Monday, August 31, 2009

Oldest Drinking Establishment

After towing our home uphill on a winding mountain road for five miles to Groveland, CA, we needed a restful week touring Yosemite and the surrounding area. We had stayed at an RV park here because of its proximity (26 miles) to the Yosemite Park entrance.

Well, the week has ended and Yosemite has had an energizing effect on us, but before we say good-bye to this area, we wanted to take a walk through Groveland.

As you could probably guess, gold brought the initial flood of citizens to what would become Groveland. James Savage discovered gold there in 1848, and the town of Savage's Diggings was born. This soon became Garrotte in 1850, named so for the area's swift and harsh justice. Soon Garrotte was a boom town, but by the 1870s, the easy pickings were gone and Garrotte was transformed from dozens of bars and bordellos to a quiet community.

By 1875, citizens changed the name of Garrotte to Groveland, and as luck would have it, Groveland soon thereafter experienced a second gold rush with the advent of deep shaft mines and milling operations. But this was over by 1914.

Yosemite is responsible for the latest influx. Today, Groveland and nearby communities hold more than 7,000 residents and serve as hosts to tens of thousands of tourists, many of whom stay at the Charlotte Hotel (above) and stop for an espresso across the street.

Among the most visited sites in Groveland is the Iron Door Saloon, reputed to be the oldest “drinking establishment” in the state of California. Built before 1852, it was first called the "Granite Store" because the front and back walls are made of solid granite blocks. The sidewalls are made of "shist" rock and mortar, and the roof consists of three feet of sod, covered by tin.

The first owner of the store that would become the Iron Door Saloon served the Groveland community as the first Postmaster from 1863 to 1880, running the post office in the store. The establishment became a saloon in 1896, when it was purchased by Giacomo DeFarrari and was named "Jake's Place."

“In 1937, a second story was added, and cards, billiards and pool were offered for an evening’s diversion. The establishment was renamed ‘The Iron Door Saloon’ after the hefty iron doors, which had been hauled in on mule back across the Tuolumne River by way of Wards Ferry. These iron doors were manufactured in England, brought around the tip of South America by sailing ship, and sold to the saloon as a fire protection device. The idea was that if the town was burning, you just shut the doors and waited it out” (from the saloon’s website). The original iron doors remain today as a relic of the saloon’s past.

Inside, the restaurant is dark, and the bar area is decorated with Old West memorabilia, including a fire hose on a two-wheeled wagon hanging directly over my head. One can picture early miners sitting at the long mirrored bar and dreaming about striking it rich.

This is another one of those places you come to for history and atmosphere and not for food. But we were there at lunch, so food we would have. The luncheon menu is short and heavy on sandwiches. Being at the point where I couldn’t stomach (pun intended) another sandwich, I looked elsewhere on the menu. I do remember seeing a calamari appetizer. Not only do I not believe one should order seafood when more than one hundred miles from a body of salt water, I feel even more strongly that seafood or fish should not be eaten when in an area that gets neither cell phone, air card, nor satellite reception. Way too remote.

So we played it safe and shared two appetizers – an order of spicy wings and an order of beer battered veggies (mushrooms, onion rings, and zucchini). The wings were meaty and not overly sauced. The hot sauce had a vinegar tang, but not overly so, and there was plenty of “heat”.

The onion wings and zucchini strips were very well cooked with a light and crisp batter. The coating did not work as well on the mushrooms. These were very large mushrooms and I suspect that the water content of the vegetable made the batter soggy. Both appetizers came with a cup of ranch dressing for dipping.

A decent lunch. A fun place. Inexperienced service. A rating of 3.5 Addies.

After lunch we wandered across the street to the Iron Door General Store (AKA gift store). Both of us were intrigued by the SoapRocks (ad slogan – “take us for granite”). Since the soaps contain no animal products and are not tested on animals, I felt obligated to purchase a couple.

Besides, I think they look and smell good.

