July 31, 2018

Photo Essay: A Sizzling Sunset Cruise on Lake Havasu

At the California-Arizona border, where the Mojave transitions to the Sonoran Desert, the construction of Parker Dam along the Colorado River in the mid- to late-1930s filled a floodplain and created Lake Havasu. It's not really a lake, though—it's more of a reservoir.

In fact, some might say that it's just a wider, deeper part of the Colorado River with more water in it and less of a current.

It makes for good water sports and recreation, not the least of which is boating but also jetskiing, paddleboarding, and the like.

I imagine it's something of a successful version of the Salton Sea—without the annual fish and avian die-off and resulting stench and fly problem.

In 1967, three years after founding the planned resort community of Lake Havasu City, chainsaw mogul Robert McCulloch bought a bridge—not so much to span the body of water, as there was actually a peninsula in its place, but to create an attraction for tourists and potential homebuyers and landowners.

But it wasn't just any ol' bridge. McCulloch literally bought the London Bridge—the so-called "new" one from the 1830s—which wasn't so much falling down as sinking into the Thames and had to be replaced. He then dismantled it, transported the pieces to Arizona through the Panama Canal and into the Long Beach Harbor, and then had it painstakingly reassembled, each piece having been numbered and catalogued. 

The reassemblage was completed in 1971, along with an entire "English Village" that served as a quaint, open-air gateway to it. Many of the temporary buildings have since been torn down, but the scale replica of the Buckingham Palace gates still stands.

And there are plenty of other small touches to make you feel like you've crossed over to the other side of the pond...

...including a couple of red telephone booths (which you'd think would be extinct by now)...

...and plenty of Union Jacks alongside the Stars and Stripes and the Arizona State Flag.

Besides the fact of its mere existence here in Arizona, there's plenty of intriguing trivia to be learned about the London Bridge—including that it's only clad in its original English (actually "Haytor") granite. Inside, it's hollow, supported by reinforced concrete (ensuring that it will not, in fact, fall down).

Its five stone arches bear the strafing scars from the London Blitz bombings by Germany during World War II. And while some areas of the granite are dark while others are light, it was actually all dark when it arrived in Arizona, thanks to London's soot problem. In the nearly half-century since its relocation to the arid desert, the sun has bleached out many of those old, dark stains.

We were stupid enough to visit Lake Havasu at the end of July, in sizzling summer heat. When we arrived to town, it was 112 degrees outside. There would be no walking or exploring until sunset—at which point our group agreed on a late-in-the-day boat tour of the lake, its bridge, and whatever else there was to see.

Shave ice, chilled bottled water, personal cooling fans, and the setting sun helped. But sometimes, you've got to just give yourself over to the heat and be hot.

We set sail through the Bridgewater Channel, heading southeast into Thompson Bay towards the California state line...

...passing several of the 20-some-odd replica lighthouses that dot the shores...

...each providing a beacon for nighttime sailors and representing various real-life locales around the country.

We even spotted a (skinny) wild burro grazing for a snack on top of a shoreline hill.

And as the sun dipped behind the palm trees behind us...

...and we left it in our wake...

...we watched the crazy clouds ahead turn a rainbow of colors from yellow and orange to red and pink.

Approaching our turnaround point at Copper Canyon—which was once literally mined for its copper and settled as an encampment of miners—we spotted some kids jumping off the cliffs into the water and encouraged them with cheers and applause.

And after we turned around to head back to the dock, with most of the motorboatin' partiers wrapping up their daydrinking celebrations, we watched a spectacle of lightning that was isolated to just one storm cloud, hanging isolated and illuminated in the darkening evening sky.

Related Posts:
The View By Boat
Take Me to the River

July 30, 2018

The Impersistence of Memory: A Return to the Reopened Mitchell Caverns

"Did they build these structures as part of the renovation?" I asked.

Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area had closed in 2010 in the wake of state parks budget cuts. After opportunistic thieves stole copper wiring and disabled the electrical line that lights the caves, it had stayed closed for seven years, and just reopened in 2017.

This was my first opportunity to welcome it back in person, nearly a year after its reopening—and so much of it seemed so unfamiliar to me, it felt like my first time all over again.

"No, these are all original historic structures from the Mitchells," Ranger Will said, as he charged my credit card the $10 entrance fee.

"Huh," I said, puzzling over my fuzzy memories. "Well, it was 2009 and I was late and in a rush and missed the beginning of the tour."

"I guessed I just missed that part."

That was my excuse, at least—but I wonder whether I've just seen so much stuff over the last 10 years that my brain just needed a refresher.

Let this be a lesson to me when I try to use the "Been there, done that" excuse.

Besides, I'm in a better position now to understand how such a "show" cave fit into the mid-20th century narrative of Route 66—and how Jack Mitchell gave up pusuing his mining claim seriously in favor of tourism.

After all, as our state parks ranger guide told our group, it's a lot easier to get a silver dollar out of a tourist than silver ore out of the side of a mountain.

Ol' Jack initially led his tour groups down from his home (now the visitors center) into the valley below and then up the side of the mountain directly below the opening he'd created.

The arduous trek took all day and was the only way to get into the cavern—that is, until Jack's wife noted that their house was more or less level with the entrance and that a trail could be blazed more or less straight across.

The new path proved to be much easier for roadtrippers making a stopover on the way east towards Chicago or west towards LA, and it provided a much better view of what's now the Mojave National Preserve (previously the East Mojave National Scenic Area) below.

And it's the same path that visitors take today...

...a moderate, but exposed, 10-minute walk towards the north-facing side of the mountain...

...past flowstones and cacti on the south side...

