Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Thinking Critically, Nature or Nurture?

A close friend’s experience in a criminal trial this summer brought back memories of what turned me off to that profession in law school.

Before I get to that I am reminded that it was a desire to bring about social justice that fueled my interest in going to law school.  However, that isn’t what made me stand out on aptitude tests from the 50% of all first year college students back then drawn to law as an interest.

Manifest on tests to determine aptitude was an applied skill referred to back then as “thinks critically” and “reasoning.”

Many today argue that this skill can’t be taught in school contending it must be fostered in the family or by a combination of “nurture and nature.”  These naysayers may also fail to see the link of this critical skill to humility, integrity, perseverance, empathy and self-discipline.

Anyone who knew my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles back in my preschool years would have said this ability was directly descended from the “Neeley” branch, a lineage mix with Shumways, Grahams, McCrorys and many others back beyond those five generations.

But I have evidence that for me it was also honed in school beginning in the first grade (kindergarten didn’t exist then where I lived.)

These family members were great arguers and if you tried to agree with them, they changed sides and kept arguing.  No sentiment was ever expressed without requiring immediate and reasoned justification.

It wasn’t enough to watch them at dinner on Sundays, my dad would continue it during the week around our own dinner table.  He would describe current events, ask for our opinions, followed by your rationale and then engage you in debate.

But I also know it was taught in school and that I still had a lot to learn.  My first grade teacher wrote on my report card to my parents, “reasoning poor in workbooks.”

Later it was found across from my course grades on a page with other “soft skills” under headings such as “desirable habits and attitudes.”

Turns out as I will show later that this skill is “foundational” in the workforce.

Today, there is a cool little guide for teaching critical thinking in K-6 classrooms entitled The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.

By high school, my extracurricular activities involved sports.  But my dad who starred in four sports encouraged me to also join the debate team.

Debate as well as Model UN and similar activities are a ways to learn how to structure arguments, understand both sides of a controversy, identify the logical reasoning or lack thereof in an argument or statement, critique your own thinking, spot contradictions and identify factual or logical flaws in sources, etc.

As to the question of “nature vs. nurture,” I tend to agree with systems biologist, Dr. Michael White in an article in Pacific Standard, who also writes at The Finch & Pea, that too often we approach issues as “splitters,” but “we should recognize that the factors that drive our social behavior can, as found in Zen koans, be two things at once.”

In workplace vernacular, experts define “critical thinking/problem-solving as sound reasoning, analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to solve problems.”

Surveys of educational professionals back when I graduated from college found that 97% believed critical thinking should be the primary take-away from a college degree.

Nearly 9-in-10 members of college faculties still identify it as the primary objective of any degree but many struggle with it themselves.

But researchers find that many “teach content only for exposure, not for understanding.”

NYU researchers found that 45% of college students made no significant gain in critical thinking in the first two years.  After four years, 36% showed no significant gains.

A study this year of executives in America responsible for workforce development by The Economist found critical thinking and problem solving far and away the most important workplace skill.  This is also the aim of employee training for 76%, more than so-called foundational skills.

But critical thinking is much more even than understanding.  It involves learning many other thinking-related traits including:

  • “intellectual humility,”
  • “intellectual integrity,”
  • “intellectual perseverance,”
  • “intellectual empathy,”
  • “intellectual self-discipline,”

I changed over to my lifelong career in visitor-centered economic and cultural development (community-destination marketing) because I found I could make a difference.

Throughout my career I was continually amazed at not only the lack of critical thinking in the general population including those in high office or others also working to effect change but because so many also seemed determined to prevent it.

There are some incredibly bright and well-meaning people in this world for whom any question of their ideas or reasoning is taken as criticism or insult.

They are threatened by critical thinking when it isn’t their own or in lockstep with what they want.

It is astounding how often phenomenally expensive decisions are made with a proverbial piece of paper in the file while some very simple and effective alternatives are required to provide reams of backup.

