NEW BETHLEHEM LIVING HISTORY MUSEUM

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be: now it is infused with selective memories and applied to politics. This work of fiction explores a way of returning to the past, a past that I experienced in real time. It is filled with the details of the 1950s that some may remember and others will find entirely strange and foreign. The photograph here is of my mother, with me and my brother, taken in the mid-1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.

I first read about a new project some two years ago, during the height of President Trump’s sway over nearly half of Americans. Two Republican billionaires got together one evening for a steak dinner; over martinis they brainstormed ways to take America back to the values of the 1950s, as they fondly remembered their favorite decade.

Adam Friedman and William Rand were both born in the early 1950s, and raised by loving and wealthy families through the 1950s and 1960s. Both went to Yale, followed by Harvard Business School. After early dalliances with left wing ideas in their college years, both became fanatically loyal to the ideas of President Ronald Reagan, and they never looked back. Well, they did look back to their favorite decade: the 1950s, as did Reagan. They fervently believed in the idea of the self-made man, and considered themselves among the most successful of that genre. Let’s listen in to their conversation.

William Rand said “As you know, I have long been disturbed by America’s socialist drift. The idea of a federal minimum wage is disgusting; people should be paid what they’re worth. And don’t get me started on government regulations; you can’t believe the hoops my bank has to jump through to set up secret bank accounts for some of our friends. I just wish we could bring back the 1950s, before the age of government interference in our lives and when communists were kicked out on their ears.”

Adam Friedman replied “You’re right. We’ve tried for years to appropriately blame the government for all our problems, but people seem to love their Social Security and Medicare, so socialism is deeply engrained.”

Rand said “I would love to somehow educate children in the American Way much earlier, like they did back in the ‘50s. We turned out okay. 

Friedman said “My grandmother found a way in her generation to instill traditional values. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution back in the day, and she gave a couple of million to found a living history farm in the Berkshires. She had visited Colonial Williamsburg and loved it, and wanted to take the idea of living history into the late 1900s, a time she felt was a high point for America and when my family first made its fortune.”

Smiling, Rand responded “What did she find so enchanting about the era of outhouses and horses?”

Chuckling, Friedman replied “I’m quite sure she wasn’t thinking about the inconveniences, but she loved the lack of regulations from that era. People just seemed more independent and stalwart back then. But the point was, she invested her money in a project that pointed average Americans back to a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” time.”

Rand replied “Well, I never understood how bootstraps could pull up a man, but I catch your drift. I just wish we could return to the postwar period, when everyone in America knew their place. American manufacturing and style was the envy of the world and Americans were optimistic about the future.”

Friedman said “Yeah, I wish Americans were as grateful today for what we’ve given them.” 

Rand said “This is a stretch, but I wonder if your grandmother’s living history idea could be applied to the 1950s? I mean, could a living history museum be set up that would give people a sense of what it was like to live in the ‘50s?” 

Friedman said “Interesting idea. I’m betting that it could …”

And so, an idea was born. Adam Friedman and William Rand went on to form a partnership in philanthropy, or so it seemed. They hired a prominent museum consultant to brainstorm ideas for the 1950s living history project and to develop a business plan and a list of locations. Oh, and to tell the billionaires that it would cost approximately $95 million to get it off the ground. Smith and Rand initially balked at the cost, until the consultant told them that a survey showed that people would be willing to pay a high admission fee for a week-long residency in the community. Bottom line: it could work as a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit, and the investors could potentially profit handsomely, especially with a tie-in to a feel-good television series and potential movie deals based upon the values of the new community.

During the next three years, after sifting through locations throughout the East and Midwest and studying market surveys, the new corporation picked out a beautiful spread of rolling hills outside of New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not all that far from Pittsburg so people could fly in easily, and which had a perfect Christian name for the project. The county readily agreed to an infusion of money and tourism, so it put the development on a fast track. These businessmen knew how to get things done quickly, so the land was surveyed and development began within months.

For the first phase of the development, 62 homes were designed in what was to look like a postwar suburban development, with front yards, back yards, garages, driveways, and modest homes with brick or grooved shingle siding. In addition, ten homes, designed to look like farmhouses, were placed among the hills where corn and beans were soon to be grown. A town center, designed to look like a traditional small town in upstate New York or rural Pennsylvania was established, with false front commercial buildings and a town square with a beautiful wooden gazebo. Finally, a traditional wooden church and an early 1950s school building were created to round out the experience.

