Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Friday, March 30, 2012

Jebediah Sure Would Taste Better With Some Good Honey Mustard

Two orders of business today, before I get started. First, I direct you to Sacred Ground, where I did a blog with Lyn about Quebec City. Check it out, and comment, let us know what you think. That's assuming the current issues with Blogger comments sorts itself out fast.  

Second, in recent days, this blog passed one hundred thousand views. This still astonishes me. You see, for the longest time when I was growing up, I was so used to being the odd one out. Knowing that for some reason this blog seems to get a lot of traffic both pleases me and confuses me to no end.

Now, to the mayhem at hand, and it occurs to me that this blog might have done well to be written for Sacred Ground, given the subject matter. A word of warning: if your ancestors took part in certain taboo activities implied by the blog title, either as a diner or as a meal, you might want to avoid this one...
Donner Lake, California

I have a long fascination with the history of the American West. Contrary to the simplicity of most television and film Westerns, the real story of the West is an infinitely complex web of stories where things are not black and white, where you find moments that can make you proud, alongside other moments that horrify you or make you feel great shame. The history of the West is one of people, and of place. It’s a story that crosses geo-political boundaries; the story of the Canadian West has some unusual parallels and differences to the American experience.

In 1846, the U.S.- Mexican War began, drawing American forces down into the Southwest and directly into Mexican territory. When it was done two years later, Mexico had lost much of its territory, which would one day become states in the Union of their own right, and an army of exceptional young officers had tasted combat and learned lessons that would come back on their own home ground thirteen years later as they turned to war against each other. Mexico would never really recover from the war.
Early on in the war, California itself was taken by American forces, and by the end of the first year was secured. A wave of pioneers began moving west towards California, following trails already being used by Americans to travel to a place that was not yet their own even before the war. In May of 1846, one such wagon train of pioneers, consisting of over eighty people, started out from Missouri for the proverbial promised land. That group came to be known as the Donner Party.

Donner Pass, California
The journey across the continent in those days was one that would routinely take months. One wrong decision, or a delay, could be deadly. Wagon trains routinely fell apart at the time because of disagreements. There was always the potential threat of hostile natives. More to the point, the land itself and the bad judgment of the people in a wagon train could be unforgiving. Such was the case with the Donner Party, and it led to them occupying a rather... infamous place in American history.

The wagon train took a route through Utah and Nevada, thought to be a faster route. They intended to be in the warmth of California by September. Instead, the route had never been tested; the man who actually promoted it had never done the route with wagons. It passed through the unforgiving Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. The route slowed the train considerably, and required far more work than other routes would have. Animals were weakened by the strain. An elderly man disappeared, and was never seen again. Tensions built among the members of the train, which finally reached the Sierra Nevada by October, quickly becoming snowbound in the high Sierra in the area around Truckee Lake.
The tensions in the group had caused serious rifts; James Reed, a member of the group, had been driven out after a fight ended in the death of another man and forced to ride ahead alone into California. In retrospect, he was unbelievably lucky. Tempers had been badly frayed during the journey, and the group had splintered into small groups, each distrustful of the other. The nominal leader of the group, George Donner, had enough difficulties trying to keep things together.

The Sierra Nevada is a hard place, even today. To get caught out in it during the winter, unprepared and without enough supply, can be a death sentence. The range includes many peaks over twelve thousand feet, and is an entirely unforgiving place. The Donner Party managed to take shelter in rudimentary cabins around the area, built by people who had passed through the Truckee Lake area some years before. Attempts to go further west- or to come east from the handful of party members who safely made it into California early- met with failure as the snows set in. The Party set into their encampments for the winter, just hoping to survive.

Encampments, Truckee Lake 1846-1847

Food stores quickly began to run low. More animals died of starvation and cold. Teams sent to try to find help were swallowed up by the mountains, dying of exposure and cold. Of one such team, it is known that cannibalism of the dead took place. Among the main camps, people began to die of starvation. Madness set in among some of the families. Cannibalism set in among some of the survivors, feeding off the dead. Exactly how much is unknown; during the winter, three relief parties managed to breach the area and find survivors, as well as mutilated remains. Survivors tended to refrain from admitting that they ate of the dead, primarily out of shame. Regardless, what happened that winter would serve as a reminder of the unforgiving power of nature, and of how badly society itself can splinter under pressure.

