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).

PEOPLE WHO WORK IN NATIONAL PARK LODGES

We’ve
come to the end of this series of blogs celebrating Northwest Loop
lodges. But lodges are far more than wood, steel, stone, and glass:
it takes flesh and blood people to bring them to life. Since most
NW lodges close during winter months, it should come as no surprise
to discover that most workers are seasonal, many being students
during the winter months. I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to
life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Americans
(especially the young) flooded out of the cities and into the
nation’s heartland, seeking enough work to stay alive.
“Brother, can you spare a dime,” the mantra for that
generation. The difference this time having to do with our
changing mores. Back then, most of those who left home were
males; that is not true today. When we asked those who waited
tables, cleaned rooms, or otherwise kept the park lodges running
smoothly, where they came from, we quickly discovered that they
came from all across the U.S., Canada, and from around the
world. When asked why, one response predominated: “Since I
couldn’t get a job, I decided to follow my dream and see places
I’ve always wanted to see.” Or, “Since I couldn’t afford
college tuition, I logged in at websites such as Coolworks.com to see what was
available out there.” Some were recent graduates unable to
land a full-time job. Collectively, these workers were a very
attractive mix: clearly the best, cleanest-cut, most adventurous of
their age-group. Since I’m such a romantic, I asked a number
of them what resulted from the juxtaposition of young people of
both sexes in these lodge facilities. They’d smile and admit
to “lots of romances—more romances than marriages.” Yet, a
surprisingly large number spoke of marriages. One young man,
at Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier National Park, paused after my
questioning before musing, “You know . . . I must be a throwback to
my parents. . . . They met at a facility like
this, and have worked in parks ever since. They
love what they do! So it’s affected me
too. Growing up in the great out-of-doors, I couldn’t even
imagine being cooped up in a city! . . . . So, yes, I’ll
probably marry one of my co-workers just like my folks did.” They
were a most mobile group. Freed by the worldwide web to soar
across the nation and the world at the flick of a mouse, state or
national borders meant nothing to them. Shoot! All they
needed was a backpack and enough money to put food in their mouths
and pay the small fees required at youth hostels. They were
unabashedly rootless and loved the life. Their preferred
network: word of mouth. In a rain forest near Lake Quinault,
Bob and I met three very attractive coeds who were building
railings on park trails for the Oregon counterpart to FDR’s
Civilian Conservation Corps. Clearly, they were having a
wonderful time! Indeed, they were bubbling over
with joie de vivre. At Stehekin, that “island”
in time of a Shangri-la on Lake Chelan, one of the young waitresses
could be found during off-hours reading Jane Austen on a rustic
wooden bench, meditatively dreaming the vision of water and
mountains away. At Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a young string quartet
from one of the most prestigious music schools on the East Coast
confessed to coming here every summer, so that they could interact
with like-minded people from all around the world, work with
students who, like them, were lovers of the wide world, adventurers
all, and revel in hikes into every corner of Yellowstone and the
Tetons. “What’s not to like about that?” * * * * * But we
were more surprised by the number of older people we found working
in the park. At Stehekin, the postmaster chuckled as she told
of her daily excitement: carrying her bag of outgoing mail to the
boat just before it returned to Chelan. “Postal regulations
mandate that I lock the door when I leave, but I really don’t need
to. People here are honest.” When asked if she was a
native, she laughed again, “Oh, goodness, no! My husband and
I, as retirees, were sick and tired of the sameness of our lives,
so when we heard of this job, we jumped at the chance to move
here. My husband works in maintenance. Here I’m
needed, and we’ve just fallen in love with the
people here. I just couldn’t imagine leaving this magical
place.” At Old Faithful Inn, that madhouse of seething humanity,
during the unnatural serenity of one of the Old Faithful
Geyser-induced ebb-tides, I asked a lovely young woman,
effervescent, radiating happiness, and eager to be of service to
people like us, what brought her there—but before she could even
answer, an older woman broke in: “But what about me—aren’t you even
interested in me?” Then it was almost
like a dam broke as she poured out her story: Left alone at
midlife, she chanced to come to Old Faithful Inn to work for the
summer–and got hooked. She said, “I’ve been coming back here
every summer for over twenty years. It’s my life! I
live for coming back here every summer. Those who work here,”
and she looked fondly at her beautiful co-worker, “are my
children, and they treat me as though I’m
their mother. Oh the stories I get to hear!” In Colorado, I
met a United Airlines pilot retiree, who when I told him where I’d
been, responded with, “Let me tell you about my folks. Many
years ago, my mother-in-law, then a college student from back East,
from a well-to-do family, suddenly decided she wanted to go out
west to work in Yellowstone for the summer. Her father,
aghast at his daughter even daring to do such a thing, reluctantly
permitted her to go, but first made her accept a derringer for
protection. So when I asked him what happened afterwards, he
paused, a far-away look in his eyes: “Well, she never had to use
her derringer—but she did marry her employer,
the manager of Old Faithful Inn.” * * * * * These are just a few of
the stories we heard during our all-too-brief visits to these
wonderful old lodges. As an author, I’ve discovered that most
everyone I meet has a fascinating story to tell, reminding me of
that moving observation by Hans Christian Andersen: Each
of our lives is a fairy tale, written by the hand of
God
.

