Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

The Hollow Towns (LATC July 2014)

 
 
The Great WAll of Los Altos
 
My husband and I recently took a backroads trip across the country. We avoided the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible, choosing instead the old US highways which usually pass right down the main streets of whatever population centers are strung along their path.  Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go.  And the downtown businesses which comprised the community core then wither, and their buildings rot, and there is no there there.
 
Often, very often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem.  In the 50′s and 60′s it was imagined to be all about parking.  People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought.  So the city managers gutted the city center,tearing down the historic structures which gave it personality, and replaced those structures with parking lots. 
 
Hotel Blemerhasset, Parkersburg WVI’m talking about Parkersburg, West Virginia. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire (if it was a church) or a clock tower (if it was a civic building),  The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “… abandoned in the 50′s.” “…gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time.” “…razed unceremoniously in the 70′s despite citizen and local historian’s outraged protest.”  I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out.  Parking lots, all. And all empty.  Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
 
I’m talking about Sunnyvale, California. In the 1950′s Murphy Avenue was the main street of Sunnyvale, and boasted a department store and a number of other retail shops.  Adjacent to Murphy Avenue was a  Town and Country Village shopping center, with wide overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.  But in the 60′s competition from the new Stanford Mall was extreme.  So the city fathers decided to create the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so they cut off Murphy Avenue and converted it to a parking lot for the new mall.  Fifty years later the Town and Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Centre struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are almost impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages.  Against all odds, the three block vestige of Murphy Avenue is pulsing with lively restaurants and shops.  There is little else there.Murphy Avenue
 
I’m not talking about my own hometown of Los Altos… yet.  But when I approach Main Street on the expressway which replaced the railroad tracks along First Street,  I worry.  Formerly drivers on the expressway could glance over and look down Main Street and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920′s era buildings, they could take the next exit and follow their urge to explore.  But that’s not going to happen any more.  There is a four story Great Wall which barricades the town against any casual glance.  The Great Wall of Los Altos includes two huge new apartment complexes and “one of only two podium-style Safeway markets in the state.” (Podium – style means parking on the first floor, shopping  in a high-ceilinged market at the tope of an escalator, and storage on the floors above.)
 No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it.  If fewer people shop in Los Altos in the next months and years, it’s not because of the lack of parking.  It’s because they will have no way to know what is there.
The Great Wall - Section 2

 

Northern California – NOT Silicon Valley (LATC June 2014)

View from the resting place on the HillI visited friends in Northern California. Not “Northern California = San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles” but “Northern California = North of Santa Rosa as opposed to San Francisco” . It was a revelation.

North of Santa Rosa the hills are covered with vineyards or redwood forests, not housing developments.

North of Santa Rosa US 101 winds along the rivers whenever possible, because that is the way one could travel between the forbidding mountains of the coast range and the desert area of the Central Valley (yes, desert before irrigation)

North of Santa Rosa wealth comes from agriculture, whether that be dairy, winery, timber forest, orchard, or illegal pot farm.

North of Santa Rose the largest “city” is Redding, named for a land agent of the Central Pacific railroad when the railroad decided to route its north-south route through the town formerly known as Poverty Flats. Today it is best known for a beautiful pedestrian bridge.

It’s easy to make fun of farming communities. I couldn’t help but giggle at the front page article in the Humboldt Beacon lauding the selection of a local girl as California Beef Ambassador, with the quote that she will “be the face of California beef.” And I broke into a laugh as the article noted that the girl’s great-grandmother had been “Cowbelle of the Year” in Humboldt County some years back, while her mother had been Cattle Woman of the Year in 2005.

Then I thought again. It’s a lucky family that can trace four generations in the same community, and that has carried on a common interest, whether it be agriculture, education, or industry, across the same number of generations. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, a lot to be said for roots.

Porcelain tributesI thought more about roots and continuity when I visited the small cemetery in the town. It was nothing like the carefully manicured death theme parks in metro areas, with their restrictions on size, shape and structure of grave markers and memorial tributes. The graves were mostly marked with tombstones, but also with wooden crosses, hand-carved slabs of redwood,   or mosaic tile and colored beads set in concrete to spell out the names of the dead. Some family names stretched back to gold rush times when the village was founded.

