Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

Freeway Free in Texas: Another Houston Civic Garden

The time to visit the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Houston is definitely in April, when the magnificent azaleas are in bloom.

The entrance to the garden opens to a walkway lined on either side with bronze busts of notables, framed by (on my visit) luxuriant azaleas. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how the notables were picked. Texas historical figures such as explorer Cabeza de Vaca or Sam Houston are expected, but why the president of Chile? and why Robert Burns?

The centerpiece of the garden is a tumulus with a pathway spiraling upward to give you a view of the whole garden as well as the Houston skyline rising beyond. There is no marker to tell you who might be buried beneath this ceremonial mound, but it is precisely reminiscent of burial mounds in China, along the Mississippi, and in Britain.

The pathway is lined with shrubbery and ivy-covered walls. It seems to be a desirable habitat for lizards: I spotted six skittering away from me on my way up, in different shades of yellow, gold, and red. (California lizards are so dull and dirt-colored.) A fountain at the top of the tumulus sends water down a pebble -lined incline to a pond at the bottom; the pathway skips across the stream several times on narrow bridges. The effect is cooling, which is good, as there is no source of shade other than the ivy walls.

At the top of the tumulus are three benches inscribed somewhat cryptically: “In terms of one year, plant a seed. In terms of ten years, plant a tree. In terms of one hundred years, teach the people.” And, one could add, “In terms of one hour, have a seat!”

The rest of the Centennial Garden is still a work in progress. The beginning of a traditional rose garden is visible, but the bushes on my visit were neither labeled nor blooming. Eventually there will be benches shaded by blooming arbors, but not yet.

There is also a family garden, colorful during my visit with lush kale in many shaded of green, magenta, and yellow, and showcasing flowers, vegetables, and fruits which can be grown successfully in the Houston area.

I was charmed to find a Little Free Library conveniently positioned next to a picnic area in the Family Garden, offering books for children, but with a garden theme.

The Centennial Gardens are located within Hermann Park, also home of the Houston Zoo, a lake with paddle boats, and other family attractions. But the Gardens feel quite removed from the more commercial recreations also available in Hermann Park, and provice a lovely place for a quiet walk alone, or a walk-and-talk with friends.

Freeway Free at Pfeiffer Big Sur

Day One:

We had had a rare rainfall two days earlier, and nothing could have been a fresher, more electric green than the hills of the Santa Clara Valley as we headed down toward Monterey. We went off the freeway at Lamplighter Drive to take advantage of relatively cheap gas near the Army base, and otherwise sailed uneventfully down Highway 1, slowed only by roadwork as crews narrowed the road to one lane periodically as they constructed subterranean aqueducts to prevent washouts and landslides along the perennially unstable coastline.

After setting up, as it was only 3PM, we decided to walk to Pfeiffer Falls, as we had seen the trailhead as we were entering the park.  The trail to Pfeiffer Falls had been closed due to fire damage and landslides the last couple of time I had been there.  It has now been reopened thanks to extensive reconstruction efforts by a team of conservation groups, and the trail is now a cascade of bridges and staircases crafted of thick wood beam designed to resist erosion, vandalism, earthquakes, and storms. (Fires, maybe not so much). It’s a challenging climb, but there are plenty of landings, and the final destination is a lovely fern-draped hollow with a spring-fed cascade shooting down a rock face, and a couple of wide benches suitable for catching your breath and resting your quads after the staircases.

Downhill was faster.  We took a shortcut back to camp, and M brought out a bottle of wine, snap peas and carrots, and minted yogurt and hummus.  We polished off the peas and i put together the pre-cooked meal that my PTA had provided – 20 minutes to assemble and cook in a single skillet (recipe below) .  We finished off the wine with the casserole, while for entertainment we  watched a fellow camper maneuver a HUGE trailer backwards into the campsite across the way. (Trailers seem to come in two sizes, either tiny teardrops like M’s or humongous, with pop outs and canopies and rooftop patios.)

A quick washing up and cleanup of the camp, and we tucked ourselves into the trailer.  Everything is as carefully arranged as in a well-crafted yacht, with no nook or cranny left without a purpose and a content, and the aluminum sides and insulation making it much cozier than a tent. We have a plan for tomorrow involving a hike to a viewpoint, a couple of bag lunches, and maybe a trip down to the beach. But nothing scheduled.

