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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Ulysses S. Grant and the Mexican War

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the portrayal of the San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War. This week, I return to the Mexican War, to talk about my portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant as a young officer.

Many historians have written about the Mexican War as the training ground for many of the officers who later served in the Civil War – Grant and Kearney for the North; Lee and Stonewall Jackson for the South, just to name a few.

In his memoirs, Grant spoke about the United States’ provocation of the war:

The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. [The United States Army was] sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885), reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, CT, p. 45.

[T]o this day [I] regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

Memoirs, p. 37.

In New Garden, main character Jack Grier serves in Grant’s company. Grant suggests his opinion about the merits of the United States Army’s position in disputed territory in a scene where Grant has invited Sergeant Donovan and Private Grier to his tent to inform Jack that he is about to be promoted to corporal (page 53).

Grant slipped into his tent. A moment later he returned with a whiskey bottle in his hand. He uncorked the bottle. “It looks like you brought cups for the occasion.”

Jack and Donovan stood and extended their tin cups. Grant filled both of them and then his own. “Congratulations, Corporal Grier. I expect a lot from you. You’ll get your stripe in the morning, in front of the men.”

“Thank you, sir.”

As the men sipped their whiskey, Grant lowered his guard. “Where are we, Grier, the United States or Mexico?”

“Well, sir, the Texans say we’re in Texas, but the Mexicans say otherwise.”

“But what do you say?”

“I say we’re where we’ve been ordered to go, sir. I figure the United States and Mexican governments will work out their border issues.”

“But, Grier, don’t you find it a little peculiar that our ‘Army of Occupation’ was ordered to establish our base in disputed territory?”

“I’m just following orders, sir.”

Grant also spoke about the quality of the Mexican army.

The Mexicans have shown a patriotism which it would be well if we would imitate in part, but with more regard to truth. They celebrate the anniversaries of Chapultepec and Molino del Rey as of very great victories. **** At these two battles, while the United States troops were victorious, it was at very great sacrifice of life compared with what the Mexicans suffered. The Mexicans, as on many other occasions, stood up as well as any troops ever did. The trouble seemed to be the lack of experience among the officers….

Memoirs, p. 102.

I depict the Mexican soldier’s frustration with the lack of success on the battlefield [New Garden, p. 61]:

Private Jorge knelt for morning prayers. The day before he was certain his fellow Mexicans would rout the Yankee invaders. “What went wrong? I stood my ground, as did my fellow soldiers. We closed ranks after the hellacious cannon fire from the Americans. Why did our commandante not provide cannon adequate to mow down the proud Americans? Why did our officers lack the knowledge and skill to lead our brave soldiers to victory?”

In just a few pages, the reader receives a hint that Grant has misgivings about the war and that the Mexican soldiers do not lack for courage. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

 

 

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The San Patricio Battalion

This is the third in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. This week, I turn to the Mexican War, more specifically, to the San Patricio Battalion.

Military recruiting has not changed dramatically since the 1840’s. Recruiters then and recruiters now have their greatest success among the poor. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the eve of war with Mexico, German and Irish immigrants made up roughly forty percent of America’s regular army. In turn, the Mexican officers actively recruited those men to switch sides.

Among the characters in New Garden is main character Jack Grier’s NCO, Sergeant Donovan, an Irish immigrant. American troops are encamped across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros in March, 1846. A chapter captioned “The San Patricio Battalion” (57-58), portrays Donovan’s dilemma and the choice made by him and other immigrant soldiers.

The next morning Donovan obtained permission to attend mass at a Catholic church in Matamoros. He discreetly packed most of his valuables in the event he chose not to return.

Donovan did not object to fighting Seminoles or Apaches, but he was less enamored with making war on fellow Catholics. He had observed the priests mingle among the Mexican troops. He had heard the American officers question their orders to march south of the Nueces River into disputed territory. The Irish made up 24 percent of the American troops. Many of them shared Donovan’s doubts.

