Oct 31, 2008

The Unexpected Rain Show

Friday, October 31, 2008 -- near Warsaw, MO.

I heard a low rumbling... off in the distance. What was that?

It was 6:30am and I was just starting to stir from a good nights sleep. Then I heard it again. It's thunder. But it can't be thunder -- there was no prediction for rain. What the heck?

I hopped out of bed, fired up the internet router, turned on my computer, and made coffee while everything booted up. There's definitely lightning off to the west and there's definitely a storm out there, regardless of what the weather service predicted.

A few minutes later, with fresh hot coffee in hand, I was on the Weather Underground website (the site I default to for weather information) and, sure enough, there's one little line of showers, barely visible on the national map, right there in the middle of Missouri. There's not another radar echo from another drop of rain anywhere for a thousand miles around. But we are lucky enough to be in the one little spot of sporty weather.

In this case, I sincerely mean lucky. We were treated to a most amazing show of colors, contrasts, and sounds during the next couple hours. The sun was rising in the east while the storm was approaching from the west. The area where we're camped is covered with oak trees. Most oaks resist giving up their leaves in the fall and these are no exception. And these leaves, still on the trees, are the most amazing combination of bronze, brown, red, orange, and a bit of residual green. The color can't be easily described and it's all over, it surrounds you, it's everywhere. Normally, at sunrise or sunset, the reddish low sunlight, shadows, and colored leaves produce a show that shouldn't be missed. But throw in the dark clouds of a storm, the rolling, rumbling thunder, and the sound of rain and dislodged acorns hitting the top of the bus-house -- well, it was an experience I'll remember for a while. Who needs TV for entertainment when experiences like this are all around us?


Yesterday, Thursday, we went into Sedalia exploring for a bike trail we'd heard about. Some years ago, the State of Missouri purchased a railroad right-of-way from the remains of the MKT Railroad. MKT stands for Missouri, Kansas, and Texas -- and it became known as the Katy Line -- get it, MKT --> KT --> Katy?

Anyway, the State had the tracks pulled up and a recreation trail put in. Known as the Katy Trail, it extends 225 miles from Clinton, MO to St. Charles, MO. For much of that distance it follows the Missouri River.

The trail runs right through Sedalia. We found it, mounted up, and rode about 18 miles toward the southwest. This is my preferred biking experience as I don't enjoy the tension that accompanies sharing a roadway with cars, trucks, and motorhomes driven by old blind guys. Give me a dedicated bike trail and I can ride for hours, or at least until my leg muscles lock-up.


Today, Friday, we might go exploring for a small town that's just on the other side of the lake. It's named "Tightwad". It'll be worth the gas to get that picture.


Oct 29, 2008

Southward to Missouri

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 -- near Warsaw, MO.

We've been lingering in the North for a long time because autumn in the Midwest is our favorite time of the year. But now that November is almost here, it's time to start moving South. On Tuesday, yesterday, we pulled our jacks, pointed the nose of the bus-house southward, left Iowa, and ended up in another Corps. of Engineers Campground on the Harry Truman Reservoir near Warsaw in Central Missouri. It was an almost 300 mile drive... a long one for us. But we found another great COE park near Warsaw, MO.

We like the solitude and peacefulness of this place so much we may extend our stay for a few more days. We'll see.


Oct 28, 2008

Exploring for Ancestors

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

On Monday, yesterday, we drove over to Indianola, IA., to meet up with one of my cousins, Kevin, a contemporary of mine, who is the grandson of a sister of my grandfather. I'll pause here for a few seconds while that sinks in.


Kevin grew up in Melcher, IA., just a few miles from Bauer, IA. where my ancestors settled in the early 1870's. Not only has he lived here in the area all his life, he's also done a lot of research and genealogical work of his own. He's a walking family-tree encyclopedia; he knows where all the bodies are buried and most of the stories about them. We couldn't have had a better tour-guide for the day.

The last time I was in this area I was 4 years old. In 1955, my Mom and Dad, Grandmother and Grandfather, my younger brother and I... we all loaded into Dad's Plymouth and set out on the biggest trip I'd ever been on. From Beaver Dam, it was a two day ordeal on two lane roads to cover the 300 miles. These were pre-Interstate Highway days, which were only someone's crazy idea at that point.

About mid-way, we stopped for the night at some road-side cabins. Six people in one car -- two of them squirmy kids -- probably had a lot to do with the decision to stop for the night after only 150 miles -- I'm guessing. Cabins were common in the early days of automobile travel as budding business people could easily get into the lodging business by building one or two small cabins for a reasonable cost. Then, as demand grew, they could easily add more. It was only after the Interstate Highway System was being built that someone had the idea to nail some cabins together in a line and call it a motel.

