GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH RIM

BLOG #7, SERIES 3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #9

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH RIM

 

February 15, 2012

Early in the morning, snow began to slash at our North Rim cabin windows; as the wind picked up, the snow increased proportionally.  After packing, Bob and I hauled our luggage out to the snow-covered Town Car.  Then, we regretfully bade our adieus to our already beloved cabins on the rim, the rockers on the porch already filling with May snow.  Inside the lodge, once again we breakfasted near one of the great windows, and watched the snow descend into the abyss.  All too soon, it was time to leave, but none of us wanted to.  The atmosphere in the lodge was totally different from the day before for the unexpected snow had generated a sense of adventure among hotel guests that had not been there before.  In this sense of family-closed-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world, there were no strangers: everyone talked with each other as though they were old friends.

But feeling a sense of urgency, we headed out.  We were apprehensive because the Lincoln was anything but a snow car.  Our hearts were in our throats when the snow deepened as the road climbed over 9,000 feet (one of the key reasons the North rim has such a short tourist season).  The Lincoln began to slip, and there were no snowplows.  But finally we crested and headed down, and eventually out of the snow.

This was Zane Grey country.  In 1907 and 1908 Grey had faced storms much worse than this as he and legendary plainsman Buffalo Jones and Mormon pioneer Jim Emmet lassoed mountain lions in the Buckskin Forest of this Kaibab Plateau we were traveling through.  At Jacob Lake, we turned east on Highway 89a.  When we’d descended to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, we walked along the river.  For here was Emmet’s home a few miles down river.  Though we didn’t revisit it this time, we couldn’t help but think of that tenderfoot Zane Grey eying the then undammed Colorado River thundering down this same gorge; it was maintained that if anyone fell in trying to get across by cable (no bridges then), no one would ever see them again—not in flood season!  Born here were Grey’s Last of the Plainsmen, Heritage of the Desert, and Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.

We then turned south on Highway 89, and right after crossing the Painted Desert, at Cameron, we turned west on Highway 64.  As we began our ascent to the South Rim, would you believe it?—once again, the snow began to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was late afternoon before we arrived at El Tovar Hotel, a favorite stopping place for our family down through the years.

* * * * *

We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for saving the Grand Canyon for posterity.  In 1903, after visiting the canyon himself, he declared it to be “a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world” (Barnes, 102).  He followed that up by establishing the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1906, by executive order, then enlarging the Forest Reserve into a National Forest.

Santa Fe Railroad officials, seeing the canyon as a golden opportunity to dramatically increase southwest tourism, determined to create a great lodge on the South Rim.  Their chosen architect: Charles Whittlesey, who was trained in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan.  His goal was to “meld the elegance of a European villa with the infomality of a hunting lodge” (Barnes, 105).  This grand hotel officially opened on January 14, 1905.  According to Barnes, “Steam heat, electric lights and indoor plumbing all made it the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America.  Huge Douglas-firs were shipped by rail from Oregon, pushing the cost to $250,000, a grand sum, especially when compared to Old Faithful Inn, built for $140,000.  One-hundred guest rooms accommodated visitors who found comfort in ‘a quiet dignity, an unassuming luxury, and an appreciation of outing needs at El Tovar’” (Barnes, 105).  Though western in style, it has also been considered Transylvanian, resembling a hunting lodge for the Romanian royal family.

Here the legendary Harvey Girls waited tables.  And here too, in January of 1906, only one year after it opened its doors, Zane Grey and his bride Dolly arrived here by train on their honeymoon.  But storm clouds obscured the canyon, so it wasn’t until evening that the clouds parted and they stared into such a sunset as they’d never even imagined.  The die was cast: This canyon would become the very heart of Grey’s 89 novels—where the Old West began.

OUR MEMORIES

As we walked into the Rendezvous Room, and passed the chairs flanking the crackling fire in the fireplace, we vowed to commandeer those chairs if the occupants ever surrendered them.  In the center of the building is the registration lobby, or Rotunda, where all paths intersect.  Here we checked in, as we had a number of times before, then moved into our rooms. We hoped to be able to show Bob and Lucy Earp “The Zane Grey Room,” where Dolly and Grey had stayed, but it was booked solid during our two-day stay, so weren’t able to.  Our Zane Grey’s West Society donated the Zane Grey memorabilia and books that make it such a special room.  XANTERRA owns and operates the hotel today.

Later, we ate dinner in the renowned eighty -nine-foot long dining room, furnished with Arts and Crafts style furniture, and anchored by two huge chimneys, each flanked by large picture windows.  The service and food were, as expected, impeccable, as befits one of the grandest hotels in the Great Circle.  Here, Connie and I shared an incident from our past with the Earps: Many years ago, when our daughter Michelle was just a tiny golden-haired angel, we’d eaten in this very same dining room.  Michelle, who’d never even envisioned such a grand place, was entranced.  The waiter assigned to our table treated Michelle as though she were a princess, hovering around her, filling her glass from high up each time she drank a sip from it, refilling the bread basket whenever she took a roll out of it, and grandly displaying the little broom that he’d use to whisk away every stray breadcrumb she dropped on the spotless white tablecloth.  To this day, that evening is etched in her memory as one of the most magical experiences in all her growing-up years.

Next day, the weather having cleared, we walked along the canyon rim, taking photos, along with visitors from all over the world.  We soon discovered that El Tovar, like Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, is so loved to death by hordes of tourists that hotel guests are hard-pressed to find unoccupied seats in the lobby or dining facilities.  So what else should one expect from the focal center of well over four-million tourists every year?  But we really experienced the invasion when we entered the Grand Canyon Village building that houses the IMAX theatre that shows the Grand Canyon film.  Men, women, and children from all walks of life and from countries around the world (many from Asia and Europe) flooded in, in such numbers that we could barely move!  Felt like we were each straitjacketed.  What a contrast from the North Rim.  We couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in the summer when school is out!

