Sunday, March 28, 2010

Madison, Wisconsin, March 2010

It is ill advised to begin an adventure straight from a mind-numbing, 6-hour workday of seminars. Two hours of assertiveness (possibly the most useless seminar I’ve ever taken) and an hour of happiness (which only served to make me think about all the ways I sabotage my own happiness, that should make me grossly unhappy, yet I am not), and then cutting out early to avoid the Wii/games/funtime activities put upon us by the Sunshine Committee. By the time I was driving from the library to Gretchen’s place, I was ready to take 4 Benadryl and call it a day. Or two.

This was trip two to a new city to determine if I could move there, to relocate happily to Madison. Minneapolis had been a great city where Ann and I had much fun, but I had to see what Madison had to offer. Gretchen was an enthusiastic travel buddy, not only because she was anxious to get out and do something different, but because Madison is a town her own parents are considering as a possible place to land when they are ready to relocate. This would be a big trip of feeling it out to see how livable the place was.

At 3:15, she met me at my car with her two little bags and another tiny grocery bag of snacks. Seriously, I need to pare down when I travel because I look like a total diva with my luggage. AND I still forgot to pack some essentials.

We were on the road by 3:30 with a quick stop at my bank for cash and an assessment that I had enough gas to get us there.

Gretchen has a GPS, which she also brought with like Ann did on our trip to Minneapolis, so we were in the (mostly) capable hands of Sally’s twin, guided by satellites and maps that weren’t exactly up to date. I did defy the GPS and took Rt. 12 all the way there, but she had her revenge when she refused to find our hotel and we drove right by it, headed into downtown Madison instead of checking in and dumping off our luggage. In a smooth, I-meant-to-do-that move, we decided to eat first and then check into our hotel. It was only 5:30, and on a Friday, that’s still early enough to have our pick of places to eat before the ghastly crowds descend upon the good places.

Let me first say that I was given a goldmine of a list (and map) of local attractions and places to eat by a friend and longtime blog-reader, Anon AV Boy, aka David. Knowing me well enough to cater the trip itinerary to my personal interests, he gave me a list of places to go and restaurants to dine in that most travel agencies couldn’t begin to offer. For the first trip ever, I didn’t pore over an assortment of guidebooks of Madison to over-plan, but instead relied on the information he gave me as a former resident and huge fan of the area. This was priceless, let me tell you, so thank you, David. Hats off to your awesomeness!

Driving in Madison is an issue if you are easily confused by one-way streets. Parking in Madison is an issue if you don’t use the parking ramps. Your best bet is to get around on foot or by bike because there are more places to chain your bike than park.

We chose to eat at The Great Dane Pub. If you’re not impressed with the micro-brewed beers or food, the building itself is a marvelous sight. One of the best things about visiting a town rich in history and significance is the architecture that’s survived, and the old Fess Hotel lives on in The Great Dane Pub. I had a yummy drink that was hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, though I forget the name (which has nothing to do with the alcohol consumed, I'm just forgetful), and Gretchen sadly ordered a Sierra Mist when she found that they had no Guinness. Poor thing. Looking for Guinness in a brewpub. So sad. Anyway, we split a bread and honey butter appetizer, then I had a buffalo burger (Sustain-a-burger) and Gretch got the walleye fish fry. The food was delicious and I was impressed with the variety of greens they topped my burger with, and Gretchen fell in love with the tartar sauce. Once sufficiently stuffed, we wandered down Doty Street toward the capitol and gazed at the enormous building in the fading sunlight. I made a mental note to go back the next night for more dramatic views in the dark.

We made our way back to our hotel, checked in, and found it to be less than inviting. I won’t mention the chain name, but the carpet had food freshly ground into it, it smelled dirty and moldy, and the walls were so thin we could hear people breathing in the rooms above and around us. Credit is due, though, to the beds, which were squishy and soft, just the way I like them, and even if the bedspread scared me, I knew I’d sleep well and not have back and hip problems all weekend. We chatted for a while, read for a while, and then passed out by 11.

