The stories here are on this still-evolving site are for entertainment only. For factual & up-to-date information, please visit relevant websites. For links to more than 100 other colorful travel stories by Chris Rodell, please visit the homepage directory: "Use All The Crayons TRAVEL!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ghosts and ghostings in haunted Virginia

Ghosting is the act of deliberately departing a social event or relationship without informing friends or your partner.
Cherlize Theron was recently in the news for ghosting from Sean Penn. No message. No explanation. After a nearly year-long love affair, she just split.
It was very cold, yes, and I’m always saddened anytime celebrity love dissipates, but Penn’s been such a surly jerk for so long it’s really not surprising. It’s just too bad he won’t ghost himself from our collective consciousness.
Some consider ghosting cowardly. Others say it’s a surgical social maneuver to avoid awkward goodbyes.
Me, I wish I had the guts to ghost.
Simply vanishing is vastly preferable to mouthing all the pat inanities that bust small talk clear down to atomic level.
Ghosts have been on my mind the past two days. 
In fact, I can add a cool new experience — an entirely paranormal one — to my blustery pseudo-credentials.
Promoters of the Discover Prince William County in Manassas, Virginia, saw my “Use All The Crayons TRAVEL!” endeavor and wanted to be included.
It was very flattering and I wanted to make it happen. They offered me a golf itinerary.
No. Golf doesn’t fit with the crayons theme.
How about outdoors? Family? Arts?
“How about ghosts? This is a hotbed of paranormal activity. We even have a haunted winery where staff must leave a glass of wine out for its ghost every night or else the ghost gets cranky.”
Drunken ghosts? Sounds like my kind of party.
So that’s how I happened to find myself among about a dozen paranormal investigators in the historic Weems-Botts House in Dumfries as the bewitching hour neared.
Mason Lock Weems was a colonial contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and authored the long-discredited fable about Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Benjamin Botts, another owner, is best known for being the attorney who secured an acquittal for Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president (and accuser) in his 1807 treason trial.
The grounds are strewn with tales of hangings and disturbed graves of ill-fated Rebel soldiers.
The weirdest part wasn’t all the ghost stories.
The weirdest part was all the true ghostbusters were all staring eagerly at me.
It wasn’t like they’d seen a ghost — all of them assured me they had. It was more like they’d seen a promotional bonanza. 
I thought the visit would be a simple tour.
The investigators and been told, I think, I was some kind of expert and I was going to spend the night profiling their experiences and methods. 
It left me in an awkward position. I’ve done some ghost writing, sure, I wasn’t the kind of ghostwriter for which they were hoping.
Our lead ghostbuster looked and acted the part. She looked like Stevie Nicks would if Stevie Nicks were more casual about her diet.
She kept talking to the spirits I could not see.
“Mamie? Are you here? I brought you some necklaces. Come out and say hello. These are our friends.”
The investigators minds were searingly focused on summoning a spirit.
She asked me at one point what I was thinking.
In fact, I’d been thinking what a great story I’d have if I could summon a really loud fart.
“I’m thinking,” I said, “the ghosts are being shy.”
It’s too bad. I really would have enjoyed a good shocking, anything to jar my hardening cynicism.
The trip was great, too. I enjoyed an afternoon ghost walk in quaint Occoquan and loved my brief afternoon at the haunted winery, La Grange in Haymarket.
But, of course, I’ll most remember my first seance, an event where we tried and failed to reach the spirit world.
The ghostbusters all eventually drifted away and clustered at a nearby pavilion as the night went on.
They were telling stories and sharing experiences involving lost souls, hauntings, exorcisms, spirit orbs and a world few will ever comprehend.
It looked to me like the kind of collegial bull session that would endure till dawn. I’d have been fine with that kind of socializing if someone had only conjured up a keg.
So I just kind of slipped away.
They’d spent the night looking for ghosts without ever realizing one had, I guess, been there all along.
I’d ghosted the ghostbusters.
So the night wasn’t a total loss.
I realized driving back that at least my spirits had been lifted.

Related . . .

Jimmy Stewart Museum denotes a wonderful life

The Jimmy Stewart Museum needs a George Bailey moment.

It needs a community of good-hearted people who revere all that’s good about Hollywood to dance in with baskets of cash to save it from a dreary Pottersville of a future with shuttered windows and sidewalks of scowling strangers. 

