Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Houston”

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.

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day One – San Francisco -> Edmonton, Alberta

O CanadaCanada to me has been like one of those neighbors who lives quietly, keeps their yard neat and their picket fence painted, says “Hello” and “Good morning” when appropriate, but who has never invited me into their house.  This summer I got past the picket fence and at least caught a glimpse of the family room;  my husband and I went for a trip across the Canadian Rockies by bus and by rail.  In many ways we traveled in a bubble of luxury tourism;  still, even the part visible through the bubble was much more exotic than I had imagined.  There is a lot going on behind that picket fence.

Day One:   SFO-> Edmonton

Mt. Shasta rises above California's central valley

Mt. Shasta rises above California’s central valley

On a sparkling day we flew northeast from San Francisco, flying over Mt. Shasta – America’s Mt. Fuji – stark and snow crowned alone in the middle of the flat-for-miles-around north Central Valley.  Further north, the  Three Sisters  and lonely Mt. Bachelor edged the dry plain of eastern OregonI had never realized the extent of the mighty Columbia River – our route echoed the course of this huge waterway twining its way across Oregon and up into Canada, looking like a Great Lake in flow.

Once past the Coast Range and the semi-desert of eastern Oregon, we flew over the orderly square acres of Alberta.  The farm plots and roadways seemed to be marked off along the original homesteading lines, many with an irrigated green circle  tangentially inscribed percisely within the square of boundary roads.

Edmonton International Airport

The Edmonton Airport – vast and empty.  A young woman passed us on the moving sidewalk, asked us our business in Edmonton, envied our Rocky Mountain railroad trip, said “I’m just here for a funeral.”

“Well at least you must know the area.”

She shrugged and said dismissively, “ Edmonton is kind of like Sacramento.”  She moved past us at a more rapid clip.  I mulled over what she had said and thought: even if this is true,  that’s not such a bad thing.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the leafy parks and rose gardens of Sacramento, bicycling its river trails and enjoying its street scene – “Like Sacramento” is an ok thing for  a capital city of a thriving province to be.

I was to find out that Edmonton is not so much like Sacramento, despite having both leafy parks and rose gardens, as it is like Houston (see my earlier posts).  Something to do with oil wealth and explosive growth, neither of which I had known was a factor in Alberta.  My elementary school geography showed the map of Canada with its chief exports – Alberta featured a shock of wheat and a cow.   Now the province would be pictured with an oil derrick and a coal car – who knew?

Houston Environs – Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos…

But, Odetta’s old song notwithstanding, there are swathes of pink and white showy primroses, fields of yellow buttercups, creamy bull thistles, and blue trillium, plus lagoons filled with white spider lilies, nesting eagles, spoonbills, egrets, and more than a few lounging alligators of various lengths and fearsomeness – all in Brazos Bend State Park, about an hour southwest of Houston.

I had never been to and scarcely heard of this park. It was amazing. We biked for almost 10 miles on well-maintained dirt, gravel, and cement trails, passing by lagoons full of bird life, meadows full of floral color, and shaded forests hung with swamp moss. Another beautiful day with air cooled by early fog, clearing to blue skies with puffy clouds worthy of a Magritte painting.

By the time we had looped around the final lagoon and returned to Start, we were very ready to sit on something that didn’t bump and re-hydrate with fresh grapefruit, mango, tangelos, and yogurt.


By the way,  the April issue of United’s Hemispheres inflight magazine features “Three Perfect Days in Houston.”   Their take on Houston includes a lot more and a lot fancier eating and drinking than I have mentioned, but the article hits several of the same high spots within the city.  If you don’t have a Knowledgeable Friend to provide a private B&B experience, or the thought of biking gives you palpitations, or you are on an unlimited budget, this article offers a decidedly different, yet over-lapping take on Texas’s largest city.

