PEOPLE WHO WORK IN NATIONAL PARK LODGES

We’ve
come to the end of this series of blogs celebrating Northwest Loop
lodges. But lodges are far more than wood, steel, stone, and glass:
it takes flesh and blood people to bring them to life. Since most
NW lodges close during winter months, it should come as no surprise
to discover that most workers are seasonal, many being students
during the winter months. I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to
life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Americans
(especially the young) flooded out of the cities and into the
nation’s heartland, seeking enough work to stay alive.
“Brother, can you spare a dime,” the mantra for that
generation. The difference this time having to do with our
changing mores. Back then, most of those who left home were
males; that is not true today. When we asked those who waited
tables, cleaned rooms, or otherwise kept the park lodges running
smoothly, where they came from, we quickly discovered that they
came from all across the U.S., Canada, and from around the
world. When asked why, one response predominated: “Since I
couldn’t get a job, I decided to follow my dream and see places
I’ve always wanted to see.” Or, “Since I couldn’t afford
college tuition, I logged in at websites such as Coolworks.com to see what was
available out there.” Some were recent graduates unable to
land a full-time job. Collectively, these workers were a very
attractive mix: clearly the best, cleanest-cut, most adventurous of
their age-group. Since I’m such a romantic, I asked a number
of them what resulted from the juxtaposition of young people of
both sexes in these lodge facilities. They’d smile and admit
to “lots of romances—more romances than marriages.” Yet, a
surprisingly large number spoke of marriages. One young man,
at Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier National Park, paused after my
questioning before musing, “You know . . . I must be a throwback to
my parents. . . . They met at a facility like
this, and have worked in parks ever since. They
love what they do! So it’s affected me
too. Growing up in the great out-of-doors, I couldn’t even
imagine being cooped up in a city! . . . . So, yes, I’ll
probably marry one of my co-workers just like my folks did.” They
were a most mobile group. Freed by the worldwide web to soar
across the nation and the world at the flick of a mouse, state or
national borders meant nothing to them. Shoot! All they
needed was a backpack and enough money to put food in their mouths
and pay the small fees required at youth hostels. They were
unabashedly rootless and loved the life. Their preferred
network: word of mouth. In a rain forest near Lake Quinault,
Bob and I met three very attractive coeds who were building
railings on park trails for the Oregon counterpart to FDR’s
Civilian Conservation Corps. Clearly, they were having a
wonderful time! Indeed, they were bubbling over
with joie de vivre. At Stehekin, that “island”
in time of a Shangri-la on Lake Chelan, one of the young waitresses
could be found during off-hours reading Jane Austen on a rustic
wooden bench, meditatively dreaming the vision of water and
mountains away. At Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a young string quartet
from one of the most prestigious music schools on the East Coast
confessed to coming here every summer, so that they could interact
with like-minded people from all around the world, work with
students who, like them, were lovers of the wide world, adventurers
all, and revel in hikes into every corner of Yellowstone and the
Tetons. “What’s not to like about that?” * * * * * But we
were more surprised by the number of older people we found working
in the park. At Stehekin, the postmaster chuckled as she told
of her daily excitement: carrying her bag of outgoing mail to the
boat just before it returned to Chelan. “Postal regulations
mandate that I lock the door when I leave, but I really don’t need
to. People here are honest.” When asked if she was a
native, she laughed again, “Oh, goodness, no! My husband and
I, as retirees, were sick and tired of the sameness of our lives,
so when we heard of this job, we jumped at the chance to move
here. My husband works in maintenance. Here I’m
needed, and we’ve just fallen in love with the
people here. I just couldn’t imagine leaving this magical
place.” At Old Faithful Inn, that madhouse of seething humanity,
during the unnatural serenity of one of the Old Faithful
Geyser-induced ebb-tides, I asked a lovely young woman,
effervescent, radiating happiness, and eager to be of service to
people like us, what brought her there—but before she could even
answer, an older woman broke in: “But what about me—aren’t you even
interested in me?” Then it was almost
like a dam broke as she poured out her story: Left alone at
midlife, she chanced to come to Old Faithful Inn to work for the
summer–and got hooked. She said, “I’ve been coming back here
every summer for over twenty years. It’s my life! I
live for coming back here every summer. Those who work here,”
and she looked fondly at her beautiful co-worker, “are my
children, and they treat me as though I’m
their mother. Oh the stories I get to hear!” In Colorado, I
met a United Airlines pilot retiree, who when I told him where I’d
been, responded with, “Let me tell you about my folks. Many
years ago, my mother-in-law, then a college student from back East,
from a well-to-do family, suddenly decided she wanted to go out
west to work in Yellowstone for the summer. Her father,
aghast at his daughter even daring to do such a thing, reluctantly
permitted her to go, but first made her accept a derringer for
protection. So when I asked him what happened afterwards, he
paused, a far-away look in his eyes: “Well, she never had to use
her derringer—but she did marry her employer,
the manager of Old Faithful Inn.” * * * * * These are just a few of
the stories we heard during our all-too-brief visits to these
wonderful old lodges. As an author, I’ve discovered that most
everyone I meet has a fascinating story to tell, reminding me of
that moving observation by Hans Christian Andersen: Each
of our lives is a fairy tale, written by the hand of
God
.

