LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK – Part Two

BLOG #34, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK
Part Two
August 26, 2015

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As our long-time blog-readers know, I first wrote about trains a little over a year ago. A number of you responded to that series. Now we were back on the same route, but in late summer rather than spring. Each season, on Amtrak, is different. Indeed, no two journeys in life are ever the same for life never repeats itself.

The reason for this particular trip was a family reunion in the Sierra Nevada Mountains not far from Lassen Volcanic National Park. More on that at a later date.

I’ve become convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that God takes special delight in vicariously traveling on trains. Again and again I’ve seen our universe’s Master Choreographer set up anything-but-chance meetings between His children on trains. For there is something about train travel that lends itself to introspection, to thinking deep thoughts about life, of posing Life’s Three Eternal Questions: Who Am I? Where Have I Come From? And Where Am I Going?

When I travel, I habitually load myself down with comp books to give away to those who appear to be seriously interested in them. This time, since I was traveling by train, I took twelve of my most recent: Sooty, the Green-Eyed Kitten, My Favorite Angel Stories, and My Favorite Miracle Stories; all found homes by the time we detrained in Denver nine days later. In trains, people read.

Just to give you a feel for the people who shared the train with us, I’ll tell you about some of them:

On our westward-bound train two roomettes behind was a vivacious young woman and her in-love-with-life nine-year-old daughter. Since their door was often open and they were often reading aloud to each other, I stopped to get acquainted. Since the little girl loved books about animals, I inscribed Sooty, the Green-Eyed Kitten to her. Within only a couple of hours she was already part way through. The mother was using the train as a vehicle to teach her the geography of our nation. Clearly, the mother strongly controlled electronic gadgetry, for I never saw the girl with one. Instead, she was entranced with all she saw out her window and the people who walked down the hall.

One couple was only going over the Rockies and down to Glenwood Springs (one of the most spectacular train trips on the continent). They planned to stay in a hotel in Glenwood Springs, swim in the vast hot springs pool, wander around town, then board an eastern-bound train back to Denver. This section of the Rockies is extremely popular with Coloradans.

Sitting next to us at breakfast was an athlete from Fresno, California, who plays basketball for Wichita State. He was returning from attending a wedding in Breckenridge, Colorado. He told us he much preferred train travel to air travel. Also at our table was a lady from Nevada City, Nevada who travels a lot, as often as possible by train.

A couple from Wisconsin sat with us at noon. In the Observation Car I sat next to a lovely young graduate in music from BYU. I’ve long been amazed at how many young people travel on trains, seeking answers for life problems. Turns out she was one of them. Deeply troubled by a romance with a young man who did not share her own close relationship with God, she had hoped to find someone on the train she could trust to listen to her story and perhaps offer guidance or suggestions. Above all: kindness, a quality she’d discovered to be all too scarce in this hectic society we live in. She read my own life-changing-story in the new Miracle book—and that convinced her that I could be trusted. Just before she got off in Reno, I inscribed a copy of the Miracle book to her; and she, in turn, inscribed a copy of her new CD release. I shall always treasure the words she wrote on it.

But by that time people to my left and across the aisle asked to see my books, and confessed to having overheard our dialogue. One of them, a grandmother of an eighteen-year-old co-ed was treating both her daughter and granddaughter with this train trip, coast to coast then south to San Diego and back to the East Coast. All in honor of her granddaughter’s graduation and birthday. I inscribed a book to the lucky girl. Two older women traveling together (across the aisle) stopped me and thanked me for taking the time to counsel the BYU graduate. It never ceases to fascinate me to see how open travelers are to share serious, even intimate, things with strangers they’d not even share with family members or close friends; reasoning, no doubt, that they’d never see their traveling listeners again anyhow.

After our five-day family reunion in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we boarded an Amtrak eastward-bound train). On board were two train historians who, on the intercom, pointed out places of historical significance as the train approached them.

Also on the train was Tony, a retiree from New England (and whose single great obsession in life was trains). Even his CHASE credit card was Amtrak-designated. All points translated into Amtrak trips. Also, he regularly attended all key get-togethers for obsessive train devotees like him. In fact, it appears that Amtrak employees across the country recognize him on sight, even calling him by name in the dining car. He regaled us with many fascinating stories about Amtrak culture. He even got to meet the Amtrak president – twice.

We ate lunch with a British family, owners of an ice cream establishment in the UK. Both of their sons are techies, who are so interested in attending the University of California at Berkeley that they both attended a special class for serious applicants there: the younger one was on the train; the older one was still in Berkeley.