CRATER LAKE LODGE, CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK

Finding a rental car with enough trunk room for four people—for a month—was no easy task. Finally, Budget came through with a Lincoln Town Car (the only full-size auto with enough trunk room).

In mid-June, Connie and I picked up Bob and Lucy Earp at the Portland Airport Hampton Inn. We collectively gulped as we looked at all their luggage (from Tennessee) and ours (from Colorado). How in the world would we ever get all that in? We did—but it wasn’t easy.

Finally, with Bob in front with me and Lucy in back with Connie, we looked at each other: would our friendship stand a month together in the same car? We bowed our heads and prayed that God would grant us His protection and blessing. Out of our battery of resource books, we read out loud the lead quotation in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ National Park opus maximus:

One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.
That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. . . . The whole wilderness in unity and interrelation is alive and familiar… the very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. . .

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in
and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest . . . in our
magnificent National Parks—Nature’s sublime onderlands, the admiration and joy of the world.

—John Muir

With that inspirational preamble, we drove off. I-5 South was predictably boring; but things got more interesting after we veered off onto Highway 58 at Eugene. Keeping us company for some time was one of Zane Grey’s most beloved fishing rivers, the North Umpqua. It was late afternoon before we hit the snowline. By the time we nosed the car into the Crater Lake Lodge parking lot, it was clear we wouldn’t be able to drive around the crater—too much snow!

By now, the lodge was an old friend: Connie and I first came here in 1962; our son Greg did too, but didn’t see much, since he was still in the hopper. The last time we visited it there was so much snow we had to tunnel our way through. But this year had been a light winter.

It is America’s deepest lake (almost 2,000 feet deep), and one of the ten deepest in the world; its beginning rocked the West: 7,700 years ago, towering Mount Mazama erupted with 100 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, blowing ash and pumice over what is today eight western states and three Canadian provinces. The resulting caldron (six miles across), over millennia, gradually began to fill with water from rain and snowmelt—no streams feed into it or drain it. Snow is heavy, averaging 44 feet a year, thus its summers are short. It has been documented as the clearest water in the world, with perhaps as deep a blue as exists on the planet.

THE LODGE OREGONIANS WOULDN’T LET DIE

Most of our national parks were blessed by single-minded visionaries obsessed with saving them for posterity; this proved true for Crater lake as well: in 1870, a fifteen-year-old Kansas boy, William Gladstone Steel, idly thumbing through newspaper sheets that had been used to wrap his lunch, chanced to see an article about a mysterious “sunken lake” in Oregon. Not only did he vow to see it some day, he kept his vow. Fifteen years later, in 1885, the now thirty-year-old man stood on the lake’s rim—awestruck. Right then and there, he made another vow; to spend the rest of his life on its behalf. No small thanks to him, in 1902, it became the nation’s sixth national park. Steel became park superintendent.

