The Union Pacific Railroad’s Thomas Durant: Getting the Facts Right

I have written a great deal about the men of the Central Pacific Railroad. But one cannot talk about the transcontinental railroad without talking about the Central Pacific’s eastern counterpart, the Union Pacific and Thomas Durant.


A meeting of the board of Union Pacific Railroads in a private railway car. L-R, seated at the table Silas Seymour, consulting engineer, Sidney Dillon, Thomas Durant (1820 – 1885), and John Duff, directors. Photograph by Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902). (Photo by A. J. Russell /Getty Images)

The popular television show Hell on Wheels has part of it right – Thomas Durant was a stock manipulator and con man who did not hesitate to instruct his engineers to take the long way to get from Point A to Point B so as to maximize the railroad’s take at the government trough. But much of the rest of the portrayal is at odds with fact – he spent very little time on the railroad, preferring to make business deals in his luxurious New York office or entertaining clients on his yacht. Just understand that the television program is for your entertainment. (Similarly, the show puts the Central Pacific’s Collis Huntington in California. As the eastern agent for the Central, he moved to New York in 1863. He lived and worked there, with side trips to Washington, D.C. He did not return to the West until December 1868, when he wanted to see for himself the railroad’s progress. He immediately returned to New York after an absence of only 31 days.) Consult the history for the facts.


Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant on the AMC show “Hell on Wheels”

He was born in 1820, the son of a prosperous Massachusetts merchant – also at odds with the television show’s portrayal of him as someone who had to grovel for sustenance as a child. At 20 years old, he graduated from Albany Medical College with a specialty in ophthalmology. At 23, he cast that profession aside to join his uncle’s shipping firm as a partner.

In 1853, Durant became a partner in the contracting firm of Farnam and Durant. The firm’s first project was the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (which later hired attorney Abraham Lincoln to represent the company in a dispute with ferryboat companies about a bridge built over the Mississippi River). Due to contract obligations having to be paid in the form of railroad securities, Farnam and Durant ultimately took control of the railroad, with Farnam as its president.

Thereafter, Farnam and Durant chartered another railroad company, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (“the M&M”), with their eyes set on Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, the first set on the east bank of the Missouri and Omaha across the river on its western bank. The railroad progressed in fits and starts, with bond money from Council Bluffs, Omaha, and several Iowa counties that wanted in the game. The company had made little progress when the Panic of 1857 brought down the whole operation. With most of the bond money unaccounted for, Farnam discovered that Durant had pledged their construction company’s securities to dabble in the stock market. Durant survived the Panic unscathed while Farnam was ruined and Iowa saw very little track and grade for its investment in the railroad men.

Undeterred, Durant set his eyes on the transcontinental enterprise. Once he took control of the Union Pacific during the Civil War, he could look west and hope to complete the tracks that would connect the west coast to the east. Contrary to President Lincoln’s wishes, Durant established the eastern terminus in Omaha rather than Council Bluffs. That bridge would have to wait until after Promontory Point, when Durant had left the company. A railroad bridge over a major river is an expensive project, especially when your company can lay miles of tracks in less time over the Great Plains.

It had to test Durant’s patience and stamina, for the Union Pacific did not lay a single rail until after Appomattox. Along the way, Durant established Credit Mobilier, the construction company that secured all the contracts for the grading, the tracks, and all the bridges, trestles, and tunnels – thus guaranteeing Durant would make money in the enterprise even if the Union Pacific failed. Ultimately the Union Pacific had laid two-thirds of the track between Omaha and Sacramento when the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. Durant cheated business partners and employees the entire journey, but in the end he received credit for an achievement that resulted as much despite his interference as because of his contributions.

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The War to End All Wars

If only Woodrow Wilson were right. The massive casualties of World War I were followed by even more horrific numbers in World War II. Americans often forget the First World War and how it affected the European and American psyches as Germany and Japan pursued aggressive measures in the 1930’s. Much of the world blinked, hoping not to replicate the tragedy triggered at Sarajevo, only to see the Second World War envelop most of the rest of humanity.