Of the eighty seven people who ended up encamping in the area over the winter, forty eight survived. Only two families remained intact.  For years afterwards, remains and bones were being discovered by passing parties, and buried. Personal items were destroyed. The ordeal left profound wounds among the survivors, deep animosities that would last a lifetime. The stories were embellished, to the point where it’s hard to tell where the truth lies and where the exaggeration or the cover-up begins.

Today the areas where the tragedy took place are preserved as a state park. Truckee Lake has been renamed Donner Lake. The Donner Memorial sees thousands of visitors in a year. The last member of the party died in 1935. And the Sierra Nevada remains an unforgiving place. The story of the Donner Party is relatively minor in the greater story of the West, but the tragic aspect of it still draws us back to it. It isn’t a story of heroism or villainy. It’s one of the brutal, harsh reality of the West, a hard lesson that the land can turn on you, that one bad decision can destroy you. Too many failed to heed that lesson in the years that followed, and even today, the lesson still applies.

Donner Memorial
Oh, and Jebediah probably didn’t taste all that good, even if they’d had honey mustard. Just saying.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sarah Palin And The Half-Blood Republican

"'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' 'wee-wee'd up.' English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'" ~ Sarah Palin, on her own creative mangling of the English language

"He who warned, uh, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed." ~ Sarah Palin, on Paul Revere

"[Paul Revere] did warn the British. And in a shout-out, gotcha-type of question that was asked of me, I answered candidly. And I know my American history." ~  Sarah Palin, on screwing up Paul Revere's place in history even more

"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible." ~ Sarah Palin, making herself the victim in comments after the Arizona shooting massacre

"But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies." ~ Sarah Palin, on geo-political understanding

"Because of that one episode, that one episode, that would turn an issue into what it has become over the last two years. I think that's ridiculous. That's one of those things, where that issue...that I don't read, or that I'm not informed, it's one of those questions where I like to turn that around and ask the reporters, 'Why would it be that there is that perception that I don't read?'" ~ Sarah Palin, to Barbara "Why Haven't I Retired" Walters

Just thought I'd remind you of the sheer idiocy that is the Mama Grizzly of Alaska, seeing as how this blog is named after her, and how she's been making noise about stepping in if the whole GOP nomination isn't settled by the convention. By stepping in, she means hijacking the nomination for herself, despite, oh, not actually campaigning.

The Republican primary process grinds ever on and on. The Four Stooges, or the Four Horsemen of the Republipocalypse, keep up the effort to savage each other. Governor Mittens continues to hold the lead, with He Whose Last Name Must Not Be Googled coming up behind (I know, bad double entendre on the other meaning of his last name). And Fig Newtons and the Crazy Old Man just won't take a hint (as of this writing) and quit. The editorial cartoonists of the world, meanwhile, are having a field day with the subject.

The Republicans themselves remain locked in the mindset of "oh, do we have to have him run in November? Why can't it be someone else?"

Though let's face it, the rest of the field is even worse. He Whose Last Name Must Not Be Googled, or Pope Ricky as he'd like to be called, has been busy trying to cast himself off as the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. Pope Ricky, who's also known by the titles His High And Mightiness and His Infernal Sanctimoniousness, has been irritating many, many women, Democrat and Republican, with his Dark Ages worldview of their place in the world. That doesn't matter to him. He's writing the updated Ten Commandments of Santorum. #1 reads as follows: All women must be subservient to all men. They must bear children, for that is their only role in the world...

Like I said, Dark Ages.

This month, of course, sees the college basketball championships in America. It's referred to as March Madness (I don't know why; personally, I've always found basketball tedious at best) That has worked its way into some of the editorial cartoons:

Governor Mittens has managed to stay in the lead among the Four Stooges, despite the party not liking him at all, and despite his complete inability to relate to anyone who isn't insanely wealthy. The GOP party apparatus seem more and more resigned to his inevitable win, knowing they're going to lose in November anyway...

Governor Mittens, regardless, remains out on the road, trying to pass himself off as a man of the people and coming across as painfully awkward every single time...

And the last two members of the Four Stooges continue to hang in there, despite their inability to take a hint. Fig Newtons, aka the Newtron Bomb, doesn't seem to understand that the party's over, no one's listening, and there no one around him to give him the kick in the butt that he seems to need to understand that his day is done...

