Thursday, August 30, 2007

Summertime Sign Off

Back again after Labor Day. Who wants to work on Labor Day? Or blog either?

I planned to cook some Jimmy Dean Pure Pork Sausage today, which comes in a tube. The tube has been stored in our refrigerator for a while now, shunted back to the back as things sometimes are in refrigerators. I went looking for it, and discovered that the tube had ballooned to about twice its size. What's going on inside that tube? I don't want to know. Luckily, it hadn't exploded, or even leaked. Now I have to remember to take the kitchen garbage out before it decides to explode in the trash can.

The 10th anniversary of the death of Diana Spencer has been an echo of the maudlin twaddle that filled the airwaves at that time, and a few days ago I saw an ad for a made-for-TV movie with a title that declares how ridiculous it must be: The Murder of Princess Diana. A Reuters review put it this way: "The project exploits every suspicion ever held by every conspiracy nut, and invents new facts, events and dialogue to bolster rumors that will not die as long as vultures eagerly pick at whatever scraps remain on the carcass."

Why, of course it was murder. Diana was too special to have died in something as ordinary as a traffic accident. Only ordinary people die in ordinary ways.

As long as I'm editorializing, I might as well mention the nascent attack on people trying to live interesting lives, in the form of complaining about the carbon emissions from modes of transport -- transport of people, such as cars and airplanes, and transport of goods, such as by ship and truck. I heard on the radio not long ago about one wanker who said he felt "guilty" about taking an airplane somewhere, and the "local sourcing" of food is all the rage in some circles. How far is it from this kind of carping to policy proposals to restrict the free movement of people and goods, freedoms that would be sacrificed on the altar of carbon control?

It may never come to that, since Americans are known to insist on driving what they want to drive and eating what they want to eat. That, and they realize -- unconsciously or not -- that such restrictions would be on their freedom of movement and consumption, not the elites that would be for such drastic measures. How many people, when it really came down to it, would give up coffee? Tea? Chocolate? A thousand other imports? Road trips? Flights to faraway places? The travel infrastructure that allows even ordinary people to see great parts the world, if they put their minds to it?

And what of the carbon emissions? That's a technical problem, to be solved by technical means.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ohio, Mother of Presidents and Astronauts

This made my day: "Always musically inclined, Neil joined the school orchestra, boys' glee club, and band. Despite his small size, he played one of the largest instruments, the baritone horn, because he liked its distinctive tone... Neil even lent his baritone to a neighborhood ragtime combo... the Mississippi Moonshiners' one paying job was a two-night gig playing Spike Jones tunes at grange halls in nearby Uniopolis and St. John -- for five dollars to be split four ways."

The "Neil" in question is Neil Armstrong, since I'm reading First Man, subtitled "The Life of Neil Armstrong" by James R. Hansen (2005). Armstrong played baritone in high school, and I have to like that -- so did I. Years ago also getting a kick reading (I think in his obituary) that Hubert Humphrey did too. Offhand I can't think of any other famous people who did, but surely there must be more.

Also interesting to note: "For most of the history of the US space program, a greater number of astronauts have come from Ohio than any other state. Still today... Ohio ranks first in terms of astronauts per capita, with one native-born astronaut for every 662,000 people."


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Verbatim, Amazingly

This is a verbatim grab from a comment column of an on-line journal, found by chance. It's 100 percent sic, except for deleting one word. What's so hard about writing that so many people can't really do it? It's a mystery to me.

Ok so let me start by saying that i dont own an Ipod and that want one. look all of you are being rediculous on this site seriously firstly those of u trying to defend the "pressious " ipoods stop cuz your making people look stupid. Some of you bastards do need to trn the s--- doen O its annoying and stupid and yess it does cause accidents when your not paying attention. I wont lie listening to an MP3 player i almost got hurt. t'was my fault but yeah. Those of you who hate Ipods. Firstly i must say how the hell were u born without some type or creativity...restricting people to listening to ipods thats dumb and cannot be enforced 1.) they are to easy to hide and 2.0ther are 2 many on the street. secondly the ipods arrent the onli thing to blame for your carr troubles..firstly sir if u were waitng for yor green and then he decided to cross..surely he had the right awy I mean considering your obvioulsy going in a diffrent direction than him...and he may have thought that u were waitng for your light for going staright...not turing or w/e. Idc bout what happes just justify yourself properly with good clear evidnece....


Monday, August 27, 2007

One Score and Eight Years Ago

The grass is intensely lush these days, taking benefit from days of rain last week. In fact, so much rain fell that I couldn’t mow the back 40 – that is, the back 40 square feet or so along my fence. The ground, lower than the rest of the back yard, was still too soggy days after the rain had stopped.

While I was out mowing, I noticed a sure sign of fall: football practice in the park, replacing baseball practice. It’s still summer, of course, but it’s declining summer, when the days are placeholders for cooler moments. Noticeably shorter days, tired-looking tree-leaf greens, and football practice.

Last year, I was in Cincinnati when my nephew Sam took up residence to start graduate school. This year, I was able to offer a bit of help to another nephew, 18-year-old Robert, who moved into one of the downtown dorms of the School of the Art Institute last weekend. It was on August 25, in fact, 28 years to the day after I flew to Nashville to start my freshman year at Vanderbilt. So I’ve thought of that strange day and strange first year more often in recent days than I usually do. Mostly, it makes me smile, and I hope Robert has something like the experience I had.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I See This Kind of Thing a Lot

I've had this saved for a while now, because it's a perfect example of the art of the press release. Of course, if I'd been trying, I could have saved a library of PR writing by now, but it isn't worth the effort.

