Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

Hidden Treasures: A Park Discovery in a Place I Thought I Knew

spring wadersI have lived in the same town for most of my life.  I brought up my children in this town, and thought I knew every corner of the place that might amuse them on a slow weekend.  Yet only a few days ago I explored a hidden cranny that I had never known about.  Maybe it wasn’t there when I was growing up.  Maybe the trail and boardwalk and odd artwork were part of some recent urban development windfall project. There was no memorial plaque or park information pamphlet to tell me the history of Redwood Grove and its abandoned Nature Center.

My husband and I wanted to stretch our legs, so we went to the nearest city park,  tiny oasis in a dell off one of the town’s oldest streets,  named for our town’s founder.  Shoup Park has a little playground for tots,  a  climbing structure for older kids, and a corny and badly executed war memorial showing a soldier holding a baby in a way that no baby could ever be held securely unless it was already in a state of rigor mortis. It also has a 50’s era building used for meetings, misnamed “Garden House” as there is no garden visible anywhere. , with inadequate parking .  It has a large main room, a stage and a kitchen,  poor insulation, an antique furnace, and inadequate parking.    On the far side of the Garden House is a group picnic area with a 50’s era concrete barbecue and picnic tables.

It’s a pretty boring park, but there is a creek that after a good rain burbles nicely, inviting children to get wet.  On this day there had been a rain, so we went behind the group picnic area to check out the creek.  We saw a gap in the fence we had never noticed before.20150220_162304web

Through the gap and another world opened up.  We were  in a dell below the level of neighboring fence-in back yards.  We passed an eccentric ceramic sculpture adorning what looked like a sewer access.  No name, no plaque, no explanation – it was just there.

The creek meandered through second-growth redwoods between banks carpeted with ivy and ferns.  Sunlight filtered through the trees. The path became a boardwalk which wandered randomly beside or over the creek Along one meandering curve an erosion restraint had been built out of woven willow branches – true functional art.

Functional art We came to a clearing in the grove of trees, set back from the creek.  There was an abandoned house, with boarded up windows.  A sign said “Redwood Grove Nature Center”, but access had long since been denied.  We heard giggles, then some thumping.  A back-pack sailed over the fence which sealed off access to the back courtyard of the center.  The backpack was followed by four agile teen-agers who had obviously been unable to resist exploring the hidden whatever behind the fence. The quartet split up;  we followed the girls who disdained the boardwark and path, preferring to wade in the creek on a balmy February day.

I thought wistfully of my kids, now grown up and responsible.  They would have loved to hop that fence and wade in that creek. I hope it is still there for my grandchildren to discover one day.20150220_162136web

Aliens Among Us (LATC February 4, 2015

Adolphin4 friend invited me  to go whale-watching outside Monterey Bay during the migration of the gray whales along the “Whale Highway”  which stretches along the California coast from Alaska to Cabo San Lucas.whalemigration

graywhaletailShortly after leaving the shelter of the bay, we spotted plumes of vapor not far off – at least a dozen whales, a “mega-pod”, were swimming together, blowing off vapor, and diving in rough synchronization.  As we approached, we could see the backs of the whales, scarred by barnacles, but glistening silver-gray in the sun.  The whales exhaled, one after another, or two at a time,  sending  fountains of white spray into the clear air. Then they dived, one by one slithering their huge bulk in an arc as they bent toward the bottom of the sea, than at the end flipping their heart-shaped flukes up into the air as if waving farewell.  It was like a dance.  We waited and watched – where would they come up next? A shout – “6 o’clock! Behind us” and the performance was repeated. “”10 o’clock! On our left!” and again the aquatic dance.  Why was this group of whales gathered together? The on-board naturalist had no clue. “It’s not usual to find so many in one group.”  We watched and wondered.whalespout

Finally the boat went on – there was more to see. “There’s a big school of dolphins up ahead – maybe they’ll come to play with the boat.”  In a moment we were surrounded by hundreds of hurtling gray shapes – needle-nosed dolphins barreling through the water next to the boat, dodging in and out of the bow wave, surfing in the wake, racing alongside the boat in huge leaps which sent them flying out of the water.  “If the water were rougher they’d ignore us,” said the guide, “but when it’s calm like today they get bored, and the boat is like a big toy to them.”  Could this be true? Or was he just ascribing human-like motives to these gray bullets? Why were there hundreds of dolphins in this one small space of ocean?  He had no clue.

rissos-dolphin1As we headed back toward the bay, the boat detoured to observe some Rossi’s dolphins, a very different sort.  These are stately silver swimmers, with a vertical dorsal fin and a rounded bullet head. The Rossi’s dolphins don’t leap from the water, don’t race each other, but swim smoothly along at a steady pace, paying no attention to our boat. “They mind their own business and want us to keep our distance,” said the naturalist.  But what is their business?  And why are they so unafraid, yet so aloof?

