Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week 4, Part 2: Michigan

I'd been to Michigan twice before--one Christmas when I was nine, my family flew to Detroit to stay with my grandfather and step-grandmother who lived just outside of Detroit, in a small, cozy one mile square quaint town called Huntington Woods. My brother and I enjoyed the snow, sledding down slopes, and were delighted by a Christmastime tour of Greenfield Village. Having grown up in San Diego, I always longed for seasons, and loved any chance to frolic in the snow. My body longed for seasons, and loved being bundled in coats and scarves. I returned on my own to Huntington Woods for three weeks the summer after seventh grade, and I had a wonderful time riding a tandem bicycle with my grandfather, sewing a dress with my step-grandmother, visiting my grandmother who lived (and still lives) in Detroit, riding up to Niagra Falls and donning raincoats and climbing aboard the boat that takes you to the falls. I remember going to my grandmother's in the inner city of Detroit, seeing the statue of the Thinker in front of the Detroit Institute of the Arts (though I don't think we went into the museum), and the beautiful old houses on the street where she lived. I remember going to an older woman's house who used an old-fashioned hair iron that you had to heat on the stove. I have no idea who that woman was. Detroit was a place of enchantment for me, and I have been curious about it recently, with its bankruptcy, and having heard about the artists and urban farmers that are trying to re-purpose its vacant lots.

Larry went to high school about an hour from Detroit, in a small rural town called Yale, and his sister Jenny raised her family and still lives with her husband and son in Clarkston, Michigan, about 45 minutes Northwest of Detroit. We scheduled a five night trip to Clarkston, which would be a welcoming home base for our excursions into the city and other surrounding areas of Detroit. Jenny and her husband Doug were so welcoming, keeping us warm and well fed on their beautiful property. I fell head over heels in love with their Golden Retriever, Bell, who, at 8 years old, is totally convinced she's a lap dog. We saw all sorts of birds (including Sandhill Cranes), chipmunks, and squirrels on their property, and spent the last hour of most evenings in the backyard around a glowing fire in a firepit.

Students at KidFit pretending to be seeds waiting for water

I'd arranged, on Wednesday, with Kathe Hale of Michigan State University's extension program in Urban Farming, to visit two school gardens and the kids who work them in two different suburbs near Detroit. We spent the morning at KidFit preschool in Eastpointe, which used to be a part of Detroit itself. There were three small raised beds in the back play area, two planted with greens and basil with small greenhouses over them to keep the squirrels out. The children were hilarious and super well-behaved, and about five of them came out for the filming, telling me about their dream garden they want to plant in the unplanted bed--which would include ice cream, apple, and spaghetti plants. They know that seeds and water make plants. Which is just the right introduction to nutrition, food awareness, and science concepts. The owner of KidFit, LaToya Rucker, says she wanted her inner-city students to have the chance to begin to think about the direction of science at a very early age. It was super fun to walk into a preschool full of young people in my Sweetie Pie get up, and I really want to make sure I do a lot more of that.

We then drove to Redford Township, eating lunch at Murphy's, an Irish diner, before meeting Team Nutrition students at Pierce Middle School, an afterschool garden and cooking club that was planting tiny fruit trees that day, as well as giving us a tour of their amazing grounds. They have a native plant garden that is burned every year because that's part of the lifecycle of those native plants. Then they have an enormous vegetable garden--all on unused athletic fields--for a total of 1700 square feet of garden. The lead teacher, Mary Schwemmin, is the PE teacher, and helped start the garden as part of their health center along with Jen Rusciano, who came back to her hometown of Detroit as a Food Corps worker, and stayed to keep working at the Pierce garden as well as starting the Detroit Food Academy, a food-based entrepreneurial program for high school students. They are so amazing! They've also taken over the abandoned home economics kitchen for their afterschool program, as well as raising chickens last year. There were about six students showing us around the garden. Here's a clip of Matt talking to us about their natural pest management system:

We were having some technical difficulties with our camera--and are a bit overwhelmed about the amount of information we got at Pierce, but we should have edited down videos of both visits later this month. Both Larry and I left Pierce feeling full and inspired by the the enthusiasm of the students and the teachers. I can't wait to visit them again.

