Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yellowstone Nights

Our first night in Yellowstone was spent in Grant campground.  We arrived just before the office closed and we arrived about the same time as 25 other campers.  People kept on coming.  Our site, like all the rest had no electricity but the moon was close to full and we needed to stop. We drove around to the site to which we were directed.  We had a slight hesitation as to where the site was ours according to the numbers, but finally backed into what we decided was #27.
We set up and were just about asleep when lights shone through our windows from a van. Jeff peeks out the window and says, “Uh oh, we may be in the wrong site.” About that time there was a knock on our door. After a discussion with a stranger through the window while frantically getting dressed enough to go outside to figure things out, The nice man who was driving a van about the size of ours checked out the site we were in (his) and the other site (ours) then came back to our window and said, “No problem. . .” he would just take our site.  Like us, he was just sleeping there for the night. We were very thankful and sorry for causing the problem.
Now, back to sleep.
Well, maybe.  

Between the full moon and general restlessness, neither of us slept very well.  Because we had no electricity, we opened the window to cool down the RV. As the temperature dropped through the night, we closed the windows, forgetting one so that by morning when the windshield and building roofs frosted, it was close to frosting on our faces.
Not only the cold, but also strange sounds kept me awake.  What I later learned was a rutting elk buck bugled throughout the night.
If you have never heard an elk bugle, then you have really missed a great sound.
I didn’t know what the sound was until the next morning when we drove up on a couple elk does in some brush along the road beside a thermal spring.  Like all good tourists, we stopped the car to take some pictures.
That was when Jeff notices a male just up the hill in a small clearing.  
He decided to get out of the car to get a better shot.  I wouldn’t dare, being the chicken that I am.  Once Jeff was out of the car, clicking away, the Elk buck started that strange bugleling noise. Then it noticed Jeff. 
I reminded him of the warnings we had seen that said an elk would charge a person or a car. Jeff ran for the car. Once Jeff was back to the car, the elk quickly refocused his attention on the does.
We traveled on.
I started this entry to tell you about how we slept while in Yellowstone Park so to that subject I will now return.
Old Faithful, a thermal gyser, is the star of Yellowstone. I will write more about this famous geyser in a later blog enry.  Located beside Old Faithful is Old Faithful Inn built during the winter of 1903-1904.  It is built out of pine logs cut down from nearby.
The inn stands four stories high ( about 65 feet to the ceiling from the ground floor) and all floors are visible from the ground floor lobby.  
The lobby has a large stone fireplace fronted with nice wooden rocking chairs.
the 2nd floor which is called the mezzinine has rockers and wooden straight-back chairs around the balcony over looking the open lobby
 as do the chairs around the balcony of the third floor.
Central beams are braced by logs cut from unique trees that naturally grew into the 
proper shape.

Wrought iron hardware is used throughout the building . . . .
. . .as it is on the dark red entrance door.

We had called a couple days before trying to get a room.  Of course every lodge room in the park was booked.
We decided to ask if by chance they had any room available for the night.  The clerk said that “as a matter of fact, I do.”  We were stunned and decided to take it.  
A gentleman sitting nearby in the lobby told us that he had just heard someone cancel their room right before we walked up to the desk.  
We felt very lucky and even more so when another guest told me that she had booked her room two years ago.  
Our room had no bathroom, but it did have a sink, queen size bed, a dresser and a view of a full moon over top the inn.  We were told that we shared a bathroom and shower with another room, but in actuality we shared it with anyone who happened by the bathroom.   It was interesting to walk down the hall to and from the shower while people in the lobby watched us from down the hall.
It was not as bad for us as it was for the rooms whose doors were connected to the lobby.
Residents of these rooms had to actually walk through  the lobby to get to the showers. 
Any inconvenience was worth it for a chance to stay in the historical building.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Yellowstone Canyon

Our trip to Yellowstone canyon began with a stop at the Canyon Lodge restaurant for a meal and a visit with our friend, Jenny.  Jenny came to Yellowstone a few years ago for a summer job and has returned each summer since.  

After trying to connect through phone or computer for several days, we finally found her working in the restaurant.  Though she is an assistant manager, she had some time to visit with us while we ate.  It was good to see her.
From the canyon restaurant, we drove around the canyon rim, stopping several times for overlook viewing into the canyon.
Yellowstone Canyon is formed by the Yellowstone River cutting through the volcanic deposits that make up its banks. The dramatic cut  is accentuated by the fact that the terrain close by is flat meadow land where the buffalo roam. (Yes, I went ahead and said it.) In fact, one roamed right up the highway in front of us.
Be sure to notice the motorcyclist in the photo.  He seems to be oblivious to the fact that an American Bison is lumbering past his right thigh.
He kept walking toward us, initially  keeping to the line at the edge of the road until he decided to cross the road into our path. 
A car coming in the opposite direction decided it was smart to pull up to the buffalo as it tried to cross over the road. 
This meant that, for a moment, the buffalo  was trapped between our cars, though still in front of ours. We could not move away from the buffalo and the car blocking its path would not move. 
 The buffalo wavered, tried to change directions but was blocked from turning by our car. It seem like a good time to get my video camera out but then the other car moved out of the way and I lost my chance to win ten thousand dollars.