[City Name] City Council Member [Name] agrees, “The choice to develop in [City Name] highlights [Company Name]’s superior strategic planning. [City Name] is indeed at the precipice of its identity as the premier location for industrial business and kudos to [Company Name] for recognizing this early. The [Company Name] representatives have been wonderful to work with and we have every indication that this will be an extremely beneficial reciprocal relationship. A distribution and global logistics center of this magnitude will bring in thousands of living wage jobs for the people of [City Name]. I am ecstatic that [Company Name] is coming here, and that the complex is in my district is just an added bonus."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Stormy Weather

The morning of August 23 this year in metro Chicago was clear and warm, and then a little hot as the day worn on, with puffy clouds in the sky. I was at my desk most of the morning, doing things that needed to be done, but I did stand outside for a few moments, thinking about whether the late afternoon might be a good time to mow the back yard, which has been unattended for a while. It wasn't to be, and not because of indolence when it comes to yard work, not this time.

Since I hadn't bothered to check with any electronic medium about the weather all day, I was living in the days before weather forecasting. So I noticed with some surprise a darkening sky at about 3, which was the next time I paid much attention. School was getting out then -- the second day of class for Lilly and her elementary school -- and I saw the flow of kids headed home as the clouds grew more intense.

Lilly got home by 3:10. By 3:30, rain was falling heavily. Not long after that, with a tornado warning had been issued by the National Weather Service; I'd decided to pay attention to electronic media again. Then I alternated in looking out of the front door and the back, to see if anything wicked our way was coming. The TV told of funnel clouds, but no touchdowns, near suburbs west of here, but not far west, so I thought watching the sky would be a good idea.

Out the back door -- that view so summerlike a few hours earlier -- I could see a line of trees along the major street a block south of us moving like a line of dancers, but closer trees, such as the honey locust a few feet away, weren't moving much. For a minute or two, the further-away trees moved as if a circular wind were pushing them. Not tight circles, but a broad motion.

I didn't like it at all, and the sight prompted me to go into tornado-response mode. That sounds like a careful plan, but it's really just closing the doors to the lower-level bathroom and laundry room to create a space without any windows on the lower level; making sure everyone has a pair of shoes down there, since we don't wear shoes in the house, and the last thing you want to be looking for if the roof blows off your house is shoes; and making sure I had my wallet, too, for similar reasons. If things had gotten really hairy -- that is, if I'd actually seen a funnel cloud -- I would have fetched the baby-bed mattress that's still in the house, for cover, and gotten everyone down to the little windowless space. Since we have no basement, it's the best we can do.

No tornadoes hit anywhere, but there was a lot of wind damage in various parts of the metro area, enough to make the national news. Downed trees and smashed cars make good news clips. In our area, trees were knocked down less than a mile from where I live, and so were some wooden fences. A Jewel grocery store had a large window busted, and I'm sure there were other buildings damaged nearby. On our block, however, no trees fell and only a handful of large branches landed on yards and the street. Whew.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


No more about Michigan and Wisconsin after today, but as usual there are leftover scraps.

Hang-on Express Chinese & Thai Food, in the unexpected spot of Suttons Bay, Mich., few miles north of Traverse City, offers good food.

Two bumper stickers spotted near Traverse City:

“PAVE LEELANAU Our land is too precious for trees.” That would be in the sarcastic line of stickers; Leelanau is the name of the peninsula and county that Traverse is in. Small print under the main slogan: “Coalition of the Disposed to Dismember Developers.”

“Sure You Can Trust the Government. Just Ask an Indian.”

Pellston, Mich., calls itself – at least on a billboard at the edge of town – the “Icebox of the Nation.”

US 2 through the Upper Peninsula was thick with hand-lettered signs. I have to like a road like that. My favorite advertised “Honest Injin’s Tourist Trap." I don’t know about Injins, but the tourist trap part looked about right.

When I was very small, someone asked me about my favorite football team. Maybe they were expecting the Cowboys, but I answered Green Bay. The name appealed to me.

It still does, and while I’m not claiming any favorite pro football team, I like the Packers for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s publicly owned, not by some oafish millionaire who insists on sucking the public teat. Then there’s the fact that Green Bay isn’t a major market. There ought to be more small-market pro teams. The Bangor Lumberjacks ("I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK!" for their fight song), say, or the Walla Walla Warriors.

We overnighted in the city of Green Bay on the way into Wisconsin, as a way station between the Michigan and Wisconsin segments of the trip. The morning we left, I volunteered to put gas in the car, but my real ambition was to see Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, which I’d missed on previous flybys through Green Bay. It’s an impressively solid piece of work, classic stadium design, even including the quasi-mall that’s been added to one side (the “Atrium,” it’s called). If I’d had more time, I would have taken the tour, provided it wasn’t too expensive. Just because it doesn’t go to any oafish millionaire doesn’t mean I’d want to be gouged.

We all liked the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, as I mentioned before, but it did seem to be missing an exhibit on sideshow freaks. A perfect opportunity for wax figures. I did see Gargantua the Great’s cage, however.

Just a little off the courthouse square in Baraboo is Salecker’s Baraboo Bäckerei – a German-style bakery. It reminded me of one of my favorite bakeries anywhere, the corner establishment I visited many times in Lüneburg all those years ago. Just the smell was worth driving a few miles for.

The Al. Ringling Theater on the square offers tours every morning at 11. We were looking forward to taking the tour the morning we left Baraboo, but it was closed that day due to construction work. Designed by the same fellows – the Rapps – who did the Chicago Theater, the Al. Ringling is now another reason to return to Baraboo someday.

