"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."
This is Sergeant Bowman again. I got a--I got a question for you. You listening to me, you ever meet someone or met someone because that's proper? Met someone who seem to be running from themselves? Have you ever known anyone that was successful getting away from themselves? You know, I used to think that you can't escape from your troubles because your troubles will follow you. And when you're a cavalryman, you kind of figure out you better just go right in front of your trouble and just face it right down because you're a soldier. You don't back away. You just go right up to it and say, "What you--what problem you got with me?" So you can't run away from anything that's bothering you because it will sneak up behind you in the dark, grab hold of you and then you're in trouble for real then especially on horse back. I particularly like riding hard sometimes, when the terrain will allow and my horse feel good about it too. There's nothing more liberating than riding hard at a canter. Especially, if the place you're cantering through looks and feels like heaven. I'm talking about Yosemite and it seems kind of strange when you are doing it at the time because the wind is trying to blow your--my hat off. The wind is against your face and there's all that dust being kicked up and kind of peppering your face. And you're thinking, "Why should anyone be moving so quickly through something so beautiful?" Beautiful places are saying, "Slow, slow down. I look too good for you to be riding this hard through me. Slow down so you can take me all in." It should be against the law to move too fast in Yosemite, in Sequoia in the Sierra Nevada, but sometimes it's like drinking alcohol too fast, drinking whisky too fast. There's this burn in your throat, there's this fire in your gut and it gets in your eyes and in your mind and at the time, it feel all right. It feel all right. I'm not saying do it. I'm just telling you what it feels like. It feels like cantering on your horse in Yosemite. And your horse's nostrils are flaring wide to drink the wind and its heart is beating hard, and the sound--that sound of every hoof hitting the ground, hitting it again, and again, and you leaning forward and you're just relaxed, not tight at all. You're just relaxed like you're almost sleeping on that horse, hands gripping those reins but you're loose inside and you're just moving with the horse. And your body and the body of the horse become one. You and the horse are the same thing tasting the wind. What's wrong with that? Nothing at all and sometimes I feel when I'm cantering on my horse that all those problems I had in South Carolina, all those problems I had being a boy in South Carolina, all those problems are in the dust being kicked up by the hooves of my horse. And they're far, far back yelling at me, calling to me, telling me to stop, telling me to slow down but I'm gaining the distance, getting away, getting clear of all those troubles. Wouldn't you want to get clear of all your troubles? All you got to do is get a fast horse and ride it hard through paradise and all those troubles, all that darkness falls away. All those shadows are just too tired to climb up this high in these mountains and you're free because that's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being free and that's what it feels like to ride a horse hard in Yosemite. You're free. The horses and you are and the wind itself, nothing is bound to anything else. Everything around you is just flying.
Sgt. Boman momentarily loses his bearings, and in the process finds himself completely.
You know, I don't know if anyone is out there or you can hear me, but I need your help. You see, this is kind of embarrassing to say, but I don't quite know where I am. All I can say is I'm somewhere up in Yosemite, up in the high country. I ain't too far from Bloody Canyon as far as I can tell, but I'm not quite certain. This is embarrassing because, you know, the soldiers are here--the colored soldiers are here to protect the park, to patrol the park. And it's easier to do that if you know where you are. But when we come up here, we had no idea where we were. We had no idea what a national park was. So it took us a bit of time to get our bearings and to find out what place we had arrived, what place had claimed us. And now, I've been here since 1903 and here it is, July on 1904, and I figure I know my way around Yosemite. But it's embarrassing to say, but right now I have no idea where I am. No idea at all and this is what's particularly troubling. I got no idea where I am, but it's so beautiful where I am, I don't care that I don't know where I am, because my mule don't seem to be troubled by my disorientation. My mule seems to take it all for granted. There's a trail in front of it. There's a trail behind it. I guess, it figures, it always knows where its food is, it'll around and take us on back. But I'm thinking right now, I ain't never been in this country before, I ain't never seen this part of Yosemite. It's all new. And when everything around you is all new, you are lost in a very deep and profound way. When everything is new, you are lost. But there's nothing that's negative about it, it's all positive, it's all something good. And so I'm saying this and you can't see me because I'm smiling as I say this. I am lost in Yosemite and it's all right. Because part of the joy is figuring out how you're going to get back home and realizing you're already there. You don't need to figure out how to get home. This is home. Maybe that's why I'm happy. I don't know. All I know is any other place, but Yosemite, if I was lost, I'd be worried. I mean I'd be sweating and my heart would be beating fast and I'd be thinking, "Am I going to get out of this alive? Am I going to survive? Because I'm lost. This is trouble. This is bad. And I'm a sergeant." The government don't pay a sergeant that get lost. But now, all I'm thinking because I'm lost, the lieutenant can't find because I'm lost, the captain don't know where I am. Because I'm lost I got an excuse to just look up and see the world around me and realize, God, that's right. God is right here with me. And if God is with you, it don't matter how lost you are because something greater than you has found you and claimed you, and Yosemite has claimed me. So I'm lost. I'm disoriented somewhere in Yosemite. But that means I've been found. Ain't that something? I never considered you could be lost and you could be found on the same day in the same moment, but that's with mountains, these mountains will do to you. So don't come look for me. You know, I'm all right. Don't do anything to try to find me. It's all right. Yeah, I'm lost. I have no idea where I am, but it's all right. I hope I stay lost for at least the next two days or even three. What could go wrong? I got food with me. I got a mule. I can get to where I'm going, just don't know where that is right now. So, I don't know how long that's going to be before I communicate with you again because I have no idea where I am and that's all right.
