History

In the summer of 1926, a young teacher named Hillis Howie led a group of nine boys from Indianapolis to the Wild West on the first Prairie Trek Expedition.

HLH at Ship Rock '58

Hillis Howie overseeing a campfire at Shiprock, 1958

They left the Midwest in two Model T station wagons and ventured into a land that was, by all accounts, astonishingly wild.  They came to see a part of America that was so rugged it remained inaccessible to all but a few.  But when they dug a little deeper, they found that this land was also home to a rich legacy of human history that stretched thousands of years into the past, and they learned that with a little hard work they could begin to understand the secrets of the desert and live comfortably among its cottonwood trees and under its enormous sky.

In his own words, this is how Hillis Howie described those early expeditions, from the 1938 Cottonwood Gulch brochure:

“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.”

For further reading, The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis has a page dedicated to Hillis Howie and the early Prairie Trek expeditions: Indianapolis Children’s Museum, Hillis Howie

CWG '42

Photo from the 1942 Turquoise Trail

The First All-Girls Expedition

We have always prided ourselves as being at the cutting edge of outdoor education, and nothing speaks to this more than Hillis Howie’s first Turquoise Trail Expedition in 1934.   Decades ahead of his time, Howie was doing what most people weren’t even dreaming of, leading an all-girls expedition to the Wild West.

Leaving Indianapolis in a set of Model Ts and ankle-length dresses, the first TT set off to do, well, everything the boys did, only better.  Just like the boys group, the Prairie Trek, the Turquoise Trail camped throughout the mountains and desert canyons of the American West.  While the outfits have changed, the TT is still going strong today, and we have Hillis Howie and his staff to thank for their unparalleled foresight in the importance of getting young women into the wilderness.

Inspiring Young Artists—Kurt Vonnegut

Mr. Howie was a remarkable man, a larger-than-life character who led Cottonwood Gulch from 1926-1970.  He touched the lives of hundreds of young men and women, including the famous author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who had fond memories of Hillis Howie years after his 1938 expedition:

“It took me a long time to realize what a great man Hillis Howie was. That’s part of the American experience is 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.”

In fact, Vonnegut had such great respect for the man that he dedicated his novel “Galapagos” to Hillis Howie.


In memory of Hillis L. Howie,

(1903-1982) amateur naturalist —

Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, Dedicated to Gulch Founder Hillis Howie

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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s father was an architect, and he paid for his son’s tuition by designing our cabins, which were built by Tom Henio and his family (see below). The cabins stand to this day.

 

The Henio Family and the Navajo Nation

HLH & Tom Henio-1

Joe Silversmith, Hillis Howie, and Grandpa Tom Henio building the Caretaker’s house, 1959.

In 1929, Hillis Howie befriended a local Navajo man by the name of Tom Henio.  Even though Howie spoke no Navajo and Henio spoke very little English, the two men were to remain friends for the rest of their lives, a friendship that was centered on mutual respect and a love for what would become known as Cottonwood Gulch.

In 1935, on Tom Henio’s recommendation, Hillis Howie bought what is now the Cottonwood Gulch Base Camp, a 480-acre property near Henio’s hometown of Thoreau, New Mexico.  Over the next several decades, Tom Henio’s family became an inseparable part of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.  Trekkers spent many days on the Reservation helping to brand cattle, corral sheep, and learn about the Navajo culture firsthand.  Tom Henio and his family were also responsible for building nearly every building at Cottonwood Gulch, all of which are still standing today (including our cabins designed by Kurt Vonnegut’s father).

The relationship with the Henios has never been a one-sided affair.  Howie’s students would live on the Reservation and learn about the Navajo culture, but Tom Henio and his family were not bystanders. They quickly became part of the expeditions as both Trekkers and staff members.  This relationship continues to this day, and every year Henios and Howies live and work at The Gulch as Trekkers, staff, Board members, and caretakers.  In fact, in 2012 Tom Henio’s great-grandsons and Hillis Howie’s great-granddaughter worked together on the Cottonwood Gulch staff.

