Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

Freeway Free in Delaware: Along the Eastern Shore

I’m a West Coast person, so a visit to the eastern shore of Delaware feels as exotic as a trip to the Caspian Sea. In California we don’t go to the shore at all, we go to the beach.  Usually a particular beach, defined by the sandstone cliffs that surround it on three sides.  You can see from one end to the other of the beach, and usually walk it in less than a half hour.  But on the East Coast, you go to the shore, and the shore is LONG. It stretches as far as you can see in either direction.  You can go a couple of miles along a boardwalk, and when the boardwalk ends, the shore still goes on and on.

Scattered along the endless shore are beach towns, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, and across the border in Maryland, Ocean City.  If you are a local, you know that each town has its own personality, and caters to a particular kind of visitor.  There is the family beach town, the gay beach town, the college-kids-on-Spring-Break beach town, the beach town for retirees.  To an outsider, it’s all one stretch of shore with intermittent boardwalks and stores selling kitschy items and salt water taffy and frozen custard. (Frozen custard? Think ice cream made with eggs.  It’s an East Coast thing.  But don’t look for shave ice – that seems to be a West Coast thing.)

If you continue south past Ocean City, you will find yourself in Assateague State Park, headed for the Assateague National Seashore.  If you ever read Marguerite Henry’s MIsty of Chincoteague as a child, you know the tale of how a small herd of horses survived the wreck of the Spanish ship off the coast of the barrier islands of Maryland, and how their feral descendants still survive on these inhospitable sandy spits of land.

IMG_0803cropwebI had read the story, and was eager to see the ponies.  Unfortunately, on this day the ponies were as elusive as moose in Maine from a tourist bus.  We  saw some deer, and some water birds, but nothing equine. Finally, as we were ready to turn back, we spotted a pair in the far distance on the other side of an inlet. (Thank goodness for telephoto lenses) One was chestnut, the other was the classic pinto as in Misty.  Hooray!  If I’d had a bucket list, I could have checked these off.

On the way out of the park, we spotted another pair of ponies, but all the parking space on the roadside was already filled with other visitors who had pulled over for a picture, so we did not stop.  One check mark was enough.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And say Hi! to Orion for me!

Freeway Free in Texas – The Civil War’s Westernmost Outpost

FtDavisFt. Davis National Historic Site preserves an outpost in the Back of Beyond which actually saw some action in the Civil War.  The Federal troops at Fort Davis fled the advance of  CSA General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who  dreamed of conquering New Mexico and establishing the Confederacy all the way to the Pacific. Sibley’s forces were beaten back at  Glorieta Pass, ending Sibley’s dream.

After the Civil War ended, the fort was re-manned mostly by black soldiers, with the mission of keeping wagon caravans safe from Indian attack as they headed toward El Paso and the gold fields of California.  There is some evidence that officers with a black mark on their record were sent to command the black troops, although in general Ft. Davis was considered to be a very comfortable posting, tucked into a stream-fed canyon, with reasonably decent weather most of the year and relatively little actual fighting required.

An informative short video sets the stage at the Visitor’s Center, which also offers a very good museum dealing very fairly with the black soldiers and the racism they encountered, and their medal-worthy battles with the mostly Kiowa and Commanche Indians.  The Kiowa, Apache, and Commanche tribes are also given a fair presentation, and the museum reminds us not to judge the behavior of the soldiers by our current gauge of how native peoples should be treated.  And a full shoutout is also given to the roles of the officer’s wives and children in providing structure and keeping up society’s standards in this remote outpost

It’s hard to be politically correct  in so many directions!  But where are the Latinos?  Maybe there weren’t many, as this part of  what is nowTexas was not part of the disputed territory which  became the Republic of Texas before the Mexican-American War.   W says that there were outposts of Spanish rule all along the Rio Grande, (Presidio, El Paso) but maybe not above in the desert.

The fort is in process of being restored to its 1860’s appearance.  Some homes and hospital rooms and barracks are already fully restored and furnished, others not, so you can see what has been done and is still to do. Lots of walking is required, as the Parade Ground needed room for cavalry manoevres. In the restored sections, you are likely to find a docent in period costume eager to tell you all about life in the fort back in the day. It is a peaceful place for a National Historic Site, with less than 50,000 visitors a year.

20190325_135040webIf you stop, I can recommend the Stone Village Market and Deli in the nearby town of Fort Davis – excellent soup and sandwiches and a cheerful decor full of oddities to look at man maybe purchase. 

 

It is located just up the street from the courthouse square, with its requisite ornate detailing, historic marker, pictures of stern mustachioed judges from time out of mind, morphing into smiling, nicely coiffed modern ones , and of course a carved cowboy statue.  It’s a nice stroll to settle your soup and sandwich.

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: Rustic Comfort in the Back of Beyond

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We continue south from I-10, down through the Davis mountains, which look like someone had taken sections of Bryce Canyon and coated them with dark brown cocoa powder. We turn off onto an even smaller road before Ft. Davis, wind slowly (20 mph speed limit) through the campgrounds in Davis Mountains State Park, and dead-end into the parking lot at Indian Lodge.

Indian Lodge is a blindingly white adobe rustic lodge built by those ubiquitous Civilian Conservation Corps  guys, with wooden shutters, twig ceilings, rough decorations chopped out by hatchets, and a swimming pool.

Our room sports two queen sized beds,  a spacious handicapped-equipped bathroom, and very unreliable phone and net service. The Lodge includes a charming lobby with two big fireplaces, an outdoor patio with hanging porch swings and another fireplace and a fountain, a small upstairs lounge, and a gift shop (naturally).

