Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in California – Exploring Orland

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Traveling north from the Bay Area along I-5 on the way to Portland? You may have looked at the map and figured you could get something to eat at a fast food joint on the outskirts of Red Bluff or Redding. And you probably can. But if you had an early start and want something with a bit of local color, why not try Orland instead?

Orland? I’d never heard of it either until my live-in travel agent announced that Orland would be our lunch stop. But this small farm town boasts not one but two idiosyncratic eateries that are worth your while.

20180927_124621web The Berry Patch is just to the left at the Orland off-ramp.  Despite its name, it specialized more in BBQ and burgers than in berry pies.  We opted instead for the 4th Street Cafe a few blocks off the freeway and down to the right. We were encouraged to see a police car parked in the lot – almost always a sign of good eats and substantial portions. Inside, the focal point of the large dining room is an ancient Hotpoint electric stove against a wall covered with shelves laden with the mugs of regulars at the cafe (I presume, although some of the shelves are so high that there must be a retirement home for NBA players nearby. )

The menu was basic: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, patty melts, Chicken, tuna, and BLT sandwiches, Cobb, Taco, and Caesar salad. The breakfast menu is served through lunchtime.  (The Cafe is open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday) 20180927_124737web

My LITA ordered the Patty Melt with “home-made BBQ chips.” After finishing every crumb (not even a teeny taste did I get!) he told the waitress to relay his compliments to the cook for “one of the best patty melts I ever had.” – high praise as this is his go-to choice on the road. I did get to share some of the BBQ chips, and I will never waste my time eating chips out of a bag again – they were exquisite! Fresh, bubbly with crispness, nicely spiced, a little bit greasy, and not a jot of preservatives.

I chose Avocado Toast from the breakfast menu, with a poached egg on top. Good bread, a perfectly ripened and sliced avocado, a nicely poached egg. The avocado could have been warmed up a little to match the toast and egg, so the dish fell a tad short of perfection, but it was pretty near a perfect light lunch for traveling. We could not resist adding a couple of cookies to go from the cookie jars on top of the bakery rack. Dessert for the evening, if they last that long.

20180927_132409docAfter lunch we walked off a calorie or two at the adjacent Library Park – an oasis of greenery and shade, complete with a bandstand and evident signs of a major festivity impending. The Library is an old Carnegie library building converted into a community center, while a newer, less picturesque but presumable more functional library has replaced it in the same park. Across the street from the park are a spiffy new police station and city hall. A new Lincoln waited at the stop sign as I crossed the street – there must be money in this town somewhere.

 


The rest of the downtown is as dilapidated as you would expect for a shopping area too far from the freeway and too close to the nearest Wal-Mart. But this little piece of Orland around the Library Park is plain and simply pleasant, seemingly miles  from the six-lane artery thundering by a few blocks away on the other side of town.

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Freeway Free in Memphis: the National Civil Rights Museum

20180512_121253webThe National Civil Rights Museum is located in the former Lorraine Motel. At the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, it was the only motel in Memphis which accommodated black guests.  It documents the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus up to MLK’s murder.  I lived through these years.  I was fascinated.

The Lorraine motel is an ordinary looking 50’s stucco motel, two stories, with a balcony for each upstairs room and a little terrace for the downstairs rooms.  In transforming the motel into a museum, most of the inside has been gutted, although the rooms where MLK and Rob Abernathy stayed have been preserved, frozen in that time. Now a large wreath hangs from the railing of room xxx, and a gray granite line is set in the concrete marking the trajectory of the bullet fired from the bathroom of the hotel across the street.

Inside, there are sculptures and statues and banners and a burned out garbage truck all evoking the struggles of a group of Americans to obtain the rights and respect that others around them enjoyed.  I am in awe of their bravery, and saddened by how much of what they hoped for is still left to be achieved.

Freeway Free in California: Hiding out in Style at Avila Beach

20180613_173443docYou want a beach, but not a bunch of beach bunnies and muscle-flexers kicking sand in your face while they show off at beach volleyball.  You want a boardwalk, but not the blaring music and grease smells of a carnival.  You want seafood that is not dipped in batter and fried in re-cycled grease.  You want restaurants without Happy Meals. You want Avila Beach.

The college kids from  San Luis Obispo go a little bit further south, to Pismo Beach, which boasts fried fish, tattoo parlors, swim suit/sarong shops, and lots of fast food and beer havens. On a sunny day Pismo is a happenin’ place, but on a gray day in early spring, it can seem deserted and dismal.

20180614_103347webJust north at Avila Beach, you will find grownups and families.  You can buy a souvenir sweatshirt, but you will pay for quality.  You can eat seafood at the Olde Port Inn, one of the “Top Ten Seafood Restaurants in California (per the CA Writer’s Association). This restaurant is located at the very end of the pier in San Luis, just around the bay from Avila Beach.  The tables are glass and allow you to look down into the ocean below to watch pelicans, sea gulls, the occasional seal, and maybe tomorrow’s dinner.

