Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Freeway Free in CA: San Luis Obispo by Train, Bike, and foot – Day 1

Coast Starlight arrives in San Jose

Beginning at the old San Jose Southern Pacific Station – now re-christened the Diridon Station in the mania to honor retiring politicians, thus adding immeasurably to the confusion of travelers (where the heck is Diridon?  And what happened to San Jose, where I need to get off?)

In front of the station, a horde of middle-schoolers, with half a dozen smiling chaperones (will they still be smiling at the end of this trip?)  They are training to Los Angeles.  Some are dressed for the 45-degree chill in the San Jose air; some are dressed in T-shirts anticipating LA weather – or maybe its just that the pre-teen metabolism is indifferent to cold.

We queue up to get an overnight parking pass, and are greeted by a smiling “San Jose volunteer host” who asks us if she can answer any questions, and is elated to learn that we are embarking on the Coast Starlight to San Luis Obispo.  “It is on time, so just wait here, and I will come to escort you to Platform One when it is time.” Wow –  this is a welcome improvement, and certainly beats the airport.

Dome Car on the Coast StarlightThe train is, in fact, a few minutes early – a first for my Amtrak experience.  Onto the train – the uniformed conductor assigns us seats in the coach car (not, thank hevvin, the one in which the pre-teens are traveling), and lets us know that we can pick any available seat in the adjoining dome car.  We stash our suitcases and immediately go to the dome car, where we find  seats nicely angled for looking out at approaching scenery and windows that have been freshly cleaned.  Fellow passengers include a large family of Amish, men and boys in dark trousers and suspenders, girls and women in white caps, busily occupied with their embroidery hoops.

Snow above San JoseWe coast out of the station and  past the back yards and graffiti-coated underpasses of central and south San Jose.  The sun is bright, the sky is blue, and even the graffiti looks vaguely festive.  We have had recent rain, followed by a cold snap, so we take off down a valley coated in electric green new growth, below snow-dusted hills. We travel alongside the freeweay for awhile, easily keeping pace with the southbound traffic, while pitying the jammed northbound lanes.

We ease our way through  Morgan Hill and Gilroy, postcard pretty in spring green, past the newly planted strawberry field in their plastic coats,past artichoke fields in various stages of maturity, through Elkhorn Slough with egrets and avocets strolling under the towers of the power plant at Moss Landing, making our first stop at Salinas.  I imagine John Steinbeck leaving from this charmless station to explore Cannery Row or start his Travels with Charley – it seems like a good place to be from rather than at.

Dining on the Coast StarlightOur turn in the dining car comes soon after Salinas.  The “table cloth” is  white paper and the “china” is  plastic coated cardboard, but there are flowers on the table and ample cloth napkins. We are seated with two young men, one vaguely Hispanic-looking in a sweatshirt and knit cap, the other  fairskinned and preppily attired.  The first was  on his way to El Paso, taking time off to back up his little brother, a boxer with a fight scheduled who needed “someone in his corner. He’s my little brother – what else could I do?” He took his cap off, revealing a shaven skull.  “My dad was a boxer, my uncle too;  I’m kind of the black sheep, going to college.”

The second  was French, on an exchange year at the University of Vancouver.  He had been in Canada since September and would be returning to Paris in April;  meanwhile he had been doing his best to see as much of the exotic west coast as he could –  Banff, the Yukon, Seattle, San Francisco, and points south.  He had visited New York several years earlier, and “this is a different world.”  His English escaped him and gestures took over as he tried to explain his meaning.

Coast Starlight on Horseshoe BendBy the time we had finished lunch, we were through Paso Robles and climbing up the Cuesta Grade, through tunnels, looping around 180 degree curves, with the Coast Highway at first far below, then finally paralleling the track as we eased into San Luis Obispo.

Why are we in SLO?  Because I craved a few days when I did not have to drive.  By train we arrived, by foot we traveled about 7 up and down blocks to our bed-and-breakfast, trailing our wheeled suitcases behind us like balky pets.   (Number of curbs without cut-outs for wheeling – 5.  Number of steps up to the door of our B&B – 9.  Number of steps up to our second-floor bedroom and parlor – 22.)Stairs - going up?

Stained-glass lit sitting room - Garden Hotel SLOOne look at the cozy sitting space at the Garden Streeet Inn, with  light filtering in through stained class windows and  comfy chairs inviting a good curl-up with one of the books from the library wall, and I was ready to nest.  But it was still afternoon, with plenty of daylight hours to go, so we stashed our stuff and stretched our limbs and set out to explore.

Next: Higueroa Street by night and by day.

