Lassen Volcanic National Park

BLOG #47, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
November 10, 2015

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It was on August 8 of 2015 that our family caravanned into the foothills of California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Not surprisingly, never before had Connie and I and Greg and Michelle explored the park together. “Not surprisingly,” given that Lassen is outside the loop of normal national park visitation. Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, and Joshua National Parks are integral parts of such a loop; Lassen is alone, and consequently its visitations are much less.

So, for starters, let’s see how Lassen became a national park in the first place. Chances are that if it had kept its cool by remaining merely just another dormant volcano, it would have remained unknown. But at 9:43 a.m., on June 14, 1914, Lassen erupted. It erupted 389 times more between 1914 and 1921, when it finally settled down again. To preserve this living volcanic laboratory, Congress created the Lassen Volcanic National Park on August 9, 1916.

The result today is the 106 ,372 acre park. It is especially interesting because it includes four different types of volcanoes. First of all, Lassen Peak may be the largest plug-dome volcano in the world; and older, layered stratovokano (also called composite volcano); shield volcanoes, where basalt forms low, smooth domes; and cinder cones. In addition, every hydrothermal (hot water) feature found on Earth, except for geysers, appears here.” (White, p. 391).

Lassen Park (10,457 feet) is the highest point in the park. It receives lots of snow, often forty feet a year.

Bumpass Hell Thermal Area

Bumpass Hell Thermal Area

Our extended family drove up high into the park then hiked to the volcanic area known as Bumpass Hell, named for K. V. Bumpass, a local guide who in the 1860s fell through the thin crust covering a sizzling mud pot, badly burning his leg. We were able to explore this large area via the extensive network of elevated boardwalks. It is the only place in the Cascade Range where such thermal activity takes place.

Later, we explored the new multimillion dollar visitor center and took full advantage of the fascinating exhibits and film on the many dimensions of the park. We have discovered that these films created for each national park visitor center are well worth the time it takes to see them; and they greatly enhance the park visitation itself.

* * * * *

Not until the 1980 eruption of St. Helens in Washington did another volcano erupt in the lower 48 states.

References:

Richard Ellis, Lassen Volcanic: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenburg, AZ: KC Publications, 2011). Illustrations taken from it as well.

White, Mel, Complete National Parks, (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009)

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Making Family Memories – Part Two

BLOG #37, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part Two
September 16, 2015

There were still only three of us, Marji, Connie and me that first evening. After checking into our cabin, Connie and I joined Marji around the campfire. It was good to relax, gaze into the flames, and catch up on family matters.

Next day was quiet so we joined Marji in a food-buying expedition in nearby Chester, adjacent to beautiful Lake Almanor. By evening, our numbers ballooned, each contingent making a dramatic entrance into the fireside area: brother-in-law Elmer; daughter Michelle, son-in-law Duane, grandsons Taylor and Seth; our son Greg; my cousin Steve and wife Roxann; nephew Shane, wife Lisa, and daughter Chloe. With fourteen now sitting around the campfire, it seemed that everyone was simultaneously talking to someone! Our kids had been backpacking in the coastal Redwoods for most of a week and thus had lots of hike-related experiences to share. It was fascinating to watch perhaps nature’s largest pine cones (sugarpine) contorting and writhing after they’d burst into flames in the fire-pit.

By Thursday, horseshoe-tossing had become a marathon. Except for meals, the action there never stopped. In time we were joined by our beloved Charlotte (long ago adopted into our family), nephew Jessie, and grandniece Lexi—bringing us up to near full-strength. In the evening, Steve (the storyteller of our family) regaled the campfire audience with story after story, many of them involving members of our family who are no longer with us. Few of us had ever heard them before. Steve has a wonderful gift: he can step back in time a half-century or more and remember every action, every word said, on a given day. Even vividly remembering things that took place when he was only two or three! Finally, reluctantly, we said our good nights and wended our way to cabins, trailer houses, or tents for the night. Some slept on the bank just above Mill Creek which, being spring-fed, was immune to California’s four-year drought, and thundered down the canyon.