On Thursday, I had arranged with my grandmother's social worker to pick my grandmother up for lunch at her assisted living facility, on Cadieux Street not too far from Redford Township, but in the Detroit city limits. She lives at St. Joseph's, which is a pretty nice facility for a public assisted care place, and my grandmother--who I hadn't seen for 35 years, since I last visited at age 12, was in the waiting area waiting for me to visit. She took us on a tour of the facility and introduced us to all the residents and staff. Then we took my Polish grandmother, Gloria, to the Polish community of Hamtramck, to the Polish Village Cafe. It was packed for lunch and we had to wait a little while for a table, but I thoroughly enjoyed my pirogies and potato pancakes, and listening to my grandmother speak Polish to the waitress. After lunch, we went back to my grandmother's room and visited with her for a couple more hours, and she told us stories and impressed us with her keen memory--she's 89 years old! The highlight of the visit was when she told us that sometimes she dances around with her walker (which she playfully refers to as her husband), and I said, "I'd like to see that" so she got up, grabbed the walker and started shimming around and dancing a little bit. I know she's super lonely and was sorely disappointed that I was only coming to see her one day of my trip, but by that time we were fairly certain we'd be back through on our way back to Chicago, so I'm looking forward to more time with her in November.

After that, we went to Ferndale, a community we'd discovered on a little break between schools the day before, and a place I felt really at home. An artsy community running down 9 mile near Woodward, boasting the biggest GBLT support center in the state of Michigan, it has a great coffee house called Red Hook Coffee and Pinwheel Bakery, a cool local craft store, and one of the best used bookstores I've ever been in with books jammed all which way in the shelves, with title after title being monumental finds. We took a break between visiting my grandmother, which was wonderful, but also a bit heartbreaking because of her loneliness and the difficulties she's encountered in live, to picking up my uncle for dinner. My uncle lives in a house with 6 men near 7 mile and Livernois in Detroit. My uncle has some physical and mental challenges, and was also using a walker and struggling a bit with clarity of speech. However, he remembered that the last time we saw each other was in Huntington Woods and also has a great memory and a wonderful spirit. We decided to take him to Ferndale, our new home away from home, for dinner, to Rosie O'Grady's, which doubles as a sports bar and Irish-Mexican-Pizza place. It was wonderful to see Arthur, and then to get him home before dark and to head back to Clarkston for an early night in.

Friday was my 47th birthday, and we celebrated by going to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of the most awesome art museums in the country. We went straightaway to the room full of murals by Diego Rivera, commissioned during the WPA era and astonishing in its scope, detail, political commentary and beauty. I was emotionally overwhelmed by the experience of hanging out in that room. I love art, maybe a bit too much for my own good, and art museums can be a little too emotionally overwhelming for me. They have many great collections, but because for me, I can't take too much in without getting overwhelmed, I chose the Modern and Contemporary exhibits--both full of brilliant pieces by some of my favorite artists--and Larry chose the Native American and Dutch Painters of the Golden Age. I was especially glad to see these exhibits because I might bypass them if left on my own to spend more time in the contemporary and Modern rooms. But I remembered a lot about my youth at the Museum of Man in San Diego, poring over Native American artifacts with my mom who was a docent there, and I learned tons about Dutch culture in the Dutch Painters exhibit. My last name is Dutch, so I'm glad to know a little more of my heritage.

When we got home, Jenny was completing a hectic work week as a second grade teacher, and Doug was already on vacation in Germany, but Jenny offered to take us to Clarkston's restaurant made famous on the Food Network, The Wood Chop, for my birthday, and we wandered some of the shops of the sweet main street while we waited for our table and our delicious pulled pork and macaroni and cheese. Another fire, another long day, we turned in full and happy.

Saturday, we organized our belongings for the next leg of our trip, shored up plans with Jenny to return for Thanksgiving, and I had the chance to meet Larry's niece, Natalie, joining she and Jenny on a girl's shopping trip. Then, Jenny took us to Cooks Dairy Farm and Creamery in Ortonville for a lunch of ice cream.

