Howie digs a cow skull

Below is a “campfire letter” I wrote to Mr. Howie in August, 2011, on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.

Cottonwood Gulch: The Expeditions at 85

I want to thank Mr. Howie, [he was always Mr. Howie to me] for his wisdom, energy, and imagination to set this experiment in experiential outdoor education into action. It all started in 1926 … so tonight, on the 85th anniversary of your experiment, we all say, “thank you” for the great legacy you started and for our Summer Camp Caravans on wheels which have drawn us to this place. Mr. Howie is no longer with us, but his legacy sure remains.

We also have his son, Hilly, Junior with us, along with his children and grandchildren.

I got to know Hilly, Jr., somewhat distantly, as a Board member and as the father of Heather & Dan.  (I was the Outfit and Group I Leader for Dan Howie, who was an outstanding camper, hiker, and wonderful young man in his own right.)

Howie & Shakley

Hillis Howie, Jr. & Margaret Shakley

The Yale Connection

The story I want to share is about a visit I had with the Mr. & Mrs. Hillis Howie, Sr. from 35 years ago.  The year was 1976, which was the 50th anniversary of the expeditions of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.

After a brief trip to Indianapolis, where I visited Chet Kubit and we saw the shortest Indy 500 in history (that is a whole other story!), I rented a car and drove to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit with the Howie’s.  Mr. & Mrs. Howie offered me a cold-cut sandwich and iced tea and we spent a very cordial afternoon talking about retirement, The Trek, and my plans for the future.  The next week I was going to start a job in New Haven, Connecticut to work on a capital campaign to raise money for Yale University.  After a few months in Connecticut I was to be stationed in the San Francisco office for Yale, and I was excited about moving West.


Hillis L. Howie cooking near Shiprock, NM 1958

To my surprise, Elizabeth said, “We spent some time in New Haven, Connecticut. Hillis, tell Henry what you were doing for Yale?”  With some careful preparatory remarks, Mr. Howie told the story of his conversations with Cornelius Osgood, the curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale.  Osgood had invited Mr. Howie to come to Connecticut to help turn-around the Education Department of the museum.  The science & research aspects of the museum were well-known and well-endowed, but the community outreach was struggling.  Osgood wanted to learn from the success Mr. Howie had instilled working with several other museums.  When Osgood called the curators of the Children’s Museums in Indianapolis and the Field Museum in Chicago, they both had given Mr. Howie the highest marks for his creativity and educational focus.  Mr. Howie set the scene for me and something like the following:

“The Board and I put the Prairie Trek Expeditions  “on hold” for two summers due to the war effort.  The country was mired in the aftermath of WWII.  New Haven was like every other city in the US in the late ’40’s:  the cities were groaning for relief.  City mayors were lamenting that their budgets were slashed.  The cost of gasoline had spiked, forcing local elementary schools and high schools to slash their budgets. School principals couldn’t afford field trips, as it was too costly to send school buses full of students and their science teachers on trips.  Excursions to museums, which were the bread and butter of the museums’ budgets, were out of the question.” 

After some deep thinking and research on the matter, Mr. Howie determined that if the students couldn’t come to the museum, why not take the museum to the students?  In his proposal to Dr. Osgood, Mr. Howie designed a series of crates filled with key artifacts that were representative of the major collections of Yale’s Peabody Museum.

    Hyrum Bingham

Hyrum Bingham - Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham & Machu Picchu, Peru

Imagine taking a Natural History Museum, famous for its great “hall of dinosaurs” and Machu Picchu Peruvian artifacts and stuffing them all in a box! In those crates were dinosaur bones, posters of Yale’s Age of Reptiles murals, mummified birds, ‘Rocky’ the first flying squirrel, archaeological artifacts, plant fossils, ancient tools, ancient sloth poop(!),  miniature dioramas, and other remnants of eons ago.  Howie’s menagerie was filled with hand-sized pieces of natural history  that he felt the children should see, touch, and hear about as part of their science classes. What a great idea!  Mr. Howie said, “The kids seemed to love it and the science teachers all over the state were sincerely grateful.” Mr. Howie designed a critical part of Connecticut’s education program to “take the museum to the kids” and that tradition continues today.

Hyrum Bingham treasures

Yale archaeologist, Artifacts found by Bingham & brought to Peabody Museum

The Hooper Connection

One other story about Mr. Howie: He was very picky about the families he would admit on his “Expeditions.”  Only those whom he had personally met and pre-approved were permitted to attend the summer sessions.

That afternoon in Bloomington, Elizabeth told me that when my sisters’, Eleanor and Millie, were admitted to the Turquoise Trail, ours was the first family Mr. Howie had “allowed” to attend “over the telephone, without previously screening them in-person.”  Well, what a mistake, because, “Katie, bar the door,” the place has been infiltrated by that family ever since.

With eight Hooper kids plus our parents, there are 10 versions of the official “How-we-met-The Trek” but this is my version!  Our father had a job in Philadelphia and his company had a planned, holiday-shut-down each year around July 4th.  Dad took 2-weeks off from work and wanted to explore the national parks of the West.

In the early years, my brother Laurie said that lots of time was eaten up driving on bad roads, so the trips became a mad-dash across the country, driving like demons past Berma Shave signs, camping out, seeing what we could, and dashing back to our home.  So imagine, if you would, a the map of the US … and picture in your mind a station wagon, a loaded roof-rack, (Eleanor, Millie, Laurie, and my parents) too many people, and no seatbelts, traveling with everything Coleman that they needed for a two-week trip:

Day One – driving from Philly to Indiana Dunes and college kids partying on the beach;

Indiana Dunes

 Indiana Dunes, IN

Day Two – from the Dunes to Western Missouri, Wallace State Park and loud bull frogs; and

Wallace State Park

 Wallace State Park, MO

Day Three – from Western Missouri to Cortez, Colorado (2,500 miles!)  Not exactly stress-free vacationing.

