Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

Travels in a Tiny Teardrop Trailer – Day 1

 

My sister fell in love at first sight when she saw a tiny teardrop trailer on the cover of Sunset magazine. Was this the solution to all the packing and preparation needed for a simple weekend camping trip? Could a trailer provide grab-and-go adventure?

She had done a trial weekend, renting a teardrop with a close friend, whose full-size SUV had no trouble pulling a tiny trailer while carrying a couple of bicycles and duffels in its rear. But would Sis’s little Subaru hatchback be able to tow and stow? She decided to try it out on a trip to the Pacific Northwest, to visit our brother and his wife in their new house. Bro had a trailer already, so we could trailer camp together over the weekend. And so she invited me on a road trip with the object of her passion.

Camping without bicycles, to Sis and her husband, would be like going to Hawaii without swimsuits. They routinely bike 30 miles on Sunday morning for a cup of coffee. Bro assured us that the campsite he had in mind had miles of beautiful bike trails, so Sis rented a trailer equipped with a bike rack on top, and I brought my bike to keep her company.

The trailer guy had shown Sis how to set up the bikes on top of the trailer, but she had not actually tried to do it. It was apparent almost immediately that there was no way she, at barely 5 feet tall, and I, at 5’3”, were going to be able to hoist even her lightweight bike to the top of the trailer, much less get it properly affixed in the rack. But abandoning the bikes was not an option. We pulled all our gear that had been stowed in the Subaru and piled it into the trailer, and then wrestled the two bikes into the back of the Subaru. Not easy. We were both sweating by the time we had managed to make them fit, and we were now an hour past our hoped-for departure time.

Off we go. Just short of Mt. Shasta we stop for gas. Sis can’t find her purse. Is it buried under the hastily stowed stuff in the trailer, or did she set it down in the house while picking up some last-minute items from the fridge? She phones home. Husband is home from work, looks all over, can’t find the purse in any of the places she usually sets it down. We cross fingers that the purse, with Sis’s driver’s license, is in the trailer somewhere. Meanwhile, my credit cards work, and Sis drives carefully.

We had planned to camp at Castle Crags state park north of Mt. Shasta, but even on a Wednesday in October, they were full! So on we go, aiming for Rogue River State Park just north of Ashland. By the time we arrived and found a  vacant space, near 8PM, it is dark. And it is raining. Hard.

I had been assiduously reading the extensive directions which come with the trailer all the way up Interstate 5. They recommend that you practice backing the trailer up before you actually take it places, as “backing a small trailer is more difficult than backing a large one.” We had not done that. Oh well, we think, we will just pull into the space forward, and deal with backing up tomorrow morning when we can see, and maybe it won’t be raining. Bad idea. We discover as soon as we were headed into the space that all the trailer hookup attachments are conveniently located on the side which would be close if the trailer is backed into the space, but are just too far for the cables to reach if you head in. So Sis has to back out of the space, circle the campground, and then try to back into the space. In the dark. In the rain. I stand outside to give directions, and Sis tries her best, again and again.

Will Sis succeed in positioning the trailer in its slot?  Will we ever get to eat? Will the purse show up? Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in California – Adventures up the Empty Coast – Day 2 (continued)

IMG_0251docThe weather was perfect: warm, no fog or wind, as we left Hearst Castle.

We meandered up Hwy. 1, ooh-ing and aah-ing alternately at the gorgeous scenery and at the huge scars on the hillsides marking the winter landslides of several seasons. South of tiny Gordo men were still working to clear a large slide – the influx of workers must have been a boon to the intesnsely cute Whale Watcher’s Café which dominates the one-block town.

Fountains of invasive pampas grass flaunt their rusty pink plumes all over the scarred hillsides. It’s clear that they have gotten the jump on native vegetation, but one must be thankful for any roots that will hold back more landfalls. Not encouraging to start the trips with a sign saying “Rock Slide area – next 60 miles.

We snuck into the Los Padres National Forest’s Plaskett Creek Campground despite the signs saying “Campground Full,” and ate sandwiches and chips we had bought at the Hearst cafeteria/deli. The group camp, with a beautiful ocean view, was deserted at midday, except for a group of grackles generaled by jays which hovered ever closer to our crumbs. Then after our lunch, only about 500 yards further down the road we saw a sign for “Beach and Picnic Area”. Our lunch tasted better for being illicit, though.