It was a full week and we were glad to catch up with family we hadn't seen in awhile and hope that we have more time to do so in November.

We headed out after another delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Jenny on Sunday morning, so I could meet a friend in Toronto before we connected with another of Larry's sister's in Buffalo on Monday.

I think of all the places we've been, though I've been enchanted and engaged with every one, I haven't felt at home anywhere as much as I did in Michigan.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Week 4, Part 1: Indiana Amish Country

Our next planned stop after Chicago was Clarkston, Michigan, to visit Larry's sister who lives there and to visit some of my family who live in Detroit. We decided to break up the driving and to take a down day and night somewhere along the route, so I turned to Google, typing in, "Towns between Chicago and Detroit." One of the options was a question and answer website with the topic, "Cool places to stop between Chicago and Detroit." There were many options, including a stop in Indiana Amish Country so we decided that would be a nice between-city reprieve.

Indiana is beautiful country. We stayed the night in Middlebury, eating at the Amish-style buffet restaurant, Essenhaus. As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw our first evidence that we were in Amish country, a house and wagon, although this wagon was for tourists and the wagons we later saw around town and on the highway were more simple with black buggies.

While we were eating, we saw plenty of Amish people in the traditional garb eating at the restaurant. During our less than twenty-four hours in Middlebury and Shipshewana, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my own urge to gawk and ended up hurrying us out of the area before we'd done much browsing of local shops. We drove back to the hotel behind a horse and wagon with blinking red lights on the back, a newish safety measure. The horse-drawn wagons have license plates labeled "Non-motorized Vehicle," and they were parked everywhere--several at a working farm, around town, at the local Subway sandwich shop.

I wondered, out loud, how often the traditionally dressed Amish get asked for photographs and Larry, who'd just flipped through a book that was sort of a primer to Amish culture said they don't do photographs. However, when we stopped at the CVS drugstore to pick up some items we needed, we saw an Amish couple printing photos with the instant-print computer, so we laughed at ourselves. I had a San Francisco dress with high red boots on a small girl stared and stared at me with a big smile on her face (these are the same boots I wear when I perform my Sweetie Pie character for children).

The next day, we drove down the Main Street of Middlebury, stopping at a fabric and clothing shop, buying some bandanas, some of the most unusual buttons I've seen (cake and cupcake buttons for my Sweetie Pie outfits, dog and baseball buttons to replace Larry's missing shirt buttons with).

I didn't want to take too many photos of the houses and carts because I wanted to honor the privacy of the people. But I took some photos of the town. As we drove from Middlebury to Shipshewana, another small town, I noticed most of the houses doubled with some kind of entrepreneurial initiative either in their garage or within the home itself. Woodworkers, hairstylists, web designers. It looked like all the people of these small towns were trying their hardest to work hard doing whatever they did best. The towns were fairly mixed between what appeared to be Amish and non-Amish citizens, all friendly and helpful as we maneuvered our way through the towns. Shipshewana has a  performance venue called the Blue Gate Theater, and as we turned out of town, we saw a billboard with an advertisement for a theatrical production, "The Confession," with a photo of a young Amish woman loosening her head garb, and with the tag line, "The Hit Musical" underneath. I needed to get out of there--I hated I'd been caught up in the Amish tourism and been a sucker for it just like the next person.

Town Park, Middlebury

Monday, September 23, 2013

Week 3, Part 3: Chicago!

Over seven years ago, I had a plan. I'd been living in a tiny town in Far West Texas (Marfa, pop 2424) for four years and was ready to move to a bigger city to pursue my dream of being an actor and to develop my cake design/decorating skills. I'd never been to Chicago, but I'd always had an idea it would be a good fit for me creatively. I thought Chicago was great at making great actors and performers, too. Also, at that time, I knew five people who lived there who were each very dear to me and doing interesting things in their fields. My mom suggested I move in with her in San Francisco as a stepping stone, as a way to save money so I could then move to Chicago and study acting at Steppenwolf Theater Company. However, right before I moved to San Francisco, my health collapsed, and I spent the first year in the San Francisco re-building my body from the ground up. By the time I was healthy again, I'd gotten distracted by the desire for secure employment and ended up moving to Merced, California for a full time teaching job. But the dream of Chicago never left my mind, so I knew we'd have to visit Chicago on this trip. Most of my friends in Chicago had either moved or I'd grown remote from by now. However, another friend--one I loved but hadn't seen in nine years, since she'd left Marfa, Texas--was now living there. When she found out we were coming to town, she invited us to stay with her and her husband.