But Steel yearned for more than just national park status, he wanted several lodges of the stature of El Tovar, Ahwahnee, and Old Faithful to grace it. But that task proved to be a veritable labor of Sisyphus for a number of reasons, chiefly his failure to find wealthy backers and the short summer seasons. Finally, concluding that he’d just have to make do with what he had (the support of Portland entrepreneur Alfred L. Parkhurst, architect R. H. Hockenberry, and builder Frank Keyes), plans to construct a lodge of some 77 rooms were set in motion.

Sadly, however, so underfunded was the project that they were forced to cut corners—but it was either that, or nothing. One of those cost-cutting decisions resulted in their foregoing strong roof trusses. Predictably, the roof collapsed during the blizzards of 1913-14. But the lodge bravely opened its doors anyway, in its unfinished state, in 1915.

And the people came. The late teens and Roaring Twenties spawned an explosion of automobile travel, and Crater Lake Lodge became a popular destination—at least when snow melted early enough. But always it was a battle to keep it open. Ownership changed hands again and again. In 1959, plans were made for its razing—but somehow it survived until 1984 when the National Park Service recommended that it be demolished, and a new one constructed away from the rim. And they had reasons: “The truth was that the old lodge was a dump. The roof sagged, the bathrooms were spartan, light fixtures dangled from the ceiling, and the wind whipped through the walls”. . . . As time passed, “it would kind of move and creak and groan with the snow in the winter . . . so heavy that the roof was kind of flattening out the building and the walls were bowing.” (Barnes, 90).

But then the people of Oregon stepped in to save the beloved old derelict. In 1987, the Oregon legislature passed a resolution to save it. A state-wide campaign known as “Saving Crater Lake Lodge” was organized. But none of it arrested the deterioration. Finally, in 1989, with the central roof threatening to collapse, the lodge was ordered to close.

Then began a six-year effort to save it. It soon became evident that if it were to survive, it must be dismantled and rebuilt from the foundation up. In the ensuing process it was discovered that it didn’t even have a foundation; nor was there any solid infrastructure. $15,000,000 was spent in painstaking efforts to not only restore the lodge, but, more importantly, restore it to what it never had been: a lodge anchored by a solid foundation and a steel-beamed infrastructure. The great hall was rebuilt and the kitchen gutted, then replaced. Windows overlooking the lake were positioned so they would showcase the reason why people came here, and everything radiated out from the great hall and the fireplaces.

On May 20, 1995, Crater lake Lodge—against all odds—reopened. Barnes concluded her moving story with these words: “The essence of Crater lake Lodge lies in its memories. While the historic structure no longer bears the ragged signs of aging, the heart of the lodge remains the same. It is still a wonder of man perched on the edge of a wonder of nature.” (Barnes, 93).

* * * * *

We checked in. Our fourth floor dormer room was small, as are almost all old hotel rooms. Those who thronged early lodges spent little time in their rooms, but much time exploring the parks; in the evenings, they reveled in each other’s company in the great halls, listened to music, played board games, and dreamed by the great fireplaces.

At Crater Lake Lodge, time stood still. Here we met not only Oregonians but people from all over the nation and from around the world. Each had come to savor a long-loved artifact of a bygone world that had miraculously survived until the Year of our Lord 2010. Like us, they’d come here to escape a cacophonous modern world so devoid of serenity and peace.

As we ate our dinner by the window, we gazed out, entranced, at the breathtaking late afternoon diorama of changing colors. No one was in a hurry to leave the table. Afterwards, we walked outside again, then came back and played a board game by one of the fireplaces. Later, we crawled into our bed (small compared to our usual standards) and snuggled—we had to! During the night, the 95-year-old building talked to me. And I couldn’t help but wonder who else had slept in this same little room. What were their thoughts? One of my last thoughts had to do with gratitude: I’m so grateful this place is still here!

Next week, it’s on to Oregon Caves Chateau.

SOURCES:

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National parks, Vol. 2 (Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Books, 2008). These two books are must-reads for all who treasure our parks.
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).