I have vague memories of the trip, mental snapshots of staying at someone's house in the country, next to some railroad tracks, standing in tall grass, grasshoppers jumping all over the place, a rickety-looking wooden bridge over the tracks, a summer-kitchen in the basement of the house where it was much cooler than the main floor, and a lot of happy and friendly people.

Kevin took us to that spot, which had been his grandmothers house. I stood in the grass, near the tracks, looked at the concrete bridge that long ago replaced the wooden one. I didn't see any grasshoppers this time.

We also saw the Hoch home place where my Great-Great-Grandfather and Grandmother raised their family of 10 kids. One of those kids, my Great Grandfather, took over the farm operations and raised his family of 7 kids in the same house-- one of which was my Grandfather who eventually moved to Beaver Dam.

Kevin had the connections to get us into the little de-commissioned Catholic Church that was so central to their lives -- where they came into the world and where they left it. Just down the road from the Hoch home place in Bauer, it was where they were baptized, worshiped, married, had their funerals, and were buried in the cemetery out back. We could have spent a day just going through the cemetery, but thanks to the magic of digital photography, we now have dozens of headstone photos.

I also learned that coal mining was an important industry in this area for about 25 years in the early 1900's. The opportunity for land and farming brought German immigrants, the mines brought Welsh and Croatians. But the coal didn't last long and the farm land is so hilly, rocky, and creased with streams that it was difficult to farm efficiently. Today, I'd say the area is surviving buy not thriving. It's a comfortable place full of friendly people who often must drive to larger towns 30 or 40 miles away for work.

Kevin also arranged to have the Mining History Museum in Melcher opened for us -- it's normally open just on the weekends. There we learned a lot more about those old mining operations as well as how people lived and the things that were important to them. The original organ from the church in Bauer is in the museum. It's operated by crank -- there was no electricity in those days so if you wanted organ music it was a two person job -- one to play and one to provide the power by cranking. It still works so Kevin, who is an accomplished organist among his other talents. played a song while I, yours truly, provided the cranking power. The sounds that came from the organ were the same sounds many of my ancestors heard. It was another sensory element that made me feel closer to them.

Kevin and Thom play the old Bauer Church crank organ

This was an important day for me. Putting more meat on my memories from more than 50 years ago. Being in the same places these ancestors lived. Seeing the same hills, streams, gravel roads they saw. Being in the same little church that was so important to them. For a while I was in the same three dimensions they lived in, separated only by a fourth dimension -- time. The images made up by my mind before that day morphed into the reality of the place. The images I gathered that day will remain with me for the rest of my life.


Oct 27, 2008

The Iowa Statehouse

Monday, October 27, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

The "exploration for the day" on Sunday was the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines. One of the multiple themes of our travels these days is to see as many of the statehouses as we can. They're full of history, usually very ornate and rich with art and symbolism, and there's an aura or feeling of importance, orderliness, and solidness -- after all, it's the place our state laws are proposed, legislated, and adjudicated.

The Iowa Statehouse is the only Capitol in the United States that has 5 domes. The main dome rises 275 feet above the first floor of the rotunda and it's exterior is covered in gold leaf -- thin sheets of pure gold. Because the gold is so thin, it must be replaced every 30 years or so. It was last done in 1998.

Interesting factoid: 250,000 sheets of gold leaf would form a stack only 1 inch high. So while you might think it'd take tens of millions of dollars to cover a dome this size with pure gold, the total cost of re-gilding in 1998 was $482,000 -- and that includes labor. A mere pittance of two-bits per man, woman, and child in the State.

Over the years the building grew tired and wasn't maintained to a high standard. In fact, layers of paint were applied on top of all kinds of things... marble columns, stenciled walls, gold-leaf detailing, etc. Maybe some governor or influential senator had a relative in the painting business?... I don't know. But about 10 years ago, a project to revitalize the place began with the goal to restore it to it's original grandeur. The job is nearly done and it looks magnificent -- even to my untrained eye.

We joined a guided tour, with a positively delightful tour guide, who took us places the public doesn't usually go and told us things the public doesn't usually hear. The "high point" of the tour was a climb up hundreds (or was it thousands?) of steps to the balcony at the top of the dome.

Construction on this building began in 1871 and was completed in 1886, which makes it almost 125 years old. To me, it looks like it'll easily make it another 125 years, and at that point it'd still be considered new in Europe.

What is it about the American psyche that, it seems by default, wants to constantly replace the old with something new?


Oct 26, 2008

Small Towns & Covered Bridges

Sunday, October 26, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

Living in Winterset is easy and comfortable. To me it feels like a different country compared to trying to survive in a big city, as we did for so long. I know, Winterset is in the middle of Iowa, which is the middle of America, and in many ways most Americans, who live in big metroplexes and along the coasts, probably consider it a foreign country too. The great middle of the United States is often the brunt of jokes, is considered boring, and not "with it". But as I've aged and have re-oriented my values, I like the simpler life of places like this. People have few pretensions, they're friendlier, come across as more genuine, and seem to be more about enjoying what they have rather than worrying about something they don't have. The pace of life seems more natural, at least to me.

