Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “outdoors”

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!

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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!

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage into the Wild

StanfordAlaska22_MoreHumpbacksdocI confess:  I did not come to Alaska to learn more about Tlingit culture or early Norwegian settlesments.  I wanted to experience wilderness and wildness, before they disappear from the earth.  When we sail up into Tracy Arm north of Hobart Bay, I feel like we were really there.

I wake up and open the curtain to see a big blue berg floating by – we are approaching Sawyer Glacier, shining  in every tone of teal between near- navy and shadowy ice blue.  As we watch, a large section of the glacier calves off, with a huge splash  followed seconds later by the deep roar.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we make our way up toward Glacier Bay.  One of our group sights a group of orca between our boat and a smaller tour boat a bit further into the Bay.  Suddenly an orca breaches, throwing itself clear out of the water.  It is half the size of the small tour boat, and no more than 20 feet away from it.  Shamu at SeaWorld could not have shown off to better effect.

We sail into Glacier Bay, feeling smug because our smallish boat can go much further in that the multi-thousand passenger cruise ships we pass. The first peninsula jutting into the bay is Gloomy Gloomy Knob, the home of mountain goats.  We saw several Rams and one foursome of ewes and kids – then the foursome began running – they had been spooked by a drone zooming by for a close-up.  Flying drones close enough to disturb wildlife is illegal in National parks. Our on-board Park Ranger Nicole bolts for the captain’s bridge and its radio, gets the offending boat on the wire..  The droners deny the drone was anywhere other than near the beach! But we have photos!  Geez Louise!

Further in we spot a moose mama with twin calves (she looking quite skinny – the effect of nursing two?) As we circle around the bay we see three bears on the rocky moraine which constitutes a beach.  The mother bear is badly scarred either from skin disease or perhaps a burn and sparks from a fire, but not crippled. The two cubs are happily turning over rocks looking for shrimp or small fish sheltering underneath.   P1030607web

We get off the boat at Lumpaugh Glacier and walk on a glacial moraine- lumpy, shifting, insecure footing.  The bears looked more comfortable and secure – perhaps claws and flexible pads give them better traction?  It’s odd to imagine these rocks ranging from tiny pebbles to boulders being carried and then dropped by the slow river of ice moving back and forth across this empty land.  Maybe it wasn’t so empty then.  Maybe the Tlingit shamans tried to find some explanation for climate change.  Did they blame the actions of Man for having angered the Gods?  Does nothing change?StanfordAlaska62_GlacierReflectionweb

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

Freeway Free in San Francisco: The AIDS Memorial Grove

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Perhaps one of the smallest National Memorial Sites in the country, and certainly one of the most affecting, is the National AIDS Memorial Grove, tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.   It is easy to miss, on a side street on the eastern end of the park, well away from the bustle of the Music Concourse, the Conservatory, and the Museums.

You follow a fernlined path down into a deep hollow.   It is very quiet, below the level of street noise, and it is easy to be reverent in the shade of tall redwood and oak trees lining a boulder-strewn creek.  As you look closer, you see that many of the boulders are etched with messages of love for someone who has died.

In a sunny clearing at the end of the grove is a paved circle – the Circle of Friends.  Radiating out from the center in concentric circles are names.  Some are the names of AIDS victims, others of AIDS survivors, still more of friends and family members whose lives have been irrevocably changed by AIDS in some way.  Often there are bouquets of fresh flowers at the center of the circle. AIDSGrove3

New names can be added only once a year – on November 1, the National Day of Remembrance for AIDS victims.  On the website you can search for the names of people you know whose names are already in the circle.  I found a college friend’s name, and the names of his parents.  He had been one of the early ones to die.

AIDSGrove2As I walked back through the grove, I noticed that many of the boulders had small cairns built on top of them, perhaps related to the Jewish custom of putting a stone on the grave of a relative or friends when you visit.  I stopped by an empty boulder and piled up a cairn – one for my college friend, one for two boys I had known well in high school, one for the son of my high school principal, one for another close friend who is, so far, as survivor.  I had not thought of them for a long time.  It felt good to think about them here.

 

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio beyond the Alamo and the Riverwalk

20170404_062510.jpgWe walked down the Riverwalk to La Villita, an  art area in a restored old section of San Antonio, replete with marvelous old tilework. Had a simple but ample breakfast with a server who was a cross between Jack Black and chirpy Ranger Tatum.

Next we drove to the Medina River Natural Area. We hiked mostly level trails along the river bank, with a few ups and downs between riparian and chaparral ecosystems.  I counted 21 varieties of wild flower plus four types of butterflies, and heard many bird songs. We were warned about some feral pigs in the area but saw none.

