Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

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!

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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

Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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Freeway Free in Oregon: Up and Around Crater Lake

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The route to Crater Lake through the Empty Corner of Northern California is actually shorter than the I-5 through Medford route.  After our stop at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park we goon to Klamath Falls, stopping to lunch at Nibbley’s for lunch – a kind of cross between the Black Bear Diner and Applebee’s, but local and full of lunching ladies.

 20180928_105111webThen on through smoky haze past Upper Klamath lake and Grass Lake and beautiful stands of sugar pines lining the long straight road until we hit the Exit to Crater Lake, then more old growth forest until we stop at the Visitor Information center to watch the 22 minute intro video and use facilities.  Then more twists and turnouts until we get to the Lodge.

20180929_200226webThe Crater Lake Lodge is not the Ahwahnee, no yet El Tovar or the Old Faithful Inn, but has done its 1995 restoration/renovation best to revive the rustic resort ambience within the limits of a hotel located in one of the snowiest spots in the US, open only May through October if the weather permits.  It does boast pillars and stairways made from Douglas fir trunks with the bark still on, and big stone fireplaces surrounded by the kind of chairs you can sink into. 

 The weather is quite warm, with a persistent smoky tang in the air from three surrounding wildfires.  But we find a sheltered nook just below the rim walk where we set up our champagne and crackers and camp chairs and we are Rockefellers with the best lake view in the house. 20180928_173549web

 After demolishing the champagne and crackers, we amble our way back up the path to the Lodge and its dining room. The ambience is much less formal than that of other National Park Lodges we have enjoyed – lots of hiking boots, cargo pants, flannel shirts.  I did put on a glittery sweater to dress for dinner, and I am definitely dressed on the swanky side. After dinner we move out to the porch, where dozens of rustic wooden rockers are lined up to view the lake.  Overhead the sky has cleared, and we can see millions of stars spangling the Milky Way. My spouse even catches a falling star or two. 

The next morning we return to the Lodge Dining Room for breakfast.  After glimpsing a gigantic platter of pancakes at the next table, I prudently order a half-serving of Creme Brûlée French Toast, which was delicious and plenty to start the day. If I had known the French toast would come with a dollop of fruit on the side I would not have bothered to order the Fruit Cup.  The latter included fruit of the imperishable rather than flavorful sort:  white centered strawberries, stringy pineapple, tough melon.  I pick out and enjoy the blueberries, grapes, and marionberries , but they are only too few.

20180929_100502webThe next morning the smokiness has magically disappeared and the lake is the blue seen normally only on cheap postcards.  We decide to take the 2 hour trolley tour around the rim with Ranger David Grimes (star of the introductory video at the information center).  What a good decision! The tour makes plenty of stops for admiring and taking pictures of the lake, and we have the pleasure of listening to a knowledgeable and very entertaining speaker while not having to keep our eyes on the road.  

We lunch at the Lodge, (actually the only choice other than a sandwich bar at the gift shop) sharing with a chipmunk which has invaded the room, being alternately cute (at someone else’s table ) or repugnant (at your own table.) That evening after dinner we move again to the balcony with rocking chairs but this time a  storm has arrived  over the mountains surrounding the lake, and we are treated to a stunning lightning  show.  The next morning the weather has turned cold and drizzly, and the lake is almost invisible in the fog.  A perfect day to leave.20180929_092019doc

 

Freeway Free in California – Exploring Orland

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Traveling north from the Bay Area along I-5 on the way to Portland? You may have looked at the map and figured you could get something to eat at a fast food joint on the outskirts of Red Bluff or Redding. And you probably can. But if you had an early start and want something with a bit of local color, why not try Orland instead?

Orland? I’d never heard of it either until my live-in travel agent announced that Orland would be our lunch stop. But this small farm town boasts not one but two idiosyncratic eateries that are worth your while.

20180927_124621web The Berry Patch is just to the left at the Orland off-ramp.  Despite its name, it specialized more in BBQ and burgers than in berry pies.  We opted instead for the 4th Street Cafe a few blocks off the freeway and down to the right. We were encouraged to see a police car parked in the lot – almost always a sign of good eats and substantial portions. Inside, the focal point of the large dining room is an ancient Hotpoint electric stove against a wall covered with shelves laden with the mugs of regulars at the cafe (I presume, although some of the shelves are so high that there must be a retirement home for NBA players nearby. )

The menu was basic: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, patty melts, Chicken, tuna, and BLT sandwiches, Cobb, Taco, and Caesar salad. The breakfast menu is served through lunchtime.  (The Cafe is open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday) 20180927_124737web

My LITA ordered the Patty Melt with “home-made BBQ chips.” After finishing every crumb (not even a teeny taste did I get!) he told the waitress to relay his compliments to the cook for “one of the best patty melts I ever had.” – high praise as this is his go-to choice on the road. I did get to share some of the BBQ chips, and I will never waste my time eating chips out of a bag again – they were exquisite! Fresh, bubbly with crispness, nicely spiced, a little bit greasy, and not a jot of preservatives.

I chose Avocado Toast from the breakfast menu, with a poached egg on top. Good bread, a perfectly ripened and sliced avocado, a nicely poached egg. The avocado could have been warmed up a little to match the toast and egg, so the dish fell a tad short of perfection, but it was pretty near a perfect light lunch for traveling. We could not resist adding a couple of cookies to go from the cookie jars on top of the bakery rack. Dessert for the evening, if they last that long.