It needs a Sam Wainwright to wire it a line of credit to ensure future generations of Americans won’t forget about a Yankee Doodle Dandy whose charm and patriotism still resonate.

Hee! Haw!

“It’s touch and go right now,” says museum executive director Timothy Harley. “We need a cash influx to help us get through this challenging time.”

You can fly into The Jimmy Stewart Airport in Indiana, Pennsylvania, or drive about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh to Jimmy Stewart Boulevard to get to the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

No matter how you get there, a tour of the museum in the old YMCA will feel like home.

“This museum’s not just about Jimmy Stewart -- it’s about America,” says museum host Pat Ward. “His life takes us through the life of The Greatest Generation.”

Onscreen, Stewart portrayed a series of indelible American characters from George Bailey to Elwood P. Dowd to a young idealist named Mr. Jefferson Smith who went to Washington and changed a cynical political culture (well, for a while, at least).

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Harvey,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” -- these are the movies by which America raises its children.

Offscreen, Stewart was a real life Boy Scout, a war hero,  a father and a consummate gentleman.

The five-time best actor nominee was born in Indiana on May 20, 1908. His father owned the local hardware store in a building that today is across the street from the museum honoring his son. The hardware store was a local curiosity because it was where Stewart displayed the 1940 best actor Oscar he won for “The Philadelphia Story.” Customers admired it there next to the cash register when they paid for things like hammers and plumbing supplies.

A Boy Scout whose memory is still honored by The Boy Scout Jimmy Stewart Good Citizen Award, he graduated from Princeton University in 1932 and was soon commiserating about the difficulties of Broadway auditions with his tenement roommate, another eventual icon, Henry Fonda.

The success of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) made him a star and brought with it all the perks of fame -- including an opportunity to duck duty in World War II.

Not Stewart, an avid aviator who’d earned his pilot’s license in 1935.

“The studio told him he didn’t have to go to war and they were against him going,” Harley says. “Like a lot of stars, they wanted him to stay home safe and sell war bonds. But that wasn’t his way. It made front page news all over the country when he traded his $200,000 a year life in Beverly Hills for $21 a month to serve overseas as a private in the Army Air Corps.”

True to his word and displaying a puckish sense of humor, he still dutifully forked over a percentage of the monthly stipend to his agent back in Hollywood.

George Bailey was a chagrined 4-F, ineligible for service, but Jimmy Stewart the bomber pilot was more like four stars. He flew 20 combat missions, was awarded six battle stars and in 1945 returned home a full colonel.

He refused his military pension and donated it all back to the government. He remained active in the Air Force Reserve and retired in 1968 as a Brigadier General and earning the Distinguished Service Medal. 

At age 41 he married Gloria Hatrick McLean, already a mother to sons, Ronald, 5, and Michael, 3. Fraternal twin sisters, Judy and Kelly, were celebrated in 1951.

The family enjoyed a comfortable life at 918 North Roxbury in Beverly Hills. They tended an ample vegetable garden and shared the fresh bounty with neighbors Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Rosemary Clooney.

One of the museum’s most cherished exhibits is the actual front door from the home, sold and demolished after Stewart’s death in 1997 at age 89. Visitors peek through the door’s peephole and imagine what it was like to see frequent guests such as Stewart friends Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Gregory Peck standing outside.

“Growing up there made you not want to grow up,” daughter Kelly Stewart Harcourt is quoted as saying.

The museum shows a life imbued with joy on- and offscreen. Museum board member Pauline Simms says the people today look at the exhibits, recall the movies and marvel at a man so talented and, gosh, just so darn normal.

“The one comment we hear most of all is, ‘They just don’t make ‘em like him any more,” she says.

It’s true. It’s impossible to imagine Stewart bouncing up and down on Oprah’s couch.

He eventually expressed his life’s love in a much more poignant and profound way.

“He was devastated by the death of his wife in 1994,” Ward says, “and he lived out his final three years as a recluse. He loved her very much.”

Harley says attendance has steadily declined the past three years in concert with the economy and as Stewart’s contemporaries fade from bus tour participation. He is hopeful aging baby boomers will soon begin strolling the halls to admire a man who, thanks to his role as George Bailey, will be around as long as Christmas.