It is now two years later, and this reporter arranged to tour the now operational living history town with Laura Reagan, the public relations contact who works for the corporation. I had asked for an informative tour after the facility has opened, so I might see families experiencing the living history of the 1950s. Mrs. Reagan turned out to be a young woman who graduated from Michigan’s Hillsdale College about ten years before. She carried herself with the confident self-assurance that comes from being convinced you are on the side of good.

Mrs. Reagan graciously let me tour one home among the few vacancies this week. When we drove up in an electric version of a ’57 Chevy, in turquoise paint, we parked in the driveway and chatted for a few minutes before entering the house. The yard was well kept, and there were cement sidewalks along both sides of the street. Here and there, kids were riding bicycles along the sidewalks, and a touch football game was going on in the yard across the street. The children had come home from school during the lunch period and had an opportunity to play before returning to school. A young couple was strolling, consuming ice cream cones as they walked.

I said “Mrs. Reagan, it is an attractive community, and I’m amazed that you have been so successful in filling it with families so quickly.”

She said “We think there is a deep hunger in America to return to traditional values, and we mostly marketed the New Bethlehem experience through churches in the Midwest and Northeast. We tell parents that this will be a special immersive living history experience, not just a brief tour, so we ask that they stay at least a week for families to get a feel for the rhythm of living in real America.”

Me: “Real America?”

Reagan: “I know that’s a loaded phrase, but we think it represents well the America before the time of WiFi and so many screens, when families dressed up to go to church and children recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, and even prayed as the school day began. It was a time when children were safe to roam outdoors, until Mom or Dad yelled for them to come in and wash up for dinner. It is safe here.”

Me: “As I drove through the gate to the orientation center, I noticed the high fence topped with razor wire.”

Reagan: “Yes, we decided that the temptation for the outside world to invade our safe enclave was too great, so we fenced it to give our visitors peace of mind. There are also armed guards patrolling the perimeter with German Shepards round the clock, as well as a state-of-the-art digital surveillance system. But enough about that, let me show you inside.”

We walked to the front door, which she opened without a key (“Our visitors are good Christians.”), and walked inside.

Reagan gestured toward the furnishings as she spoke: “We have given each of the homes a slightly different look. This one celebrates the atomic age, with its big sunburst wall clock and kidney-shaped coffee table. It is a small, middle class house, one that might have been owned by a life insurance salesman with his stay-at-home wife. Wall-to-wall carpet was still relatively new, and this rose beige tone would go with anything. The curved sectional sofa was a classic. The home was too modest to have a classic Eames Lounge Chair, which would have been appropriate for an executive with modern taste, but was far too expensive for this family.”

A television sat in one corner of the room, facing the curve of the couch. Laura turned it on, and the fuzzy black and white picture played a vintage soap opera, “The Secret Storm.”

Reagan explained: “We have one channel that plays a schedule of 1950s classics, starting with a televised national anthem first thing in the morning, followed by “This is the Life,” a dramatized church series from the 1950s that dealt with family issues of the era. Before school, the kids get to watch Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Green Jeans, a wholesome show for young children.”

Me: “Do you broadcast these shows over the air? I see a rabbit ears antenna atop the television.”

Reagan: “Oh no. One of our accommodations to the current era is using cable technology to bring the old shows into every home with a consistent look, and without the reliance on the 1950s technology that required so much maintenance by so many people. This is all automated to keep our corporate personnel cost as low as possible.”

I look back at the rounded screen of the TV, set inside its futuristic rounded metal case. “What other shows do you offer?”

Reagan: “We have a series of soap operas for the housewife to enjoy, including “The Secret Storm” and “The Guiding Light,” which are followed in the afternoon by “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” which was a variety and talk show. After the evening news, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, we have a variety of family-oriented programs. “Leave it to Beaver,” of course, is a favorite. “Lassie” is wonderful. “I Love Lucy,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “The Lone Ranger” are popular, as are the full lineup of westerns. “Davy Crockett” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” are especially popular with the kids, according to our surveillance of what families are watching. Of course, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with the Lennon Sisters and the bubble machine, is always a fun variety show. But we don’t encourage families to spend all their time watching television because there is so much fun to be had outdoors playing croquet and badminton in the back yard.”

