Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

Freeway Free in Texas: A GEM! Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

20170405_080617.jpgI thought I was accustomed to startling rock landscapes, having hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, ridden a mule to the depths of Bryce Canyon, and driven dirt roads through Monument Valley.  But Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is in a separate class.  It features  a large pink granite dome which looks like something escaped from Yosemite, exfoliation and all, except it is the wrong color.  And except that, according to the geological information provided in the trail guides, most of this giant formation is buried under eons of silt deposits.  The summit is 1823 feet above sea level, offering wonderful 360 degree views of the Texas Hill Counry.  If it were fully exposed, it would cover an area as large as Manhattan, and be as high as Half Dome. 

20170405_082659.jpg The  Summit Trail is an easy two/thirds of a mile from the principal parking lot, which also offers convenient rest rooms and picnic tables for befoore or after your hike.  The climb  is steep and without handholds.  Recommendation – Bring a walking stick with a rubber tip to act as a third leg to brace you against the slippery rock and the howling wind which on our visit was blowing across the top at about  30 mph.  Recommendation #2 – make sure your hat and your sunglasses, if you need them, are both secured with a cord. The wind nearly took my hat as I crested the summit, and my sunglasses went flying  as I was grabbing for said hat.  After I had secured them in a Velcro fastened pocket  and wrapped a scarf about my ears, the whistling of the wind bothered me much less! Recommendation #3: wear a scarf.

But oh, it was bracing to be at the top!

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Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio’s Riverwalk

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My friend W had lived in San Antonio for several years, so when I revealed to her that despite 10 years in Texas I had never visited that most historic of Texas cities, she immediately volunteered to be my guide in and around the area. 

The Contessa Hotel where we stayed is actually a suite hotel.  We chatted up Nadja, the reception clerk, and explained how I had come from CA to see San Antonio and my old friend was acting as my guide,  so she gave us a nice set of rooms on the 12th floor with a sitting area with a view looking down the river,  or up to the Tower Life Building, a wonderful copper-roofed brick construction lit at night. We each have a double bed, and there is plenty of counter space and plugs for charging all our techno gear. The location, right up against the riverbank with an exit to the Riverwalk, could not be better. 

One of San Antonio’s soubriquets is “The Venice of America”, a name it owes to the San Antonio river which meanders through the downtown area.  Once a dank, flood-prone channel threatened with being paved over, The Riverwalk has been redeveloped over decades with charming sidewalks decorated with tilework, art, and blooming plants, plus what seems like one endless Mexican restaurant stretching end to end along both banks. It is a perfect pedestrian stroll on a balmy spring night.  We joined with folks from all over enjoying the sound of falling water, the bustle of river boats navigating up and down, the flower-decked carriages, and the cheerful babble of many voices having sipped many margaritas.

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We took a side trip to explore the art colony of La Villita (just closing down an open air street market, to W’s relief – browsing little gew-gaw shops is NOT her favorite pastime.}  Again, the bridges and plazas overlooking the river, coupled with the tilework and adobe architecture, make a place for wandering, lingering, sitting, and savoring.

20170402_184306.jpgWe had noted only a couple of restaurants which were not Mexican, and since W has a favorite Mexican place she has scheduled for us tomorrow night, we settled on the Little Rhein Steak House, which she remembered as being Germanic.  Maybe once, but now the menu is quite focused on steak, with a few shrimp and salmon and chicken dishes for the nonTexan visitors. We each ordered a salad and split a grilled salmon entree.  It turned out to be the right choice. – each salad was beautifully presented and nicely dressed, the salmon was plenty for two, we each got one asparagus spear, I ate the potato filling and W ate the skin, and we both felt quite satisfied. So our first day in San Antonio ended with the view from our window of the Tower Life Building lighting our dreams.

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: It’s Fun to Stay/at the YMCA

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Coming down from Rocky Mountain National Park, having gotten our full dose of quaintness at Grand Lake,   we were expecting more of the same.  But once we hit the T intersection with Highway 40, the next outpost of civilization was Granby, perhaps the most unpicturesque town in Colorado.  It is as though the town fathers along US 40 had gotten together and agreed to put all the useful, practical, unromantic elements necessary for civilization in one town: we passed a medical clinic, a truck stop, a modern hardware store, a fire station, and a post office, all seemingly made of the same uncompromising beige 1950’s era cinder block.   One building, the Longbranch saloon, shows on the town website festooned with flags and/or flowers, but maybe this is only for photo shoots.  Poor Granby is the ugly old-maid sister who makes herself useful.

