Iowa Lakeside Lab

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Students all over the state of Iowa – and beyond – can immerse themselves in the study of natural sciences at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on the shore of West Okoboji Lake. The 100-year-old, 147-acre field camp is filled with outdoor classrooms and laboratories, and it provides housing and dining facilities for faculty, students, and visitors who take advantage of the area’s boundless natural environment.

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I visited Lakeside this week and was tremendously impressed by the work that’s going on up there: internationally respected study of the ecology and systematics of diatoms (a type of algae or phytoplankton), water-quality research, archaeological digs, prairie restoration, conservation biology, and more.

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I stayed in a fairly comfortable motel-style room on the property; many of the students are housed in cottages and primitive cabins (i.e., no bathrooms). Most of the laboratories are in charming stone structures built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and surrounded by prairie plants (center photo above). A few additional laboratory facilities were built in the 1960s and ’70s; the modern Hiatt Building opened in 1998 and houses the water quality laboratory, administrative offices, and classrooms. A comfortable dining hall (shown above, as we approached from the water) provides meals and gathering space.

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Most of the time I was at the lab I felt very much immersed in another world: a world of science and nature, surrounded by the land and water of Iowa’s early heritage. The Iowa Great Lakes were created by glaciers and are unique in the state of Iowa. Anyone who’s ever visited the Okoboji area knows its shores have been developed and developed and developed until there’s precious little public land, save for a few small parks. Iowa Lakeside Lab is the only large undeveloped land on the lakefront, and that makes it pretty special.

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My visit to Lakeside was for a story I’m working on for VISIONS, the Iowa State University alumni magazine. Iowa State has had a long connection to Iowa Lakeside Lab, a Regents Resource Center – meaning it’s a part of the Regents Universities of ISU, University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa. All three flags fly in the property, and I met students from all three schools as well as faculty from Iowa State and the University of Iowa, although there were faculty and students from outside the system as well.

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During the three days I was there, I sat in on classes, observed field work, and went out on the lake with students studying algae, soils, ornithology, and archaeology. I watched storms roll in from the west, scuttling plans to collect algae samples and turning the archaeology dig site into mud. I went to a research site in a prairie, and I observed the GLEON buoy, which monitors water quality and weather data every 10 minutes, linking data from West Okoboji with lakes around the world. I got to watch twin fawns chasing each other in the early-morning light and checked in on a rabbit nest filled with baby bunnies (below).

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Lakeside Lab is primarily a summer place, with university courses offered from May to August. During the school year Lakeside offers environmental education programs for students in K-12 schools, and education is also available for the general public. This week I attended a lecture on climate change titled “Weather Whiplash,” which was well attended by members of the local community. Young children were there attending a summer program called Frog Camp, and two artists and one writer were also in residence for the summer.

Conferences and meetings are held at Lakeside year-round, although space is somewhat limited because many of the labs and housing units are unheated. Iowa Lakeside Lab is located in northwest Iowa about 200 miles from both Des Moines and Omaha, on the west side of West Okoboji Lake along Hwy. 86.

Springtime on the Superior Hiking Trail

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My love affair with the Superior Hiking Trail in northeastern Minnesota continues.

I’ve been traveling to this area of the country for 17 years now – a total of more than 20 separate trips. On most of these trips, I’ve traveled alone. It’s such a treat to be able to clear my mind and hike on these beautiful, remote trails for a few days – and then, each night, eat good food and sleep in a comfy cabin.

Back in the early days, I always got up early and hit the trail, hiked all day, and fell into bed exhausted. As I got older and more out of shape, I slept later, hiked gently, read good books, and drank wine. Both approaches were quite enjoyable. Within the past couple of years, I’ve improved my fitness level, and on my latest hike (June 2-4) I spent more time hiking and actually tackled more challenging trails.

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It takes about 8 hours (from Ames, Iowa) to get to the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a straight shot up I-35 to Duluth, and then a lovely drive along lakeshore-hugging Hwy. 61 – all the way to Canada, if you want to go that far north. I usually enjoy watching the temperature drop slowly as I drive north, but on Friday the temp stayed around 85 degrees well into northern Minnesota – until it dropped dramatically to 55 degrees within a period of about 15 minutes as I reached Duluth. And it stayed cool and comfortable the whole time I was up there.

I took four separate hikes on the SHT. I’ll talk about these in the order I hiked them:

 

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OBERG MOUNTAIN

This 1.8-mile loop is a great leg-stretcher, with easy access and nine scenic overlooks. It can be incredibly beautiful in the fall, but it was also pretty this spring, with green green green in every direction.

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To get to the Oberg Loop hiking trail, turn onto Onion River Road at Hwy. 61 milepost 87.5 and drive 2.2 miles to the big parking lot on the left side of the road.

