Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Paradise

Paradise tends to be an overused word. Now when I was quite young, the stars lighting up the ceiling of the old Loew's Paradise on the Grand Concourse near Fordham Road were impressive. And we did spend our honeymoon on Paradise Island, Nassau, which has now come back into fashion after lying fairly dormant for the intervening years. Vasco da Gama's famed tenor aria from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, "O Paradiso", was one of Caruso's favorites.

But the first part of this week found us at the part of Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State known as Paradise. It's almost as far in elevation, 5400 ft., that you can drive into the park and it's where the principal hostelry, the Paradise Inn, where we stayed, is located. There are lots of things you cannot do in this particular Paradise. For starters, there's no TV, radio, cell phone reception, or Internet access. This includes Crackberries--they give you that pleasant "No Service" message.

There's lots of snow still on the ground, even on July 1. But there are no ski areas or the place lacks that apres-ski ambience. You can hike on snow-covered trails in boots or running shoes or whatever, with poles or alpenstucks; there are also many wonderful trails that are now snow-free. Many people come to the park to climb the titular mountain, which was uncharacteristically visible every day this week, with no mist or fogor cloud obscuring the peak from view.

In the evening the park rangers give talks at the Paradise Inn and there's a long list of games (dominoes, Scrabble, etc.) you can play, along with cards. The talks we attended included one very ambitious one about the mountain as a sacred place and invited you to conjure up your own sacred places, along with investigating the flora of the park; other talks featured the ravens that are found in the park, along with a reminiscence about a woman who visited the park for the first time in 1915, came back many times thereafter, and turned out to be the ranger's grandmother.

The dining room's menu was classically American, with a generous dollop of sauce Alfredo on quite a few main courses (like most other places in this country, they call main courses "entrees" but we all know that entree in French--and on a French menu--means introduction, or first course). I'm a good target for anything that includes huckleberries any dish that describes itself as hash, generally a lowly item, but here the salmon hash was good, and the prime rib hash acceptable.

The rooms had no closets or phones, of course, and the full-size beds compare unfavorably with the queens and kings you now find in most hostelries. If you bring a large suitcase, be prepared to lug it up or downstairs without benefit of elevator. And when we needed to check out very early one morning, we left a request for a knock on the door, lacking a travel alarm or the aforesaid phone. I happened to wake up ten minutes before the appointed time. No knock followed. When we asked the man at the desk what had happened, he blandly apologized for not remembering. It was very hard to get angry at anyone because they are all very nice.

So you might wonder, what makes this Paradise, other than the name? Well, you are constantly facing mind-blowing vistas of mountain ranges, tall conifers, and some snowscapes. The air is a bit thin and clear and crisp. The trails are generally demanding--most in a mountain area run up and down--but almost inevitably lead to an impressive waterfall or other natural wonder.

You gradually stop thinking about what awaits you once you return to the online world, or the world of cell phones and plasma TVs, or spectator sports, for that matter. You have a chance to read, ruminate, converse, exercise, and just continually savor the delicious scenery. Every evening before dinner there's a cocktail pianist who plays stuff unfamiliar to me but very pleasant. They also put tea and scones or cookies out in the late afternoon. These days, all this may be closer to whatever paradise they may be than anything else I can imagine.

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