Texas Hill Country and the 36th President of the United States.

Bluebonnets in the Hill Country. The wildflowers were spectacular.

We came to the Hill Country of Texas because we were on a mission. We were intent on uncovering the clues that would help us piece together a more thoughtful understanding of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. After visiting the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin in 2016, we realized that our memories of him, formed in the turmoil and passion of the 1960s, were narrower than the historical record. The filter of our 20-year old lenses acted like a microscope, zeroing in on the details of just two things – the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War. While both were hugely formative in our young lives, the lens created a blind spot when it came to an awareness of the deeper contributions of his presidency, of the man himself.

Pig overlooking our very private back yard.

We needed a home base for this trip and our research led us to Pedernales Falls State Park, a spectacular campground in the Hill Country, shown here in the header when Peter and I went on a short hike. The campground sits in a broad and lush valley the center of which is the wide and impressive Pedernales River, which flows through the Johnson Ranch. It was our home for four nights and five days. Our campsite was very wooded and private and a perfect location for the retrospection and reflection and awesome connection that would be present during our stay here.

Our first stop into the LBJ history began with a visit to Johnson Settlement, the National Park site where his grandfather first settled upon coming into the Hill Country after the Civil War, living here between 1867 and 1872. His grandfather, Sam Johnson, Sr. brought his new bride to the place to speculate on cattle. He and his brother planned to cash in on the cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. The drives were long and treacherous and not always lucrative. The brothers made a significant amount of money in the early years and then lost it all. Sam’s brother drowned in 1877 on a drive.

LBJ’s grandfather lived in this house in the Johnson Settlement, now called Johnson City.

While driving cattle, LBJ’s grandmother was left alone at the isolated cabin. Family stories, which LBJ was known to embellish, included one about his grandmother hiding under the cabin with her first baby during a Comanche raid, a testimony to the archetypal DNA that formed the man who would be president. The young family later moved to a town near Austin for a few years and then returned to the area where other family members continued to live. Their oldest son, LBJ’s father, Sam, Jr., grew up in the area, became a rancher and state legislator and married Rebekah Baines, a college graduate and school teacher.

LBJ’s boyhood home where chickens roamed the yard and where he once fell off the roof, breaking his leg.

Next to the settlement sits the boyhood home of LBJ (1908 – 1973) where he and his three sisters and one brother grew up. His family was not wealthy. There was no running water, and no electricity. One of the historians we read called LBJ, “the last of the frontier presidents” because of his first hand understanding of poverty and the isolation of rural life. What I learned was that much of what LBJ considered his greatest achievements in his long public career were initiatives that addressed the crushing nature of poverty, which he knew firsthand. From the establishment of the rural electric cooperative, which brought power and lights to his hometown, to public education reform and funding, to the development of Head Start, growing up poor shaped his sense of purpose and public service.

My favorite image from our visit to the LBJ Library in Austin in 2016. This view of the Great Hall, with the archives visible in red leather folders, is amazing.

I found myself frequently saying to Peter, “I didn’t know that…” and this is of course what this visit was about. The more I learned and absorbed, the more I began to deconstruct the generalizations about LBJ that had become so comfortable in the shorthand of my young adult years. When we visited his Presidential Library in Austin last year, one of the most touching exhibits was a video presentation by the two Johnson daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. In it, each one talked about how the tumultuous nature of their father’s time in office took its toll on him. Luci, who is my age, always captured my imagination because she was known to be a rebel during the White House years. I remembered that she changed the spelling of her own name, converted to Catholicism at age 18, married a young national guardsman at age 19, and found a way out of the public spotlight of the White House through wedlock and motherhood. Listening to her very moving tribute to her father last year laid the groundwork for this journey of my own personal dismantling of generalizations.

Entering the Johnson Ranch, the National Historic Park.

Now I am going to share the narrative of what happened the next day on our visit to the Texas White House, the LBJ ranch about 14 miles from the Johnson Settlement.  This is the place where LBJ found respite during his most distressing presidential times, where he entertained heads of state, and where he eventually retired and died, within four years of leaving the White House. We wanted to take a guided tour of the Texas White House and arrived at 2:00 to the busy visitor’s center, in time to get assigned to the 2:20 tour.

At the appointed time, our volunteer guide, Matt, convened the 12 of us and walked us toward the main house, a stately u-shaped two-story wood frame building at the top of a gently sloping field that dropped onto the shores of the Pedernales River. At the covered porch of one wing, he gathered us up, like chicks, reciting the rules about our conduct during the 20-minutes tour (“don’t touch anything, don’t lean on the walls, no photography”). Before we went into the wing that served as the President’s office, he directed our attention to a small group of people chatting lower on the lawn and said, “See the woman in the black dress? That is Luci Baines Johnson who is here with a private group”. Excitedly, we began to snap a couple of pictures over what was too much distance in an attempt to capture a version of a tourist shot of the presidential daughter.

