Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Freeway-Free in Texas – Houston’s Julia Idelson Library – a Hidden Treasure

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Some folks probably only visit’s Houston’s main library because you can get validated free parking in the library garage by making a visit to its downstairs lobby.  They miss a lot.

On my recent trip, I was attracted by the garden and wrought iron fence surrounding the OLD library building (now known as the Julia Ideson Building, located right next to the new concrete edifice which supplanted it. )Once in the garden, I had to take a look at the historic building’s insides.  And as often happens in old libraries (I am somewhat of a library junkie) I found hidden treasures.

In the downstairs lobby was an extensive exhibit of original letters and news articles in glass showcases, chronicling the struggle of Houston’s black population to gain entrance to the city’s libraries. It was fascinating and chilling to see how earnestly, politely, and stubbornly the black citizens of Houston staked their claim to equal access to the libraries their taxes helped pay for, and how circuitously, hypocritically, and stubbornly the city and the education system of 1920’s-40’s Houston resisted their claim. (Houston’s black populations did not have equal access to the libraries until the 1950’s, under pressure from returning black veterans and the Eisenhower administration.)

Upstairs we found a beautiful painted ceiling and plaster-relief fresco above the wood-paneled walls.  Off one side of the vaulted second floor landing was a wonderful old reading room, presided over by Venus de Milo herself.

And behind an updated glass door was another exhibit, featuring the first black student to enroll in a major university in the South, John S. Chase. He was an architecture student, and there was no black college in Texas where the university system could pretend to offer him a “separate but equal” education.  Despite many obstacles (e.g. Texas regulations had to be waived to allow him to get an architect’s license without having served an internship, as no architectural firm would hire him) Chase went on to become a successful architect and mentor to a generation of successors. 20180405_HLibrary1

On our way to the ladies’ room, we spotted a door at the end of the corridor marked “Authorized Researchers Only” . Of course we considered ourselves authorized researchers, and went in. Behind the oak doors was the original  children’s room of the old library, with its age-darkened bookshelves crammed with the children’s books which were too old, too little in demand, too overtly racist, or for some other inscrutable reason were deemed unsuitable for general circulation in today’s Houston Library network. 20180405_Hlibrary3

Of course, many of these books were very familiar to W and I and some had been much loved (Robert Lawson’s Smeller Martin and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The White Horse were two I remember well and paged through once more with great glee, despite their racist stereotypes).  It was an Ali Baba’s cave to booklovers.

If you are in Houston with some hours to while away (I’m thinking maybe a rainy day, of which there are many) this would be a wonderful way to while.

 

 

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Freeway Free in Texas: A Stop-Over in LaGrange – a GEM!

20170407_122257.jpgW and I decided to spend some time in LaGrange primarily because it is conveniently about halfway between Houston and Austin.  We found a lot more to like than we had expected.

LaGrange boasts a real town square, with a Victorian-vintage courthouse which includes an interior courtyard with a fountain and a beautiful carved oak staircase.  Surrounding the courthouse are a number  of 1910-20’s vintage buildings , and some charming shops tucked inside those vintage buildings.

If you are hungry, Bistro 108 just off the main square offers some excellent eats.  On our visit the soup of the day was a corn chowder so good I wanted to lick the bowl, while the special of fried catfish was the best I have eaten of that species since I left Texas behind as a girl.

20170407_132055.jpgAfter lunch, a stroll around the square will bring you to the Texas Quilt Museum, a riot of color and pattern, usually with a special exhibit,  and staffed by friendly, well-informed volunteers. Their gift shop includes some great cards for sewers as well as wonderful textile crafts and some delectable antique quilts for sale.

The above quilts were part of a display from an International Quilt Exhibit – the leftward one is from Japan, the rightward from the US – I was fascinated by the complementary spiral motifs and colors from such disparate locations and cultures.