The other day we needed a few grocery items. Winterset's only grocery store is a nice sized Fareway Store situated, not out in a strip mall on the edge of town, but right downtown. We've been in grocery stores all over the country and I make it a practice to compare them, focusing on selection, prices, and the general feel of each place. This one impressed me from the moment I got out of the car. It was quite busy and they had what seemed to be a small army of people hustling every customer's groceries out to their cars. And I mean they were hustling. Once inside, there was another army stocking shelves, checking, and bagging. They have a meat counter with real, live, meat-cutters, butchers -- and I mean professionals who looked, acted, and sounded like they knew what they were talking about. The store wasn't huge by today's standards, but with enough room for a great selection of at least the things we normally look for. And the prices were very reasonable... as low or lower than WalMart in many cases. If you lived almost anywhere in this town of 5,000 people it's possible to walk to the store. For a town this size, it's much more than I expected. What a nice experience!

During our first few days in town we've been dodging rain showers to get out and see the local attractions. Over the course of three days we got out to see most of the famous covered bridges -- five of them that are original. Built in the early 1880's, most by Benton Jones, they are substantial wooden structures that have lasted over 120 years. In those years almost all bridges were made of wood and weather was hard on them -- usually lasting about 10 years before major work or replacement was necessary. The idea of the covered bridge was that it's less expensive to maintain a roof that protected the bridge than to replace the bridge itself. So the hard-working, frugal, people of Madison County decided to pay a little more for covered bridges that would last much longer and be a better deal in the long run. They're about 15 feet wide -- wide enough for two lane horse traffic, but probably only a single lane for farm equipment or cars. All of these bridges have been replaced by modern bridges that by-pass the original structures, which are open these days to pedestrian traffic only. There is one bridge, the Cedar Bridge, that was rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by arson a few years ago, that's possible to cross with a car for the experience.

There aren't many of these things left. See them while you can.


Musings from the Road

Sunday, October 26, 2008 -- camped in Winterset, IA

I've read the past few days that the credit crisis is easing and banks are starting to give loans again. Now that the economy looks like it's heading for the dumpster, the stock market is down 40%, and unemployment is rising fast -- the real trick may be to find someone who wants a loan.


Not only is the stock market down almost half, but plain old gasoline is almost half the price it was just a few months ago. How do investors in new energy technologies view this? Why would anyone invest in a new energy idea when the price off the old one is so volatile? How do you predict a return on your investment?


On November 5th, with any luck, we'll know who the next President will be. Once all the spending on campaign ads ends, there will have to be an impact on the economy. Is it possible to just stop almost a billion dollars of campaign spending and NOT have an impact on the economy?


If the majority of people in the United States lived like Dar and I do the economy would collapse and daily life as we know it would end. And I'm not talking about living in a bus-house. We have no loans or debt, spend very meagerly -- only buying what we need (and we don't need much), and just generally don't participate in the consumer-driven culture that's become the cornerstone of our culture. Since there's no chance we're going to change, I hope everybody else starts buying stuff again so we can get out of this recession everyone's talking about.


Oct 23, 2008

Winterset, IA -- The Home of John Wayne

Thursday morning, October 23, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

Winterset is the County Seat of Madison County Iowa. Only about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines, this small town of abut 5,000 people is an example of what I imagine as an ideal place to live. It's a great combination of small and intimate -- large enough to have it's own school system, grocery store, restaurants, and services, and small enough to be free of congestion, crowds, crime, and hype. If a person needs the amenities of a larger city, Des Moines is just a half hour drive away. According to the last census, it's barely growing (+1.6%) so people have come to adapt to a steady-state environment. Everyone we've run into is open and friendly. As with most small places we've experienced it's the norm to wave at people that you see along the way.

We arrived at the City Park Campground here in Winterset early Tuesday afternoon. Dar handled the driving chores today from jacks-up to jacks-down. The weather was good and we had a tail-wind most of the way. The City of Winterset maintains a campground with about 30 RV sites to help support local tourism. The attractions are the covered bridges of Madison County (refer to Robert Waller's 1992 best-seller book) and the birthplace of John Wayne. Apparently there are enough old coots like me that get a kick from stuff like this to keep the campgound open.

On the way to Winterset we drove out of clear sunny skies and, as I write this, haven't seen the sun since. There's a pesky, persistent, low pressure system just to the southwest that's been producing bands of rain for almost two days now, and is supposed to produce more until Friday night. But I've increasingly learned to just take it as it comes... to enjoy the conditions that exist and not wish for something different. Well, OK, most of the time.

