Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Hunter: An Excerpt from The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas

Note: This excerpt is from a work in progress. If all goes well, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas will be published in 2017. That gives readers plenty of time to read the first two editions The Dakotas and Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma available online by clicking on these links, and at bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83 and directly from the author.  
This takes place in May 2010 in the Rio Grande Valley.  

The Hunter
By Stew Magnuson

On my way out of Zapata the next day, I set out to find the ruins of a gas station that was once on Highway 83 before the Falcon Dam inundated the valley.
A souvenir store owner had tipped me off about the building, which he said was near on old fishing camp about five miles west of 83. He gave me detailed directions on how to find it, so after driving a few miles I left the comfort of the paved highway and took off on a gravel road, getting lost for a bit, but eventually righting myself until I come across the fishing camp.
I can’t find anything resembling an old gas station so I start to drive through the ramshackle collection of aging campers and mobile homes shaded by gnarly old trees. It’s not long before an old man in a red pickup truck intercepts me near a boat ramp. He rolls down the window.
“What ya looking for?” he asks. He looks a little miffed, and I realize that maybe I shouldn’t be here.
Jack Cox Jr., May 2010
I tell him my story and he listens carefully as we both get out of our vehicles. He sizes me up and decides that I’m not a threat. They have been having all sorts of problems with drug smugglers and for all he knew, I could have been someone here to meet a boatful of dope coming over the lake, he explains. They have been known to fly helicopters over the border to see if the coast is clear.
“People round here sleep with their guns loaded by their beds,” he says.
His name in Jack Cox Jr., and his father once owned the fishing camp, which has been here for some fifty years. The old gas station is just a few yards past the camp entrance and over a fence. It’s marked “No Trespassing,” but it shouldn’t be a problem if I just want to hop over and snap a few pictures, he tells me.
Since I introduced myself as an author, he wants to know what I’ve written. It just so happens I have copies of my first book in the trunk, and he wants to buy one.
“There ain’t much to do out here except read,” he says.
There are only three full-time residents in the camp, and he’s one of them. He sold the property four years ago, but part of the deal with the new owner was that he could stay there for five years rent free.
He invites me back to his house for a cup of coffee.
Out front of the white mobile home, I’m greeted by a shaggy white dog and a friendly cat, who has just brought Jack a dead bird as a present.
Inside, the mobile home is not what I expected. It is decorated with African art: masks, textiles, carvings.
“I managed a hunting camp in Somalia on the Jubba River for five years,” he declares.
“You did what, now?”
I’m glad I grabbed my notebook.
Jack takes a seat in a chair, while I sit on his sofa and fumble for a pen. He’s eighty-one years old, he tells me. Fox News is on mute. I would expect an elderly widower’s mobile home to be a mess. The room is cluttered, but clean. His coffee table is covered in magazines: The Weekly Standard, National Geographic, Smithsonian. He tries to peg me as a liberal, Washington, D.C.-based journalist. I tell him I’m a radical centrist. That seems to confuse him.
“It means I’m in the middle and I get to argue with everybody.”
Fortunately, the conversation turns away from politics and to his days as a big game guide.
“I was an elephant hunter and a safari guide,” he continues, first giving me a quick version of his life story.
He grew up in Midland, Texas, where he was a friend of Larry L. King, who would go on to be a journalist, author and the co-writer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Like many in that area, Jack joined the oil business and worked for Rogers Exploration as a “seismic man.” The company sent him to Australia, Tanzania, Brazil and Bolivia for years-long stints.
He married twice, both times to Australian women. His second wife died fifteen years ago. He is still in contact with his first. Back when he was a young man in Midland, he was in love with a high school classmate. But a fighter pilot from the nearby Air Force base stole her away. A lifetime later, the Air Force officer passed away, and Jack and his long-lost love are at last together. She lives in Sweetwater, Texas, and he travels there quite a bit to see her. She hates the fishing camp.
“I got her in the end,” he says with a smile.
He doesn’t mention any children, and I forget to ask. Some kind of journalist, I am.
He was in Tanzania working for the oil company when the opportunity to run the hunting camp in Somalia presented itself.
He pushes himself up from the chair, walks to another room and returns with an album.
Inside, is an envelope, and inside the envelope is a brochure for the camp. It’s fifty years old, but it looks like it was printed yesterday. He was there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s—back when well-heeled men could live out their Hemmingway safari fantasies—for a price.
He shows me black and white pictures of the kills.
“My first lion,” is written in pen on the edges of one. Jack and some other fellow is squatting next to a lioness, holding her mouth open, smiling. Jack is young, his black hair slicked back, a broad, handsome face. It’s startling to see him as a young man.
“Those were good times,” he said, showing me another picture of two guests he identifies as members of the Kennedy administration.
“And the women …” he trails off. Smiles. I can see that he’s remembering one of them, maybe more. I don’t dare interrupt his reverie.
“I closed up many bars in Nairobi,” he continues as I look at a series of pictures of dead elephants, gazelles and such. That was back when the Italians ran Somalia. Once the colonialists left, the “whole country went to shit,” he says. That was the end of the hunting lodge on the Jubba River. He went back to being a seismic man for the oil companies, although he did spend a couple years trying to grow cotton in Australia.
“Money never was the thing, you see. But I wish I had saved just a little bit more of it.”
He’s heading up to Sweetwater that day to see his “lady friend,” as he calls her, so it’s time for me to go. He really wants me to see the old gas station before I leave. So we head back outside where he lets me take a few pictures of him as the cat curls around his leg.
“It’s been a good life. I’m not a religious man, but I wonder what the adventure is on the other side.”
*    *   *



