Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “climate”

Freeway Free in California: Escape to Point Reyes

untitledIt’s summer, and even in a “Mediterranean climate” the thermometer’s are nudging 90. Time to head for the coast, but not the boardwalk-bordered surf beaches of the southern California coastline.  We are heading for the fog on the west coast of Marin County, the relatively empty corner of the Bay Area north west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Going north on Highway 280 at 10AM, we are basically counter-commuting, as the Young Single Professionals leave their hives in San Francisco to commute down to the massive complexes at Apple, Google, and FaceBook – just the opposite of how it worked fifty years ago when suburban residents trekked north to San Francisco’s financial, commercial, and professional centers.  We skip along 19th Avenue, working our way stop-light by stop-light up the alphabet from Wawona through Irving, then snake through two big patches of greenery – Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, and  finally we are on the bridge.  The cool fog envelops the bridge so that there is only a hint of the City on our right, but we dive into the rainbow-framed tunnel on the other side and emerge into sunshine again, in marvelous Marin.

Google sends us through San Rafael, on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a twisting 2-4 lane road which passes shopping centers and schools, then winds through pastures full of poster-ready contented cows and finally T’s into Highway 1 at Olema.  There is a parking lot just ahead, and it is about noon, so we start searching Google for a lunch spot that might be open.  We have come up dry (business must be slow in west Marin during the week) when we notice that the parking lot into which we have serendipitously pulled happens to be next to a restaurant called Due West, which is evidently open, and rates four Yelp stars.  Why notgive it a try?20190710_121442web

Four stars turns out to a serious under-rating.  We order two appetizers and a side dish from the interesting menu, and end up doing a fair imitation of the famous scene in “When Harry met Sally”, moaning ecstatically with almost every bite.  The mushroom toast was smothered in exotic varieties of fungus, the sautéed summer squash was delicately flavored, and the sauce on the mussels was so delicious that we ended up scrounging the toasts from under the mushrooms so we could soak up the mussel sauce.

20190711_083914webFeeling very happy with our first meal choice, we turned north up Highway 1 to our hideaway cottage in Inverness.  The Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore again exceeded our expectations.

We had a lovely room with a well-equipped kitchenette, including a hot water kettle as well as a coffee maker, and everything one might need for a light supper prep except for a cutting board.   (Always bring a cutting board.) The cottage included a picnic table on a small patio overlooking a fountain and a couple of actively-patronized bird feeders, so we made our supper from the grocery bags we had brought with us and watched the birds. A perfectly restful ending to our escape.

 

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Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond – Day 2

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I knew the second day at Big Bend Ranch State Park would be long and challenging. W insisted that she could do and I should see the hike from the Chilcothe trailhead to the Fresno Rim, overlooking the flat irons surrounding the collapsed magma dome Calle “El Solitario”. The length of the hike was 5 miles round trip, we had plenty of water, and the high was to be only 80 degrees.

We got off to a later start than we had wanted, finishing breakfast at 8:30, so despite aggressive driving on the long straight stretches of road with no traffic and an 80 mph speed limit posted, and later on the 27 miles of gravel road that leads into Big Bend Ranch State Park, we got to the trailhead at 11:30.

 

In many ways this was a rerun of Tuesday, only with a destination in mind. Beautiful blooming desert cactus: flame tipped ocotillo, barrel cactus with fiery orange, muted brown, or clear yellow blooms, and indeed a marvelous vista from the overlook, down hundreds of feet to the river twisting along the flat brown desert floor, and the remains of a mighty mountain moldering within the jagged circle of flat iron teeth. We picnicked  leaning against a rock, hydrating and energizing with P&D grapefruit, grapes, and replenishing our salt with sardines and flaxseed crackers.

The trail across sandy washes and barren rock was marked by small piles of rocks, put together by earlier hikers with varying degrees of creativity.  As we worked our way back through the desert, these small messages from earlier hikers seemed like silent little cheerleaders, beckoning us on.

 

There was not a speck of shade. W had the idea of dampening our bandanas and tying them around our necks, which helped a lot. (Hooray for stuff that is always in the backpack and seldom gets used!) By the time we sighted the truck again W was moving at maybe 60 steps at a time, then stopping to rest with her head and arms propped on her walking stick. I did not let myself think about what would happen if she fell over- maybe I could have driven the truck at least partway down the path, but getting her into it… Ah well, a bad thing that didn’t happen. She said “I knew I could do it if I just took it a little at a time.” We rewarded ourselves with a shared granola bar.

We had hiked at an average rate of one mile an hour.

