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).

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #4

 

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

 

Dec. 14, 2011

In all probability, most of our readers have never even heard of Capitol Reef National Park.  Where’s that? you may wonder; if it’s anywhere most likely it’s some island park somewhere in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Instead, it’s situated in one of the driest sections of our nation.

 

It came by its name because early pioneers in westward-bound wagon trains felt its topography (featuring many dome-like sandstone rock formations) reminded them of the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.  Secondly, because it had been, since time immemorial, a 100-mile-long reef-like obstruction to east/west traffic.  Indeed, it ended up being the last-explored territory in the lower 48 states.

Not until 1853 did an explorer even get close.  But Captain John W. Gunnison, seeking a transcontinental east/west train route, never made it into the interior.  Later that year, John C. Fremont, following upon Gunnison’s exploration, actually made it into the heart of the range.  He was, in turn, followed by John Wesley Powell, who named the river running through it, the Fremont.

 

Outlaw bands, such as Butch Cassidy and his gang are reputed to have hidden out in the towering wrinkle of rock, honeycombed with cliffs, canyons, knobs, monoliths, spires, slots, alcoves, arches, and natural bridges.

 

Brigham Young sent Mormon pioneers to settle here in 1880.  In a little two-hundred-acre river valley they named Fruita, they settled in, complete with a blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, barns, and 2700 apple, peach, cherry, pear, and apricot trees.  The little settlement lasted for sixty years—finally, the desolation, isolation, and loneliness got to them, and they moved out in 1940.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt first made it a national monument in 1937; it did not achieve national park status until 1971.  But relatively few visitors come here to explore its 241,900 acres; and of those who do, fewer yet venture off the two paved roads into the dirt roads of the interior, which is a pity, for they thereby miss some of the most magnificent scenery in the Southwest.  Especially legendary are sections such as Upper Cathedral Valley, so monolithic early explorers likened many formations to Gothic cathedrals.

 

Of the five national parks in Utah’s fabled Colorado Plateau, Zion gets the most visitors, by far; followed by Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands.

 

OUR OWN JOURNEY

After a good breakfast at the Moab Best Western, we looped north on 191 to Interstate 70, headed west, then turned south on Hwy 24.  Two mountain ranges so dominate southeastern Utah that rarely are both the La Sal and the Henry Mountains out of view.  As for the Henrys, they rise like a great windjammer at full sail.  Some years ago, in my faithful red Toyota I’d dubbed “Eloquent,” I’d driven here on a sabbatical.  Foolishly, I’d taken Eloquent up into the Henrys; after crossing over the crest of the highest of the three Henrys, I all but lost Eloquent in the loose shale on the western side.  Many the time I had to back up with spinning wheels, then race down in hopes I could get enough momentum to make it to the top of the next hill—again, again, and yet again.  No cars at all on the road!  I finally got back to Hanksville riding on fumes in an all but empty gas-tank.

 

Now, as the Henrys came into view, I took a long lingering look at its now snow-capped peaks, stopped for photos, and we reboarded and headed west along the Fremont River to Capitol Reef, the Henrys our constant companions to our south.  To say we didn’t do justice to Capitol Reef would be a gross understatement.  We didn’t even have time in our tight schedule to take the nine-mile scenic spur (the only other paved road in the park).  We only had time to shutterbug along the Fremont, in the Fruita orchards, at the schoolhouse, and spend ample time in the park visitor center.

Anyone who fails to take advantage of the generally informative and sometimes splendid visitor centers in our national parks and monuments will later suffer for the omission, for those videos and films enrich your actual experiences and compensate for all you fail to see.  We saw enough of the latter here in Capitol Reef to make us sigh and vow to return when we have the time—and four-wheel-drive—to enable us to venture into the hundred-mile north-south Waterpocket Fold that contains the park’s real treasures.

 

In one respect, Capitol Reef National Park towers over all other park visitor centers: the video footage comes to its memorable conclusion, the curtains slowly part and are pulled wide; behind: a magnificent panorama anchored by a castle-like fortress of rainbow-colored rock.  It took our breath away!

 

After delaying as long as we could, we reboarded the Lincoln and continued west.  In no time at all, we’d exited the park.

 

Next is Bryce National Park!

