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Posts Tagged ‘Great Rangers’

Danville, Calif.
Visited: June 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 204 of 353
NPS Website

Aaaaaaah!WHAT IS IT?
Home where Eugene O’Neill, our country’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote his last six plays which included Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, designed their house in accordance to both Taoist principles and their own personal fancies. The O’Neill’s so-called Tao House is more interesting than beautiful.

Taoist influences include outdoor paths and indoor hallways that turn sharply at right angles. There are false doors, protruding walls and colored mirrors, all designed to keep the bad spirits outside. Some personal touches include recessed windows, spine-tingling masks and dormitory-like white brick walls. It is hard to remove Eugene O’Neill’s soul grabbing black mirror and his frightening devil masks from our consciousness.

The Tao House sits atop the East Bay hills overlooking the San Ramon Valley. The House’s grounds offer beautiful views of Mount Diablo, the area’s highest point.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly America’s greatest playwright but his plays were much more personal than political. His focus was his own inner demons. The tour goes into great depth about O’Neill’s troubling past and fails to analyze his plays and their impact.

CROWDS (8/10)
There are no casual walk-in tourists at the Eugene O’Neill NHS. The mandatory advanced reservations stop that. Instead, everybody on the tour has some sort of interest in Eugene O’Neill. One woman on our tour had been to O’Neill’s house in Connecticut. Her personal knowledge of the playwright enhanced our experience.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
O’Neill’s Tao House is located in the Oakland Hills very close to the quaint town of Danville. You cannot drive to the site because it is located within a gated community. As a result, you must arrange your visit ahead of time. The phone number is (925) 838-0249.

A Ranger leads tours of the house twice daily. Meet at the Danville Park and Ride, located just off the I-680 Sycamore Valley Exit, and pile into the NPS minivan. The Ranger chauffeurs you through Danville and up to the House. There are no tours on Monday and Tuesday. Tours fill up; plan accordingly.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Good but not great. Copies of all O’Neill’s plays are for sale as are a few DVD’s and videotapes of his plays’ performances. We wish the bookstore carried plays and/or books written by his contemporaries. We felt lost in a literary sense during our entire stay because of the tour’s emphasis on O’Neill’s life. A more comprehensive bookstore would have helped us place O’Neill among his peers.


Here the Demons Will Be Confused
COSTS (5/5)
Eugene O’Neill Tao House must be visited via a guided Ranger tour. Both the tour and entry are free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
The same tireless spitfire of a Ranger does both the Eugene O’Neill NHS and Port Chicago Naval Magazine N MEM tours. She is amazing and seems to be the only Ranger on educational staff at both sites. Because the tours’ numbers are limited, she is able to avoid being completely overwhelmed.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
First, we must embarrassedly confess to never having read an O’Neill play. Before our visit to this Site, our perception of O’Neill was limited to the fact that he had won a Nobel Prize and colored by Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of him in Reds.

NPS assumes, and not unjustly, that if you have gone through the trouble of securing reservations, getting yourself to a Park and Ride lot and allow yourself to be shuffled into a shuttle van that you have at least a cursory knowledge of the man whose home you are about to visit for the next two hours.

By the time the O’Neills built and moved into the Tao House, 35 of Eugene’s plays had been published; three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize had been won, O’Neill’s greatness as a literary figure well-established. This is the starting point of the tour.

We wandered the gardens and toured each room of the house, learning a little more about O’Neill’s parents, his relationship with Carlotta, his children and his vices with each step. Touring the Tao House gives you an introspective look at the man behind the pen in the setting where he wrote his five most famous and autobiographical works. We learned a lot; we would have learned more had we done a little homework before the tour.

Since Michael occupied the front seat in the van, he used the ten-minute ride both to and from the site to fill in some blanks. Why have O’Neill’s plays declined in popularity over the years? “Well, it’s not fun stuff. Nobody really wants to be depressed, do they?” was the Ranger’s frank response.

Where The Iceman was WrotethFUN (6/10)
Two of O’Neill’s sons committed suicide. He disowned his only daughter because she married an actor, namely Charlie Chaplin. He suffered from a laundry list of unrelated but serious illnesses. One of these, a rare degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s disease disabled him from the physical act of writing. O’Neill, being an impossibly stubborn man, refused to write at all once he could no longer transfer his words from “head to hand to paper”. He produced nothing in the last ten years of his life. Not exactly fun stuff.

What was fun was the chauffeured drive through a lovely town and up the hills into a gated community, a guided tour of a quirky house whose inhabitants interpreted Tao philosophy to suit their decorative needs and the opportunity to see the writing space and into the psyche of one of America’s greatest artists. Did we mention it was free?

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Are you interested in the life of Eugene O’Neill? If you are not, then a tour of his house might not be a day well spent. If you are an admirer, then you owe yourself a visit.

