Saturday, October 13, 2012

searching for john bannon

I've just returned from a trip to Nova Scotia. I'll fill you in on the details of a road trip with my friend, Lynn, that began in Iowa and took us to the Maritime province where she was born and raised.
At Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia.
We arrived in Halifax last Sunday, the day before Canadian Thanksgiving, and enjoyed traditional family meal (much like the US meal, it included turkey with all the fixings) with her family. The next day, we were off for some sight-seeing at Peggy's Cove where visitors look at the famous lighthouse, wander around the rocky coast, stack rocks and visit the tourist shops. They also might stop to wave at a webcam that looks out at the lighthouse, hoping that someone at home is watching at the right moment to see them.

That's what I was trying to do when I stepped inside the Sou'wester gift shop to log onto the wifi to send an email to Jon. I was in an entryway of the building, which was crowded with cruise ship tourists who had taken a bus from Halifax. I started chatting with a man named David, who, despite the sunny day, was disappointed with his visit. Because he was unaware of the time change from the eastern US to Nova Scotia, he had missed an earlier bus that would have taken him from the ship to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and the Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Turns out, his grandfather had been a crew member on the Titanic and had died after the sinking, on April 15, 1912. David wanted to pay his respects and to do so he and his wife had flown from England to New York where they'd boarded a cruise ship for Halifax.

I told David and his wife, Beryl, that I could try to find the grave and send him a photo; that was the best I could offer. I took down his email address and his grandfather's name. Lynn joined my quest; we'd see what we could learn.

Honestly, I hadn't even thought about the Titanic when we'd arrived, but Halifax is where the ships that retrieved bodies were based. (The dead were buried at sea or taken to Halifax; the living, taken to New York aboard the Carpathia.) They were cable ships, such as the Mackay-Bennett - ships which laid and repaired the telegraph cables that lay on the ocean floor between Europe and North America. Later that night, I went online to see if I could find where John Bannon was buried.

What I learned was that he was 32 years old and married, listed as having lived in Southampton, England, and held the position of greaser in the engine department. He was last seen paddling away on a piece of debris, but as far as I could learn, his body was never recovered. I wondered what David wanted to see. Was there a memorial; someplace where I'd find his grandfather's name inscribed on a wall or monument? I found none listed.

The next day, Lynn and I stopped by the cemetery and strolled between the headstones, listening in on stories told by the tour guides. We found no memorial aside from those to individuals, named and unnamed, whose bodies had been recovered. Each headstone included a number which represented the order in which the body was pulled from the ocean. I asked a guide if there was a listing anywhere in Halifax of all the people who had not been recovered, who had been lost at sea. He didn't know. But he promised to find out. After leaving the cemetery, I had Lynn drop me off at the maritime museum. I wanted to check out the Titanic exhibit as well as other displays. The staff told me there was a list of names in the exhibit.

On the second floor of the museum, a small space is set aside for the Titanic (just one of many maritime disasters described at the facility). There I saw a ledger, part of a report on the investigation into the disaster, which included a list of all the crew members and their departments. The rightmost column told the person's fate. Most crew were lost.

The report. John Bannon is listed at the bottom.
Mural detail at the museum.
Mural, a little blurry, but you get the idea.
Looking for one person among the 1,517 killed made visiting the exhibit much more poignant. I felt connected to the event, as though looking for my own ancestor, especially as I read the name in the ledger and looked at a cross-section of the ship that showed where crew members worked and lived, deep in the ship. I wondered about David, the elderly grandson of John Bannon. Where he might look to find - or get closer to - this idea of his grandfather, whose last resting place is unknown, but is most likely at the bottom of the cold North Atlantic, somewhere between The UK and New York. Who knows how far he could have gone on his makeshift raft? Maybe David sailed nearby. Maybe even considered this.

I haven't given up on finding out more about John Bannon. I keep researching, seeing what else I can uncover. Like the possibility that John may have originally been from Liverpool, instead of Southampton where 724 members of the 885-person crew signed on to work aboard the Titanic. I also learned that he was Catholic, which would mean that had his body been recovered and identified, he would have been buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery instead of Fairview. This is just one person of all the people who were lost, each with their stories, their families left behind to wonder and grieve. Generations still searching, especially during this one-hundredth anniversary year.

So, here I am, back in Anchorage, with my new awareness of a man who was lost and missed, but 100 years later, not forgotten. I thank David for letting me into his family so I could learn this story and share it with more people. I hope he finds the answers he is searching for and has another chance to travel back to Halifax.

For facts on number of passengers and crew on board, lives lost, rescued or recovered, here's a site to start your research. These are the numbers I've used. There's lots of information out there; you just need to know what you're looking for.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

midwest cultural tours: bookends

When Jon and I traveled to Wisconsin in late August, we started and ended the trip in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visiting with my brother Dave and his wife Kara. We always have a good time when we stay there, even when we're just hanging out talking. Dave and Kara live in the cool Nakomis neighborhood, near a greenway. When we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, Kara put together a snack tray and mixed us some Arnie Palmers (in classy places, referred to as an 'Arnold Palmer,' according to Kara), then we headed out to their back deck where we nearly melted in the late August heat. It felt awesome after our cool Anchorage summer.

Sculpture in the Fine Art building (sorry I don't have the artist's name).
Over the next few days, we had no problem filling our time: shopping at some stores in Nakomis and one of my favorites in the Cedar/Riverside area: Midwest Mountaineering. (They have a great selection of wool from Icebreaker.) There are also plenty of excellent places to eat or get a drink in the Twin Cities. After shopping with Kara, we headed to Longfellow Grill where we could sit outside enjoying half-price appetizers and a drink or two. Dave joined us after work just before we finished our appetizers (tempura green beans, buffalo calamari (spicy!) and pulled pork quesadillas). When we eventually returned to the house, we had to decide where to go for dinner. My question: do they have outdoor seating? Yes! Cafe Ena had sidewalk seating, and the scent of blooming flowers filled the air around our table. Three of us had the Coriander-crusted sea scallops, which was very good. Jon was a renegade and had the red snapper. Mmm.

