Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

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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Thoughts of Those Who Serve (Town Crier May 2,2018)

img_0056.jpgMy husband is something of a connoisseur of National Memorials, having been born and raised in Gettysburg, PA.  So on our recent visit to Hawaii we fulfilled his long-held wish to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

The monument now bears the cumbersome official title of “World War II Valor in the Pacific Nation Monument-Hawaii.” Not only could we visit the shrine over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona with most of its crew permanently interred inside, but also tour the USS Missouri, on which the final surrender was signed by the Japanese, and the submarine USS Bowfin. Large interactive exhibitions explain the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the role of submarines in World War II. An excellent audio tour led us through the exhibits located both in the galleries and around the grounds, ending at a theater giving even more vivid detail about the attack.

It had been a quiet Sunday morning, some of the sailors still in their bunks recoving from the gaieties of Saturday night, others about to raise the flag to signal the official beginning of duties, when the Japanese planes roared in.  The attack was finely targeted to take out the US  battleships,  lined up neatly on Battleship Row. Over a thousand men died in the USS Arizona alone when it sank to the bottom of the harbor with no way out.

Of the 2403 people killed that day, only 49 were civilians.  But this was still the largest number of civilian deaths due to military action on US soil since the Civil War, and remains the largest number today, (discounting 9-11-01 as a terrorist, not a military action.)\The US and Canada were unique among the major combatant nations in WWII in having almost no civilian fatalities on their own soil.   Russia lost over 4.5 million civilians, Germany over two million, Japan three million, and China over twenty million. Civilians in Great Britain, France, and Italy died in the hundreds of thousands.  But the war stayed far away from us. Including the 49 lost on December 7, 1941, mainly due to faulty anti-aircraft shells falling in residential areas, the total civilian deaths on US soil came to 55.

US civilians have been sheltered from war by our broad ocean boundaries to east and west, and our good neighbors to north and south. Except for the Civil War,  we have always been able to keep our wars on other people’s territory.  During the current wars in the Mid-East  we send our “military advisers” far afield with  our  drones and our missiles, and if a few of them blunder across a home-made land mine or get caught in crossfire, we might heave a sigh as we read about it at the bottom of  page 4 of the newspaper.

Both my brothers are Army veterans.  Both spent a good part of their service overseas.  One was repeatedly shot at, the other wasn’t. Both survived without physical injury, but not without mental and emotional scars. I am tremendously proud of both of them.  They signed up to to be strangers in a hostile land, to run risks , to be targeted, so that you and I could be comfortable.

Our soldiers, sailors and air force are our gladiators, fighting  our proxy battles in foreign arenas, so that we can be safe in our homes from invasion. Don’t wait until Memorial Day to honor the dead, but smile at a living person in uniform today, while he or she can smile back.

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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 Texas: What my Texas History book forgot about the Alamo

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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.  The Alamo, of course, is the famous one, enshrined in national memory by a succession of movies – Fess Parker as David  Crockett, Steward Granger as Jim Boweie, John Wayne as David Crockett again, all making this bit of history larger than life.  I learned a lot that I had not taken in during my 7th Grade Texas History class, including:

Davy CrockettDavy Crockett went to Texas to try to recoup his fortunes after a failed attempt at reelection to his Tennessee Congress post.  He was essentially bankrupt.

Native born residents of the province of Tejas were mostly mixed-blood of indigenous and Spanish settlers, and were called Tejanos.  Immigrants from the United States were mostly from the Southern states and were called Texians.

 

220px-Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna_c1853Santa Ana was not just the general defeated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto.  He was the Mexican general who led a coup against the established Federalist government of Mexico after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  He quickly established himself as the center of power, and had already put down revolts against his coup in three other Mexican provinces before moving north to put down the rebellion in Texas.  Following his defeat in Texas he was in and out of power as the President of Mexico for another twelve years.

 

Many Tejanos joined the rebellion against Santa Ana because they resented the loss of local control under the new centralized authority.  Many Texians rebelled because they had moved to Tejas with their black slaves, and the new centralized government outlawed all slavery.

William Travis, leader of the troops at the Alamo, had a black slave, Joe, who survived the battle and was allowed to go free to carry the news of the defeat to Sam Houston and the other rebels.  Sarah Dickinson, a Texian woman whose husband was killed in the battle, was also allowed to go free, just in case a slave’s tale would not be believed. (Or was it the other way around?)  The Tejano women and children who survived were also freed.  Joe was reported to have impressed the Texas Cabinet with “the modesty, candor, and clarity of his account“, but all the same he was returned as chattel to the heirs of the Travis estate.

So in some ways the war for Texas independence was a preliminary skirmish in the Southern defense of  their “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Somehow the heroic defense of the Alamo did not come across that way in my 7th grade Texas History class.

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio’s Riverwalk

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My friend W had lived in San Antonio for several years, so when I revealed to her that despite 10 years in Texas I had never visited that most historic of Texas cities, she immediately volunteered to be my guide in and around the area. 

The Contessa Hotel where we stayed is actually a suite hotel.  We chatted up Nadja, the reception clerk, and explained how I had come from CA to see San Antonio and my old friend was acting as my guide,  so she gave us a nice set of rooms on the 12th floor with a sitting area with a view looking down the river,  or up to the Tower Life Building, a wonderful copper-roofed brick construction lit at night. We each have a double bed, and there is plenty of counter space and plugs for charging all our techno gear. The location, right up against the riverbank with an exit to the Riverwalk, could not be better. 

One of San Antonio’s soubriquets is “The Venice of America”, a name it owes to the San Antonio river which meanders through the downtown area.  Once a dank, flood-prone channel threatened with being paved over, The Riverwalk has been redeveloped over decades with charming sidewalks decorated with tilework, art, and blooming plants, plus what seems like one endless Mexican restaurant stretching end to end along both banks. It is a perfect pedestrian stroll on a balmy spring night.  We joined with folks from all over enjoying the sound of falling water, the bustle of river boats navigating up and down, the flower-decked carriages, and the cheerful babble of many voices having sipped many margaritas.

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We took a side trip to explore the art colony of La Villita (just closing down an open air street market, to W’s relief – browsing little gew-gaw shops is NOT her favorite pastime.}  Again, the bridges and plazas overlooking the river, coupled with the tilework and adobe architecture, make a place for wandering, lingering, sitting, and savoring.

20170402_184306.jpgWe had noted only a couple of restaurants which were not Mexican, and since W has a favorite Mexican place she has scheduled for us tomorrow night, we settled on the Little Rhein Steak House, which she remembered as being Germanic.  Maybe once, but now the menu is quite focused on steak, with a few shrimp and salmon and chicken dishes for the nonTexan visitors. We each ordered a salad and split a grilled salmon entree.  It turned out to be the right choice. – each salad was beautifully presented and nicely dressed, the salmon was plenty for two, we each got one asparagus spear, I ate the potato filling and W ate the skin, and we both felt quite satisfied. So our first day in San Antonio ended with the view from our window of the Tower Life Building lighting our dreams.

 

Freeway Free in Colorado – Flora and Fauna

062docOn the west of the Rockies, one is expected to hike and bike in the summer (not having visited in the winter, I can only speculate about activities then). The point of hiking and biking is to see lovely bits of flora and fauna than one might miss in a car.  Here is a collection of photos from my experiences on food and on pedal.

I don’t know the names of the flowers, but they are authentically Coloradian.  And each is a jewel-like discovery as one wanders along a much or not-much travelled trail.

The moose, of course, I recognized!

 

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