PARADISE INN

            There were swarms of skiers getting ready to hit the slopes, to greet us as we walked down the steps of Timberline Lodge—one girl crying because her boots were too tight.  The view was so breathtaking we had to just stare, downloading it to our memory disks.  Then it was down the mountain.

            At Sandy, we stopped for breakfast at the Tollgate Inn Restaurant, well known for its old-timey appearance, great breakfasts, and (in its bakery), the best pecan sticky buns any of us could ever remember eating.  Connie almost cried when she gobbled up the last bite.  Then we moved on through the town of Boring.  I’d waited all my life to tell the story (affirmed to be true) of a certain Pastor Dull of a Boring church—how they’d finally had to move him.  Then it was back on boring (pardon the pun) I-5 again.

            Once past the bridge over the great Columbia River, we were in Washington at last.  None of us were very familiar with the state; in fact, that had been another reason for making the trip: Washington is so far north (like Maine in that respect) that you have to make a special effort to get there.  We could hardly wait to explore it more fully.

            Finally, we escaped I-5 and turned east on Hwy 12; turning north on hwy 7, and east again on hwy 706.  We stopped at the pioneer village of Longmire, famously homesteaded by James Longmire in 1887-8.  Longmire was one of the first to bring tourists up to Paradise Valley.  When his daughter-in-law first saw its king’s ransom worth of wildflowers (due to the 250 feet of rich volcanic soil), she exclaimed, “This must be what Paradise is like!”  It has been called “Paradise Valley” ever since.  John Muir later declared it to be “the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld.”  It was also one of the favorite spots on earth for Stephen Tyng Mather, founding father of our national parks.  Mather first climbed Mt. Rainier in 1905; he returned in 1915 to oversee the first road into Paradise Valley (Duncan and Burns, 240).

Mount Rainier

            Ernest, the protagonist in Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face,” lived so long in the shadow of that great rock outcropping that his own face came to mirror it.  Just so, Washington’s highest mountain (14,441 feet); so vast that it makes its own weather, is so dominating that its image is indelibly etched into the subconsciousness of all those who live within sight of its great white mass shouldering its way into Washington’s sky, reminiscent of Mount Shasta’s dominance of northern California.  The sixth recorded person to climb it was John Muir (in 1888).  As Muir viewed the wholesale annihilation of Washington’s old growth forests by the voracious logging barons, he felt the Glory of the Northwest was certain to be ravaged as well.  He marshaled the forces of the newly formed Sierra Club, the National Geographic Society, and Northern Pacific Railroad tycoon Louis Hill.  It paid off: in 1893, President Benjamin Harrison made the mountain the centerpiece of the newly created Mount Rainier Forest Reserve; in 1897, Congress expanded it into the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve; in 1899, with President William McKinley’s backing, it became our fifth national park.