If you need some fresh air after the museum, Monument Hill/ Kreische Brewery State Historic Site is just a short drive out of town, and commands a spectacular view of the town of LaGrange and the entire Colorado River Valley.  The monument in question commemorates a squadron of LaGrange citizens who went off to fight the Mexicans during the Texas War for Independence, and were ambushed and either killed or imprisoned.

We missed the Texas History Museum which would have told us more about the ambush, but we did find a plaque honoring one of the town founders.  The plaque concluded its biography of the founder with “John Henry Moore died at he age of 80 on December 12, 1880…. The local newspaper carried a lengthy obituary extolling his many accomplishments and virtues. One week later a rebuttal was printed refuting these claims.”

Once in a while, you get to love Texas history.

Freeway Free in Texas: A GEM! Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

20170405_080617.jpgI thought I was accustomed to startling rock landscapes, having hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, ridden a mule to the depths of Bryce Canyon, and driven dirt roads through Monument Valley.  But Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is in a separate class.  It features  a large pink granite dome which looks like something escaped from Yosemite, exfoliation and all, except it is the wrong color.  And except that, according to the geological information provided in the trail guides, most of this giant formation is buried under eons of silt deposits.  The summit is 1823 feet above sea level, offering wonderful 360 degree views of the Texas Hill Counry.  If it were fully exposed, it would cover an area as large as Manhattan, and be as high as Half Dome. 

20170405_082659.jpg The  Summit Trail is an easy two/thirds of a mile from the principal parking lot, which also offers convenient rest rooms and picnic tables for befoore or after your hike.  The climb  is steep and without handholds.  Recommendation – Bring a walking stick with a rubber tip to act as a third leg to brace you against the slippery rock and the howling wind which on our visit was blowing across the top at about  30 mph.  Recommendation #2 – make sure your hat and your sunglasses, if you need them, are both secured with a cord. The wind nearly took my hat as I crested the summit, and my sunglasses went flying  as I was grabbing for said hat.  After I had secured them in a Velcro fastened pocket  and wrapped a scarf about my ears, the whistling of the wind bothered me much less! Recommendation #3: wear a scarf.

But oh, it was bracing to be at the top!

Freeway-Free in Texas: Fredericksburg a bit lacking in “authentic German soul”

20170404_153027.jpgFredericksburg, founded in 1846 by German settlers, is said to have perpetuated not only the authentic German cuisine of the founders but also some of their “authentic German soul.”  (per VisitFredericksburgTX.com).  I have to say we pretty much struck out.  We got recommendations from the friendly host at our motel and headed hungrily into town after our drive from San Antonio.  The Old German Bakery and Restaurant, our first choice,  is closed on Tuesday, at Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn we were greeted so rudely that we left, and we finally had a delightful meal with excellent service at the Auslander. 20170404_173818.jpg

After dinner we meandered down the wooden sidewalks to check out the stores and crafts shops, but found most of the stores closed well before 9PM, except for the biergartens and souvenir shops.  There were some traces of Germanic architecture around, but they had a kind of faux-Hansel-and-Gretel look about them which felt more Disneyland than Bavaria.

With some relief we returned to our hotel, the Peach Tree Inn.  The contrast between La Contessa where we spent out two nights in San Antonio and the Peach Tree Inn in Fredericksburg, is dramatic. Instead of a two room suite with bar area and marble countered bathroom, we have one room  with two double beds, a microwave on top of the mini-fridge, and the TV on the wall.  But everything is clean and fresh, the amenities in the top drawer of the bureau are as needed. The “light continental breakfast is included, with hard boiled eggs, lots of different pastries, bread and bagels, apples and orange juice, good coffee,  And the $98/night charge included a very decent bottle of Australian pinot noir on our dresser as a welcome from the host. 20170404_153736.jpg

So we were not as charmed by Fredericksburg in general as we had hoped to be, but were beautifully rested from our evening at the Peach Tree Inn, and ready to explore the beautiful Texas Hill Country the next day. 