She next guided me toward the kitchen, which was compact and efficient and featured a gleaming white rounded refrigerator and electric range. The countertops were pink formica with little green and yellow boomerang shapes for decoration. The floor was linoleum in a subdued pink, with a texture that looked a bit like terrazzo. The dinette set was classic, with its bright chrome legs and red formica top. It looked durable and easy to clean, and stylish enough in a retro way for any era.

Me: “What do people eat?”

Reagan: “That’s everyone’s first concern when they think about coming here. We have a week’s worth of food available for each family in the cupboards and in the fridge and freezer, as well as a book of recipes to guide the housewife on how to cook the classics. Breakfasts aren’t all that different from what people are used to, with cereal and toast and eggs and bacon and orange juice. For school lunches, the kids take peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with some Oreo cookies and a classic Delicious apple. They get fresh milk at school. Supper is when food becomes quite different from what people are used to, and there are no McDonalds or Burger King restaurants nearby for people to go to. Even if there were, that would be cheating because there weren’t many fast food franchises in the 1950s.”

She continued: “Our time-tested dinners include a series of classic meals:

Tuna Noodle Casserole with canned tuna, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, grated American cheese, and a topping of crushed potato chips. It is delicious. We combine it with a simple green salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumbers and radishes, topped with French dressing.

Another favorite is Meatloaf, made with ground beef and a filler of breadcrumbs. This may be the favorite dinner for people of all ages, because it is classic comfort food that never goes out of style.

In the freezer we have a good selection of Swanson TV Dinners, including Turkey & Gravy and Salisbury Steak. Each comes with side dishes of mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as mixed vegetables and a healthy dessert of stewed apples. Everyone loves the classic aluminum trays.

Ambrosia is a special favorite, with its mix of canned mandarin orange slices, coconut, miniature marshmallows, and maraschino cherries, topped with Cool Whip.

Jello molds are available, of course, for combining Jello with cottage cheese, celery, oranges, and canned crushed pineapple. Many current cooks have never made Jello, but with our instructions it is easy as pie.

Other foods available to our residents include Spam and fish sticks. Oh, and lots of canned vegetables. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried canned asparagus topped with melted Velveeta.”

Me: “That’s certainly different from what I’m used to.”

Reagan: “That’s the point. We want to take people out of their immediate comfort zone and take them back to the comfort era, when food was manufactured in clean, well-lit factories.”

Me: “What can parents do after dinner to keep the kids entertained?”

Reagan: “Let me show you the closet in the den.”

She opened the closet door and there was a tall stack of jigsaw puzzles and board games. The puzzles included some classic scenes, such as a snowy New England village and a British thatched cottage reflected in a farm pond. There were also puzzles based upon popular television shows, including one of a red-jacketed Canadian Mountie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his sled dog and horse Rex. There was another of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and several others based upon classic westerns.

Me: “Where did you get all these old puzzles?”

Reagan: “Oh, they’re not really old. They are based upon original puzzles, but we had them specially made in quantity for our New Bethlehem homes.”

There is also a stack of board games, including Scrabble–always great for adults and teens. Monopoly, of course, is the classic board game that teaches the wonderful theme that “greed is good,” and is what powers America. 

Reagan said: “Our guests also enjoy Clue, with its murder mystery theme set in an English country tudor mansion. It reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel, with half-a-dozen suspects that include Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and Professor Plum. The murder weapons are really cool; a little pewter candlestick and dagger and lead pipe. Everyone loves that game.”

There was also a stack of toys for children that encouraged use of the imagination.

Reagan saw me looking through the stack of toys and said “Did you know that Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright–the great architect’s son?”

Me: “No, but I’m not surprised; architecture must have been in the genes. Without their electronic games, do these imaginative toys engage today’s children?”

Reagan: “We have found them to be timeless, crossing the generations. That’s why we provide Mr. Potato Head–with potatoes available in the pantry–and an Erector Set, Pick-up Sticks, and Tinker Toys. For the youngest children we have a bag of maple blocks that they use to create buildings and bridges and boats.”

Other toys included Hula Hoops, Matchbox Cars, Play-Doh, a Doctor and Nurse Kit, and various dolls–but no Barbie Dolls.

Me: “Barbie seems to be conspicuously absent.”

Reagan: “Barbie wasn’t marketed until 1959, so we think it really belongs to the 1960s. Besides, we chose to have more wholesome dolls; Barbie has a sexual edge to her that many conservative parents object to.”

Closing the closet, Reagan pointed to a record player with a shelf of records.

She said “We also have a great Crosley record player.”

