THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA

BLOG #32, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA
August 12, 2015

It was clear back on June 26, 2013, at the tail end of our second National Park Series, that I annointed Highway 50’s seemingly almost empty stretches of mostly straight highway, stretching from Fallon, Nevada to Holden, Utah as America’s loneliest highway. I never thought I’d ever find one to rival it—much less upstage it. But I have. And we were blindsided by its existence. Not the road itself, but its loneliness.

So fast-paced is this life that we live that we rarely take long road trips any more: it’s much easier and faster to fly. But every once in a while we get nostalgic for auto-travel (not interstates but rural roads).

Early in July, we decided to put together a 2200-mile tangent, beginning in Conifer, Colorado, then angling south on I-25 to Raton, NM; angling SE to Amarillo, Texas; then south on I-27 to Lubbock; then angling SE on all kinds of country roads to Austin; then SW on I-35 to San Antonio. We hadn’t ever driven on the back roads between Lubbock and Austin; indeed, we hadn’t driven south of Fort Worth in over thirty years.

My what changes we noticed! First of all, instead of everything being July-brown it was the greenest green we’d ever seen in Texas in July. Reason being the nonstop rainstorms that just wouldn’t quit. And even Texas backroads were generally in fine condition with 75 mph speed-limits being the norm. And what a difference population-wise! I’d heard, of course, about the continually increasing population in Texas, but it was jolting to see how tiny hamlets were now towns, towns were now cities, and cities—well, just take Austin for example. Austin is a city that is growing so fast city-planners have all but lost control. It was one vast traffic jam while we were there—even on I-35. Locals we spoke with confirmed that sometimes it takes them up to four hours just to get from one end to the other! The other big change we noticed was that on ridge after ridge after ridge, as far as the eye could see, virtual forests of white wind-turbines. Connie and I agreed that these days—at least in West Texas—wind-millionaires must be rivaling oil-millionaires.

But then, after seeing how it was almost all city now between Austin and San Antonio, it was time to head home. Not having any desire to re-experience I-35 traffic again, we decided to explore a route we’d never tried before. Perhaps it would be a bit more serene. Little did we know!

Our chosen route was Highway 90 west through Hondo and Uvalde to the border-town of Del Rio. This is wide-open country with relatively few habitations. Only Del Rio of any size at all, no small thanks to being home to Laughlin Air Force Base and the vast Amistad Reservoir. Though I’d heard about Amistad it was something else to actually experience it! It took us well over an hour NW of it to get past it. About the only vehicles we’d see would be Border Patrol vehicles. Another epiphany was that the Rio Grande River is part of the Amistad Reservoir. Yet another was the discovery that the Rio Grande is America’s fifth-longest river (1885 miles long). It is born in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, meanders south through Colorado and New Mexico, then forms the entire 1240-mile border between Texas and Mexico. What a road-trip following the Rio Grande from its source to the Gulf of Mexico would be. Ah! As Lucy Earp would say: “A blessing for another time!” Believe me, I now realize what a daunting challenge it is for Texas governors to police 1240 miles of the river border with Mexico!

Though it was already a lonely road en route to Del Rio, it really became lonely once we left Del Rio. We stayed on Hwy. 90 until we reached Sanderson, then turned NW on the southern terminus of 285 [Denver is its northern terminus]. Then it was on through small towns such as Fort Stockton and Pecos in Texas; and Carlsbad and Roswell en route to Santa Fe, and it is otherwise almost entirely devoid of human habitations. Not until we reached the outskirts of Santa Fe did we get back into much cell-phone coverage.

It so happened that we had to drive through a very large storm front, driven by fierce winds and characterized by one huge purplish-black thunderhead after another. I don’t believe I’ve ever, in my entire life, experienced such dramatic constantly changing sky paintings. It was often difficult to stay on the road, thanks to extremely strong side-winds and torrential rain. But it was grand to experience!

North of Santa Fe, it was a little lonely, but not nearly as much as between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

So, if you ever want to get away from it all in the lower 48 states, I wholeheartedly recommend you take 90/285 from San Antonio to Santa Fe!

Try it!