Jon and I decided that the next day we'd go to the Minnesota State Fair. After all, we were missing the rainy Alaska State Fair. Why not melt in Minnesota? We packed a few things in Jon's backpack, Kara handed us a couple bottles of water (good call!) and we drove to the fair's Park and Ride where we caught a bus to the grounds. The Park and Ride was at a Ford assembly plant that had closed late last year. I had no idea there was a Ford plant in the Twin Cities. It was huge (136 acres) and had been in operation since the 1920s. It's hard to see a facility that large and not wonder about all the people who've lost their jobs (For the record, the closure was scheduled before this current recession began.) We climbed into the motor coach and in a few minutes the Ford plant was behind us as we rolled along the tree-lined streets with lawns browned by the summer's drought.

What can I say about the fair? Dairy building, Fine Arts, Agriculture, the Eco building, seed art, a surprise parade! 
Seed art can be a little political.

Seed art can be political and clever.

Seed art for art's sake.

The food: breakfast burrito, yogurt, Zestar! apple, Pronto Pup (like a corn dog, but dipped in the batter right in front of you), meat balls, fried walleye, lemonade. Oh, and the IPA tasting! I found out later that we missed the ethnic food section and as we were getting ready to leave, we walked past places that smelled pretty delicious. (Note to self: we must visit Midwest during the fair again!) We talked with bee keepers, admired Christmas trees, looked at landscape competition entries and flower arrangements. As for the animals, we checked out the chickens and other birds, even saw a few horses, but the cows and hogs were already being loaded up late in the afternoon to be returned to their farms. Apparently, the 90-degree heat was rough on the animals as well as the humans.

A flight of IPA at the craft beer aisle, so refreshing!

The second largest pumpkin (the winner had already split, literally).

A parade? At the fair!?

We were pretty tired by the time we climbed aboard the bus for the ride back to the car, but our day wasn't done yet. There was something else we wanted to see: the first ever Internet Cat Video Festival! So we headed off with Dave and Kara for a light snack then walked with the flow of cat-loving humanity along Hennepin Avenue to the Walker Art Center. I tell you, the culture just does not stop! Thousands showed up for the outdoor fest and it was already getting dark when we arrived. We could barely see the screen from where we sat on a blanket on the grassy slope. The sound didn't always reach us over the murmur of the crowd, but the collective "oohs" and "awwws" brought us all together. Even Dave and Kara, who are admitted dog people, enjoyed the show, if not for the content then for the bragging rights to say they were there.

The next day, Jon and I packed up for the drive to Wisconsin. Before hitting the highways, we made a few stops: liquor store; a bike shop Dave had told us about; a bakery (awesome) and an eco-friendly renovation supply store Jon had learned about at the fair's eco building the day before. With our list of stops, it took us awhile to get on the road, but we were mighty happy to have those bakery sweets for our long drive to Wonewoc. We would see Dave and Kara the next day when they joined several of the siblings and some nieces and nephews for a family barbeque. Jon navigated with the few maps we had and soon we were off the interstate and on the back highways of western Wisconsin.

Oh, yeah, do not forget the cheese!
After just over a week in Wisconsin and another long afternoon of driving, Jon and I made it back to Minneapolis and Dave and Kara's place. A little weary from the drive, I thought I'd nap before dinner, but instead we chatted about our visit, changed into fresh clothes, then off we went to one of my favorite places in the Twin Cities: The Blue Nile -- Ethiopian food. Something we can't get in Anchorage. The restaurant was quiet; we ordered our drinks and entrees for four that we would share, using our injera (bread) to pick up the chicken or lamb or lentils in our hands. The sauces soaked into the large pores of the bread and I had to keep using my washcloth to wipe my hands. I don't know why this feels like comfort food, but it tastes like something I should have been raised on!

In the morning, we took another walk through the neighborhood with Dave and Kara. When we stopped to admire a garden, the homeowner came out and insisted on giving us a tour (and me without my camera!). We followed stepping stones, went through the torii (a torii marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine) and entered a peaceful Japanese-style garden cozied between the house and the detached garage. Mary (the homeowner) encouraged me to sit in a chair in the corner of the garden, telling us the space was designed to be enjoyed from a seated level. I watched a water feature and agreed. (Here's another link with an image of the garden.) We moved along to a bench with a stone table. The table top was mostly smooth, but of an irregular shape and was taller than a coffee table, but lower than a dinner table. She said she'd decided it would be the perfect height and as I sat on the bench and reached in front of me to an imaginary teacup, I had to agree; it was perfect. She then insisted on leading us inside to a daylight basement where we could look out at the view. I again wished I had my camera. She's inspired me to plan my yard carefully. We all think about what the view will be from the street. But it's also important to think about what we see from inside. And, with the daylight basement, it was like sitting almost in the garden. Food for thought for next summer.

After a final errand with Kara, Jon and I again sat on the deck drinking cold beverages one last time. Watching people coming and going to and from the stairs that lead to the greenway just down the hill. It would have been nice to stay around and enjoy more of the late-summer warmth, but we were ready to head home. To check in on wind damage from a storm the previous week; to be home with Kitty who is as charming as any internet cat video; and to get back to all the fall chores on our list.

An afterword:
After we were home for a few days, I went online in search of recipes for injera. I found one that turned out to be fairly simple and didn't require teff flour. We did add a little more liquid to thin the batter and experimented with cooking both sides. It went great with the beef stew seasoned with berbere and the carrots. I look forward to making it for friends. It will be perfect this winter.

Making injera.
Injera with beef stew and carrots. By all means, use your hands!

Friday, September 28, 2012

midwest cultural tours - cranes (tsuru)

Whooping Cranes
I love cranes. Seeing cranes; hearing them; being in their presence. I don't recall ever seeing them near my hometown of Elroy when I was growing up, but two years ago, I saw them so many times that I stopped counting. I saw them in the bog near my home in Anchorage; along a trail a few miles from my home. I saw them along the 400 Trail when I biked from Chicago to Elroy that June. And I saw them in August near the apartment my parents had lived in for several years. I also remember driving my mom on an errand and having a pair fly over the highway directly in front of us. I nearly slowed the car to a stop to watch them. Cranes were very much on my mind in 2010. For their beauty, their calls, their size. Also their symbolism: longevity, loyalty, wisdom. It was as though they were telling me something.

