There I was, gravity pushing me head down into a five foot drop that ended with a concrete slab, and I could not for the life of me swing my legs around to cushion the fall. Maybe a dozen kids were stopped up behind me in the tunnel as I tried and tried and to fit my feet under my chin. And just when I was about to yell for help I was able to just barely free my feet and then jump harmlessly to the ground. Henna followed me down (she of course had no problem whatsoever navigating her way within what is essentially a giant Slinky toy) then we climbed a few steps into a stripped down airplane. While a bunch of little children pretended to fly the Junker, I looked out the window at the greater St. Louis skyline. We did not allow ourselves to become too complacent, as there was still a giant slide between us and firm ground.
The place is not for everyone. I do not, for example, recommend that my mom venture anywhere near the museum (because she just might faint if she saw her eldest son and granddaughter stuck several stories high). And to be honest, it is not exactly the safest place around as we witnessed several people hitting their head on concrete overhangs (a wallet also fell a few feet from Corey who was minding her own business on the ground floor). But if you are not squeamish around heights (or sliding your way in and out of incredibly intricate man-made caves that extend upwards for close to a dozen stories), then you really need to check this place out.
The City Museum is the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly and his ex-wife Gail Cassilly who purchased a vacant former shoe factory in order to sink an artistic anchor into a dying industrial part of town. Bob was relentless in this pursuit and over time he created a living, breathing art piece that doubled as a playground (the area benefitted nicely too as there now exist several condos and boutiques where once there were only abandoned buildings). Using as much discarded materials as possible as well as the remaining guts of the factory, Bob cluttered floor after floor after floor with giant turning devices, slides that only hint at where you might end up, and climbing apparatuses that allow children to coast along the ceiling and then into different floors. He also designed an amazing labyrinth of caves which both rise vertically as well as outward so that one can either ascend ten stories up or go a few yards to the side. A master of concrete, he filled these caverns with perfectly realized sculptures of animals, and mermaids, and whatever the heck else he thought would complete a subterranean dream. Outside the museum are several slides and rising tunnels that lead to things such as the aforementioned airplane. The City Museum also offers circus classes, an aquarium, an arts and crafts center, and a pretty nifty collection of recovered gargoyles and other things people threw away when knocking down classic buildings. And on the roof are a Ferris wheel and other goodies (which unfortunately for us did not open until mid May).
Speaking of closing, the place is closed on Sundays, but is open most weekends until midnight. Midnight! They even have a couple of bars, serve decent and not too expensive food, and offer gated parking across the street ($5 the day we were there). Sadly Bob died a few years ago while working on another project in an abandoned concrete factory north of town. But as long as his museum lives so does a part of him. Noel
Just an hour and a half west of Chicago is a lodge almost as old (and grand) as Many Glacier. However, unlike the Many Glacier lodge in Montana, Starved Rock Loge is open year round and costs about the same as a Holiday Inn Express. You are also a lot less likely to be eaten by a bear while hiking the trails (and are more likely to spy a bald eagle along with several waterfalls and canyons). You can go for the day, but if you have time spend at least one night at the Lodge for the full effect (like jostling with other visitors for prime fireplace access). Noel
Frozen waterfall at Wildcat Canyon
Corey and Henna showcasing the patented HCN but descent
There’s just something about an old growth forest. Not that long ago huge swaths of the North Woods and Michigan held massive trees hundreds of years old. So extensive was their reach that a squirrel might go three hundred miles without ever touching the ground (per some guy I was talking to at the state park). The lumber industry in Michigan was initially limited by river access. If there was no nearby river then it just did not make economic sense to cut down the trees. But then the rail road came (damn socialists!) and suddenly the distance to market seemed to shrink and the number of stumps increased. Lucky for folks living about eighty miles south of the Mackinac Bridge the loggers missed a swath and this area now makes up Hartwick Pines State Park.
Nature Girl among the pines
Joining us on the chilly but beautiful day we visited the park were a bunch of bow hunters and a wedding party. The wedding party sprawled from the picnic area (and was warmed by an outdoor fireplace) to the accurately named Chapel in the Woods. I thought about asking them if they needed a minister but Corey begged me not to. Bow hunting season is not quite as perilous as the rifle season, but to be on the safe side we stuck to the trails marked closed to hunting. Besides a majestic grove of multiple century old pines, the state park also has quite a few deciduous trees. Some were flaming red, but most were a more muted yellow. They were simply awesome to walk around and under. There also is an interesting and somewhat understated Logging Museum.
