Thursday, July 29, 2010

Off to Yellowstone...Off the Grid

We're off to Yellowstone and Grand Teton tomorrow, so don't expect to read much here until Wednesday or Thursday of next week. We're going off the grid.

Badlands and Bozeman

We are finally in the West--the real honest-to-god west. We left Elmwood and its UFOs and drove South and West, stopping in Northfield, MN (home of Carleton College) for some lunch and to see why everyone we know who went to Carleton raves about it so fanatically. We ran into a current Field School student on the street in Northfield and realized just how small this country is. I take that back: this country is enormous.

We drove to Sioux Falls, SD and stayed in one of our nicest hotels yet (surprisingly enough). The SpringHill Suites by Marriot, located in the parking lot of a shopping center, was bright and cheerful and modern and lacked many of the design horrors that plague American hotels, which I dare say I am becoming quite an expert on. It was nice to curl up on a moderately comfy couch and watch The West Wing. From Sioux Falls we drove almost the length of South Dakota (which is a pretty long state) to Badlands National Park. Rebecca has been to Badlands before, and I think I have been as well, perhaps on an RV trip with my father when I was younger. We did make one unscheduled stop along the way at The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, a great hokey monument to King Corn.

The badlands is one of those places that resists language. It seems to me like what the moon or Mars must look like--alien, ancient, worn. The wind is brutal and persistent, and throws grasshoppers (thousands of them) up in the air in an almost constant stream. The front of our car is coated in a veneer of grasshopper entrails and legs and heads. I went for a bike ride, and I don't think I have ever ridden so slowly with such difficulty. At times I had to stand up and hammer just to stay upright. I had wind burn when I got back to the lodge where we're staying.

We drove to Wall, SD to have dinner and to visit Wall Drug, mostly because we had seen signs for it for some 300 miles across SD. We bought a few postcards, took some touristy pictures, then drove back to the moon.

We hiked up to the top of a pass to watch the sunset and take some pictures. Later we went to see the night sky program (hoping we'd learn a thing or two about the stars), only to discover that the program was actually about Native American dance rituals and was conducted by a very awkward (and extremely Caucasian) park ranger. We left early and sat out in a field behind our cabin watching the sky.

We woke up early the next day (helped a little by the time jump to mountain time) and then blasted across 600 miles of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to Bozeman, where we're gearing up for four nights in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The 600 miles we drove yesterday represents about one fourth the distance from DC to Eugene as the crow flies, and it's a little more than 10% of the 5,000 miles we've drive so far.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

UFO Days in Elmwood

We had a relaxing few days in western Wisconsin. The Mann clan gathered in Elmwood, WI for a memorial service for Marcia, Rebecca's aunt, and there were extended family from all over the West and Midwest (and a few Eastcoasters as well). There were no formal services (Marcia died in December of liver cancer), but we did gather and eat together, and those who knew Marcia shared their memories of her. Some of us went horseback riding (neither R nor I); some of us went for long walks down dusty roads and explored cornfields; some of us went on long bike rides through the fields.

I'm not sure if this was part of the plan, but the family reunion coincided with the UFO days in Elmwood. Apparently a NUMBER Elmwoodians have spotted UFOs over the years, so every year at the end of July they put on a party to celebrate...their out of town visitors. They have tractor pulls and a pancake breakfast and a live rock n' roll band and fireworks and then on Sunday they have a very extensive parade. This is one of those events you kinda had to be there I'm including a few video clips to give you a taste and a bunch of photos.

That's Downtown Elmwood bristling with anticipation for the fireworks.

