Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “outdoors”

Freeway Free in Texas: The Good Life in San Saba


You wake up in the spacious master suite of the home you designed yourself on 140 acres of open land. You make your coffee and stroll out to the spacious veranda which runs across the front of the house, looking out over a pasture with cows and pecan trees, and an occasional herd of deer or feral hogs around the pond. It’s bluebonnet season, and the blossoms are carpeting patches of the pasture.

Next to the white ranch house, but not too close, is the barn/workshop which stores equipment for maintaining the fence that keeps the cows, deer, and feral hogs away from the nearby vegetable garden, green with lettuce beginning to bolt, sugar peas just ready to harvest, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant well along. It’s a bit too early for the strawberries and blackberries. You check the chicken coop for eggs and find enough for breakfast for you, your spouse, and guests who are bedded down in the wing on the other side of the kitchen.

Breakfast includes the eggs, bread you made yourself, and blackberry jam from last year’s berries. After breakfast you see your daughter, son-in-law, and three granddaughters walking over from their house just kitty-corner across the pasture. (You designed their home also, when you and your spouse and your daughter’s family agreed that buying the property together would be a good move.) You leave the guests to entertain themselves while the two families jump into your SUV and off you go for a morning of soccer.

Back in time for lunch, you serve everyone goulash made of home-grown broccoli, ground venison shot and butchered by yourself on your property, and wild rice.

After lunch you take the guests for a tour of the new San Saba County Musuem, assembled and curated by volunteers, very creatively arranged by types of activity (law, business, church, school, home , children , agriculture , ranching, etc). You are a board member of the Museum, and can regale your guests with a fountain of info and anecdotes. including why Queen Victoria named San Saba “the World’s Capital of Pecans”.

Then you take the guests on a tour of the town of San Saba starting with the “Longest continuously used jail in Texas”, the refurbished courthouse (painted in authentic avocado green and harvest gold), lovely old homes in various states of repair, and the Methodist Church, “the only church in Texas built entirely of local marble” with lumpy white pillars like stacks of slightly bubbly marshmallow on a skewer.

Back at the ranch, your spouse prepares the charcoal grill while you take the guests on a tour of the property on your electric golf cart, checking out the wildlife feeders and adjacent hunting blinds, but no feral hogs or deer to be seen, only placid cows.  At 5 pm the family across the pasture arrives preparatory to dinner. You sit on the veranda, the men talking hunting, fishing, trapping, the girls playing hobby horse or doing gymnastics on the lawn, the women exchanging information about cooking, planting, and coping with energy blackouts, (Your houses have solar panels and backup generators, so no worries) while the girls are playing hobby horse or doing cartwheels on the lawn.

Dinner is home-grown broccoli, oven-baked new potatoes, and the grilled chicken. After dinner you all sit on the veranda and watch the stars – the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and a glowing cloud that may be the Milky Way.  It’s not quite a Dark Sky, as the moon is rising over the roof and the horizon is lit by the surrounding towns, but pretty close. “Orion just leaps out of the sky at you,” says one of the guests.

You tell the guests of a visitor from Boston who looked up awestruck and said “I can’t believe this!  how come you have so many more stars in Texas than we have in Boston?”  He couldn’t believe that the stars were there in Boston, but obscured by urban glare.

A fantasy? There are some downsides to being some distance from a grocery store or a doctor or a local school or a library, but overall, the Good Life outside of San Saba looks pretty fine to me. I was one of the guests.

Freeway Free in Texas: The Home of Texas Swing

Turkey, Texas, has a population of 374 people, per the City Limits sign. However, it is conveniently located for access to both Cap Rock and Palo Duro Canyon State Parks , so we have reservations at the Hotel Turkey. In Turkey we find no reception whatsoever for internet, and W has no address for the Hotel. There is a boarded-up brick building that says “Hotel Turkey” on the front, and only after a circuit up and down the main (and only) street do we realize that the arrow intends us to go left behind the Main Street.  There is the Hotel Turkey, which despite its antique furnishings, eccentric lighting and plumbing, and dearth of welcoming committee, seems to have carved a niche in the area as custodian of the legacy of “Bob Wills, King of Texas Swing”.

If you are not familiar with the name, as I was not, check out the link above.

Perhaps there is something about the wide open spaces in North Central Texas that is conducive to ambitious dreaming. How could this run-down circa 1920’s hotel on a side street in a town of less than 400 people possibly make sense?

But it’s working.

Behind the building itself are the three magic ingredients: an open air bar, a broad sheltered patio, plenty of open dirt space, and a simple wooden stage.

