Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “outdoors”

Freeway Free in California – Adventures up the Empty Coast – Day 2 (continued)

IMG_0251docThe weather was perfect: warm, no fog or wind, as we left Hearst Castle.

We meandered up Hwy. 1, ooh-ing and aah-ing alternately at the gorgeous scenery and at the huge scars on the hillsides marking the winter landslides of several seasons. South of tiny Gordo men were still working to clear a large slide – the influx of workers must have been a boon to the intesnsely cute Whale Watcher’s Café which dominates the one-block town.

Fountains of invasive pampas grass flaunt their rusty pink plumes all over the scarred hillsides. It’s clear that they have gotten the jump on native vegetation, but one must be thankful for any roots that will hold back more landfalls. Not encouraging to start the trips with a sign saying “Rock Slide area – next 60 miles.

We snuck into the Los Padres National Forest’s Plaskett Creek Campground despite the signs saying “Campground Full,” and ate sandwiches and chips we had bought at the Hearst cafeteria/deli. The group camp, with a beautiful ocean view, was deserted at midday, except for a group of grackles generaled by jays which hovered ever closer to our crumbs. Then after our lunch, only about 500 yards further down the road we saw a sign for “Beach and Picnic Area”. Our lunch tasted better for being illicit, though.


20191002_125717docFurther up the road there was an even bigger slide, with an obviously temporary one-lane road perched nervously across the new ground. But it was fascinating to watch the big diggers roaming and scooping  atop huge mounds of dirt and stone. And that road remains a marvel of impossible engineering, spectacular vistas, and a maddening plodding pace behind the inevitable road boulder, often a “Rent-Me-RV” whose first-time RV driver is scared to death of his rig and the road.  And they won’t pull out to let the long line of vehicles behind them to pass, which is the law, or, if it isn’t, there oughta be.20191002_132921doc

And finally we made it to Big Sur, with its redwoods, its fire-scars, its resorts both humble and ostentatious nestled in the piney woods.  Only another hour of gorgeous scenery to go before we hit the traffic and tourists of the Monterey Peninsula.  It’s been a great ride.

Freeway Free in CAlifornia – Adventures on the Empty Coast (Day 1)

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What’s the empty coast? Where Highway 1 clings to the cliff faces south of Carmel, with basically no left turns and few habitations until it regains civilization and a few crossroads south of San Simeon.

We needed a fall getaway, so D and I headed lickety-split down US-101, aiming for a calm coastal stay in Cambria, followed by a visit to Hearst San Simeon National Monument, and a scenic trip back up through Big Sur and the stretch of California Highway 1 that had been cut off by landslides and fires for several of the past years.

We stopped for lunch in Paso Robles, one of my favorite pauses for trips south and north on Historic El Camino Real. There are several good restaurants in Paso. This time we stopped at the Berry Hill Bistro, where the paninis are huge, the salads ample, and the servers slim and smiling. (I always think it’s a good sign if a restaurant’s waitresses are thin. It means they are running off the calories serving customers as fast as they can, rather than sitting around eating the leftovers.)

Just past Paso we found our exit on CA Highway 46, and sailed along a well maintained road through San Luis Obispo wine country. Acres of grapevines in fall colors cloaked the dry hills, and each winery seemed to be vying with the next to have the most oddly memorable name (my favorite: Tooth and Nail Winery.)

Only a half hour later we were cruising along Cambria’s Main Street. To our delight, we discovered that the entire month of October in Cambria is devoted to a Scarecrow Festival, and each retail, educational, and many private establishments compete for the notice of passers-by. There were Mexican-themed flamenco scarecrows for the Mexican restaurants, a Victorian lady in blue and white next to the blue and white Chase bank logo, and my favorite Raggedy Ann and Andy from my childhood next to a toy and gift store.

After checking into our beachfront motel, the Little Sur Inn,  we walked along the boardwalk bordering Moonstone Beach to check out the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill as a dinner prospect, but although it has a lovely front veranda with a stunning sunset view,  and seemed to have a lively patronage, we would have been walking back in the dark, and it seemed a bit far.

We has our traditional champagne on the balcony of our room, looking out over Moonstone Beach. The sunset looked like a banana skin shading around the curve from pale yellow to golden brown.   We lingered until we both thought we saw the green flash accompanying the last rays of the sun. Lovely.20191001_190339web

As long as we would be getting in the car anyway, we decided to try Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria’s east village, a recommendation from a friend. It is a beautiful adapted home just a block from the Main Street, with a quiet ambiance, excellent service and good food (roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and blue cheese, miso sea bass, firecracker shrimp).

One caveat: As we watched, there were maybe three younger couples coming in or leaving during the evening, but this is definitely a quiet restaurant for an older crowd.  D and I are used to upping the average age of the customer base by 10 years when we enter a restaurant. In this case we were right on average. D observed thatRobin’s does not have high chairs or booster seats, but they do seem to have an ample supply of walkers and supplemental oxygen bottles.  I guess the younger crowd was still quaffing brewskis on the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill veranda.