While the Crazy Old Man is, well... completely insane and lost in his own world where he thinks making no headway in gaining delegates can still keep him in the race.

And so the Four Stooges lumber on, arguably the worst field of potential candidates in American electoral history. The credible Republican candidates have avoided this year entirely, all too aware that the party's going to have to rebuild itself after this debacle. Maybe in four years, things might be different.

This is the party of Lincoln????

President Obama, meanwhile, is smiling quietly, watching the Four Stooges do all his work for him, sharpening the knives. There'll be a turkey to carve up come November, after all...

In closing, perhaps you're still stuck. Perhaps you can't vote for the President, and this pack of Four Stooges doesn't appeal to you at all. May I offer another suggestion?

Vote for Bruce Campbell.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Of Intended Insults And Deleted Scenes

There are scenes in a book that might work well for us personally- they might be amusing or of personal help, for instance- but they just do not fit in with the rest of the narrative. Such has been the case now that I've reached the end of Heaven & Hell. I wrote a scene early on, after introducing one of my main characters, and while the scene in question amuses me, it doesn't fit in with the rest of the story as it should. In the end, it's more wish fulfillment then anything.

Explanations are in order. You have probably heard me mention my idiot ex-brother-in-law from time to time. Well, there's good reason he's an idiot. Mike is a bigot and racist, a man who seems to want to turn everything into an argument. He argues with everyone around him, seems to think he's right about everything, and I believe is intimidated by people who are smarter then him. Obviously I've never gotten along with him. I met him when I was  twelve or so, saw him for exactly what he was straight off. I've been civil for the sake of keeping the peace, but in the end, that was all for naught.

The last time I saw him, he took me aside and started out by saying these words: now I don't mean to degrade you. In my experience, anyone who says that intends to degrade you. He went on to chatter about seemingly trivial things and give life advice, but the subtext behind it was: I still think you're a spoiled brat. It's a curious thing... taking life advice from someone who monumentally screwed up his own life.

Anyway, as much as I would have liked to have called him out and said all the things I'd kept to myself for years on end, I didn't. And when I got to writing Heaven & Hell, I added in a passage featuring Tom Stryker with two friends at a chalet in the Alps, soon after making an ascent of Mont Blanc. I wrote a thinly disguised version of Mike into the passage (the physical description and less then savoury personality is pretty much him, and while the name's changed, the initials are the same). I even incorporated that particular fully intended insult into the dialogue. It felt good at the time. Ultimately though, I felt it didn't fit into the book itself, and so I've decided to remove it from the chapter and adjust things accordingly.

And so with that, I give you a scene that won't be making the cut for Heaven & Hell, but which I liked anyway. Enjoy it, and let me know what you think of it....