But I also turned away from the law after seeing far too many defense attorneys illustrate that the our justice system isn’t about justice and being a defense attorney involves putting the victim on trial, assassinating their character when the facts of a case don’t go the way of the defense.

Juries are ill equipped to sort out facts from theater.  It is a very slimy world where critical thinking takes a back seat.

But unfortunately, as I would find throughout my career, so can be community development, all for want of critical thinking.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Investment In Sense of Place

We may be a bit smug in Durham, North Carolina where many take retention of sense of place as a given.  But we can learn from the observations of a New York entertainment journalist transplanted to Raleigh, a city to the south and east that has taken a path not so fortunate:

“Once this kind of development gets started, it is hard to stop it.  And all of a sudden you wake up and wonder what happened to your city.  How did it start to look like every place else?”

Several decisions in Durham have nudged it in the direction of a “Disney-fied theme park with no character” by chipping away at those natural and “built” elements that have made it distinct.

National surveys show that by 9 to 1, Americans believe their community could benefit from a community plan while only 17% believe their community should be left alone.

When it comes to neighborhoods, more think they need protection than revitalization.

Only a fourth believe elected leaders are best able to understand changes that will make a community better compared to fully one third who view community planners that way, perhaps saying more about perceptions of the undue influence of developers.

Rated highest – neighborhood representatives.  More than half of Americans, including 54% of Republicans “want to participate in local planning decisions for their communities.”

In what should send a strong signal to regulatory-obsessed regressives in state legislatures across the nation, water quality and protecting neighborhoods rank as top priorities, just after schools and before roads at the local level.

One of the intriguing things revealed in a recent analysis of feasibility studies and related correspondence by community leaders (don’t be misled by the title) is the primary justification for public funding of mega-cultural facilities such as theaters, stadiums and civic centers.

As a community leader confided to me years ago after a controversial theater project, these facilities are first and foremost a way of propping up property values usually to appease private development lenders, but often to block the encroachment of nearby blight.

Ironically, as disclosed in this excellent overview of the revitalization of Downtown Durham, the pivotal secret, as it has been in most downtowns since their advent 14 years ago has been the use of “New Market Tax Credits” from the federal government.

Interestingly though, a qualification for a lender (but obviously not the eventual development) is a “primary mission of providing investment capital for low income communities or low income persons.” Investing In Place

This intermediate lender then recruits investors, including financial institutions, with a 39% tax credit to, in turn, make marginal development projects feasible while increasing capacity to help truly low income neighborhoods.

According to reports, many types of tax credits including, perhaps, historic tax credits if granted for the adaptive reuse of an old factory, for example, can be used as collateral to leverage a loan.

Propping up or increasing adjacent private property values with a publically-financed theater, stadium or convention center is often needed as well for the same reason.

This federal program has resulted in $40 million of tax credits to date issued to 836 projects, and between 2003 and 2006 alone, Durham ranked sixth in the nation for New Market Tax Credits, first on a per capita basis, with 90% going to revitalize the 1-mile square downtown.

There is no shortage of people who take or are given credit for Downtown Durham’s current renaissance, but as the report suggests, the most credit of all, both here and across the country, belongs to every day taxpayers across the nation.

As I mentioned, national studies show that Americans prefer protecting neighborhoods to revitalizing them.  They also have different ideas about economic development.

Half believe the ideal community will have “locally owned businesses nearby,” the ability to “stay in their neighborhood as they age,” as well as sidewalks, transit options and neighborhood parks.

Only a third cite a unique character and/or culture.  Sense-of-place is about being distinct, not unique, coherent as though temporal, not manicured or “Disney-fied.”

Jobs are important to half, but two-thirds believe investing in schools and features such as transportation, walkability and diversity are a better way to grow the economy than investing in recruiting companies which nearly always require tax subsidies.

Quality of life features such as cultural and sports facilities are cited by just 1-in-5, on a par with having friends and family live nearby.  A third view “centers of entertainment” a high priority but only 1-in-10 view professional or college sports that way.

Top priorities for public investment by Americans are new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, upkeep of existing roads, new roads and of course, education.