TOTAL 50/80

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Grand Portage, Minn.
Visited: June 2, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 50 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Voyageur GabWHAT IS IT?
A reconstructed fort/trading village that includes a great hall, canoe building warehouse, and kitchen. Grand Portage lies at an important geographical place; the site that connected the Great Lakes and cities of the east to the fur trapping lands of the northwest.

BEAUTY (6/10)
While the monument is enclosed entirely within Grand Portage Indian Reservation it does include the 8.2 mile Grand Portage Trail which extends through the scenic boreal forest from Grand Portage Bay to the Canadian border. The forest is gorgeous as are the views of Lake Superior. The reconstructed fort is nothing if not accurate.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10)
Grand Portage NM is the real voyageurs site, as opposed to the nearby Voyageurs NP. Grand Portage NM marks and recreates the great summer fur trade Rendezvous. It also educates about the fur trade in general, canoe building and general 19th-century northwest life.

The site can be seen as a companion to the Salem Maritime NHP in Massachusetts. They both explain a similar period and experience in American life: the beginnings of international trade. Grand Portage NM, however, does a much better job.

Superior DangerCROWDS (7/10)
Given Grand Portage NM’s recent opening and remoteness, we were surprised to find dozens of tourists at the Site. The crowd was happy, interested and full of questions. Perhaps they had come from the nearby slots-only Native American casino and needed to spark their brains. It worked.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Located at the northeast tip of Minnesota. The Park is seasonal, opening on Memorial Day. We were there during its opening week.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The superb bookstore includes colorful Voyageur-style belts and hats as well as hand-made ceramics and goods imprinted with the North West Trading Company logo. The book selection is also tremendous and the store was the first to include the highly informative 2004 edition of Fodor’s Official Guide to America’s National Parks; a necessary purchase given the extreme change in Parks’ operating hours since the book’s 2001 edition.

COSTS (3/5)
The cost is $3 per adult, $6 per family. The Site is free with the National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
There were Rangers and volunteers everywhere. All were dressed in period costume so it was difficult to differentiate. In the Great Hall there were three people, two dressed as voyageurs, one dressed as a North West Company businessman.

There was a cook in the kitchen and a working canoe builder in the warehouse. They all knew so much. We spent nearly two and a half hours talking to them about the voyageurs, listening to their stories (mostly told in the first person) and asking questions.

Rendezvous GroundsTOURS/CLASSES (10/10)
One of the best yet. We especially enjoyed the discussions we had with both the cook and the canoe builder. The cook taught us about the intricacies of Minnesota wild rice. He even told us where to buy the “world’s best wild rice, a steal at $6 a pound”: nearby at the Grand Portage Trading Post and Post Office, run by the local Ojibwe Native Americans.

We learned what the North West Company executives ate during Rendezvous, what herbs were planted at the time, the history of the North West Company and its merger with the Hudson Bay Company and the environmental, political and conjugal effect the voyageur had on the region.

The cook was a wellspring of information, as was the canoe builder. He explained the trade routes, the canoe logistics, the canoe making process, the Rendezvous, the voyageur class system and so much more. Our guides were very skilled. They had the unique gift of being able to combine macro and micro issues into a living organic whole.

In addition, the self guided walking tour pamphlet, which seems at first superfluous, is one of the best we have seen so far. It culls even more information than the guides provide. Among other things, the pamphlet suggests books to further your knowledge, gives a handy North West Company timeline and describes a guided hiking trail over the 8.2 mile actual ‘Grand Portage’ from the Pigeon River to the site that borders Grand Portage Bay. The pamphlet is friendly and does not talk down to the reader; subsequently it is enjoyable to both adult and child, a rare feat.

Four videos are available for your viewing. We felt our time was better spent talking to the Rangers/volunteers. The planned Ojibwe Heritage Center will be a welcome addition in a Park Service seemingly bereft of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.

The PortagerFUN (9/10)
As soon as we entered the Grand Portage fort, we stepped back in time. There is no Visitor Center, no welcome and nobody dressed as a Ranger. You immediately step into the Great Hall and must orient yourself to the year 1800. It is initially disorientating but ultimately a brilliant success.

You can touch sample pelts, dress as a voyageur, wear the beaver pelt top hats, watch a massive canoe being made, see flint lock rifle demonstrations and see an 18th-century garden.

These wonderful hands-on living history displays still take a back seat to the impressive and knowledgeable Grand Portage NM staff. Everything about the site was first rate. We had a great time.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
A volunteer staffer told us that Grand Portage NM is not a “destination site”. That is a shame but not for good reason. It is in the middle of nowhere.

There are still many reasons to come to Grand Portage NM: 1) one of the three boats that travel to Isle Royale NP leaves two miles from Grand Portage NM; 2) the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness is very close and 3) the famed scenic drives up Highway 61 and up the Gunflint Trail are nearby.

If you find yourself doing any of these three things post-Memorial Day, come to Grand Portage NM. This Site is a hidden gem.

TOTAL 61/80

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