Paradise Inn

            But Mather wanted a hotel in Paradise Valley worthy of its mountain.  In 1916’s short summer season, that long-desired hotel was rushed into being.  Great Alaska cedar logs were hauled in from an 1885 burn-site.  The exterior was shingled with cedar. Two massive stone fireplaces anchor the 50 X 112 foot two-and-a-half-story great hall; later, a wrap-around second-story mezzanine would be added for structural support.  The 51 X 105 foot one-and-a-half-story dining hall is almost as grand as the great hall.   A fifty-foot stone fireplace fills its north wall.  The most enduring furniture was crafted by German-born Hans Fraenke, a local contractor; every year for seven years, found him the first to arrive in the spring and the last to leave in the fall.  He hand-crafted (with an adze) the furniture to last—and it has: such things as a 1,500 pound table made of Alaska cedar, two larger than life throne chairs, a fourteen-foot-high grandfather clock, a mailbox made out of a large stump, and perhaps the piece de résistance, a standard piano transformed into an impressive work of art.  Architect Laurian Huffman submits that it is this combination of soaring roof line and oversized furniture that makes you feel like one of the Seven Dwarfs entering Fantasyland because you become so small in relation to them. (Barnes, 56).

Hand-carved Grandfather Clock

            Barnes notes that, “Over the years, alterations and decorative painting have changed some of the details of the great hall, but it retains the grandeur of its early days.  Light streams in from the dormer windows high above the mezzanine, highlighting the repetitive structural framework with posts, beams and trusses that mark the architectural structure of the great hall.  Iron rings grip the cedar poles, added to reinforce the splitting timbers, and a system of cables and metal bracing helps support the building against the onslaught of heavy snow.  During the 1920s, additional cedar beams were added to create a permanent brace against the snow.  The snow!  It is one of the snowiest spots on earth: 640 inches the average (sometimes, up to 900 inches!).  It has been a constant war every year with Mother Nature to save the lodge from crushing levels of the white stuff.  Not coincidentally, units of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II were taught here how to survive winter combat.

THE REALITY

            A million people find their way into this valley every summer; many of them were in the parking lot; fortunately, we had lodge reservations, otherwise we would have had a tough time finding a parking space.  Even though it was almost July, the snow was so deep it was impossible to explore those famed fields of wild flowers still imprisoned in their seeds.  Many visitors sat on the outside deck, drinking in Mount Rainier to the north and the also snowcapped jagged Tatoosh Range to the south.

Custom Piano

            Inside, we entered an island in time.  Around us on chairs and couches were people from all over the world.  Just across from us was an intergenerational family I shamelessly watched: three adorable little girls who clearly had their doting grandfather totally under their little thumbs; their lovely young mother lovingly running fingers through her husband’s hair—a seraphic look of utter bliss on his face; the grandmother alternating between reading, looking fondly at her granddaughters, and staring at the crackling fire in the great stone fireplace on that end of the great hall.  Other tableaus could be found everywhere in the long room.  A pianist plunked away on the monster piano—almost always someone was either taking his picture or speaking to him—he played for hours (songs old and new), applause and baksheesh keeping him rooted to his chair.  Quite simply, it was America as it used to be.

            Later, in the dining room, we lucked out with a window table and stared up at the mountain.  Each waiter sported a badge identifying her/him by state or country of origin.  Later on, I’ll dedicate an entire blog to them—how they are rising above the recession to see and experience the world.  Dinner took a long time for no one—anywhere—was in a hurry to leave that enchanted room.

            Afterwards we listened to a ranger speaking about wildlife in the park, we ascended the stairs, found a table, played a game, and devoured the huckleberry pie and ice cream a dimple-cheeked beauty from Eastern Europe brought to us—she got plenty of exercise serving all of us on the four sides of the long mezzanine.

            The icing on the cake was a serendipity.  Hearing there would be a total eclipse of the moon that night, I took a long walk.  On the way back, perhaps the brightest golden moon I’ve ever seen gradually rose above the eastern hills—its radiance was almost unearthly!  Photographers were already bringing out their cameras to set up for the 2 a.m. eclipse.  I cravenly opted to return to the lodge and sleep instead.

SOURCES:

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Park I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).  [Her entry for Paradise Inn is a must-read].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009. [There is much about Mt. Rainier in the book].

“Mount Rainier,” National Park Service brochure.

Scott, Dand L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

“The Tahoma News,” May-June 2010.  National Park Service handout.

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009). [Features a most informative section on Mt. Rainier].

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we move on to Stehekin and Lake Chelan.