Coming up next: A secret gem – Enchanted Rock State Park

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio beyond the Alamo and the Riverwalk

20170404_062510.jpgWe walked down the Riverwalk to La Villita, an  art area in a restored old section of San Antonio, replete with marvelous old tilework. Had a simple but ample breakfast with a server who was a cross between Jack Black and chirpy Ranger Tatum.

Next we drove to the Medina River Natural Area. We hiked mostly level trails along the river bank, with a few ups and downs between riparian and chaparral ecosystems.  I counted 21 varieties of wild flower plus four types of butterflies, and heard many bird songs. We were warned about some feral pigs in the area but saw none.

 

 

Lunch at Lai Wah’s Place, a modest Chinese restaurant in a strip mall thronged with locals, very good Cantonese-style food, old-fashioned fake paneling and suspended ceiling decorAFter , waitress moving at top speed at all times (hence the blurry photo), did not even have a chance to impress her with my Chinese.20170404_111118.jpg

 After lunch we continued our explorations to the  Denham Estate Park to see the beautiful Korean pavilion donated by San Antonio’s sister city Gwangju in Korea. ( I wonder what San Antonio sent in exchange?)  The pavilion is very lovely sitting over a pond on lovely grounds.  Unfortunately the  Denham home which is in the center of the park is loudly marked “no trespassing, no public restrooms.” A bit off putting!. 

 

Next on to the marvelous McNay Museum in northern San Antonio, in a  mansion which seems to have been blended from elements of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and the old plaza in Santa Fe.. Lots of stenciled roof beams,  tiled stairways and benches, an interior patio, iron grill work…

…and some amazing art, ranging from medieval to Monet and Mary Cassat, plus some Southwestern ethnic stuff.  Outside in the sculpture garden another LOVE sculpture, as previously seen in Taipei, Tokyo, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia. And some Rodin. 

Blown away by all this exercise, culture, and art, we finally made it out of town, having skimmed a lot of the cream of San Antonio.

Freeway Free in Texas: The Missions of San Antonio

I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.   W and I saw them all.

20170403_081959.jpgThe Alamo is not a large building, and until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas appealed to the state government, it was in danger of disappearing entirely under one or another wave of urban development which swept over San Antonio.  Now, of course, it is a cultural icon as well as a huge tourist attraction.   The State of Texas has taken over responsibility for funding its maintenance, with the DRT acting as custodians.

 

Since its time as a church, the Alamo has been an army barracks, a fort under bombardment, an army storehouse, and simply abandoned.  No wonder it is the least lovely of the five San Antonio missions.  It has no bell tower, no frescoes, no WPA restoration of dubious accuracy, no green lawns.  It does have some beautiful old live oak trees which were transplanted to the grounds, and a very well stocked gift shop, and mobs of tourists coming in waves from tour buses. We chose an audio tour so that we could try to go where the bus tours and field trippers were not, but were only partially successful.

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The other missions make up in picturesque elegance what they lack in historical drama.  Conception has two towers a la Notre Dame de Paris.  San Jose has expansive grounds and a lovely window called “Rosita’s window” through which those Indians who were yet unbaptized could peek in and observe the religious ceremonies.  Here we were guided by the  incredibly perky Ranger Tatum who gave us a chirpy but very modern tour of the “Queen of the San Antonio missions” – exposing the inauthenticity of the WPA’s reconstructions, and the wrong-headed -ness of the priests’ aspirations regarding the natives.

San Juan has been spiffed up with whitewash and has an open belfry with the five bells arranged in tiers.  Estrada is the last and least restored, but its dilapidation has a raffish charm all its own.

 

The missions were opened as a way of establishing Spanish culture and faith in the New World;  the missionaries were at the same time agents of the King as well as of God.  The natives came to the missions as a last resort – they were being terrorized by tribes of Apaches who were invading south Texas in order to escape the even more martial Comanches, and they were dying of sicknesses brought by their early contacts with the Spanish.  The missionaries promised shelter from and defense against the Apaches, which they delivered in exchange for the natives’ abandoning their language, beliefs, and culture – even their names.  However the missionaries could not protect against the illnesses.  The priests believed that the natives were dying because of their sinful lives, not because of contagion, which was not then understood.  By the end of the mission era, 80% of the indigenous tribe members who had come to the mission for help were dead.