Most, but not all, of the graves were carefully tended. Many were festooned with fresh or artificial flowers. One grave was covered with porcelain figurines ranging from the Madonna to Mickey Mouse, all meticulously clean.

My favorite was the grave of “beloved mother” Ruth Miner. Her simple black marble plaque was carved with her name, birth, and death dates. Just below was a second carved marble plaque announcing “I AM AN ATHEIST ALL DRESSED UP NO PLACE TO GO”.Aheist's Lament

From her gravesite on the hill planted with blooming rhododendrons, I looked over the village with its church spires and beyond to the verdant valley dotted with grazing cows. I thought to myself “Ruth, where would you want to go from here?”

Arizona Highways: Some worthwhile stops

In Phoenix:  The Heard Museum of Native American Art.  This museum is fascinating, exhaustive, instructive and almost overwhelming in the size of its collection and the detail in which it explains the many culuture of Native Americans of Arizona.  Fortunately, we had a time limit.  We focused first on a special exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe paintings of the Southwest.  This was on its last day, but if it is a sample of the quality of special exhibits at the Heard, I would suggest you pay attention to whatever is being featured on your visti.

Of the Heard collection I was most fascinated by the collection of kachina dolls donated by the late Senator Barry Goldwater, maybe because as a child I was given a Kachina doll by a visiting relative.  Learning the stories and symbology of these artifacts could have enthralled me for the entire afternoon.Tribal Dance

Another bonus which lured us back outside was the  Annual Indian Market and Fair, featuring Indian dancers in elaborate Hopi feather costumes and juried Indian art.

If you go to the Heard and need a break from all that culture, I can recommend their lunch restaurant.  We ate  tacos and Mexican salad in the plaza – a lovely, lively setting.

Along Higway 17 to Sedona -

Rock Springs Famous PiesAbout half-way to Sedona you’ll need a rest stop.  The Rock Springs Café offers deservedly famous pie: a killer lemon meringue, pecan pie made with Jim Beam, plus serviceable salads, burgers, and homey fare.  And a stuffed polar bear in the gift shop.

Montezuma’s Castle National Monument  - this small but fascinating park features a  5 story cliff dwelling, positioned high on a cliff overlooking a lovely sycamore-lined creek.  The visitor’s center is a fine introduction to the site, and the stroll on the loop trail looking up at the mysteriously abandoned structure is a welcome break to the highway.  Montezuma's Castle

Once you get to Sedona, you’ll need to get in tune with the New Age vibe, so you better seek out a good Vegan restaurant.  I can recommend Chocolatree, an unpretentious combination restaurant and chocolateria along the road west from the main Y intersection.  My less-adventurous companion  was dubious bout the tarot cards on the table, but  ate every bit of her black bean chili. My Meatless Mushroom Medley was gray but yummy. The Mediterranean Madness ordered by my other fellow traveler  -quinoa, almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds, coconut milk, and more- was too rich to finish.  Still we managed to share a Chocolate Ganache of dates, raisins, macadamia nuts, coconut milk, and raw cacao, but we had enough leavings to share the next night with a table of 8 and it went around twice.

Arizona Highway

 

Arizona Highways: Sedona Sucks You In

Sedona outcroppingSedona started as a Mormon mission; then came the miners, whose main remnant is the picturesque semi-ghost town of Jerome dangling from a bluff across the valley. Then came the New Agers, with their crystals, their ethnic garb, their peculiar dietary restrictions, and their talk of mystical vortexes of energy to be found among the red rocks. With the skyrocketing prices of precious metals, there is a current threat that old mines will be opened and subjected to new tech hydraulic mining, starting the cycle over again. But meanwhile, visitors continue to be magnetically attracted to Sedona, whether it is vertical energy or simply the stunning scenery and space.

