Friday, June 24, 2011

A Trip Back Somewhere in Time

Less than a 2 hour drive from Indianapolis is a world class resort that combines both 21st century amenities with the vestiges of a bygone era.  I’m talking about the French Lick Resort & Casino and the West Baden Springs Resort which have a rich history that few people know about.  We were there recently and stayed at West Baden Springs Resort.  It left me with a haunting memory on 2 levels that I just can’t shake.  

First the history:  French Lick’s hotel was built in 1850 and West Baden just a couple of years later.  They’re a little difficult to get to today so you have to wonder why and how did anyone go there back in 1850.  The “why” is the water.  There are mineral springs flowing under French Lick and West Baden that people back in the 19th century believed to be “curative” waters.  They were proclaimed to cure every ill from constipation to diabetes.  The springs are still there today, but are covered up to try to disguise the strong sulfur smell.  But back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s people were paying top dollar to drink the waters and spend time at the resorts.  

The “how” was the old iron horse.  Trains took people from all over the country right up to the front door of the French Lick Resort.  In fact, there was a special receiving depot where the passengers would disembark and immediately partake in the “healing” waters before retiring to their luxuriously-appointed rooms.  

West Baden which is only a mile from French Lick was built to be spectacular.  When it was completed, it had a dome that was the largest in the world.  In fact, it was referred to as the “8th wonder of the world”.  There were rooms that overlooked the massive dome’s lobby and there were spas and restaurants and shops.  They say people would sit in the gorgeous and expansive lobby to chat, people watch and look out for celebrities. 

Both hotels went through fires and renovations and resurgences.  But for almost 100 years, they were world-renowned and they welcomed just about everybody who was anybody.  Clark Gable stayed there.  So did Bing and FDR and…. well, they have walls full of pictures of celebrities and politicos who have stayed at the resorts.

The Great Depression hit them hard and the owner of West Baden eventually sold it to the Jesuits for $1.  The Jesuits called it home for 30 years and then  sold it to Northwood College.  The college held it for another 20 years and then when they left, it fell into complete disrepair for another 15 years until Historic Landmarks bought it and convinced the late philanthropist William Cook to restore it.  Some $400,000,000 later, both resorts are back to the original splendor.  In fact, they may be even better now since a world class golf course has been added to the property.  The Pete Dye Golf Course at French Lick was designed by arguably the best golf course designer in history, Pete Dye and it is unbelievable.  It’s built in the hills of southern Indiana and provides a truly breathtaking view.  I, frankly, wondered how they could charge $300 for a round of golf in Indiana but after seeing the course, I can understand.  

That’s the history of the resorts….and now my history: 

I spent the honeymoon of my first marriage at French Lick back in 1975.  I was a 19 year old girl at the time and was getting ready to embark on a new adventure:  moving with my first husband, Bob, to Tehran, Iran where I lived for 1 ½ years.  It was the start of a new life full of promise. I was very excited and had a great time during the short, 2 day, honeymoon stay at French Lick.  But the promise didn’t hold true and the marriage ended 19 years later.  I’ve been hugely happily married to John for 16 years now, so it’s rare for me to think of my past life and feel any real sadness.  But while at French Lick I found myself feeling a little haunted by the person I used to be.  John played golf one day and I went back over to the French Lick resort to walk around by myself.  And to add to my nostalgic mood, the resort was playing melancholy 70’s music!  Tears actually welled up in my eyes as I fondly remembered my time there and the feelings I once had for Bob.  It was strange but maybe good too.  Bad memories so often crowd out the good ones that you forget you had good times too.

The French Lick Hotel reminds me a bit of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan which is where the cult classic movie “Somewhere in Time” was filmed.  The movie is a tragic story about lost love and time travel and was set in the same era in which the French Lick resorts were popular.  I usually need Kleenex when I watch “Somewhere in Time” so that feeling served to evoke a rather haunting feeling in me as well.

We visited French Lick again back in the 80’s after Northwood College had abandoned it.  It was in terrible shape.  I remember walking inside the littered lobby and looking up at the incredible dome and thinking “I’ll bet this was really something in its day”.  Well, now, it is once again!  

It is well worth a trip if you’ve got a weekend to spare.  Be sure and check out the old barbershop at West Baden Springs for a trip back in time.  And at French Lick be sure and stop to check out the wall posters that are everywhere.  They are of actual postcards of the resort dating back to the early 1900’s.  There’s also a gazebo behind the resort that still has an open spring of the famous “Pluto” water that the resort was famous for.  You’ll know when you’ve found it from the smell!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Dangers of Just Sitting There

Imagine a trip that included white water rafting in the Colorado River, horseback riding in New Mexico and hiking the trails near Mt. Rushmore and the steep plateaus of Mesa Verde.  You wouldn’t think that the most dangerous part of said trip was just sitting in the car.  But that’s exactly what put me in an Oklahoma City hospital for three days in the summer of 2008. 