Back at the Visitor’s Center, we found that the water supply was under repair due to a leaky pump, so we were directed to the bunkhouse, where we would have stayed if not for the geologists convention. The facility looked quite comfortable, each cubicle with two twin beds, a shelf and plenty of under-bed space for stashing things, and a curtain for privacy. And best of all, showers! I rinsed my feet under cold water and changed to sandals. Bliss!

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If you go (and it IS a marvelous vista!) take PLENTY of water, use PLENTY of sunscreen, and wear sun-proof hat, long sleeves, and long pants. Take your time and look around! We had completely missed these hoodoos on the way in.

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Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond

20190326_103521docWe had planned to leave at 7AM for Big Bend Ranch State Park, but ended up feeling a bit lazy after our cold evening at McDonald’s Observatory and hit the road in Moby Dick at about 8AM. Two hours and 100+ miles later we arrive at the turnoff – 27 miles of gravel road getting progressively rockier and washboard-y as we go along. 10 miles in is the “Welcome to Big Bend State Park” sign.

20190326_105934webWith a sigh of relief, I spot a privy decorated with a cowboy mural down a little side road.  The Visitors’ Center is 17 miles further on. The gravel road is bordered  with ocotillo (long slender bare dead-looking sticks with flames of bright red flowers blooming at the tips) and Spanish bayonet (giant pompons of green narrow leaves cupping a torch of white and pinkish downward-facing blooms) and lots of bare earth where the cattle have grazed and platinum blonde grasses where they have not.

20190326_115748docAfter about an hour of jouncing over mostly-pretty-good gravel road, we get to the Visitor’s Center, a plain building with a minimal gift shop and a sign saying “Welcome to the Other Side of Nowhere.” The center also offers an up-to-date set of rest rooms with cool running water, and a friendly ranger who supplies us with trails and suggestions.  We decide to eat our lunch at the lone picnic table under the lone bit of shade, and then head out on the Horse-Trap Trail that promises a view out over the central interior of the park, and possible encounters with local wildlife.

We spot a bird nest in an ocotillo bush, but no bird. The blooming cactus lures us on down the trail, and near the end of the hike we do encounter one large deer drinking at the oasis spring, and several even larger cattle with alarmingly long horns.

Not a great pay-off for a 100-mile one way trip, you might object.  Still, we felt we had explored some amazingly alien territory, and we still had dinner at Magical Marfa to look forward to on the way back from the Other Side of Nowhere.

Freeway Free in Texas: A Distillation of the Desert

20190325_102708docIf you are going to spend time in the desert, it’s best to know what you may be seeing, smelling, and getting stuck onto.  The Chihuahua Desert Research Institute and Botanical Gardens, about 10 miles east of Ft. Davis, provide a convenient and comprehensive introduction. 20190325_110507web

The site includes a pretty little visitors center, surrounded by very well laid out gardens highlighting desert plants by family (e.g.  verbena, rose, oak, beech) explained with a very informative brochure. (who knew that mangoes and blueberries are both part of the verbena family?)

At the end of a winding trail through the gardens is a greenhouse full of exotic cacti.  Some are potted on benches, others set into a lovely mini-garden at the end of the greenhouse.

The very charming lady at the visitor’s center explained a couple of short hikes available starting  from the center, but just the 1 mile circuit of the garden on our second day at altitude was enough.  We took our brochure and photos back to peruse over lunch, to prepare us for the morrow’s ventures further into the Back of Beyond.

Freeway Free in Texas: An Oasis in the Back of Beyond

We weren’t very far off of Interstate 10, the scarlet ribbon on our map which bisects West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso, when we pulled off at Balmorhea State Park.  This unlikely spot was once a life-saving source of water for pioneers on the long southern trek to California

20190324_160847docImaging the astonishment of the first discoverers of San Solomon Springs.  In the middle of flat emptiness, with nary a mountain in sight, and no sizable trees or vegetation from here to the horizon, an artesian spring bubbles out of the flat ground.  This is no trickle of water which ebbs away between hot rocks, but a cool ( 72-76 degrees) endless source of liquid bounteous enough to fill a 1.3 acre pool up to 25 feet deep.

20190324_161619webThe oasis is now civilized, thanks to the efforts and energies of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s.  The swimming pool fed by the spring is now enjoyed by families  and scuba drivers (in the deep part).  No thirsty mules or cattle are allowed to approach. There are changing rooms, picnic tables, and a snack bar. But the presence of abundant water in the midst of the sagebrush is still miraculous.20190324_161043doc

 

 

Freeway Free in Scotland: Bonnie Braes and Bustling Edinburgh

20180723_082742docI can’t say I knew Scotland better after a whirlwind tour, and certainly gained no real insiders knowledge of its captital, Edinburgh.  So I will give you a bullet list, and some photos, and leave you to explore this fount of history and legend as you will.

  •  Take the train.