But even so, each person standing by the parapet, staring into the vast reaches of the great canyon, seems to be in a world of their own,  no matter how many eddy around them.  The first sight of the canyon is invariably the same: no advance hype can possibly fully prepare you for the real thing!  And late evening, when the crowds ebb inside El Tovar, leaving you with just the hotel guests, you can once again imagine seeing Zane and Dolly, sitting next to you by the fireplace, a pensive look in their eyes, a hundred and six years ago.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR:WWW West, Inc., 2002).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

ZION NATIONAL PARK

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #6

ZION NATIONAL PARK

 

January 18, 2012

 

For millennia, it was one of the earth’s loneliest places, known only to aboriginal Native Americans such as the Virgin Anasazi (arriving here in the 1200s), followed by the Paiutes [meaning “Utes who live by water].  A Mormon pioneer named Nephi Johnson is reputed to be the first individual of European ancestry to set eyes on the canyon, in 1858.  Isaac Behunin, another Mormon settler, in the 1860s, was so awestruck by the magnificent scenery of the canyon that he proclaimed, “This is Zion!”  Brigham Young himself packed into the canyon in 1863.  Famed explorer John Wesley Powell, hearing of the area’s wonders, trekked in sometime in 1872.

 

Even so, the canyon remained virtually unknown to the outside world until Scribner’s Magazine featured it in a 1904 article.  At that time, although there was a lot of national buzz generated by the new Fred Harvey hotel, El Tovar on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, there was virtually nothing known about any of the many national wonders north of the Grand Canyon we take for granted a century later.

 

In 1917, National Park Acting Director, Horace Albright, accepted an invitation to visit Southern Utah, where the Virgin River carves its way through a beautiful canyon of sandstone cliffs.  It had been set aside as a National Monument in 1909—named Mukuntuweap, from a Paiute word for “canyon”—but had been virtually ignored by the federal government ever since:

 

I was surprised, excited, and thrilled.  More than that, I was just plain stunned.  I had no concept of the staggering beauty I beheld.  Local Utah people said that Yosemite was a [Mukuntuweap] without color.  But this didn’t faintly prepare me for the reality of the towering rock walls, splashed with brilliant hues of tans and reds interspersed with whites.

 

The great towers, temples, spires, and peaks appeared unearthly as they encircled the narrow, lush gorge cut by the sparkling Virgin River.

 

It was love at first sight for me.  I was so impressed . . . that I determined we should expand Mukuntuweap and have it made a national park.

 

Albright’s enthusiasm, upon his return to Washington, took him to the White House where he convinced President Woodrow Wilson to change the monument’s difficult-to-pronounce name to the name Local Mormons had long used for the canyon, “Zion.”  Within a year, Congress would follow Wilson’s lead, expand the protected area to 147 ,551 acres and elevate its status to Zion National Park (Duncan and Burns, 171).

 

But even national park status failed to significantly increase tourist traffic into the park, mainly because it was so difficult to get to.  Horace Albright and Stephen Mather, to remedy this situation, in 1922, persuaded the executives of Union Pacific Railroad to join forces with the National Park Service and construct spur lines into the park’s vicinity and create a lodge worthy of its setting.  In May of 1923, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was summoned to Union Pacific’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska and invited to add Zion to his portfolio, along with Bryce.

 

It is interesting to note the pattern that developed over the years of Underwood’s long and distinguished architectural career with the National Park Service: the rustic lodges would be secondary to the landscape itself—lying gently on the land.  His earlier ones tended to simplicity, but as the years passed, Underwood’s vision for the lodges grew grander.

 

In Zion, Underwood constructed a two-story wood, stone, and glass edifice, anchored by four large native sandstone columns.  By 1927, he had flanked the hotel by ten duplex Deluxe Cabins; and by 1929, five fourplex Deluxe Cabins.  Those Deluxe Cabins were as beautiful and enduring as the Bryce Canyon cabins descried in our January 11 blog: characterized by native stone fireplaces, chimneys, foundations, exposed mill framing, gable roofs, and front porches.

 

At the same time, Mather and Albright helped push through an engineering marvel: the 10-mile-long Mt. Carmel-Zion Scenic highway [Highway 9]; the 1.1 mile tunnel, blasted through solid rock, took almost three years to complete.  Before the highway was opened in 1930, fewer than 4,000 visitors a year made it into the park; the year it opened, that number swelled to 55,000.

 

Sadly, on January 28, 1966, Underwood’s lovely lodge burned down, accidentally ignited by a crew doing repair work.  All that was left were the stone fireplace and the four pillars.  It was rebuilt in 108 days—but gone forever was the charming original.  Trying to be kind, Barnes characterizes the result as “a simple two-story utilitarian building with little appeal and none of the design and planning that went into earlier park architecture” (Barnes, 119).  Others were more frank, labeling ti a “monstrosity.”  Through the years since then, however, beginning in 1992, current ownership (XANTERRA Parks and Resorts [formerly Fred Harvey Hotels]), began a program of restoration and has tried to bring back some of the ambiance of the original.  But to anyone who has studied photographs of the original, what exists today jars and elicits a longing for what once was.

 

 

Park-wise, however, good things continue to happen.  Over 2,500,000 visitors come here every year, from all over the world. Since the valley was being destroyed by congestion, beginning in 2000, the heart and soul of Zion (the valley floor), has been closed to auto traffic during tourist season.  Instead, visitors park in Springdale and board propane-powered shuttle busses that ferry visitors into and out of the park.  The only exceptions have to do with those lucky few who have secured lodging inside the park at the lodge.  Their orange window cards enable them to drive to the lodge and park there until check-out time, when they may drive out.  Exceptions are dealt with by park police.  This has restored serenity to Zion.

 

OUR OWN JOURNEY

 

Awoke at 5:35 so as to get dressed and take in sunrise over Bryce Canyon.  We (Bob and Lucy Earp, and us) were disappointed as the overcast sky kept the sun from doing its usual colorizing.  After a delicious breakfast in the lodge dining room, we dithered as long as we could, furious at ourselves for failure to book two nights in that already cherished Duplex Cabin.  After checking out, we spent several hours driving along the rim, stopping at overlooks, then proceeding to Rainbow Overlook (the highest part of the park).  By then, the sun had broken through the clouds.

