TRAIN — THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (part 1)

BLOG #21, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part One)
May 21, 2014

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Yes, trains, long considered antiquated and a quaint holdover from the past, have quietly and unobtrusively in recent years become the “in” thing with thousands of travelers. Hadn’t realized it until Connie and I boarded The California Zephyr at Denver’s rapidly changing Union Station on April 20. Actually, “rapidly changing” is a major understatement, for it is a stunning transformation. Even though the construction is still going on, it is the talk of the plains: A new upscale hotel is going in, buses from all over the region have been rerouted so they disgorge and pick up passengers in a large state of the art underground terminal directly below the train waiting room. Same for light rail. As a result, already over a billion dollars of new construction is changing the city skyline of what locals call “LO-DO” [lower downtown].

The initial news that Sunday morning was not good: the train would be two and a half hours late. We later discovered that a big fire had broken out near the tracks in the vicinity of Omaha. But not to worry, the train would make up a lot of the time later on. And it did: an hour and a half of it before we reached Sacramento. But the delay didn’t appear to bother anyone very much. Just accepted it as another example of what regulars label “AMTRAK time,” the result of freight train corporations owning the tracks, and consequently having priority over passenger trains. But, in reality, as everyone knows all too well, air travelers face jammed skies and weather-based delays and cancellations virtually every day, not counting mechanical problems—so, delay-wise, it can be a Hobson’s choice.

ALL ABOARD!

Since it had been some years since we had last traveled by train, we wondered what it would be like in the Year of our Lord 2014. It was enough that finally here around the bend, the long silver city on steel wheels backed into the still-under-construction station. We were surprised to see how excited we were–it had been a long time since we’d experienced anything but dread and distaste over the prospect of boarding yet another flying cattle-car. So this was different. How different we didn’t yet realize.

We quickly discovered that, as through-travelers to California, we were assigned a through-car. Not so for shorter-distance travelers who had to settle for potluck car-wise. But not to worry: they could later change seats if they so desired.

Downstairs (adjacent to the restrooms) were storage facilities for large suitcases. No charge for them such as is true with most airlines today. The smaller case we could stow in the overhead above our seat upstairs. After picking just the right seats for the anticipated view, and then positioning our smaller suitcase or bag overhead, with a giant sigh of relief we took our seats and watched the scurrying around, including the boarding of the last passengers and train attendants–and the journey began.

Unlike air travel, where only the person sitting next to a window can see out, here everyone can see. Furthermore, passenger jets fly so high today that rarely can even those sitting next to the windows see what is passing below; whereas in trains, the continually unrolling of the travel scroll reveals a world that’s only feet away–and not 40,000 feet away such as in airplanes.

After a while, an attendant came through, checked to see if we were through-passengers, then wrote our destination down on a card and attached it to the overhead rack. Later on, we learned the reason for that: late at night, unless aroused by an attendant, some people sleep through their destinations. One young woman in our car, who was supposed to get off in Elko, Nevada, dropped off to sleep after being awakened, and didn’t get off until Reno; there she had to wait for the next eastbound train the following day.

After we had been checked in, we were free to wander. What a difference from air travel where, most of the time, you remain strapped to your seat, and only get up for potty breaks. Even then, in the forward compartment, no one is allowed to wait in line. No such restrictions on the train. The most popular place to be is the observation car, for there you can look up as well as out. In our case, since passengers see two of the most beautiful mountain ranges in America (The Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas), in consecutive days, almost everyone jockeys for a seat in the observation car during those stretches. Especially was this true when traversing Colorado’s iconic Glenwood Canyon.

The snack car too was almost always in use by someone. And then there was the Dining Car, where three meals a day are served. Reservations are easy to secure. Only when your number is called do you enter the Dining Car. Then you are seated. Unless you specifically ask to be seated alone, generally you join others already seated. We always prefer to thus get acquainted with our fellow travelers, for that’s what makes train travel so fascinating. Reminded me of the long-ago days when air-dining was such a pleasure; today, you’re lucky if you get pretzels, peanuts, or crackers. On the train, it is a leisurely affair–no one hurries you. Though you don’t dine on fine china, at least you have clean white tablecloths, and can order from a surprisingly large array of options. Even for vegetarians such as us. And the food was certainly good, and those who served us most gracious and interesting to talk to. And it was clear that they–and all the other train attendants we chatted with–loved their job. Many had worked for AMTRAK for much of their entire careers!