When it comes to economic development, regardless of size or type of community or region, Americans favor spending on high-speed internet, affordable housing and safe streets.

There is a distrust of turning over decisions to developers, planners and elected officials for the reasons outlined in the op-ed by a Raleigh transplant, not because of development per se, but when developers “show no respect for history, culture or anything else that makes a city special.”

The writer points to a Durham success as something for which Raleigh should strive.  But he could have just as well pointed to several recent examples of what not to replicate.

It is much too soon to “knock on wood,” Durham!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Accepting Part Responsibility Brings Credibility

On cross country drives I mostly listen to music, switching between satellite radio and Pandora streaming stations created around favorite performers.

Periodically, I very briefly check in on news and sports, which during this just concluded road trip, brought to mind a book I was rereading, during overnight stops, about Francesco di Petrol di Bernardone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi.

Outbound, the news was obsessed with the war instigated with Israel by Hamas, a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is opposed to the two-state solution proposed in 1987 by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, less than a year before I moved to my adopted North Carolina.

As a college student, Arafat had also fought in Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel on the same day I was born that year to fourth-generation ranchers Idaho ranchers.

While only 1% Jewish (Iberian) by ethnicity and descended from a namesake Knight who fought alongside Richard “the Lionheart” on the Third Crusade, I’ve always favored Arafat’s solution and social justice for Palestinians.

But a good friend, a naturalized Palestinian-American just back from a visit to his native East Jerusalem, has persuaded me that unfortunately it is doubtful this will ever happen.

Nor is it ever likely that Jerusalem will ever become the International “open” city that the United Nations resolved in 1947 when the issue of two states, bound by an economic union, was accepted by mainstream Jews but rejected by Arab states.

My view Hamas may also be biased, in part because according to Article 22 of its charter, as a former Rotary Club president I am targeted along with Lions Club members and Masons, all couched as part of a Zionist Conspiracy.

Arafat and the PLO were nationalistic in aim but Hamas is also neo-Jihadi, although given to terrorism today it seems more exclusively the latter.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard a representative of Hamas present a dispassionate, balanced and introspective rationale for its position, or accept responsibility for its part, a mistake many aggrieved parties often make, undermining their credibility.

African-American friends of mine have agreed on one of the reasons Americans approve of redress such as “affirmative action” (including 40% of Republicans), but don’t when it comes to its execution.

It may also be a clue as to why Americans overall view a tragedy such as the one in Ferguson, Missouri, which dominated news on the return leg of my trip, as a question of police going too far but disagree that it is racial.

Rarely, if ever it seems, do those in responsibility for management of affirmative action come out in conversation or in news reports against its abuse.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to be objective undermines the credibility and ultimately the usefulness of an excellent program.

I heard the mother of the victim in the Ferguson shooting decry those who used it as cover to infiltrate peaceful protests for the purpose of violence and criminal activity such as looting and throwing fire bombs.

Unfortunately, those using the tragedy to score points dominated news reports and seemed more interested in “them and us” agendas than critical thinking or the subtleties of mutual responsibility.

I often saw this when I served on a crime cabinet here in Durham.  Passionate observers who were African-American often undermined the validity of their concerns by refusing to acknowledge personal or parental accountability, while being equivocal when it came to reducing criminal behavior.

I had been home a day from my cross country trip before I heard an African-American who happened to be a social worker in Charlotte, North Carolina quoted by a reporter on statewide cable news outlet for North Carolina acknowledging mutual responsibility in Ferguson:

“I think it hits home because we have a lot of great people who may not know how to deal with a situation, when they approach a police officer, what's proper procedure. So I think we also need to educate our young people.”

It may seem obvious but more than any amount of street protest, his comment, if it had been picked up nationwide would have opened far more minds to understanding the social justice aspects being discussed.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with people of all races because he was as insistent in his opposition to violence and the responsibility of black leaders to curb it and for all individuals to be judged on the “content of our character” as he was insistent about social justice.

Hamas should take note, as we all could.

