Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Have You Ever Had That Feeling You’ve Been Somewhere Before?

Take Two

When I first pulled up to the Wawona Hotel at the southern end of Yosemite National Park, the late morning sun brightened the western-facing front of the gleaming white 19th century inn.  Nestled just down the road from the towering Sequoias, the beautiful Victorian lodge provides me with the perfect opportunity to slow down and enjoy a leisurely lunch.  On my first outing through Yosemite, I have the remarkable sense of déjà vu as I drive around the curved road along the main steps of the veranda and as I pull into the tree-shaded lot and leave my rental car to cool off from the winding, twisting excursion I have completed from Tioga Pass.  As I stroll slowly on this autumn day, I have this remarkable sense of being in this time and this place and this moment somewhere previously.  I stop for photos looking out at the lush lawn that enjoys its final month before the winter snows begin their annual visits.

Inside the café, with only a few tables occupied, I marvel at the detailed architecture that surrounds me.  The lighting fixtures, the ceiling, the tall windows, all augmented by the pristine white table linens and the illumination from the perfect morning light welcoming a similarly lovely afternoon, remind me so vividly of another meal in another hotel in another vacation.  Yet this unique structure, built when the national was merely a hundred years in age, gracing the jewel of the Sierra Nevadas, provides a singularly unique turn-of-two-centuries glimpse into the earliest efforts of a country to relax and unwind.  And on this day, I continue to take advantage of its original expectations for its guests, but still I feel I have been here before.

Take One

When I first pulled up to the western-facing Lodge at Cloudcroft hidden within the Sacramento Mountains, the fading twilight provided just enough illumination to confirm that an early summer storm neared its moment of impact.  Perched in the elevations rising high above Alamogordo, the historic inn built as a resort terminus by the nineteenth century railroad company allowed just enough cover to bring some of our luggage inside before the lightening, thunder, and hail descended on the small New Mexican town.  I had pulled past the grassy lawn and found a spot between the pines before ducking back inside dodging the large raindrops beginning to pelt me – I would get the last of our bags after the menacing storm wandered along its way to the southeast.

The next morning we awake early, before the sun even has a chance to glisten on the rain-drenched furs and grass and blooms, and descend to the gypsum slopes to sled and roll and explore White Sands National Monument.  We cross paths with another early riser: an elk crossing the road and headed back into the forest before those pesky humans invade the thoroughfares.  And when we return to the mountain top for our late-morning Sunday brunch, we drive around the curved road along the main steps of the lodge.  As I pull into the tree-shaded lot and leave the rented SUV to cool off from the winding, twisting excursion we complete up from the sandy slopes, we stroll inside and sit for our relaxing midday meal.  Surrounded by perfectly appointed lighting fixtures, the tall windows, and the historic stained glass, all augmented by the pristine white table linens and the illumination of the late morning sunshine, we enjoy a fabulous brunch before the next leg of our epic family vacation.  What are the chances that I will ever experience a moment like this again?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Bats In The Theater

College: Take One

In a humorously bizarre film that features the stylings of the great costume designer Edith Head, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid blends classic film noir clips with twentieth-century Steve Martin antics.  The story line, while sometimes challenging to follow in order to tie together the old and new, climaxes with the destruction of key US cities, and the first to fall is Terre Haute, Indiana.  Poor Terre Haute, the protagonist muses, and they were just about to get a public library.  So what does Terre Haute have?  A prison, a couple post-secondary schools, yucky tap water, and a funky smell – at least it did a couple decades ago when I first went to college.

Admittedly, I began my college career on three simple premises: my college did not require math to graduate, my college offered me a little scholarship, and my college hosted Florida-based corporations offering internships and a ticket out of the Midwest.  I have select memories about my year and a half along the western edge of the Hoosier State, most of them dull and lifeless.  I remember the names of no one with whom I went to school, I remember skipping class if it was snowing too hard, and I remember living in a ground-floor dorm next to the railroad track.  I remember hating it (see “Conan the Hoosier” from February 2012).

Into The Darkness

In the heart of the city, just a few blocks from the campus, stood the Indiana Theater – a 1922 throwback to the classic movie houses where the silent films illuminated the cinema bringing it to life, where Movietone News had brought the War to the American Heartland, and where the motion pictures of the waning decades of the previous century allowed me a brief escape from my studies and the miserable dorm life that accompanied my collegiate experience.  If one arrived in time for the early show, the second show would be free to those who stayed; of course, the second film was a repeat of the first film.  Nevertheless, my dorm mates spent nearly two weeks at the old building watching Patrick Swayze sweep an average-looking girl off her feet in the Catskills twice a night.

