The TWENTY MILE MUSEUM: A “Linear Museum” at Donner Summit

There’s a legendary story about museum design that comes from Grand Canyon National Park.  The designer apparently did a wonderful job putting together a state-of-the-art museum design.  But when he showed it to the park’s superintendent, he got a rebuff. The superintendent said something like this:  “The Grand Canyon is out there.  Your museum keeps visitors inside and away from it. Open the museum up and let it lead them out into the Canyon.”

That’s also the philosophy of the Donner Summit Historical Society.  The Society operates a small visitor center near the summit and publishes a fine newsletter.  But the bulk of its energy seems to be site-focused.  It sponsors a series of hikes into the area which help interested people learn about the place in the best way, perspiring as they are inspired. But it is the Society’s unique linear museum, placed along the historic route of U.S. 40 (and the Lincoln Highway) which educates the bulk of visitors about Donner Summit and the surrounding country.

The Twenty-Mile Museum is a fine collection of interpretive signs placed along old US 40. Visitors to the country made famous by George R. Stewart in Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and other books can thus learn about its history on site.  The panels interpret human connections with the area from ancient petroglyph-making eras through the Overland Migration period, the work done by Chinese Americans on the transcontinental railroad,  and early highway eras.   Here’s an example:

DSCN2944

If you’re planning a trip over Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe or Reno, allow time to stop by some of those interpretive signs.  They encourage exploration; so plan enough time for a short hike or two as well.  You can prepare for the adventure by downloading the text version of the Twenty-Mile Museum Brochure here.

George R. Stewart educated the world about Donner Summit country, in the more than 20 languages in which his books were published.  The Twenty Mile Museum adds the critical field experience to that GRS education.  It’s a great concept and a highly recommended experience.

IN SEARCH OF US 40: ON THE ROAD WITH FRANK BRUSCA.

In 1953, George R. Stewart published his ground-breaking U. S. 40 — a book which used photography and text to interpret the transcontinental geography of the United States from U.S. 40, then the major east-west highway.

In 1983, Thomas and Geraldine published U.S. 40 Today.  The Vales traveled Stewart’s route, re-photographing most of the sites from the original book, and describing the changes in the 30 years since the original was published.

Now, leading U.S. 40 scholar Frank X. Brusca is rephotographing Stewart’s sites as they appear today.  Last week, I was honored to accompany him on part of his re-photography project.

We spent the first two days at the Bancroft Library, researching Stewart’s papers, and the first three nights with John and Angela Lucia at their historic home in Sacramento.

DSCN2849

The food and the accommodations were excellent,  and the conversation went on into the night.  John and Angela are also roadies, and “car guys,” so we had much to discuss – like John’s interest in U.S. 50, and the Lucias’ 1950 Ford Woodie (which is one of the best woodies in the country).

DSCN2874Then Frank and I headed east on I 80, which parallels or covers historic U.S. 40.  Our first stop, thanks to Dispatcher Maria and Sergeant Dave Brown of the California Highway Patrol, was productive.  Sgt. Brown took us to two of the sites in his patrol car, sites not safe to photograph now unless there’s CHP support, so we were glad for the  help.  Sgt. Brown’s also an amateur historian from the Dutch Flat area, where George R. Stewart had a summer cabin, so he was interested in Stewart.

DSCN2892

We spent the night in Truckee; then continued east to Wendover, Utah, photographing along the way.  Highlights of the photography were Donner Pass, Emigrant Gap, Wendover – and the most difficult photography of the trip – from Black Rock, near the Great Salt Lake.  The steep Rock was challenging to climb, but Frank made it to the top and took his photos of the scene.

DSCN3065

I stayed in Salt Lake City that night, while Frank headed east to finish his work.  My plan was to take the Amtrak train west to Sacramento after visiting family in the area.  I eventually did so – after a 2.5 day delay.  The train delay and the poor attitude of Amtrak’s customer “service” were good reminders of the enjoyable freedom of auto highways, like U.S. 40.

Frank plans to publish a new version of U.S. 40, using the photographs from this and other trips.  His version will include color images and 360 degree panoramas, which will make Frank’s publication a technological leap forward from both the original work and the Vales’ classic re-visiting.

If you want to learn more about Frank Brusca and his work on U.S. 40,  read William Least-Heat Moon’s best-selling ROADS TO QUOZ, which has four chapters about Frank, George R. Stewart, and U. S. 40.  Or visit Frank’s excellent U.S. 40/National Road website.

Was his trip a success? The photo says it all.