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A ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH — IN READING

It was a day to be remembered—a day to give one hope that America’s best years are not gone. The setting: Ron’s Barn, set by a lake in Evergreen Memorial Park. Outside roamed Ron Lewis’s herds of buffalo, elk, and deer. And the snow was beginning to fall.

For over an hour, third-graders and their parents, teachers, librarians and principals, had been arriving, the kids surreptitiously peering around the corner to make sure those precious books were there waiting for them.

Five mountain communities just west of Denver were represented: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Conifer], each with its elementary school.

For us members of the Conifer Kiwanis Club, it was our ninth reading celebration in as many years. We exist as a club for one reason only; indeed, after the invocation and pledge of allegiance each week, together we recite our mantra:

Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers—dedicated to changing the world:

one child, one community, at a time. . . .
Kiwanis is for kids here, there,
everywhere.

Children of Deer Creek Elementary School

And here in this venerable barn (reconstructed from five historic barns Ron Lewis had found and transported from remote sections of Colorado to this lovely mountain valley), was our reason for being. Appropriately, Ron’s first order of business was to welcome the several hundred attendees to his barn, to tell them the story of Jessica, a buffalo Ron had raised from birth, personally feeding seven times every 24 hours—not surprisingly, he considers Jessica (now a venerable 22 years old), to be his daughter. He told us how Jessica, after breaking a leg, would normally have been butchered for her meat, but “how could I let that happen to a daughter?” Had that happened, Jessica could never have given birth to a bull that reigned as champion of the Denver Stock Show, selling for $85,000. Then we all sang, “Home on the Range,” about a place “where the deer and antelope play.” Following that, Ron took batches of third-graders out to see Jessica. Meanwhile, those still in the barn queued up at the book-signing table.

In preparation for this event, during the last two months, I had made two visits to each of the five elementary schools, telling the third-graders about the upcoming reading celebration and showing them copies of each of the first seven books in my “The Good Lord Made Them All” animal series: Owney the Post Office Dog and Other Great Dog Stories (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2004), Smoky the Ugliest Cat in the World and Other Great Cat Stories (2005), Wildfire the Red Stallion and Other Great Horse Stories (2006), Dick the Babysitting Bear and Other Great Wild Animal Stories (2007), Spot the Dog that Broke the Rules and Other Great Animal Hero Stories (2008), Amelia the Flying Squirrel and Other Stories of God’s Smallest Creatures (2009), and the newest one, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North (2011). I then sketched out for them the essence of each book’s lead story, left a poster depicting all the covers, and a permission slip for each parent to sign if it was OK with them if I gifted the child with the specific book the child chose.

Inscribing a book to one of the children.

Each child received first at our book-signing table a Certificate of Reading Achievement (with a gold seal), signed by me and by Barry Sweeney, former Kiwanis Lieutenant Governor. Then, as each child reached me, I was able to find out about his/her reading habits before I personally inscribed the chosen book.

At 2:00 p.m., we all gathered together for the other main event: After speaking to them about the program, I encouraged the adults in the room to seriously address the problem of our community’s boys (an issue I have dealt with in several earlier blogs). They were sobered as I pointed out that boys across the nation are bailing out of the educational process at such a rate that the ratio of female to male on college campuses across the nation is already 1.5 to one, and threatening to reach two-to-one.

I relayed a message from the local CEO of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (the most faithful corporate backer of our program). He declared that reading ought to be one of our highest priorities in Colorado. And that, when he looked back over his life, he was most proud of—not his own career—but having a daughter who so loves reading she recently read 35,000 pages researching her masters in English.

Afterwards, I called the group up to the front school by school. After awarding each $1,500 check, we had the principal, teachers, and librarians tell us how they used last year’s money. Apparently, this is the only known instance where all our mountain elementary school personnel get together to compare their reading programs.

Turkey kiss. Photo by Barbara Ford -- Reprinted Courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers.

One report was especially intriguing: The principal of Parmalee Elementary School, Ingrid Mielke, seeking ways to motivate her students to read more, rashly promised to kiss a turkey if they collectively read for at least 100,000 minutes during a two-week period. They were so motivated they read for 192,423 minutes!