Sgt. Boman's surprised by a memory in the form of a meadow strewn with wildflowers.
You know, I don't know if I should tell this. This is, of course, Sergeant Alizy Bowman again. I don't know if I should say anything about this at all because I figure you expect me to say something about being a soldier in Yosemite and what the patrols were like and how the people reacted to seeing colored soldiers for the first time, how they reacted to being told what they could or couldn't do if the man telling them what to do or not do looked like me. You know, a young man, a boy in their eyes--in their eyes, a boy from South Carolina. I could tell you all sorts of different things but I'm going to tell you something that I haven't planned on talking about at all and it has everything to do with the scent that was in the wind on a particular day in a meadow way up in the high country. This would have been a bit north and east of Rodgers Lake. And a meadow was unexpected just like much of what you find in Yosemite is expected and unexpected at the same time until you take it all in. And it was just funny, I had a hint that the meadow was there because the wind brought to me the scent. And the scent was sweet and it was like--I don't know, it was like something that blew through a lot of sugar, you know, and it picked up all that sweetness and you could taste it on the wind. And there was a buzzing in the ear and you could just hear the wings, all those little wings, the bees just buzzing around and they seem to be drunk on something. And I knew I was getting closer to what it was. And I rounded, you know, the bend of the trail and I saw color. I saw light, I saw so many different colors of all these flowers, tall and short, and purple, and blue, and yellow, and red. And they all just filled this meadow, not just with light but filled with this scent, this mingled scent of all those flowers there. And it wouldn't have been anything unusual except as I sat there on my mule and I drank deep on what that meadow was giving to the air, I realized what it was. You see, before we rode up to Yosemite, we were in San Francisco at the Presidio. And you're a soldier, you got to do what you're told to do but you get a little bit of time on your own, and I met this woman. And this woman, the thing that stood out, still stands out in my mind, about this woman was her sweetness. There was some perfume that she either put on or it came from her. And it was sweet and it was something--only word I can think of and mind me for saying this, I'm so sorry, but it was delicious. And I still to this day, can close my eyes and take a deep breath of that woman and that perfume, that I wasn't certain if it was something that like I said that she put on or something that got put on her or what, or if it was just her. But when I rounded that bend in that trail and got in to that meadow, it was that woman. It was the same perfume of that woman. And, you know, I--I'm not going to share with you her name because that's private. I'm not going to share with you what she looked like because that's private. I'm not going to share with you what her voice was like when she spoke, the music it made in the ear because that's private too. And I'm sharing so much with you but I got to keep something of this world all to myself. Don't we all got to keep something just to ourselves? But what I will share is this, is that when I closed my eyes riding on that mule into that meadow, that woman was all around me. I could just sense her all around me and I took deep breaths of her all around me. And when I inhaled and exhaled, it was all about her. I didn't want to open my eyes again. But, you know, if you're riding a horse and in particular, you're riding a mule, it's not advisable to keep your eyes closed. Horses can pick up on when the rider got his eyes closed, and they all [INDISTINCT] to give you a little bit of excitement. So I had to open my eyes and when I did, it felt like I had died and this was the next world right there because it was the sweetest, most beautiful place. And it was alive with butterflies, and bees, and little hummingbirds flitting back and forth drinking deep of the sweetness that I knew was sweet without ever doing anything to those flowers, without touching those flowers. The hummingbirds didn't have to tell me that there was sweetness like wine right there at my feet. But when I closed my eyes, I saw that woman that I thought I'd never see her again. And maybe I won't. But 200 miles away from San Francisco, this must have been the place where she was born, right here in this meadow. This must be the place that she called her home. This must be the place where her kin live. Because when I close my eyes, she wasn't in San Francisco. She was right there, that perfume, right here. And I took a deep breath of her again on that day, on this day. And I wasn't in the Sierra no more. I wasn't in Yosemite no more. I was in the presence of that woman again. That woman who I hope one day to hold her hand and say, "How are you doing, ma'am? It's been a long time. My name's Alizy. We had a conversation a while ago." And when she recall, oh, yeah, that day will be as sweet as this one right here, this moment right here because she is here right now. I may be by myself but I got something for company right here. Smell that. Oh, yeah, San Francisco.