In the summer of 1926, a young teacher named Hillis Howie led a group of nine boys from Indianapolis to the Wild West on the first Prairie Trek Expedition.

They left the Midwest in two Model T station wagons and ventured into a land that was, by all accounts, astonishingly wild. They came to see a part of America that was so rugged it remained inaccessible to all but a few. But when they dug a little deeper, they found that this land was also home to a rich legacy of human history that stretched thousands of years into the past, and they learned that with a little hard work they could begin to understand the secrets of the desert and live comfortably among its cottonwood trees and under its enormous sky.

HLH at Ship Rock '58

Hillis Howie overseeing a campfire at Shiprock, 1958

In his own words, this is how Hillis Howie described those early expeditions, from the 1938 Cottonwood Gulch brochure:

“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.”

For further reading, The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis has a page dedicated to Hiliis Howie and the early Prairie Trek expeditions: Indianapolis Children’s Museum, Hillis Howie

CWG '42

Photo from the 1942 Turquoise Trail

The First All-Girls Expedition

We have always prided ourselves as being at the cutting edge of outdoor education, and nothing speaks to this more than Hillis Howie’s first Turquoise Trail Expedition in 1934.   Decades ahead of his time, Howie was doing what most people weren’t even dreaming of, leading an all-girls expedition to the Wild West.

Leaving Indianapolis in a set of Model Ts and ankle-length dresses, the first TT set off to do, well, everything the boys did, only better.  Just like the boys group, the Prairie Trek, the Turquoise Trail camped throughout the mountains and desert canyons of the American West.  While the outfits have changed, the TT is still going strong today, and we have Hillis Howie and his staff to thank for their unparalleled foresight in the importance of getting young women into the wilderness.

Inspiring Young Artists—Kurt Vonnegut

Mr. Howie was a remarkable man, a larger-than-life character who led Cottonwood Gulch from 1926-1970.  He touched the lives of hundreds of young men and women, including the famous author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who had fond memories of Hillis Howie years after his 1938 expedition:

“It took me a long time to realize what a great man Hillis Howie was. That’s part of the American experience is 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.”

In fact, Vonnegut had such great respect for the man that he dedicated his novel “Galapagos” to Hillis Howie.


In memory of Hillis L. Howie,

(1903-1982) amateur naturalist —

Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, Dedicated to Gulch Founder Hillis Howie

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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s father was an architect, and he paid for his son’s tuition by designing our cabins, which were built by Tom Henio and his family (see below). The cabins stand to this day.

 

The Henio Family and the Navajo Nation

HLH & Tom Henio-1

Joe Silversmith, Hillis Howie, and Grandpa Tom Henio building the Caretaker’s house, 1959.

In 1929, Hillis Howie befriended a local Navajo man by the name of Tom Henio.  Even though Howie spoke no Navajo and Henio spoke very little English, the two men were to remain friends for the rest of their lives, a friendship that was centered on mutual respect and a love for what would become known as Cottonwood Gulch.

In 1935, on Tom Henio’s recommendation, Hillis Howie bought what is now the Cottonwood Gulch Base Camp, a 480-acre property near Henio’s hometown of Thoreau, New Mexico.  Over the next several decades, Tom Henio’s family became an inseparable part of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.  Trekkers spent many days on the Reservation helping to brand cattle, corral sheep, and learn about the Navajo culture firsthand.  Tom Henio and his family were also responsible for building nearly every building at Cottonwood Gulch, all of which are still standing today (including our cabins designed by Kurt Vonnegut’s father).

The relationship with the Henios has never been a one-sided affair.  Howie’s students would live on the Reservation and learn about the Navajo culture, but Tom Henio and his family were not bystanders. They quickly became part of the expeditions as both Trekkers and staff members.  This relationship continues to this day, and every year Henios and Howies live and work at the Gulch as Trekkers, staff, Board members, and caretakers.  In fact, in 2012 Tom Henio’s great-grandsons and Hillis Howie’s great-granddaughter worked together on the Cottonwood Gulch staff.