Well, Jack said it’s no problem. So I climb over the fence where the signs are hung and walk a few feet back among to find what remains of old Highway 83 and a gas station.
The filling station is a yellowish-pinkish shell. It looks as if the waters have come up several times to wash away everything but its walls. The roof is gone, but a beam that once held it up to keep the sun and rain off motorists filling up at the pumps still stands. Someone else has ignored the sign and taken potshots at the beam, leaving a half-dozen bullet holes in the concrete. Mesquite and prickly pear are growing around it.
The old road itself is gravel and disappears into the vegetation. I poke around for any relics from the old days—an old bottle, a sign—there’s nothing but pieces of corrugated steel. A cluster of cactus bulbs has somehow taken hold on top of the wall. I wonder how it can do that.
I imagine the gas station in its heyday. If it ever had one. It was unattached to a town—a good ten miles away from any of the now submerged villages. I see the cars pulling up for gas and water on hot days, parents yanking Coke bottles out of the pop machine for their kids, the attendant wiping the dust and bug juice off the windshields.
Included in the $47 million the federal government spent to construct the Falcon Dam was $3.5 million allocated to improve fifty-five miles of Highway 83, and to relocate several miles of it to the north. The Texas State Highway Department did the work. The unflooded sections of the road and bridges were widened from eighteen to twenty-four feet and graded to eliminate the “rollercoaster effect,” as one newspaper described it. Care was taken to construct the new sections far to the north beyond where the lake was expected to rise. Work was finished before the dam was dedicated in 1953. Slowly, the Rio Grande waters swallowed up the villages and the old highway. I wonder if they left any of those old federal shield signs standing. I can picture bass swimming around them now.
One of the first dry spells after the dam was built exposed the five abandoned villages and their buildings. The feds decided that the structures were hazardous and bulldozed them, leaving nothing but foundations. Yet the gas station sitting out here survived.   
Taking a picture of the highway as it emerges from the mesquite, I notice there are car tracks in the gravel. I doubt the ghosts of old U.S. Route 83 left them there, so I’m not going to push my luck with the Border Patrol, a drug smuggler, or whoever has been driving back here. I don’t linger.

This encounter with Jack Cox Jr. occurred in May 2010. A little more than a year later, my attempts to reach him failed. His phone was disconnected and a letter came back to me “Return to Sender. No Forwarding Address.” Attempts to track him down online have come up empty. If anyone knows the whereabouts or fate of Jack, please contact me. 

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Salute to the War Heroes Encoutered Along Highway 83

During the week preceding Memorial Day 2016, I highlighted on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page several young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the nation, and called a Highway 83 community their hometown.

I have compiled them here. Of course, there are so many others I have not listed, and we salute them as well.

Army Pvt. David B. Barkeley, Laredo, Texas

Barkeley, whose father was Mexican-American, names was actually David Cantu, enlisted under his mother's maiden name to be able to join a unit that would go into combat in World War I. For his bravery, he became one of three Texans to earn the Medal of Honor during The Great War. Later, when they discovered his origins, he was recognized as the first Mexican-American to earn the Medal of Honor.