Friday, it was time to caravan over to Lake Almanor where cousin Avenelle and Jim hosted us for the afternoon, ferrying most of us across the lake to a lakeside restaurant on the other side; the rest of our family circled around the lake by car. It proved to be a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon. Virtually the moment we returned to Mill Creek, clanging horseshoes were heard again. Others of us took walks into the towering evergreens that make the Mill Creek area so unforgettable. All around us, other family reunions were taking place. When the Central Valley’s heat gets to near furnace temperatures, everyone who can, flees to the mountains for blessed relief. That’s a key reason why the resort is booked up a year ahead of time. Later on, after a light snack, it was campfire time again. One of the stories Steve told us had to do with a mountain lion that stalked him in the Sierras—only by a miracle did Steve escape alive. And Elmer’s large stock of sugar pine cones continued to be raided one by one—after each performance, Elmer would be begged to “please burn one more!”

On Saturday, the family caravanned into the heart of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a place a number of us were unfamiliar with. The hike up to Bumpass Hell Hot Springs was most memorable, reminding us of Yellowstone National Park’s much more extensive stretch of performing sulphuric hot springs and geysers. Afterwards, we watched the informative film in the new Visitor’s Center. Shawn, who’d been involved in fighting the big Willow Creek fire in the Trinity Alps, had driven all the way to Mill Creek to be with us for the evening. After supper, Elmer and Seth teamed up to show us a family film most of us had never even heard about: the 1935 Golden Wedding Anniversary of my great grandparents, Dr. Ira and Emma Bond Wheeler in Healdsburg, California. What was funny was seeing the arrival of a long stream of family members in what to us were antique cars. Clearly, they’d packed in as many family members as could be shoe-horned in, for each disgorged an astonishingly large number of people before the car moved on and the next one arrived. This film had to have been one of the earlier family films ever made.

Afterwards, Shawn, a stand-up comedian if there ever was one, stood up and kept us in proverbial stitches for well over an hour. Especially did the cousins revel in his inimitable family-related humor. Much later, when the last sugarpine cone had writhed into embers, we bid farewell to everyone, for some left that evening and others very early next morning.

But on Sunday morning, after another delicious breakfast served on Mill Creek Restaurant’s outside deck, one after another, many with moist eyes, bid each other good-bye, each wondering if ever, on this earth, they’d be able to see the same family members assemble.

AFTERWARDS

Many have been the heartfelt responses since then. Especially having to do with the cousins who were together long enough to really get to know each other. Thanks to the serenity of Mill Creek and the scarcity of electronic media, everyone had a unique opportunity to really get to know each other in a deep way. But more than that, the young people were able to perceive parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents, as flesh-and-blood people who not only once were so much like them but, seen with their contemporaries, shed their authority-figure-selves and were young-at-heart just like their descendants. And the numbers were just right: any more and they wouldn’t have been able to really get to know, appreciate, and love each one to the extent they did. Some of them have already, only a month later, said, “Oh, when can we do this again!”

Our personal conclusion: For each one of us, it was a life-changing experience!

Making Family Memories Around a Mill Creek Campfire

BLOG #36, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part One
September 9, 2015

It took close to two years to make the family reunion happen; after all, Mill Creek, California, is relatively unknown to most people. One member of our family came from Idaho, one from Florida, four from Maryland, two from Nevada, two from Colorado, and eight from various places in California–eighteen of us in all.

Miracle of miracles, eventually all eighteen arrived at Mill Creek—in spite of fierce forest fires burning all across Northern California. Especially in the San Joaquin Valley, smoke was thick, and most roads leading to the coast were closed due to the fires—at times it seemed like the entire Golden State was on fire!

The focal center of this gathering of the clan was Marji and Elmer Raymond’s trailer house and fire-pit. My sister Marji had been the main choreographer of the reunion. As we watched one contingent after another make their appearance, I couldn’t help but step backwards in time more than half a century when annual Thanksgiving reunions of the Wheeler and Bond clans were a given. High on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain at Grandpa Rollo and Grandma Ruby’s Angwin ranch, it was unthinkable to miss Thanksgiving with extended family. The pattern was unvarying: car door after car door being slammed, Grandma Ruby’s singing out her unvarying, “Why you dear souls!” and “Why Papa!,” as each new arrival was hugged—all this while dogs barked excitedly and cats scurried for cover. The women gathered in the kitchen, each bringing food. The crescendo of family gossip and laughter made it a wonderful place to be—and the smaller children played with the well-over-a-hundred-year-old blocks by the fireplace (some of the blocks had crossed the plains in wagon trains a century before). Grandma Ruby (who was deaf, could read lips) ruled over this segment of the reunion. Outside, a little distance off, Grandpa Rollo ruled over the men in their marathon horseshoe tournaments that stopped only for dinner, or darkness. The continuous clinks as horseshoes reached the stake was etched in the soundtracks of my memory forever. The older boys watched in fascination as ringer after ringer rang out. Grandpa’s usually rang out most because rarely did his tosses miss the stake. There was much laughter and bantering and shouts when ringers were capped by other ringers. Since the usual Thanksgiving head-count averaged over eighty, the cumulative hubbub never stopped except to eat. And what meals those were! Only for the blessing was there momentary silence. At night, Grandpa challenged all comers at caroms. Eventually, the carom boards were put away and all gathered around the upright piano to sing. Grandma Ruby “listened” by putting her hand on the piano top and seraphically “feeling” the music. Eventually, the kids were put to bed but the adult socializing continued far into the night. And next day, the slammed car-doors and “you dear souls!” and “Why Papa’s” were heard once more, as the yearly ritual came to an end.

