Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Other Side of the Peninsula (Day 3)

On Wednesday, our third day in Door County, Erik started work early so he could get in half his workday before we had to check out of our hotel. The day was chilly and overcast so we ran the gas fireplace in our suite. At noon, we drove to the library and worked some more until 3 p.m. Then we drove on up highway 42 to Sister Bay in search of lunch. We ended up not seeing any promising looking restaurants, and instead grabbing a sandwich and a piece of fried chicken at the Piggly Wiggly deli. We would need some supplies for our next hotel anyway, and this was the only large grocery store we saw on the whole peninsula.

Then we drove on, past Ellison Bay to Gills Rock, at the end of the peninsula. Some of the drive has nice bay views, but other stretches veer inland. We even passed a Christmas tree farm between the highway and the water. We were looking for somewhere nice to check into another hotel or cottage for the remaining two nights of our trip. At the end of the peninsula, there was one hotel and a condo building, which certainly had nice views. There was also a playground, the ferry that goes to Washington Island, and a maritime museum. We weren't sure if we wanted to stay at this motel, since there did not seem to be much to do nearby except take the ferry, which had already ended for the day.

We postponed our decision by visiting the Maritime Museum, where we got to board an old wooden "fish tug," a tugboat repurposed as a fishing boat by some broke locals during the Depression. We learned about the many shipwrecks in Lake Michigan, including some on either side of the peninsula. They had heavy old black phone receivers which, when lifted, played radio chatter recorded the night the Edmund Fitzgerald wrecked in 1975. They had a cute diorama showing a scuba diver looking down on the bits of wreckage that one sees in the area of the shipwrecks, and we saw some salvaged items such a broken plates and a life jacket. We learned about a big mean pirate who used to rampage the ports of Lake Michigan and who stole a boat and took it down to Chicago to try to sell the cargo, and we looked at a bunch of old boat motors. Then we bought some pirate stuff for the kids in the gift shop and chatted with the friendly, bearded young museum manager, who accidentally overcharged me by $9 and then took forever trying to figure out how to make the cash register reverse the charge.

"I'm all flustered now," he said, looking over the long tape hanging out of his register. Eventually he just gave us our $9 and sent us on our way with a brochure for a kayaking company, which we had asked about.

Now it was nearly 5 p.m. and we still hadn't decided where to stay that night. We had a flyer for a Rowley Bay kayak company, so we turned across the peninsula to drive to that town. But when Erik called the company from his cell phone, in between getting his call dropped, he managed to find out that their tours actually launched out of other places, including Egg Harbor, back on the bay side of the peninsula. We realized that we didn't necessarily want to go to R.B. We turned around and headed back to the bay side, and then after some discussion decided to cross over again and check out Bailey's Harbor and Jacksonport. Bailey's Harbor turned out to be the nicest place we had seen to stay so far. We liked how, unlike the bay side of the peninsula, the town was not bisected by a busy highway. On the other side, most of the hotels were across the road from the lake, and only small cottages were on the lake side. Here, we first saw a kayak company, then passed an old motel with an outdoor swimming pool and a vacancy sign. We walked over to check it out and saw that it had a large private beach and a pier with an American flag rippling at the end, and the kayak company was just bringing in a tour group onto the hotel's beach. Erik chatted up the group leader and learned that we could go on a shipwreck tour in glass-bottomed kayaks Friday morning. Because of the early start, we liked the idea of staying right here near the kayak shop. I walked into the office and found it surprisingly cheery, with brightly painted wooden pub tables and chairs, and sliding glass doors giving onto a deck and the beach. A smiling lady was watching the news on TV behind the desk. She told me they had a room with a view and a king bed for $144, but we'd have to move into a different room the next night. Or we could stay in a queen room with no view for a little less money, and not move.

We chose the room with a view, which was phenomenal. Almost the entire length of the room was a window looking out onto waves lapping up on the beach and hovering seagulls. We could see that a fire had been started in the hotel's beach firepit. The room's wood paneled walls were painted a beachy light blue, the bed and bedding and carpet were clearly new, and there was a large-screen TV mounted on the wall and a refrigerator. The bathtub and fixtures were a bit careworn, but it was clear that a lot of work had been put into making this old motel nice. We decided to take it. I asked for a AAA discount but the lady told me, "I don't do any discounts in high season."

After moving in, we got our rented bikes out of the car and split up for awhile. Just then the sun came out and the cool day turned into a warm evening. I rode north through the little town, past a few restaurants and two ice cream shops, a nice municipal dock, and onto a woodsy road lined with named cottages. After awhile I saw a lighthouse to my left and turned my bike up a little path to check it out. It marked the entrance to a nature sanctuary, which according to signs was owned by a private organization. A wooden boardwalk ran in a straight line to an old wooden house, which according to signs was once the lighthouse keeper's residence, and which also had a light on its roof. The signboards said that boaters could line up the two range lights to help them avoid dangerous shoals in the water. The boardwalk was lined on both sides with wild ferns, wildflowers and little pine trees, and looked very pretty, like a long aisle leading to a chapel.