All the cranes I saw that year were sandhills. The only variety I had ever seen. But the International Crane Foundation, just outside Baraboo, protects every species of cranes that exist around the world. African varieties, Asian, Eurasian, Australian, North American. (No cranes in South America.)

On a cool Saturday morning, Jon and I took a trip to visit the foundation. It was our last full day in Wisconsin before driving back to Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon. Though the foundation has been in existence since 1973, I'd never been there. I knew about it, but when I lived in Wisconsin I never felt compelled to visit. We were able to join a tour and learn a little about the different species, each of which were on display in their enclosures. I won't go into detail about the foundation, but one of their missions is to protect habitats of all crane species worldwide. That's a huge mission, especially when you look at the map and see just how much range they have, often crossing political boundaries.

Grey Crowned Crane, so beautiful.

Blue Cranes posing in front of their mural.

Whooping Crane. In the 1940s, there were only 21 in the wild.
So, it's fitting that between the public space and the facility where most of the cranes are housed and raised, the foundation has begun reestablishing habitat. Restored marshland and prairie, along with existing woodland. It lends an example of what kinds of habitats support crane populations and how important habitat is to the recovery of endangered birds, such as the whooping cranes. Jon and I took a stroll through the trails and had them all to ourselves, yet, we could still hear the calls of the cranes.

Along a path through restored prairie.

Mystery pods.

Outside the Education Center.

Besides being curious about the foundation and the work they do, another reason I wanted to make a visit is that one of my characters in the book I've been working on works at a facility that researches cranes. Whether it's a wetland reserve or a scientific foundation, I'm not sure, but I wanted to see how things were set up so I could get an idea of whether it would work for the book. (You see, it's all research!) I still haven't decided how I'll integrate the ideas into the book, if at all. Either way, I'm glad we visited the foundation so we could see the cranes up close. That alone is reason enough to visit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

visiting mom

Highway 61 bridge; La Crosse, Wisconsin

Leaving the Driftless

I have said this before, repeated it until I believed it was true and even possible. To visit Mom is to put away the ego; to make the visit be not about me, but about her. Her needs; her feelings; her thoughts. No matter how ambling they are. It's not about me, I repeat to myself.

But when I sit next to her as she lays on her bed, my name is missing. She doesn't recognize me, or not me specifically. She seems to recognize that I am someone who loves her; someone who cares how she's doing. Someone close to her. I introduce myself: "Hi Mom, it's Rose. I brought my husband, Jon." Each time I visit or re-enter her room, I repeat it. Reminding her; reminding me. She smiles with some recognition, then drifts into her world.

At one point, she searches for my name the same way she did when I was a kid, by calling through the list of names for my older sisters: "JanetJoanneMaureen." She looked at me. This was familiar, a pattern set years ago, something I'd heard so many times. Still. Did I mention we share a first name?

My siblings had warned me to prepare myself for the visit. They see her much more often. I'm over 3,000 miles away. So I was patient; I tried; I encouraged each time. Then, Jon and I continued with our day. The first two times we'd visited, she'd been weepy; down. It was as though all those years of putting on a positive face had worn her out; she couldn't fight the unhappiness; the feeling she was not useful any longer. She suffered through an unspoken pain; invited me to recite Hail Marys with her, softly scolding me when I didn't recite the prayer with her. "You're not helping." I wonder what I'll recite over and over if my mind leaves me before my body's done with this world.

That Sunday, after we met some of the family for breakfast at the Elroy Legion Hall, Jon and I made one more stop to visit before taking the two-lane highways back to Minneapolis. Mom was resting on her bed, yet cheerful. We looked out the window at the patio and the white clouds drifting across blue skies. We didn't have much to say. She asked where I lived now and when I told her Alaska, she commented that it was far away. I didn't tell her we were leaving for home that day. I stroked her wisps of gray and blonde hair. Told her Jon and I would be taking a drive through the countryside. She said it sounded nice, then we left the room.

We stopped in the hall so I could talk to one of the aides about a couple things. Then I lost it and started crying. "What's wrong?" she asked in a voice she probably reserves for the elderly residents and for children with hurt feelings. I looked at Jon, hoping he could explain. When he didn't, I told her we were leaving that day. It didn't register: returning to Alaska, I added. "That's why I haven't seen you before," she said. But I still couldn't say what I really meant, which was that this may be the last time I saw my mom. Finally, I collected myself and returned to her room, again sat on the bed near the window where cool, fresh air was drifting in. I re-introduced us. It was as though Jon and I had just arrived.

We stayed only a short time. Long enough to again tell her that Jon and I were going for that drive. To tell her that I loved her. To look at her smile again. Then we left. Got back into the rental car, drove through Hillsboro, onto Highway 82, then Highway 33, on a route that would take us to La Crosse where we would cross the Mississippi River. Jon drove away with sparse words, but looks of understanding passed between us. My melancholy dropped away with the miles. Soon ridges separated us.

The day began warming as we backtracked the route we'd taken just over a week before: the detour near Wildcat Mountain, then through Ontario. When we arrived in Cashton (pop. 1,102), a parade was rolling through the town. 
In Cashton: I hadn't noticed the Mardi Gras beads.
In Cashton: little horses and wagon.

I wouldn't have minded waiting, but the police officer flagged us through between horse-drawn wagons and we were soon on our way. Past the wind turbines turning in unison beyond a corn field; past Amish stores and Organic Valley producers. As we neared La Crosse, we turned into a pullout that offered a view to the north and a sign that described the coulees. There we met a young woman who had been reclining in the bed of her pickup looking out at the view as she texted her friends and read. We may have interrupted her when we pulled in, but she was friendly and said she just enjoyed driving from the city to this spot where she could look at the view. I could see why: the vista went on for miles.