Next: Hiking Boots to Buzzards’ Roost and Beyond

Goodbye Tahoe: Shuttling back to Real Life

If I can’t be Freeway Free, at least I prefer to let someone else drive. So taking the shuttle from South Lake Tahoe to the Reno Airport is a no-brainer. C is up and running by 9, and the nearest pickup point at 10AM is only 10 minutes away, at the Hard Rock Cafe/Casino/Hotel just this side of the California line.

The Hard Rock Cafe at 9:45 is a sleepy place, adorned with campy pix of Elvis, artifacts of Johnny Cash, BB King,Sly Stone, Elton John – lots of sequins and glitter, even for BB – jacquard jacket in purple and black shot with silver.  I guess that’s Vegas overflow.  Lots of donated guitars, maybe the second string?

Slowly other shuttle-goers arrive, some young folk going to whoop it up in Reno, some snow-bunnies returning from a girl’s outing, some young guys.  Bus (Amador Stage Lines) arrives only a few minutes late (10:10 vs 10:07) loads quickly, stops at Harrah’s, where we add an older crowd of evident retirees, mostly in couples, a few more of the same at Harvey’s and no one at Montaigne Bleu to the driver’s puzzlement.  And then off up the east side of the lake.

California definitely commands the most scenic lakefront.  Mountains on the CA side loom high and snow-covered, while the NV side is lower, more tree-covered and nearly glitz free.  When the bus turns away from the lake toward Reno towards Carson Valley, the landscape becomes all sandstone and sagebrush, and at the valley floor the view is still bleak, with winter-drab pine trees the only hint of color beyond dry grass, leafless deciduous trees, and building of stained wood blending neutrally into the surroundings.  A few immobile black Angus cattle add no sense of life.

Dropoff at the Reno Airport is at the furthest remove from my carrier, United, but I don’t mind a bit of leg-stretching. Checking in and checking bags are handled smoothly and smilingly, security is a breeze, and with almost two hours until my flight I wander off in search of a restroom and water station.  Oddly, all signs point toward A and B gates, none toward the newer C gates.  It’s quite a walk down to gate B3 to the restroom, and after emptying what was full and filling what was empty I find an almost-deserted room  with stools and tables for eating, big armchairs for massaging, and rows of seats where one can plug in a laptop, make a phone call on an actual public telephone, or request a page.  I decide to squat until time to leave for the gate at the other end of the terminal.

In the newer C gate wing, of course there are rest rooms right there! but I don’t regret my walk and my quiet refuge in the old wing. Flight is on time, weather fine for flying, and I am rested, refreshed, relaxed, and best of all, returning.

Thoughts about the travel:

If you are planning to go to South Shore (or, for that matter, any town which depends on tourism for its lifeblood) don’t trust the internet to tell you the status of a “recommended “restaurant – Call first!  Half a dozen times we arrived at a restaurant that said online that it was open, only to find it empty and dark.

Where casinos used to promote shows and poker tournaments and all-you-can-eat buffets on their neon/digital LED entrance signs, pride of place is being given to Help Wanted.  You should probably stay away from any restaurant advertising for a Lead Cook.

Freeway Free at Lake Tahoe: Fusion Feeding

Busy at Harumi Sushi bar

After our first night of hamburger casserole cooked at the timeshare, C and I felt we should be more adventurous at dining. Not wanting to drive far, we decided to try the sushi place across the highway. Harumi Sushi – good choice!  The place was packed on a Monday night (not that many restaurants open in a tourist town on a Monday) but we managed two seats together at the end of the sushi bar. Although most of the workers and chefs are not Japanese and the tea was not matcha, the edamame was tender, and the White Dragon roll (salmon, spicy tuna, avocado, and more) was only surpassed by the Gabrielle roll (snapper, fried asparagus, sweet sauce, and more.) C had some sake – I tasted, and we split an order of fried cheesecake – a very peculiar sweet which I’m pretty confident is not traditional Japanese.

Toast Tahoe – lower level

For our third night we had planned to dine in South Lake Tahoe, but the Thai restaurant we had hoped to eat at was CLOSED for remodeling, and its sister restaurant at the other end of town was simply CLOSED, and as we had started our culinary search late, we headed north to Zephyr Cove again, to Toast Tahoe. This large restaurant on two levels is obviously equipped to handle large parties, but tonight the upstairs is closed and down in the bar C and I are almost the only diners. Our server is the owner, her daughter buses dishes, her mother and husband are in the kitchen.

