Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Freeway-Free down the Left Coast

For the next two days we amble our way down the Left Coast, hugging the coastline, stopping once in a while to admire the sweeping surfline, the white sand dunes, the rock stacks, the redwoods. We spend a night near Florence at Honeyman State Park, one of the largest campgrounds in Oregon, we are told, but still offering fairly secluded hookups for our trailer and, I suppose, a hundred others.

We stop at Bandon to visit our nephew J, who is living a bachelor life in a fixer -upper in the charming seaside town of Bandon. When he has finished the re-hab, he will rent the cottage out as an AirB&B. On the day we visit it is still missing a fence, kitchen counters and appliances, but he assures us that his first renter will find it habitable when he arrives the following week. We can see what a nice seaside pied a terre it isgoing to be – but not quite yet.

J breaks for lunch and takes us for seafood sandwiches at Tony’s Crab Shack, and gives us a brief tour of Bandon’s interesting spots. That orange globe in front of the house facing the ocean? It’s a tsunami escape pod.

We continue down the coast, crossing into California, where the highway swings inland to introduce us to the towering trees of the Redwood Empire. More on this next week!

Freeway-Free in Oregon: Beach Town

Our next day was spent in Astoria and Ft. Stephens, and I have written about Astoria and its wonderful Maritime Museum in an earlier blog. The following day M and I set off early, determined to cruise the Oregon coast quickly, pay a call on our nephew in Bandon halfway down, and make it to our campsite in the redwoods across the California border in good time.

But we were derailed en route by a sign for Mo’s Seafood and Chowder, and M’s memories of her student days in Corvallis when a bowl of Mo’s chowder was the high point of a weekend. There was a branch of Mo’s in Seaside. So we stopped.

Seaside is also a claimant to being a final stop on the Lewis and Clark trail. Certainly their statue to the adventurous explorers is the most elaborate we had seen, with bas-reliefs around the base and a commanding view of the Pacific at the end of Seaside’s main street.

It was a gray, foggy noontide, but as we walked to and from the car we spotted some enduring signs of the beach party culture that would animate Seaside on a sunnier day, and since the bumpercars, the tilt-a-whirl, and the carousel ware all indoors as a concession to Oregon’s variable weather, why not buy a bug-eyed beach toy to invite the sun to play?

Freeway Free in Washington: Camping by the Cowlitz

Off to Cowlitz Falls County Park.  This park is maintained on behalf of the public by the Lewis County Public Utilities District. There are actually no falls here, as the river has been dammed for hydroelectric power, and the only access to the river, the boat ramp, was destroyed in a flood and is being repaired. Aside from the misleading name, this is a lovely quiet place with lot of shade, lots of woodsy trails between sites and restrooms, a sunny meadow with a volleyball net, a horseshoe pit (equipment for both available from the ranger) and a playground.

We set up in adjoining camp spaces, our tiny teardrop next to C&C’s Trailer Mahal. Instant conversation starters with folks strolling through the camp.

Then, just to make sure we meet everyone, we walk the dog, an adorable little white mop of a thing. Nothing like a cute dog to make instant friends along the trail.

The next morning we are just finishing a tremendous breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast (Thanks to C&C’s full kitchen) when our nephew P arrives with his wife T and five lively children. 

Fortunately Cowlitz [no]Falls has lots of distractions to offer. A walk to the river.  Fallen trees to climb. Back at the camp, Grandma C has provided plenty of hot dogs, sodas, chips, and watermelon, while Auntie M has a box of trailer games. Five-year-old G is surprisingly deft at removing blocks from the Zenga tower!

I’d forgotten how exhausting family gatherings can be for us empty nesters. M and I tumble into our trailer while C&C are still admiring the moon over a last glass of wine.

Hidden Gems: Ruth Bancroft’s Cactus Garden

Ruth Bancroft’s legacy garden in Walnut Creek, California is a small plot of land full of wonders. Ruth Bancroft’s family had a farm in Walnut Creek; she was attracted to a rosette-shaped succulent, and this grew into a fascination with succulents, cacti, and numerous other drought – tolerant plants. The result is a fantasy garden of growing greenery, some of which looks as though it originated on another planet.

Despite years in the general area, and having heard about the Ruth Bancroft Garden, it took a family wedding to draw me there. Now I’m eager to go again with visiting friends.

It’s spring, folks! You’re going to see some gardens!

