Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “May, 2016”

Coastal vs Central California: It’s Still About the Water


Left side of the road


right side of road – just add water!

My husband and I took a road trip a few weeks ago, driving from Los Altos down to Bakersfield and then east, returning via Bakersfield and Paso Robles and then up 101.

As far as the Pacheco Pass, the landscape was lyrically green with oaks and buckeyes sporting fresh foliage, and  wildflowers filling the crevices between the hills with streams of yellow mustard, buttercups,  and golden poppies. Rock outcroppings were wreathed in ribbons of late-rising fog like the karst peaks in traditional Chinese landscapes.



On the other side of the pass, we dropped down past the San Luis Reservoir, much healthier-looking at first glance than the last time we had passed this way almost two years ago. But a second look showed us the thirty  feet of rocky scree which separated the current level of the reservoir and the grassy level of the normal shore.  Despite heavy rain in March, the reservoir was still only at 52% capacity, 57% of the average fullness for the end of March.

Further down the hill, we began the long trek down the west side of the Central Valley on Interstate 5 . Except for irrigated fields and orchards, the green was gone – and the signs began.

On a barren field of scrub brush “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Next to an expanse of almond orchard, “Dams, Not Trains.” Several signs showing a perplexed looking boy and the query “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”  On the side of a truck parked next to the Interstate: “Politicians Created Water Crisis = Higher Food Costs, Lost Jobs.” The signs reflected the anger of farmers who had lost their historically unlimited water rights through recent  legislation.  No longer could they rely on digging ever deeper wells to enable cultivation of whatever they felt like growing.

More telling were the signs which began to appear further south: “For Sale – 100 Acres Almonds”.  Still more poignant were the dead orchards – acres of almond trees uprooted, some already brown and dead, some appearing to have been sacrificed only a short time ago.  We saw one backhoe in the process of destruction.  I took some pictures: on one side of the road were healthy almond orchards stretching off into the valley haze, irrigation hoses clearly visible.  On the other side: no hoses, no trees, no greenery, only scrub brush and bare dirt.

Almond trees are currently one of the most controversial crops of the Central Valley.   Almonds are a lucrative product, but they require a lot of water, and the largest percentage of the crop is grown for export to Asia, where demand is rapidly expanding.  With water increasingly scarce, it is argued, why should we allow irrigation of non-essential crops for export, rather than focusing on nutritional basics to be consumed locally?  But who or what will decide what is or is not “essential”?

We crossed the California Aqueduct, sparkling with Northern California water headed for Los Angeles.  More signs: “Food Grows where Water Flows.”  “California produces 50% of US Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts.”

We passed a well-tended farm house with a pillared porch and tiled roof, surrounded by shapely almond trees.  We passed an abandoned stone bungalow, its roof caved in, surrounded by scrub brush.

With enlightened, long-term, apolitical water management, many well-tended farmhouses will survive.  But there will inevitably be many rotting bungalows amid the desert scrub. And fewer almonds in my Chinese chicken salad.


Sunshine on the Sports Page (LATC April 2016)


One morning a while ago I sat down with my morning coffee to read the paper.  List of headlines included

  • Tech job engine cooling off?
  • 8 Years in the NFL… then the Downward Spiral
  • Foster child’s death probed.
  • Trump insults walk fine line
  • Officers on Paris terror raid met with gunfire
  • Thousands flee Texas flooding
  • Toxic water worries in Vermont, N.Y.
  • Undercover sting entraps sex-traffickers
  • Republican Senators stonewall Supreme Court hearings
  • Syrian forces advance on Palmyra
  • Climate change accelerating- hottest February on record
  • City, 49ers in dispute over rent
  • Ex-coach faces 10 felony accounts for sex abuse of students
  • Lower drug prices stalled
  • Toy guns spark visit from police

What a world!  No wonder it takes at least two cups of coffee to wade through the variety of bad news, bad outcomes, and bad behavior!