Saturday morning we were tortured awake by our neighbors getting up, slamming doors, yelling, and otherwise carrying on at the crack of dawn. This always causes me to stay in bed later than I want to just to catch up on the robbed sleep, so I did. Sometime before 9 I finally gave up and got dressed. While Gretchen forced her exhausted self up to shower, I wandered down the dark, dingy hallway to the breakfast room, holding tight to my English muffin and really only holding out hope that they had a toaster and butter. Much to my astonishment, there were real breakfast choices for people. Biscuits and gravy, fruit, varieties of toast choices, hard-boiled eggs, a waffle iron and waffle batter, real fruit compote, and a living, breathing fellow who made omelets to order. I prepared my usual, English muffin and two hard-boiled eggs, grabbing a little bowl of peaches, and skedaddled back to the room with my food.

By 10 am we were on the road headed for downtown Madison again. First stop was the farmer’s market. Once inside the Senior Center, I realized that the farmer’s market was the place to be in Madison on Saturday mornings. HOLY CRAP there were a lot of people crammed into that little space! We visited all the vendors and I had a tough time choosing between cheese sellers, so I didn’t get any cheese at all. Instead I bought some buffalo (cheaper than my own source) and a bag full of mixed baby potatoes, which I am presently dying to cook. Gretchen got gingersnap cookies and some sort of peanut buttery thing, pointing out that I bought the healthy stuff and she bought the junk. Hmm. Someone tried to hand her a leaf of raw spinach to taste and I laughed hard. Gretchen eat spinach? It is her arch-nemesis! It is her kryptonite! It would be the death of her! Before someone else tried to kill Gretchy-poo, we high-tailed it out of there.

From there we went to the Henry Vila Zoo. I was expecting something on the size of the Racine Zoo, given that it’s free, but it was more like a little sibling to the Lincoln Park Zoo. In fact, some of the habitats mimicked those in the LPZ.

The lion gave us a real show, stirring from a slumber to growl and roar, answered by the tiger next door, and then he continued long after his neighbor quieted down.

Inside the ape house, we saw orangutans not doing too much, but the chimps were absolutely captivating. A male chimp sat at the window watching the people and a keeper stood guard out in front to make sure that the visitors behaved in a way so as not to stress him out.

Then he made a sign to her that he wanted a snack and she opened a door that went behind the exhibit room where all three chimps had now gone. She asked each of them to perform certain tasks like showing her their fingers, toes, ears, butt, etc., and they all complied happily. She rewarded them with trail mix and they signed things to her to communicate. It was amazing. I had no idea that teaching chimps sign language was fairly standard, nor did I know that they understood so much English. What an eye-opener!

We saw capybaras being fed, bears being lazy and ignoring crowds of adoring visitors, and penguins conversing with people.

The highlight for me was seeing the buffalo and prairie dogs, which brought back a flood of memories of my South Dakota trip and a longing to return.

They had a spectacular herp exhibit, too.

We left around 3:00, wanting to hit certain shops but both of us forgot to bring the awesome list David compiled for us, and we decided to run back to the hotel to collect it. On the way we stopped for a quick lunch at Noodles & Co., got to the hotel by about 3:45, and turned right around to find Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier. The GPS did us wrong. Very wrong. It wanted me to turn in places where there were no streets or drive over large islands full of flowers and trees to get down streets I didn’t have access to. We finally got to the front door of the chocolate shop at 4:15. Unfortunately, it closed at 4 and would be closed on Sunday, so it was a total loss.

From there we returned to State Street (passing an overly-friendly college age guy openly smoking pot while walking down the street) and wandered the shops downtown, then got back into the car and drove down Monroe Street, looking for more quirky shops. I found the Willy Street neighborhood, recommended by David as the Flower Child Area, which it totally was. We found another chocolate shop, the James J. Chocolate Shop, on Monroe, getting there 15 minutes before they closed, and we loaded up on chocolate. We drove all around the University of Wisconsin campus, saw the Badgers’ stadium (Gretchen was thrilled; I was ambivalent), checked out Lake Mendota, and then had dinner at Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace.

Tex Tubb’s is a Tex-Mex restaurant, which I usually avoid in favor of authentic Mexican cuisine, but I thought we’d give it a shot since it boasted a ridiculous number of varieties of tacos. We were surprised to see the selection was indeed unusual. I had a tilapia taco and a brisket taco because I’m weird like that, while Gretchen had a shrimp taco and a traditional chicken taco. They all were to our liking!

