Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in Washington: Camping by the Cowlitz

Off to Cowlitz Falls County Park.  This park is maintained on behalf of the public by the Lewis County Public Utilities District. There are actually no falls here, as the river has been dammed for hydroelectric power, and the only access to the river, the boat ramp, was destroyed in a flood and is being repaired. Aside from the misleading name, this is a lovely quiet place with lot of shade, lots of woodsy trails between sites and restrooms, a sunny meadow with a volleyball net, a horseshoe pit (equipment for both available from the ranger) and a playground.

We set up in adjoining camp spaces, our tiny teardrop next to C&C’s Trailer Mahal. Instant conversation starters with folks strolling through the camp.

Then, just to make sure we meet everyone, we walk the dog, an adorable little white mop of a thing. Nothing like a cute dog to make instant friends along the trail.

The next morning we are just finishing a tremendous breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast (Thanks to C&C’s full kitchen) when our nephew P arrives with his wife T and five lively children. 

Fortunately Cowlitz [no]Falls has lots of distractions to offer. A walk to the river.  Fallen trees to climb. Back at the camp, Grandma C has provided plenty of hot dogs, sodas, chips, and watermelon, while Auntie M has a box of trailer games. Five-year-old G is surprisingly deft at removing blocks from the Zenga tower!

I’d forgotten how exhausting family gatherings can be for us empty nesters. M and I tumble into our trailer while C&C are still admiring the moon over a last glass of wine.

Tiny Trailer Travel 2 in 2022 – Day 3: Stayin’Alive up the 5

After the heat of our second day, the cool of the next morning at Schroeder County Park finds me up early. I find a small hotel soap cake in my dop kit and take a shower, even washing my hair with the soap.  Feels wonderful.  M wakes, sees my wet hair, and follows my example. Breakfast again of strawberries, blueberries, granola, yogurt.  We both feel great.  What could be nicer, with the river sparkling, the air fresh, and the heat wave broken!

Locked, loaded, and leaving by 10 ,  we are proud of the improvement in our getaway time. We think we have an easy 3.5 hour drive up to our brother’s house straight up I-5 in Washington state, so we are open to a scenic detour. M calls friend in Corvallis to invite them to meet us in Corvallis’s central park for lunch – M is eager to show her old haunts, and the detour would be pretty.  but the friends are on their way from Corvallis down to Winters along with another couple that M knows well, and are on I-5 headed the other way.  We rendezvous at a Wendy’s in Eugene and the five friends are soon in full catchup mode, with lots of exclaiming, explaining, and suggesting.  I feel like a hat rack, but it’s ok.  I use the loo.

On our way again.  We stop for lunch at another rest stop.  We stop for gas and check the GPS. Hmmm.  What was a 3.5 hour drive at 10 AM is now, at 2, after driving 2 hours all told, still a 3.5 hour drive.  What had been a clear blue shot through Portland is now blood red.

It takes us two hours to get through Portland. We are delayed a bit by M’s fear of the electric connection coming loose again, so we pull off on Swan Island, home of rail yards, lovely homes, and lot of homeless encampments. Vagrancy and loitering used to be crimes, but certainly there should be a better alternative to jail time than these ugly shambles.

A homeless campsite on Swan Island’s Lindbergh’s Beach. (KATU)

Once we clear the Columbia it’s an easy half-hour to Kid Brother’s house. We get a warm welcome, a bedroom for each of us and a tour of the latest quilts, wall hangings, glitter dot pix, and other crafty things which KB’s wife has put together since our last visit. .the fully de-frosted salmon in our cooler provides the centerpiece for a fine meal, with side dishes from KBW’s well-stocked fridge, and wine from KB’s well-stocked cellar.

KB plans to retire in March of 2023, and he and WBW are planning some long long trips in their long long trailer. There are sights to see north of the border, relatives to visit in Idaho and Montana and Texas and California. When vagrancy comes packaged in a 30-foot trailer, it becomes a lot more glamourous.

