Just asking for a friend…
Whenever I’m traveling with Leah, the driving usually falls to me. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. In fact, I enjoy driving as much as Leah prefers being the passenger. I figure our roleplay has lasted us through nearly sixteen years of togetherness and over 200,000 miles of highways and byways.
Over the years, we’ve worked out a reliable system where she tells me what to do and I’m inclined to ignore her.
Well, not exactly…
But ours is a predictable pas de deux that’s always destined for Bickerville.
For instance, if we’re traveling on the Interstate, Leah’s likely to order: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”
Typically, I’ll answer, “Okay,” and resume my present speed. I know it irritates her when I don’t accept her advice because she tells me so. Yet after a time, all is forgiven–but never forgotten. She never hesitates bringing it up again and again at my earliest convenience.
Similarly, if we’re driving in traffic, I’m likely to hear, “Why do you have to be on his tail all the time?” Her remark always seems to shift into hyperbole.
But I don’t blow a gasket. I simply suggest that if I was that close to him, I’d be able to read his license plate.
Then before too long, I’ll receive another Leah alert: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”
Occasionally, I’ll remind her, “You’re welcome to drive yourself, if you don’t like the job I’m doing.”
More often than not, she’ll respond with, “That’s okay. I’m good.”
But patterns are made to be broken. The chance of snowmobiling across the Arctic Circle brought a different scenario I didn’t see coming.
We arrived from Tromsø to Camp Tomak by the busload…
to participate in sledding for the day–either by dog…
or by engine.
After gearing up for Arctic climate…
we were ready for our safety and operations briefing.
That’s when Leah determined that she had no interest in driving, and even less interest in riding behind me.
“There’s no way I’m I getting on this machine with you,” she insisted.
“Why not?” I asked. “It’ll be fun!”
“Because I have no interest in getting hurt or dying,” she expressed.
“Neither do I!” I objected.
“And what if you should roll over?” she predicted. “I think I’d rather ride with Jan.”
Jan, our guide interceded and accepted to buddy-up with Leah. At first, I was insulted that she didn’t trust me–that she imagined I would risk our lives and limbs–until I realized what a huge favor she had done for me.
Without Leah behind me, I was free from scorn and criticism.
The snowscape was endless.
The cliff face was frozen.
The Nordic sky was vast.
And the scenery was breathtaking.
The guests had good reason to be giddy.
When the sun set behind the mountain,
we retired to the Sami tent for warmth, reindeer stew and tea.
Naturally, I thanked Jan for his hospitality and counsel.
“That was absolutely liberating,” I gushed. “I owe you big time for taking Leah along. Maybe you’d like to take her home with you,” I jested.
We shared a laugh together, but Leah wasn’t having any of it.
“Keep it up and you’ll be sleeping with Olaf,” she warned.
And that’s when I hit the brakes.
Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.
“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”
Of course, we were disappointed.
Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.
But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.
Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.
While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),
the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.
Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:
Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.
The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.
The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.
The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.
Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”
The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…
Hear ye… hear ye….
Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.
Captain Nilsen continued…
This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.
We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!
I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?
But I wasn’t alone.
Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.
To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.
Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.
Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”
It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places.
The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.
Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,
the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,
and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–
all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.
Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.
There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.
After a photo op with Santa…
we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,
and stopping along the way…
to admire the fancy shapes…
While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.
The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.
Four years ago, when I was scavanging through my father’s belongings–after having moved him to an assisted living memory center–I came across an obsolete, Kodak digital camera (c. 2008) in a vanity dresser drawer.
I removed the mystery SD card to inspect the files, and to my horror/delight, I discovered a photo of my father experimenting with the camera buttons–completely unaware that he had memorialized the scene in a bathroom mirror selfie.
While I have cropped the photo to its least offensive dimensions, it still captures the essence of his self-discovery.
Today is his 95th birthday, and although he is now feeble and for the most part at a loss for words (robbed by Alzheimer’s disease), he still manages to laugh at what he intuits as funny.
And I have little doubt, that if Dad was still with us in body and mind, he would most certainly laugh at his indecent exposure, while practicing with his Kodak in his birthday suit.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
A recounting of a 10-year holiday memory…
Finally, the nasty weather had given way to a brisk and sunny Black Friday, and Bonnie was eager to shed her restlessness. Three weeks had passed since our last outing, and I could tell she needed a proper walk. Her telltale kitchen dance with paws clattering across the hardwood floor made it obvious to Leah and me.
Merely grabbing her leash had Bonnie running in tight circles after her stubby tail, making her difficult to collar. She strained against her leash, pulling me past the front door. She leapt into the cargo space of my SUV, and curled into a ball, completely satisfied with her preparation.
One of Bonnie’s favorite walks takes us through the fancy neighborhood of Mountain Lakes, NJ for a closer look at how all the Blue Buffalo stew-eaters live, so off we went to walk among the Mountain Lake estates.
Fortunately, the local shopping malls had swallowed most of the area’s cars, so the four- mile drive to Boulevard took little time, and parking was a breeze.
The moment Bonnie’s legs hit the pavement, she eagerly sniffed for a place to do her business. Naturally, Leah and I were prepared for this moment, so out came a baggie that’s perfect for scooping.