Happily, we could breeze right by Granby.  We had already selected our local home base, an unfussy family-type resort at the Snow Mountain Ranch (AKA YMCA Camp of the Rockies) just a little further down the road.  In winter this center offers fine cross country skiing as well as an indoor pool and a roller-skating rink;  in summer there are hiking trails with great veiws, a canoeing lake for beginners, an archery range, horseback riding,  a miniature golf course (pretty bare of grass, but it’s there), and other outdoorsy things, as well as a craft center for rainy days.

Best of all, this place is ridiculously affordable.  A 2-bedroom cabin that sleeps five is $249/day.  There are also rooms available in various lodge building which can accommodate up to six people in a single room at true bargain rates, or you can opt for a yurt.   If you wish, at a very reasonable cost you can opt for three square meals at the cafeteria.  Food is about the quality of Denny’s, except for watery scrambled eggs in the morning.

So we hung out at the Y for a week, hiking, biking, and scaring the local fauna. (More on this next post)

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Other Side of the Rockies – Grand Lake

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Most non-Coloradans probably think of Denver when they think of the Rockies – the wonderful postcard panorama of the city’s skyscrapers dwarfed by the huge mountain range rising abruptly out of the Great Plains. Some might think of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, another tourist magnet.  If they get as far as Rocky Mountain National Park, most only  make it as far as the hiking trails around Bear Lake before turning back to Boulder or Ft. Collins or Colorado Springs or other east side centers.  But there is a lot to appreciate on the western slope of the Continental Divide.

We planned to eat lunch at the Trail Ridge Store at the Alpine Vistors’ Center, but we were delayed by road work as we slugged up and over the summit of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.  By the time we arrived, but the parking lot at  visitor’s center was full to over-flowing, and the  presiding ranger politely but firmly turned us away.  We coasted down the other side of the summit hoping at best for a coffee shop in Granby when my ravenous sister spotted a sigh for the Grand Lake Lodge – “Lodging/ Cocktails”. Where there is a bar, she reasoned, there must be bar food.  And thus we happened on  a hidden treasure on the west side of the divide.

The lodge itself is worthy of comparison to the great lodges of the National Parks such as the Ahwahnee at Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone.  It is built of local timber, and features an expansive veranda billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch.”  The veranda looks out over the lodge pool and the Grand Lake – a spreading expanse of blue shining far below the deep veranda of the Lodge.

Inside is a huge gathering room, with quaint twig-and-slat rockers circled around a huge firepit.  Since the weather was excellent, we elected to eat on the porch with that great view, but we could imagine on a cold or wet day how comforting that fire would be.

On separate trips to Grand Lake, we also discovered the eponymous town, a hyper-quaint log village beside the lake.  It boasts a wonderful ice cream shop (very welcome after hiking the nearby trails) as well as an informative museum of local history and an excellent repertory theater which offers three or four musicals rotating over the course of the summer, with cast members recruited from university theatre companies all over the country.  This summer we were there for “West Side Story” and lucked into Cabaret night, when the audience is invited to join the cast members after the show for some bonus music, each cast member presenting their own favorite song.  The performance is free, and the wine/beer bar is open.20171022_154109web

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Treasure-Hunting in Boulder

20170726_112617docOnce you are in Boulder, you could simply enjoy the atmosphere of the bustling University of Colorado campus, or spend your time hiking and rock-climbing in the FlatIrons above town.  But if your interests are less academic and less strenuous, your explorations may lead you to a number of Hidden Treasures.

Easiest to find and most likely to absorb a full afternoon:  The Pearl Street Mall.  Boulder was among the first small towns to recognize that its brick-clad downtown was a potential magnet for walkers and shoppers.  Instead of succumbing to the lure of Federal redevelopment dollars, and trading in the red-brick buildings for stucco blocks and a parking garage as did many similar towns, the town fathers opted for blocking off several blocks of the old downtown area, labeling it a Historic District, and converting it into a park for browsers and strollers.

One of the don’t -miss shops is the Boulder Book Store, a multi-leveled maze of marvelous tomes both new and used,  that looks like it was conceived by the same interior decorator as put together Ollivander’s Wand Shop in the Harry Potter novels.  It is almost impossible to enter this store and leave again without finding at least one volume you have always wanted to read, have been trying to find forever, or for some other reason cannot leave without.

Another don’t’-miss is Peppercorn, a housewares shop which as far as I can tell really does have everything.  If you have always wanted corn-cob holders in the shape of cows, or have been looking for a mango splitter, this is the place.  Happily, the staff knows their stock and can lead you directly to the item you ask for;  otherwise, you might wander forever among the fascinating cooking tools and cutlery. Sticking with the Harry Potter metaphors, this shop is like the Room of Requirement, stuffed with everything anyone might have ever wished for.