I crossed the street and found a large public swimming beach. Both of these places were totally deserted, although a half-fallen sand castle attested to the presence of families earlier in the day. I took off my flipflops and waded into he water, which felt not quite as icy as the water on the bay side. The sand had been shaped by the waves into rows of pockmarks, as if it had been shot evenly by a fusillade of bullets. The water was not quite as clear, probably because the waves on this side stirred up the sand. Seagulls were crying and the small waves were crashing against the shore; these were noisy but much nicer than the traffic sounds from the other side of the peninsula. It was now perhaps 6:30, and the sky was still totally blue, with some pure white clouds floating over the water, and the enclosing arms of Bailey's Harbor, covered in trees, curving in on my right and left. I decided that I needed both Erik and the camera to see these things with me, so I went back to my bike and pedaled quickly through the wooded road and the town to our hotel. Erik's bike was locked up at the rack but our room was empty. Looking through our window I could se the beach chairs were empty too. I could smell that he had been there and sprayed himself with Off!. I doused myself -- I had gotten way too many mosquito bites in the past few days -- mounted an unsuccessful search for the camera, and then went downstairs to look around for him some more. I tried calling and messaging him but the cellular coverage is not good here. I rode my bike through the small town again, feeling worried that all the pretty light would be gone before I got the chance to take any pictures. Finally, when I returned to the hotel and walked behind it, I found Erik sitting in a beach chair with a book and a G&T in a real glass. I dragged him back to the bikes, got the car key from him so I could retrieve the camera from the car, and took him back to the two beautiful locations I had found. Of course the light was not nearly as good -- the sun had fallen below the trees of the peninsula behind us and although it was not dark, nothing glowed the way it had. We walked down the boardwalk and got more mosquito bites, then waded together on the beach until we were both hungry. Back in town, we leaned our bikes against a white picket fence at Harbor Fish Market and asked for an outside table. Even though the mosquitoes had just chased us away from the beach, somehow I thought that the restaurant would have a bug zapper and would maybe have sprayed the area, and that we would be able to eat outdoors unmolested. Also, now that the sun had gone down I thought it must surely be too chilly for mosquitoes. I took this theory so far that I selected a table sitting on the grass instead of on the deck, since it had a better view of the lake.

The restaurant turned out to be a bit more expensive than we expected, with $35 to $75 bottles of wine and entrees all priced over $20. A kettle was steaming over  fire on the other side of the yard, so I asked our waitress,  a young woman with a European accent whose willowy frame made her stand out from the locals just as much as her voice, if it was a fish boil. She said it was a lobster boil, which for the cost of $55 a person included a huge 2-pound Maine lobster, potatoes and corn, and Door County cherry bread pudding for dessert. We ordered a glass of pinot grigio and a Glenlivet, and she brought the wine with a gimlet instead. When Erik explained the mistake, our waitress said she was here from Croatia on a summer student work program, and that all these unfamiliar drink names were very difficult for her. She gave us the gimlet for free and promised to return with a Glenlivet after she took our order.

I ordered local whitefish with a parmesan/artichoke sauce, and Erik ordered pan-fried walleye. After she left I decided to run back to our hotel to get my jacket out of the car, because I was getting cold. I wish I had run up to our room to put on jeans too! When I got back, neither my drink or our breadbasket had arrived yet. We chuckled that this was going to be a long summer for our waitress. The food was served with warm, light, cheesy rolls, and everything was delicious. By the time Erik received his after-dinner espresso, I had noticed that the mosquitoes had really discovered us here, so I went inside to wait for the check.

On our way back to the room I realized that I had really gotten a lot of mosquito bites. Upstairs I stripped down and looked in the mirror. To my horror I realized that mosquitoes had been just feasting on the backs of my thighs through the holes in the metal chairs we'd been sitting on. Erik wanted to go down to the beach because the hotel owner had promised s'mores in the evening, but I sent him down alone so I could soak in the tub to try to stop the intense itching. It helped, and after awhile I put on jeans, my jacket and a lot more bug spray, and joined him by the fire pit, where he was chatting away with some women from West Allis. We watched the stars come out and chatted for awhile, and happily the beach seemed to cool and breezy for mosquitoes.