Hopefully, all of us are familiar with World War II’s narrative: Hitler’s aggression in Europe, with France and Great Britain hopeful that the annexation of Austria, Neville Chamberlain’s sacrifice of the Sudetenland, and Germany’s conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia would curb the Nazi appetite; Japanese conquests in Asia insufficient to motivate the United States to curb the aggression until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The First World War is harder to fathom, the product of ultranationalists in Serbia and entangling alliances among the European powers. Young men in Sarajevo plot to murder the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne in Austria-Hungary. They seek personal glory in an act they hope will lead to recreation of a mythical Pan Serbia, “regaining” lands then held by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Each man is prepared to die by taking arsenic or shooting himself; each fails in the effort. Serbian leaders produce an unsatisfactory response to Austria’s ultimatum (which includes Austria’s participation in the investigation and prosecution of suspected Serbian conspirators). Austria declares war on Serbia. Russia comes to the aid of Serbia. Germany declares war on Russia. Treaty commitments ultimately bring Great Britain into the conflict.

Four years of war lead to 8.5 million deaths, 21 million wounded, and tens of thousands more unaccounted for as young men are obliterated beyond recognition by the weapons of war.

Let’s look at just two countries, France and Germany.

France’s 1910 population numbered 41 million. The war killed over 1.3 million soldiers and left 4.3 million men wounded. Of the men who actually served, 17 percent were killed – roughly one out of six men – and fully half were wounded.

Germany’s 1910 population numbered 78 million. Almost 1.8 million Germans soldiers died and 4.2 million men were wounded. Of the men who served, 13 percent were killed – roughly one out of eight men – another 40 percent were wounded.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

While the European fighting began in August 1914, the United States did not enter the fray until April, 1917, thereby limiting American casualties (117,000 dead; 204,000 wounded – comparable to 406,000 dead and 708,000 wounded in the U.S. 2015 population).

The American sacrifice was great, but pales in comparison to French and German losses. It’s no small wonder the Europeans hoped Hitler would just leave them alone.

The numbers require some correlation to our current population. Only the Syrian conflict offers a modern-day parallel (2011 population of 23 million; 220,000 dead as of March 2015; 9 million displaced of whom 3 million have left Syria for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq).

Conditions have only gotten worse since March. Comparable U.S. numbers in the United States would be 3.1 million dead; 125 million displaced, with 42 million leaving the country. If we put statistics in context, perhaps we can look at the victims as fellow human beings who by the accident of birth are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deserve our sympathy and meaningful support.

And, of course, in recent months the Syrian Diaspora has spread to Europe, pulling at the world’s heartstrings as we witness a suffering but courageous population unwilling to leave the next generation of Syrians adrift in the Middle East’s increasingly dangerous waters.


  • Keegan, John, The First World War. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  • Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins, 2012.
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YOSEMITE SUMMER: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

This is the final blog post about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Sunday, July 12

I woke up at 6:30 and removed all the “furnishings” from my tent before sweeping the tent floor. Just as he “helped” me put up the tent, Woodlee was on the scene to help me take it down. Fortunately, he did not have to do all the work this time around. Cassie left me her whisk broom and paper towels to make sure she receives a clean and dry tent. This gal plans ahead. I spent several hours getting the tent in order. It’s going to a good home.

Breakfast was simple if not heart healthy – half of a ham sandwich, chips, pears, and cookies. After breakfast and tent duties, I made a call home and then headed to the meadow for a short walk.

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows

Cassie returned around 2:00 and we completed the lodging transaction. We exchanged fond farewells before she headed out for her two-day drive to Missoula, Montana. She promised to stay in touch with all the volunteers. She is a delight and a fond memory. While I will miss Cassie, I could only be happy for her. She absolutely glowed about seeing her boyfriend again. He is one lucky young man.

With completion of the transaction, I headed to Tuolumne Lodge to celebrate with an “It’s It” ice cream bar, a treat I came to relish several years ago but is not sold by the general store.