His citation reads: “When information was desired as to the enemy's position on the opposite side of the Meuse River, Pvt. Barkeley, with another soldier, volunteered without hesitation and swam the river to reconnoiter the exact location. He succeeded in reaching the opposite bank, despite the evident determination of the enemy to prevent a crossing. Having obtained his information, he again entered the water for his return, but before his goal was reached, he was seized with cramps and drowned.”

Marine Corp Corporal Harlon Block, Weslaco, Texas

Marine Corps Corp. Harlon Block, the man planting the flag in the Iwo Jima Memorial sculpture. Block was a star football player at Weslaco High School in his hometown along Highway 83 in Weslaco, Texas. Block was mortally wounded by an enemy mortar round explosion while leading the squad during an attack toward Nishi Ridge about 11 days after the flag was raised. He was 20 years old. In January 1949, Block's remains were re-interred in Weslaco, Texas. In 1995, his body was moved to a burial place at the Marine Military Academy near the Iwo Jima monument in Harlingen, Texas.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfredo Salinas, San Ygnacio, Texas

In the town of San Ygnacio, Texas, along the banks of the Rio Grande, you will find in the town square this granite marker commemorating the life of Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfredo Salinas. Salinas was aboard the USS Indianapolis the day a Japanese submarine torpedoed it, sending 900 of the crew into the waters with few supplies or life rafts. They floated there for four days before being discovered. By that time, 600 more of the sailors had perished due to exposure, injuries or shark attacks. Salinas was among those who didn't make it and his remains were never found. He was 19 years old.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

When you travel 83 from Pierre to Fort Pierre over the Missouri you are on the
John C. Waldron Memorial Bridge. Named after Naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron, a hero of the Battle of Midway. Waldron was the son of a Fort Pierre rancher and part Lakota. On June 4, 1942, Waldron’s squadron of  torpedo aircraft found the Japanese carrier group before dive bomber backup could arrive. Undaunted, he led an attack on the carriers but all 15 of the Hornets were shot down by Japanese Zeroes. Waldron and 29 of his 30 men perished. Nevertheless, his attack forced the Japanese carrier group to take up defensive positions against low altitude attacks. The Zeroes were refueling when the high-flying U.S. dive bombers arrived. They destroyed three Japanese carriers, a mortal blow to the Imperial Navy.  Waldron's unit received a citation for bravery and Waldron the Navy Cross.

Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson, Stapleton, Nebraska
The next one is personal. It’s is my second cousin, Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson, from my father’s hometown, Stapleton, Nebraska. Lloyd, as he preferred to be called, earned the silver star for gallantry in action during World
War II in the Italian campaign.

His citation reads: “On the 13th of October, 1943, while his company was engaging the enemy, Sergeant Magnuson observed that the left flank of his company was endangered by several of the enemy firing machine pistols from a ditch by the road.

“He worked his way toward them, taking advantage of all cover, until he had approached to within 20 yards of the enemy, he then opened fire with his sub-machine gun, killing three of the enemy and capturing the other four.”

About two months later, January 24, 1944, Lloyd was killed in action during the Battle of Anzio. The family doesn’t have any details of the circumstances surrounding his death. VFW Post #8258 in Stapleton is named in his honor. He is buried at the Fort McPherson National Cemetery east of North Platte.

Marine Corps First Lt. Jack Eitel, Scott City, Kansas

You will find these boots at the War Memorial in Scott City, Kansas, which is a
few blocks east of Hwy 83. 1st Lt. Jack Eitel went from S.C. to West Point, then Vietnam in the Marine Corps. He died during an enemy ambush on July 8, 1965.
I found this very moving piece written about him by one of his West Point classmates on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Fund website.

Brigadier General Ramon M. Ong (Ret) wrote: “I met Jack on my first day at West Point. We were assigned to the same squad during Beast Barracks. He was a quiet, country-boy type who had an inner toughness that just didn't quit. He helped me a lot during those first two months when the training was almost more than I could handle. I was an 18 year old foreigner from the Philippines, and the new diet, discipline and demands took a serious toll on my physical and mental performance. Jack was always there to help me, whether to carry part of my heavy backpack, or push me up a steep mountainside or simply to yell words of encouragement at me when I was at the edge of despair and ready to call it quits.