Now it was time for the five-mile trip downhill on that winding mountain road.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


There are times when we pick up cameras and just go for a walk around a town with no purpose in mind.

Some of those days result in an overview of the town and its character. Other times are marked by obtaining some photos of unique scenes in nature or unusual features of buildings. A door in Sonora, CA, caught my attention as we photographed the buildings along the town's main street.

The tours of the towns mentioned here have been the subject of earlier entries, but taking pictures of the doors in the shops in these towns gave us the opportunity to present a focused coverage of this subject.

The town of Locke, CA, presented many colorful buildings . . . and their doors.

These doors were found in the town of Isleton, CA, during our tour of this California Delta town.

I hope you enjoyed this break from our typical entries. Back to the more traditional style tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Painting with Light

After arriving at the Visitor’s Center at Yosemite NP, we stopped at the Ansel Adams Gallery to see some of the master’s photographs.

Yosemite’s granite walls seemed ideal “subjects” for black and white photography. Feeling inspired by the photographs and Yosemite’s granite, I thought I would try my hand at taking some black and white photos. The results of these efforts are presented here for your review, although I would certainly understand if you, dear readers, were to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s statement to Dan Quayle in the ’88 Vice Presidential Debates and conclude: “Chuck, you’re no Ansel Adams.”

In 1914, at age 12, Ansel Adams was suffering from measles, which at that time was a serious illness. When he recovered, his father decided to homeschool him, and part of his education was a yearlong pass to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. At the Expo, Ansel roamed through the art, music, and science exhibits. He especially loved studying paintings, fascinated by the artists’ use of light and shadow.

While on a family vacation at the age of fourteen, he was introduced to the expanse of California’s Yosemite Valley and was given a Kodak Box Brownie camera. These two seemingly small events strongly influenced the course of Adams’ life.

He hiked around Yosemite with his new Brownie camera, taking some 30 photographs of mountains, waterfalls, and meadows. When he developed the film, he was not happy with the results.

Soon thereafter, Adams met Frank Dittman, who owned a film developing business. He worked in Dittman's shop for no pay just to learn about photography. To understand the process of going from the image to the finished photograph, Adams kept complete records of the type of film, lens, and filters used and the place, time of day, amount of light and shadow of each photo he took.

At age 18 and for the next three summers, he worked for the Sierra Club in Yosemite, leading hiking expeditions and taking many, many excellent photos.

Early in the twentieth century, photography was not considered a creative art; Adams intended to change that. He had seen how the use of light and shadow in paintings could bring them to life, and he wanted to use his camera to paint with light.

Ansel would decide carefully on the subject for each photograph he took, then choose the angle from which to take it, sometimes hiking for miles to get to the best vantage point. He studied the movement of sun and clouds, often waiting hours for the perfect light with which to “paint” his picture.

Over his lifetime, Ansel Adams created over forty thousand photographs. Many of them were taken in the wilderness areas that he loved best.

“Once completed,” he said, “the photograph must speak for itself,” and the stunning photographs he took speak volumes.

Mine shown here . . . maybe a small notebook?

Friday, August 28, 2009

“Well, That was Quite Civilized!”

My words to Chuck as we departed the Ahwahnee Dining Room in the magnificent Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

Now I take a backseat to no one when it comes to my appreciation of “diners, drive-ins, and dives” (and an occasional “joint”). But every once in a while, it is nice to experience fine dining--even if just at lunch.

The restaurant’s web page reads: “The crown jewel of Yosemite dining, the award-winning Ahwahnee Dining Room is both magnificent and intimate. The 34-foot-high beamed ceiling with large sugar pine trestles that complement the room’s granite pillars, floor-to-ceiling windows, chandeliers, linen tablecloths and beautiful china create the perfect ambiance for a memorable dining experience.” So true.

