Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Freeway-Free in Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

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Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

Freeway Free in Britain: Discovering York

20180721_174408docI  was thrilled to be going to York long before I had seen a picture or read an itinerary – as a long-time fan of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, I’m convinced that Richard, Duke of York, got a raw deal in Shakepeare’s heavily politicized portrait of him as Richard III, hunchbacked arch-villain. So I was eager to see the city which had given him his title, and which, according to history, mourned his overthrow by the usurper Henry Bolingbroke.

York has a lot more than Richard III going for it, though.  It has a beautiful minster cathedral which rivals the best of France’s Gothic cathedrals, with stunning stained glass and a flowerlike central vault.

Unlike most European cities, York still has a nearly intact city wall, which makes for a charming and informative stroll along its ramparts.  From any vantage point on the wall you get views of the minster, plus sneak peeks into verdant gardens, lively back yards, and the lives of modern Yorkists.

Within the wall the city maintains a medieval character wit its narrow twisting streets and odd alleyways, while somehow exuding a modern energy and excitement.   Outside the wall are other points of interest, including a really comprehensive railway museum calling attention to when York was a rail center for all of northern England.

My railway buff husband would love to spend more happy hours there, while I would return for the alleyways and pubs and to walk a few more miles of the wall. 20180721_095012doc

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

20180718_105805webFrom Caernarfon Castle we moved inland to Conwy, a walled market town with some beautifully preserved Elizabethan homes. I could imagine the burgher who lived in Plas Mawr inviting other village citizens to dine, quaffing local ale and bemoaning the unreasonable demands of the lord of the adjacent castle. Meanwhile, the servants in the adjacent kitchen would be skinning the local game and trying to keep drops of sweat from dropping into the soup.

Moving forward several centuries, we stopped at Betws-y-Coed. The ultra-quaint railway station with its ivy covered veranda spoke of Victorian solidity and permanence.

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But the twin ecological monuments on the veranda spoke to very different 21st century concerns.

 

Our next stop brought the world of the castle firmly into the 21st century also, as we stopped at Gwydir Castle, a Tudor-era manor whose young owners have taken it from being an abandoned white elephant to being a reasonably profitable and comfortable bed and breakfast.

The 500 year old cedars have been saved, the ghosts (both human and animal) have been exorcised), the plumbing, including the fountains, have been restored, and there are peacocks begging for crumbs when tea is served in the garden.  (If you want to know more about the restoration, Judy Corbett has written a charming book about the process, Castles in the Air. You will never be able to hear or see the term “fixer-upper” again without a smile.

Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

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Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: the National WWII Museum

20180519_092657webWhy, I wondered, is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, rather then in one of the principal embarkation cities for the European or Pacific fronts?

DSC_6027a.jpg-0373webI guess I was not the only visitor with this question in my mind, as the neighboring plaque explains how A.J. Higgins’ design for landing boats “won the war for us” per Eisenhower, leading to the establishment of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, site of four Higgins plants.  Once the D-Day museum was established, widening its scope to include the rest of the war seemed sensible and cost-saving.  And the National World War II Museum is a true gem.

The main museum is divided into two major sections, one devoted to the European theatre, the other to the Pacific war. The exhibits include photos, little-seen films, recordings of memories from actual participants in the various political and military battles. I spent most of my time in the “Road to Berlin” section, while my partner skimmed through that to explore the Battle of Midway.   I also toured the exhibit adjacent to the lobby which covers the Home Front,  with dueling radio broadcasts from national hero Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent of the isolationists,  and Franklin Roosevelt advocating support of the British through Lend-Lease for Liberty.  Then Pearl Harbor settled it all.

20180519_095524webAn excellent introductory film, “Beyond All Boundaries” shows in the Victory Theater Complex, which also offers live entertainment in vintage 1940’s style. the film orients you to what was at stake in World War II and how the conflict developed.  Even with this as a guide, there is too much to cover in one day.  The Home Front section includes a 40’s era -themed Soda Shop where a visitor can sit down and refuel.