Mass and communion settled Donovan’s dilemma. Kneeling in church, absorbing the Latin litany, inhaling the incense, receiving Holy Communion, Donovan felt Catholic once again. After the service two Mexican officers approached him. Other American soldiers were also approached by Mexican officers. The Mexicans offered them incentives to leave the United States Army for the Mexican Army. They offered Donovan the rank of major, as well as four hundred acres of land outside Puebla, in the cooler, higher elevations of Mexico.

****The United States behaved like England, bullying its way into the territory of North America’s other democracy. He had left Ireland because of the English. Leaving the United States felt the same. He threw his lot in with the Mexicans.

Over the next eight days more soldiers swam across the Rio Grande. Taylor grew alarmed and issued orders to fire on any deserter. The sentinels shot several deserters and several others drowned, but over one hundred and thirty men made it across the river. Over the next two years they would serve Mexico in the San Patricio Battalion.

Seventeen months later, the Americans fight the San Patricios at Churubusco. Jack Grier has risen to the rank of sergeant, and now commands the unit previously run by Donovan. Dying in Jack’s arms, Donovan begs Jack to care for his widow, Ileana. Jack’s decision to honor Donovan’s dying wish will have consequences, good and bad, for the rest of Jack’s life.

Time seemed to stand still. Donovan rose behind his improvised barricade and began to fire on Bryan and Chandler. Jack could not move his Paterson revolver fast enough. As Bryan and Chandler fell, Jack emptied his revolver on Donovan. All five shots hit their target.

Hit, but not yet dead, Jack and Gold bent down over Donovan, while the other soldiers tended to their fallen comrades. Donovan held a letter in his left hand, forcing it in Jack’s right.

“Illeana,” he moaned. “Care for her, Jack, please.”

“Who?”

“Ileana, my wife. Puebla. Please, promise.”

Jack tried looking away. “Save your breath, Donovan. We’ll take care of these wounds.”

Struggling to laugh, Donovan coughed up blood. “No, Jack, the wounds are fatal. I don’t want a noose. Ileana. Promise, promise.”

“I promise.”

Two months after Churubusco, thirty of the San Patricios draw their last breath as the American flag is raised at Chapultepec (New Garden, pp. 67-69).

Within minutes thereafter, another American hoisted the United States flag over Chapultepec. This was the hangman’s signal. At Mixcoac, only two miles from Chapultepec and well within sight of the battle, thirty San Patricios stood on makeshift scaffolds constructed on United States Army wagons. They had stood there all morning, their hands and feet bound, ropes around their necks. Once the colors unfurled above Chapultepec, the teamsters ordered the mules foreward. Thirty San Patricios swung in the Mexican sunshine.

In just a few pages, the reader learns about the San Patricios. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Slavery and Women’s Rights in Antebellum America

If you read my blog, you probably are already a rabid history fan. Even if you’re not, you should consider the historical novel, so long as it accurately portrays the history of the period. This is the first of a 12-part series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Let’s begin with New Garden, a Civil War era novel.

The book is largely about two Quaker brothers who make decisions that put themselves at odds with their faith. Jack Grier joins the U.S. Army at the eve of the Mexican War. His brother Richard becomes a lawyer and politician and marries into a slaveholding family. How do those decisions affect them and everyone around them? No matter how much success Richard achieves, he can never get past his father’s obvious favoritism for Jack, even when Jack is on the other side of the country in California.

Slavery is the overwhelming issue of the day. I did not try to convey the meaning of the institution by merely citing statistics and quoting famous politicians of the day. That’s for a history class. I weave the topic along with that of women’s non-existent legal rights in the context of a story. How did slavery and women’s position play out in Southern society?

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Mary Chesnut Source: CivilWar.org

White masters and overseers often took advantage of their power over the women held in bondage. Their children’s legal status was determined by the status of the mother, not by the status of the father. If the mother was free, the child was free. If the mother was a slave, the child was a slave. How did this play out in the Southern household where the children included those who were free – the offspring of the master and his wife – and those were slaves – the offspring of the master and a household servant?