Our drive from Northern Wisconsin to Chicago made for a very long day and we pulled in around 6:45 PM to find Kendra, Kapil, and their long-haired Dachshund, Chester, sitting on the porch of their sweet house in the great little Northside neighborhood, Avondale. We visited for awhile and then we sorted out what we were going to eat, which, it seems, is what one must spend the bulk of one's time doing while visiting Chicago, since eating options are amazing and so varied. We settled on Belly Shack, a Korean/Puerto Rican fusion joint not far from their house. After a delicious meal, Kendra took us all on a tour of Logan Square and the areas surrounding their house. The two and a half days we were in Chicago, we never did get our bearings and were often surprised at how lousy our sense of direction was. However, that will change, as by the end of the first night, Kendra and Kapil were asking us if we might house and dog sit for them for the month of December, when they are going to India for their honeymoon. We hardly had to talk about it and agreed to the request the very next morning. That first night, I was so excited to be in Chicago, I couldn't sleep. I was like a little girl the night before Christmas, tossing and turning and wondering what gifts this city might offer me. I really knew NOTHING about Chicago except about the theaters and Wrigley field.

Over a hearty brunch at a Logan Square restaurant and bar, Kendra helped us plan out our day. We'd decided we'd spend Sunday at a Cubs game, so this day--Saturday--with glorious weather meeting us, and with a decision to come back in the winter when we could do all the indoor sightseeing--we'd head downtown to the lake. She said we had to see the Millenium Park--the Bean and  Crown Fountain (pictured below) and to walk over the bridge to the Art Institute entrance for a view of the skyline. We took the blue line from Logan Square, getting off in Wicker Park and walking to the next train stop so we could get a feel of the neighborhood where Kendra works. She works at 826CHI, an off shoot of 826Valencia in San Francisco, a literary outreach project started by writer Dave Eggers.

The "Bean"

Our reflection in the bean

Everybody in the Bean

The Bean is an amazing reflective sculpture which creates a strange view of the sky and the sightseers. Then we walked through the park, and saw the band shell and Crown Fountain, has a shallow puddle of water below it that people were splashing in barefoot with their children. Then we walked over the bridge. I've been having these bouts of terror--mostly while riding in our vehicle in cities, but sometimes on highways--and I had a bit of a bout of this same panic as we crossed the bridge. I'm not sure what's going on, but Larry has been so patient with me as I work through whatever new things are coming up in my body as we experience new environments. He held my hand as we crossed over traffic and got a good look at the Chicago skyline. Then we walked down to the lake, took a left and kept walking and walking until we got to the end of Navy Pier. But then we had to walk back to the blue line train and I was starting to get blisters on my feet because I'd left the house in my cowboy boots, a mistake I usually make when I visit New York the first day. We walked and walked, back to another blue line stop, over a bridge traversing a river.

Band Shell in Millenium Park

Crown Fountain spouting

Crown Fountain

Crack the Whip sculpture across from Navy Pier

When we left the blue line at the California stop, near where Kendra and Kapil live, we must've looked shell-shocked or confused by the map we were staring at, because a woman stopped and asked if we needed help, saying she was a police officer. She was so nice to point us in the right direction. Next time, I'm bringing a compass to Chicago! I love the train stops, the wooden boards that make the platforms and the old staircases.

We found a burrito joint by the house, collapsed onto stools and ate an early dinner before an early collapse into bed. I slept so solid that night, rare for me, that I didn't wake up once all night. Sunday, we had tickets to a Cubs game and started the day with a walk to the Logan Square Farmer's Market, which was vital and full of beautiful vegetables, fruit, baked goods and other fare. Then, with full hearts, we found a bus stop that would start the quick trip to Wrigley Field.

