Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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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Freeway Free in Texas: Rustic Comfort in the Back of Beyond

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We continue south from I-10, down through the Davis mountains, which look like someone had taken sections of Bryce Canyon and coated them with dark brown cocoa powder. We turn off onto an even smaller road before Ft. Davis, wind slowly (20 mph speed limit) through the campgrounds in Davis Mountains State Park, and dead-end into the parking lot at Indian Lodge.

Indian Lodge is a blindingly white adobe rustic lodge built by those ubiquitous Civilian Conservation Corps  guys, with wooden shutters, twig ceilings, rough decorations chopped out by hatchets, and a swimming pool.

Our room sports two queen sized beds,  a spacious handicapped-equipped bathroom, and very unreliable phone and net service. The Lodge includes a charming lobby with two big fireplaces, an outdoor patio with hanging porch swings and another fireplace and a fountain, a small upstairs lounge, and a gift shop (naturally).

20190324_182737docA trail leads off from the parking lot, so we  put on boots, grab sticks, and off we go, altitude, loose rocks, and elevation gain be hanged! We make it about half a mile up the trail before stopping to look at the Lodge below and deciding we had done enough.

We think of diving into the pool, but it is only March and the pool is sun-warmed – the temperature of the water is in the low 50’s.  But wasn’t that a hot tub next to the pool?  Nope, that’s a kiddie wading pool.  Being shallow, it is just a bit warmer than the main pool and quite refreshing to our feet. 20190324_174629web

We picnic on the patio with hummus and veggies, sardines and crackers, grapes and pears, and sparkling water. Then we add some cozy clothes and head up the mountain on a road full of hairpin turns to the observation platform at the end of the road. The sun has set, and as ambient light decreased, we see STARS! Orion at his best, red Betelgeuse, Antares, and both dippers, plus a cloudy belt we think was the Milky Way. We will have more star dates in future nights;  the Big Bend area is supposed to be one of the least light-polluted sites in the lower 48.  After ooh-ing and aah-ing, we carefully make our way back down to our cozy room, blessing those hard-working CCC boys as we sink into sleep.

Freeway Free in Texas: An Oasis in the Back of Beyond

We weren’t very far off of Interstate 10, the scarlet ribbon on our map which bisects West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso, when we pulled off at Balmorhea State Park.  This unlikely spot was once a life-saving source of water for pioneers on the long southern trek to California

20190324_160847docImaging the astonishment of the first discoverers of San Solomon Springs.  In the middle of flat emptiness, with nary a mountain in sight, and no sizable trees or vegetation from here to the horizon, an artesian spring bubbles out of the flat ground.  This is no trickle of water which ebbs away between hot rocks, but a cool ( 72-76 degrees) endless source of liquid bounteous enough to fill a 1.3 acre pool up to 25 feet deep.

20190324_161619webThe oasis is now civilized, thanks to the efforts and energies of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s.  The swimming pool fed by the spring is now enjoyed by families  and scuba drivers (in the deep part).  No thirsty mules or cattle are allowed to approach. There are changing rooms, picnic tables, and a snack bar. But the presence of abundant water in the midst of the sagebrush is still miraculous.20190324_161043doc

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: On the way to the Back of Beyond

20190612_090827docOK, I’m cheating a little.  We actually spent quite a bit of time on the freeway on our way to the Big Bend area of west Texas – there is no other way to get there.

W picked me up at the Austin airport in a giant white 4-door truck which we have christened Moby Dick. It has mirrors that can fold in electrically so you can squeeze through narrow spots, and a backup camera, and a hands free phone,  and a beeper in front and in back if you are about to hit something.  You can adjust the seat back and forth and up and down and the brake pedal and accelerator also up and down. It took W awhile to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers without turning open the windshield washer, and there are a few more bills and whistles we probably didn’t notice. And most importantly, it has four-wheel drive and rides high off the ground. (This last is a bit of a challenge to W and me, who are both on the short side.  We have learned to vault up to our seats with the help of a grip on the window frame, and slither down to the ground carefully to avoid jolts to our knees on descending.) Moby Dick seems very out of place driving through the well-manicured Austin suburbs;  we might as well be driving a Sherman tank.