At dinner, we got acquainted with an ER doctor and his wife from London. They enthusiastically praised all that they were seeing in America.

Then there was the young techie from Munich, Germany, who had landed a contract job in San Francisco. He’d seen most of our national parks already, and climbed a number of our highest peaks. Indeed, he was planning to climb Long’s Peak ( one of Colorado’s fabled 14-ers) next day. He even liked the relative slowness (up to 80 mph) of U.S. trains, pointing out that many of Europe’s bullet trains move so fast the scenery is just a blur.

Unforgettable too were the young family doctors who were on their way to Colorado’s San Luis Valley where they were setting up a family practice. Their baby boy was the darling of the entire train—everyone, even the Amtrak employees, gravitated into his orbit.

All in all, on Amtrak, you will rub shoulders with people from all around the world. And if you have not yet traveled by train, put it on your Bucket List this very moment. Train trips will enrich your life in ways past quantifying.

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TIME OUT FOR ZANE GREY

BLOG #20, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TIME OUT FOR ZANE GREY
May 20, 2015

Forty years ago, when I completed my Vanderbilt doctorate, I mistakenly assumed that I could now put the frontier writer, Zane Grey (the subject of my dissertation), behind and resume my private life. In a way, I could; in another way, I could not. As I explained to one Associated Press reporter, when you are the foremost authority on something, or someone, you become prisoner of that knowledge and expertise. It’s sort of like the old Russian proverb, “He that dances with a bear doesn’t quit just because he gets tired.”

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I ought to know: In around a month from now, I’ll be giving my 33rd consecutive keynote address to the members of the Zane Grey’s West Society, this one in Arizona.

Several times during the forty years, I felt the time had finally come to write a biography having to do with the life and times of Zane and Dolly Grey. Each time, for one reason or another, the project failed to jell. But now, my long-time agent, Greg Johnson, has urged me to make one last try.

So I’m structuring a new proposal, in harmony with current biographical trends. In order to do this, I’ve had to sideline several other deadlines. But I’m serious about it, for I strongly feel that if I don’t do it this time, in all likelihood, I never will.

Well, back to work.

Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if a contract results from all this.

GOING BLIND

BLOG #50, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOING BLIND
December 10, 2014

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My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

* * * * *

Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’

Gold Country, Lake Tahoe, Loneliest Road, Great Basin

BLOG #25, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
GOLD COUNTRY, LAKE TAHOE, LONELIEST ROAD, GREAT BASIN
June 26, 2013

As we reluctantly left the park, slowly, we realized again why Yosemite is, for untold thousands, on their Bucket Lists to see before they die. As for the Ahwahnee, mortgage your house rather than not experience it at least once. Disengage from your parasitic electronic tentacles, and get out there with your families and travel. Over a billion people are doing that each year.

After leaving Yosemite, we descended to the Gold Rush towns on California Route 49, passing through Angels Camp, made famous by Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” story, Jackson, and then up into the Sierra Nevadas [very “Nevada” (snowy) then], via Route 88 to Silver Lake, almost 9,000 feet in elevation. Then down to a lake that ought to also be on everyone’s Bucket List–Lake Tahoe. Fond memories came back to Connie and me, for we honeymooned there.

Lake Tahoe holds enough water to cover the entire state of California to a depth of fourteen inches. It is said that the water in Tahoe is 97% pure, nearly the same as distilled water. The lake is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, about one-third lying in Nevada. Its average depth is 989 feet, and deepest point is 1,645 feet, making Lake Tahoe the third deepest lake in North America. The water is mighty cold: the first twelve feet below the surface can warm to a toasty ☺ 68 degrees F in summer, while depths below 700 feet remain a constant 39F year-round.

The “lake in the sky” (elevation 6,229 feet) is ensconced in a valley between the often snowcapped Sierra Nevadas and the Carson Range. The Sierras tower more than 4,000 feet above the lake, contributing no little to its magic.

Immigrants and early miners did their utmost to destroy the lake’s environs; fortunately, just in time, the decline of the Comstock Lode caused the miners to turn their attention elsewhere.

In winter, snow covers the lakeshore to an average of 125 inches, but snow depth in the mountains can reach 300-500 inches, making the region a mecca for skiers (think Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, Squaw Valley, and Heavenly Valley).

We’ve never seen the lake when it wasn’t beautiful, but to see it on a clear winter day, offset by snowy mountains the incredibly deep blue waters of the lake can take your breath away.

