 or the same as a rock concert or loud thunderstorm.   Other sounds contribute to a bass melody of grunts, growls, roars, wheezing and even what sounds like a deep laugh.  And underwater, a series of clicks communicates to other hippos through vibrations and are felt by their jawbones. From the night sounds, my perception of the hippos’ schedule included convivial happy hours of socializing through the night.

Raft of hippos on Zambezi River

At our first two bush camps in Botswana, the hippos as a group were relatively close.  But at the Zambezi Expedition Camp in Mana Pool National Park in Zimbabwe, our tent perched on the riverbank with a raft of hippos just below.  These plant loving animals scrounged for grass on land in the evening and night, returning to the water at some point before dawn.  After one late afternoon animal drive in the bush, we were stopped short of our camp by a couple of elephants and one hippo enjoying their herbivore snacks and slowly, very slowly, moving on to the water.  They passed within 10 feet of our tent.

Hippo on the move

In general, the hippos we observed were safely in the water or ignored our presence.  The exception happened to my brother and his wife on a guided late afternoon canoe ride in the Zambezi River that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Billed as a smooth, quiet ride in the water, it seemed a nice alternative to another game viewing drive on dusty, bumpy roads.  But on the way back, the canoes passed a little too close to a hippo who charged the canoe on land but stopped at the water.  Another (possibly mother)  hippo in the water felt threatened and began thrashing and swirling the water around her as she approached the canoes. The guide first held an oar above his head to appear bigger and then slapped the paddle flat on the water continuously as he shouted to “keep rowing.” It didn’t help to have just learned hippos were the most dangerous land animal in the world.  Gratefully, the boats returned safely and  all passengers looked tense but relieved.

The night in the African Bush is a busy time.  Many of the animals are nocturnal due to the heat of the days.  I learned to listen for elephant trumpets, lion roars, hyena laughs, and many, many hippo honks.  It felt as if we were sharing our bed with at least one from the chorus of hippos.  I delivered that line at the breakfast campfire and most laughed.  But our leader, who has been to Africa 50 times, admitted he loved the hippo sounds.  It meant he was in the wild and he found them comforting.

Back home in Texas, my night sounds now pale in comparison to the African Bush.  Our breakfast talk doesn’t compare what animals we had heard in the dark. We don’t look for footprints around the tent to determine what visitors we had in the night.  And no hippos join us in bed – a presence that I surprisingly now miss.

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Memorable Train Rides from Around the World

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, passenger trains in the U.S.  were numerous and popular.  One even transported my kindergarten class between my hometown of Plainview, Tx. to Lubbock, 45 miles away. But with the advent of good roads and increased income, cars dominated and train routes dwindled. In other countries though, trains continued to deliver passengers and were there to be explored.

In 1972 I became enchanted by rail travel and all of its varied experiences.  With three-month Eurail passes in hand, my friend and I visited 15 countries, occasionally sleeping overnight in route, eating lunches brought aboard, and often jumping on a train without stopping for tickets.  In Spain, having misunderstood its departure time, we had to run alongside a departing train, tossing our luggage in as we ran.  In what was then Yugoslavia, I watched in horror as my train disappeared from the station after a scheduled stop just as I returned from getting snacks to eat onboard.  I had no phone and no way to message my friend who had remained on the train.  Five minutes later the train returned on a different platform to my great relief.

Not all my train rides were comfortable. The train from La Paz, Bolivia to Argentina’s border town of Villazon was painfully overcrowded.  All seats were taken and yet we were still issued tickets and told to stand. During the day, the ride was bearable.  A couple offered me a small slice of their bench seat to perch upon. Cracked windows provided ventilation and the view of the Bolivian highlands was interesting enough.  But night fell, windows were shut in defense of the cold high-altitude air, and nothing could be seen outside because of glaring overhead lights. My rare claustrophobia kicked in that evening requiring multiple trips to stand outside the train car where it adjoined the next car.  It was one of the longest nights of my travels.  Today, that train is modern and offers executive and lounge class with chairs reclining 160 degrees.  But in 1974, it was the Bolivian indigenous crowd and us, passing the long trip in a crowded train car through the cold Andean plains.