This is the fields and the hills surrounding the family farm just outside of Elmwood.Greg and I having a serious conversation Greg knows everyone in town or everything about horses.Sarah eating her pancakes (very slowly) at the pancake breakfast.Rebecca and I sat in the shade by a place called The Shack and watched the parade.Miss Elmwood (one of the two) drives a four-wheeler.The other Miss Elmwood, off of her float and walking amongst the people.Our favorite of the beauty pageant floats (there were probably 15 of them); note the cracked egg shell chairs and mammoth sized rooster.The largest tractor I have ever seen.Greg on one of his 18 horses. I wish I could have gotten a shot of him on the rearing horse.
This was actually taken on our drive into Elmwood on our first day in town. We got stuck behind a caravan of tractors, many with women riding on the wheel covers.
Sarah, Rebecca and I got tattooed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Harleys, Cheese and Frank Lloyd Wright

Before leaving glorious Milwaukee for good, we stopped at the Harley Davidson Museum in Downtown Milwaukee. It was pouring rain when we left our hotel and pouring harder when we got to the museum, but that didn't stop the twenty or so riders with full rain-gear who pulled into the museum just after we did. A few of them were even wearing helmets. Apparently helmets aren't all that popular out here in Harley-land. We've seen a few interesting television spots by personal injury attorneys who get cash settlements for motorcyclists injured while helmet-less, which I must say seems a little stupid to me. If I were an insurance company I would feel morally obligated to shell out cash to a New Orleans resident, but I would hesitate to pay somebody who cracked open their skull while not wearing a helmet.

The museum was bad-ass. The whole thing was made of steel girders and pipes and grating. There were bikes everywhere, dating back to the very first Harley (or a version of it), which looked a hell of a lot like a bicycle with an engine on it (that's basically what it was). The exhibit was organized chronologically, and moving through the space I got a distinct sense for the progression of the bike. As the engines got bigger and more powerful, the frames got bigger and more sturdy. I think the photos will say more than I will on the subject.

During the delusional AMF Harley years, they actually made a scooter.Two Harley engines tied together to break a speed record.Replica of Peter Fonda's bike from the 1969 classic "Easy Rider".From there we went over to the Milwaukee Brat House and had a few Wisconsin's specialities we were told we couldn't go without: cheese curd, beer-cheese soup, and brats. The cheese curd at this place were fried and tasted like, well, fried cheese. We'll probably have to try fresh curds before we leave Wisconsin. The beer-cheese soup tasted like a cross between cheddar cheese, PBR and bacon, which is exactly what it was. A pretty amazing concoction. The brat tasted like...a sausage in a bun with Saurkraut. We didn't finish a single thing that we ordered.

We took a brief de-cheesifying walk through downtown Milwaukee, then headed west (an entire day driving West! At last!) to Spring Green, WI. I went for a long bike ride through the corn fields (there is a truly awe-inspiring quantity of corn grown out here). There were tornado warnings for the counties around us, and the rain came down so hard it must have been rattling the satellite dish; we couldn't finish the episode of Law and Order SVU we started watching when I returned from my ride.

That evening we had a lovely dinner inside a converted bank in downtown Spring Green. The hotel we stayed in was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's, which was apparent from a few of the details, but the hotel had been remodeled to within an inch of its life and mostly resembled...a roadside hotel, like a strip mall with beds. The proprietor of the Usonian Inn was a friendly Albanian woman who told me I couldn't keep my bicycles in the room but let me store them in the garage.

We got up this morning and visited Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Wisconsin and home (in the spring and summer) of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Rebecca and I have been to quite a few FLW buildings over the last few years, and, frankly, we're sort of tired of them. I should say a few obligatory things about FLW's genius, about his organic architecture, about how he revolutionized the blah blah blah, but frankly I'm tired, damn tired of hearing fawning tour-guides and yahoos from Sheboygan go on and on and on about his genius. OK, fine, he was a genius. But he couldn't balance his checkbook, and he was a horrible pain in the ass. His furniture would be best suited for use in Abu Ghraib (for comfortable furniture he shopped at Marshall Fields), and his houses leak like sieves. I think I would much rather live in the Farnsworth house than any one of FLW's masterpieces. (Alright, Fallingwater is pretty cool, but that giant cantilevered slab of concrete over the waterfall is in the process of falling into the water.)