I read with bemusement about our astronomers’ search for alien life on other planets.  Most marine scientists seem to believe that dolphins and whales have enough brain tissue to have evolved what we would call reasoning, and that they communicate with each other through complex sonar systems.  How can we hope to recognize and interact with intelligent aliens on other planets when we understand so little about the intelligent aliens on our own?

Things to do now that Football is Finally Finished

20150130_161859webFootball season is over!  No more sitting in a cave watching pixels flash on a TV monitor while the sun is shining outside and all your vertebrae beg to be un-squished from that armchair!  What will you do with all this free time? Here are some ideas to get you started.  (Full disclosure:  we are not football addicts so we had a head start on alternatives!)20150125_115440web

 

Why not? Take public transportation to the city. Feel the freedom of not having that 2000 lb anchor dragging you into dark dank parking garages too far from where you really want to be. And there are great possibilities for people – watching.  (Can you see the little blond girl in pink sitting on her mother’s lap beyond the bicycle?  I missed the shot of her flopped upside down, hair streaming almost to the floor, as she solemnly regarded the world from a different point of view, but the memory gives me a smile every time.)

 

The Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, San Francisco

 

Why not? Eat at a restaurant you have never tried before. This is the Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, whose décor oddly evokes a ski lodge.  I wish I had stopped to take a picture of the delectable poached eggs on avocado toast which I was served here, but I was hungry and devoured them before I thought.  (They serve the breakfast menu all day.)

20150125_124259webWhy not? Check out a small specialized museum’s feature exhibit. This is the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco.  The excellent exhibit on Yosemite is closed now, but their next exhibit will feature the Pan-Pacific Exhibition of 1915 which gave us the Palace of Fine Arts and Treasure Island.  I think it’s a don’t miss! The exhibit hall also features a graceful staircase to the inaccessible second floor.  A plaque informs us that this is the Nancy Pelosi Staircase, as she first announced her candidacy for the US House of Representatives from this stairway. History is everywhere!

20150201_143932web Why not? Go for a walk in the woods. These twisted trees seem almost to be dancing in the sun next to the Crystal Springs trail in Huddart County Park on the Peninsula.

 

 

Why Not? Check out some public art.  The two figures are emerging from the walls of the Millbrae BART station.  The non-representational structure above graces a lawn at Stanford University.

Celebrate!

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January 8 – To Celebrate Today

One of my informal resolutions for the year is to try to find something, however small, to celebrate each day.  Thursday was a day particularly rich in small beauties and achievements – here is the list I jotted down that evening:

Jogging around the neighborhood this AM – squads of people driving to work, moms and dads shepherding their kids to school, some kids non-escorted walking seriously eyes averted from “stranger danger.”

Helped Mom figure out how to print an envelope on her printer (Where IS the upper cassette?)

Lunch at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero – warming fish chowder and an excellent spinach salad. Checked out the quaint general store and deli and the vintage stuff for sale in the coffee shop (Ancient LP:The Beatles – England’s #1 musical sensation!)Pescaderosurfer

Then to Pescadero State Beach, watched a surfer catch a perfectly cylindrical wave and ride it at least a hundred yards up the beach.

On the way home, a flock of wild turkeys grazing the pasture at Filoli, a small herd of deer in Arastradero Preserve.

wild turkey

Chinese class, with technology and FaceTime bridging the gap between California and Colorado, where my teacher is having a month of skiing in between keeping our lessons going.

A very lovely dinner at Mom’s, cooked by her caregivers, but under her supervision, followed by good conversation about ideas, things we had been reading. A bravura performance for my mother at 93!

Home to a warm fire and making plans to go to San Francisco for lunch and some museums. Settled down with an unexpectedly good book of essays by Ann Patchett (The Story of a Happy Marriage – many essays on writing – my sweet spot!) with Smetana’s “The Moldau” burbling in the background .

Celebrate!

 

You May Have Already Won! (LATC September 2014)

 

EsteroBondThere is something irresistible in the idea of buried treasure brought to light. We love to hear about the dusty picture in the attic that turns out to be a genuine Rembrandt, the stock certificate in the bottom of the neglected safe deposit box that has been accumulating stock splits and dividends for decades, the costume jewelry purchased at a garage sale that turns out to be genuine diamonds. We all want to star on ”Antiques Roadshow.”

I was excited when I visited my mother’s safety deposit box with her in February, and found buried in the bottom a copy of an elaborately engraved coupon bond issued by the Estero Municipal Improvement District with a face value of $1000, a due date of July 1, 1999, and 4 unredeemed coupons still attached.