But carrying a used baggie so early in the walk can be a bit annoying; it spoils my walking rhythm, and besides, it smells!
I believed the durable construction of the Rubbermaid barrel by the side door of the yellow house on our right would provide an ideal resting place for Bonnie’s poop, so off I went to make a deposit. I crossed through a hole between two hedges, and dropped Bonnie’s dirty deed atop a pizza delivery box with a cartoon chef declaring, “We Are Pleased to Serve You.” It seemed so apropos.
I secured the lid and rejoined my girls just as the homeowner cracked the side door, craned his neck and asked, “Can I help you?”
“No thanks,” I answered, “I’m just doing an inspection of garbage cans in the neighborhood, and I’m happy to say that you’ve passed!” I waved good-bye as Leah shot me a look, and we continued our walk.
We turned onto a new block and climbed a steep hill. Just as we were enjoying the fresh air and the scenery, a cream-colored Lexus sedan sped by, and cut us off. The driver’s side door opened, and the burly-looking homeowner emerged holding Bonnie’s holdings, but now sealed within a heavy-duty double-lined zip-locked baggie.
“I think this belongs to you,” he said, extending his arm with a dour look on his face.
And then came his rant. “My wife is seriously allergic to this! Do you realize you could have killed my wife and the baby she’s carrying if she was exposed to this? After eight goddamn years of trying, and spending tens of thousands of dollars on IVF drugs and testing, she finally gets pregnant. So now she’s on bed rest with two months to go, and here you come with your dog shit, and you’re gonna fuck it up for all of us.”
The veins of his forehead were bulging under his DeMarco Sanitation cap. I wondered if he would hit me, so I instinctively felt for the keys in my pocket and gripped them between my fingers as a defensive measure.
“I’m sorry,” I stated in my most solemn voice. “I had no idea that Bonnie’s poop was so treacherous. She’s only a cockapoo, and she really doesn’t mean any harm. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us.” I graciously took the bag of shit with my left hand, withdrew my right hand from my pocket and reached to shake his hand. “No harm, no foul,” I offered.
What else could I do?
As if by magic, he immediately relaxed and we chatted for a few minutes, trading personal histories. He introduced himself as Jason, and pointing to his cap, informed me that he owned a local waste management and carting company. I took a half-step back from him, my mind brimming with comparisons of Tony Soprano.
Jason revealed that he recently moved to Mountain Lakes, and hoped to raise a family in a clean and peaceful neighborhood. I wished his family peace and cleanliness, and I reiterated my apology for my faux paws.
With Jason assuaged and his forgiveness assured, Leah, Bonnie and I continued our walk, but now with a bigger baggie and a familiar problem.
After reaching the top of the hill, we discovered a new mansion under construction. A large dumpster stood guard in the front yard. I checked around in all directions to make sure we were hidden from view.
“Don’t you dare!” Leah threatened.
But I was already committed. I tossed the baggie into the heart of the steel container, and quick-stepped away from the property. Glancing back, I casually surveyed the new architecture with the over-sized receptacle in the foreground–emblazoned with D-E-M-A-R-C-O in large, white, stenciled letters–and reflected on my full-circle achievement.
Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates ballooning for nine days in October, continually drawing record crowds and attracting new entries every year.
But for two days–Thursday and Friday– the special shapes take over, and Balloon Fiesta takes flight without ever leaving the ground. Since 1989, the Special Shape Rodeo has grown into Balloon Fiesta’s most popular attraction.
The first-of-its-kind rodeo originally attracted 28 shapes and huge crowds, but today, parking has reached near-capacity, delivering crushing crowds and shrinking field capacity for one-hundred balloons that currently participate during dusk.
Known as the Special Shape Glowdeo™, the special shapes inflate and glow for 2 hours after sunset, followed by a fireworks display sponsored by Canon.
On its surface, this is exactly the kind of event I look forward to: colorful crowds and colorful balloons just waiting to be photographed. But I am not alone. Special Shape Glowdeo™ has become a photography touchstone, and claims to be one of the most photogenic events in the world.
Nearly everyone in the crowd is carrying a camera, or becomes a de facto photographer by virtue of their cell phones and selfie sticks.
And those without cameras are usually pushing strollers, or busy juggling food and babies.
Somehow, all of this works during daylight hours. As more balloons populate the horizon, most people are walking in trances as they look to the heavens, all the while focusing on a particular shape nearby.
It’s hard to calculate all the near-misses, with so many people competing to capture the same image simultaneously, but as long as there is light, accidental collisions are easily forgiven.
But all of that changes when darkness takes over and the only available light eminates from the ephemeral flicker of the balloons across the landscape.
It’s as if the winds have shifted, and all who are present have either been transported to the dark side,
or they now move through space and time as if they are moving through space.
Instantly, carriages and strollers become ankle missiles, and avoiding children on wheels while weaving through the crowd becomes an impossible challenge.
Then there are the Bimbos…
who seeingly run out of gas,
and stop in their tracks without warning,
or those who would sooner walk over me as if I wasn’t there.
It’s enough to make a person scream…
or turn to a higher power for strength–
praying for order to return to the universe.