The Texas White House.

We turned and went inside and listened to Matt’s narrative, looked at the impressive desk the President used, imagining who had sat on the blue leather couch now empty in silent tribute. Suddenly, the door opened and two women walked in, one of them the woman in the black dress, Luci Baines Johnson. She seemed surprised to see a tour still in her father’s office, but quickly dropped into a “Welcome to your Texas White House” speech and then asked, “Are you ending or just beginning the tour?” Matt indicated we were just beginning and she said perhaps she and her guest would tag along if that would be OK. Matt said it would and invited her to add anything she wanted to the tour.

My tourist shapshot of the “woman in the black dress”, Luci Baines Johnson, who was onsite for a private gathering.

What happened next was awesome. Luci Baines said she would be happy to speak up and off we went, but the energy of the tour had shifted. In a nano-second, it became apparent that we were about to get a personal tour of the Texas White House conducted by Luci Baines Johnson. And we did. Her genuine love for the place shined through every moment of her narrative. She told us that she spent 55 Christmases here from the age of 5 to the age of 60, when her mother died. She shared stories about the piano in the living room (which still belongs to her and is on loan to the National Park Service). There was a personal story about the framed collection of arrowheads on the wall in one room where three television sets sat, like duck decoys, on a low table. Back in the day, she explained, the president would watch all three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) simultaneously at the news hour.

From left, Lynda Bird, Luci Baines, LBJ, and Lady Bird in the mid-1960s.

In the dining room, she pointed out the telephone mounted on the side chair at the head of the table where the president sat during meals. As we walked through the kitchen, she told us the story of how on the day that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963, the household staff was preparing a dinner for President Kennedy who was scheduled to come to the ranch after his day in Dallas. At the time the news tore through the world saying he had died, food preparations stopped and as she was telling the story, her voice cracked with emotion and I felt myself tearing up. She turned to me and said, “I was 16 and I bet you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news”.

And I did, as if it were last week. On November 22, 1963, Luci Baines was in private school in Washington, DC and I was in Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, NY.  Both of us were being 16 in our very different lives but here we were, sharing the memory of those cataclysmic events as we stood under the kitchen clock that the Park Service had stopped a few minutes after 1:00pm when President Kennedy was given last rites. Luci Baines’ father was sworn in that afternoon as the 36th president amid anguish and grief and disbelief and our lives continued, leading up to this amazing convergence of our personal journeys.

Next, Luci Baines led us into the private wing of the house where her parents lived permanently once they left Washington in January 1969. She told us of her father’s joy at being back in Texas and how nearly four years later to the day he left Washington, he died here in 1973. Her mother lived in the ranch until her death in 2007 at which time the ranch became part of the National Park Service.

Saying goodbye to our personal tour guide, Luci Baines Johnson, after an amazing experience of being with her for over one hour. Yes, that’s me in the hat, overwhelmed by it all.

Luci Baines Johnson spent one full hour with us pilgrims that day. We applauded her when she left us, deeply moved by her generosity of time, her candor, and her personal stories. She was, I later realized, continuing a family commitment to be of service. In addition to the history lessons, she shared tiny insights into the tumultuous nature of having LBJ as a father, which must not have been easy. I read LBJ described as “a man who embodied the (Hill Country’s) contrasting seasons of great gentleness and violent energy. Often joyous and effusive… he sometimes withdrew into a lonely battle with his own blizzards and droughts”.  I was called to reflect on my own experience as the adult daughter of a challenging father living in those decades of social upheaval and the private and public struggles for individuation.

As I move into these closing decades of my life, experiencing roles beyond that of daughter, into wife and mother and grandmother, I feel my heart stretching into the territory of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and awe. We left the ranch and drove out into the glorious late spring sunlight. We stopped at the private cemetery where generations of Johnsons, including the President and the First Lady, are buried. It was a moment of gratitude and thanksgiving for the awesome synchronicity of the day that delivered this remarkable experience of meeting Luci Baines Johnson. And at the cemetery, her father was not the only Dad in my heart.

Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, pointed east and north of Dallas, in their Airstream.

Easter at Davis Mountains State Park, Texas.

Easter sunrise, 2017.

Witnessing the sunrise on Easter morning was an unexpected gift.  After two visits to the McDonald Observatory, I thought I had exhausted my quota of celestial events.  Maybe they all prepared me for this one?

In any event, I woke up Easter morning before dawn and spotted Venus, the morning star, just above the horizon.  I realized that it might be clear enough to drive up Skyline Road at Davis Mountains State Park for sunrise.  From that vantage point, one can view the wide open valley that includes three counties (Jeff Davis, Brewster, Presidio) with 30% more area than the state of Vermont and a total population of 20,000.  This is sparsely populated west Texas. Continue reading

Phoenix then east to Silver City, New Mexico.