DSCN3075

George R. Stewart and “The Migrant Mother”

John Lucia, an old friend since Thornton Beach Days and involved in the GRS Project for decades, called excitedly a couple of years ago to say that Stewart had been mentioned in a magazine article.  John is a brilliant, hard-working artisan and craftsman who recycles the treasures of the past into exceptional homes for today.  He’s done this in Hawaii, and is now doing so in Sacramento, in “The Thirties.”  He’s also a restorer of classic cars; John owns one of the best 1950 Ford Woodie Wagons, which he restored himself.

His particular architectural interest is in the Arts and Crafts Movement. so he subscribes to American Bungalow magazine.  That’s where he found the article about Stewart, an article about a historic Berkeley Arts and Crafts cottage once owned by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange.  Stewart was friends with the couple; according to the article, he wrote his classic ecological novel Storm in their cottage. (Ribovich, American Bungalow, No. 56, P. 39)

Taylor was a professor at Cal Berkeley, in agricultural economics.  He had the progressive idea that in order to understand the economics of California agriculture, he’d need to understand the people who did the work in the fields.  Since many of those people were Mexican, Taylor decided that he would learn their culture from the inside.  He learned Spanish, spent much time with the workers, and even recorded many of their ballads.

Dorothea Lange  was one of the photographers documenting the plight of desperate migrants from the Midwest and the south who were trying to find some work here to feed their families. Hired by the Farm Security Administration she traveled extensively, photographing the migrants.

She was returning from a field trip along the central California coast when she saw a sign, “Bean Pickers Camp.”  Tired, she didn’t stop.  But about ten miles north of the camp she decided to turn around and go back to see if there was a good subject in the camp.  It was late, raining – not the best conditions for the large 4×5 field Graflex she used – but she went into the camp, found a mother with her children and took a few photographs, including this one:

Migrant mother photoFlorence Owen Thompson and her children –

Migrant Mother

The family, like most of the others in the camp, was hungry to the point of starvation

.After she took the photos Lange drove to her Berkeley cottage, developed and printed the photo.  She told the editor of a local paper about the camp, and the hunger there.  The editor published an article which included the photograph. The government rushed emergency food to the hungry families.

In an article in Popular Photography, in 1960, Dorothea Lange told the story of the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if
drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my
presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no
questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from
the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told
me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been
living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds
that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to
buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children
huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might
help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about
it.

The photo, and one or two others by Lange, have come to represent the Depression.

She later documented the vicious internment of American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry, and similar abuses of American values and ideals.

Stewart’s friendship with Taylor and Lange is another of the extraordinary web of connections he had with the great minds of his time.

But did he write Storm in the Taylor-Lange bungalow?

When I asked Stewart’s descendants – son Jack and daughter Jill – about this story, they discounted it. Jill was especially emphatic, saying that her father did not work that way.  There may be a kernel of truth to the story – maybe he spent a weekend there doing some work on the book, for example.  But it is almost certain that he did not write the book there.

It is an interesting story, though, and I am thankful to John Lucia for starting me off on this research trail.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story.  The bean picker’s camp was located on the Nipomo Mesa – about ten miles from where I’m writing this.  And the place where Dorothea Lange decided to turn around was likely with a mile or two of here, in Arroyo Grande.

 

COWBOY, PROFESSOR, WRITER, AND GEORGE R. STEWART SCHOLAR: PAUL F. STARRS

A few posts ago, I included a link to Dr. Paul F. Starrs’s fine essay/review of the George R. Stewart biography. (In case you missed it, here’s a pdf download link  STARRS-2015-rev essay SCOTT, bio of Geo Stewart (AAGRvBks)

A distinguished author, geographer, and scholar, he’s won every award the University of Nevada, Reno, offers for scholars and teachers, been a senior Fulbright Scholar, and won many national teaching and geography awards. Starrs just stepped down as Chair of the Department of Geography.

He can also throw the houlihan

Starrs was one of the few applicants accepted by Deep Springs College in 1975. (Around 400 apply; 13 are chosen.) Located in an isolated valley near the eastern border of central California, the College is a tiny two-year institution founded and funded by one of the pioneers of the transmission of AC electrical power, L.L. Nunn. Once enrolled, students are expected not only to achieve academic excellence; they must also govern the institution. Students also run its adjoining cattle ranch and farm to help support the college. When the ranch and farm are included, Deep Springs has the largest “campus” of higher learning on Earth. According to Wikipedia, The New Yorker describes the educational program as “a mix of Christian mysticism, imperialist elitism, Boy Scout-like abstinence, and Progressive era learning-by-doing, with an emphasis on leadership training and the formation of strong character.”