Jeff, the ex-lawyerI am part of a group of nineteen who have signed up for five days of hiking in the Sedona back country. Our hike leader is a former lawyer who was involved in environmental cases and must have asked himself the Big Questions: WHY am I doing this legal work which I don’t t enjoy? WHAT IF I quit and went to work for Roads Scholar? HOW can I make it work? He found a niche as a faculty member at Northern Arizona State University solely employed in facilitating hikes, conventions, bonding sessions, and so on for the U. Is this a cool job or what?

The three guides also include one immigrant, from the Caucasus. He had emigrated from Russia to Latvia at age 16. His mother saw him off at the railway station. She asked, “Will you be coming back?” He answered, as the train pulled out, “No.” After a second life in Latvia, he joined the merchant marine and traveled the world, living on ship. “Wherever we docked, the purser would give us a passport that would let us ashore without trouble.” I missed the story of how he came to Sedona. I did hear him say “Sedona is my 4th life.” He is a firm believer in the positive energy of the vortexes. “They changed my life.”

A second guide is also a strong believer in the power of vortexes. We stood in the center of a natural amphitheater in the rocks, purportedly a vortex site, and he told us of meeting a Native American at this site where he was meditating. The Indian pulled out a conch shell from his pack and, after asking permission blew a deep note. The sound traveled in a circle around them as it echoed from one wall to another, a truly mystical moment.

We tried to believe, but we could not reproduce any mysterious effects of the vortexes. We ate delicious food in a vegan restaurant, and felt just as stuffed and no healthier than if we had over-indulged at McDonald’s. However, the drama of the soaring rocks, the rippling streams, and the blue sky soaring to forever was enough to energize me without benefit of crystals or magnetic fields. Just being with beauty makes you more aware of what being means.Sedona view from the trail

 

Arizona Highways: Scottsdale – not just Carmel with Cactus

Scottsdale gardenVisiting Scottsdale had not been high on my list.  After all, I grew up only an hour from Carmel, the West Coast apogee of artsy quaintness-by-the-sea.  What was Scottsdale with its art galleries but Carmel with cactus instead of ocean?  As usual, once I had visited, I knew once again how wrong preconceptions can be. Scottsdale is to Carmel as meaty BBQ ribs are to seared sea scallops – both wonderful, but incomparable.

Scottsdale mustangWe visited on a Sunday morning, so the galleries along the Art Walk were closed.  We were more relieved than disappointed:  the galleries would have seduced us into dallying inside, while on a temperate and sunny morning there was plenty to see in the sculptures that lined the sidewalk and rose from the median. At first I noted the proliferation of horses frozen in wood, ceramic, steel, and bronze, galloping, rearing, bareback in herds or straddled by cowboys, cowgirls, or the Original Inhabitants. [Note:  We met several locals with red-brown skin and aquiline noses, who told us to "Relax.  We call ourselves Indians.  It's easier."  I will follow this advice hereon.]  But there were also bronze children, artists, and unmounted Indian maidens both nude and clothed.  Also  various vaguely humanoid shapes, and a giant green head which might have been Buddha.Enigmatic head

We left the Art Walk and meandered toward the center of town, a meander made easy by a grass-lined pathway going beside and over a dry creek and eventually leading us to the central plaza, bordered by the City Hall, Art Museum, and Performing Arts Center, all impressive and interestingly designed modern buildings.  The plaza was full of activity:  a craft fair was just setting up, with tents offering Indian artifacts, jewelry, clothing, and food.  A stage at one end promised music to come, and some families were already staking a claim with blankets on the sloping lawn in front of the bandstand.  And at the other side of the plaza I found an old friend, one I had first met in Philadelphia, then encountered again in Tokyo and Taipei.  I was delighted to see again Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture.LOVE in Scottsdale

On the way back to our car we walked through Old Town Scottsdale, and found the tourist gift shops beginning to open.  I bought a silver-and-turquoise earcuff to replace a much nicer one I had been given and lost years ago, hoping to combine old and new memories.Old Town kitsch

 

 

Arizona Highways: Phoenix’s Desert Garden

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I thought of Phoenix as an airport stop on our way to hiking in the red rock country, but my friend B was more curious.  “Let’s stay a day in Phoenix and explore!”  So M, our travel organizer, found an affordable motel in Scottsdale. (“There are art galleries!  Let’s stay close!” B enthused.) We raided the local AAA for maps and guides, and off we went.