20191002_125717docFurther up the road there was an even bigger slide, with an obviously temporary one-lane road perched nervously across the new ground. But it was fascinating to watch the big diggers roaming and scooping  atop huge mounds of dirt and stone. And that road remains a marvel of impossible engineering, spectacular vistas, and a maddening plodding pace behind the inevitable road boulder, often a “Rent-Me-RV” whose first-time RV driver is scared to death of his rig and the road.  And they won’t pull out to let the long line of vehicles behind them to pass, which is the law, or, if it isn’t, there oughta be.20191002_132921doc

And finally we made it to Big Sur, with its redwoods, its fire-scars, its resorts both humble and ostentatious nestled in the piney woods.  Only another hour of gorgeous scenery to go before we hit the traffic and tourists of the Monterey Peninsula.  It’s been a great ride.

Freeway Free in CAlifornia – Adventures on the Empty Coast (Day 1)

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What’s the empty coast? Where Highway 1 clings to the cliff faces south of Carmel, with basically no left turns and few habitations until it regains civilization and a few crossroads south of San Simeon.

We needed a fall getaway, so D and I headed lickety-split down US-101, aiming for a calm coastal stay in Cambria, followed by a visit to Hearst San Simeon National Monument, and a scenic trip back up through Big Sur and the stretch of California Highway 1 that had been cut off by landslides and fires for several of the past years.

We stopped for lunch in Paso Robles, one of my favorite pauses for trips south and north on Historic El Camino Real. There are several good restaurants in Paso. This time we stopped at the Berry Hill Bistro, where the paninis are huge, the salads ample, and the servers slim and smiling. (I always think it’s a good sign if a restaurant’s waitresses are thin. It means they are running off the calories serving customers as fast as they can, rather than sitting around eating the leftovers.)

Just past Paso we found our exit on CA Highway 46, and sailed along a well maintained road through San Luis Obispo wine country. Acres of grapevines in fall colors cloaked the dry hills, and each winery seemed to be vying with the next to have the most oddly memorable name (my favorite: Tooth and Nail Winery.)

Only a half hour later we were cruising along Cambria’s Main Street. To our delight, we discovered that the entire month of October in Cambria is devoted to a Scarecrow Festival, and each retail, educational, and many private establishments compete for the notice of passers-by. There were Mexican-themed flamenco scarecrows for the Mexican restaurants, a Victorian lady in blue and white next to the blue and white Chase bank logo, and my favorite Raggedy Ann and Andy from my childhood next to a toy and gift store.

After checking into our beachfront motel, the Little Sur Inn,  we walked along the boardwalk bordering Moonstone Beach to check out the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill as a dinner prospect, but although it has a lovely front veranda with a stunning sunset view,  and seemed to have a lively patronage, we would have been walking back in the dark, and it seemed a bit far.

We has our traditional champagne on the balcony of our room, looking out over Moonstone Beach. The sunset looked like a banana skin shading around the curve from pale yellow to golden brown.   We lingered until we both thought we saw the green flash accompanying the last rays of the sun. Lovely.20191001_190339web

As long as we would be getting in the car anyway, we decided to try Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria’s east village, a recommendation from a friend. It is a beautiful adapted home just a block from the Main Street, with a quiet ambiance, excellent service and good food (roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and blue cheese, miso sea bass, firecracker shrimp).

One caveat: As we watched, there were maybe three younger couples coming in or leaving during the evening, but this is definitely a quiet restaurant for an older crowd.  D and I are used to upping the average age of the customer base by 10 years when we enter a restaurant. In this case we were right on average. D observed thatRobin’s does not have high chairs or booster seats, but they do seem to have an ample supply of walkers and supplemental oxygen bottles.  I guess the younger crowd was still quaffing brewskis on the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill veranda.

IMG_0247webWe took the remains of a bottle of local Pinot Noir back to our balcony to finish off the evening with the complimentary chocolate chip cookies from our check- in desk. We sat on our balcony again to watch the crescent moon setting near where the sun had set before our dinner. Suddenly stars! The Milky Way! D even saw a shooting star. Only one spotlight shining on the entry sign for our hotel spoiled the dark sky.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: Old Bilbao Explored

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When you are tired of looking at indoor and outdoor art along the Abandoibarra between Bilbao’s two world-class museums, go for a different vibe in Bilbao’s Old Town and Warehouse District.

On a weekday, you can browse the Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest and oldest indoor markets in Spain. (I was there on a Sunday, but I did get to see some of the lovely stained glass windows in the guild hall.)

In the Warehouse District you will find the Alhondiga a multi-story public library  built on pillars within an old warehouse, with a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof.  It’s a wonderful re-imagining of how to use space. (Notice that no two of the supporting pillars are alike.)

In the Old Town are the usual medieval cathedral, narrow cobbled streets, and slightly skewed medieval buildings.

And if you explore the side streets, you will find some amazing, funky shops offering  exotic (and painful-looking) piercings, gothic wear, and many other oddities.