After stuffing ourselves silly, we drove back to the capitol and bundled up for a walk around and 200 pictures of the building from every angle.

That’s the way I shoot. Pure, but en masse.

While wandering around, this was where we spied our first group of homeless people, who seemed to be camping out on the capitol property. Ironic. There were quite a few people walking downtown and many younger people bar-hopping. Overall, it was very quiet.

Though there was very little traffic and I was standing on the driveway up to the capitol building, I asked Gretchen to stand behind me and stop any cars that would otherwise run me over while I shot so many pictures at so many different shutter speeds with metering tweaks. Gretchen is an awesome car stopper. I wasn't run over a single time!

This has nothing to do with the fact that no cars even approached and everything to do with the fact that she chased them all away before they could even consider approaching. Gretchen also suggested some interesting shots I might not have seen, like the reflection of the dome in the buildings across the street.

All she needs is a camera and she could be dangerous. But then, who would watch my traffic?

On the way back to the room, I made a sudden stop on a road I could see nothing on, wanting to get a view of the Madison skyline reflected in the lake. After a few dead ends, I found a boat launch area, scurried out and onto a short pier, set up my tripod, and began snapping pictures of the buildings in the distance. It turned out to provide the ideal vantage point and it was purely by accident that I ended up there.

As I was backing away from the boat launch, Gretchen spotted a muskrat swimming on the edge of the lake. Cute little guy. Like many people, she thought it was an otter. Sorry, dear, muskrats are a dime a dozen in the Midwest and otters hide so well that you'll almost never see one in the wild. Besides, muskrats are easy for me to identify because they're much, much smaller and swim with a purpose, steadfast and strong, unlike otters that zip and twirl, spinning and dipping below the water like the acrobats and showoffs that they are. He was a cute muskrat though.

We got back to the room around 10 pm, tired from so much walking, and fell asleep just before midnight.

Sunday we awoke just before 9 again, not disturbed as much as the previous night, but no less unwilling to rise earlier. A repeat of the previous morning had us taking turns using the washroom and eating, then we dawdled a while and checked out of the hotel by 10:45.

With our trusty list of places to go and things to see, we felt completely done with the things we wanted to do. It was pointless to do much of the outdoor stuff or natural areas given that it was soggy and still un-springy, and we’d raided the shops we wanted to visit. Feeling like we got everything out of the trip that was needed, we decided to head to Lake Geneva on the way home.

The GPS sent us down odd country roads, on and off of Rt. 12. I don’t know if it saved us time or gas, but it seemed like the GPS headquarters must have been bored and punchy, so they gave us a scenic route for the drive. That was fine with us. We weren’t in a hurry.

Once in Lake Geneva, we didn’t grouse too much about the paid parking, being sufficiently accustomed to it now. We visited many shops, played with some greyhounds in front a dog supply store, and got some ice cream at Kilwin’s.

We walked down by the lake, on the piers and toward the beach. I stopped dead at the end of the pavement where the sand began and proclaimed that I had gone far enough and wouldn't be walking in the sand. Gretchen asked why and I answered that no matter what you do in the sand, even if it's just walking, sand makes its way into crevasses and areas of the body that were far, far away from the sand. She laughed and said that was stupid, that sand doesn't travel up the legs to the rest of the body. Clearly she has not spent much time at the beach lately. She walked to the edge of the water and asked me to take her picture. Feeling generous, I took two steps forward into the sand, snapped her picture and then backed gingerly onto the pavement.

Me: Did you see that? I even stood on the sand for you.

Gretch: Wow, I'm impressed.

Me: Now I have sand in my buttcrack.

Gretch: No you don't! There is no sand in your buttcrack!

Me: Yes. Yes there is. I can feel it, every step I take, it's wearing away at my flesh. I don't know how it got there, but just touching the sand with the soles of my shoes got sand in my buttcrack.

Gretch: You're nuts! You don't have sand in your buttcrack!

Me: Yes I do.

Call it a hung jury. There was no convincing me I didn't, and there was no convincing her I did. Suffice it to say that I felt that sand in my buttcrack for the rest of the afternoon. Stupid sand.

Gretchen got her first taste of Jimmy John’s, much to my amazement, and I believe she might just be as hooked as I am.

