Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

The Death Knell of Suburbia (Los Altos Town Crier, July 1, 2015)

Photo by C Birnbaum

Photo by C Birnbaum

 

The orchards are gone. The single-story ranch house is seen as a waste of valuable land and air space. An eight-lane freeway thunders past the bridle paths in Los Altos Hills. But nothing has signaled the death of surburbia more definitely than the announcement last month that Sunset, the “Magazine of Western Living” is abandoning its spacious, rambling, garden-focused headquarters in Menlo Park and relocating to an urban shopping/restaurant hub in Oakland.

When my family moved to Los Altos in the late 50’s, we knew nothing about suburban life. My parents had been raised in a city, relocated to a smallish county seat in the mid-South, living in a succession of small homes. Then we found ourselves in Los Altos, on nearly an acre of land which included sixteen assorted fruit trees, three assorted nut trees, plus a grapevine and a mint patch, a separate outbuilding (part garage, part workshop, part toolshed) and a creek in the back.

Sunset, May 1993

Sunset, May 1993

Sunset became my parents’ bible. My father learned about composting, about roto-tilling, and about hulling walnuts and protecting almonds from squirrels, and about grilling steaks and salmon and trout on an outdoor grill. My mother learned how to dry apricots, can peaches, make plum jam, and put together a block party or a kid’s Christmas craft workshop. For years my parents saved every issue, just in case they needed a recipe for fig chutney or how-to instructions for making a picnic table or a lawn chair. I even appeared in a sidebar about making party banners, back before you could buy banners for every occasion in the hardware store.

Sunset August 1976 -That's me at upper right!

Sunset August 1976 -That’s me at upper right!

Of course, when I brought my young family back to Los Altos in the 80’s, we immediately subscribed to Sunset. I noticed a change. There were fewer articles about how to make things, and more articles about where to buy things. The recipes used more exotic ingredients like fenugreek and sumac and grapeseed oil, and less of the things you might grow in your own yard. A wine section had been added. The travel section listed more resort hotels and fewer family camping spots.

According to the announcement of Sunset’s move to Oakland (San Jose Mercury News, June 3, 2015) “the new headquarters… underscores the shift in western lifestyles in recent years…. Rooted for decades in suburbia and the suburban lifestyle…, the magazine now is following the trend of young tech workers, empty nesters and others who increasingly seek larger cities for their homes.” Per Sunset editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop “ we are joining the trend that our readers have started.”

Sunset July 2015 - pay to play!

Sunset July 2015 – pay to play!

I didn’t go to the last Sunset Celebration, the annual food/wine/garden/home décor party that has been hosted for decades at the Menlo Park headquarters. I didn’t want to say good-bye to the showcase gardens, which had been one of the places we always used to take out-of-state visitors to convince them that we really were living in Paradise. The property “is deemed to be a prime spot for development of first-class office buildings.”

I wonder if they will install a tombstone, or at least a memorial plaque: “Suburbia – born in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, 1950; died in Silicon Valley, 2015. And so goes the dream.

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Sunset June 1976 – Campfire Cooking

Sunset July 2015 - Almond Torte with grilled figs

Sunset July 2015 – Almond Torte with grilled figs

Freeway Free in New Mexico: the Turquoise Trail

turq-pics_056-995x269New Mexico Highway 14 – the Turquoise Trail – parallels  I-25, the main road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  I-25 despite boasting  three lanes of (light) traffic each way is not  a freeway, as it alternates creatively decorated overpasses with intermittent cross traffic.  If you want to travel a beautiful bypass full of surprises, choose the Turquoise Trail.

The name is  a marketing ploy to attract tourists.  There are no opportunities to mine for turquoise, and not very many of the Indian arts and silversmithing shops that are so ubiquitous around Santa Fe’s main plaza. “Turquoise” is mainly the color of the overpasses feeding toward the Interstate 10-15 miles west.

What you will find is beautiful rolling open country dotted with sage, pinon pine, and juniper, punctuated by red rock escarpments stretching off into the purple distance where mountains lump up against the horizon.

