Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Texas”

Dawn On the Freeway

Photo by Jason Freis

The gaudy neon carnival of a predawn freeway. Gas Stations pass like brutalist modern sculptures standing out in the blackness . I’m in Texas but could be anywhere, as the comfortably familiar logos flash by. Lowes, Motel 6. Panera bread. IKEA. Harley Davidson. Suddenly we are in a city. Skyscrapers dimly lit, offices weekend-empty. Then a tangle of concrete arches, and we are back in Logoland. Toyota, Acura, Jeep, it must be an AutoMall. Jack-in-the-box, the golden M. Apartment blocks huddled\ darkly together, Public Storage conveniently adjacent (why do people accumulate so much stuff that they have to rent auxiliary storage? They can’t all have inherited their parents’ dining room furniture!).

The sun is struggling to rise through thick clouds. The striped roof of a KFC emerges from the gloom, lit by Verizon, Chick-fil-a, T.G.I. Friday. No people visible anywhere except for other drivers staring fixedly forward as we pass them in the fast lane. More three and four story apartment blocks, more widely spaced. And then we are out of the suburbs and the space opens out to a horizon brought close by the clouds, and an expanse of scrub brush and winter-dried grasses. And just as suddenly into another suburb, Shell, Starbucks Burger King 7-eleven. More public Storage. Auto maintenance and repair. Huddled 2-story apartments. A parking lot full of cherry pickers and backhoes. Dawn is here. The neon lights are shutting off. Open space again briefly, then another suburb. We exit the freeway and stop at a red light. We have arrived at Somewhere. Walmart. Walgreens. Goodwill. Just like home.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Taking Shelter

 It started to rain rather seriously about 7PM. The wind picked up, too, so we had our supper of sardines and hummus around the table inside shelter, lowered the protective plastic screening to keep out the rain, and settled back into our sardine supper and our books. The rain picked up. The wind picked up. There were flashes of lightning. Rolls of thunder. The intervals between flashes and rolls became shorter and shorter. The rain drummed on the roof.

Suddenly both our cell phones blared an alarm. “TORNADO WARNING – Radar shows storm clouds rotating, Storm centered above Meridian State Park“. Hey, that’s where we are! Then we heard a horn blaring, looked outside, and saw the Rangers’ white truck. The ranger was leaning out the window, shouting “Tornado warning! Go to the shelter!” We grabbed our phones and whatever else occurred to us, and fought our way through wind and rain to the Ladies Room at the end of the refectory building, constructed by the CCC of sturdy limestone blocks. (We had noted the “Storm Shelter” sign on the Women’s rest room earlier, and laughed. Now we were grateful. There was only one other woman there – the park was sparsely populated mid-week during a pandemic. Her nephew was in the adjacent Men’s room, she said. We each pulled out our phones and watched the weather map. I offered around mints which happened to be in my bag, to counteract the sardine supper.  The rain pelted so hard against the small windows that it sounded like hail. The restroom lights flickered. The thunder drummed away at the roof.

After almost an hour the tumult quieted. A ranger knocked on the door. “You can go back to your camp now, ladies. But I might have to roust you out again at 1:00 when the next storm comes through.” W and I went back to our screened cabin and packed our backpacks carefully this time with headlamps, wallets, computers, extra underwear, water bottles, etc. And we were indeed awakened about 1AM with more lightning flashes and thunder rumbles, but the ranger did not come by.

For the rest of the night, we both slept well. In the morning, it was as though the storms had never been. The lake was so placid you could see the reflections of the branches of trees on the opposite shore. The sky was cloudless, an Easter egg blue.We had expected hail damage,but no, it had only been hard-driven rain.  Texas weather.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Past Presence in Bosque County

The day dawned gray and gloomy, with promise of drizzle to come, but we had planned for some weather, and had an indoor outing in our mental hip pockets (I should say W had planned; I was along for the ride.) After a bracing breakfast of yogurt and tangerines, washed down with hot tea, we headed for Clifton, the county seat of Bosque County, and its Bosque Museum.