As we fell asleep, with the windows open, I was more aware of noises from the other rooms in the motel than the sound of the lake. But at some point during the night I awoke to the sound of a light rain and realized that that the soothing sound of the waves had filled our little room.
Erik had looked up the time of the sunrise and set his alarm for 5:15 a.m., but he woke at 5 and saw that the sky was already totally light, and white with fog -- the sun was already up, but there had been no sunrise to see.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Door County Sunset (Day 2)

It's 9:30 in the morning, and the bay is trying to pretend like last night didn't happen. It's all business again, steel-cut-oats gray with a sailboat  moored out there, going nowhere. But I remember the gaudy show it put on last night. I hope I'll never forget it.
It was around 7 p.m. when I walked across the street from our hotel to its tiny private beach, with its wooden swing and a few plastic deck chairs. The Bay Breeze's beach is flanked by private cabins on each side, but  no one was out. The sun was getting low in the sky, turning the water diamond colored. I stepped into the water, let the shock of cold pass, then kept walking, amazed that even when I went in as deep as my waist, I could still see my chartreuse-painted toes perfectly. Here and there I saw a white pinfeathers shed by a seagull that had drifted to the sandy bottom. The sand was combed in perfect ridges that gave only slightly under my step. The water seemed still at first, and the  I  noticed concentric ripples that seemed to radiate out from me. When I got far enough from the shore, I could see two white churches with prim steeples across Ephraim's harbor. A sailboat with red sails moved slowly toward them. As the sun lowered, each ripple became a prism, and the water stretching out from my waist was like a full skirt of the most beautiful fabric, a lovely blue-gray on top with a soft tan when you looked just below the surface, moving like the scales of a breathing dragon.
At this point I realized that the scene was too beautiful to keep to myself, so I ran back to get my husband and a cocktail for each of us to sip with the sunset. By the time we returned to the beach, the light had changed. The sun was now approaching a bank of clouds over Peninsula State Park, releasing "God rays" and illuminating the clouds from behind. A seagull came ricocheting out of the clouds as if fleeing the burning sun. I walked back out into the Bay, farther this time. When I let my hands trail in the water, the bones ached. It felt like ice water.
Now, the sun threw an amber hue onto the ripples, and I was encircled with strings of amber beads, crisscrossing this way and that. Turning a 360 on the spot, the water up to my navel, I felt I was in the sunset, not just watching it. I dared myself to jump in and start swimming, knowing that if I felt too cold, I could always run to the hot tub across the street. But then I realized that if I started kicking, I would lose the black rubber sandals I was wearing, so I walked back to shore again, where Erik sat in a deck chair, taking my picture and sipping his G&T. While I was gone, he had chatted with another couple who said they came here often. Just a month ago, they had told him, there was still ice in that channel between the park and the little wooded island just off its shore. We thought that was the island we'd seen from the lighthouse in the park, where an informational poster had informed us that a little boy had died trying to walk across the ice.
I walked back out into the water, barefoot this time, enjoying the feel of the firm, smooth sand under my toes. I turned in a circle again, drinking in how everything had changed yet again. Patches of water far away looked completely smooth, while the water all around me was in constant motion. Finally I gathered my courage and sank down into the water to swim. By skin burned all over as if being rubbed by snow, but the motion of kicking and paddling kept my temperature up. Too soon the water was too shallow to take any more strokes, and I gorilla-walked on my knuckles while kicking with my feet. When I stepped out of the water I did not feel cold, because the air was warmer. I wrapped up in my robe and a towel and sat back to watch the big song and dance number of the sunset. The sun was behind the clouds now, but peeping out through a hole in their center, and the sky was becoming pink. Some of the clouds looked gray, others colored, and the trees of the island and of the state park were mirrored vividly in the water. After a while, the sun was gone, and the section of water right in front of it was orange, while the section directly in front of us was pink. The skies above the water were these colors too, but the reflection seemed more intense. The red sailboat was just a silhouette now, completely outdone by the sky spectacle. The mosquitoes and cooling air sent us back to the hot tub, which was sad, because I could have sat and looked forever.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ice Cream Break

After my enjoyable stint at the picnic table outside the Ephraim library, I stopped into Wilson's to get myself a root beer float. But when I saw that today's top flavor was chocolate peanut butter explosion, I was stopped in my tracks by guilt. I could not get ice cream here without Erik.
So I biked back to he hotel, where I found him holed up in the stuffy room, typing away, I kidnapped him and is computer and brought them back to the library table, where he happily went back to typing, now cooled by a shady tree and bay breezes. I walked across he street to a public water access area and walked into he icy, clear water, standing on flat rocks and watching the water distort my view of the rocks below. A group of people laughed while propelling a paddle boat out onto the lake, and in the distance I saw a pair of stand-up paddleboarders. The sun was so bright, at about 4:30 p.m., that patches of water were sparkling like diamonds.
I climbed back up the shore bank and returned to Erik, just in time to see a van pull up and an old man with a cane yelled to us to ask if the library was open. I looked at the sign. It was closed. He asked what time it had closed, so I looked a the other sign, the one with the hours, and told him, "It closed at 3."
"Why would anyone close the library at 3 p,m,.???" he asked. We told him that was a good question. Then he wanted to know if there was any way to find out if other local libraries were open, and Erik kindly started looking them all up on the net. The man said he was trying to check out a video, and I would not be surprised if Erik was planning to give him a bittorrent tutorial next. I left them to it and went to get us some ice cream. I met these sweet young ladies, who scooped my ice cream -- and how could you not leave a tip in that jar? Yep, those are the schools the summer staff attend during the year.