(l-r) George, Ann, John, Abe (not pictured: Tom, Ted)
First, the back story.  Ann & I decided to take a “see America” drive out west.  Our route would take us from our home in Greenwood, IN to Sioux Falls, SD, through Badlands National Park with a stop at Mt. Rushmore.  Then south to Denver, eventually making our way to Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado near the town of Cortez.  From there, it was a brief side trip to Four Corners for the obligatory picture (“Look at me.  I’m standing in four states at once.”) and Monument Valley in Utah, before reaching our next stop, a rural real estate development south of Albuquerque, NM.  (We were offered a free stay in a beautiful prairie home if we listened to a sales pitch.  How could we say no?).
Monument Valley (Is this inappropriate?)
The homestretch would take us through Santa Fe (for lunch), with an overnight in Oklahoma City.  But this is where things got a little squirrely.  About two hours outside Santa Fe, I started to get what at first seemed like heartburn… the burritos and refried beans for lunch in Santa Fe may not have been the best choice.  But as the pain became more intense and my breathing more labored somewhere in the Texas panhandle, I thought it best that I hand the driving duties over to Ann.  Finally, as we crossed the Texas/Oklahoma border I decided this wasn’t heartburn, but potentially something worse.  Considering my family history of heart trouble (a heart attack took my mom, one brother survived a heart attack and another brother required a stent for a heart blockage), I was sure I was having a heart attack. 

We found an emergency room at a small hospital just outside Oklahoma City.  After a battery of tests, we got the good news: no heart attack.  The bad news: pulmonary embolism.  Three blood clots in my lungs were causing the pain and the trouble breathing.  The emergency room personnel thought I should be transferred a larger hospital in Oklahoma City for more specialized care.  That’s where I spent the next three days undergoing more tests and getting pumped full of blood thinners.  The diagnosis was deep vein thrombosis - clots that had formed in my legs because of the cramped quarters of being in a car for a week had broken loose and moved to my lungs.  Despite all the activity along the way - hiking, rafting, horseback riding – it was the relative inactivity of sitting in the car for 2500 miles that really took its toll.    This is the kind of ailment that is often referred to as Economy Class Syndrome because of its common occurrence during long-distance plane trips.  It was also a DVT and pulmonary embolism that took the life of NBC reporter David Bloom while covering the war in Iraq in 2003.
Luxurious accommodations in Oklahoma City
Our plan was to spend one night in an Oklahoma City hotel.  Instead, it was three days in a hospital gown enjoying typical hospital cuisine.  I spent the next year on a regular regimen of blood thinners.  And to this day I still take special care on our long, international flights (and long car trips), making sure to drink plenty of water, walk around every couple of hours and wear knee-high compression socks.  One fashion tip: don’t wear the compression socks with shorts.


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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Going Exotic!

We were recently asked to pick the most exotic place we’ve ever been.  That, I thought, was kind of tough.  I immediately scanned the globe in my brain and went from the Amazon to Cambodia to Egypt to Tibet and beyond.  But probably the place that stands out as the most exotic is Easter Island which is the most remote inhabited island in the world.

You can only fly to Easter Island from Chile or Tahiti. We went from Tahiti. In case you're not familiar with it, Easter Island, known to the natives as Rapa Nui, is the home of the Moai statues, those tall monolithic roughly hewn human figures that have been a mystery for a thousand years. No one is sure why they were made or how they got them from the mountain quarry to the coastline miles away where they were placed on pedestals. There are hundreds of these statues all over the island and you can literally walk right up to them and touch them. There is a quarry full of Moai that were never completed that is eery and looks like a Moai graveyard.

We were there on New Year's Eve and stayed in a cabin right on the coast with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the island's only city, Hanga Roa, which is small and quaint. 

We rang in the New Year with a bottle of champaign while watching fireworks over Hanga Roa from the patio of our cabin. The next day, New Year's Day, we rented a scooter and set out to explore the island. There isn't a spot on the island that doesn't have a view of the beautiful Pacific Ocean. We drove along the rugged, stark coastline and stopped along the way to examine some Moia up close or just watched the waves hit the rocky shore. 

An almost treacherous ride up to the summit of the island's inactive volcano gave us our best view. We could look down into the now-quiet crater that was responsible for giving birth to this tiny island. Near the crater are the ruins of a major Rapa Nui village where you can walk amongst what is left of their homes. We visited ancient caves where the natives left paintings and other artifacts. But mostly we just enjoyed exploring this tropical island that few people in the world have ever seen. There were no crowds anywhere and it was almost like we were the only people left on earth. It was one of our favorite, best days ever.