If you want an overview, don’t omit visiting the park atop Mount Artxanda, the hilltop overlooking Bilbao, for a panorama which takes in both old and new Bilbao. 20190528_124541doc

And then maybe you’ll want to take in the art scene just one more time before you leave.

 

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day 2)

20190711_120353docWe got the fog we had hoped for on our second day at Point Reyes.  Since we had part of the area south of our home base on our first day, we decided to head north from our base at the Cottages along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.  We stopped at the first trailhead aiming for Abbotts Lagoon, which the Pt Reyes website trail guide recommends as “an easy stroll with good spring wildflowers and excellent birdwatching in fall and winter.” Since we were visiting in summer, we lowered our expectations, but the “easy stroll” part seemed very attractive.

Near the entrance to the trail, a posted sign advised us that a family of river otters might be seen from the bridge across Abbotts Lagoon.  We set off eagerly, as we had not scored any exotic wildlife the previous day.  But we were soon distracted from the possibility of otters by the very real abundance of wildflowers.  I often count how many different sorts of wildflowers I encounter on a hike, but this time I simply lost track.  So many colors and varieties, inhabiting every niche from wetland to sand dune!  What must it have been like in spring?

OK, we struck out with the otter family – they must have been fishing up a different creek.  But we couldn’t feel deprived.

Back at the car we were beginning to feel a bit peckish, and decided to have our picnic lunch at the Historic Pierce Point Ranch at the end of the road before exploring the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point, the northernmost finger of the National Seashore. 20190711_133853web

By early afternoon it was quite windy, and there were no visible picnic tables at the Ranch. Fortunately, we had thrown a couple of folding chairs and a small folding table into the trunk. We set up our small feast in the lee of the raised trunk lid, and managed to feast on crackers, cheese, and fruit without seeing our lunch blown away.

Having missed out on sea lions and river otters, we were not sanguine about the prospects of viewing elk at the Tule Elk Reserve. But we set off on the Tomales Point Trail, and almost as soon as we got past the last of the farm’s outbuildings, W pointed out our first elk, a cow moving slowly across the slope ahead.  W got out the binoculars and cried “There’s another one, a buck with antlers!”  I looked but could see nothing where she pointed but a large sandstone boulder.  Then with the binoculars I was able to make out a dark head and antlers attached – the “rock” was the light tan body of a massive stag. tule-elk

As we continued along the trail, the wind picked up, and the chill factor increased, but every time we thought of turning back, we would come upon another group of elk down in the valley, or trooping across the road ahead.  Finally we reached the point where the sign warned us that the trail ahead was “unmaintained.”  We took that as a turnaround indicator.

Tired but thrilled by our success at elk viewing, we ended our day at a local eatery touted as having “a beautiful location on Tomales Bay”.  Tony’s Seafood Restaurant‘s bayside location was pretty much moot, as the fog was thick and low by dinner time.  Still, we enjoyed the :very good food” and “nice casual atmosphere” as a reward for our wind-blown tenacity at the elk reserve.

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day One)

20190710_133631webWe fled the South Bay expecting a foggy few days on the Marin coast.  To our surprise, the fog held off on our arrival, so we took advantage of the sunshine before we even checked into our lodgings.  Our first stop was the Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore, and to clear the cobwebs from our two-hour drive we decided to hike the Earthquake Trail which heads off from the Center parking lot.

20190710_132654webThe Earthquake trail follows the natural escarpment where the San Andreas Fault skirts the edges of the California coastline before disappearing into the sea towards Alaska.  It’s a shady stroll through pastureland and underneath gian twisted bay trees.  Along the trail are interpretive placards explaining earthquake geology, plate tectonics, and the effect of the Fault on California geology.  A line of blue posts marking the center line of the fault marches along the ridge above the trail.  The high point of the walk is a point where two halves of a fence have been offset by almost 15 feet – the result of the ground movement in 1907, when action on the Fault caused the disastrous San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

After checking in at The Cottages at Pt. Reyes Seashore,  we decided to head for the beach.  The brochure from the Visitors Center promised sea lions hauled out on the spit at the end of Limantour Beach.  We decided to walk on the beach rather than on the Limantour Spit Trail along the ridge, allowing us to admire the endless stretch of almost perfect tubular rollers coming in and breaking in one thundering roar, one after another. 20190710_145316doc

We didn’t make it to the end of the beach, nor did we spot any sea lions (or even hear them.)  But we did enjoy the traces of human artistry in the sand dunes by the beach.

Feeling exhausted by the overwhelming visual and audial of sun and surf, we retreated to our quiet cottage and a supper from the grocery sack.  We somehow could not feel too badly about having missed the fog, though we did regret the sea lions.

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.

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!

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