The_band-565x292And there is amazing and amusing roadside art, first in dribs and drabs, e.g.  lifesize mustangs cut out of sheet metal and painted bright colors, interspersed with mustang-sized sheet metal origami cranes.  Then cresting into a tsunami of eccentricity in the  artist colony of Madrid (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable – rhymes with Hagrid) – a rather dilapidated settlement of old buildings, bright paint, tie-dye and macramé warped out of the 1960’s into a colder, blander 21st century.

We had a deadline to meet in Albuquerque, so we did not stop even to take pictures.  But one day I want to trek the Turquoise Trail again, and maybe spend some serious time lolly-gagging in a weathered rocking chair behind the wind chimes and macramé plant holders on one of those slightly skewed porches looking out at the passing parade.

Freeway Free in Santa Fe

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If you are in Santa Fe, stay at the La Fonda. Why not? It has all the historic charm of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, or the El Tovar at the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is not located in a national park, so it went through some hard times before being lovingly restored to splendid 1920’s level grandeur. And it is MUCH more affordable than the Ahwahnee with all the wonderful hand-hewn timber, eccentric architecture (there are at least three different ways to get to any given room), interesting restaurant menus and wonderful service.P1020698web

 

IMG_0471webOnce you are there on the square, take a city tour. Why not? It will give you an overview of what you can walk to or drive to, some historical background, some pretty corny jokes, and an interesting group of fellow tourist to exchange home town data with. It’s a pleasantly slow ramp-up to the day, and you can hop on a trolley right outside the La Fonda. It will take you through the art scene street (see above), some excellent outdoor sculpture, and leave you with lots of ideas on how to spend your NEXT trip to Santa Fe. (Museum Hill?  A whole day we didn’t have to spend this time!)

 

Once you have finished your city tour, you will want lunch. There you are on the plaza/. Try the Famous Plaza Cafe – lots of history on the plaza, pressed tin ceiling, friendly and fast service, and killer fish tacos.P1020721web

 

Now it’s time for the museums. The New Mexico History Museum  is a GEM according to AAA’s road guide, and rightfully so. With admission you also get to explore the Palace of the Governors, one of the few surviving real adobe buildings in Santa Fe (the others are brick coated with stucco in imitation) and probably one of the few single-story palaces in the world.  And if you have read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes to the Archbishop” (and I hope you have, as a prep for your Santa Fe visit) you will find portraits of ALL the main characters hanging in the Museum or the Palace – instantly recognizable.

 

P1020741webOn your way back to La Fonda, be sure to explore inside the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi which faces the square. Again, if you have read “DCttAB” you cannot fail to be moved by the statue of the austere Archbishop Lamy who reformed and re-energized the New Mexico church mission, and by the little wooden Madonna, regally gowned by the devout needlewomen of the Santa Fe diocese, who is the core of Catholic tradition in the area, paraded around the square in her finery once eacy year.

 

You’ve walked a lot. Time to relax at the pool in the La Fonda central courtyard. It’s shielded from wind and sun and kept at a perfect temperature.P1020734web

 

Once you are dry and dressed, present yourself at the Bell Tower Bar at the very top of the LaFonda, with a 360 degree view of the square,the town, the mountains, and the clouds. Everyone up here is in a good mood – what nicer place could there be to strike up a conversation with the folks around the firepit or cocktail table?

And if you have not filled yourself up on appetizers at the Bell Tower, finish off your Santa Fe day at La Plazuela, the restaurant in the former courtyard (now roofed with a skylight) around the fountain at the center of La Fonda. There are other restaurants in town which boast Michelin stars, but none that can boast more atmosphere or history. I recommend the pork tamales.

 

The evening is up to you.