Tiny Teardrop Trailer Travel 2 – Day 2

Up by eight in our RV Resort near Castle Crags, hoping to beat the heat on a hike up to a waterfall and scenic viewing platform touted as not to be missed on the Camp brochure.  Turns out the trailhead is up the highway a bit, so we lock and load, out by 10:30.  We locate the trailhead, but the parking lot is already full of earlier birds than us, and there is no easy spot for the trailer, so we forego, and head up I-5 for Oregon

We stop in Ashland and lunch with M’s college roommate and her partner. Allison is a retired lawyer and her partner Madge is a retired CPA.  They live in a craftsman bungalow remodeled tastefully and surrounded by a lush garden of fruit and flowers and art objects, a dream of retirement come true.  The conversation is focused on the artistic life of Ashland, the lively drama scene and how it accommodated to the pandemic, and the advantages of bungalow life vs condo life.

Three of us decide to walk to Hither, a cute-as-can-be brunch/lunch spot about a 10 block walk away – the dog needs exercise and so do we. It is HOT.  The trip there is downhill, and we are in no hurry. I stop often to admire some interesting old house or flowers or pretty art thingy, but by the time we get to Hither’s shady outdoor patio we are ready for iced tea/beer/iced coffee. They are out of avocado toast, but herbed scrambled eggs are delicious.

The walk back is even hotter. And more uphill.  We pick the shadier sides of the street, and don’t stop as often.  M and I are sweltering by the time we get back to the house.  Maybe Ashland is not the perfect retirement paradise after all. We worry about the next few days, with 100 degree temps also predicted for our destination.

Brief goodbye’s and on our way again in our air-conditioned cocoon, which we now appreciate even more.  We stop for gas.  Still hot.  We look for the closest Baskin-Robbins. Tucked around a corner we find it after cruising the hot asphalt parking lot from one end to the other.  Thank goodness for the walking option on GPS!  Mint chocolate chip, very berry strawberry, and triple mango swirl do a lot for our attitudes.

And much cooler weather as we arrive at familiar-from-last-trip Schroeder County Park west of Grant’s Pass does even more.  We set up painlessly, put our camp chairs at the edge of a rise which wafts a cool breeze directly up from the river, and relax. Later we go down to the river and wade again, waving at rafters and kayakers as they pass. Then we bring out wine, hummus, cheese, crackers, and veggies to dip, and by the time we have nearly finished the wine we realize we don’t really need to cook dinner.  Bed and books look good.

A Piece of My Mind: How Much Do You Need?

I recently spent time with several different friends who have “downsized”.

One couple is selling their four-bedroom, three bath house with the aim of cashing out the equity, buying a smaller home in a less expensive location, and using the extra cash to follow some lifelong dreams. 

Twenty five years of accumulation now fills the two car garage from floor to ceiling, except for a narrow aisle to allow access to the building inspector. It includes furniture inherited from grandparents, portraits of ancestors, and many beloved books.   They plan to consign the dining-room furniture and donate the sofa, the piano and half the book cases to an NGO, but still worry about how they will fit the things they really love or need into a mere two-bedroom, one bath house with a one-car garage.

A second friend has moved into a two-bedroom one-bath house with a one-car garage after a divorce.  His home is filled with art and artifacts related to his life and interests, and he does have bonus space: a basement stairway leads to a fully equipped wood shop and foundry where he can hone his woodworking and brass-casting skills.  Every corner, every bookcase, every picture (and there are a lot of them) holds a story relating to his life.  It is the perfect home— for one person.  Yes, he has downsized, and wrapped his life around him.

My third set of friends have left a home that  accommodated a family of nine, including two natural and five adopted children, now all grown and gone.  They moved to a three-bedroom 2 bath house. The new house is smaller, but it feels big, as it is perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean with  270 degree views from the living room, study and kitchen. Every wall, every nook, every cupboard is filled with items salvaged, discovered, given, or retrieved – a thousand stories.  It is the home of two people but it feels as though it also comprises a small art gallery and museum.

