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Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993

 

Beauty and Grace on the Big Screen

Last night, our good friends invited us to accompany them to Los Angeles to attend a rare screening of Warner Brothers 1935 classic Captain Blood at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater. The event was hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group which seeks to preserve LA’s cultural and architectural heritage, as part of their Last Remaining Seats series which is dedicated to screening the classic films of Hollywood in Los Angeles’ remaining classic movie houses. John and I both love classic films and this has long been one of my favorites, though it was a first-time viewing for John. There’s really nothing like seeing a classic film on the big screen. What a treat! It was a great beauty break, both on-screen and off.

 About the theater…….Sid Grauman (yes, that Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese fame)apparently opened the theater in 1918, seeking to diversify after the San Franciso earthquake damaged some of his property in the Bay area. It is reported he spent $1,000,000 to build the theater, hence the name. (This is an interesting contrast in that the production costs for Captain Blood were in the  $700,000 range, which was a huge amount of money to spend on a film for that time, especially during the Depression era. We’re talking blockbuster expenditure here.) And the money shows. Elaborately carved circular wood ceilings easily soaring beyond 50 feet above the orchestra seats, a deep, steep balcony high above the proscenium stage with a magnificent view of the screen, gilded wood trim on simply everything, red back lighting behind dark wood, sumptuous velvet draperies, and Gothic wood alcoves which held the organ pipes for the old Wurlitzer.  This photo to the left is the view from our seats. Just going to see a show in such a theater was an occasion. It was easy to imagine what it had been like in its glory days. I think the quality of the theaters in the golden age of Hollywood really reflected the idea that film is an “art” worthy of being experienced in elegant, beautiful surroundings. The theater then necessarily reflected  respect and esteem for the art of filmmaking and for those who participated in it.  I would argue things are quite a bit different now — I cannot remember the last time I entered a modern movie theater and gasped in awe at its beauty. If the film is artfully done, the movie house should serve as the setting which shows it off at its most brilliant. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater serves as just such a setting for Hollywood’s gems.

This isn’t to suggest that every theater achieved such a level of refinement, or that every film old Hollywood put out could even be considered art. Quite simply, there was an effort and an emphasis in those days that has been lost, and both the Million Dollar Theater, as a showcase setting,and Captain Blood, as a timely tale of virtue and chivalry in the face of trials,  illustrate this effectively.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland cast as the main characters, Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop, respectively. The plot, briefly: British physician and gentleman Peter Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal after being wrongfully accused of treason in a plot to overthrow the evil King James. He and his companions endure much cruelty and torture before Peter is able to use his skills as a doctor to help them all escape. They cleverly steal a pirate ship, thereafter vowing to become pirates all, as they have no home or country to which they can return. And so begins Blood’s notorious, albeit chivalrous, career of piracy. Still, we see that what meant the most to him as a physician — the vow he had taken to “do no harm”  — seems to have been buried in his greater desire for revenge. He breaks this vow by his life of piracy. Thus, when Peter again encounters Arabella on board his own ship, after he has “bought” her back from the lecherous Lavasseur (brilliantly played by Basil Rathbone) she spurns him. In Peter’s mind, he has reclaimed his manhood and his freedom, symbolized by all of the pillaged treasure he encyclopedically parades before her; however, to Arabella, he has sold out, merely escaping from one form of slavery into another, and she’ll have none of it. She reminds him of who and what he used to be, of the dignity he possessed as a man and a physician, and suddenly Peter sees that his willing enslavement to revenge has not only led him to break his professional and chivalric vows, but has lost him the thing he wanted most– Arabella’s love.  Of course, the story doesn’t end there — but you’ll just have to see the movie to find out what does happen! Truly, Arabella stands as a reminder for all that is noble and good and she reminds Peter of the unspoken code of chivalry which he had always held himself to. She raises his heart and mind to something higher than his baser instincts. These are timeless, beautiful, and necessary themes that are sadly missing in the majority of today’s films.

Amazingly, Olivia de Havilland was only 19 years old when she made this film. She and Errol would go on to make eight more films together, all of which are wonderful as they had quite a chemistry.  Right from the first, she captivates the viewer and demonstrates her grace and beauty on-screen. She brought this grace and beauty to whatever character she portrayed in such a natural way that she fully commanded the attention of the audience with her presence. It seems to me a case of the person infusing the character, and not vice-versa. For my part, I can’t think of any tween or twenty-something actress today that has such presence, such command of an audience, who captures the definition of what it means to be a lady in the classical sense of the word. Of course, older actresses come to mind, but who now, at 19, possesses this trait? Its more than being just a pretty face. Any beautiful woman can draw attention simply by her beauty alone; but it’s not every beautiful woman who is  also able to inspire a man to strive for what is noble and good and virtuous. Because Olivia de Havilland was a lady, it was easy to believe her character’s challenge to Peter —  to reclaim his life and live it for the higher purpose he was called to rather than the degradation and false freedom he had chosen to sink to. If more actresses today had that spark of beauty and grace within themselves, they’d be better role models for our girls, and inspire more men to lives of noble virtue.

If you’re in LA or environs, make plans to stop at the Million Dollar Theater for a nostalgic beauty break — you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve got young boys or girls — or are young at heart yourself — make some time to watch Captain Blood — you’ll experience beautiful filmmaking, a compelling story, and classical themes of beauty and grace that are priceless.

Thanks so much, Bob and Kris, for a spectacularly beautiful evening!