Monday, May 13, 2019

Dreams Can Come True!

        Joyce and I both had very influential grandmothers.  I was blessed to have a grandmother who took me on some amazing trips, including Alaska and Hawaii.   Joyce’s grandmother was not able to take her on trips, but she instilled the love of travel in Joyce by telling her about the remarkable places she had visited.  She also had one of those wonderful View-Master viewers with the circle slides so you can see these enticing places in 3D.  My grandmother also had one and would purchase View Master slides wherever she traveled.

Joyce received a “bucket list” from her grandmother of the places that she hoped she would travel one day.  The bucket list included Niagara Falls, Yosemite Park, the California Redwood Forest, the North Carolina Smokey Mountains, New York City to see Broadway plays, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park.  Joyce only had one more place on the list to fulfill—Yellowstone. 

        My grandmother took me to Yellowstone Park 53 years ago.   We stayed at the historic Old Faithful Inn.  I remember eating in the gigantic dining hall at the Old Faithful Inn, seeing Old Faithful, and the sulfur smell around the geysers.  I’m not sure how many nights we stayed, I’m thinking it was at least 3 nights, but I never think of Yellowstone without remembering my grandmother. 

        The memory of two wonderful grandmothers converged in the planning of this Sabbatical when we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park.  I read how crowded Yellowstone was and how hard it was to book a room at the Old Faithful Inn.   A year in advance, on the first day we could make reservations, we booked and paid for a room at the Old Faithful Inn for four nights.  I combined this with another life-long dream, a cross-country train trip, and I knew that this part of the Sabbatical would be making dreams come true. 

        When I came to Yellowstone 53 years ago, we did not visit Grand Teton National Park, but I decided that since we were so close we needed to add the Grand Tetons to the itinerary.  Then we would have a very short drive up to the South Entrance of Yellowstone Park. 

        Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful.  It would be the perfect day to visit the Grand Tetons.  We drove about ten miles north of Jackson, past the Jackson Hole Airport, to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center.  We saw several cars stopped just as we turned on the road to the Visitor’s Center.  There was a large Moose enjoying some underbrush for breakfast, which was most appropriate since the Visitor’s Center is located in Moose, Wyoming.  We would become accustomed to seeing wildlife over the next few days.

        It was Jr. Ranger Day and there were a number of exciting events going on for the children.  We found a couple of books on Yellowstone that would become very helpful and talked to the Park Ranger about driving around the Grand Teton Loop—a distance of 42 miles.  She said it was a perfect day to take the tour.  We did not know that the loop had just opened a few days before from the long winter season.  We would be among some of the first visitors for the 2019 season.  This Visitor’s Center was first class, a fine tribute to the National Park Service.

        It cost $35 for a private vehicle to enter a National Park.  We would pay $35 for Grand Teton and an additional $35 for Yellowstone.  But if you are 62 or older, which both of us easily qualified, you can purchase an annual Senior Adult Pass for $20.  So rather than paying $70 for visiting both parks, we were able to visit both for $20—and we have a pass that is good for another 12 months!   Getting old does have some advantages—besides Sr. Adult coffee!

        I am having a difficult time putting into words the feelings we have experienced at both Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  How many different ways can you say: breathtaking, awesome, beautiful, majestic, inspiring, stunning, amazing, unbelievable, incredible, glorious, and spectacular.  We have been blessed to travel the world, but no other place on the planet can outdo Grand Teton and Yellowstone for natural beauty and breathtaking majesty!  I think of the words of one of our most beloved hymns: “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies.  Christ, our Lord, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise”

        Our first stop in the Grand Teton National Park was a church, the Chapel of the Transfiguration.  This simple little Episcopal Church has services every Sunday during the summer.  Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended worship here while they were president.   The unique thing about the church is a large window behind the altar that gives you an inspirational view of the Tetons.   There is a cross in front of the window, so you are seeing these powerful mountains through the cross as you worship.  

        Our next stop was South Jenny Lake.  This is when we realized just how much snow was still on the ground.  Many of the trails and walkways were still covered with over a foot or more of snow.  In order to get down to see Jenny Lake, we had to walk through a lot of snow, and we walked very slowly!   But it was all worth it once we arrived at Jenny Lake.  The lake remains frozen!  Seeing the majestic Tetons in the background beyond the frozen lake surrounded by snow was truly breathtaking.  We kept thinking that we couldn’t possibly see a more awe-inspiring sight, but then there would be another one!  

        We were overwhelmed by each new view of the Tetons.  We saw the glacier, the Cathedral Group, the views from Summit Mountain, Lake Jackson which was also covered in ice, Snake River, and more.  We understand why they call these Alpine Peaks the “Mountains of the Imagination.”  Few places in the world are more striking or memorable.  Words are simply not adequate to describe what we experienced on this glorious day.  I’ve always heard that Heaven will be a place of incredible beauty.  I think we had a glimpse of glory today.  I can’t imagine how much more glorious Heaven will be!

        Sunday morning, May 5, 2019 dawned bright and beautiful.  Today, Joyce’s dream would come true and I would return to Yellowstone after 53 years.  The South Entrance to Yellowstone Park is about 55 miles north of Jackson.  You drive through Grand Teton National Park.  We left early and drove to the north entrance of Grand Teton which is only about 20 miles from Yellowstone.  However, when I presented my pass to the Park Ranger and said we were on the way to Yellowstone she replied, “You can’t go this way.  The South Entrance is closed and won’t open until May 10.  You have to go back to Jackson, then over the pass to Idaho, then north to Montana to reach the West Entrance.  It will take you about 3 ½ hours.”

        Oh my!

        I had downloaded the official Yellowstone App.  There is a section devoted to road closures.  If I had bothered to look, I would have clearly seen that the South Entrance was closed.  But due to my negligence, we now had a 3 ½ drive in front of us rather than a 30-minute drive. 