There are maybe 20 people gathered around the open air bar and patio in the back, and we are served a couple of Texas beers and some hot wings (sweet chili sauce and garlic-Parmesan sauce) with carrots and celery sticks and a caprese salad made with fresh mozzarella, variegated cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and LOTS of fresh basil as if it were lettuce.  Yum.  We could not finish more than half the wings and veggies. A friendly man comes over to talk to us about the local sights, the Hotel (that converted silo is the restrooms) and to welcome us to the area. Not sure if he was related to the owner, or just friendly, but it was pleasant.

The hotel has just one other room being used on a Monday night, and we are upgraded to a room with its own bath. (Fortunate, as when I checked out the hallway bathroom which our bargain room would have had us use, a sign on the toilet lid ordered DO NOT FLUSH ANYTHING DOWN THIS TOILET – PUT PAPER IN BASKET! .)

The rooms are furnished eclectically with furniture appropriate to the 1920’s and probably scavenged from prairie estate sales. Bare walls are decorated with a collection of Stetson hats, or, in the dining room, a collection of rainbow-painted old violins and vinyl LPs. The old-fashioned iron beds are so high that W has to call and ask for a step stool so she can get into hers.  But the fan, lamp (once the defective one is replaced) and heat/cooling work well, and W luxuriates in the deep old-fashioned iron bathtub.

In the morning, we have the standard Texas “Hotel Breakfast” with eggs, bacon, sausage, buttered toast, and hash browns – all deliciously greasy.  The cook doubles as host and entertainment. He tells us that the hotel is usually fully booked for the weekend, with live music on the outdoor stage which brings in 200 attendees on average. The previous weekend they had 400 people here for a concert with a well-regarded local Texas Swing band. It must have been a hoppin’ time for the bartender! He tells us that the owner/lady in charge has been working on the hotel for 7 years. I wish I had been able to talk with her to find out what dream drove her.

Returning from Palo Duro Canyoun, we had the Hotel Special dinner: a Chile Relleno Platter, with chips and salsa. This turned out to be a meat-stuffed chili, served with a beef enchilada, beans, and rice – all excellent and distinctively Tex-Mex. 

After dinner the sky seemed to be clearing so I went out to see if the Milky Way was evident.  It was not, though there was a lovely crescent moon, a glowing circle like a jeweled ring just below Venus. The town was quiet Quiet QUIET, as if there was nothing in the world to hear, until my footsteps set off a lone guardian dog.


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Cap Rock and Palo Duro Canyon

If you are going to visit these two Texas State Parks, it’s best to do Cap Rock first. It’s a thumbnail introduction to the geology underlying both parks, with a Visitor’s Center that explains everything clearly. (It’s called “Cap Rock” because the topmost layer of rock is more weather resistant than lower layers, so you have formations where the top layer sits like a cap on top of flimsier-looking lower remnants. If you’ve been to Bryce Canyon in Utah, you’ve seen this before.) The main road in Cap Rock State Park is an out-and-back drive, about one and a half hours with some stops for wildlife photos and other breaks. There are informative placards to alert you to the geology, so when you visit Palo Duro, you’ll be all set to appreciate it.

Here’s a winning trivia question for you: what is the SECOND deepest canyon in the United States? No, it’s not the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (though that Colorado park has the coolest name). It’s little-known Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon has the same geology as Cap Rock but more spectacular. There are some great-looking back-country trails, but W was not able to hike, and I had neither sunscreen, broad-brimmed hat, walking stick, or inclination to hike by myself, so we drove the curvy loop road from the rim of the canyon to the bottom, stopping at viewpoints and picnicking on kippers and saltines and mandarins.  There are two visitor’s centers, at convenient intervals for potty breaks, and the loop road gives some wonderful vistas.

We were told that there is a herd of Aoudad sheep which was originally imported from Africa to hybridize with US breeds in the hope of creating a hardy sheep which was adapted to the arid terrain. The hybridization scheme did not work, but the Aoudads have proliferated and in some parts of Texas are hunted, although they are protected in the state parks. None of the Aoudads were visible from the road, but here’s what they look like, if you are planning on taking advantage of the back-country trails on your visit.

But where does one stay on the Other Side of Nowhere? The answer may surprise you – it certainly did surprise me!


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway-Free in Texas: Hitting the Trail in Georgetown

Despite the stereotype of Texas being more hospitable to pickup trucks than to pedestrians, I found some good trail walking in suburban Georgetown. Not far from the residential area where my brother lives with his family is Lake Georgetown, and a well maintained trail travels from several access points to the lake.