Admission’s certainly affordable: Adults are $7; Seniors and service personnel, $6; children (17-7) $5. And, hey, Pookas are free!

That’s a nod to Harvey, the 6-foot-3 invisible rabbit, who co-starred with Stewart on stage and in the 1950 film adaptation. Stewart says it was his favorite role.

At heart, it’s a story about a man so pleasant, so utterly charming, and so devoted  to the well-being of his every fellow man that the busy world is convinced he must be insane.

Remove lunacy from the equation and sounds like the man who played opposite the big pooka.

It’s a wonderful life. It deserves a wonderful museum.

If you go . . .
The Jimmy Stewart Museum, www.jimmy.org; 835 Philadelphia St., Indiana, Pa. 15701; 724 349-6112

Related . . .

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Greenbrier, the Bunker & the larger-than-life billionaire who owns 'em both

The Greenbrier pays such meticulous attention to detail it has a historian named Walls giving bunker tours.

I didn’t check but I have to imagine they have at least one chef named Cook.

Being a history buff, I’d been looking forward to the bunker tour since its top secret existence was revealed in 1992. Officially known as “Project Greek Island,” the bunker was conceived by President Dwight Eisenhower as the secure location where America’s government would endure in the event of a cataclysmic attack on Washington, D.C.

It’s Uncle Sam’s fallout shelter, the urgent destination of the men and women America would rely upon for governmental continuity in the event the unspeakable became reality.

So since its founding in 1778, The Greenbrier has been the place fortunate Americans want to go for the kind of nights they never want to end, and since 1962 the place to go if you think the world might.

The secret spilled in 1992 when the Washington Post published the story headlined: “Last Resort: The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway.”

Other banner headlines included: “Hotel Armageddon,” “The Secret is Out! Bunker Was Ready in Case of Nuclear Attack,” and — my favorite — “For Congress, Apocalypse Wow!”

Seeing the bunker has been a goal of mine ever since. 

So I was confounded when Linda Walls informed me that I, in fact, had been in the bunker before.

Not in a previous life.

In 2013.

I’d scored a freelance assignment to spend two nights at the prestigious White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, resort to cover the annual Certified Angus Beef convention.

I remember the beef convention was like what the inside of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory would have resembled if Willy Wonka had been a rapacious carnivore.

So I wasn’t there for Armageddon.

More like Farmagheddon.

In the exhibit hall there were maybe 50 premium beef vendors offering roasters full of the choicest cuts prepared the most savory ways. There were beef meatballs, shish kabobs, shepherds pie, beef stew, sausage, roast beef, steaks, ribs, corned beef, beef brisket, barbecue, cold cuts -- I think I even saw some beef ice cream.

I remember feeling euphoric.

Or maybe a better description is MOO-phoric!

And, in fact, the whole thing was taking place right inside the top secret bunker, a place ingeniously designed to hide in plain sight, a place so secret yet so exposed that for three decades none of the world’s top spies knew existed.

“It was one of the great secrets of the Cold War era,” Walls said. “It was built with the knowledge of everyone — you couldn’t conceal its massive construction — but no one knew its true purpose.”

The former U.S. Government Relocation Facility was announced under the guise of being the resort’s new West Virginia Wing. The still-functioning wing sits atop the concrete-and-steel reinforced bunker burrowed 720 feet into the hillside beneath the rooms.

As life-preserving places to wait out a nuclear winter go, the bunker’s not bad: Think of an underground parking garage, but with MREs, board games and bunk beds.

In the event of crisis, massive steel blast doors would slam shut and the exhibition hall would transform into congressional work space.

“DANGER: HIGH VOLTAGE” signs kept curious snoopers from entering more sensitive areas like the a self-contained power plant, dormitories, a cafeteria/kitchen, laundry, a dispensary clinic and a communications briefing room from which congressional updates would be broadcast to those who hadn’t been annihilated — and could still pick up a stray TV signal.

It was all maintained at instant readiness by a small cadre of secret agents working for the fictitious Forsythe Associates, ostensibly a group of techs serving the resort’s many audio visual needs. The  ruse included a rotating stock of disabled TV sets in the main office.

The sprawling facility was sealed by three enormous steel blast doors weighing 18, 25 and 30 tons each. The doors are so perfectly balanced, dainty people can open and close them with one hand.