 

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ALFRED’S POND

Officially, this 9-mile section is called “Caribou River Wayside to Cook County Road 1,” but I just think of it as the Alfred’s Pond hike. It’s one of my favorite hikes on the whole SHT. And the cool thing about this section is there’s another trailhead about a third of the way through, so you can park there and only be about 2.3 miles from the pond. That’s what I did.

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The trail was lined with lovely birch trees with their early spring leaves, and so many wildflowers that I spent much of my hike taking pictures. I can identify some – trillium and marsh marigolds are my favorites – but others are just, well, pretty spring wildflowers. Here are a few:

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It began to rain lightly while I hiked. I could hear it hitting the trees above me, but I really wasn’t getting wet until I got to Alfred’s Pond and left the forest canopy. I popped my poncho on over my head and sat quietly on the bench at the end of the walkway to the pond, just drinking in the aching beauty of that remote location. There were no people anywhere – just me and the lake and the trees and the rain. It was so beautiful it almost made me cry. But instead I smiled, grateful for the experience.

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To hike this trail section, park at the Caribou River Wayside trailhead right on Hwy. 61 at milepost 70.5. Or to get to Alfred’s Pond without walking quite so far, take Sugarloaf Rd. at milepost 73.3 and drive 1.5 miles to the parking lot on the left.

 

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BEAN & BEAR LAKES

I don’t know why I’ve been obsessing lately about the Bean & Bear Lakes hike. I did it once, years ago. I remember that the hike was tough but the lakes were beautiful. Maybe I just wanted to challenge myself. Anyway, I hiked this “Twin Lakes Trail” on Saturday afternoon. I parked at the Bay Area Historical Society in the town of Silver Bay; a 2.3-mile spur trail takes you to a loop trail with dramatic views of the twin lakes.

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The spur tail was muddy, rocky, and not particularly scenic. I was happy to get to the main event: the section with views of the lakes. It’s worth the time it takes to get there:

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This section is part of the main SHT; however, once I started heading back toward Silver Bay I noticed a severe shortage of signs telling me where I was and I started to worry. It was late in the day and I couldn’t afford to get lost. I didn’t see a trail sign or a human being for a long time and just counted on my instincts to be hiking on the right trail.

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And I was – up to a point. I hiked right back to Silver Bay on the SHT, somehow without ever turning onto the spur trail. (You can see the confusing signage above.) So when I popped out in the town, I was nowhere near my car. Interesting! I don’t think this has ever happened to me. I walked and walked and walked and walked along a roadway, hoping it was the right one and I’d eventually find my car. Of course, I finally did – it’s a small town, after all – and I was never so happy to see my little orange Prius waiting for me at the local historical building.

I think the hike itself was about 7 miles (with lots of mud and scrambly ups and downs), plus I think I walked a couple of miles in town. All I know is my feet hurt, and the beer and pizza that night in Grand Marais tasted mighty good.

To do this hike, turn at the Hwy. 61 stoplight at Silver Bay around mile marker 54.3 and drive to the historical building on your right or, better yet, drive along Penn Blvd./Outer Drive for a really long way until you get to the trailhead parking on your right. Try not to get lost.

 

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TOWER OVERLOOK

From Cook County Road 1, I hiked north with the goal of arriving at Tower Overlook within an hour. I didn’t count on the boot-sucking mud and slippery creek crossings, which made the trail a bit of an obstacle course. But it was a pretty hike, with an outstanding variety of spring wildflowers. Here are some of them:

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The whole trail section is 8 miles long, ending at Temperance River State Park, but I turned around after a couple of miles once I got to the overlook. I didn’t see a single person on this section. Ahhhhh! But I did see a very small toad and trash my hiking shoes.

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To get to this section, turn left on Cook C. Rd. 1/Cramer Rd. at the Hwy. 16 milepost 78.8 and drive 3.6 miles to the parking lot on the right.

THE REST

I stayed two nights, as usual, at Cascade Lodge, located on Hwy. 61 between Lutsen and Grand Marais. I like Cabin 2, but there are other cabins and a lodge from which to choose. I ate breakfast at Cascade Restaurant, which sort of feels like going to grandma’s house I’ve eaten breakfast there so many times. They have the best blueberry pancakes ever.

I ate lunch on Friday in Two Harbors at the Vanilla Bean Café. They have an awesome wild rice burger. And, as per my usual routine, I ate dinner both nights in Grand Marais, once at Gunflint Tavern and once at Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

I love this place and can’t wait to go back.

Mother’s Day at Reiman Gardens

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Moms get in free at Reiman Gardens on Mother’s Day, so today was a nice opportunity to go to the gardens with my family and see the new exhibition, Washed Ashore.

The sculpture exhibit opened April 29 and features 10 sculptures made from trash collected from beaches to make a statement about the amount of plastic garbage in our oceans and waterways.