Sunday evening meant live entertainment at the Mobil. Woodlee was elsewhere, so it meant just Jim and the ladies – Dee, Cyndi, and Susan. Adrienne was not up to the trip. As the ladies ate healthy and I did not (fish tacos and black beans), we made small talk, all of us overwhelmed with the realization that our close-knit group of volunteers was in the process of dismantling. Adrienne would leave Monday afternoon, after her service at Olmsted Point. Susan would leave the following evening after attending a program in the Valley.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

But rather than despair over our fast approaching diaspora, I suggested that we drive north on 395 to walk a boardwalk trail at Mono Lake. It proved to be just the right tonic. The high desert air turned cooler but not cold as we took in the scent of flora and fauna so very different from that of the park. The lake is another world, adorned with tufa towers, surrounded by craters and mountains – the Mono Craters to the south, the Sierra Nevada to the west, and the White Mountains to the east. As their ancestors have done for millennia, the sea gulls feast on the insects and feed their hatchlings. Mild breezes reward the few people who enter this magical world. And we felt rewarded that we could share one more time together, having looked out for one another the past five weeks and having learned that all of us had gained more from our experience than we ever could have given in return.

Monday, July 13

Off to Parsons Lodge one last time. I awoke from a less-than-comfortable night sleeping in the car. I had a two-person backpacking tent, but did not want to go through the trouble of pitching it. My body wished that I had made the effort.

Before heading to Parsons, I groggily exchanged morning greetings. With fresh memories of car sleeping, I told my friends I probably will try to get a room in Reno Tuesday night after my final volunteer duties at the Visitors Center. Cyndi reminded me that her father is coming to the park this afternoon and will be staying several nights. Dee and Susan asked if I would like to join them tonight for what I understood to be the 7:00 “Stars” program in the valley. When they said they planned to dine at the Ahwahnee Bar, I could not refuse.

Parsons got more foot traffic than usual. I answered any and all questions and enjoyed the delightfully sunny day, with temperatures only reaching the mid-60’s. I closed promptly at 4:00, so as not to delay Susan and Dee. As I began to leave, I was approached by a white-haired, white-bearded hiker, probably in his late 70’s, who clearly had taken on too strenuous a hike. He asked me to reach in the back of his pack for his empty water bottle and fill it with water for him. As I did so, he winced in great pain as he took the trail toward the closest shuttle stop. When I caught up with him, he thanked me for the water. I noticed he wore a brown apron and his fingernails were painted various colors. He called me his trail angel as he ambled to his destination and I hurried to catch my ride to the Valley.

Susan was waiting on Tioga Road, her car filled to the brim, with room for only one passenger. After she was certain Dee had spotted her, we headed to the Valley. Once there, I wondered why the “stars” program began at 7:00. The sun would not set until 8:30. But I said nothing, as we shared one last meal at the Ahwahnee Bar.

We then headed to the auditorium for the program. We ran a little late but had not missed much of the SAR (Search and Rescue) program. I’ve got to get these hearing aids checked! The subject matter held my attention far longer than any astronomy program would.

Around 9:00, Dee and I said our farewells to Susan. The troops are thinning fast as we lose the kindest of a very kind-hearted group. With my poor sleep from the night before, I’m glad Dee is making the 90-minute drive back to camp. I’m convinced I can sleep more comfortably in the car than I did on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 14

Last volunteer day, this time at the Visitors Center. I check for Reno room rates. Not happy with the quoted prices, I decide I can handle the car one more night, despite overwhelming fatigue from lack of sleep.

The volunteer stint pretty much mirrored my prior experience – most people with too little time set aside to fully appreciate a 1200 square mile park. But I kept on smiling, reminding myself that I had been in their shoes 28 years ago. The afternoon got busier than usual and I found myself answering inquiries well after 4:00. But I got back to the camp by 4:45, and the last volunteers standing – Woodlee, Cyndi (with her dad, Hugh), and Dee agreed we deserved one more night at the Mobil. I would spend one more night in the car.

Off to the Mobil again, this time with a deck of cards to play a game of Hearts. Cyndi got a win under her belt and we headed back up always-challenging Tioga Road (3300 feet of elevation gain over a 12-mile stretch, ever watchful for fallen rocks).

On the way back, Woodlee reminded me that he had offered me a tent for the evening. I pooh-poohed the offer until the entire group shamed me into admitting that I needed a better night’s sleep. Upon our return, he brought his “one-minute” tent to my campsite, along with a mattress pad. Cyndi brought over another mattress pad. That allowed me to roll out my sleeping bag its full length, affording me the opportunity for a good night’s sleep before driving to Reno the next morning. Sometimes you’ve got to admit when you’re wrong.