I lived in Ecuador for 1 ½ years and had heard of a train ride that switch backed from the high altitude of Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil with beautiful views of snow-covered volcanos. We booked our tickets in advance but, again, upon arriving found the one-car train full.  Given the option of riding on top of the car with the luggage or standing, the four of us climbed up an outer ladder and settled in amongst the suitcases and bags. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and happened to be around Carnival when water balloons were traditionally thrown at others, including any on top of a train.  At one stop, we climbed down, bought balloons and water, filled them, and were ready for the next town.  As we approached the flat coastal area, the train approached an area of several tunnels.  We had been assured we could sit up in those tunnels, but I dove into the luggage every time.

Vietnam is not known for its train services but there was one from Hanoi to Lao Cai, landing us closest to SaPa, a mountainous town near the Chinese border used by the French for relief from the coastal heat.  Many indigenous tribes live outside Sa Pa and the three of us wanted to explore their lives and crafts.  The train left at night, and we had a sleeper cabin booked with two bunk beds on either side.  We claimed three beds and assuming the cabin was ours, locked the door.  In the middle of the night, loud knocking on our door awoke me but not the others.  I didn’t answer.  But then the conductor used his key to open the sliding door.  In walked a man in a suit who nodded to me, took off his shoes and climbed up into the available bed across from me.  After removing his tie and coat, he laid down and quickly went to sleep. I lay awake in my pajamas wondering how I was going to get dressed in the morning.  Fortunately, our unexpected cabin mate was up early, and after straightening his tie and a second nod to me, climbed down, put on his shoes, and was gone.  My traveling companions didn’t know he was up there until he was leaving.

Today, extensive train travel remains primarily outside the U.S., especially the high-speed ones in Europe and the Far East.  I still consider that mode of travel best for passenger interaction and seeing the country.  You just have to get to the station early.

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Funiculars – Funny Name – Fun Ride

View of Hong Kong as The Peak Funicular ascends

View of Hong Kong from The Peak Funicular through tinted glass

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word, “funicular.”  Inclined Railroad or an Incline are more widely used words for the steeply tilted contraption that lifts passengers quickly up to a much higher destination – a kind of mountain side elevator. The oldest funicular in the world continues to operate in Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, Austria, known as the Reisszug, and has been in operation since the early 1500s.  The original funiculars transported supplies through the fortress doors of castles.

Destinations in the United States have included the top of a mountain, a hotel, an Amusement Park, Caverns, and the top of Bunker Hill in Boston.  The latter was the first American inclined railroad, built in 1826 to transport granite for the construction of a monument to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Truthfully, funiculars always make me nervous.  Even though the inclines today are run by electricity, many still clank and jerk at the start. The ascending car is hooked up to a moving cable and counterweighted by the car descending.  They move in tandem.  It is similar to the San Francisco cable cars, but those cars are not permanently attached to the cable and can start and stop on their own,

Surprisingly, the U.S. was once awash in funiculars with Pittsburg, Pennsylvania having the most – 23.  It was a steep climb from the Monongahela River up Mt. Washington where housing was located.  The steep, 635- foot Monongahela Incline built in 1870 is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the U.S.

For those few funiculars remaining in the U.S., most have become tourist attractions leading to other tourist attractions.  Sadly, the Royal Gorge Incline Railway in Colorado was closed in 2013 because of fire.  Lookout Mountain in Tennessee still brings riders up to the remarkable view that Confederate Generals James Longstreet and Braxton Briggs had the over the Lookout Valley during the Civil War.

Funicular office in Quebec, Canada

View of base of Quebec’s funicular

Tower at top of Prague’s funicular

Abroad there are many in unexpected places.  Chile’s port city of Valparaiso once had 31.  Naples’ Funiculare Centrale has been operating since 1928 and is also heavily trafficked. In Prague, a short funicular takes the rider up to a park with an Eiffel Tower in the center – minus the cowboy hat. Quebec’s old town funicular ascends from the river level to town center, moving tourists from a street of souvenirs to a row of restaurants.  Walking down the mountain to Old Quebec was easy but I was happy to jump on the funicular to ascend back to city center.

Orvieto, Italy, brings its visitors up a 134-year-old funicular with views of the valley below.  Popes liked to retreat to this ancient city for a respite even before the funicular provided easy access. My friends, Plug and Toni Clem, claim the restaurant at the top of the Orvieto funicular provided one of the best meals of their traveling experiences.  We both agreed the church above worth the ascent.

