Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.

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Uncle Sam, That's Who I Am



ONE SUMMER WHEN the kids were young, we decided to take a different kind of vacation. We had done the Alabama and Florida beach thing. We love the beaches down there and brag to people all over the country that those beaches are amongst the most beautiful in the world. We wanted to experience something out of the ordinary, so we flew into San Francisco. Mimi and I had been several times and had fallen in love with San Francisco. We knew the kids would love the Pacific coast and especially the infamous Haight Ashbury District in the city.


We packed to do some camping and hiking and to do some city slicker stuff too. We rented a car and headed into the beautiful city. Getting around in San Francisco is easy since they set the city streets up on a grid system that makes navigating really easy. We found our kooky hotel, an old hippy place with wild rooms, each set up with a different theme. Ours was the Peacock room so you can imagine the decor, a kid’s dream. Mimi and I loved it as well.


Once we settled in, we went to the farthest end of Golden Gate State Park. We planned to walk from one end of the park to the other. It goes for miles. Along the way there are Japanese gardens, artists exhibits, fields for Tai Chi exercises and lots of museums. This was a particularly beautiful day which doesn’t happen every day. It can be very cold and windy no matter what time of the year and the weather fluctuates wildly during any day so you have to be ready to shed clothes as fast as you might have to add more clothes.


We took our time going through the Japanese gardens recognizing plants and seeing plants we’ve never dreamed of. Along the way there were many glass houses to walk through and discover. We passed through some of the museums, but it was so nice that day we decided to take full advantage of it because we knew that the chances of having two days like that were rare. At one point we realized we had made it around the arena of Haight Ashbury District. That is the area where you have seen all the old photographs of the hippies in the 60s during the counterculture movement. That is the area where the good Ole Grateful Dead and many other bands had their start. The district is like walking back in time, still looking and smelling like 1964. The shops have incense burning, music blaring and the people looked like time had stood still.


There was a lot of partying going on and everyone was in a fun loving mood. Mia found some cool hippie clothes at a second or third or maybe even a fourth-hand store so she blended right in. I dared Max to wear the Uncle Sam hat with red, white and blue glitter on it with his goggles, no shirt and crazy shorts. I told him I’d give him $50 if he’d wear that getup from one end of the district to the other end. My mistake was that he would have worn that anyway, but he took the $50 bucks and had a blast. People were giving him the thumbs up and dancing with Mia and Max in the streets to all the crazy music blaring from all the stores.


At one point Mia and Max asked if they could go to the far end of the district and back on their own. Who would want to hang with their parents, right? We weren’t comfortable with that long of a separation, but we understood they wanted to try without us old fogies hanging around. We gave them a four-block playground and a certain amount of time to do it in. Mimi and I sat down at a cafe and watched them head off into the crowd with their costumes on. We bumped into a group of hippies a few times that day along the way. Seems that they were just walking up and down the streets having a blast playing their ukuleles, blowing in their kazoos and singing and dancing their way through it.


The only group that was louder and wilder to see were the Hare Krishnas with their saffron robes and chanting Hindu songs while playing the tambourines loudly. We would scoot over when we heard them coming our way. It’s their own little parade. I don’t know much about and they can get pretty rowdy. About 10 minutes before it was time for the kids to meet us at our spot, we noticed a girl coming through the crowd towards us. She was weaving and bobbing through the people. She was mostly weaving. The thing about her we noticed was she was with that same groups of hippies we had seen several times that day and that she had Max’s Uncle Sam hat on her dreadlocked head. That worried us and just as we were standing up to see where our kids might be, they both popped out of the throngs of revelers with big smiles on their faces. They had sat down for a little bit with that wild group and made friends with them. Max thought that hat would look better on the girl than it did on him, so he gave it to her in the free spirit of things that was going on. I still think he might have sold her the hat and kept the $50. He came out like a bandit.


THE NEXT DAY WE saw the sights, The Golden Gate Bridge, and north of there we saw the Redwoods and the curviest road, China town and all the iconic San Francisco sights. We all agreed it was time to get out of the city and do some camping and hiking. You’re never too far from any of that when you are in California. We headed south towards Big Sur. We had seen pictures but none of us had been there before. We fell in love with the coastline and Malibu but really fell head over heels for Big Sur and revisited many times after that. As we were driving through the craggy coastline with the ocean in view, the Big Sur area became denser with ferns and giant sequoias shading everything. For a minute I thought we were about to have car troubles because the steering wheel just kept pulling me in a direction I wasn’t aiming for. I stopped fighting it and let the car go where it was trying to take us. Strangest thing, the car wanted to be in a gravel parking lot of The Big Sur Bakery. I was beginning to see the cars point so we parked and walked into this really quaint cabin filled with the most beautiful pastries being handled by some of the nicest people we’d ever met. It’s like they were expecting us.


One of the dreadlocked girls noticed the kids seemed pooped and offered a cappuccino to each of us with great designs of leaves artistically drawn in the froth on top. We went to the outdoor garden to sit at a great hand-hewn table and thought we had gone to heaven. In this garden were agaves so big our minds were blown. There were Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind, gravel paths meandering through the most unusual garden we have ever seen. We looked up to see a guy way up in a tree making a “nest,” more like a tree house. The nest was made of woven branches to form an oval for crawling into to spend a moment or for meditating in. The fluffy pad on the floor of it make that more comfortable. The artist talked with us about his design, he told us he gets paid to create these nests at the homes of the rich and famous up and down the coastline. They were incredibly beautiful works of art. I would imagine each would take months to construct. I will post pictures on our website for all to see.


There was a huge stage set up in the middle of their garden and the guy setting things up said a sitar player was coming that night to play under the stars and we were invited. It felt like home so we set up our tent and got our camp looking good. We made reservations for dinner that night and went to the beach to play. Beaches on the Pacific coast are chilly and windy, but unbelievably gorgeous. Giant cliffs and crashing waves with gigantic rock outcroppings in the ocean were spectacular. We split up, some of us walking, some doing some yoga and exploring. We found another nest on the cliffs that the same artist had told us about, one of his first ones to build and still in great condition.


That night we had a dinner that none of us will forget. There are only four tables in the restaurant and it was very quiet and lit by candles. The food was carefully prepared. There was no menu. They served what they were cooking that night in three or four courses. It was magically delicious. After dinner we found a place to sit on some cushions on the ground to listen to the sitarist. We met some fellow travelers and had some wonderful conversations under the star lit night and under the sequoias. Unforgettable.


The next few days we found some nice, long hikes above the coastline where it was sunny and hot right down to the beaches where it was cold enough to break out the sweaters. I love that climate. I always feel at home there as if maybe in a past life I was lucky enough to live amongst the ferns.


On our next summer trip out there we were camping when the wild fires got so smokey we had to pull up our tent pegs and move on. It was so sad to see all that on fire. I think it may have burned the bakery my car led us to. I hope not or maybe it’s been rebuilt. I couldn’t bear to look.

Mimi and I learned a lot about agaves and succulents on the west coastline and realized if they could take the crazy weather there then surely the plants could take the Mississippi version of crazy weather. We have been experimenting with them ever since those trips. We have found some that can take our climate year-round and some that do great only for part of our year. We have had fun finding out. If you get curious as to what a true artist can do with these plants check out Flora Grubbs website. We have visited her garden center several times for inspiration. She has taken succulent gardening to another level.


THAT’S THIS WEEK’S crazy story. Sometimes I can’t believe the things we’ve done with our kids and each other as I write these things. But we made it through some adventures that have given us some very rich memories and inspiration. We are ready to put our travel shoes back on once the dust settles from all this wild stuff going on in the world.

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