In the wilderness, everyday things take on a much deeper meaning, even the wind has a voice.
Yeah. How you doing? This is Sergeant Bowman. You know, I don't know if I have been out here in these mountains too long. I don't know if you can be out in the mountains too long. I don't know if you can work too hard in your life. I don't know if you can open your eyes every single morning and expect to see something different if that is something that'll get to you over time. All I know is today, I've just gotten tired of the wind. Now, it may not sound like that's a problem but the worst sort of problem is the problem you can't do anything about. So, I'm always hearing the wind up here in the Sierra. I'm always feeling the wind up here in these mountains. And sometimes that wind is warm and sometimes that wind is cold and sometimes that wind is soft as your mother's hand moving against your cheek and sometimes that wind is hard like my daddy, like Daniel's hand across me when I've crossed him. You never know what to expect from it. Except there's one thing that you can expect from the wind here in this here Range of Light and that is it never, never stops blowing. When you are above where even the trees got the confidence to stay rooted to the rocky soil itself, the wind never seems to stop at all. It's always moving and you can hear it and you can see it. When you can't hear it and you can feel it when something else around you don't feel it at all because it's moving right there next to you. And it's moving right there, yonder, moving that one little branch just a little bit, just to remind you that it's there, that it's everywhere. And sometimes it's the roaring sound, you can--can't help but hear it in the trees and you think that some huge wave of the sea moving over the mountains that's heading your way, it sounds just like that or a locomotive heading your way. And all the trees just seem like they want to just lie down and they go beneath the notice of the sky itself. It's so many different shapes and so many different forms the wind can take in your mind as it shapes itself to the earth below. And I just got to the point where I would just like the wind to just shut up. I like the wind to stop talking. I like the wind to stop singing. I like the wind to stop moaning. It's got so much to complain about, so much to sing about, so much that's always on its mind. Does the wind have a mind? Is the wind just the air? Is it something else? I mean, I'm telling you I've been out here too long to have a conversation with the wind. But it won't let me talk. I'm talking to you. But when I say something to the wind, it just grabs hold of every word spilling out of my mouth and takes it someplace else that I ain't never heard of. Maybe if you--the wind and these mountains, maybe if you've tasted and touched everything alive and everything not alive, just the feel of that would always give you so much to share with everything else. Wind got plenty to talk about and that's all it do up here is just talk and talk but it sounds like whispers and if you listen carefully, you can hear words in it, you can hear people in it, you can hear God in it. Sometimes it's great, it's wonderful to hear the words of God. I remember being in church when I was a little boy and it was a wonderful thing and I imagine I could hear God talking to me, Alizy Bowman, talking to me but when you're out in mountains that are too high to be respectable and you hear the wind talking to you as if you were the only living thing on this earth, it can make you uncomfortable with what it got to say. Now, it'd be all right the wind talking to angels, it'd be all right wind talking to creator, talking to a bear, that's respectable, I can see, I can imagine that, but something as small as a man by himself or with two or three other men by themselves on patrol at the edge of all of this, I don't know. Something in that can make you feel mighty low and I've seen how some of these trees have been laid low by too much of that wind and I'm wondering how much of that breeze does it take to make a man fall down and never get back up? Oh, yeah, I felt the wind up here and it makes me a bit nervous.
What's the impact on Sgt. Boman of that first starry night in Yosemite?
