"A Buffalo Soldier Speaks" is a weekly audio podcast featuring National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson as Sergeant Elizy Boman, Troop "K," Ninth U.S. Cavalry, who was dispatched to Yosemite National Park in 1903 and served there through 1904. On their routine patrols through the high country of Yosemite, these Buffalo Soldiers recorded the pertinent but mundane details of their journeys in ledgers that were housed in the remote patrol posts that served as both the beginning and end of long days spent in the saddle. Certainly they must have entertained thoughts more provocative than "encountered 500 head of sheep in Return Canyon. Brand "P," which mirrors the sort of entry you can find in the historic patrol reports! This podcast is an exploration of those thoughts via the imagination of Ranger Johnson, but based on years of historic research of what a particular Buffalo Soldier by the name of Elizy Boman, a man who did exist but of whom we know practically nothing about, might have been feeling or thinking after one of those long, arduous, but inspiring patrols through the "Range of Light."
How are you doing? This is Sergeant Bowman. It's July 1903 and I'm getting pretty close to Glen Aulin. I'm just riding along, looking forward to getting off this horse. But sometimes you can be in one place but your mind is in another. Earlier today, when the sun come up, I was right there near Shepherd Crest, getting close to McCabe Lake, and I saw that first light of the day hit that rim of the rock, that rock rim, that granite edge to the sky, and it just seemed to catch on fire. And it was so quiet. I don't know what to make of the quiet they got around here. It's a sort of quiet you hear in a church during a funeral or it's a sort of quiet you hear before a baby takes its first breath after it'd been born. It's that kind of quiet. I don't know what to make of it. And in the middle of all that quiet, which can make you uncomfortable, can make you squirm on your horse as you're riding through and by, in the middle of all that quiet, something began to happen. I noticed that there were clouds forming above me, that there was a ceiling above the ceiling, a sky above the sky. And those clouds got thicker and darker, thicker and darker. And the air began to cool. And this may not seem like much to you, but in the summertime in Yosemite, sometimes hardly any rain fall at all. And sometimes, way to the east along the crest, you can hear the sound of thunder. But in that thunder, beneath that thunder, rain starts to fall. And that rain gets louder and louder, kind of funny to hear the sound of those drops fall into the ground, all those drops gathering from the sky, dropping to the ground here and there, here and yonder. And it's hitting my head and it's hitting my horse and it's making the sweat all flow away. All that sweat on my body just falling with the rain to the ground and the sound that it make hitting the ground. And the creeks that had been quiet got louder and louder until pretty soon, all you could hear was the sound of the water, all you can see was the slick shine on the rocks as the water was flowing. And it got louder and louder still, but all you could hear, all you could feel was the sound of all that water rushing past you, until pretty soon you were walking through it and the horse was slipping a bit on it. Pull back, pull back on the reins. Don't go down the steep trail with all that water. And then--and then it just got quieter again, and a little bit of the light came through, found a gap in those clouds. And then pretty soon, the wind, the wind picked up and then all of a sudden, you couldn't hear it, you couldn't smell it. The rain went away just like that. And the sun came out strong and I could feel it on my back. And all of a sudden, it stopped. And there wasn't no rain no more, and all that water started to dry off. And it was just like it had never happened. That's Yosemite. One minute, it's one thing and the next minute, it's changed. I don't know if I'll ever get used to this. I don't know if I can. Boy, but it was something when it was happening. You know, you can't daydream when you're here. When you're here, you got to be fully here. And that's what Yosemite teaches you: always be where you are right now, because if you don't, you'll lose it. You'll lose it.
After a recent patrol through Slide Canyon, Sgt. Boman speaks about the power of Yosemite to so fully remember all that has happened in the past that the past continues to live on in the present.