I also visited a younger friend whose business is taking properties that scream “Scrape me!” and turning them into attractive AirBnB one-month rentals for young professionals.  His prospective renters need an attractive and functional bathroom; a kitchen with a stove, oven, sink and microwave, and the minimal necessary pots, pans, and utensils;  a bedroom with good reading lights and a comfortable bed for two people;and a sitting/eating space near the kitchen with a large screen TV and internet access.

I made these visits with my sister who owns a small teardrop-shaped trailer which includes a king-sized bed, lots of storage nooks under the mattress and above the bed space, a small TV screen and DVD player, heat and AC, and a kitchen with a two-burner stove, a microwave, and a battery-powered chest refrigerator.  We traveled comfortably for 11 days. I had enough clothing to keep comfortable from the cold foggy shores of Washington state to the searing summer heat of California’s Central Valley.

A one-bedroom Air BnB or a traile, give you a simplified life, but a life with no sentiment, no memories, no past. 

So how much of your past do you want to bring along when you “downsize”?  How many memories do you think you will need?

Tiny Trailer Travel 2 in 2022 – Day One

My sister promised me two trips in her tiny teardrop trailer as Christmas/birthday presents. For our second expedition with her favorite toy, we decided to do a variation on an earlier trip, going north to visit our brother in Washington state, but on our way we also planned to visit old friends up and down I-5 and US-101.

We had planned to leave early in order to beat the heat on I-5, but domestic circumstances (which I resolve NOT to talk about in this series) delayed our departure until nearly 11:30AM. We had loaded the trailer’s refrigerator with a fresh-caught frozen salmon courtesy of M’s neighbor, a partially-pre-cooked hamburger casserole courtesy of my Personal Travel Agent, some gourmet cheese, assorted fruit, hummus, and enough wine to keep us merry as we camped our way up the valley.

M drives for the first two hours, straight up I-55 aiming at Mt. Shasta.  We stop for lunch at a rest stop, where our little cocoon is dwarfed by the semis also taking their breaks in the lot marked for “Trailers and RVs”. The rest stop offers shade and a bit of a breeze, and duly fortified we proceed to our first camp spot, Railway Park Resort at Dunsmuir. We pull into the registration office past box cars and cabooses that have been re-purposed as lodge rooms for families, a gift shop, and a history museum. A Dining Car is now a restaurant. But we have our own traveling accomodation, and continue further up the road to our RV site in a different area.

It is HOT, but in the shade bearable. We see other campers returning from a swimming pool located back in the railroad car section, but it seems like too much trouble to change clothes and hike over to share a pool with a bunch of teenagers and tots. Instead, we explore and discover a creek near our site ideal for wading in.  Oh bliss!

Returning with wet feet to our camp, we discover that the electrical connection to the trailer has come unplugged. We can’t know how long we have been driving without blinkers or brake lights, but long enough so that the salmon is completely thawed.  We cross our fingers against botulism and hope for the best. Our first night meal is the partially pre-cooked casserole layered with noodles and cheese in a frying pan, super easy to fix, and we have some (warm) red wine to wash it down and some chocolate covered cranberries for dessert.

M’s sleeping bag has a velcro-fastened interior lining, so we could pull off the warm layer and sleep under the lightweight sheet. Despite the heat of the day, the trailer cools fast with side windows and a ceiling vent open. We have no trouble falling asleep.

NEXT: Finding Friends and Family – Day 2

Hard Facts

Photo by Kevin McCartney

I love this country.  I get a little teary when I first see the American flag flying after a trip abroad, or when “The Star Spangled Banner” rings out over an Olympic podium or a baseball field.  My US passport is my most prized possession. I pay my taxes willingly as “The price one pays for freedom” per Ben Franklin.