A book I read just before I retired at the end of 2009 and again on this trip, as well as parallels in the lives of some my ancestors who experienced officially-endorsed persecution and social injustice was on my mind as I explored a route new to me up the verdant mile-high pastures of the San Pete Valley of central Utah on my outbound route.

At the request of an Ute Indian chief, the valley had been first settled in 1850 by one my great (x3) grandfathers, Charles Shumway who over the next two years also managed to serve as a member of the 1st Utah Territorial Legislature.

By then Charles was 44 years of age.  He had already helped create four settlements including three in the Midwest including Nauvoo, Illinois which was as large as Chicago at the time and served there as a police officer and on a governing council.

He had been a body guard for Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith and served a mission to the Cherokee Nation just as factions erupted there in civil war and then another back to his native Massachusetts.

He was driven from his home after the murder of Joseph Smith and led the Mormons across the Mississippi River toward sanctuary in the Rockies, lost his wife along the Missouri River to Diphtheria, and appointed a captain on the vanguard wagon train west from there as well as the first handful to scout Salt Lake Valley.

But he was also outspoken within the Mormon community.  Similar to Muslims after the death of their prophet Mohammed and Crusaders, Mormons had two types of leaders when creating settlements, some ecclesiastical and some secular and some like my great (x3) grandfather, both.

When they disagreed, local ecclesiastical leaders were often quick to trump any introspection or critical thinking by secular leaders with threats of “disfellowshipment”, a form of probation which happened to my great (x3) grandfather once or even excommunication.

No one in my lineage was a saint but The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by career journalist and SUNY-Brooklyn professor Paul Moses is the fascinating account of a peace mission during the Fifth Crusade by someone who would soon be.

Moses cuts through the agendas of various accounts and omissions over time with a journalist’s critical thinking.

Saint Francis, less than a decade from when he would be canonized, was the same age as my great (x3) grandfather when he was driven from his home by persecution when he traveled to the Egyptian front during the Fifth Crusade.

From a wealthy background and once a Knight himself in battle, he had been a prisoner of war for a year after a bloody battle instigated by merchants such as his father for economic  gain.

Ransomed, he set out to join the Fourth Crusade but an epiphany in his early 20s caused Francis to turn back and devote his life instead to living as Christ-like in every way possible including “love they enemy.”

The Pope at the time called for a Fifth Crusade, an attempt to conquer Egypt this time as a means to drive the Muslims from the Holy Land including Jerusalem.  This was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of three great religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

I’m a life-long Christian but I can see the point that Crusaders such as my ancestor were also Jihadists of their time, even terrorists.

Ecclesiastical leaders were loath to ever admit responsibility, and as in the case of the Fifth Crusade, often pushed for violent win/lose solutions such as Hamas does even when peaceful compromises were on the table.

The ecclesiastical leader on the battlefield, in this case a power-hungry and prideful Cardinal, repeatedly trumped the judgment by military leaders that they should avoid bloodshed by accepting an offer of compromise that for several decades would give them control of Jerusalem.

On the Muslim side, there were also two sets of leaders, one religious - the Caliphate and one political/military - the Sultan, a dichotomy established after the Prophet Mohammad’s death.

A nephew of the great Saladin, Sultan Al-Kamil, also a Sunni of Kurdish descent was fighting increasing fragmentation of the unity the Prophet Mohammad had achieved with Islam.  He also practices tolerance of other faiths as his uncle and the Prophet had and calls for in the Qur’an.

Fed up with the slaughter, Saint Francis walked through the lines of both Crusaders and Muslim armies to spend several days in dialogue with Al-Malik who had been knighted as a boy by Richard the Lionheart during a compromise with his uncle..

Unarmed, Francis intended to convert the Sultan, but it was Francis who was deeply affected and converted to the importance of love and mutual respect and understanding to peace.

Francis must have sensed that Muslim leaders such as Al-Malik who had just survived a coup, feared even more than Crusaders the religious extremists among their ranks, something they prophetically saw as an end to the Golden Age of Islam.

