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?

Then it was time to leave.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 511

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).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

BLOG #23, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #14
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO
June 12, 2013

I abjectly apologize for the long delay in completing The Great Circle. Just to recapitulate, Bob and Lucy Earp, and Connie and I were so impressed by Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS National Park Series films that we decided to personally explore our western national parks for ourselves. Since we’d also been impressed with Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks (aired just after the Burns and Duncan series by PBS) as well as the two books that preceded the film series, we decided to stay in those wonderful old lodges whenever possible.

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It took us two years to complete both the Northwest and Southwest portions of The Great Circle. However, the blogs that detailed our peregrinations came to a temporary halt on June 20, 2012; “temporary,” because I fully intended to return to the series in a couple of weeks, but so many timely, provocative, and interesting subjects intruded that almost a year has passed since then! This time, I promise we’ll complete the loop before I stray away again.

* * * * *

REENTER JOHN MUIR AND YOSEMITE

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It is impossible to read Duncan and Burns’ national parks blockbuster without being mesmerized by the role one man played in awakening the nation to a belated conviction that America’s endangered scenic wonders must be saved before it was too late.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, but moved when only nine to America. In 1867, while attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an industrial accident nearly cost him an eye. That near disaster changed the course of his life, for he abandoned his technical studies and devoted himself to nature. He walked from the Middle West to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1868, he trekked into then little known Yosemite Valley, which over time became his life’s lodestar. From this focal point he took many trips into Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

As early as 1876, Muir urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy. The Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks were established in 1890. Early in 1899, President Grover Cleveland designated 13 national forests to be preserved from commercial exploitation; but powerful business groups persuaded the President to back off. But Muir penned two eloquent magazine articles that reversed the tide and swung public and Congressional opinion in favor of national forest reservations. Muir also influenced the large-scale conservation program of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1903, during his first term in office, accompanied Muir on a camping trip to the Yosemite region.

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The rest of Muir’s life was spent in almost continual battle with commercial interests determined to wrest control of America’s scenic wonderlands away from those who sought to preserve them for posterity. Though Muir won many such battles, one of his defeats all but broke his heart and hastened his death: the damming of Little Yosemite Valley and turning it into the Hetch Hetchy water reservoir for California’s Bay Area cities.

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Quite simply, Yosemite National Park is iconic in its being one of the world’s most famous wild spaces. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln found time in 1864 to sign a Congressional bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias to the State of California as an inalienable public trust.

Today, in Mel White’s words, “Yosemite National Park, declared a World Heritage site in 1984 for its natural features, attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually, most of whom see only the valley at its heart, a mile-wide, seven-mile-long area where the Merced River winds among waterfalls and granite monoliths.”

Among the wonders drawing tourists from around the world are the 620-feet-high Bridalveil Falls, the 3,000-feet-high El Capitan (the largest monolith of granite in the world), 8,842-feet-high Half Dome (Yosemite’s most recognized feature), 3,214-feet-high Glacier Point, three Redwood groves (the largest being the Mariposa Grove), 317-feet-high Vernal Falls, 500-feet-high Cascades, 370-feet-high Illilouette Fall, 600-feet-high Pywiak Cascade, 2,000-feet-high Sentinal Falls, 2,000-feet-high Snow Creek Falls, 1,612-feet-high Ribbon Fall, 1,250-feet-high Royal Arch Cascade, 700-feet-high Wildcat Fall, and the granddaddy of them all: 2,565-feet-high Yosemite Falls (including 1,430-feet-high Upper Fall, 320-feet-high Lower Fall, and the Cascades), besides the Park’s too many to count ephemeral falls [seasonal]. Mike Osborne says of the spectacular totality, “Many would argue that Yosemite National Park has the grandest assemblage of waterfalls in the world.” And there are many more in Yosemite’s high country (which few tourists ever reach). The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, with its Horseshoe Falls, can only be reached by foot.

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Our visit will continue next week.

SOURCES USED

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

Northern California and Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2009).