Except for an occasional funeral, once Grandpa and Grandma were moved to Oregon, the Napa Valley reunions stopped, and family members never again gathered together in mass as they had before. So you can imagine the memories that were brought back to Marji, my cousin Steve, and me as once more we heard the continuing ring of horseshoes—with one big difference—the marksmanship being generally so poor that it was a serendipity when a horseshoe actually touched a stake!

But this time, Marji made sure the women weren’t prisoners of the kitchen: breakfast and lunch could be eaten at the Mill Creek Restaurant or in the cabins; only the dinner would be picked up under the tent adjacent to the fire-pit and eaten around it.

Next week, we’ll take you through “the rest of the story.”

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.’

Barely Begun at Seventy – How to Never Get Old – Conclusion

BLOG #30, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY
HOW TO NEVER GET OLD
Conclusion
July 23, 2014

“Youth is not a time of life…. It is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness in the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. This often exists in the man of 50 more than the boy of 20.

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but self-distrust, fear and despair–those are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

In the central part of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central part of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed and may God have mercy on your soul.”

–Author Unknown. Quoted in Josephine Lowman’s column in the
Nov. 10, 1980 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you do a lot of people-watching like authors such as I do, it won’t take long for you to discover that children and teenagers tend to congregate around two groups of people: their age group and old people who never grow old. You can’t possibly miss the latter. You feel their force field the instant they come into the room. They radiate joy and vibrant energy. They’re not at all interested in either themselves or what you might think of them–but rather they are fascinated by everyone in their vicinity. They yearn to hear each one’s life story. They do not grandstand; indeed, they listen more than they talk. When they leave the room it’s like the lights were suddenly dimmed to a fraction of what they were before they came in.

They have a Falstaffian exuberance of life. My maternal grandfather (Herbert Norton Leininger) was a tornado of a man. I was privileged to live my eighth grade year with him and Grandmother Josephine. Early each morning I’d hear the sonorous voice of Gabriel Heater on the radio, setting Grandpa’s sails for the day. The walls were papered with National Geographic maps. The house was like a central command war room, and Grandpa was the Five Star General who knew everything that was going on in the world–and what to do about it. Furthermore, he knew who was responsible. If he felt any particular leader was falling down on the job, he’d sit down at his trusty manual typewriter and tell the offending person how to mend his or her ways. Not in generalities–but in specifics. When the six daughters would come home for Christmas, he’d corral his six sons-in-law and show and tell them what was happening in the world. But he wasn’t at all interested in their opinions–he was the alpha male, and never for a moment let them forget it!

Grandma had learned years before that if she waited to get into the conversational sound-track until the lord of the manor paused for breath, she’d never get in at all because when he was on a roll, Grandpa never did pause for breath. So Grandma wisely (amazingly, she was an early modern in this respect) just talked simultaneously–usually about family, people, gossip, personal things; and the daughters were full participants–and there was much laughter. We kids loved the two sound-tracks, and listened to them both. Especially we reveled in seeing those authority figures (our fathers) squelched by their fierce father-in-law.

Grandpa loved literature–could quote and perform Shakespeare by the hour. Apparently, he knew Hamlet by heart; and would tread the boards like a professional when he could round up a captive audience. When he was 75, he announced that for fifty years he’d pleased his wife and the world by being clean-shaven; now, he was going to please himself. He grew a distinguished goatee, purchased a natty Lincoln hardtop; constructed the first camper we’d ever seen; he and a luckless co-conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, painted it the ugliest green I’ve seen in my lifetime, packed it with grub and they journeyed north to the North Pole.