Touring it today makes you nostalgic for when the U.S. government could work together to get big things done.

So many of the Greenbrier’s stories are larger than life and in 2009, America’s resort got an owner to match. Justice, 64, is 6-foot-7 and weighs about 350.

He's Jim Justice. The West Virginia native is one of the richest men in America -- Forbes lists him as being #368 --  having amassed a still-growing $1.68 billion fortune through coal, corn and timber interests. 

It’s no exaggeration to say he’s likely made a million dollars in the time it’s taken for you to read this far.

If that makes you angry, you can commiserate with Marriott Hotel executives. They in 2009 where in line to purchase The Greenbrier until Justice swept in and cut through the tangled deal with a $43 million cash offer too good for CSX owners to refuse.

The news was greeted with little enthusiasm by West Virginians who cherish their heirloom resort.

“Just 11 days ago, Greenbrier workers ratified new collective bargaining agreements thinking they were hitching their wagon to a world-class hotelier,” wrote George Hohmann of the Charleston Daily Mail at the time. They didn’t dream “they’d end up working for a coal guy who hasn’t even run a bed and breakfast.”

He’s lived his entire life within 50 miles of The Greenbrier and remembers telling friends the first time he saw it he felt like Dorothy did when she first spied the Emerald City.

He recognized it as a place where dreams come true.

Since purchasing the property, he’s poured more than $300 million into upgrades and just last week announced he’s hired Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Gary Player to build a championship got course capable of hosting the U.S. Open by the 2023.

He spent $30 million on a state-of-the-art NFL training facility and succeeded in luring both the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints to the resort to conduct summer camps.

He’s the titled owner of 47 companies and still finds time to stoke his competitive juices by coaching both the boys and girls Greenbrier East high’s basketball teams.

And, oh, yeah, he’s running to be the Democratic nominee for the 2016 West Virginia governor election.

If elected, will he be as successful in public office and he’s been in private?

Who knows?

But know this much: he’s like to remain the same cheerful and ebullient leader as he’s been through a very exuberant life.

In short, despite one of his more unusual possessions, Justice is unlikely to ever be the kind of guy who succumbs to bunker mentality.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The story of the suicidal Corona drinker & The New River Gorge Bridge

It was the kind of unsightly trash a devoted recycler like myself would instinctively take a few steps out of his way to retrieve for proper disposal. I do this especially when, as in this case, it’s in a national park spoiling one of the most spectacular views in America.

But I didn’t budge.

It was a six-pack of 12-ounce Corona glass bottles. Four of the beers had been emptied. Two full ones remained.

I stood there and tried to recall the number of times I’d have wandered 15 steps just for two free Coronas. It was a bunch.

Still, I remained frozen.

My reasoning had nothing to do with beer quality and everything to do with basic math. I knew if I took just one step I’d travel 851 feet.

Straight down.

I was in the middle of the 6/10-mile long, 24-inch maintenance catwalk suspended 20-feet beneath the New River Gorge Bridge, near Fayetteville, West Virginia. 

The beers had been drunk and left there the previous week by a forlorn young man who’d come to that exact spot to end his life.

“He’d broken undetected through all our security measures and walked out onto the middle of bridge and hopped the railing onto this beam,” said Jada, our guide, a pretty WVU Eastern Religious Studies major who’s about to depart for two months of primary studies in Cambodia and Vietnam. “He climbed out to the edge, sat down right there and started getting drunk. He was intent on jumping.”

She told us that and I wondered what some Hindu prophet would say about trying to penetrate the earthly veil by hurtling oneself off one of America’s landmark bridges.

Prior to 1977, it used to take U.S. Rt. 19 motorists 45 minutes to traverse the canyon-pinched New River, along with the nearby Gauley, are among the top white water rafting sites in the world. Today, thanks to the bridge, crossing takes 16,200 or so motorists each day just about 45 seconds. It was until 2002 the world’s highest vehicular bridge.

Yet for all its majesty, it still fits snug in your pocket.

The bridge profile is featured on the back of the 2005 commemorative West Virginia State quarter.

I’d written about the Bridge Walk in ’11 after it’d opened as one of the most unique tourist attractions in all America.

The 24-inch catwalk had for years been a rite-of-passage for local kids wanting to test their mettle. They’d sneak out there and maybe spray paint their names on the beams.