In the end Francis achieved more mutual understanding and mutual respect than peace but his humility and courage set an example for the two military leaders who soon did.

It wasn’t the last Crusade and the Crusaders would have achieved far more by accepting any of the previous compromises authored by the Sultan including the one offered to the Pope that would have prevented any bloodshed at all.

The followers then of Islam were far more given to compromise than neo-Jihadists today.

It is an incredible book with deep insight into the issues of personal accountability, compromise, fairness and understanding faced both here in the West and in the Middle East today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Spurring Memories

Mention of “Spanish Spurs” was made in an essay yesterday that linked to one of the letters where Mark Twain refers to my great-great grandfather, a friend, fellow-Missourian and partner in a short-lived mining venture in the mountains between Nevada and California.

It also brought to mind a story about my father, a third generation Idaho rancher in my native Yellowstone-Teton corner of that state.  My early elementary school teachers were following the custom then of trying to get me to print and write “right-handed.”

I was really a mixed-lefty which make up 7-8% of the population, but I was lefty when it came to handwriting.  As was the custom back then I was “encouraged” to use my right hand.  Even through high school and college, I would rarely find a left-handed desk.

The teacher’s desk, either Mrs. Bratt or Mrs. Spencer, was in the back of the classroom.  One day when we were quietly working on an assignment, I heard the unmistakable sound of my dad’s spurs as they echoed up the hallway.

I didn’t turn around but my friend Arlen did and then whispered to me, “Hey your dad is back there saying something to the teacher, are you in trouble? Did he find out about our Mexican Jumping Beans?”

Soon I heard the door close and next to me was my teacher leaning down to tell me that it was okay for me to use my left hand.

As if sharing a name with a high school legend in four sports wasn’t enough, that day he gave me cachet on the play ground and prompted an invitation to join a fourth-grader’s football game…until I picked up a fumble and ran the wrong direction, that is.

Known first as “Damascus Spurs,” the Spanish brought this style of spur-making with them to North America.  “Damascus” referred to a style of laminated, “one-piece” steel-making that Islamic armies adapted from India to make swords and spurs.

For spurs it meant “one-piece.”  If Twain had been referring to a two-piece version made at the time he would have probably used the term “California” spurs.

It would be another decade before America’s spur industry would emerge.

My great-grandfather probably didn’t give it a thought as he tossed those spurs Twain had sent him after they were worn out.  Nor do I have any my dad wore.

If his predated the Great Depression, they may have been one-piece, but I doubt it.

Today, Spanish or “Damascus” spurs are recreated by artisans for collectors such as those shown in the image in this blog handcrafted by Larry Fuegen using the process shown in this slide show.

The process was used by Persians, and after his death, the commanders of the Prophet Mohammed expanded their Islamic reach by defeating the Byzantines and Persians using cavalry of recently unified Bedouin tribesmen atop Arabian horses incorporating this technology.

We forget that Islam had already reached pinnacles of astronomy, physics, mathematics, literature, technology, governance, architecture and urban development by the time Europe began to emerge from the “Dark Ages.”

Brought back by Crusaders, these advances fueled the “Renaissance.”

We also forget that this golden age in Islam came to an end because of infighting and religious militants, still blinding us today to the fact that Islam’s spread was founded on teachings and practices of Mohammed, now ignored by extremists who dominate the headlines.

The Crusaders from Spain didn’t bring back spurs which had originated with Romans who may have learned their use from “Celts.”

Probably borrowing from the forces of Saladin, they brought back fast Arabian horses and the “Damascus” form of forging them, which on this continent became known as “Spanish Spurs” when imported by Cortés.

Remember, even the famed boots of “Spanish leather” often graced by Damascus spurs are a credit to Muslim Moors.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Retracing Touch Points Along America’s Loneliest Stretch

Nearly 30 years ago, I drove my venerable Porsche 911s Targa out across the Great Basin following a brief visit with my then 14-year-old daughter.

