LARAMIE, Wyo. — Larry Hayden-Wing spent three hours inside a hotel bar in Casper 10 years ago with a colleague, drinking beers and talking about what old men do — times gone by.
Today, the 77-year-old Laramie resident and former University of Wyoming professor remembers the bar conversation as one of two seminal moments in the development of a project steeped in his deep affection of a foreign land.
"(The colleague), more than anybody . put a perspective on what I had done," Hayden-Wing said. "I hadn't seen it that way before. I hadn't seen it in that light.
"I crossed a threshold that night."
The second moment, the final nudge Hayden-Wing needed to get started on "In the Footprints of Elephants (Accounts and Memoirs of a Wildlife Scientist)," a new, 446-page hardback book recounting the biologist's two-year period studying animals in Uganda, came three years ago.
He was retiring from Hayden-Wing Associates, a business he started that assesses environmental impacts from development.
While clearing books from his office, he found the journal he kept while in Uganda, emerging and speaking to him, he said, like an old friend.
"I came across the diary and the thought crossed my mind .," his words trailing off as emotions set in, "that I was probably taking it to its last resting place.
"It bothered me to bury it. It told me I should do something with it. . It generated the feeling in me that I had all those years and experiences locked up in this thing that no one was ever going to know about except me. . It was a long build up to the conclusion that I wanted to do this."
In essence, the journal, written in a fountain pen almost 50 years ago in the African outback, spoke, and its creator listened.
Hayden-Wing, a Webster City, Iowa, native, has lived in Laramie since 1977 and spent part of his career in science working in UW's Department of Zoology and Physiology.
Now retired, he said he's choosing to spend the latter years of his life writing books.
"In the Footprints of Elephants," his first book, was released last month. It's a detailed volume of 1962-1964, complete with numerous original and modern photographs.
The author, scheduled to appear from noon-2 p.m. today for a book signing at Gallery West & The Frame Plant in Laramie, self-published the work. He had about 300 books printed, a venture that cost $40,000.
The fee for seeing his work and experiences cemented through the book, however, aren't all that consequential, Hayden-Wing said.
"It was a labor of love, not an economic venture," he said.
"The goal was to make it accessible to people and not just make it an exclusive men's club coffee table book that few can afford."
Have a conversation with Hayden-Wing, and it quickly becomes apparent his time working and studying in Uganda holds a special place.
He was there, he said, as the country transitioned from British rule to self-governing. There were scattered skirmishes, but the country was largely at peace. The animals within the Kibale Forest were unique and plentiful.
"It was ideal to be there," he said. "Everything bloomed, everything grew. The animals, the mountains. It was a beautiful place to be.
"It was utopian."
But, as time passes, the mind tends to remember in poetry, sometimes glossing over struggles.
Those difficult and trying experiences, from staring down the barrel of a rifle at a bull elephant barging into camp to tracking a wounded buffalo through the bush, are also told in Hayden-Wing's prose in the book.
Hayden-Wing journeyed to Uganda, he said, because he was a scientist fascinated by herbivores, determining what plants they ate and how that affected ecological processes.
Elephants, he added, were "the biggest and the best."
However, he arrived in the country with less than a working knowledge of the animals, a fact that didn't escape the new resident expert.
"I didn't know anything about elephants and I'm the guy from out of town who's the expert the minute I walk in," he said. "That's kind of an oxymoron. . But, the principles of natural laws operate throughout the universe, then you learn the details of the specific species."
Hayden-Wing gradually became more familiar. It wasn't hard to appreciate the elephants, standing twice as tall or more as a man and weighing 4 to 5 tons.
He lived among 450 or more elephants in the forest, surveyed by observation and overhead flights. There were an estimated 20,000 total in the country.
Their demeanor, Hayden-Wing said, was a basic "live and let live," though it was imperative people around them understand their habits and nuisances, keeping a safe distance between bull herds or family units traveling in packs.
Still, it wasn't hard to come away from an encounter with a sense of awe.
"It's awesome to stand with nothing else between you and the elephant except a few pieces of vegetation," Hayden-Wing said. "To see this thing towering, at twice your height above you, it can make you feel very insignificant."
Early on, Hayden-Wing said, he agreed to an unwritten pact with the elephants, an accord to respect each other.
"It was, 'We're not going to hurt you, please don't hurt us,'" he said of the truce.
He kept his word, though others tried persuading him differently.
A colleague, one Hayden-Wing doesn't recall particularly fondly, once told him he'd someday regret not bagging an elephant, not grabbing his trophy to take home.
"I got to thinking about that as I walked among the elephants," he said. "I had some narrow escapes, had some chances to shoot some big tuskers, but I didn't. I couldn't. They knew I was there and they trusted me.
"I wasn't something they were accustomed to being afraid of."
Adding to his stance against harming an elephant was a local custom. A tribe in the area held the elephant as sacred, Hayden-Wing said, as a religious totem.
A portion of the book describes how he, more or less, adopted this custom.
"I had the required license and many opportunities, but not the frame of mind to carry it out," he wrote. "It would have been easy, but to me, it would have been wrong.
"Perhaps the elephant had become one of my totems as well."
Writing "In the Footprints of Elephants," Hayden-Wing said, was a chance to journey back to those treasured years, to relive the frightening, rewarding and, at times, humorous experiences abroad.
Deep in the book, he writes about his encounter with Martha Gelhorn, a celebrated American war correspondent and the ex-wife of legendary author Ernest Hemingway.
Hayden-Wing asked Gelhorn her opinion on Hemingway and why she divorced him.
She described Hemingway, Hayden-Wing wrote, as one of the greatest writers of his age, but "one of the filthiest men who ever lived."
The book also documents his brush with a bull elephant who wandered into camp late one night. Hayden-Wing climbed on top of a Range Rover, a rifle trained on the animal in case it pushed forward.
"He just kept paralleling the camp," he said. "We could just barely see him, until he came out on the track that we'd built and stood there in the moonlight and looked at us.
"We're getting cold, I'm starting to shake, from fear and the chill. . The elephant just stood there, for what seemed like forever. Finally, he let a bunch of air out of his trunk and walked off."
Though Uganda is a special place for Hayden-Wing, he's yet to return since his departure in the early 1960s.
The landscape of the country he once knew is vastly different now, his former utopia beset by anarchy and violence.
But, if the right circumstances come together, perhaps someday he'll have a chance similar to the one he had all those years ago.
"I just need the right format and the right goal," he said. "I'm not ruling it out.
"It's a tough call because at 77, that's a factor. World conditions, the African conditions are a factor. . But, I would very much like to go back. There's a good chance I will, if desire and reality come together."
Information from: Laramie (Wyo.) Daily Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com