High Timber Times reporter Barbara Ford chronicled what happened next: “At the end of the school day on Tuesday, students gathered outside and got their first glimpse of the Duncans’ bird gobbling as he strutted around the cage. Mielke approached the giant gobbler as Duncan’s husband, Graeme, held the bird closer than a forkful of white meat on Thanksgiving. Mielke closed her eyes and swooped in for a swift smooch on the turkey’s neck. Students cheered.” (Dec. 1, 2010 issue).

Afterwards, it was time to resume inscribing books. By now (being it’s the ninth year of these reading celebrations), I’ve discovered a real pattern: If a student admits to poor reading habits, rarely is s/he expressive. There is a glazed look in the eyes (typical of the media groupie’s bored expression having to do with all things educational). Not so, the child who loves reading: here, the eyes dance, the child clearly filled with wonder about the magical worlds contained in books. A number of these came by my table. To each of them, an author like me was almost a subject of awe.

In those few, I sensed the birth of a new beginning in America. If we as a nation can somehow reverse decades of plunging reading scores, it will be because we finally pull back our children from the brink of mental, physical, and spiritual pulverization by excessive exposure to electronic imagery, and in its place, restore that serene world our children once had four generations ago—a world where their dreams may germinate. . . . And reading will flourish again.

CRATER LAKE LODGE, CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK

Finding a rental car with enough trunk room for four people—for a month—was no easy task. Finally, Budget came through with a Lincoln Town Car (the only full-size auto with enough trunk room).

In mid-June, Connie and I picked up Bob and Lucy Earp at the Portland Airport Hampton Inn. We collectively gulped as we looked at all their luggage (from Tennessee) and ours (from Colorado). How in the world would we ever get all that in? We did—but it wasn’t easy.

Finally, with Bob in front with me and Lucy in back with Connie, we looked at each other: would our friendship stand a month together in the same car? We bowed our heads and prayed that God would grant us His protection and blessing. Out of our battery of resource books, we read out loud the lead quotation in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ National Park opus maximus:

One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.
That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. . . . The whole wilderness in unity and interrelation is alive and familiar… the very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. . .

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in
and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest . . . in our
magnificent National Parks—Nature’s sublime onderlands, the admiration and joy of the world.

—John Muir

With that inspirational preamble, we drove off. I-5 South was predictably boring; but things got more interesting after we veered off onto Highway 58 at Eugene. Keeping us company for some time was one of Zane Grey’s most beloved fishing rivers, the North Umpqua. It was late afternoon before we hit the snowline. By the time we nosed the car into the Crater Lake Lodge parking lot, it was clear we wouldn’t be able to drive around the crater—too much snow!

By now, the lodge was an old friend: Connie and I first came here in 1962; our son Greg did too, but didn’t see much, since he was still in the hopper. The last time we visited it there was so much snow we had to tunnel our way through. But this year had been a light winter.

It is America’s deepest lake (almost 2,000 feet deep), and one of the ten deepest in the world; its beginning rocked the West: 7,700 years ago, towering Mount Mazama erupted with 100 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, blowing ash and pumice over what is today eight western states and three Canadian provinces. The resulting caldron (six miles across), over millennia, gradually began to fill with water from rain and snowmelt—no streams feed into it or drain it. Snow is heavy, averaging 44 feet a year, thus its summers are short. It has been documented as the clearest water in the world, with perhaps as deep a blue as exists on the planet.

THE LODGE OREGONIANS WOULDN’T LET DIE

Most of our national parks were blessed by single-minded visionaries obsessed with saving them for posterity; this proved true for Crater lake as well: in 1870, a fifteen-year-old Kansas boy, William Gladstone Steel, idly thumbing through newspaper sheets that had been used to wrap his lunch, chanced to see an article about a mysterious “sunken lake” in Oregon. Not only did he vow to see it some day, he kept his vow. Fifteen years later, in 1885, the now thirty-year-old man stood on the lake’s rim—awestruck. Right then and there, he made another vow; to spend the rest of his life on its behalf. No small thanks to him, in 1902, it became the nation’s sixth national park. Steel became park superintendent.