This theater, which I remembered being larger than its current photo suggests, lifted upward into the heights of the first balcony, and onward into the darkness of the second balcony.  I never recall getting a good look at the ceiling, nor did I ever venture into the first balcony.  I vaguely recall dark cloths stretched over walls and seats to keep patrons out of the upper reaches of the now historic landmark. The structure, like my first college experience, draped its shadowy, gloomy pallor over what ought to have been an energizing time of my life.  The coeds generally believed that bats lived in the upper levels, despite the obvious absence of guano and my never seeing them, but its dark mystique made the building perfect for such tales and the ideal space to watch a scary movie.  Maybe we’d even stay beyond the bewitching hour to be scared again during its encore performance, although looking back, my life in Terre Haute may have been its own horror story.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Where's Jack?

Your Favorite Restaurant

Everyone has a favorite restaurant – maybe even more than one.  Perhaps there is a restaurant that is perfect for a quick family meal, or the little mom-and-pop place where you take out-of-town company, or a romantic spot for an intimate dinner for two.  You might even have a favorite restaurant in another city.  Whenever travel allows, this perfect combination of menu and atmosphere always requires fitting a bistro, or a café, or even a diner into the itinerary.  For me, I crave a specific taste, a flavor that combines a splendid splash of memories, tastes, and wilted lettuce.  Yes, I admit it, I am a sucker for Jack In The Box tacos, and since the chain hosts no establishments near me, I constantly equate them with my traveling adventures.

My first taste of the low-cost, low-prep, skinny, greasy-bottomed, crunchy-topped snacks occurred at the franchise adjacent to my elementary school.  My addiction began after I left Arizona and the least-ethnic Mexican food no longer became readily available to me.  I began to plot the locations where I could find that friendly clown in other cities and towns that I frequented.  Both St. Louis and Los Angeles have outlets just at the end of the street from the rental car lots.  Heading west on Interstate 10, at the first exit inside the Texas state line, I found another branch.  Like little taco oases on the path to wherever I may be headed, Jack In The Box greeted me, welcomed me, and gave me a little moment of remembrance to my childhood and to previous expeditions, as well as a quick nibble to keep me satisfied as I hit the road.

Another Sense Of Direction

Stuck in construction traffic on the south side of Lake Tahoe, I have already added a couple hundred miles to the odometer, crossing Donner Pass, touching the waters at Sutter’s Mill, and helping push a stranded traveler out of the snow.  An adventure like this doesn’t need the hum-drum of bumper-to-bumper vehicles.  My saving grace, off the road to the left, I see my beloved Jack.  I pull in, I order the two-for-a-dollar special, and I sit with my laptop and my tasty, unhealthy treat watching for the traffic to clear.  When I landed in El Paso, (see “El Paso, El Paso,” January 2013) Jack held a position across from the airport’s entrance as I turned east.  He always knows right where to be when I need him.

Crossing from Lewiston, Idaho into Clarkston, Washington, Jack again makes an appearance.  I make a mental note, as I have just finished breakfast, and after my brief dart into Oregon (see “I Owe Oregon,” February 2013), I return to his side.  As I sit enjoying my crunchy, greasy, messy flavors, I leaf through my beautiful atlas (see “Traveling With Boys,” November 2011), I place a check-in call with my brother, who also embraces my JITB affliction, and I plot the lengthy afternoon drive up and over Lolo Pass through the Bitterroot Mountains.  With his charming ad campaigns, his bouncy, bobbing antenna toppers, and his irresistibly tempting tacos, Jack In The Box accompanies my adventures, just like my musical soundtrack, the wind in my air, and the beckoning of the open road, making taste another vibrant element of the journeys I have taken.  His low-cost corn tortilla snacks may not be the gourmet selection of more refined palettes, but I connect that taste with the memories of dozens of drives, each one of them savory and simple, but full of spice, aptly affordable, and a taste I frequently crave.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Barren Trees

The Off Season

I noticed on a recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I happened to arrive during the off season.  So what’s the “on season?”  Like most national parks, crowds flock to the Great Smokies during the summer because that happens to coincide with the peak vacation season in America.  Not that the national parks have a monopoly on summer, but if you have ever driven through Yellowstone in July, you might find traffic – actual bumper-to-bumper traffic – much like you would see in line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland or along the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Cruises to Alaska, camping in Wisconsin, and road trips to practically everywhere commence as soon as schools conclude.

Between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina the highlights don’t end just because Labor Day arrives.  Peak season number two begins when the leaf peepers hit the road and marvel in the rich colors that coat the Appalachian range.  Even the quaint Great Smoky Mountain Railroad increases its fares during October.  Yet, I still prefer to travel during the off season to avoid the crowds, but also to see the other vantage points of the scenery.  And while the landscape probably shimmers and glistens in its winter white, my season of choice fits none of the ideal, pastoral images.  I arrive on the cusp between winter and spring when the snow has melted, but the daffodils have only begun to think about blossoming.