We did get out a little yesterday, Wednesday. We had lunch at a little cafe on the Courthouse Square, drove around and familiarized ourselves with the town, saw John Wayne's boyhood home, and checked out two of the closest Covered Bridges. Now that I'm caught up on blog posts, I'll be writing more about all this and more in the coming days.

We think we'll be here until Monday or Tuesday. Besides the local explorations, we want to visit the State Capitol in Des Moines (part of the State Capitol Tour) and do some exploring around the Bauer, Melcher, and Lacona area just to the east of us, where the Hoch side of my family settled in the 1800's.


Oct 21, 2008

Herbert Hoover From West Branch, IA

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 -- near Iowa City, IA

Yesterday, Monday, we pulled up the jacks and left Grant River COE near Potosi and pointed the nose of the bus-house southwestward. US Hwy 151 was our route for most of the journey to our next stop -- Colony Country Campground just north of Iowa City, only 112 miles away. This will be a short one night stop as we're squeezed between our desire to see the Herbert Hoover Historic Site and Museum (part of our "Dead Presidents" Tour) and the reality of the weather later this week, which is projected to be really crummy from Tuesday night through Friday. Checking our list of things to explore, there much more to do around Des Moines (I know... who'd 'a thunk!) so if we're going to be someplace for a few days with poor weather, the Des Moines area would be our preference.

Once at Colony Country, we unhooked the car, backed into a suitable site, locked up the bus-house, and immediately drove off to West Branch, IA, the home of the Herbert Hoover Museum. Arriving a little before 2:00pm, we had three hours to explore and learn about "Bert" Hoover.

Little Bert was born right here in West Branch in 1874 to a blacksmith Father and an intelligent educated Mom. Both were leaders in the little community and their Quaker church. For the first few years of his life, he lived in the little two room house that still exists here on the grounds of the Historic Site. There were 3 kids and he had one older brother and one younger sister.

Disease and death were always lurking in the shadows in these little growing frontier towns, and when Bert was only 6, his Father died. Then, tragically, when he was 9, his Mother died too. As was common then, the three orphans were taken in by other family. Eventually, when Bert was just 10, a decision was made to send Bert to Oregon to live with an uncle, whose own son had died a year earlier. So, with two dimes sewed into his pocket, and a small suitcase containing clothes and a few small memories of his Mom, he boarded a Union Pacific train headed west alone with his memories of the past and his fears of the future.

In Oregon he thrived in school and his native intelligence became apparent. School wasn't as structured in those early days and he didn't complete high school -- but he was accepted, in 1891, at age 17, to the first class ever at Leland Stanford Junior University (now Stanford University) in California, where he graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology. His interest in mining lead him to work for the next 20 years or so all over the world. He devised new methods and procedures that earned him a partnership in a London-based mining company. By the age of 28, he was making $34,000/year -- compared to the President of the United States who was earning only $10,000.

The fortune he made in mining made it possible for Bert to pursue other interests in public service. From the outbreak of WWI he led various efforts to assist refugees of war and feed the hungry of war-torn Europe. Always a proponent of volunteerism, he gave of his time without pay and donated much of his wealth to help others. During the 1920's he served as the Secretary of Commerce and was widely seen as  the most effective cabinet member during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. His experience in business and public service around the world made him a top-notch administrator.

Less than a year after being elected President in November of 1928 the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. He became a scapegoat and bore the brunt of blame. The reality is that the course leading to the depression was set many years prior. In response, he started some of the public works programs aimed at getting people back to work and righting the economy. I couldn't help but draw parallels to the current state of the economy as I read through the information on this period.

He languished in obscurity from the time he left the Presidency until the end of WWII. In 1946, President Truman called Bert back to service to determine the status of food supplies in war-torn Europe. In subsequent years he was an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. During his life he also wrote 16 books. He was an effective and compassionate leader.

Herbert Hoover died in October of 1964 at the age of 90. In a similar fashion to Truman, he wanted to return to his roots and be buried where he was born -- West Branch, IA. There the US Parks Service maintains the large, park-like, Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and the National Archives and Records Administration maintains The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum -- one of the 12 Presidential Libraries in the United States.

There's a line in the theme song for the old TV show "All In The Family" that goes "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again."


Oct 20, 2008

A Sunday Drive in the Country

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

Yesterday, Sunday, we drove a loop from Potosi, through Dickeyville, across the river into Dubuque, up the Great River Road on the Iowa side to Balltown, then to a ferry crossing the Mississippi from Turkey River, IA to Cassville, WI, and finally back to Potosi. It was a warm sunny day -- just right for that last autumn drive to see fall colors in their full glory.