It was along a remarkable stretch of U.S. Route 50, a “blue highway” nicknamed “The Loneliest Highway in America,” a label proudly embraced after first used as a pejorative.

Of course, as they do on paper maps, secondary highways no longer show up as “blue” on digital GPS maps but as more of a goldenrod.  Just doesn’t have the same ring (smile.)

This is a fragment of the 1913 Lincoln Highway, the first automobile route across America, roughly following the old Pony Express/Overland Stagecoach route.

At its coarsest level, the Great Basin is a mild desert that covers western Utah and a tiny corner of Idaho, nearly all of Nevada skirting Las Vegas (Mojave Desert) into east-central California and up into eastern Oregon between the Cascades and Rockies.

The northern Nevada portion, where dissected by Route 50, is more specifically called Basin and Range because it includes a spectacular mix of steep mountain ranges, flat to rolling arid valleys and rangeland, and even alpine forests.

But the Great Basin got its name because rivers there materialize and then dead-end into lakes with no outlet or they disappear into “sinks” (dry lakes), e.g. the Great Salt Lake or the Humboldt Sink where that significant 330-mile river just disappears.

This was foreign to European explorers who understood only divides between watersheds where rivers ultimately opened into seas and oceans.

Part of my most recent cross country trip traced part of the route of an expedition led by two Franciscan priests in 1776.

It set out just as Americans along the east coast declared Independence, to find a trade route from Santa Fe to Monterrey.

They made it north as far as Utah Lake near the location of Brigham Young University but the maps drawn by expedition members reflected a misunderstanding of descriptions from Ute Indian guides.

Illustrations included massive rivers whose mouths had been earlier discovered along the Pacific Coast in what are now northern California and Oregon flowing from as far away as the Great Lakes.

Versions of these maps were in use right up until 1846 when further exploration by Captain John C. Frémont and Kit Carson learned of the existence of the Great Basin.

Accounts reached my Mormon ancestors weeks before my great (x3) grandfather Charles Shumway and his family led the way across the Mississippi in 1846 on what would be a 1,500 mile exodus to a new home in the Rockies above the Great Basin.

At the time of the Lincoln Highway’s conception in 1912, less than 9% of the roadways anywhere in America had improved surfaces such as gravel.

Many states at the time constitutionally prohibited such “internal improvements” forcing cities, towns and counties to go it alone.

Even by the 1920s, when the Federal government incentivized the states to build roads, Utah, still smarting from when a portion was lopped off in 1861 to create Nevada, refused to pave its stretch of the “Lincoln.”

To no avail, Nevada pled and even offered to pay for a portion so for a time the Lincoln Highway bypassed Utah cities.

My primary mission during that Route 50 hiatus from my career was solitude and time for reflection and forgiveness, but a secondary pursuit was to trace a portion of the lives of three ancestors.

My first stop was Fort Ruby, near the terminus of a stagecoach line that two of my great-grandparents, George and Eleanor White, operated for a time in the 1890s.

After their teamster years, my great-grandfather would landscape the upper campus of Brigham Young University which I would attend several decades later.

Fort Ruby would have looked as it does at this link, when one of my great-great grandfathers Tom Messersmith, served in the Union Cavalry there months after the fort was first established in 1862.

A fellow Missourian later joined by his friend Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) as partner on a claim along the Comstock Lode.

But as news about the attack on Fort Sumter and secession by 11 Southern States arrived west, in October 1861, my great-great grandfather had crossed through the Sierra’s to enlist in the Union Cavalry in Stockton simply as “Tom Smith.”

When he had left his home county, an area from Jefferson City down to the Arkansas border. there were 169 slaveholders holding 987 African-Americans in slavery but few in his township.

Most of the state’s 115,000 slaves were concentrated along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

But Thomas Messersmith was a fourth generation German-American descended from Palatine Protestants who had fought for American freedom with the Virginia Militia as early as 1774.

German-Americans were among the small minority in Missouri who were outspoken opponents of slavery including small yeoman farmer/ranchers in the pastures and hills along the Osage River as it slices through the Ozark Highlands.