Houston – Day 3 – Quirky Museums and a Museum event

Every city, I suppose, has its hidden gems – unusual museums that focus on some limited aspect of life and exceed your expectations because of the genuine love and enthusiasm for their subject.  This day we focused on two in Houston, plus some additional urban gems, all within biking distance of my Knowledgeable Friends’s central Houston digs.

First, the Museum of Printing History, a true gem. I expected a dusty little place with some etchings about Gutenberg and some old typewriters, maybe. Instead we found a bright new one-story building which included a working copy of Gutenberg’s first press, hand-crafted to match the original, on which the docent, with the aid of several amazed and delighted Cub Scouts on a field trip, printed a duplicate of a page from the Gutenberg Bible. Next, we proceeded to a replica of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press, on which the docent with similar aid, ran off a copy of the Declaration of Independence as originally printed in Philadelphia. Awesome!

In a separate gallery was a stop-you-in-your-tracks exhibition of poster prints, some for sale ($500-$700 ea) of posters designed and printed by the Swiss artist Hans Erni.

We had to breeze by a series of front pages of historic events ranging from the bombing of Fort Sumter through the sinking of the Titanic to the election of Obama – each one worth careful perusal to find out what ELSE was going on that day.

Next, the Art Car Museum. This was similar to the Kinectic Sculpture museum in Ferndale, but based on the annual Art Car parade in Houston. Since the vehicles did not have to dive off a 15-foot sand dune or be paddled across Humboldt Bay, they are not subject to the limitations of gravity or flotability. Amazingly silly. My favorite was the giant rabbit with sharks fangs about to devour a basket of little bunnies, chicks and lambs.

We biked over the freeway and picnicked elegantly on chicken-mango-yogurt salad on AkMak crackers in White Oak Park, a reclaimed railroad right-of-way with spectacular views of downtown Houston. Passing through central Houston on the way home, we stopped to rest at Discovery Green next to MinuteMaid Park and the Toyota Center (homes of baseball and basketball respectively) and discovered a Vietnamese Music Festival in progress. We saw a Vietnamese hip hop group in action, sharing our view space with  the Lion Dancers who had evidently performed earlier, their  t-shirts contrasting oddly with their lion-dance.

This evening, back to the Houston Fine Arts Museum for a gala premiere –  the first US showing of France’s  biggest movie blockbuster of the year in France . It is called The Intouchables, and will not be released in the US until this summer.  The Weinstein Group (which distributed The Artist in the US)  has already purchased the remake rights (maybe with Dustin Hoffaman and Eddie Murphy?) The audience was jammed with French speakers, the film was introduced by the French consul at Houston. Apparently this film has been seen by at leat one in 20 Frenchmen. (Variety hated it.)

So – everything from Cub Scouts to couture – a truly metropolitan day!

Houston Environs – Galveston

Up at 7:30, bikes on the car, then onto Highway 10 for a nostalgia excursion to Galveston, the affordable beach getaway for my family years ago.

Galveston is essentially a barrier island – every few decades the island is scoured by hurricane winds and storm surge waves – the most recent being Hurricane Ike in 2008.  It is amazing how much that is old and charming has survived the gales and sea water.  Three major storms have attacked the island since I visited it as a child, yet it seemed much more lovely than my memories.  We cruised the island on our bikes under sunny blue skies, beginning in the Strand area, which is the oldest part of downtown.  We saw lots of brick store-fronts and wrought – iron balconies a la New Orleans, and dating to the same period.  This part of town was probably much too seedy for me and my family in earlier years;  it has been spruced up with bright paint, murals, jazz clubs, restaurants, and a family-friendly trolley line a’ la New Orleans also.

Down one brick-paved street loomed the huge Art Deco train station dating to the days when Galveston was the largest port in Texas;  down another loomed an equally bulky Carnival cruise ship.  The harbor was hosting myriad types of maritime vessels, including Elissa, “Texas’s Tall Ship”, a couple of oil barges, the Carnival Cruise ship, and an oil drilling platform moored at its own dock and turned into a museum courtesy of Exxon.