As you enter the museum, you pass a small oak tree, with a plaque noting that the tree was planted in 1982 by King Olav V of Norway. It’s amazing to think that European royalty made a pilgrimage to this area in honor of its early Norwegian settlers. A section of the museum is devoted to this colony of Norwegians, and features charming displays of furniture and other artifacts which were crafted by these early settlers.

Near the entry lobby of the museum is an animatronic recreation of county resident Al Redder, an amateur archaeologist who in 1967 suspected that a cave overlooking the Brazos River on his ranch might harbor some traces of earlier settlements. After carefully marking off and mapping the site according to the requirements of a proper archaeological dig, he began excavation. He found signs of camps by several different Indian tribes who had passed through the area, and he kept going. More artifacts surfaced. And more. Finally, 14 feet down, he found bones, those of a 40ish man and a young girl, buried together, both in fetal position, and surrounded by traces of jewelry and tools. It turned out that these were the second oldest human remains found in North America, and one of only three burial sites that included ritual artifacts. The exhibit chronicling the discovery and its signficance is fascinating.

The third section of the museum is devoted to the “Bosque Seven.” Bosque County has attracted a number of artist who specialize in Western themes and landscapes, and a large room is devoted to examples of their work. I’m not one who would hang a painting of a roundup in my family room, but some of the landscapes were very lovely.

Following our time in the museum, we explored downtown Clifton. There is the mandatory confection of a courthouse, commons to every county seat in Texas that has not succumbed to Urban Renewal, a Main Street that seems frozen in the 1920’s, including a genuine soda fountain still in business, and the usual stores featuring antiques, collectibles, and souvenirs. W bought a kerosene lamp to have on hand for the next Texas energy emergency. Then back to our shelter, with rain still threatening, we had our midday dinner and settled into a quiet afternoon and evening.

That didn’t last.

Freeway Free in Texas: Ft. Worth Culture is not an Oxymoron

When I was growing up in East Texas the idea of “Fort Worth Culture” would have sent most of the folks I knew into paroxysms of laughter. Ft. Worth was proudly “where the West begins” ; museums were for Dallas, the effete business-suited metropolis on the other side of the county line.

That was then.

Fort Worth today has skyscrapers. It has gourmet restaurants that don’t rely on barbecue. And it has some museums that are world class, worth making Fort Worth a destination, not just a detour from the freeway.

W and I spent the morning at the Kimbell.  The building itself is architecturally significant, a series of half cylinders lined up next to each other, enclosing two wings, one devoted to art from around the world and a thousand years of time, the other focusing on Impressionists and their successors. The museum is beautifully curated, with the art arranged thematically as well as sequentially. A sinuous Hindu goddess clad in flowing draperies is placed near an elegantly posed Reynolds portrait of a society belle; a Chinese pottery horse from the Tang Dynasty faces a portrait of Lord Grosvenor’s prize Arabian stallion. The juxtaposition helped me to see each piece in a new way.

Like most museums, the Kimball offers a pleasant alternative for lunch. In with pandemic restrictions, we we happy with a box lunch of soup, salad, quiche, and fruit eaten in an outdoor atrium next to a Maillol stature of “Air” under a trellis whose wisteria vine will be beautiful in a few more weeks with lavender pendants, and will give welcome shade in the summer.

After lunch we moseyed across the avenue to “The Modern”, which lacks the architectural moxie of the Kimball, but makes up for it with some striking outdoor sculptures, some reflected in a large pool which half-surrounds the building. Inside on the main floor, the permanent collection includes some Rothko, a Jackson Pollock, and some Donald Judd of Marfa fame.

The second floor was devoted largely to an exhibit of photography and cinema by an Iranian/Azaerjibian woman, Shirin Neshat. Gripping, but after watching a half hour of black and white cinema and then walking through three rooms of large portraits in black and white, I began to feel I was trapped in someone’s somber senior yearbook. A quick visit to the sculpture garden off the second floor refreshed my color receptors.

A final visit to the gift shop (none of the artwork I admired was available on post cards, alas!) and we were off to our change of pace destination: Shelter camping at Meridian State Park. Tune in next week!