As could be expected, Switzerland heavily uses this form of transportation.  According to Wikipedia, the country has 53 operating funiculars, including the world’s newest just opened in Stoos.  The inclined railway transports passengers over 2200 feet (almost a half mile) in four minutes.  Barrel shaped cars rotate enough to keep the inside floor level.  I don’t usually experience vertigo but in a video promoting the opening of the incline in 2017, I felt my stomach drop watching the mountain disappear directly below on the 110-degree gradient.  It’s worth a look.

My favorite funicular ride was in Hong Kong.  The Peak moves residents from the business district to the top of Victoria Peak.  It has been serving Hong Kong since 1880, originally segregating riders into three categories:

  • First Class: British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak
  • Second Class: British military and Hong Kong Police Force personnel
  • Third Class: Other people and animals

Beginning descent of Hong Kong Funicular

Hong Kong’s funicular cable car

It is heavily used by locals and tourists and has had up to two hour waits on weekends to ride to the top.  Recent repairs and additions will speed up the ride and help with the overload.  What I can confirm is the view going up was stunning, taking in the bottom half of Hong Kong Island directly below.  Skyscrapers gave way to ferries in the distance crossing Victoria Harbor to hotels lined up along the waterfront on Kowloon Peninsula.

Since so many funiculars have been abandoned, I think it important to ride those still available.  The views are always notable and the experience important to understand past transportation options.  I hear there’s one in Bergen, Norway – a fall destination.  I hope to check it out.

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First American Museum – Site of “Distant Thunder” debut

East facing Entrance to museum aligns with the sunrise of the March vernal and September of the autumnal equinox.

The First American Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City was a long time coming. Since Oklahoma has more than 60 percent of all enrolled Native Americans in the U.S., OKC was the natural location for such an ambitious project.  Initially conceived in 1994 to fill a need to tell the stories of the 39 Native American tribes in Oklahoma, the legislature created the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority but without funding.  It took 27 years before the museum opened thanks to monies raised from private donors, the State, City of Oklahoma, and the Chickasaw Nation.  With appropriate fanfare, the museum opened in October 2021 to the delight of tribal members and impressing national architects, museum critics, and the general public.

Digital screen print illustration on copper by Cherokee artist, Joseph Erb.

The FAM is not centered around a collection of artifacts.  There is no dusty diorama of Indians in native garb hunting in the desert.  What has survived of the sad history of the original four tribes in Oklahoma and the removal of 35 tribes to Oklahoma from other parts of the United States along the Trail of Tears are the stories.  As noted by a museum curator, the museum is “Our place to tell our stories from our perspective.”

Stunning People’s Hall for gatherings

Beginning with an animated surround sound video of the creation stories,  histories of the tribes are gradually revealed in galleries filled with historical data and family tales. Genocide, forced removal, boarding schools, and the unusual allotment history of the Oklahoma tribes are sad parts of their history. The number of treaty betrayals by the U.S. Government is achingly presented along with the statesmen of the tribes.  Later galleries celebrate achievements in the art, science, military, and sports worlds.  An imagined ride on a bus takes you to a current day pow wow. And upstairs are artefacts from the Smithsonian in Washington that have been rescued from storage and brought to life.

Shawn Corbitt and mother, Lynn Taylor Corbitt, co-authors of Distant Thunder

All this is well worth the visit.  But we recently also experienced the world premiere of “Distant Thunder”, a musical penned by Native American mother/son duo, Lynn Taylor Corbitt and Shawn Corbitt, members of the Black Feet tribe.  Presented in a section of the enormous parade ground behind the museum building, it was buffered by one of the country’s largest earth mound, modeled after those built by southern tribes and aligned with the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. The musical tells the modern-day story of so many Native Americans who are torn between tribal traditional support and going “where the jobs are.”  Fractured relationships heal as the prodigal son returns to learn the truth of his past.

At a cast/audience talk after the show, members of the Native American cast talked of the musical bringing them closer to their roots and many used the experience to heal wounds from their own pasts.  Representing tribes from Oregon to NYC, the cast hoped the musical would become their West Side Story that had illuminated the Puerto Rican experience or Fiddler on the Roof and its Jewish journey.

Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the 100-year-old American Association of Indian Affairs was the MC for the talk. She noted that their organization is celebrating 100 years of advocating for the tribes to be self-determinate.  In the beginning, they had to deal with forced boarding schools and the forbidding of the use of native language.  Today, they continue to advocate for taking back artifacts on museum shelves and teaching tribes how to use their treaties.