The cones at Wilson's are so massive on top they look cartoonish, but well packed so that they did not fall off the skinny sugar cone, My float was perfect too.

Door County Day 2

Today we got up and had our bikes out of the car and on the road by 8 a.m. We figured we could bike down the side of the highway along the Bay to visit one of the breakfast places in Ephraim. Our hotel is in Ephraim too, but a little outside the main drag. The morning was overcast and the ground was wet, so it might have rained during the night. The water in the Bay looked like slate roof tiles.

We easily biked as far as the Old Post Office restaurant where we had eaten yesterday, and this time we stopped across the street at a tourist information office, located in a stone cottage next to a public   beach. A crowd of tourists had been waiting outside for it to open, and they were asking the staff member there advice on a driving tour. We picked up some pamphlets and post cards and biked on, passing the Anderson Barn History Center. We said we would stop and check that out on our way back. All the businesses in Ephraim had posters advertising next weekend's 50th Annual Fyr Bal Festival, which we had overheard Vernamae in the tourist office say was a Norwegian midsummer's celebration in which the winter witch was burned. Since we love a good witch burning, we were sad that we would be gone before then. Also, there is going to be a pancake breakfast at the Village Hall.

Then the road veered away from the water and got steep. We huffed up several hills, only to find that around the corner was another hill. This area had no businesses, just lots of private homes, each one with a sign saying the name of the house and who lived there. There were a few hotels too. After almost giving up and turning back, we finally came to a small bakery cafĂ©, and since by this time we were hungry, we parked our bikes to go in. Just then, though, I got a phone call from our real estate agent. We had a rather intense discussion about negotiations on the sale of our home, and by the time I was done, I didn't feel like sitting down and eating a pastry. I was supposed to send an email to the buyer right away, and it was getting to be time for Erik to start working, so we decided to just bike back and grab something to eat at the little "breakfast cabana" next to our hotel.

On the way back we stopped at the tourist info office again, since I realized I had forgotten to pay for the postcards I'd picked up! Vernamae Juel, the lady working there, was very grateful that I had come back to pay for them. She had been busy with the group and had not really noticed us during our first visit. She sad sadly that the other group, who had driven in from Grand Rapids, was trying to see all of Door County in one day, which she thought sounded icky. She had helped them come up with a driving route that would take them to some lighthouses and Gill's Rock, coming back on backroads so they wouldn't have to backtrack the same highway.

We asked her where we should go biking next, and she recommended Ellison Bay, where there was a nice county park with a flat wooded path. We asked if we could choose one other DC community to stay in, where should we go? She recommended Jacksonport, on the Lake Michigan side, where we could see caves and walk on flat rock formations near the water level.

"I love the natural areas. People like to read about shops and that kind of stuff. But I love being on the water. There are tremendous land trust areas and natural areas for hiking. And personally I am interested in rock formations," she said. Vernamae moved here 10 yeas ago from the Chicago suburbs -- we soon found out that her son is a dentist in Oak Park! She was surprised to hear I might want to quote her in an article, since other folks who work for the tourist info service know much more about the area's history.

The Good Egg breakfast cabana was super fun. It was run by three guys. The first guy explained how it worked and pointed out the big container of Collectivo coffee from which we could serve ourselves. The second guy, who had a bicycle tattooed on his right arm, took our order and cooked it up. All they make is breakfast burritos. There are three kinds: a basic, a fancier one and a deluxe. The third guy had a long beard and I'm not sure what his job was, because the first guy rant us up. Cash only.

Since then we have been working in and out of the room again, and the sun has come out. I'm currently sitting at a table in the pool area, shaded by an umbrella, watching the Bay turn from gray to blue in the sun.

After a while of that, I wrote a postcard to each of the kids, and got back on my bike and rode back into Ephraim. I went into the Village Hall because I thought they might know where I could get some stamps, but there was no front desk there, only a meeting room where some people were talking (probably making last-minute arrangements for Fyr Bal). The other half of the same building is the library, so I went and asked there. The librarian was one of the only terse people I have met here, a lady with steely curls and (of course) glasses. She gave me directions to the post office and I rode there, enjoying as I pedaled the sight of more and more people launching boats into Green Bay. At the Post Office the world's friendliest postal clerk old me 3 postcard stamps, and I put the cards into the "out of town" slot.

