Sauntering the byways of Madison, WI

Thanks to my cousin Steve Porter, Bill and I were ushered off Madison’s beaten path to both musical and edible treats. After landing in the lake city, Bill and I made our way to the University of Wisconsin Rathskeller -a classic beer hall- sehr Deutsch. Cruising down State street, catering to the university crowd with bookstores and sidewalk cafes, we stopped for refreshments at Hsusus, a small Mediterranean cafe. Steve mentioned that it used to be a Dunkin Donuts before some students rolled a big wooden spool through the front window. A young violinist entertained passersby with classical tunes, the crowd: a mix of seasoned hippies and students of every stripe. Casual, unpretentious, it was easy to feel at home in Madison, which shares an alternative outlook with Austin, though with fewer tattoos. Moving on to Talula, a restaurant/music venue, we enjoyed crab puffs, fresh pasta and handmade pizza, layered with farm fresh vegetables. Drinks were delightful, the bartender/owner was friendly and the band brought a down home, honky tonk ambiance, complemented by works of local artists, shown below.

Earlier in the day when we were driving into the city, Bill and I caught a few minutes of a radio talk-show featuring a host who was taking Q & A about health care reform. Oddly, he was liberal, something I didn’t think existed on radio talk shows. Talking with Steve about what was happening in Wisconsin, I was reminded of the rich labor movement tradition underlying the establishment of things we take for granted and are now challenged: overtime, sick leave, vacation time, social security and health benefits. We’ll see what the future holds. Clubs in Wisconsin and probably most of the Great Lakes areas can be found in places once inhabited by supper clubs. These outliers are are now in light industrial areas (one was across from the Oscar Mayer wiener plant) on a grid known only to the locals. I was happy to have part-time drummer, Steve as our guide.  Great roadhouse blues, mysterious back roads, and good company made for a great adventure in Madison, Austin’s sister city.

The Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City

The Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas, City, Missouri takes an elegant approach to showcasing its collection. We skipped the Impressionists exhibit in favor of the American Indian, Modern and Contemporary, the Chinese and Japanese art and the Photography collections.  Here is a glimpse of what they have to offer.

Kansas: no place like home or home is where your heart is?

Traveling back to my birthplace, Junction City, Kansas was a pilgrimage I considered off and on over the years.  There was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz on the one hand and a bit of Lena Lovich on the other. After all, I was conceived in Vienna, Austria, shipped overseas in utero, born 2 months later in Kansas then back to Europe at 6 tender months, not to return until the end of this, my golden year. Bill, a fan of Midwestern Regionalist Art, and I also scheduled a hike at the Konza Prairie Biological Field Station for a closer look at the Flint Hills.

The first leg of our 2.5 hour Kansas trek was lovely; rolling hills and horse farms, a little of the magic of Grant Woods’ Young Corn. When we stopped at Grandma Hoerner’s Organic Food Store, I was gratified to find a portrait of Auntie Em hanging in the folksy warehouse shop. A few jars of special sauces later we resumed our journey West.

Then came Topeka. To be fair, there were controlled burns devouring the hills in every direction. Smoke twisted off the horizon, casting a pall over much of the land. Topeka boasted train tracks, stock yards and a kind of dark malaise. Like the oil fields we passed through in Wyoming, this was not a happy place. I didn’t shake the heaviness until we were 60 miles past. The question of Junction City loomed large in my mind, but proved to be the epitome of anywhere USA. I was really disappointed, not noticing anything quaint or comely about the town. Finally, I pulled over to get a shot of a pleasant building, which was fortuitous because it led us to Bessie’s Buy Gone Antiques. Don, the gregarious owner of the store radiated energy and a warmth that made me feel welcome in my “home” town. Within the span of 20 minutes he told us we were baby Gods, (able to create and destroy but not yet wise enough to create heaven on earth) proclaiming how great life is while giving us a deal on a photo of black leather Elvis and a strand of pearls, my nod to Eisenhower America. Bill calls him Don Miguel, from the 4 Agreements; glad to have found a Bodhisattva along the way. Don’s motto:

The Konza Tall Grass Prairie preserve was so windy I thought I could fly. The headwind was a bit battering, but there were glimpses of the rolling, furry hide of mother earth that I found so appealing in Nebraska. As we walked through the woods, there was a palpable feeling of blood in the land. My impression was of the civil war era but the American Indians battled at least as long and hard here. In the two pictures of the woods in which this battle weary feeling was strongest an odd glow appears. I can’t explain it but it does give me pause. When I started imagining writing about this part of the trip, my overall feeling was much bleaker, it was so darkened by this wounded land. As you can see in the images below, the prairie is very light, a kingdom of grass and sky, whipped by tireless gusts of wind.