Writer Shawn Corbitt, admits the story of “Distant Thunder” is his story. Much of the plot stems from a trip he and his mother took to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, when Shaun was 15.  He grew up on Long Island and was hungry for his Black Feet heritage.  He now returns for their annual ceremonies.  The Old Man in the play, Brent Florendo, is from Oregon and teaches Native American studies. Matoka Little Eagle, who played Grandma Jingle Dress, talked of her father being sent to a boarding school and running away every Thursday when the school staff would bleach their skin. She was taught to be a dancer even in the north where she was raised.

Tribal dancing on stage as a part of the musical “Distant Thunder”

Xander Chauncey, of Shawnee and Mapuche heritage played the veteran who suffered from PTSD but noted it was also his own personal story. Native Americans have served in the military at five times the rate per capita of any other group in the U.S.  The play touched on energy company pipe lines, gaming, economic development, and global warming. Tribal dancing and poignant songs contribute greatly to the show’s authenticity.   And the actors agreed that its dominant theme was forgiveness.

The First American Museum is well worth a visit to learn of the past and present tribal life.  Hopefully, “Distanct Thunder” will join the musical circuit and more can understand the modern day Native American experience.

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Barcelona’s Nou Stadium – Being Near Greatness

Barcelona’s Motto – More Than a Team

Most visitors to Barcelona, Spain are charmed by its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Catalonian food and access to the Mediterranean.  But for soccer lovers, there’s only one destination – the Barcelona Football (soccer) stadium known as Camp Nou or new stadium, a 65 year old venue that holds 100,000 fans. Surprisingly to Americans, it is Barcelona’s number one tourist destination.  Known by its slogan, “ Mes que un equipo “ (more than a team), the club is renowned for freedom of movement for its players on the field, a history of political involvement, and a fan base from around the world.

Approach to the Nou Stadium

Unlike most stadiums in the United States, Europeans build theirs in the heart of a community with little space for parking.  Fans arrive by subway or bus as did we.  There was no game during our visit, but I still wanted to take the tour, hoping to feel the energy that accompanies an important soccer game.  In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup and we grabbed tickets to two of the games.  I have never felt such intensity amongst fans as I did in those games.

For visitors, the entry to the Nou stadium is through a museum filled with mementos from the team’s unique history.  Begun by a German immigrant in 1899, the team took some years to gain momentum.  The Nou stadium is the third of three built, each holding more fans.  The team established itself as a regional hero in 1930s when it tried to play under the Catalan flag.  This area of Catalonia, Spain has long wanted to be self-governed and loved that “their” team stood up for them.

Barcelona FC is also rare in that it is not owned by a corporation but by its 144,000 members. To become a member, simply make an in-person appointment in Barcelona, bring an ID card and a bank account number.  The annual fee is $220.  In the past, Barcelona FC was amongst the few without corporate sponsors.  They allied themselves with UNICEF children’s charity and pledged a yearly donation.  But today, the team is besieged with corporate suitors.

The museum is filled with the team’s dominant history and the numbers are impressive even if I didn’t know what all the initials stood for, 26 La Liga titles, 5 UEFA Championships, 15 FIFA Cup World Cup trophies, and 31 Copa del Rey titles.  Most will agree that Lionel Messi’s presence from 2004-2021 as one of the world’s best soccer player contributed greatly to the team’s success in their glory years.

Consistent with their “more than a team” description, I was surprised at how extensive their youth program was and that they also sponsored women’s soccer, basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams.

Visitors are allowed to walk this close to the field.

It was remarkable how free a visitor was to explore much of the stadium on the self-guided tour.  We passed through the visitors’ locker room, almost primitive by today’s American standards, stopped at the press boxes to admire their view, and descended the stairs to the field.  Yes, to the field.  One couldn’t run out and play but we were at field level and could look up at the stands, imagining them full of frantic fans.  Little distance separated the teams and the seats.

Deteriorated Condition of the Stands

What shocked me was the deteriorating condition of the whole stadium.  The paint on the seats was faded, plants grew in the cracks of the concrete, the press box lacked the high technology one would expect for a world class team.  I read of structural concerns.  So, it wasn’t a surprise when I learned recently that the stadium is getting a major facelift.