Freeway Free in New Mexico: The Town that Wasn’t There

The view from the road to Nowhere

The view from the road to Nowhere

The road to Los Alamos is paved now, and there are comforting stone barriers separating the driver from the precipitous drops edging the switchbacks as you climb from the valley of the Santa Fe River.  There are even scenic viewpoints provided so that you can look out over the valley of the Rio Grande as it carves its way toward El Paso.  It’s a long way from those days in the early 1940’s when the town was as isolated and exotic as Narnia, its only entrance through an inconspicuous door of an old adobe on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

In those days the inhabitants of Los Alamos were divided, like Narnia, into two very different groups, but unlike Narnia, they were putatively on the same side.  The town had been created by the US Military, and its routine labor and its decidedly non-routine security were provided by the Army.  But its purpose was to probe areas of science that had never been explored – to create the weapon that would end World War II, killing hundred of thousands of people, but by doing so save a million other lives which would have been lost through hand-to-hand combat, disease, ritual suicide, and other causes in a drawn-out battle for Japan.

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Dwarf meets Elf, with Man in the middle

Perhaps the uneasy alliance was more like that of Elves and Dwarves in the battle against the Dark Lord of Mordor. Certainly there was an elfin quality about Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists, and a foursquare dwarvish solidity about his military counterpart, General Leslie Groves.   And there were ordinary people at Los Alamos, too; there were cleaning women and secretaries and nurses and teachers, who played their roles without ever quite knowing what was going on.

Now the town looks quite ordinary.  There is a struggling downtown area with some small shops and restaurants, and a new shopping mall.  There is an excellent sandwich shop, Daniel’s Café (sharing space with Mary’s Gelato) .  I recommend the Tuna Melt.

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

There is a high school which had been originally funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and still gets 22% of its funding from the FEderal Government.  Since the principal employer in Los Alamos is still the Laboratory, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of physicists have gained national recognition for their school’s academic program.

And there is a wonderful museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, which tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of all three groups who worked there, as well as revealing as much as can be told about the lab’s current activities

For more about Los Alamos and the Mahattan Project, you can’t go wrong reading Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont, and then watching “The Day After Trinity”, a  fine documentary about Robert Oppenheimer.  And when you walk the sidewalks of  the Town that Wasn’t There, you’ll hear history echoing in your footsteps.

Freeway Free in New Mexico – Willa Cather Country

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On our first day in New Mexico we arrived in Albuquerque and drove north to wherewe would rendezvous with friends.  I was grateful that I had prepared for our trip by re-reading Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.  She gave me the words to describe what I was seeing:  “In other places the sky is the roof of the world.  Here the earth is somply the floor of the sky.” As we drove through the austere landscape that sky stretched over and around us in an immense blue expanse, shrinking the distant mountains and mesas to the size of doll furniture.

The countryside was austere, but not barren.  There were pinon pines twisting along the ridges, cottonwood tries lining the dry washes where water had flowed and would flow again.  The six-lane highway was punctuated by over-crossings decorated with southwestern motifs: thunderbirds, stampeding mustangs, desert tortoises, road runners.  The roads themselves led off to a couple of barns, or a boarded up gas station, or a billboard advertising Native American Jewelry – 5 miles west.

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We arrived at our hotel just the other side of nowhere (that is, fourteen miles north of Santa Fe), a comfortable and bland Homewood Suites just next to the Buffalo Thunder Resort Hotel and Casino, where we had dinner on the outside patio as the sun went down, the moon rose, and the artificial luminarias lit up the pseudo-adobe battlements.

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Drought Intolerance (Los Altos Town Crier, June 4, 2015)

P1020796webDrought intolerance

Four years into it, almost everyone but the Santa Clara Valley Water District is admitting that our drought is a reality that won’t go away. (Hello, SCVWD? Still insist on building those catch basins in San Antonio Preserve and McKelvey for flood protection?) Walking, jogging, and biking around my Los Altos neighborhood, you can see a number of different landscape solutions our neighbors have reached in order to cope with water scarcity . These include:

Total Denial: The lawn is green and trimmed, shrubs are pruned, flowers are blooming. “This is my lawn and my flowers and I’m jolly well going to keep them going – it’s bound to rain someday!”

Good Citizen: the lawn is trimmed but browning, flowers are going to seed instead of being pruned. “Brown is the new Green!”

Cottage Gardener: the yard has no lawn instead flagstone paths lead to a bench or wrought iron table and chairs, surrounded by, lots of roses, hydrangeas, and other blooming flowers and shrubs. “It’s all on drip irrigation, get off my case!”