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All the plastic was collected by volunteers. Sculptures were each directed by a lead artist and then created through a collaboration of the artist, team members, and volunteers. (That’s Rufus the Triggerfish, above.)

Kids were having a blast finding specific items in the sculptures — water bottles, flip-flops, nylon rope, and the like — in a sort of scavenger hunt. I’ll bet they were learning something about water pollution while they played the game. The great white shark, below is 12 feet long and 6 feet tall.

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Here are some facts about the Washed Ashore project:

  • 90% of marine debris is petroleum based
  • 38,000+ pounds of marine debris has been processed
  • 10,000+ volunteers have participated
  • 95% of all the debris collected by volunteers is actually used in the artwork
  • 300+ miles of beaches have been cleaned to create a total of 60 sculptures

Time for tulips

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Spring is always so very welcome in central Iowa, no matter how cold and snowy the winter has been (or not). This year’s winter was mild, but we had plenty of chilly, damp, dreary days in March and April to make up for it, so it’s been a real treat in the past couple of weeks to see the sun…and the green trees…and the flowers.

I met my two sisters earlier this week in Pella, one of Iowa’s most enchanting small towns. They live in the Kansas City area, and they first considered coming for Tulip Time (held Thursday through Saturday, May 4-6) but instead decided to visit on Tuesday. They wanted to see the tulips and buy goodies at the Dutch bakeries without the lines of people and parking headaches of the actual event. Can’t say that I blame them — Tulip Time is a lot of fun and well worth the crowds, but after you’ve done it a couple of times you really don’t need to go again.

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So we met at Jaarsma’s Bakery on the square and came away with large blue-and-white bags of pastries (just seeing those bags makes my mouth water). We ate lunch at Smokey Row, took pictures of tulips, browsed the downtown shops, bought cheese at Ulrich Meat Market, walked through the gardens outside the Scholte House Museum, and drank coffee at Brew, a newer coffee house in downtown Pella. I think it’s been a couple of years since I visited Pella, so some of the shops have changed, but overall it’s the same pleasant experience I remember from previous spring visits. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with tulips and Dutch letters.

Here are a few more photos:

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Mile High fun

My oldest daughter, Katie, and I spent last weekend in and around Denver, Colo., visiting my younger daughter, Lauren, who moved to the Mile High City in January.

We arrived Friday night after a 10-hour drive from Ames. After checking in to the Hyatt Place Hotel near the Denver International Airport, we were ready for some food and drink. Lauren suggested the Bent Fork Grill, which did the trick. I ate a cobb salad and ordered pint of Colorado Native, a local brew.

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The next morning, we headed to Snooze, an “a.m. eatery” with three locations in Denver, a few more in Colorado, plus restaurants in California, Arizona, and Texas. I had never heard of this place, but it was really fun. Apparently, the wait for a table on a weekend morning can be a couple of hours long, but we only waited about 30 minutes. The wait was made even more pleasant by A) the warmth and sunshine as we stood outside and B) the free coffee (in reusable orange cups) available to anyone standing in line. What a concept! Why don’t all restaurants serve free drinks while you wait?

The Snooze atmosphere is part Jetson’s/part Epcot theme park. Lots of fun décor and seating options. We sat at a round table with two curved benches that Katie said was like eating breakfast on the Disney teacups ride (above).

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The menu is fun and enormous, with promised “fresh twists on America’s favorite classics & creative morning cocktails.” We decided to share three menu items: a flight of pancakes (again, what a great concept), consisting of one sweet potato pancake, one blueberry Danish pancake, and one pineapple upside down pancake (above); huevos rancheros; and Snooze spuds deluxe (hash browns, cheese, eggs, and more). All the food was good; we loved all the pancakes, but the sweet potato was our favorite. We should have only ordered two items to share; we left a lot of eggs and hash browns and such on our plates.

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Our next destination was Denver’s open-air Mile High Flea Market (above). One of Lauren’s co-workers told her this was a must-experience weekend activity, but I will just say that I didn’t find it all that interesting. It’s huge and sprawly and messy, with vendors selling antiques (a.k.a. junk), clothes, tires, kitchen appliances, furniture, luggage, cosmetics, electronics, prepared food, produce, and a lot of stuff nobody needs. We each found a pair of shoes we liked, priced at two pairs for $25. Open weekends year-round, there is a charge to get in to the flea market ($2 per person on Fridays, $3 on Saturdays and Sundays).

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You can’t visit Colorado these days with at least one visit to a marijuana dispensary, right? So we went to two. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, I remember buying (illegal) pot in a sandwich bag for $5, and you had absolutely no idea what you were smoking.

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Today, weed is big business for states in which recreational use is legal, and the options are amazing. We visited the Oasis Cannabis Superstore (“the largest selection of cannabis in the world” according to the sign) and talked to a really friendly, happy guy (above) who told us way more than I could understand about the different cannabis strains (more than 100 available in this store alone) for smoking, plus edibles and other products, like creams and lotions that apparently cure what ails you. (I wonder how the Girl Scouts of America feel about the Girl Scout Cookies hybrid sativa weed for sale?)

