ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS

She had no way of knowing – the dear girl – what those two apparently unrelated questions would do to me: How they would wrench the rocket of our lives out of one trajectory and thrust it willy-nilly into another, destination unknown.

But life is like that, epiphanies are like that: only in retrospect are we able to track down cause from the effect.

*******

It was a snowy December morning like so many others, before or since, when that first question happened. After one of my English classes, Naomi Snowdy (one of our English majors), skipped preliminaries and small talk, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I’m so sick of dorm regulations and cafeteria food that if I have to endure another weekend of it I think I’ll go stark raving mad! Can I come home with you this weekend?”

I called my wife and quoted Naomi to her. She laughed and said, “Sure, I can remember feeling that way, too, during college. Tell her she’s welcome.”

So the stage was set. I can see it now as though it were yesterday rather than 21 long years ago. We’d reached our Annapolis home, on the shores of Maryland’s shimmering Severn River. Naomi had unpacked, we’d eaten a delicious supper, the wind was howling outside, and the snow was slashing at our windows.

After dinner, exhausted from the long week, I leaned back into my big brown easy chair, across from a cracking fire and Naomi. She had a contemplative look in her eyes that I mistook for a look of blissful gratitude that she had a break with little to do, for that was what I was thinking.

Oh, it all started so innocently! She leaned toward me, and said softly, conversationally, “Dr. Wheeler, have you ever thought of writing a Christmas story?”

Unaware of my doom, and just as relaxed as she, I lazily answered, “Yes, I’ve thought of it.”

“Well, why haven’t you?” “Oh, I will – someday.”

I had not a clue about what was behind that ostensibly dreamy look in Naomi’s eyes. But now, after all these years, I’ve finally pieced it together.

Naomi was in my creative writing class, the victim of many of my deadlines during the semester. I was completely blindsided by her reversal of roles as she sat up straight, lost the dreamy look, and barked out a question that was really a command: “Why don’t you write it tonight?”

Tonight? I looked at her unbelievingly. Surely she was just kidding.

Inexorably she responded with, “Yes, tonight. It’s going to snow all weekend anyway, so what else are we going to do? Besides” – and she gave me a malicious smirk – “I want to proof your story.”

I couldn’t believe it: sweet, soft-spoken Naomi turning out to be a tyrant in disguise! But try as I did to beg off, to get out of it, Naomi was as intransigent as Gibraltar . . . and my wife, Connie, was no help either. She just laughed and sided with Naomi, so it was two against one – no, make that three against one. My last hope was that the good Lord, in His great mercy, would grant me a severe case of writer’s block – that way I wouldn’t have to write the miserable thing. But God ganged up on me, too. Virtually instantaneously, He gave me a full-blown plot. All I had to do was flesh it out and write it.

So, I dutifully wrote all evening, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday. As fast as I completed a page, Naomi would snatch it out of my hands, read it, scribble viciously on it, and hand it back, saying, “Fix it!” . . . So that was my “relaxing” weekend. Eventually we finished. The story even had a name: appropriately, we titled it “The Snow of Christmas.” The topic was a young husband who deserted his lovely wife and young daughter one Christmas.

In creative writing class that next Monday morning, Naomi took fiendish delight in regaling her classmates with the story of the weekend and she handed out copies of my story to everyone. That started a chain of dominoes that are toppling still. I gave out copies to colleagues, friends, and family –

Big mistake! For next Christmas season, people said, “Well, you wrote a Christmas story last year – so what’s keeping you from writing one this year?”

So I wrote “The Bells of Christmas Eve,” ostensibly for my American literature class. Since my students were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I wrote this Christmas romance, set in Switzerland (about a little-known interlude in Alcott’s life), as a gift to them.

No big deal! Or so it seemed.