And there’s one more reason: the Foreverton, south of Baraboo on US 12, billed as the “world’s largest metal sculpture.” I don’t know how that’s measured, but I wanted to see it. We got to see other interesting metal sculptures in the area, mostly of birds, but the Foreverton itself was closed – we could see the top behind a wooden fence – on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Baraboo Circus

I never did find out if it’s pronounced BAR-a-boo or BEAR-a-boo, but I ended up liking Baraboo, Wisconsin, a town about 40 miles from Madison on the banks of the not-so-mighty Baraboo River, a tributary of the Wisconsin River. For one thing, it has a courthouse square that’s more or less alive, ringed with active retail, plus some standard features, such as (in the North) a monument to those who fought “for the Union” and another one honoring those in “the Great War” which I believe was updated for later wars.

Not so standard are the memorials cemented into the top of a chest-high wall on one side of the courthouse grounds -- a long series of plaques honoring circus folk, beginning with the Ringling brothers. A sign explains that the Ringling organization dedicated the plaques on the 100th anniversary of its founding, which happened to be in Baraboo in 1884.

How many Ringling brothers were there? Seven: Albert, August, Otto, Alfred T., Charles, John, and Henry. And what was an early name of the circus, if Wiki is to be believed (and I do)? “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

Long ago, the Ringling circus spent its off-seasons in Baraboo, but after World War I took advantage of infrastructure development in Florida to move its winter quarters to Sarasota, where it remains to this day. A more rational choice than Wisconsin, if you asked me.

Ringling’s property included a row of buildings on the banks of the Baraboo, “Ringlingville,” including space for elephants, horses and other animals, offices and storage – such as one building devoted to wardrobes (can you imagine the phantasmagoria that must have been?). Along with some newer buildings, plus a complex across the river and connected by footbridge, this forms the nucleus of the Circus World Museum, the attraction that puts Baraboo on the map these days.

Been meaning to see it for some years. I can’t remember when I first heard of it, but that red “point of interest” spot on the maps marking its location had been calling me. Rather than do something insane on this part of the trip, such as spend two entire days in Wisconsin Dells, I wanted to devote one to Baraboo and its one-of-a-kind museum. So on August 5, we went.

As a museum, it does two things. It has exhibits, like any museum. It also has circus acts (at least in the summer), unlike any museum. The combo works well.

Circus World has some large artifact collections that I saw parts of -- circus posters, circus costumes and circus wagons. Talk about phantasmagoria. The exhibits can only hint at the spectacle, but they hint strongly, tugging at your sleeve: Spectacle for spectacle’s sake! Step right up, son!

It was one of those times that I wanted a time machine to not only see the past, but hear it and smell it and taste it. To be a ten-year-old near the dawn of the 20th century who had enough scratch to enter the tent, and some sideshows, on the one day of the year when the spectacle came to town. To be in a time when diversion was rare, but when it did come – it was full-blooded, brother, and not light and echoes from a machine.

This naturally put me in the mood to see real performers doing real things, and Circus World did not disappoint, though you could hardly call it a big top. The museum in fact calls it “the Hippodrome,” a name I’ve always been fond of. The world needs more hippodromes.

There at the Hippodrome at various times, we saw the museum’s resident clown comedian, “Eggy,” a magician who did Houdini-like escapes, an elephant act, a dwarf in drag, and some astounding acrobats from China, the likes of which I haven’t seen since we attended an acrobat show in Shanghai. They did things acrobats are supposed to, things that make you ask, How is that possible?

Eggy was good enough, but everyone laughed hardest when one of the old elephants in “Elephant Encounter” unloaded a couple of wheelbarrows worth of dung in the ring, as if it were part of the act. But I think it was just a bonus for those of us who attended that day.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Ducks

As far as I could tell, Germans haven’t discovered Wisconsin Dells. At least, I didn’t notice any German spoken in any of the tourist destinations we visited in that famed tourist trap… I mean, mecca. An absence of spoken German is usually a pretty good sign that Lufthansa isn't bringing them over by the planeload for their American experience in that particular place, as described in their Reiseführer.

I don’t bring this up to be especially critical of Germans for going where their guidebooks tell them. I’ve certainly used enough guidebooks in my time, sometimes more than strictly necessary. More interesting is the question of what’s considered worthy of inclusion, and why a place like Wisconsin Dells – about as American as you can get, if you asked me – doesn’t seem to make the cut for German editors.

Which reminds me of my favorite German tourist moment. Back in ’97, we visited the Grand Canyon. One of our party wanted to take a helicopter tour, which we didn’t, so we waited for her at the heliport during her short flight. Also waiting were a group of Germans, one of whom seemed to be trying Dr. Pepper for the first time, as much as I could tell from my meager German. But I didn’t need any language to understand the look of distaste, and mystification, on the man’s face that said, Why would anyone drink this?

I heard no German among the other people riding the same Original Wisconsin Duck with us on August 6. I did hear a lot of talk from our driver, about 18 years old, who followed the tradition of drivers in tourist destinations by telling bad jokes:

“There was this family of tomatoes on the trail, dad, mom, and baby tomato. The baby tomato fell behind, and dad tomato got angry. He went back and whacked baby tomato: ‘Ketchup!’ ”

Never mind the jokes. I recommend the Ducks. Former amphibious vehicles in military service, they now have a civilian purpose. A trail in the countryside near Wisconsin Dells has been cut for them, and the narrow, white-and-Army green Ducks take riders lurching along these paths -- winding, sometimes up-and-down through forest but also charming fern dells and a couple of small gorges.

