THE PERVERSITY OF CHRISTMAS TREES AND THEIR STANDS

BLOG #51, SERIES 5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE PERVERSITY OF CHRISTMAS TREES AND THEIR STANDS
DECEMBER 17, 2014

I suspect watching the Lucy and Desi Christmas special might have had something to do with it. You remember: Lucy’s determination to trim their Christmas tree so it will be perfectly symmetrical. The trimmer being their next-door sidekick: Mr. Mertz. As usual with Lucy, disaster was the result.

Just so, with us: Connie repeatedly urged me to hurry up and cut that perfect little fir tree north of our house. “Hurry, before it snows!” her very words. Like most husbands, I didn’t like being told what to do and when. The TV weather predictors had managed to be wrong so many times already this year, why should this time be different? “Maybe an inch or so in the foothills,” their prognosis.

So I waited. Then slipped and stumbled my way downhill through a foot of very cold and very wet snow. I had to dig down a foot just to get to the fir’s base. Then: a mighty cold job cutting it down and dragging it uphill to the house.

When Connie saw its snowy branches looking oh so Christmasy, she pronounced it a winner: perfectly symmetrical and just the right size.

Out to the garage I went to haul down from the rafters the big state-of-the-art/never-failed-us-yet Christmas tree stand.

Once inside with it, I lowered the tree into the stand. In order to preserve its symmetry I didn’t cut the big lower branches off. Eight stabilizers were screwed in to the tree to guarantee vertical perfection. It looked wonderful, but deep inside its firry heart, it harbored subversive thoughts.

Before we started decorating it, Connie called my attention to the fact that only the four upper stabilizers reached the tree; the four lower ones connected with nothing. I assured her that four would work just fine. Indeed, it appeared I was right. First we decorated it with long strings of colored lights. Finally, with a little rejiggling, it was perfect. Next, I put up scores of beautiful red ornaments. Then we tried out a bedraggled angel to crown the tree; it was quickly replaced by a shimmering red steeple-shaped ornament. We turned the room lights off and the tree lights on. Ah, perfection!

Shortly afterwards, we noticed that the tree was tilting in the wrong direction. I soon fixed it.

In no time at all, Connie called my attention to its tilting in a different direction. We fixed it. And the cycle continued again and again. And I was growing ever more irate.

Finally, I announced that, like it or not, the symmetry would have to be sacrificed. One after another after another, I cut enough low branches so there was a satisfactory thud as the tree hit bottom. All during the process, there was a light rain of ornaments letting go.

But now, we could finally fix the tree once and for all! All I had to do was screw in all eight stabilizers. Trouble was, Connie had filled the stand with water, and the rubber stabilizer connectors kept falling into the water, so I burrowed into the tree, Connie attempting to keep it erect while I fished the rubber connectors out. But now, some of the stabilizers didn’t get to the tree at all, as some were screwed out further than the others, leading to my inability to stabilize the tree. By now, more ornaments rained down—and broke. Including the piece de resistance at the top. And the long snaky electric lights did their utmost to strangle me. I got testy and testier, and howled like a man.

Finally, I left Connie holding the tree up and went out to the garage to corral an earlier vintage tree-stand. In the rafters, I finally found it. One small problem: part of it was missing. Then I remembered hearing, on the opposite side of the garage, something metallic fall behind high stacks of boxes filled with books. So I now had to move a big stack of boxes in order to retrieve the rest of the stand. Much time had passed by then.

So much so that Connie had all but given up on holding the tree upright. More ornaments had fallen.

So now we had to completely undecorate the tree, then lift it out of its original stand, stagger across the front room to the deck, carry the all-too-full water-filled original stand, trying not to spill much, then take it outside and dump the water off the deck.

Then, I lifted up the malevolent tree once again and lowered it into its much smaller stand. And the tree stood up straight and tall. It was quickly tightened in place.

And we got to start all over again.

True, the tree had lost some of its symmetry—-but somehow symmetry didn’t seem important any more. The important thing was: It stood up straight and tall! I concluded that symmetry was overrated anyhow.

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

Connie - SW Nat Parks 479

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.

Connie - SW Nat Parks 493

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.

Connie - SW Nat Parks 465

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.

Connie - SW Nat Parks 468

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).