Hills and hills flow together along these state lines, much like they hugged the roads in West Virginia (see “Almost Heaven” from July 2012).  The ancient mountains have brought forth innumerous trees, the overwhelming majority of which are deciduous and in the waning winter days show their wear from each hard freeze.  The leaves, deposited months ago and packed against the earth, have long since sapped the color from the branches, and the woodsy colors now, mostly shades of brown, which in the sunlight lose any trace of color, cast grayness over each slope, as well as the next slope, and the slope after that.  Sporadically, a conifer boasts it bits of green among a forest of blandness.

Suddenly I realize, I don’t just belong here, I am here.  How often do I feel like these tall empty trunks, blown and ripped of the leaves I brought forth, the efforts I contributed, the bright color I shared with others?  Even when the autumn arrives, I vary my colors; I adapt and make the changes necessary to keep others engaged.  But like the wintered, weathered trees, I am left dormant, gray, and lifeless.  I wish my spirit had the hardiness of the pines to hang on to my little bit of green, to keep some visible signs of life about me.  Everything I have given has fallen off, been blown off, been stripped and picked off by the forces around me.  And don’t think these lifeless trees inspire me or invigorate me; they simply remind me of myself.  They, too, are standing, not hardly bending against the last huffs and puffs on the northern winds, because they have nothing left to lose, but to wait for a change – a warm wind – to blow their way.  Like me, they wait for something better to come along before they fall to the forest floor forever.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Education at Gettysburg

Phases of a Degree

When I began college, I knew the most basic commands of MS-DOS, but everyday life involved card catalogs, typewriters, spiral notebooks and correction fluid.  During my second stint in the post-secondary world, I utilized floppy discs in a clunky desktop PC to compose my term papers, but the printed dot-matrix results are barely legible and research still entirely occurred within the four walls of a library.  During the third, and successfully final, home stretch towards my twenty-year bachelor’s degree, my pretty yellow laptop and the world wide web allowed me to understand cloud formations, examine the nuances of the Second World War, recreate the development of Latin America, follow the expansion of the America West, and peek inside the history of a national park from my own home.  Now that’s progress.

I never understood the passion college graduates retain for their alma maters.  Paying for college always registered to me as a business transaction: my money for an education.  The schools I attended never stirred my enthusiasm for any given mascot or fight song or athletic conference affiliation.  When life would get off track, I’d splash water on my face and get myself back in school, whatever school best suited my academic needs.  My focus had always been on the obtainment of knowledge, the securing of a degree, and moving on to the next great adventure, not celebrating the four-year experience, but the four-year achievement.  It just took eighteen years longer than I expected, and when the diploma arrived in the mail, neither the school nor I owed each other anything more.

Offline Classes

In my academic pursuits, the last thirty semester hours brought me the most joy.  My age, my motivation, my determination, and my discipline had all seen noted increases.  Taking classes online felt supremely comfortable, and I paced myself so the final semester ended with my diploma being awarded less than twenty-fours before my first-born graduated high school.  My self-propelled race to the finish line kept my class loads, my evenings and weekends, and my daily schedule full.  For the final five semesters, I never spoke in person to my classmates, I never visited the campus library, and only once did I meet one of my professors.  So for that one occasion, a class that could easily be considered the high-water mark of my degree, I met my professor at a small copse of trees on a historic battlefield in Pennsylvania.

For one semester hour, or one Remembrance Day weekend, I bundle up in my warmest winter wear, avoid any measurable snowfall and walk in the footsteps of the soldiers who spent the first three days of July 1863 fighting for the future of the United States.  On the tranquil hills that now remain, with monuments and markers across every sightline, I emerge from my laptop education and absorb the stories, the strategic decisions, the advances and retreats, and the fight for the rumored depot of shoes that were said to have been stored somewhere near this conflux south of Carlisle.  But neither the Southern Rebels nor the Northern Yankees found this to be a place to rest their weary feet, this place instead burst alive with combat and cannon fire, smoke and sacrifice.  I may have only needed one hour of academic credit to complete my online degree, and despite the distant travel, the cost, and the commitment, I still believe I have it far easier at this national battlefield than the combatants who came before me.  The tiniest fragment of my lengthy degree pursuits could not have been complete, or as meaningful, without the short time I spent on Little Round Top viewing the entire placid fields to the north, which meant so much to our nation nearly 150 years ago.  I guess I owe my academic institution a debt of gratitude for my one day of education at Gettysburg.