One of the cool things about Wrigley Field, is it's in a neighborhood, and many of the condo and apartment buildings surrounding the Field have rooftops bleacher seats where people can watch the game from. Wrigley Field itself has an intimacy I've never felt in a ballpark before, with an old-fashioned scoreboard with a real human being changing the numbers. It's not a big computer screen like our own AT & T Park in San Francisco. Next year, Wrigley Field will celebrate its 100th year. We watched the Cubs lose pretty gloriously to the Braves, but it was a super fun time and we were surrounded by groups of families and friends all having a good time. Then we crowded onto the 152 and took it to Addison Street where we caught the 52 right to the block where we were staying. As we walked to the house, we saw an open house sign for apartments and on a whim, went in to see three gorgeously rehabbed apartments in an old brick building. We were shocked to hear that the prices for these gorgeous places, with all new appliances, were less than half of what they'd be in San Francisco. We had a great time chatting with the realtor. After a short rest back home, we went down the block to Urban Belly, owned by the same people as Belly Shack, and had good Korean food before calling it another early night.

Wrigley Field! 

Easily morphing into Cubs fans

Kendra and Kapil had a wedding Kendra was in that weekend so we thought they were especially generous to bring us into that whirlwind of a weekend. I was reminded at how creative, intelligent, knowledgeable, fun, generous, and engaging Kendra is--and was especially delighted she had found such a great match in those areas in Kapil. Kendra had been an incredible source of support for me during a difficult spell of my life, and I'm so glad we could laugh over those times now. We'd also been able to plan some creative projects together--I had curated a show of her art at Terlingua House Projects in Alpine, Texas, and we'd collaborated on planning a Shakespeare Camp for Marfa Studio of the Arts that never came to fruition and I'd always been incredibly moved and inspired by her creativity and concepts. It's such a gift to have reconnected in person and I am so looking forward to seeing her and Kapil in December when we return to tend to their super sweet pup, Chester, who we had the best time cuddling with while Kendra and Kapil were gone for the wedding rehearsal and wedding and who we loved walking and exploring the neighborhood with. Thanks for giving us an insider's view to Chicago!

Dawn and Kendra

Monday morning we had a lazy morning, walking Chester to get a late-start cup of coffee down on Logan Square. Then we headed out of the city by noon, aiming for a small respite from activity in the Amish Country of Indiana.

Chester the Cute

Friday, September 20, 2013

Week 3, Part 2: Minnesota & Wisconsin—Two Lakes

When I was in my twenties, I wrote some pages of a fictional place where some things and some words meant something different than they actually do. The piece was called “Minnesota” but this Minnesota was “the center for spiritual enlightenment.” It was a place but more than that, a state of being. Persimmons were love. I don’t remember what other words I used in this project. It’s probably tucked somewhere in a journal, if I didn’t purge it with so many of my other writings that I threw away when I was twenty-nine. I’d never been to Minnesota, but I had all these ideas about it. Of course, I knew Minneapolis to be rich with theater and art. I had a childhood friend that had moved there to work at their famous children’s theater. And I remember going to some acquaintances “Moving to Minnesota Sale” when I lived in Irvine, California. Since I always loved the idea of being wherever I was not, from time to time, I daydreamed about moving to Minneapolis. Eventually, my best friend Madeline left Berkeley during this time to move with her then-boyfriend to Minneapolis. And until this week, I never made it to the state of Minnesota.

Big Carnelian Lake, Stillwater, Minnesota

The drive from South Dakota to Stillwater, Minnesota, where we would stay for two nights, was largely filled with farms. We pulled over in a small town to get gas where they had an old-fashioned gas pump and two men were sitting in chairs in front of the station.