If only there was another way to get around.
Nevertheless, against all odds, I rally against the lawlessness,
and persevere with a determination worthy of Uncle Sam’s attention.
My mission is to get as close as I can to as many of these nylon giants without getting trampled…
And when my camera battery begins to fade,
I know that it’s time to pack it in,
and reconnect with Leah, who’s been wandering the grounds with family.
“Where are you,” I ask into my cell phone.
“I’m under the elephant,” she answers.
We play Marco Polo by phone for the next 15 minutes.
Waves of pedestrian traffic push against me as I attempt to swim upstream.
It’s not an easy reunion, but it’s as welcoming as the sun on a cool desert evening.
After a time, all the balloons have deflated, except for the sponsor, and our family has settled down on blankets, bracing against the north winds as we dine on pizza ($7 per slice) while enjoying the culminating fireworks display.
And I can’t wait to do it again next year.
Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.
Its residents have been crossing its rivers and hills before the French built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in 1754 to protect their access to the Ohio Valley.
After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.
As Pittsburgh industrialized during the 19th century, so did its transportation network, and the bridges soon followed, connecting many of the elevated neighborhoods scattered throughout the vicinity.
In fact, the “City of Bridges” moniker could easily be replaced with the “City of Hills,” given Pittsburgh’s challenging geography, for there are hills galore (North Hills, East Hills, South Hills, West Hills, Middle Hill, Upper Hill, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, and the Hill District); and there are heights aplenty (Northview Heights, Brighton Heights, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, and Stanton Heights); as well as a variety of lofty-sounding communities (Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Southside Slopes, Beechview and Fineview).
For me, growning up in Stanton Heights was a constant cardio workout of hiking and biking in my neighborhood. I still recall schlepping up Greenwood Street’s countless steps on my way home from junior high at Morningside Elementary School. And climbing those hills in an unforgiving winter frequently required fortitude and a layer of thermal underwear, which was sure-fire bait for bullies.
Characteristically, Pittsburgh’s reputation for having the largest collection of steepest streets in the world underscores the importance of living close to a world-class medical center (UPMC)…
whose headquarters, coincidently, occupy the US Steel Building–the tallest tower of Pittsburgh’s skyline.
It had been a long time between visits to Pittsburgh, so Leah and I relocated the Airstream to an RV park north of Pittsburgh for a few days, appropriately named Mountain Top Campground…
and determined that a trip to Mt. Washington was a natural first stop for a lasting look at my hometown from the best possible vantage point.
But rather than drive to the top, we parked in a lot and rode the Duquesne Incline as tourists–
one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–
for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.
After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,
in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.
Although it’s only one block long, climbing the 37% grade behind the wheel of my F-150 was somewhat disconcerting. Aside from the bumpy ride over cobblestones, the angle was so severe, I could barely see the road beyond the windshield.
A 37% grade! I can’t even imagine what it would take to climb Canton Street during a winter storm…unless you’re a mountain goat.
But there was one last road phenomenon I needed to check out before we explored the cultural side of Pittsburgh. I had heard about a gravity hill near North Park that sounded like a too-good-to-be-true myth that needed busting.
When I reached the intersection of Kummer and McKinney, I made a hard left around the STOP sign onto McKinney Road, and passed an Audi that was there to perform the same miracle-manuever.
Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied.
And then it was my turn.
I inched toward the STOP sign, and held the brake till I shifted to neutral. Leah stepped out of the truck to record the event on her iPhone. I hesitated for a moment thinking how crazy this seemed. Of course, the truck can’t possibly roll unhill. It goes against the fundamentals of science!
When I came to my senses, I released the brake, and the truck began rolling backwards. It was not what I expected!
I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m not a geologist, so I don’t have a reasonable explanation why the truck drifted backwards, so I consulted the experts:
According to Wikipedia, “a gravity hill is a place where a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope due to the layout of the surrounding land, creating the optical illusion that water flows uphill or that a car left out of gear will roll uphill.”
So I was on a hill that made down look like up?
How weird…but then it occurred to me that Donald Trump runs the country the very same way, and “the 37%” who follow him, must be living on their own personal “Canton Street,” unable to see the road ahead.
While camping alongside the Airstream factory in Jackson Center (see Building Airstreams), Leah and I wondered how we would kill time during our weekend stopover. There wasn’t much to do in town, although we were within walking distance of the Elder Theatre, a one-screen cinema showcasing Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the Heidout Restaurant, serving bar food backed by a roadhouse jukebox.
We took a pass on both, and drove to Bellefontaine, 20 miles east of our location. How fortuitous, because high atop Campbell Hill–overlooking a scenic parking lot, and peaks of grasslands beyond, as far as the eye can see–
sits the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a two-year career-technical high school campus that also doubles as the highest point in Ohio, at 1549 feet elevation.
Once upon a Cold War time, this site was home to Bellefontaine Air Force Station, providing radar surveillance to NORAD in the event of a Soviet invasion from the North Pole.
Leah and I were giddy with excitement. It could have been the altitude, but the notion that we were standing at the highest point in Ohio nearly took our breath away.