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The other place we visited was a neighborhood dispensary called Star Buds, which was much smaller but no less friendly. I didn’t take any pictures in that one.

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By now it was mid-day, and we decided to head west to Red Rocks Park, about 10 miles outside of Denver. The park and amphitheatre are 6,450 feet above sea level, with great views and natural rock formations. This was my first time visiting, and I had been told about all the super-fit people who go to the amphitheatre to exercise. It was a beautiful spring day, and the place was full of people stretching and jumping and lifting and whatever else you can do on the stairs. (There’s also an opportunity for hiking and biking nearby.) Apparently, there have been concerts held for more than 100 years in what is now a 9,525-seat open-air theatre.

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We had eaten such a big breakfast that we really weren’t hungry, but it was about 2 o’clock and we were lured to the outdoor seating area of the Ship Rock Grille, a restaurant on site, mainly just to sit on the lovely patio (above) and soak in the beauty of the mountains and rock formations. We ordered a couple of appetizers and I enjoyed a pint of Alaskan Amber.

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Our next stop was a place called The Source, the ultimate hipster destination in Denver’s River North District. The former 1880s brick foundry building is a collective of food artisans and retailers offering visitors everything from freshly baked bread to craft cocktails, street tacos to flower arrangements.

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We poked around in the shops and then sat down in the Crooked Stave brewery and ordered a few sample-sized brews. The brewery focuses on IPAs and Belgian sours (“wine-forward, barrel-aged”); neither style appeals to me, so I just sat and enjoyed the people-watching while Lauren and Katie sipped weird pink beer in cute, tiny glasses (below). Like I said, it’s a hipster paradise.

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After that, we drove back to the hotel for girl talk and pizza. The next morning, we headed north to Fort Collins, one of my favorite college towns. This is a small city in which I could definitely see myself (or my kids) living. It’s a nice size, easy to get around in, and has the most wonderful downtown, filled with independent shops, bars, and restaurants – with very few chains in sight.

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We were there on Easter Sunday and were worried that shops and restaurants would be closed – or serving the dreaded $30-per-person Easter buffet – but we needn’t have worried because the downtown area was hopping (no bunny pun intended). We had our choice of a dozen or more places to eat, and we chose to dine on the outdoor patio of Rare Italian, a restaurant serving a lovely brunch menu – everything from pancakes to lasagna. We ordered cocktails, too, because why not?

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We also met up with a friend, Adam, who lives north of Fort Collins but is originally from Iowa, and after eating brunch with him we went to Black Bottle Brewery, one of many, many breweries large and small located in Fort Collins. I wanted to try several different styles, so I ordered a flight and enjoyed all three (above). (Can you buy Black Bottle beer in Iowa? Please say yes.)

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We walked around Fort Collins’s Old Town Square, basking in the warm sun and enjoying the friendly vibe before grabbing ice cream cones at Walrus Ice Cream shop, a locally owned sweet shop celebrating its 30th year in business this year.

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After that, we headed back to Denver for more girl talk and a dip in the hotel pool.

Our weekend went by too fast; we had to leave for our long drive back to Iowa first thing Monday morning.

A vintage boom in Boone

In Boone, Iowa, it seems everything old is new again. In a very good way.

Boone has always had a fairly vibrant downtown, with a variety of shops and the yummy Dutch Oven Bakery. But within the last two years, vintage and antiques shops have proliferated in the downtown area, making Boone a destination for enthusiasts of all things vintage.

I visited Boone yesterday and was able to hit five shops in about two hours. I was taken with the quality of the shops, the friendliness of the shopkeepers, the variety of offerings, the fairness of prices, and the number of shoppers (and, yes, buyers) who were, as I was, making the rounds.

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I started at Paradox, where I met owner Sara Parsons (pictured below). Paradox is crammed full of antiques, art, and oddities; it’s a store where you can easily find a prosthetic leg or some cute jewelry. Sarah described her demographic as “everyone” and said she embraces the paradox concept: juxtaposing light and dark to make a truly eclectic mix.

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IMG_5931Be sure to go downstairs for more fun and funky items. The painted stairwell itself (pictured left) is reason enough.

Paradox has been open for three and a half years, and Sara sees the vintage renaissance that’s taking over her small central-Iowa town. “Boone is becoming a destination,” she said.

Paradox is located at 818 8th St., just half a block west of Story St., the main road through downtown. The shop is open Wednesday through Saturday, “11ish through 6ish.” You can find the store on Facebook and Pinterest at 818paradox.

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The shop right across the street, Uptown Funky Junk at 817 8th St., could not be more different from Paradox. In Carla Awtry’s spacious shop you’ll find refinished furniture and upcycled items, mostly created by Carla herself.