Then I checked out the historic Anderson Barn, which turned out to be closed. It had an interesting little cabin next to it, which according to the sign was built to keep nice and cool inside, and had been moved board by board from its original location. Apparently it used to house a gallery, which is now closed. By looking through the window I saw it is once again furnished as a residential home, but despite an "open" sign in the window, it was locked up.

Across the road from that was Anderson Store, which according to the sign had been open from the 1800s through the 1950s, but was also locked up. From there I rode my bike down a broad stone pier, on which sat a building that people had graffitied, with names in different colors covering every inch. This turned out to be a gallery. A boy was painting on his name with a little plastic cup of paint and a skinny brush. A man was bobber fishing off the pier, listening to his radio.

I went back to the library to try to work using the wifi there, but I could feel the librarian's eyes on me and I was the only patron in the small room, so I went outside to work on a picnic table on the front lawn instead. From here I can see patches of Green Bay trough the parked cars and a big pontoon boat with a FOR SALE sign in te parking lot of South Shore Pier across the street,

Day 1 Door County, Continued

When I returned from shopping yesterday we took a quick dip in the pool and ate lunch in our room -- Erik really loved the smoked whitefish I'd bought. Then we worked all afternoon, alternating between the tables on the veranda that runs along the second floor and inside our suite. As the afternoon went on, a few clouds appeared over Green Bay, turning the water from deep blue to the color of fish scales, and the breeze picked up.

At around 5:45, we had a margarita by the pool and then drove to No Door bike rentals, which we caught just before closing. We rented two cruisers for three days at the cost of $50 each and headed into Peninsula State Park. We saw a bike trail marked Sunset Trail, and since it was the end of the day we thought this would be a great way to go. The path alternates between fine gravel, dirt and paved stretches, and moves from dense trees -- birch, pine and maple, with wildflower sprays and ferns on the ground -- into open meadows where the wildflowers are tall to compete with the grasses, At certain points the trail runs along Green Bay, and there will be a little bench and a pebble-covered beach. There were almost as many shells as stones on the beach. We put our feet in the icy water and it felt wonderful. Then the path took us through a nice campground, with play structures, and to a lighthouse which we later realized is featured in the painting in our bedroom. We past a swimming area with concessions and kayak rentals. Then we went past the Fokloric theater, and the path was thick with people walking from the parking lot. It sounded like a performance was already going on. A lady biking past us said that if we hadn't been to it before we should because it was a hoot.

The Sunset Trail was well-marked and also had mile marker, which were encouraging, and periodically there would be a "you are here" map to show us how far we had come. There were uphill parts but nothing too strenuous. The air was lush with the sell of all that greenery and the occasional whiff of pine. On the last mile or two, we saw a whitetail doe eating grass, totally unconcerned by our presence. The only thing not perfect about our evening bike ride was that we had forgotten to put on mosquito repellent, and in the cool of the evening, the woods were full of them. We each got a few bites.

When we emerged from the park at the end of the 9-mile loop, we put the bikes in the back of the car and drove into Fish Creek. Erik wanted to eat at a wine bar called The Cookery. It was just about sunset time, so we sat on an upstairs patio with a view of the Bay. Sadly, with all the clouds that had come in, tonight's sunset wasn't much to see. We ordered a bottle of "California/Door County" zinfandel -- grapes grown in Napa, wine made in Bailey Harbor -- for $35. It was fine, nothing to write home about but totally drinkable. We also had a plate of deep fried eggplant sticks and two little baked bries, with house made jam. That was spectacular. We shared an arugula salad and a cherry crumble with vanilla ice cream. By the time we were finishing our coffee, the mosquitoes had come out of the woods to find us, so we fled inside the restaurant to pay our bill. Our waitress, who like everyone here was chatty and helpful, said that the Shopko in Sister Bay might still be open if we needed to shop for cream for our bug bites. Instead of racing to Sister Bay, we decided to try to sneak in a quick hot tub session even though it was almost the 9:30 closing time. We had no sooner sunk into the hot tub, though, when someone came out of the office and said we needed to get out so we could lock the pool area. We went up to our room and used the Jacuzzi tub there, which was nice, but of course not the same. One thing we haven't been loving about Door County is that it seems everything closes so early!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Door County: Day 1

That is the view from my work table here in Door County, Wisconsin, where Erik and I have come for a kid-free working retreat. It's better in real life though, since I am taller than my laptop and can see over thebats to he always-moving deep blue bay.

We arrived in the area last night around 8 p.m., after dropping off our girls at camp about 3 hour away. We had no reservations and hoped to drive around looking at inns. Of course just as we arrived, it started pouring, which made things a little more difficult, but it wasn't terrible. First we drove through Fish Creek, the largest tourist town in the area, which is really just a stretch of shops and a few streets stretching from the highway to the waterfront, lined with old-fashioned inns and cottages. Most of the inns are white with white front porches and Adirondack chairs.