This is Sergeant Bowman, Troop K, 9th Calvary. It's June of 1903. Well, yesterday, I passed through Slide Canyon in that country north of the Tuolumne River. And it wasn't an easy time passing through that canyon. You see all right these rocks the size of houses and bigger off to one side as you walk through. And I remember thinking how--what kind of sound that must have been. And then sometimes there's things in this world that's more than just the sound when the ground starts shaking and you think the end has come and the Creator is looking down at you, saying, "Your time is up." Well, that ain't a word that you want to use sound for. Sound ain't the right word for that. And I'm going by, just walking by on my horse and I'm trying not to ease it up and go up into a canter to get away from there because I know whatever happened there happened a long time ago. But around here, I noticed these rocks got a tendency to remember everything that's ever happened to them. This place got a tendency to remember everything that has ever happened to it. Nothing ever gets forgotten in Yosemite. And everything in Yosemite is being remembered. And we call that an echo. We call that something over your shoulder that makes you pull back and look quick to see if you can catch it. But nothing that ever comes through this place is ever forgotten. And you ain't got to lie down in a bed roll for too many nights before you realize that it's all being remembered, and it's all being held on the way sequoia roots hold on as if they're afraid that the spinning of the earth beneath them is going to make them tumble over. I tell you right now that thunder that was made when those rocks come down such a long time ago, it's still here. And sometimes, it's the sky that remembers it for you. And you call it a thunderstorm. You call it rain showers. But not when you're in Slide Canyon. That's just a memory that the sky got of what happened a long time ago. So I'm wondering this: will this place remember me? Will it remember my shadow cast on the earth? Will it remember the sound of my horse as it moved through that canyon? Will that be remembered? Will only something as big as a whole side of a mountain coming down, is that all that will be remembered by Yosemite? I just don't know. All I know is somewhere deep inside me, there's a place like the one I went through and that place also will never let go of all that it felt when I was here. Maybe I'll never leave. Maybe that's what Yosemite is saying. Once you get in its grip and it never lets you go. You may find yourself in another place but you'll always be right here. You'll always be in Yosemite and there's a part of me and a part of my horse that will always be riding through Slide Canyon.
Hetch Hetchy II
Sgt. Boman talks again about Hetch Hetchy and his recent experience there.
How you doing? This is Sergeant Bowman. I'm here in Hetch Hetchy and it's June 1903. And something happened to me here last night. I want to say something about it. We got this cabin here in Hetch Hetchy. And inside that cabin there is yet another table and another ledger and a lantern sitting on top. And I finished writing my report about everything that happened to me on the way here. If I saw something interesting or needed to write it down, and I wrote it down into that ledger, and I went to bed. And I was lying there in the bed and in the middle of the night, I remember hearing the sound of that waterfall called Wapama. And that fall was just flowing through my dreams, and it was flowing through the night, and it was flowing through me, all of me. And I have so much of it, I felt like I was drowning in it. Just lying there in the bed drowning in all of that water that once was snow and all of that snow that come out of that sky and all those clouds that brought it here from an ocean I don't know if I'll ever see again. And then in the middle of all that, I heard this cry, this high cry, and I couldn't tell if it was a woman or if it was a coyote. But this cry came out of nowhere, riding above the sound of all of that water, all that thunder shaking the ground and shaking me. And I was listening to it and I seemed to understand what was being spoken. I seemed to understand that it was a woman and it was an Indian woman. I don't know, couldn't tell if it was a Paiute or Miwok or Mono, I didn't--I couldn't tell. But it was an Indian woman, the part of me that's Indian could tell that clearly. And I remember thinking, when I heard that cry, of all the things that have happened to these Indians that got round here from the Gold Rush on, all the killing that took place here, and all the suffering that took place here, all the pain that took place here. How can there be so much pain in a place so beautiful as Yosemite? You'd think that nothing was ever hurt in a place that got so much beauty in it, it's busting at the seams with so much beauty that sometimes the rock give way to the sound of what it's feeling deep inside. Well, that was, I think, was in that sound, in that cry that I heard that made me sit bolt upright in my bed to hear that woman or that animal, whatever it was, cry out in the night. And it got down into me as well, and there was a part of me that heard and understood what was being said. And it said this, "We may not be here in the numbers we once were, but that don't mean we're gone. You may not see us, but we're here. You may not touch us, but we'll touch you. You will never forget that this land belongs to us and we are part of it." Something like that, I could feel that what was being said. And all it sounded like was just a cry but there was something in it that wasn't no cry at all. There were words, and I know it may sound crazy to say that there are words spoken by waterfalls, but there were words in that music and those words were meant for me to be hearing it in my sleep. Sometimes, things get said to you during the daytime, you can't make no sense out of it at all, but sometimes the most powerful things get said to you when you're asleep and sometimes the speaker is a waterfall called Wapama. Now, I ain't going to write that down in that little ledger on that table. But it's written down deep in my soul. It's written down deep. And I don't know if I can ever get rid of that sound of that cry of that voice that was here in Hetch Hetchy last night. And it flowed with the light of the moon into the water, it became thunder, it became a song. And I know that Tuolumne got it now, and then it will be the San Joaquin, it'll get it into Sacramento, and it's going to flow right down into that distant bay and become the sea. That's where it's going. And it's all.