When he relinquished his claim with Twain to enlist, that area was governed by both California and Nevada, a boundary later settled by arbitration.

In the years before the Civil War, California, while voting to be a free state was staunchly Democratic.  Sympathetic to the South, Southern California had wanted to secede and join the Confederacy.

But Abraham Lincoln carried California in the Presidential election by six-tenths of a percent when the Northern and Southern Democratic candidates split the vote slightly in favor of the North.

Things were anything but settled as Tom enlisted with the Union.  A coup by Southern sympathizers to seize ports and with counterparts in Oregon to form a new “Pacific Republic” had been narrowly foiled.

Militias around the state were embattled both internally and with other militias to hold the Union together as federal troops were redeployed to the east.

A Confederate flag had even been captured flying in Sacramento two month earlier.

But as my great-great grandfather rode down out of the Sierras, Leland Stanford, a Republican was overwhelmingly elected governor over a Southern Democrat.

After enlistment in Company A of the 3rd Regiment of California Volunteers, Trooper Messersmith traveled to the Benicia Arsenal on San Francisco Bay for outfitting, then briefly deployed up to Fort Baker east of Hydesville and about 24 miles south of Eureka.

The assignment where hostilities with Chilula, Lassik,Hupa, Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, Tsnungwe, Wailaki, Whilkut and Wiyot Native American peoples broke out in what is known as the Bald Hills War over disruption caused during a gold rush there.

While here, one of Twain’s letters asks his brother to forward some Spanish spurs he had left hanging in his office to my great-grandfather.

From there Company A was to join the rest of the regiment at Fort Douglas along the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City but they were waylaid at Fort Ruby, Nevada where Shoshone Indian attacks and fear of Confederate militants threatened gold shipments along the Overland Stagecoach Route,  which were desperately needed to fund the Union war effort.

Then they were backtracked to Fort Churchill, Nevada to put down threats from Paiutes, finally arriving at Fort Douglas in January 1864 just as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is proposed, ending slavery.

Fortunately, his unit did not reach Fort Douglas in Salt Lake until January 1864.

There he would have heard the details of a tragic battle (renamed massacre) on the Bear River less than 12 months earlier.

It took place ten miles north of the ranch owned by two other great-great grandparents who had helped establish the first permanent settlement in what is now Idaho and learned enough Shoshone language to interpret.

Having battled related Shoshone Indians for several months through Nevada, it isn’t clear where Tom Messersmith’s sympathies may have been as he heard about the slaughter.

Nearly 500 Northwest Shoshone men, women and children were trapped and killed by 300 troopers who lost fewer than 20 casualties.

Only after the war was it clear this was largest massacre of Native Americans in a single day ever by the U.S. Army.

But how my great-great grandfather lived the rest of his life and what he taught my great-grandfather tells me it may have bothered him much more than other troopers.

When his enlistment ended in October 1864, he had just turned 30.  He backtracked into the Great Basin along the old Pony Express route to Cedar Fort near Camp Floyd which had been dismantled when troops were called back east at the beginning of the war.

There he settled and was “persuaded” to become a Mormon.  Five months later he married my great-great grandmother “Lida” who had made the trek to Utah as a five year old.

Together they ranched sheep among the Skull Valley Indians, a Goshute band of the Western Shoshone native to the Great Basin, a band my great-grandfather would regularly take me to visit whenever we visited to take them food, something we did more frequently as I attended college along the the mountains across Utah Lake.

I wasn’t much older than my great-great grandfather had been when he settled down as I retraced that ancestral stretch along U.S. Route 50.

The landscape was foreign to anywhere I have lived and yet somehow familiar.

It may be the loneliest stretch in America but I found it ideal for reflection and rejuvenation.

As penned a decade earlier as he crossed that part of Nevada by Missourian and part Osage Indian, William Least Heat Moon, for his autobiographical book Blue Highways :

"The immensity of sky and desert, their vast absences, reduced me. It was as if I were evaporating, and it was calming and cleansing to be absorbed by the vacancy...."