...and a newly constructed bridge, thanks to the California Conservation Corps...

circa 2009

...a vast improvement over the Indiana Jones-style, pre-closure crossing.

Of course, it didn't take seven years to build a bridge or even replace the wiring—but bureaucracy being what it is, even relatively minor changes take a long time.

Honestly, I wasn't sure if Mitchell Caverns would ever open back up, despite having been under the stewardship of the State of California since 1956.

But now, there are not only guides but resident caretakers keeping an eye on the place, preventing the spread of fungal spores that cause White-Nose Syndrome, and keeping visitors from hitting their heads on the stalactites hanging from above.

Some, of course, have gotten broken off over time (either accidentally or intentionally), but now there's a strict "No Touching" rule.

It's a pretty small cavern system, comprised of two distinct caves that have been connected: El Pakiva and Tecopa. You get from one to the other across yet another manmade bridge.

You try not to poke your eye out while looking up...

..and you look for droplets of water, no matter how tiny, as a sign that the cave isn't "dead" yet.

You try to distinguish distinctive shapes in the formations that are dripping from the surrounding limestone...

...and you try not to bring any of the "cave coral" home with you, as you navigate through some pretty tight squeezes (though not nearly as tight as Jack's original entrance to the caves).

When you're ready to leave, having seen no bats but having heard stories of prehistoric ground sloths and Niptus beetles that have developed a taste for dung, you exit through yet another passage just down the way...

...out into the blinding sunlight and temperatures that are 40 degrees hotter than inside the dank den of wood rats and pseudoscorpions.

Hopefully, I'll remember this visit for at least 10 years to come—and if not, then perhaps the third time will be the charm. I hope the caverns stay "alive" long enough to me to return.

Related Post:
Alone in A Crowd, Naturally.

July 28, 2018

Photo Essay: Is the Arizona Biltmore Actually a Frank Lloyd Wright? (Does It Matter?)

Maybe it's enough that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned at the Biltmore in Phoenix...

...or that Ronald and Nancy Reagan celebrated their honeymoon there.

It's certainly has a storied history politically, with every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush having been a guest...

...and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain conceding defeat on the lawn there.

But I didn't visit the Arizona Biltmore for any of that. I wasn't even that compelled to honor the legacy of the Wrigleys there, though they were heavily involved and built a mansion just up the hill, overlooking it.

To be honest, I squeezed the Biltmore into my last day in Phoenix for Frank Lloyd Wright, whose "Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers"design (which appeared on the cover of Liberty Magazine in 1926) was fabricated by Taliesin students into stained glass and installed as part of a 1973 restoration. (The hotel was renovated again by Taliesin Associated Architects in 1979, after a fire.)

That's the only real "official" tie that FLW had to the Biltmore—not the gold-leaf ceiling...

...nor the illuminated milkglass bricks...

...or even seemingly "Prairie-style" lighting fixtures on the upper mezzanine of the lobby.

Officially, Wright had nothing to do with how the hotel circumvented Prohibition in a men-only
smoking and drinking room up a back stairway and on the terrace—in the so-called "mystery room."

And yet, as I was skulking around the hotel resort on my own, opening unlocked doors and tiptoeing across perhaps that same terrace...

...all I could seem to find were signs and signals of Frank Lloyd Wright's involvement.

Officially, the architecture of the Biltmore is credited to a former draftsman for Wright in his Oak Park Studio, Albert Chase McArthur.

And Wright did design the inspiration for the "Biltmore Block," a geometric rendering of a freshly-cut crown of a palm tree.

But apparently McArthur modified so many contributions that Wright had made at the time—including creating 34 different pattern variations on the pre-cast blocks—that Wright repudiated any affiliation with the building once it was finished.

Reportedly, he was also unhappy with contractors who rebuked any suggestion of unconventional building methods (and wouldn't even test them).

Wright hated it so much that he declared the finished product "even worse" than he thought. Yet when it opened in 1929, it was widely considered the "Jewel of the Desert."

FLW changed his tune a bit after the resort was warmly received, further muddying the issue of how much he'd been involved.

Later, if you were to ask him whether he'd designed it—or how much of it he had—he'd more or less tell you, "Look at it. What do you think?"

Of course, it does look very much like a Frank Lloyd Wright-style design, with its textile blocks.

And apparently, the Aztec Room and cottages (some of which were refurbished in 1988) show few or no adjustments to whatever design Wright may have contributed or influenced initially.

The most recognizable Frank Lloyd Wright design at the Biltmore (besides the saguaro stained glass) may be the Sprites, designed in 1914 for the (now demolished) Midway Gardens in Chicago, and sculpted by Italian artist Alfonso Ianelli. Six new casts of the "Solemn Sprite" statue were added to the grounds in 1985.

But we can't forget about William Wrigley Jr., who'd initially invested in the Biltmore and became full owner in 1930. The Catalina Pool, opened 1940, was his idea—and it became infamous as Marilyn Monroe’s favorite pool (though likely not where Irving Berlin composed "White Christmas," despite claims to the contrary).

The Wrigley family sold the Biltmore in 1970, and it's now operated as a Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation embraces whatever affiliation FLW actually had with the construction of the hotel, and even contributed a Wright-inspired sculpture called "Wings of Phoenix" by Heloise Swaback from 1982.

We may never know what actually happened in Wright's collaboration with McArthur—but even if the Biltmore was merely inspired by FLW, it certainly feels like walking through the biggest of his textile block homes.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House, Exterior (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, Interior (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: A Mansion Built By A Chewing Gum Fortune But Saved By Lunch Meat