Sgt. Boman speaks about the power of place on the mind, in particular the impact of Hetch Hetchy Valley. When something bad happens, does it leave an echo, a memory, does it leave a stain on an otherwise beautiful land?
This is Sergeant Bowman. It's June of 1903 and I'm in Hetch Hetchy. Or maybe I should say Hetch Hetchy is in me. How long do you got to be in a place before that place becomes so much a part of you that there's no separation between you and where you are? Yosemite got this kind of power to it. You ain't got to be here very long for everything that it is to become part of everything you happen to be. So something happened last night. I was lying here on this cot in this little cabin. And as I'm lying there, I can hear the sound of that waterfall, that Wapama Falls just booming and booming and booming, and it's this constant roar just reminding me of the ocean when it hits against the shore. And as I was lying there looking out through that little window, I saw the moon come up. And I saw the moon first in the waterfall before I saw the moon itself. And the waterfall turned all silver with the moonlight dissolving in it, like it was some kind of acid draining away with that water with all that snow. And over the sound of the waterfall, out of nowhere, I heard this cry. It was this cry and I couldn't tell if it was a coyote, a coyote or if it was a woman. And then I realized it was a woman, not just any sort of woman, it was an Indian woman and I can't tell you if it was a Paiute woman or Miwok woman or whatever. All I knew, it was an Indian woman. And she was crying or singing. There wasn't much difference between crying and singing; it was a blend, a mix of the two. And it just made me sit bolt upright out of that cot. I'm lying there in my bed and I could hear this crying and this singing. And I was trying to figure out, why is she so upset? What's she angry about? What's she sad about? And then I--it come to me, all the Indians that used to be here, right here in this valley, right here in these oak trees, gathering their acorn, for I don't know, who knows how long they've been gathering all that acorn, gathering that food for their family. Then the white folks come in here and they were all driven off or just killed outright. But, you know, when you're in a place that's like this, that holds on to everything; even snow in the middle of August, maybe it holds on to the pain of the people who were here, maybe that pain is still here in Hetch Hetchy.
Sgt. Boman reflects on the impact stillness has had on his life. Within that quiet he remembers the time he spent in the Philippine War, and how it lingers within him and with him on his patrols through a valley called Hetch Hetchy.
This is Sergeant Alizy Bowman. I'm in Hetch Hetchy, just north of Yosemite Valley. It's June, June of 1903. The sun is high in the sky and the sky is bluer than any blue I've ever seen in my life. And it's quiet, so quiet. I can hear myself think. I can--I can hear myself breathe. And I'm out here in this little cabin, this patrol post. And I'm writing down everything that happened along the way here. But I can't write down that quiet that seems to come from nowhere, seems to come from nothing, seems to be nothing itself. And that quiet has been seeping into my bones everyday I've been up here in this high country. The wind has blown it into me and the cold has let it seep into my bones, into my soul until I don't know if it will ever get out, if I can ever get this silence out of me. What do you do when you're in a country this quiet, this still? How do you get it out? And it makes me nervous because before we were here in Yosemite, we were in San Francisco. And before we were in San Francisco, we were out there in the Philippines, in the jungle. And those Insurrectos, those Filipinos were fighting, fighting for their freedom. And we were there, the 9th Cavalry was there, Troop K was there trying to take it away. What kind of duty do you call that when you take a colored man from South Carolina who's never tasted freedom himself? And there he is, taking it away from people whose skin is as dark as his own, as dark as the soil, as the dark as the earth itself, taking away something he ain't ever had. And the last time I felt quiet, like the quiet here in Hetch Hetchy was that quiet in the Philippines when we were walking and riding and walking some more and riding some more, fearing some bullet come whistling out of the dark, out of the green, out of the heat of those trees right into us. It was that kind of quiet. And when we were there, I was afraid. Now there ain't nothing here to make me afraid. There's only silence around me. But something's happened to me. Being in a war has made me fearful of silence, fearful