When they returned, before we knew it, they’d headed south into the jungles of Mexico. In his eighties, he announced he was going to find the headwaters of each of California’s major rivers and ride down them in a rubber raft. Never can I forget one day when I was invited to join other descendants who’d dutifully brought the requisitioned grub to the appointed spot on the riverside. After quite a wait, we heard the put-put of an outboard motor, Grandpa veered in to the bank, unloaded what he wanted to get rid of, bequeathing it to us; then, with inimitable noblesse oblige, accepted our tribute, loaded the grub, restarted the motor, headed out to mid-river, and with a jaunty wave, disappeared from view.

On the day of his death, he and his Lincoln were roaring through the Oregon countryside, wiping out mailboxes right and left, as though he was Don Quixote and they were enemy windmills.

His was the only funeral I’ve ever attended where all the “mourners” did was laugh.

* * * * *

So, beloved . . . , you don’t have to ever get old at all. My Great Aunt Lois, at the age of 104, still firmly up to date on the Zeitgeist, was asked, “Aunt Lois, how old do you have to be before you are old?” Without a minute’s hesitation, she shot back, “Old is anyone who is fifteen years older than you are.”

Those who never grow old remain passionately in love with every aspect of life. They are voracious readers and indefatigable travelers. The days are never long enough for all they want to learn and do. Yet in all their continual growth, they continuously watch out for opportunities to help those who need what they’re capable of providing–they are known far and wide for paying it forward. They revel in children and young people, never more joyous than when in the midst of them. Because of all this, they find no time in which to get old. Most likely, death will have to really huff and puff just to trip them up at last. When their race is stopped, funerals are never held for them–only celebrations.

My own beloved mother was just as much in love with life as was her father; she differed from him mainly in that she spent her lifetime ministering to the needs of others. His center of gravity was closer home.

I’ve dedicated 13 of my 86 books to my mother, for she was my lodestar. Possessed of a near photographic memory, she’d memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings. And never slowed down until faced with the cruelest enemy of all, Dementia.

In one of my books, Tears of Joy for Mothers, my introduction is titled, “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” and it consists of my mother’s favorite poems of the home, of life itself. It is fitting that I close this three-part blog series with the poem she first recited when she won a high school elocutionary contest with it. Later on, it was while hearing her recite it that my father fell in love with her. Late in life, in the “From the Cradle to the Grave” programs she and my father put on, she’d close the program with the one poem that summed up her passion for life: Amelia Burr’s “A Song of Living.”

“Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up gladness on wings to be lost in the blue of the sky,
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young love on the lips. I have heard his song to the end
I have struck my hand like a seal, in the loyal hand of a friend.
I have known the peace of Heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell.
Because I have loved life, I have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task that I leave undone.
I know that no flower, no flint, was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life, I have looked on God.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.”

Barely Begun at Seventy – Part One

BLOG #28, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY – Part One
July 9, 2014

It was a glorious spring morning in California’s verdant Napa Valley. And the alumni were coming home from all across the nation to their alma mater, Pacific Union College, judged by the likes of Newsweek and U.S. News to feature the most beautiful college campus in America.

I was privileged to be one of six alumni to be honored that weekend. But for us it was a two-way street: we were expected to give as well as take. Each of us was given around eight minutes to share with the audience the most significant distilled wisdom life had brought us. If you don’t think that would be a tough challenge, just put yourself in our places: how would you have responded to such an assignment?

For me, the question had profound implications, convicted as I am that all true wisdom comes from God. And since I’ve tweeted nuggets of wisdom every day now for almost three years, I had a lot of distilled wisdom to access. But the core of my response to this assignment was a no-brainer: There was for me only one possible quote that would satisfy. Especially, given the makeup of this particular audience. This is it:

A life may be over at sixteen
or barely begun at
seventy;
it is the aim
that determines its completeness.

That well-over-a-hundred-year-old-quotation came to me just when I needed it most: during the countdown decade leading up to the biblical “threescore and ten” that symbolizes a lifetime. At least that used to be true. In America, prior to the twentieth century, the norm was only forty-five years. Today, we’re back to the biblical seventy. I discovered that seminal quotation in a very old issue of that great magazine for young people: The Youth’s Instructor.

I needed it because as each of us approaches this time-period in life, one’s seventieth birthday can be almost terrifying: You mean my life is almost over? I don’t have any more time left? Will it be all downhill for me now? Will I be living on borrowed time? Is my productive lifetime over? Will it all be just a waiting game–waiting to die? All these questions swirled around in my head.