The rest of the 4 years, I observed Jack grow steadily into a great leader, poised, capable and ready to conquer any obstacle, yet also ready to help those who couldn't. We went our separate ways after graduation, he to the US Marines and I to the Philippine Army. We never saw each other again and I learned about his death only many, many years later. Too bad, he would have gone far, had he survived.

Goodbye, Jack, I shall never forget you. Thank you for being at my side when I needed a helping hand. Thank you for helping me become what I am today.”

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nebraska's 150 Greatest Literary Works Named; Many Set Along Highway 83

The Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, in partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Library Commission, chose my book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns for its list of Nebraska books that “represent the best literature produced from Nebraska during the past 150 years” to mark the state’s sesquicentennial in 2017.
Nebraska has a rich literary history with giants such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Wright Morris and 13th Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser among the state’s pantheon of great writers. Their works show up several times on the list.
My book mostly takes place 100 miles to the west of Highway 83, but scrolling down the list of other books chosen, there are several that are set along Highway 83 worth noting. Most of them I have read, and couple I relied upon for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma.
Here are a few of that I cited in The Last American Highway book:

 Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz. The Northern Cheyennes’ dramatic escape from the confines of their reservation in Indian Territory in 1878 is an American epic. Two incidents during their journey took place along Highway 83 in Kansas: The Battle of Punished Woman Fork near Lake Scott, and the massacre of the settlers near Oberlin. Both stories are recounted in Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Their journey afterwards in Nebraska took them northwest of the present day road.

The Niobrara: A River Running Through Time by Paul A. Johnsgard. University of Nebraska professor emeritus Johnsgard is the state’s foremost naturalist writer and the Niobrara, perhaps the state’s most scenic river. I relied heavily on this work for the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Duane Gudgel, proprietor of the Plains Trading Co. bookstore in Valentine also contributed a chapter to this excellent work.

 The Nebraska Sand Hills: The Human Landscape by Charles Barron McIntosh. The University of Nebraska Press produced this plain looking hardcover book without a dust jacket for some reason, but don’t judge a book by the lack of a cover. This is a thorough work on this beautiful and unique landscape. Long out of print, however, the aforementioned Duane at Plains Trading Co. was wise enough to buy up the overstock. Contact the store for copies or go to its website.

An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians by David Wishart. Take a look at a map of Nebraska and note how many Indian reservations there are. Not many. Most of the nations that called the state their home, including the Pawnees, were sent to Indian Territory. Every Nebraskan should read this book. UNL professor of geography Wishart has a total of three books on the list!

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. We all know that many snowstorms in Nebraska are preceded by warm, balmy days. In 1888, school children across the northern plains headed to their one-room school houses without their coats or wearing light jackets. As they headed home that evening, a monster arrived from the north. This story became part of an excerpt on natural disasters I published in this blog.

No Time on My Hands: Grace Snyder as told to Nellie Snyder Yost. A memoir of how the Sand Hills were settled, including the story of my grandmother’s hometown Tryon, and the Highway 83 town of Stapleton. 
Here are two books on the list that are set along Highway 83, but I didn’t use in my writing:

Once Upon a Town: The Story of the North Platte Canteen.
Chicago-based columnist Bob Greene put the remarkable story of the North Platte Canteen on the map for many Americans. During World War II, every train carrying troops that pulled into the station was greeted by a group of mostly women who had baked or cooked dishes for them and spent some time talking with the soldiers in the Union Pacific train depot waiting room. Small towns along Highway 83 and in the Sand Hills would sign up to volunteer for a day. My grandmother Bernice Magnuson was among those who baked cakes and traveled there on Stapleton’s day to host the troops.

 Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. Norris, a giant in Washington in both the House and Senate in the first half of the 20th century, called McCook, Nebraska, his home. Travelers can visit his house there.

And finally, anytime someone compiles a subjective list of this nature, there will be some disagreement. That's part of the fun. Here are some Nebraska works I think should have made it, but didn’t.

Red Cloud’s Folk, Spotted Tail’s Folk, A Sioux Chronicle, The Pawnee Indians, Life of George Bent, etc. by George E. Hyde.
How could the committee not name a single book by this Omaha-born and raised writer and amateur historian who devoted his life to recording the history of the Native Americans who called Nebraska home? Hyde corresponded and interviewed participants in the so-called Indian Wars long before most historians cared. Where would we be without these books? His life’s work is all the more remarkable when one takes into account that he was legally blind. Plus, Hyde is simply fun to read. A major oversight. 