DeepSpringsCattleDrive

Deep Springs Students on a Cattle Drive

With an extraordinary natural setting – hot springs, faults, desert playas, huge mountain ranges – Deep Springs sensitizes its students to the Earth. As an isolated human community, with the remains of an historic mining community nearby, Native American cultures in the area, the small towns and highway culture along US 395 to the west and the cities of Reno and Las Vegas to the east, south, and north, it is also in a region which exemplifies the principal concerns of geography – the relationships of humans to the land – in settings that range from isolated rural to large urban communities.

Starrs spent a few years cowboying after Deep Springs. He finished his education at the University of California, earning an M.A. and PhD in Geography at Berkeley.

PFS Backride-crCowboy Paul

Appointed an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1992, he quickly moved up into the highest ranks. He is now Regents and Foundation Professor of Geography, a high honor. Bilingual, he’s also held posts in Spain at the University of Salamanca and the Universidad of Córdoba.

He’s a brilliant scholar, with interests in many areas of geography. Currently he’s researching agriculture and land use change in California, the use of historic maps to reveal the exploitation of the environment, comparative frontier history, the geography of cattle ranching, and geography in popular culture, including music and film. Among other things.

Starrs is also a writer. One of his latest books, A Field Guide to California Agriculture, which he wrote in partnership with colleague Peter Goin, has been called a classic guide to the roadside agriculture of this state. Like Stewart’s books, it is a work of precision scholarship of the highest standard and a useful and readable work for a general audience.

I met Paul Starrs when Jack Stewart, distinguished Nevada geologist (and George R. Stewart’s son) called to ask if I could do a presentation about George Stewart’s life, work, and ideas, for Starrs’s Graduate Colloquium at UNR. Of course, I was honored, and agreed.

(The story of that adventure is worth telling. It was March; and to get to Reno I’d need to cross one of the legendary high mountain passes in the Sierra – and one of the snowiest – Donner Pass, made legend by George R. Stewart in Ordeal By Hunger. I decided to drive to Davis, California, stay at a friend’s house and take the train. At the last minute, though, he withdrew the invitation, so I had to book a motel instead. Nonplussed, I almost missed the talk.  On the way back to Davis, the westbound Zephyr was delayed more than 5 hours. That meant another night in a motel. Fortunately the generous honorarium covered all the unexpected costs. It was an honor to talk about George R. Stewart at the University with the second largest collection of Stewart material, in the country he loved, with a distinguished scholar and award-winning teacher who admires Stewart’s work.)

Starrs has long been interested in Stewart, which is fitting for someone educated at Berkeley in geography and holding a professorship at Reno. Berkeley was Stewart’s home – he was an English Professor there – and also the home of the best geography department in the country in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Reno is surrounded by “Stewart Country”: Donner Pass, Donner Lake, the Black Rock Desert. The California Trail and historic U.S. 40 pass through Reno. Thanks to Special Collections’ Librarian Ken Carpenter, the Knowledge Center at Reno has the second largest collection of George R. Stewart material on Earth (after the Bancroft Library in Berkeley).

Starrs teaches Stewart. He also contributes to the increasing body of work about Stewart and his writing. In 2005, for example, Starrs and colleague Peter Goin – Goin is Chair of the Reno Art Department and a distinguished photographer – published a book about the place Stewart called “Sheep Rock”: Starrs and Goin, Black Rock. It is an interdisciplinary, in-depth look at the place where Stewart set his most elaborate geographic (or ecological) novel. Starrs describes it as “a loving look at how a place can be conveyed not just through words, but also through photographs, historical maps, and newly-done cartography.”

Any fan of George R. Stewart’s work is encouraged to read the Black Rock book. And to keep the work of Paul Starrs on their radar screen. He’s completing a new book about the geography of film noir and just starting an historical novel about sheep herders in 1600s Spain. “Think Lonesome Dove meets Don Quixote in the Iberian Peninsula,” writes Starrs. “There’s a potential there for an interesting read.”

PFS Small square globe

Dr. Paul F. Starrs and his Favorite Subject, Earth

Stewart’s Award-Winning NOT SO RICH AS YOU THINK

For years George R. Stewart had been writing about the interrelationships between humans and the Earth system.  Most of the writing was fictional, some historical.  Now, in the late 1960s, perhaps inspired by Silent Spring, he wrote his first examination of specific environmental problems  afflicting this nation and much of the world.

