The Great Indoors
The national parks are full of eye-popping marvels. And that's before you even leave the lodges.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page P01
This isn't a lobby -- it's a nave. That sweet scent isn't just cedar carried in on a mountain breeze -- it's a whiff of ritual incense. The voices, muffled by the towering space, are as much the murmur of a congregation as the chatter of holiday makers.
In short, this isn't tourism -- it's high church. And the country's great national park lodges are not just hotels -- they are America's summer cathedrals.
This one happens to be the Glacier Park Lodge, on the eastern edge of Montana's Glacier National Park. But the arrival ceremony, which I never tire of observing from a comfortable mission armchair in the lobby, is just a variation of the one at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Ahwahnee in Yosemite or any of their grand sisters holding court in the mountains, deserts and canyons of the American West.
In Glacier, it goes like this: Newcomers enter the lobby, still distracted by the demands of their journey. Inevitably, they check their strides, raise their faces in wonder at the great hall created by 24 Douglas fir trunks -- tall as steeples, bigger around than a man's hug -- and seem very near to crossing themselves in the shadow of this soaring indoor forest.
Lots of lobbies wow. But here, eyes lift and jaws fall with something more than mere approval. This is what churches attempt to instill, a simultaneous sense of awe and comfort. The awe comes from the titanic scale of this timber-frame palace, hand-wrought from colossal parts in a pre-mechanical age. In just that one immense log over the foyer there must be enough lumber to build a bungalow. And it's easy to imagine the men swarming among the bones of the roof back in 1913 (sun-browned and mustached, in collarless shirts and leather braces), wrangling up the massive trusses with blocks and tackle and muscle and mules. You don't build a structure like this -- you just tame its wild parts long enough to lash it all together and jump back until she's broke good and proper. They built it mostly over one stiff Northern Rockies winter.
The comfort, meanwhile, comes right from the wood, that most welcoming of materials. This same space made of marble would dazzle, but it wouldn't delight, it wouldn't invite. But the warm, fragrant, once-living skin of hewn beams and plank flooring and log columns welcomes us in from the wilds, not just for protection but for a snuggle. No one snuggles with marble. You don't curl up in front of a limestone fire. You may love granite, but it will never love you back.
In Glacier Park Lodge, folks gather around the lobby like picnickers in an old-growth grove. In that nether-hour between the day hikes and the evening meal, groups and families sprawl over the armchairs amid a litter of hot chocolate cups and PowerBar wrappers. A dappled light from distant skylights filters down on a couple of college-age Asian girls writing postcards on the opposite arms of a mission couch. A tow-headed toddler shuttles between the taxidermied mountain goat in the glass case and one of the enormous tree-trunk columns. Every time he reaches the tree, he hugs it lavishly, wrapping his arms to their tiny extremes and placing his cheek against the bark. At the base of the 48-foot fir trunk, he looks like a little blond beetle.
In a lodge, the lobby is the living room. The guest rooms are almost an afterthought. With some showy exceptions (some of the oldest rooms in the Old Faithful Inn, for example), guest chambers tend to be austere, plainly furnished bunk rooms. (Some of them are frankly homely, particularly in the many later-decade additions and wings that have been slapped on to meet an ever-growing demand). In Glacier, as at many others, the rooms don't have televisions.
Lodges are not luxury hotels by and large; because they sit amid the continent's most spectacular scenery, they don't have to be. After a 10-mile trail ride, it's the hot shower that matters, not the milled soap or the thick towel. Who pines for pay-per-view in a room where every window frames an Albert Bierstadt canvas or an Ansel Adams print?
The result is a uniquely communal tradition of lodge guests spending their free time, well, together. Public spaces are designed for constant use. Scrabble players and puzzle makers share the long coffee tables. Around the cavernous stone fireplace, people fill a haphazard amphitheater of seats, sitting and staring as if the flames themselves were telling old tales of wild lands and wild men. Writing tables and card tables are tucked into every crevice. In the window-lined breezeway, backed by a misty view of the Rockies, two older couples play gin rummy with silent efficiency. "You stinker," cries a white-haired man in a blue windbreaker amid sudden laughter. They count their points and one of the women marks the score in a battered spiral notebook that suggests this is an old vacation ritual.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The Ahwahnee Lodge in California's Yosemite is a national park classic.
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