Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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Freeway Free in Scotland: That Kilt Thing

IMG_0637docThe classic ad for Scotch Whiskey started with “What does a Scotchman wear under his kilts?”  Now I know.

Historical background:  After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, wearing of the tartan was taken as a sign of defiance and banned by the British. (Seems we never learn – see attempts to ban the hajib  in French schools.) A hundred years later, the wheel turned.  Queen Victoria used her castle at Balmoral as her favorite retreat, and decided that her staff should dress in traditional Scottish garb.

This decree caused a huge scramble, as almost no-one remembered what the traditional clan tartans actually looked like.  The different colors and patterns had evolved as much from the availability of particular plant dyes in certain regions as from any attempt at family solidarity.  But the Queen must have her way, and weavers happily produced “authentic” patterns called “Stewart”,  “Dress Stewart” (“dress” patterns included a lot of white, thus worn only for “dressy” occasions) “Black Watch” (a very dark weave, though the Black Watch was so called because of their dark reputation, not their dress) , “Fraser” and so on.

Today, a “genuine, authentic” Scottish tartan kilt can run you $500 or more. We were given a lecture by an earnest proponent of the craft, pointing out how a “quality” kilt has double stitched pleats you can stick a finger into, while the “factory” variety does not – don’t be fooled!

But surely in the 1700’s those Scottish lassies didn’t sit around the peat fire at night straining their bonny blue eyes over double-stitched pleats.  Here’s how our Culloden guide, Ray, explained how a kilt really worked:

First, the Scot laid out his heavy leather belt on a flat piece of ground.  Over it he laid out the plaid – a large piece of woven wool, no seams, no sewn pleats, no buttons.  He next knelt down and pleated the fabric by hand along the belt until the ends of the belt showed on both sides.  Then he lay down on his back on the pleated plaid and wrapped the belt and cloth around himself, fastened the belt, and stood up, adjusting the pleats for modesty.  The top half of the plaid hung down behind, and could be looped over the shoulder or pulled over the head to keep out the rain.

 

Of course, the hanging half could get in the way of swinging a sword and shield in battle, so a warrior might simply unfasten his belt and leave the plaid behind while charging into the fray, wearing nothing but his linen tunic.  (Underwear was not common in the 1700’s).  No wonder the British in their stuffy uniforms were terrified!

 

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Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

I’m Back!

Oh, you didn’t notice I was gone?  I did take a break over the holidays, and when I returned on January 2nd I found myself locked out of my blog admin access – I could see my blog, but not add any posts, nor reply to comments. Worse, I could not access support, my account page, or any part of the nuts and bolts behind WordPress.

Many thanks to the WordPress forum for quick response (once I was able to log in with a different computer).  Turns out something in my computer’s cache had gone sour – clearing all cookies took care of the problem.

I will resume normal Tuesday blogs tomorrow, with the start of a new travel series “Freeway Free in Great Britain”.  Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience!

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 California: Burney Falls Hides East of Redding

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Get to Redding in Northern California and you may be mesmerized by the vision of Mt. Shasta rising before you and elect to stay on I-5 to get as close as you can to this spectacular mountain. But if you hang a right at CA299, you are headed into the Empty Corner of California. A place of rolling foothills, expansive sugar pine forests, burbling creeks, widely spaced towns with tiny populations, and secret spots known only to the locals and to the fishermen who come to test their luck in the streams flowing down from the East Cascade Range.

Hiding sixty miles east of Redding is Burney Falls, which Theodore Roosevelt once described as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Coming from someone who had certainly seen Yosemite and Niagara, that is high praise.  The miracle that is Burney Falls is not just due to its natural beauty as it falls panoramically along a 129 feet cliff into a clear 22-foot deep pool below.  The miracle is that Burney Falls exists at all.  The above photo was taken in late September, before the winter rains had begun. One mile above the cliff, Burney Creek is bone dry.  Where does all the water come from?

The answer to the mystery is an underground aquifer that bursts out of the ground a half-mile above the falls.  The water flows year-round at a steady 42-48 degrees, shockingly refreshing in summer, a refuge for aquatic life in winter.   From the falls, the water flows into Lake Britton, a recreational resource open for canoeing, kayaking, swimming for the hardy, and fishing.

20180928_091714webThe falls and the lake are a popular stopover for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who need rest, refreshment, and re-provisioning.  If you want to visit, the loop trail from the top to the bottom of the falls over a rainbow bridge gives a beautiful introduction to the area.

The two small motels in Burney, the nearest town,  have merged management under the name of “Burney Falls Lodging”, but they are still pretty much unchanged from the cabin-style single level buildings with individual front porches such as I used to stay in with my parents when we traveled on Route 66 or Route 40 in the years before the interstates. The rooms at the Green Gables Motel now have a coffee maker and a window air conditioner, but the fish cleaning stations are still here and no effete swimming pools or hot tubs have been added.