IMG_0247webWe took the remains of a bottle of local Pinot Noir back to our balcony to finish off the evening with the complimentary chocolate chip cookies from our check- in desk. We sat on our balcony again to watch the crescent moon setting near where the sun had set before our dinner. Suddenly stars! The Milky Way! D even saw a shooting star. Only one spotlight shining on the entry sign for our hotel spoiled the dark sky.

 

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 California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day 2)

20190711_120353docWe got the fog we had hoped for on our second day at Point Reyes.  Since we had part of the area south of our home base on our first day, we decided to head north from our base at the Cottages along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.  We stopped at the first trailhead aiming for Abbotts Lagoon, which the Pt Reyes website trail guide recommends as “an easy stroll with good spring wildflowers and excellent birdwatching in fall and winter.” Since we were visiting in summer, we lowered our expectations, but the “easy stroll” part seemed very attractive.

Near the entrance to the trail, a posted sign advised us that a family of river otters might be seen from the bridge across Abbotts Lagoon.  We set off eagerly, as we had not scored any exotic wildlife the previous day.  But we were soon distracted from the possibility of otters by the very real abundance of wildflowers.  I often count how many different sorts of wildflowers I encounter on a hike, but this time I simply lost track.  So many colors and varieties, inhabiting every niche from wetland to sand dune!  What must it have been like in spring?

OK, we struck out with the otter family – they must have been fishing up a different creek.  But we couldn’t feel deprived.

Back at the car we were beginning to feel a bit peckish, and decided to have our picnic lunch at the Historic Pierce Point Ranch at the end of the road before exploring the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point, the northernmost finger of the National Seashore. 20190711_133853web

By early afternoon it was quite windy, and there were no visible picnic tables at the Ranch. Fortunately, we had thrown a couple of folding chairs and a small folding table into the trunk. We set up our small feast in the lee of the raised trunk lid, and managed to feast on crackers, cheese, and fruit without seeing our lunch blown away.

Having missed out on sea lions and river otters, we were not sanguine about the prospects of viewing elk at the Tule Elk Reserve. But we set off on the Tomales Point Trail, and almost as soon as we got past the last of the farm’s outbuildings, W pointed out our first elk, a cow moving slowly across the slope ahead.  W got out the binoculars and cried “There’s another one, a buck with antlers!”  I looked but could see nothing where she pointed but a large sandstone boulder.  Then with the binoculars I was able to make out a dark head and antlers attached – the “rock” was the light tan body of a massive stag. tule-elk

As we continued along the trail, the wind picked up, and the chill factor increased, but every time we thought of turning back, we would come upon another group of elk down in the valley, or trooping across the road ahead.  Finally we reached the point where the sign warned us that the trail ahead was “unmaintained.”  We took that as a turnaround indicator.

Tired but thrilled by our success at elk viewing, we ended our day at a local eatery touted as having “a beautiful location on Tomales Bay”.  Tony’s Seafood Restaurant‘s bayside location was pretty much moot, as the fog was thick and low by dinner time.  Still, we enjoyed the :very good food” and “nice casual atmosphere” as a reward for our wind-blown tenacity at the elk reserve.

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day One)

20190710_133631webWe fled the South Bay expecting a foggy few days on the Marin coast.  To our surprise, the fog held off on our arrival, so we took advantage of the sunshine before we even checked into our lodgings.  Our first stop was the Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore, and to clear the cobwebs from our two-hour drive we decided to hike the Earthquake Trail which heads off from the Center parking lot.

20190710_132654webThe Earthquake trail follows the natural escarpment where the San Andreas Fault skirts the edges of the California coastline before disappearing into the sea towards Alaska.  It’s a shady stroll through pastureland and underneath gian twisted bay trees.  Along the trail are interpretive placards explaining earthquake geology, plate tectonics, and the effect of the Fault on California geology.  A line of blue posts marking the center line of the fault marches along the ridge above the trail.  The high point of the walk is a point where two halves of a fence have been offset by almost 15 feet – the result of the ground movement in 1907, when action on the Fault caused the disastrous San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

After checking in at The Cottages at Pt. Reyes Seashore,  we decided to head for the beach.  The brochure from the Visitors Center promised sea lions hauled out on the spit at the end of Limantour Beach.  We decided to walk on the beach rather than on the Limantour Spit Trail along the ridge, allowing us to admire the endless stretch of almost perfect tubular rollers coming in and breaking in one thundering roar, one after another. 20190710_145316doc

We didn’t make it to the end of the beach, nor did we spot any sea lions (or even hear them.)  But we did enjoy the traces of human artistry in the sand dunes by the beach.

Feeling exhausted by the overwhelming visual and audial of sun and surf, we retreated to our quiet cottage and a supper from the grocery sack.  We somehow could not feel too badly about having missed the fog, though we did regret the sea lions.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And say Hi! to Orion for me!

Freeway Free in Texas: 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.

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!

 

 

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