Wednesday, July 15

What a perfect way to end my summer stay, six deer grazing within 15 yards of my tent. Bleary eyed, I managed to take a photo of several of them before walking the longest 90 yards to the restroom.

 Deer in the campground

Deer in the campground

This really was the final day. I had to vamoose by noon. I returned the mattress pads to Woodlee and Cyndi and gave my sleeping bag to Woodlee – I had no room to carry it and he said he could make use of it. Various miscellaneous items I left for Cyndi. I had a quick breakfast and said my final farewells. Five weeks that early on seemed too long now had passed all too quickly. It’s time to sum up in a few brief words my fellow volunteers:

Adrienne – the most courageous, who overcame medical issues that would have kept the rest of us home. Intelligent and witty; I wish her a speedy recovery.

Cassie – the youngest, who not only tolerated but generously socialized with a much older crew. Cool and calm, she has extensive knowledge of the park for someone of her tender age. “Chatty Cassie” because she spent hours on the phone with her beau almost every evening.

Cyndi – Aquawoman, good hearted and probably the most athletic of the group – she regularly swam Tenaya Lake even after hikes that tired out the rest of us.

Dee – always prepared for anything (and I do mean ANYTHING), she also regularly hosted the whole crew. The Queen of Hearts, she was the best Hearts player of the bunch.

Susan – Tinker Bell of the Mountains, she hikes the park like it’s her own backyard. She exhibits an inner peace that reflects only kindness to friend and stranger alike.

Woodlee – Tent Master (he can solve almost any camping equipment problem) and the most networked of us all. He seems to know someone no matter where he goes.

Jim – Pathfinder (a self-deprecating title I applied to myself many years ago as I all-too-often have found myself headed off-trail) I am grateful that I had the opportunity to share a wonderful five weeks with such talented and kind-hearted people. Mid-way through my service, I swore I would not do this again due to the length of the commitment. Time will tell whether I honor my oath. During the last week, time slipped away like sand through my fingertips. The joys far outweighed the inconveniences.

And saving for one of my favorite photos for last...Half Dome.

And saving one of my favorite photos for last…Half Dome.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: The Weather Takes a Turn for the Better

This and one remaining blog post are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Friday, July 10

No snow in Tuolumne Meadows. Snow to the east and west, but not here. The day felt like late autumn, with storm clouds threatening again.

Snow on the ridge, Gaylor Lakes trail

Snow on the ridge, Gaylor Lakes trail

I had nothing on the agenda and accepted Susan’s invitation to join the Conservancy’s wildflower tour of the meadows. The group gathered at the Visitors Center. Median age? I would guess 80 (and I’m 63). I wasn’t sure what to expect but I soon learned that this was a three-day affair. I planned to dip my toes in the water and see how long I would last. Our guide, Michael, explained that he would not give the name of a flower until we fully understood how the flower worked – pollinating, stamens, petals, etc. He wanted us to concentrate on how each flower functioned rather than agonizing over the proper name. Michael handed some of us magnifying glasses so we could gain an in-depth appreciation of each tiny alpine flower.

While I was amazed at the first few flowers we examined, I knew my participation would not last beyond lunch. This tour may not have been my cup of tea, but it certainly tripped the other seniors’ triggers. Before I knew it, a dozen people dropped to their knees and hovered over their quarry. Anyone looking from a distance would have sworn someone had lost a contact. Again, their cup of tea, not mine. When Michael told us to head up a hill for lunch, I made my excuses to Susan and headed back to camp. Time to do laundry.

That evening, the volunteers gathered at Tuolumne Lodge for our celebratory dinner on the Yosemite Conservancy’s tab. Suzy and Taryn, our very pleasant volunteer coordinators, served as our gracious hostesses. A good time was had by all, despite the mediocre food. I learned my lesson from Wednesday and ordered a hamburger with mixed vegetables, far superior to the pitiful “beef” stew (little beef and lots of potatoes) I ordered on that occasion.