So what a different world! No reason to be struck with deep-vein thrombosis that happens on long air flights, because everyone is free to wander. Children love it, for it’s like the entire train is just one long fascinating moving playground. In fact, a good friend of ours, who when he heard we were traveling by train to California, asked what we thought of train travel. After listening to my answers, he booked The California Zephyr west to Emeryville [San Francisco], and the coastal AMTRAK south. He and his family of four got off at Santa Barbara and drove up to President Reagan’s mountain hideaway; then drove on to Disneyland, after which they headed home by the same route. Later I asked him what he thought of train travel. He had booked a family sleeper [though AMTRAK travel is generally cheaper than air travel, sleeper compartments cost considerably more – sort of like traveling business class by air]. He said his kids loved train travel! In fact he said, they’d asked if they might always travel by train from here on!

But our journey had just begun. Part two of “Trains – The New Way to Travel” will resume on Wednesday, June 4; as next week we’ll break for Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club June book selection. By the way, there’s always lots of time to read on trains.

I have so much more to share with you about why so many people – including young people (college age and young adults) – are gravitating to train travel today. See you June 4.

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IS UKRAINE OUR GENERATION’S MUNICH?

BLOG #10, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
IS UKRAINE OUR GENERATION’S MUNICH?
March 5, 2014

Preliminary indications and predictions add up to a bleak scenario for our time. Just to refresh your memory, go back through history to the events leading up to World War II: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative Party agreed to a foreign policy based on appeasement of Hitler. Chamberlain sought to draw Italy’s dictator Mussolii away from Hitler by concessions. In 1938, Chamberlain and his team met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich and agreed to the rape of Czechoslovakia; and the stage was set for the horrific war that followed. Reason being: each back-down emboldened Hitler to gobble up another nation. History has not been kind to Chamberlain and his ill-conceived policy of appeasement.

Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s successor, likened appeasers to a tiger that appeasers hope will eat them last.

So now we are faced with Janus-faced (one face to the Olympics, another to his opponents) Vladimir Putin, who is determined to crush the former countries that were freed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. U.S. and European leaders dithered like Chamberlain over Putin’s invading Georgia and Moldova (after the breakup of the Soviet Union), doing little to stop Putin. Now Obama is faced with Putin’s next step: the invasion of another sovereign nation, the Ukraine. Apparently, noting that Obama’s famous line in the sand for Syria’s dictator Assad turned out to be nothing but rhetoric, Putin feels empowered to do another land grab–not content with Russia’s already being the world’s largest nation.

Our current administration continues to weaken our armed forces in favor of entitlements, so our military is stretched paper-thin around the world. Already, Japan, seeing the backdown of Obama where Syria is concerned, realizes that it can no longer depend on America to defend it from the new tiger of the East, China, so it is beginning to rebuild its long inactive military. Now, Obama and Kerry are faced with their own moment of truth. The long fuse lit during the fiercely-fought primaries where Obama and Hillary Clinton fought almost to a draw. The issue of presidential guts was brought up then: that whoever won the presidency, after their honeymoon was over, inevitably their guts, or lack of them, would be severely tested by leaders of nations around the world. The question brought up then is clearly the question facing Obama now: Does he have the guts to stand toe to toe to Putin and demand that he pull back from the Ukraine? Guts such as Washington had, Lincoln had, FDR had, Truman had, Reagan had.

Let’s hope Obama will rise to the occasion and institute serious repercussions with real teeth for all our sakes– such as tough sanctions and freezing of Russian assets. If he does come through with real presidency toughness, it may end up defining his presidency.

Stay tuned. The Ukraine’s Crimea will answer this question.

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).