20190325_155456docSo off we go out of Austin and past places that we have visited before, into the unknown spaces of the Big Bend country of southwest Texas.  We move out of the area where bluebonnets and scarlet paintbrush are blooming and into an area where odd geological formations punctuate the skyline like very broad pencils with sharp tips.  Scattered yuccas bloom like pale torches among the scrubby bushes. The occasional farm augments its income with pumpjacks in the valleys and windmills on the ridges, hedging its bets between the old energy and the new.

Knowing that our access to fast food restaurants will be scarce, we stock up at a Lowes market in  Ft. Stockton on raw veggies, hummus, oranges, pears, grapes, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, tuna fish, sardines, and crackers – good for several breakfasts and dinners, we hope.20190324_150327web

And finally we abandon the cheery red line on our Texas map, and head south on the black lines.  Our first stop will be at an amazing oasis in the Back of Beyond, so stay tuned!

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 Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

Texas Freeway Stops on the Way to the Back of Beyond: Ozona

20190324_125621docFrom Austin to the Big Bend country of Texas, you pretty much have to go by freeway.  But there are plenty of stops to be made along the way.

Ozona, Texas, is one of those towns whose reasons for existence seems to have evaporated, leaving only shells of former splendor, like dinosaur fossils, to evoke what once was.  Like many another small Texas county seat, it boasts an impressive courthouse facing the central square.  As a general rule, the vintage of the courthouse (in this case, late Victorian) is a good indicator of when the town was at its peak.

20190324_124525webThe courthouse, like many others, is a Texas Historical Landmark, attested by a plaque next to the front door.  The square boasts a statue of a pioneer family, in addition to a large memorial to Davy Crockett (Ozuna is county seat of Crockett County).  Judging by the style of the memorial, it was  probably installed soon after the coonskin cap craze of the mid-50’s. Probably predating the Crockett memorial by at least 20 years is a brave neon sign proclaiming Ozona as “The Biggest Little Town in the World”.

 

But the other buildings around the square belie the boast. There is a bank building with a beautiful classical façade, now boarded up.  There is a decaying three story hotel with a  vintage look, now boarded up.  The largest business on the square is a gun shop.  The second largest is a stockman’s supply store.  The third largest… well, I’m not sure among the many vacant facades which might have been open.

Ozona’s town center with its boastful sign eerily evoked the ending of Percy Shelley’s classic poem “Ozymandias”:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
…. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

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 Scotland: Another Bloody Battlefield

IMG_0684doc Why do we yearn over battlefields and lost causes?  At the Battle of Gettysburg, the High Water Mark of the Confederacy gets more photos than any other monument.  Even on our cruise in  Alaska we toured a battlefield – the last stand of the Kwakiutls or some such. We are in awe of places where lots of young men died for reasons they and we no longer understand. And here we are at Culloden, where young Scotsmen in kilts wielded swords and battle axes against British cannon and riflery, and died bravely for a prince who escaped the carnage and lived out a wastrel life in Italy. .

Culloden is a beautiful place on a bright summer day, a broad pasture stippled with swathes of greenery and shrubbery, sweeping off to distant hills and a blue sky studded with white clouds.  And then you notice the clan markers, where the bodies of slain Scotsmen were heaped into trenches and covered over with earth.  No individual markers for the Scots, just a stone with the clan name.  And maybe the bodies underneath match the name, or maybe not.

The Culloden Battlefield has one of the best visual representations of slaughter that I have seen. We are told 50 Englishmen died vs. 2500+ Scots. That seems like a lot. Then we see the wall – the extruded bricks represent a death.  – 20 feet of bricks represent the Royalist deaths – another 10 feet are flat, then 1250 feet represent the Scotch deaths.20180724_145704doc  You see, you understand.

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