Just outside town us the entrance to Peninsula State Park, with a few inexpensive motels just outside it that don't have water views. We drove past all that to the smaller town of Ephraim, where the hotels are right across the highway from the beach. The Bay Breeze Resort caught our eye because we could see from the parking lot that it had a hot tub and pool. We checked into a king suite as a slight discount ($167/night, "midweek special," extended at our request even though it was Sunday night). It's two rooms, a living room with a couch, table, fridge kitchen counter and micro, and a small bedroom with a king bed. The bathroom has a whirlpool tub.

By this time it was 8:45 p.m. I was starving, but it did not look like any of the local restaurants deliver. We called up a pizza place that advertised carry-out, only to find that they close at 7 p.m. We also found out that Ephraim is a dry town! No matter, we hit the hot tub and pool to watch the sun set (divine), and found some Girl Scout cookies in my bag to tide us over till  morning,

At around 6 a.m. I realized something I had not noticed the night before: The window in the bedroom is covered only by blinds, with no blackout curtains. This seems odd for a hotel. Because of this my dream of sleeping in until 8 a.m. was not realized -- maybe tomorrow if I can find myself a sleep mask somewhere.

After we got up we paused to admire the  view from the balcony that runs the full length of both floors of the Bay Breeze. The bay was very blue, the morning sunshine warm, with a fresh breeze coming off the water. We drove to the Old Post Office restaurant for breakfast and found that we were easily able to get a table looking right across the road to the water. Directly in front of the restaurant is a dock with chairs on it, and I asked the hostess if it belonged to the restaurant. No, she told  me, it's public.

Our waitress was friendly and chatty, telling us that today looked like the nicest day of summer so far. She has a pool at home, and she said so far no one has been in it. She also informed us that her bsck-to-back neighbor had recently burned some trees in a large bonfire, which she did not think was a good idea because they had had very little rain al spring., I ordered hah browns with cheese, an over easy egg and toast, which were delicious. Erik had a pancake and sausage. The restaurant has a tiny gift shop area selling kitchen towels with crocheted tops for hanging, Tshirts that say The Old Post Office, and some homemade  nylon poofs for scrubbing. I didn't think the building looked like a post office; it was like the other inns, with a wide front porch. But he restaurant brochure explained that it used to be a general store, with post office services in the back. As we ate we listened to the hostess take reservations for the night's fish boil.

After breakfast I dropped Erik off at the Bay Breeze so he could start his work day, and drove back to Fish Creek to grocery shop. I  noticed on the way that there is a bike rental shop right across from the state park entrance. I parked on Main Street in Fish Creek and browsed some of the clothing and souvenir shops, looking for a floppy hat to replace the one I'd forgotten back in California. I found a  nice straw one for $18. None of the store were very busy since it was a Monday morning, and I listened to the staff at one store engage in a lively conversation over whether the local beer festival was a waste of money (agreement: yes) and how much money one of them could make selling original works of art ($75 for very small ones). I strolled around town a bit on my own, breathing deep the smell of lilacs in full bloom everywhere and listening to the birds twitter.

The grocery store was tiny and of course pricey, but I found a nice bottle of Death's Door gin, made on Washington  Island, to give Erik as a belated father's day gift. Food and drinks for the room came to well over $100.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Home Is Where ... Where Is It Again?

This morning as we pulled the bike out of the garage for the first time in three weeks, Toth looked up at the sky and said, "It's good to be back in Alameda. Even if it is cloudy."

When we returned from the holidays this year, we all felt for the first time since our relocation 18 months ago that coming back to Alameda felt like coming home. Well, sort of.

The Midwest did its best to make that happen, sending us off with a temperature of 12 degrees below zero, which we felt all too keenly as we stood, stuck in a long airport line, in front of automatic doors that continually opened and blasted us with arctic air so frigid that the kids tennis-shoe clad feet began freezing indoors. Thank goodness the weather warmed up for our trip -- the day before the thermometer sat at 15 below for hours. And don't even get me started on the wind chill. When we did venture out -- or more often, watched other less fortunate humans venture out on the news -- it seemed like another planet out there. A planet not suited for human habitation.

Today, I appreciated not only the ability to ride my bike outside -- I gained five pounds in three weeks of sitting around indoors back home* -- but the total lack of puddles of mud and melting slush inside my front door. We did not truly suffer in the snow and cold temperatures back in Wisconsin -- we were lucky enough to have warm homes to host us, warm cars parked just outside the front door or in the garage, and warm coats and mittens. Ironically, as I type this in Alameda I am wearing my warmest sweater and a blanket, more clothes than I ever needed indoors in Wisconsin, because my parents' house is well-insulated and heated, whereas our Alameda house is built more like a sturdy tent. Still, given the choice between walking around with perpetually damp feet (turns out my so-called boots are not exactly weatherproof), limiting outdoor exposure to a few minutes at a time, holding our breath on the road as we try to remember how to steer into a skid, having to constantly cancel and remake plans based on weather conditions, and pre-grinding several days' worth of coffee in case of a power outage** -- I'll take the drafty house.