        We did get to ride through Grand Teton National Park again, which was thrilling.  And the pass over the Tetons was also breathtaking.   We finally rolled into West Yellowstone just before 1 p.m. and found a nice little restaurant to eat lunch.  They had some very nice French Onion Soup. 

        We waited in line about 10 minutes to enter the park.  I can’t imagine how long people have to wait in the summer.  Once inside the park we started another App I downloaded that has been a great asset.  It is called GyPSy Guide and it is like having a tour guide in the car with you.  It operates off a GPS signal and triggers the commentary for the exact place you are in the park.  It will tell you the “must-see” places, give directions, and it provides excellent commentary on our nation’s first national park, its history, the wildlife, and the amazing sites. 

        We saw some Bison soon after entering the park.  We stopped at “Artists’ Paintpot Trail” and saw our first hydrothermal area with colorful hot springs, mudpots, and small geysers.  Then it was on to the iconic Old Faithful Inn. 

        The Old Faithful Inn, the most requested lodging facility in the park, is a National Historic Landmark.  It was built in 1903-4 using all local pinewood and stone.  It is the largest log structure in the world.  The towering lobby is a destination in itself.  There is a massive fireplace and a hand-crafted clock made of copper, wood and wrought iron.  You can find bear claw marks on some of the wood.  The light fixtures are the same ones installed in 1904.  Many of the furnishings are still the same.   Some of the most popular rooms are some of the original rooms that even today don’t have a private bath!  All of the rooms are still heated with steam.  There is no air conditioning in any room in Yellowstone Park.  An east wing was added in 1919 and a west wing in 1927.  Both wings were added by the original architect and builder, Robert Reamer. 

        The Inn had just opened for the season two days before on May 3.  Our room was not ready—we would have to wait until 5 pm, but that was not a problem because Old Faithful was scheduled to erupt at 4:30.  We found a good seat to watch the performance.   When I came to Yellowstone 53 years ago, Old Faithful was erupting about every 70 minutes.   It erupted every hour until an earthquake in 1959.  Today, you can count on Old Faithful about every 90 minutes, give or take about 10 minutes.  This afternoon it was right on schedule and we marveled at this great work of nature.

        Our room was ready and we walked and walked, and walked down the west wing until we reached the final door.  I opened the room door and could not believe what I was seeing.  We had a corner room with two large windows!   We have a spectacular view of the Upper Geyser Basin.  The first morning we woke up to find a Bison walking outside our window. 

        The room is dated in a good way.  It is heated with a steam radiator.  The furnishings are old, but the bath is roomy with a full tub and shower. 

        It was 33 degrees when we went out for a walk on Monday morning.  We walked around Old Faithful before coming in for a hearty breakfast.  The sun was shining and the sky was clear when we left Old Faithful for the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.”   Not far down the road we had to stop.  Bison were in the road.  They slowly walked past both sides of our car.  We took some great pictures.

We drove on to the Canyon Visitor’s Center, driving through many acres of forest that are still covered in snow.  It was evident from the huge piles of snow in the parking lot that it had been a rough winter with lots of snow.  The ranger’s recommendation on seeing the canyon was exactly the same as our App guide.  We drove to the South Rim first and stopped at the Upper Falls.  Thank goodness they had shoveled a path through the snow, otherwise we would have never made it to the observation point!  The Canyon is 20 miles long, more than 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide.  The Upper Falls drops 109 feet and was without a doubt, inspirational.  But little did we know.

        One of the most famous, iconic pictures of Yellowstone is from Artist Point looking at the Lower Falls which drops 308 feet.  Thomas Moran’s famous oil painting of the Upper Falls captured the imagination of our nation and led to congress declaring Yellowstone the very first National Park in 1872.  Nathaniel Langford wrote these inspired words in 1870:  “There is a majestic harmony in the whole, which have never seen before in nature’s grandest works.  The fall itself takes its leaps between the jaws of rocks whose vertical height above it is more than 600 feet, and more than 900 feet above the chasm into which it falls.”

        We were amazed at what we were seeing.  Pictures and paintings simply do not do justice to this breathtaking scene.  We paused, we took pictures, we looked at the lovely scene—it didn’t seem real. 

After seeing the South Rim we drove to the North Rim and had another spectacular view of the Upper Falls.  We also spotted a baby Eagle in her nest. The mother was circling above, keeping a watch over her baby.

        After seeing the Canyon, we drove through gorgeous Hayden Valley and followed the winding Yellowstone River.  This valley was formed by glaciers in the last ice age, 14,000 years ago.  Past the valley we stopped at Mud Volcano.  This is the remnant of a massive volcano eruption over a century ago.  Early explorers to Yellowstone described this as a “most repulsive and terrifying site.” The volcano later literally blew itself apart.  Perhaps the most interesting feature of this area of Yellowstone is the Dragon’s Mouth Spring.  This looks like a cave with a mighty dragon inside blowing smoke and making deep, ferocious sounds. 

        We continued on our ride until we reached Yellowstone Lake.  The oldest of the Park Hotels is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel which opened in 1891. It is a beautiful, sprawling old structure that is still painted yellow, its original color.  It overlooks the massive Yellowstone Lake that is still frozen solid.  This hotel will not open for the summer season until May 10.  It has a gorgeous view of the frozen lake, surrounded by snow, with the snowcapped mountains in the distance.

        On the way back, we stopped at Norris Geyser Basin which contains the hottest and most acidic of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas.  This area sits on the intersection of three major faults and is a very active earthquake area.  There is more change and diversity here than any other part of the park.  We saw Steamboat Geyser that is the world’s tallest active geyser, although the last time it erupted was September of last year.

        We made a stop at Gibbon Falls that drops 84 feet.  It is not as spectacular as the falls in the Canyon, but it is nevertheless worth the visit.  There was one more stop at Beryl Spring, one of the hottest springs in all of Yellowstone, then we made our way back to the Old Faithful Inn. 