Then I got to the sports page – “CIF Girls basketball: Pinewood socks nation’s No. 1 team.”  Wait – is that our local private school, the primly painted white- with- green- trim establishment that has been steadily expanding along Fremont Ave. next to Foothill Blvd.?  I read more: “Pinewood pulled an upset for the ages…,rallying from a 10-point deficit to beat St. Mary’s, the no.1-ranked team in the country…. ‘We had nothing to lose…, Pinewood’s Akayla Hackson said.  “So we just went for it.’…. When the buzzer sounded, Pinewood, the tiny Division V school from Los Altos Hills, had knocked off the top-ranked team.”

What fun!  Everyone loves David when he has knocked off Goliath (before he got entangled with That Woman.) And when David (or in this case, Davida) is a Local Girl, that makes the story even better.

Further along, another  Cinderella -type story made the Sports mid-section:  “Blue Raiders bag biggest upset in years.”  In the first round of NCAA March Madness, “the No. 15-seeded Blue Raiders from Middle Tennessee State ended the title hopes of second-seeded [Michigan State] Spartans in a 90-81 first-round victory that sent brackets around the country into trash cans. ‘I’ll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit,’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.”

Wildest dreams coming true!  Maybe a hint of miracles!  We love that too!  I’m not a big follower of basketball, or any other sport, but I love the story lines, and the way every victory can be made to seem like a moral  triumph, whether  of will over skill, or vice versa.  So much easier to digest over breakfast than the intractable problems of the Real World.

So you go, Pinewood girls!  Keep it up, Middle Tennessee State!  No matter how dark the tales of  wars, natural disasters, and human frailty which fill the world, national, and local news, there’s almost always sunshine in the sports section.


Freeway Free: Cruising the James Dean Memorial Highway


That’s not really its name  – on the map it is merely State Route 46, the connector road between Bakersfield and Palo Robles.  But for people of a certain age, it will always be the road on which the first of the Moody Rebels met his untimely end, driving his Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard” a bit too fast on his way to a car race in Monterey.

JamesDeanBlkwls_web The ghost of James Dean still hovers over the road, though the CA Highway Dept has done its best to broaden the lanes, smooth out the curves, and improve visibility at the fateful intersection where Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, partly blinded by the morning sun from teh east, turned left across Dean’s path.  The roadside stand where Dean stopped for an apple and a coke , formerly known as Blackwell’s Corner, has done its best to convert its celebrity into cash, rechristening itself as “James Dean’s Last Stop” and adding a candy counter, burger bar, and amazingly modern and clean restrooms to its offerings for passers-by.  A towering figure of Dean in his red windbreaker dominates the intersection, and a  vast souvenir shop sells posters of Dean, as well as of other movie icons like Gable, Monroe, and Bogart.  Placards lining the wall chronicle Dean’s brief career and the investigation into his demise (Turnupseed, only slightly injured in the crash, was exonerated from blame, though stories of Dean’s excess mph over the limit appear to have been exaggerated.)

 But there is a hint of plaintiveness in the air.  Placards announce “Restrooms for CUSTOMERS only”.  Another, even more direct, reminds us to “Help us keep this historic business open for your comfort and convenience.  Your purchases fund these restrooms!”  Indeed, these are the first comfort stations for miles, but it is clear that the days of Dean devotees making pilgrimages to the site of Dean’s doom are numbered.  How many more generations will remember James Dean?signBlkwl

Further down the road is a sign directing the traveler to the “James Dean Memorial”, which turns out to be a plaque just up from the fatal intersection.  The Jack Ranch Cafe here is  a classic diner with a shelf of souvenirs for sale and lots of James Dean photos on the walls. The memorial itself was crafted by a Japanese admirer, and erected on land donated by the Hearst family.    But I wonder how long it will be until James Dean is a name as devoid of resonance as Donna Mauzy, Donald Doyle, Sgt. Daniel Sakai,  and others whose names are memorialized along our highways?  Who, besides his close family and friends, remembers what was Daniel Sakai’s last stop?james_dean_memorial_cholame.jpg.

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