You can see girls in bikinis on Avila Beach, but they will likely be part of a women’s crew team launching their scull into the surf. Don’t mess with these muscular Moms!20180613_174727doc

If your taste runs to spa resorts and golf, there is a Diamond Resorts perched on the hill above the pier in San Luis. If you prefer biking, there is a bike trail that runs along the old railroad right of way along San Luis Obispo Creek.

 

You can do grownup things like wine-tasting at the Alapay Cellars, my favorite of several wine bars within a block of the boardwalk.  From a balcony at Avila Lighthouse Suites, right on the boardwalk,  you can watch all the action on the beach and boardwalk while sipping your Alepay Cellars wine.  Or you can go down to walk the beach, and then wash the sand off your feet in the compact pool.

Check the local calendar before you reserve;  sometimes there is a music festival in the adjacent park, and if the music is not to your taste – there goes your peace.  But in general, Avila Beach is a great  hideout for a grown-up getaway weekend.

 

 

A Piece of My Mind: Smog – the Sequel (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 5, 2018)

  

When I was growing up on the southern San Francisco peninsula,  smog was the norm.  Many a morning  as I walked to school, the air was so full of dirt that the foothills were invisible – I might as well have been living on the prairie.

 Later when I was the age for making decisions about where to go to college, I was accepted at two excellent schools in southern California.  I visited both campuses and decided that it would be impossible for me to attend either – the air pollution was so severe that I could not go outside without suffering painful eye irritation with my contact lenses.  

People depend on their cars.  How could we have a modern civilization with the flexibility and mobility we needed if we restricted auto travel? But how could we avoid strangling ourselves by breathing  our own waste?

 Time passed.  Regulations and people demanded change.   Human ingenuity got to work.  Auto manufacturers learned to build more efficient cars which used less gas with no lead.  Petroleum plants learned to make gasoline which burned cleaner.   A problem which had seemed insoluble was nearly solved.  After a decade or so of effective regulation and innovation, the foothills reappeared.  When  I moved back to Los Altos after a ten year absence, I marveled at the consistent clarity of the air.

 But this summer I have seen a huge relapse.  The air quality day after day has been miserable, due to the uncontrolled wildfires burning to the north and east, and the prevailing winds which suck the smoke down into the Santa Clara and Central Valleys.  My sister posted photos on Facebook from trips she had taken to Ashland, Oregon and back .  Three years ago her photo showed snow-topped Mt. Shasta dominating  the valley, as pristine as a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji.  This year, from the same vantage point, on the same calendar day, nothing was visible but a brownish smear of polluted air.

 PG&E, among other entities affected, argues that the unusual severity of the fires is a result of global climate change, not human agency or corporate carelessness.  There are those who say that climate change is an act of God, beyond human repair. I believe, though, that God gave us brains and ingenuity in order to solve problems.  We have been able to shape our world in many ways to make it easier for us to live in it.  We have lowered the infant mortality rate.  Fewer women die in childbirth.  Smallpox, polio, and yellow fever have been conquered by vaccines.  We cleaned the air before.  With some inspiration and much determination I believe we can and must make the changes necessary to do it again.  I want my children and grandchildren to see our foothills.    

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage into the Wild

StanfordAlaska22_MoreHumpbacksdocI confess:  I did not come to Alaska to learn more about Tlingit culture or early Norwegian settlesments.  I wanted to experience wilderness and wildness, before they disappear from the earth.  When we sail up into Tracy Arm north of Hobart Bay, I feel like we were really there.

I wake up and open the curtain to see a big blue berg floating by – we are approaching Sawyer Glacier, shining  in every tone of teal between near- navy and shadowy ice blue.  As we watch, a large section of the glacier calves off, with a huge splash  followed seconds later by the deep roar.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we make our way up toward Glacier Bay.  One of our group sights a group of orca between our boat and a smaller tour boat a bit further into the Bay.  Suddenly an orca breaches, throwing itself clear out of the water.  It is half the size of the small tour boat, and no more than 20 feet away from it.  Shamu at SeaWorld could not have shown off to better effect.

We sail into Glacier Bay, feeling smug because our smallish boat can go much further in that the multi-thousand passenger cruise ships we pass. The first peninsula jutting into the bay is Gloomy Gloomy Knob, the home of mountain goats.  We saw several Rams and one foursome of ewes and kids – then the foursome began running – they had been spooked by a drone zooming by for a close-up.  Flying drones close enough to disturb wildlife is illegal in National parks. Our on-board Park Ranger Nicole bolts for the captain’s bridge and its radio, gets the offending boat on the wire..  The droners deny the drone was anywhere other than near the beach! But we have photos!  Geez Louise!