        I had been watching the weather for a couple of weeks and the forecast for our time at Yellowstone did not look encouraging.  A few days before we arrived it was calling for rain each day.  Then it changed to rain Monday and Tuesday, then changed to rain starting late Monday.  But it looked like Tuesday was going to be a washout. 

        Sunday and Monday turned out to be beautiful days.  We could not have asked for a better day to see the Canyon.  Before we went to bed Monday night I noted they were calling for rain and snow showers overnight, but rain all day Tuesday.  

        It was rainy when we woke up Tuesday morning.  As we looked out at the steam rising from the Upper Geyser Basin in the mist of the morning rain with a bison strolling merrily along, it was another awe-inspiring sight.   Not long after we woke up we noticed that the rain had changed to snow.  It did not stop snowing until afternoon.  For the next several hours it was snowing big, flakey snowflakes.  It was like a scene out of a movie. 

        What I thought would be a miserable, rainy day had turned into a fantastic snow day at Old Faithful Inn.  We enjoyed breakfast and then had a very informative historical tour of the Inn.  We learned the amazing story of how Robert Reamer and a team of around 50 carpenters built this massive wood structure in only two years using all local wood and volcanic rock.  We saw the open perch where a stringed quartet would entertain diners each night before climbing the very top of the lobby where they played on a very high platform while the guests would dance six nights a week—never on Sunday!

        We saw one of the original rooms, learned how the earliest guests came by stagecoach and could stay for $4 a night which included 3 meals a day.  The flag hanging over the great lobby only has 45 stars, the number of states in the Union when the Inn opened in 1904.  I told our guide, who didn’t look to be over 30, that I had been here 53 years ago.  I thought she would be impressed, but I think she considered me just another historical artifact.

        After the tour we found two seats on an outdoor covered walkway with a great view of Old Faithful.  We watched Old Faithful erupt in the snow! Then we walked through the snow to the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center where we enjoyed a number of great educational exhibits and two wonderful movies on Yellowstone before watching Old Faithful erupt once again in the snow from the big panoramic windows in the Visitors Center.

        In the afternoon we sat on the balcony level of the historic lobby, watching a roaring fire, listening to a young violinist serenade us with gorgeous music, drinking hot chocolate, Joyce knitting while I wrote on my laptop.  It has been another perfect day!

        This day brought back memories of two other perfect days.  One was the first time we visited Lucerne, Switzerland.  We had been to the Holy Land and stopped in Switzerland on our return.  Even though it was January, we were told there had been almost no snow.  That afternoon, it started snowing.  I will never forget walking on the iconic covered bridge across the lake with huge snowflakes falling—it was like a scene out of a movie.  Today brought back that special memory as the huge snowflakes fell on this gorgeous old log building.

        I also remember a “snow day” during our last Sabbatical.   We were staying in an ancient farmhouse north of Assisi in Italy.  The day was damp with a little snow.  The staff built a nice fire for us and we sat in front of the fire, Joyce was knitting and I was reading.  We enjoyed hot chocolate on that perfect day as well!   

        It stopped raining late in the afternoon.  We went for a short walk outside and saw Old Faithful erupt for the 4th time today!  This time it was from a different angle and we watched as the geyser expelled almost 8,000 gallons of boiling water. 

        At dinner Tuesday night we met a nice couple from Virginia.  When they found out we were from Lexington they asked if we knew anything about the Barbecue Festival.  After telling them that I had given the blessing for the Barbecue for the past 20 + years, we talked about how unique it is to still have an official prayer before a major event.  The man from Virginia happily told me he was a NASCAR fan and yes, they still have official prayers before each race.

        The sun was shining Wednesday morning but it was cold—27 degrees.  A big roaring fire was burning in the huge fireplace.  The staff enjoys keeping the fire burning on cold days.  

        We had planned to drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs, but this time I did check the App and there was road construction that would delay us, so we decided to start our day at the Midway Geyser Basin where Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, the Grand Prismatic Spring, is located.

        Today was the reason we packed our heavy coats, scarfs, gloves, and toboggans.  When we got out of the car at the Midway Geyser Basin the wind was blowing and with the wind-chill factoring in, it felt like 15 degrees.  The two main attractions here are the Excelsior Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Spring.  The Excelsior Geyser Crater discharges more than 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the Firehole River. 

        After you see the Crater you walk around a one-way walkway to the stunning Grand Prismatic Spring with its gorgeous colors.  On any given day this is an amazing sight, but on this cold, blustery day we were about to have a truly unique and extraordinary experience.  The cold atmosphere was colliding with the super-heated water to create an enormous canopy of steam.  We were quickly immersed into this warm cocoon of rising steam.  Our glasses fogged over, we were blinded by the steam and strangely enough, we were warmed as we were enveloped by this mystical, ethereal blanket on this bitterly cold morning.  It was an other-worldly type of encounter.  We could barely see as we made our way around the walkway, back into the cold, back into the chilling, frosty morning. 

        From Midway we made our way back to the Biscuit Basin where the deep blue Sapphire Pool invites you to stand and admire its creative beauty.  We saw Jewel Geyser erupt, it puts on a show every ten minutes.   We saw one hydrothermal feature after another.  

        We drove past Old Faithful to Kepler Cascades.  We had to walk through some more snow to get to the lookout area, but it was a spectacular sight watching this powerful waterfall descend 155 feet over multiple different drops into the Firehole River.  Joyce and I were the only ones standing to watch this magnificent waterfall.  After celebrating the stunning Upper and Lower Falls at the Canyon, and seeing the powerful Gibbons Falls, these cascades seemed almost like an afterthought, yet we stood all alone marveling at their exquisite beauty.

        In 1871, the US Secretary of War, Gustavus C. Doane, was a member of a discovery expedition to Yellowstone.  He described Kepler Cascades this way:  “These pretty little falls, if located on an eastern stream, would be celebrated in history and song; here, amid objects so grand as to strain conception and stagger belief, they were passed without a halt.”  The falls were named for the 12 year-old son of Wyoming’s territorial governor in 1881.