Still, some facts are hard for me to face:

  • The United States US has the shortest life expectancy of 21 developed nations – 77 years, compared to top-ranked Switzerland at 83 years. (per a Town Crier article 6/2/22)
  • The United States has the highest infant mortality rate of the top 8 developed nations -5.9/1000, almost triple that of top-ranked Japan at 2.0 fatalities/1000 (World Health Organization)
  • The United States has the least effective health-care system overall among 11 high-income countries, even though it spends the highest proportion of its gross domestic product -almost 17%- on health care. (based on % of population covered for core needs, life expectancy, infant mortality rates – the Commonwealth Fund). 
  • The United States has the highest level of income inequality of the seven G7 countries, out-ranked world-wide only by Russia, India, and Brazil.  (Brink News, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data book)  Income inequality in the United States is at its highest level in fifty years, and increasing. (US Census Bureau, 2018 figures.)

And for me the most troubling facts, because they hit close to home and seems so preventable:

  • In the United States the #1 cause of death in those under 18 is gunshot wounds
  • People living in a household with a gun owner are seven times as likely to be shot and killed as those in a gun-free home. (Stanford University study of nearly 18 million Californians).
  • Handguns were used in three out of four US suicides in 2018.
  • Despite claims from anti-gun-control groups that better mental health care, is the solution to gun violence, the amount  the United States spends on mental health is only 5% of total health care spending. 

I’m waiting for legislators opposed to the Affordable Care Act to propose their modifications or improvements to the coverage.

I’m waiting for the legislature to provide funding for those small local treatment centers which were supposed to be more effective than the state mental hospitals that were closed.  

I’m waiting for those who claim mental disturbance is behind gun violence to explain why someone with a history of mental disturbance should be able to buy a gun anyway.

I’m waiting to see Texas GovernorRon deSantis’ proposed legislation for increased funding for mental health services.

I’ll probably be waiting for a long time to come.  But the facts keep getting harder.

Hidden Gems: Ruth Bancroft’s Cactus Garden

Ruth Bancroft’s legacy garden in Walnut Creek, California is a small plot of land full of wonders. Ruth Bancroft’s family had a farm in Walnut Creek; she was attracted to a rosette-shaped succulent, and this grew into a fascination with succulents, cacti, and numerous other drought – tolerant plants. The result is a fantasy garden of growing greenery, some of which looks as though it originated on another planet.

Despite years in the general area, and having heard about the Ruth Bancroft Garden, it took a family wedding to draw me there. Now I’m eager to go again with visiting friends.

It’s spring, folks! You’re going to see some gardens!

Freeway Free in California: Iris Chang Park, San Jose

I spent Earth Day with friends, making a rather neglected park more beautiful by pulling weeds and trimming invasive plants. I hadn’t planned on doing anything to mark the day, but my friend Tao invited me to join her and her partner in a work project sponsored by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project of San Jose.

The location was Iris Chang Park, shoehorned between a huge apartment block and culverted Coyote Creek. It was established to honor Iris Chang, the brilliant young author of “The Rape of Nanjing” and other histories of the Chinese experience, which opened to much community fanfare in November of 2020. But during the lockdown months care and maintenance fell behind, and the nettles and dandelions had grown almost as tall and profuse as the native grasses originally designed for the landscape.

The park offers a simple strolling path past a cenotaph telling about Iris Chang, a large circular sculpture evoking traditional Chinese artifacts, and several markers and low walls with quotes from Chang’s work. In April, irises planted by Chang’s parents were in bloom in several beds.

So we set to work. A couple of hours later, with a dozen people busy, we had accumulated quite a collection of refuse bags, and the park is ready for its closeup – a May 1 event to mark the anniversary of Chang’s death. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

A Piece of My Mind: Civic Duty

I get the post card.  I am on call for jury duty for a week. The new procedure is to sign in at noon and 5 pm to find out whether I am on call to appear the next morning or afternoon.

For four days I dodge the bullet.  I manage a blood donation, a Book Club meeting, and a friend’s Anniversary Party, and then the notice appears:  “Your report date is 4/22/22.” Following is other information about where to park, where to report, how to check in.

I make it easily to the parking garage, up two floors to the pedestrian bridge, and then the signage ran out.  I start for the nearest building – nope, that’s the jail.  In the other direction – yes, the Superior Court.  Through the bag scan and the metal detector, up to the second floor, where i wait in line for the sign-in kiosks, directed by a friendly young man evidently used to handling clueless questions from silver haired ladies.