Osborne, Mike, Granite, Water, and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2009).

Walklet, Keith S., Yosemite: An Enduring Treasure (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2001).

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’ THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

BLOG #26, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #11

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

June 27, 2012

 

 

 

 

Without fear of hyperbole, I submit that this collaborative effort by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is one of the greatest books of—not only this year, but this generation.  It is a prodigious piece of scholarship!  Just imagining their challenges gives me the chills: Becoming the authority on America’s history of conservation, and lack of it; the history of all of our national parks and monuments; the biographies of all the key figures in the development of each one; securing copyright permissions for this warehouse-worth of documentation; securing illustrations of all kinds and permissions to use each one; writing (in association with the filming of the award-winning PBS series of the same name); and then fact-checking every last piece to the mosaic.

 

Obviously though the text itself was written by Dayton Duncan, it had to be synthesized with   Burns’ PBS film series; there could be no noticeable discrepancies between the two.

 

I’m in awe at what they and their staffs accomplished.

 

TWO YEARS WITH DUNCAN AND BURNS

 

For almost two years now, this book has been my bible for writing two blog series: The Northwest National Parks and The Southwest National Parks.  Every time I’ve moved from one park to the next, before I turned to any other sourcebook, I first milked this book dry.  They never let me down.  They and the writer of the two companion books on the wonderful old lodges that grace these parks: Christine Barnes.

 

So it has been, as you have kindly vicariously traveled along with Connie and me and Bob and Lucy Earp, that thanks to The National Parks, we were able to briefly give you snapshots of how the following parks came to be: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascade National Park, Olympic National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park; we are now studying Yosemite National Park; and we shall conclude the Great Circle with Great Basin National Park.

 

But, my blogs have only provided you with enough information to whet your appetite for learning more about each park; for that it is a must that you buy a copy of the book for yourself and make it your own.  Within those two covers you will have an almost inexhaustible treasure mountain to mine from in future years.

 

But more than all that, you will discover that the book is also the riveting story of the American people, and how thousands of people from many professions and many levels of society came together in making possible a cause greater than themselves.

 

Once you read this book, I will almost guarantee that you will, like our intrepid foursome, wish to personally explore these parks yourselves, using the book as a guide.  In our trips, as we were driving from one park to another, one of us would read aloud from this book to the others in the car so that when we arrived there we’d not only know what to look for but also know the significance of what we saw and experienced..

 

Nor should I fail to bring out a great truth: Our children and grandchildren will value very little temporal things we give them, but they will cherish until the day they die the memories you made with them, the places you took them to, the time you spent with them, the things of value they learned with you.  With this in mind, consider the purchase of this book, reading it, marking it, internalizing it, and making it your family treasure map to the greatest national park mother lode in the world!

 

And—a favor I ask of you: please share with me your own personal book-related reactions and memories resulting from it.  You may reach me at:

 

Joe L. Wheeler, Ph.D.

P.O. Box 1246

Conifer, CO 80433

 

SOURCES USED

 

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

NATIONAL PARK LODGES SERIES #1

A KEN BURNS PILGRIMAGE
VISITING THE NORTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES 

Bob & Lucy Earp, Joe & Connie Wheeler

It all began with our dear friends, Bob and Lucy Earp of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  They called us and asked us about our reactions to the recently-aired Ken Burns PBS series of programs on our national parks.  We told them, “They were great!  Made us want to visit all of them.” 

As it turned out, they’d responded the same way.  “Well, how would you like to do just that?  We could start by visiting the Northwest lodges next year, right after the Zane Grey’s West Society convention in Gold Beach, Oregon.” 

It took a year to make all our bookings and clear our schedules so that we could dedicate a month of our lives to such a venture.  Our primary concern—other than the cost, of course—had to do with whether or not our friendship could survive such close quarters 24/7 for that long.  In the end, given that it had already survived several cruises together, we decided to risk it. 