Other buildings include the Boeing Center which displays WWII era airplanes, and a Restoration Pavilion which features displays on the technology advancements that came about under the pressure of war.

The National WWII Museum is a far cry from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and Cajun cuisine.  But it’s a Don’t Miss!

 

Freeway Free in California – Exploring Orland

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Traveling north from the Bay Area along I-5 on the way to Portland? You may have looked at the map and figured you could get something to eat at a fast food joint on the outskirts of Red Bluff or Redding. And you probably can. But if you had an early start and want something with a bit of local color, why not try Orland instead?

Orland? I’d never heard of it either until my live-in travel agent announced that Orland would be our lunch stop. But this small farm town boasts not one but two idiosyncratic eateries that are worth your while.

20180927_124621web The Berry Patch is just to the left at the Orland off-ramp.  Despite its name, it specialized more in BBQ and burgers than in berry pies.  We opted instead for the 4th Street Cafe a few blocks off the freeway and down to the right. We were encouraged to see a police car parked in the lot – almost always a sign of good eats and substantial portions. Inside, the focal point of the large dining room is an ancient Hotpoint electric stove against a wall covered with shelves laden with the mugs of regulars at the cafe (I presume, although some of the shelves are so high that there must be a retirement home for NBA players nearby. )

The menu was basic: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, patty melts, Chicken, tuna, and BLT sandwiches, Cobb, Taco, and Caesar salad. The breakfast menu is served through lunchtime.  (The Cafe is open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday) 20180927_124737web

My LITA ordered the Patty Melt with “home-made BBQ chips.” After finishing every crumb (not even a teeny taste did I get!) he told the waitress to relay his compliments to the cook for “one of the best patty melts I ever had.” – high praise as this is his go-to choice on the road. I did get to share some of the BBQ chips, and I will never waste my time eating chips out of a bag again – they were exquisite! Fresh, bubbly with crispness, nicely spiced, a little bit greasy, and not a jot of preservatives.

I chose Avocado Toast from the breakfast menu, with a poached egg on top. Good bread, a perfectly ripened and sliced avocado, a nicely poached egg. The avocado could have been warmed up a little to match the toast and egg, so the dish fell a tad short of perfection, but it was pretty near a perfect light lunch for traveling. We could not resist adding a couple of cookies to go from the cookie jars on top of the bakery rack. Dessert for the evening, if they last that long.

20180927_132409docAfter lunch we walked off a calorie or two at the adjacent Library Park – an oasis of greenery and shade, complete with a bandstand and evident signs of a major festivity impending. The Library is an old Carnegie library building converted into a community center, while a newer, less picturesque but presumable more functional library has replaced it in the same park. Across the street from the park are a spiffy new police station and city hall. A new Lincoln waited at the stop sign as I crossed the street – there must be money in this town somewhere.

 


The rest of the downtown is as dilapidated as you would expect for a shopping area too far from the freeway and too close to the nearest Wal-Mart. But this little piece of Orland around the Library Park is plain and simply pleasant, seemingly miles  from the six-lane artery thundering by a few blocks away on the other side of town.

Freeway Free in Memphis: the National Civil Rights Museum

20180512_121253webThe National Civil Rights Museum is located in the former Lorraine Motel. At the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, it was the only motel in Memphis which accommodated black guests.  It documents the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus up to MLK’s murder.  I lived through these years.  I was fascinated.

The Lorraine motel is an ordinary looking 50’s stucco motel, two stories, with a balcony for each upstairs room and a little terrace for the downstairs rooms.  In transforming the motel into a museum, most of the inside has been gutted, although the rooms where MLK and Rob Abernathy stayed have been preserved, frozen in that time. Now a large wreath hangs from the railing of room xxx, and a gray granite line is set in the concrete marking the trajectory of the bullet fired from the bathroom of the hotel across the street.