Then through an older neighborhood of beautifully maintained Victorians in candy colors over to the Sea Wall – a huge wide expanse of avenue, concrete seawall, and beach which stretches 10 miles along the 27-mile long island. The seawall was built in response to the Great Storm of 1900, when 15-foot waves had inundated the island and killed over 8000 people – still the deadliest natural disaster in US history.

 The pieces missing from my childhood memory were the tourist piers which had stretched out into the water offering all sorts of shells, shirts, and other souvenirs. There were lots of pilings, but only one pier, and that one reaching in a tentative curve rather than the long fingers I remembered. Then we came to a historical marker – here is where Murphy’s famous pier was, before Ike. Everything I remembered had been swept away by Ike’s 20-ft storm surge, which swept over the seawall and engulfed the island.  But Galvestonians are tenacious: the old Galvez Hotel sported fresh landscaping, and at the far end of the seawall a new Playland is under construction.

Evidence of the devastation of Ike is everywhere if you begin to look. Live oaks that were planted after the Great Storm of 1900 and survived both the Pretty Big Storm of 1915 and Hurricane Carla were poisoned by the saltwater of Ike’s tidal surge.  Some local artists carved the remains into shapes of mermaids, dolphins, egrets, etc. – these spontaneous artworks are now a tourist attraction.  Many buildings still show the scars of watermarks at chest level or higher.

After lunch at the Saltwater Grill in the Strand area we walked to a quilt exhibit in the adjacent Federal Customs Office, now a museum in process of restoration.  Another easy walk through historic neighborhoods took us to the “Bishop’s Castle” – one of the huge piles of Texas granite and Sandstone which has been preserved from the wreckers along Broadway –  formerly the elegant center of town.

This home, built for a local railroad lawyer and his family of four boys and three girls, was a Statement Home in its day, each room featuring a different exotic wood, each fireplace a different exotic granite, each window topped with glowing stained glass. Imagine a family of nine – Mom and Dad shared a master bath, and all seven children shared the second bath. The five servants plus the nanny shared the servant’s bath in the basement. I was imagining a Galvestonian version of “Upstairs Downstairs” – it would be fun to write!

The house was abandoned after the storm of 1915 and Galveston’s subsequent slide from an elegant port city to a “sin city” dominated by gambling and prostitution. Fortunately, the house is located across from the Catholic cathedral;  the church bought the home at a tenth of its building cost as a residence for the bishop, hence its salvation from the wreckers.  The Bishop had one bedroom converted to a chapel, replaced a rather racy stained-glass window with one depicting St. Theresa, and made himself at home.

My KF had secured a tape of the documentary “Voices of the Storm” – a Ken Burns -style documentary of the Great Storm of 1900 as told through letters and oral histories, illustrated by old photos and etchings. Every place has its history, every history has its stories to discover or imagine. I’m thinking – how to describe Galvestonians, this friendly group clinging to their barrier reef, restoring and rebuilding again and again?  They might call themselves tenacious, loyal, deeply-rooted.  I suspect their insurance agents might use a different set of adjectives – say… mulishly stubborn? Unable to learn from experience? Fighting a losing battle against Nature?

On a beautiful blue-skied day, with the restored Victorian trim sparkling in the sun, it is hard not to love the termerity and audacity of these islanders.

Houston – Major and Minor Museum Highlights

Disclaimer:  To get Perfect Days in Houston, it helps to  have a Knowledgeable Friend (KF) with a pied-a-terre smack in the center of town within walking or biking distance of the most beautiful neighborhoods, interesting locations, and good eats. Unseeasonably perfect weather helps also.  Of course, this is true of any city…

So, that condition satisfied – off we go!