This is Sergeant Bowman. How you doing? You know, I got a question for you. Do you remember the first time you ever saw the stars? Now, I don't know who you are out there listening to me. I don't know if we're ever going to meet but for everyone out there's always that first time you see the stars and you feel them as much as you see them in the darkness of the night over here. Usually, I say you're a little boy or you're a little girl and you look up and you see the stars but they don't mean much to you if you're too young but at some point, you realize there is something shining down upon me that's cold and so far away I can't even imagine what it would look like on a map. And I thought, given that I'm a grown man, I figured growing up in South Carolina I would have been accustomed to the night. I got used to seeing the stars. So, I got to tell you I was taken back on my first night here in Yosemite in the spring on 1903 and it was the strangest thing because it all proceeded the way it should have proceeded. The sun went down as it usually does. The wind picked up right around dusk as it will and a few stars started to make an appearance. That's all perfectly normal. I was used to that, South Carolina, saw plenty of that in Nebraska. But what I was not accustomed to was seeing these mountains become this jagged silhouette against the sky. I mean they were gone. You couldn't see them anymore but there was this black that had no stars in it and the black that had no stars in it was the Sierra Nevada off to the east and then above that black jagged darkness, there were more stars than I'd ever seen and they were so bright. There were stars I had never seen before. There were stars where there shouldn't have been stars. And as I stood there beside my campfire, I looked up and it was if it was the time I had ever seen them at all, like right here, that moment in the Sierra Nevada, in these snowy mountains. That was the first time I ever encountered stars as they should be seen, should be felt, should be experienced for the first time. I was so moved by what I was seeing and so was my mule. You could tell with a mule when it's impressed by something and I looked at my mule and it looked at me. It could see better in the dark than I could and it seemed to be saying, "Well, yeah, this is something right here. This is something to see." So, I just stood there and took it all in. It was like something sweet with a little bit of alcohol in it going down your throat but if it did that, it ends up in your gut. This was something sweet and got to kick to it but it was flowing down someplace else besides my gut, flowing down someplace like my soul. That's where the light was going and all I could think of was where that light came from. It wasn't Mississippi. It wasn't South Carolina. It wasn't the south. It was coming from some place so far away. No one there maybe ever heard of slavery. No one there maybe ever heard of sadness, sorrow, pain. There's only light. That's all. Just as wind picking up in the coolness against my face and this light, pure and filled with nothing in it but something that made you feel warm in spite of the coldness of the wind. Yeah, first time. There's got to be a first time to everything but if you were to ask me, "When was the first time you ever saw the stars?" I'd say to you, "It wasn't when I was a little boy growing up in South Carolina. It was that first night in the Sierra Nevada where the mountains kind of disappeared and I saw heaven itself."
Sgt. Boman sparks the interest of a Yosemite resident while on a patrol.
How you doing? You know, I was just thinking. On such a fine day as today, with that blue, that sky so high up above like a pool of water that got itself upside down and you could feel a little bit of that mist coming down to you from the sky, which is like that pool that you want to jump into and cool off but you can't. Ain't it funny how sometimes things that you most want, you can't get to? You can't hold in your hand, let alone jump into just to take the sweat off your body. You know, I'm thinking about how lonely it is up here in these mountains called, "The Range of Light." I'm thinking about how you look at everything that's alive around you and everything that's not alive around you, and all it seems to flow from one into the other until pretty soon, you don't see much of a separation. And everything means something up here. That's what I'm noticing. Nothing is just there for no reason. It's all part of something. I have been trying to figure out ever since I've been here. And everything got something interesting about it too, got a story to tell. And if you're out here, there ain't nothing that seems to be going on. It seems like something that comes into this world will attract the attention of something else that's wondering the same thing that I've just been sharing with you. And that happened to me. That happened to me up beyond Return Canyon, a remote part of Yosemite but--and to tell you the truth, most of Yosemite seems pretty remote to me. I was riding on patrol but I was by myself this time. And I was just heading to the next post and I heard a flutter of wings above me. And I looked up and there was a shadow that went over my head. And then I heard the sound of that raven because that's what it was, land on a branch in a tree, right in front of me. And the tree look like one of those Lodgepole pines. I remember seeing some of them back east and that raven just was tucking its head under its