Inside, there are sculptures and statues and banners and a burned out garbage truck all evoking the struggles of a group of Americans to obtain the rights and respect that others around them enjoyed.  I am in awe of their bravery, and saddened by how much of what they hoped for is still left to be achieved.

Freeway Free in California: Hiding out in Style at Avila Beach

20180613_173443docYou want a beach, but not a bunch of beach bunnies and muscle-flexers kicking sand in your face while they show off at beach volleyball.  You want a boardwalk, but not the blaring music and grease smells of a carnival.  You want seafood that is not dipped in batter and fried in re-cycled grease.  You want restaurants without Happy Meals. You want Avila Beach.

The college kids from  San Luis Obispo go a little bit further south, to Pismo Beach, which boasts fried fish, tattoo parlors, swim suit/sarong shops, and lots of fast food and beer havens. On a sunny day Pismo is a happenin’ place, but on a gray day in early spring, it can seem deserted and dismal.

20180614_103347webJust north at Avila Beach, you will find grownups and families.  You can buy a souvenir sweatshirt, but you will pay for quality.  You can eat seafood at the Olde Port Inn, one of the “Top Ten Seafood Restaurants in California (per the CA Writer’s Association). This restaurant is located at the very end of the pier in San Luis, just around the bay from Avila Beach.  The tables are glass and allow you to look down into the ocean below to watch pelicans, sea gulls, the occasional seal, and maybe tomorrow’s dinner.

You can see girls in bikinis on Avila Beach, but they will likely be part of a women’s crew team launching their scull into the surf. Don’t mess with these muscular Moms!20180613_174727doc

If your taste runs to spa resorts and golf, there is a Diamond Resorts perched on the hill above the pier in San Luis. If you prefer biking, there is a bike trail that runs along the old railroad right of way along San Luis Obispo Creek.

 

You can do grownup things like wine-tasting at the Alapay Cellars, my favorite of several wine bars within a block of the boardwalk.  From a balcony at Avila Lighthouse Suites, right on the boardwalk,  you can watch all the action on the beach and boardwalk while sipping your Alepay Cellars wine.  Or you can go down to walk the beach, and then wash the sand off your feet in the compact pool.

Check the local calendar before you reserve;  sometimes there is a music festival in the adjacent park, and if the music is not to your taste – there goes your peace.  But in general, Avila Beach is a great  hideout for a grown-up getaway weekend.

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage to Petersburg

P1030503docOur next stop up the Inland Passage was at the town of Petersburg, settled originally by a group of Norwegians over 100 years ago.  We were entertained by a group of students dressed in traditional  costumes made by local ladies, with design of Alaskan wild flowers registered with the special organization that registers traditional costumes. I now turn the blog over to my husband David, who is half Norwegian and glories in every drop of squarehead blood.

StanfordAlaska14_PetersburgViking-webDavid’s travel notes: We stopped in Petersburg, a 100-year old Norwegian settlement.  Quaint as you can imagine.  We went to the Sons Of Norway Hall for some cute  Norwegian dances performance  by the local 5th and 6th graders in traditional costumes.  Absolutely charming, with all those clean-cut Norse smiles.  (Note that the girls are taller than the boys  –  that will change in a few years).   They served us morning breakfast treats including Lefse, which my dad used to make much to our puzzlement. 

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Trophy plaque in the Sons of Norway Hall – most unusual contest!

The lady leader of the dance troupe asked if any of us had any questions or comments. Well, of course, I stood up and said, “I just want to make sure that these kids are aware of this old, famous Norwegian rallying cry:  ‘Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.’

 Lots of laughter but then one of our fellow boat travelers, Ken Johnston, walked up to me and said, “When you said that I was ready to kill you: my ancestors are Swedish.”   Well, of course, for the rest of the cruise Ken and I got along famously, trading Scandinavian lies.

 Like this one:  Ken: David, did you know that the Swedes invented the toilet?  David: Yes, Ken, but it took a Norwegian to invent the seat for it.P1030505doc

 

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