A Pop-Up Heritage Garden (Town Crier, March 2012)

narcissusIn mid-January on my street corner a carpet of green shoots transforms each year into hundreds of waving narcissus blooms – the maximum bloom cresting during the coldest days of winter.
Someone at least 30 years ago planted some narcissus bulbs in the orchard which formerly marked the end of the street. It may have been the original owner of the orchard. It may have been the first owner of the house built in the housing development which replaced the orchard, or the second green-thumbed owner who planted over a dozen different varieties of fruit trees in the place of the original apricots. It may even have been my father, who was a city kid who did his best to become a green-thumb gardener for over forty years after buying the house and land in the late 50’s.
Somehow the bulbs survived my father’s regular roto-tilling of the orchard, the bull-dozing of the fruit trees when our house was built next to my parents’ in the 80’s, the re-landscaping, covering with new soil, and planting of a rose garden after the new house was built.
One summer day as I was picking roses, I saw a bulb lying on the ground. Wondering where it had come from, I picked it up. Underneath it was another bulb. I picked that one up too. The hollow where it had been was lined with more bulbs. It was like the classic Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins; each bulb I picked from the hollow revealed more bulbs beneath and around the first one. I had discovered a bulb mine!
Apparently the bulbs had been dividing and multiplying under the topsoil until they had run out of soil; then the bottom layers began pushing the others upward until the top-most one was simply lying on the surface. I fetched an old pair of panty hose and began loading bulbs into it. When I had taken all the bulbs that seemed loose in the bulb mine, I threw a couple of shovels-full of dirt into the hollow to encourage the bulbs that were left, and hung the bulb-filled stockings on a nail in the garage.
When the rains came to soften the dirt, I planted the bulbs in the bare space around the oak tree on the corner. I didn’t know I was supposed to imitate nature and scatter them randomly, so I set them out in orderly rows, counting as I planted. By the time the stockings were emptied, I had planted 250 bulbs.
The next year I spotted a bulb lying on the ground in a different place. The new bulb mine yielded about 150 bulbs, some of which I shared with my sister in Davis and my co-workers in San Jose or planted in pots as Christmas gifts. The leftovers went to another bare space beyond the oak tree, and along the parking space in front of the rose garden.
Over the next years as the bulb mines appeared and disappeared, I began offering bags of bulbs to my neighbors up and down the street. My Adopt-A-Bulb campaign has become almost an August tradition.
Last year I only harvested about 50 bulbs from the newest satellite mine, and I and my neighbors are running out of bare spaces in our gardens. But in January, when the narcissus are all blooming together, I think about the long-ago gardener who planted the first bulbs, hoping to make the world a little bit more lovely. Though it only lasts two weeks, it is a wonderful heritage.

Freeway-Free in California: Sacramento

Cars are convenient, but I find it intensely liberating to be without one. Why travel to a different locale if you are traveling withing your own bubble, complete with too familiar anxieties about parking, traffic, one-way streets, and so on? When possible, I go by other means. It is wonderful to discover how many other means there are, and what new adventures can be found when one is not chained to a steering wheel.

49er's stadium, Santa Clara

49er’s stadium, Santa Clara

Example – for our most recent day trip from the Bay Area to Sacramento we took the train. The Capital Corridor train pulls into the Santa Clara Great America station at about 7:30AM; we are early enough to see the new 49er stadium glowing with construction lights as it grows like a giant phosphorescent fungus adjacent to the station. The train is not crowded yet, so we pick plum seats in the upstairs and enjoy reasonably decent coffee from the café car.

I have written about the train experience here. After a quick three hours (one newspaper, two magazines, and part of a paperback, we debark at the old Sacramento Station, our goal being the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum, and a lunch date with our Sacramento-resident son and his wife.

He doth bestride our narrow world like a colossus...It is a grayish day, but our spirits are buoyed by interesting sight. On one side is the Gateway Arch that leads to the historic Old Sacramento neighborhood, on the other an angular light tower bestrides the path to central Sacramento like a giant’s Transformer or Erector set – I half expect it to fold itself up into a closetful of coat-hangers as we go by.Gateway Arch, downtown Sacramento
The Old Crocker Mansion is changed also; the original Victorian mansion was deeded to the city along with the banking family’s art collection; over the intervening century the mansion/museum has added a wing, then another wing, and now a modern new museum addition which dwarfs the original mansion. The Rockwell exhibit has drawn a wide spectrum of Sacramento citizenry: field-tripping students clutchingtheir study guides, a bevy of Red Had Clubbers In their cheerful scarlet and purple costumes, and even a vanload of art fans from the Lighthouse for the Blind wielding their red-tipped white canes.

Old Crocker Mansion Museum - SacramentoNew Crocker Museum - Sacramento

After appreciating the 350 Saturday Evening Post covers as best we can, we stroll over to Il Fornaio restaurant on Capitol Mall for lunch with the kids. Afterward we have time, so we go through the arch and the gaily painted tunnel to Old Sacramento. The wrought-iron balconies recall the French Quarter in New Orleans; a century of flood damage is hidden beneath the wooden sidewalks. Instead of building levees against the Sacramento and American rivers as their city subsided, Sacramentans simply built second and third stories on top of the “basement” floors which had originally been at ground level.Signage - Old Sacto
We stroll into some of the colorful tourist boutiques, check out the visitors’ center, and make our way back to the station through a surprising remnant of Chinatown featuring a memorial statue to Sun Yat-sen who seems to bless our departure.
If the day had been sunnier, we could have spent time on the Capital Mall exploring the Rose Garden, the Cactus Garden, the various war memorials, and the Stanford Mansion. Instead we caught the earlier train and peacefully read our way back to Santa Clara, gazing occasionally out at the poor folks stuck in their steel bubble gridlock on the neighboring freeways.

Next: the Coast Starlight to San Luis Obispo

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