It was a gray day and as we approached the Twin Cities, the skyline wasn’t visible. Stillwater, the first establishment in the state, is about 45 minutes outside of the Twin Cities, on the banks of the St. Croix River, which divides Minnesota from Wisconsin. We were staying with dear friends of my dear friend Sasha, who I worked on performance projects with during grad school and who has been one of my biggest creative advocates and supporters over the last nineteen years. He’d recently connected me with his friend Susanna, who along with her husband, Ilya, have started Luv Ice Cream, a healthy, alternative to sugar-sweetened ice creams and chocolates. You can read about their story and company here:

They’ve developed their own all natural stevia blend that I’ve used in some baking experiments with a lot of success. (No bitter aftertaste!) Susanna and I have emailed over the last few months and I’d spoken to her once on the phone in preparation for coming to visit. I knew she and Ilya were as busy as two people could be but they still insisted on putting us up.

As we followed the directions to their house, which is several miles north of Stillwater on the  edge of a small lake, I thought Larry must wonder where I was taking him. Wild turkeys crossed the gravel road as we kept driving and turning, eventually turning down into their long driveway that ended on the shore of Big Carnelian Lake under plenty of trees and beside a lovely home.

We walked up the porch stairs and knocked on the door and could see a beautiful long wooden table set for dinner. Ilya answered the door and greeted me with a hug and he and Susanna quickly swept us into their world, as they were discussing buying a walk in freezer and cooler for their quickly-expanding business. Dinner was amazing and healthy, and Susanna let no detail pass—there were fresh flowers and lavender bath scrub in our bathroom to greet us after a long day of a driving—these small things, baths and bouquets of flowers, that I’ve definitely missed while on the road.

The next day, after a morning yoga class and a quick tour of Stillwater, Susanna took time out of her busy schedule to take us on a tour of downtown Minneapolis. We saw Mill Ruins Park, walking along the old bridge overlooking it, the Mill Museum and the new Guthrie Theater. The city was so clean with so little traffic it was stunning. Then she took us to the skyway tunnel system downtown and deftly toured us through some of her family’s favorite courtyards so we could get a feel of the city. After that, she took us to see the Walker Sculpture Garden which had a delightful sculptor’s miniature golf course, the giant spoon and cherry well known from the opening of the “Mary Tyler Moore” show, and gorgeous pathways of more varieties of flowers than I could count or name.

We met Ilya on his lunch break at an excellent family-owned Thai restaurant in St. Paul and then drove home to rest before going to the communal kitchen where they rent space to help turn out part of an ice cream order that was due on Friday. Larry became very deft at helping Ilya stir the custard as it went into the giant machine as well as cleaning and boxing finished pints. I help lid the pints, put together and label boxes and pint containers, and, and did some packing of ice cream—which is an altogether messy job. We worked for about three hours and then went home for a late dinner.

After tasting several flavors of ice creams as well as some of their vegan coconut based creams, we finished dinner with the leftover half pint of chocolate ice cream which was so delicious and rich and creamy it was difficult to believe it was sugar-free. I was amped up from the excitement and discussion of the night, which involved a lot of talk about the food science and our own personal journeys with food and health. I think the work they are doing is so exciting and revolutionary and I can’t wait until I’m settled back in a kitchen to start developing a baked doughnut made with their stevia blend to offer alongside the chocolate cupcakes I’ve already developed that are vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free.

Meeting new people is always a bit nerve-wracking for me, but Susanna and Ilya were so generous, sweet, open, funny, and lovely, that they felt like fast friends. Plus, we loved their pug Nutella and their kitty Kwanza. 

Since we know we will be spending part of the winter in Northern Wisconsin, about three hours from them, we promised to return again, for another visit and a work party this winter. Though you can’t order their ice cream online (yet), you can order their delicious stevia-blend sweetened chocolates through the website above.

Then in the late morning, after a long night’s sleep, and another lovely breakfast (Susanna is an amazing cook), we said our goodbyes-for-now to head to visit some another couple we’ve never met, who live in the North Woods of Wisconsin, Jerry and Lea Justice. We drove through a thunder and lightning storm for awhile and then it was light rain for most of the three or four hours of travel.