P1020804webPractical Productivity: The lawn has been replaced by raised beds sowed with vegetables, herbs, snail-repelling marigolds, and cutting flowers,   surrounded by gravel paths and bark mulch. “If I can’t eat it, smell it, or put it in a vase, I’m not watering it!”

Concrete and Conifer (good for corner lots): A large tree in front of the house (usually evergreen, but sometime oak) with a layer of weed-stifling leaves or needles underneath, provides the focal point of the landscaping. A circular driveway takes up the rest of what would be lawn. Some shrubs fill in the corners. “High function, low maintenance – what’s not to like?”

Maybe Sleeping Beauty is in there?

Maybe Sleeping Beauty is in there?

Concealment: A new picket fence bordered with shrubs conceals the yard. Is there lawn behind it, or dried ground? “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

Desert shrubs, bubbling fountain, recycled water?

Desert shrubs, bubbling fountain, recycled water?

Smugness: (prevalent with newer houses with either Mission-style or Modern architecture) Instead of lawn, lots of gravel in geometric designs, bark mulch, feather grass, sage, California natives and usually a “water feature” (with recycled water, of course) just to rub it in how much water they are saving on the rest of the landscaping. “We saw it coming and you didn’t! Nyah nyah nyah!”

Anachronistic: The traditional Los Altos ranchhouse, but the lawn has been replaced with bark mulch and gravel as with the Mission/Modern landscape. “So it doesn’t match the ranch-suburban look, it’s not going to be featured in Sunset, but it keeps the water bill down.”

50’s Los Altos throwback: a wide border of overgrown juniper shrubs, with a spread of English Ivy instead of lawn. “Everything old is new again!”

Is it real?

Is it real?

Embracing the inevitable (Suburban traditional): It looks like a luxuriant lawn, but a closer look reveals artificial turf. “I can have my cake and eat it too!”

Weeds, schmeeds! It's ornamental grass!

Weeds, schmeeds! It’s ornamental grass!

Embracing the inevitable (Pioneer traditional): A border around the former lawn has been mowed, but the central portion has been allowed to revert to waist-high horsetail grass and star thistle. “Weeds, shmeeds, I say it’s ornamental grass, and I say the heck with it!”

A Familiar Icon Pops Up

Piano

I was walking to my car parked on a side street downtown when my eye fell on an old familiar acquaintance from my early childhood.. It was the Steinway logo over the door of the new Steinway and Sons showroom, recently added to the local merchant roster.S&Slogo

I have been intimate with the Steinway logo ever since my mother inherited a beautiful mahogany Steinway grand (model M) from her step-father, who had owned the Steinway dealership in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The piano had been personally autographed by the then-president of Steinway and Sons, Theodore Steinway.  (According to family lore, this was because Mrs. Daynes wanted to prevent her husband’s selling the piano right out of her living room, as he had been known to do.) We had to buy a new house in order to accommodate the piano, as it refused to fit in our compact living room. (I gained a new sister at about the time the piano arrived, which probably influenced the move also.)

As a child the piano was my fort, my cave, my favorite retreat. I was quite familiar with all the small nooks and crannies visible only from the underside, so imagine my glee when one day I poked a toy into one of my accustomed hiding places and found something else hidden there. I bounced out from under the piano caroling “Mommy! Mommy! I found money hidden in the piano!” My mother turned white, then red. She had been entrusted with some cash from a school fund-raiser and had thought she had found the perfect hiding place. Her security had lasted only about forty minutes.

Later I was not on such good terms with the Steinway. My parents felt that with such an instrument in the family, someone must learn to play it, and the choice settled on me. I suspect my older brother, whose long fingers were much better suited to the task than my short stubby ones, simply made himself scarce at any time when the subject of piano lessons was mentioned. I wasn’t as agile, so I was sentenced to a weekly pilgrimage to the home of Mrs. Knox, a few blocks away, plus daily practice.

