Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “outdoors”

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!

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.

Freeway Free in Texas: Houston’s Botanical Garden

I needed to stretch my legs after a full flight in coach to Houston, so my friend W obligingly scheduled a trip to the Houston Botanic Garden, sorta kinda on the way from Hobby Airport to central Houston. It was a drizzly afternoon, bracing after four hours in a mask, and we had windbreakers and an umbrella, so we strolled the deserted grounds of the garden quite comfortably. After all, in Houston the rain is warm.

The entrance to the garden is austerely modern, but the fence by the gate gives a better idea of the kinds of richness behind the entry. The garden recreates a diversity of ecological settings, punctuated with fountains, raised beds, and a variety of eccentric artwork.

My favorite were the cacti, with all the eccentric shapes and shades they can show.

The major fountain would have been more striking in sunlight with water jets sparkling, I think. Under gray skies it had an effect recalling a set of tiled locker room showers. What do you think?

The raised beds in the culinary garden were beautiful, with richly colored kale and cabbage.

Definitely worth a detour when you are next in Houston! But don’t forget the umbrella!

Freeway Free in Florabundance: My Spring Garden

My father used to say that we lived in Paradise, and in springtime in California, despite threats of drought, global warming, and wildfires, this is still true. I just got back from a week away (which I will write about later, never fear) and found that my garden is in full flush of bloom. So don’t expect travel tips or social commentary this week; it’s all about the pretty pictures.

I ‘m not an assiduous gardener. There are weeds, and a lot of volunteer plants in places where they shouldn’t be. Fortunately, roses despite their beauty are very forgiving of neglect – so I have a lot of them.

I also have geraniums because they just grow, nasturtiums because they reseed themselves, and jasmine which invades from the neighbor’s yard and competes with the roses for fragrance and a basket of miniature petunias which I bought last year and has thrived on neglect.

And to top it off, my mother’s orchids, tucked away in remote corners of the yard for most of the year:

After hours in sterile cars, airports and airplanes, this was such a fantastic welcome I had to share!

Hiking Boots to Buzzards’ Roost

Having nothing scheduled, we sleep until 6:30, when we both wake with the same need, scrambling for our camp shoes so we can hustle off to the nearby loo.  If we were at home, we would have stayed upright, made coffee, and begun the day.  But in camp, it seems still too dark to do anything serious, so M curls up for an additional doze, while I pull out my iPad to churn out another 1500 words of my latest imaginary adventure.

After a lovely camp breakfast of Raisin Bran, blueberries, raspberries and oranges, washed down with French pressed coffee, and milk, I do the washing up while M puts together a portable lunch in preparation for our hike to Buzzard’s Roost.  We intend to leave by 10, but what with one thing and another it’s 11:15 by the time we set our feet on the path toward the Buzzard’s Roost trailhead.

It’s a lovely walk under the Highway One overpass, up through stands of redwoods terribly scorched by the Basin Complex fire of 2008, but still bravely pushing out green shoots of new growth.  Then we’re in ceanothus and scrub oak country, then manzanita, and finally barren red rock with a vantage point that looks over to Mount Manuel landward and to the brilliant blue Pacific to seaward.  We spread our unneeded extra layers of shirts over the red dirt and set out a lavish lunch of hard-boiled eggs, carrots, hummus, crackers, string cheese, grapes, apples, and prunes – all finger food, no grease.  We stay looking out to sea until our spines begin to protest against sitting unsupported on the hard ground, then round up the eggshells and cheese wrappers with other leftovers and set off on the return loop.

One of my perennial games on a hike is to count how many different kinds of wildflowers Ican spot.  In Edgewood Park near where I live, I have counted as many as forty in the spring, due to the many different micro-biomes there.  On this day at Big Sur we tally twenty one, including columbine, native iris, wild strawberry, dandelion, buttercup, trillium, and others of which I do not know the names.  Counting varieties is a great way of forcing yourself to be on the lookout and to really notice what is around you.

Our plan after returning to our campsite had been to hop in the car, take care of a couple of small purchases at the general store down the road, and then to drive down to Pfeiffer Beach.  But after our purchases M turns to me and asks “Do you mind if we don’t go to the beach?  I just want to veg.”