 

All too soon, we headed for the exit and then south on #89 through Glendale, Orderville, and Mount Carmel, to Mount Carmel Junction; here we turned west on #9 on the Mount Carmel-

Zion Scenic Highway.  That famed tunnel continues to amaze, even over eighty years after it was bored through solid rock.  The occasional panoramic windows provide us with glimpses of the magical world outside.

 

Once we came out into the sunlight, we were free to leatherneck—unfortunately, the Lincoln had no sunroof.  Finally, we turned in at the Zion National Park Visitor Center in Springdale.  It was a warm May day—but not nearly as warm as it gets in July (100E the daily average)!  We took full advantage of the film on the park’s history and iconic landmarks (such as the Weeping rock, Angel’s Landing, Kolob Arch, Temple of Sinawava, Great White Throne, the Organ, the Narrows, the Watchman, Towers of the Virgin, Kolob Canyon, Court of the Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa, etc).

 

 

Then we got back in our car, and made it past security, thanks to our orange card prominently marked (Registered Zion Lodge Guest), with dates.  We really felt privileged as we were permitted to drive in to the lodge.

 

The lodge was, as we knew it would be, a disappointment, after Bryce.  Besides, the area around it is roped off because of a habitat restoration project.  The wooden motel-like structure which housed our rooms was “same ol same ol,” typical of other forgettable lodgings we have stayed at through the years.  Dinner, we ate at the lodge’s salad bar.  After playing dominoes, we turned in.

J97 – Waterfall in one of the side canyons

 

Next morning, we awoke to a stunning blue sky day!  Breakfast was delicious.  We spent the day exploring the sites of the canyon, including side canyons, the Weeping Rock, along the Virgin River, and ending the day walking up into the Narrows where the Virgin River pours out of a slot canyon.  Along the way, we rubbed shoulders with men, women, and children, of all ages and nationalities.  Cooler than the day before, it turned out to be one of those absolutely perfect May days that come to us all too rarely in this journey called “life.”

 

Most visitors see only a small portion of the park, restricting their travel to the 6.2 mile road on the valley floor and possibly the Mt. Carmel-Zion Scenic Highway, and completely missing the spectacular northwestern end of the park, the Kolob Canyon area, which includes Kolob Arch, at 310 feet across possibly the largest free-standing rock arch in the world, and the steep 20-mile-long Kolob Terrace Road, out of the town of Virgin.  Neither did we make it to that part of the park; we could only sigh once again, and with Lucy, intone “A blessing for another time.”

 

SOURCES

 

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

 

Colorado and Utah (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2010).

 

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

 

Leach, Nicky, Zion: Sanctuary in the Desert (Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press, 2000, 2010).

 

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

 

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the 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).

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #5

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

 

January 11, 2012

 

THE ESCALANTE

 

Though millions of tourists throng Utah’s national parks, few are aware that most of them are part of a colossal geological formation Spanish explorers dubbed “The Escalante” (named after Spanish explorer Francisco Escalante), or “the Giant Staircase.”  The Escalante reaches into Capitol Reefs National Park to the northeast and Cedar Breaks National Monument to the northwest (reaching a height of over 10,000 feet).  Bryce varies several thousand feet in elevation (6,600 to 9,120); Zion (to the south) ranges from 3,666 to 8,726 feet in elevation.  East is the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (a vast 1.9 million acre preserve established by presidential proclamation in 1996).  The Escalante descends via Glen Canyon south to the Colorado River floor of the Grand Canyon (the lowest step).  Its two great river systems are the Paria and Escalante.  This area is without doubt one of the most remote regions in the lower 48.

 

            

 

BRYCE CANYON

 

“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

                                                                        –Ebenezer Bryce

 

Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer, moved with wife and family to this then remote region in 1875.  Other Mormon settlers, since the then all but unknown canyon represented the Bryce family’s back yard, so to speak, dubbed it “Bryce’s Canyon.”  In 1916, Ruby and Minnie Syrett decided to homestead in the area.  As word of the canyon’s unique beauty got out, tourists started packing in.  The Syretts concluded that there was a living to be made here, so set up tents, fed meals to the visitors, and eventually built a rather primitive lodging they called “Tourists’ Rest.”  In 1918, the Salt Lake City Tribune wrote of the canyon in glowing terms, declaring it to be “Utah’s New Wonderland.”

 

In the fall of 1918, just after World War I ended, Stephen Mather (founder of our National Park system), came to southern Utah to see for himself some of the wonders he’d been hearing about. When he reached Bryce, a guide told him to close his eyes, led him to the very edge of the abyss, then told him to open his eyes.  When he did, he was so stunned by what he saw that he responded by saying, “Marvelous!”  “Exquisite!”  “Nothing like it anywhere!” (Burns and Duncan, p. 174).  He determined to preserve it at all costs for the American people.  In this, he was ably supported by Utah Senator Reed Smoot.  In 1923, President Harding proclaimed it a National Monument; in 1928, doubled in size, Congress created Bryce National Park.

 

It is considered to be among the most spectacular and rewarding of all America’s national parks: “The spectacle of Bryce Canyon unfolds from the rim, a panorama of pink, purple, orange, and white limestone figures creating visions of oversized gargoyles, spires, temples, and arches set in gigantic scoops that span miles and drop 1,000 feet below. . . .  At Zion you look up, at Bryce you look down.” (Barnes, p. 127).

 

Because of extreme temperature fluctuation and seasonal rainfall, Bryce’s topography is continually changing.  These often bizarre-looking rock pillars, pedestals, and toadstool forms are collectively known as hoodoos.  And they are what makes Bryce so unique.

 

There are three very different ecological zones: highest, where spruce-fir predominate; middle, ponderosa pine stands; and lowest, with piñon pine and aspens.  It encompasses 35,835 acres (56 square miles).

 

BRYCE CANYON LODGE

 

According to Christine Barnes, both Stephen Mather and his associate, Horace Albright were determined to have constructed lodges and hotels worthy of their settings.  Especially were they set on choosing only the best architects to design them.  For Bryce, renowned architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was chosen for the job.  Underwood first visited Bryce in 1923.  Since he was not permitted to build it on the rim itself, he positioned it in a grove of ponderosa pines just a short walking distance from two of the canyon’s most spectacular overlooks.  Since tourism was crucial for park success, Mather persuaded Union Pacific Railroad’s management to partner with the Park Service.