 

The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut (whose husband served as a United States Senator from South Carolina before the Civil War) was highly critical of miscegenation and offered this commentary:

Every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds.

In New Garden Richard Grier’s future father-in-law, Edward McAllister, transfers ownership of Alicia, his daughter by his household servant Annie, to Richard as a wedding gift. Richard is engaged to Alicia’s half-sister, Lydia. McAllister sent both daughters to Canada for an education, but Alicia’s legal status has reverted to that of a slave upon her return to North Carolina. The following is an excerpt (183-184) in which Annie and Alicia discuss her plight.

“You say you think he’s giving me to Richard? No, Mama, he wouldn’t do that. He might give me to Lydia, but not to her husband. Why would he do that?”

“Now, Alicia, we’ve talked about that. Giving you to Miss Lydia would make no difference at all. You’d belong to Mr. Grier anyway. Even I know that about the law. You seen the other slave owners. Most of ‘em have at least one colored girl to keep ‘em warm when the wife’s not willing or able. I figure you going to be that girl for Mr. Grier.”

Alicia shuddered, then said in a soft, weepy voice. “Mama, I don’t think Lydia would allow it.”

“Miss Lydia about to get a big-time lesson on how things are. White women got no rights once they say the ‘I do’s.’ After that they do whatever the husband tells them, just like us. Better not back talk neither. You seen Old Man Hoskins and all the colored folks in his house. Most of them’s his children. Old Miz Hoskins has to grin and bear it. Better act like she don’t know what’s going on.”

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns how the peculiar institution actually played out in the southern household of slave owners. The passage should tug at the heartstrings of anyone.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

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The Union Pacific Railroad’s Oakes and Oliver Ames

When Collis P. Huntington, Eastern Agent and Vice President of the Central Pacific, found himself at a very low point in 1863 – when he could not raise funds to buy iron and other railroad hardware because the money men saw easier money to be made in war profiteering – a prior business relationship during the Gold Rush proved to be his salvation. Huntington & Hopkins Hardware had bought thousands of shovels from the Ames family’s New England factory for California gold prospectors and had always paid on time. After some consideration, Oliver Ames, Jr. agreed to make the loan on the condition that Huntington guarantee the interest payments. He also provided letters of introduction to eastern manufacturers of rails and locomotives. Huntington leveraged the loan to buy the rolling stock, rails, and other hardware the Central Pacific needed to get started.

The Ames brothers had pulled Huntington’s fat out of the fire, not as an act of charity, but because Oliver Ames could see additional demand coming from a successful railroad. Ames could not have foreseen, however, that he ultimately would become Huntington’s competitor in the race across the continent. And, in that race, the era of good feelings sometimes turned acrimonious.

Oliver and Oakes Ames had made a fortune during the California Gold Rush and added to that fortune supplying materials to the Union Army during the Civil War. With their cups running over, they made the unfortunate decision of joining Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific railroad enterprise. Republican Oakes won a seat in the House of Representatives and an all-important appointment to the House Committee on Railroads. Oliver secured a seat on the Union Pacific’s board of directors and ultimately served as president pro tempore from 1866 to 1868. He was formally elected as the company’s president in 1868 and continued in that role until 1871.

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Oliver Ames

They should have known better. But just as investors have pursued every venture related to computers and the internet in the past 25 years, investors wanted everything related to railroads in mid-19th century America. And what siren song beckoned more loudly than building the country’s first transcontinental railroad? Had the Ames brothers done their due diligence, they would have known Thomas Durant was a man from whom they should keep their distance.