Also part of this ferment was a long-time metaphor for the perceived terminus of one’s productive lifetime: the proverbial Gold Watch. When or if one lived to be 65 years of age, one’s employer presented you with a gold watch. From that day forward, you were no longer a worker bee. You were now officially old. But not to worry: the benevolent government would now take care of you in the short time-frame you had left. Blessed be Social Security.

You see, when Social Security was born during the traumatic FDR era, no one expected Americans to live much longer than 65: many would die before they reached 65. This is why it seemed such a safe life raft for our government to offer its citizens. No one then even dreamed that more and more Americans would be living into their seventies, eighties, nineties, and, gasp! hundreds! Prime reason why the Social Security program is today threatening the fiscal stability of our nation.

The mind-set back then was this: You have exceeded expectations: You have reached 65. This gold watch means you’re done. We’re putting you out to pasture. We expect no more work out of you. Rock away on your front porch until you have the good sense to die. Always remember that Social Security is short-term: we can’t afford to pay you for living much longer. Most certainly we don’t expect you to live past seventy! Goodness! Do you think you’re immortal!

This was the mind-set of my grandparents’ generation.

But the problem today is this: We have never developed a template for vibrant productive living beyond the Gold Watch.

I see this reality at every alumni weekend I attend. Classmates who have given up on productive living now that they’ve entered the Gold Watch period. They don’t admit this in words, but they most certainly articulate it in their actions! They’ve traded their heretofore active lifestyle for a meaningless sedentary one. They’ve given up on goals. You ask them what they’re doing these days, and they sigh, “Not much…. Watch TV, putter around, play a few holes of golf, babysit the grandkids–you know: the usual.”

You can tell they’re telling you the truth because physically and mentally they are rapidly falling apart.

Each of them is indeed just waiting to die!

Next week, July 16, we shall continue on this topic: BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY.
Copyright© 2014

 

Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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TRAIN — THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (part 1)

BLOG #21, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part One)
May 21, 2014

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Yes, trains, long considered antiquated and a quaint holdover from the past, have quietly and unobtrusively in recent years become the “in” thing with thousands of travelers. Hadn’t realized it until Connie and I boarded The California Zephyr at Denver’s rapidly changing Union Station on April 20. Actually, “rapidly changing” is a major understatement, for it is a stunning transformation. Even though the construction is still going on, it is the talk of the plains: A new upscale hotel is going in, buses from all over the region have been rerouted so they disgorge and pick up passengers in a large state of the art underground terminal directly below the train waiting room. Same for light rail. As a result, already over a billion dollars of new construction is changing the city skyline of what locals call “LO-DO” [lower downtown].

The initial news that Sunday morning was not good: the train would be two and a half hours late. We later discovered that a big fire had broken out near the tracks in the vicinity of Omaha. But not to worry, the train would make up a lot of the time later on. And it did: an hour and a half of it before we reached Sacramento. But the delay didn’t appear to bother anyone very much. Just accepted it as another example of what regulars label “AMTRAK time,” the result of freight train corporations owning the tracks, and consequently having priority over passenger trains. But, in reality, as everyone knows all too well, air travelers face jammed skies and weather-based delays and cancellations virtually every day, not counting mechanical problems—so, delay-wise, it can be a Hobson’s choice.

ALL ABOARD!

Since it had been some years since we had last traveled by train, we wondered what it would be like in the Year of our Lord 2014. It was enough that finally here around the bend, the long silver city on steel wheels backed into the still-under-construction station. We were surprised to see how excited we were–it had been a long time since we’d experienced anything but dread and distaste over the prospect of boarding yet another flying cattle-car. So this was different. How different we didn’t yet realize.

We quickly discovered that, as through-travelers to California, we were assigned a through-car. Not so for shorter-distance travelers who had to settle for potluck car-wise. But not to worry: they could later change seats if they so desired.

Downstairs (adjacent to the restrooms) were storage facilities for large suitcases. No charge for them such as is true with most airlines today. The smaller case we could stow in the overhead above our seat upstairs. After picking just the right seats for the anticipated view, and then positioning our smaller suitcase or bag overhead, with a giant sigh of relief we took our seats and watched the scurrying around, including the boarding of the last passengers and train attendants–and the journey began.

Unlike air travel, where only the person sitting next to a window can see out, here everyone can see. Furthermore, passenger jets fly so high today that rarely can even those sitting next to the windows see what is passing below; whereas in trains, the continually unrolling of the travel scroll reveals a world that’s only feet away–and not 40,000 feet away such as in airplanes.