However, we are seasoned travelers who have Airstreamed through most of America (see Top of the World), and we refused to be intimidated by the height of Campbell Hill.
Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.
We took a deep breath to clear our heads, and took a seat on a strategically placed bench by the geodetic survey marker.
After a snack to raise our blood sugar, we managed to trek to the parking lot a short distance away. As I regained my composure inside the F-150, I realized that we were brought here for a reason. I figured that given our vantage point and strategic positioning, the military may be interested in recommissioning this location as a secure listening post as we approach the 2020 presidential elections.
Do not descend the dune.
A thousand feet of uphill sand could easily be your ruin.
The Sleeping Bear will soon awake.
He’ll cause your arms and legs to ache.
You’ll wish you never saw the lake,
for now you sing a sorry tune.
Within a span of five days, Leah and I had occasion to enjoy the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS), but in a nontraditional manner with uncommon overtones.
Dan Akroyd set the scene for our future expectations at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park IL, the CSO summer residency.
To be sure, it was a carnival atmosphere, with popcorn and green slime for sale. The Windy City Ghostbusters were on board, protecting their ride
and providing plenty of photo ops…
Meanwhile, the CSO was warming up on stage…
waiting for dusk and the arrival of their guest conductor, Peter Bernstein, son of legendary composer and Oscar-winner, Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the original score to Ghostbusters.
Happily, the orchestra never missed a beat, synchronizing perfectly with the film. While the band played on and the Ghostbusters faced their ectoplasmic foes, we enjoyed a picnic on the lawn with my niece Rachel and her partner, Kevin. Thanks, guys.
Days later, we traveled to Grand Rapids, MI for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Strings Attached tour. Unlike last year’s stripped-down tour (see Parody Paradigm), and stripped of shtick, this concert promised to be vintage “Weird Al”–the parodies, the costumes, the MTV videos, and 41 pieces of symphonic punctuation.
The GRS opened the show with 20 minutes of John Williams’ cinema overtures from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Star Wars…
to set the mood for a sell-out crowd that was every bit as white and nerdy as “Weird Al.”
It was the largest collection of ugly Hawaiian shirts I’d ever seen.
And some fans decided to elevate their look with shiny accessories.
The band was tight; the parodies are clever; the singing was splendid; and the GRS added an extra richness to the event. “Weird Al” showcased a deep catalogue of “funny,” paying homage to Don Pardo,
a twine ball from Minnesota,
and sending up Coolio with an irreverent Amish rap.
The crowd was treated to a crowd-favorite Star Wars encore, á la Don McClean’s American Pie (The Saga Begins),
and the Kink’s Lola (Yoda).
The audience was on its feet by the end of the show, and so was the orchestra,
because their job was done and it was time to leave.
Leah and I caught up with the Associate Concertmaster as she exited the DeVos Performance Hall stage door.
“Great show, tonight,” I offered.
“Thank you. It was lots of fun,” she said.
“Did you have much practice time with the band?” I asked.
“Not really,” she admitted. “Just a couple of sessions.”
“That’s all!? You guys nailed it,” I gushed. “Any after-party plans?”
Crossing the street–“A glass of milk, and bed,” she sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it”–and she was gone.
What a nerd!
We had come to Milwaukee to drink some beer, eat some cheese curds and absorb some culture, and Milwaukee didn’t disappoint us.
Once home to the Big Four: Miller; Pabst; Shlitz and Blatz–Milwaukee was considered the brewing capital of the nation during much of the 20th century. However, after sell-off and consolidation, only MillerCoors remains as Milwaukee’s master brewer.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reminders of the good ol’ days scattered around town…
For instance, on W. Wisconsin Avenue sits the Pabst Mansion.
In 2015, Pabst returned to the city with a scaled-down version of itself, manufacturing only craft beers, like many of its competitors in the region.
Likewise, the Schlitz Brewery has been converted into an office park.
But a new generation of brewers is doubling down on craft beers, with special attention going to Lakefront Brewery for its laid-back vibe and its innovative spirit, which instilled brothers Russ and Jim Klisch to brew Doors County cherry beer and the nation’s first gluten-free beer.
Leah and I sat in the Beer Hall noshing on fish tacos and award-winning cheese curds while waiting for the brewery’s 4 pm tour.
Eleven bucks buys an 8 oz. plastic cup and four wooden tokens good for four pours from start to finish of the humorous, 45-minute tour–very different from other tours I’ve taken (see Supreme Ruler of Beers and Eco-Beer), where beer sampling follows the tour as a time reward.
At the conclusion of the tour, we gathered around the bottle conveyor,
and we sang…
Additionally, the plastic cup can be exchanged for a free beer glass at the gift shop.
It was our good intention to attend Gallery Night directly after the beer tour…
but drinking beer interfered with our plan, so it would have to wait until Gallery Day.
The following day we drove to the Historic Third Ward, and roamed through six floors of the Marshall Building inspecting a variety of syles and mediums of different artists.
Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and it rained like there was no tomorrow. We waited out the deluge at a nearby Shake Shack until a break in the weather, and crossed over to Walker’s Point to satisfy our random craving for novelty, humor, and are you kidding me?