Empire on the Platte by Richard Crabb. This excellent 1967 book tells the story of a violent family of Texas cowboys, Print Olive and his brothers, who made their way to the Nebraska prairie to run cattle. They owned most of Custer County at one time. The Olives were the archetypes for the bad guy cowboys portrayed in so many Hollywood westerns. A great history of the cattle drive days before barbed wire.  Long out of print, but highly recommended. 

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballentine. Chadron-based author Poe Ballentine wrote an instant classic about his on-again, off-again relationship to the Panhandle town. The first half of the memoir is literally laugh out loud funny, then takes a serious turn as the town is wracked by the gruesome death, perhaps murder, of a mathematics professor. The title alone deserved a spot on the list!

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Descendants of Nebraska African-American Settlement to Attend Historical Marker Ceremony on Highway 83

Turnoff for the DeWitty historical marker
Descendants of an African-American settlement in Nebraska’s Sand Hills are expected to arrive in Cherry County on April 11 to celebrate the unveiling of a historical marker on U.S. Highway 83. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was a series of homesteads scattered along the North Loup River west of the present-day town of Brownlee, Nebraska, and lasted from about 1906 until the Depression years.

The Nebraska State Historical Society marker will be located just south of the Brownlee turnoff. The dedication ceremony is slated to take place at 10 a.m., Monday April 11 at the marker site. The public is welcome to attend.
“So far, I’ve heard from descendants coming from as far away as California, Delaware and Virginia who have booked flights,” says Stew Magnuson, author of the book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83, which has a chapter about the settlement.
Descendants of the town’s first postmaster, Jim DeWitty, are expected to come from Oklahoma. Other descendants of the DeWitty and Brownlee communities may attend from Omaha, Colorado and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, said Magnuson.
After the ceremony, Humanities Nebraska lecturer Vicki Harris will give a presentation about DeWitty at the Brownlee Community Hall, which will be followed by a potluck lunch.
“There are not many residents left in Brownlee and the surrounding ranches, but they are going all out to welcome the DeWitty descendants and the other celebrants,” says Magnuson. The two communities were very tight back in the day, he says. 
Brownlee Community Hall
“I am glad that the marker mentions the close bond between the black settlers of DeWitty and the white residents of Brownlee. The two communities were both really isolated and on their own in the depths of Sand Hills back then. Here we have the story of a mixed-race couple, integrated schools, neighbors helping each other when they needed it, and two communities coming together to celebrate the quintessential American holiday, Independence Day. This should be remembered,” says Magnuson. 

Speakers at the ceremony will include a Cherry County Historical Society representative, Magnuson, Catherine Meehan Blount, a granddaughter of Charles and Hester Meehan — an interracial couple, who were among the early DeWitty settlers — and Joyceann Gray, a niece of Goldie Walker Hayes, a legendary teacher who remained in the county to work in one-room schoolhouses long after the settlement disappeared. The invocation will be conducted by the Reverend Khadijah Matin, also a niece of Walker-Hayes.  

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Monday, March 21, 2016

Highway 83 to Be Featured on South Dakota Public Television

Award Winning author Stew Magnuson and his book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas will be featured on an upcoming episode of South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Dakota Life television show.
It is currently slated to air April 7 at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Mountain.

Those outside of the SDPB viewing area can watch the episode live online at this link. http://www.sdpb.org/dakotalife/
A SDPB crew last September followed Magnuson for a half day from Murdo, south through White River country and down to Mission, where he was filmed giving a presentation at Sinte Gleska University.
Magnuson says: “I was glad that we could meet there because that stretch of the road from Murdo down to the Nebraska border is one of my favorite parts of Highway 83. Not only is the scenery beautiful, the area is renown for its history.” 
The book cover image was taken in this area, he adds.

As South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s number one rated locally produced show for the past 25 years, Dakota Life features interesting South Dakota people, places, and things. New episodes of Dakota Life are broadcast on the first Thursday of every month at 8:00 pm Central Time, 7:00 pm Mountain, from September through June. Reruns occur throughout the year and episodes are eventually aired on the RFDTV cable channel.