I was really glad we experienced a taste of the polar vortex, since

a) I didn't really remember what that level of cold felt like from my childhood. Even in February 2007, when it was so cold out that our car would not start when we tried to rush to the hospital to give birth to Pebbles, the lowest temperature was a "balmy" 11 degrees.

b) I hoped the experience would quell the kids' occasional whines that they wanted to move back to Oak Park because they missed snow and

c) We got to throw a cup of hot water outside and watch most of it vaporize before hitting the ground.

The kids were eager to head back to school, where they all missed a few days due to our extended Midwest visit. I was eager to get back to a regular work schedule and to cook the family some meals in my own kitchen.

So we left the Midwest without a single fond farewell to the weather, but with many regretful looks back at the friends and family who live there. My friend Marta recently wrote about realizing that the home where she grew up is not really "home" anymore. I feel that way too, except, the home where we live now is not exactly home yet, either. I love our house, the weather, the culture, and I like the people I know here, but it's just not the same as spending time with people you've known for years, decades or life. I was happy to chat with a few neighbors and fellow parents here in Alameda when I got back, but 18 months is not long enough to forge bonds equivalent to the years-old and even lifetime bonds we maintain with those back "home." My friend Kori recently posted that it takes seven -- seven -- years to feel really established in a new community. And even the mildest weather can't really match the sight of your kids playing with their cousins and hugging their grandparents -- or the freedom of leaving the kids with said grandparents while you head out to the movies. We do have a handful of older friends in the Bay Area, of course, who we get to see from time to time. But on the BART ride in from the airport, Pebbles summed it up nicely when she told me, "I don't want to move back to Illinois anymore. It's too cold there. Except ... Ellerie lives there."

When you live in more than one place, you always leave part of your heart behind. At this point, Erik and I have left pieces of ourselves all over the country, and we fantasize about someday living in a neighborhood with all our favorite people from Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, China, France and ... I could go on and on. But rest assured, if that planned community ever gets built, it won't be built in a location where the temperatures ever dip below zero. Because that shit is madness.

* That MIGHT have had something to do with the many holiday meals and drinks consumed, and the 2-pound box of See's Nuts and Chews I "helped" my parents get rid of. And oh yeah, I totally could have jumped on my mom's stationary bike or braved the cold to exercise outside like truly dedicated Midwesterners do.

** Actually, I am TOTALLY adding this to my earthquake preparedness routine. Fine, I admit it, it will be the only step in my earthquake preparedness routine.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What to Say to the Newtown Families

Yesterday was Dec. 14, a day that was once just another step in the holiday rush. Now, I think of Dec. 14 as a black box on the calendar page, a day that I would burn out of the month if I could, to cauterize the horrible images of what happened on that day last year in Newtown, Conn.

I thought of writing this post as a letter to the families who lost their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But what could I tell them? That I hugged my 6-year-old a little closer today? That just seems cruel when they are facing another Christmas with their 6- and 7-year-olds lying in the ground. That I am sorry that we as a nation let them down by failing to to rein in the sale of catastrophically dangerous weapons? It's a failure they know all too well already. That I have thought of them nearly every day in the past year, and cried many times? What is the point?

Is there anything to say at all that can possibly help make this anniversary less painful? Or is it better to hold onto this pain as a way of remembering? I don't think that the families would be gratified to know that their children's legacy was to make strangers feel anguish. In the end, I have nothing to say to the Newtown parents, so let's just leave them alone.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 4: Canoeing the Dordogne

When I was planning this trip, the one thing I fixated on most was canoeing the Dordogne River. We'd glide past picturesque villages and castles, take in fall foliage, and maybe stop in one of the villages for a picnic or a drink.

We woke up on Day 4 of our trip kind of kicking ourselves that we hadn't squeezed the canoe trip into warm, sunny Day 3. It was market day in Sarlat, so we drove there as planned to shop for our canoe picnic. The sky was cloudy and a few raindrops fell, so we were concerned that we'd really blown it. Sarlat is a charming medievel village, with those windy cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses (bottom level a medievel stone structure, top made with timbers during the Renaissance). We bought carrots, radishes, two foie gras stuffed figs, a pack of smoked duck breast, some soap and a bra. oh, and a little round of strong goat cheese and half a loaf of heavy brown bread and a little jar of walnuts with honey. The first part of the market that we went through was all clothes and other goods -- piles of blue jeans, and the bras in little packets.