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HOW TO FALL DOWN STAIRS

Yes, there is an art to it, and—inadvertently, it must be admitted—I have perfected that art.  Following are the ideal conditions for pulling it off:

  • Be sure you are sleeping in an unfamiliar bed in a relatively unfamiliar house.
  • Set an alarm clock; but be sure it is some distance away so that, when it rings, you will have to get out of bed and grope for it.
  • By all means set it for an early hour, so that it will be pitch-dark when it rings.
  • Be sure and place a suitcase—for strategic purposes—directly in line of the steps you’ll have to take before you reach the alarm clock.
  • Make certain you are sleeping in an upper-story of a house.
  • Make doubly certain there is a long flight of stairs in close proximity to the alarm clock (descending stairs, of course); and none of those namby-pamby carpeted stairs, but real he-man wooden ones.
  • At the bottom of the stairs you should make sure you have a tile landing on which to conclude your fall, and a solid wooden door to ram your head into.
  • The choice of the right alarm clock is a must: none of those soft, languorous lullabies, but a no-nonsense demanding “Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!” followed by an almost immediate strident double-time beep (guaranteed to disorient and confuse you as you stumble around).
  • With this preamble, you’re almost preordained to blindly launch into space off the top stair.  In the pitch-dark it will seem surreal as you fall into the void.  Then you will hit, hit, hit, and hit, as you roll down the stairs.  Because you are so disoriented and nine-tenths asleep, you will roll down like a rag doll or someone who is blissfully dead-drunk.
  • By the time you reach the bottom, you are guaranteed an audience because of your thunderous fall and unconscious but heartfelt moans.  You’ll immediately rouse the entire household.
  • By all the laws of probability, you should have (at the very least), a broken neck, broken back, or broken hip–with an excellent chance of being paralyzed for life.  But if you follow my fool-proof directions, you’ll merely end up a mass of black, blue, purple, and green bruises (spectacularly beautiful to those with a perverted sense of humor), and rather than be in a body cast, you’ll revel in around-the-clock ice-pack treatments, heat-treatments, and a steady stream of extra-strength pain pills.
  • Did I mention sympathy?  Oh yes, plenty of that.
  • And outright disbelief from the entire medical profession who will consider you a postcard example of the miraculous.
  • One more thing: That God must have an awfully good reason for a deus-ex-machina rescue of His stupid child.

* * * * *

My solo-flight took place at 5:30 A.M., Wednesday, November 10, in Annapolis, Maryland.  I have no current plans to re-enact it.  Once you achieve perfection in something, it makes no sense to do it again!

Media Schedule & Book Signings

Because of a rush of media interviews & book signings, we are postponing the first Glacier National Park Lodge blog. Hope to get back on schedule soon. Thank you for understanding.
Check our web page for an event near you.

JACKSON LAKE LODGE

If you have ever stood at Jenny Lake and looked across to Cascade Canyon weaving its way towards the summit of the Tetons, you will know the joy of being in a sacred place, designed by God to be protected forever.

                            —Horace Albright (Duncan and Burns, 229)

             As we drove the short distance to the south end of Yellowstone, we couldn’t help reminiscing back to our earliest visit to the park in the 1960s, when cars would be stopped for miles as stupid people like us fed panhandling bears from our cars.  Naturally, there were incidents—some of them gory, when bears took the arm as well as the proffered food.

            We also noted that, 32 years after the devastating fires of 1988, the park is greening up again.  It is difficult, though, to know when you’re leaving one park and entering the other, as Rockefeller purchased, then gave, a 23,777 acre corridor between the two parks to the American people.  Today it’s called the “John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.”

View from Jackson Lake Lodge

            Even though it was too early to check in, we stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge to make dinner reservations for the Mural Dining Room.  Since neither Bob nor Lucy had ever been inside the hotel before, Connie and I watched for that magical moment when someone walks up the wide terrazzo stairway into the Grand Lounge.  That view!  I know of only one comparable view in North America: Grand Canyon at sunset from the North Rim lodge’s dining room.  We were not disappointed: in the faces of Bob and Lucy was that look, as they internalized for the first time, in one I-MAX-size frame, 12,605-foot Mount Moran dead center, bookended to the south by Mount Woodring and to the north by Bivouac Peak.  Concentrated in this 40-mile-long range are seventeen white-crowned peaks ranging from 10,000 to almost 14,000 feet in elevation, with close to 7,000 feet of vertical thrust straight up without foothills.  Needless to say, seen for the first time, this once-in-a-lifetime view, in short, staggers.

            And how terribly hard it has been to preserve it!

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROCKEFELLER!