Then in 2010 local entrepreneur Benjy Simpson and five associates secured permission to add $1 million in unobtrusive safety features into the barren passage and on Sept. 26, 2010, opened Bridge Walk. A one-way trip costs $73.

“We’ve had every age from 9- to 95-years-old cross and we’ve had people in wheelchairs,” says Simpson. “Most are there for scenery or are engineering buffs marveling at the construction and many are people trying to overcome a fear of heights. We’ve had about 22,000 guests cross the bridge. Of them, only 70 have turned back.”

Physically, Bridge Walk is unimposing to anyone capable of a strolling a leisurely mile. Walkers are given harnesses and tethered to overhead steel cables.

For our 5 p.m. trip, it was just me, Josie, and Jada.

I’m not going to lie. I was scared the whole way.

I’m one of those guys who has no senseless fear of heights, but a dreadful fear of falling from high places, which I contend is different and makes perfect sense.

I’ve twice gone skydiving and in ’13 did a 102-story static-line leap from the Stratosphere SkyJump in Las Vegas.

I enjoy testing my nerves, but even more enjoy saying I’ve tested my nerves. I love being able to tell stories about adventures others say they’d rather avoid.

Bridge Walk is a perfect example. I know things can go wrong — even though they have never not once on Bridge Walk. And it’s indelible views are, indeed, spectacular.

Josie, being naive about dramatic death, has no fear whatsoever. She skipped along, used the railings for push-ups and was serene in her assurance that nothing could possibly go wrong.

I’d told here the bridge was a popular site for couples to get engaged. Until Jada showed us the castoff Coronas, it never dawned on her something so magnificent could be used as a place for something so dark.

“We don’t know how much he’d drunk before he got there, but at some point after he’d drunk that fourth beer he changed his mind,” Jada said. “He wasn’t going to jump. He didn’t want to die.”

It was an inconvenient place to have such a dramatic change of heart. He became immobilized by fear and alcohol.

He called 911 and explained his predicament. They rushed a crew to the bridge. The clipped in and a very brave first responder did a duty that’ll forever top the stories of the guys who like to brag about the old widow’s kitten they pulled from way up in the big oak.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of the men on the bridge that night and concluded my feet would have been damp.

In either case, I’m sure I’d have wet my pants.

The would-be suicide had to be in frightful condition. He was unstable out on an exposed beam and now consumed with both alcohol and a frantic will to live. One stumble in either direction and he falls the equivalent of the Washington Monument with the Statue of Liberty balanced on top.

The hero had to be nervous, too. He’d taken all the proper precautions, sure, but he was dealing with a drunken wildcard. What if it were a cruel ruse to try and take an innocent with him?

Me, at that height I was too nervous to remove my phone from my buttoned pocket to even snap a telltale picture of the trash, which had been left there because the rescuer was too otherwise occupied care about housekeeping matters.

A conspiracy-mined friend said he wondered if the Bridge Walk people planted the trash and came up with a crafty story.

Sure, anything’s possible, but it isn’t in the best interest of Bridge Walk to do anything that is tantamount to encouraging such lethal lawlessness.

And I don’t know much about Eastern Religions, but I’m sure they include a part about how unethical it would be for Jada to lie to visiting travel writers.

Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about the would-be suicide. I figured it must have been over a broken heart. I wondered about his thought progression as he went through his four beers.

Beer 1: “There’s no hope. This heart break will never heal. This is the only solution.”

Beer 2:  “Well, I’ve made some bad decisions, but I’m glad I got a premium import to soothe my final moments instead of that domestic swill I usually drink.”

Beer 3: “I wonder if this was a mistake. The Pirates are playing the Giants tonight. First pitch is in one hour. The game’ll be on down at the bar. I think Brenda’s working tonight. She was looking fine last week.”

Beer 4: “I want to live! Live! Live! Boy, am I glad I remembered to charge my phone before I came up here …”

It’d be great if we eventually hear how right there on the edge of that iconic bridge, the man’s life turned right around, that he found love, stability and the messianic will to became a role model for all the troubled strugglers who fail to realize that even the darkest day is still just one day.

Because a man-made structure as impressive as the New River Gorge Bridge should never be about anything other than the enduring grandeur of the human spirit. 