The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas is a nonfiction travel-history book that uncovers stories found along a road that bisects the states from north to south. Magnuson takes readers on a trip down the road and through the history of the Northern Great Plains. The famous and the forgotten are found in stories he discovers in the Dakotas.

The White River, just east of Hwy 83
Explorers Pierre de la Vérendrye, Lewis & Clark, Jedediah Smith, are all encountered along with Chief Spotted Tail of the Brulé Lakotas, TV sensation Lawrence Welk and rodeo superstar Casey Tibbs. Cold-blooded killers, homesteaders, ballplayers and rail barons from yesteryear meet today’s truckers, oil rig workers and ghost towns inhabitants as Magnuson launches his own Voyage of Discovery in a beat-up 1999 Mazda Protégé. Timed for release during the states’ 125th anniversary year, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, is a love poem to the natural beauty of the prairie and the fascinating people—both past and present—found along the road.
Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Stew Magnuson is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border TownsNebraska Center of the Book’s 2009 nonfiction book of the year, ForeWord Magazine’s bronze medal winner for regional nonfiction and finalist for the 2008 Great Plains Book of the Year. And The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma. He is working on the final installment of the series that will focus on Highway 83 in Texas.
He also penned Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, an account of the controversial 2012 Dakota Conference at Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, S.D., where members of the American Indian Movement squared off against retired FBI agents.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Highway 83's Laredo Goes All Out to Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday

By Stew Magnuson

“I get that question all the time,” says Veronica Castillon, “What are a bunch of
Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez and some of her creations
Mexicans doing celebrating Washington’s Birthday?”

Indeed, the city of Laredo has made a pretty big deal out of acknowledging the United States’ first president since 1898.
Of course, what Castillon, former president of the association that produces the annual event, meant was “Mexican-Americans.” Laredo was founded by the Spanish in 1755, and later became part of Mexico when it broke free of colonial rule.
Long after it became part of the United States, the residents held onto their traditional Latin festivals and holidays. The city leaders wanted to balance that out, so they settled on a distinctly American holiday, Castillon explained.
Now, there is currently no other city in the America that goes all out for G.W. the way Laredo does. It has been doing so for 119 years.
The celebrations take up several weeks in February each year — when the weather is much milder compared to the summer months.
Washington’s Birthday Celebration events attract nearly 500,000 residents and visitors, and contributes an estimated $14 million every year to the local economy, according to the association website.
This year includes the annual parade, concerts, fireworks, an air show, a car show, and 5 K race, Jalapeno Festival, a 10-day carnival and the highlight: The Society of Martha Washington Ball where 13 young women and their escorts, representing the 13 colonies, attend in resplendent gowns and period costumes.
At the home of Laredo native Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, I had an opportunity of
Gown details
seeing some of these gowns. Gutierrez is one of the city’s best known dressmakers, who can spend months working on one of the pieces.

How much does she charge to produce one of these one-of-a-kind gowns?
That’s confidential, she says. She has never revealed how much one of her clients pays. Once made, they become treasured family heirlooms.
While the ball is a big night, in Gutierrez’s mind, the most important ceremony is the International Bridge Ceremony, where two boys and two girls, each representing both side of the border, meet on a spot over the Rio Grande River and embrace. The big parade begins soon after.
Another reason Washington’s birthday is celebrated here is because of the respect the founding father commands in Latin America as a leader who threw off the yoke of European colonialism.
“Respected as the forerunner of such Latin American liberators as Mexico’s Father Hidalgo and Simon Bolivar, Washington’s esteem is not limited to the United States,” the celebration’s website says.
Bridge ceremony photo courtesy of WBCA.
The Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball where a local woman in a resplendent beaded costume “presides over a spectacular pageant that is as much a part of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration as it is a homage to the Native American culture. The Princess Pocahontas Pageant presents the Native Americans in a setting that is both mystical and natural, “ the official website says
The Society of Martha Washington Ball, where Gutierrez gowns make their public debut, is one of the most famous events in South Texas and was featured in National Geographic.
For a list of George Washington Birthday Celebration events check out the website HERE.
For those who can’t make it to Laredo in February, there is a small Washington's Birthday Celebration museum on the southwest corner of San Augustin Plaza, which has a display of some of the elaborate gowns and costumes.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exploring the Historic ‘Streets of Laredo’ Along Highway 83