Lovely weather, and as we proceeded sown the Mission Trail the outer Missions were progressively emptier.  We walked a lot, mostly on paving stones and bricks and clinkers.  We felt we had earned a margarita at the end of the day at spangle-lit Mi Tierra, the doyenne of San Antonio’s Mexican restaurants. followed by a delicious platter of Monterrey Speciale, and a middling good flan to share at the end of the meal at the end of the Trail.

 

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: It’s Fun to Stay/at the YMCA

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Coming down from Rocky Mountain National Park, having gotten our full dose of quaintness at Grand Lake,   we were expecting more of the same.  But once we hit the T intersection with Highway 40, the next outpost of civilization was Granby, perhaps the most unpicturesque town in Colorado.  It is as though the town fathers along US 40 had gotten together and agreed to put all the useful, practical, unromantic elements necessary for civilization in one town: we passed a medical clinic, a truck stop, a modern hardware store, a fire station, and a post office, all seemingly made of the same uncompromising beige 1950’s era cinder block.   One building, the Longbranch saloon, shows on the town website festooned with flags and/or flowers, but maybe this is only for photo shoots.  Poor Granby is the ugly old-maid sister who makes herself useful.

Happily, we could breeze right by Granby.  We had already selected our local home base, an unfussy family-type resort at the Snow Mountain Ranch (AKA YMCA Camp of the Rockies) just a little further down the road.  In winter this center offers fine cross country skiing as well as an indoor pool and a roller-skating rink;  in summer there are hiking trails with great veiws, a canoeing lake for beginners, an archery range, horseback riding,  a miniature golf course (pretty bare of grass, but it’s there), and other outdoorsy things, as well as a craft center for rainy days.

Best of all, this place is ridiculously affordable.  A 2-bedroom cabin that sleeps five is $249/day.  There are also rooms available in various lodge building which can accommodate up to six people in a single room at true bargain rates, or you can opt for a yurt.   If you wish, at a very reasonable cost you can opt for three square meals at the cafeteria.  Food is about the quality of Denny’s, except for watery scrambled eggs in the morning.

So we hung out at the Y for a week, hiking, biking, and scaring the local fauna. (More on this next post)

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Other Side of the Rockies – Grand Lake

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Most non-Coloradans probably think of Denver when they think of the Rockies – the wonderful postcard panorama of the city’s skyscrapers dwarfed by the huge mountain range rising abruptly out of the Great Plains. Some might think of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, another tourist magnet.  If they get as far as Rocky Mountain National Park, most only  make it as far as the hiking trails around Bear Lake before turning back to Boulder or Ft. Collins or Colorado Springs or other east side centers.  But there is a lot to appreciate on the western slope of the Continental Divide.

We planned to eat lunch at the Trail Ridge Store at the Alpine Vistors’ Center, but we were delayed by road work as we slugged up and over the summit of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.  By the time we arrived, but the parking lot at  visitor’s center was full to over-flowing, and the  presiding ranger politely but firmly turned us away.  We coasted down the other side of the summit hoping at best for a coffee shop in Granby when my ravenous sister spotted a sigh for the Grand Lake Lodge – “Lodging/ Cocktails”. Where there is a bar, she reasoned, there must be bar food.  And thus we happened on  a hidden treasure on the west side of the divide.

The lodge itself is worthy of comparison to the great lodges of the National Parks such as the Ahwahnee at Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone.  It is built of local timber, and features an expansive veranda billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch.”  The veranda looks out over the lodge pool and the Grand Lake – a spreading expanse of blue shining far below the deep veranda of the Lodge.

Inside is a huge gathering room, with quaint twig-and-slat rockers circled around a huge firepit.  Since the weather was excellent, we elected to eat on the porch with that great view, but we could imagine on a cold or wet day how comforting that fire would be.