Clam Lake, Wisconsin

This was not my first trip to Wisconsin. I’d flown to Milwaukee in 1997 to visit Fort Atkinson and Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin, where my favorite American poet, Lorine Niedecker, lived her whole life. Fort Atkinson is between Madison and Milwaukee and a little south of both. I stayed there for several days and took a videotaped interview of Gail Roub, who had been Niedecker’s neighbor her last years of life. It was just before Christmas and Gail was dying of cancer—in fact, he died just a couple weeks after I visited, but he was strong enough and faithful enough to Niedecker’s memory and legacy to  take me out to her houses on Lake Koshkonong and to talk candidly about what he knew of her. I still have videos of the trip and the interview, tucked in a box and ready for anyone wanting to take on the work of biography. Maybe someday I will re-visit that project. But for now, we were heading to Wisconsin to meet the people we would housesit for from January to April and to meet their sweet cats who we’d tend to while they were away.

Jerry and Lea live on Clam Lake, which is situated in the middle of Chequamegon National Forest. We met them on a housesitting website. Clam Lake is a tiny unincorporated community near two small towns—Hayward (pop. 2300) is about 34 miles away, and Cable (pop. 700) is about 17 miles away. A fishing, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing tourist destination, Clam Lake and its surrounds house many wild animals—we saw deer, more wild turkey, and eagles, but there’s also efforts to repopulate elk, as well as wolf, foxes—and plenty of chipmunk for Lea and Jerry’s cats to chase. We totally forgot to take photos because we were so engaged in conversation during our short stay there, but I took a few photos on our way out. 

I’ll be writing and posting more about Clam Lake and the surrounding areas when we are back in January and I have a chance to get to know the people and the area more intimately while I hole up and work on a book and learn to snowshoe, but I wanted to say a few words about how beautiful this part of the country is. A mix of deciduous and pine trees, the leaves were just starting to turn, and Lea showed me photos of the lake in its full fall foliage. Brilliant!

Lea and Jerry greeted us so warmly, meeting us at the convenience store down the road from their house, showing us their home, sharing with us many of their lives adventures, and asking after our lives and careers. They made us feel special and like honored guests, and we couldn’t feel luckier to have been chosen to spend part of the winter in their beautiful home sitting on the lake with a big picture window, a loft work space for me, three adorable and affectionate kitties—Little Guy, Darby, and Jill—and two close by towns that seem to have so much to offer considering how small they are.

Jerry worked for Esso as an engineer and he and Lea traveled to and lived in many countries, especially in South America, during his years working for the company before they retired on Clam Lake, near where Jerry grew up. They told us about their many pets, including a monkey and an ocelot. Lea’s a huge advocate for animals and she and Larry had a lot to talk about because of his years of work as a dog walker and with animal foster groups. 

They took us to one of the three taverns in Clam Lake for a pizza and to introduce us to the couple who own the tavern—Sherry and Ralph. Then we went home and talked some more until we were all ready for bed.

It was quiet as quiet can be, but both Larry and I were so excited about our new connection with Lea and Jerry and looking forward to our time housesitting for them, that we had a bit of trouble falling asleep.

After breakfast that included toast from a local bakery (a rustic walnut cranberry loaf),  we took a short tour around Lea’s beautiful flower gardens and along the lake in the morning after breakfast, we had to get on the road to head to our next destination, another a city I’ve never been: Chicago.

We look forward to seeing Lea and Jerry (and Jill, Darby, and Little Guy) in mid-January, meeting more of the people of Clam Lake, Hayward, and Cable, and having a North Woods experience this winter. This is a part of the country I never really knew about and I feel so glad to have opened myself to trying new things on this trip. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity. 

Onward! to Chicago! But first, the rest of Wisconsin, including: 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Week 3, Part 1: South Dakota

At the very last minute, when we were about to leave Montana, some people convinced us to take South Dakota through to Minnesota rather than to stick with our original plan of driving through North Dakota. North Dakota promised sunflowers and the Enchanted Highway, but some Bozeman residents told us that South Dakota would be a more interesting, if longer passageway to our next planned destination, Minneapolis. 