Up, shower, tea, yogurt, on the bikes by 9:30 – to the Cafe Croissant- Brioche, home of excellent croissants almost up to Rue Cler standard. Lingered over cafe latte, then biked through the leafy lawny street of the Rice University neighborhood (the trees really do meet over the center of the street – though many died in last year’s drought) and along a bike trail through Hermann Park, into the Museum District. The Houston Fine Arts Museum spreads across several large buildings – we parked alongside a medical building and negotiated our way across the light rail line (much fancier cars than the SJLR), past the bag checkers, into a subterranean tunnel with a light sculpture effect which was quite magical (an optical illusion which created walls of color where none existed) and up and down and up until we reached the “Tutankhamun: the Golden King”  installation.

There were very few people on a Friday morning well into the exhibit’s run, so we saw everything at our leisure. The National Geographic (show organizer) made up in presentation what was lacking in content – Harrison Ford as narrator, a breathless Egypian archaeologist to comment in awestruck fashion on every artifact (“When I found this statue, I felt I was holding the universe in my hand.”), videos, photomurals, and special effects galore. But the golden guardians of the coffins, and the coffins themselves, were present only in pictures – I missed them.

Next, to the Museum’s Express Cafe, which like most Museum Cafes offered excellent Ladies Luncheon type food, but unlike most, offered it in Large Portions, so that we were obliged to leave a lot of King Tut’s Trio (an appetizer plate of Eastern Mediterranean dips and pita bread) behind.

Next to the Impressionist Gallery – a very competent collection of B pictures by every artist you ever heard of – refreshingly familiar after we had worked our brains being taught so much about King T.

Next to the Gift Shop, again like most Museum Gift Shops with a collection of interesting and expensive items more or less inspired by the art available, but since this is Texas, bigger and more. Friday afternoon is evidently Field Trip Day, and we arrived at the Gift Shop just as the kids did – the clerks were going quietly mad trying to keep track and keep order. I managed to get away with only a couple of post cards.

Back to the bikes, and off to the Hermann Park Rose Garden. Houston is ahead of Northern California in this respect and we saw a very respectable number of blooms.

Then to the small but interesting Weather Museum, where we learned more about hurricanes and tornados. I had seen a lot of information on the Great Storm which wiped out Galveston in 1900, but this museum filled us on on some of the other titanic storms since. (Sample trivia: Tropical Storm Allison is the only Tropical Storm to have its name retired due to its impact although it never reached hurricane force. The Houston Airport registered 37 inches of rain in three days.) Some bemoaning that the areas devastated by Ike didn’t get nearly the same degree of celebrity and other response that New Orleans got for Katrina – I remember towns in Mississippi made the same complaint.

Then to the Menil Collection – an amazing private collection of modern art open to the public free of charge, hidden away in a Houston neighborhood near Rice, filling a large central  building plus a warehouse, two bungalows, and a few other out-buildings with modern art – lots of Magritte, some Braque, some Royko, and other artists too arcane and indecipherable to mention. The photo is  of one of the outdoor sculptures which reminded me of Stanford’s “Stone River” – a channel about 8 inches wide and 6 inches deep, lined in rusted steel, running across the lawn now straight, now curliqueing, now invisibly coming up into the air, then bouncing down again… oddly fascinating.

Dinner at a bustling seafood restaurant, Pappa’s Seafood Kitchen. I had spicy Crayfish Etouffe, KF had Texas Redfish, and we each brought enough home so that we did not have to cook the next day.

Alternating Universes

I have been slowly posting my travel notes from Nepal, and will continue to do so.  I have just returned from a four-day trip to Nepal’s polar opposite – Houston, Texas  – and will also be posting notes and photos from this alternate universe.  Hope it doesn’t make you dizzy!

Houston is a place which I associated with gray skies, unbearable humidity, overblown sports facilities, and oil refineries.  Who knew it has stately homes, miles of bike trails, masses of blooming azaleas, dozens of interesting museums?

On a day trip I visited Galveston, which I associate with destructive storms and polluted oceans.  Who knew it has dozens of meticulously maintained Victorian and Edwardian homes, an old downtown area strongly reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter, miles of friendly beaches, and people to match?
Stay tuned for “Four Perfect Biking Days in and around Houston”

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