But the Mall is more than just shopping.  Almost every block boasts a fountain, sculptures, benches for sitting, and performance spaces.  On the day I last visited I caught a performance by a group of youngsters performing on xylophone.  A sunny day, an ice cream cone in hand… who could ask for more?

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Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Rocks

The Flat Irons above Boulder

If you’ve heard of Boulder, CO at all, you probably know that it is one of the hippest college towns in the country, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, and with a tech-savvy population. (89% of households have broadband access, the highest rate in the country.)

But you might not know that Boulder  also boasts an I.M.Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research, that it is home to one of the original Chatauqua Institutes (established, oddly enough, by a group of Texans who felt that the weather in their home state was just too oppressive to host conferences), and that its Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art had one of the largest private collections of Western-themed art in the country [Note: Unfortunately, this Hidden Gem closed in August 2017, soon after my visit. And it is also the headquarters of the Celestial Seasonings tea company.

Boulder is a wonderfully walkable town, once you get there, and happily, you can get there without having to drive.  If you fly into the Denver Airport, you can get to Boulder by bus for less than it would cost to pay the tolls on the E-470 tollway just outside the airport. 

When you land, grab your baggage and head for the whale’s-tail shaped Westin Hotel  at the east end of the lobby.  Instead of going up the escalator to the Westin lobby, hang a U-turn at the ATMs and you will find yourself in the  RTD Transportation Center. The SkyRide bus for Boulder costs $9 for a 70 minute ride to downtown Boulder, and leaves from Gate 8 at least once an hour beginning at 4:25 AM and ending at 12:55 AM.  The bus will be full of UC – Boulder students no matter what time of day or night you get on, so be sure to purchase your ticket right away and stand in line for the next bus.

Once you are in Boulder, you can take advantage of the many whimsically-painted and whimsically – named  (HOP, SKIP, JUMP, DASH, STAMPEDE…) Community Transportation buses to get just about anywhere in and around town.

Next: What to see when you get to Boulder

Summer Camp Season (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 6, 2017)

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Whenever my summer wanderings take me over to the beautiful sandstone and terra-cotta university campus up the road, I marvel at the multiplicity of signs directing me to this or that summer camp.  There always seem to be squadrons of T-shirted campers on the move, being directed this way and that by polo- shirted counselors, all wearing color-coded lanyards and nametags to make sure they are getting all the perks, and none but the perks, to which their campership entitles them.

When I was in my pre-teens, camp was different.

For one thing, we didn’t wear lanyards, we made them. At the mandatory craft class, the one project you could be almost sure of finishing was the one involving braiding long brightly-colored strips of plastic into keychains and whistle cord.  We could do spiral or diamond pattern for the cords, round or square for the sliders.  We could make keychains from four strand, six-strand, or even eight-strand braids, using school colors, or Day-Glo, or even glow-in-the-dark plastic. After two years of Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girl camp, my parents, near relatives, and most of my teachers were all supplied with all the whistle holders they would ever need.lanyard

For another thing, although our camps were plain vanilla when it came to skin color, they were quite diverse in subject matter.  In one week we got tastes of archery, swimming, sailing, lanyard-making, leather-working, wood-carving, plus campfire building and the songs to sing around them, and skit writing and performing.

The camps up the road are different. The campers are culturally diverse, of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and skin tones. But each camp seems to be focused on  producing mastery in one area alone.  The university sponsors camps for every kind of sport, from Basketball to Water Polo, plus specialized camps of all sorts.  There is the Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute, the Medical Youth Science Program,  the Sports Business Academy, the oxymoronic High School Summer College , and even (for high-school and pre-med students) the Cardiothoracic Surgical Skills Summer Institute. (Sounds like heart-stopping fun!)

In addition  privately sponsored camps offer training in Social Entrepreneurship, Advanced Suzuki Violin, Emergency Medicine, Global Citizenship, Computer Engineering for Girls, Journalism in the Digital Age, English Language Immersion, Performing Arts, Digital Discovery,  and many, many more.

When I was in summer camp, we spent time making up silly songs about our counselors, such as (to the tune of “Pretty Redwing)

                The moon shines tonight on Helen Waller

                If she were taller/ she wouldn’t holler,

                And her old dirty shorts they need a-patchin’

                Where she’s been scratchin’

                                Her chigger bites.