It’s out of my realm, but it seems to me the story has all the elements you’d need for a really dandy Corona beer commercial.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sound the bugles! Pennsylvania elk drawing crowds

A funny thing’s happened nearly 100 years after the people brought magnificent bugling elk back to central Pennsylvania: Today, the elk are bringing people to central Pennsylvania.

In one of America’s biggest conservation success stories from the last century -- both in size and scope -- the once-decimated herd are thriving and people whose armed ancestors hunted them to extinction are now mostly shooting them with cameras.

“They’re coming from all over,” says Janet Colwell, a local guide who with her husband Jeff run Hicks Run Outfitters. “We take them on tours and they see bear, deer, turkey, coyote, but the highlight is always seeing a big bull elk and hearing it bugle.”

They should think about spending an afternoon in Rawley Cogan’s office.

“I’m looking out my window and there are about 100 elk out there right now,” says Cogan, president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance.

His office is located in the year-old $11 million Elk Country Visitor’s Center near Benezette in the heart of an 835-square-mile, Yellowstone-sized region the Keystone State is promoting as the Pennsylvania Wilds.

He said the public-private partnership that built the center projected 40,000 people would make the trip to learn about and experience the elk.

“Instead we had 105,000 people come the first year -- 5,200 on one day.”

The center features a state-of-the-art 4-D (sight, sound, smell and touch) theater, interactive displays, dioramas depicting bull and cow elk that can in the wild weigh as much as 900 pounds and 500 pounds, respectively.

Wagon rides over the trails afford visitors the opportunity to observe the elk in the same social situations that make human reality TV so compelling.

They frolic, they fight and become involved in truly natural couplings that eventually lead to the spring births of 40-pound calfs that look remarkably deer-like for animals that will soon dwarf their genetic cousins by eating up to 20-pounds of grass each day.

Colwell says the Pennsylvania Wilds has always had the creatures. Now, it’s getting the comforts.

“In the last five years, we’ve seen a lot of new lodges and restaurants spring up,” she says. “Now there are places to eat and places to stay. It’s attracting lots of people.”

The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park, like the visitor center 75-minutes away, is another example of a successful public and private partnership working to increase tourism. The $9.6 million 16-room inn is several elegant steps above the rustic nature of many state park lodges and is earning raves for its sophisticated application of green technologies.

Elk hunters vie for roughly 50 lottery licenses each fall. The number fluctuates depending on the health of the herd.

“A well-maintained herd is a tremendous resource to Pennsylvania,” Cogan says. “I like to think we’ve figured out how man and elk can share the landscape to the benefit of both.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pier Pressure: At Lake Geneva, mail delivery a spectator sport

The first time I head ordinary folks were paying $14.95 (U.S.) to watch mail get delivered, one word leapt to mind: toplessness.

Wanton displays of nubile flesh. Had to be.

“Hugh Hefner must have a hand in this somewhere,” I thought, “and the results have to be something sinful.”

Well it turns out he did, but it isn’t.

The mail delivery at Lake Geneva involves nothing shameful. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie, as thrilling as the Fourth of July and as wholesome as a “Waltons” marathon on The Family Channel. Sure, as diversionary pastimes go, it sounds like it would be right up there with watching grass grow. But mail delivery at this scenic summer playground near the Illinois-Wisconsin border is a time-honored spectator sport worth of Evil Knievel.

As many as 140 customers a day pay to watch daredevil delivery women risk life and limb (not to mention an embarrassing dunking) as they jump from the front of a moving cruise ship to deliver the daily mail to on-shore mailboxes, and then dash back in time to catch the 23-metre Walworth II’s stately stern before it slips by.

“Yeah, its run, run, run or else you end up in the drink,” says Karen Cochenour, 20, a junior at Winona State University in Winona, Minn. She’s one of three contracted delivery women who bring the mail the way their shore-based counterparts would only if sufficiently motivated by a pack of hungry Rottweilers.

Cochenour, Heather Duerst, 20, and Jennifer Griffing, 19, were selected from dozens of candidates who fell to pier pressure. On the Geneva Lake Cruise Lines, being left high and dry makes you a winner. Their derring-do delivery can transform simple utility bills into breathtaking feats, make junk mail a joy, and set pulses racing with lusty lover letters long before said letters are opened. 