Further in we spot a moose mama with twin calves (she looking quite skinny – the effect of nursing two?) As we circle around the bay we see three bears on the rocky moraine which constitutes a beach.  The mother bear is badly scarred either from skin disease or perhaps a burn and sparks from a fire, but not crippled. The two cubs are happily turning over rocks looking for shrimp or small fish sheltering underneath.   P1030607web

We get off the boat at Lumpaugh Glacier and walk on a glacial moraine- lumpy, shifting, insecure footing.  The bears looked more comfortable and secure – perhaps claws and flexible pads give them better traction?  It’s odd to imagine these rocks ranging from tiny pebbles to boulders being carried and then dropped by the slow river of ice moving back and forth across this empty land.  Maybe it wasn’t so empty then.  Maybe the Tlingit shamans tried to find some explanation for climate change.  Did they blame the actions of Man for having angered the Gods?  Does nothing change?StanfordAlaska62_GlacierReflectionweb

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage to Petersburg

P1030503docOur next stop up the Inland Passage was at the town of Petersburg, settled originally by a group of Norwegians over 100 years ago.  We were entertained by a group of students dressed in traditional  costumes made by local ladies, with design of Alaskan wild flowers registered with the special organization that registers traditional costumes. I now turn the blog over to my husband David, who is half Norwegian and glories in every drop of squarehead blood.

StanfordAlaska14_PetersburgViking-webDavid’s travel notes: We stopped in Petersburg, a 100-year old Norwegian settlement.  Quaint as you can imagine.  We went to the Sons Of Norway Hall for some cute  Norwegian dances performance  by the local 5th and 6th graders in traditional costumes.  Absolutely charming, with all those clean-cut Norse smiles.  (Note that the girls are taller than the boys  –  that will change in a few years).   They served us morning breakfast treats including Lefse, which my dad used to make much to our puzzlement. 

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Trophy plaque in the Sons of Norway Hall – most unusual contest!

The lady leader of the dance troupe asked if any of us had any questions or comments. Well, of course, I stood up and said, “I just want to make sure that these kids are aware of this old, famous Norwegian rallying cry:  ‘Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.’

 Lots of laughter but then one of our fellow boat travelers, Ken Johnston, walked up to me and said, “When you said that I was ready to kill you: my ancestors are Swedish.”   Well, of course, for the rest of the cruise Ken and I got along famously, trading Scandinavian lies.

 Like this one:  Ken: David, did you know that the Swedes invented the toilet?  David: Yes, Ken, but it took a Norwegian to invent the seat for it.P1030505doc

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Along the Inland Passage to Kake

P1030471docCruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.”  The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean.  Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant.  Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.

One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional  Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others  She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest.  A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong.  I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?

P1030472webFor Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high.  Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials;  the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole. 

After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.

P1030477webThe lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.

At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction  in a second line.  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed;  as part of the dance, we belonged.

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Freeway Free in San Francisco: A Touch of Class

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My father used to say, in justifying a splurge, “It only costs a little more to go first class.”  This is no longer true when flying across the country, perhaps, when an upgrade to first class was a two-digit expense, but it can still apply to other aspects of travel. When my childhood friend came for a visit, we decided to spend a weekend in San Francisco together, and we went in style.

Instead of paging through TripAdvisor, we simply made a list of what we wanted to do.  We wanted to have easy access to a BART station, since traveling up to the city by BART is much easier than driving and parking (not to say cheaper), and we also wanted access to public transportation.  We wanted to be able to walk to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, as the Magritte  exhibit was on my friend’s bucket list. We wanted to be close to some good restaurants, and we wanted to be able to get to Golden Gate Park.

20180706_181641webWe ended up staying two nights at the Palace – the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, with its glass-domed atrium, high-ceilinged rooms, and courtly servitors.  Our room had two queen-sized beds, a marble bath, and cozy bathrobes to wear afterward. 

One morning we had breakfast at the Palace buffet in the sunlint atrium.  We were early, so we had first pick of a continental buffet which included yogurt, cottage cheese, excellent fruits, cold cuts, cheese, pastries, toast, jam, bagels, cream cheese, lox, juices, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea… we did not miss the scrambled eggs and sausage from the steam table.

We walked to SFMOMA, as planned, and spent a luxurious four hours exploring all seven floors, broken by an excellent lunch at the Café 5 on the 5th floor.  (OK, “first class” might have been down on ground level at the highly regarded but often crowded In Situ – but we decided “first class” also means “no waiting.” 20180707_124430web

That evening we walked to The Grove, a trendy restaurant half-way between the Palace and MOMA.  We people watched, ate wonderfully, and ambled back to our hotel for a swim and soak in the pool and hot tub located three floors up from our room.

The Grove is also known for its Sunday brunch, so we opted for their poached eggs on asparagus toast rather than another go-round at the Palace buffet.  Afterward we checked our baggage at the Palace and hopped the N-Judah street car to Golden Gate Park, where we took a Segway tour of the park.  (Yes, true luxury might have opted for a limo, but the N-Judah, again, involved no waiting. Actually, the N-Judah is just about everything you need to know about public transportation in San Francisco.  It starts at the King Street train station near the SF Giants’ ball park, circles the Embarcadero, dives underground past the Civic Center, and surfaces in the lower Haight on its way to Ocean Beach.  Give it a try!)

We  lunched at Nopalito’s, a top-line Mexican restaurant on 9th Avenue.  Here there was a wait, but it was made painless by the availability of a branch of the Green Apple Bookstore right across the street.

That evening  reclaimed our bags and BARTed back down the Peninsula, completely satisfied with our taste of luxurious living. And since my friend and I split the bills, it really did only cost a little more to go first class.

Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

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