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).

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

BLOG #12, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #10

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

March 21, 2012

 

 

Death Valley (one of Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) may be summed up in three superlatives: “Hottest,” “Driest,” “Lowest.”  In July of 1934, a temperature of 134E was recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch—at that time, that was the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth.  Later, a site in Libya recorded a temperature of 136E (two degrees hotter).  It is the driest area in our National Parks system (average rainfall, less than two inches; some years, none at all).  Its Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) is the lowest place in North America.

 

The name, of course, is part of the mystique.  Apparently, it dates back to 1849 when a wagon train of pioneers en route to California chose this valley as a route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  But rather than a route out, they got instead lasting heat, hunger, thirst, and “awful silence.”  One man died; the rest were found by a rescue party, and climbed out over the Panamint Mountains.  One of these, more dead than alive, upon reaching the summit, turned for one last look and, with deep feeling, muttered, “Good-bye, Death Valley”—and the name stuck.

 

 

The valley is 120 miles long and over 60 miles wide.  Surprisingly soaring up from the deepest spot in North America, are peaks such as Telescope Peak (11,049 feet), representing one of North America’s greatest vertical rises.  In the winter, these mountains are often snow-capped.

 

In spite of its hostile climate and scarcity of water, “desert rats” (most prospectors or desert wanderers) have long haunted these silent reaches.  Over 10,000 abandoned mining claims can be found here—gold, silver, lead, zinc, mercury, copper, salt, manganese…and borax.  Interestingly enough, a young graduate of the University of California, Stephen Tyng Mather, early on became sales manager for Pacific Coast Borax.  A born advertising genius, Mather generated a flood of publicity glamorizing the early days of Death Valley, and branded his product as “20 Mule Team Borax.”  Over 100,000 copies of his Borax recipe book was distributed and sold within one month!  Before long, Mather started his own borax company, and quickly became very wealthy.  As fate would have it, however, in a 1914 letter to his good friend, Franklin Lee, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Mather groused about the condition of America’s national parks.  Lee zinged a letter right back, challenging him with these words, “Dear Steve, if you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, why don’t you come down to Washington and run them yourself?”  That’s all it took—and today Mather is considered to be the father of our national park system, now the envy of the world.

 

Mather never forgot Death Valley; no matter how many other great scenic wonders he managed to save for posterity, he kept pushing for its preservation.  Zane Grey’s blockbuster desert novel, Wanderer of the Wasteland (set in Death Valley), a media trifecta (magazine serialization, book publication, and movie) helped Mather’s cause no little, as did the advent of that long-running radio show (later movie series), Death Valley Days, memorably hosted by none other than  Ronald Reagan.  In 1933, President Herbert Hoover (formerly president of the National Park Association) signed a bill giving it National Monument status, with an area of 1,600,000 acres. Yet mining continued even after that time.  Not until 1994 (61 years later), when President Clinton pushed through the Desert Protection Act, did Death Valley at last become a national park (at 3,396,000 acres the largest national park in the lower 48, and roughly the size of Connecticut).

 

FURNACE CREEK INN

 

By late 1926, Pacific Coast Boraxt was building Furnace Creek Inn, the type of upscale resort Mather favored because he felt it would enhance the park’s status with the general public.  The company had great plans for the resort (designed by Los Angeles architect Albert Martin), and saw to it that rail service into the basin was arranged for.  According to Christine Barnes, the process was a bit involved: the underutilized Tonopah and Tidewater railroad lines transported arriving guests from Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroad stops to the Death Valley Junction; there they would climb aboard the Death Valley Railroad cars for the twenty-mile journey through the Funeral Mountains to Ryan, where the tracks ended.  Motor coaches would take them the rest of the way (Barnes, 52).

 

 

Martin’s Spanish Revival hotel was built on a low knoll at the mouth of occasionally running Furnace Creek, but received its water supply from nearby Travertine Springs.  Furnace Creek Inn officially opened on February 1, 1927.  As time passed, the complex continued to expand.  By 1928-29, more and more tourists were finding their way here.  A nine-hole golf course was completed in 1929, as well as an exquisite freshwater swimming pool.  Daniel Hull, renowned landscape architect, had been brought in to complete the masterpiece that is the inn.