Me: “I saw that. And your shelf of vinyl is well-stocked with 12” LPs.”

I thumbed through them: Frank Sinatra, Patty Page, Big Crosby, Perry Como, Pat Boone, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Me: “Hey, you’ve even got Tony Bennett! I can’t believe he is still making records 70 years later!”

Me: “But I don’t see any early rock & roll. Shouldn’t there be some Elvis or Chuck Berry?”

Reagan: “We don’t stock rock & roll from the ‘50s. Our founders think that rock & roll was driven by sex and drugs, so we ended our music list just prior to that era. We think it makes for a more wholesome experience.”

Me: “But can’t people bring in their own soundtracks on an iPhone?”

Reagan: “Not really. Part of the agreement in coming to a living history community is that they have to leave behind the entertainment from the modern era, and almost everyone seems to obey. It helps that we paid to remove a nearby cell tower, so there is no phone reception. There is no WiFi, so people don’t need to keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We have a boy deliver a daily newspaper to each family daily. It’s filled with wholesome stories from here and the outside world, and kids love the funny pages, with Popeye and Blondie and Mary Worth and all the other great ‘50s strips. It’s called the New Bethlehem News.”

Me: “What about clothing? The people out on the street don’t exactly dress like they do 70 years later.”

Reagan: “We want to give them the whole experience, so we have a “clothing shop” as part of the orientation center where they can pick out appropriate dresses, trousers, and shirts; these are returned at the end of the experience. They bring their own socks and underwear, of course. Everyone LOVES getting into costume for their week here. Tell you what, why don’t we drive to the school where you can see the children in class.”

We walked outside into the bright spring sunshine, got into the Chevy, and drove the three blocks to the school.

Me: “I don’t see many other cars.”

Reagan: “We had extensive discussions about cars, since the 1950s were such a car-loving decade. In the end, we decided that the community is small enough that we didn’t need to issue each family a car, though they can borrow one for a few hours just to have the experience.”

When we reached the school, we parked in a small parking lot next to a Studebaker and a Nash Cosmopolitan.”

Reagan: “Those are the teachers’ cars. We wanted just enough cars in the community to give it a period feel.”

The school itself was a miniature version of what a suburban school would have been like in the 1950s, with banks of big windows, a flat roof, and easy access directly outside. On the school grounds, there were teeter-totters, a jungle gym with hard soil underneath, and a merry-go-round spinning a mile a minute with happy and terrified kids, some being thrown off by centrifugal force. It was recess, and there were probably 50 kids playing on the school grounds, many involved in a game of kickball on the school’s baseball diamond. Good times.

I asked Reagan what the children learned in the school.

She said “We don’t have a lot of time with them, about six hours a day for four-and-a-half days, so we mostly try to balance their schooling in their regular lives with a more traditional viewpoint. The children in elementary school get an introduction to cursive writing, and a lot of practice writing short essays about what they love in America. They also learn lessons about diverse American heroes, especially George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, explaining all the good things they did for our nation. There are also daily Bible lessons and a morning prayer.”

She continued “The secondary students start the morning in a similar way, with prayer and Bible study, but the subjects are different. We examine the great issues of the 20th and 21st centuries in economic terms, explaining how the socialism promoted by FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama has made life far worse for American families by giving them too many unearned benefits. This has robbed people of an incentive to work hard.”

Me: “Do you teach science at all?”

Reagan: “We do, although we have limited time, so our emphasis is on the issues surrounding science. We discuss the issues of evolution, climate change, viruses, and killing babies through a lens of morality and truth.”

Me: “Isn’t that kind of one-sided?”

Reagan: “Our founders feel strongly that Americans have been led astray by fake science, so we see it as our job to be a countervailing force. That is our essential mission, and one that we extend to adult classes here. Why don’t we take a bit of time and go downtown; that’s where we have a good bookstore, a soda fountain, and a movie theatre that plays classic American movies every night. And that’s where the meeting places for adults are.”

Me: “Sounds great. I could use a chocolate malt.”

Our drive downtown was short, only about six blocks, but I was impressed by the traditional look of Main Street. It had all the hallmarks of a traditional American town of our collective memory, with gas lights, brick two story buildings with welcoming storefronts, and a feeling of complete safety. By the time we left the soda fountain, school was out and families were walking Main Street together. Some were lined up to see a long double feature of Gone With the Wind and Atlas Shrugged. Tomorrow’s lineup was to be a John Wayne movie marathon.