 

 

Lunch at Lai Wah’s Place, a modest Chinese restaurant in a strip mall thronged with locals, very good Cantonese-style food, old-fashioned fake paneling and suspended ceiling decorAFter , waitress moving at top speed at all times (hence the blurry photo), did not even have a chance to impress her with my Chinese.20170404_111118.jpg

 After lunch we continued our explorations to the  Denham Estate Park to see the beautiful Korean pavilion donated by San Antonio’s sister city Gwangju in Korea. ( I wonder what San Antonio sent in exchange?)  The pavilion is very lovely sitting over a pond on lovely grounds.  Unfortunately the  Denham home which is in the center of the park is loudly marked “no trespassing, no public restrooms.” A bit off putting!. 

 

Next on to the marvelous McNay Museum in northern San Antonio, in a  mansion which seems to have been blended from elements of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and the old plaza in Santa Fe.. Lots of stenciled roof beams,  tiled stairways and benches, an interior patio, iron grill work…

…and some amazing art, ranging from medieval to Monet and Mary Cassat, plus some Southwestern ethnic stuff.  Outside in the sculpture garden another LOVE sculpture, as previously seen in Taipei, Tokyo, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia. And some Rodin. 

Blown away by all this exercise, culture, and art, we finally made it out of town, having skimmed a lot of the cream of San Antonio.

Freeway Free in Colorado – Flora and Fauna

062docOn the west of the Rockies, one is expected to hike and bike in the summer (not having visited in the winter, I can only speculate about activities then). The point of hiking and biking is to see lovely bits of flora and fauna than one might miss in a car.  Here is a collection of photos from my experiences on food and on pedal.

I don’t know the names of the flowers, but they are authentically Coloradian.  And each is a jewel-like discovery as one wanders along a much or not-much travelled trail.

The moose, of course, I recognized!

 

Freeway Free in California: Beating the Heat in Ojai

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  If you want to exercise in Ojai in July you must be an early bird to beat the heat.  W and I rose before 7AM and went off to hike the Shelf Trail above the Ojai Valley.  The trail is about 3.4 miles out and back with lovely views across the valley of citrus and walnut orchards, and the town of Ojai spread out with its white Post Office bell tower anchoring the landscape.  By the time we turned around at about 8AM it was already hot, but we were walking west with the sun at our backs, and we went from one shade patch to the next until we regained our starting post. 

 20170706_131100webAfter breakfast we headed out to Carol Vesecky’s organic orchard, where she cultivates about 40 different varieties of fruit.  These included several varieties of mulberry, oranges, grapefruit, apples, figs, and several exotic south and Central American varieties that I did not recognize, though my companions who had spent time in South America greeted them like old friends.  After picking some mulberries (and eating half of what we harvested as it was picked) we headed for the Ojai Harvest, a well-reviewed organic restaurant in the heart of downtown, only to find it closed for the day.  Our Plan B was the Hip Vegan restaurant, where we had some rather exotic salads (mine was mixed greens, quinoa, marinated sea vegetables, carrots, avocado, and beets, with carrot-ginger dressing quite excellent).  [Note: per the linked news article, the Hip Vegan is in process of relocating to a fancier location – cross your fingers!]

We decided to beat the heat by browsing used book stores, the library , and the Ojai museum.  Bart’s Books is an amazing inside-outside rambling place, with bookshelves filled with overflow books facing the street’. If you walk by and see a book you want when they are closed, they have an honor box.  But the prices are a bit steep.

 Next we parked near the arcade and browsed our way from one air conditioned art gallery or boutique to the next.  W is not a shopper, so she made a beeline for the drugstore and sat ona bench writing post cards while we other three did our explorations.  We rejoined for a visit to Twice-Sold Tales, another, much less pricey used book store run by the Ojai Library.  W excused herself against to write post cards in the library, while we browsed another bagful.  

20170707_132924webWe checked in at the library, an old -style adobe and beam rambling building, then left W there, still writing, and continued to the Ojai Museum, located in a re-purposed church. My cousin, a long-time resident,  had never visited before, and found out quite a few things about Ojai that after 27 years of residence she had never learned.

 20170707_143322webWe took  my cousin out to dinner later  at an excellent Italian restaurant of her choice, Osteria Monte Grappa,  in the Arcade.  Delicious everything – I had spaghetti squash disguised as pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil arugula, prosciutto, and halibut.  By this time the heat had abated, but not so much that we did not enjoy bowls of gelato and sorbet after dinner!20170707_140113web

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