 

 

VIPs began to arrive—including the likes of Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando.  Today, it and the nearby Furnace Creek Ranch are operated by XANTERRA Resorts.

 

OUR MEMORIES

 

Once again, in this all too short a journey we call life, we woke up in the venerable El Tovar Hotel.  Since it would be a long day, the alarm clock rang at 6:15 a.m.  Luckily, we landed the NW window table and were served by our favorite waiter, Noah.  A scrumptious breakfast of French toast, coffee, and splitting a to-die-for cinnamon roll.  By 8:15 a.m., Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and I, were ensconced in the Lincoln Town Car and “On the Road Again.”  Our route took us west through Kingman, Arizona, 93 through Las Vegas to 95, then up to Death Valley  junction on 190.  The temperature kept climbing, and climbing as we descended into the deepest valley in America.  In reality, it is not really a valley at all because 2,000 years ago this was a great lake 600 feet deep.  Even though this was still a spring May day, it was already 98E when we checked in at Furnace Creek Ranch.  One of our trip’s major disappointments had to do with our inability to stay at Furnace Creek Inn, reason being that it is open only during the “relatively cool” winter months.   The rest of the year it lies fallow.  But at the Ranch, we were pleasantly surprised by the spacious, comfortable, and cool rooms.  Afterwards, we drove up to Furnace Creek Inn, and walked around the Shangri-la where we’d hoped to be staying. The palm groves were hauntingly beautiful, as was the turquoise Mediterranean pool.  The lawns, shrubs, and flowers were verdant.  The inn was everything we heard it was—at least from what we could see.  Some day, we vowed, we’ll return and stay here.  Then back to the Ranch for dinner, ice cream, and early sack-time.  It had been a long day.

 

 

Next morning early, we headed up to famed Zabriski Point for sunrise, then back for breakfast.  We quickly discovered that meals at the Ranch, because of the continual influx of tourist groups (by bus, auto, and motorcycle), was semi-cafeteria style—necessary because of the off the street clientele.  But the food was good.  It felt no frills Old Westy.  Afterwards, we drove to a place I’d dreamed of visiting all my life: Scotty’s Castle.

Because it is nestled in the hills about 3,000 feet above the valley floor, it is about nine degrees cooler there.  After strolling through the visitor center, we joined a tour group, and were lucky enough to snag a marvelous guide.  I’m sure you too have discovered that, in traveling, the guides make all the difference.  As we moved through the lovely castle, our guide brought to life the fairy-tale story behind its building :a talented westerner known as Death Valley Scotty, who had ridden with Buffalo Bill for twelve years in his famed Wild West Shows all across America and Europe; but Scotty was also a desert rat, a miner, and a con man who sold shares in nonexistent or non-producing mines.  One of his victims, Albert Johnson, a millionaire, overlooked being duped and built a castle that cost several million dollars to construct, then let Scotty claim ownership of it, supposedly built from the fortune made in his nonexistent mines.  Johnson and his wife had no wish to claim ownership, they’d just listen to Scotty tell tales and let him bask in the adulation of his devoted public.  Oh there’s so much more to their story and to the castle!  You’ll just have to come and explore it for yourself.  By the time we got back to the ranch, it was 105E in the shade.

 

We mixed with pilgrims from all over the world, including a large cavalcade of Brazilian motorcyclists.  We were told that even in the blistering heat of summer, visitors come anyway, seeking to experience one of the iconic extremes life has to offer.  After supper, we retired early, for tomorrow would be another very long day.

 

SOURCES

 

Atchison, Stewart, Death Valley: Splendid Isolation (Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press, 2002).

 

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks (Bend, OR: WWW West Inc., 2002).

 

Parker, Stanley W., Death Valley’s Scotty’s Castle (Wickenburg, AZ: K.C. Publications, 2010).

Schultz, Patricia, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (New York Workman Publishing, 2003).

 

Southern California & Las Vegas Tour Book (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2009).

 

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States, (Washington, D. C. 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.