of stillness. And there's all these visitors here who are happy, who are laughing, who are singing, having a good old time. They hear that quiet and it brings a smile to their lips but I hear that silence. And it makes the sweat come off my brow. It makes me chill to the bone, wondering what piece of metal is going to come firing, flying out of the trees at me. Huh, you can take a soldier out of the war. You can take a soldier out of battle, but you can't take the war out of that soldier. You can't take the fear out of them. And I'm up here all by myself, and something that should be soothing should make me feel comfortable. But I'm as tense as a wire that's been strung too tight. And any moment, I'm either going start singing or I'm going to snap in two. And they call it a valley. And they call it a waterfall. And they call it granite. But all of that adds up to something that I can't see. And what I can't see is making me nervous, is making me scared. That's what Hetch Hetchy means to me; a place so quiet, it reflects what you've been through and what's been through you. And any moment, there's a bullet about to come, about to end all your days and all your nights. And the last thing that you're going to remember is the sound of that waterfall spilling over the edge of the world, the sound of your own breathing, the sound of something that's been not in this world for months but is in my mind for the rest of my life. And it mingles with a spray of Wapama Falls. It mingles with the light of Kolana Rock. Huh, how do I write that down into this ledger here on this table? How do I write down the feeling I had a day in a day a long time ago? A day that I thought was forgotten, but all it needed was a key to open it up. And that key is the silence in this wind, in this stillness, in this place called Hetch Hetchy.
Sgt. Boman reports on what he feels about the meaning of family, contrasts the beauty of the place he patrols with the often painful nature of the duty he must perform.
Hey, good evening. This is Sergeant Bowman again, Troop K. Maybe I should stop saying that now because I'm the only one of Troop K that's around here. It's troops C and D that are up in the high country right now. Makes me kind of lost not having my family around me. You know, when you join the cavalry, when you join the army, you get yourself two families. There's a family you left behind, it don't matter if it's in Alabama or Louisiana or Texas or, in my case, South Carolina. It don't matter if you never see those people again or it will be a long time before you see them. When you join the army, you get yourself your own special kind of family. So I'm all by myself, but they're with me in my heart right now. But I'm in Hetch Hetchy looking for some sheepherder and his sheep ain't supposed to be grazing around here, but that's what they've been doing. So I'm trying to find them and separate the sheepherder from his sheep because that's the duty, that's the job, and that's what I'm here to do. But I must've missed them because I ain't seeing much of anything but sky, and heard much of anything else other than the wind. And I tell you right now, that's all right with me because there are certain conversations you don't want to have when you run into a man who's Mexican or Portuguese, Basque or Chilean and you got to tell them, "I'm sorry. We got to take those sheep away from you and we got to take you out of this park. And we're going to separate you from how you make money in this world." That's a conversation no man wants to have, but that's the duty. So because that sheepherder ain't nowhere to be found and those sheep ain't here either, I'm all right with that. That means I'm all by myself in these meadows here in Hetch Hetchy. I got the shade of the black oak. I got the waterfalls at Wapama flowing nearby, and it got that pretty music that it makes all the time as it sings on the way down from the cliffs. It's all right with me to hear music like that. I can hear music like that the whole time. And you know what? There ain't no officers here at all. It's just me, my horse, the sky, meadows, flowers, the black oak, and the singing of those trees, and the wind itself to keep me company. That's all a man needs. How can you call yourself alone when you got all of that around you? As a matter of fact, I think, personally, and I whisper this to you, Hetch Hetchy is kind of crowded, crowded with all of that. How can a man ever feel alone? There's barely enough room here for God to come on in, but He's here too. That's all you need. I'll talk to you later. This is Sergeant Bowman. I'll talk to you next time. Bye.
Sgt. Boman’s meditation on the mountains, and the price he has paid for spending too much time alone at the edge of the sky.