The ridges and valleys of the driftless area take some getting used to. Both sides of the river are full of them. As you travel, the car's motor is straining, struggling, shifting gears, and smokin' to climb the steep grades, or it's brakes are white hot and smokin' to keep your speed in check as you're coming down to the 35mph curve at the bottom. Sometimes not the most pleasant drive, like when you've got a loaded dump-truck three feet behind your rear bumper on a steep downgrade. During the last year or more we've driven through much of the western USA and have experienced a lot of different landforms. But these hills are as steep as many we've encountered along the way. They may not be as long, as elevation changes are usually not more than 400 feet or so, but they can be steeper than most in the Rocky Mountains.

In Dubuque we planned to stop for a few hours at the National Mississippi River Museum, right on the riverfront downtown. This location used to be the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works which, from 1905 to 1972, built dozens and dozens of tenders, excursion boats, and towboats. The museum is a world-class facility with indoor and outdoor exhibits that educate kids and adults about the river, it's history, and it's importance to the people who live along it's banks or work on it or recreate on it. And while we don't think about big rivers as transportation corridors much anymore, there's a steady stream of barge tows that float huge quantities of commodities both up and down the river, and railroads that take advantage of the relatively flat riverbanks for efficient movement of containerized cheap plastic stuff from China.

If we think we've tamed the Mississippi, we do so at our own peril. The river is unpredictable, dangerous at times, to be respected, has a personality, is integral to the lives and livelihoods of many people, and is full of history. People come and go, the river just keeps rollin'.

It's easy to spend a full day at the museum, but once the old Blazer had cooled off enough, we headed north into the hills of Northeast Iowa, following the Great River Road. We traveled through Sageville, Sherrill, Old Balltown, and then Balltown (I assume newer than Old Balltown?), which I guess is where they all went when they got fed up with Old Balltown. Balltown is something to see. It sits on top the highest ridge in the area. There are clear views for as far as the eye can see... all the way to the horizon... in all directions. I hypothesize that the reason it's named Balltown is because of the steady weekly re-supply of balls necessary to keep kids occupied. Baseballs, soccer balls, basketballs, dodge-balls, and yes, even whiffle balls... every ball, sooner rather than later, get away from it's owner and once that happens, down the hill it goes. It's a small town but more balls go rolling 500 feet down the steep ridge-sides each year than there are people in town. It makes Christmas pretty boring as kid's pretty much know what they'll be getting. Balltown... remember it... a cool place.

Once the motor cooled off from the climb up to Balltown, it was time to warm up the brakes as we came down the hill, squealing our way down to the ferry landing at Turkey River. The city of Cassville owns the ferry that runs sometimes between Turkey River and Cassville. The rest of the time it doesn't run at all. This time of the year it runs from Thursday thru Sunday... unless it doesn't. During the winter, it pretty much doesn't run as it's pulled out of the water and sits in a park near the water. It's a small ferry, a barge really, able to hold from 9 to 12 cars in 3 tight lanes. Power is provided by a tug which is attached to the side of the barge at a pivot point at the front of the tug and a large latch on the side. After loading and backing off the sandbar they call a ferry dock, the tug-driver releases the latch holding, say, the right side of the tug to the side of the barge, the captain applies a little power and rudder, and the tug pivots 180 degrees so it's now going in the other direction, finally re-latching the barge to the left side of the tug. Here in Wisconsin, especially along the river, we do things a little different than folks do elsewhere.

Shadows were growing long by the time we got back to Potosi. It was a long day and I was in need of a little electrolyte replacement therapy -- also know as Snake Hollow IPA -- which happened to be on tap in adequate quantities at the Potosi Brewing Company. Then it was back to camp where we told stories and laughed with the neighbors around a warm campfire.

Man, this is the life!


The National Brewery Museum

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

From the earliest days of settlement in America, brewing beer was a common and highly valued skill that most wives possessed... right up there with cooking. Because stream and ground water was often unsafe to drink, brewing beer was a way of producing a drinkable liquid that was safe and contained natural preservatives. The fact that it contained alcohol and made one feel good may have been a convenient side-effect. Benjamin Franklin once said "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to have a good time".

As immigration increased and communities formed, commercial breweries popped up in almost every town and village, especially those of German heritage. The area of Wisconsin where Dar and I grew up was a classic example. In Beaver Dam and almost every surrounding small town, there was at least one brewery to meet the demand of people who considered a couple'o beers after a full day of work nearly a right. Dar's Mom remembers from her childhood on the farm that it was essential to provide beer to threshing crews, who would go from farm to farm in the fall to separate grain from the stalk with big threshing machines. These hard-working crews got a ration of beer at noon and again at the end of the day.

In Potosi, WI., one of these small breweries was the Potosi Brewery. Started in 1852, the brewery supplied beer to a growing population in Southwest Wisconsin for many years. During the 1910's and 1920's, they grew to become a regional supplier and shipped, by barge and truck, their product as far as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines. But, as with most breweries, a combination of prohibition, depression, wars, and inability to compete with more efficient and technologically savvy larger brewers. As a result, by the end of World War II, most of these small town breweries had gone out of business. Some struggled to hang on and survived a while longer -- like Potosi, who produced beer until 1972. But economics were against them and they nearly all eventually went out of business.