Wind power, outside Cashton
Soon we were navigating our way through La Crosse (pop. 51,320), crossing the Mississippi and heading up the River Road, stopping along the way to pick up a few items for lunch, then picnicking at a park just off the road. By the time we arrived at Dave and Kara's house in Minneapolis, we were a long ways from the visit with Mom.

That was just over two weeks, one flight and about three Alaskan wind storms ago. And one birthday. I've finally accepted that I won't get a card from Mom on my birthday. She's sent plenty over the years. Cards, letters, clippings. Never phone calls. Those, I made, though not often enough and not anymore. They're way too confusing for her, and now I've seen why.

I try to explain to friends how this feels. My acceptance. Understanding. I try, but they are mostly  goals and words I use to cover those deep fears I have for my own possible future. And the feelings I try to bury, all the while hurting because in front of her it seems I have disappeared.

Crossing that bridge...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

midwest cultural tours - driftless

Bridge 18 on the Kickapoo River.

Deeper in the Driftless - Our road trip through America's Dairyland continues.

A few years ago, I was made aware of a used book store in the town of Viroqua. I’d never been there, but I was intrigued by their name. Driftless Books* and the Driftless Centre for Slow Media is located in the Forgotten Works Warehouse. The warehouse is across the street from an old railroad spur and originally housed the Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Co. We don’t often think tobacco growing when we think of Wisconsin, but in the mid- to late-1800s and into the early 1900s, tobacco was grown in Vernon County. (This would have been a big cash crop during the Civil War, I imagine.) I even remember a family who grew and dried it in one of the hard-to-get-to valleys outside Elroy in the late 1970s and early 80s.

My brother, Mike, joined Jon and me on a tour that took us from Hillsboro, through LaFarge, and, finally, to Viroqua (pop. 5,079) on Highway 82. As we drove the long ridges, Mike shared stories of people he knew: the people who moved to the area years ago to get away from big city living. People who raised sheep; people who managed to go back to the land.

Though he knows the area well, Mike had never been to the bookstore. I’d written down the directions in my pocket-sized notebook, so I knew how to find it. On a sunny day, we stepped into the dark building, walked down a hall and into an expansive room with wood floors and high ceilings. Most of the limited light came in through the tall windows. As I was squinting my way through the poetry shelves, the owner came over and turned on a light for me; I hadn't even noticed it was there. I scanned the selections, which included some classics and contemporary poets. Eventually, I found a gem: a hardbound Portable Walt Whitman dated 1973 that had been withdrawn from the Madison public library. Not a collector's item, but a handy size, and I need more Whitman in my life.

Later, I picked up a book from a table; I’d remembered hearing about it: Salt. I put it back down. I saw Jon carrying it around later and was glad he'd found it. After strolling the voluminous collection, I found a copy Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and decided to get it. After over an hour browsing through the shop, we were ready to check out. That’s when we learned there was also an upstairs and a basement!

Turns out, many of the books upstairs weren’t cataloged - the owner had just returned from a buying trip in Texas where Larry McMurtry (yes, that Larry McMurtry) was selling the inventory of his bookstore. Who knows what finds the owner had brought back in his truck? It made me wonder, how does a bookstore situated in a small town in a rural part of the state make it? While we were the only customers in the store that late morning, Driftless Books does much of its business online. It’s a new model where a business can be located far from population centers where expenses are low and quality of life, high. After the woman at the counter rang up our purchases, we were ready for lunch.

Our destination: Driftless Cafe. We placed our orders at the counter, chose a table and started looking around. I’m sorry now that I didn’t do the tourist thing of returning to the car for my camera. There was a fiber-art exhibit decorating the walls; the artist used lots of natural materials. One that stood out was a wool piece that incorporated old washers and bolts. The fabric was dyed with rusty water. Some works included branches or other found items from nature. I had time to take it all in as I waited for my panini and contemplated the slice of pie that was already on the table. Over by the coffee station, I ran into the owner of the bookstore who was finishing his lunch. We chatted briefly and he seemed pleased with his recent acquisitions, though he acknowledged he had a lot of work to do. Years ago, I worked in a book store in Milwaukee. A part of me still loves the simple act of arranging books. I know. It never leaves!

After lunch, we strolled around the town, checking out shops. I wandered through a spacious yarn shop and imagined it would be a great place to gather with friends to knit. We stopped briefly in a fishing store and, of course, the bike shop, Blue Dog Cycles. There, we found out about singletrack trails that have been built in the area and about trails to ride just outside LaFarge (pop. 746) in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Another reason to bring bikes next time.

We left Viroqua and finally paid a visit to the Reserve. Mike knows one of the people who works there, so we chatted for a bit, then picked up a trail map and headed out for a hike. Down the hill, across a creek, then across the Kickapoo River on Bridge 18. The bridges are numbered for a canoe route that flows between Ontario (pop. 554) and LaFarge. We hiked over to the East Ridge Trail, then realized we wouldn’t have enough time to finish a loop hike in time to meet a dinner commitment. We backtracked, then took a side route on the Dam Trail where we encountered the Dam Tower (which was mentioned in a previous post).

In the Kickapoo Valley Reserve: the Dam Tower, with the
abandoned earthen dam forming the slope to the left.

The reserve was established after a decades long fight to dam the valley was won by environmental concerns. Though the dam was to be built to fight flooding on the Kickapoo and establish lake-based tourism, it is instead a beautiful place to enjoy the scenery and history of the region. Visiting the area gives me reason to contemplate all the people who had been removed. When settlers arrived, the Ho-Chunk peoples were removed to the west. When the dam was to be built, over 100 families were bought out and removed. Years later, the area is rich in cultural history, much of which would have been lost under water, as has happened in other places in the United States and around the world.
Next time I visit, I'd like to explore the high bluffs and maybe paddle part of the river. And I'd like to get a look at some areas that had been the homes to the Ho-Chunk people. And, if it’s summer, maybe I’d even bring the tent.