First Friday in Kansas City

Kansas City has a vibrant art and music scene, with many fine murals and a good combination of traditional and imaginative architecture. Although we didn’t find the perfect barbecue, we had a few good meals and listened to a rockin’ zydeco band, Blue Orleans at BB’s Lawnside and Bar B Que. I didn’t bring my camera to the club but the joint was jumping and I would certainly go back again. We stayed at the Raphael Hotel, a grand dame from the 1920’s and enjoyed walking around the Crossroads before going out to the Power and Light district downtown for First Friday. There were a few too many cartoon character sculptures for my taste but all in all, good times. So for now, Goodbye to Kansas City, New York City here we come.

Kansas City Market

I had a good feeling about Kansas City before we flew in for a long weekend of fun. Starting our adventure in the City Market among a robust offering of fabulous, cheap vegetables was a good thing. Our dining overall was spotty but all the vegetables I had were vigorous and flavorful, locally grown and really fresh. Next time, we will head for Oklahoma Joe’s right away to get our barbecue fix. This is a pretty town that shows a lot of support for the arts, architecture and music. For now, enjoy the vivid colors of spring’s bounty.

The Chicago Art Institute

Walking into the Chicago Art Institute was like walking into a textbook.  The sheer number of iconic paintings was dizzying.  Unfortunately, we left without seeing the photography exhibit, the new media exhibit or Native American art, which I will save for future visits.  The Impressionist exhibit alone was life altering.  As I said in Facebook, “Art was pouring out of my eyes” when we left the gallery.  Chicago has a lot of character.  It will take me many visits to feel like I know what this city is about.

The Windy City – Downtown, Melrose Park and the Fox River

Day one of my trip to Chicago with Bill to visit his sister Jean.  Flying over the city was astonishing – the size, the people, the pavement stretched for what seemed like a hundred miles.  There was no way I could get my mind around this town.  I was there for the company, the art and the food and knew I would only get a taste of all three in two 1/2 days.  Kiki’s Bistro was the perfect place to begin, with a juicy duck salad, a roasted chicken salad, appetizer of pate and mushroom soup and a glass (or two) of wine.  Ready to tackle the traffic, we headed off to Glen Ellyn to meet Jean and tour their childhood stomping grounds in Warrenville, close to the Fox River. The collections of villages, including Geneva, Aurora and Glen Ellyn were charming, sprinkled like baubles around the wrist of Chicagoland. After a day of reminiscing, it only seemed right to enjoy a night in Melrose Park at Tom’s Steakhouse. The good fellas may be gone (or not) but the bar had not aged since Jerry Vale reminded us that it’s all in the game. Even now, George’s Brandy Alexander goes down mighty easy.

Hiking the Tetons

Hiking in the Tetons

Getting up early to hike through the woods brings memories of the morning light as it casts long shadows down the mountains, brings fire to the aspen leaves and makes globes of dew gleam in the sun.  Smells of pine needles, boggy creek grasses and tumbling water under rocky outcrops begin to fade in my mind, sooner than the sound of the wind through the trees.  Clattering aspen leaves and rustling pines sprinkled over a deep, muffled mountain roar, the voice of the Tetons, writ small on the trail to Inspiration Point.  We saw quite a few people, an international collection taking two forks of a several mile hike up the mountain.  The only animal who made contact was a grouse, almost invisible until she stepped out onto a log and walked daintily by me, a gentle, lovely little being.  Her trust and friendliness were surprising and she melted into the underbrush as quickly as she emerged when a young couple came up the trail.

It was good to work out on the mountain, not knowing what was around the next bend, wondering “am I there yet?” stalking the next nature shot.  I was tired when I got to the bottom breathing deeply the clean, pungent air, knowing how long it had been since I went to the mountain and felt its strength.  I hope it will be sooner than later the next time.  It has been liberating to explore this new terrain, see the ancient movement of the earth over time and share a few moments with the animals who taught me much about tribe and community.  A wonderful, if brief journey North and West.