wing and then looking at me, tucking its head again, seemed to be nibbling away at itself like it was its own meal and it was time for it to feed. And the light on it made it look sometimes white and yet it was the blackest thing I could see out there, blacker than any shadow on this earth and yet when it moved or I moved on my mule, I could still see it turn white before my eyes. And I just pulled the reins back and I sat there and I looked at the raven. And the raven just sort of stopped what it was doing and it was looking at me. And then it did something I was not expecting at all. It started talking to me. I mean, just squawking and squawking. It looked at me and it squawked some more, make that sound. It looked around me, made that sound. I said, "Well, how are you doing, Mr. Raven? I hope your day is going well." And it just squawks some more as it stared at me and the wind blew and I could see the wind ruffling its feathers and it kind of showing like you threw some diamond dust if there's such a thing, in the air and it broke up the light. The feathers broke up the light when it--when the wind caught up against it. And it made that cawing sound again, looking straight at me. And after a bit, I got a bit bored by this, thinking almost, "If you got something to say, Mr. Raven, just go ahead. Otherwise, I got a patrol to make." So, I just put my spurs a little bit in to my mule and I started moving on the trail. And it just flew off and I thought nothing else of it. And then, I felt the sound of wind right at my neck. And I thought, "Oh, breeze just picked up again." But it wasn't a breeze. It was a breeze not from the sky but from that raven. Flew--it flew so close to me and it landed on a rock just about 10 feet ahead of me on the trail, looked at me again, preened itself, cleaned itself, stuck its beak all over itself. And then it just looked at me again, tilting its head and just went [makes noise], just like that. And I pulled the reins back again. And I said, "Obviously, you got something to say to me. What is it you got to say? I'm here to listen." So, I relaxed the reins, I held my arms down loose against my legs and I just--well, I just stretched a bit because I needed to. I've been in the saddle quite a bit and so I just put my heels down and just stretched my shoulders and just waited for the raven to say what it needed to say because something was troubling it. All it did was stare at me. And I'm trying to figure out, "Why is this raven doing this to me? I ain't done nothing to it." So, we just looked at each other and I looked at it and it looked at me. And again, it went about kind of messing with itself and cleaning itself and then without any thinking just flew off, just like that. And I just said, "That's the most peculiar thing I can even think of." I never had the interest of a bird, a big animal like that, if you want to call it that, like this raven. So, I rode down a little bit more. And around the trail or a bend in the trail and on a low branch of a Lodgepole pine, there it was, just sitting like it was just waiting for me. And I rode right up to it and I was just going to ignore it this time, just going to kind of keep going and just pay attention to the trail ahead of me and dust I'm kicking up, pay no mind to that raven. And as I looked straight ahead, I heard it go, [makes noise], just like that. And I stopped. Well, really my mule stopped, it seemed to get the interest of my mule. My mule shook its head back and forth, looked up at the raven. Raven looked at the mule and then--and the mule just sort of kind of made a sound that you know mules make when they got the--you got their curiosity up. And the raven just made the [makes noise] at that--at that mule again. And the mule--my mule just shook its head back and forth. And I said, "Well, now that you two got acquainted, could you share something with me? What's going on here?" Raven looked at me like I just kind of come out of the air. You know, like the mule and me were two different things, it finally saw that. And it just looked at me and said nothing. It was quiet, silent, and it was just the wind blowing past. There was just me and my mule and that raven. It seemed to find something fascinating about both me and my mule at that moment in this world. And then it just flew off again. And I figured, "This is something. I never have seen anything like that." So, then I just rode on a little bit more, I rounded the bend in the trail and nothing was there. No raven, just trees, and shadow, and the wind, and the sun beating down out of the blue of that sky. That's all. And I figured, "Well, back to the--to my duty." And I rode on. And I rode some more and I rode on longer and farther still and eventually, I'm thinking, "Yeah. I almost forgot about that raven." And I was almost done with that day's patrol, getting closer, getting closer to that cabin that I was just waiting to see around that next bend. And before I got there, sitting on the lawn, off the trail, was you know who, and it just seemed to be sitting there. And when I showed up and rounded the bend, it [makes noise], made that sound. And I'm just looking at it. I'm thinking, "I ain't something dead. I don't think I'm about to die but I got this animal's attention for some reason. Why won't this bird let me go?" And I rode up to it. And this time, instead of stopping, I just rode right past it, looking straight ahead. And it flew off. I heard the sound--the scurry in the air of the feathers hitting