20190324_182737docA trail leads off from the parking lot, so we  put on boots, grab sticks, and off we go, altitude, loose rocks, and elevation gain be hanged! We make it about half a mile up the trail before stopping to look at the Lodge below and deciding we had done enough.

We think of diving into the pool, but it is only March and the pool is sun-warmed – the temperature of the water is in the low 50’s.  But wasn’t that a hot tub next to the pool?  Nope, that’s a kiddie wading pool.  Being shallow, it is just a bit warmer than the main pool and quite refreshing to our feet. 20190324_174629web

We picnic on the patio with hummus and veggies, sardines and crackers, grapes and pears, and sparkling water. Then we add some cozy clothes and head up the mountain on a road full of hairpin turns to the observation platform at the end of the road. The sun has set, and as ambient light decreased, we see STARS! Orion at his best, red Betelgeuse, Antares, and both dippers, plus a cloudy belt we think was the Milky Way. We will have more star dates in future nights;  the Big Bend area is supposed to be one of the least light-polluted sites in the lower 48.  After ooh-ing and aah-ing, we carefully make our way back down to our cozy room, blessing those hard-working CCC boys as we sink into sleep.

Freeway Free in Texas: An Oasis in the Back of Beyond

We weren’t very far off of Interstate 10, the scarlet ribbon on our map which bisects West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso, when we pulled off at Balmorhea State Park.  This unlikely spot was once a life-saving source of water for pioneers on the long southern trek to California

20190324_160847docImaging the astonishment of the first discoverers of San Solomon Springs.  In the middle of flat emptiness, with nary a mountain in sight, and no sizable trees or vegetation from here to the horizon, an artesian spring bubbles out of the flat ground.  This is no trickle of water which ebbs away between hot rocks, but a cool ( 72-76 degrees) endless source of liquid bounteous enough to fill a 1.3 acre pool up to 25 feet deep.

20190324_161619webThe oasis is now civilized, thanks to the efforts and energies of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s.  The swimming pool fed by the spring is now enjoyed by families  and scuba drivers (in the deep part).  No thirsty mules or cattle are allowed to approach. There are changing rooms, picnic tables, and a snack bar. But the presence of abundant water in the midst of the sagebrush is still miraculous.20190324_161043doc

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: On the way to the Back of Beyond

20190612_090827docOK, I’m cheating a little.  We actually spent quite a bit of time on the freeway on our way to the Big Bend area of west Texas – there is no other way to get there.

W picked me up at the Austin airport in a giant white 4-door truck which we have christened Moby Dick. It has mirrors that can fold in electrically so you can squeeze through narrow spots, and a backup camera, and a hands free phone,  and a beeper in front and in back if you are about to hit something.  You can adjust the seat back and forth and up and down and the brake pedal and accelerator also up and down. It took W awhile to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers without turning open the windshield washer, and there are a few more bills and whistles we probably didn’t notice. And most importantly, it has four-wheel drive and rides high off the ground. (This last is a bit of a challenge to W and me, who are both on the short side.  We have learned to vault up to our seats with the help of a grip on the window frame, and slither down to the ground carefully to avoid jolts to our knees on descending.) Moby Dick seems very out of place driving through the well-manicured Austin suburbs;  we might as well be driving a Sherman tank.

20190325_155456docSo off we go out of Austin and past places that we have visited before, into the unknown spaces of the Big Bend country of southwest Texas.  We move out of the area where bluebonnets and scarlet paintbrush are blooming and into an area where odd geological formations punctuate the skyline like very broad pencils with sharp tips.  Scattered yuccas bloom like pale torches among the scrubby bushes. The occasional farm augments its income with pumpjacks in the valleys and windmills on the ridges, hedging its bets between the old energy and the new.

Knowing that our access to fast food restaurants will be scarce, we stock up at a Lowes market in  Ft. Stockton on raw veggies, hummus, oranges, pears, grapes, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, tuna fish, sardines, and crackers – good for several breakfasts and dinners, we hope.20190324_150327web

And finally we abandon the cheery red line on our Texas map, and head south on the black lines.  Our first stop will be at an amazing oasis in the Back of Beyond, so stay tuned!

Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

Freeway-Free in Wales: In Merlin’s Footsteps

20180718_135808docI’m a lifelong fan of Mary Stewart’s four-volume chronicle of King Arthur, told mostly from Merlin’s point of view, so when I found myself touring around the mountains of Snowdonial and through the fortress castle of Caernarvon on the banks of the river Seiont, I pictured the young Merlin with his visions and ambitions in some of the same places.  Wales is a bit magical still.

The castle was expanded and reinforced by Edward I long after Merlin’s time, and subsequently became the ceremonial site for investiture of the Prince of Wales.  It is surrounded now by a car park and a playground, and throughout the grounds are informative placards for a self-guided tour.  But there are still nooks and crannies where I could imagine a young boy hiding from bullies and enemies, over-hearing secrets, and receiving bulletins from the God.

We had unusually balmy weather as we toured around Mt. Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales, the Grey King of legend, so it was easy to imagine myself into the shoes of the other literary characters who kept thrusting themselves into my memory as familiar geographical names came up.  If you are an Arthurian junkie, you will find remnants of T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Avalon Saga“, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, Bernard Cornwell’s”Warlord Chronicles”, and other classic and not-so classic versions of his legend wafting across the landscape.  If you have missed any of the above, follow the links to some excellent reading adventures!

Next Week: Freeway-free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

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