No sushi here, but delicious and unusual menu items.  We shared Calamari breaded in toasted coconut, Cindy had crab cakes and roasted Caesar salad, I had mussels in curried coconut milk and rice. Yum.

Since we had failed at finding Thai food previously, we were delighted to find one listed back in South Shore and made Thai on Ski Run our destination. We discovered that this was only one of a little nexus of attractive restaurants off the US50 track – a Japanese, a Nepalese, and an Italian in addition to the Thai, all brightly lit with Christmas lights still up, and all welcoming.  But C had checked out the Thai restaurant online and had drooled at the pix, so we kept to our original plan.  She had a beef curry, I had a not-very Spicy Thai Eggplant/vegetable mix, and we shared, with enough for another meal boxed up afterward for the condo. The restaurant is not as pretty as the pix of its closed rivals, but the friendly and quick service more than made up for the rather bare-bones decor. And I’d come back to this corner of Ski Run to sample the other three restaurants.

Thai on Ski Run beckons on a cold night

Hidden Treasure at Lake Tahoe: LTCC Nordic Center

C and I had promised each other that vigorous exercise would be part of each day at Tahoe, so what to do while my hiking boots were drying out? (See previous post). C had never been cross country skiing, and I had not done it since my children were small, so we set out with a bit of trepidation to find equipment and trails suitable for brittle-boned ski bunnies.

C is a tiger when it comes to locating options. After a short internet search, she discovers that the Lake Tahoe Community College campus includes a Nordic Center with over five kilometers of “groomed trails.” After some misdirection we were in touch with Meghan, who not only welcomed us with the news that we could have a day pass at the Nordic Center for only $7.50 each, but also referred us to Gary at the nearby Sierra Ski and Cycle Works to rent equipment. We set off just before noon.

Gary lives up to his recommendation, giving us well-fitted boots, skis, poles, and clear and succinct instruction on how to don and doff our skis. We head up the road to the LGCC campus, beautifully draped in snow several feet deep. The Nordic Center office is in the Campus Library, the entrance to the trails is just across the parking lot next to the Gym. We park, purchase our day passes, sling our skis and poles over our shoulders, clamber up the snow bank, and set off.

Good news:; the sky is blue, the snow is white and clean, the trails are clearly marked (no falling into the creek here!) Bad news: there has been no fresh snow, and the trails are quite icy.  The ice makes for easy gliding on the flats, but more speed than we can handle at first even on the gentle slopes, so we each take a couple of falls on the first couple of downhills.  Ice is a lot harder to fall on than snow, and a lot harder to get up from as the skis kept wanting to sail away downhill.  But we gradually get the hang of it, shuffling along easily and enjoying the beautiful mountains and snowy woodlands scenery.

Gary had told us that we could keep the boots, skis, and poles if we wanted to use them for a second day, and we decide to try a different loop at LTCC the next day, going in the afternoon when the ice might be melting and the going (and falling) a bit less crusty. A good long soaking in the time-share hot tub has kept the bruises at bay, and we are confident that a second day will see vast improvement, especially since we have both watched a couple of YouTube videos on beginning cross-country skiing.

Well, a bit. The trail is still icy, and the downhills are still too hard and slick for our attempts at snowplowing to slow us down noticeably. It isn’t that I fall less often, but I fall smarter and get up faster. And today we have role models to inspire us: the LTCC Nordic Ski Team is practicing for a meet. The young skiers, helmet-less, long-hair flying, bright-colored tights and sweaters glowing against the snow, must have lapped us at least eight times, swooping and darting past like a bevy of dragonflies. We do our best to stay out of their way, but no worries – they use us as if we were obstacles in a slalom course, and toss us words of encouragement as they see us tumble. Who needs the Olympics?

Waiting for you!

Freeway Free Around Tahoe: Through the Ice

Trail to Emerald Bay is under there somewhere!

C and I deliberate about how to spend our first day in Winter Wonderland, and decide to go hiking at Emerald Bay, maybe down to the bay from the trailhead, maybe on the “moderate” trail up to Eagle Falls. After some wrong turns with me driving, we finally plug in the GPS and find the right road, skimming along on ice-free pavement between six-foot snowbanks on either side of the road – until we get to the ridge where the side of the road simply drops away on both sides and I dare not take my eyes off the asphalt to look at the stunning views in either direction for fear of plummeting to our doom.