The trail winds through wooded green space, cuts under a sculptural freeway overpass, and continues past the dam which forms the reservoir onto a circular trail that winds either through the adjacent park or, for the more ambitious, all the way around the lake.

My brother’s neighborhood also features a hidden trail which winds along a branch of the San Gabriel River behind homes mostly facing the other way. Being a guest, I grabbed my walking stick and ignored the “PRIVATE TRAIL, NO PUBLIC ACCESS” sign at the head.  Almost immediately I blundered onto a herd of four deer, almostt completely camouflaged by trees and shadow.  Georgetown was still recovering from a massive ice storm in February of this year which had de-branched or toppled many trees in the area. I detoured around several fallen trees, and walked carefully across assorted stepping stone bridges, counting lupine and wild pea and dandelion and paintbrush and other recognized and non-familiar flora. I finally stopped by a dainty pink and yellow columbine growing amid the branches of a fallen tree that blocked further passage.  I didn’t get quite as far as the end of the path which I had set as a goal, but as I returned I encountered another larger herd of deer plus my nephew coming to find me. Very nice (both).

My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s the link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Georgetown Underground

What do you do on a cold damp day in Georgetown, Texas? Go to a warm damp cave.

Inner Space Cavern is an attraction just outside of Georgetown, discovered back in 1963 when the road smiths were drilling for the supports of the I-35 highway overpass. I tried to imagine the reaction of the road crew when, after drilling through forty feet of limestone, the drill suddenly dropped another thirty feet unimpeded. I also tried to imagine the courage of the drill operator who rode the drill bit down a two-foot-wide shaft into the darkness below, not knowing what might greet him.

What greeted him was a pile of fossilized bat guano, and a spacious room sparkling with salt-encrusted stalagtites and stalagmites. The highway crews decided that thirty feet of granite was deep enough to anchor the pillars supporting the overpass, and the building of Interstate 35 proceeded according to precedent.

There was no obvious entrance to the cavern. The bats had gotten in through a sinkhole that had since filled itself in. But word of the underground palace got out, and within three years an access was created and the cavern was open to the public.

Inner Space Cavern now attracts thousands of visitors annually, and if your youngsters chafe at waiting for your alloted tour time (backlog can be over two hours on a busy weekend), outdoor activities include a small playground, picnic tables, some exotic animals to watch and a zip line.

On last Saturday of spring Break, a whole bunch of other people had the same idea as we did. We bought tickets for the 4:20 tour at 2pm, watched our token teenager shivering on the Sabre tooth zip line (Brrrr! it was a cold March day!), went back to the house for snacks and an hour of March Madness, and then returned to the cavern for a one mile, one and a half hour tour. “There are thirty feet of solid rock above us” assured the guide. Bats had returned to the cavern as soon as it became accessible, and they are treated as an added attraction, with postcards available in the gift shop of and a video extolling the virtues of bats running non-stop in the waiting lobby.

“Don’t worry,” said the guide. “The bats are asleep and probably won’t poop on you.”


If you show up in the morning and are faced with a two hour delay before your tour is called, you could do worse than go for brunch or lunch at BiG (Brookwood in Georgetown) a restaurant/gift shop staffed by “adults with special needs” who cook deliciously and craft lovely items for sale in the adjacent gift shop. The website does not show the brunch menu, but I can vouch for the avocado toast with fruit cup, and my friend’s spinach/mushroom quiche also looked seductive.

A Piece of My Mind: Weather or Not

Photo from CalFire CZU

For three years in California we have bewailed the drought, the shrinking reservoirs, the lowering aquifers, and debated whether or not to build additional dams and pipelines despite the environmental cost.  High winds threatened to snap power lines, spark fires, and drive them at breakneck speed across our forests. My gray water from dishes was poured onto any handy plant that would be grateful, my faucets were not allowed to run, I limited my dishwasher to once-a-day, and recklessly combined colors and whites in my laundry to save an extra load. Something called the Peculiarly Persistent Pressure Ridge was pushing rainfall northward, blocking rainfall during what were normally the soggy months.

Now the pattern has changed, at least for a while.  The Peculiarly Persistent Pressure Ridge has melted away, and now we have Atomospheric Rivers from Alaska (COLD!) or Hawaii (WET!) aiming straight at the midriff of California.  Instead of drought, we have record snow pack and rapidly filling reservoirs.  Instead of wildfires, we have floods and landslides.  Instead of talking of building more dams and pipelines, we are rushing resources to repair and maintain the deteriorating system of levys which protects our farmland.  High winds are still a threat, as toppled trees land on power lines and block roadways.