 

Underwood had the needed stone cut at a quarry only a mile and a half away; the timber was local as well.  Even the workers were local.  From all indications, it appears that the lodge was intended to be only temporary, to be replaced with a better one later on.  Rather than using great logs such as were used in other lodges, 20-inch-logs were hauled in.  The original portion of the lodge was completed in 1925.

 

Adjacent to the lodge, Underwood completed a complex of 67 wood-frame cabins by 1927.  By 1929, Underwood completed fifteen Deluxe Cabins.  Given that the Great Depression of the 1930s followed that year, Underwood was never permitted to build a more substantial lodge.  Because of this, these Deluxe Cabins, with their steeply-pitched gable roofs, stone foundations and chimneys, big front porches, and half-log-slab exterior walls, are all that remain of the architect’s original template for Bryce.  Architecture historians today consider these cabins to be among the finest examples of historic rustic architecture to survive down to our time.

 

 

As was true of so many sister lodges, Bryce Canyon Lodge and cabins have had it anything but easy during the last almost ninety years.  During World War II, the lodge was closed completely for two years.  Union Pacific Railroad discontinued summer train service during the 1960s.  But the post-war boom brought in so many tourists that the lodging facilities were strained to the limit.  In 1986, a serious restoration program was begun.  In the process, they discovered the lodge’s foundation was virtually nonexistent.  They had to construct a new one.  Most everything was spruced up.  In cooperation with FOREVER RESORTS, a great deal of effort and money has gone into restoring much of the lodge and cabins.  So much so, that the original aura has been almost completely restored.

 

 

OUR OWN JOURNEY

 

At Torrey, we picked up Highway 12 going south.  Before long, we began to climb – and climb, up 9,620 feet Boulder Mountain.  Off to the east jutting into the sky were the snow-capped Henry Mountains.  We passed the road that led to the spot where a number of years ago, traveling solo, I’d camped out for the night in my sleeping bag.  A tiny piece of my life left in that grove of trees.

 

After reaching the summit, we descended toward Escalante.  Another memory awaited there.  Even though I am not paranoid about heights, ahead was a stretch of Highway 12 that gave me the heeby-jeebies the first time I drove over it—would it be less formidable this time?  Vain hope!  Like many of you who love to travel, I’m a veteran of terrifying roads: the old Tioga Pass Road out of Yosemite still comes to me in my dreams sometimes.  But on Tioga, even though you were only one loose lug-nut from plunging into space, one could always fudge into the inside lane.  Not so the Escalante stretch: the most apt metaphor I can think of is, it’s like driving on a razor blade, with a sheer drop to the right of you and a sheer drop to the left of you.  Grand Staircase without railings!  I noticed that it was mighty quiet in the car; not until we reached tierra firme again did natural breathing resume.

 

It was mid afternoon when we turned left towards Bryce Canyon.  At the village, there were quite a number of restaurants and lodging options; necessary, because reservations in the park itself are limited to Bryce Canyon Lodge.  Other travelers are encouraged to leave their cars outside the park and take the shuttle in, for parking spaces in the park are scarce.

 

We thought we’d learned our lesson the year before when we took the Northwest National Park Loop: stay two nights at each lodge rather than one.  Generally speaking, we’d done that.  But not at Bryce. After all, it was a relatively small park.  BIG MISTAKE!

 

         

 

We pulled in at the lodge and checked in.  The lodge itself was western rustic, simple, blending into the ponderosa grove.  Then we found our way to the Deluxe Duplex Cabin (units 538 and 539) that we’d reserved over a year before.  It was an architectural thing of beauty!  Both outside and in!  The soughing of the pines and the somewhat isolated placement of our cabin combined to strip us of all the pressures of the world.  Making the experience even more meaningful was the realization that well over eighty years ago, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, National Park visionaries Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, and executives of Union Pacific Railroad had all studied and fine-tuned the creation of this very cabin!  Then, the icing on the cake: a knock on the door.  A welcome basket from the high command of FOREVER RESORTS, cherished friends of ours.  And just think: we’d have to leave this heaven-on-earth in the morning!

 

It almost took crowbars to pry us from our cabin!  For after all, we’d come here to see the canyon, not the lodging.  It was mid-afternoon, yet the canyon still overwhelmed.  Down below we could see hikers descending into the goblinland of the hoodoos; and other hikers were emerging from them on the way back up.

 


 

After a while we returned to the cabin as we had made early dinner reservations in the lodge’s dining room.  Delicious quesadilla!  Afterwards, almost too late, we raced back to the rim and mistakenly went to Sunrise Point first instead of Sunset Point.  The colors, though stunning, were already fading and the shadows were remorselessly closing shop.  Right on the edge, two engaging young women were seated on a bench overlooking the canyon, a simple dinner spread out between them.  I struck up a conversation with them.  Turned out they were from Germany, here on a holiday.  All too soon they’d have to return home.  But, they admitted, already they’d fallen in love with Utah.  They’d be back!

 

Later on, we returned and listened to a fascinating lecture on migratory birds; unfortunately, the serenity of the place had so seeped into our bones that all we could think of was migrating back to that wonderful cabin, sitting by the fireplace, crawling into bed, and listening to the wind in the pines.  So we did just that.

 

SOURCES

 

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc, 2002).

 

Bezy, John, Bryce Canyon: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2001).

 

Colorado and Utah (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2010).

 

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

 

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

 

Utah’s National Parks & Monuments (New York: American Park Network, 2009).

 

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

ARCHES AND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARKS

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS AND LODGES #3

ARCHES AND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARKS

For Nov. 30, 2011

It snowed all night.  We were up early, ate breakfast, then shivered as we scraped off the snow and ice from the car.  Turned on the news, and it confirmed our suspicions: Don’t even try to make it through on Interstate 70.  It’s closed.  So it was that after we’d packed the car and taken photos of the snowcapped Stanley, we headed down Big Thompson Canyon.  Northern route it would be.  A pattern developed that would remain a constant: snow at higher elevations, rain in the lower.  To save time, we cut across at an angle on Highway 287; only it almost cost us more time as the snow got so deep, the Lincoln not having snow tires, we barely made it through.