        We made our way back to the Old Faithful Inn where I saw Old Faithful perform one more time!  We enjoyed a cup of hot apple cider while sitting on the balcony of the epic Old Faithful lobby.   After lunch I embarked on a walk that would become a “Walk to Remember.”

        One of our hotel room windows looks out over the massive Upper Geyser Basin. It is truly massive!

          I walked past the General Store and down a paved walkway until I reached Castle Geyser, with a unique cone that is thousands of years old.  When it erupts, approximately every 14 hours, water can burst up to 75 feet high with an eruption lasting almost 20 minutes. 

        It was hard to believe as I walked along seeing one geyser and hot spring after another, that this small area surrounding the Old Faithful Inn contains the majority of the world’s active geysers.  I continued on to Daisy Geyser and then up a small hill to the unique, Punch Bowl Spring.   Here the paved path ended, but I walked down a gravel path that was still covered in snow in places to the beautiful Black Sand Pool.  I had reached the end of the trail. 

        I started back and turned left at the fork to walk through a lovely section with pine trees on either side.  As I was walking it started snowing, not a heavy snow, but small, gentle flakes.   It was another ethereal moment of past memory and future hope, a spiritual blessing as I walked through a pristine forest as fresh as the first day of creation, with snowflakes falling and the silence of the forest speaking in powerful ways.  Here I was returning to a place that has always been lodged in the memory of my childhood, returning over half a century later at the end of a long and fulfilling ministry, returning in a Sabbatical to find renewal and rest for my soul---here it was in one magical moment, walking through one of the world’s most amazing geological displays, walking over an active volcano that could any minute erupt with cataclysmic transformations, walking over a power that is much greater than I. 

        “When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man?”   Who am I?

        I emerged from the forest to hear a loud roar and saw that a great geyser was erupting.  It was Grotto Geyser that is perhaps one of the most unusual geysers.  Geologists believe that 1000s of years ago this geyser emerged from a stand of dead trees.  Through time the shape of the geyser developed from the shape of the trees.  The geyser was in the middle of an eruption.  I witnessed it all alone.

        My walk continued past many more small geysers, hot springs, prismatic pools, and then reached the Grand Geyser.  This is the tallest predictable geyser in the world.  It erupts with powerful bursts rather than a steady stream like Old Faithful.  An average eruption last 9 to 12 minutes with bursts reaching as high as 200 feet.  I would have loved to see it erupt, but the projected time was over 3 hours away. 

        I kept walking into the area above Old Faithful.  A lone bison was standing in front of Old Faithful Inn.  I walked through the great lobby and back to the room.   I had walked around five miles. 

        We were about to leave for dinner when I saw something majestic in the distance in the Upper Geyser Basin.  It was the Grand Geyser!   We stood at our window and marveled at its power.   We were watching this magnificent display out of our hotel window!  What a serendipitous treat!  There are only six rooms in the Old Faithful Inn at the end of the West Wing that have a view that includes the Grand Geyser.  How blessed we were to have one of those rooms. 

        We went for our final dinner at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room.  When our waitress came to take our order for dinner I said, “Before I order, I have a story to tell you.”

I have a vivid memory of being here with my grandmother 53 years ago.  We were in this dining room at the Old Faithful Inn and I was looking at the menu.  I told my grandmother that I wanted steak for dinner.  She told me to find something else, steak was too expensive.   A waiter overheard the conversation and noticed that my grandmother had vouchers to pay for the meals.  He said, “Lady, with those vouchers he can have anything he wants on the menu.”

        Joyce and I both ordered steak which was good, but I’m sure it was not nearly as good as that steak 53 years ago!

        A very cold 25 degrees greeted us our final morning at Yellowstone National Park.  We enjoyed an Old Faithful Inn specialty before checking out, Huckleberry Pancakes.  A few miles away from Old Faithful we were greeted by a bison, slowly walking down the middle of the road, not at all concerned about the car behind him.  We also saw some baby bison, called Red Dogs because of their color. 

        We exited the West Entrance and had an uneventful 5-hour drive to the Salt Lake City Airport for our return flight to Charlotte.  Ella Rae loves animals and especially otters.  Joyce found an otter hand puppet in the Old Faithful Visitor Center that looks just like a real otter.  She put the otter in her carry-on bag with his head sticking out.   When we boarded the Delta jet in Salt Lake City, Joyce, who was seated on the aisle, placed her carry-on bag under the seat in front of her with the otter still peering out.  One of the flight attendants walked by, then stopped and put her hand on Joyce’s shoulder and nervously asked, “Is that thing real?”

        Joyce started laughing.  Then the flight attendant starting laughing.  She went and found two of her colleagues and had them to come and take a look.  At this point they decided to play a trick on the flight attendant in the back.   One of the flight attendants told her to see what that was under the seat in row 10.  She did a double take, thinking this was an undocumented support animal.  She rushed to the front and then all the flight attendants had a great laugh together.

        They said this had made their flight, then started telling us horror stories of people trying to get on a plane with a “support animal.”  One lady even brought a turkey!   Before we landed in Charlotte all the flight attendants were taking pictures of the otter who has still peering out the top of the bag, not even mindful of all the commotion he had created! 

        The second part of our Sabbatical, like the first, exceeded all of our expectations.  Yellowstone is one of the most unique places on the face of the earth and people travel from all over the planet to marvel at these mighty works of nature. Over 4 million people visit Yellowstone each year and half of those come in the summer months of June, July, and August. 

        This was the primary reason I decided to visit in early May.  In retrospect, it was the perfect time to visit.  We never felt crowded, never had any problems with traffic, never had a problem finding a parking place.  Many times, Joyce and I were the only ones visiting a site.  The downside is that the weather is cold and there were many places that were still closed because of the snow.   But the snow added another dimension to the already exquisite beauty.  Seeing the forest covered in snow, watching Old Faithful erupt with the snow falling, standing on the shore of a frozen Lake Yellowstone, experiencing the steam rising from springs surrounded by snow are all extraordinary moments that are not possible in the crowded summer months. 