Twice along the way, the Duck enters the water. Once the Wisconsin River, famed at that point for its sandstone banks, and later the less-interesting manmade Lake Delton, though the guide had a story about the lakeside mansion (“Dawn Manor”) of the man who created the lake, and the eccentric woman who later bought it. Or maybe the man was eccentric and the woman created the lake. I forget the details, which weren’t as compelling as the ax-murders at Taliesin.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Caves I've Known

In the summer of '72, my family went on a cave vacation. At least, that's how I remember it, because the goal was Carlsbad Caverns, but on the way there we stopped at the Caverns of Sonora in west Texas, and on the way back, Longhorn Cavern State Park in central Texas.

I was duly impressed by Carlsbad, such as by the fact that each tour visited only part of the developed trails, that plenty more undeveloped passages branched off, and that in fact not all the cave had been explored, and maybe never could be. The enormous vaulting ceilings are grand. The huge stalagmites, -tites and other formations are as well. And, being a kid, I was also impressed that there was a whole snack bar in one of the cave's larger rooms, and by the speed at which the elevators moved to take you to the surface.

We also waited one evening at dusk near the main entrance of the cave for the bats to come out -- there is, or was, seating available for that purpose. A park service employee was at hand to talk about bats, and I remember him mentioning in passing that it sure did snow a lot in New Mexico, and that bats rarely flew into anyone's hair, not to worry about that. The bats dribbled out at first, then became a torrent.

As memorable as Carlsbad was, the Caverns of Sonora made a bigger impression. Even at 11, I was struck by the intense beauty of the cave. Unlike Carlsbad, it didn't overwhelm with size. It's a modest cave in that way, but packed with formations, including amazing numbers of helictites, thin formations that seem to grow every which way, seemingly without regard to gravity. Of course I don't remember a lot of detail after 35 years (I haven't returned), but I do remember being blown away, and I don't think my age was the main factor.

Over the years since, I've visited a fair number of commercial caves, perhaps looking for the awe I felt at the Caverns of Sonora. It isn't quite a hobby, more of an active interest, and when the opportunity arises, I'll go, which has taken me as far as an interesting cave on the island of Shikoku, Japan -- which proved that you don't really have to understand the guide -- and a nice jewelbox of a cave in Western Australia. Closer to home, Mammoth Cave duly impressed as Carlsbad once did, and Wind Cave had its charms too. Mark Twain Cave, on the other hand, was part of the tourist snare -- "trap" is too strong -- that is Hannibal, Mo., and not that great as a cave.

Unfortunately, I never followed up on the single non-commercial caving experience I had, in July 1982, when two college friends and I spent most of a day inside the Earth at a cave some distance outside Nashville, equipped with hardhats topped by acetylene gas lamps, flashlights, candles and lunches that we packed in. It was muddy and exhausting and good fun, with plenty to see by that eerie acetylene glow, though not as picturesque as a commercial cave.

On August 4, we made it to Cave of the Mounds, near Blue Mound, Wisconsin, just in time for the last tour of the day. It's a fine cave, not lacking in worthy formations, and more interesting because the first half of the tour was done entirely by flashlight -- a special feature of the day's touring, since it was the anniversary of the day the cave had been discovered in 1939. I'm also happy to report that Ann walked all the way through without asking to be carried. This bodes well for future walks through caves, in search of one that will recall Sonora.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, August 16, 2007


How the trolls -- troll statues, to be exact, since actually trolls might be a public health nuisance -- came to be on the main street through Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, I haven't investigated very closely, and I don't think I will. The town has a strong Norwegian heritage and I've read that there's an artist in town skilled in troll carving. The troll statues we saw were here and there along the street, and we saw about a half dozen, including this fellow. A tourist troll, or maybe just a photographer troll, plus a rat:

This troll, not quite in focus, was in front of a shop specializing in Norwegian -- or was it Scandinavian? -- gewgaws:

We hadn't gone to southern Wisconsin seeking out the "troll capital of the world." I'd never heard of it before, and had missed any reference to in any of the guides that I consulted before we left. But the evening before we drove to Spring Green to see Taliesin, we visited a small grocery store in the town of Blue Mound, and there I discovered a selection of local postcards, including some featuring Mount Horeb's trolls. Call it travel serendipity, which should be an element in any good trip. I knew we had to pass through Mount Horeb on the way to Taliesin.

Since we actually had to be at Taliesin at a specific time, we probably didn't see all the trolls we would have during a more leisurely inspection of the town. So it goes. I've since read that the Mustard Museum is also located in Mount Horeb, and that there are neopagan goings-on on the land next to Blue Mound State Park, so clearly the part of southern Wisconsin offers more than meets the eye.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Image Problem

We had star-crossed photography on this trip. The digital camera that we've had for about three years recently -- before the trip -- and mysteriously developed a bent zoom, rendering the device useless for now. (I suspect a certain girl, who denies it, of dropping the thing -- but didn't see it happen.) I was too busy to find out if it would be worth fixing, so it sat out the trip.

So we took Yuriko's old film camera. After a few pictures, it stopped working. I bought a new lithium battery for it at the IGA in Glen Arbor, Mich. It again worked for a few pics, then stopped. Old age, I figure. Yuriko had it before we were married.

Then we bought a disposable camera. Lilly's used to the digital, so I had to restrain her from snapping pictures right and left, since there's no erasing exposed film.

But we did get a few passable images, such as this, the schoolhouse replica in which a dog alarmed the kids (see August 11):

It looks like how an 1830s school would be imagined in the 1930s.

This is the view at the north tip of Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan. Note the pride in its latitude. "You are now standing on the 45th parallel or half way between the north pole & the equator. This lighthouse was built in 1870."