It wasn’t so bad at first, learning scales and simple tunes which I could memorize and play back without having to practice very much. But then we got to two hands, and the need for coordination overwhelmed my ability to fake being able to read the music. By the time I was ten I was weeping at the keyboard, and Mrs. Knox regretfully told my mother that as I seemed to have neither talent nor inclination to practice, I had better stop taking lessons.

Fortunately, that little sister I mentioned was just getting to the age where she invited comparisons to Shirley Temple, and she loved to perform. I gratefully handed over the practice time to her.

The Steinway is still in Mom’s living room, not used much now that my sister is married and away. But I do have three long-fingered grand-children, each of whom has embarked on piano lessons. I’m hoping the Steinway will be a family member for a long time to come.PianoSignature

Hidden Treasures: Long Beach Harbor

P1020543docLong Beach Harbor is a treasure hiding in plain site.  I had done business in Long Beach, gone to its convention center, been through its airport and seen its container shipping port from above.  But who knew that beyond the commercial façade is a redeveloped harborside rivalling Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with a miles-long bike/pedestrian path rivalling that of Venice Beach?

We stayed at the harbor by accident.  We were on our way to Catalina and stopped over in Long Beach the night before.  My Personal Travel Agent had done his usual excellent research, and we ended up at the Hotel Maya (part of the xxx chain, but don’t let that put you off.)  The Maya is an unusual collection of buildings, creatively architected so as to faintly evoke Mayan pyramids, while offering each room a view of the harbor from its balcony.  It is a bit of a maze to negotiate, but the views are great.  If you don’t like your balcony, you can take your evening glass of wine down to the beach, where a staff member is charged with lighting the fire pits in the evening.

20150322_064723webThe restaurant at the Maya exceeds all expectations, with an outdoor deck looking out at that harbor view, and some of the best scallops we ate in a decadent week of eating scallops. P1020548web

A stroll along the beach front promenade gave us a good view of the parties going on – a wedding where the bride and her maids were flaunting shapely gams through slit skirts, a black and white ball where the person we mistook for the bride was most likely neither getting married nor even female, as  the ball was sponsored by the LBTG alliance.P1020550web

The next morning we ate a leisurely breakfast and headed over to take a look at the Queen Mary docked just down the beach.  This proud lady of the seas is now reduced to being a tourist museum featuring Princess Diana, but she still looks a lot more elegant with her rakishly slanted smokestacks than the clunky Carnival cruiser parked next to her, a floating hotel complete with water slide.20150322_101952_1cropweb

Our last look at Long Beach Harbor took us to the ferry boat dock past a shopping arcade arfully crafted to evoke an old-style Playland-at-the-Beach.  The ferris wheel was real, the roller coaster was really a pedestrian bridge leading into the arcade. Sadly, our ferry beckoned.  I can hardly wait to go back to Long Beach to find out what is at the other end of that roller coaster bridge.

Hidden Treasures: Car-free carefree Catalina

 

20150324_092816docBefore William Randolph Hearst transformed a remote family campsite into a private Gothic Dreamcastle, before Walt Disney transformed an orange plantation into a fairy-tale theme park, there was Santa Catalina Island.  In the 1920’s it was mostly scrub, used occasionally as the setting for Western movies. (Leftover bison still roam the interior).  Then William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate had a vision. He bought Catalina Island and created an art-deco enclave , added the west’s first professional baseball team as an attraction, (the Wrigley – owned Chicago Cubs came across the country for their spring training), and invited the public to come. . The island is open to anyone who can get there, by ferry, by private boat, by plane, or you can, as the Four Preps famously sung, “swim with just some water wings and my guitar.”20150323_092507web

Wrigley wasn’t the first to build a resort on Santa Catalina Island, but he had the money to buy out his predecessor after a fire leveled half of the main town of Shatto (named for the previous owner). He renamed and recreated the town as Avalon, started up a ceramic factory with produced the  omni-present tiles and ceramics which set the theme of the town, and crowned the effort by building the Casino (“gathering place” in Italian). The Casino includes a theatre whose decor was designed by the same artist who created Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It also includes a ballroom with the largest hardwood dance floor in the US. THe whole thing is circular in shape and topped with a tiny little cupola which formerly housed a beacon guiding boats into the harbor. I’ve never seen another building remotely like it.