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In fact, most days you’ll find Carla (pictured left) working away on a project or two in her shop. She produces painted and refinished furniture – tables, chairs, cabinets, desks, bookshelves – and home décor items like brightly colored chandeliers, windows, and wall hangings. She also carries lines of candles and paint, plus vintage items like dishes and baskets. Uptown Funky Junk has been open for 15 months and has a presence on Facebook.

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Next up was the Iron Horse Antique Mall, a straightforward antique mall featuring, well, pretty much everything you’d expect from a traditional antiques store.

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The large shop is divided into booths filled with collectables and tchotchkes, primatives and linens, and everything in between. For an antiques store with this much inventory, the Iron Horse is surprisingly clean and fresh-smelling – a browser’s delight. Find it at 711 Story St.

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Just across the street at 712 Story St., Urban Heirlooms drew me in with its seasonal window displays: bright shades of teal and pink and yellow, with Easter rabbits and pastel dishes. Inside, my eye was immediately drawn to the collection of old-fashioned aprons suspended by a clothesline from the ceiling, and then to the seemingly endless array of wonderful stuff stacked from top to bottom of this large, colorful store.

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The sign on the door says the shop features “vintage, antiques, primitives, and repurposed junk,” and that’s about right, but what it doesn’t tell you is how much fun it all is. There’s a truly overwhelming amount of painted furniture, sets of mid-century dishes, housewares, and funky décor. One section of the shop is filled with primitive furniture in natural wood tones.

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Shopkeepers were busy the day I visited but took the time to tell me that the shop has been open for two years. “It has an eclectic vibe,” one said. “We love it here! We have so much fun.” I overheard another telling a customer, who was inquiring about a custom furniture order, “We can make anything!”

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The last store I visited on Saturday was Old New & Things 2 Redo. Owner Michelle Riesberg said the store has been in its current location, 809 Story St., just since last August, but it has been open for business in Boone for three years, having been previously located next to the post office. Being downtown has made a difference, Michelle told me. She and her husband were friendly and welcoming – they obviously enjoy what they do.

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“We’re like a little Pinterest store,” Michelle said. “We have pieces that are already finished, or you can buy things and finish them yourself.” Eventually, the couple says, they hope to open the second floor of their business, adding another 5,000 square feet of space.

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Like the other vintage shops in Boone, Old New & Things 2 Redo offers something for pretty much everyone: furniture, upcycled items, housewares, salvaged pieces from old barns, home décor, birdhouses, signage, and traditional antiques – a picker’s paradise.

IMG_5972I managed to find not one but two pieces to add to my collection of vintage Easter plastic: a rare pink-and-blue rabbit bank (far left) and another bank in red and yellow (center). My family will tell you I already have a whole family of red-and-yellow-plastic-pipe-smoking rabbit banks, but I’ve never found one “in the wild” with the eyeglasses intact, so I had to have him, too.

If you’re nuts about vintage, be sure to mark your calendar for the spring 2017 Lincoln Hwy Junkathon happening May 5-7 in Boone, Ogden, Jefferson, and Churdan. Find details on Facebook @LincolnHwyJunkathon.

 

Hamilton in Chicago

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I can’t tell you how long it seems I’ve waited to see Hamilton on stage. I’ve been obsessed with this musical ever since we bought the cast recording well over a year ago. I read somewhere that fans who can’t get tickets to the show and listen obsessively to the music need to have a restraining order – and I totally get that. The music gets under your skin, and you really just HAVE TO SEE THE SHOW.

Unfortunately, back then, tickets to see the original cast in New York were nearly impossible to find – unless you wanted to spend something like $3,000 on them. So the original cast came and went and still we hadn’t seen the show. But we were optimistic, because Des Moines Performing Arts announced it would be bringing Hamilton to Iowa at the Civic Center during the 2017-18 season. And, even sooner, the show was playing an open-ended run in Chicago starting last fall.

The day the tickets went on sale for the Chicago performances (June 21, 2016), my husband Dave and I got all our computers and iPads and cell phones going at the same time to see if somehow ONE of the devices would score tickets to a show that hundreds of thousands of other rabid Hamilton fanatics were also trying to buy. My heart was racing, but unfortunately the Internet was slow and kept kicking us out of the Ticketmaster system. I thought we’d never get tickets. I thought I’d go crazy. I thought I might cry. But, miraculously, a couple of hours later we were the proud owners of tickets to a performance on Wednesday, Feb. 15. A lifetime away.

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It seemed like forever, but the day finally came. Meanwhile, I had seen clips of the show on the Tony Awards and the Grammy Awards and 60 Minutes and YouTube and a documentary. I’d bought the book Hamilton: The Revolution, which chronicles the making of the show, and I’d started following Lin-manuel Miranda on Facebook, so I was pretty well in the inner circle, right? That, and the cast recording, would have to be enough to hold me over until February.