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More Taliesin Details

Commentator e mentioned (see yesterday) that Taliesin West is a "house for dwarfs," which reminded me that the Wisconsin Taliesin isn't much better. I'm just a shade above 6 feet (about 183 cm) tall, and very often the top of my head was an inch or two short of Taliesin's ceiling, and in one case, I had to bend down to avoid hitting the ceiling. Our guide mentioned in passing that one of Wright's son-in-laws, who lived there a while, was 6 foot 5 inches tall or so.

Another oddity was that some of the doorknobs were about two feet higher than standard level -- at about mid-chest for someone like me. One of the other members of the tour group asked about them. The guide said that no one was quite sure about that, but perhaps he wanted to discourage children from entering or leaving the building.

Not only did FLW not believe in lightning rods, he had no use for gutters. The effect during rain, which I saw, was that water pours off the roof straight down. Maybe he liked that effect, or didn't like the way gutters looked. I'm no building expert, but I suspect that in the long run, that kind of water flow can't be good for the structure.

Taliesin also contains some chairs that Wright designed for the Johnson Wax HQ. We were warned not to sit in them. "If you sit exactly right, and are careful in getting up, they're fine," the guide said. "But if you move too much from side to side, they can tip over." She added that Wright himself preferred to lounge in chairs from "Marshall Field."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Come to Wisconsin, See the Site of an Ax Murder in 1914

What more to write about Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin? Someone needs to make a movie about his affair with Martha Borthwick. (Well, maybe there will be one soon.) It has everything: period costumes (pre-World War I), infidelity, a name architect, the building of Taliesin, and a mass ax murder at the end. (Her messy end was not mentioned in the above-linked book review.) Probably, however, a filmmaker whose script didn't show proper reverence for The Genius wouldn't get to first base in using Taliesin as a setting, though if my guide was correct, the foundation that owns the place sure could use a Hollywood-sized check to do some structural work on it, since it sounds like an astonishingly deep money pit.

We visited Taliesin on August 4. Both Yuriko and I had been thinking about doing so for years, but had never gotten around to it. We pitched our tent at Blue Mound State Park, about 20 miles from the Wright property, the night before and intended to pretty much devote the next day to Taliesin. It was a logistical necessity. Children under 12 aren't allowed to take the tour, so we had to take the two-hour, house-only tour in turn: she went at noon, and I went at 3 p.m.

Wright certainly designed interesting places. Everywhere you look in Taliesin, there's one damned interesting detail after another. Just how did he think of that? And that? And that over there? Other details make you think, how in God's name did he think that was a good idea? In particular, I took a good look at Taliesin's roofline, and noticed no lightning rods. Taliesin, you see, is built near the top of a large hill in rural Wisconsin, with nothing between it and the sky. Of course, the house has been there since 1911, and its two fires haven't been because of a direct hit -- once through arson, the other time by an electric surge caused by lightning (maybe). Still, I looked at the rainy sky the day I visited and thought, one of these days... and they'll be no Wright around to rebuild it.

I'm glad I went. I'll make an effort to see Taliesin West and Fallingwater and even the Johnson Wax Headquarters if I live long enough. I'll go anywhere I think is interesting. But enough already with genius. Maybe he was. He definitely had considerable talent. I'm not competent to judge architectural genius. Still, anything repeated that often makes me suspicious that it's more parrots talking than useful opinion.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Not-So-Old Mission

I’ve been informed that it wasn’t French Catholics who build a mission on Old Mission Peninsula (see yesterday), but Presbyterians, and not until the late 1830s. No wonder I couldn’t find anything in the New France style of missions. How did I get that idea? Can’t say, but it does show that travel is broadening only if you get your facts right.

Or maybe facts are overrated. There’s romance to a story about voyageurs and priests landing at this remote spot on the great inland lakes in the decades before North America’s fate as either French or British was decided. There’s a lot less romance to Presbyterians setting up shop in the almost-wilderness of the new state of Michigan. Why weren’t they on their way to the South Seas anyway? “Brothers and sisters, shall it be Otaheite or… Michigan?” Then again, Henry Schoolcraft played a part in the early days of the Old Mission Peninsula, which is cool.

The Wisconsin part of the trip will be mentioned over the next few days. I’ll try to get my facts straight.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Lure of Peninsulas

People without any interest in maps might not understand the fascination of peninsulas. The outline of the contiguous United States would be much less interesting without Florida or the Delaware Peninsula or Cape Cod, just as Mexico benefits from the Baja Peninsula and the Yucatan, and Alaska from its knobs and the wonderful Alaska Peninsula that trails off into the Aleutians. Faraway peninsular shapes have long fascinated me, too: all of Europe’s branches, the bulbous Malay Peninsula, remote Kamchatka.

The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and the UP for that matter, are themselves festivals of smaller peninsulas. The fair-sized Leelanau Peninsula juts into Lake Michigan and creates the narrow Grand Traverse Bay, which itself contains the Old Mission Peninsula, a small tongue of land that divides the bay into East Arm and West Arm. Traverse City is at this peninsula’s base.

We arrived at TC in the mid-afternoon, after following M-22 most of the way to get there, but it was too hot for a proposed expedition downtown or to Fishtown in nearby Leland, so we drove the length of the Old Mission Peninsula on M-37 with the a/c high. Partly residential, but still largely agricultural, the view from the road takes in the East Bay sometimes, the West Bay more often, and a wealth of cherry orchards and vineyards.

About mid-way to the northern tip, we stopped at Chateau Grand Traverse. The prospect of a winery tour, especially an indoor tour, had a lot to recommend it. We were lucky in that a tour was starting only minutes after we arrived, and we joined it. It wasn’t quite all indoors, since the first stop was an outdoor viewing platform that overlooked most of the vineyard. It was so hot that Ann complained loudly, and I took her to stand under the shade of a nearby bush – so close I could still hear the guide, a young man barely of drinking age, but who knew the vineyard and its produce well.