I glanced into the display window of the bookshop, and wasn’t surprised to see new editions of The Federalist Papers, The Conservative Mind, and leather-bound volumes of the Ayn Rand classics. We stepped into the bookshop, where an adult book club was discussing Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman. I overheard one blond, middle-aged woman earnestly stating that “taxation is theft,” with heads around the book circle nodding in agreement.

Reagan softly said “We think it’s important that people step away from their everyday lives to consider the great issues of our time through a conservative lens.”

Me: “Does it change minds?” 

Reagan: “The people who come for a week are already patriotic Americans, so I think that most of what we do is to reinforce their beliefs and give them talking points based upon the great thinkers. We aren’t necessarily stirring them to direct action, but we give them a sense that there are many others who think as they do. It is absolutely thrilling for a lot of people.”

We quietly left the bookshop and strolled down Main Street, heading back to the Orientation Center.  

Me: “This living history center seems to be really successful.”

Reagan: “Yes, and beyond our wildest dreams. We are almost completely booked by families for the next two years. People have formed online discussion groups based upon their experience here, and some think it’s the beginning of a new grassroots political movement.”

Me: “So, what’s next?” 

Reagan: “Our founders are extremely satisfied with the financial results of the New Bethlehem Living History Experience. We don’t want to make this public quite yet, but they are thinking of expanding the idea to new living history centers in the South, the Great Plains, Arizona, and Idaho, where there are concentrated numbers of patriots. It’s looking good.”

Me: “Thank you so much for showing me around. You’ve given me a lot to think about on the way back to the Pittsburgh airport.”

Reagan: “It has been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading about your experience here.”

As I left New Bethlehem, I couldn’t shake the idea that this living history experience was like a bizarre version of a Disney theme park. Sure, the 1950s were a decade of explosive economic growth after the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, and it was a fun decade for many, in which the suburbs really came into being and “teenagers” became a thing. People who lived through those years were generally happy with their lives, and even people who had less than a high school education could raise a large family on one salary. The wealthy were with us, of course, but they were heavily taxed and the gap between rich and poor was far smaller than it is now.

It just seems to me that if the founders of New Bethlehem Living History Experience want to go back to the 1950s, they should reexamine the reasons why the ‘50s were so good for so many, instead of dropping a hazy golden myth over that decade.

Note: This story is entirely fictional and is a bit of a strange combination of a political story and details of my life as a young boy. I wanted to juxtapose details of the way people lived in that decade with the yearning among the American right wing to go back to that time and place. But going back is not an option, as everything has changed. Three quotations come to mind: 

“You can’t go home again”  Thomas Wolfe

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”  James Sherman

“You can’t always get what you want”  The Rolling Stones

Times change, and no amount of play acting and indoctrination in a living history experience is going to change that.

The photographs below are ones that my Dad took in the 1950s, or perhaps stretching a couple years into the 1960s. My Dad had served in the South Pacific during World War II; when he returned he married the girl next door, whom he had grown up with, in 1948. I was born in 1950, with my brothers following in 1952 and 1957. It was a happy family. My parents bought a home in Detroit before I was born, and I remember playing outdoors in that neighborhood until 1955, when they moved out of Detroit to the suburbs. I lived a life similar to that of the New Bethlehem community, but lived it in real time instead of as an aspirational memory. My parents lived long lives and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

By the way, I grew up with all these toys, all these movies, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, saying prayers in elementary school, playing kickball, and all the rest, and I STILL turned out to be a liberal. Let that sink in.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK: Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout

View from the deck of Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout toward Mount Rainier

When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.

Gobblers Knob Lookout sits atop a rocky promontory with terrific views into Mount Rainier National Park, and back toward the clearcut expanses of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!

Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).

Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!

Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.

Gobblers Knob is no longer staffed during each fire season, and is maintained now for historical reasons rather than fire fighting

When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.

Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.

Sunset reflecting in the Gobblers Knob lookout windows, looking toward Mount Rainier

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.

The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.

The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.

To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.

Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.

The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.

Sunset on Mount Rainier from the lookout; what a wonderful place it would have been to spend the summer!

Subalpine trees silhouetted by the last light of sunset as we started our descent

After dark, we left the lookout and hiked down the trail 1.6 miles back to camp by headlamp; the only spooky moment was seeing the bright green eyeshine of a hiker’s dog looking back at us

On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.

The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.