 

CORRECTION FOR BLOG #40, SERIES #2

 

Gus Scott, one of our sharp-eyed readers, has corrected me: “Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachoma arches are in Natural Bridges National Monument, and not in Canyonlands National Park.”

Many thanks, Gus.

 

SOURCES

 

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

 

Leeth, Dan, “Utah’s Forgotten Park,” featured in May/June 2011 AAA Encompass.

 

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

 

Olson, Virgil J. and Helen, Capitol Reef: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 1990).

 

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

TIMBERLINE LODGE

Timberline Lodge

After regretfully bidding a too-soon-goodbye to Oregon Caves Chateau, we wound our way back down to the Redwood Highway. Late evening found us at Gold Beach Resort where our 28th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention was to be held. Two days later, my 28th keynote address had to do with Zane Grey’s greatest obsession in life: to become the world’s greatest fisherman. After five wonderful nights of listening to the waves thunder in, we re-packed the Lincoln. It was easier now that we’d shipped three boxes of our stuff back to Colorado—yet perversely the trunk remained full.

We drove up 101 to Reedsport, where we bade our adieus to the Pacific—the Oregon Coast has to be one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of sea and sand—and took Highway 36 East, feeling we had good company as Zane Grey’s river, the Umpqua, followed us. Then we were back on I-5. I recited my favorite freeway quotation: Charles Kuralt’s, “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel coast to coast without seeing anything.”

Finally, we reached our road, Hwy 26, and angled east into Mt. Hood National Wilderness. Then it was six steep miles up to Timberline Lodge. Since it was late June it was a bit of a shock to see so many skiers, for in Colorado our ski-lifts had closed for the season some time before. After checking in, we carried our luggage up to our to-be-expected small room. A TV set peered out at us with a sheepish look, as much as to say, “I know I don’t belong here, but what could I do?” More in keeping with the times, in the room were an antique telephone and fan, and an old wind-up clock. And single beds.

Mt. Hood

While the rest explored inside the hotel, I shutterbugged my way across the snowfield above the hotel. From there, it seemed like you could see forever. I didn’t know it then, but it was, without doubt, the grandest panoramic view—I could see snow-capped Mount Jefferson; farther away were Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters—we’d see during our entire trip. Snowcats loaded with tired skiers passed me en route to the lodge.

Dinner in the Cascade Dining Room was all I hoped it would be. We were lucky enough to get a window table. Afterwards, we played Phase Ten, ruined by Connie’s whupping us! Then everyone else retired, but I needed to write cards to our children and grandchildren and catch up in my journal. But there was no fire in the fireplace. When I asked why, one of the clerks at the front desk answered, “Sir, we can make one for you—where are you sitting?” Not long afterwards, I had my fire, my evening complete.

TIMBERLINE’S STORY

The lodge was born in the depths of the Great Depression. I chronicle the story of that time-period in my book, What’s So Good About Tough Times? (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook/Random House, 2001). It began on October 24, 1929—known forever after as Black Thursday—and continued its downward plunge through October 29—Black Tuesday. The free-fall continued: thirty billion lost during two short weeks. Panic gripped the nation.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year passed—things only got worse. By the time 1931 drew to a close, of the 122 million Americans, five million were unemployed; jobless rates reaching 50% in some areas. More than two million people wandered across the country as vagrants. Four hundred banks had failed and there was then no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Everywhere one looked, once proud, self-sufficient men and women had been reduced to begging for enough food so their families could survive another day. Since there were no credit cards, one either had money or one did not. Not without reason were six words seared into American consciousness for all time: Brother, can you spare a dime?

Things only got worse. By January 1932, more than two thousand banks had failed and thirteen million people were out of work. That November, desperate Americans tossed Hoover out of the White House and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now 25% of the nation was without jobs, five thousand banks had collapsed, and in that maelstrom nine million family savings and checking accounts disappeared forever. And it continued on and on, the economy not recovering until World War II in the 1940s. Roosevelt’s response was the New Deal, the Work Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); in these programs, FDR did his best to put the nation back to work. (Wheeler, 1-3).