20150322_115128web In the 20’s and 30’s Santa Catalina was a getaway haven for Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Humbphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Wayne. Winston Churchill came here to fish for marlin. During the war Errol Flynn sailed here and was arrested for indecent behavior. Norma Jean Dougherty lived here with her merchant marine husband Jim, years before she became Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood drowned here. The little Catalina Island museum is full of cinema history,

Access to Wrigley’s island is by ferry, helicopter, or private plane. There are almost no cars on the island. Transportation is mainly by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. The resort area included a lot of what you might see in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba diving, although the beaches are skimpy and the water is chilly.   Outside of the resort area of Avalon, the island is a nature preserve, harboring kit foxes, bald eagles, and the afore-mentioned buffalo. Hiking, camping and biking in the back country is by permit. Jeep tours are available, but pricey ($72/person for a 6 hour tour.) 20150323_120629web

So, you ‘d like to visit Tuscany but you hate long plane flights? You can experience the picturesque village of Avalon clinging to the steep hillsides of Catalina. You love the desert atmosphere and beach vibe of Cabo San Lucas but your passport has expired?  Hike the back country of Catalina and take in the 360 degree views of ocean and harbor from the heights of the island.  You just want to get away, bask in the sun, and eat great food?  Avalon has lots of sunshine and chaise lounges for basking, plus excellent food from fish tacos on the pier to high-end California Fusion at the Avalon Grill.

What are you waiting for?

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Hidden Treasures: A Redwood Forest without the Crowds

20150303_143851docYou remember your last trip to Muir Woods in Northern California.  You remember the stately redwoods soaring into the blue sky – or the fog, depending on the season.  You remember walking on the boardwalk between the trees feeling as though you were at the feet of giants. It was awesome in the old-fashioned sense.

But you probably also remember the twisty 2-lane road to Muir Woods, following behind a diesel-powered tour bus, with maybe a couple of kids in the back whimpering “Mommy, Daddy, I don’t feel so good.  And you remember the fruitless search for a parking place in the cramped lot, and finally finding a place along the narrow road nearly a mile from the entrance, and the long walk (maybe with a couple of kids) to the park and then the somehow longer walk (maybe with tired kids) back to the car, and that twisty road.  And you remember the other people crowding the boardwalk, waiting in line to take a picture of the kids next to the tallest tree, waiting in line for the restrooms, waiting in line to buy a postcard. Muir Woods is up to 6000 visitors a day.

But wait!  There are other redwoods in the San Francisco area.  And many of them are easier to get to, have larger parking lots, and no lines.  I’m not talking about Hendy Woods State Park (road even twistier, and too far from the Bay Area.)  I’m not even talking about Big Basin (still a two hour drive from anywhere, and mosquitoes!)

20150303_142948webI’m talking about Henry Cowell Redwoods near Felton in Santa Cruz County, just over the Coast Range from Silicon Valley via four-lane freeway for most of the way. Henry Cowell has the spectacular trees, has the shaded paths between behemoths, has the fog and the ferns depending on the season.  But look at this picture of the parking lot.  Empty parking spaces!  And no tour buses!20150303_144032web

On  a recent visit the sun filtered greenly down between the cathedral-high branches of the redwoods.  The light reflected even more green from the wood sorrel and fern carpeting the ground by the path.  The moss-covered logs and bay trees almost glowed with a green so intense that I felt as though I was walking under water.  The quiet was so deep that I could  hear the fall of a leaf.  Along another section of the path the San Lorenzo River burbled  between sandy banks. A dozen narrow footpaths showed where children and their parents had given in to the temptation to test the water during the summer.  On this spring weekday afternoon I was the only person in sight.

On a weekend the park is a bit more bustling, partly because of the activity just next door (literally a fence-hop away) at Felton’s Roaring Camp Railroad.  If those kids need corralling after rambling through the redwoods, a ride on a steam train up to a second redwood grove might be just the thing.  And if you are lucky they will sleep all the way home.

 

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