M was arriving first, so she rented the car. All the car rental offices for the Phoenix Airport are combined in a single large building at the edge of the airport, along with a food court, rest rooms, and a travel office – an amazingly good idea! B and I had flight delays, so we connected with M too late to do the auto tour we had planned for the afternoon.  But there was still time to walk in the Phoenix Botanical Garden, which was featuring an outdoor exhibit of glassware by the well-known artist/craftsman Dale Chihuly.Entrance-Chihuly exhibit

The Chihuly glass exhibit blended beautifully with the otherworldly colors and shapes of the cacti and succulents which are the backbone of the PBG, and glowed against a stormy evening sky. We strolled and pointed and admired as  lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and then came the deluge. We were close to the gift shop by then, which exhibited an amazing collection of small Chihuly pieces, also beautifully illuminated. (see below)   We  waited out the worst of the rain, then strolled a bit further armed with umbrellas. But soon there were too many puddles, too many  flooded paths, and we took refuge again, this time at Gertrude’s, the charming modern restaurant adjacent to the Garden. The tables were full of other soggy visitors, so we snuggled up to the bar watching mysterious cocktails being mixed as we sipped our staid beer and wine and downed excellent sandwiches.  I can recommend the pulled pork sandwich with chili dipping sauce, paired with a Mexica Model Negro beer.

The exhibit continues until May 18th (2014) so you still have time.  Evening viewing is wonderful.

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Excavating a Life (Los Altos TOWN CRIER April 2014)

Pix of Dimi

 

My husband’s mother, known to friends and family as “Dimi”, died at 102, and I went with my husband to help arrange funeral services and reacquaint ourselves with family. We stayed in my husband’s boyhood bedroom in his mother’s abandoned house.

The house had been rented out for a few months to a family connection who had used mostly the first floor. Almost all Dimi’s belongings had been moved to the second floor. They included a couple of bedrooms’ worth of furniture, plus boxes and baskets of documents, oddments, gewgaws, and bric-a-brac.

As a relative by marriage only, I enjoyed going through the boxes, bins, and dresser drawers which had been jumbled together, and the closer relatives seemed relieved to have an unemotional eye sorting through the accumulation. It was exciting to explore, as if I were doing an archaeological dig through the strata of a life.

I found a newspaper clipping with a picture of Dimi at about 18, as she starred in a college play. At her 90th birthday she had listed as one of her regrets that “I never acted on Broadway.” We had thought she was joking. Was it a real dream at one time?

In a drawer of a bureau upstairs I found a wedding photo. We had thought that my husband’s parents had not been able to afford a fully costumed and documented wedding in 1933, the beginning of the Depression. Yet here they were, he looking dapper and debonair in a suit, vest, and watch chain, she glamorous in a swooping hat, full length white lace gown, and sporting an enormous bouquet.

I found a letter from a soldier dated April, 1945, thanking Dimi for a newsletter she had sent as a class correspondent. He said it was like a breath of spring to hear from her, and asked to be remembered to the college professors he had admired. Did C.E. “Dutch” Eby, Lieutenant on the USS Barron, survive the last few months of the war?

I found a note from a young woman who had been a childhood friend of Dimi’s daughter, saying that she had always thought of Dimi as a ideal parent, and she had tried to model her own parenting after Dimi.

I found notes from people whom Dimi had met on her travels, from Guam, and Australia, and Hawaii, and Norway, with whom she had kept in touch and in friendship for decades after their chance meetings.

I found notes written between Dimi and her husband of 40 years, including the last heartbreaking one when he was in the grip of his last illness, knowing he was near his end, just before his death.