Bridge is under there!

Six-foot snowdrifts means that access to the trail down to Emerald Bay is blocked by snow, so we default to the “moderate, 400 ft elevation” Eagle Creek loop.  The hike to falls would be easy if the path and all markers were not obliterated by piles of snow.  We struggle, using existing footprints as toeholds, to the bridge, which is covered with a two foot cushion of hard packed snow (fortunately not in the sun, so not slick or icy).

On the other side, it looks like a path has been blazed to go down and cross the creek at a narrow spot, less steep and icy than either the way we had come or the longer loop back to start – so we try it. C goes first, with no trouble until we reach the narrow place where it seems others had crossed the creek.  She gets across but with one foot through the ice bridge down to water.  “That looks dicey,” I thought. “I’ll try a different route” – bad idea!  I break through the ice bridge with one foot in the creek down to my ankle. As I struggle the other foot breaks through also, and suddenly I’m up to my knees in icy water, with the surrounding snowpack almost up to my waist, and me on my back with my backpack sinking into the surface.  Fortunately, C manages to get to solid ground and grab a hand, and I finally flip over and manage to get a knee onto fairly firm snow.  Yes, the way back is less steep and less long, but I squish at every step. 

Next week: Plans B and C

Freeway Free around Tahoe: Settling Into a New Nest

Reno Airport is a small and manageable transport hub full of flashing slot machines and empty kiosks for souvenirs and food.  I meet my travel-mate C at baggage claim, my suitcase arrives promptly, a big red Nissan SUV is waiting for us at Hertz, (to be christened “the Cherry-ot”) and off we go, south and west into the setting sun (glare almost blinding me at the wheel as the sun is directly ahead).

We stop at Safeway before stopping at the condo – C doesn’t drink coffee, but guzzles quarts of soda; doesn’t eat breakfast, but eats salami and bacon.  (Modified keto diet.) We run up a bill of around $120, of which about $25 is stuff I won’t touch, and $30 is stuff she won’t touch. But we won’t starve.

I’ve not stayed in a great many timeshares. Worldmark  by Wyndham is not as ritzy as some. The decor is standard house-staging tones of white, gray, and wood tones with granite counters and neutral upholstery and carpeting designed to hide stains.  The highlight is a big walk-in shower with a sit-down stool (I think I landed the handicapped room again). The view out the sliding door to the balcony is of other condos, with lots of icicles dripping down – the big snow was a week ago, and the ice has thawed and frozen more than once.

My magic suitcase and backpack are like Hermione Granger’s infinite evening bag – I just kept stuffing more in, everything from my mother’s handed-down snowsuit to my least thread-bare swimsuit for the spa. I had retrieved some Japanese slippers from a long-ago trip for getting to the spa, but counted on a bathrobe at the condo as a coverup. Nope. 

That’s $120 worth of groceries on the counter.

The kitchen is surprisingly well-appointed, even with small packets of useful spices next to the measuring spoons. I prepare my reliable camping casserole as a Welcome dinner, hoping that C will not pick out the corn and pasta. No problem, and enough left for another dinner for one after I’m gone.

After dinner we attempt to watch TV together, but los interest, and I take up my novel as C knits. I had only downloaded a couple of novels, and one I finished almost immediately. Now on my iPad I only have Washington Black to read for my book club and one copy of the Economist which I ‘d better save for the shuttle ride back to the airport on Sunday.  Oh wait. Worst case, there is a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on my iPad, one of those “always meant to read” downloads.

The next morning I realize the advantage of having a housemate on a completely different schedule. I slept beautifully, got up at 7, had a decadent shower, dressed, fixed breakfast for myself of fruit and coffee (neither of which is on C’s diet), ate leisurely, set up an expense spreadsheet for the trip, reviewed 20 pp of notes for the on-line class I’m taking, and when C finally appears after 9AM I already feel I’ve accomplished a day’s worth of productivity and I deserve to play.

Coming Next: Adventures on the Ice

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I stood in line (masked, but not distanced).

I rode in a bus (masked, but not distanced).

I flew in a plane (masked, and with a vacant middle seat).

I ate inside at a restaurant (not masked, but distanced).

I served myself food in a cafeteria (with a disposable glove, masked).

I ate meals in a dining hall with people who were supposed to be vaccinated, but no proof was required. (not masked, not distanced, lots of open windows).