Mont Blanc, France

Something was wrong. They were both looking beyond him, and he heard the voice, a local, speaking in French. He turned, and saw a man standing at the lodge reception desk. Slightly swaying, the man was in ski gear and glasses. He had brush cut brown hair and beady brown eyes. Everything about his body language seemed to suggest he was perpetually angry at everyone else. “Someone you know?” he asked.
“Marc Ducharme,” Lambert answered distastefully. “He’s a real waste of oxygen.”
“Jean is too kind,” Marie agreed. “He’s a skier, though he shouldn’t be. He broke his legs last year on the slopes. Since then he’s been spending his time drinking, yelling at strangers, smoking, and antagonizing everyone. He doesn’t listen to the doctor either. They told him he’s finished skiing. Still thinks he can ski. Still thinks he’s half his age.”
“A real piece of work,” Stryker remarked. Ducharme was harassing the clerk, irritated about his room not being up to his standards, and she had better do something about it. Stryker smirked. “Oh, my. He really is an idiot.” He looked back at Marie and Lambert. “Any objections if I teach him some manners?”
“None at all, mon ami,” Lambert said with a grin.
“Give him hell,” Marie remarked, laughing lightly.
Stryker rose, walking towards the reception desk. He heard Ducharme clearly. “Now look, I don’t mean to degrade you.” The words were in French, but Stryker was fluent. He rolled his eyes at the words. Someone says that, it means that’s exactly what they mean to do. He assessed as he walked, thought the man was probably drunk already, and with legs that had been broken.... The smirk became a smile. Stryker, you’re terrible. He closed the distance between them, deciding how to handle the man.
He shifted slightly, approaching from the side, his knee rising up and knocking hard into Ducharme’s leg. Ducharme fell back, howling in pain, clutching his leg, and Stryker spoke pleasantly in English. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, sir. I didn’t see you there.”
Ducharme was cursing in French. And there was the smell of tobacco and whiskey on his breath. “Bastard,” he muttered in English. “Are you blind, you damned fool?” He was favouring his leg. Stryker hid his smile; it was obvious the man was hurt.
“Miss, has this gentleman been bothering you?” he asked in a very polite way, seeing the clerk nod, and looked over at Ducharme. The Frenchman looked up at him as he steadied himself, cursing under his breath about Americans, and Stryker saw the irritation and the pain on his face. In return, Ducharme saw a dark, dangerous look in Stryker’s eyes. He might be an idiot, but at least he recognizes trouble when he sees it. “Apologize to the lady,” Stryker insisted. The politeness was gone from his voice.
Ducharme sneered. “Sorry,” he said in a way that indicated he wasn’t.
“Good. Now, get out of here.” Stryker told him. Ducharme glared back.
“Damned American,” Ducharme muttered in French, limping away from the desk.
This damned American speaks French,” Stryker answered in French. Ducharme seemed to pause, thought better of arguing, and moved on. Stryker glanced back at the clerk. “My apologies for the behaviour of that buffoon, Miss,” he said graciously, and walked back towards Marie and Lambert. Both were laughing.
“He won’t forget that anytime soon,” Marie predicted.
“So, my friend, felt good doing that?” Lambert asked.
“Teaching buffoons manners is a service to humanity,” Stryker said with a grin. There was a faint ringing coming from his jacket, and he picked it up off the chair, reaching into a pocket. It was his encrypted mobile, which meant it was business. He glanced at Lambert and Marie; they thought he worked in consulting, and had no idea what he actually did now. “Excuse me,” he said, taking the phone with him, moving down the hall to answer it. So much for a vacation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ghosts In The Chateau

This year in Ottawa, the centennial of a landmark is being marked. The Chateau Laurier is a grand hotel in the heart of the city, and it does have the look of a castle. It's set on high ground across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill, and named after one of our Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfred Laurier. Many have passed through its doors in the past hundred years, from the great and good to the not so good (Tory staffers, I'm looking at you). The hotel is certainly luxurious, with all the amenities you might expect. It's rightfully a landmark, and a beautifully rendered building.

There are several restaurants and boutiques inside, and the hotel is perfectly suited for weddings. Passing by in the summer, one will regularly see wedding parties on the terraces or on their way inside. And the hotel is open even if all you're after is a good cup of tea...

The Chateau Laurier was commissioned by Charles Melville Hays, President of the Grand Trunk Railway. It was the habit of railways to establish great hotels at key locations along the line, and here in Ottawa, the original train station is still across the street, still linked to the Chateau by a tunnel. These days that building is rarely open to the public, since it's used extensively as a government conference center. That's a shame, too, since what was once the main waiting room is still arguably the most stunning room in the city.

The hotel has continued to be the premier establishment in the city (my apologies to the Lord Elgin, but you know it's true). It housed the studios for the esteemed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh for years (his famous photograph of a grouchy Winston Churchill still hangs in the lounge just off the entrance).

And is often the case with such places, it's haunted. The stories include sightings of a small child, the feeling of being watched by someone who's not there, and odd sounds. The other ghost of note is Hays himself. He had been President of the Grand Trunk for awhile, working to stabilize the company's financing in the early part of the Twentieth century. Part of that meant convincing Prime Minister Laurier to build another transcontinental railroad. In 1912 he was in Europe, purchasing luxurious furniture meant for the hotel, intending to have it shipped out as cargo while he took passage with his family. His shipment of furniture and other goods was, in fact, the largest amount of cargo onboard.

Charles Melville Hays

He booked passage on the Titanic.


Hays went down with the ship, and his cargo went with it. It's still inside the wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic to this day. The opening of the hotel went on without Hays, but it didn't take long before sightings of a ghost resembling the man himself were made in the hotel. Though he died far from it, it's thought that the significance of the place and the fact that he never got to see its opening have kept him lingering about.

It's a magnificent building here in the city, ideal for a night's stay, a wedding, or a meal. And who knows? Perhaps one might come across a spectral Charles Hays, and hear him muttering about wanting to strangle that rotten coward Bruce Ismay...