Instead we drive to the end of the road on the side of the river opposite our campground, just to see what is there. We watch a family playing softball on the weedy field for a while, and I want to check out the “seasonal footbridge” that the map shows opposite our campground (See the dotted line crossing the river at the end of Day Use Lot 4 on the above map?) M drops me off at the end of Parking lot 4 and drives away, while I follow the trail from the sign that says “Footbridge.”

Guess what.  No footbridge. Must not be the season yet.  I debate wading across the shallowest portion of the Big Sur River as it ripples past where the bridge should have been. I’m wearing my water shoes, and my cargo pants with the roll up option, and the water looks shallow.  On the other hand, the bottom of the river is paved with rounded stones of varied sizes which could be very unstable and slippery, the water is so clear that it’s hard to gauge how deep it really is, and getting up the steep bank on the opposite side looks chancy. So I opt for the half-mile walk around to the far bridge at the end of the campground.  (It would have been shorter, but the most direct route was “authorized vehicles only,” and a ranger directed me in a friendly but definitive way to the trail around, not through.)

By the time I make it to our campsite, M has gotten worried and set out in search of me.  By the time we reunite the sun is definitely over the yardarm. She lights the portable campfire, I run cold water from the camp faucet over my tired feet, and we settle to reading, phoning, and munching the last of the crackers and hummus.

Dinner is experimental but turns out well. A vegetable medley cooked in Frying Pan #1, sliced parboiled potatoes with onions sautéed in frying pan #2, and lamb chops sauteed in Frying Pan #1 after the veggie medley had been evacuated, along with a nice Pinot Noir, dessert of shortbread and chocolate squares, and some sisterly discussion ranging from “Do you think Mom resented me?” to “Have you smoked marijuana?” to “I have this genetic deformity. Do you have it too?”

And by 9PM we are snuggled in our teardrop cocoon once more.

Coming next: The Beach! .

Freeway Free at Lake Tahoe: Besides Skiing…

Hiking boots still damp [See two posts ago] we decided ice skating would be the best option for an afternoon. . C started phoning.  One place had a disconnected phone – probably not an option.  We decided to check out the outdoor rink at Heavenly Village. 

HV is a skier’s Disneyland.  The gondolas leave from the middle of a pseudo alpine village with outdoor musicians, an ice-covered fountain, and various boutique shoppes and eateries.  But the rink was dinky – smaller than the San Jose rink beneath the palms.  so we tried Edgewood Lodge – sorry, not open to public. then the inside south Tahoe city Ice rink – reserved for hockey team practice and lessons except for Th-Sun. c thinks she might go on Friday when she is here alone – she brought her skates!

We were inspired, though, by the sign showing where those gondolas ended up – far up the mountain and on the other side of the ridge was the true Heavenly Valley. So we drove up the Kingman Grade (N-207) to HeavenlySki Resort. The gondola that goes up from the Village on US50 ends at a cluster of condos and cabins surrounding a take off point for several busy ski runs. This is literally another side of the Tahoe area, invisible from the Lake.  We were hoping for some impressive lake views, but too many trees.

Nowhere to walk in the resort unless you were carrying skis over your shoulder on the way to one of the lifts, so we descended the Kingman Grade again, parked next to HWY 50, and took a walk along the South Tahoe bike way, then went down to the snow-covered beach and made our way back to our car.  As we returned the sky turned blazing peach and pink and purple, celebrating our explorations.  You can always count on Lake Tahoe to take your breath away, one way or another.



Hidden Treasure at Lake Tahoe: LTCC Nordic Center

C and I had promised each other that vigorous exercise would be part of each day at Tahoe, so what to do while my hiking boots were drying out? (See previous post). C had never been cross country skiing, and I had not done it since my children were small, so we set out with a bit of trepidation to find equipment and trails suitable for brittle-boned ski bunnies.

C is a tiger when it comes to locating options. After a short internet search, she discovers that the Lake Tahoe Community College campus includes a Nordic Center with over five kilometers of “groomed trails.” After some misdirection we were in touch with Meghan, who not only welcomed us with the news that we could have a day pass at the Nordic Center for only $7.50 each, but also referred us to Gary at the nearby Sierra Ski and Cycle Works to rent equipment. We set off just before noon.

Gary lives up to his recommendation, giving us well-fitted boots, skis, poles, and clear and succinct instruction on how to don and doff our skis. We head up the road to the LGCC campus, beautifully draped in snow several feet deep. The Nordic Center office is in the Campus Library, the entrance to the trails is just across the parking lot next to the Gym. We park, purchase our day passes, sling our skis and poles over our shoulders, clamber up the snow bank, and set off.