        If you plan to visit Yellowstone, if at all possible stay inside the park.   West Yellowstone is a lovely village with hundreds of hotel rooms and restaurants.  It is more economical to stay here, but each morning you have to re-enter the park and in the crowded summer months, this can take a very long time.  Not many people can look out their hotel window and see a Bison or a Bear and watch Grand Geyser erupt!   The hotel staff was in awe that we had that experience.  You can request a room overlooking Old Faithful if you are willing to pay more.  Of course, staying in the park is expensive and you must plan ahead, many months ahead.  To stay at the Old Faithful Inn is truly an experience that will last a lifetime.  You need to reserve your room a year in advance—but it is worth it!

        We were also impressed with the friendly, engaging young people who worked in the dining room and provided housekeeping services.  Many of these are college students who spend their summer working at Yellowstone.  They stay in dorm like facilities.  They all wanted to know where we were from and how we were enjoying our time in Yellowstone.  We enjoyed talking with them and learning where home was and where they were attending school.  I know the experience of working at Yellowstone is one they will carry with them for a lifetime.

        Part two of our Sabbatical is now over.  We traveled almost 7,500 miles through 18 states. Both Italy and our cross-country train trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks have exceeded all of our expectations.  Now we have a week to prepare for the third and longest segment of the Sabbatical.  Next Saturday we are flying to Munich!




Friday, May 10, 2019

Planes, Trains, Ubers, and Automobiles

We started the second phase of our Sabbatical journey early on Saturday, April 27.  We had experienced high winds on Friday afternoon and we lost power at the house.  When we tried to drive into town, a tree had fallen over Old Mountain Road and it was around 7:30 p.m. when we left the neighborhood.  We enjoyed supper with Ella Rae who told us she “guessed” she would be able to make it for 13 days while we were gone.

        We returned home to a darkened house and went to bed hoping the power would be on before we left around 6 a.m. Saturday morning.  Sure enough, around midnight almost every light in the house came on and we could leave knowing the house was secure and all was well.

        We didn’t have to worry about traffic on a Saturday morning and we pulled into the Park N’ Go at the Charlotte airport shortly after 7 a.m.  Our luggage was unloaded and I handed the attendant my key as we boarded the shuttle for the terminal.  We like parking here when we travel out of Charlotte.

        Security was unusually tight, but we were at our gate an hour before boarding.  People ask me why I’m always early.  I get that from my grandmother.  “You never know when you might have a flat tire,” she would say as we would arrive at the train station three hours before departure.   She also said we should always have clean underwear on in case we were in an accident and had to go to the emergency room.

        Our flight to Huntsville was early and after we claimed our luggage my brother, Jon, was pulling up in his big Ford pickup.  The care of my mother has fallen all on Jon’s shoulders.  Our brother, Robert, died nine years ago.  Our sister, Nancy, has significant health issues.  Mother is in a Nursing Home just a few miles from Jon’s house.  Jon and his wife, Carol, take care of Mother, checking on her frequently, washing her clothes, and dealing with any issues that come up.  Jon is the Power of Attorney and handles all the finances.  I honestly don’t know what I would do without Jon and Carol.  I feel guilty that I cannot visit Mother more often, but Jon insists that all is well.  He says I am where I am supposed to be and so is he. 

        After dropping our luggage off at Jon’s house, Joyce and I drove to Valley View Nursing Home.  I was encouraged when Jon told that the previous Sunday, Easter Sunday, Mother had a great day.  She was alert, her voice was strong, and her mind seemed to be just fine.  As we were walking down the hallway to her room, I saw that she was sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway.  I smiled and walked up to her.  “Hey Mother,” I said.  

        She did not respond.  All she had was a blank stare.  There have been times before that she never called my name, but I felt like she knew me.  This was the first time that she did not know me.  

        But . . . she knew Joyce!   I leaned over and pointed to Joyce asking, “Do you know who this is?” 

        “Joyce,” she whispered.  

        It was a bad day.  Jon had said her voice had been strong on Easter, but today it was very weak and we could barely hear the few things she tried to say.

        We sat with Mother, mainly in silence, for the rest of the morning until it was time to take her to lunch.  We tried talking to her but she could not engage in conversation.  When I left her in the dining room during our last visit she became upset with me, but this time she expressed no emotion. 

        When Joyce and I returned after our lunch, Mother was sitting in a commons area with the other patients.  She saw me and smiled.  That was the closest she was all day to any recognition.  We sat together and then Mother told Joyce that there was something she had wanted to tell her, but had never had the chance.  It was very hard for Joyce to hear her words, but she was telling about having to live with her grandmother when she was a child. 

        Mother became an orphan at age six and the children were divided between several relatives, none of whom wanted them.  They were mistreated in many ways.  Mother had a very difficult childhood.

        At this stage in her life, suffering from Alzheimer’s, her mind is taking her back to those painful days.  It tells you what a profound impact it had on her life.  

        Joyce suggested that I take Mother on a ride around the nursing home.  It is a huge facility.   We went to the back, in the Rehab section, and found a large window overlooking a big field.  We sat for a while.  I would comment on the beautiful blue sky, a passing bird, the wind that was blowing, and other simple things.  However, none of it seemed to register with Mother.   We went back to find Joyce.   She had been entertained by a visiting preacher and some members of his flock who were singing to the residents.   An assistant came and said she would put Mother to bed.   We sat with her for a while and she soon drifted off to sleep.   We decided it was best to slip out while she was sleeping.

        I wonder if Mother even remembered us being there when she woke up.  I doubt it.   Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease.

        We had a special treat when our nephew Drew, and his son, Lane, joined us for dinner.  It was Lane’s 12th birthday and we were glad we could celebrate with him.   Joyce and I love our grandchildren and they bring us much joy.  I thought how sad it is that my brother, Robert, is not here to enjoy special events like his grandson’s 12th birthday.