Interestingly enough, at our recent 28th Zane Grey’s West Society convention, I told attendees about our pilgrimage and asked them, “how many of you watched the Ken Burns National Park series?”  Almost every hand went up!  Clearly, there is renewed interest in our national parks all across the country.  Since so many of our Society members appeared to be green with envy, we concluded that many of you who tune in to “Wednesdays with Dr. Joe” each week might be equally interested in vicariously enjoying the journey with us; then later, possibly visit these sights yourselves.  Hence the birth of this series of blogs. 

PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY  

Since all four of us were interested in learning as much as we could about the places we visited, we began putting together a library of reference material which we could share on the trip.  This way, we’d know what to look for when we arrived at each location. 

Following are items we considered essential: 

  • AAA maps of each state we’d visit.
  • AAA books dealing with each state.
  • Most important of all: Christine Barnes’ splendid two-volume books for the PBS Series, Great Lodges of the West, aired in conjunction with Ken Burns PBS park series) (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002, 2008).  These books are the result of a prodigious amount of research and are lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs.  You’ll want to pick up a set for yourselves whether or not you visit these lodges yourself; however, I’ll be surprised if they don’t launch your own personal journeys of discovery.  They will be our primary sources for this blog series.
  • Second in significance to Barnes, is David L. and Kay W. Scott’s The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).  This book’s main value has to do with smaller lodges not included in Barnes’ books.
  • The bible for studying into our national parks has to be Dayton Duncan’ and Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).  It is already in its second printing.  Much of the PBS text is incorporated into the book.

 

  • Also new is Mel White’s Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).
    There are a number of scenic drives books out, but the one we took along was The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).  Together with the AAA books, it makes road trips a lot more informative as it highlights the key sites to take in while in each area.
  • Since three of the lodges we visited (Old Faithful Inn, Lake Quinault Lodge, and Lake Hotel at Yellowstone) were designed by the now legendary park architect (indeed, one of the fathers of “parkitecture”), Robert C. Reamer, we purchased Ruth Quinn’s insightful Weaver of Dreams: The Life and Architecture of Robert C. Reamer (Bozeman, Montana: Artcraft Publishers, 2004).

Besides these, there are many other helpful books, especially the beautiful national park books put out by various publishers (such as K.C. Publications, Sierra Press, etc.). 

 

 

SPECIAL NOTE 

Under national parks, we also include national forests, national monuments, national recreation areas, etc. 

Aug.   4 A Ken Burns Pilgrimage Visiting the Northwest National Park Lodges 

Aug. 11 Crater Lake Lodge (Crater Lake National Park) 

Aug. 18 Oregon Caves Chateau (Oregon Caves National Monument) 

Aug.  25 Timberline Lodge (Mount Hood National Wilderness) 

Sept.   1 Paradise Inn (Mount Rainier National Park) 

Sept.    8 Stehekin Landing Resort (North Cascades National Park) 

Sept.  15 Enzian Inn (not a historic hotel, situated in Washington State’s faux Bavarian village, Leavenworth) 

Sept.  22 Lake Quinault Lodge (Olympic National Park) 

Sept.  29 Crescent Lake Lodge (Olympic National Park) 

Oct.     6 The Cascade Loop 

Oct.   13 Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt 

Oct.   20 Old Faithful Inn (Yellowstone National Park) 

Oct.   27 Lake Yellowstone Hotel (Yellowstone National Park) 

Nov.     3  Jackson Lake Hotel (Grand Teton National Park) 

Nov.   10 Glacier Park Lodge (Glacier National Park) 

Nov.  17 Many Glacier Hotel (Glacier National Park) 

Nov.  24 Lake McDonald Lodge (Glacier National Park) 

Dec.    1 Prince of Wales Hotel (Glacier/Waterton Lakes National Park) 

Dec.    8 Young People—and the Old—Who Work in National Park Lodges and the Recession 

Dec.  15 Last Thoughts – Memories – Our Top 10 Lists 

*   See you next week; would be honored to have you journey along with us.