As of February 2019, there’s a new museum in town, and it’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s also a nerdatorium for dads…
and their kids.
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum definitely checks the excess box with a collection of 6,500 figurines on display, covering a wide swath of popular culture,
featuring sports and mascots,
The Hall of Fame Bobbleheads line the windowsills.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked myself, “Why?”…and patiently waited for a sign to give me guidance!
For the overly curious, the bobblehead production process is explained step by step…
However, the bobblehead timeline gave insightful commentary and instant credibility to museum founders Brad Novak and Phil Sklar.
There’s little doubt that I’ll be raising a glass or two of Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein Amber Lager every January 7 to celebrate.
When roaming through remote Great Lakes country, media options can be very limited…and often times frustrating. While Leah has her Kindle, and I have my blog, sometimes it’s nice to lounge after dinner and watch television. However, settling in at RV parks with poor TV and WiFi reception has become increasingly routine on this journey. But we will not be deterred.
As with every new campground site setup, we crank up the antennae and run the auto program, if only to prove to ourselves that, once again, there is nothing to watch but God TV–at best, a righteous and self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the occasion that we pulled into our newest destination on the edge of Munising, Wisconsin, we did our due diligence to raise the antennae and run the channels.
“Hey Neal, we got 5 channels coming through on digital air,” Leah exclaimed.
Having left the Apostle Islands, I concluded that it was probably God’s will.
The next voice I heard belonged to Steve Harvey. He was introducing the Garrett family from Conway, Arkansas, and their opponent, the Crosby family from Bonnor Springs, Kansas. Perhaps, it was some kind of omen that we were picking up the digital signal from the local FOX affiliate in Duluth. Or maybe it was my penance.
“Gimme Dante [Garrett] and Mike [Conway], and let’s get this feud started. One hundred people were surveyed and asked, ‘Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,'” mused Steve.
Dante beat Mike to the buzzer. “Apple,” he asserted, and quickly got blasted with a superimposed “X” over his face.
“What!? Are you kidding me, an apple?” I asked.
Harvey turned to Mike and reiterated, “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra.”
“Onion,” announced Mike, which also earned him a shiny red X.
Harvey turned to Dante’s wife, Shawnte for an answer. “Pear,” she answered.
Steve crossed over to Jessica Crosby and appealed for a correct answer. “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pleaded.
“Watermelon,” she proclaimed with certainty.
It turns out that Melons/Watermelon was the #4 answer. The Crosbys decided to play.
Leah and I laughed uncontrollably.
“Really!? I can’t believe that answer was up there,” said Leah.
Dustin suggested coconut, which got him an X. But Jen thought that biscuits were the best way to fill out a bra.
Surprisingly, so did the judges, as Bread/Buns was revealed as the #2 answer.
Steve Harvey approached Sandy Crosby next. “Peach,” she affirmed, and consequently, accrued a second X.
Steve returned to Mike. “Your family has two strikes against them. One more strike and the Garretts can steal your money. Give me the name of a food that a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pitched.
“I think she would pick an orange,” expressed Mike.
Sho’nuff, it was the #1 answer.
Moving down the line, Steve turned to Shawnte again, and repeated the survey question.
“How ’bout a pepper. Y’know, like a bell pepper,” thought Jessica.
“Who are these people!?” I exclaimed.
“I think the whole question is ridiculous,” mused Leah.
“It’s not how I would prepare stuffed peppers,” I scoffed.
Meanwhile, the Garretts were huddling and wildly gesticulating behind their stage props as they considered their options.
Steve Harvey strode across the stage to the Garrett family’s side, and announced that the Garrett family can steal the Crosby’s money, if they can come up with another answer that’s on the board.
Dante Garrett steps out from the huddle and turns to Steve, “We’re gonna go with chicken.”
“That’s right, Steve. Y’know, like chicken…breasts, an’ all?” Shawnte mimed with imaginary breasts.
Leah and I were shaking the Airstream with laughter.
The TV image froze, then sputtered, then randomly pixilated all around the screen before vanishing. My television reception was lost, and the screen went blank.
“That’s how it ends for us!? I shreiked.
“What about their answer? Did the Garretts steal the Crosby’s money or not?
“I guess we’ll never know,” Leah speculated.
“You’re not curious?” I wondered.
“Not really. But I think it’s such an absurd answer–it wouldn’t surprise me if it was up there.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” I shrugged.
The following day, Leah and I hiked over .4 mi. of boardwalk to get a look at Wagner Falls.
Because the forecast was uncertain, with a high probability of rain, we figured on a nearby activity that wouldn’t require much effort or time,
but still gave the impression that we did something active.
Our next stop was the Musining Public Library for its WiFi connection. Because the library shares space with the neighboring high school the librarian personally entered the password…as if that was going to stop me from selling it to coeds, who would use it to stream porn instead of doing school research.
Once Leah finished downloading a series or two or three from Netflix, we were ready to go.
“By the way…I have the answer from Family Feud. I know how it ends.” I teased.
“So tell me,” she coaxed.
“But you said you didn’t care. You said the whole thing was stupid,” I argued. “Tell you what…
I’ll let you know online…”
And that’s why I miss TV from time to time.