There are two major falls that are part of the Yellowstone River Canyon. Their unoriginal names are the Upper Falls and Lower Falls.  Non-coincidentally, that is also their placement in the river.  The upper falls are smaller than the lower falls, but you can get much closer to the upper.
The overlooks include stone steps down to almost the river level.  From that point we joined a couple dozen other tourists to view and photograph the rushing river.
Jeff and I had been canoeing enough to be able to imagine what it would have been like to be paddling down the river, which moments before was almost placid with a few ripples as it eased over stones on its way. With the warm sun of late summer resting easily on our shoulders we would discuss the slight sound of water we heard in the distance. With little warning the sound would become a roar as we were propelled forward over the falls dropping over three hundred feet onto the boulders below.
A shiver passes through my belly, drawing my innards tight as the thought again runs through my mind.
While looking from above the lower falls, we see far down river to another overlook full of people looking up river toward us. With my camera I zoomed them as close as friends.  We would soon be standing in their place.
Once we reached the overlook on the south rim of the canyon, we climbed down more steps, walked down a knee-friendly ramp and peered up the river at the lower falls.
Once again it was time for the zoom.  I tell you this so that you understand how far away we were and how awesome the falls were.

It was just water but what a force that water was.  It cut through millions of yeas of stone and it attracted thousands of people every year. People who were willing to drive hours or days just to wait in their car in line with other cars for a chance to park and walk with hundreds of other people to stand in a small spot to feel very small against the side of Yellowstone Canyon.

Friday, September 24, 2010


(a poem by Nellie)

A dust plume rises behind a car
as it speeds across the desert.
Telephone poles shadow a rail line
extending beyond the hazy brown horizon.

Far beyond, golden mountains 
reflect the rising sun
with deep shadows,
and sharp ridges marked by roads
leading to nowhere

I watch, aware of the wonder
through the window 
Of my car speeding across the plane, 
where little grows that I recognize.
sage, blue, blooming yellow
pushing up through white earth
baked dry.

Thunderbird Garden

In my experience, a garden consists of dirt into which  plants are planted along with some decorative features and probably a few pieces of furniture, at least a chair or bench from which to relax and enjoy the garden. Many gardens I have known have had a rock or two placed strategically for interest. The garden at Thunderbird Lodge near Incline Village, Nevada has changed my experience.  Thunderbird's garden is completely stone with a few plants strategically placed.

Boulders are the "bones" of the garden rather than trees as is usually the case.  Stones have been laid for structure and transportation while a few trees and shrubs have been allowed to grow in the small spaces between boulders.   

The non profit organization responsible for preservation of Thunderbird Lodge has planted a small lawn on the lake side of the lodge.  Our wonderful guide, Tim explained that the lawn is important to events held at the lodge such as weddings.  These events are important for financial support of the ongoing expense of keeping the lodge maintained.
To learn more about the work of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society and learn more about the lodge, click on this link:  THUNDERBIRD LODGE

George Whittell  had Thunderbird Lodge built in the 1930's by architect Frederic DeLongchamps. Whittell was a bit paraonoid and used architectural features such as this stone pagoda to hide listening devices so that he could hear his guests' private conversations. He also had small one way mirrors placed so that he could see his guests without them seeing him.

If guests knew of this lack of privacy, it didn't seem to stop them from enjoying Whittell's hospitality.  From across the lake at the Cal Neva Hotel the rich and famous could check out the lights at Thunderbird Lodge to see if a party was happening.  If the appropriately colored light was lit, they would speed across the lake to be part of the party.  

George Whittell was famous for his parties. While the lack of guest rooms meant that revelers returned across the lake to sleep, while they were there, they thoroughly enjoyed Whittell's hospitality during their stay, frolicking in the now dry waterfalls (above) that ran into the estate's lagoon . . .

or walking along the dragon path, curving around the lake side of the lodge like a dragon's tail. . .
or having one of many drinks while sitting in the stone gazebo, enjoy the view of the lake.
For guests hardy enough for the many steep steps, walkways around the lodge provided interest . . .

winding around the lodge, in front of the lake or against the boulder strewn hill.