>> All right. This is Sergeant Bowman again. Oh, it's June 26th now. And you know what? I'll tell you right now, I ain't supposed to be here. You know, I sit here and I'm all by myself, but you know, it's funny how you--when you're in the mountains, you feel you're all by yourself, but you got all this country around you. You got these trees around you who whisper all around you when the wind starts to blow. It's as if the wind itself gives the trees their voice and they can't speak until the sky is moving around them. And I'm sitting here right now, writing it all down in this ledger and I ain't told you that I'm alone. I thought I should say that. I didn't say that last time. The rest of the Troop K, well, I suppose they're back in San Francisco. Maybe they've headed north. But I spent the winter here in 1903 into 1904, and I'm still here and the only reason why I'm up here in this cabin up in the sky is to carry a message which I have done. But now I got an order; I'm supposed to head over the Hetch Hetchy. I guess there's some problem over there that I got to head there. And it's all right with me. It's all right with me to be on my horse moving through a country that I ain't ever seen looked like this. Not in South Carolina, not in Mississippi, not in Alabama, not in the Dakotas, nowhere. Nowhere have I seen a country like this before. The sort of place that gets into your bones, it gets into your blood, and pretty soon you think there's no place else in the world but Yosemite. Because when you're here, there ain't no other place in the world. It just grabs hold of your eyes so all you can see is Yosemite. It grabs holds of your ears and all you can hear is Yosemite. And it gets deep in your heart and your blood is flowing through Yosemite as much as it is your own heart. That's what happens when you're here too long. It's like getting too much whiskey, you just don't see right, and you don't hear right, you don't feel anything but where you are. I guess that means I'm a local now. I guess that means I become part of this country. Not the way the Indians around here are part of it, but for someone who's new, it's as close as you can get. I hope I run into you up here sometime. There's nothing but good weather in the summer up in the high country. Nothing but a blue so deep, you can fall into it. A blue so rich that the flowers here seem to get drunk on it, and they move back and forth in a breeze only they can feel. I hope you can get here. But maybe like me, once you're here, you won't want to leave. Maybe you'll look forward to an order to go to Hetch Hetchy. Now, that's a pretty place, I've heard. I'm going to see it again. I'm going to see it for the first time, but when I get there it'll be like I never left. It'll be like I've been there all my life. That's what mountains are like. That's what mountains will do to you.
After a solitary patrol in the wilderness of Yosemite; the high country’s atmosphere makes a mark on Sgt. Boman, and lead him to thoughts about freedom.
My name is Alizy Bowman, sergeant, Troop K, 9th Cavalry. And I'm sitting here at a table. And on that table, there's a ledger with rough paper inside and I'm writing down everything that happened today. Today, the sun come up and it come up strong, burning through the treetops and it lit up the world around me. And I saw the trail ahead of me and I'm riding like we always do. Riding and looking for people getting into the trouble. People cutting trees down where they shouldn't, people shooting the deer which they shouldn't do at all. And I'm thinking how quiet it was, how quiet it felt around me and how that quiet gets into you. Gets so deep into you, you think that there's nothing that could ever make a sound in this world. And just about then, it started to rain, and I heard the rain coming down and it got louder and it got louder and it got louder. And all I could hear was all that rain flowing down from the sky, flowing up the rocks, flowing down from the rocks. And all around me was all this water and it turned cold, and the sun went away. And I was all by myself up here in this high country they call it, waiting to run into someone who didn't care that the park was being protected by colored soldiers. They didn't want to take orders from any colored soldier and I was just not looking forward to that kind of conversation. But it didn't happen. It just stayed quiet and there was just the wind. Just the sound of the wind in the sky and there's nothing around me but Yosemite, and the sound of my horse, and me, breathing as we moved along the trail. And I started thinking that this is what freedom must feel like. Never felt freedom when I was a sharecropper growing up in South Carolina. Never knew about freedom when my mother and my daddy had been enslaved. Freedom was this wind. Freedom was this rain. Freedom was being pushed up into the sky by these mountains beneath my feet and the rain and the rain and the rain coming down. That was freedom. Why did I have to go all the way, come all the way to California to find out what freedom felt like? I couldn't find it in South Carolina. I couldn't find it where I enlisted in Nebraska. I had to come all the way to California to get the taste of freedom in my mouth and in my lungs, but now I got it and I don't know if I could ever let it go. How do you let go of freedom when you hold it for the first time? Here I am up in this high country north of Tuolumne and I'm feeling it and I don't want to let it go. But some officer is going come along and tell me, "You need to move on to that next patrol post." But I'm not going to want to leave. I'm going to want to stay. I'm here right now and I want to stay here. Ain't it something? Find some place where I feel free for the first time in my life and I'm going to have to go someplace else and hopefully find it all over again. Well, that's all I want to say right now. I guess that's enough. You take care. All right.
Did You Know?
The Tioga Road is the highest trans-sierra route in California, crossing Tioga Pass at 9,945 feet in elevation.