Espai Barca is the name of the renovation effort, meaning in Catalan, Football  Club of Barcelona Space.  For $1.7 billion, the plans include state of the art technology and a retractable roof covered with 30,000 square meters of solar panels. And the energy generated from those solar panels will power a 360-degree screen which will be located around the inside of the stadium.

In carrying out their reputation as “more than a team”, the plans include new offices, green spaces, event spaces, an ice rink, a hotel and the ‘Palau Blaugrana’ – a pavilion area which will be used by the basketball team.

For a team that is already one billion dollars in the hole, this expansion has risks.  But it is also inevitable, and the team is making the move now.  Games will be played elsewhere until 2025 when they hope to have the stadium finished.

The tour ended, of course, in the enormous gift shop. Despite their price, I couldn’t resist the Barcelona soccer outfits for our grandsons.  With parents who also love soccer, they may be able to watch a game at the renovated stadium someday.  I hope so. It is a part of the Catalonian heritage that should  be experienced.

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Columbia River Gorge – a Site Still to be Savored

The Oregon Trail was one of the first video games to come out in the late 1970s, introduced to our family in the 1980s. In a rudimentary form, it followed the actual Oregon Trail and required a pioneer player to make life and death decisions as their wagon pushed across western America from St. Louis to Oregon. There were hazards along the way and it was the lucky player who arrived at the Columbia River Gorge.  I was the lucky one to visit on a beautiful December day with my Oregon friend.

Before Lewis & Clark showed up on their 1805 expedition to the Pacific Ocean, native Americans lived along the Columbia River which at the time was filled with strong winds and the wildest rapids of the explorers’ trip. Today, violent winds generated by warm dry air from eastern Oregon still collide with cooler air from the west, but the rapids have long been tamed by dams. A scenic four lane highway now follows the river, but one can still experience some of the sense of discovery that Lewis & Clark and the settlers must have felt.

From the western side, a small U. S. Historic Route 30 Highway follows high above the river and offers panoramic views of the rock gorge and of the numerous waterfalls that were noted by Lewis and Clark.  There are over 90 waterfalls on the Oregon side with some of the most spectacular ones just along the highway.  The longest is the 620-foot Multnomah at the road’s edge that sports a stone bridge halfway up the falls.  But my Oregon friend and I preferred Bridal Veil Falls that required a short hike in to view and had a smaller crowd.

The falls still empty into the Columbia River as they did over 200 years ago, but those waters are now controlled by numerous dams.  Thanks to a series of locks, the river is easily navigable for larger barges and even smaller personal boats.  Websites are available to explain to boat owners how to maneuver through the Bonneville locks.  A railroad used to traverse this route and an old tunnel has been cleaned out to illustrate the train’s past presence.

We took advantage of a 1926 Truss Cantilever bridge with a toll of $2 to take us over to the Washington side.  From there the southern canyon rock walls were clearly visible.  As we followed current railroad tracks, the height of the gorge diminished and suddenly, there in the distance stood the 11,000-foot-tall Mt. Hood – bathed in later afternoon light with its snow covering reflecting the colors.  Lewis & Clark had similar reactions the first time they saw that magnificent mountain from the river – a sharp intake of breath at its wonder.    We continued to get glimpses of the mountain as the day ended.

Another crossing of the river on a second $2 toll historic truss bridge narrowly built for horse drawn carriages and Model Ts took us to Hood River, Oregon, a small but lively outdoor sports destination for boaters, paragliders, hikers, and skiers.  It was quiet in December but still had beautiful B&Bs and gourmet restaurants open.  I could have stayed longer.

The next day, we took the highway south that curves around Mt. Hood.  Parts of this highway into the Portland area follow the old Barlow toll road, built by Sam Barlow and Philip Foster in 1846.  This road was an option in the Oregon Trail video game and in real life.  Since the Columbia River rapids were dangerous and there was often a long line of wagons waiting their turn on the river, Sam Barlow saw an opportunity for another safer route inland.  However, it was a toll road and in the video game, you may or may not have landed there with enough money to pay the toll, a true dilemma for early settlers.

The new highway works its way around the massive Mt. Hood, and we took the opportunity to visit another crown jewel of the Rockies – the Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 in Cascadian architecture.  With man-sized fireplace openings and wood carvings throughout, the hotel is worth the small detour from the highway.  Sadly, fog obscured the view of the ski area and valley below filled with its other snow-covered volcanoes.