Flagstone paths lead to several patio areas where servants were always ready to ready to offer food or drink if needed. The few plants surrounding the lodge were meticulously kept providing little flashes of color in the stone beds.

The stone garden of Thunderbird Lodge were a perfect accent to the larger-than-life setting of the surrounding Seirra Nevada Mountains encircling Lake Tahoe and rising high above the lodge. Dark green pines and firs needed nothing to increase their beauty but the paths, patios and gazebos of the Lodge were a perfect place to enjoy the natural beauty all about the estate.

After a full day and evening of drinking, swimming and general playing it must have been nice to sit back and enjoy the lake with sparkling diamonds shimmering across its blue surface as the sun gently sank below the distant mountains.

Many thanks to Tim and the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society for making our tour possible. We couldn't have had a better guide.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thunderbird Lodge

The thirties were dynamic. Our culture was changing as people began to travel more. The movies made celebrities and millionaires over night. The wealthy were playing and the newspapers were telling us all about it. Lake Tahoe was already a vacation spot for west coast tourists  when, in 1926 the Cal Neva Hotel was built on the Nevada side of the California-Nevada state line. In 1936, Nevada legalized gambling making the Cal Neva a hot spot for partying.  This was the same year that George Whittell began building Thunderbird Lodge on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.

Whittell originally planned to develop the 40,000 acres, but as he grew to love the beauty of the area and even more to love his privacy, he decided too keep all the land for himself. 
It was in a small cove, part of his 24 miles of Tahoe shoreline that Whittell chose to build his home, using stone masons from among the local Washoe Indian tribe located nearby.  

He used a master metal worker to design and craft all the metalwork of the lodge. 

This man showed himself to be an artist in the work he built for Thunderbird Lodge, from designs along the outside of each building to fireplace screens, each piece is unique

This fireplace screen is located in the opium den built off one of the lodge's stone tunnels.
(Be sure to click on it to enlarge the photo.)

Speaking of tunnels, George Whittell loved his tunnels.  A very private man, Whittell was also probably paranoid.  He had cameras mounted everywhere on his estate as well as listening devices hidden in many yard features.  He had a hidden passage way into a secret sleeping loft and tunnels under the house to take him to his boat or to what was called the card house, a separate stone building built for the many card games that took place at Thunderbird Lodge and lasted throughout the night.
These tunnels were dug then faced with stone, including high arched roofs.

Like the walls and roof, the floor of each tunnel was stone laid smooth.  Because we had a private tour, without a time limit, our group was allowed into each of the tunnels including their steep stairways and a couple leaking roofs.

We climbed down to the opium den then up a couple stories into the card house, quickly retreating back into the tunnel before the regular tour group entered house by way of the front door.

Our tunnel tour ended up in the boat house, home of The

Thunderbird, Whittell's boat which he has especially made, used a few times, became bored with it and stored it.  The luxurious wooden boat is installed with airplane engines, and steering on both sides of the boat so that Whittell, who was left-handed could steer the boat if he desired or could let the boat's captain take over.
The wooden hull and chrome  fixtures were polished to a mirrored shine. The Thunderbird was beautiful. a piece of art  equipped with super engines.

In order to go for a ride in this boat, be prepared to become a major donor to the non-profit organization that oversees the lodge.
Once Thunderbird Lodge was built, it became a central place for the party crowd who would boat over from the Cal Neva Hotel, drink, play cards and cavort with show girls then head back across the water to wherever they were staying for the night. Very few guests ever stayed overnight at the lodge for Whittell had only no real guest rooms. The only extra rooms were for the lodge's staff.  

At one time, as a young man, George Whittell had run away from his privileged life to work in a circus.  There he grew to love the animals.  As an
adult, he acquired a pet elephant and a young lion cub. Many times George and the then full grown male lion would drive around  Reno or San Francisco while the lion stuck his head out the window to catch the wind, his full mane blowing in the breeze.

The estate had a special building to house his exotic pets.
Many famous people spent time at the Thunderbird Lodge, including Frank Sinatra, who, at one time was an owner of the Cal Neva Hotel. Other visitors were Sammy Davis Junior and his family, Howard Hughes and many actors and actresses of the time.

The rich and famous ate and drank in the great hall. . .
swam in the cove . . .
Or visited outdoors along the dragon path or in a stone gazebo overlooking the lake.

Wherever they were, they probably had a good time, then said good-bye to their host and headed for home before morning.
As did we.

Along with our wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide, Tim, we loaded into our cars and said good-bye to the beautiful understated but luxurious stone Thunderbird Lodge.

       (Thanks, Mike)