For us, it’s really exhilarating and it sure beats waiting on tables or making pizzas — and where else are you going to get a summer job where people cheer and applaud? They ‘Oooooh!’ and ‘Aaaah!” like it’s the Fourth of July. When it comes right down to it, all we’re doing is delivering the mail, but people love it.”

Lake Geneva — the town’s name begins with Lake, the body of water begins with Geneva — bills itself as offering “many things to do,but the perfect place to do nothing.”

Hugh Hefner once saw it as the perfect place to do whatever it was Hugh liked to do. On the beautiful rolling hills on the outskirts of town, he built the nationally acclaimed Playboy Club & Resort, the spot for swingers from 1969 to 1982. Since 1994, it has been the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, a four-diamond family resort where the only real bunnies anyone can see frolicking are on the two PGA-quality golf courses. The only evidence Hef was ever here is best viewed from 450 metres above the ground: The man-made lake where families paddle and boat is a clearly visible image of Playboy’s world-famous corporate logo.

Downtown Lake Geneva, pop. 6,000, is a quaint hodgepodge of shops, bars and restaurants. The people are friendly and so honest that unattended roadside stands selling delicious sweet corn operate on the honour system. Great for breakfast is Scuttlebutts overlooking the lake. They serve dandy portions of Swedish pancakes with sides of spicy sausages. Also enjoyable through the day is Popeye’s, a local landmark, with its huge, smokey barbecue pits where spits of lamb, pork and chicken are carried with appetite-igniting aplomb to the rowdy restaurant next door.

The only place more bustling than the crowded summer streets is the 2,100 hectare Geneva Lake. At 13 kilometres in length, three kilometres in width and 44 metres in depth, it’s big enough to host the flotilla of sailboats, sport fishermen, jet-ski riders and the various excursions provided by Geneva Cruise Lines, which began operating its mail cruises in 1958. The tradition goes back more than 120 years.

Well-to-do Chicagoans named Wrigley, Sears, and Montgomery Ward began traveling to Walworth County to boat, hunt and fish back in the 1870s. As they began to settle into elegant mansions around the remote lake and its 42 kilometers of shoreline they began to demand regular mail service for the freshly dubbed “Newport of the West.”

Cruise Line spokesman Harold Friestead said: “Back then there was no door-to-door postal delivery around here and the dirt roads make the trip into town difficult.”

So a servant was sent to deliver the mail by steam ship. When postal service began home delivery in 1913, they too found it more convenient to locate the mailboxes on the piers rather than the road. Winter delivery can take more than double the 2 1/2 hours it takes for the cruise line to deliver via boat.

Today the post office continues to offer dockside service June 15 through Sept. 15 at no additional charge to the 60 shore dwellers who request it. It’s popular as well as practical. Many of the residents live more than a kilometer from the road and the post office won't deliver off-road. Here, their mailboxes are right off their piers and they get their mail right at their back door.

“It works out for the post office because they can contract with us for very little to serve a remote route, and it works out for us because lots of people will pay to watch the mail get delivered by boat,” Friestead said.

Most of the mailboxes are a short dash from the boat. It’s leap, run to the end of the pier, drop off the mail and dash back with a few seconds to spare. All except for the dreaded Yarmo Box.

Although the Yarmo Box is nothing more than a postal repository, the women speak its name with the same tone of dread POWs use to describe diabolical coercion devices. Indeed, for them, it can lead to cruel water torture.

Cochenour said: “That’s a toughie. It’s way up on the hill at the end of the pier. The Yarmo Box is touch and go.”

In an attempt to be accommodating, the kindly Yarmos once moved the mailbox down near the pier, but cruise line operators would have none of it.

“We told them to move it back,” Friestead said. “It makes the trip more exciting.”

If it’s excitement you want, Capt. Neill Frame, who’s captained the boat since 1969, said unleash a protective canine on the property for the daily runs.

“One memorable summer a family brought a large, very protective family dog and let it run loose,” Frame said. “We could all see the dog at the top of the yard as we drew near the pier. Everyone knew it was going to be close.

“The girl leapt off the boat and sprinted toward the mailbox. The whole time the dog was sprinting toward her. She dropped off the mail just as the dog reached the dock. She made it back to the boat just in time, but not before the dog gave her rear end a little nip.

“Boy, the crowd really cheered for that one.”

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