Eastern shore of Tenaya Lake

Eastern shore of Tenaya Lake

Then it was off to Adrienne’s “Taj Mahal” (her well-appointed RV) for cards. Susan quit while she was ahead to prepare for Day 2 of the Wildflower Tour. As has been the case with all-too-many of our games, Dee won the balance of the contest.

Saturday, July 11

I awoke at 5:30 and decided to check out Tioga Road as far as the Tioga Pass entrance station. Patches of snow lined the road only two miles east of our campsite. I had plans to hike to Gaylor Lakes again, mainly because I had failed to take my iPhone on my last hike. The prospects looked iffy, but I was determined.

I called home around 10am and then drove to the trailhead. The trail was in excellent condition during the first 2/3 of the hike, but then turned muddy and slushy from the snow. At times I was tempted to turn back, but I soldiered on. I’m happy I did. The views from the ridge never disappoint. It’s a “Sound of Music” moment, this time with the bonus of two inches of snow left from a recent six-inch snowfall.

“Sound of Music” view from ridge

I took my time descending the slippery trail and returned to my car. Then I was off to Lee Vining for a cherished telephone call to my daughter and lunch at the Mobil. As I finished my feast, I noticed storm clouds brewing over Tioga Crest. So, off again. The rain was off and on, but ended before I reached Tuolumne Meadows. Off to the showers before another gathering of the volunteers, this time with the welcome addition of our Yosemite Conservancy young marrieds, David and Holly.

Dee once again hosted the potluck dinner, which included matzos ball soup, two types of lasagna, and sponge cake. I haven’t had access to scales while here, so I’ll be curious how much weight I’ve gained.

This is the last night in my “Holiday Inn” tent. Cassie and I agreed to a price and she will make far better use of it than I ever would. She is a “camping type of girl.” But I will miss the REI Kingdom 4 tent. With sufficient headroom for me to walk around without bending, it has served as a welcome substitute to my 2-person backpacker tent. My cot and topper are reasonably comfortable and my 20-degree sleeping bag has kept me comfortably warm. Not bad digs if you can live without heat and an adjacent bathroom (and at 90 yards away, the cold-water-only restroom is anything but adjacent), something I don’t expect to experience again any time soon. As I watch the cold air fog before me, it’s time to turn in.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: When Summer Turned to Winter

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Wednesday, July 8

For Mark Twain, his coldest winter was San Francisco in July. This evening, as I watch my breath fog up before my eyes, my coldest winter has the makings of being a July spent in Tuolumne Meadows. Two major hailstorms struck today, one ten minutes west at Tenaya Lake and the other twenty minutes east at Tioga Pass and Saddlebag Lake. The hail storm at Tioga Pass included several inches of snow. Cars entering the park from that direction were blanketed in snow.

Patches of snow along Tioga Road

Patches of snow along Tioga Road

The day began calmly enough. When I ate breakfast at Tenaya Lake at 7:00, I actually had to remove a jacket and the sun beat warmly on my cheeks. At 7:30, the car dashboard registered 51 degrees as I made my way back to the campground to change before heading to the Visitors Center with Cassie for my 10am-4pm shift. The meteorologist had nailed it. I could expect a day in the low 60’s.

But my expectations were dashed as the thermometer dropped. By 11am, the temperature had fallen to the low 40’s. Cassie and I took turns at the outdoor booth so each of us could take a turn inside the Visitors Center for warmth. By the end of our shift, we were ready to add several layers of clothing.

At 5:00, all of the volunteers headed to Tuolumne Lodge Dining Room for dinner together. I had not dined there for over 10 years, but the meal rekindled memories, some fond, some not. The dining room sits next to Dana Creek. When the creek flows at its fastest, as it did after a day of storms, the cataracts soothe any troubled soul. But the service was slow and the fare mediocre and overpriced.

The contingent at our family style table included two women from Sacramento. They said their husbands preferred the comforts of their pristine homes to the beauty of nature witnessed only by trudging down dusty trails.

Back to the weather. The forecast is for nighttime temperatures below freezing with tomorrow night’s low reaching 27 degrees. Tomorrow, I head to Olmsted Point for my last volunteer duty at that site. If it’s windy, it will be very, very cold. I had expected my tour of duty to end with warmer weather, but the mountains have a way of casting aside foolish human assumptions. I’ll update the actual weather in my next segment.