February seemed like kind of an iffy time to drive to Chicago, but we lucked out and the weather was actually pretty nice. We drove to the city last Tuesday – Valentine’s Day, as it turned out – and spent the night at the Palmer House. Our show was a Wednesday matinee and we were so excited we didn’t know what to do with ourselves Wednesday morning. We tried to sleep late, tried to make breakfast last a very long time, tried to keep up with work emails and read the newspaper. But mostly I was just like a little kid on Christmas morning, waiting for time to open presents.

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img_1149And then, it was time. We walked to the Private Bank Theatre – literally less than a block from our hotel. Stood in line. Bought an outrageously overpriced Hamilton T-shirt. Took a selfie from the mezzanine, where we had fourth-row seats. Tried not to be disappointed that three of the biggest roles in the show – Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson – would be played by understudies from the ensemble.

But here is what I learned about this show: The staging is phenomenal, the costumes are awesome, the music is spectacular, and the performances are terrific (even the understudies blew me away). But the real star of the show is Lin-manuel Miranda’s words. And I had been hearing them all along on the cast recording. The full visuals just added a new dimension. And now when I listen to the songs, I can see all the staging and choreography in my head.

I remember the first time I saw the musical Les Miserables. When it ended, I didn’t want to leave the theatre; I just wanted to turn around and watch it again. And again. I feel the same way about Hamilton. I can’t wait to see the show in Des Moines, and maybe in New York, and wherever else I have the opportunity. It’s really an amazing experience, and I just want to do it over and over.

So, obviously, Hamilton was the highlight of my trip to Chicago (and the highlight of 2017 so far, and maybe one of the Top 10 Best Days of My Life), but Chicago is an amazing city, even in February, so here are a few more things we did there:

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We ate breakfast at Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe, a yummy breakfast-and-lunch place just north of Millenium Park where, after eating, we had to do the tourist thing and gawk and take photos of Cloud Gate (above), the reflective bean-shaped sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor.

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We spent a few hours at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, with its seemingly limitless collection of art ranging from Impressionism to early European to Modern. I love visiting my favorites – Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (below) – and dozens of other recognizable and wonderful paintings.

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The view through the Art Institute’s sun shades is even sort of a work of art!

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We ate some great food, did some shopping, and listened to blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends club. And it was a real treat to stay at the elegant Palmer House (above), which was the first place I ever stayed in Chicago when I was 16 years old.

 

 

 

Late fall hiking in the Loess Hills

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My quest to find good, marked hiking trails in the Loess Hills has been satisfied – for now – with a heart-pumping hike at Hitchcock Nature Center near Honey Creek, Iowa, this week.

I’ve blogged about this county conservation park twice before: once in 2014 when I drove the Loess Hills Scenic Byway in its entirety but didn’t allow myself time to really explore any of the hiking trails, and once about a very brief boardwalk hike on a cold day in spring 2015. Neither of those visits allowed me the time to fully appreciate this park and its many hiking trails.

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This time I spent several hours hiking on trails with names like Badger Ridge, Fox Run Ridge, and Hawk Ridge – you get the idea that these hikes are along the ridges of the Loess Hills, right? Many of them, with their steep ascents and descents, offer wide-open vistas of these unique landforms. Other trails take you into the valleys between the hills. The trails are very well marked and designated easy, moderate, and difficult (although I would argue with some of the designations).

Our November weather has been so warm that after a few ups-and-downs I stripped off my fleece jacket and walked the rest of the day in just a T-shirt and jeans.

As I wrote back in 2015, Hitchcock Nature Center is a 1,268-acre nature preserve. Besides its 10 miles of hiking trails along the scenic Loess Hills, the center is also home to the Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Facility, featuring native prairie plants, hands-on activities for the kids, and an observation deck.

To get to Hitchcock Nature Center, take I-29 to the Crescent exit and travel east to the Old Lincoln Highway. The park is located 5 miles north.

Pumpkins in the Gardens

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I was driving down University Blvd. in Ames yesterday and happened to glance over to Reiman Gardens. It was FILLED with pumpkins. It seemed like about a thousand pumpkins! So I drove home and dropped off my groceries and went back with my camera.

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This weekend is Spirits in the Gardens, a Halloween event. The family-friendly event was beginning just as I was leaving. Lots of little kids in costume. What a great event for our community! (And apparently there were ONLY 500 pumpkins, not 1,000 – but they were all carved!)

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Illinois River Road

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Here are two things I really love: Fall and Midwest Living magazine. Okay, when I write it down it sounds really dorky, but it’s true. I’ve been reading this magazine since the 1980s or whenever it first came out, and it’s always been just a really reliable resource for travel in the heartland. I’ve taken its travel suggestions many times, followed its recipes, and just basically enjoyed reading about this wonderful place we live: the Midwest.