the--hitting the air as it took off, flew around me, up above me, and off to one side. And I could hear it off in distance, [makes noise]. And then I kept riding and I knew I was almost done with this and I was trying to figure out why that raven was acting that way but I don't have much history with ravens so I don't know what they're like. I just tried to put it out of my mind and just focus on my duty which is riding on that trail and making sure that everything all right. Well, I rounded that last bend and I saw the patrol cabin right there. And that was a pretty sight to see. And I got up to it and you know, I dismounted and I got the lead and, you know, I was just getting comfortable. You know, took the bridle off and just about to tie my horse to the post and I felt something look at me. And I looked up, I couldn't see anything. Looked in the other direction and right there with the sun right behind it, so bright, all I saw were this dark silhouette of a bird with the blazing sun, hot as a furnace behind it. And it did it again [makes noise] like it was waiting for me, right there like it had every stop of that way. I looked at it and it looked at me. I said, "Well, something you want from me but it ain't nothing I want from you so you could either fly off or stay here but I got work to do." That's what I said to it. And I turned my back on it and it made that sound again. And I just ignored it but a bit later, I turned around and just looked at it. And it looked at me and I never realized what it was like to stare into the eyes of something that had about as much curiosity as I got about the world around me. I figure this, if you're riding, or flying, or walking, or doing whatever up here in these mountains, there ain't much going on but all you're thinking about is how you're going to make it to the next day. So, when you see something that you've never seen before, you see something unusual, it deserves a second look, maybe a third look, maybe a fourth one, too. And maybe that's why that raven was looking at me the way--the way it was, maybe it never seen a colored soldier before, maybe it [INDISTINCT] from my accent I have from South Carolina. It ain't never seen a colored man from South Carolina in a cavalry uniform. That took it into a whole new idea of who could be riding a horse or a mule up here in these mountains. So, I was something new for it and it was something new for me. And I never realized that it was just a surprise to see me but I wasn't surprised to see it at all but it wouldn't let me go. That's just like Yosemite, you know. It kind of flies over you, sits on a branch, squawks at you a bit, takes you in, see what you're like then it just flies off but it keeps coming back to make certain you're still there because when something new enters the world, it deserves another look.
Herding sheep is illegal in Yosemite, but not every illegal act is wrong. Sgt. Boman discovers that morality depends on one's point of view, especially in the mountains.
I was on the edge of the--edge of the sky. And the edge of the sky is gray and it's got deep shadows flowing down one side of it and up near the top part of that edge, you can see the whitest snow even in August. That edge is hard. That edge will hurt you, and it'll hurt anyone you know if you don't take it serious. And near that edge called the Sierra Nevada, down below on those shadows, I was wandering through on patrol and I just--it's just me. It was just me and a mule. And I'm on my horse and I see a man off in the distance and the man all by himself, but I see around him a few sheep all scattered there in the light and in the shadows. And he saw me, about the same time I saw him and I figured he'd run off considering, well, I'm a soldier and he ain't. He didn't run off. He didn't even seem to even notice I was there, looked at me like I was a window he was peering through. And as I got closer, I kept expecting him to run off because he's herding his sheep in a national park and that ain't legal. But he didn't run off. He just stood there, waiting for me to come his way along that trail, kicking up dust as I went and the dust choking me as I leaned forward in the saddle trying to catch sight of him running this way or that, but he would not, wouldn't run at all. And when I rounded the last bend of that trail, way up near the edge of that sky, that deep blue of the Sierra Nevada, he was there waiting for me. He was Mexican, it turned out. Could speak English, speaks Spanish too. And so I asked him what he was doing. I mean, he didn't lie to me. He didn't make anything up. He didn't even say, "Oh, I don't know how these sheep got here. They don't belong to me." He told me right off, "Yeah, these are my sheep. This is my flock." That's what he said, "This is my flock. How can I help you?" Just like that, spoke kind of kind to me. I said, "Well, sir, it's illegal for you to be grazing your sheep up here in Yosemite." And he looked at me and he looked down on the ground and then he looked up at the sky again, felt the wind against his face, and I could feel the same wind. He looks at me, he say, "There ain't no national park here, just the mountains. What's wrong with your sheep feeding on the grasses? Aren't many grasses growing here. What's wrong with me feeding my sheep up here in these mountains?" And I say to him, "Well, sir, these are mountains you got that right, but this is also Yosemite. And in Yosemite National Park, you can't graze your sheep up here." And he looked at