The tranquil view from our campsite along Goat Lake; that is, until I disturbed the peace with my yelps upon entering the cold morning water!

The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.

Photographs from the trail:

The trail to Gobblers Knob leads past Lake Christine and through subalpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers

White Avalanche Lilies, which melt almost immediately after snowmelt, were the star wildflower attraction here

I have rarely seen wildflowers packed as densely as these spectacular White Avalanche Lilies; avalanche fields forever

Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs are among the big trees in the forest near Goat Lake

The green of Beljica Meadows viewed from Mount Beljica, site of another abandoned lookout that has vanished without a trace into the annals of U.S. Forest Service history

Dark-throated Shooting Star is a spectacular wildflower of these high wet meadows

Magenta Paintbrush blooming along the trail

A close view of White Avalanche Lily

Rare yellow form of the normally red-and-yellow columbine that graces the high forests of Washington State

For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:

Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)

There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

Mendocino on My Mind

A simple seaside cottage in Mendocino, with the blue Pacific distant

I first heard of Mendocino two years after the Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of hippies to San Francisco. In the spring of 1969 I drove west from Michigan in a bright red Opal; I was heading to California for a summer of fighting forest fires. At a campground in Nevada, a friendly fellow camper came up to me and told me all about how he had “dropped out” of society and was currently part of a small theater troupe in Mendocino–a place I had never heard of. He had a hippie van and long hair, and I asked him if he regretted dropping out. He said “Lord no!” and seemed amazed that I would ask the question.

Two years later, my wife-to-be and I went to see a movie in Ann Arbor, where we were in college. The Summer of ’42, a sad and romantic tale about a young woman who lost her sailor husband in World War II, had a character even more beautiful than the star, Jennifer O’Neill, and that was the lovely village of

Rustic fences and open meadows characterize the bluffs here

Mendocino. Perched on cliffs above the blue Pacific, with flowery meadows, weathered picket fences, and lovely old wooden homes, the town seemed like the perfect American village–the kind of small town we admire in our collective imagination.

During the summer of 1973, my young wife and I went to California, where we spent a five month summer camped under soaring Douglas Firs, with me fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During some days off, we took a trip to Mendocino and had a chance to experience this lovely village first-hand. We didn’t realize it until then, but Mendocino had been something of an artists’ colony since the 1950s, and I remember buying a piece of earthy stoneware that was innovative for the time. There was also a bookstore that had lots of wonderful do-it-yourself manuals inspired by the contents of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was the closest thing to the internet that we had back then. I remember leafing through some books about building your own house, but realizing that I didn’t have any talents for building a house. But plenty of hippies of the time did, and ramshackle houses sprouted along with marijuana crops back among the Redwood groves in the endless ridges and steep valleys of the Klamath Mountains. Those remote wildlands became one of the eminent pot-growing regions of North America, for better or worse. As we drove through the area, I recall singing lyrics from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the footloose wanderers of that era: “If you’re drivin’ east to Reno, or north to Mendocino, I hope you find your rainbow’s end …” (from the 1971 song Cabaret).

I returned to Mendocino while attending college in Utah during 1975. An “Animal Communities” class I was taking, taught by esteemed ecologist Dr. James MacMahon, did transects (straight lines where a biologist records data on plant and animals observed) recording animal life from the shore and out

The beautiful rocks of Mendocino Headlands State Park

into the ocean, so that those of us living in the mountains of Utah could have a sense of the structure of an entirely different kind of animal community. It was fun to see an octopus and sea stars and all the other varied tidepool life. The rocky beaches of Mendocino are incredibly fecund; naturalists can see Gray Whales migrating offshore; Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions basking on rocks; seabirds nesting on the offshore rocks; and all the wonderful invertebrates that occupy the tidepools. I recall driving through town, and it didn’t look like much had changed.

By the late ’80s, established in a career in Upstate New York, I was a long way from Mendocino, but once in a while the little village would show up unexpectedly in the media. Murder, She Wrote was the prime example. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, the mystery series starring Angela Lansbury was actually filmed on the left coast, featuring Mendocino as the fictional Cabot Cove. Since Mendocino was founded by New Englanders, it had that look and feel. Residents of the little town enjoyed the occasional on location filming visits from Ms. Lansbury and Tom Bosley, and sometimes locals were hired as extras for the series. One home that is currently a bed-and-breakfast, Blair House, became Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series.