I went to an outdoor live music performance (not masked, distanced).

I went to an indoor theatrical performance (singing from the stage, not masked, not distanced, no windows) that lasted two hours.

I attended several lectures, and emceed a variety skit night (not masked, not distanced, lot of open windows, everyone had provided proof of vaccination) each lasting at least an hour.

I had a COVID-19 test when I got home.

Negative – I got away with it.

Risk

My friend called me, her voice tinged with panic.  “Do you think we should do this, with the Delta variant and all?”  We were planning to fly together to a women’s fitness camp on the western slope of the Rockies that we both had attended several times in past years.   

I reassured my friend.  “We are all responsible adults.  The people are all women we’ve known for years now.  We’ll be outside most of the time.”   

“Ok, I just needed to hear that.”  We continued with our plan that she would drive to my house the night before our trip, meeting me and my sister, and the three of us would be driven to the airport early the next morning by my Personal Travel Consultant, AKA husband. 

It happened that my son came down for an overnight visit the evening before the other women arrived, and he stayed working from our upstairs “office” for the day until joining us for happy hour and dinner the eve of our departure. 

“You’re going to be sharing eating space with a bunch of people you don’t know?  And just taking their word that they’ve been vaccinated?”  My son was so upset that he jumped to his feet and had to walk up and down on the street outside for several minutes to settle down.  He and his family had been to a party a couple of weeks earlier where “everyone was supposed to have been vaccinated, but the hostess called us the next day to let us know that a guy who left just ten or fifteen minutes after we arrived had just reported testing positive for COVID-19. So we were all exposed.”  His faith in folks’ “word of honor” is badly shaken. 

But I need to go.  I need to look at something different out the window, preferably something more than 30 feet away.  I need to hear some different voices.  I need to vary my diet from the familiar favorite offerings of my Personal Chef (AKA husband.) I need to stop reading about chaos in Afghanistan, earthquakes in Haiti, flooding in Tennessee, overwhelmed hospitals in Florida, hurricanes in Louisiana, wildfires in the Sierras, and attempts to overthrow the governments in Washington DC and California.  

When he returned to our back patio, I tried to reassure my son in the same way I had reassured my friend.  He listened, and then smiled with resignation. 

“Mom, I have just one thing to say to you,” he said.  “Make wise choices.” 

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 21 – Cutting Closer to the Bone

YosemiteB

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I’ve gotten used to the lack of retail therapy as most stores have limited access, and aimless browsing is discouraged.  I’ve gotten used to the empty parking lots around offices, schools, and churches.  I’ve gotten used to meeting friends on ZOOM rather than meeting them for lunch. I’ve gotten used to take-out food rather than white tablecloths at my favorite restaurants. I’ve gotten used to bringing my own folding table and chair when I visit a park.

I put up with cancelling a trip to Europe (my husband’s bad knee wouldn’t have stood the trip anyway), cancelling a long weekend at a hideaway inn to the north, cancelling the family reunion picnic we had scheduled for my milestone birthday this year, cancelling my grandson’s 6th grade graduation, my other grandson’s high school graduation.  My monthly visits to help look after my toddler grand-daughter have morphed to bi-weekly story times on ZOOM.

County Library: Contactless Holds Pickup and Material Return Now Available

KatieSurprisecropI’m just beginning to feel some fraying in the social fabric. My son refused to get together for a mid-point picnic between our homes, as his son and daughter had recently traveled and he couldn’t guarantee they weren’t infectious.  For the same reason my other son canceled a planned joint camping trip with his brother’s family – an infection in his four-room apartment would be a disaster, and he couldn’t risk it. Still not “serious”, no-one is ill, but when families are afraid to meet, that’s wrenching.

On the other hand, my sister and her husband just returned from an expedition to Yosemite.  They were able to obtain a day pass, they set off at an ungodly hour of the mroning, and by 10AM they were beginning the hike up the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. She said “It was like I remember from my childhood – no shuttle buses, but not so many people, and no crowding on the trails.  We picnicked at the top of Vernal Falls and dangled our feet in the pool beyond Nevada Falls.  It was lovely.”

Maybe this is the preview of our future: much- curtailed activity and options for most of us, but for the few who are able to maintain their income stream,  travel safely, obtain the right permissions, and keep their health, a rather pleasantly emptied world.  It’s not the future I want.

Yosemite: Ways to Get a Reservation

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