I can’t imagine any silly songs about cardiothoracic surgery, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

It happens that the local AAUW branch, to which I belong, sponsors a half-dozen local girls at one of Stanford’s summer camps, one which encourages girls to consider careers in science and technology.  Each August after the Tech Trek camp is over we get thank- you notes from the girls, telling us how much they appreciated the opportunity to learn to code computer games, build hover boards, and do DNA gel electrophoresis.  (I imagine them sitting around a table on the last day, dutifully filling in the blanks in a template as the counselors monitor them. At least that hasn’t changed from when we were “encouraged” to write letters home from camp}. This year’s letters included a blessed hint of silliness; one girl mentioned that she enjoyed an afternoon of fountain-hopping around the campus, as well as a trial of ice-cream making.

Each September we host the scholars at an afternoon meeting where each tells us a bit about the camp.  We will hear about the forensics lab, the robot-building, the rocket launch.  But when it comes to Q&A, I’m planning to ask about the fountain – hopping and the ice cream – there should be some fun left in summer camp!

 

 

 

Freeway-Free in California – Santa Barbara by Pedal, Foot, and Trolley

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With another day of 90+-degree heat threatening Ojai, we decide to head for the coast and the Queen City of Santa Barbara just thirty miles west. .  We slide off Highway 101 on xxxx, the beach-front road which stretches the length of Santa Barbara beach from the tony Fess Parker Inn down to the harbor. We are a bit daunted by the slow flow of traffic, the hundreds of beach parasols, and the cars seeming to circle the pay parking lots, but Griselda – the-GSP-lady steers us to the far end of the harbor, where we score Free Parking  at the community college stadium, buzzing with hardy athletic types running steps. No more car for the day!

Griselda also points us to a Visitors Center at the Coast Guard Museum adjacent to the harbor. It is 10:40 AM ad the center does not open until 11.  The very pleasant gray haired man behind the kiosk at the museum gives us three copies of a Santa Barbara beach/downtown map, tells us about the shuttle downtown, and directs us to bike shops near Shear Wharf at the end of State Street.  We walk along the promenade.  It is already hot, but we find a breeze to cool us, and get to the Wheel Fun Rentals bike shop before 11.  Three bikes and a dragged -out search for helmets that fit later, and we are on our way, teetering on old-fashioned cruiser bikes with coaster brakes and high handle bars.

We biked all the way to the end of the promenade past the Fess Parker Lodge, where I had stayed a decade ago with my husband and mother-in-law and admired the authentic Davy Crockett coonskin cap under glass.  Then we turned and went all the way to the other end near where we had parked the car, then back to Start, in just under an hour.  Along the way we admired surfers, micro-bikini-wearers, and a bus load of choristers serenading the beach-goers as the end of  State Street.  A perfect way to begin, though I was already wishing I had worn my long pants as protection against the sun.20170708_114546web

20170708_120656webWe proposed at first to walk uptown, but W noticed signs for a shuttle going up and down State street every 1o minutes.  The trolley was open air, crowded with tanned beachgoers and families, and at 25 cents for Seniors , 50 cents for youth, it was a bargain.  Looking for historic Santa Barbara, we set down at the Paseo, but we were disappointed to find that it was merely a modern shopping center dressed up in red tile roofs and Adobe.

We did pick up a Santa Barbara walking and business map from the tourist table set up at the entrance to the Paseo, and as we walked up toward what looked like a likely cluster of restaurants, we happened past the Tamira Restaurant, offering an Indian buffet which promised a nice change from tacos or deli sandwiches.  Delicious chicken marsala and butter chicken,  I didn’t try the tandoori) and vegetables and salad with spicy cucumber dressing and marinated vegetables.  No dal.


Lunch having been taken care of, we moved on to the Santa Barbara Art Museum, which had conveniently located all its most interesting pieces on two rooms while the back wing was undergoing renovation.  My ROAM card from membership in the San Francisco Asian Art Museum  got all three of us in for free.  We spent an hour looking at beautiful things in elegant air-conditioned surroundings – W even spent time in the gift shop!

 

Then to the lovely Santa Barbara Courthouse, with its beautiful sunken garden inner quad, and of course there was a bride, and an adorable little blond ring-bearer, and a self-conscious flower girl, and a bunch of groomsmen gleefully showing off their argyle socks under their tuxedos.

By that time we were dragging, too over-dosed with Adobe and red tile even to peek into the beautiful library or walk a couple of blocks down to the official Old Town.  We caught the Shuttle all the way back to the harbor and then spent time  in the Maritime Museum, fascinated by exhibits of storms and wrecks and deep-sea expeditions – definitely a Hidden Treasure!
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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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