            Mountain men were the first non-Native Americans to discover this great watering hole.  In fact, not only is the valley named for a fur trader named Davey Jackson, Leigh Lake and iconic Jenny Lake are named for a fur-trading couple: Dick and Jenny Leigh.

            General Phil Sheridan, early on (with his cavalry) the savior of Yellowstone, argued in 1882 that Yellowstone needed to be expanded to include the Tetons and their lowlands in order to protect the natural grazing range of the world’s largest surviving elk herd.  But politicians in Washington turned a deaf ear to his argument.

            Down through the years time and time again, just when it seemed the Tetons would be preserved for future generations,Wyoming special interest groups would sabotage those efforts.  On one of their first inspection trips of the national parks, Park founding fathers Stephen Mather and Horace Albright first set eyes on Jackson Hole: “Mather and I were both flabbergasted,” Albright wrote.  “I had never beheld such scenery.” (Duncan and Burns, 228).

            Both men pushed the idea of adding the Teton basin to Yellowstone, but no matter what forward momentum they achieved, ranchers, farmers, sportsmen, and the U.S. Forest Service (often jealous of the national parks) together made it impossible to get a bill through Congress.

            One never-to-be-forgotten day in our nation’s history, Albright learned that the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wife Abby, and their three children (John, Nelson, and Laurance), were traveling incognito in Yellowstone National Park.  Since Rockefeller had already put up the money to make Acadia National Park possible, Albright extended every courtesy to them.  But it was on their second visit, in 1926, as Albright was driving the Rockefellers through the Tetons, that the great moment came: When John D. and Abby expressed dismay at what was happening as developers ruthlessly destroyed what nature had taken ages to create, Albright leaped at the opening and shared his dream with them.  Four months later, John D. informed Albright that he’d decided to embark on a long—and perhaps fruitless—quest to help save the Tetons.  Though the U. S. Forest Service oversaw 2,000,000 acres of forest land in the area, in the past their directors had proven all too willing to permit special interests to take what they wanted.  But, Rockefeller warned Albright, secrecy was essential for if word leaked out that he was buying up land in the area, the asking prices would skyrocket.

            Two years later, Congress finally redesignated some national forest land to create a small Grand Teton National Park—both Rockefeller and Albright were dismayed at how little had been preserved.  Meanwhile, all through the Depression years, Rockefeller secretly continued to buy.  Again and again, Rockefeller offered his holdings as a gift to the American people—and was turned down each time.

Grand Tetons

            Finally, on March 15, 1943, Rockefeller had had enough: he wrote FDR a letter informing him that since the nation refused to accept his gift, he was going to sell it off for whatever it would bring.  That certainly got the President’s attention.  Despairing of getting Congress to buck special interests in this case, he and his Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes concluded their only hope was to use the Antiquities Act as a vehicle for creating a national monument with this land.  On March 15, 1943, the President signed an executive order establishing Jackson National Monument, placing 221,610 acres of public land on the eastern borders of Grand Teton National Park under national park control.

            Wyoming promptly declared war, even trying to ram through a bill to abolish the national monument.  FDR vetoed it.  When Roosevelt died in 1945, the battle was still raging.  Five years later, President Truman brokered a compromise wherein all parties gave and took.  Result: Jackson Hole National Monument became part of an enlarged Grand Teton National Park (included was Rockefeller’s 32,000 acres), bringing the park’s total acreage to 309,994 acres. 

And so ended what has been called “the greatest conservation project of its kind ever undertaken.”  It had taken Rockefeller a quarter of a century to give the land to the American people!  Well might we all shudder just to think of what the Grand Teton country would look like today had there never been a John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to champion its cause. (This section: Duncan and Burns, 229-33, 311-12).

UNDERWOOD UNDERSTATES

Joe at Jenny Lake

            Not long after World War II drew to a close, the American people, so long repressed (1929-1945) because of the twin holocausts of the Great Depression and Second World War, gradually came alive to the realization that life was good, everything was looking up, and that it was high time they checked up on their national parks.