Taking this suggestion turned into an amazing experience. We stopped the first night in Rapid City, South Dakota, with about 60,000 residents, with a sweet downtown area lined with brick buildings. We stayed at the Lazy-U Motel, on the road to Mount Rushmore. Though Mount Rushmore wasn't in our original travel plans, we didn't feel that we could be that close to it and pass it by. As we drove down the highway toward it the next day, we were worried the sky was going to be too gray to see the Monument. We stopped for coffee at a strip of souvenir shops that looked similar to Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco. Then we drove up to Mount Rushmore, getting our first glimpse of the Monument from the highway. That first glimpse surprised us, as there was so much more mountain to the Mount than the four President's heads. The heads took up about a third of the mountain, and the faces, even from that distance, revealed such detail and power. Their faces, dwarfed by the rest of the mountain and detailed with the wisdom and humanity of these men, made them look so humble. Neither Larry or I had ever had any desire to go see Mount Rushmore, so the fact it impressed us so much, impressed us even more. We'd been seeing signs about Gutzom Borglum, the sculptor who was behind the Monument, since way back in Montana. We're really glad we made the stop and parked and walked up for a closer look at the Monument. 

Now willing to be more open to tourist options, are next stop was Wall Drug which is basically a mall of kitsch, with a really interesting history (, complete with a Traveller's Chapel, an old Apothecary that still looks like it fills prescriptions, and a ton of gift shops. Though it was pretty crowded, it was eerily quiet, and the whole thing rather gave me the heebie jeebies, perhaps because of all the souvenir shops. Shopping in general kind of depresses me. 

We cut down from there to drive the loop through Badlands National Park, which looks like the surface of another planet. It was stark and amazing. It reminded me a bit of parts of Big Bend National Park in Texas, but there really isn't anything like either one of the parks. The Badlands were windy and harsh and striking all at once. 

Then we drove through the beautiful countryside of South Dakota along highway 90, blue skies, with white clouds peppering the sky. And there were plenty of sunflowers, much to my surprise, along with corn, and beautiful sorghum with russet red tops. 

After a long day of sightseeing, we didn't get as far as we planned. We'd hoped to stop in Sioux Falls for the night but stopped about an hour shy of that, in Mitchell. Several people had encouraged me to go to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, but I wasn't convinced. Then I read about it, finding that it wasn't a palace made of corn, as I originally, thought, but a basketball gymnasium with a museum dedicated to the history of agriculture in South Dakota. Still, since we slept in Mitchell for the night--and because I am Sweetie Pie, I had to take a look at the corn palace. And the thing was, I was actually very moved by it. 

A very nice older woman named Devona gave us a five minute tour of the Corn Palace, which has a grand exterior decorated with rotating murals created with colored corn cobs. The farmer that grows the corn for the murals has developed thirteen hues for the murals, so they grow more and more colorful every year. They were in the process of filling in a mural outline while we were there. The whole purpose of the original corn palace was to prove Lewis and Clark wrong. Lewis and Clark had said nothing could grow in that godforsaken part of the country, and the people of South Dakota decided they would erect a building--the Corn Palace--and hang corn and other agricultural products on the outside in defiance to the explorers. The current Corn Palace was built of brick and wood, after the second one, built near the turn of the century and made solely of wood, burned down. The interior houses a gymnasium where both high school and college basketball games are held. They also hold sock hops and graduations in the Corn Palace. It's sort of like a community center and is attached to Mitchell's City Hall. I loved the pride of the agricultural history of South Dakota that the Corn Palace represented, and how down to earth it felt, even if the outside was somewhat gaudy in its grandeur. 

South Dakota turned out to be a combination of tourist traps that rubbed me the wrong way, beautiful and varied landscapes, and a rich agricultural region. This is a state I never gave a second thought to in all my life, and now I consider it an American treasure. The people were so incredibly nice and welcoming, and I hope I have a reason and a chance to visit again, even if I didn't necessarily feel it a place I'd feel at home. 

This journey continues to surprise me--and the whole trip across South Dakota was a detour some complete strangers convinced us to take instead of North Dakota. We'd somewhat dreaded both of the Dakotas as being a kind of necessary passageway to Minnesota and South Dakota ended up being full of treasures and wonderment.