Thursday, July 9

No appearance at Olmsted Point today. At 6:30 a.m., I woke up to the drum roll of heavy rain on my tent. I gathered my shaving kit and headed to the Rangers facilities to brush my teeth and shave. The temperature gauge on my rental car registered an outside temperature of 41 degrees. I’ve not had eggs my entire stay, and I craved a breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, so I drove to the Tuolumne Grill with my Delaware North Corp. (DNC) 50% discount card in hand. Each sandwich is priced at $6.75 and I was willing to pay that amount for two, but not for one.

The cold rain had driven the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail backpackers inside the Grill and the neighboring store. I waited in line 15 minutes only to be told that DNC had changed its policy again and would not give a 50% discount to Yosemite Conservancy volunteers. “That’s ridiculous,” I said – at least the third time I had run into this obfuscation. As much as I craved the egg biscuits, I wasn’t about to fork over money to this motley crew.

I drove back to the campground to check on other people’s plans. Dee and Cassie still planned to hike from Tioga Road to the Valley and return on the afternoon bus. Cyndi had left for a two-night stay in San Francisco. Susan said she would think about driving to the Valley later. Woodlee was game to ride to the Valley with me. None of us wanted to be stuck in our tents all day during what promised to be a long-lasting rain shower.

On our drive to the Valley, we saw patches of snow on both sides of Tioga Road. After heading south from Crane Flat, the temperatures rose with the drop in elevation, as did our dispositions. By the time we reached the Valley, the temperature had risen to the mid-50’s. The Valley looked much more promising than the High Sierra.

Yosemite Falls after the storms

Yosemite Falls after the storms

Our first destination was the Food Court near Yosemite Lodge. We bought eggs, sausage, and toast. To our delight, the cashier honored our DNC discount card. After savoring the first eggs I had eaten in five weeks, we walked to the Village Store and the Ansel Adams Gallery to survey possible mementos. Then we were off to Yosemite Falls – respectable with the help of the mountain rains and snow but not spring time powerful. Then it was time for lunch, so we walked 1.5 miles to the Ahwahnee Hotel Bar. The grand old hotel is arguably the most beautiful in America’s national parks. It was completed in 1927 and is constructed primarily of granite, concrete and steel to protect it in the event of forest fires.

Back to the bar. We waited about 30 minutes before being seated at an outdoor table. Of course the rain began as soon as we ordered, but we were under the protection of an umbrella. The food was pricey, but excellent, the latter quality a rarity in the park eateries.

We decided we had seen enough of the Valley, so we caught the shuttle bus to the stop nearest the parking area, and headed toward Tuolumne. Woodlee soon fell asleep. A light rain fell as we headed north to Crane Flat and turned torrential once I turned east on Tioga Road. Hail joined the rain as the road at times appeared ready to flood. At one point, what appeared to be a 30-foot-wide creek flooded across the road. Heavy rains brought rock debris onto the road, a constant threat to blowing out a tire. Woodlee awoke after I drove through the worst of it.

We returned to Tuolumne after 6:00 and made phone calls to the near and dear. The temperature was 41 degrees. I later joined Susan and Gary (here for a wildflower tour) for hot chocolate at Tuolumne Lodge. The good company and the warmth of a wood-burning stove provided a welcome diversion to isolation in my tent during a rain shower. The threat of snow is in the forecast, but as I write this entry at 10pm, the rains have tapered off and I hope the snow stays away. I’ll see in the morning.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: A Pleasant Day at Parsons Lodge

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

July 7, 2015

View east from Parsons Lodge

View east from Parsons Lodge

Only nine more days before I leave for home. Today, I headed to Parsons Lodge, a very pleasant stone and lodgepole pine structure built by the Sierra Club in 1915 near Soda Springs. However, the number of visitors is usually small compared to the other volunteer stations, so the day sometimes drags there.

Today was quite different. With almost 200 visitors, I found myself answering questions almost all day long. Visitors included a family from Charlotte, NC. It’s always good to see people who remind me of home. I encountered my first visitors from Israel and South Africa. They were a pleasant treat.