        But my brother, Jon, has become like a grandfather to Lane and all of Robert’s grandchildren.  Robert would be proud of Jon.  I know I am.

        Jon and Carol’s son, Jake, is in Med School at UAB, so Jon told me that they were happy to give us a ride to Birmingham to catch the train.  We left early—Jon also has inherited the “You never know when you’re going to have a flat tire” mentality from our grandmother—and had a wonderful lunch with Jake at a very unique seafood place in downtown Birmingham.  Jon showed us the very small building that was nothing more than a seafood stand where the restaurant started.  When Jon was working on the ambulances (He is now CEO of HEMSI), this was a favorite place for the EMTs to go after making a run to UAB Hospital. 

        Jake seems to be doing very well in Med School.  He is an outstanding young man with a level head on his shoulders.  He is disciplined and determined.  I have no doubt that he will excel in Med School.

        After saying good-bye to Jake, Jon and Carol gave us a quick tour of the massive UAB campus in downtown Birmingham before taking us to the new, modern Amtrak station.   The train was running about 45 minutes late, which is not uncommon for the Crescent.  They have combined the Amtrak station with the Greyhound Bus depot.  Several cities have done this including New Orleans. There are big screens giving you the latest information on the trains and buses. 

        We checked our two big bags and waited until the announcement was made to proceed to the platform to await the arrival of Amtrak # 20, the northbound Crescent.   Passengers in the sleeper cars boarded toward the back of the train and the coach passengers boarded at the front.

        We reserved a bedroom which gives us more room than the smaller sleeping compartments.   We have a private bath that doubles as a shower.  There are very comfortable seats.  Each sleeping car has an attendant who will prepare the room for sleeping at night.  The lower bed is a little larger than a twin bed and there is an upper bunk that folds down.   One of the nicest things about having a sleeper is that your meals in the dining car are included.   The Crescent has a full-service dining car that prepares three meals a day.  The meals are cooked on the train in a full kitchen.  You are also seated with other passengers and we met some delightful people who ride on the train.

        We opted for first seating at dinner and were seated with two sisters from Pennsylvania who had been visiting their mother in New Orleans.  They spent a week with her.  Her husband had recently died and she is all alone, except for her faithful dog.  They had a very special visit with her and hated to say good-bye.   We talked about traveling.   They wanted to hear all about Italy and said while they had traveled there when they were in school, they wanted to go back.

        The meals on Amtrak are very good.  Joyce and I both had their signature Flank Steak which was delicious and cooked medium rare, exactly the way we like it.   We started with a generous salad, warm bread, and had delicious strawberry cheesecake and a chocolate bunt cake with caramel for dessert. 

        Claude was our waiter and he had a great personality.   He made announcements on the train that made you want to visit the dining car and especially enjoy the experience with your fellow passengers.   While the meals are included, I tipped Claude and he said that I had blessed him and the others in the dining car.  

        We were getting close to Atlanta.  I told Joyce that we would enjoy our arrival into Atlanta, then go to bed.   However, shortly after returning to our bedroom the train stopped.   A freight train in front of us had broken down.  We sat still for the next three hours.  

        Our attendant turned down our beds and we prepared for a wonderful night sleeping on the rails.  Joyce was concerned about me climbing up to the top bunk.   I told her that I could step on the lower bed, grab the handrail, and pull myself up.  I tried, and I know I could have done it 25 years ago, but this old Medicare Card Carrying Senior Citizen couldn’t quite make it.

        “So, how are you going to get up there?” Joyce asked.

        I went to plan B.   I stood on the sink and then I could more easily pull myself up on the bed.   I got down by holding the handrail and lowering myself down to the lower bed, but I did have to stand on the sink to get back up to the top.  Once we were all in place we turned out the lights.  We were still sitting on the tracks, outside of Atlanta.

Not long after we turned in, the train started moving and we stopped in Atlanta close to midnight.  I often think of how comforting it is to sleep on the train, with the click-clack of the rails and gentle swaying of the cars.  I will admit that it was rather rough night with the train changing tracks frequently.  I can sleep most anywhere, but I woke up several times.  There was something that kept rocking back and forth in a small compartment, making a noise every time the train moved side to side.  The next morning, I found out what it was.  It was the ladder to the top bunk!

        I woke up around 6 a.m. when the train came to a stop and looked out the window.  We were in High Point.  I saw the sun rise in Greensboro.   We were rolling into Danville when we went to the dining car for breakfast.  We both enjoyed an omelet with some delicious hot grits and Applewood bacon. 

        Claude seemed to have a knack for seating the right passengers together.  I heard him say, “This is a lovely couple and you will have a wonderful time eating breakfast with them.”

        That was when we met Dr. Durussia Jenkins.  I don’t usually begin a conversation by telling people I am a minister.  Depending on how the conversation goes, they may never know.   But it didn’t take too long into our conversation before Dr. Jenkins said, “Wait a minute!  Are you a preacher!  I knew it!   This is a setup!”

        She had been on a book-signing tour for her newest book, “Before the Stone,” which tells the story of her mother’s amazing life and describes extraordinary encounters Dr. Jenkins has had with angels.  She said her mother had several encounters with death, but had come back defying every logical and medical rationale.  When I said something about her mother’s “near-death” experiences, she corrected me.  “No,” she said.  “Not, near death---she was dead every time.”

        I shared a few “extraordinary” stories with Dr. Jenkins.  We talked about the Holy Land.  She promised to send me a link to her book, which she did. 

        We made our way back to our bedroom where our attendant had the room ready for daytime travel.  We traveled through Lynchburg and Charlottesville.  The rolling Virginia hills, beautiful farms, old houses and the many fields and streams that Thomas Jefferson knew so well made our journey go by quickly.   We were soon crossing the Potomac, gliding by the Jefferson Memorial and going through the tunnel to Union Station in Washington, DC.