But Steel yearned for more than just national park status, he wanted several lodges of the stature of El Tovar, Ahwahnee, and Old Faithful to grace it. But that task proved to be a veritable labor of Sisyphus for a number of reasons, chiefly his failure to find wealthy backers and the short summer seasons. Finally, concluding that he’d just have to make do with what he had (the support of Portland entrepreneur Alfred L. Parkhurst, architect R. H. Hockenberry, and builder Frank Keyes), plans to construct a lodge of some 77 rooms were set in motion.

Sadly, however, so underfunded was the project that they were forced to cut corners—but it was either that, or nothing. One of those cost-cutting decisions resulted in their foregoing strong roof trusses. Predictably, the roof collapsed during the blizzards of 1913-14. But the lodge bravely opened its doors anyway, in its unfinished state, in 1915.

And the people came. The late teens and Roaring Twenties spawned an explosion of automobile travel, and Crater Lake Lodge became a popular destination—at least when snow melted early enough. But always it was a battle to keep it open. Ownership changed hands again and again. In 1959, plans were made for its razing—but somehow it survived until 1984 when the National Park Service recommended that it be demolished, and a new one constructed away from the rim. And they had reasons: “The truth was that the old lodge was a dump. The roof sagged, the bathrooms were spartan, light fixtures dangled from the ceiling, and the wind whipped through the walls”. . . . As time passed, “it would kind of move and creak and groan with the snow in the winter . . . so heavy that the roof was kind of flattening out the building and the walls were bowing.” (Barnes, 90).

But then the people of Oregon stepped in to save the beloved old derelict. In 1987, the Oregon legislature passed a resolution to save it. A state-wide campaign known as “Saving Crater Lake Lodge” was organized. But none of it arrested the deterioration. Finally, in 1989, with the central roof threatening to collapse, the lodge was ordered to close.

Then began a six-year effort to save it. It soon became evident that if it were to survive, it must be dismantled and rebuilt from the foundation up. In the ensuing process it was discovered that it didn’t even have a foundation; nor was there any solid infrastructure. $15,000,000 was spent in painstaking efforts to not only restore the lodge, but, more importantly, restore it to what it never had been: a lodge anchored by a solid foundation and a steel-beamed infrastructure. The great hall was rebuilt and the kitchen gutted, then replaced. Windows overlooking the lake were positioned so they would showcase the reason why people came here, and everything radiated out from the great hall and the fireplaces.

On May 20, 1995, Crater lake Lodge—against all odds—reopened. Barnes concluded her moving story with these words: “The essence of Crater lake Lodge lies in its memories. While the historic structure no longer bears the ragged signs of aging, the heart of the lodge remains the same. It is still a wonder of man perched on the edge of a wonder of nature.” (Barnes, 93).

* * * * *

We checked in. Our fourth floor dormer room was small, as are almost all old hotel rooms. Those who thronged early lodges spent little time in their rooms, but much time exploring the parks; in the evenings, they reveled in each other’s company in the great halls, listened to music, played board games, and dreamed by the great fireplaces.

At Crater Lake Lodge, time stood still. Here we met not only Oregonians but people from all over the nation and from around the world. Each had come to savor a long-loved artifact of a bygone world that had miraculously survived until the Year of our Lord 2010. Like us, they’d come here to escape a cacophonous modern world so devoid of serenity and peace.

As we ate our dinner by the window, we gazed out, entranced, at the breathtaking late afternoon diorama of changing colors. No one was in a hurry to leave the table. Afterwards, we walked outside again, then came back and played a board game by one of the fireplaces. Later, we crawled into our bed (small compared to our usual standards) and snuggled—we had to! During the night, the 95-year-old building talked to me. And I couldn’t help but wonder who else had slept in this same little room. What were their thoughts? One of my last thoughts had to do with gratitude: I’m so grateful this place is still here!

Next week, it’s on to Oregon Caves Chateau.

SOURCES:

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National parks, Vol. 2 (Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Books, 2008). These two books are must-reads for all who treasure our parks.
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).