Then it was out onto Interstate 80 in Wyoming; turned south on Highway 13, via Baggs, Craig, Meeker, and hit Interstate 70 at Rifle.  From there on, it was clear-sailing.  At a service station we learned we’d made the right decision: without either 4WD or snow tires, we wouldn’t have made it through Eisenhower Tunnel or over Vail Pass.  I-70 was indeed closed.

As we drove west on I-70, it was obvious that the Colorado River was running high.  Shortly after we entered Utah, we made a snap decision: veering south at Cisco Junction rather than the usual Crescent Junction.  Were we ever glad we did!  Highway 191 out of Crescent Junction to Moab is so-so, but the Hwy 128 Scenic Byway is breathtaking!  One of the most spectacular river drives any of us had ever taken.  We hit it late afternoon when the colors were at their best.  Towering up above the Colorado River were great bronzed cliffs, among them the Twin Fisher Towers, 1500 feet higher than the river.

Moab has become the jumping-off place for all of South Utah, a far cry from what it was during the uranium boom of the 1950s—then it was a wide open boom town honeycombed with bars.  Back even further, Cassidy’s Wild Bunch frequented it, and Zane Grey made Moab the scene for many of his novels!  Many westerns have been filmed in this vicinity since then.  Today, tourism is king, and the town has become the outdoor centrifuge for 4-wheeling, mountain-biking, hiking, white-water rafting, canoeing, horseback-rides, and cross-country skiing.  Besides all this, it is also the hub for the twenty plus national parks and monuments in this magnificent desert country.  We stayed at the Best Western Canyonlands.  There are no historic park hotels in this part of Utah.  If we’d learned one lesson from our Northwest Park Loop of 2010, it was to slow down.  One day is too short a time to experience such national park wonders.  Two days is too, but still better than one.  Besides, if you stay two nights, you don’t have to repack every night—which really gets old on a three to four week trip.  So it was that we stayed in Moab two nights.  We also learned that, other than Moab, there are precious few motel or hotel accommodations in that part of Utah.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Two people started the ball rolling here.  In 1922, Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, was so impressed with the wild beauty of the area that he persuaded Frank Wadleigh, the passenger traffic manager for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, to come and see for himself.  He in turn contacted Stephen Mather in Washington, D.C.  When Mather came here and discovered for himself “the world’s largest collection of exquisite red stone arches—over two thousand of them—, “he was convinced they ought to be saved.  He then enlisted the support of Dr. J. W. Williams and Lawrence Gould, who in turn put pressure on Utah Senator Reed Smoot.  But Interior secretary Herbert Work balked, for Interior was downsizing rather than adding.  In 1929, President Herbert Hoover and Interior Secretary Ray L. Wilbur stepped in and, by executive order, established Arches as a national monument. 

President Eisenhower reduced it in size, but President Lyndon Johnson increased it again.  In 1971, President Nixon signed a bill making it a national park.  In 1998, it was increased in size in order to bring in Lost Spring Canyon.  Even so, at 76,519 acres, it is relatively small in area.

Nevertheless, people throng here from all over the world.  Few indeed see all 2,000 arches, but most see the park’s two crown jewels: the iconic Delicate Arch, which park officials claim to be “the best-known arch in the world”—it even graces Utah’s license plates.  Probably only Monument Valley’s Rainbow Bridge could challenge its worldwide preeminence.  The other must-see is one of the world’s longest natural spans at 306 feet, Landscape Arch.  But since it is only eleven feet wide (12 feet at its center), arch buffs fear for its future.  For they remember that Wall Arch had stood here for thousands of years: in fact it was already curving gracefully when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction over 4,000 years ago.  Yet, on Aug 5, 2008, Wall Arch simply collapsed.  Then there’s Skyline Arch.  Until 1940, a huge boulder blocked half its opening, then suddenly, after no one knows how many years of slow erosion undermining the boulder’s support, gravity won: the giant stone tumbled out of the arch, and Skyline Arch instantaneously nearly doubled in size. 

Other favorites tourists search out include The Three Gossips, Double O Arch and the Fins in Devil’s Garden, Double Arch in the Windows section, The Three Penguins, Surprise Arch, The Eye of the Whale, Balanced Rock and Chip-off-the-Old Block, Pine Tree Arch, North Window, Turret Arch, Sipapu and Kachina Bridges, Owachomo Bridge, etc.

Arches is a place to return to, again and again.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Nearby Canyonlands National Park, at 387,598 acres, is over four times the size of Arches.  Though it is the largest national park in Utah, it is the least developed, the wildest; a landscape characterized by famed explorer John Wesley Powell as “a wilderness of rocks…with ten thousand strangely carved forms in every direction.”  Powell also named such popular attractions as Cataract Canyon, the Dirty Devil, and the Labryinth.

During the 1950s and 1960s uranium prospectors ran roughshod over this area.  Bulldozed roads crisscrossed the landscape.  But in 1964, no small thanks to Stewart Udall, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation for the establishment of Canyonlands National Park. 

Mel White points out that while Canyonlands does have “some paved roads leading to spectacular views, most of the park is accessible only to hikers, boaters, and mountain bikers….  The positive side of this remoteness, of course, is the solitude, beauty, and adventure the park offers to intrepid visitors.  Canyonlands protects one of the most unspoiled areas of the vast Colorado Plateau, a high desert region of stark rock formations, deep river-cut canyons, and sparse vegetation that receives less than 10 inches of rain in an average year.  Two of the West’s iconic rivers, the Colorado and the Green, come together in the center of Canyonlands National Park.  Their canyons, forming a rough “Y” shape, divide the park into three land sections.  Between the two arms of the “Y” is a high mesa called Island in the Sky, 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape and more than 2,000 feet higher than the site of the rivers’ confluence.  To the east is The Needles, a land of tall colorful sandstone pinnacles.  To the west is The Maze, reachable from the other sections only by a long, roundabout journey involving unpaved roads.  Because of the remoteness of The Maze, and time needed to reach it, most visitors spend at least three days exploring it.  Park rangers, with good reason, describe the rivers themselves as the fourth section of Canyonlands” (White, p. 350).