Ocuppying nearly four square miles and located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, Mackinac Island was home to the Odawas, and the epicenter of Great Lakes fur trading before the British established a strategic fort on the island during the American Revolutionary War.
Native Americans referred to Mackinac Island as Mitchimakinak because of its likeness to a “Great Turtle.” The French fur traders preserved the Native American pronunciation, but spelled it as they heard it: Michilimackinac.
However, the British anglicized what they heard, spelling it Mackinaw. Regardless, the pronunciation for Mackinac and Mackinaw are the same, with an emphasis on aw.
Today, most tourists and vacationers take the ferry from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island from May to November. Leah and I carried our own bikes aboard for an extra $10 a piece.
On the approach, the French colonial architecture was charming.
We recovered our bikes, and headed toward the water, dodging pedestrians and horse poop, but keeping pace with other cyclists and horse-drawn carriages.
It was a step back in time, and a peddler’s paradise.
Closing my eyes, I could focus on the sound of a world without machines, because motorized travel has been outlawed since 1898.
An 8-mile highway loops around the island, hugging the shore,
offering amazing views of Lake Huron’s crystal clarity,
and access to Arch Rock, a popular geologic limestone formation close to downtown.
Equally impressive is Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel,
opened in 1887,
and still operated by the Musser family through three generations.
The all-wood hotel boasts the longest porch in the world, at 660 ft. (200 m),
and overlooks a picturesque tea garden.
Nearby, the Little Stone Church,
constructed in 1904 with field stone offers local history through its colorful stained glass windows.
After a full afternoon of cycling and sightseeing, Leah and I were aboard Shepler’s ferry, heading back to Mackinaw City.
During the 20-minute return ride, I thought about the variant spelling and linguistics of Mackinac/Mackinaw, and its similarity to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and emerged with new surnames, courtesy of disinterested immigration officials.
So what are the chances, a real Shlepper immigrated to America and his name was changed to Shepler?
Imagine the public relations coup for his offspring today.
The trail was advertised as 0.5 km.
“It’s probably very steep,” Leah figures.
“How hard can it be?” I wonder, still a skeptic.
“It says so in the brochure,” she states. “I quote, ‘Caution is advised when venturing onto this rock ledge due to its slope and the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior and its wave action.'”
“Sounds like fun. We should see it,” I suggest. “This is ancient historical shit!”
“It sounds a lot like the petroglyphs that we saw in Nevada,” she offers.
“You mean the Atlatl Rock in Valley of Fire State Park,” I acknowledge.
“Exactly!” she states.
“But this one’s on the water, and not the desert,” I tease.
“I know that, smart ass, and it’s also harder to get to, so you need to be careful!” Leah lectures.
“Like I said, how hard can it be?” I reiterate.
We park the truck only minutes from our campsite at Agawa Bay, and enter the trailhead where we are met with a screaming red sign:
“Like I said…” drops Leah.
I deflect the dig. “Check it out.” I direct Leah’s attention to a different sign to our right–a red diamond hammered to a tree with a white arrow and 400 km on it.
“That’s where the trail begins. And according to that sign, we’ve already walked 20% of the trail!”
It’s true the trail is rugged and a scramble. The descent runs through a narrow chasm, over sharp boulders and bulging roots. But it’s only treacherous if wearing flip flops, which a student rangerette at the visitor’s center admits can be a problem with some hikers.
Halfway to our destination, a gash in the cliff exposes a 10 ft granite chunk mysteriously wedged between darkness and daylight.
In 15 minutes we arrive at a clearing of flat rock where the sky opens up to the water. A colorful cliff 15 stories high looms above us, grabbing my attention.
Leah is content holding onto a pipe rail that separates the adventurous from the cautious.
“Are you coming?” I ask.
“Down there? Not a chance!” Leah answers instinctively.
A short drop onto a wet ledge of granite sloping into Lake Superior takes added time, but planting my feet with measured steps is the best method for staying safe.
Knotted ropes threaded through embedded pipes are there to assist the daredevils who spill into 50° F water.
Once I get my footing, I can sidle across the ledge for a better look at the cliff face.
Venturing further out on the ledge, I meet Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx, who was empowered by the ancient Ojibways to control Lake Superior.
There are dozens of sacred drawings set in stone, dating back to the 17th century, but most are faded and nearly unrecognizable from eons of sun, water, ice and wind. Their message remains unknown, but experts reason that the pictographs depict historical events, and could signify manitous from shamanistic ceremonies.
I carefully manuever onto terra firma,
and we hike back to the parking lot.
“That was amazing, down there,” I exclaim.
“It was alright,” notes Leah.
“But you never got to see the pictographs,” I mention.
“That’s OK. You did all the hard work for me. I’ll just have a look at your photographs,” she laughs.
Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.
However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?
Let’s take a look:
Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.
And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.
Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…
the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,
and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.
Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.
Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…
overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,
and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.
Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.
Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.
In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.
History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–
a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.
After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.
One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.
And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.
While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.
While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile
…until the next one.
It’s been two weeks since crossing over into Canada, and it’s been mostly cloudy and wet so far. I don’t know if this is a cause and effect circumstance, but locals are approaching me with snorkels and flippers.