 


If you aren’t looking, the passing of lumber trucks along 299 in front of the motel sounds almost like waves surging along the beach. I  relaxed into my 1950’s vintage porch chair at the Green Gable Inn and sip my 2010’s vintage champagne.  Later we enjoyed dinner at Art’s Outpost, another ’50’s throwback with pine paneling , substantial servings, friendly servers, and lots of hunting and fishing décor.

The next morning we got an early start the next morning for our walk around the falls. The view from the top was exciting, with beautiful fall colors just beginning to show in the bordering forest areas. 20180928_091616doc

I recommend walking the loop in the clockwise direction.  It’s an easy mile, with only a few spots where the steps a bit steep.

After the loop, we stopped at the campground and the lake.  The campsites are spacious, and the wooden cabins have snug space for four people as long as they are on friendly terms.  I’m imagining a family camping trip in the future.

Freeway Free in Memphis: Graceland

20180511_105302The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was Elvis Presley’s debut album, “Elvis”. So when we found we had a day to spare in Memphis, of course we decided to make a pilgrimage to Elvis’s realm at Graceland.

It was not what I expected.  True, the original house and grounds have undergone Disneyfication, with separate large exhibition halls devoted to his cars, his costumes, his movies (running all day long)  his gold records,  and his effect on music.  Each hall has its own souvenir shop, and there are also several restaurants on the grounds.

But the original house, accessible by shuttle van only, is like a time capsule of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The house itself is relatively unpretentious.  Tourists are reminded that Elvis was born in a two-room shack with outdoor plumbing, built by his father in Tupelo Mississippi.  The family moved to Memphis in search of opportunity when Elvis was a teenager.  Memphis was his home town;  this was the place where the people lived whom he trusted, and whose opinion he cared about.  So when he wanted to build a family home, he didn’t think of Beverly Hills.  He bought one of the nicest homes on the outskirts of Memphis.  The previous owner had been a successful dentist.

Inside, the house is decorated in early 60’s middle-class style:  lots of mirrors, lots of white and gilt, lots of crystal chandeliers, lots of silver on display in china cupboards, lots of shag carpeting. The den is upholstered in paisley prints, the TV room with its adjacent bar is lacquered yellow and black, and has three vacuum tube TV sets so Elvis could watch all three major channels at once.  (I guess PBS did not rate its own set.)  We were told that most of the rooms had been redecorated several times, reflecting the taste of whatever girl friend Elvis was hanging out with at the time.  On his own, he tended to like a lot of purple and pink, but his mother (yes, his parents lived in the house with him)exercised some restraint, and would not allow him to fool around with the kitchen at all.

There is a charming story told in a children’s book available at one of the gift shops, about how a young Elvis used to look in the windows of Lansky Bros. clothing store in Memphis, and one day the Mr. Lansky invited him to come in and take a closer look. The two chatted, and later when Elvis needed clothes for his first concert, Mr. Lansky extended him credit purely on his assessment of the boy’s honesty and potential.  , According to the story, after Elvis hit it big, he bought all his  clothes from Lansky Bros., who would sometimes just send out a van full of clothing for Elvis to choose from.

The costume exhibition and the car barn made me think most about the older Elvis, the raddled, paunchy, sequined, padded and corseted entity of the Vegas years.  But the house evoked the quiet, well-mannered young man whom everyone he met seemed to like, before fame took him in its grip.20180511_105635

 

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!

 

A Piece of My Mind: Lost in the Cloud (Los Altos Town Crier April 2017)

20170529_150515docI have been doing what amounts to an archaeological dig at the home my parents occupied for 60 years.  It seems as though every drawer I open, every closet shelf I clear holds traces of the life my parents led starting long before the time I began to exist. I am learning a lot about the people who raised me and how they became who they are. And I am also learning how much I can never know.

When my nephews cleaned out the loft in the garage they brought down boxes of heirloom china and heirloom linens and old tax returns and my mother’s scrapbooks from high school and college, beginning with birthday cards she received when she was seven years old from her father and the grandmother on her father’s side.20170529_150532doc

Now here is the interesting thing:  according to the stories about her childhood told by my mother, she had only fitful contact with her father after her parents were divorced.  Yet the scrapbook contains gift cards for birthday and Christmas from “Daddy” dated for seven un-interrupted years.  And there is nothing else in the scrapbook from those seven years except the gift cards. Then they quit. The scrapbooks contains all sorts of high school mementoes, but no gift cards signed “Love, Daddy.” My guess is that my mother kept and cherished the cards from her childhood until she started the scrapbook in high school. But at that point, did the cards and gifts stop coming? Did she turn against her father and grandmother and reject the presents?  If only I had found the scrapbooks before my mother’s death, so she could tell me more of that story.  But at least I have some of it, thanks to the paper record.