Not So Rich As You Think  examines the various issues that others were pressuring society to correct, or authors were writing about, and suggests solutions.  But Stewart, as always, went beyond the conventional to break new ground.

One chapter, “The Ultimates,” was, so far as I know, the first general description of the dangers of global warming.  Stewart describes the dangers of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere, even using the phrase “greenhouse effect” to describe it.  (He prefers the phrase “closed-car  effect.”)  But he is not alarmist about it, suggesting that Earth has weathered such things in the past, and will likely weather this one.

Most environmental literature and many environmentalists view humans as special, like the Bible; but the environmentalists see humans as a special problem that somehow needs to be controlled or even removed.  Stewart always considered humans and their works, including their communities, as part of the ecosystem.  So in this book, he considers how human community are being harmed by the same corporate/bureaucratic policies which are poisoning the water and the air.   In a chapter entitled “Waste Without Weight” Stewart describes how the modern corporate state weakens social capital by constantly moving people around and thus prevents those people from ever developing a sense of community.  He suggests that the disorder caused by development and pollution may have a terrible effect on the personalities of humans, theorizing that juvenile delinquency may be one result.

The book was illustrated by the brilliant satirical cartoonist, Osborn.   His cartoons in Stewart’s book emphasize the connections between “filthy lucre” and a polluted society.  (Osborn’s first cartoon series was done for the Navy in World War II.  It was about a clumsy fellow named Dilbert.  It was the inspiration for the modern comic strip “Dilbert.”)

The book was well-received, although Kirkus called it “second-rate muckraking.”  The book received the Sidney Hillman Award. A copy of the book today, in fine condition, can go for well over one hundred dollars, so the market speaks well of the book.

Anyone interested in reading the contemporary environmental observations of one of the founders of modern ecological perspectives will find the book interesting reading. Stewart’s inclusion of the effects on human community and social capital means that the book still stands by itself, for it was and is the pioneer in a humanistic ecological viewpoint.

What Is “The Good Life?” George R. Stewart, GOOD LIVES

As the years began to pile up, and George R. Stewart felt his age, he began to think back over his life.  Had he lived a good life?

To answer the question, he wrote another book.:

Good Lives: The Stories of Six Men and the Good Life That Each Won for Himself

By examining six men throughout western history who seemed to share the same qualities and the same sense of accomplishment, Stewart found a definition of what comprised a (not “the”) good life:  Joab of the Old Testament, William the Marshall, Heinrich Schleiman, John Bidwell of California, Architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras of Mexico, and Prince Henry the Navigator, (He apologized, with explanation, for not including any women). The men where selected from those he’d encountered in his scholarly work over the decades.  In most cases, they were not widely known.(I suspect he profiled some because he wanted to let readers know about their lives – how else would the average reader in this country learn about the brilliant Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras?) The subjects ranged from the ancient – Joab of the Old Testament – to the fairly recent – John Bidwell of Chico, California.

In their lives, he discovered six qualities of character common to all.  Each had clear goals, and stayed committed to those goals until they were accomplished.  Heinrich Schleimann, for example, continued his search for the lost city of Troy during years of suffering the humiliation of failure and criticism from professional archaeologists and finally found the city.    Each accepted responsibility for his acts.  Each had great courage, sometimes in battle, sometimes, like Schliemann, in the pursuit of a goal.  And, at the end of their lives, each man felt fulfilled in things personal and professional, and had an integration of his spirit with his physical, material life.

The book is an interesting set of biographies of remarkable men, many of whom most readers had only met before in passing.  Discovering a pattern of character that helped him, and the reader, to understand why they are worth studying, added a layer of meaning to the book.

It may lack the power of Earth Abides.  But the book is none-the-less an important part of his body of work.  In a day when reading was still the primary method of informal education, the book introduced the lives of important but largely unknown historical figures to Stewart’s large reading audience.  It also found in those lives a set of standards by which all lives can be judged – thus using them as a microcosm, in the best Stewart manner.

Perhaps most important, it teaches us about George R. Stewart – what sort of man was he?  What values did he hold highest?  How did his life measure against the six in the book?  He didn’t answer that last question in the book.  But he once told his son Jack, “That’s a book an old man writes.”  In other words, in studying those lives he was giving us a key to his, as it drew close to the end.

But he wasn’t through with life yet.  He was already hard at work on another game-changing book, which would win a major prize and help his readers understand the nuts-and-bolts of living properly in the Whole Earth ecosystem that he had first visualized and shared, in the 1930s.