As we returned to Portland, the highway followed or crossed the old Barlow Toll way until landing us in the beautiful and bountiful Willamette valley – the true destination of the Oregon Trail settlers.  Those who made it were fortunate.  In playing the video game as in true life, one would often lose a family member to dysentery or infection or drowning in a river.  Luckily, those are not perils today and we can simply enjoy the same stunning scenery that greeted Lewis and Clark and the pioneers. Only the weather remains untamed.

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Maine – A State to be Savored

View from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park

Maine is not exactly on the way to anywhere for Texans except Maine itself.  It’s the end of the road in the U.S. Northeast and not easy to get to whether driving or flying.  Because of its isolation from most of the country, it has retained a unique laid-back charm.  As our Portland guide indicated, the state of Maine is all about simplicity, a notable reason it feels like a different world.  Their economy centers around only four industries, starting with tourism.

Despite its isolation, Maine attracts thirty million visitors a year.  Let’s put that number in perspective.  First, there’s only 1,350,000 “Mainers,” a diminutive state compared to Texas’ almost 30 million inhabitants.  This means for every Maine resident, there are 22 visitors.  If that same number were applied to Texas, we would get 650,000,000 visitors each year and Lamar County would entertain over 1 million.  Those numbers are staggering to think about and require appreciation for Maine’s ability to maintain its beauty and charm amongst the visiting throngs.

A trail along the ocean side in Acadia National Park

The beauty of Maine is spread throughout the state with most vacations concentrating on the rocky coastline, but the mountainous interior can hold its own.  I had long wanted to visit Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of National Parks.  Whether walking along its coast with the deep blue ocean contrasting with the green forest path or driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain with its 360-degree view of the island’s lakes and mountains, Acadia didn’t disappoint.  The iconic photo is of the lighthouse at Bass Harbor did prove to be elusive.  To get the full view required maneuvering long stairs and large boulders.  I had to settle for the partial view – an acknowledgment of my advancing age.

The fishing industry, especially for lobster, is known around the world.  Lobster traps with their brightly painted buoys are seen all along the coast.  The 600 lobster fishermen are a close-knit group, and they know whose traps belong in what parts of the ocean.  There’s no written agreement amongst them on their territories – a fall back to the hand-shake, simpler times. There are observed rules on which lobsters can be kept and which must be thrown back.  Because of a past unpleasant reaction to eating lobsters, I didn’t partake of this most popular of Maine foods, but I did enjoy the other fresh seafood offerings.

Ship building is an unexpected industry, harking back to the establishment of the city of Portland.  The town began in 1786 as a convenient ice-free deep-water port close to Europe to ship goods from Canada and the U.S. to England.  Boats were needed and wood was plentiful.  Until the separation of the U.S. from England, any pine tree greater than 24 inches could be harvested for “the Crown” to be used as a boat mast, regardless of whether it was on private property or not.  A Royal arrow mark would be placed on the tree to be confiscated.  Today, there are still 200 ship building firms in Maine, primarily for fishing but luxury yachts are also constructed, mainly for Europeans and Middle East residents.

Maine has an inordinate number of natural farms, producing organic vegetables and fruit that are used in the famous restaurants spread throughout the state – it is a foodie destination. Among our favorite foods were the “duck frites” or French fried potatoes cooked in duck fat.    We missed the blueberry season that yields the most blueberries in our country, but pies and jams were still available.  Maine is the number one producer of maple syrup and we noted and savored the generous portions of syrup served with our breakfasts.   Add in the wood and paper products created from the forests and you have the fourth industry generated by the land.

Hartstone Inn – a bed and breakfast in Camden, Maine



Two of thousands of sailboats along the coast of Maine



The simple life is reflected by the activities along the highways and coast – Quaker meeting houses, a Sculling Lodge, Unitarian/Universalist Churches, clams, mussels, and cherry tomatoes for sale, lack of feeder roads along the freeways and thousands of small sailboats in every harbor.  Chain hotels were few with more charming bed and breakfasts readily available.  And their most popular store is not for western wear but carries hiking and camping inventory at the unusually large L.L. Bean in Freeport.



The hardest part about a visit to Maine is deciding where to go on a limited vacation time.  A friend posted on Facebook about this dilemma and asked for suggestions.  There were many.  We only stayed in Bar Harbor, Camden and Portland.  But my observation is that you simply can’t go wrong, wherever you choose to visit.  The crowds may be there but somehow the beauty shines through.  You just have to get there.

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