From inside the Chapel
We checked out the campground and found some nice sites there. The folks at the visitor center said the place gets pretty busy in summer (probably in part because Mackinac Island is only about an hour drive and a ferry away). After spending our morning outside it was time to start our drive south. Away from the lake the leaves remained colorful and there were just enough roadside stands to keep our tummies filled and our legs stretched. Somewhere close to home the leaves turned back green. Noel 10/13
For some reason I thought that we would be hugging a mostly empty Michigan coast. Turns out we were not the only ones who thought fall would be a pretty nifty time to check out the Sleeping Bear Dunes. In fact, every hotel, motel, cabin, and bed and breakfast was filled. The campgrounds were reportedly empty, but the weather forecast was for colder and wetter skies. So we drove to some of our favorite haunts and put off finding lodging until later. We figured Traverse City, with its many chain hotels, would have something for us. It didn’t and we ended up driving into the night and then settling at a pretty nasty hotel in Greyling (for the record we do not recommend the Super 8 there). The Super 8, by the way, was recommended by a gas station attendant named Corrine. When I told Corrine that my wife’s legal name is Corinne she said she had a cousin with that name. That cousin is reportedly Swedish (as is Corey). So I trusted her on the hotel recommendation and now wonder if she really has a cousin named Corinne. Noel 10/13
Just a little south of Empire is the easy and wonderful Empire Bluffs Trail. Hennacornoelidays recommended!
Corey’s face says it all about this hotel
With dangerously high blood sugar levels we made our way north to Ludington. Several times before we had been to Ludington on the way to somewhere else. Usually we hung out at the cool town park by the water where we once saw a fishing derby going on. Another time, actually our first time there, we changed a diaper and fed Henna a bottle. But amazingly enough we had never made it to Ludington State Park. So when a few days before our trip my friend Christina talked up the state park we made a point to check it out.
Well Christina, we loved the park for the miles and miles of westward facing beautiful beaches that practically guaranteeing a magical sunset. I know you like to canoe so maybe you and your family loved it for the canoe trails. Or maybe it was the inland land, or the bike trails, or the dune climbing. Whatever your reason for recommending the place, thank you for doing so.
Lesson we did learn; sometimes it actually pays to make reservations. We took one of the last campsites the Thursday we got there and then had to move next door to the nice town campground the next day. The state park actually only offers about a dozen tent only sites and the remaining two hundred or so electric campsites were pretty much on top of one another. So Ludington State Park is beautiful, but I cannot promise you peace and quiet.
Hobos keeping warm by the fire
If you do go to Ludington State Park, do check out the Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Standing over one hundred feet tall the place is an easy mile and a half hike. That hike, by the way, is the difference between the place being a crazy overcrowded t-shirt pit and the quaint, easy going destination it actually is. It is as if for every ounce of effort you expend to get somewhere you lose two ounces of hell. Once at the lighthouse you can pay an extra few bucks and walk up the 130+ very tiny triangle stairs. Going up was not too bad. Going down was kind of scary. Henna and Corey opted out after only a dozen or so steps. They missed out on an amazing view. Here is maybe the coolest thing about the lighthouse. If you like giving tours to people, then you can live there rent free for two weeks. This link has all the information http://splka.org/.
One cool thing I learned at the lighthouse; the lights illuminating the sky are about the size of a refrigerator bulb. About a dozen of them line a wheel and when one bulb burns out the wheel rotates and the bulb is changed. Once a year the coast guard comes and replaces all the bulbs at once. A few years ago something broke and the lighthouse went several days unlit. Eventually the lighthouse volunteer keepers changed the bulb. Noel 10/13
Sunset at Ludington State Park
So we took a couple of days off work and pulled Henna out of school in order to take one Hennacornoelious fall trip. We were going to check out Great Smoky Mountain National Park but the stupid Republicans shut down the government. Don’t feel too bad for us, we’ve been to the park before. But think of all those tourists coming in from overseas (and all that money they were going to spend at local hotels, diners, etc). Will they and their wallets come back to the U.S?
We decided instead to go up the coast then down the spine of Michigan in a sort of irregular, 960 mile circle (think a thought bubble with Northwest Indiana the stem). Saw and learned a lot over the four nights we were gone beginning with the fact that people in Michigan are lazy when it comes to naming streets. “7 Mile Road,” “4 Mile Road,” “10 Mile Road,” and, wait for it, “14 Mile Road” are just not clever street names. Do you remember the Eminem movie “8 Mile Road (which refers to a road in Detroit)?” Maybe that began some sort of weird street naming trend in Michigan?
Where we began was in a candy shop in Grand Haven. My friend Audra let it slip out that her husband’s family owns a candy and liquor store in their hometown of Grand Haven. I imagined a little strip mall shop that tasted Michigan wines. I was wrong on both counts as the shop, Fortinos, appeared almost as the center piece to what is really a cute little harbor town (they also don’t sell Michigan wines). Fortinos has been in business (and a part of the Fortino family) since 1907 (or since about the last time the Cubs won the World Series). As candy shops go this one is pretty awesome with rows and rows of sugar options offered behind glass. Checking out took a while as Corey and Henna kept adding to the bounty. Sugared up we then moved further north to Ludington and summited our first dune of the trip. Noel October 15, 2013
We had a busy week in Chicago while all the time thoughts kept returning to the road leading out of here. While on the train downtown I overheard an older lady talk of all the places she wants to go (“Oregon is suppose to be pretty” and “Boston would be nice but the people are suppose to be mean” were two of my favorite comments). Two tourists were walking around downtown, snapping pictures with the woman wearing a Berkley shirt. And on and on. But Chicago is prety cool too and we were lucky enough to be able to check out the Printers Row Lit Fest.