During the course of the trip, I was surprised at how many "new" places we visited. I left Central Wisconsin for Madison, then Milwaukee, just after high school and didn't spend much time there after that. Now that I live much farther away, and with the benefit of years of separation from the area, I see it with an appreciation I didn't have before. Plus, allowing the time to explore and having a partner willing to go along makes all the difference.

*I would have used their website, but it has not been responsive.

Monday, September 17, 2012

midwest cultural tours - farms and backroads

No tour de cheese would be complete without a visit to a dairy farm. Jim and Rebecca Goodman graciously endured our questions during a visit to their organic dairy farm, Northwood Farm, one evening. They ran the farm with Jim's brother for many years; now the brother's half has been sold and Jim and Rebecca look forward to selling their half of the operation. Any illusions that farming is like Green Acres were quickly dispelled as Jon, Mike and I strolled with Jim through the operation.

Yes, small farms are part of the 99%.

Dairy Tour

We started in the barn where we found Jim and Rebecca in a small office-like room next to the milkhouse (which is also a room in the barn). We checked out the calves, then toured the equipment, with Jim explaining the job each machine performed in the fields. Now, I grew up just down the road from my aunt, Anna Mae and Uncle Hugh. They ran a dairy farm and I think I knew what each piece of equipment did. Either I've forgotten, or, more likely, better equipment has been developed in the nearly 30 years since they stopped farming and joined the Peace Corps. There was lots of equipment.

I think it helps make hay.
Jim Goodman, farmer and outspoken farm advocate.
Wish we'd had more time to chat, but a farmer's work is never done.

After the equipment tour, Jim showed Jon the hay mow and pointed out the differences between hay and straw. One is feed; one is bedding. One is made of alfalfa; the other of grain stalks. If you were a farm kid, you'll know which is which. Finally, it was time to bring in the cows. They have just over 40 milking cows and milk them twice a day every day. While Jim got the milking equipment ready, Mike, Jon, Rebecca and I, along with a dog named Bob, headed out to the pasture which was across the road from the barn. We walked to the far end of the fenced-in area to herd the black and white Holstein cows to a staging area; then Rebecca herded them through a culvert under the road.

Co' boss! Bob the dog helps bring in the cows.
[On a side note, while touring Taliesin, the guide said that Frank Lloyd Wright kept cows on the property, black and white cows just like these. But the third Mrs Wright, Olgivanna, thought they looked like newspapers blowing around on the field. She'd also thought the white chickens looked like tissues in the field and demanded they get rid of the white chickens in favor of brown ones. Likewise, they switched to brown cows and they were much more pleasing to her. Aesthetics!]

Look out, kitty! Bringing in the cows.

Things I take for granted were surprises for Jon: like the fact that each cow (mostly) knew which stall she should be in. As the creatures entered the barn, we watched as some turned left, some right, some uncertain. Jim and a young neighbor boy began the work on one end of the barn. When he'd skip a cow, we'd wonder why. One had not yet had her first calf, but he was integrating her into a milking stall so she'd be familiar with it when she'd given birth. Makes sense.

Rose, the cow. I met her last time!

The Goodmans' milk goes to Cedar Grove, where it's make into delicious no-rBGH cheese. Maybe their milk is in some of the cheese we bought a few days earlier. Thus it goes full circle and I'm reminded of the great appreciation I have for farmers who toil each day to produce our food, whether they are the dairy farmers of my home state or the dairy and produce farmers in the Matanuska Valley, here in my adopted state. Though the Goodmans have been talking retirement, Jim also mentioned that their new farming partners are interested in adding laying hens to the farm. Sounds like a perfect addition.

Outside the barn.

Speaking of chickens

Earlier in the day, Jon and I had driven to Elroy (pop. 1,442) to visit with my sister Joanne. Then we all headed out to "the farm," which is how many of my siblings refer to the 10-acre place where we were raised and where my brother Bob and his wife Mary live. They keep chickens, providing fresh eggs to anyone in the family who wants them, and also have a garden and fruit trees.

Here chicken, chicken! At the farm.

Jon feeds a hen that Mrs Wright would have liked.

I hadn't been to the farm in a while so we had Bob show us some of the changes they've made, including the hen house and enclosed area. We fed the hens some chicken feed and a few of the grapes that grow next to the garage. Eventually, it started to sprinkle and Jon and I were ready to head out. Bob gave us some homemade grape jelly to take home. Pretty nice.

We had the Atlas & Gazetteer with us in the car, so we navigated our way along some backroads that I used to drive or travel while riding the school bus. The big change is that now all those backroads have been paved. I caught myself many times imagining biking along the long wooded ridges, past farm fields, barns and homes. Considered the steep hills to climb or descend. In Wisconsin, good roads are necessary to get milk to the dairies quickly; a farmer can only store so much milk in the bulk tank. But when I was growing up most of these old township roads were still gravel - including Brown Road, where the farm is. I imagine a bike tour from cheese factory to tavern would make for quite a fun trip.

I guess this is part of my continued shoulder recovery and my increased desire to be ready for a long ride. I see a perfect (or even not-so-perfect) road and want to feel wind in my face that is not coming from the air conditioner. I see uphills as a cyclist would, imagining the gear and power I'd need to get to the top. Maybe next time we go to Wisconsin we'll take bikes along. It would make the backroad tours that much more fun.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

midwest cultural tour - cheese

No cultural tour of Wisconsin would be complete without cheese. Besides, what else would we put in the cooler we used to bring frozen salmon from Alaska? And where to begin? We made a few visits to cheese shops, sampling or choosing cheeses just by the descriptions on the labels. But it's not just about the cheese.

While traveling through cheese country, which is also Amish
country, the buggy-parking paddock.


After our visit to Taliesin, including lunch at the visitor center, Jon and I headed into Spring Green (pop. 1,628) to browse through a few shops. We took our time and almost missed the open hours at Cedar Grove's factory store just outside of Plain (pop. 773). With five minutes to spare, we tried to be quick with our selections. Most notably, we grabbed a couple packages of grated buffalo mozzarella. Great on salads or pizza, we knew our hosts, Mike and Pam, would enjoy it, too. I also grabbed an impulse buy, Fleance, sheep milk cheese. (Cedar Grove uses only organic and non-rBGH milk and that does set them apart from most other cheesemakers.)