We drove home, I dropped her off at her place around 3:30 in the afternoon, and we each talked about what we would like to do with the rest of our day. I was going for a bike ride and she was thinking about going for a walk, possibly to see a movie. There's something about going on a road trip that ends early that lends itself to inspiring people to do more with their time than the ordinary tasks and chores.

All in all, Madison was a great trip. I'm not convinced at this point that I'd ever move there, but it was a charming place to visit. A very successful adventure.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Twin Cities, Minnesota, March 2010

Friday, March 12

Traveling alone and traveling with friends can be two totally different types of experiences, each with benefits and drawbacks, and company or lack thereof can be crucial, depending on the travel objective. This trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul was almost essential for me to have a buddy, and inviting Ann along seemed the most natural of choices. Wise decision on my part! Part of the reason for the trip was to scope out the area as a potential place to live, to see if it’s at all somewhere I could even consider, and I needed someone to join me who could give me feedback, advice, and an honest opinion about whether the fit would work, and Ann was the exact person for that job.

I drove up to Kenosha to pick her up slightly after noon, and by the time we added her gear to my gear, the backseat and trunk of my car were covered. You’d never know we were only going for 2½ days.

Ann brought her GPS, which we named Sally (personification being a problem for both of us, so almost everything got named), and we chucked my printouts of directions from Google. Sally was wonderful because she didn’t just tell us where to go, but she told Ann how fast I was going (which Ann tsk-tsk’d occasionally, though I didn’t hear her complain when we arrived an hour early), nearby attractions, and the approximate time of arrival at any destination. Part of me was grateful to have Sally along due to traveling to an unfamiliar urban area, which can be intimidating, and part of me was a bit disappointed because getting lost can be fun and revealing as well. However, we put all our faith in Sally and she never led us astray. Though, often she did get an attitude. There was something about they way she said, “Recalculating,” that reeked of a sigh and disappointment. That attitude was often thrown back at her tenfold when she told me to keep both right and left at the same time. On the other hand, there was a definite excitement in her tone when she announced we had arrived at our destination. Given how many orders she gave me over those 2½ days, my only real complaint was that I received no positive reinforcement when I did what she said. An occasional “good job” or “nicely done” or even a “good girl” would’ve been nice. Despite the roller coaster of give and take, Sally did us proud and we confidently went anywhere our hearts desired all weekend long, which was quite a blessing for us.

On the drive up, we each had bags of snacks on which we munched, but snacking is so unfulfilling on a long drive. By the time we reached the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, my stomach was grumbling and I was getting irritable.

As we were driving, Ann asked me what it would take to move me up there and I said I had two criteria that would be prerequisites before I'd even consider it.  There had to be Panera and Culver's in the area, and I already knew there were Panera locations, so what remained to be seen was if Culver's were there.  When we pulled into the parking lot, under the sage guidance of Sally the GPS, right IN THE PARKING LOT was a Culver's.  Ann announced that this was a sign.  What it was to me was access to cheese curds and that made me happy.

We checked into the La Quinta in Bloomington by 6:15 and found ourselves wondering whatever to do with the night ahead of us, as it was. On the long list of things to do that I’d started to amass weeks before departing, the one place I refused to even consider was the Mall of America, positively the epitome of anti-Nikki targets. The enormity, the crowds, the parking, the PEOPLE… I’d rather get stabbed. However, having arrived so early and having nothing on the agenda to do, Ann asked if we could just run into the MOA for a bit. I gave in, though every inch of my intestines hated the concept, and my tummy growled for meat and veggies.

Sally got us safely to the MOA and by some strange stroke of luck, we managed to get a very close parking spot. Still I grumbled. Once in the mall, I felt a part of my soul die. It was every bit as bad as I imagined, dark, crowded, loud, and irredeemably sterile. How could something so enormous lack character? We wandered around, visited each floor, strolled into a handful of stores, bought nothing, and in the end, enjoyed only the Lego creations. An hour later we escaped and I was released from my MOA obligation. Whew!

With growing hunger that was starting to make me sick, we decided to head to a chain restaurant (something I typically would never do out of town) where I knew exactly what I could order that I liked, and which would hit the spot, so to the Applebee’s in Bloomington we went!