OUR OWN VISIT

We made an early start for we were foolishly attempting to see both parks in one day.  Our first stop was at the Arches Visitor Center.  We have learned that visiting a park’s visitor center early on reduces the risk that we’ll inadvertently miss must-see portions of the park.  As we crested at the top of a long steep hill, there in the east were the spectacular snowcapped La Sal Mountains (Utah’s second highest range).  We stopped at popular sites such as Balancing Rock, Park Avenue, Three Gossips, North Window and South Window, Double Arch, and Turret Arch. This took all morning. 

In the afternoon, we moved on over to Canyonlands.  After spending some time in the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, we walked out to the dramatic-looking Mesa Arch—a kind traveler took a group photo of us there.  From there, we stopped at Buck Canyon Overlook and Grand View Overlook.  And then we took the long side trip out to Dead Horse Point Overlook, one of the most photographed overlooks in America.  From the highest point on the Island in the Sky Mesa, you can see a hundred miles into some of the grandest scenery on the planet: the snowcapped La Sal Mountains (over 12,000 feet in elevation) to the east, the Abajo Mountain Range to the south, and the Henry Mountains to the southwest.

We were tired when we returned to our motel late that afternoon, for we’d packed a lot into one day; next time, we vowed we’d stay longer and see more within each park. 

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we will move on to Capitol Reefs and Bryce Canyon.

* * * * *

SOURCES USED

Arches National Park (Moab, Utah: Arches National Park, 2011).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Johnson, David, Arches: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: KC Publications, 2010).

Johnson, David, Canyonlands: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: KC Publications, 2010).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

Utah’s Canyonlands Travel Region (Moab, Utah: Utah’s Canyonlands, 2011).

Utah’s National Parks and Monuments (New York: American Park Network, 2009).

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

CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART® MEANDERS

“Meander” is the most apt verb I can think of to describe the journey of the last nineteen years. Nothing about it can remotely be classified as being predictable (perhaps the most exciting and frustrating aspect of turning over the navigational role of one’s life to God).

If I ever doubted the confusion generated by this meandering, the reactions of those who stop to look at the blur of Christmas-related titles and publishers at book-signing tables would set me straight. Goodness, sometimes I get confused myself just trying to explain all the twists and turns. But let’s try anyhow.

Christmas in My Heart

First of all: what I’ve come to call the “core series.” Fortunately, Review and Herald Publishing’s commitment to the series was unwavering (for a decade and a half); this provided the stability the series needed in its formative years. Unbeknownst to me, that very first year, I was locked in to what became the series’ defining template: old-timey Currier and Ives covers (horizontal rather than vertical format), old-timey woodcut illustrations inside, and old-timey (even when stories are new ones) stories that touch the heart. As time passed, and more and more Christmasaholics bought into completion (keeping their own series complete by buying the new collection every Christmas season), the template became so iconic I couldn’t have altered it even had I wanted to do so.

Focus on the Family’s involvement began early, and has continued with unbroken commitment ever since. Indeed, well over half the time, the Focus Christmas story of the year has been taken from the pages of Christmas in My Heart®. Most years, the books have been offered as premiums to ministry supporters, as part of seasonal mailouts reaching millions every Christmas.

Because of Focus on the Family’s involvement and because the first four books were a GOLD MEDALLION Finalist in 1995, the series rapidly expanded into Evangelical Christianity.

Which led to the seven-year partnership with Doubleday/Random House, beginning in 1996. Their books were re-scrambles (some stories taken at random from each of the first four collections), with old-timey (but not Currier and Ives) covers, woodcut illustrations (but different from those in the core series), vertical format rather than horizontal, and hardback with dust jacket rather than trade paper. With the entry of Doubleday, the series was marketed in chain stores everywhere, thus becoming a staple in the broader secular market.

Concerned that someone else might try to steal the title, Doubleday insisted that we Trademark it (which we did, after considerable legal choreography, effort and money). We renewed that Trademark at the end of five years, and again after ten years. Fortuitously, it turns out, for during the last 24 months, someone (a major player in today’s marketplace) moved in on the title. Only the Trademark saved us.

Christmas in My Soul

Doubleday/Random House published four Christmas in My Heart® Treasuries (1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999); at the end of that period, they moved on to a new series title, Christmas in My Soul for their gift books over the next three years (2000, 2001, and 2002), each book a re-scramble of stories taken from the first six books in the core series.

In 1998, Tyndale House co-published with Review and Herald the core edition of Christmas in my Heart® 7 (both publishing house imprints on the title page). In 1999 Tyndale House joined forces with Focus on the Family to publish a vertical trade paper edition of the core series (with different cover and introduction, but otherwise remaining the same content and illustration-wise).

But when Doubleday switched series titles in 2000, Focus on the Family and Tyndale House pounced on the hardback rights to the core series. Those vertical hardbacks with dust jackets were also beautiful works of art, just as Doubleday’s were, with old-timey non-Currier and Ives covers; but otherwise, inside, the same stories and illustrations as those used by Review and Herald in the core series. These editions continued to be published through 2006 (Christmas in My Heart® 9 – 15).

The 12 Stories of Christmas

In 2001, RiverOak/David C. Cook published The Twelve Stories of Christmas (the first twelve Christmas stories I wrote personally); for the only time, I also told the story behind the story—how I happened to write each one.