20170529_151829webWhen my sister was putting together a slide show to display at our mother’s memorial, she discovered that there were almost no pictures of her or our younger brother after the ages of seven and five, respectively. She figured out the problem – at that point in the late 50’s or early 60’s, my father  switched to slide film.  Stored in the hall closet are at least a dozen slide carousels, each holding 100 slide transparencies. But who has the technology or the patience to sort through over a thousand slides in this digital age? Even the one shop on the Peninsula which once offered a service of switching analog slides to digital has closed its doors.

This gap in the record caused by lost technology has given me pause.  I have ten years’ worth of photos on my computer at this moment downloaded from various digital cameras, plus another thousand or so backed up from my phone onto Google Photos somewhere in the cloud.  But what will happen to those photos when I am gone?  Will anyone back up my computer before trashing it as obsolete? Will the photos continue to float around as little electronic bursts of static in the digital cloud forever, waiting for someone with the correct user name and password to unlock them again?

I did feel  that I had attained some measure of immortality due to my long relationship with the Los Altos Town Crier.  When I first started writing this column some years back, I searched the archive and found that the good old Crier had preserved mentions of me dating back to when I received an Outstanding Student Award in high school.  At least that part of me would survive.

But to my consternation, when I recently wished to check a date in my personal LATC archive, I found that the Crier is economizing, and  now only the most recent three years of the Life of Allyson can be accessed.  I guess there are only so many gigabytes in the cloud after all.

Fortunately, “scrapbooking” is back in style. When I am gone, the archaeologists will find the scrapbooks from my elementary, high school, and college years encased in plastic storage bins in the attic.  And the deep file drawer in the upstairs desk contains a newsprint copy of every single piece I have published in the Town Crier. I won’t be lost in the cloud, because I’m leaving a paper trail.20170529_152047doc

Freeway Free in France: The Flight of the Pig

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W and I were walking along the tarmac road a bit ahead of the D’s when we heard an almighty rustling in the shrubbery on the bank to the left and above the level of the road.  At first I thought it was a gust of wind, but no, there was movement.  There was a shout from behind us.  There was definitely something moving in the shrubs above us.  I saw something white and brown through the brambles.  I looked around and the D’s were gesticulating madly.  Behind them four small trucks had appeared, and a squad of guys clad in international orange vests poured out of the trucks.  There was caterwauling in the shrubbery.   Was it an escaped convict?  A terrorist attack? No, D&D explained. They had seen a pig the size of a small sheep dart across the road.  These were hunters with a pack of dogs.

 Just then the dogs burst out of the shrubs, yelping merrily, one stopping to deposit a trace on the roadside.  There were foxhounds, a setter, a border collie, and a couple of serious-looking shaggy gray animals whose job would probably be to try to take down the pig if they ever caught up with him.  All sported orange collars which seemed to be fitted with GPS trackers. The dogs took off to the right of the road and down the hill into more shrubs.  The hunters jumped into their trucks and roared away at right angles, hoping for a road which would bring them closer to the hounds. As we walked along, we saw the hunters stopped, back-tracking, roaring off in another direction, then returning , sometimes with a dog or two added to the back of the truck,  sometimes not. All seemed to be having a great time.  I was just happy that the pig had not jumped from the bank as we were passing – what an ignominious end, to be on a hiking tour in France and be crushed by a flying pig!img_20160916_115459164doc

Can you spot the pig? (Neither could we!)

Freeway Free in France: Medieval Memories in Aigues Mortes

 

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We spent most of Day 5 in Aigues Mortes ( “Dead Waters” in Provençal), a town which was extensively fortified by Louis IX (later St Louis) back when he was extending his kingdom south and needed a Mediterranean port.  Unfortunately, the port location was badly chosen, the harbor kept silting up, and eventually Louis conquered enough of Provence to make Marseilles his lead port, leaving Aigues Mortes to molder neglected at the end of a rather barren peninsula.

 20160910_035659docNeglect means no development, so the medieval town, with its defensive wall, royal apartments, and battlements are all pretty much intact, despite some quarrying of the walls to build more modern edifices (pig sties, sheep pens, etc.). Later when the Huguenots were being suppressed by Henry II, a number of them were imprisoned here until they would renounce their heresy. Some stayed for 35 years until finally freed by Louis XV.  Still later, imported Italian workers being exploited in the nearby saltworks were cruelly suppressed by the French authorities – some striking artworks made of salt crystals commemorate the injustice.allyson-and-friends-070web

 

 

The day was quite warm, but a nice breeze off the sea and a number of displays, educational materials, and art projects located in cool interior rooms make our tour of the battlements very pleasant. We stopped for ice cream on the way out of town, and Chantal located a boulangerie which sold fougasse, a kind of Provencale specialty bread  made with olive oil, olives, and bacon bits, which I had heard about and wanted to try.  Yummy greasy flaky rich.

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That evening the five of us went out for a seafood dinner at a little harbor town near Lunel.  On a Saturday night the place was jumping, with each outdoor restaurant competing with the next in loudness and variety of bands (mariachi, hip hop, rock, all going noisily at each other across the canal.). It was not exactly the quiet atmospheric dinner we had expected, but it was certainly a change of pace. 

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