Freeway-Free in Texas: Meridian State Park

The Civilian conservation corps created this tiny gem of the Texas state Park System out of nothing in the 1930’s. Most of the work crew were World WAr 1 Veterans. They were given room and board, and $30 a month, of which $25 was sent directly to their families. They diverted insignificant Bee Creek into a catch basin and built the dam which created Lake Meridian. , They hewed blocks from local [graninte?] and built a sturdy Refectory in vaguely Romanesque style, as well as equally sturdy adjacent restrooms. They cleared trails around the lake and up Bee creek and its tributary, LIttle Creek.

The Texas Dept. of Transportation, which for some arcane reasons is in charge of the State Park System, has enhanced and maintained the park beautifully. (I read in the Texas Monthly that the only thing Texans agree that the state should be responsible for is road maintenance, so maybe this arrangement provides more than the usual funding for park projects ). The DOT has added hot water to the restrooms and built a dozen or so screened shelter cabins along the lake front, as well as a pleasant and spacious section for RV’s with water and electric hookups, and several more or less primitive campsite areas around the lake. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and catfish. In warm weather one can swim in the lake. (In late March we did not try this.)

We arrived at Meridian State Park in the late afternoon and settled into our screened shelter with its 270-degree lake view. The evening was fine, so we set up camp chairs and a cardboard box outside and had a Mediterranean supper of sardines, flatbread crackers, hummus, and cherry tomatoes. As the sun set we scrounged enough twigs and shards of firewood from vacant campsites to have a small fire in the fire pit. (We had not noticed the split oak wood available for sale at the ranger station). The half moon rose so brightly that it intimidated the myriad stars. It seemed there could be no bad news in a world so lovely and quiet.

Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond – Day 2

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I knew the second day at Big Bend Ranch State Park would be long and challenging. W insisted that she could do and I should see the hike from the Chilcothe trailhead to the Fresno Rim, overlooking the flat irons surrounding the collapsed magma dome Calle “El Solitario”. The length of the hike was 5 miles round trip, we had plenty of water, and the high was to be only 80 degrees.

We got off to a later start than we had wanted, finishing breakfast at 8:30, so despite aggressive driving on the long straight stretches of road with no traffic and an 80 mph speed limit posted, and later on the 27 miles of gravel road that leads into Big Bend Ranch State Park, we got to the trailhead at 11:30.

 

In many ways this was a rerun of Tuesday, only with a destination in mind. Beautiful blooming desert cactus: flame tipped ocotillo, barrel cactus with fiery orange, muted brown, or clear yellow blooms, and indeed a marvelous vista from the overlook, down hundreds of feet to the river twisting along the flat brown desert floor, and the remains of a mighty mountain moldering within the jagged circle of flat iron teeth. We picnicked  leaning against a rock, hydrating and energizing with P&D grapefruit, grapes, and replenishing our salt with sardines and flaxseed crackers.

The trail across sandy washes and barren rock was marked by small piles of rocks, put together by earlier hikers with varying degrees of creativity.  As we worked our way back through the desert, these small messages from earlier hikers seemed like silent little cheerleaders, beckoning us on.

 

There was not a speck of shade. W had the idea of dampening our bandanas and tying them around our necks, which helped a lot. (Hooray for stuff that is always in the backpack and seldom gets used!) By the time we sighted the truck again W was moving at maybe 60 steps at a time, then stopping to rest with her head and arms propped on her walking stick. I did not let myself think about what would happen if she fell over- maybe I could have driven the truck at least partway down the path, but getting her into it… Ah well, a bad thing that didn’t happen. She said “I knew I could do it if I just took it a little at a time.” We rewarded ourselves with a shared granola bar.

We had hiked at an average rate of one mile an hour.

Back at the Visitor’s Center, we found that the water supply was under repair due to a leaky pump, so we were directed to the bunkhouse, where we would have stayed if not for the geologists convention. The facility looked quite comfortable, each cubicle with two twin beds, a shelf and plenty of under-bed space for stashing things, and a curtain for privacy. And best of all, showers! I rinsed my feet under cold water and changed to sandals. Bliss!