Unlike the Associates of the Central Pacific, who largely cooperated in their venture and by all accounts appeared to endeavor to build a solid railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, company vice president Durant continuously created controversy. For him, the building of the railroad was the thing. Through his construction contracting company, Credit Mobilier, he sought to extract as much money as possible from the building of the railroad. Credit Mobilier, obstensibly an entity separate and apart from the Union Pacific but in reality a different shell with the same owners, overstated expenses. The bills were passed on to the U.S. Treasury and to Union Pacific shareholders. Of course, the entire enterprise included Oakes Ames bribing Congressmen and Senators with Credit Mobilier stock, selling to them well below market. (The Central Pacific was equally guilty of lining legislators’ pockets.) Sucked into Durant’s scheme (perhaps as much by greed as by exasperation), the Ames brothers came to regret their association with him. The New York newspaper, The Sun, broke the story during the 1872 Presidential campaign. Congress later censured Oakes Ames and one Democrat. The Union Pacific slid into bankruptcy.

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Oakes Ames

Back to that much needed loan. As the competing railroad companies crossed the Utah line, each wanted to extend its line as far as possible. This inevitably led to confrontation, with Huntington having no regard for prior good feelings. In one instance, Oakes Ames offered to split the difference between the two railroads’ progress. Huntington blared “I’ll see you damned first.” (Lavender, The Great Persuader, p. 238). Each man threatened to sue the other. Their minions in Congress leveled charges against their masters’ opponents. In the end, the threat of Congressional investigation brought both Huntington and Ames to their senses, thereby paving the way for the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point. Thomas Durant certainly made the journey an interesting one.

SOURCES:

  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/tcrr-ames

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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.

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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.

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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.

SOURCES:

  • 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.
  • Website: http://syrianrefugees.eu.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: July 4 Weekend

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.

Friday, July 3

The onslaught began long before this weekend, but Independence Day Weekend saw the dam burst. It began quietly enough. On Friday, July 3, I handled Olmsted Point. The highlights were seeing a couple from Charlotte and a UVA family (parents are UVA alumni and the children have either graduated from UVA or currently attend).

Every available parking space along Tioga Road between Olmsted Point and the Visitor Center (about 8 miles) looked occupied by 2:00. Driving down the road, one has to be prepared for a driver overwhelmed by a photo op – car doors fly open, the driver or passenger oblivious to oncoming traffic in hot pursuit of the perfect picture. Beautiful lakes and granite domes have a way of throwing the human thought process completely out of kilter.

After my shift I headed to the Tuolumne Grill with visions of a soft ice cream swirl cone dancing in my head. It was not to be. The order line extended fifteen people outside the entrance. I had laundry to do, so I opted for an ice cream bar from the general store. After polishing off “lunch,” I gathered my laundry and headed for the washers and dryers on Bug Camp Road. Both washers were available, much to my delight. It’s the small things that bring joy when you are away from the conveniences of home.

While the washing machines filled and grunted in response to the 10-day loads, I called the home front to catch up on the most recent news. That lasted a full wash cycle and half of the drying time. Soon I was back to the campground with a load of clean “outdoor scent” clothes. My laundry detergent had to stick with this summer’s overall theme.

I attended a ranger talk and performance after my ten-minute meal of ham, crackers, fruit, and cookies. The ranger is an accomplished flutist, having performed with the Santa Monica Symphony. Her love for the park and the planet shone through as members of the audience read quotes from American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts about the tremendous personal impact they experienced while viewing Earth from space. Ours is a fragile planet, with no evidence of a similar life-sustaining planet nearby. The quotes and the music should make any listener give greater thought to our good fortune and our obligation to preserve a healthy planet for the generations that follow us.

Now it’s off to bed with three free days ahead of me. I plan to hike Clouds Rest on Sunday. I hope my 63 year old bones and muscles are up to the challenge.

Saturday, July 4

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

Happy Independence Day. Well, not quite three days off. I filled in for another volunteer whose friend had come to visit. Once again, I headed to Olmsted Point.

During my previous work days at Olmsted, several visitors unsuccessfully tried taking a photograph through the telescope. Today, one young man succeeded in doing so. I seized the moment and the young man did the same for my iPhone as well as for several other visitors. It was nice to be on the receiving end of a kind gesture.