        We claimed our bags and went to the taxi area where we found a taxi and made our way to the Marriott Marquis.  We have stayed in this beautiful hotel before that is located beside the Washington Convention Center.  We were upgraded to a larger room that overlooked Massachusetts Avenue and also given access to the Marriott lounge that provides a delicious breakfast.  Since it was already 2 pm we decided to forgo lunch and have an early dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, the Old Ebbitt Grill located across the street from the White House.  This historic old restaurant has been hosting famous politicians since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.   The old bar, the gas lights, the stunning paintings, and even some of Roosevelt’s game trophies that hang over the bar make this a destination in itself. 

        And then there is the food.  We had clam chowder which was maybe the best we have ever tasted.  We have always loved Legal Seafood.  Their clam chowder has been served at every Presidential Inaugural luncheon with Congress since 1981.  We had Legal Sea Food Clam Chowder the next day for lunch.  No comparison---Old Ebbitt Grill is the best.   Add this to some of the best lump crab cakes we have tasted—and “Oh My!”

        As we were getting ready to leave I told Joyce I wanted to try something.  You might recall that I was banned from Uber last summer in New York City.  (See my blog, “Oops, I’ve been Banned from Uber!)

        So, I pulled up my Uber App and put in the Marriott Marquis as our destination.  Within seconds I was told an Uber was on the way.   Our driver’s name was Ena and by the time we stepped out the door she was pulling up.   We knew what to do this time.  I checked the license plate and Joyce said, “Are you Ena?”

        We had a nice visit with Ena back to the Marriott where we watched Jeopardy and saw the newest celebrity, James Holzhauer win for the 18th time, although he had a close call—he almost lost!

        After a good night’s rest and a delicious breakfast, we walked a few blocks to the Metro Station where we took the Yellow Train to L’Enfant Plaza.  After briefly getting turned around (we exited at L’Enfant South—should have exited L’Enfant North) we found the Museum of the Bible.  I especially wanted to visit this new museum that opened to rave reviews and naturally, some controversy.  My first impression was very positive, a first-class facility, an impressive litany of rare artifacts, and a very professional, innovative, and appealing presentation of the material.  You need a good 4 to 6 hours to really see this museum, and we did not have that much time so we hit the highlights. 

        We started with the history of the Bible that had a great section on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The section on the transmission of the text and different translations, beginning with Jerome, was very well done.  There was a great presentation on the Gutenberg Bible as well as the many different English translations.  We spent some time in a recreated first-century village that reminded us of the Nazareth Village in the Holy Land.  It is my understanding that the same people who created Nazareth Village created this area for the Museum of the Bible. 

        The highlight of the visit was a 30-minute presentation on the Hebrew Bible.  This was a walk-through experience with many special effects.  It was very effective telling the story of man, beginning with creation, featuring Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, David, and Ezra. 

        I found the approach of the Bible Museum to be very balanced and scholarly.  There were many children and young people there which is encouraging.  I would certainly add this to your “must see” list when you visit DC. 

        We took a taxi to Union Station and waited for our train, Amtrak # 29, the Capitol Limited.  This was the first time I had been on a double-decker train.  We had a bedroom again, but the bedrooms on the “SuperLiners” as they are called, are a little larger than the “Viewliners” on the Crescent.  The exception is you don’t have as much headroom, which is not a problem until you climb into the top bunk.   We did find the ladder this time.  It did make climbing up to the top a little easier, although turning around once you got up there is somewhat of a challenge.   It’s not as bad as the “coffin bunk” I slept in on the USS Eisenhower, but it’s not as roomy as the Crescent.   I had no complaints and slept very well.  

        Our route took us into the Alleghany Mountains through West Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland.  Riding the train as we ascended into the mountains was a great experience.  The scenery was breathtaking as the sun descended and we crossed numerous streams and rivers.  We followed a swift stream as we snaked into the mountains, far out of cellular range.  It reminded me a lot of the North Carolina mountains. 

        After we went to bed we stopped in Pittsburg and Cleveland.  When we woke up we were passing the large farms of northern Indiana.  There had been a tremendous rain the day before and many fields were flooded.  We pulled into fog bound Chicago, arriving at Union Station ten minutes early.

        We got off the train and made our way to the Metropolitan Lounge which is reserved for first-class passengers.  It is much more spacious and attractive than the first-class lounge in Washington, DC.  They even offered cheeses and assorted vegetables around noon. 

        I had never been to Union Station in Chicago, so I spent a few minutes admiring the massive historic old terminal.  I was looking around when I was stopped by a Chicago television news crew.  They asked if I was an Amtrak passenger and would I mind answering a few questions.  I was happy to oblige.  Then they told me that earlier that morning several huge chunks of concrete had fallen on one of the train platforms.  They wanted to know if I had any concerns about riding Amtrak. 

        I told them I had no concerns whatsoever.   We love the train and will ride it every chance we get.  Then we discussed how our train system compares to the European trains—very poorly, I will add.  

        I don’t know how it came out on the broadcast but it was an interesting conversation with the local news. 

        We boarded our next train, the historic California Zephyr and precisely at 2 pm we pulled out of the station, right on time, just like the Europeans!  But—that would be the last time we were on time.

        Not far out of Chicago the train stopped.  The conductor made an announcement, something about detectives stopping the train.   Or, at least that is what I thought I heard.  I could imagine a bunch of detectives flashing their credentials, surrounded by uniformed officers, standing in the tracks, stopping the storied California Zephyr just south of Chicago.  I thought I would soon see officers searching every bedroom, checking the credentials of each passenger because they had it on good authority that one of the FBI’s most wanted was trying to slip out of Chicago on the Zephyr.  What would we do if the fugitive ran into our room, closed the door, aimed a gun at us and said, “If they come into this room, you ain’t seen nobody.  Understand!”

        I asked our attendant if he had ever had detectives stop a train before.   “Detectives? It wasn’t detectives,” he said.  “It was a detector.  A detector was giving a false signal.  They just had to check it out.”