By the early 1990s, I had switched careers and became a photographer. My photographic travels took me to Mendocino one spring circa 1992, where I was enchanted once again by the early American coastal architecture. By the early

The village is perched on a headland terrace above the Pacific Ocean

1990s, yuppies had displaced hippies, and the town had a different feel. Art galleries were marketing more to people with money, and the gallery scene was big in town. The VW bus I was driving seemed like an anachronism in a place now dominated by Lexus and BMW cars drivien by the tourists. I wandered around town with camera and tripod, thinking again what a lovely place this would be to live if I could afford it, which I couldn’t.

A flowery path and a water tower among the Victorian homes

Nearly 20 years then went by in the blink of an eye, until I next had an opportunity to visit Mendocino. My old VW van had burned in a highway fire years ago, and my hair was grayer and shorter, but I still liked the look of the town–which has remained almost identical through all these years thanks to the officially designated Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which carefully limits what owners can do with their property. In those 20 years, the shops that went from hippie to yuppie had now transformed again. The art galleries were fewer, having been displaced by nail and hair salons, an organic coffee shop, and more higher-end clothing boutiques and jewelry shops–all representing what I’ll call the “California Me” style, in which personal indulgence has become the accepted norm. There are undoubtedly hippies still out in the woods growing pot, and I’m sure that high-tech and banker yuppies

Classic Victorian details and a rustic water tower

who made fortunes during the bubble eras have second homes in the area, but the typical tourist these days is someone with the personal funds to enjoy a lovely bed-and-breakfast, and spend the days visiting wineries and brew-pubs, shopping in boutiques, and enjoying other indulgences. Once again times had changed.

And times will continue to change. I’ll probably return to Mendocino in a decade or so, if I am lucky. What changes in American and Californian society can I expect to see on that next visit? More gray-haired people? Undoubtedly; after all, that is the trajectory of my baby boom cohort. A new dominance of electric cars? A sudden influx of craft whiskey and vodka distillers?  Vast lavender farms to equal those of Provence? State sales of the headlands to developers in order to raise money for California’s beleaguered government? Hopefully not the latter …

Times change; fashions come and go; and some of these changes are reflected in this remote, offbeat village. Fortunately, the look and feel of Mendocino has remained relatively unchanged in the whirlwind of bigger changes that blow through American life. The unchanged look of this charming little village perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is an anchor in the storm of change sweeping America.

Calla Lilies along a picket fence in this quaint village

Main Street in Mendocino is a collection of cute shops

A beautiful home, undoubtedly occupied for over a century

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


CADES COVE: Appalachian Lives in the Past Tense

The windows of the upper floor of the Tipton Place stare back

When Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, over 100 families were living in Cades Cove. This beautiful valley in the mountains was a community of farmers, schoolteachers, blacksmiths, grist millers, and moonshiners; all had to eventually leave with the coming of the national park, abandoning the homesteads where they had built their lives.

The black and white photographs here represent some of the artifacts they left behind. We can only distantly visualize their lives, since life in the early 21st century is so vastly different.  But we can certainly imagine and empathize a bit with their lives: the sense of joy at a bountiful harvest; of grief at the loss of an infant; of wonder at the sight of a rainbow stretching over the high mountains; of walking five miles to school in a snowstorm; or the earthy aroma rising from fresh-plowed fields in April.

Hayloft in the LeQuire Cantilever Barn

As time passes, we collectively give up a great deal; yet we also gain in new and wondrous ways as we plow into an unknown future. Cades Cove reminds us from where our current American civilization arose; what we take back with us after a visit to these antique houses and barns is a renewed wonder at just how far we have come, and so fast. For better and for worse …

Recalling an infant with wonderful words: “Budded on earth to bloom in Heaven.”

Interior of The Primitive Baptist Church

Back porch of the Tipton House

Curtains catching afternoon light at the Gregg-Cable House

Elegant window of the Cades Cove Methodist Church

Ox yoke and log detail at the LeQuire Cantilever Barn

Pews in The Primitive Baptist Church of Cades Cove

Interior of the Tipton House

Window detail in the Tipton House

For more information about the history of Cades Cove, go to this excellent publication of the Great Smoky Mountains Association: Cades Cove Tour.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.


The Ghost of Bodie Past

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The ghost of Bodie occasionally appears in a window..

Please allow me to introduce myself:  my name is Boots McGee.  I was hanged by a mob in Bodie back in 1883.  They broke down the door of the jail, shoved the sheriff aside, and yanked me out of the cell.  Then they carried me kicking and screaming to the headframe for the Red Cloud Mine and used a horse to string me up by the neck.  I died choking and gasping two minutes later.

