We were seeking fall color when driving into Missouri last weekend, a little early in the season perhaps, but we had booked a hotel with a restrictive cancellation policy which deterred second thoughts. Big Cedar Lodge is a well advertised “resort” destination, not our usual choice, but the appealing brochure photos set my expectations. I can’t say I was disappointed exactly, because it has much to recommend it, but the weather on our primary day there was miserable, keeping us room bound and cranky. Late in the afternoon, we decided to undergo the drive and shuttle bus effort necessary to reach the resort’s “Top of the Rock” restaurant, to call quits to the weekend with food and beverage at the bar.
Though still wet and chilly, the sky had begun to clear, and the location is quite spectacular. There has been no expense spared in the structures or the artwork that adorns the site, or the 9-hole golf course they overlook. There is even a chapel used for destination weddings and events, built on a lake overlook. It’s pretty. We ordered drinks.
Then others began stirring from their seats, and commenting on the rainbow. The glass walls of the bar were pushed open, and we all moved to the outside terrace to gawk at the beauty. And then the bagpiper appeared walking up the hill from the golf course. What? A sunset ceremony? “Amazing Grace” and “America” piped as the sun appears and disappears into the most gorgeous sky imaginable? Did the unexpected far exceed expectations? Yes indeed! Even the bar food and entertainment during dinner was a delight. It turned out to be a very memorable evening, and reminded me to cultivate patience through times of temporary disappointment.
I’d like to tell you this is about my own mark, but it isn’t. I’m referring to the Waltons of Bentonville, Arkansas, who have done more than their share to leave lasting legacies for the rest of us. Perhaps you don’t know much about Bentonville; it’s a lovely small town which sits in the northwest corner of Arkansas near the Missouri and Oklahoma borders, with a resident population short of 50,000. The patriarch of the Walton family purchased a five and dime store there in 1950, developed Wal-Mart into the world’s largest retailer, and created unimaginable economic impact locally and worldwide. In 2011, daughter Alice made her own mark by creating the stunning Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville to house her outstanding and eclectic personal art collection, and host other temporary exhibits and special events there. Our visit included “Chihuly: in the Forest”, an installation of Dale Chihuly’s dramatic art glass along the paths of the Ozark forest museum grounds.
Bentonville is not all that easy to get to, but it’s worth the trip.
There are many wonderful events around the country during this season (when the weather chooses to be kind). We learned several years ago when we went to Albuquerque that a hot air balloon festival is a great spectacle of color, so were delighted to find one closer to home in Plano, TX this year (with warmer early morning temperatures than our very chilly New Mexico experience.)
Getting to the launch field before dawn, when there is mist on the ground and the balloons are just starting to be inflated, is worth it. These balloons are huge, of course, and watching a flat blob of color grow to become a wonderful creature, or an iridescent pattern of light, is a delight. And then, of course, as the sun rises, they lift off into the sky nearly soundlessly (except for the cheering spectators.) It’s a fun morning.
We chose to visit Yosemite after Labor Day, hoping to miss heavy summer traffic. I assume we did that, but it’s hard to know; it seemed packed to us. There is shuttle bus service in Yosemite Valley to ease congestion issues, without which one can imagine total gridlock. September brought other issues with it as well: there was record-breaking heat, vistas were smokey, fires blocked access to Glacier Point Road, water in streams and waterfalls diminish in the fall, and there were bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. I’m sure that visitors who hike into back country have a much richer experience of the park than we did, and probably even see more wildlife than the mule deer who walked unperturbed past photographers (look closely…).
Nonetheless, we felt like we didn’t miss a thing. We saw classic Yosemite, beginning with the Valley floor which sits beneath the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. We visited Inspiration Point four times, but were able to see Bridalveil Fall from that location only once. Didn’t matter; it’s all still gorgeous, and early in the morning, before the hordes descended, was best.
The Majestic Yosemite
When arriving into Yosemite National Park through the Arch Rock Entrance on El Portal Road, one is not sure what to expect. There were hints of grandeur along the way, but we were arriving at dusk and wanted to get to our hotel, saving the park overview for later.
We had booked the necessary “near to a year” in advance for The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee, (the name given to Yosemite Valley by the Ahwahneechee people, its first residents. At present there is a trademark dispute over the name, which sort of explains the new Majestic identification.) First opened in 1927, it is thought to be the National Park system’s premiere hotel, not close to our usual choice for sleeping space, but it was our anniversary. Good excuse.
The hotel sits at the base of granite cliffs, and as large as it seems, it is small in relation to its surroundings. If you can force yourself to leave the dining room or patio, a walk to the river is a wonderful way to start the morning.
The anticipated 4 hour drive from Sequoia National Park to the south entrance of Yosemite National Park was nearly doubled by detours caused by fires. We had booked several nights in the southernmost part of Yosemite, anticipating park excursions from that location, but were thwarted by fires, and restorations in the sequoia groves which closed them to visitors. As is often the case, initial disappointment turned to its own kind of pleasure.
Big Trees Lodge, known until 2016 as The Wawona Hotel, is a National Historic Landmark, and is loaded with Victorian-style charm. The cottage complex where we stayed was built in 1876-77, and retains the big porches and large lawns that encourage lounging without agenda. Fires had been raging for several week quite close to the nearby town of Wawona, and we could smell the burn and see pink-tinged skies. At night, very tired firefighters came to the hotel to eat quickly, sleep lightly and rise early to refuel their trucks at the bottom of the driveway. There were signs of appreciation for their efforts in nearly every yard in town, acknowledging them as the heroes they are.
We spent our last morning there walking to The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, constructed as a small frontier town. The smokey morning mist provided a lovely setting for imagining frontier life as extremely pleasant, unlike its certain reality.