We had dillydallied so long in Yosemite, it was evening before we descended from Silver Lake to Tahoe. We drove along the west side of the lake to the north end, considerably quieter than the casino-generated hubub in the south end; there we stayed at Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 531

Next day, after breakfasting at the Old Post Office, so popular with locals, we crossed over the pass, then down to Truckee, Reno, and Fallon, before abandoning boring Interstate 80 for Highway 50, famously known as “The Loneliest Road in America” (gained a cult-following through commercials featuring pretty vagabonding girls in convertibles). For trivia-buffs, “Where in America is concentrated the largest number of north/south mountain ranges?” Answer: Here in Nevada – one after another: the Stillwater Range, Clan Alpine Mountains, Desatoya Mountains, New Pass Range, Shoshone Mountains, Toyabe Range, Simpson Park Range, Toquina Range, Monitor Range, Sulphur Springs Range, Diamond Mountains, White Pine Range, Butte Mountains, Egan Range, Schell Creek Range, and Snake Range – one after another like oncoming waves (most snow-capped) we cruised through them. Very few automobiles and even fewer trucks – hence its name.

We stopped in Austin: Bob desperately needed an ice cream fix. Also in the old mining town of Eureka, with its serpentine roads. Arrived in Ely late afternoon, and checked in at Prospectors Hotel. Lodging pickings are lean at best on the Loneliest Road in America. Especially when you’ve just been spoiled rotten at the Ahwahnee!

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Next morning, again those long long straight stretches of road, on into infinity. So quiet you could hear each other breathe. Soon we turned south into Great Basin National Park.

According to Michael L. Nicklas, “Although only a small part of this immense, wild land, Great Basin National Park is undoubtedly the best example of the entire Great Basin region. Its geologic diversity–from windswept playas to mysterious caverns and icy summits–defines the hydrologic boundaries. . . . Great Basin’s only remaining glacier lies sheltered within the national park in the cool shadow of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, which also supports bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees on earth. . . . Precious water draining from the mountain ranges does not flow into the oceans. Rather, this priceless substance either percolates underground, accumulates in bodies to form lakes, or evaporates back into the atmosphere.

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“Typically long winters grip the land above 10,000 feet from November through June. Bristlecone pines stubbornly cling to lofty slopes and windy ridges between 9,000 and 11,500 feet, living for 5,000 years or more. In 1964, a living tree was discovered in the Wheeler Peak grove which contained 4,844 annual growth rings.”

Lehman caves were first protected on January 24, 1922, when President Warren G. Harding established by presidential proclamation Lehman Caves National Monument. It took 43 more years to achieve national park status: Finally, on October 27, 1965, President Ronald Reagan signed the Great Basin National Park Act.

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Not surprisingly, given the sparse traffic on Highway 50, Great Basin is one of the least visited of all our national parks, attracting only about 90,000 visitors a year. Which isn’t at all a bad thing, for when we walked into the visitor center, we were treated like long-lost relatives; quite a change from the ho-hum oh, Lord, not another one attitude of some weary attendants in parks that are swamped by travelers. Connie, of course, made sure to get them to stamp her national park passport. The quiet winding road up to the base of Wheeler Peak (second highest peak in Nevada) was narrow, but scenic, passing through many varieties of trees as we ascended. Other than the beauty of the land and snowcapped peaks, the main roadside photo-op proved to be a rusty old car, complete with a skeleton.

 

 

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Then it was back down to The Loneliest Road – sometimes 30 miles without a curve – into Utah. Spectacular scenery along Interstate 70.Then we pulled into our favorite oasis stop in Green River, River Terrace Inn, shaded by verdant trees on the river side, and situated next to the very popular Tamarisk Restaurant, also on the river. But the real reason we always stay at River Terrace Inn is the comp to-die-for full breakfast prepared on the site by chefs who are either owners, relatives, or close friends of the owners. Each guest orders a la carte – scrumptious omelets, decadent cinnamon rolls, and on and on. You either eat inside or outside by the partly shaded pool. Needless to say, the Inn is usually booked up – so get your reservation early!!

Next day – our last day –, after pigging out at breakfast, we headed east through the Colorado Rockies, alongside swollen rivers, until late afternoon, we reached home; at 9,700 feet elevation, blessedly cool.

After two years, we’d finally reached the end of the Great Circle!

SOURCES USED

Northern California & Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010). [Source for Lake Tahoe information].