On separate trips to Grand Lake, we also discovered the eponymous town, a hyper-quaint log village beside the lake.  It boasts a wonderful ice cream shop (very welcome after hiking the nearby trails) as well as an informative museum of local history and an excellent repertory theater which offers three or four musicals rotating over the course of the summer, with cast members recruited from university theatre companies all over the country.  This summer we were there for “West Side Story” and lucked into Cabaret night, when the audience is invited to join the cast members after the show for some bonus music, each cast member presenting their own favorite song.  The performance is free, and the wine/beer bar is open.20171022_154109web

 

Freeway Free in California: a New Point of View on Silicon Valley (Los Altos Town Crier October 4, 2017)

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For years the inscrutable gray monolith  had loomed over us from the summit of the forbidden mountain.  Now the curse has been lifted, the prohibition ended – how could we not hurry to visit the newly opened summit of Mt. Umunhum?

When I moved to the Peninsula  Mt. Umunhum was an off-limits Air Force Base, directing the surveillance of the wasp-tailed submarine chasers flying out of Moffett Field.  With the end of the Cold War the summit with its surroundings was purchased by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Trust (Midpen) , but it was still off-limits, poisoned by toxic waste left from its radar and other installations. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged the radar tower, making the location still more hazardous. 

20170921_112932webThen a controversy prompted action. In 2009 Midpen obtained Federal funding to clean up the site, and one of its first ideas was to tear down the remains of the radar tower and restore the site to its pristine pre-Cold War state.  Valley residents erupted with letters and meetings – the tower was ugly and dilapidated, but it was an icon none the less, part of the Valley’s landscape and history for 60 years, and we didn’t want it to disappear without ever having had the chance to visit it. 

Midpen back-pedaled, but the residents were now energized.  We passed a bond measure which enabled the site to become a destination, with paved access roads, parking, restrooms, and all the other amenities expected of a public park.  And in September of this year the gates were opened.

Exalted Personages were there on the first day to cut ribbons and make speeches.  But on a weekday of the following week, we made the trip, feeling like pioneers as we drove up and down Hicks Road into an area of San Jose we had never visited before. Finally we reached a STOP sign, and on the right the gate to the newly opened park, now christened “Sierra Azul Preserve”- the blue mountain range.

The wiggly black arrows on the yellow signs are not to be ignored;  this is a seriously winding and steep road, requiring downshifting to second gear both coming and going. But as we ascended, our conversation went roughly

                Me: “Oh, Wow!

                Him: “I can’t look!”

as the views of valley, mountains, and ocean began to come in sight. 20170921_113257doc

At the top, the view expands from a misty Mt. Tamalpais in the north well past Morgan Hill to the south, from Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton to the east to the gleaming ocean west of Santa Cruz.  Far below are the toy skyscrapers of down-town San Jose, the parquet of roof-tops carpeting the suburbs, the tiny white pyramids of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, the blue Lexington and Almaden reservoirs, and miles and miles of woodland and pasture and empty air.  Everything human-made looks extremely small and insignificant. 

Everything, that is, except the tower, looming now right next to us, still inscrutable, and still closed to public access.  

 The park service has added a lot of informational signs about the mountain’s history. (The name, by the way, is an Ohlone word meaning “resting place of the hummingbird.”) 

Some pointers if you go:

·         It takes about an hour from Los Altos to get to the summit parking lot.

·         Dress in layers;  at the summit it was 20 degrees cooler than in the Valley. 

·         The road is narrow, turnouts rare, guard rails incomplete, lots of blind curves.  Take it slow.

·         Watch out for bikers coming and going.  This new mountain road is a biker magnet, and the shoulders are narrow to non-existent.

·         Parking at the very top is reserved for handicapped.  There is a circle to drop people off, but unless you have a blue tag park below the summit at the restrooms. 

·         There are 159 steps to the summit, punctuated by frequent landings with benches where you can sit, admire the views, and catch your breath.

·         There are two picnic tables under a shelter just below the parking lot.

                ENJOY!

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

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