Good news:; the sky is blue, the snow is white and clean, the trails are clearly marked (no falling into the creek here!) Bad news: there has been no fresh snow, and the trails are quite icy.  The ice makes for easy gliding on the flats, but more speed than we can handle at first even on the gentle slopes, so we each take a couple of falls on the first couple of downhills.  Ice is a lot harder to fall on than snow, and a lot harder to get up from as the skis kept wanting to sail away downhill.  But we gradually get the hang of it, shuffling along easily and enjoying the beautiful mountains and snowy woodlands scenery.

Gary had told us that we could keep the boots, skis, and poles if we wanted to use them for a second day, and we decide to try a different loop at LTCC the next day, going in the afternoon when the ice might be melting and the going (and falling) a bit less crusty. A good long soaking in the time-share hot tub has kept the bruises at bay, and we are confident that a second day will see vast improvement, especially since we have both watched a couple of YouTube videos on beginning cross-country skiing.

Well, a bit. The trail is still icy, and the downhills are still too hard and slick for our attempts at snowplowing to slow us down noticeably. It isn’t that I fall less often, but I fall smarter and get up faster. And today we have role models to inspire us: the LTCC Nordic Ski Team is practicing for a meet. The young skiers, helmet-less, long-hair flying, bright-colored tights and sweaters glowing against the snow, must have lapped us at least eight times, swooping and darting past like a bevy of dragonflies. We do our best to stay out of their way, but no worries – they use us as if we were obstacles in a slalom course, and toss us words of encouragement as they see us tumble. Who needs the Olympics?

Waiting for you!

Freeway Free Around Tahoe: Through the Ice

Trail to Emerald Bay is under there somewhere!

C and I deliberate about how to spend our first day in Winter Wonderland, and decide to go hiking at Emerald Bay, maybe down to the bay from the trailhead, maybe on the “moderate” trail up to Eagle Falls. After some wrong turns with me driving, we finally plug in the GPS and find the right road, skimming along on ice-free pavement between six-foot snowbanks on either side of the road – until we get to the ridge where the side of the road simply drops away on both sides and I dare not take my eyes off the asphalt to look at the stunning views in either direction for fear of plummeting to our doom.

Bridge is under there!

Six-foot snowdrifts means that access to the trail down to Emerald Bay is blocked by snow, so we default to the “moderate, 400 ft elevation” Eagle Creek loop.  The hike to falls would be easy if the path and all markers were not obliterated by piles of snow.  We struggle, using existing footprints as toeholds, to the bridge, which is covered with a two foot cushion of hard packed snow (fortunately not in the sun, so not slick or icy).

On the other side, it looks like a path has been blazed to go down and cross the creek at a narrow spot, less steep and icy than either the way we had come or the longer loop back to start – so we try it. C goes first, with no trouble until we reach the narrow place where it seems others had crossed the creek.  She gets across but with one foot through the ice bridge down to water.  “That looks dicey,” I thought. “I’ll try a different route” – bad idea!  I break through the ice bridge with one foot in the creek down to my ankle. As I struggle the other foot breaks through also, and suddenly I’m up to my knees in icy water, with the surrounding snowpack almost up to my waist, and me on my back with my backpack sinking into the surface.  Fortunately, C manages to get to solid ground and grab a hand, and I finally flip over and manage to get a knee onto fairly firm snow.  Yes, the way back is less steep and less long, but I squish at every step. 

Next week: Plans B and C

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 7: Nature’s soft side shows in Spring

Nature has been throwing  us a lot of nasties in the last months – pandemic, killer tornados, smothering snow, torrential rain, and historic drought levels, to name a few.  And then, as if to make up for the tantrums, she sends us a Spring as lavish and luscious as any I can remember.  From native-plant gardens,  to cultivated rose gardens, to bursting containers, everything that has ever thought of blooming in my own garden and my neighborhood is out-doing itself this year.

Above: Poppies, sage, lupine, and blue-eyed grass from a native-plant garden in a nearby park.

Above: calendula, roses, raphiolepsis and orchids in my own garden.

Above: ranunculus border, tulips, wisteria, and rhododendron from a heritage garden nearby.

Above: cultivated roses at a neighboring university campus.

I hope these pix refresh you a bit, especially those of you who are still snowbound as well as lockdown-bound.  Spring still arrives, in spite of everything!

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