Nicklas, Michael L., Great Basin: the Story Behind the Scenery (Las Vegas: K.C. Publications, 2008).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE

BLOG #24, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE
June 19, 2013

THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL

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Without question, the Queen of our national park lodges is the Ahwahnee. [The Niwok Indians called the valley “Ahwahnee” – place of the gaping mouth]. Of it, Keith S. Walklet declares, “It has been called the finest hotel in the national park system. Surrounded by three-thousand-foot granite cliffs and forests of immense pines in the heart of California’s Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahnee was built to attract visitors of wealth and means at a time when American society was developing a love affair with the automobile. This monumental hotel of stone, timber, concrete, and steel remains a remarkable achievement, a rare convergence of art and vision, combining the talents of public servants, architects, engineers, designers, and craftsmen.” (Walklet, front-flap of dustjacket).

* * *

Yosemite National Park was, for Stephen T. Mather, Founder of the National Park System, unquestionably, his favorite park. But it needed a hotel that could match the grandeur of the park. After all, automobile ownership had exploded across the nation: In 1915 alone, nearly a million new cars crowded roads meant for stagecoaches and wagons. As for Yosemite, the first all-weather highway (140) was opened in 1925. And car-loads of people poured in!

Both Mather and his able assistant, Horace Albright, envisioned a grand hotel for Yosemite on the scale of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, the Glacier National Park lodges, and Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. For architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had already proved his worth at Bryce and Zion, was chosen. But the consensus among the many project principals (architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, visionaries) was that while they desired the proposed hotel to be rustic, they envisioned an elegant country estate that would blend flawlessly with its breathtaking setting. Eventually, two organizations (Curry Camp Company and Yosemite Camp Company) merged, ending decades of wrangling. Mather now had a stellar team of Albright, Underwood, landscape engineer Daniel Hull, and San Francisco contractor James L. McLaughlin, individuals who bickered plenty, but saw through the massive building project that eventually cost $1,250,000 (a vast sum back then).

Originally, it was the plan to build it in the center of the valley, but wiser heads prevailed; it was concluded that it ought to be moved to a more secluded spot, backed up to the massive mountain walls of Royal Arches. A core block six stories high anchored it, and two wings set at angles enabled guests to feast their eyes on Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and Royal Arches. One year late, the grand hotel opened on July 14, 1927.

It has wowed the world ever since. Indeed, numbered among its guests are VIPs such as Presidents Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan; foreign leaders such as Winston Churchill, King Badouin of Belgium, the exiled Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who had the hotel all to themselves), and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; Hollywood greats such as Kim Novak, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charleton Heston, Boris Karloff, William Shatner, Shirley Temple Black, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, Leonard Nimoy; and Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball stayed here when filming The Long Long Trailer in the park – the list could go on and on.

ENTER THE WHEELERS AND EARPS

Although a fifth-generation Californian on both sides of my family, and a frequent visitor to the park down through the years, never before had I or my bride stayed at the Ahwahnee. Best I could do on a limited budget was to visit the hotel. Christmas in My Heart readers may remember that the Ahwahnee is part of the worldwide setting of my Christmas story, “Christmas Sabbatical.” It is also slated to play a key role romance-wise in my upcoming novelette-length Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Christmas in My Heart 22 (due out fall of 2013). But now, since staying in the hotel had been on my Bucket List for so long, I saved my shekels long enough to treat Connie to a two-night stay. Earps too, had long wanted to stay in this legendary Shangri-La of a lodge.

That last week of May 2011 represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for the tremendous snowfall of the winter of 2010-2011 was now paying huge dividends: the falls of Yosemite were at a 50-year-high in terms of the volume of water—and not coincidentally: sound! Crowds were already swarming in to see and hear the falls. Before the season was over, 5,000,000 people crowded the valley wall-to-wall.

As our car emerged from the Wawona Tunnel, there spread out before us was one of the grandest views on the planet. Bridalveil Fall was at full strength, but even before we arrived at the Ahwahnee we could hear the thunder of that wonder of the world, Yosemite Falls, hurtling over the canyon wall almost 2600 feet above the valley floor.

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Once checked in, we moved into our room on the second floor; after sprucing up, we gazed out the window at a sight that never ever could grow old. Once downstairs, we began to explore the hotel a bit. Then it was time for another treat: dinner in the largest room in the hotel, the world-famous Dining Room (6,630 square feet; 130 feet long, 51 feet wide, 34 feet high, with vaulted peeled log trusses, 24-foot-high windows, through which we could see and hear Yosemite Falls). The food and service five-star quality, and after a while a concert pianist playing Chopin on the grand piano. Not often, in this journey we call life, have I experienced a sensory overload–but this was one of those times. Mere words came hard, for no one wished to shatter the mood.