I balk at the sign in kiosk, clearly labeled “Step 2” and “Step 3”. 

“Where’s Step One?”

The young man shakes his head. “We’re re-vamping the system.  Gotta change those signs.”  I scan my juror postcard, he kindly takes my parking ticket for validation (saving himself several other clueless questions, I’m sure.)

Into the jury room, full of people scanning their cell phones or filling out forms. What are these forms?  Did I miss something? I ask. No, that’s for after you’ve been assigned to a jury.  The form looks like it goes on forever.  And only one chair in the entire room has a desk arm.

I am on Panel 47B. An announcement comes. 47B is called to the third floor.

We are seated in the courtroom.  We rise for the judge, a young-ish woman with brown hair flowing over her robe.  We rise to swear to do our best.  The defendant and his attorney rise and take off their masks to greet the prospective jurors. They both sport conservative suits and ties.  The defendant, a large, square shouldered guy, smiles at us – he has perfect teeth.  A charmer.  The DA also rises maskless, a woman in an un-challenging beige suit.

The judge read the charges against the defendant:  six counts of sexual aggression, forcible rape, sodomy….

I haven’t thought about it for years.  When I was eleven years old, my father out of town, my mother at a meeting, she arranged for me to go to and from my dancing class via taxi. The driver had dark curly hair and a pock-marked face. Molestation is the word we have for it now. No rape, but still mystifying and terrifying to my young self. 

The judge said “This trial will probably last for five weeks. If you can plead a hardship, you may be excused.”  She read the reasons which would justify hardship. Being uncomfortable with the subject matter is no excuse.

Happily, my husband and I have a long-deferred travel planned, which is non-refundable.  I have been allowed a deferral until mid-summer. I’m hoping that my civic duty at that time will involve only some financial malfeasance, and will evoke no nightmares.

Freeway Free in Texas: Another Houston Civic Garden

The time to visit the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Houston is definitely in April, when the magnificent azaleas are in bloom.

The entrance to the garden opens to a walkway lined on either side with bronze busts of notables, framed by (on my visit) luxuriant azaleas. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how the notables were picked. Texas historical figures such as explorer Cabeza de Vaca or Sam Houston are expected, but why the president of Chile? and why Robert Burns?

The centerpiece of the garden is a tumulus with a pathway spiraling upward to give you a view of the whole garden as well as the Houston skyline rising beyond. There is no marker to tell you who might be buried beneath this ceremonial mound, but it is precisely reminiscent of burial mounds in China, along the Mississippi, and in Britain.

The pathway is lined with shrubbery and ivy-covered walls. It seems to be a desirable habitat for lizards: I spotted six skittering away from me on my way up, in different shades of yellow, gold, and red. (California lizards are so dull and dirt-colored.) A fountain at the top of the tumulus sends water down a pebble -lined incline to a pond at the bottom; the pathway skips across the stream several times on narrow bridges. The effect is cooling, which is good, as there is no source of shade other than the ivy walls.

At the top of the tumulus are three benches inscribed somewhat cryptically: “In terms of one year, plant a seed. In terms of ten years, plant a tree. In terms of one hundred years, teach the people.” And, one could add, “In terms of one hour, have a seat!”

The rest of the Centennial Garden is still a work in progress. The beginning of a traditional rose garden is visible, but the bushes on my visit were neither labeled nor blooming. Eventually there will be benches shaded by blooming arbors, but not yet.

There is also a family garden, colorful during my visit with lush kale in many shaded of green, magenta, and yellow, and showcasing flowers, vegetables, and fruits which can be grown successfully in the Houston area.

I was charmed to find a Little Free Library conveniently positioned next to a picnic area in the Family Garden, offering books for children, but with a garden theme.

The Centennial Gardens are located within Hermann Park, also home of the Houston Zoo, a lake with paddle boats, and other family attractions. But the Gardens feel quite removed from the more commercial recreations also available in Hermann Park, and provice a lovely place for a quiet walk alone, or a walk-and-talk with friends.

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