In the last few years, a group of local business people formed the Potosi Brewing Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Potosi Brewery and the heritage that went along with it.  The old brewery buildings were remodeled, a restaurant and brew pub added, they started micro-brewing beer again, and they attracted the National Brewery Museum, winning out over other beer towns like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Even if you're preferences run more toward history than the beer itself, a visit to the National Brewery Museum should be on your short-list of things to see. Housed in the upper two floors of the remodeled Potosi Brewery, this excellent collection of American Breweriana -- various cans, bottles, advertising, signs, photos, and other brewery collectibles -- included many items from Ziegler's Brewery right there in my home town of Beaver Dam. I was fascinated by items from other nearby towns that I hadn't known even had a brewery. It was a way of viewing history through the lens of an industry that filled a need to a growing population and provided so much for so many.

In the last few years, a growing number of people have grown tired of the large scale offerings of the major breweries (Bud, Miller, etc.) which seem to be more about making an inoffensive product that anyone can drink and marketing the heck out of it, than making unique and richly flavored beers. Small brew pubs and micro-breweries have sprung up all over the place to meet this growing demand for something different, something with taste. I think this is a positive sign that we, as consumers, don't have to put up with mass-marketing, large scale manufacturing, and tepid, watered down, highly profitable products. This is America after all -- we're perhaps learning to celebrate diversity, uniqueness, and choices.


Grant River COE Campground

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Grant River COE near Potosi

During most of our recent stay in Dodgeville, at Tom's Campground, we were parked next to a fifth-wheel trailer that was closed up and un-occupied. But in the evening of our last night the neighbors came "home" and early the next morning, before we had a chance to meet them, they left.

A little later that same morning we left and headed to the Grant River Corps of Engineers campground on the Mississippi River near Potosi, WI. Imagine my surprise when we found that our new neighbors where, in fact, these very same neighbors from Dodgeville. They were camping with another couple and were celebrating their 37th anniversary. During our 4 day stay at Grant River we got to know them as we shared evening campfires and enjoyed man-made desserts (various delicacies made with no female assistance). Ed, Judy, George, and Jan... we really enjoyed getting to know you. I hope we'll run into you again... "down the road".

I've written before about these Corps of Engineers campgrounds. They're always around bodies of water that are in some way created or managed by the Corps, often on re-claimed land resulting from a dam or river dredgings. In most cases, they've kept these campgrounds updated and fully capable of handling big-rigs like the bus-house. The individual sites are well separated, usually wooded, and nearly perfect from my perspective.

And the fact that Grant River is only about two miles from the Potosi Brewing Company, a new micro-brewery housed in the old Potosi Brewery, is just icing on the cake.

I think we'll be back.


Oct 16, 2008

The House On The Rock

Thursday, October 16, 2008 -- near Dodgeville, WI

Just north of Dodgeville along highway 23 there are a series of ridges and valleys that have formed over the millenia as water, flowing toward the Wisconsin River, differentially eroded away layers of sandstone and limestone that make up the underlying ground around here. The softer material washes away and the harder material remains as steep-sided hills and a few rocky spires -- tall, thin rock columns -- that rise from the valley floor.

In 1945 a man by the name of Alex Jordan started building a Japanese House on top of the 450' tall Deer Shelter Rock, one of those rocky spires. A quiet, reclusive man, Jordan's idea was for this structure to be a retreat -- a place to get away. But as his project grew and people heard about this unusual thing, they'd come by to see what was going on. The story goes that he started charging people a dollar to tour through the small structure way up there on top the rock, as a means to offset some of the cost. As more people came by and the dollars grew, he added to the house. And the more he added to the house, the more people came. In 1960 he opened the house to the public.

About 10 years later, before Dar and I were married, we visited The House On The Rock. At that time there were only the house itself, a gatehouse, and another building or two that were under construction. The attraction was primarily the house.

During the 1970's and early 1980's the place grew faster than a heffer on high-protein feed, and Jordan's interest in oddities became a compulsion. It's now really an amusement park of sorts. There are large buildings that hold strange collections -- assemblages -- of dolls, guns, suits of armor, automated musical instruments, theatre organs, and much, much, more. There's an exhibit that recreates a 19th century main street; another that has a sea theme complete with a 200 ft. long sea monster; another focused on aviation; and yet another that contains the worlds largest working carousel.

On Tuesday we visited primarily to see the original house which I still find interesting -- an architectural curiosity and an exercise of imagination. I'm not much for the collections. There's still a lot of construction going on so apparently the new owners (Jordan died in 1989) are still making a go of it. Unfortunately with all the buildings and mature trees it's tough to even get a picture of the exterior of the original house. This picture is from their website and was taken in the early 1960's.