Rain was in the forecast, but was limited to threatening storm clouds and a few minutes of drizzle. The real storm came in Yosemite Valley where traffic became so overwhelming that the Rangers had to turn away any visitors who did not have lodging reservations.

Like the day before, traffic was heavy on Tioga Road. The scene at Tenaya Lake looked like Myrtle Beach during high season. I hope the tourists treated the shoreline gently, taking away their sandwich wrappers and empty soda cans.

At the Visitors Center, tourists were overwhelming the Rangers. Whenever a tourist asks how to see all of the Park’s world-famous features in the next three hours, I try to remember my first visit when I could not believe a 45-mile drive can take 90 minutes. These are mountain roads, and on a holiday weekend, very crowded mountains roads. There are no interstates with 65 miles per hour speed limits.

Upon completing my duties, I showered and did some grocery shopping at the general store. One of the volunteers had organized a pot luck dinner and my humble contribution was a container of pine nut hummus. The ladies graciously accepted the fare, but probably wondered why I could not do more. (I have not cooked a meal during my entire period of service. Meal preparation is limited to preparing sandwiches and adding lukewarm water to oatmeal.)

The potluck dinner included chips and dips, a quiche, pasta, salads, and dessert. Conversation was warm and laughter constant. The meal was followed by several friendly games. Our group has learned and accepted one another’s idiosyncrasies, and we all appreciate the talents each of us brings to the team. It was a wonderful, warm gathering, enhanced by the charm of two volunteers’ guests. One is a young French engineering student who is working in the United States for six months as part of his collegiate requirements. The other is a sweet young woman who is the lifelong friend of one of the volunteers.

It’s time to get to bed so I can rise early for a 15-mile hike to Clouds Rest. I’ll report on that experience tomorrow.

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View of section of Half Dome from Clouds Rest

Sunday, July 5

Occasionally it’s good to test your physical limits. Today I tested mine. The longest hike I had taken so far was the Mono Pass trail, a little less than eight miles. Clouds Rest, counting the distance to the trail head, is about 15 miles. On the recommendation of my colleagues, I left the hiking boots behind and used my sneakers instead, thus giving my heels a fighting chance.

For those unacquainted with hiking in the Sierra Nevada, you should not equate hiking trail distances with walking through your neighborhood or time spent on the treadmill. Grades vary and the hiker is constantly avoiding rocks and roots on the trail or sometimes using them like stair steps. I had hiked Clouds Rest twice before, most recently 10 years ago. I remembered much of the terrain but had forgotten that about 1 1/2 miles of the early section of the trail are all switchbacks and much of that section is little more than a rock-strewn gully. Average hiking time on mountain trails is 2 miles per hour. On this section of the trail, the time extends to one mile per hour.

And while Clouds Rest is 1700 feet above the elevation of the trailhead, there is a lot of up and down, making the hike seem more like a 2500 foot elevation gain.

Those are the challenges. Now for the positives. Today proved prime time for Yosemite’s wildflowers. Indian paintbrush, showy lupine, and California corn lily – just to mention a few – were in full bloom. And the views once I climbed Clouds Rest? In one direction Yosemite Valley lay out before me. In other directions, I could see all the major features of the High Sierra. Tenaya Lake, where I began my hike, looked like a tiny blue speck in the distance (And, of course, I had to return to that tiny blue speck over seven miles away to conclude my hike.).

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Wildflowers on Clouds Rest trail

That 1 1/2 mile section of trail alluded to earlier proved extremely challenging to my cartilage depleted knees, particularly the part where my size 13 feet had to handle treads meant for size sixes. Nevertheless, I finished the hike around 4:30 in the afternoon and planned to reward my achievement with fine dining at the Mobil after a hot shower. But time ran late and no one else wanted to go, so I satisfied myself with deli food. Tonight, every muscle and bone in my body aches. Those aches will disappear in a few days and I will be able to count another challenging but wonderful Yosemite memory.

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