Secondary to scoping out the area as a potential relocation landing zone, we were also there to de-stress, so before we even considered the menu, we each ordered drinks. Ann had a Long Island and I had my usual strawberry daiquiri. Both were delicious, although mine was gone in probably 10 minutes and I wanted another. I resisted, which was good, because suddenly my head felt hot, my pulse echoed in my ears, and everything became hysterically funny to me. We ate, got incredibly silly, laughed through dinner, laughed more after dinner, and had to stick around a little while longer for the loud pulse in my ears to quiet down so I knew I could drive us back to the room. Not many people have seen me with alcohol in me so Ann was experiencing a rare encounter. However, she was quickly passing out at the table, and though it was only 10 pm, we had to call it a night.

The hotel room was nice, the beds were luxuriously comfy (and we thoroughly tested them by taking running leaps onto them), and we both slipped into deep sleep before 11 pm.

Saturday, March 13

I don’t know if it was the darkness, the comfort, or the exhaustion of letting go of the stress in our lives, but we slept until 9 am on Saturday, and hurriedly got dressed in time to grab some food from the hotel at their continental breakfast.

Our first destination of the day was a little neighborhood in Minneapolis, which houses a bookstore called Wild Rumpus, a bread store called Great Harvest, and the Linden Hills Co-op. Wild Rumpus which is named after a phrase from the book Where the Wild Things Are, and has an interior design based on the book The Salamander Room, both wonderful children’s books. They have pets wandering around like a cat, a chicken and other caged pets like a lizard, some rats, and many other birds. We were totally psyched about the book store, and despite the battle of trying to find a parking spot, we were bouncing with anticipation over Wild Rumpus, and we were not disappointed.

It took about an hour to get out of there, and that was only after forcing ourselves to leave. I bought The Graveyard Book, which I’ve wanted to own a copy of for a long time. Ann didn’t get anything after walking around debating what to get the entire time. Self control: she has it, I don’t. Or… decisiveness: I have it, she doesn’t.

We perused the other local shops, found ourselves drooling at Great Harvest and leaving with bags full of carbs (their soda bread rocks!), then roaming the aisles of the co-op and picking up more edibles. We begrudgingly left our parking spot for the next beggar and made our way to Chicago Ave.

Driving around, I discovered a love of this neighborhood, wrapping around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. It felt like a suburban version of Lincoln Park in Chicago, and that was perfect to me.  Though it seemed expensive, I felt quite drawn to it.

On Chicago Ave., we stopped in another bookstore, True Colors, and much to Ann’s surprise, it was a very women-centric, feminist, lesbian bookstore. She was quite embarrassed to have been exposed to this. Her discomfort amused me greatly, though!

We picked up more food at the Turtle Bread Co., then got organic ice cream at the Pumphouse Creamery, which was delicious.

From there we drove to St. Paul to see the Cathedral of St. Paul, which is modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, and it was stunning.

I took pictures outside while Ann was inside, and then she texted me to tell me to come in and take more pictures inside. I thought the outer structure was impressive until I got inside. The stained glass, the sculptures, the art, it was all breathtakingly beautiful.

From there we drove to the area where St. Paul has bronze Peanuts statues near Rice Park so that we could take pictures of ourselves with them.

Ann wanted her picture taken with the bronze statue of F. Scott Fitzergerald, one of my least favorites of the classic American authors, and I took her picture while sticking my tongue out at him.

We decided to see Minnehaha Falls in Minnehaha Park back in Minneapolis before grabbing dinner, and this was a wise choice because dinner would not come quickly. The falls were so much higher than I expected, and quite dramatic. The ice that flowed from the top of the canyon down to the base was a bluish color that added to the cold look of the falls. It was very nice to see such a natural element in the middle of a bustling city.

Dinner had long been anticipated: a Jucy Lucy burger at Matt’s Bar. We knew it was famous. We knew it was featured on two shows on Food Network. We knew it was a local point of pride. But what we didn’t know was that this tiny little bar would draw a crowd on a Saturday night that would line the inside, fill the foyer, and drift down the sidewalk out the front door. We arrived when the line was still in the building, and it was over a half-hour before we got a table, plus another half-hour before we got our food. The Jucy Lucy was unlike anything we’d ever had before, and something I’ll probably crave for many years to come. The basket of French fries we got could’ve fed four people easily, if not six, and as we slowed down with our gluttonous consumption, Ann began naming the fries while telling me I was sick for putting mustard on them. Eventually neither of us could eat another bite and we called it quits. As we left, we squished our way through the hungry, waiting crowd that was now down the street.