While The Ahwahnee Dining Room is elegant, it is not stuffy. As we were led to our table by one of the guides or seaters, she exclaimed that our table was one of her favorites. Table 115 sits next to one of the magnificent tall windows. One day as she was seating a couple at this table, they noticed a small tornado of dust just outside. It seems that two squirrels were enjoying an amorous moment just outside. Suddenly the activity drew the attention of some children seated nearby who immediately ran to the window to see what was the excitement. I’m glad I wasn’t a parent trying to explain.

The lunch menu is more refined that many restaurants’ dinner menus. Soups include their signature Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Cheddar with rye croutons, chive oil, and bacon or the vegetarian mushroom.

Among the salads were: the Mediterranean Chicken Salad with spinach, romaine, olives, red onion, feta, chickpeas, grilled portabella, whole wheat pita crackers, grilled lemon and California olive oil and the California Bay Shrimp Cobb with organic greens, tomato, bacon, avocado, olives, sliced egg, and Shaft’s Blue Cheese Louis Dressing.

And the entrée menu included a daily pasta selection (that day penne with a shrimp sauce) and: Tagliatelle and Vegetables with arugula, picholine olive, tomato and pine nuts, roasted garlic purée, and olive oil; Butterflied Jerked Pork Chop with rice, beans and plantains with mango pineapple salsa; Roasted Mahi Mahi Veracruz with peppers, onions, tomatoes and salsa verde; or Sautéed Mountain Trout Amandine with herbed pilaf and shallot-sherry vinegar brown butter sauce and served with seasonal vegetables.

All sounded wonderful, but the temperature that day in the valley was ninety-nine degrees, and I wanted something on the lighter side. So, from the sandwich menu, I chose the seared rare tuna steak sandwich with pea shoots and a wasabi and soy reduction. This came with a side of Asian slaw. Chuck’s lunch was the cheesesteak panini au jus with purple cabbage slaw and a German-style potato salad.

The Ahwahnee staff bake their bread in-house, and while we were waiting for our lunches, we were presented with a small basket containing a very good crusty white and a marvelous cheese and herb bread. This latter had just enough cheese and herbs. Too often cheese bread can be overpowering, but not so this.

Our meals arrived just in time--we had finished the bread basket. Chuck’s panini was thick with thin, tender, and juicy meat with caramelized onions and peppers over which had been poured a beefy and savory au jus. The roll was spectacular--light and with a crisp crust made even crisper from the sandwich pressing process. The kitchen was generous with bacon in the potato salad, but to me it could have used just a touch more vinegar. Chuck liked it just the way it was.

And the purple cabbage slaw, which also contained julienned carrot and green, red, and yellow bell peppers--was lightly tossed with a creamy dressing. Just enough dressing to tenderize the cabbage and allow the taste of the cabbage, carrots, and peppers to come through. Since Chuck is not a big fan of caramelized onions, he did think that they had been applied with a heavy hand. My opinion was that the sandwich was just right.

My tuna steak, served on a very good sandwich roll, was rare as advertized with the pea shoots providing a slightly bitter and a slightly grassy taste that, when combined with the spicy wasabi reduction, made the taste buds sing. If I had a complaint it would be that the tuna steak didn’t meet my definition of seared. To me, searing means placing the meat on a very hot flattop or in a very hot skillet so that an intensely-flavored crust forms on the exterior. This did not have that. The Asian slaw contained Chinese cabbage with thin-sliced red onion, bell peppers, and carrots and tossed with a mild soy and rice wine vinaigrette. This was a light and perfect accompaniment to the tuna.

Did we have dessert? Of course. Our choice was caramelized bananas and jackfruit (star fruit) incased in a phyllo "cigar," drizzled with a sweet sauce, and served with a scoop of boysenberry frozen yogurt. Wow!! Without the tart, frozen yogurt, this dessert may have been too sweet. But the tart fruit with the sugary banana and jackfruit was an inspired combination.