I'd put The House On The Rock on the list of places that should be visited once... but probably not more than once.

Next on our agenda was a stop at Governor Dodge State Park. We had a quick picnic lunch alongside one of the two lakes in the park and found a two mile hike that was perfect for exploring and learning about the unglaciated "driftless" area of Wisconsin. We also checked out the two campgrounds in the park for future reference.

It was a full day and the weather was great all day. A wonderful way to spend a sunny fall day in Wisconsin.


Oct 15, 2008

Taliesin and Frank Lloyd Wright

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 -- near Dodgeville, WI

This past Monday Dar and I visited Taliesin, the Southwestern Wisconsin summer home of Frank Lloyd Wright and his school of architecture. Despite his having died almost 50 years ago, the grounds, buildings, and school are still administered by The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the work of the famous architect and advancing the principles of organic architecture. I was somewhat surprised to find that there's still an active community of students and mentors, including a number who live in the original Taliesin complex. There are a series of other buildings on the almost 600 acre grounds including homes, farm buildings, and the school itself. The setting, amidst the hills and rolling terrain along the Wisconsin River is idyllic. Even though both Dar and I were born and raised in Wisconsin neither of us had been here before.

During the last 35 years of his life, from the early 1930's until his death in 1959, Wright's time was spent between here and Taliesin West in Scottsdale Arizona. In fact, the entire school -- instructors, students (known as apprentices), and support staff -- would migrate every year with the seasons, and they still do to this day.

But despite the best intentions of the Foundation there's not enough money to keep these historic structures in good repair. We saw many signs of deterioration during the tours. Wright was an innovator and liked to try new things while pushing the limits and capabilities of materials and construction methods. That personal style resulted in buildings that just don't hold up to the elements and the ravages of time... flat roofs are leaking (don't they always?), wood is rotting, foundations are shifting, seals are deteriorating. Wright structures are known for their high maintenance demand. The guided tours aren't cheap at $47 to $80 per person but the proceeds all go toward upkeep and maintenance. If there wasn't enough money during the past few affluent years, what'll happen when the economy slows down for a while?

That aside, there's a lot to like about his designs... the low horizontal lines, the melding of outside and inside spaces, the multi-purpose great room concept, the use of native materials, and designing structures to fit in with their surroundings, among others. But one element of his design philosophy gave me a headache -- low ceilings which are especially common in entryway areas. It wasn't unusual for me, at 6' 1", to have to duck or smack my head as I entered a building. I think the design idea was that the contrast between the low entryway and the much higher ceilings inside added to the dramatic nature of the structure -- a little like going through a small cave entrance to get to the big cavern inside. Maybe so, but com'on Frank, couldn't you just raise the entryway ceiling a few inches and still maintain this feel?

Someday, when we decide we need a more permanent structure someplace, we will probably use some of the basic elements of organic architecture in what we do. But if we do I can assure you there'll be no space where I'll have a chance of smacking my head on the ceiling.


On a side note, daylight really slips away fast this time of the year. Our exploration time is shorter and there are fewer hours of solar power to charge batteries. And my body-clock, driven by daylight, is adjusting. I'm finding myself sleeping later in the morning, at least until Daylight Savings Time ends on November 2. It's all part of that annual cycle. We've been through it many times before. On balance, though, I prefer the light of summer.


Oct 13, 2008

We're Off...

Monday, October 13, 2008 -- near Dodgeville, WI

Yesterday, Sunday, we left the Beaver Dam area and set off on the next leg of our journey. Mom & Dad Hoch came out to the farm to see us off and came along on a little drive to a small nearby county park campground where we dumped our holding tanks. Back at the farm we hooked up the toad, hugged, said goodbyes, and we were off.

We drove only about 100 miles into the un-glaciated southwester portion of Wisconsin near Dodgeville. I've always liked this part of the State because of the more dramatic landscape. We found a small campground that could take our bus-house and selected a site on top a hill with nice views of the surrounding countryside. Our intention is to explore the area and a few local attractions that we remember from visits many years ago. The next few days are supposed to be somewhat rainy so there should also be time to use the internet to scout-out the path ahead.

A heartfelt THANK YOU to our family in Beaver Dam for putting up with us during the past few weeks. Whether we were working on little projects, having dinner, or discussing politics, we thoroughly enjoyed the time in our hometown.


Oct 7, 2008

What a Difference a Year Makes

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 -- still in Beaver Dam, WI

This is the week that we'll begin our trek southward for the winter. Along about Thursday or Friday we should have things wrapped up here and start the next chapter of our sabbatical.

One year ago this week, the stock markets in the USA were hitting all-time highs and everyone was feeling reasonably confident in the future. The Dow Jones Industrials Index was well over 14,000 as other broader market indices were hitting their own highs. Oil was getting expensive but gasoline was selling for about $2.70 per gallon. Housing was slowing down but the common perception was that this was only a normal, cyclical correction and was probably healthy for the economy as a whole.