The weather has put a damper on our outdoor time while extending our Airstream time. The mosquitoes have been hungry and swarming around the clock, turning mosquito swatting into a cabin past-time.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely bleak and dismal. We had agreeable weather during a brief stay at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, where we visited Georgian Bay National Park on an unusually clear day, and took a 15-minute ride on a Daytripper ferry…
to explore the network of trails on Beausoleil Island, guiding us to Honeymoon Bay,
and a keyhole to the many island cottages that dot Chimney Bay.
The weather also cooperated during a recent visit to Discovery Harbour, once a British naval and military base in Penetanguishene commissioned to secure back door access to Upper Canada after the War of 1812.
Of the two warships safeguarding the King’s Wharf at the time,
the H.M.S Tecumseth has been replicated to stand guard once again,
Yet the schooner has been deemed unseaworthy by authorities, and is destined to be a floating exhibit, much like the original.
Because the Rush-Bagot agreement between Britain and the United States restricted the number of active warships on the Great Lakes, the H.M.S. Tecomseth was decommissioned in 1817, and kept in a state of readiness until it eventually rotted and was reportedly scuttled in 1828.
However, its 1815 hull was raised from Penetanguishene Bay in 1953, and placed in a climate-controlled museum inaugurated in 2014.
As day turned to twilight, the clouds began to thicken,
providing a curtain call that few campers had seen in weeks.
Moving our location to Manitoulin Island did little to change a now-familiar weather pattern. We pondered whether sandbagging the Airstream might become necessary, but that thought slipped our minds soon after being preoccupied with scratching our mosquito bites.
Working around the rain was challenging. Under cloudy skies, we hiked the trail leading to Bridal Veil Falls’ 35-foot drop near the town of Kagawong.
And despite the threat of rain, we continued on, climbing the cliffs of M’Chigeeng on the Cup and Saucer Trail,
for splendid views of the North Channel.
But our luck ran out as we drove to Ten Mile Point for a stormy lookout of Georgian Bay…
and found similar blustery conditions at Providence Bay, on the edge of Lake Huron,
before returning to the sanctuary of our Airstream.
The following day, our four-hour travel time to Sault Ste. Marie was compromised by a tire mishap (see Blowout!). And then it rained…a lot!
By now, mosquito bashing had turned into a bloodsport. There were a few brief intermissions that allowed us to explore Sault Ste Marie’s famed boardwalk, which carried us past a whimsical sculpture in Roberta Bondar Park,
on our way along St. Mary’s River…
to Sault Ste. Marie Canal–transitioning between Lake Huron…
and Lake Superior…
before continuing across to Whitefish Island, where the convergence of Lake Huron and Lake Superior forms St. Mary’s rapids.
And then a ride through downtown Queen St. produced a completely different climate,
where traces of snow formed around a movie set,
looking much like fire foam…
to create a wintery look…
for a Hallmark Christmas production adapted from Kevin Major’s The House of Wooden Santas.
The weather always sets the tone for the trip. At the moment, rain amounts are up 30% over past years, and lake levels continue to rise above one meter.
This is a time for the birds…
the mosquitoes, and black flies.
And while there’s little we can do to control or avoid the weather, at least we are now prepared.
In the Animal Kingdom, animal magnetism has evolved over time–shifting between monogamy and polygamy, to cheating and outright promiscuity–something humans have been wrestling with since walking erect.
Every animal species is wired to adapt, survive, and pass along the blood line, no matter what, and the behavior dynamics are fascinating to observe.
For instance, the primary male lion roams with a harem of ladies in his pride, but will momentarily pledge himself to the lioness who bears his cubs.
However, a rival male to the pride will kill his predecessor’s offspring to force the pride’s females into ovulation.
Male and female Grevy’s zebras live apart until food and water are plentiful. Female Grevy’s zebras are polyandrous and will breed with many different males in succession.
Male Grevy’s zebras establish territories that lie along paths to water, often intercepting an ovulating female while passing through. And then it’s on to the next.
African wild dogs live as a monogamous breeding pair supported by a small pack.
The litter of pups is first cared for by the alpha female and guarded by the alpha male…
who doles out hunting and caretaking responsibilities to subserviant wild dogs within the pack.
A dominant impala ram will manage a harem of 10 ewes and their lambs, keeping them in line with his constant braying, biting and boasting. Young bucks continually challenge the ram in charge, insuring ewes will always deliver the strongest gene pool…
thus providing a defense perimeter of plebes to discover danger from every direction.
Baboons run in troops ruled by social dominance. When it comes to mating, any male of the troop will accept any female’s offer should she present her swollen rump to his face; however, the social rankings between males will often lead to aggressive fighting.
Females are the primary caretakers of the young, although males on occasion will babysit to win a female’s affection.
Hippo bulls are polygamous by nature and insecure creatures by design. When the cows of the pod are fertile, the bull whips up a piss and dung cocktail that he atomizes with his propeller-like tail to capture their attention.
He will repeat this process until all the cows have been serviced. Should any of the offspring be male, the cow will protect it by hiding it near the fringe of the herd, lest it be killed by the bull.