We drove through Plain, stopping at a local market for sweet corn which looked pretty shriveled. Then we noticed a meat market (the butcher kind; not the bar kind), Straka's, just down the street. Inside we found locally-made sausages and bacon and a variety of meats plus a staff waiting to help us. We picked up some cinnamon maple bacon (wow!), some pepper-crusted summer sausage (tender, and the best I've ever had), braunschweiger and some meat sticks. As we waited to ring up our order, the woman from the cheese shop came in and I asked if she knew of any produce stands north of town. She told us where to find one and we were off, continuing the trip toward Reedsburg and, eventually, Wonewoc (pop. 816).

The produce stand had fresh tomatoes as did one farther up the highway where we also found cucumbers. Still no sweet corn. It's been a rough year for corn on farms without irrigation, which is most of them. We gave up that search, but made one more stop in Reedsburg (pop. 9,200) before going to the house. I needed to take Jon to Viking Liquor. A beer-lover's paradise, I walked along the long row of microbrews, displaying them to him Vanna White style. After stalking in wonder back and forth past the selections, we made two mixed six-packs and got a third six-pack of IPA then headed for the counter. After our hot, sweaty day, we were looking forward to sampling the Wisconsin brews.

 If I was a better reviewer, I'd have kept a list of the beers we sampled. I do recall one called Bitter Woman. What can I say? I buy for the labels! And while Mike pointed out that a store in Madison has a much more extensive selection, for us Alaskans, Viking was pretty impressive.

The next day, Jon and I drove to Mauston (pop. 4,423), the county seat of Juneau County, to have an early lunch with my aunt, Anna Mae. We shared with her our impressions of Taliesin, talked about family and what we've been up to. We also tried to convince her to come up for a visit since one of her old friends lives in Anchorage. Maybe next summer. After lunch, Jon and I left the city and headed south on our way to one of our favorite cheese stores: Carr Valley Cheese, just south of LaValle. The shop was surprisingly busy for a Wednesday afternoon, but we went to work finding our favorites and discovering some new varieties. While not organic, the cheeses are pretty awesome, with lots of variety. How could I resist the label for Glacier Penta Crème Cheese: 'A revolutionary five crème blue, the most decadent blue available at Carr Valley?" Or the Caso Bolo Mellage which I enjoyed so much on my little Wisconsin bike tour two years ago? Or the aged Cardona, Canaria or black goat truffle? I was practically swooning!

While we were in the cheese store, an Amish man came in and bought something. It occurred to us that he and some of the other people shopping might be overflow from a farm auction taking place just down the road. Well, we'd never been to a farm auction! Cute suede sandals be damned, we headed for the auction, where I carefully dodged puddles and cow pies, horse poop and mud, as we examined old farm equipment set out in a field, making our way to the farm house, then the barn.

At the farm auction. A consignment auction, there were animals
and equipment from several farms.

It was an Amish-owned farm, so there was no electricity, but a man was running a gas-engine that worked an ice cream machine, producing some darn fine soft serve. (I don't know the many rules of Amish power usage, but who cares when it delivers cold ice cream on a hot day?) Under a large canopy-tent, women and girls were selling pies and produce. We bought fresh green beans, then walked past some wringer washers and other household appliances and headed toward the barn. On our way, we looked at all the horses and two-wheeled buggies that their owners had parked in a corral. We strolled through a dark barn, its low white-wash ceiling dripping with cobwebs, past a few cows and one very skinny calf. The auctioneer's voice carried through the building. They were bidding on horses. Work horses, riding horses, buggy-pulling horses. It would have been a bit of a mucky walk to get to the auction area, so we watched from outdoors as yet another horse was led in and introduced for the bidding.

Ready for auction.

We could tell this was an all-day event and it may have been fun to hang out a little longer, but the high 80-degree temperatures wouldn't be great for the cheese in our cooler, so we headed back toward Wonewoc, watching out for more horse & buggy teams as we drove the two-lane roads.

Back in Wonewoc, we were enjoying the seemingly unlimited supply of basil in Pam's backyard garden. Since arriving the previous Friday, we'd picked leaves for making pesto, had fresh basil in salads - especially with tomatoes and mozzarella. That wasn't the only thing we were picking. Mike and Pam have hops growing on their back fence, but learned that they are an ornamental variety. Luckily, a wild supply grows along the rail-trail just outside town. Pam and I picked the wild hops - the area was known for growing hops during a craze in the mid-1800s - for the Labor Day beer making project. We added a quart of the green buds to the home brew kit Mike was using.  I won't have a chance to try any when it's ready sometime in October, but I'm sure it'll go great with cheese and summer sausage.

*Jon took all the photos at the auction.

Friday, September 14, 2012

midwest cultural tours - architecture

Our cultural tour of Wisconsin continues as we visit Spring Green and the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Taliesin - shining brow - built just downslope of the crown of the hill.


America's best-known architect built his home in south-central Wisconsin where he had views of farm fields and woodlands, bluffs with rock outcroppings and the Wisconsin River. Why there? Because it's where his grandparents settled after emigrating from Wales in the 1800s. On the trip Jon and I took to Wisconsin, we decided to drive to Spring Green to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin. On a day when the temperature would soar to 90 degrees, we signed up for the four-hour tour.

During a tour that merged the end with the beginning, our guide, John, first took us through the family cemetery where Wright had designed the ceiling of the chapel and where he was laid to rest in 1959. I won't give away sordid details about his grave, but visiting the cemetery sets the stage for us to learn how Wright's ancestors settled the valley and provided the views we see from Taliesin's windows at the end of the tour. They were farmers and carpenters, millers and teachers. They helped build the community.

School building - note the low overhang on the right, the tree becoming one with the structure.

