Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

A Piece of My Mind: Tradition (Los Altos Town Crier 11/7/18)

 
P1020475docJust finished with Thanksgiving, just starting to get my mind set for upcoming Christmas, so it’s no wonder I’ve been mindful of traditions.

In my family, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday of hospitality, with assorted family members from near and far, old friends and some new ones, significant others and random dorm-mates, all sharing around a table or two or even three.  Over several generations, some of our traditions have morphed or been abandoned, while other new ones have been added.

When I was a girl it was my job to polish the silver in anticipation of any holiday gathering.  My mother would bring out her wedding silver, together with silver plated serving platters, a gravy boat, and covered casseroles, all needing considerable elbow grease to bring them up to her sparkling standard.  I was also in charge of making place cards and arranging the seating, preferably alternating men and women with no one from the same family sitting next to each other.  Later I became the hostess, and my granddaughter took over polishing my wedding silver as needed, as well as making and arranging place cards.20151125_182234web

Growing up we always shared Thanksgiving with another family we had known since I was a toddler.  They always brought candied yams in a casserole and a couple of kinds of pies.  Decades later those friends had passed on, but meanwhile I have secured a husband who is a master hand at mashed potatoes, and my brother-in- law prides himself on pies.  No chance of a carbohydrate shortage here!20151126_195352web

 

After Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared, we would set up the table for a game of Michigan (aka “Tripoli” in some circles) using a game cloth that had been hand-stenciled by my grandmother, and some poker chips which were as old.  This game depends mostly on luck and can be played by anyone old enough or young enough to hold a fan of playing cards.  My mother took delight in cheating, and we all took even more delight in catching her at it.

More recently, my husband added a tradition of offering champagne or sparkling cider to all before sitting down to eat, together with an obligatory group sing of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to the faltering accompaniment of my recorder.  (Having drunk a glass of champagne in advance helps everyone to participate with gusto).  The wearing of pilgrim hats or other costume items is optional for this performance, which  is a great ice-breaker for any of the new significant others or recently met friends.

All great traditions.  But this Thanksgiving our minds were also aware of the wildfire victims who had lost so much of their traditions to inferno, and the migrants at our southern borders and  around the world who had abandoned their traditions in hope of finding a new home free of hunger and fear.

I thought a lot about the American tradition which has seen our country as “a nation of immigrants” , as “a melting pot”, as “a shining city on a hill.”  I remember the poem which I memorized for school as a girl,  inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Bring me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.Bronze-plaque-of-New-Colossus

This is a tradition of hospitality that is more difficult to stick with in challenging times, but more important than turkey, more American than apple and pumpkin pie.  As a nation I hope we can live up to this traditional vision of our best selves.

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Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

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Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: the National WWII Museum

20180519_092657webWhy, I wondered, is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, rather then in one of the principal embarkation cities for the European or Pacific fronts?

DSC_6027a.jpg-0373webI guess I was not the only visitor with this question in my mind, as the neighboring plaque explains how A.J. Higgins’ design for landing boats “won the war for us” per Eisenhower, leading to the establishment of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, site of four Higgins plants.  Once the D-Day museum was established, widening its scope to include the rest of the war seemed sensible and cost-saving.  And the National World War II Museum is a true gem.

The main museum is divided into two major sections, one devoted to the European theatre, the other to the Pacific war. The exhibits include photos, little-seen films, recordings of memories from actual participants in the various political and military battles. I spent most of my time in the “Road to Berlin” section, while my partner skimmed through that to explore the Battle of Midway.   I also toured the exhibit adjacent to the lobby which covers the Home Front,  with dueling radio broadcasts from national hero Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent of the isolationists,  and Franklin Roosevelt advocating support of the British through Lend-Lease for Liberty.  Then Pearl Harbor settled it all.

20180519_095524webAn excellent introductory film, “Beyond All Boundaries” shows in the Victory Theater Complex, which also offers live entertainment in vintage 1940’s style. the film orients you to what was at stake in World War II and how the conflict developed.  Even with this as a guide, there is too much to cover in one day.  The Home Front section includes a 40’s era -themed Soda Shop where a visitor can sit down and refuel.

Other buildings include the Boeing Center which displays WWII era airplanes, and a Restoration Pavilion which features displays on the technology advancements that came about under the pressure of war.

The National WWII Museum is a far cry from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and Cajun cuisine.  But it’s a Don’t Miss!

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge

20180517_173530docBaton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant.  Baton Rouge had  “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.

When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long.  I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.

20180517_173652webBefore the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat.  As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design.  The new Capitol  is a miniature of the Empire State Building,  the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana.   A massive statue of Huey Long  marks the burial site of the Kingfish,  It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”

20180517_174737webThe Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.

Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA).  It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.3284_New-Gov.-Mansion_9eff8afb-5056-b365-ab007987e9bb3f4b

Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

A Piece of my Mind: Homecoming Parade (Los Altos Town Crier, Nov. 7, 2018)

20181019_133643docHomecoming Parade – Now and Then

My spouse and I biked up to our downtown in mid-October to watch the High School Homecoming Parade. 

20181019_132743webMain Street had been blocked off between State Street and First Street.  Both sides of the street was lined with people, some who had brought chairs for better viewing.  Many of the spectators wore T-shirts with the “HOCO” Home coming Logo, overlying a large candy-swirl sucker honoring the Candyland parade theme. There was a lively mix of parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and fellow students of the marchers. Lots of hugs were being exchanged.

Here they came!  First a couple of motorcycle policemen, then one of the  Fire Department ‘s white trucks, lights flashing. Then the parade proper, led by the high school’s eagle mascot. with the 20 members of the Homecoming Court riding in sports cars or on the back seat of antique convertibles in mixed or same-sex couples. 

In between the members of the court marched delegations of the different Fall sports teams –football leading the way in  T-shirts and sweatshirts, followed by Field Hockey, Water Polo, Girls Volleyball, Tennis, Cross Country, Culinary Arts, Golf, Basketball, and FUTSAL (a kind of combination of football and soccer, a young bystander explained to me.)

 

Also marching were members of different clubs – the Latino Students Union dressed in ethnic garb and carrying pinatas on poles, the Black Students Union, Gender and Sexuality Awareness carrying rainbow banners, the Broken Box Theatre company,  Model United Nations, electronics club, Students for Haiti Solidarity, One Dollar for Life, and others I didn’t catch.

Each class had put together a float in honor of the parade theme – there was a candy house built of giant Necco wafers, a gingerbread house, a forest of lollipops surrounding a giant green M&M, and a giant gumball machine  (the gumballs were balloons.)

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress. 

I couldn’t help looking back to the  High School Homecoming Parade during my graduate year some decades ago.  At that time the Homecoming Court consisted of six girls nominated by the class, escorted by the young man of their choice.  There was no such thing as a Homecoming King. The Queen nominees were all Caucasian.  That was no wonder, as our high school at that time had zero African American Students, and almost no Asian or Latino students.

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress.

The football team rode in cars.  Because it was Game Day, they wore shirts, ties,  sports jackets, and dress shoes – not suitable for walking even the few blocks along Main Street.

I remember working on the spirit squad float – a giant cube covered with tissue paper flowers spelling out rally slogans in the school colors. 20181110_161512web

The 2018 version of Homecoming Parade was not the same as what I remembered.  There was a lot more diversity in the shapes and colors of the homecoming court.  Some of the sports and most of the clubs were new to me. There was a lot less formality in dress. But bystanders and participants were all smiling.  Despite the many changes  over the years, I feel that our community character has been preserved.  

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Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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Freeway Free on the Mississippi: Tying up at Vickburg

DSC_6027a.jpg-0033docI had never paid much attention to the Siege of Vicksburg in my readings about the Civil War.  Of course, the victory at Vicksburg made Ulysses Grant a hero and set him up for Appomattox later, but the other great Union victory at Gettysburg overshadows what was happening at almost the same time at the other end of the Mason – Dixon line.   The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only four days, the territory of the battles is compact, and there is a clear turning point, dramatically titled “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.

In contrast, the Seige of Vicksburg lasted seven weeks.  There were a number of small, inconclusive battles which took place miles from Vicksburg in April and May which led up to the Seige.  Grant finally won his victory by cutting off supplies to the town and bombarding it from both river and land.   The Vicksburg National Military Park, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, surrounds its eponymus town on three sides, but the actual battlefields are miles away.  Like Gettysburg, the Vicksburg NMP has  monuments scattered about commemorating different states’ contribution to the battle, but they are much less numerous and massive than those at Gettysburg, as if the city was simply too exhausted to raise many tributes to the fallen.  We are, after all, in Mississippi, on the losing side of the war.  The two Civil War re-enactors who talked to us at the Park seemed ruefully anachronistic, as they were both at least forty years older than the soldiers whose roles they were playing

20180513_153815webThe Old Court House Museum in the center of town is small, intimate, and indomitably Southern.  It includes battle flags from the Confederate Army, but few from the winning side.  It includes donations of baby shoes and quilts and beaded purses from local ladies.  It includes an un-abashed depiction of slavery which defends it as a humane and mutually beneficial relationship between master and slave. It includes an exhibit of china which is exactly like the set I inherited from my great-grandmother.

The walk down to the dock on a hot afternoon was a step back in time.  As we left the historic district the sidewalks became more uneven, cracked, or non-existent.  Black families sat on their front porches, lazily waving palm-leaf fans.  Our tour boat waited for us on a nearly deserted quai, walled off from the town by a protective barrier which marked the height of historic floods.  Vicksburg seems caught in a bubble of history, waiting for the past to come around again.

 

 

 

 

Freeway Free in Oregon: Up and Around Crater Lake

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The route to Crater Lake through the Empty Corner of Northern California is actually shorter than the I-5 through Medford route.  After our stop at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park we goon to Klamath Falls, stopping to lunch at Nibbley’s for lunch – a kind of cross between the Black Bear Diner and Applebee’s, but local and full of lunching ladies.

 20180928_105111webThen on through smoky haze past Upper Klamath lake and Grass Lake and beautiful stands of sugar pines lining the long straight road until we hit the Exit to Crater Lake, then more old growth forest until we stop at the Visitor Information center to watch the 22 minute intro video and use facilities.  Then more twists and turnouts until we get to the Lodge.

20180929_200226webThe Crater Lake Lodge is not the Ahwahnee, no yet El Tovar or the Old Faithful Inn, but has done its 1995 restoration/renovation best to revive the rustic resort ambience within the limits of a hotel located in one of the snowiest spots in the US, open only May through October if the weather permits.  It does boast pillars and stairways made from Douglas fir trunks with the bark still on, and big stone fireplaces surrounded by the kind of chairs you can sink into. 

 The weather is quite warm, with a persistent smoky tang in the air from three surrounding wildfires.  But we find a sheltered nook just below the rim walk where we set up our champagne and crackers and camp chairs and we are Rockefellers with the best lake view in the house. 20180928_173549web

 After demolishing the champagne and crackers, we amble our way back up the path to the Lodge and its dining room. The ambience is much less formal than that of other National Park Lodges we have enjoyed – lots of hiking boots, cargo pants, flannel shirts.  I did put on a glittery sweater to dress for dinner, and I am definitely dressed on the swanky side. After dinner we move out to the porch, where dozens of rustic wooden rockers are lined up to view the lake.  Overhead the sky has cleared, and we can see millions of stars spangling the Milky Way. My spouse even catches a falling star or two. 

The next morning we return to the Lodge Dining Room for breakfast.  After glimpsing a gigantic platter of pancakes at the next table, I prudently order a half-serving of Creme Brûlée French Toast, which was delicious and plenty to start the day. If I had known the French toast would come with a dollop of fruit on the side I would not have bothered to order the Fruit Cup.  The latter included fruit of the imperishable rather than flavorful sort:  white centered strawberries, stringy pineapple, tough melon.  I pick out and enjoy the blueberries, grapes, and marionberries , but they are only too few.

20180929_100502webThe next morning the smokiness has magically disappeared and the lake is the blue seen normally only on cheap postcards.  We decide to take the 2 hour trolley tour around the rim with Ranger David Grimes (star of the introductory video at the information center).  What a good decision! The tour makes plenty of stops for admiring and taking pictures of the lake, and we have the pleasure of listening to a knowledgeable and very entertaining speaker while not having to keep our eyes on the road.  

We lunch at the Lodge, (actually the only choice other than a sandwich bar at the gift shop) sharing with a chipmunk which has invaded the room, being alternately cute (at someone else’s table ) or repugnant (at your own table.) That evening after dinner we move again to the balcony with rocking chairs but this time a  storm has arrived  over the mountains surrounding the lake, and we are treated to a stunning lightning  show.  The next morning the weather has turned cold and drizzly, and the lake is almost invisible in the fog.  A perfect day to leave.20180929_092019doc

 

Freeway Free in California: Burney Falls Hides East of Redding

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Get to Redding in Northern California and you may be mesmerized by the vision of Mt. Shasta rising before you and elect to stay on I-5 to get as close as you can to this spectacular mountain. But if you hang a right at CA299, you are headed into the Empty Corner of California. A place of rolling foothills, expansive sugar pine forests, burbling creeks, widely spaced towns with tiny populations, and secret spots known only to the locals and to the fishermen who come to test their luck in the streams flowing down from the East Cascade Range.

Hiding sixty miles east of Redding is Burney Falls, which Theodore Roosevelt once described as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Coming from someone who had certainly seen Yosemite and Niagara, that is high praise.  The miracle that is Burney Falls is not just due to its natural beauty as it falls panoramically along a 129 feet cliff into a clear 22-foot deep pool below.  The miracle is that Burney Falls exists at all.  The above photo was taken in late September, before the winter rains had begun. One mile above the cliff, Burney Creek is bone dry.  Where does all the water come from?

The answer to the mystery is an underground aquifer that bursts out of the ground a half-mile above the falls.  The water flows year-round at a steady 42-48 degrees, shockingly refreshing in summer, a refuge for aquatic life in winter.   From the falls, the water flows into Lake Britton, a recreational resource open for canoeing, kayaking, swimming for the hardy, and fishing.

20180928_091714webThe falls and the lake are a popular stopover for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who need rest, refreshment, and re-provisioning.  If you want to visit, the loop trail from the top to the bottom of the falls over a rainbow bridge gives a beautiful introduction to the area.

The two small motels in Burney, the nearest town,  have merged management under the name of “Burney Falls Lodging”, but they are still pretty much unchanged from the cabin-style single level buildings with individual front porches such as I used to stay in with my parents when we traveled on Route 66 or Route 40 in the years before the interstates. The rooms at the Green Gables Motel now have a coffee maker and a window air conditioner, but the fish cleaning stations are still here and no effete swimming pools or hot tubs have been added.

 


If you aren’t looking, the passing of lumber trucks along 299 in front of the motel sounds almost like waves surging along the beach. I  relaxed into my 1950’s vintage porch chair at the Green Gable Inn and sip my 2010’s vintage champagne.  Later we enjoyed dinner at Art’s Outpost, another ’50’s throwback with pine paneling , substantial servings, friendly servers, and lots of hunting and fishing décor.

The next morning we got an early start the next morning for our walk around the falls. The view from the top was exciting, with beautiful fall colors just beginning to show in the bordering forest areas. 20180928_091616doc

I recommend walking the loop in the clockwise direction.  It’s an easy mile, with only a few spots where the steps a bit steep.

After the loop, we stopped at the campground and the lake.  The campsites are spacious, and the wooden cabins have snug space for four people as long as they are on friendly terms.  I’m imagining a family camping trip in the future.

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