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If you go (and it IS a marvelous vista!) take PLENTY of water, use PLENTY of sunscreen, and wear sun-proof hat, long sleeves, and long pants. Take your time and look around! We had completely missed these hoodoos on the way in.

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Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond

20190326_103521docWe had planned to leave at 7AM for Big Bend Ranch State Park, but ended up feeling a bit lazy after our cold evening at McDonald’s Observatory and hit the road in Moby Dick at about 8AM. Two hours and 100+ miles later we arrive at the turnoff – 27 miles of gravel road getting progressively rockier and washboard-y as we go along. 10 miles in is the “Welcome to Big Bend State Park” sign.

20190326_105934webWith a sigh of relief, I spot a privy decorated with a cowboy mural down a little side road.  The Visitors’ Center is 17 miles further on. The gravel road is bordered  with ocotillo (long slender bare dead-looking sticks with flames of bright red flowers blooming at the tips) and Spanish bayonet (giant pompons of green narrow leaves cupping a torch of white and pinkish downward-facing blooms) and lots of bare earth where the cattle have grazed and platinum blonde grasses where they have not.

20190326_115748docAfter about an hour of jouncing over mostly-pretty-good gravel road, we get to the Visitor’s Center, a plain building with a minimal gift shop and a sign saying “Welcome to the Other Side of Nowhere.” The center also offers an up-to-date set of rest rooms with cool running water, and a friendly ranger who supplies us with trails and suggestions.  We decide to eat our lunch at the lone picnic table under the lone bit of shade, and then head out on the Horse-Trap Trail that promises a view out over the central interior of the park, and possible encounters with local wildlife.

We spot a bird nest in an ocotillo bush, but no bird. The blooming cactus lures us on down the trail, and near the end of the hike we do encounter one large deer drinking at the oasis spring, and several even larger cattle with alarmingly long horns.

Not a great pay-off for a 100-mile one way trip, you might object.  Still, we felt we had explored some amazingly alien territory, and we still had dinner at Magical Marfa to look forward to on the way back from the Other Side of Nowhere.

Freeway Free in Texas: Into the Infinite at the McDonald Observatory

20190326_202551docW had made arrangements for us to attend a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory 15 miles west of the Lodge. We knew reservations were required and had them, but did not realize that each party had over 200 invitees. I negotiated the twisty road in Moby Dick, our outsized 4×4 pickup, and parked in daylight, hoping to be able to find the truck later in the dark.

starparty_1We were early for the star-gazing, and browsed the Visitors’ Center and Gift Shop, as my spouse, a big fan of the Observatory’s Star Date broadcasts on PBS, had asked me to bring him something from MacDonalds.  I managed to find some postcards and an affordable and portable book at the gift shop, and made it through the line at the cash register just as they were calling for the partygoers to come to the outside auditorium for the start of the star gazing.

Starparty7Whatever did we do before fleece! Cozy in fleece jacket and pants and three layers beneath, topped with hats and scarves, we sat on concrete benches as the star ranger pointed out details we had never seen before of Orion.  The ranger drew a big laugh with his description of  “the hunter, he has a sword, shield and these two bright stars mark his brawny shoulders, but like some other athletes, his head is this fuzzy thing…;”  We were introduced to  Leo,  Taurus, Canopus Major and Minor, the Pleiades, and our old friends the two Dippers, .  We were pressing our luck,  as the observatory happened to be positioned between two thunderstorms.  We saw lightning all around but heard no sound.

mcDonald_observatoryThen the host recommended we adjourn to the telescopes for viewing, as clouds were beginning to obscure the sky. There were three outdoor telescopes and two domes open, but even though some of the 200+ viewers had left the amphitheater early to get a head start, there were still long cold lines. We wished we had a fourth fleecy layer.  We saw the Pleiades up close and two star clusters and then headed for the interior Sky Tour, which was rather redundant but at least it was indoors, warmish, and sitting. We bailed at 10:30, foregoing another classroom talk, and I drove prudently down the mountain.  We crashed into bed at 11:15, piling on all the warm quilts we could find.