In the midst of this Depression, Emerson J. Griffith, WA Director for Oregon, searching for ways to put Oregonians to work, came up with the idea of building a lodge on Mount Hood, at 11,235 feet, Oregon’s highest mountain, a mecca for mountaineers, skiers, and travelers. On Dec. 17, 1935, according to Christine Barnes, the WPA approved the project. The U.S. Forest Service provided the land, and Congressional and private funding was promised. Then began the search for an architect of note. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who’d already left his mark on Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks, was selected. But the U.S. Forest Service’s architects determined to have their say as well. In the end, both sides agreed to make Timberline a joint venture.

The result was a central wigwam roof, with two wings; at the center would be a massive octagonal fireplace—later changed to hexagonal. Instead of Underwood’s preferred great log exterior, park architects chose a board-and-batten, clapboard, and stone exterior, typical of some of Portland’s grandest mansions. The lodge was designed to grow right out of the mountain, the 92-foot high central conical head-house fireplace looming above the lodge roofline in the same manner the mountain itself juts up from its base. Wisely, they positioned the hotel at 6,000 feet, at the foot of the Palmer Snowfield, to capitalize on its potential to thereby attract skiers. Hundreds of unemployed were now put to work.

Underwood’s two-entry concept had to do with separating two potential clientele: skiers used the ground entry, and recreational visitors used the upper. The great hexagonal chimney sports six fireplaces, three in the lower lounge and three in the upper one. Griffith and park architects concluded that blacksmithing, wood-carving, and weaving would complement the architecture; a stroke of genius had to do with enlisting Portland interior decorator Margery Hoffman Smith to bring a “woman’s touch” to the project; she it was who brought stylistic harmony to the interior. What makes the lodge extra special is all the whimsical wood carvings of animals of the Northwest, some even in the balustrades.

One of the hand carved owl balustrade on the stairway.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness all these creative people who were longing to make a difference and desperately needed the work. What no one had anticipated was the resultant explosion of creativity on the part of the artisans; the result was much the same as what made Europe’s soaring Gothic cathedrals such masterpieces: each workman, even if carving or sculpting a portion of the structure far above the ground level—if it were but a gargoyle—gave it his all as if it were to last forever. Griffith, in a telegram, put it this way: “These men indeed feel they are putting their skill into a cathedral. Coming up from the depths of despair they work with a spiritual exaltation that sometimes amazes me.” (Barnes, 69).

President Roosevelt was there, on September 28. 1937, to dedicate Timberline Lodge to the nation; the ceremony was carried live on radio. It cost far more than estimated: $1,000,000 instead of $250,000. But today, a million visitors a year flood in. Because of this, the lodge is continually re-created with craftsmen who replace the furniture, drapery, bedspreads, ironwork, leatherwork, etc., in order to preserve the original look, quality, and condition. One of these contemporary ironworkers, Darryl Nelson noted that “The best compliment they can give us is when we see someone looking at iron we just put in and they’re saying, ‘Boy, they don’t make stuff like this any more.’” (Barnes, 71).

Like most of these wondrous old lodges, Timberline went through its tough times: it was closed during World War II; after the war, mismanagement forced it to close its doors for nonpayment of utility bills. It was saved only because of the single-minded passion of Richard Kohnstamm; his son, Jeff, keeps the dream alive today. Today, when its now world-famous Palmer Snowfield that retains its snow year-round makes Timberline home to one of the most energetic ski and snowboard scenes on the planet. Here organized training camps from all over the world work on their skills all through the summer months in the longest ski season in North America. (This section, Barnes, 61-71).

* * * * *

Miraculously, this one-of-a-kind treasure of a lodge is still with us. It is different from most other old lodges in that it is urban (only minutes away from Portland); like it or not, it is loved to death by millions. If people like Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and me feel outnumbered by the skiers, if we miss the great unified lobbies of sister lodges, and the serenity that keeps them alive into a new century, we ought not to begrudge sharing Timberline with others who cherish it for different reasons than we do.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Be sure and secure a copy of this book, for the “rest of the story”!]

AAA book on Oregon [an invaluable source].

“The Art of Timberline,” (Portland, OR: Friends of Timberline, n.d.

“Timberline” (Timberline Lodge brochure).

“Timberline Lodge—an Expression of Hope and Purpose” (U.S. Forest Service brochure)

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Paradise Inn on the slopes of Mount Rainier.