Here are some pictures of Taliesin. The gods of architecture may strike me down before I get back from our dinner in the lovely little truck-stop town of Baldwin, WI.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

American Idol Takes Milwaukee--and our Hotel

Milwaukee has been one of the surprise highlights of our adventure. We added it to our agenda because neither of us had ever been and because we needed to be in the middle of Wisconsin for a family event at the end of July. We had heard that once the frost melts and the sun comes out, Milwaukee becomes a manic city--full of outdoor dining and good music by the river and people looking to have a good time. And it turns out that is exactly the case here.

We are staying in the Days Inn Hotel of the Arts, a boutique hotel across the street from a low-income housing project. When we pulled into the hotel, a young white guy sat on the curb outside of the main entrance strumming an Epiphone acoustic guitar. When I passed through the lobby, I saw two high-school-aged girls performing to a thin audience in the hotel bar, one strumming a ukulele, the other singing.

Our first order of business when we got to town was to go get some Indian food, so we went down historic Brady street to Maharaja's. Imagine a Midwestern diner decked out with with red pleather and statues of Vishnu. And some kick-ass food. From there we went down to Trocadero Gastrobar to hear some live Latin jazz on the terrace and consume some fine local brews. I have become a fan of the Fixed Gear Red Ale, by Lakefront, a small local brewery.

When we got home, imagine our surprise when we came across a hotel bar full of high school kids (and a few proud parents) with instruments, singing. It turns out that on the very next day these young hopefuls were going to be auditioning for American Idol 2011. We ran up to our hotel room, grabbed my little audio recorder, and came back down to the bar to watch. At this point a sad little crowd had formed, and the high school kids (as they are want to do) were totally immersed in their own little world. We heard three performances (there was apparently another venue at the tables out in front of the hotel, which we missed), which I have edited down to their core moments for the good of humanity. Don't forget to vote for your favorite by texting 1, 2 or 3 to 541-731-0122.

So...while the really young kids sang to each other, largely unaware of the adult world outside of the hotel (or the adults in the room with them), we met one of the managers of the hotel (a gay Mexican-American man), another potential auditioner (a hispanic lesbian whose name I forget but who introduced herself as Tila) and her escort, a gay hispanic man from Grand Rapids, MI who alleges that he is Thalia's greatest fan (he apparently does a drag show as Thalia). We learned that Milwaukee is not the white-bread Midwestern town that we believed it to be. We also learned that some people think Thalia is hotter than J-Lo.

The kids were lining up outside the Bradley center starting at 5 am. So we woke up the next day, got on the bikes and rode down to see the screaming hordes. We woke up a little late, had a leisurely breakfast, and by the time we got there all that remained of the adolescent throngs were some empty cattle gates, a crew of event staff sweeping up, and the lighted billboard. We did catch a few of the heartbroken walking out of the center, tears streaming down their faces, being consoled by parents and friends. One young woman kept on strumming her guitar and singing, despite her rejection, in the shade of a large sign announcing the coming 2010 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

We then went and visited the Milwaukee Art Museum (which was the primary reason we came to Milwaukee, to see this very cool building). The museum has wings that open and close at different times of day to let in more light. A few photos to tell the tale:

After a lunch of leftover Indian food, we went on a tour of another local brewery: The Miller Brewery. There is little nice to say about this tour. It was full of very weird smells, and it gave us a glimpse at the truly horrifying scale of their operation. At the end of the tour they forced us to drink a miller lite before we could try one of their other beers. We don't recommend it.

We do recommend going for a refreshing swim in lake Michigan, if you ever have the chance. We rode out to Bradford beach and swam in the great cold lake, which is the first time I've ever set foot in the lake.

When we returned from our swim, we ran into Tila in the lobby. She had made it through the first round of auditions.