Yellowstone National Park

Going to the Tetons without seeing Yellowstone was not an option, although tourist attractions held no real allure.  Traveling through the Teton National Forest was scenic; more fabulous road pictures of the Tetons offered themselves at almost every bend. Off we went, trailing a fluorescent green VW hippie van (sporting a peace sign and putting along at weed speed) through the forest.  Entering Yellowstone lacked enchantment, the mountains balding with acres of trees lost to fire or disease, hard to tell.  By this time we were used to the alternating speed limits popping up for no apparent reason – 25, 45, 35 – one rarely knew why or when.  We crossed the Continental Divide at least 10 times on the trip, six times in Yellowstone alone.  I couldn’t keep track of east or west unless it was clear which way the streams were flowing.  Yellowstone held a certain fascination for me since childhood. My grandparents spoke of it and PBS lit a “great lodges of the West” fire in my imagination.

The lodge itself was monumental, a log cabin to dwarf all (and there were many) others.  The shot I took inside the lodge does not do justice to the balustrades and massive stair railings, an odd marriage of Grimm’s fairytale meets cowboy campfire.  Tourists of every age and stripe covered the ground like ants, scouring the mounds of holy smoke for that perfect shot, a camera safari at one of the West’s great wonders.  Bill and I took to the boardwalk for a several mile hike around the main geyser area, waiting for the scheduled eruption of Old Faithful, watching the earth come and then rest for another 90 minutes.

The vivid colors, mineral smells and smoking, bubbling mud and water make for an atmospheric photo and sensory rich experience.  It was not hard to imagine a time when this ground was hallowed, a place where the earth’s arteries spill precious minerals, whispering secrets from the deep in plumes of steam and mineral rain.  I will not soon forget the sounds, smells and terrain of Yellowstone.

Aside from the crows, who were lured over to us by almond apricot treats, no animals were to be seen.  On the way back to Jackson a small herd of elk stood regally by the side of the road but it was not until our hike to inspiration point the next day that we had any sightings.  Tomorrow:  hiking the Tetons.

Why ask WY?

The feel of the terrain changed dramatically in Wyoming.  While Nebraska and South Dakota had a numinous, feminine quality, it was clear we were entering cowboy country when we crossed the state border into WY.  One of my favorite stretches of road was gravel Highway 18 into the Badlands in South Dakota.  Rolling hills, sage greens, fawns and purple browns dotted with a variety of shrubs and pine trees evoked the nooks and sensuous curves of a woman’s body, topped with soft, grassy fur.  Even the Badlands had a mysterious, softening effect, possibly because the animals seemed peaceful and protected.  The Black Hills were more rugged, home to more antelope than cow with a brooding, historic quality all their own. Still, the mystery was present in the pinon trees, the road to nowhere that took us into the woods, the reservoirs.

The flat stretches of coal and oilfields, along with a preponderance of cattle and horse ranches made the eastern part of Wyoming feel distinctly masculine.  The odd bicycle on the hill early in the trek Westward provided a welcome moment of whimsy in the spare, no-frills expanse of gas stations, post offices, abandoned outposts and caravans of truck and train transport. I “enjoyed” my once in a lifetime all white meal at the Ghost Town Café (hot turkey slathered in white gravy over white bread over mashed white potatoes). It was hard to imagine we were headed to one of the most beautiful natural settings in the Northwest: the Grand Tetons

The dearth of birds on this trip surprised me.  I had a fortunate encounter with a ruffled grouse during a hike I’ll post later, but other than hawks, crows and the occasional magpie they were hiding or absent.  The other exception came at a rest stop with a pond, which we shared with a flock of migrating Canadian geese.  They were a lively group, not shy at all.  I may have seen one flock of sandhill cranes in the distance in Brighton, CO but I’ll probably have to go south to the Gulf Coast to see any more this year.

After one of several 8+ hour drives, we pulled into Jackson, WY at twilight.  The teaser shots of the Tetons included in this post are from the following day on the way to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson Hole proved to be an Aspen wannabe, but the Wyoming Inn, despite the over the top Western theme, provided a great base camp for the next few days.  The fireplace and the large Jacuzzi tub didn’t hurt.  Neither did the homemade cookies and outstanding bread pudding (with fresh berries) snuggled up to Seattle’s best in the hotel lobby.  I haven’t talked much about food because this was not a culinary tour by any stretch of the imagination.  We had one nice meal at Café Genevieve, which made up for the sushi we tried at Ignite, an Elton John bar boasting an assortment of cowboy Asian appetizers.  Right, but it was late and the menu looked interesting.  We declined other JH sushi (one on every corner, seriously) offerings and considered wild game (the other red meat) without biting in the end.  The pig candy appetizer at Café Genevieve, however, took me beyond any lingering bacon fetish and ended the reign of the noble pig for the time being.

Despite his cold, Bill rose early the next morning to take some amazing shots of the Tetons in the morning light. Fortunately, I got some good ones at a more reasonable hour – posting to come.