We traveled on a comfortable, modern first-class Virgin Atlantic coach from York to Edinburgh, and although the train was an hour late due to a malfunction somewhere along the line, the wait at the York station was not uncomfortable, with lots of people-watching to be done.  Once on the train, we enjoyed   lots of leg room, tasty snacks, and lovely scenery right out of Van Gogh with yellow/green checkered fields dotted with hay bales, and fringed with purple loosestrife.

  •  Pick a hotel in the middle of the action.

 

We stayed luxuriously at the Balmoral Hotel, just next to the train station.  (The hotel clocks are all set 3 minutes fast, to make sure guests don’t miss their train!)  Super elegant, super convenient.

  •  Enjoy the food.

We had an excellent lunch at the Whiski Room pub for delicious chicken, leek and carrots and beans, layered scalloped potatoes, a pint of IPA ale.  Later we splurged on an elegant dinner at The Dome, a restaurant that started as a physician’s college (hence the caedaceum in the stained glass windows), then was a bank headquarters, and is now a beautiful restaurant with 6×6′ floral arrangements and the most elaborately decorated ladies room I have ever seen (embroidered damask satin wall covering, six foot arrangements of orchids, gilt sun burst, carved and etched mirrors…).

We had a head start at Edinburgh Castle, being admitted  in advance of the other 10,000 odd visitors it receives per day. But in rushing to stay ahead of the throngs, we had little time to savor the history.  Here was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James, and began all the resulting civil and ecclesiastical warfare..  Here is the fabled Stone of Scone, restored after centuries under the buttocks of English monarchs to its rightful place among the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Down the road is the square where the Bonnie Prince rallied his troops  in his ill-fated rising against English rule.  And further on is  Holyrood Palace where his grandmother Mary struggled against her own lords to maintain her majesty, and where Queen Elizabeth still stays during her annual visit.

  •  Read some books in advance, to prepare yourself.  Or see some movies.  Or some plays.  Tons has been written and acted about this intrinsically dramatic period. Go ahead and wallow in Diana Gabalon’s “The Outlander” in print or on TV (Seasons 1 &2) ,   or just type in “Mary, Queen of Scots” on Amazon and stab with your finger.
  • If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can put together your own  J. K. Rowling tour of Edinburgh, highlighting the Elephant House café where she began writing the series, and glimpsing other sites which are said to have inspired her.  Or you can book a tour through the many travel helpers available.

Hope for good weather, and take your time!  Edinburgh is a joy to walk about in, and there is a story around almost every corner. IMG_0609crop

Freeway -Free in Yorkshire – Market Day in Helmsley

As we traveled across rolling hills purpled with heather under blue skies and puffy clouds, one member of our group asked our guide “When will we get to the Yorkshire moors?”  She gave him a quizzical look and replied “This is them!”  He was taken aback – this was not the dreary, dank scenery made famous  in Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden.

20180720_095103webThe uncharacteristically lovely weather continued as we stopped in Helmsley.  It was Friday, Market Day, and the square was full of stalls offering everything from greeting cards to cabbages.   The window boxes were cascading with flowers, and inside the city hall vendors stood proudly behind tables teeming with meats, cheeses, and jellies all produced locally.

We were told there is a ruined castle suitable as a setting for Gothic novels on the banks of the adjacent river Rye,  but the bountiful display of local goods seduced me away from the ruins.  Sometimes real life is more attractive than fiction.

Freeway-Free in Wales: In Merlin’s Footsteps

20180718_135808docI’m a lifelong fan of Mary Stewart’s four-volume chronicle of King Arthur, told mostly from Merlin’s point of view, so when I found myself touring around the mountains of Snowdonial and through the fortress castle of Caernarvon on the banks of the river Seiont, I pictured the young Merlin with his visions and ambitions in some of the same places.  Wales is a bit magical still.

The castle was expanded and reinforced by Edward I long after Merlin’s time, and subsequently became the ceremonial site for investiture of the Prince of Wales.  It is surrounded now by a car park and a playground, and throughout the grounds are informative placards for a self-guided tour.  But there are still nooks and crannies where I could imagine a young boy hiding from bullies and enemies, over-hearing secrets, and receiving bulletins from the God.

We had unusually balmy weather as we toured around Mt. Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales, the Grey King of legend, so it was easy to imagine myself into the shoes of the other literary characters who kept thrusting themselves into my memory as familiar geographical names came up.  If you are an Arthurian junkie, you will find remnants of T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Avalon Saga“, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, Bernard Cornwell’s”Warlord Chronicles”, and other classic and not-so classic versions of his legend wafting across the landscape.  If you have missed any of the above, follow the links to some excellent reading adventures!

Next Week: Freeway-free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

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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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.    

 

 

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