A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to try a new fall color drive. I feel like I’ve driven most of the scenic byways in Iowa, I was already planning a trip to Minnesota, and I just wanted to go somewhere different, you know? I also didn’t have a lot of time. So I started searching Midwest Living’s online archives to get some ideas and I found this.

It was a story about driving the Illinois River Road, from Havana to Ottawa, Ill. The color looked spectacular, it’s not that far from central Iowa, and there seemed to be a nice variety of things to explore: small towns, state parks, a pumpkin patch, a wildlife refuge or two, and some interesting history. So I took my trusted magazine’s advice and booked two rooms for last weekend and made a plan: I’d drive the first day (a Saturday) as far as Peoria, then do the rest of the drive on Sunday, spend the night at Starved Rock Lodge, and finish up with a hike in the state park on Monday. Dave agreed that it sounded fun and decided at the last minute to come along.

We left Ames Saturday morning and drove through Iowa, all the way down to the southeast corner to Keokuk and crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. By this time, we were hungry and didn’t see many options along Hwy. 136, our route to Havana, so we stopped at Macomb, home to Western Illinois University. It was game day, but we found an out-of-the-way restaurant serving Greek and Middle Eastern food. I had a falafel sandwich and we continued on our way.

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At last we came to Havana, a reasonably cute small town just outside our first destination: the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.

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What a cool place! We took a couple of short nature walks and drove along the Chautauqua levee, which is only allowed a couple of times a year according to the park ranger we met at the entrance. We were very lucky! The “ride the refuge” 8-mile self-guided interpretive auto tour allowed us to see the area up close.

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We saw one turtle and a few individual birds – great blue herons, egrets, eagles – but definitely not the huge flocks of migrating waterfowl as I would have liked (no pelicans!). Also, the fall color was disappointing there. But it was still a neat experience.

After that, there wasn’t much to see until Peoria, the largest city on the route. We arrived at our overnight town around 5 p.m. and decided to follow the magazine website’s advice and drive the “legendary” Grand View Drive in Peoria Heights.

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Theodore Roosevelt reportedly dubbed this “the world’s most beautiful drive,” and although I’d have to disagree with Teddy on that one, it was, indeed, pretty stunning. I don’t know what I liked best about it: the truly gorgeous old homes on the left side of the road or the dramatic bluff views of the Illinois River on the right. The fall color was also very pretty in this area.

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When Grand View Drive ended we found ourselves on North Prospect Road – a charming street lined with shops and restaurants, many of which had sidewalk dining. We strolled up and down, checking menus (and prices! Dave reminded me that the homes we’d just driven past indicated a lot of wealth in this quaint suburb, and the menu prices reflected that).

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We found Jim’s Bistro, a restaurant that we not only could afford but that also offered one of my favorite beers from a previous trip: Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. As I said, sitting that evening on the tree-lined street with Illinois yuppies and their dogs, “The fall color was disappointing. The birds were disappointing. But DORTMUNDER GOLD.”

The food was good, too.

Next morning, after an uneventful evening, a freaky middle-of-the-night hailstorm, and free breakfast at a nondescript Hampton Inn near the Peoria mall, we headed up the River Road. (There are signs to help you follow the scenic byway, by the way, but be aware that the road often does not follow the river.)

We tried to find a trailhead to hike at the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area near Chillicothe, touted on the Illinois River Road Byway website as a 3,000-acre wildlife preserve with a 3.25-mile nature trail “coursing through bluff and ravine hardwood forests.” We found the preserve but not the trailhead, so we moved on.

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Midwest Living suggested stopping at Boggio’s Orchard near Granville. I love pumpkin patches and I’m a sucker for all those little decorative gourds, Indian corn, apple butter, and all that kind of stuff you find at roadside stands and farmsteads this time of year. Also, I’ve been trying to eat really healthy, but I have to admit I was hoping for an apple cider donut, one of the most delectable food items on the planet.

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I was not disappointed. Not only did Boggio’s have tons of pumpkins, they had beautiful baskets of mums for just $8.50 each (too bad we were on the road!), all the other things you’d expect…and probably the yummiest, WARM, melt-in-your-mouth cider donut I’ve ever eaten. I ate the donut, bought three baby pumpkins, and we continued on our way.

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Our true destinations for today were twofold: Matthiessen State Park (above/below) and then Starved Rock State Park. Oh, my goodness, we loved both of these places. If the fall color would have been at its peak, these parks would have been akin to paradise.

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We hiked pretty much all the trails at Matthiessen’s dells area, to places with fun names like Giant’s Bathtub, Devil’s Paint Box, and Strawberry Rock. Many of the trails are made up of wooden steps or boardwalks.

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We navigated bridges and trails to canyons, waterfalls, and ridges – a total of just 3.2 miles but such an exhilarating experience!

