Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway-Free in San Francisco: Bay to Breakers – Still Crazy After All These Years

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When our kids were pre-schoolers my husband took up jogging with some friends. In the spring, they decided to try the Bay to Breakers race/fun run in San Francisco. For the next two years they would set off early to start the race, while the kids and I would hustle into the car later and do our best to get to the windmill in Golden Gate Park in time to wave at Daddy as he went by.

Then I took up jogging, too, as did a lot of other folks, it seems. Bay to Breakers ballooned from a few thousand participants to tens of thousands. The night before the race became a family event, with my sister, my brother, and their families bunking at our house the night before. On race morning Grandma and Grandpa came over to look after the grand-children, while the parents crammed onto CalTrain with assorted crazy people in costumes. The race was always schedule within a few days of my birthday, so I always felt somehow that everyone was celebrating with me.

Fast forward a few years. My kids were both running track, and eager to smoke their dad and uncles in Bay to Breakers. Grandma and Grandpa decided to be walkers, so we found a baby-sitter for the younger kids. Bay to Breakers was up to over 100,000 participants, fueled by baby boomer enthusiasm and the free radio, TV,and newspaper ads put out by the sponsoring San Francisco Examiner. The race route was officially equipped with timers at every mile interval, first aid stations, and volunteers offering water, and unofficially equipped with rock bands on the corners and SF residents cheering us on from their balconies with showers of confetti and speakers blaring Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”.

Some teams ran yoked together as “centipedes”. The San Francisco Dental School carried a giant toothbrush and tube of toothpaste and chanted “Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth!” as they went by. Both men and women ran dressed as ballerinas, as cows, as the President, as nuns, as Elvis. There were some dressed in nothing at all. From the finish line at Ocean Beach participants back-tracked to the Polo Grounds, where the post-race Expo included more rock bands, the race T-shirt distribution tables, food and beer booths, and lots of free stuff. What a party!

More years have passed. I’m an empty-nester and an orphan, my husband has a trick knee, and my family has scattered. I haven’t done Bay to Breakers in years. A friend and I decided to make it a goal. So in the middle of May, in pouring rain, my husband took us up to the Millbrae BART station and off we went.

Since the Examiner folded, the race has had various sponsors: a bank, a grocery chain, an airline. With the lack of free media advertising, it has shrunk to maybe 25,000 participants. At each BART station we picked up people who were obviously headed for the race, but there were few costumes. We popped out of the underground at Powell Street and walked back toward the start.

Something new: lots of barricades to keep hotel guests and convention-goers from getting tangled up with the runners. Some things missing: the rainbow of balloons which used to make the start, the hovering helicopters, the crowd of spectators lined up along the start to cheer the runners.

Miraculouslyt, the rain had let up.  We saw the seeded runners go by.  We saw a centipede made up of twenty women dressed in black robes with lace collars who all managed to look exactly like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  We saw a bunch of people dressed as cows.  We saw a naked runner carrying an obscene sign.  We decided it was time to jump in.

By the time we hit Golden Gate Park, the sun was shining so brightly that the Conservator of Flowers looked like a puff of meringue on its hill.  In between the rock bands, as we went through the blocked – off park, I could hear the magical sound of hundreds of feet hitting the pavement.  The post race party was relatively small, but we each still scored a bottle of water, a banana, and an energy bar to fuel our way back across the city on the N-Juday trolley to the Cal Train Station.  And we were feeling triumphant at making it from bay to beach with our thousands of friends.  Me and the City – still crazy after all these years.

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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!

 

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

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