The setting was magnificent. The service was superlative. The food was wonderful. If only my tuna steak had been seared this would have been 5.0 Addie meal. But, alas, I can only award 4.5 Addies.

As we were leaving, I looked again into the Grand Lounge. I could picture The Ahwahnee when first built, filled with gentlemen (and they would have been gentlemen) and ladies in evening attire coming down for a long and leisurely dinner. Afterwards, they would retire to the Lounge for conversation, or to play cards, or to just let their meals digest. How civilized. Today, after dinner, we would retire to our hotel rooms, turn on the TV, and fire up the lap top.

They had the right idea in those days.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Luxury in the Meadow

In 1925, the construction of The Ahwahnee, a new luxury hotel in Yosemite National Park, was “the most complex trucking endeavor of its day.”

Over 5,000 tons of stone, 1,000 tons of steel, and 30,000 feet of timber were hauled over the challenging mountain roads. Even on the winding road we traveled, carrying this material would be a challenging task today.

The primary building materials are rough-cut granite and concrete. The granite rubble masonry of the piers matches the color of the adjacent cliffs.

To protect The Ahwahnee from fire, a fate of many of the Park's earlier hotels, its wood-like facade is actually concrete, poured into rough-hewn wooden forms and stained to look like redwood.

The building is massed into several enormous blocks with a six-story central block and wings of three stories. The multiple hip and gable roofs are finished with green slate and further break up the building's form, making it appear as rough and textured as the surrounding landscape. The building has balconies and terraces at several different levels that add a spatial interest not only to the exterior but also to the visitor experiencing the interior of the building.

Walking into the lobby, we were struck by the philosophy of what a luxury hotel used to be. The lounge furniture invited one to rest, converse, or observe.

Even the hallways encouraged the traveler to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the natural surroundings.

Today's hoteliers would look at these photos and note all the space that is not generating income. And while the 99 rooms at The Ahwahnee are by no means inexpensive, the setting provides its guests with both the physical and psychological luxury that royalty, presidents, and celebrities expect.

The Writing Room's principal feature is an oil painting on linen by Robert Boardman Howard that runs the length of one wall and depicts local flora and fauna in a style reminiscent of medieval tapestries.

The elevator lobby has an abstract mural based on Indian basket patterns over the fireplace.

The architect for the building was Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who designed buildings for the Union Pacific Railroad on Zion and Bryce Lodges and the Grand Canyon Lodge on the north rim.

The Great Lounge's 24-foot-high ceiling has exposed girders and beams painted with bands of Indian designs. The exposure of the ceiling's structure gives the spatial impression of a coffered ceiling. The enormous fireplaces at opposite ends of the Lounge are cut sandstone. The wrought-iron chandeliers, Persian rugs hanging on the walls, and the wood furnishings are original. Their worth and delicate condition resulted in their conservation and placement in enclosed cases on the walls. Other oriental rugs, primarily replacements, are on the polished wooden floor of the Great Lounge. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the Great Lounge have 5x6-foot stained glass panels at the top with handsome designs based on Indian patterns, but like many of the other interior elements, done with a flatness found in Art Deco architecture.

Photographer Ansel Adams was so taken with the building that he wrote:
". . . yet on entering The Ahwahnee, one is conscious of calm and complete beauty echoing the mood of majesty and peace that is the essential quality of Yosemite. . . . against a background of forest and precipice, the architect has nestled the great structure of granite, scaling his design with sky and space and stone. To the interior all ornamentation has been confined, and therein lies a miracle of color and design. The Indian motif is supreme . . . . The designs are stylized with tasteful sophistication; decidedly Indian, yet decidedly more than Indian, they epitomize the involved and intricate symbolism of primitive man . . . ."

When the Ahwahnee opened its doors to the public in July, 1927, the consensus was that it was worth the wait. The Ahwahnee, from a local Indian word meaning "deep, grassy meadow," became the impressive building that its designers wanted in the meadow surrounded by those awesome granite cliffs.