Consequently, the bull fears his mature son will someday challenge him for control of the pod, and mate with his mother, creating a Freudian nightmare of hippo proportions.
Rival bulls that follow a female tower of giraffes will often “neck” together (spar with their necks) for the attention of a fertile cow.
The victor will smell her urine to determine her readiness, and court her by resting his chin on her back.
The females and their calves remain loyal to the tower, while the males move on, in search of long legs and firm hind quarters.
Ostriches have seemingly taken their cue from the Mormons, where the dominant and polygamous cock will mate with many hens, while the hens remain monogamous.
The flock of hens have their own pecking order. As one female emerges as the dominant majority hen, she uses the minority females’ eggs to ring around her eggs as an extra layer of protection.
Dominant kudu rams will keep company with three to five kudu ewes within a herd of females and their calves.
Usually the ram comes a-knocking when it’s time to mate. Otherwise, the ram is a solitary creature that enjoys alone time.
Male warthogs are not very selective. They will mate with any of their female counterparts wherever and whenever they may be found.
Maybe that’s why they are considered pigs.
Several cow crocs may reside within the dominant bull croc’s territory, and each one is fair game for mating. The bull courts his cow in an elaborate and sensual dance that is certain to win her scales and tail.
It so happens that bull crocodiles are always ready! They keep their ever-erect penis tucked inside their body waiting for the right moment when both bodies are properly aligned under water.
Dominant cape buffalo are distinguished by the thickness of their horns. They set the rules of their herd–
deciding whether to tolerate an overt act of copulation by a defiant subordinate bull, or keeping the cows in heat to himself by staving off all rival advances.
According to Kimberly Yavorski in “How do Elephants Mate?”:
“Elephants are social creatures and live in complex hierarchical communities. Each herd has one female that is the matriarch. She dictates where the herd goes and helps to teach the younger elephants proper behavior. Female elephants, or cows, live in multigenerational family groups with other females. Males stay with the family until they reach 12 to 15 years of age, when they leave the herd and live alone or join up with other bulls. Male and female elephants live separately with bulls only visiting when some of the females are in their mating season, known as estrus.”
“Elephants mature later than many other animals. Females reach sexual maturity at 10 to 12 years of age, males at around 25. A male doesn’t generally start breeding until age 30, when it has reached a sufficient weight and size to compete with other breeding males. At that point, it will start to seek out females in estrus.”
“Bulls enter a state called musth once a year, and older bulls tend to stay in musth longer than younger bulls, up to six months. During this period, they have increased levels of testosterone. They secrete a fluid from their temporal gland between the eye and ear and will actively seek a mate. Dominant males, which are older, tend to come into musth when a large number of females are in estrus, and the males exhibit physical behaviors, such as flapping their ears and rubbing their head on trees and bushes to disperse the musth scent. They also have a particular rumble, a low frequency vocal call, used to attract females who are also ready to mate. Females sometimes respond with their own call, indicating interest. While a cow can mate with any male, those in musth may be more attractive to females in estrus.”
“When a male approaches, a female in estrus may at first show wariness, but if she is interested, she will then leave the family group, walking with her head up and turned sideways to watch the male as he follows behind. The male may chase the female if she retreats and will chase off any other males. Elephants may stroke each other with their trunks before the male mounts the female from behind, standing almost vertically as they mate. Elephant sex lasts for up to two minutes and afterward, he will stay near the female and guard her from other males. Females may mate with more than one bull in each estrus cycle, which lasts up to 18 weeks. While elephants do not mate for life, a female may repeatedly choose to mate with the same bull, and bulls are sometimes seen being protective of females.”
“At 22 months, elephants have the distinction of having the longest gestation period of all animals and give birth to live young. Pregnancy almost always results in a single birth; twins are rare. When it is time to give birth, female elephants move away from the herd and then return to introduce the new member, who is inspected by each other member of the family. At birth, babies weigh 90 to 120 kg (198 to 265 pounds) and are typically around 3 feet tall. Baby elephants tend to be hairy, with a long tail and a short trunk that grows as its diet changes. Offspring are weaned at two years, though some may continue to nurse up to age six and a half. Because of this long gestation and nursing period, estrus cycles are between four and six years apart. On average, a female elephant will give birth to seven offspring in her lifetime.”
There’s a wall of potty talk that circles the public restroom in the center of St. Augustine’s Old Town on St. George St. It follows a chronology of lavatory achievements through the ages as a testament to shitty innovations in evacuations.
So before you make a big stink and turn a blind eye to an issue this pressing, just cut the crap and log into a blog that offers a fulfilling means to an end:
Society has made major advances in personal hygiene, to the extent that there are deco palaces devoted to pepsic discomfort…
while also allowing for targeted political commentary.
All’s well that ends well!
I took a stroll
and spied a tool
that looked real cool–
where taffy pulled
around a spool.
I pulled a stool
to watch this jewel.
And like a fool
my spittle drolled.
But there’s a rule
recalled from school:
That life is full
of soles with holes
whose souls are whole.
So ’round it folds
a to and fro,
the taffy flows
to fuel a flue
and form a glue.