Freeway Free in California: Iris Chang Park, San Jose

I spent Earth Day with friends, making a rather neglected park more beautiful by pulling weeds and trimming invasive plants. I hadn’t planned on doing anything to mark the day, but my friend Tao invited me to join her and her partner in a work project sponsored by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project of San Jose.

The location was Iris Chang Park, shoehorned between a huge apartment block and culverted Coyote Creek. It was established to honor Iris Chang, the brilliant young author of “The Rape of Nanjing” and other histories of the Chinese experience, which opened to much community fanfare in November of 2020. But during the lockdown months care and maintenance fell behind, and the nettles and dandelions had grown almost as tall and profuse as the native grasses originally designed for the landscape.

The park offers a simple strolling path past a cenotaph telling about Iris Chang, a large circular sculpture evoking traditional Chinese artifacts, and several markers and low walls with quotes from Chang’s work. In April, irises planted by Chang’s parents were in bloom in several beds.

So we set to work. A couple of hours later, with a dozen people busy, we had accumulated quite a collection of refuse bags, and the park is ready for its closeup – a May 1 event to mark the anniversary of Chang’s death. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

Freeway Free in Texas: Another Houston Civic Garden

The time to visit the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Houston is definitely in April, when the magnificent azaleas are in bloom.

The entrance to the garden opens to a walkway lined on either side with bronze busts of notables, framed by (on my visit) luxuriant azaleas. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how the notables were picked. Texas historical figures such as explorer Cabeza de Vaca or Sam Houston are expected, but why the president of Chile? and why Robert Burns?

The centerpiece of the garden is a tumulus with a pathway spiraling upward to give you a view of the whole garden as well as the Houston skyline rising beyond. There is no marker to tell you who might be buried beneath this ceremonial mound, but it is precisely reminiscent of burial mounds in China, along the Mississippi, and in Britain.

The pathway is lined with shrubbery and ivy-covered walls. It seems to be a desirable habitat for lizards: I spotted six skittering away from me on my way up, in different shades of yellow, gold, and red. (California lizards are so dull and dirt-colored.) A fountain at the top of the tumulus sends water down a pebble -lined incline to a pond at the bottom; the pathway skips across the stream several times on narrow bridges. The effect is cooling, which is good, as there is no source of shade other than the ivy walls.

At the top of the tumulus are three benches inscribed somewhat cryptically: “In terms of one year, plant a seed. In terms of ten years, plant a tree. In terms of one hundred years, teach the people.” And, one could add, “In terms of one hour, have a seat!”

The rest of the Centennial Garden is still a work in progress. The beginning of a traditional rose garden is visible, but the bushes on my visit were neither labeled nor blooming. Eventually there will be benches shaded by blooming arbors, but not yet.

There is also a family garden, colorful during my visit with lush kale in many shaded of green, magenta, and yellow, and showcasing flowers, vegetables, and fruits which can be grown successfully in the Houston area.

I was charmed to find a Little Free Library conveniently positioned next to a picnic area in the Family Garden, offering books for children, but with a garden theme.

The Centennial Gardens are located within Hermann Park, also home of the Houston Zoo, a lake with paddle boats, and other family attractions. But the Gardens feel quite removed from the more commercial recreations also available in Hermann Park, and provice a lovely place for a quiet walk alone, or a walk-and-talk with friends.

Freeway Free in Texas: Houston’s Botanical Garden

I needed to stretch my legs after a full flight in coach to Houston, so my friend W obligingly scheduled a trip to the Houston Botanic Garden, sorta kinda on the way from Hobby Airport to central Houston. It was a drizzly afternoon, bracing after four hours in a mask, and we had windbreakers and an umbrella, so we strolled the deserted grounds of the garden quite comfortably. After all, in Houston the rain is warm.

The entrance to the garden is austerely modern, but the fence by the gate gives a better idea of the kinds of richness behind the entry. The garden recreates a diversity of ecological settings, punctuated with fountains, raised beds, and a variety of eccentric artwork.

My favorite were the cacti, with all the eccentric shapes and shades they can show.

The major fountain would have been more striking in sunlight with water jets sparkling, I think. Under gray skies it had an effect recalling a set of tiled locker room showers. What do you think?

The raised beds in the culinary garden were beautiful, with richly colored kale and cabbage.

Definitely worth a detour when you are next in Houston! But don’t forget the umbrella!

Hiking Boots to Buzzards’ Roost

Having nothing scheduled, we sleep until 6:30, when we both wake with the same need, scrambling for our camp shoes so we can hustle off to the nearby loo.  If we were at home, we would have stayed upright, made coffee, and begun the day.  But in camp, it seems still too dark to do anything serious, so M curls up for an additional doze, while I pull out my iPad to churn out another 1500 words of my latest imaginary adventure.