The thing is, I didn’t shoot Doc Smith that night in the Yellow Dog Tavern.  The real killer was a one-armed man who was good with a gun in his remaining hand, and he shot Doc when everyone else had dived under the tables.  But Doc, with his dying words, said that he saw me with the smoking gun.  If Doc hadn’t delivered so many babies and treated so many liver ailments, people might not have believed him.  But here I was, a down on my luck miner who was drunk on rotgut that night, and someone heard me threaten Doc because he charged me too much for removing a bullet from my butt.  So here I am.

We ghosts don’t really like to hang around; after all, there is a sweet afterlife that we would like to spend eternity in.  But some of us get stuck in a place and time and can’t get out.  It has something to do with the unfairness of the act that killed us.  If only I could turn back time.  But I can’t, so for now I float down from the graveyard on the hill with the cool night air.  If you see my shape in a dark window, or hear a door creak on a still morning when nobody is around, that would be me.  And I’ll probably be here for as long as the last weathered boards remain on the Methodist Church and as long as the last granite headstone remains in the graveyard.

I might as well tell you a bit about my little town.  Gold was discovered in these hills by Waterman S. Bodey back in 1859.  I came in the gold rush that

Bodie sits below the hills where the gold came from..

followed, and staked a claim up in the hills east of town.  I dug some gold early on and made some money, enough that I could visit the taverns every night, Lottie’s house of red lights on Saturday night, and the Methodist Church on Sunday mornings.  Well, maybe a few Sunday mornings, anyway.

By 1879, the town had grown to 10,000 people and had a reputation as a hellhole filled with drunks and prostitutes and outlaws.  But a lot of gold was coming out of the ground from all the mines, so people put up with all the evil.  One man of God, the Reverend F. M. Warrington called our town “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.”  Sounds like my kind of place, doesn’t it?

All good and evil things eventually come to an end, and Bodie’s end came soon after the last mine shut down in 1941.  Without a reason to go on, the town emptied out completely.  People left old belongings in their homes, and the school’s hundreds of desks were left as if ghost students still took their daily lessons.

The creaking front door of the Tom Miller house..

I was lonely here for a long time, with just occasional curious folks and vandals visiting this remote place.  But in 1962, the great state of California made my home town a state historic park that is kept in a state of “arrested decay.”  Now I have lots of visitors to haunt, so the only times I get lonely are during the long and frigid winters, when only a few folks on skis and snowmobiles make it up here.

It looked like I would never leave this place, since California has been preventing Bodie from disappearing back into the earth.  But in 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger put Bodie on a list of state parks to shut down because the state has run out of money to keep parks open.  That is my best hope for getting out of here.  If the state allows Bodie to fall apart and blow away, I might finally get to see heaven because I’ll have nowhere to stay here on earth.

The Methodist Church reflected in the windows of a doorway..

A child’s coffin in the town’s morgue..

Streetscape of weathered buildings in Bodie..

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Without a little propping up, these outhouses would have blown down in the cold wind.

The Standard Mill processed millions of dollars of gold..

The Methodist Church, built in 1882, held its last service in 1932..

The owner of the town’s morgue slept in an adjacent room..

Layers of paint speak to fashions and time passing..

Reflections on the front door windows of the Pat Reddy house..

A billiards table waits for ghostly players in the old Wheaton & Hollis Hotel..

Togetherness reigned in the Kirkwood House two-hole outhouse..

Steel shingles in attractive rusty shades cover some of Bodie’s exterior walls..

Display windows of the Boone Store and Warehouse reflect the setting..

The interior of the Boone Store & Warehouse has original artifacts on display..

Table in the Tom Miller house set for guests who never came..

A 1927 Dodge Graham truck waits for a fill-up at the Shell gas pumps..

A deer head has survived the decades in the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel..

Before a major fire, Bodie was 20 times as large..

The Swazey Hotel awaits visitors from the past..

Lace curtains add a feminine touch to the Murphy house..

James Stuart Cain, a wealthy businessman, had a beautiful house..

The Wheaton & Hollis Hotel is a classic false front commercial building..

If you want to visit Bodie, there are some good websites to help plan your trip and learn a bit of real history (as opposed to my made-up history!) of this wonderful ghost town.

http://www.bodie.com/

http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website