Cortez CO

Cortez, CO

In 1961 I reached the magic age of 7 and could camp with the family.  One year later my brother, Ned, was 7, so there were 5 of us “of age” and we began to perfect the drill of kids and parents in one vehicle.  By 1962, our trips averaged over 750 miles/day … That summer we arrived in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona on Day Three and, after a brief rim-tour, we drove back to our campsite.  Our tent was surrounded by 15 light-green-colored tents and lots of boys.  My dad insisted we pack up and move, but mom suggested he have a martini and relax before supper.

Canyon de Chelly 1Canyon de Chelly 2

White House Ruins & Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

It turns out that one of the campers in the green Baker tents was from “back East. “ He noticed our PA plates & invited us to the group’s Campfire that night.  My parents were impressed with the readings, the games, the songs, the fun, AND how “well behaved” the boys were.  They were even more impressed when we spotted the same group later on our trip at the Grand Canyon, Zion and at Bryce Canyon (left to right below).  We picked up a brochure from the Prairie Trek Group Leader and a few years later my older sisters, Eleanor and Millie, went on the Turquoise Trail.  The rest of the story is now history.  Our family has had a love-affair with The Trek ever since.

Canyon de Chelly 3   

Curtis’ Canyon de Chelly

Summer of 2011

Since that first summer, many of us here have experienced some of the following; this is my list of people & activities whom I fondly recall from The Trek:

  • Helped get trucks and vans unstuck with Trekker Power from deep mud on road to Chaco
  • Learned about silversmithing, throwing a pot, carding & dying wool from Barb Merrell or Sue Ellis Oviatt
  • First learned to balance my checkbook along with Pete Abrons
  • Lost at mudgie and washers on the same day to Mason Rees
  • Developed a binocular vision birdwatching fascination with Arch McCallum
  • Learned about lactose tolerance/goat’s milk powder from Richard McGinnis
  • Participated in a lizard homing study with Roy Barnes and other naturalists
  • Went on an archeological dig with Gaea McGahee, Wenda Trevathan, Grant Fullerton or Dick Lang on the Elkins Ranch
  • Listened to stories from Gene Lambson at Daisy’s Malt Shop in Ramah
  • Toured Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Zuni Pueblo with Ken Seowtewa
  • Took a geology tour of Red Mountain and Mt Graham with Jack Oviatt
  • Hiked to Angel’s Rest in Zion with Rick Madden and Mark Udall
  • Practiced slack-line balancing with Mike Sullivan
  • Studied migration patterns of Mexican wolf populations with Martin Heinrich
  • Felled a lightning-struck burning tree with Neil Macneille and Bill Millius
  • Learned Navajo sand-casting with Grampa Tom Henio
  • Examined the petrified wood and explored lava tubes  with John Bloch
  • Watched a sunrise on Mount Taylor with Monty Billings and Andy Julius
  • We are all children of God, celebrating the tent mate of a Catholic from Philly, Millie Hooper, could be the tent mate of Sharman Babior, a Jew from LA
  • Ate gourmet meals, including peach cobbler from a dutch oven, eaten in an SS cup with a spoon with Larry Barker, Henry Berman, Nancy Caplan, Greg Barker, John Mayer, and at base camp with Ruth Allen and Walter Cloud
  • Learned heart-felt lyrics by Sus Williams and Tom Hunter on the back porch
  • Got sucked into natural history by Doc Olmstead and Jamey French
  • Hammered a Tandy leather belt or wooden work project with Chet Kubit
  • Heard a reading by Edward Abbey of Desert Solitaire at Arches National Park and Doug Preston reading Cities of Gold at Base Camp
  • Witnessed a star gazing extravaganza with Mr. Van (Jack Van Sickle) in the meadow
  • Participated as an adult with Lucy Kluckhohn Jones in the Family Trek
  • Stayed up all night in the Hogan and
  • Heard my sisters’ and daughters’ stories about witnessing the powerful Kinalda, or coming of age ceremonies, with the Henio, Cloud & Herrera daughters
  • 85 years of The Trek and all of us are all-the-better for it

Prairie Trek - guitar Prairie Trek - solo walk

 Trek map

300 Mile Radius Around Base Camp: Gulch Country

Trek CanyonCottonwood Gulch sticker

2 thoughts on “Cottonwood Gulch: The Expeditions at 85

  1. Henry, I came across your blog in doing research for memoirs I am writing of my own Trek experiences. (My wife has been after me for years to put this down on paper, for the grandkids, after many years of hearing me recount them.) Your name is familiar to me, but I am unsure if our paths exactly touched- I’m quite sure they crossed. I was in the LO in 1960 and ’61, in Group II in 1962 and ’63, and in Group III in 1965 and ’66. I knew many of the people you reference in your blog. Furthermore, I see from perusing your other posts that we have some other things in common, not surprisingly perhaps. For one, I live with my wife in Oregon. We have a home in Portland and one in Netarts, near Tillamook. Since the pandemic started we have spent nearly all our time at the beach. For another, we are avid birders. It’d be fun to hear from you and perhaps compare notes further. Michael Krall

  2. Hey, Henry, please pass along to your brother, Ned, that I’ll never forget his guitar playing and our rendezvous as a councilor for Group 1. Those summers (1973 – 1974) were great with Mr. Van and with Ricky Vonnegut.

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