In 2006, storms assailed Christmas in My Heart®. Review and Herald wavered in its commitment to continuing the series, thus opening up the possibility of Focus on the Family/Tyndale House taking over all markets for the core series. Needless to say, Focus on the Family and Tyndale were delighted. But, at the last minute, Review and Herald decided to publish Christmas in My Heart® 16 after all. Result: Tyndale House and Focus on the Family ceased publishing their hardbacks of the core series. But then, even though they were still selling the same number of books as before, Review and Herald decided that Christmas in My Heart® 16 would be a nice number to conclude the series with. Not sharing this perception that the series had reached its terminus, I asked Pacific Press Publishing if they were interested in picking up the series with Christmas in My Heart® 17. The answer, in only hours, was a resounding, “In a heartbeat!” Same format, same Currier and Ives covers, same woodcut illustrations as before—all agreed upon. Thus the series has continued; this year with Christmas in My Heart® 19. The manuscript for Christmas in My Heart® 20 has already been sent in.

In 2007 and 2008, Howard/Simon & Schuster published three beautiful retrospective collections (rescramblings from Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16): The Best of Christmas in My Heart® 1, Christmas in My Heart® 2, and Candle in the Forest and Other Christmas Stories Children Love.

Christmas in My Heart® 1 was published in Spanish and the first six books were published (rescrambles) in Norwegian.

St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas

Besides this, I edited Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abby Farwell Brown’s Christmas Angel for Focus on the Family/Tyndale House in 1997 and 1999. I partnered with Canon James Rosenthal for our book St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas for Thomas Nelson in 2005; just off the press is another St. Nicholas book, my Saint Nicholas, part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters biography series.

This incredible story would have been much more difficult without the steadfast support and innovative placement of our collections by my cherished agent and friend, Greg Johnson, president of WordServe Literary Group, Ltd.

A special note: because of editorial differences of opinion (as to specific story-inclusion) in Review and Herald and Focus on the Family/Tyndale House, those who wish to acquire the complete core series of stories—so far—would need to secure the following:

Review and Herald Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16.

Focus on the Family/Tyndale House Christmas in My Heart® 13 and Christmas in My Heart® 15.

Pacific Press Christmas in My Heart® 17, 18, 19.

* * * * *

So this blog brings all these meanderings up to date. Connie and I have no idea as to how long the series may last—we leave all that up to the good Lord. We take no credit for the first nineteen years of its story: we’ve only been taking orders from our Commander in Chief. When it is His will that the last Christmas in My Heart® book rolls off the press, then it will be time to write “Finis” to its story.

But not until then.

I’ll conclude this blog with a line from one of James Dobson’s many personal letters to me, “You’re right, Joe: Neither of our ministries belongs to us—but isn’t it a great ride?”

That it has been—and continues to be.

ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS: THE NEXT STEP

Again and again in life, I’ve seen it happen: God never does anything by halves! And I was about to experience the second half of a plan I knew nothing about. I took my creative writing class on a field trip to Maryland’s largest publishing house, Review and Herald Publishing Association, in Hagerstown. Once the guide had my students safely in tow, I escaped. As I wandered around, I chanced to peer into the doorway of then Acquisitions Editor Penny Estes Wheeler (I figured that with a last name of Wheeler she couldn’t be all bad).

We small-talked for some time. Turned out she was already familiar with my writing in magazines and liked what she’d read. After a time she said, “Well, what have you been writing lately?”

“A couple of Christmas stories.”

“What kind?”

“Oh, they’re Christ-centered rather than Santa Claus-centered.”

“What else?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“Try me.”

“Well, you can’t read them without crying.”

“Just what we need. But you’ve only written two?” She replied.

“Yes. But I’ve been collecting others all my life – in fact, I was raised on them,” was my response.

That’s all it took. Being very good at what she did, she leaned back and said, in just as deceptively casual a tone as Naomi had used a couple of years before, “You know, there’s a real vacuum for that kind of story today in the market today. Why don’t you just package up your favorite stories and send them to us? We’ll do the rest. Piece of cake.”

Although it sounded easy, I suspected I had a lot of work to do. Penny bulldogged me by mail and by phone until I assembled a big stack of Christmas stories and sent them to Hagerstown.  Then, happy to be done with my part, I all but forgot about it.

Several months later, I was jolted back to reality with a phone call. She said, “Joe, the committee has cried its way through your manuscript. We’d very much like to publish it.”

From there on, events moved quickly – but no thanks to me. From the title of the book to the Currier and Ives winter scene on the cover to the woodcut illustrations inside, my good editor pushed the book through.

The finished book was beautiful. People loved it.  But most of all they loved the deeply-moving stories inside. The collection was called Christmas in My Heart, and it was intended to be a stand-alone book

But gradually sales began to build. People realized that the collection was different from anything else available. When it went through two printings before Christmas, my editor got me on the phone and said, “Joe, can you put together another collection right away so we can rush it into print before next Christmas?”

“Sure, no problem,” I answered.

So it came to pass that our second collection bravely bore a “2” on its cover. It would not be a one-shot book after all; it would be a two-book series.

Right after Christmas in My Heart came out in 1992, I became convicted that I ought to send a copy to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I knew him to be as sentimental about deeply-moving stories as I was.  I inscribed a copy to Dobson and sent it off. He didn’t respond, but one of his vice presidents did – she loved it! When Number 2 came out, I sent him another. Dobson didn’t respond, but the same vice president did.

Late in ’93, I came to my personal Rubicon – on the phone was my remorseless editor: “Joe, Number Two is selling so well, we’re wondering if it’s possible for you to put together a third collection of Christmas stories?”

The ball was now in my court. I was out of stories as well as illustrations for the covers. If the series was to go to three, I would have to seriously dig in and find the stories that would grace it. Fortunately, by now readers had begun sending me their favorite stories, their way of letting me know they wanted another collection. So I was able to put together a third collection. As for the illustrations, I began buying old books illustrated with woodcuts (most of these books were at least a hundred years old).

So it was that I belatedly moved from a passive role into an active one. For the first time I began to realize that I was part of something big. That it was big enough to commandeer the rest of our lives, however, was mercifully withheld from us.

In the fall of ’94, Christmas in My Heart 3 came out, and I once again sent a copy to Dr. Dobson. In my naiveté I assumed that all you had to do was address a book to Dobson, mail it off, and he’d get it and read it. The reality was that Focus had thirteen hundred employees; that over eighty Christian publishers barraged the ministry with their books; and that it took almost six hundred employees to answer mail and phone calls from people like me. The chances of getting through to the great man himself were almost nil. Yet, in spite of those facts, now came the third life-changing day. The telephone rang and a voice I’d never heard before was on the line. The voice turned out to be my correspondence friend at Focus on the Family, Diane Passno.