20180927_132409docAfter lunch we walked off a calorie or two at the adjacent Library Park – an oasis of greenery and shade, complete with a bandstand and evident signs of a major festivity impending. The Library is an old Carnegie library building converted into a community center, while a newer, less picturesque but presumable more functional library has replaced it in the same park. Across the street from the park are a spiffy new police station and city hall. A new Lincoln waited at the stop sign as I crossed the street – there must be money in this town somewhere.

 


The rest of the downtown is as dilapidated as you would expect for a shopping area too far from the freeway and too close to the nearest Wal-Mart. But this little piece of Orland around the Library Park is plain and simply pleasant, seemingly miles  from the six-lane artery thundering by a few blocks away on the other side of town.

Freeway Free in California: Hiding out in Style at Avila Beach

20180613_173443docYou want a beach, but not a bunch of beach bunnies and muscle-flexers kicking sand in your face while they show off at beach volleyball.  You want a boardwalk, but not the blaring music and grease smells of a carnival.  You want seafood that is not dipped in batter and fried in re-cycled grease.  You want restaurants without Happy Meals. You want Avila Beach.

The college kids from  San Luis Obispo go a little bit further south, to Pismo Beach, which boasts fried fish, tattoo parlors, swim suit/sarong shops, and lots of fast food and beer havens. On a sunny day Pismo is a happenin’ place, but on a gray day in early spring, it can seem deserted and dismal.

20180614_103347webJust north at Avila Beach, you will find grownups and families.  You can buy a souvenir sweatshirt, but you will pay for quality.  You can eat seafood at the Olde Port Inn, one of the “Top Ten Seafood Restaurants in California (per the CA Writer’s Association). This restaurant is located at the very end of the pier in San Luis, just around the bay from Avila Beach.  The tables are glass and allow you to look down into the ocean below to watch pelicans, sea gulls, the occasional seal, and maybe tomorrow’s dinner.

You can see girls in bikinis on Avila Beach, but they will likely be part of a women’s crew team launching their scull into the surf. Don’t mess with these muscular Moms!20180613_174727doc

If your taste runs to spa resorts and golf, there is a Diamond Resorts perched on the hill above the pier in San Luis. If you prefer biking, there is a bike trail that runs along the old railroad right of way along San Luis Obispo Creek.

 

You can do grownup things like wine-tasting at the Alapay Cellars, my favorite of several wine bars within a block of the boardwalk.  From a balcony at Avila Lighthouse Suites, right on the boardwalk,  you can watch all the action on the beach and boardwalk while sipping your Alepay Cellars wine.  Or you can go down to walk the beach, and then wash the sand off your feet in the compact pool.

Check the local calendar before you reserve;  sometimes there is a music festival in the adjacent park, and if the music is not to your taste – there goes your peace.  But in general, Avila Beach is a great  hideout for a grown-up getaway weekend.

 

 

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 San Francisco: A Touch of Class

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My father used to say, in justifying a splurge, “It only costs a little more to go first class.”  This is no longer true when flying across the country, perhaps, when an upgrade to first class was a two-digit expense, but it can still apply to other aspects of travel. When my childhood friend came for a visit, we decided to spend a weekend in San Francisco together, and we went in style.

Instead of paging through TripAdvisor, we simply made a list of what we wanted to do.  We wanted to have easy access to a BART station, since traveling up to the city by BART is much easier than driving and parking (not to say cheaper), and we also wanted access to public transportation.  We wanted to be able to walk to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, as the Magritte  exhibit was on my friend’s bucket list. We wanted to be close to some good restaurants, and we wanted to be able to get to Golden Gate Park.

20180706_181641webWe ended up staying two nights at the Palace – the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, with its glass-domed atrium, high-ceilinged rooms, and courtly servitors.  Our room had two queen-sized beds, a marble bath, and cozy bathrobes to wear afterward. 

One morning we had breakfast at the Palace buffet in the sunlint atrium.  We were early, so we had first pick of a continental buffet which included yogurt, cottage cheese, excellent fruits, cold cuts, cheese, pastries, toast, jam, bagels, cream cheese, lox, juices, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea… we did not miss the scrambled eggs and sausage from the steam table.

We walked to SFMOMA, as planned, and spent a luxurious four hours exploring all seven floors, broken by an excellent lunch at the Café 5 on the 5th floor.  (OK, “first class” might have been down on ground level at the highly regarded but often crowded In Situ – but we decided “first class” also means “no waiting.” 20180707_124430web

That evening we walked to The Grove, a trendy restaurant half-way between the Palace and MOMA.  We people watched, ate wonderfully, and ambled back to our hotel for a swim and soak in the pool and hot tub located three floors up from our room.

The Grove is also known for its Sunday brunch, so we opted for their poached eggs on asparagus toast rather than another go-round at the Palace buffet.  Afterward we checked our baggage at the Palace and hopped the N-Judah street car to Golden Gate Park, where we took a Segway tour of the park.  (Yes, true luxury might have opted for a limo, but the N-Judah, again, involved no waiting. Actually, the N-Judah is just about everything you need to know about public transportation in San Francisco.  It starts at the King Street train station near the SF Giants’ ball park, circles the Embarcadero, dives underground past the Civic Center, and surfaces in the lower Haight on its way to Ocean Beach.  Give it a try!)

We  lunched at Nopalito’s, a top-line Mexican restaurant on 9th Avenue.  Here there was a wait, but it was made painless by the availability of a branch of the Green Apple Bookstore right across the street.

That evening  reclaimed our bags and BARTed back down the Peninsula, completely satisfied with our taste of luxurious living. And since my friend and I split the bills, it really did only cost a little more to go first class.

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