This week stock markets all over the world have taken a beating. The Dow is around 10,000 -- an almost 30% drop from just one year ago. (Think of that... a 30% drop requires a 40% gain just to get back to the same place. Under normal market conditions how long does it take to grow a portfolio by 40%? These are huge numbers.) Oil has been as high as $140/barrel recently but has retreated to under $90 in the clearing visage of a looming recession. Housing continues it's historic drop in value to the sounds of gasps and moans of those holding mortgages -- debt -- worth more than the properties themselves. We're all learning about the exotic investment instruments at the heart of the crisis -- derivatives and swaps -- and how negligence of the fiduciary responsibilities on the part of financial executives, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the Government as a whole have gotten us into a real pickle. We've all gone through the wall street bailout ordeal, ponying up almost a trillion dollars to bailout the very guys who've caused this credit crisis, and the markets have continued to decline. I think it's clear they're making things up as they go along. There's no instruction book on how to solve these problems. They're guessing and hoping. Any action taken could very well be wrong and cause more damage. We're all in a small leaky boat on a very rough and violent sea -- simply along for the ride. You can bail water and you can patch holes, but one overwhelming wave would make all these efforts futile. My contemporaries remember "E" tickets at Disney Land -- the tickets needed for the best, most exciting rides. The ride we're on now may be worth a whole shoe-box full of "E" tickets.

As I read and watch the news and commentary on these problems I've heard more than one "expert" in personal finance recommend that people 1) get out of debt, 2) start saving, and 3) reduce expenditures (logically follows from the first two). Even if the Fed and the Treasury is able to quickly shift enough ballast around to keep the good ship "World Economy" afloat, isn't it obvious that debt reduction and increased saving will impact consumer purchases negatively? And it's those purchases that keep our economy healthy. In my opinion, in the best of scenarios, we're in for a prolonged economic downturn. And equities, stocks, whose prices are based on future sales and earnings from those consumer purchases will almost certainly be negatively affected for a long time.

I've been a bit obsessed with the state of the economy and the crisis this past few weeks. If anyone is offended or put-off by these posts -- I'm sorry you feel that way. But comments made by those in-charge lead me to believe this could be the biggest crisis and challenge to our civilization, our American way of life, that we've ever been threatened with. I don't think we know how bad it is... how close to the edge of the cliff we've gotten. I don't think we'll have much to worry about from Islamic terrorists for a while. They've got to be relaxing and enjoying the show as we do it to ourselves.

Nothing will please me more than to start writing again about our travels and explorations, and our impressions of small-town and rural America -- something that'll happen as we begin our trek later this week.

The Best of Luck to All of US.


Oct 1, 2008

Cool and the Crisis

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 -- Still near Beaver Dam.

The 40f degree outside temp that greeted us this morning, while very fall-like, crisp, and appealing, is providing a little more urgency for us to wrap up business here and start our trek south. The woods here are still primarily green with only a few blotches of color to suggest it's October. Where is the color this year? The area was flooded with water in June, but since then it's been fairly normal. It has been warmer than normal (up until today), but temperature isn't supposed to have much of an effect on fall color. I'll have to check with my brother the hortoculturalist (who has actually studied this phenomenon during his graduate studies) and report back at a later date.

Both Dar and I got a clean bill of health from the medical establishment this week. Now we're waiting for eyeglasses and contact lenses to arrive. We've been in the upper Midwest for three months now and while we truly enjoy being close to family and friends there's a growing urge to move and explore new places. Often referred to among fulltimers as "hitch-itch", it's the desire or impulse to roam that grows stronger the longer you're camped in one place. The desire to explore is the core reason we're living the way we are, so it's not surprising that we're itching to move.

The current credit crisis is still in the news. The House voted the bailout plan down on Monday and the stock market responded with a 778 point decline. However, the next day, yesterday, it came roaring back with a 485 point gain -- supposedly on the notion that a bill would, in fact, be passed later this week. Who understands the volatile motivations of these traders? It's almost as if the market is being manipulated to send messages to congress... that the dire predictions of disaster will occur if they don't act and act now... like a spoiled teenager screaming that they'll run away if they don't get what they want.

I, for one, am skeptical... I don't buy it. I may be wrong, but there's too much urgency... too much talk about doom if nothing is done... too many people on the bandwagon of getting something, anything, approved. Is anyone actually reading the bill? Does anyone really understand how we got where we're at? Does anyone really understand where we're at? How bad is it?

In my experience, both business and personal, panic and hasty action in reaction to predictions of dire consequences almost always end up making the situation worse. Although it's not popular to say so, doing nothing -- at least in the short-term -- is probably the wisest coarse of action. Once we understand the causes in a more deliberative way, appropriate and thoughtful action can be taken.


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...