Howie digs a cow skull

Witness Post: Hillis L. Howie

As the past Chairman of the Board of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, 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. Howie was then a 23 year-old school teacher at the Orchard School in Indianapolis and Scoutmaster. He skillfully set out on that first expedition, not knowing the organization he would inspire …

Tonight, on the 85th anniversary of his experiment, we all say, “thank you” to Mr. Howie for the great legacy you started and for your Summer Camp “caravans-on-wheels” which has drawn us to this place.


Hillis L. Howie (1903 – 1982)


The Camping Tradition Begins

The Prairie Trek is a summer camping activity in the American Southwest which combines camping with educational experiences in natural science, crafts, and archaeology.

Hillis L. Howie was the Scoutmaster for Troop 18, in Indianapolis, Indiana. With the assistance of another adult that first summer (1926) they led nine Boy Scouts on a tour of the American West. Early expeditions consisted of approximately 16 boys, ages 13 – 18, and three adult leaders. The group would leave by station wagon from Indianapolis and drive nearly 5,000 miles through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, before returning to Indianapolis. During the trip the boys were expected to take responsibility for setting up camp, cooking and clean-up. There were opportunities for hiking, mountaineering, bird-watching, and exploring ghost towns and deserted Indian cave-dwellings and pueblos. The boys were encouraged to pursue a particular interest on the trip; this could include any of the natural sciences, special crafts, archaeology, or photography. The expeditions were always run as educational trips, and in the 1930’s the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Field Museum in Chicago began commissioning the Treks as “field expeditions” which were charged with bringing back specimens, photographs and motion pictures of their trips.

Red mtn cabin  Red Mountain miner’s cabin

Navajo weavers

Watching Navajo weavers

In 1934 Mr. Howie began to expand and institutionalize the Trek’s activities. A separate expedition for girls was added, called the Turquoise Trail, which was begun under the leadership of Mrs. Donald Jameson. The Turquoise Trail became a regularly featured expedition in the 1940’s.

Mr. Howie purchased a 500-acre tract of land near Thoreau, New Mexico in the summer of 1934. He was introduced to the property by Tom Henio whose brother had worked on an old saw mill on the property. Called the Cottonwood Gulch, this stretch of land along Sawyer Creek served as the program’s summer Base Camp. The following year the Trek was organized as a non-profit educational institution under the name of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation. The Thoreau property was deeded to the foundation. In 1960 a program for younger campers was started. Named the Little Outfit, these shorter expeditions extended the age groups to children as young as 10 or 11 years old.

Mr. Howie continued as Director of the summer expeditions until 1970. In the winter and spring months he worked in various educational positions, including Headmaster of Orchard School (1932 – 1938) and the Community School in Clayton, Missouri. In 1970 Mr. Howie passed the torch of leadership at the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions to Thomas Montgomery “Monty” Billings, Jr. Mr. Howie continued to serve on the Board until his death in 1982.

The Vonnegut Connection

Vonnegut 3Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, the famous writer of a dozen novels and hundreds of short stories and magazine articles, was a former Trekker. He grew up in Indianapolis and went camping with The Prairie Trek led by the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.

Vonnegut 1

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject?  And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater; I’m in choir; I play the violin and piano; I used to take art classes.”

“And he went, ‘WOW. That’s amazing!’ And I said, ‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.’”

“And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind, because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.'”

“And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the Myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘Win’ at them.”

Vonnegut 2

Vonnegut wrote a dedication to “Mr. Howie” in one of his novels. In the front of his book, called Galapagos, he wrote:

A good man who
took me and my best friend Ben Hitz
and some other boys
out to the American Wild West
from Indianapolis, Indiana,
in the summer of 1938.

Mr. Howie introduced us to real Indians
and has us sleep out of doors every night
and bury our dung,
and he taught us how to ride horses,
and he told us the names of many plants
and animals
and what they needed to do
in order to stay alive
and reproduce themselves.

One night Mr. Howie scared us half to death
on purpose,
screaming like a wildcat near our camp.
A real wildcat screamed back!

During a 1985 book-tour interview about the novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut was asked if his school teacher-heroine named MARY HEPBURN, was modeled after Hillis Howie.

Vonnegut said: “I would think so. It took me a long time to realize what a great man Hillis Howie was. That’s part of the American experience … to suddenly come across a truly great person who never becomes rich or famous, but who is enormously beneficial just to those near him. Hillis Howie was such a person, a great naturalist, very kind and strong with boys….He ran these expeditions to the West and they still go on. But it was his invention.” (emphasis added).

Vonnegut continued: “We had a truck and three station wagons, and we traveled all over [New Mexico and the Four Corner states]. We had specific missions from the Field Museum in Chicago. I was a ‘Mammalogist,’ for instance, and I put trap-lines out every night. In fact, in 1938, I caught a sub-species of the tawny white-foot mouse, which had not been seen before. When I was in the Army telling someone about this, he immediately named it Mee-sis Vonn-egee-sis.”

Yale Peobody

Yale Peobody dynasaur  

Peabody Museum & Hall of Dinosaurs

The Yale Connection

I got to know Hilly, Jr., when he was a Board member and the father of Heather and Dan Howie. (I was the Outfit and Group I Leader when Dan Howie was a camper. He was an outstanding camper, hiker, and wonderful young man during our four summers together.)