So instead of moaning about the drought, we exchange news of which house was crushed by trees, which roads are blocked, which neighborhood is without power and for how long.

Still, it’s better than arguing about what “woke” means, or whether racism is ingrained in our society, or if a tax cut for the wealthy will ever trickle down to the middle class, or whether the Ukraine will be our next Viet Nam, or the science behind vaccinations.  At least we haven’t politicized the weather. Yet.


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings

Freeway Free in California: Ocean to Forest to Vineyards – What’s not to like?

We wake from untroubled sleep to fog outside and a healthy breakfast of fruit and granola as a sendoff. We dress lightly in spite of the fog, as we know summer heat is just on the other edge of the fog bank. Bits of sun are already breaking through as we pass Arcata and Ferndale without stopping for the Victorian delights available there.

But now we are truly in Redwood Country, and we can’t resist the Avenue of the Giants, so we take the side road off the freeway through the green canyons of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We do stop to switch drivers and use a restroom at the Eternal Tree House. (Yes, it’s a cheesy roadside attraction, but the setting is beautiful, the cafe is hospitable, and the restrooms are clean.)

No signs anymore commemorating the great flood of 1964, and there is no trace of the town of Weott anymore, though Google says remnants still exist high above the flood plain.

And then we emerge into sunlight and suddenly the outside temperature is in the 90’s.  Our Redwood RV Resort is right next to Hwy 20, a fairly busy e/w corridor from Willits to Ft. Bragg, but it has shady valley oaks and redwoods, a pool, a splash park, a trail through adjacent vineyards, and lots of Hispanic families and American flags.  We back successfully into our gravel pad (four tries to get close enough but not too close to the picnic table), change to airy cotton frocks, lay out late lunch/early appetizers of hummus and veggies and Ritz crackers on a little table at the splash park, and watch the children playing int the water. It’s 90 degrees in the sun, but we are not in the sun, and we are feeling very relaxed.

Freeway Free in California – Morning among the Giants, Evening among Friends


My old friends T & C, who live in McKinleyville, arrive at our campsite. T is a volunteer ranger at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, so of course we go for a hike enjoying all sorts of special tidbits of knowledge provided by our Personal Tour Guide – and also the lunch goodies brought by C. We eat our lunch at the foot of the big tree used in a National Geographic article about mapping the redwood canopy. re redwoods.

T&C twist our arms a bit and we desert our campsite in favor of a night in their new “downsized “ 3br / 2ba home with a 270 degree view of ocean and forest. Every wall and bookcase is filled with photos, artifacts, and mementoes. The old house accomodated a family of nine, but looking around, I can’t see what’s missing, other than the seven kids.

T, M and I go for a walk on Clam Beach, a short hike from their promontory. I find a whole sand dollar. Lucky omen for upcoming days, we hope.

After dinner C offers board games, and I choose Scrabble. Fair warning: Don’t ever let me choose Scrabble! Years of crossword puzzles, anagrams, and the license plate game make me near invincible. (However, Son#1 skunks me regularly – don’t know what he practices on!)

Our bedroom – a queen-sized blow up bed, two large glass-fronted cabinets mounted on the walls, both full of Madame Alexander and other collectible and not-so-collectible dolls. All those glass eyes staring at us as we sleep. I’m glad I never saw those Chucky movies.

Freeway-Free down the Left Coast

For the next two days we amble our way down the Left Coast, hugging the coastline, stopping once in a while to admire the sweeping surfline, the white sand dunes, the rock stacks, the redwoods. We spend a night near Florence at Honeyman State Park, one of the largest campgrounds in Oregon, we are told, but still offering fairly secluded hookups for our trailer and, I suppose, a hundred others.

We stop at Bandon to visit our nephew J, who is living a bachelor life in a fixer -upper in the charming seaside town of Bandon. When he has finished the re-hab, he will rent the cottage out as an AirB&B. On the day we visit it is still missing a fence, kitchen counters and appliances, but he assures us that his first renter will find it habitable when he arrives the following week. We can see what a nice seaside pied a terre it isgoing to be – but not quite yet.

J breaks for lunch and takes us for seafood sandwiches at Tony’s Crab Shack, and gives us a brief tour of Bandon’s interesting spots. That orange globe in front of the house facing the ocean? It’s a tsunami escape pod.

We continue down the coast, crossing into California, where the highway swings inland to introduce us to the towering trees of the Redwood Empire. More on this next week!

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.

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