We were just wondering where all these great products from the French countryside were when we looked down another street and saw tables with produce and refrigerated cases with the duck classics:   Entire fattened livers, rillettes, breasts, and confit and gizzards. Other cases held rounds and slabs of cheese, big and small. We sampled slices of nougat and bites of foie gras and bits of cheese.

Then we sat down at a cafe with a good view of all the people -- the men in sweaters under jackets, women in skirts looking at smartphones as they walked. We wrote post cards to the kids. Then we rushed to the Post Office to send our cards to the kids before its Saturday noon close, and didn't want to walk back to the market so we bought two bottles of wine at Lidl, a French version of Aldi from the looks of it.

When we arrived at the canoe area in La Roque Gageac, the canoe stand was open as promised but the canoe man was gone, probably eating lunch.bSo we sat down at a picnic table by the river and ate our picnic. A few raindrops fell on us.

When the man came back, he took our 14 euros each, gave us life jackets and paddles, and pushed us into the river in our canoe. We were off, and almost immediately the sun broke through the clouds. la Roque Gageac looked more beautiful from the water, because the stone wall protecting the city from the river rose up beside us.

Then there was a bit of nature, then Catelnaud came into view and soon we were heading for the first bridge, aiming the canoe at one of the semicircular openings and noticing how the water quickened just there. We were completely alone on the river, save a duck or two. The company running the large tour boats seemed to be open, but perhaps no one showed up to take a tour because none passed us on our journey. We spent a lot of the trip taking long rests between paddles, swiveling our heads around taking in the views of the cliffs and castles. There were windows in the high cliffs, and the odd house set in the trees high up on the left bank, and all the houss and castles and churches were the same color as the cliffs because of course they were all built of the same stone.

When we came to Beynac, the village, on our right, we had to decide whether to pull over to go "boire" (drink) as the canoe man had suggested, or maybe grab a coffee. But we were enjoying our paddle and we did not feel like having anything, so we just paddled on, pointing out the restaurant where we'd eaten the first night and the pretty, steep village that we hadn't entered.

All too soon we were at the end point, marked by a tall white wooden cutout in the shape of a kayak. We made landfall and pulled up the kayak without much trouble, took off our life preservers, and looked around.

We thought that the trip would end at a village, but we actually found ourselves near a country lane alongside farmer's fields. We checked out the crops -- chard-looking greens growing out of huge tubers that might have been massive turnips or sugar beets. The fields were small by US standards, alternating with a few rows of this and a few rows of that. As we walked, a farm truck drove by, followed closely by a couple of small barking dogs. We sat down on a stump and ate a snack, and then the canoe man arrived to pick us up.

He told us on the way back that we were the only people to cnoe today. We felt sad for him since he had been sitting there, stoicly in his booth all day, with all the canoes and life jackets helpfully displayed. But when we returned there was a single older gentleman waiting there, and the canoe man said goodbye and walked over to talk to him. Looked like there might be a second canoer before the end of the day. We marveled at the fact that the weather was so beautiful -- and it was a holiday weekend since a two-week school holiday had just begun, and yet no one who lived in the area wanted to come out and canoe that day. It seemed funny to us because in the U.S., autumn is a big season for tourism in the countryside, but here, it seemed, once summer was over, the season was just over, no matter how nice it was out.

We decided to drive back to Sarlat for dinner, since we had not seen enough of the city at the market that morning. We walked up and down the little alleys, looking at old half-timbered buildings and shops, and reading restaurant menus. We walked up a steep street just because it looked interesting, and happened upon a nice looking restaurant in a garden outside a grand-looking building. There was one table occupied, but when I approached the people there looked up at me quizzically. I asked if it was a private party, or tried to, and they explained that the restaurant would open at 7 p.m. Apparently I had interrupted the staff dinner. I smiled and promised to return, and we enjoyed walking around for another half hour, popping into a bookshop just before it closed. We realized that a lot of our time in France would be spent waiting for the right time to do things -- waiting for a restaurant to start serving dinner, or for a museum to re-open after the two hour midday lunch break. But the waiting so far had always been pleasant because there was so much to see while we waited.

The restaurant was called Le Presidial, and we were the first customers to be seated in the beautiful flower garden at 7. Even though it was dark out now it was still plenty warm to sit outside comfortably. The wait staff was sweet to us and other parties started showing up and filling other tables -- all French people, which made us feel good about our find in this tourist city. Erik had cassoulet, and I had duck breast with peaches and potatoes Sarladaise. TIt came with green beans served in a little cup made from a crepe, and was delicious. We had apertifs and a small bottle of wine, but no dessert. As we walked back to our car we raved about how well everything had gone on this trip -- the sun coming out just in time for our canoe trip, finding the perfect outdoor restaurant on an unseasonably warm night, everything.