Sunset at White Tanks from our beautiful campsite.

We both experienced the poverty of heart leaving dear friends in California. We sailed along in silence, towing our Flying Cloud. Shortly after crossing into Arizona, we re-entered the Sonoran desert and after spotting the first towering saguaro, with their open arms lifting skyward, we felt welcomed. Returning to places that we love is one of the treasures of this pilgrimage so pulling into White Tank Mountains Regional Park in the golden late afternoon light refreshed us. The cholla are in bloom now and plump buds adorn the top of the saguaro, like tiaras. The desert marigolds continue their endless blooming, palo verde are fragrant with their yellow flowers, now buzzing with busy honey bees. Continue reading

Central Coast and SoCal with friends

Our first bookend campground was Anthony Chabot State Park in the east bay.

After leaving Death Valley, we headed north toward the Central Coast of California. We had to re-route ourselves as a result of the slides that have closed the section of Highway 1 south of Big Sur and north of Gorda. A new slide occurred just as we were leaving Death Valley, confirming the closure of the national forest campground at Kirk Creek, where we have camped the past two years, gloriously perched over the Pacific. Our return will have to wait for another year. Continue reading

Death Valley National Park.

The logo of the 2017 Mars Fest at Death Valley National Park.

We were in Death Valley the weekend of Mars Fest. We hadn’t planned this but the wonder of our pilgrimage to here lies in discovering the synchronicity of life. Last year, it was the wildflowers super bloom and this year, it’s Mars Fest.

What, you might be asking is Mars Fest? It’s an annual collaboration among an alphabet-soup of organizations: NPS (National Park Service), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and a couple of other organizations who gather for keynote evening presentations, daytime guided hikes, and afternoon talks, centered on the general theme of the exploration of Mars. Continue reading

Joshua Tree National Park

Video

img_7841

Pig in our backyard at Indian Cove.

Last year, we both fell in love with the monzogranite boulders at Joshua Tree National Park.  Peter is a serious rock hound but I was equally smitten when we first came to this campground (Indian Cove) last year. And so we are back. In one way, we are conventional because we reserved the same impossibly un-level site (#36) simply because of its primo backyard.

We took our site for five nights of dry camping, excited to try out our new Zamp solar panels. Learning the ins and outs of dry camping started with the purchase of our Honda 2000 generator last year. National parks have strict hours for generator use, which we completely understand.

Continue reading

Phoenix in our rear-view mirror.

img_7763

Gardens in bloom at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

After our stay at Usery Mountain Regional Park, we headed to the west side of Phoenix to another Maricopa County Park, White Tank Mountain. Before leaving Usery Mountain, we made a day trip up into the Superstition Mountains to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  It was as lovely as our friends had mentioned.

There are a series of individual gardens here, including desert, legumes, cactus, butterfly and hummingbirds, a rose garden, succulents, and so many more.  Tucked into the valley below a formation called Magma Ridge, the arboretum is a peaceful and inspiriting place.

Continue reading

Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix. MUST SEE.

img_7684

At the Musical Instrument Museum, MIM,  in Phoenix.

Day 10 and 11. Usery Mountain. We had read numerous positive reviews about the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix.  Neither Peter, nor Davis, nor I are musicians and couldn’t grasp the idea of an entire museum dedicated to musical instruments but we gave it a go. OK, in one word, “Wow”.  It was so amazing we went back a second day and still didn’t get through the museum.

img_7720-1

Guitarra portuguesa.

I think the best way to describe this experience is to imagine a museum that in video, audio, and physical exhibits gives you a view from 30,000 feet of world cultures and the vast human spiritual connection to making music. Continue reading

The Heard Museum – Day 9 at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona.

img_7682

The outdoor fountains at the Heard Museum in Phoenix are stunning, even in the rain.

Day 9.  The Heard Museum in Phoenix is one of our favorite places. The permanent exhibits about the native people of the southwest are stunning and as often as we have been, we learn more every visit. This year, there were two special exhibits Peter, Davis and I wanted to see. The first was about the Fred Harvey Company, named for the original founder, Fred Harvey.  The second was an art installation by Arizona artist, Steven Yazzie. Continue reading

Usery Mountain Regional Park – Tonto National Monument. Day 7 and 8.

img_7746

Another spectacular Arizona sunset here at Usery Mountain.

Day 7.  February 16.  Today was a joyful day of reunion. I went to the airport to pick up both Peter and his son Davis. Peter looked rested and sported a winter “cowboy” tan (just face and hands) from the sunny and bright time in Montana.  Davis looked happy to be in sunny Arizona after the snow and cold of New Hampshire.

Continue reading