I found lists of Christmas presents which Dimi had given year by year. In later years, many of these presents were ludicrously inappropriate, mis-sized, or obviously pre-owned. We laughed with other family members about the too-small shirts, the ladies’ sweaters given to grandsons, the tarnished necklaces with missing stones. Yet these lists showed how much thought and care she had taken so that no child or grandchild or even great-grandchild would go unremembered as her family grew.

On my return home I looked at my cluttered closets and crammed desk drawers with a different eye. I knew Dimi so much better since I had delved into the strata of her life. Maybe one day my children will learn to know me better also thanks to the clutter I leave behind.

 

Trust (Los Altos Town Crier, January 2014)

California Hillside Dec 2013

 

We trust that the sun will rise in the east, and that the day will be 24 hours long.

We trust that the earth will not shake under our feet, and that the ocean will stay in its place, rising and falling within its tidal bounds.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed – there is an earthquake, there is a tsumani.

In California, we trust that between April and November it is safe to plan a picnic or a camping trip or an outdoor wedding.  The weather will be fine.  Once in a while there is an untimely diversion of the jet stream, and we have you-tube videos of drenched brides and soggy wedding cake.

We trust that between November and March we will have rain.  Rain that replenishes the snow back in the Sierras, delighting skiers, snowboarders, owners of second homes at Tahoe and children of families who rent those homes for a weekend.  Rain that makes our hills in December look like sleeping giants under softly curving blankets of green, tempting us to send pictures eastward to rouse the envy of our snow-bound relatives.

Sometimes a resilient high pressure ridge deflects the rainclouds, and we have drought burning our hills into barren gray, and tempting our eastern relative to ask us if they should bring their own water if they come to visit.

We trust in government, to provide safe roads, safe airways, safe airports, safe city centers, safe food and drink, safe industrial practices, safe working conditions.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed, and we have government shutdowns, locked-down schools, grounded aircraft, epidemics of salmonella.

All of our decisions are based on trust.

We trust in colleages.  Sometimes our trust is betratyed – there are moles in the FBI, there are back-stabbers at the office, there are businesses that fail and paychecks that bounce.

We trust in fellow citizens to follow the rules of the road, to pay attention while driving, to get their children vaccinated, to stay home from work when they are ill.

We trust in neighbors to watch our homes, but not invade them.

We trust in family.  if I jump from the wall, Daddy will catch me.  If I hurt my knee, Mommy will make it better.  If I need a place to stay, my sister will welcome me. Sometimes our trust is betrayed.  There are abusive parents, bitter divorces, family feuds, estranged children.

We trust in friends.  A triumph can be shared.  A secret will go no further.  Sometimes our trust is betrayed. When that happens we feel anger, bitterness, resentment.  The foundations of our world are twisted.  We blame others for our pain.  We feel we can never expose ourselves to this kind of pain again.

But if we cannot trust, we cannot love.  We cannot laugh, or be child-like, or share any kind of intimacy.  A world without trust is a world without smiles, without community, where all the headlines are grim.

My New Year’s wish:  May you trust freely, and may your trust be well – earned.  And may it rain.

In the Company of Women (LATC September 2013)

Camp skit - sisters of a certain age

Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.

She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.

If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.

She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.

She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.

If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.

If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.

If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS  – up to a point.

If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.

Though she has never met you before,  she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife,  her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her  stepson’s  mother-in-law.

She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.

She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.

If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.

She will offer to loan you sunscreen.

If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.

If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.

*    *     *

I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with  women of about my own age.  The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps.  They knew all the camp songs.

Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.

The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp.  She didn’t belong to a book group.  She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”.  She was at the camp with her mother.  In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force.  She will probably go to Afghanistan.

I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.

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Freeway-Free in California: Money, Power, and Pyromania (LATC May 2013)

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If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park.  It is a beautiful drive in spring.  The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape.  Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.

The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named.  The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush.  The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.

Joseph was a mover and a shaker.  He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University.   When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.

The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children.   But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties  Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.

He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.

He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes.  And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.

There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?

GrantMurphy2

 

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