With visions of compounding interest dancing in my head like sugarplums, I contacted the City of Foster City, which had issued the bond. After numerous letters and phone calls (the bond redemption had been managed by a bank which had merged with another bank which had sold the business to a third bank which had escheated the bond as unclaimed property to the state of California which had lost the record in their data base) my mother finally got her check for the exact face value of the bond and unredeemed coupons. (No sugarplums!) I figured I earned just below the minimum wage for my effort.

Sadder but wiser, I was skeptical when my brother sent me a link to a website listing unclaimed property by state. “ I read an article in the newspaper about this site, ran Dad’s name and came up with a list of unclaimed money. Check it out!”

Of course, I couldn’t resist. But all the listings were in Texas, and required proof that Dad had invested in the companies listed, plus copies of his and Mom’s social security cards and proof that at one time they legally resided at the address listed on the claim.  Since the total was only $38.18 for all 7 claims, I gave it up – no bonanza here for me. (The site is http://www.missingmoney.com )Let me know if you strike it rich!)

Hope springs eternal. When clearing out my late mother-in-law’s house I saved several Japanese woodblock prints that she had framed inexpensively and hung in her bedroom. When I got them home I checked the internet. They might be valuable originals! After all, she and her husband had spent some time in Japan in the early 60’s. But again, they might be calendar art. I missed the San Jose filming of “Antiques Roadshow” so the jury is still out.

It’s almost more fun not knowing for sure.

woodblock3Woodblock2Woodblock1

 

The Roadside Diner – An American Classic (LATC August 2014)

20140620_KIngsChef2_webFrom what I saw on our recent back-roads trip across the country, the United States has NOT become one homogenized culture from East to West – it only looks that way from the Interstates. And though California has harvested much of the best of the East in creating the mix of cuisines, traditions, and cultures we call Californian, we did leave a few good things out. One of the missing pieces: the diner.

The classic diner was a castoff railroad diner cars, clad in aluminum outside, and featuring big windows so you could monitor the passers-by on the street, a tiny kitchen, red-vinyl upholstered booths and a red Formica counter trimmed in aluminum, with red-vinyl upholstered stools along the counter. To the joy of children everywhere, the stools could spin. Fortunately, the diner also had waitresses of a certain age, who might be named Edna or Mildred or Gertie, but who could be counted on to tell children (and their parents, too) to stop fooling around and eat their vegetables.

Avenue Diner, G,BurgWe had breakfast on the day of our East Coast departure at the Avenue Diner. We faced platefuls of eggs, potatoes, and bacon that would have daunted a lumberjack. As we leaned back midway, we noticed a buff gray-haired guy in a Marine Corps muscle shirt and steel-studded belt paying for his coffee just over the partition. It was Stephen Lang, the villainous Marine colonel from “Avatar”, in town to do a one-man dramatic show at the local Art Fest. We were star-struck, but the waitresses at the Avenue Diner didn’t miss a beat at having a celebrity stroll in for coffee.

As cast-off railway dining cars became scarce, the diner evolved. It moved next to the hotel downtown as an inexpensive alternative to the hotel restaurant. It called itself a Coffee Shop, or even a Café. On the second day of our trip we passed up the swank historically-preserved Bremerhasset Hotel dining room and opted for the Crystal Café just across the street.

At the Crystal Café, breakfast for two came to $13 including tip. The café was cheerful and clean, with lots of coffee mugs with regular patron’s names on them hanging on hooks behind the counter, and an honor library shelf circling the room with books in easy reach. The pretty young waitress was probably not named Mildred or Edna, but she was able to juggle orders, coffee cups, and questions from regulars and newbies with great aplomb.

In Colorado Springs we wanted an early start, so we stopped downtown at the King’s Chef Diner, touted locally as offering “the best breakfast in the state of Colorado.” The honor library here featured a lot of castoff comic books, and the clientele was an intriguing mix of military guys in buzz cuts and street people with day-glo hair and pierced body parts. The host and waitress treated us with great deference, as exotic creatures who had wandered far from our ecological niche. I ordered the featured breakfast burrito. “Are you sure you want the sauce?” the waitress asked me anxiously. “It’s pretty spicy.” I assured her I could handle it. For a brief second I thought she was going to over-rule me in true diner fashion, but she must have been only a trainee.King's Chef Diner  CO Sprngs

By the time the diner reached California it had mutated, adding sheltered parking, a drive-up window, and even putting the waitresses on roller skates. The drive-in’s did well for a while until the national chains muscled in. One by one they have disappeared, to my regret.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see me enjoying patio seating at the local coffee shops and patisseries. But I miss having  a take-charge waitress reminding me to eat my vegetables.

 

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

 

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