After the cemetery, we visited the school. Originally the site of a boarding school, it now houses an architecture school where students stay in rooms the guide described as similar to a monk's cell. Windows span two floors and the guide said Wright was the first to accomplish this feat. (I'm not an expert on the subject, so am in no position to confirm or deny the claim.)

Romeo and Juliet Windmill, above the school.

This residence is a converted farm building, about 500 square feet.
Windmill in the background.

Low entrances that make tall people duck lead visitors into expansive, high-ceiling rooms. We sat in the theater that was part of the school, admiring the stage curtain that was created by Wright's students as a gift to their teacher. I'm sorry that we couldn't take photos inside, but the seats were surprisingly comfortable in the cozy space. After the theater (which is still used for productions) we walked out and up the hill to the windmill. This is the third incarnation of the windmill Wright originally designed for his aunts who were founders and teachers at the boarding school. Like many things on the property, it has been rebuilt a few times.

Outside Wright's bedroom and study; the last room we saw during the tour.

Detail on our way to the main entrance, which is around the building
from where I thought the entrance would be! I love the windows & his colors!

And Taliesin, the residence? Before entering the structure, we sat outside having cold drinks and snacks, then we toured the outside: the garden and past the former stable; looking at the roof and the many limestone chimneys. We learned that it was built with no foundation just below the crest of the slope - thus the name which is Welsh for 'shining brow.' Years of water flowing from the gutterless roof and runoff from the top of the hill eventually destabilized the structure. Money was raised to repair it. But so much of the building, while beautiful to behold, is structurally flawed. Thus requiring staff and funding to make repairs.

It makes me wonder if it was Wright's intent that Taliesin should be allowed to sink back into the earth, to become another crumbling limestone outcrop upon a wooded slope, subject to the forces of wind, rain, snow and ice. If it was built to be as impermanent as our own selves, transient. Did he not leave enough sturdy examples of his work in cities, especially Chicago where he had labored during the week for many years?

I've begun reading the biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, written by Meryle Secrest - it's the one the guide recommended. Maybe I'll find some answers there. Maybe not. But it's already a fascinating story and it reminds me that if you want to understand somebody, you need to find out where they come from.

...and beyond

Before we leave the architecture tour, here's a tower that's in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. It's called the Dam Tower and would have been an important part of a dam that was mostly built, but never completed, on the Kickapoo River near LaFarge. It was built to last a little longer than Taliesin, but was never put to use. When I look at this photo, I think the structure doesn't belong there, yet it does, if only as a reminder that when you build a dam to make a lake, a lot of people and a lot of history will be displaced. It's another story and if you go to the link above, you can read all about it. I'll be sure to spend more time in the reserve next time I visit.

Dam Tower (Damn Tower?), LaFarge, Wisc.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

midwest cultural tours - taverns

On Monday, Jon and I returned from a two-week trip to the Midwest. The trip began and ended in Minneapolis, but most of our time was spent in Wisconsin, in small towns nestled among rolling hills, bluffs, outcroppings and valleys that make up what is know as the Driftless Region. We explored sites and attractions I have never visited before. Some were taverns that dot the backroads of the area.

Along the driveway to Babe's Country Club.

Bar Culture

When we arrived in Wonewoc (pop. 816) late Friday afternoon at the start of the Labor Day weekend, my brother and his wife immediately suggested we go for a fish fry at a tavern in a small crossroads town of Lime Ridge (pop. 162). We piled into the Buick that used to belong to my dad and headed out. Though the tavern wasn't crowded, the wait for food was an hour (mostly due to takeout orders), but we placed our food orders and ordered drinks. Pam ordered an Old Fashioned and since it's the official mixed drink of Wisconsin (you thought it was chocolate milk?), I quickly followed her lead. Sweet, tall and cold. It was a perfect way to take in the atmosphere while waiting for our food. Almost every bar in Wisconsin will offer a fish fry on Friday nights. Don't bother ordering a burger; it's not on the menu. What kind of fish will you get? At Lime Ridge, it was cod. Sometimes you'll get perch, but more often it's cod.

While we chatted and waited for our food, the big screen tvs were playing a movie I'd never seen. More distracting than a sporting event, I almost got caught up in the plot as I sipped my Old Fashioned. When Pam ordered another, the bartender served it then said she should try the whiskey version (we were drinking the brandy version - I've heard that Wisconsinites consume more brandy than any other state). He should have suggested that before serving her BOF, but he did offer us a taste of one he'd just mixed for himself and it was tasty.

A cheese appetizer and cole slaw kept us busy until the fish came. And it only took 45 minutes, not an hour! I ordered the tater tots with my fish. It was a hearty plate load of food and Jon & I should have done what Mike & Pam did: shared a plate. Live and learn. But it was delicious and reminded me of the many fish fries I've gone to when I lived in Wisconsin.

On our final evening in Wisconsin, after a week of visiting with family and exploring the countryside, Mike suggested visiting a few bars. I've meant to go to Babe's Country Club for years. It's out on a back road, a handful of miles from any town. My dad used to go there on occasion, but I had never been there. We planned to hit a few other bars on our tour, but the first one didn't pan out - The Summit was closed for a private party. We could have crashed the wedding, but the place looked pretty crowded, upping the chances that we'd see someone one of us knew.

As we drove toward Babe's, lightning appeared in the western sky and it began raining large drops. Mike reminded me before we went inside to not ask to see a beer menu. Jon paused to pet a cat hanging around at the front door, then we made our way inside where a woman who seemed a bit drunk came up to Pam and told everyone how she and Pam had gone to school together and that Pam was always the instigator of trouble. It was a little awkward for a moment, but the guys and one other woman at the bar were more interested in the Badgers/Oregon State game on the satellite tv and the woman quickly left us alone and remained on her cell phone for the rest of our time there.

I ordered what everyone else did, High Life, and looked at the crowd. Four or five guys and a woman at the long end of the L-shaped bar; the four of us on the short end, eyes all glued to the game. This is where Jon would say "four beers for six bucks!" Yes, but it's not IPA. It's still Miller. The storm picked up and in the final minute of the Badger game, which they were losing at 7-10, the satellite went out and the guys at the bar roared. They could no longer bar-stool coach the game and one tried in vain to bring up the game on a his phone. Such is rural life with its spotty cell service. When the sat. returned, the game was over and we were ready to head to a bar called Little Summit.