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Then, tired from the long day, we had little trouble falling asleep to the thunder of the falls.

Next morning, we all shutterbugged in the verdant grounds of the hotel. Then, an unforgettable breakfast in the great Dining Room, now transformed by the glory of morning light. Then to the Visitor Center to see the splendid film, “Spirit of Yosemite.” Afterwards, we donned coats or rain gear for our walk to the base of Lower Falls. The closer we got to it, the wetter we got; it became almost impossible to hear each other speak. We never were able to get to the base of the falls. And the people kept coming, young and old from all over the world. It is unlikely, in my lifetime, that I’ll ever experience the like again. Later, we took the shuttle to the Mist Trail, and trekked all the way up to the base or Vernal Falls, also boiling over at floodstage. Later in the afternoon, we were privileged to be given a personal VIP tour of the hotel by its genial General Manager; he took us through the lobby, gift store, beautiful Mural Room, the Great Hall (second-largest room in the hotel, flanked by two great fireplaces), kitchen (where we got to talk with the chef and his pastry gurus), even the outside foundation stone. We felt deeply honored by his willingness to spend all this time with us. After eating in the Bar Café, exhausted from the hikes, we quickly fell asleep.

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When the sun, birds, and falls woke us up next morning, it was to an almost unworldly radiance. Not one of us but longed to remain there. For a time, we relaxed and drank in the ambiance of the Great Hall, cups of steaming coffee in hand, and imagined all the events held in that room over three-quarters of a century; all the world-famous celebrities who had walked through those doors.

Then one last breakfast in the Dining Room. When we finally pried ourselves out of our chairs, walked toward the hallway, and turned back for one last look, we felt physical pain at the parting. How could any place else we ever saw or experienced build on such perfection?

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Next week, we complete the Great Circle.

SOURCES USED

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

Keith S. Walklet’s historical tour de force, The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel (Yosemite: DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, 2004).

TREASURES OF THE PAST #3 TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

BLOG #19, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TREASURES OF THE PAST #3

TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

May 9, 2012

 

Last week, in discussing our Book of the Month, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, I also referred to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” generally considered to be the greatest poem on aging ever written.  It was so considered by three generations of our family, namely my maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger; my mother, Barbara Leininger Wheeler—and I have inwardly mined its wisdom all of my life.

 

The untimely death of his dearest friend and soulmate, Arthur Hallam resulted in a spiritual earthquake that permanently darkened Tennyson’s inner skies.  Not only did it result in the greatest ode in the English language, it also resulted in Tennyson’s writing a poem that almost defines the aging process long before its author reached his own twilight years.

 

Tennyson’s persona is no less a person than Ulysses, the lead character in Homer’s immortal Iliad and Odyssey.  Ulysses, who, after fighting the Trojans for ten years, roams the Mediterranean world for another ten years; only then, returning to his long neglected wife Penelope, and kingdom of Ithaca.  But Tennyson goes beyond Homer in this marvelous creation: a titan who finds “business as usual” impossible to endure after having lived and interacted so long with kings, queens, warriors, and Greco-Roman gods.  Indeed this restlessness has resulted in his rounding up all the surviving warriors who accompanied him on his sojourns and battles, and enlisting them in one last adventure, one from which none will return to Ithaca alive.

 

In this monologue, Ulysses explains to us the reasons why he is embarking on this third and last quest.  He has thought of everything and everyone (with the notable exception of his long-suffering wife Penelope); he has turned over the reins of government to his much more prosaic son Telemachus, and has his crew ready to launch out into the deep.

 

First of all, he explains to us all why he must go—his restlessness; his hunger to fully live again (not merely exist); his yearning for action; for fighting against overwhelming odds; for making a real difference in his interactions with all those he comes in contact with; for learning, for becoming, for experiencing, everything life and the gods may throw at him.

 

Then in the poem’s powerful conclusion, Ulysses details his personal Bucket List: all he hopes to accomplish before he and his mariners sail off into the sunset.

 

This is one of those poems that so grows on you that each year of your life that passes, the lines and imagery will embed deeper into your psyche.  In short, properly internalized, the poem will revolutionize the rest of your life.  At the least, post it on your wall, or, better yet, memorize it:

 

ULYSSES

 

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink

Life to the lees [dregs].  All times I have enjoyed

Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when

Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea.  I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known,—cities of men,

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honored of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life!  Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains; but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this grey spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

 

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labor, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and through soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

 

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas.  My mariners,

Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Death closes all; but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;

The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep

Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

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.”