The highlight of the day came with a family that included a very young Junior Ranger. He was excited about almost everything, including a toad that had managed to hop on a window shutter and a marmot on a nearby stack of rocks. But the young Ranger’s really big moment came when a Ranger (Fred) rode up the trail on his horse King. The child was truly star struck as Ranger Fred took 10 minutes to engage the young Ranger. I’m sure the child will enjoy the memory for quite some time.

Another view from Parsons Lodge

Another view from Parsons Lodge

After closing up shop, I returned to the campground where four of us decided to head to the Lee Vining Mobil for dinner. As we shared our fare, we all commented on how rapidly our service is coming to a close. While we will miss each other, I think all of us are ready to return to our homes.

Another day in Tuolumne. The temperatures are dropping, with highs in the 60’s today and lows in the 30’s expected tonight. It’s now time to bundle up, slip into the sleeping bag, and hope to ward off the chill. The time here has been wonderful, but I look forward to returning to the comforts of home.

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This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

July 6

Yesterday, after completing the 15-mile Clouds Rest hike, I thought I had the biggest news of the day. Not so.

Susan, a volunteer who has hiked most of Yosemite’s trails, wanted a new challenge. She got one. She had driven down Tioga Road to 395 South and then on a 4-mile rough road to hike the June Lake North Loop. Eager to begin her new adventure, she hit the car lock button on the driver’s side door, hopped out, and shut the door. As the door left her finger tips, she suddenly realized she had left her car keys (along with all the important personal possessions she had brought to Yosemite) INSIDE THE CAR. Her new-found adventure proved to be trying to restore the status quo rather than striking out on a new trail.

Susan walked 15 minutes up the trail and met two women, a mother and her daughter, coming off the trail. The women kindly offered to take Susan to the June Lakes Shell station. When Susan got there, she was told the Lee Vining Shell would have to help. That station offers AAA towing service.

When the tow truck arrived, the employee drove Susan to her car. The employee made a valiant effort, but he was unable to open the car. Susan would have to contact Lexus for information on how to access her car.

"Social hour" at the Mobil

“Social hour” at the Mobil

Meanwhile, the employee kindly took Susan to the Lee Vining Mobil, where she expected volunteers to come for dinner. She could catch a ride with them, she said. They always had dinner there every Sunday night. Well, almost every Sunday night. Not this Sunday night.

She then tried phoning two of the volunteers. Good luck with that. Cell phone service in Tuolumne Meadows is spotty at best. Time to put out the hitchhiker’s thumb. Humbled by multiple drivers avoiding eye contact with her, Susan finally caught a ride with the fifth prospect. About 6:30, she dejectedly hobbled into camp with her story.

Her fellow campers’ suggestions focused primarily on breaking one of the windows to gain access. Ultimately, everyone agreed she should try to reach Lexus for assistance. All of us thought she might have to have the car towed to Bishop, CA, or Reno, NV.

Fun times and a rainbow at the Mobil

Fun times and a rainbow at the Mobil

After numerous efforts to reach Lexus, she finally reached a representative who told her she might be able to open the car trunk by pushing a button on the rear bumper. If that did not work, the Reno Lexus dealership, 120 miles away, would have to retrieve the car.

With our fingers crossed, I drove Susan and Woodlee to the Lee Vining Mobil. There, we checked e-mails and cell phone messages before heading to the June Lakes trailhead. Down 395 we went until Susan directed me to the side road leading to the trailhead. I maintained a speed of about 8 mph over the rough road. I did not dare drive any faster.

After about 25 minutes, we finally reached Susan’s car. She approached the rear bumper with a hope and a prayer and VOILA!, the trunk opened. She now had access to all that the day before meant so little to her but now restored her to ready access to the modern world – car keys, credit cards, cash, and prescription medicine.

From there, we hurried back (well, after getting off the 8mph road) to Lee Vining for a celebratory lunch. All was well.

The remainder of the day was pretty uneventful. But restoring Susan’s peace of mind, and her car with the worldly possessions all of us have come to rely on, made for a great day. It’s the type of event that builds cohesion in this talented group of volunteers.

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