We'd heard there was a hay ride that night, and we caught up with them at Little Summit. A John Deere tractor with dual wheels and a wagon filled with a layer of hay bales was parked across the road. In the puddle-filled dirt lot, we parked next to a couple of Harleys and went in. It was a full house, but they had a beer selection (I saw Guinness in the case!). Jon had a Pabst (in honor of my dad, he said) and I ordered a Blue Moon. People ignored the 'Please don't sit on the pool table' signs and a few stood just outside the open doorway to smoke while rain fell and the breeze blew the smoke into the bar. (I would later catch the view of the orange-painted sunset from that doorway after the crowd left.)

Turns out Pam's brother was one of the hay wagoneers and he appeared to be the only one with full rain gear. Good thing, because they'd started in Hillsboro*, stopped at Babe's and would be continuing to a little dive called Jackson's Clinic. When they loaded up to leave Little Summit, it was raining. As we passed the wagon on the road it looked pretty awful, though Mike assured me they had drinks in a cooler and didn't mind. Before we pulled into Jackson's Clinic Mike and Pam said they hadn't been there in years and that the place always has fights.

The outside wasn't well lit and it felt like we were walking up to a much-neglected farm out-building. We walked through an open door into a room with a pool table, past the jukebox and down a few steps through a doorway to the main bar. We ordered MGD, except for Jon who again went for the PBR. I got my beer and looked around at the crowd, then began wandering back to the steps. I turned to take in the view of the bar. That's when I saw the bras displayed from the ceiling. I touched Jon's arm 'I just noticed those.' I gestured toward the ceiling. A tall guy looked at me incredulously. 'I'm short. I don't see things high up,' I explained. 'You should put yours up there.' I must have reached for Jon again. I didn't have a quick comeback. Then he commented on our beer choices: like mine was not as good a choice as Jon's. I let the comment slide and the guy walked past. I had to remind myself that I was just a tourist here. Brings this video to mind.

Jackson's Clinic

While the four of us played a game of pool (50 cents), the hayride crowd showed up, wet and thirsty. They filed through the pool room and down the steps. After our game, we stepped outside into the rain-freshened air. A picnic table sat in the grass, soaked. Through the trees, I was sure there was a view, but it was getting dark now. Pam & I went back into the bar and noticed a bench we could stand on to see above the crowd. From our new vantage, it was the same as any bar: people who knew each other; a few strangers; sitting or standing around, maybe enjoying each others' company. Maybe just trying to forget the week. The music was too loud for conversation, but we tried. Mostly, we observed.

Jon said he needed a Harley-Davidson shirt to fit in at Jackson's Clinic. I assured him that wearing a his red pullover and cap told people he was a Badger fan and that made him fit in (not to mention he has an awesome beard right now). But he's probably right - none of us really fit in there.

As we were leaving, Mike told us that while Pam and I had been keeping an eye on the crowd inside, there had been a fight outside. I guess that's to be expected at Jackson's Clinic. We headed back to Wonewoc and as we drove down Highway 33 I noticed the storm clouds had cleared revealing a star-filled sky. We were ready for a late dinner of grilled t-bone and baked potato. The next day, Jon and I would be driving back to Minneapolis on our way home to Anchorage.

*Edited to reflect that the hayride began in Hillsboro. We thought it began in Wonewow.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

bear photo ops

On Friday, a hiker was killed by a grizzly in Denali National Park. We know that one of the last things he did was to watch and photograph the bear as it foraged for berries, then eventually moved toward him. We're still learning the details and the man is getting lots of criticism for how he broke the park's rules about staying away from bears and moving away if one is encountered unexpectedly. But I can't help but put myself in his shoes.

In the spring of last year, I agreed to write an article about places to bike along Turnagain Arm. A new trail in Portage Valley takes cyclists and walkers up the glacier-carved valley to Portage Lake and the visitor center opposite the receding glacier. The valley is fairly narrow, but is traversed by the railroad, a road and Portage Creek, which flows from the lake into the saltwater of Turnagain Arm.

Portage Lake on the Trail of Blue Ice. May, 2011.

Smaller streams feed into the creek and ponds dot the landscape. Up high are hanging glaciers. Then there's the Trail of Blue Ice. I started at the parking lot near the lake, winding through the forest past a campground, parking lots and ponds. Though never far from the road, it was easy to forget the road was nearby. I saw a family riding the trail that morning. I'd also seen a pile of bear scat near where I'd begun my ride.

After riding to the end of the trail and chatting with some visitors from the Lower-48, I turned around to head back. Though it was late May, the leaves hadn't opened on all the trees and shrubs. Riding into a clearing, I could see a black shape through the brush. I stopped and snapped a photo, not sure of the figure, then it disappeared. I rode a little farther up the trail. Then I saw the black bear in that clearing and I did the wrong thing.

I stopped again, pulled my camera from its case and snapped a few more photos. It was my third bear encounter in two weeks and at the moment I wasn't afraid. Lucky for me, the bear did the right thing and ran back into the brush. It was only then that the adrenaline hit me and I started getting nervous. I needed to get out of there; I hoped the bear wouldn't change its mind and give chase.

Black bear; Trail of Blue Ice. Portage Valley.
Soon I was riding past a pair of moose browsing in a pond, then made it back to the parking lot. I realize it was a pretty foolish move on my part just to get a few images. I've been close to many black bears on the trails around Anchorage. That doesn't make it any safer for me than it does for anyone else. To say they are unpredictable creatures is probably wrong. I'd say, bears are predictable: when they see you, they very often will run away. But as with may other predictions, you could be wrong. Best to back away, leave the area.
To clarify, grizzlies and black bears respond differently to any given human behavior. If you're inclined to go into the backcountry, or even one of our municipal parks, it's best to learn to recognize behavior, know how to respond and learn how to use bear spray. Here's a place to start. Be safe.