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Breakfast seemed a very long time ago, so we went to the nearby small town of Utica to find some lunch. It turns out that Utica is a charming little town with a number of places to eat. Just cross the river bridge and avoid the tourist area and you’ll find yourself in a quaint downtown. We ate at Duffy’s Tavern in a historic building on the corner.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring – with several hundred other visitors – Starved Rock State Park. What a gem of a place this is! We hiked and hiked and hiked – to Starved Rock, Lover’s Leap, French Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, and along the scenic river trail. We climbed up and down LOTS of stairs.

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A bit of Starved Rock history: It gets its name from a Native American Legend that involves a battle by two tribes, one of which took refuge on a great rock (above). After many days, the warriors died of starvation. (I never promised it was going to be a fun story.) Flooding from a melting glacier some 17,000 years ago carved out the many exposed rock canyons. The entire park comprises some 2,630 acres.

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Waterfalls can be found in 14 of the 18 canyons. We loved the French (above) and LaSalle (below) Canyon waterfalls, and we met a hiker from Chicago who says he comes every winter to see the frozen waterfalls, which he says are really spectacular.

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We loved the hikes. They’re well marked and offer glorious views of the river and canyons and other geological wonders. Like Matthiessen, there are a lot of stairs and bridges and boardwalks. And a lot of fellow hikers. But it was really awesome. Dave and I took pictures of each other through the waterfall at LaSalle Canyon:

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We hiked until we were very tired (Dave’s Fitbit said we’d walked 24,000 steps) and very hungry. I’d booked a room at the Starved Rock Lodge some weeks before, and we had spotted the lodge up on the bluff as we’d hiked (below), so I was anxious to get checked in.

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The big, rambling lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s a pretty neat place, with a lodge wing and hotel wing (a confusion they could easily clear up by calling the whole place the lodge), a great hall, large dining room, lounge, wrap-around veranda, and also a number of private cabins.

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We checked in (first to a tiny room on the third floor of the lodge wing with such a small bed that I could not imagine two adult humans fitting in it, and then to a much larger room for an extra 10 bucks in the hotel wing); I showered off the day’s sweat and grime, and we headed to the lounge for a much-deserved beer.

It was such a nice night (did I mention that it was a balmy 80 degrees today?) we opted to sit on the veranda overlooking the park, and we ordered food and drinks and – if you don’t mind drinking beer from a plastic cup and swatting annoying little black bugs while you eat – had a nice, relaxing end to our otherwise exhilarating day.

We settled in to our room, and I fell asleep even earlier than usual, only to be awakened at around midnight by a fire alarm. I groggily pulled some jeans and a sweatshirt over my pajamas and we went to the main lobby, where we sat for half an hour or so with similarly clad and groggy people until we were cleared to go back to our rooms. (The fire alarm, it turned out, was caused by someone starting a fire in an unventilated fireplace, along with a few sparks on the carpet.)

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The next morning we got up early and hit the trail, because although it felt like we had hiked every trail in Starved Rock the day before, we had not. Not by a long shot. So we headed out to hike the trails that were to the west of the lodge. We had an inauspicious start, walking in circles for about half an hour before ending up right back where we started (I blame my interrupted-by-fire-alarm sleep for my inability to read a trail map), but once we got on the correct trail, we quickly found Aurora and Sac Canyons and finally came to the end of the trail: St. Louis Canyon. The whole thing took only about 40 minutes and was a lovely way to start the morning.

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After that, we showered and ate breakfast in the main dining room, with its vaulted wooden ceilings and huge windows. I ordered coffee and blueberry pancakes and was not disappointed.

We’d met a photographer in St. Louis Canyon who said we must hike in the Illinois Canyon area – on the far east end of the park – before we left. So we drove our car to find a parking area that would allow us easy access to the trailhead. Only a few people were on those trails – it was a Monday – so it was really nice to explore the Council Overhang, Ottawa Canyon, and the Illinois Canyon area mostly on our own.

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We did not make it to the very end of the trail because we would have had to cross a stream three times and decided we didn’t want to have wet feet all the way home.

By late morning, we were on I-80 heading toward Iowa. We opted not to stop in Ottawa, a town that seemed like it might have been fun, because we needed to get on the road.

Looking back on the experience, I would definitely return to the Starved Rock/Matthiessen State Parks area and would stay again at Starved Rock Lodge. I’d probably go back to Utica and maybe explore Ottawa a bit. I’d go later in October for better color, preferably during the week to avoid the crowds. To the good folks at Midwest Living, I say: I do not recommend driving the rest of the Illinois River Road. It just wasn’t that great, and it added many, many hours to our weekend exploration. Just drive across I-80 and get yourself to those terrific parks as fast as you can, that’s what I recommend.

Here’s a parting shot of just a splash of fall color in Starved Rock:

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