San Augustin church. Photos by Stew Magnuson

It’s the first Friday night of the month in Laredo and the CaminArte (art walk) is underway.
Families, young couples and folks on their own like myself — with a special map in hand — are making their way around the town center’s streets to check out the local galleries. About nine sites are opening their doors to sell paintings or crafts, and the town’s famous San Augustin Square is surrounded by vendors for an artisan’s bazaar.
One of my first stops is Gallery 201, a contemporary art gallery, where a handful of local artists have set up tables.
Erika Lamar Buentello happens to be selling prints of local iconic neon signs. Two of them, the Evelyn Motor Inn and Pan American Courts Café (and Hotel) are out on Business 83. Those signs have been there since before there was an expressway, and hark back to the Golden Age of road travel in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Sold,” I say. It’s as if she knew I were coming. She knocks five bucks off, $35 for the pair, and I get to take some great Highway 83 memorabilia back home with me.
Find Buentello’s art on this Etsy page.
Another highlight on the walk is the Laredo Center for the Arts, which has an ongoing exhibition and local artists there to do some painting as visitors watch.
Prints by Erika Lamar Buentello
Casa Ortiz, just off the square, is open to visitors. The building has been here since about 1830 and features a beautiful courtyard. Five generations of the Ortiz family lived there before it was sold, but someone has been there since then, making it the longest continually occupied home in Texas. Nowadays, Texas A&M University owns the building, and lets students stay there. Enrique Botello is one of the students and shows me around. He’s originally from the town of San Ygnacio on Highway 83, a community south of Laredo on the banks of the Rio Grande, which was established before the American Revolution. From Casa Ortiz, visitors can see the river. This was a good spot with a wide view and made it harder for Apaches on Comanches to sneak up on the residents, Botello explains.
San Augustin Plaza is where the vendors are set up.
I’m amazed at the low prices. I’ve been to plenty of artisan bazaars in my day, and I would have never found a beautiful lapis-lazuli necklace for my wife for a mere $22 at any of the others. Another vendor is offering hand-stitched, homemade postcards, each one unique and nice enough to frame. She doesn’t charge more than $12 for any of them.
San Augustin Cathedral next to the square has been here since 1778. The Gothic Revival church is open and features a beautiful collection of stained glass.
La Posada Hotel takes up the entire south side of the plaza. The building the lobby is in was once a high school and bits of the structure dating back to 1916 remains. The hotel was built around three other historic buildings. As a hotel, it only dates back to the early 1960s, but with two courtyards, swimming pools and palm trees, it seems like you’re stepping back in time. The four-diamond hotel is one of the best bets for casual or more upscale dining on the plaza.
A vendor on the art walk selling hand-stitched postcards.
Also on the south side is the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. The building headquartered a short-lived movement to carve out a new nation here in 1840, when locals chaffed under Mexican rule. During the republic’s short 10 months, it created a flag, which is why the flags of seven nations, rather than six for the rest of Texas, have flown over Laredo.
Another item visitors might notice are the “City of Generals and Saints” banners hung on streetlight poles. The names of Laredo’s streets in the historic district alternate between famous generals and Catholic saints, hence the nickname.
Just two blocks away, is a reminder that Laredo is a border town. A steady stream of border crossers walk across the Bridge of Americas where a line of shops on Convent Street cater to them. Laredo is only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles in terms of trade. Some $280 billion of goods passed through its ports of entry in 2014, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
San Augustin Plaza taken from La Posada Hotel.
For decades, the U.S Canada Highway 83 Association advertised the road as a great route to “Old Mexico.” It held its annual convention here in 1963. The city once worked hand in hand with its sister city across the bridge Nuevo Laredo to attract tourists under its “Two Nations. One Destination” slogan, but sadly violence fueled by the drug trade in Mexico forced Laredo to shut that campaign down and separate itself from its neighbor, explained Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
They are indeed different worlds apart in that respect. As the numbers of local families and young couples exploring downtown during the art walk showed, downtown Laredo is as safe as any city of its size in the United States. It would be wrong to say the city is crime free — no place can make that claim — but it is also wrong to lump it in with what’s happening across the border.
Visiting historic downtown Laredo is a highlight on any trip along Highway 83, and shouldn’t be missed.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com