Howie & Shakley

Hillis Howie, Jr. & Margaret Shakley

One 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. Upon arrival Mr. & Mrs. Howie offered me a cold-cut sandwich and iced tea. We spent a very cordial afternoon talking about their retirement, the Trek, and my plans for the future. I was headed to Connecticut the week after my visit with the Howie’s. Mrs. Howie (Elizabeth) asked where in Connecticut I would be. I told her of my new 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.” He re-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 members of the Hooper family ever since.

Canyon de Chelly 1 Canyon de Chelly 2

White House Ruins & Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly 3   

Curtis’ Canyon de Chelly

Nature Leaders

In 1941, Hillis Howie wrote about the “Expeditions” to readers of the National Park Regional Report:

For the past fifteen summers I have accompanied groups of high school boys on expeditions into all parts of the Rocky Mountains and into much of the desert country of the southwest. On these expeditions our primary purpose was to train the boys to “use their vacations intelligently” and to teach them the value of our national parks, national monuments, national forests … and other interesting parts of our public domain. We used these areas as “laboratories.”

On these treks we sought out the remote and generally unknown wilderness regions … We led a simple life, did our own cooking, gathered firewood, sagebrush or buffalo chips for fuel and slept under the stars almost every night.

The expedition … exemplifies the essential element of every nature hike … It instills into the boys the spirit of adventure and exploration.

We began to understand some connection between a great many interesting but isolated facts, and the necessity for putting them together in order to obtain a true picture of Nature and man’s relation to Nature. We began to see things whole.

 Prairie Trek 1939

The 1939 caravan stops for one hundred gallons of drinking water

Prairie Trek 2010

Why the Southwest?

Mr. Howie realized that there were few places in the United States still as wild and demanding as the Southwest. Elk, bear, wolves and deer roamed in wild packs across the forests; hawks and eagles populated the skies; the desert was home to coyotes, lizards, snakes and more.

Nat Park - Grand Canyon

For thousands of years, human cultures have existed, adapted, intermingled and flourished here. Since 1926, the expeditions have explored the wilds, the history and the society of the Southwest, always discovering more to see, more to learn, more to understand. Hillis L. Howie, said it best:

The plan is to leave civilization behind and spend the months of July and August in remote and generally unknown regions of the Southwest; to establish temporary camps in sagebrush, pinon, and big timber and at ruin sites, deserted mining towns, and alpine lakes; to investigate the fauna, flora, and geology of each territory; to set a standard of camping which will be a satisfaction to ourselves, and a model to others; to live a physically vigorous life, with a taste of the hardships which the early explorers expected. From this it will be understood that the expedition is not a sightseeing trip nor a deluxe dude ranch.

Thank you, Mr. Howie, for 85 years of helping so many to avoid the dude ranches and “to see things whole.”

Nat Park - Zion

 Nat Park - Bryce

Prairie Trek - guitar

Prairie Trek - solo walk

 Trek map

300 Mile Radius Around Base Camp: Gulch Country

Trek Canyon

Cottonwood Gulch sticker

7 thoughts on “Witness Post: Hillis L. Howie

  1. Such an awesome post!!! Thank you. This summer will be my girls fifth summer at the Gulch. Every summer when they leave it is bittersweet … and they always have the look of glee and a sigh of relief … the sigh to be home, when we pull through that gate. We commute there from Flagstaff and it is partially selfish … selfish, because I too feel the need to go through those gates!

    • Thank you, Jennifer, for your kind remarks. I respected Mr. Howie, and I loved the counselors and our fellow campers. When the time came my tentmates and group mates invited me to the Gulch Board. Our goals were to make it inclusive and sustainable for future generations. May your daughters do the same. Their time will arrive before they know it. We welcome them to seek a seat at the table. — Henry

  2. Just a note to add: Hillis Howie was the Head of Community School from 1946-1959. He is remembered for many things, including successfully merging two campuses, his charisma with children, his unwavering support of faculty, and for beginning traditions that the school still has today – like an annual book show and an annual sixth grade camping trip. He even encouraged a barn to be built on campus, with students taking care of the animals! Some Community students were participants in his expeditions as well.

    • Thank you, Laura, for adding those important qualities to Hillis Howie’s legacy. He was unique and hard to replicate, yet we try every day to follow his leadership and change children for the better.
      — Henry Hooper

  3. I came to this post looking for the source of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote about working on the archeological dig. What I found was an interesting article about something I knew nothing about, but would have been VERY interested in participating in when I was a kid. I imagine the experience would have changed my life. Thank you for posting this.

    But the question remains, what is the source of Mr. Vonnegut’s quote? I’ve recently been seeing the quote (from a number of different folks) as Facebook posts attached to Vonnegut’s reply to letters sent to him by students asking for advice. While the quote seems to be in the same vein as the response to the letters, it seems unlikely that Mr. Vonnegut would have included the quote outside of the body of his letter if his boyhood experience was meant to support his statements IN the letter. Can you help with this? Thank you for your time.

  4. Hi, the part in the post that starts “Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “When I was 15,…”. Can anyone cite where he wrote that please? I am questioning the validity of that quote. The other obvious quotes are cited in someway and def read like Vonnegut.
    It doesn’t sound like Vonnegut’s voice to me and I can’t find any references to him playing piano/violin taking choir etc. It appears at the time he was writing and editing the school paper and playing clarinet. So again, I’m questioning the validity of that one quote. Any help in finding the source?

    • Dear James: Here is the reply I received from an anthropologist I know, who first reported the quotation: ” It’s circulating on archaeology Facebook pages, so perhaps Mr. Curry can try to find something about it there, although I can’t cite a specific page. It could be an urban legend!”
      — Henry

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