I remember hearing about the origins of Michigan wine as far back as high school in the mid-70s, when informed wine opinion seemed to be huh? Michigan? That’s a joke, right? But the peninsula seems to have the right combination of warm and cold, wet and dry weather that certain grapes need to flourish, because of the mildly hilly lay of the land and the moderating influence of Grand Traverse Bay.

Afterward, naturally, we tarried in the gift shop and Yuriko and I sampled some of the vintages. We left with two bottles: a Grand Traverse Select Semidry Riesling, and a Chateau Grand Traverse Limited Bottling Gamay Noir 2005. They both tasted pretty good to me, which is about as sophisticated as I get when it comes to wine tasting.

Down the road we stopped at a stand, and did pretty well there, taking away cherries and blueberries, and ears of corn to boil that night at the campsite. Then I went looking for the Old Mission. You know, this was the Old Mission Peninsula, so I figured there would be a mission somewhere. Once upon a time, apparently, French missionaries set up shop in the area to pester Indians, and I was expecting a building of some kind. Maybe not the fine Spanish missions of my youth in San Antonio, but something. After driving around a while, I stopped at a store to ask about it – I hate that damned stereotype, because I will ask for directions if I’m completely flummoxed. “Old Mission is just the name of the area,” the girl behind the counter told me. She seemed to think it odd that I would be out looking for, you know, a mission.

We did find a one-room schoolhouse in the vicinity. Which I noticed was a 1930s replica, though I didn’t note any WPA plaque. Inside were some modest displays about Old Mission Peninsula history, and while we looked at those, a mid-sized white-and-gray dog rushed in. I won’t call him mad. More like excited. Not in attack mode, either, but he also didn’t have a collar. The girls were spooked, and both clung to me, despite me telling them it wasn’t necessary. As quickly as he came in, the dog left. A moment or two later, a middle-aged fellow stuck his head in the door and asked, “That your dog?”


“I know all the dogs around here, and I’ve never seen him.”

A little mystery. We saw the dog later on someone’s empty porch, but that doesn’t mean anything. Anyway, we went onward to the tip of the peninsula, which promised a lighthouse. What we got looked more like a church steeple, and it looked like someone lived there, at least some of the time. Not the most majestic lighthouse, but they can’t all be Cape Hatteras. I did like the nearby sign that informed us that the 45th parallel ran through the area. I’ve seen other signs saying the same thing elsewhere in Michigan (a billboard on I-75), Wisconsin and in Yellowstone National Park.

Friday, August 10, 2007

D.H. Day, M-22 & the B-52s

Spend enough time along the lake in a certain part of Michigan -- a few hours is enough -- and you begin to notice D.H. Day. There’s the D.H. Day Highway, the honorary name of Michigan 109 (M-109). Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore sports the D.H. Day Campground and the D.H. Day Group Campground, which are some miles apart. Buy a particular postcard locally and you’ll have an image of the D.H. Day Barn, the same picturesque barn you saw on M-109 just north of the Dune Climb.

Just who was this D.H. Day, and why does he have such a concentration of things named after him? an inquiring tourist wanted to know. That would be me, and I thought the answer would have to wait till I had Internet access again, so little did the tourist literature have to say about Day.

But late in the morning on the first of August, we paid a visit to the town of Glen Haven, which is really only a collection of historic structures on the coast of Lake Michigan, and now within the boundaries of the national lakeshore. That day it was nearly as empty of people as the Dune Climb had been full the day before. But in its heyday, late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, Glen Haven was alive as a transshipment point for lumber, a stopover for Great Lakes vessels, the hub of a burgeoning fruit-growing district (cherries especially, also apples) and the focal point of an early tourist industry, bringing in the affluent by steamer from Chicago. It was a little empire. The emperor was D.H. Day.

I didn’t have to wait to learn that, because the park service volunteer blacksmith told us about him in considerable detail. One of the historic structures in Glen Haven is a smithy. If I remember right, it had been other things in more recent years, abandoned for a while, and lately reconfigured by the park service to look like it had in the late 19th century, though the interpreters are necessarily people of our time. “All the original equipment was long gone,” the smith, a woman in her 50s, said. “Do you know where the park service found most of the equipment you see here?”

It was a large number of things: an anvil, bellows, tongs, hammers, and so on. “eBay,” she answered. “You can get anything on eBay.”

As for D.H. Day, I was pleased to learn his remarkable story. That’s the best kind of souvenir. Someone had to bring in cherries, so important to the identity of this part of Michigan these days, since they aren’t native. I hope the woman we saw in Traverse City a little later gives an occasional thought to D.H. Day. Her Kia was decked out with a cherry motif. The antenna had a little plastic cherry on top, the steering wheel had a cover with cherries printed on it, artificial cherries were hanging from the rear-view mirror, and her windshield wipers were tipped with little red orbs.

M-22 was another discovery for me. The road has fans enough such that souvenir shops sell reproductions of the road sign that marks it. The road goes almost as far south as Manistee, and loops up northward through the Leelanau Peninsula, but for me it turned scenic at the national lakeshore, through alternating mixed deciduous forests and open fields lively this time of year with wildflowers. Especially a small light purplish bud, lavender almost, though I never found out exactly what it was. The name hardly mattered as carpets of light purple, punctuated by lone trees, bushes and tall grasses as well, opened up alongside M-22.

M-109 is a much shorter road that branches briefly off of M-22 in the national lakeshore, connecting the Dune Climb and Glen Haven with the nearby tourist town of Glen Arbor. It has the same charms as M-22. After we visited the smithy everyone else went to the nearby beach at Glen Haven – clean sand, a wide view of Lake Michigan, but only about three other families there – while I drove to Glen Arbor to pick up supplies at the local IGA.

On the way back, just before I got back to Glen Haven, a radio station I’d tuned into moments before started playing the B-52s’ “Love Shack,” generally known as a dance number, but which is also a fine driving song. How could I let the opportunity pass?

I rolled the windows all the way down, turned the radio up loud, and sped south down M-109. No one else was on the road. I had the B-52s, the wind, the sun, the fields of purple, the tall grass and the trees to myself as long as the song lasted.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 09, 2007


According to my readings about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Dune Climb -- which is what it's called on the park service maps -- is the most-visited place in the entire national lakeshore. We went on the first day of our visit, which happened to be the last day of July. The idea was to get there fairly early in the morning, since high heat was predicted for that day, but we are a sluggish family in the morning, so we didn't arrive until about 10 a.m. The heat was already on by then.

"The lake is a lot further than it looks," a park service employee told us as we stopped at the entrance to the Dune Climb parking lot. Meaning Lake Michigan, which you cannot see from the parking lot. All you see is the dune. He added that it was about a mile and a half to get to that body of water, a very long walk indeed considering the terrain. Some people walk all that way, and there are trails. On a cooler day, with slightly older children, we might have too, but like most people we decided to see what was at the top of the dune in front of us, and then come back.

And what a dune. I've seen a few dunes in my time, but this was a monster. It was the kind of dune a Hollywood movie would offer up -- an enormous bulge of sand with a crest so high that you can't see beyond it. Some images are here.

A lot of other people were climbing at 10 a.m., but the dune was big enough to make them seem like scattered ants. We make our preparations, including hats, sunscreen and water, and up we went. It was a slog. One foot up, then it slides down a bit. After all, it's warm sand. Make that pretty hot sand. Step, slide back, step, slide back, step, slide back. Rest. Heat. Sweat. Sand in shoes. Remove sand pointlessly, because it comes back. Step, slide back, step, slide back -- Ann wants help, so I hold her hand most of the way up, which adds even more drag to the climb. Rest. Sweat. Sweat some more. We rest every ten steps or so. Thus Yuriko and Lilly made better time up the Dune Climb, though no one can be said to make good time, not even the athletic-looking couple and their small child who paralleled us for a time.

But the crest does eventually arrive. What will it reveal? A vista of Lake Michigan in the distance? No. More dune. Another slope, not quite as steep, leads up to a place of promised rest, a copse of sand-loving trees amid a landscape of beach grass. Most people aim for it. So do we.

We make it. At any one time, about a dozen people are enjoying the shade offered by those hardy trees. There were benches, but we preferred to sit directly under the trees and drink most of our water and cool off. Even from there, there's only a slight vista of Lake Michigan. Most of what you see in that direction (west, more or less) are rolling dunes punctuated by more trees and beach grass, but also well marked with paths. The more picturesque vista, at least if you want to see water, is back the way you came, to the east, more or less. From the crest the small but pretty Glen Lake is visible, including the viaduct that cuts it into smaller and larger lobes.

We hung around under the trees for 20 minutes or so, with the kids playing in the sand and digging up rocks. The walk down the Dune Climb was much easier, though it scared Ann tremendously, and during the final bit I had to carry her. I would not have been able to carry her up. It occurred to me as we went down that the Dune Climb definitely falls into the category of Things I Should Have Done 20 Years Ago.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Of the four elements, Water was the dominant one during our counterclockwise trip around Lake Michigan. How could it have been otherwise?

We touched the great lake itself a number of times. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore includes a feature called the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, created privately by a man of that name but absorbed into the park system after his death about 30 years ago. Scenic is no exaggeration. The road winds through hilly, forested territory, opening up from time to time with views of massive sand dunes or Lake Michigan or both. At one point, there’s a plank walkway through sandy, grassy scrub to a lookout structure built on the side of a cliff about 400 feet above Lake Michigan, with its blues and greens and shallows and deeps and long horizon. South Manitou Island is off to the north from that vantage, and Point Betsie juts out into the lake toward the south.

Near the lookout, it’s possible to climb down a very steep slope to the lakeshore. A sign at the top warns people that climbing back is extremely exhausting –- the exact term it uses. A steady stream of lunatics were climbing down to the lakeshore anyway, in the 90-plus heat that last day of July.

No reason to be extremely exhausted, since Lake Michigan is easy to access nearby. We’d set up our tent in the Platte River Campground within the national lakeshore’s boundaries, and about a mile down the road was a waterfront park managed by Benzie County. The park encompasses the mouth of the lazy, slow-flowing Platte River, which makes a sharp turn just before entering Lake Michigan, forming a long peninsular beach on the big lake. But most people hung out on and in the river. We did too. At about two feet at its deepest and with its gentle current, even a child as small as Ann could walk across it.

It was still hot at about 4 p.m. when we arrived at the park. As soon as we could, we joined the waders and splashers in the river, along with inner-tube floaters and canoe paddlers who came in a steady trickle from the forested upstream direction. Lilly and Ann looked for shells, played in the mud and built sand structures on the side of the river with good sand for it. The first thing I did was sit down in the stream and use my hands to pour water over my head. What better use for river water on a hot summer day?

At the Mackinac Bridge, which has stood across the Straits of Mackinac for 50 years now, we drove across right after a heavy rain, when the green and white marvel of bridge engineering still dripped and collected puddles of water. Yuriko was driving, so for the first time I could see the crossing as a passenger, and took a long look at the Lake Huron side, the vast blue, the long line of the horizon. So far that view has been my only view of Lake Huron, three times now. Whenever I look at the outline of Huron on a map, I dream of seeing its shoreline in greater detail.

Our crossing was on August 2. We’d only learned about the collapse of the I-35W bridge that morning, at a convenience store in Charlevoix, Michigan, when we’d seen the headlines in a newspaper. Unfortunate food for thought while crossing the world’s third-longest suspension bridge, though I’m fairly sure that the Mighty Mac will endure long past my lifetime.

At an obscure rest stop on US 2 in the Upper Peninsula, west of the town of Epoufette, wooden steps lead from the facilities through a thick brace of trees to a wide sandy beach on the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Further south such an expanse further south would be speckled with waterfront development or, less likely, be a state park or other protected zone. People were there besides us, but not many. The water was very shallow fairly fall out. I wandered maybe 50 feet from the shoreline where the water was only a few inches deep: the Jesus walk.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, which Yuriko and I toured separately (no kids allowed), has a water feature. Wright dammed a creek at the base of the hill where he built the house, making a large pond that’s undeniably picturesque. An example of organic architecture? Sure thing, Frank.

The nucleus of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is a row of century-old structures lined along the Baraboo River, a tributary of the Wisconsin. Much of the museum, including the venues for the museum's circus acts and a couple of buildings devoted to amazingly ornate circus wagons, are across the mid-sized Baraboo, with the two parts of the museum connected by a footbridge.

The Cave of the Mounds, near Blue Mound, Wisconsin, was formed by the action of water over the unimaginable millennia. And it is still alive and growing, festooned by stalagmites and –tites and a zoo of other rock features. The cave dripped on each of us during our visit, including a direct hit by a mineral-rich drop on Yuriko’s eye that stung for a few minutes.

To do the Dells is to encounter water. We rode the Ducks -- former US Army amphibian vehicles now pressed into the service of tourism -- through the forest and onto the Wisconsin River and the manmade Lake Delton. At the Riverview Park and Waterworld, where we spent Monday afternoon and part of the evening, water came in the form of kiddie pools, regular pools, a wave pool, and slides of various lengths and courses. The first thing I did in the waterpark was stand under a mushroom-shaped fountain from which water poured. What better use for pool water on a hot summer day?

Finally, at Blue Mound State Park, where we camped in Wisconsin, the evening of August 4 was cloudy but dry. At about 10 p.m., as we were in our tent but not quite asleep, it started to rain. I woke many times during the night and each time it was still raining, and no drizzly rain either, but two-fisted, he-man rain. It rained, and rained, and rained. Sometimes lightning, sometimes thunder, but always rain, till dawn. Water entered our waterproof tent in some quantity. It was the single longest episode of rain I can ever remember.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Around Lake Michigan, Counterclockwise

“Have you ever been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?” I asked about a half-dozen Chicago-area friends and acquaintances in the early weeks of July. Take a map of Lower Michigan, with its contour of peninsulas and bays and islands, and the national lakeshore hugs some of the curves of the upper left-hand side of Michigan’s mitten-shape, plus two large islands in Lake Michigan in the bargain. It’s beyond direct access by any Interstate, and the nearest town of any size is Traverse City, which is actually no small burg, with its swollen summertime population of I don’t know how many. But people are moving there. The Census Bureau says 84,952 permanent residents in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, as of 2006, a 9.4% increase since 2000, compared with the state’s meager increase of 1.6% over the same six years.

The national lakeshore isn’t really that far from metro Chicago, either. Three hundred fifty miles or less, depending on where you start, arcing around the bottom of Lake Michigan and then up, either along the roads on the coast that take you through such towns as St. Joseph, Grand Haven, Muskegon and Ludington, or by a slightly longer route that cuts through Grand Rapids, Big Rapids and Cadillac.

The answers I got to my question usually amounted to, “No, where’s that?” Only one person said he’d been there – well, he thought his parents had taken him there as a kid. Or was it somewhere else? We were going to go anyway, but the idea that the national lakeshore was outside the orbit of usual local destinations added fuel to my determination to go. (Later we discovered that the national lakeshore is well known to many; just not so much by Chicagoans and Chicago suburbanites or, for that matter, the Germans, French or British.)

The national lakeshore wasn’t enough for an entire nine-day trip, however. At some point we decided to also go around the top of Lake Michigan through the Upper Peninsula, and then back down into Wisconsin, where our target was the Driftless Area of that state, near Madison – better known to the world (very well known to the world) as greater Wisconsin Dells. I forgot to note the odometer as we left, but I’d guess that we covered no more than about 1,200 miles on this two-destination trip beginning July 30 and ending today.

It was the first time any of us had circled Lake Michigan counterclockwise. Along the way in Michigan, we saw the grave of Gerald Ford from behind a locked gate; the view from some enormous piles of sand next to Lake Michigan; the place where the Platte River of Michigan debouches into that vast lake, where we made sand castles; the unexpected tourist town of Glen Arbor, Michigan; the purple carpet of flowers along Michigan 22; and the viniculture of the Old Mission Peninsula. We ate surprisingly good Chinese food in a Traverse City suburb, drank the samples of wine offered by the Chateau Grand Traverse, and went to the first pasty shop we saw in the UP and bought three pasties, two beef, one turkey, and ate them as we rolled westward on US 2. The days were hot, the nights only warm. The camping was good. We talked a lot, quarreled a little, and laughed some, the usual sorts of things of any family vacation.

And that was just the Michigan side of the trip. In Wisconsin was Green Bay, Blue Mound State Park, Taliesin, Cave of the Mounds, the Trollway of Mount Horeb, Baraboo and its permanent circus, and the tawdry astonishments of Wisconsin Dells – part Las Vegas, part Orlando, part Branson, part Rock City, part its own glowing self.