Justin Roberts and The Not Ready for Naptime Players rock it out
A bit overshadowed by Blues Fest, Printers Row is the more sober of the two. I mean who ever heard of throwing down a blanket and getting drunk while perusing a good book. What I do like about the fest are all the authors set up at tables hawking their own books. I met one such author, Jaymie Simmon and left with her book The God Gene. I think I remember hearing it reviewed on NPR. What got me was her repeated insistence that the book is a comedy.
Our little book worm
Also present are many children authors and a whole stage dedicated to pleasing kids with children focused bands and story telling. There are also face painters and a smattering of arts and crafts as well. Sometimes just hanging out in your backyard is trip enough.
So we spent a night in Milwaukee. It was nice. Not spectacular, but nice. Kind of like a first date that ended with a polite peck to the cheek. Not so sure though that there will be a second date.
We took Amtrak and it was pretty cool watching the suburbs turn to small towns then farms and even a few forested spots before it all eventually returned back to industry. It would have been cheaper to drive, but it felt good leaving the car behind. Also we could use the practice for when we backpack through Europe.
There are a lot of museums in Milwaukee including the much recommended Milwaukee Public Museum and the Children’s Museum. We chose, however, the Milwaukee Art Museum (or MAM as the cool kids call it). Sitting pretty on the lakefront in a building shaped like a sail it is an almost dynamic place to be. And pretty family friendly too. There are three separate hands-on kid oriented exhibits including a nifty one focused on Pixar animation. Another very interesting exhibit traced the history of color photography from novelty to conceptual art. The MAM is not big, but it is special and for that reason it is hennacornoeli recommended.
Artist at work
Henna created, hennacornoelidays approved
The Safe House is also hennacornoeliday recommended. For 47 years, this spy themed restaurant has allowed patrons to enter via a secret book case and then leave through a phone booth. You also get to solve this giant Hocus-Pocus like sliding puzzle and pay a lot of money to have your martini shaken through a clear vacuum tube (the kind that banks use in the drive through). To be honest I got a little tired of being called a spy by everyone working there, but the food was actually pretty good.
There’s not much else to do at night other than drink at a bar or watch television in your hotel room. Just before I went to bed I looked down on the deserted downtown streets of Milwaukee and saw a seagull swoop down to pick at something in the middle of the road. It must have sat there for five minutes before a car came and scared it away. In the morning we walked around and ended up sitting at a park outside of a church. It was a nice church and a nice park and everyone we met was, well, nice. Later we looked for an ice-cream cone and walked a good deal of the city before settling on one at a shopping mall. Even when you consider it was a Sunday it all felt too quiet to be a city. The Amtrak station though was crowded. It seemed like everyone was looking to get out of town. Noel
One of the most depressing things about traveling through America is the limited diversity of food options. The sad fact is that if you want tasty, fresh veggies over anything, a good place to look would be in the city. Road side stands aside; too much of rural America eats out at Applebees. . Not that there is anything wrong with Applebees. It is just that Applebees (and Dennys and Culvers and TGIF, etc) is the same in Portland, OR as it is in Portland, ME. Your local diner is usually just as bad as they serve the same trucked in fries, burgers, and ribs that the diner three states over serves. There are of course exceptions to this and we think Diners, Dives, and Drive Ins does a great job of highlighting those gems. But Guy Fieri cannot be expected to be everywhere and for that reason we have decided to periodically offer you are own Sweet Finds.
First up is Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana. Off Interstate 65 between Chicago and Indianapolis is a tasty alternative to the Subways and McDonalds that are spread out evenly across the highway. Per the teenage worker we asked, Fair Oaks Farm is the collaborative work of several farming families. Fresh cheeses, milk, and ice cream are offered cafeteria style along with gooey delights such as Reuben sandwiches (the king of NY deli) and French onion soup. They are also known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (which Corey and Henna both enjoyed). Within the same building as the cafeteria is some sort of dairy operation that was quiet the day we were there (most of Indiana is quiet on Sunday). On the large grounds of the Fair Oaks Farms are a “birthing barn” and a “cheese factory.” We were too close to home and too cold for us to check these things out the day of our visit, but we would love to make it back there some time. Their website makes it quite clear that they are more than open to field trips coming over.
For more information on Fair Oaks Farms, click here: http://www.fofarms.com/en/home#Scene_1
One of our favorite getaway places is Starved Rock State Park and we are definite repeat offenders at their lodge. Usually though we visit in winter and last weekend was our first time ever staying over night when the trees still had some leaves. Based on photos hanging in the lodge of past fall displays, the colors were a bit muted this year due to the drought. Far worse was the effect the drought and climate change has had on the apple crop. On the way to the lodge we stopped at an orchard only to find out that the apples were decimated by the warm 2011 March which caused everything to bud early. A severe frost then came in and wiped out a lot of apples. The drought did not help any. But the people we talked to were optimistic about next year. They also had a lot of kittens running around which made for a happy Henna. Hope everyone enjoys the photos.
By the way, does anybody out there in Cyberland have any good information for us on the Gulf Shores area in Alabama? What about the gulf side of Florida? We are planning our winter trip and could use some ideas.