After a while, an attendant came through, checked to see if we were through-passengers, then wrote our destination down on a card and attached it to the overhead rack. Later on, we learned the reason for that: late at night, unless aroused by an attendant, some people sleep through their destinations. One young woman in our car, who was supposed to get off in Elko, Nevada, dropped off to sleep after being awakened, and didn’t get off until Reno; there she had to wait for the next eastbound train the following day.

After we had been checked in, we were free to wander. What a difference from air travel where, most of the time, you remain strapped to your seat, and only get up for potty breaks. Even then, in the forward compartment, no one is allowed to wait in line. No such restrictions on the train. The most popular place to be is the observation car, for there you can look up as well as out. In our case, since passengers see two of the most beautiful mountain ranges in America (The Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas), in consecutive days, almost everyone jockeys for a seat in the observation car during those stretches. Especially was this true when traversing Colorado’s iconic Glenwood Canyon.

The snack car too was almost always in use by someone. And then there was the Dining Car, where three meals a day are served. Reservations are easy to secure. Only when your number is called do you enter the Dining Car. Then you are seated. Unless you specifically ask to be seated alone, generally you join others already seated. We always prefer to thus get acquainted with our fellow travelers, for that’s what makes train travel so fascinating. Reminded me of the long-ago days when air-dining was such a pleasure; today, you’re lucky if you get pretzels, peanuts, or crackers. On the train, it is a leisurely affair–no one hurries you. Though you don’t dine on fine china, at least you have clean white tablecloths, and can order from a surprisingly large array of options. Even for vegetarians such as us. And the food was certainly good, and those who served us most gracious and interesting to talk to. And it was clear that they–and all the other train attendants we chatted with–loved their job. Many had worked for AMTRAK for much of their entire careers!

So what a different world! No reason to be struck with deep-vein thrombosis that happens on long air flights, because everyone is free to wander. Children love it, for it’s like the entire train is just one long fascinating moving playground. In fact, a good friend of ours, who when he heard we were traveling by train to California, asked what we thought of train travel. After listening to my answers, he booked The California Zephyr west to Emeryville [San Francisco], and the coastal AMTRAK south. He and his family of four got off at Santa Barbara and drove up to President Reagan’s mountain hideaway; then drove on to Disneyland, after which they headed home by the same route. Later I asked him what he thought of train travel. He had booked a family sleeper [though AMTRAK travel is generally cheaper than air travel, sleeper compartments cost considerably more – sort of like traveling business class by air]. He said his kids loved train travel! In fact he said, they’d asked if they might always travel by train from here on!

But our journey had just begun. Part two of “Trains – The New Way to Travel” will resume on Wednesday, June 4; as next week we’ll break for Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club June book selection. By the way, there’s always lots of time to read on trains.

I have so much more to share with you about why so many people – including young people (college age and young adults) – are gravitating to train travel today. See you June 4.

WE DON’T TAKE SNOW FOR GRANTED

BLOG #17, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WE DON’T TAKE SNOW FOR GRANTED
April 23, 2014

Much of the Southwest is in drought mode. Even California, the breadbasket of the nation.

Snow and rain. Human life could not live without moisture, consequently millions of people are concerned about climate change. Each year, here in the Colorado Rockies, many worry that this year we won’t have enough moisture for our crops, this year the rivers won’t bring life to counties or states fed by rivers born in the Rockies, this year lack of snow may cut the ski season short, this year our wells may run dry, this year wind and fire may combine to burn up everything we own. The list could go on and on.

But one thing is for sure: we do not take weather for granted. Mankind never has.

In a service club I’m a part of, every week we collect what we call “happy dollars” (which we then donate to our annual literacy campaign). As each of us weighs in on what we are happiest about, almost always weather comes up: if we’ve had a good snowfall or a good rain, invariably at least one member calls attention to it; in the opening invocation, God is usually thanked for whatever moisture comes our way. And when moisture does not come, God is reminded in the invocation that we’d sure appreciate more snow, or more rain.

At the elevation where we live (9,700′), we get lots of snow. In fact, a neighbor and I keep track year by year. Over an eighteen-year period, we have averaged 200-230 inches of snow a year. We’re under normal for this year, but we keep hoping more snow will fall–and if it doesn’t, we’ll hope and pray that God will grant us a long summer monsoon season of rain.

How good God is.

Published in: on April 23, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (2)  
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