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If you get an Invite to a Star Party: Even in summer, you are at elevation at night.  You will be sitting on cold benches, and standing outside waiting your turn at the scopes. I suggest a backpack full of extra layers to be added as needed.

Also, bring water, or a thermos of hot chocolate, or both. Don’t count on eating at the Observatory restaurant, as those other 200 guests will be crowding in also.  Better and easier to eat dinner before and bring some energizing snacks.  The Star Party starts late and ends later – particularly in summer.

And say Hi! to Orion for me!

Freeway Free in Texas – The Civil War’s Westernmost Outpost

FtDavisFt. Davis National Historic Site preserves an outpost in the Back of Beyond which actually saw some action in the Civil War.  The Federal troops at Fort Davis fled the advance of  CSA General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who  dreamed of conquering New Mexico and establishing the Confederacy all the way to the Pacific. Sibley’s forces were beaten back at  Glorieta Pass, ending Sibley’s dream.

After the Civil War ended, the fort was re-manned mostly by black soldiers, with the mission of keeping wagon caravans safe from Indian attack as they headed toward El Paso and the gold fields of California.  There is some evidence that officers with a black mark on their record were sent to command the black troops, although in general Ft. Davis was considered to be a very comfortable posting, tucked into a stream-fed canyon, with reasonably decent weather most of the year and relatively little actual fighting required.

An informative short video sets the stage at the Visitor’s Center, which also offers a very good museum dealing very fairly with the black soldiers and the racism they encountered, and their medal-worthy battles with the mostly Kiowa and Commanche Indians.  The Kiowa, Apache, and Commanche tribes are also given a fair presentation, and the museum reminds us not to judge the behavior of the soldiers by our current gauge of how native peoples should be treated.  And a full shoutout is also given to the roles of the officer’s wives and children in providing structure and keeping up society’s standards in this remote outpost

It’s hard to be politically correct  in so many directions!  But where are the Latinos?  Maybe there weren’t many, as this part of  what is nowTexas was not part of the disputed territory which  became the Republic of Texas before the Mexican-American War.   W says that there were outposts of Spanish rule all along the Rio Grande, (Presidio, El Paso) but maybe not above in the desert.

The fort is in process of being restored to its 1860’s appearance.  Some homes and hospital rooms and barracks are already fully restored and furnished, others not, so you can see what has been done and is still to do. Lots of walking is required, as the Parade Ground needed room for cavalry manoevres. In the restored sections, you are likely to find a docent in period costume eager to tell you all about life in the fort back in the day. It is a peaceful place for a National Historic Site, with less than 50,000 visitors a year.

20190325_135040webIf you stop, I can recommend the Stone Village Market and Deli in the nearby town of Fort Davis – excellent soup and sandwiches and a cheerful decor full of oddities to look at man maybe purchase. 

 

It is located just up the street from the courthouse square, with its requisite ornate detailing, historic marker, pictures of stern mustachioed judges from time out of mind, morphing into smiling, nicely coiffed modern ones , and of course a carved cowboy statue.  It’s a nice stroll to settle your soup and sandwich.

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: A Distillation of the Desert

20190325_102708docIf you are going to spend time in the desert, it’s best to know what you may be seeing, smelling, and getting stuck onto.  The Chihuahua Desert Research Institute and Botanical Gardens, about 10 miles east of Ft. Davis, provide a convenient and comprehensive introduction. 20190325_110507web

The site includes a pretty little visitors center, surrounded by very well laid out gardens highlighting desert plants by family (e.g.  verbena, rose, oak, beech) explained with a very informative brochure. (who knew that mangoes and blueberries are both part of the verbena family?)

At the end of a winding trail through the gardens is a greenhouse full of exotic cacti.  Some are potted on benches, others set into a lovely mini-garden at the end of the greenhouse.

The very charming lady at the visitor’s center explained a couple of short hikes available starting  from the center, but just the 1 mile circuit of the garden on our second day at altitude was enough.  We took our brochure and photos back to peruse over lunch, to prepare us for the morrow’s ventures further into the Back of Beyond.

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