Having our fill of people, crowds and noise, we decided to spend the night at the hotel room, drinking and making a party for two. We stopped at a local liquor store, picked up a 6-pack of Mike’s Hard Berry, and some silly, useless toys at the Dollar Tree down the strip mall, and brought it all back to the room with our many food purchases. We had glow stick jewelry, coloring books and crayons, key lime cake, champagne glasses, pajamas and each other. It was a blast!

But we were still exhausted and ready for sleep by 11 again. Given that it was the night of starting Daylight Savings, we didn’t feel too guilty for crashing so early.

Sunday, March 14

Despite going to sleep early on, we slept long and hard that night and didn’t want to get up with the alarm at 8:30 on Sunday. However, we did anyway.

We grabbed a quick breakfast, packed, checked out of the hotel, and headed to a church for Ann to attend mass in a town called Wayzata. After mass, we drove back to Minneapolis to visit Wild Rumpus again. Ann suddenly was overcome with a need to purchase something she’d talked herself out of on Saturday, and I didn’t need to be persuaded to go back to that awesome little store. She picked up a handful of books and I bought a copy of The Salamander Room, which only seemed appropriate, and by 1 pm we were ready to leave the Twin Cities.

One of the big trips I’d like to do at some point is the Great River Road, and my curiosity got the best of me while planning this trip, so I scheduled a detour down the Great River Road from Minneapolis to La Crosse, just to get a taste. The plan was to stop in Red Wing, then Wabasha at the National Eagle Center, where they were having big eagle programs through the month of March.

Prescott, Wisconsin was a cute little town, though we didn’t stop there. The drive was gorgeous, weaving up and down huge hills adjacent to the river in Wiscons, bluffs on one side and the muddy Mississippi on the other. We crossed the river back into Minnesota to Red Wing, which was also a great town, but we didn’t have time to stop there either. We had to get to Wabasha. The views along 61 south of The Cities were spectacular. The bluffs were tremendous and somewhere around Red Wing we spotted our first eagles. By the time we got to Wabasha, they were all over the semi-frozen Mississippi River and soaring above us.

We spent a brief time in the National Eagle Center. It was so crowded that we missed out on the eagle-feeding program. However, we did have an opportunity to walk through a barrier-free room with four eagles (1 golden and 3 bald eagles), who were bound by their ankles to a strap that was connected to the floor. It felt wrong. It felt disturbing. EAGLES didn’t belong tethered to the ground! Yet, I don’t know what their stories were and perhaps they were hurt and flightless, but I couldn’t stay too long looking at these amazing creatures and wishing they could fly.

Outside we found a number soaring in the air, and though it was impressive, we decided to drive back up the road some to the designated turn-offs and check out the bird nerds watching them on the Mississippi.

On the way back to the car, we stopped at an ice cream/chocolate shop in town to pick up some snacks and more ice cream. Ann got chocolate and said it was fantastic, and I got nectarine Italian ice, which was some of the best stuff I’ve ever tasted.

Up the road, we had some magnificent eagle encounters. I found one sitting on the ice tearing something to shreds and eating.

 Another adult swooped down and landed near the first one, walking across the ice to be closer.

Then an immature eagle began plunging from the bluffs and circling the pair on the ice. He finally landed near them and it looked like a complete family sitting on the ice together.

There were so many eagles at one point that I counted up to 20 and then lost track of which ones I’d counted and which ones I hadn’t. They were flying, sitting on the ice, fishing, grooming, eating, and doing what eagles do. It was incredible!

Eventually we tore ourselves away and headed back on the road home. We crossed the Mississippi one last time and said adieu on 90, heading back into Wisconsin.

We made a brief stop at Culver’s in Sparta, WI for dinner, and then made it all the way back to Kenosha by 9:45 pm. I helped Ann unload, thanked her tremendously for coming with and making it a great trip full of life-long memories that were loads of fun, and then drove an hour back to my own house.

I don’t know if I’ll move to The Twin Cities, but the trip was fantastic. Almost perfect.