After a lovely camp breakfast of Raisin Bran, blueberries, raspberries and oranges, washed down with French pressed coffee, and milk, I do the washing up while M puts together a portable lunch in preparation for our hike to Buzzard’s Roost.  We intend to leave by 10, but what with one thing and another it’s 11:15 by the time we set our feet on the path toward the Buzzard’s Roost trailhead.

It’s a lovely walk under the Highway One overpass, up through stands of redwoods terribly scorched by the Basin Complex fire of 2008, but still bravely pushing out green shoots of new growth.  Then we’re in ceanothus and scrub oak country, then manzanita, and finally barren red rock with a vantage point that looks over to Mount Manuel landward and to the brilliant blue Pacific to seaward.  We spread our unneeded extra layers of shirts over the red dirt and set out a lavish lunch of hard-boiled eggs, carrots, hummus, crackers, string cheese, grapes, apples, and prunes – all finger food, no grease.  We stay looking out to sea until our spines begin to protest against sitting unsupported on the hard ground, then round up the eggshells and cheese wrappers with other leftovers and set off on the return loop.

One of my perennial games on a hike is to count how many different kinds of wildflowers Ican spot.  In Edgewood Park near where I live, I have counted as many as forty in the spring, due to the many different micro-biomes there.  On this day at Big Sur we tally twenty one, including columbine, native iris, wild strawberry, dandelion, buttercup, trillium, and others of which I do not know the names.  Counting varieties is a great way of forcing yourself to be on the lookout and to really notice what is around you.

Our plan after returning to our campsite had been to hop in the car, take care of a couple of small purchases at the general store down the road, and then to drive down to Pfeiffer Beach.  But after our purchases M turns to me and asks “Do you mind if we don’t go to the beach?  I just want to veg.”

Instead we drive to the end of the road on the side of the river opposite our campground, just to see what is there. We watch a family playing softball on the weedy field for a while, and I want to check out the “seasonal footbridge” that the map shows opposite our campground (See the dotted line crossing the river at the end of Day Use Lot 4 on the above map?) M drops me off at the end of Parking lot 4 and drives away, while I follow the trail from the sign that says “Footbridge.”

Guess what.  No footbridge. Must not be the season yet.  I debate wading across the shallowest portion of the Big Sur River as it ripples past where the bridge should have been. I’m wearing my water shoes, and my cargo pants with the roll up option, and the water looks shallow.  On the other hand, the bottom of the river is paved with rounded stones of varied sizes which could be very unstable and slippery, the water is so clear that it’s hard to gauge how deep it really is, and getting up the steep bank on the opposite side looks chancy. So I opt for the half-mile walk around to the far bridge at the end of the campground.  (It would have been shorter, but the most direct route was “authorized vehicles only,” and a ranger directed me in a friendly but definitive way to the trail around, not through.)

By the time I make it to our campsite, M has gotten worried and set out in search of me.  By the time we reunite the sun is definitely over the yardarm. She lights the portable campfire, I run cold water from the camp faucet over my tired feet, and we settle to reading, phoning, and munching the last of the crackers and hummus.

Dinner is experimental but turns out well. A vegetable medley cooked in Frying Pan #1, sliced parboiled potatoes with onions sautéed in frying pan #2, and lamb chops sauteed in Frying Pan #1 after the veggie medley had been evacuated, along with a nice Pinot Noir, dessert of shortbread and chocolate squares, and some sisterly discussion ranging from “Do you think Mom resented me?” to “Have you smoked marijuana?” to “I have this genetic deformity. Do you have it too?”

And by 9PM we are snuggled in our teardrop cocoon once more.

Coming next: The Beach! .

Freeway Free at Lake Tahoe: Fusion Feeding

Busy at Harumi Sushi bar

After our first night of hamburger casserole cooked at the timeshare, C and I felt we should be more adventurous at dining. Not wanting to drive far, we decided to try the sushi place across the highway. Harumi Sushi – good choice!  The place was packed on a Monday night (not that many restaurants open in a tourist town on a Monday) but we managed two seats together at the end of the sushi bar. Although most of the workers and chefs are not Japanese and the tea was not matcha, the edamame was tender, and the White Dragon roll (salmon, spicy tuna, avocado, and more) was only surpassed by the Gabrielle roll (snapper, fried asparagus, sweet sauce, and more.) C had some sake – I tasted, and we split an order of fried cheesecake – a very peculiar sweet which I’m pretty confident is not traditional Japanese.

