Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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.

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.

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

 

 

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