            In fact it was this sudden invasion of American tourists that caused the Rockefellers to re-evaluate their role as leading hospitality provider in the Tetons.  Clearly, more accommodations were needed—perhaps most needed of all was a great hotel that would enhance the stature of their fledgling Grand Teton National Park.  The Rockefellers, one memorable day, climbed up to the top of a knoll that was incredibly dear to them—for it was here, from which point they could look out at one of the grandest views on the planet, that the dream for the park had been born.  Now, one dream realized, they determined to build a great park hotel at the bottom of their beloved knoll.  Next time you’re in the Tetons, take a few minutes to climb that knoll and read the plaque on the modest monument to the Rockefellers there.

Front of Jackson Lake Lodge

            John D. never thought small.  Once the decision was made, he requested the services of the nation’s top architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, catapulted to fame by his already legendary 1926 creation, Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel; building upon that reputation with Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, Bryce and Zion Lodges in Utah, and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Now Underwood basked in the impressive title of, Supervising Architect for the United States. Underwood accepted the offer, realizing that, because of infirmities of age, this might well turn out to be his life’s capstone.  It would take five long years to build.

            But times and architectural styles had dramatically changed since the rustic parkitecture of Ahwahnee.  Now steel, concrete, and plate-glass windows were the vogue.  As to the crucial question of the exterior of this new hotel, Rockefeller and Underwood were of one mind: the hotel must not be permitted to upstage one of perhaps the five greatest views in the world.  Thus it would not be an Ahwahnee or Old Faithful, self-standing icons in their own right.  But rather the exterior must be so understated if would seamlessly blend into the landscape.  But inside—ah!  That would be the challenge: to focus 100% of the visitors’ attention on one thing only—the view in the west.  It is said that John D. had scaffolding put up so he and his son Laurance could climb up to the same height and position where the massive window would be positioned in the Grand Lounge.  Only then were they convinced they’d be guaranteed the same sense of awe one gets walking into Old Faithful Inn or down into the Grand Canyon Lodge of the North Rim’s dining room.

            But neither did they desire a massive hotel; instead Underwood sketched out what turned out to be 385 rooms, only 37 of which would be in the main lodge—all the rest would be cottages.  For the first few decades after they were built, one might have questioned such a decision.  But not today, now that all the trees planted then have reached maturity and softened the cottages’ visual imprint.

* * * * *

            After making our dinner reservations, we climbed back into the faithful Lincoln, and drove down to Jenny Lake.  At her loveliest, Jenny Lake, with her magnificent setting, almost takes your breath away.  But not today—in fact, with clouds obscuring the sun, she seemed a tad dowdy.  But that was because Connie and I had seen her in show-stopping attire.  I told Bob and Lucy about one never-to-be-forgotten day 44 years before when I’d taken our little son Greg on the longest hike of his young life: around Jenny Lake and seven more miles up to Lake Solitude and back.  Looking back at my life, I considered that hike up Cascade Canyon to be perhaps the most—even though I’ve exhausted the adjectives in my thesaurus, not even the word “glorious” is adequate to the challenge of describing the sensual impact of that one day on us.

View from the Chapel of Transfiguration

            Then, after first taking in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and the now world-famous Church of the Transfiguration, we returned to Jackson Lake Lodge and checked into our cottage. Wisely, even though the lodge is modern (dedicated in 1955), there are no TVs in the rooms.  Consequently, we quickly drifted back to that mesmerizing grand lounge, with its two fireplaces with hammered steel hoods and moose-head andirons; the Eagle’s Nest and Crow’s Nest getaways for those who wish more solitude, the Pioneer Grill with its “world’s longest lunch counter,” the Blue Heron Lounge, and the Mural Dining Room.

            After having to pry Lucy and Connie from the outside deck (they were fascinated by the wildlife-watching taking place in the meadow—a grizzly sneaking up on its intended prey, moose, deer, elk, etc).  Finally, we were ushered to our window seat in the Mural Dining Room, where few bothered to look at Carl Roter’s great wood-carving reproduction of Alfred Jacob Miller’s sketches of the Jackson Hole Valley.  Instead, our eyes were riveted on the continually changing vision out the windows.  The dinner proved equal to holding its own, but not equaling its competition.  We stayed there in order to watch the sunset.  Silence . . . the only possible response.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Tune in next week for Glacier National Park.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [a splendid chapter on Jackson Lake Lodge].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2002). [Invaluable source of information on the long struggle for Teton parkhood].

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).