Toast Tahoe – lower level

For our third night we had planned to dine in South Lake Tahoe, but the Thai restaurant we had hoped to eat at was CLOSED for remodeling, and its sister restaurant at the other end of town was simply CLOSED, and as we had started our culinary search late, we headed north to Zephyr Cove again, to Toast Tahoe. This large restaurant on two levels is obviously equipped to handle large parties, but tonight the upstairs is closed and down in the bar C and I are almost the only diners. Our server is the owner, her daughter buses dishes, her mother and husband are in the kitchen.

No sushi here, but delicious and unusual menu items.  We shared Calamari breaded in toasted coconut, Cindy had crab cakes and roasted Caesar salad, I had mussels in curried coconut milk and rice. Yum.

Since we had failed at finding Thai food previously, we were delighted to find one listed back in South Shore and made Thai on Ski Run our destination. We discovered that this was only one of a little nexus of attractive restaurants off the US50 track – a Japanese, a Nepalese, and an Italian in addition to the Thai, all brightly lit with Christmas lights still up, and all welcoming.  But C had checked out the Thai restaurant online and had drooled at the pix, so we kept to our original plan.  She had a beef curry, I had a not-very Spicy Thai Eggplant/vegetable mix, and we shared, with enough for another meal boxed up afterward for the condo. The restaurant is not as pretty as the pix of its closed rivals, but the friendly and quick service more than made up for the rather bare-bones decor. And I’d come back to this corner of Ski Run to sample the other three restaurants.

Thai on Ski Run beckons on a cold night

Hidden Treasure at Lake Tahoe: LTCC Nordic Center

C and I had promised each other that vigorous exercise would be part of each day at Tahoe, so what to do while my hiking boots were drying out? (See previous post). C had never been cross country skiing, and I had not done it since my children were small, so we set out with a bit of trepidation to find equipment and trails suitable for brittle-boned ski bunnies.

C is a tiger when it comes to locating options. After a short internet search, she discovers that the Lake Tahoe Community College campus includes a Nordic Center with over five kilometers of “groomed trails.” After some misdirection we were in touch with Meghan, who not only welcomed us with the news that we could have a day pass at the Nordic Center for only $7.50 each, but also referred us to Gary at the nearby Sierra Ski and Cycle Works to rent equipment. We set off just before noon.

Gary lives up to his recommendation, giving us well-fitted boots, skis, poles, and clear and succinct instruction on how to don and doff our skis. We head up the road to the LGCC campus, beautifully draped in snow several feet deep. The Nordic Center office is in the Campus Library, the entrance to the trails is just across the parking lot next to the Gym. We park, purchase our day passes, sling our skis and poles over our shoulders, clamber up the snow bank, and set off.

Good news:; the sky is blue, the snow is white and clean, the trails are clearly marked (no falling into the creek here!) Bad news: there has been no fresh snow, and the trails are quite icy.  The ice makes for easy gliding on the flats, but more speed than we can handle at first even on the gentle slopes, so we each take a couple of falls on the first couple of downhills.  Ice is a lot harder to fall on than snow, and a lot harder to get up from as the skis kept wanting to sail away downhill.  But we gradually get the hang of it, shuffling along easily and enjoying the beautiful mountains and snowy woodlands scenery.

Gary had told us that we could keep the boots, skis, and poles if we wanted to use them for a second day, and we decide to try a different loop at LTCC the next day, going in the afternoon when the ice might be melting and the going (and falling) a bit less crusty. A good long soaking in the time-share hot tub has kept the bruises at bay, and we are confident that a second day will see vast improvement, especially since we have both watched a couple of YouTube videos on beginning cross-country skiing.

Well, a bit. The trail is still icy, and the downhills are still too hard and slick for our attempts at snowplowing to slow us down noticeably. It isn’t that I fall less often, but I fall smarter and get up faster. And today we have role models to inspire us: the LTCC Nordic Ski Team is practicing for a meet. The young skiers, helmet-less, long-hair flying, bright-colored tights and sweaters glowing against the snow, must have lapped us at least eight times, swooping and darting past like a bevy of dragonflies. We do our best to stay out of their way, but no worries – they use us as if we were obstacles in a slalom course, and toss us words of encouragement as they see us tumble. Who needs the Olympics?

Waiting for you!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: