Sep 25, 2007

Say "Cheese"!

This past weekend we drove up to the Appleton, WI area to visit our son, JT, and his girlfriend, Kaytlyn. One of our favorite activities while touring around is visiting small local wineries, so the four of us were off in search of a couple that our local tourist guide said existed. It's a little like hunting but without the orange sweatshirt and the noise. We didn't drive far before we bagged the first one... Kerrigan Brothers Winery.

One of the things I truly enjoy and continue to marvel at is the diversity of people I run into out there, the varied interests and passions, and the unusual skills and talents possessed by the otherwise most ordinary people. This stop at Kerrigan Brothers was a case in point. The four of us wandered into the tasting room and were greeted by a large man... Troy Landwehr. Troy is a man of many talents. In addition to being an owner and a winemaker, Troy is an artist -- a sculptor. But not just your normal, run-of-the-mill stone carver. Oh no, Troy is a cheese sculptor! But wait, there's more... he's a famous cheese sculptor that earlier this very year created a cheesy replica of Mt. Rushmore from a 700 pound block of young cheddar. It turned out quite "gouda". Both the sculpture and the artist went on a 10 city tour, including New York City, where they visited the TV show "Fox & Friends" and Times Square. Last year Troy was on the Letterman Show where he carved the head of stage manager Biff Henderson in, of course, cheese. This guy's a "muenster" celebrity!

So, has all of this fame gone to his head? Absolutely not! He told us, and allow me to paraphrase here, that he used to be considered "strange", but all this attention has advanced him to "quirky". His goal, and it's within site, is to be "eccentric". And he's a heck of a nice guy, too.

If you're in the Appleton area, take a little time to visit the Kerrigan Brothers Winery, just north of Hwy 41 on Cty "N". They make a nice selection of very reasonably priced fruit wines, some of which are really quite good.

Click on this link to see a story about Troy and a picture of his Mt. Rushmore sculpture.

And Thanks to JT and Kaytlyn for a great time this past weekend.


Harvest Moon

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
At the Soldner Farm near Beaver Dam, WI

It's raining today, a slow intermittent rain that's perfect for catching up on a few indoor chores. There's no guilt about not being ourdoors this day. One of my indoor things to do is to get a new blog post added to the RV Sabbatical Journal... so here we are.

But first, If you're lucky enough to have clear skies tomorrow, Wednesday night, take a few minutes to enjoy the rising of the official 2007 Harvest Moon. It will be rising just before 7pm here in Beaver Dam, almost exactly due east. Due to some celestial mechanics that I'm not going to try to explain (mostly because I don't understand it all) the moon rises sooner after the sun sets than on other "full moon" evenings during the year. This fact supposedly provided a more uninterrupted source of outdoor illumination that allowed farmers to harvest crops well into the night. Thus, it's called the Harvest Moon. So if the mosquitoes will leave you alone, grab a glass of wine and toast the arrival of autumn as the full moon rises.

Now, I've gotta get this travel blog updated. In my last post, we had just arrived at Prairie Island campground near Winona -- right on the Mississippi River. We originally choose Winona because it was about half way between the Twin Cities and Devil's Lake State Park, where we were headed next. But spending time in Winona actually turned into a nice surprise.

An historic city started in the mid-1800's as the transportation and trading center of the area -- the river and rails all came together here. Winona was a relatively wealthy community with a vibrant economy. It has a number of architectural "gems" from those days peppered around it's old riverfront downtown area -- purportedly the finest architecture of any town between St. Paul and Galena. Snicker if you will, but we thoroughly enjoyed checking out the buildings on that warm late summer day. We also took advantage of the weather for a long bike ride along the river.

On Sunday, September 16th, we drove on to Devil's Lake State Park near Baraboo, WI, where we meet up with my brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Deb. If you've been to Devil's Lake you know the incredible scenery and hiking (maybe mountain climbing??) opportunities of the park. Over the next few evenings more than a few muscles were soothed around a campfire while a little passable wine was consumed to ease the pain. Thanks for a great time Jerry and Deb!

Dar and I hung around Devil's Lake for a couple days after Jerry and Deb headed home. On Thursday, the 20th, we drove to Beaver Dam for our planned two week stay. Our main job while here is to go through everything on the bus and make a few additions, deletions, and changes on the basis of what we learned during our first three month "shake-down cruise". I'm planning to write an entire post about this project, so I'll save the details for later.


Sep 13, 2007

Rain, Cold Fronts, Fall

September 13, 2007 -- Prairie Island Campground near Winona, MN

Last night we had dinner with Jim and Sue at the Bonfire Grill in Savage, MN., and there was general agreement that it was a place we'd come back to again. After dinner and another great campfire at Jim and Sue's home, we said our good-byes and made tentative plans to meet next summer. Thank you again, Jim and Sue, for a wonderful visit.

Our plan this morning was to get up whenever we got up, take our time getting the camper ready for travel, hook up the toad, and take off for Winona, MN. It was a good plan, spoiled only by the wind and rain that accompanied a cold front racing through the Twin Cities area in the late morning. Once we saw the clouds and the radar image, we picked up the pace and had everything done except hooking up the toad -- when the sky opened and the rain came down. Some time, oh, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, is required to get the toad hook-up done correctly and double-checked, so we decided, in order to keep dry, to start our travels today without hooking up and have Dar drive the car separately. The rains followed us, on and off, all the way to Winona. This cold front is bringing a touch of fall with it -- I actually heard the "s" word in the extended forecast for Northern Minnesota for the next few days.

Our site at Prairie Island Campground in right on the Mississippi river. Our front "picture window" is only 50 feet from an arm of the river. There aren't many people around so it's very peaceful. We'll be here for 3 nights. A very informative campground host gave us the low-down on things going on here in Winona and I can assure you we won't be bored or in need of entertainment. On Sunday, the plan is to rendezvous with my brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Deb, at Devil's Lake State Park for a few nights.

Oh, by the way... had to fill the fuel tank today. Ouch! The good news is that the bus is getting good mileage (for a bus)... between 7 and 8 mpg. I'm told that after the big diesel breaks in a little more it should consistently do better than 8. Considering the weight we're hauling around, over 32,000 lbs., we're happy with it so far.


Sep 11, 2007

Getting Caught Up

September 11, 2007 -- Lebanon Hills Park in Apple Valley, MN

The last few days we've spent a lot of time with friends and now need to get the 'ol Sabbatical Journal up to date with our travels. I'm amazed by the speed time passes. It doesn't take long to fall way behind.

The last post I published was on September 4th I think, and we were staying an extra day at Camp Soldner due to rain. The next day, Wednesday the 5th, we drove a little over a hundred miles and ended up at Arbor Vita Campground in Arbor Vitae, WI. We have some friends, Bob and Nancy, that recently moved from St. Paul, MN to a log cabin near Woodruff and we wanted to see both them and their new place. The place they bought is the log cabin you see in your mind when someone says "log cabin in the woods". It's a nice sized home with a high, open roof-line and a big, wrap-around covered porch -- a classic log cabin! They have a few acres which is all wooded and surrounded on three sides by state or national forest. We fell in love with it -- it was quite a catch! They invited us over for dinner (which was outstanding) and spent the rest of the evening talking, telling jokes, and remembering the "old days" around the campfire. Thanks, Bob and Nancy, a wonderful night.

Because we liked the area and had a great campsight, we hung around for an extra day. But on Saturday, we made a short move of about 70 miles to the Winter, WI area, about a half-hour southeast of Hayward. Our friends Terry and Jane recently build a new house in the woods, so we stopped for one night to see them and spend a little time catching up. Terry designed the house himself and it turned out great -- a lot like something we'd see ourselves settling into once our sabbatical is over. We're starting to taking notes and will pay particular attention not only to where we'd like to live in the future, but what we'd like in our next house. After dinner we helped break-in their new basement bar. Thanks, Terry and Jane, for another great night.

The next move, from Winter, WI to Apple Valley, MN, was our longest since we've been towing the toad -- about 220 miles. The portion of the trip from Winter to Eau Claire was easy, but the Eau Claire to Apple Valley leg was more challenging with a gusty side wind out of the north keeping the driver busy. We made it in a little over 4 hours with a couple short stops to "freshen up". The Campground in Apple Valley is called Lebanon Hills and is operated by the Dakota County Parks Department. It's a little more like an RV park than a campground, but it's neat, clean, with large, wide, full-hookup sites. It's very comfortable and I'm sure we'll stay here again the next time we're in the Twin Cities.

The reason we're here is to see our old friends and neighbors Jim and Sue. I don't mean "old" as in "old"; I mean "old" as in "long-time". They're a couple of wonderful people who we bonded with when we lived next door to them way back in the middle 80's. For years, Dar and Sue have gotten together to make antipasto. What, you ask, is antipasto? Here's one dictionary definition:
[ahn-tee-PAHS-toh; an-tee-PAST-oh] Literally meaning "before the meal," this Italian term refers to hot or cold hors d'oeuvre. An assortment of antipasti could include appetizers such as cheese, smoked meats, olives, fish and marinated vegetables.

Dar and Sue's version has an assortment of vegetables and tuna in a tomato paste/olive oil/vinegar brine. The mixture is cooked and canned. It keeps without refrigeration. When opened it's a great hors d'oeuvre served on crackers -- perfect for a couple of vagabonds as we travel around the country.

It was Jim and Sue who, years ago, really introduced us to the idea of having a fire-ring in the backyard of your house. (Campfires aren't just for camping anymore!) And, as you'd expect, we've had campfires almost nightly during this visit -- after all the work is done, of course. Jim and I launched their boat into the Minnesota River and we spent most of Monday touring the Twin Cites by boat on the Mississippi River. Due to the downed bridge in Minneapolis, it wasn't possible to really get to downtown Minneapolis, but we did a complete river tour of St. Paul and stopped at a dock-side restaurant for lunch on the river. It's a great un-congested way to see the city, especially on a sunny day.

That a quick summary of the past few days. Thanks for reading.

Sep 4, 2007

Moving Day delayed

September 4, 2007 -- In a puddle at Camp Soldner

Moving day has been delayed due to rain. This part of the U.P. has been in dire need of rain for much of the summer. Except for a little rain a week ago, it's been bone dry. The Forest Service issued a total burning ban some time ago and the fire danger has been listed as "extreme".

Last night a series of thunderstorms rumbled through and we woke up in a puddle of water. We're parked on grass here at Camp Soldner and the grass is getting saturated. Those are not the conditions you want when moving a 32,000 lb. bus. I can't imagine what it'd cost to get us pulled out of the mud if we sank in and got stuck.

So, we're staying for at least another day. The rain is still falling as I write this, but it's predicted to let up this afternoon and be dry tomorrow.

But if you've got to be stuck somewhere, what better place than this?


The Huron Mountain Club

September 4, 2007 -- Still at Camp Soldner.

The Huron Mountain Club

People love secrets and conspiracies. At least they love talking and speculating about them, probably because they can say or claim anything they want and no one is likely, with any authority, to refute what they're saying.

Seeds of a lovely little conspiracy are here in the U.P. in the form of a very exclusive, private, and secluded camp called the Huron Mountain Club (HMC). There's very little public information available on this organization; they have no website; even pinging Google returns almost nothing of authority or use. I can find no list of members. Yoopers are full of stories and lore about the place; how they've tried to float a boat or wade up the public waters of streams that flow from the property -- only to be stopped and turned away by security guards; how the place is used to influence members of the Supreme Court or the Fed.; how they're plotting the future course of the United States; cooking "meth; or building shelters to survive the apocalypse. Whatever they're doing it can't be good for the rest of us, can it?

Depending on the source, the club owns somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 acres of original old-growth forest in the Huron Mountains area of the U.P., right along Lake Superior and northwest of Marquette. If true, and apparently that part is, it would be one of the largest tracts of primeval forest in the Great Lakes. The club has a private security force that keeps the public out.

About 1890 or so, a small group of wealthy people, mostly from Marquette, Detroit, and Chicago, established the club. The original charter supposedly restricted membership to 50 full members, who are permitted private cabins on the property, and a like number of associate members. All members have access to a modest club house or lodge which is visible from the waters of Lake Superior.

I did find an interesting story about Henry Ford, who also had considerable holdings of forest land in the U.P. to provide wood for Ford cars (dash boards?, "woody" sides? talk about vertical integration!). Well the story goes that in the 1920's Henry wanted to become a member of the Huron Mountain Club. But the membership roster was full and he was put on waiting list where he'd have to wait for an opening, which, as you can guess, didn't sit at all well with him.

At the same time, the state was planning a new road through the Huron Mountain area of the U.P., a road called M-35. Big portions of the road through the area were already done and were on the official state highway map. The Huron Mountain Club didn't want the road, probably feeling it'd bring the public too close to their private retreat. Old Henry took up the cause for the club and, through influence, power, payoff, or whatever other unknown means, was able to get that portion of M-35 canceled and removed from the map. Shortly thereafter he was made a full member of HMC and build a cabin costing $100,000 -- a huge sum in 1929. The portions of the road that was already done was given to the county or township and to this day there are no paved roads anywhere near HMC. You can read more about the M-35 saga on the Michigan Highways website.

Is HMC something we should be concerned about? My guess is that the club is mostly a place for members to get away, find solitude, and enjoy nature. The small membership makes it possible to keep news and public information to a minimum. The members aren't doing anything that most of us would be doing if given the chance. It's probably far more benign than the conspiracy stories you hear around the campfire up here.

But conspiracies are so much fun.


Sep 2, 2007

Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park

September 2, 2007 -- Camp Soldner

Saturday, a week ago, the 25th of August, we got an early start and drove to the Porcupine Mountains at the far western end of the U.P. It's a journey of about 100 miles each way, so the early start was essential if we were to spend any time there.

The western half of the U.P. is more interesting to drive through, as it's higher and has more hills and elevation changes. Nonetheless, it's still a hundred mile journey and you find yourself looking for anything that moves and reading every sign along the way. One sign was notable for it's bold display of Yooper-ism. It was for a small bar and grill in Kenton. The name of the place was "UP Chucks".

A little about the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park: It's about 60,000 acres of mostly original old-growth forest that grows on the sides of a couple large, steep-sided escarpments, that run parallel to the shore of Lake Superior. From the water the area supposedly looks like a sleeping porcupine and it was named such by the Ojibwa Indians. It's about 26 miles long and 10 miles wide. When most of the area was logged off in the early 1900's, it was difficult to near-impossible to access most of this timber with the logging equipment of the time, and was left more or less undisturbed. One of the most popular features of the park is "Lake of the Clouds", a large lake nestled between the two escarpments and visible only by foot. I'd like to tell you that we hiked through 5 miles of rugged terrain to see it, but the truth is the forest service made it relatively easy to drive to within a few hundred feet of an overlook. That's where this picture was taken...

Since the park is right along the Lake Superior shoreline, there are also some spectacular views of the lake, the rocky shoreline, and, off in the distance, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore about 35 miles to the west northwest.

The park contains a lot of grand old examples of Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar Maple. A number of rivers begin and end within the boundaries of the park. Summit Peak is the highest point in the park, at 1953 feet above sea level, and was thought to be the highest point in Michigan until the late 50's when more accurate equipment identified another point in the Huron Mountains, about 25 miles due north of Camp Soldner, as the highest point at 1979 feet. The 90 or so miles of hiking trails that snake through the park make it popular with dayhikers and overnight backpackers alike. The North Country Trail, that stretches from New York to North Dakota, also runs through the park.

Wildlife in the park consists of almost anything you can imagine in this part of the country... deer, fox, coyote, wolf, smaller varmints, and bear. Despite giving Dar a open pot of honey to carry around, we never saw any bear.

Due to the elevation changes there are a number of waterfalls in the park. Some off the best are along the path of the Presque Isle River as it makes it's way along the western border off the park before it dumps into Lake Superior. Near it's mouth the river splits and leaves a small chunk of land that's an island during the heavy spring runoff but, as the water flow eases during the early summer, the water takes only one path leaving the other dry and that chunk of land is not an island for a while. Presque Isle is a French phrase that means "almost an island" or "sometimes an island". The water flows over rocks that were formed by volcanic activity over a billion years ago. One type of rock is called "nonesuch shale", which is relatively soft and layered like you'd expect shale to be. When water runs rapidly over this soft rock, carrying smaller bits of sand and rock with it, the shale wears away -- sometimes in unusual and stunning ways. Where falling water creates eddys, swirling currents, "pot holes" are formed. In the photo below, the two kayaks are sitting on top of a large pot hole and other smaller ones are visible around the edges of the rocks.

Feeling a little ambitious, we hike a few miles north and south of the Lake of the Clouds, then had a picnic lunch to recharge the old batteries. Then a hike to the top of Summit Peak where Dar had a problem with the wooden observation tower... "too high" she says. After another stop at yet another waterfall, we spent a good deal of time hiking and shooting pictures around the lowest three waterfalls. I had the GPS along and figured we walked about 5 miles all day, but it felt like twice that with all the steep trails. I don't think the GPS measures verticle mileage, does it?

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is highly recommended on our list. For hiking, backpacking, or just soaking in the sights of an original old growth forest and the largest lake in the world, we haven't seen better. We're figuring out how to get back here earlier some year when the waterfalls have to be incredible during the spring runoff.


Sep 1, 2007

The Pasty

Originally written on August 23, 2007 -- Camp Soldner

Some answers to questions I had about the U.P. area… (the second in a series):

Question 2): What the heck is a "pasty"?

One of the first things a person notices when traveling around Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are signs everywhere promoting something called "pasties". No snickering please... the word has a short-a pronunciation, like the "a" in sap or apple, and with the accent on the first syllable. These signs almost universally claim the #1 voted pasties in Alger County (or whatever city or county you're in), or the #1 voted pasties in the entire Upper Peninsula. It's almost as if it's a requirement that anyone selling pasties MUST add "voted #1" to their sign. I'm not sure who is voting in these polls; they never tell you that.

Well, my curiosity got the better of me so we headed off to our first pasty experience a few weeks ago in Mackinaw City at a place claiming the best pasties (voted #1) in all of Michigan. What we got was a pie-shell-like pastry that completely envelopes a meal of chopped and diced potatoes, beef, onion, and rutabaga. After the diced and chopped inside stuff is prepared and wrapped in the pastry shell, it's baked, like a pie, then eaten, or cooled and stored for future use. It could be described as a dry casserole turn-over. Recently, in a fit of irreverence to tradition, some have been making a chicken version to stay in step with the national obsession with anything that isn't red-meat. Can a veggie version (gasp!) or a taco version be far behind? I've heard it said that you'll always be chasing that first pasty experience... that it's hard for any subsequent pasty to measure up to that first one. Pasties are often offered with gravy (which moistens them up a little), and some people smother them with catsup. What does that tell you?

So, how was that first pasty? I found it to be a good, but not great, basic food. It won't knock your socks off, but I could see how it'd be possible to develop an occasional craving for them, much as you get a craving for a gyro or McDonald's quarter-pounder or a White Castle burger... you just gotta have one, but not more than one every month or two. Since that first experience with the #1 pasty in Michigan, we've had almost a dozen more #1 pasties at different places around the Upper Peninsula. There are subtle differences but you'll never be surprised by what you get -- basic, quick food.

And where'd these things come from? Pasties were supposedly introduced into the culture of the Upper Peninsula by Cornish miners in the mid-1800's, as they came to the U.P. in increasing numbers to work in the copper mines. The pasty was prepared ahead of time and taken into the mine as an "all-in-one" lunch -- perhaps the first fast-food. They were reportedly set on top of hot mining equipment for heating, and were able to be eaten with a minimum of fuss or mess. They provided the needed calories for miners to keep their energy-level up during long days in the mines.

I think it's important to celebrate local-isms like the pasty and to, in some small way, fight the total homogenization of our society and culture. I'm sure that by the next time I get to the U.P., I'll be getting one of those cravings for another pasty.


The U.P.

September 1, 2007 -- Camp Soldner

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

An area bigger than Maryland, this large rugged land is home to only about 300,000 people who not only brave, but seem to bask in, it's severe winters. It seems to me the only real use they have for its short, cool summer is to prepare for the next long winter. The people of the U.P. love to refer to themselves as "yoopers" (for U.P.-ers, get it?) and they have a strong regional identity that probably derived from both the physical isolation and their divergent interests when compared to the vast majority of mainland Michigan to the south. They're part of Michigan by law and on a map, but they like to think of the area as unique, independent, and separate. The lack of political power so few people have when bumping up against the population centers downstate doesn't help, and it's common to hear them grumble about state government and it's intrusion on their lives. In the last 50 years, better roads, commercial airline service, and a big bridge changed some of that isolation factor, but the strong identity remains as testament to the ruggedness of the land and climate in which they exist.

Stretching over 300 miles from east to west, the flat swampy eastern half of the Upper Peninsula contrasts with the steep and rugged lands of the western half. The U.P. has 30% of the total land area of Michigan but only 3% of it's population. The largest city in the U.P. is Marquette, which has barely 20,000 people. Together with the nearby towns of Negaunee and Ishpeming, the entire Marquette "metroplex" has only about 30,000 people. Some counties in the U.P. have less than 10 people per square mile. (The United States as a whole is about 100 people per square mile.) In fact, the entire U.P. taken together has only 19 people, on average, per square mile. In the western suburbs of Chicago, where we lived for the past 13 years, there were more than 19 people within a short chip-shot of our house! The U.P. is certainly a place to get away and find a little solitude for a while.

The three primary economic drivers here are mining, logging, and tourism. The big mining boom lasted from the 1840's until the 1930's, but iron mining is still alive and employs a significant portion of the workforce. The large old-growth white pine forests where mostly clear-cut in the 1890's and early 1900's, but the number of large logging trucks seen on the highways are evidence of a lot of current activity in the lumber and pulpwood industries. And tourism caters to people like us who are seeking the solitude of the rustic north in the summer, or snowmobilers who are the lifeblood of the area in the winter. Based on the number of "for sale" signs I see on businesses around the U.P., it must be tough to make a living with a small business.

The U.P. is also a place to get your head screwed on straight again, by which I mean to come to the shocking realization that not everyone in the U.S. has the same values, interests, concerns, or world-view that we do. In recent years, the news media in the U.S. has become so centralized, under the control of so few, so large, and so profit oriented, that inevitably the reported news is national and international in scope. Local stories don't stand a chance. Things seem to be different here. Local news on the one commercial television channel we can receive is really local news... with very little time spent on national or international events. For example, one evening last week, I watched the news at 11pm and kept track of each news story as it was read. There were only two short stories of national interest: an I-40 bridge in Arkansas was closed for some reason, and Alberto Gonzales resigned. That was it. The lead story on the sports was about a local boy who does a double-back flip, in mid-air, while riding a dirtbike. That was followed by more dirtbike news, a Nascar update, and a piece on a local shooting club that's inviting anyone with a gun out to the club for an afternoon of shooting fun (can you even imagine that story in Chicago?). Near the end of the sports update, they had a few scores from something called major league baseball. I'm reporting all this not to poke fun at Yoopers, but to point out that the common points-of-view and interests experienced by so many in the great urban population centers of our country are not the only ones. It's refreshing to experience some isolation and to sort of "get real". Living here, in some ways, seems more genuine... more basic... more real. I've spent so much energy in recent years getting worked up over big events and issues over which I have absolutely no control; listening while others polarize us into two groups... red and blue; left and right; liberal and conservative; right and wrong. At least for a while, I'm not being bombarded with that stuff... and I'm enjoying it.

By golly, you should see that kid do the double backflip on the motorbike. He's pretty good, eay?


Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

This past Tuesday, we moved from Branson to a very nice Corps of Engineer’s Park on Wappapello Lake.  We’re in the Redman Creek CG. This fac...