My relationship with Focus on the Family ministry really began that day when they asked to use one of my stories called “The Tiny Foot” by Frederick Loomis. They called again later and asked if the story could also be used on the air. Again I agreed. But I still had no idea of what those two requests would really mean for me. I did remember that Diane Passno had warned me, “Joe, if Dr. Dobson ever really uses you, your life will never be the same again.”

Truer words were never spoken. By the time that story had gone out to about three million homes and it had been read on the air around the world, life as I had known it was over. The series was a Gold Medallion finalist the next year.

Twelve publishing houses, and 73 books after inception, here we are in December of 2010. Christmas in My Heart®, now the longest-running Christmas story series in America, has been made so by seven publishers: Review and Herald, Pacific Press, Focus on the Family, Tyndale House, Doubleday/RandomHouse, Howard/Simon and Schuster, and RiverOak/David C. Cook. I’ve never taken credit for any of it, for it is not a Joe Wheeler-thing, but rather a God-thing. What a joy to be given the privilege of co-partnering with the Divine.

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.

THE CLOCK OF LIFE

“The clock of life is wound but once
And no one can tell you when the hands will stop
At late or early hour;
Now is the only time you have;
Live, love, toil with a will;
Place no confidence in tomorrow
For the clock may then be still.”

Author Unknown

This powerful little poem I positioned at both the beginning and ending of my most recent Christmas story, “The Clock of Life” in Christmas in My Heart 18 (Pacific Press, 2009); in that story, I fictionalized my own recent close call. Over an 18-month period, my body began shutting down on me. Finally, my doctor took one look at my yellow skin and gave me two hours’ notice before checking in at a hospital E.R, Then it was a race against time to find out what was wrong before it was too late.

During those long days and much longer nights, when the clock on the wall above my bed seemed to take forever to indicate one lone minute had passed, I had plenty of opportunities to Monday-morning quarterback my life: Was my life over, my race done? Had I accomplished all I had hoped to in this short soap opera we label “life”? Was I at peace with God? Had I told my wife and children often enough how very much I loved and cherished them? Was my house in order (ready for an exhaustive audit)? If my body continued to close shop on me, was I ready to tie up all the loose ends of my life? Was my wife Connie prepared to shoulder the entire burden of life alone? What could she do with the massive library that has made our 71 books possible? Did I have fences I needed to mend before it was too late? How was I doing on my Bucket List? Did I have any major regrets? Most important of all . . . was I ready to meet my Maker?

After much prayer, I was convicted that I should pour all these variables into my 18th Christmas story. And “The Clock of Life” proved to be the perfect catalyst.

* * * * *

Several days ago, I was debriefing by phone with Tim Kubrock (principal of Monterey Bay Academy) over the alumni breakfast the week before; more specifically, my remarks to the alumni.

Because of all I have gone through during the last couple of years, I was especially conscious of just how fragile is our hold on life—and, by extension, how little time we have in which to accomplish our goals. I used to take all this for granted. I most certainly do not any more.

And so I urged my fellow alumni to not delay in their giving to this school that contributed so much to us in the morning of our lives. I was painfully blunt: “You know, each year we lose more of our beloved classmates—most likely, never on earth will all of us in this room assemble together again. So please don’t delay in your support of our alma mater.”

All this the principal and I referenced in our chat.

Then he told me, “I’ve got to tell you about an experience I had in my office about 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. A 50th anniversary alum walked in (I could tell by the honor ribbon on his shirt). Well, he just wanted to talk about the academy, life in general, his own children (who’d also attended the academy), and some painful things I can’t share. Before he left, I felt impressed to offer prayer for him and his family: that the Lord would help to heal the brokenness in his family. When he got up to leave, there was a softness and peace in his face that had not been there when he came in.

There was then a long silence. . .

Followed by a sigh . . . and

“He died last Friday.”

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

This is not the “same ol” Christmas we have become used to.  During the past three months of my book-signings I have noticed changes that are anything but subtle.  Men and women are out of work who have never been in that condition before.  While people are shopping almost as much as usual, they are buying less — considerably less!  They are paying with cash, check, or debit card more — and credit card less. 
 
Young people who once expected academic degrees to automatically open job opportunities to them are shocked to discover that they are still jobless even after hundreds of job applications have been filed.  Top and middle management people are shuddering at each pay-period, inwardly asking, Is this week my last?  Senior citizens are even more desperate.  Even professionals with masters, and even doctoral degrees, are being forced to accept jobs that pay little more than minimum wage.
 
In our mountain community not long ago, I overheard a construction contractor speaking to the bank clerk to my left, anguish in his voice:  “I’m teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; it used to be that when an inspector signed off on plumbing, electrical, septic, etc., the bank would cover the costs for getting that far — but no more: now they tell us we won’t get a dime until we complete the entire house!  We don’t have enough reserves to do that!  Everyone I know in the construction business is over-extended, behind in payments, and only pennies away from bankruptcy!  I’ve never seen it like this before.”
 
In the downtown Denver Barnes & Noble last week, out-of-work men and women could only gaze longingly at books they yearned for but could not buy.  Parents of children who begged for certain books could only say, in pain-wracked voice, “Not this year, dear.”  Homeless people would admit, “I’m living on the street — I come in here to get warm.”  Just yesterday I overheard a man saying, “Finally got a job — and after two weeks I was let go . . . without pay.”
 
Gone is the perception that the future is rosy, that things will be better tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year.  People are losing faith in both Democrats and Republicans, and they are bitterly disgusted with Wall Street.  They don’t believe talking heads on TV really have the answers either — nobody has the answers: not even the ultimate financial wizard, Warren Buffett!  Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has there been this sense of helplessness among so many.
 
And so there is new relevance to Christina Rossetti’s Christmas Carol, “In the bleak midwinter, Frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron; Water like a stone.”
 
Yes, in this bleak midwinter of 2009 — only God has the answers.
Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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