me, he looked me up and down like he was looking at one of his flock. And he say to me, he said this to me, "What gives you the right, soldier, to tell me what I can or can't do up here with my sheep? They're my sheep, they don't belong to you." And I said "What gives me the right, sir, is I'm a soldier protecting this national park and you are trespassing." It was quiet just like that. And he's looking at me. And he looked and he said "Quiet." And it was menacing, kind of like a knife being pulled out of a sheath. You can barely hear the sound it makes when that steel is moving along that leather. He say, "We're all out here all by ourselves. Ain't going to hurt no one to let me just do what I've been doing before you ever got here with your soldiers, your cavalry. My sheep are hungry. They're going to eat no matter what. What's the problem?" And I looked at him, "Sir," I said, "I don't got to repeat myself and I ain't going to. You need to leave, you and your sheep." It got quiet again and he rested his right hand on the pommel of a knife he had in a sheath at his waist. It was real casual the way he did it, didn't draw much of attention, just put his hand right there on the pommel of that knife he got. But the way he did it was a way of telling me, "Yeah. I can take care of myself out here too. And we're all alone, you consider that." That's what he was saying to me, when he did something so casual with his hand to rest it, like a bird coming down on a branch after a long journey through the air, he figured, "Hey, all I'm doing is putting my hand. I'm tired out here. I'm just resting my hand like a bird falling down to a branch." But when he did that, my hand raised up, my right hand right up to the pommel of my pistol. And I think he saw that too. And it got quiet, and we each was checking the other one out seeing who was determined to get his way. And finally, I said to him, "Look, sir, it don't got to come to this at all. It ain't worth it. It ain't you losing all the people you got if it come to that and it ain't worth me going to all this trouble when there ain't no one around, no officer anywhere in view to tell me if I'm doing the right thing or if I'm doing the wrong thing. Sometimes in life, you don't know which is which, so no one is going to know anything about what we're doing, but I have to do my job. And that means you need to move your sheep now." And the wind come up and it was the coldest wind I felt--I'd ever felt, and it was blowing right through me like it was a knife going right through me, a knife that had been sitting in snow or fall into a creek, way up here, beyond the edge of the sky and that's the coldest kind of creek I can even think of. And he looked at me and he saw what I was willing to do and I saw in his own eyes what he was not willing to do. And he just spat on the ground and his spittle landed not too far from my foot. I don't know if that was his aim or not, but it didn't touch me. But it was close enough to make his point. He said "I'll move my sheep, soldier." Like that, and the way he said soldier, was like something sour in his mouth, something that tasted bitter that he was trying to get out of his body anyway he could and he did and he spat again on the ground but while he did, his eyes were trained on me, like I was the thing he was trying to spit out of his mouth. I was the thing that was hard for him to swallow. And that was about it. I mean he just started walking off and towards his sheep and calling to them and it's kind of funny seeing them kind of respond to that man, but I guess they all knew each other. I guess they were all family. He wanted to keep his family together. Because he knew if I had to, I would've broke up that family. I would've taken the sheep, me and my men or me by myself, and I would've separated that man from everything he had to put food in his mouth to keep himself from being hungry the next day, or the next. That's the kind of conversations we have out here in Yosemite. But all I could think of when he walked away and he saw me, he could feel that I was looking at him, all I could think of was if this man was just trying to make a living for himself and I could--I could--I knew that someone like him could not graze his sheep down there in the Central Valley. This Mexican was pushed up here against the edge of the sky to graze his sheep. What fool would graze his sheep up in these mountains? There ain't enough grass to keep anything fed. I didn't feel good about taking something from someone who had so little. But I'm not paid to think about it. I'm not paid to consider the action. I'm paid to do a job. I'm paid to do my duty. And that man, I evicted him and his sheep from Yosemite. But I didn't feel good about it. And if I had been in his place, who knows, maybe I would've pulled out that knife. Maybe, I would've grasped it hard in my hand and done something, maybe something I would one day regret. I'm just glad it never come to that. Otherwise, it wouldn't be me saying these words right here.
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. (This is an alternate version of the preceding podcast. Use whichever one you think best. I prefer version No. 5, but conceivably both can be used…)
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 going to come back. And I got a few more nights here, so I'm getting ready to hear the sound of those days that are gone away and those days that this place can never let go.
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.