        Feeling rather embarrassed, I returned to our room and our train continued its journey.  Seeing the US by rail is a unique and exciting experience. Unfortunately, long-distance Amtrak trains are frequently late, so don’t take the train if you are on a tight schedule.  We were almost four hours late arriving in Salt Lake City, but it didn’t matter.  We had just had an experience that will last a lifetime.

We traveled from east to west and along the way we saw the heart of our great nation.  We saw people’s homes, lush pastures, beautiful mountains, factories, swing sets, swimming pools, farmhouses, barns, perfectly manicured lawns and yards full of old cars and junk, pastures, cows, horses, old depots, RVs, small town diners, school buses, cemeteries, big city skyscrapers, windmills, wide open prairies, mountains, lakes, ponds, streams, silos, freshly plowed fields, cars and trucks, tractors, irrigation systems, children waving, people fishing, and impatient drivers stopped at the crossing.  Riding the train across our nation is seeing a tapestry of our native land, almost literally “from sea to shining sea.”   We were riding through “amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”

        The California Zephyr has a full-service dining car and we enjoyed a delicious meal with a delightful woman from Michigan who was traveling out west to see her daughter. During dinner we crossed the Mississippi River that was very high due to heavy rains.  One of the reasons we were running late was because we had to go very slow due to the flooding.  They were concerned the rains had compromised the track.   We finally traveled through Illinois, now we were in Iowa on our westward journey.

      We both slept very well as our train stopped in Omaha, Nebraska.  When we woke up we were in the prairies of western Nebraska and then we crossed into Colorado.  We were running about 2 and ½ hours late. 

The train has a culture all of its own.  It is like a family.  All of the staff, from the sleeping car attendants, to the dining room staff, and the conductors are nice, friendly, helpful, and they make you feel right at home.  The train is non-smoking—thank goodness for that—but apparently one passenger smoked in the bathroom and when it was reported an announcement was made, “If you get caught smoking, the next stop will be your final stop!”   Another passenger had too much to drink and became unruly in the dinning car.  The next stop was his last stop!  We heard the next day that two passengers were taken off the train because they became unruly. 

        Thursday morning, we had a medical emergency on the train.  A passenger had a seizure.  An ambulance was waiting at the next station to provide the medical help he needed.

        We finally arrived in Denver and for the first time we caught of glimpse of the snow-capped Rockies in the distance.  It wouldn’t take long for us to find out why they call the Zephyr the most scenic train route in the United States.

          We started our ascent not long out of Denver.  As we gained elevation there were breathtaking views of Denver in the distance.  The train was going very slow in its ascent, but before long we were in the snow.  It was strange as we made our way through forests in the month of May that Evergreen trees were still covered with the winter’s snow.  We ascended to an altitude of 9,239 feet above sea level.  Then we entered the 6.2-mile historic Moffat Tunnel that was open to rail travel in 1928.  The California Zephyr is the only passenger train that travels through the tunnel today.  When we emerged from the tunnel on the western side, we had crossed the Continental Divide. 

        The train then winds its way through a gorgeous canyon following the Colorado River.  The railroad is the only way to see this canyon unless you are brave enough to go white water rafting down the river. 

        After snaking our way through the red cliffs and the narrow gorge, we finally emerged to see more spectacular mountains in the distance.  We came across a camp where a number of people were preparing to go on the river by boat.  For some reason it has become a tradition that the boaters “moon” the train.  Two or three were happy to oblige.

        We stopped on a siding for a while and waited for the Eastbound Zephyr to pass us.  We saw it coming out of a tunnel in the distance.  A long-time chef on Amtrak was making his last run, and the crew of the Westbound Zephyr waved in appreciation as the train slowly passed. 

        We continued our journey until we had another unexpected delay due to the second medical emergency of the day.  It seems a young lady who was pregnant overdosed on drugs and alcohol.  We knew something was wrong when an announcement was made asking for any doctors or nurses to come and help.  They were able to get her to regain consciousness, but she needed serious medical attention.  We were a long way from the next stop, so we stopped at small siding and the conductor walked over to a small building and knocked on the door.  We waited for about 45 minutes before an ambulance finally arrived and took her away. 

        Then another baffling problem occurred.  One of the coach cars experienced an electrical fire and the entire train was without power.   After about 15 minutes it was restored, but they had to move all of the passengers from that car into other cars.   Finally, we were on the way.

        We enjoyed dinner again on the train and went to bed.  It would be a short night.

        When we finally arrived at Salt Lake City at 2:25 a.m. Friday morning, we had traveled on three trains through fifteen states for a total of 3,186 miles.  We claimed our luggage and looked for a taxi.  There was only one taxi and at least ten people waiting for a cab.  I tried Uber again and five minutes later Don pulled up in a Honda Accord.  It was only ten minutes to our hotel.  I had called and told them we would be very late.  The nice young lady looked at my ID, handed me the room keys and 30 minutes after stepping off the train we walked into our hotel room.  We had slept about 4 hours on the train and were able to sleep another 4 hours before awaking to a gorgeous, sunny day.

        I took the hotel shuttle to the airport and got our rental car.  Soon we were traveling up Interstate 15 where the speed limit is 80 mph.  We saw some amazing scenery again as we drove through Idaho on our way to Jackson, Wyoming.  I was confused whether this town was Jackson or Jackson Hole?  

        Our waitress at The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a must-see in Jackson, gave me the answer.  She said she was also confused when she moved to town and thought she was living in Jackson Hole, even putting that as her official address.  The Post Office finally told her that the town is officially Jackson, not Jackson Hole.  Jackson Hole is an area that encompasses 3 or 4 small towns.  But whatever you call it, it is definitely a popular tourist destination with snow skiing in the winter and white water rafting and National Park touring in the summer.  We are here in their off-season, the crowds are small—thank goodness—but the prices remain the same—very high!    A bottle of water in our room costs $6.  We found a local grocery store.

        We had traveled over 4,000 miles through seventeen states in seven days.  Now we were ready for the highlights of this amazing journey—Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park!  We would start touring first thing Saturday morning.