Friday, November 21, 2014

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

One of the places we like to visit whenever we go to a new area is the botanical center. Every major urban area seems to have one and our family enjoys them. The kids have plenty of space to run around and burn off energy without risk of damaging something (unlike a museum or art gallery) and I can relax to enjoy the sites around me enough to take some photographs.

Unlike most botanical centers we have been too, this one had quite a bit of natural water features in it and thus quite a few walk bridges over them. All were very picturesque and I found myself drawn to them through my lens.

Classic fall photo in my opinion.

Yet another bridge.

To me, this bench seems more like a work of art than a resting spot. I just loved how the lichen had attached itself all over it.

Because it was in the middle of November when I took these, there wasn't a lot in the vegetation to take pictures of but I did end up with a couple good photos. The sinister garden up above which certainly lives up to its name and the one below of a tree whose name now escapes me but whose bark was beautiful.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Generally my vacation of choice involve a road trip to somewhere scenic with some hiking, camping or outdoor activity involved. When my wife and I first got married, we did a lot of just that. However with two young kids, the youngest still in diapers, it really isn't a very attractive option until they get bigger. Instead we have found that going to urban centers is an attractive option. I have spent most of my life avoiding them so they are still new and interesting to me. They have lots of things kids find interesting and yet convenience is always near if necessary. They also are full of cultural things that attract me like museums, art galleries, botanical centers, historical places, etc. Finally, we love to try new foods that just aren't found in rural southeast Iowa but can be found elsewhere.

So with that said, I have been reading the blog of someone on here who lives in Chicago but has spent lots of time in Madison, Wisconsin over the years. We've done Chicago numerous times along St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Omaha and of course our capital city of Des Moines but in all that time, we've never been to Madison. So we decided to recitify that glaring absence in our travels and head there. So I contacted the blogger, asked for recommendations on where to eat since that is often hard to discern good from bad via the internet and we took off. Our itinerary was to visit their Children's Museum, botanical garden, zoo, farmer's market, capital building, art gallery and to eat at some of the recommended food places. Pretty easy as far as planning goes and it was a pretty relaxing trip.

It turned out to be fairly cold during the trip but nothing we couldn't easily dress for. Due to having young kids and our desire to eat at some restaurants that might not be all that kid friendly, we minimize risk by generally pumping them full of snacks and eating at odd hours to avoid having a kidtastrophe in a crowded restaurant. This generally meant eating lunch or supper, earlier than normal or later than normal to avoid the crowds. When it was earlier, we had to time our visits since we were getting there soon after they opened for the meal. That is why on a cold and overcast last afternoon, we found ourselves in this park overlooking the isthmus where downtown Madison is located between two large lakes waiting for a nearby restaurant to open up for an early supper. I snapped a few pictures to stay warm while the kids played on the playground and then we went in for an early supper that was kidtastrophe free.

Monday, November 17, 2014

House On the Rock

I've been to Wisconsin a few times in my life. A couple times to whitewater kayak and once on a trip to visit my parents who were midway on their third bicycle ride across the continent. All those times had been quite awhile ago so when our daughter's school had two days off before a weekend, we decided to make a long weekend of it and travel up there to see what we could see. Largely we were just heading to the Madison, Wisconsin area but along the way, I saw the signs for House on the Rock.

Now I had thought House on the Rock was a Frank Lloyd Wright house built over rocks and a waterfall but it wasn't. That was nearby. House on the Rock was a house built by one man over the years to specifically be a tourist attraction. Now it is nothing but a tourist trap as I call them, designed to separate money from your wallet while on vacation. But since we were there, we had the place pretty much to ourselves due to it being the middle of the week and cold, we decided to separate some money from my wallet and see it.

It was okay. I found the history of the place, the whys and hows it was built to be dull, but as an eccentric art collection, it was really neat. The man who built the house, also collected stuff and built rooms out of various things that were really quite beautiful. The man, whose name escapes me but really isn't important enough to look up, had enough money coming in from tourism that he was able to employ a large staff dedicated to building artistic things such as the statue seen above.

The only two pictures I have of the actual house that the fellow built that are showable are the one above and below and these are of a room added by more recent owners of the house. They are of a room cantilevered above the valley floor and built so that it kind of resembles that it goes to infinity and thus the name.

Once you got out to the end where it was gates off, you came to a window in the steel girders with a glass window in it so you could see just how high you were in the sky. Being steel and it was a windy day, there was quite a bit of flex in the floor which when combined with the view through the window, was kind of unnerving.

Among the many collections, two of the largest were scrimshaw and guns. This scrimshaw work just blows me away with the intricacy of it.

At one point in the tour, you came to a large room and if you looked up at the ceiling, you saw hundreds of these. It was neat and spooky and downright disturbing all at the same time. I'm not sure what called this man to turn manikins into angels and I'm not sure I want to meet him to find out.

This wasn't art intentionally nor was it displayed but along one of the paths I spied this tree which had grown around a board that had been presumably nailed to it at one point. I view trees largely as inanimate objects but when given a time frame such as this tree growing around a board, it illustrates that they are very much alive and growing.

With the price of admission, we were given some tokens for "music boxes" scattered throughout the place. The first couple of music boxes were simply animatronic type displays but eventually we came to a series of large animatronic displays that pretty much take your breath away. While few parts still functioned in the displays, enough did to give you a sense of how grand they must have been back in the day. Each one played a different song and had anywhere from a couple dozen instruments all played by machine to a few hundred instruments.

Part of the self guided tour referred to a carousel at the end of section 2 and start of section 3. I thought it would be a good place to let the kids blow off some energy before we tackled the last third of the tour. However it turned out to be a display of the largest carousel in the world and we weren't allowed to ride it. So you can see my eight year old standing there lost in amazement and disappointment. It had just shy of 300 animals to choose from and not one of them was a horse.

I took lots of pictures during the tour but few turned out. I think being a tourist trap, they intentionally kept all the rooms barely lit so that without a flash, you couldn't grab a decent picture and with a flash, most things were too far away for the flash to light up. So in order to see the place, you actually have to pay money to see the place, a well thought up plan for a tourist trap.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hubbard Squash

The first day I spent hauling in corn for my parents was a cold day and the first hard freeze of the fall was scheduled to arrive that evening so during my few spare seconds between loads if my dad hadn't yet got the wagons I was to haul back to the field emptied yet, I picked all the squash from their garden. There was a lot of squash to pick this year and I ended up with a car load of hubbard and butternut squash that I hauled back to my house. Due to our schedule with an impending vacation coming up, I didn't want to start a new project so instead, I processed a dozen squash for canning.

Hubbard squash are very large, the one above was probably close to 40 pounds, and have a thick rind so they aren't the easiest thing to cut down into manageable pieces to bake. (Note the regulation sized fork stuck into it for scale.) The first year I used a hammer and a large chef's knife but destroyed the knife in the process. I've used other things but eventually I found the tool of choice. I use my vibrational mutli-tool that is a must have in the shop these days because it slices through the thick rind like butter. I just clean it up real well before using it on our edible produce. I cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and bitter stringy material in the middle as seen above and then cut them into quarters and bake until soft. I then scoop the flesh from the skin and pack into quart jars which I then can in a pressure canner. Then we use it throughout the year to make pumpkin pies, rolls, cakes, cookies, bread and one of my personal favorites, ice cream. It is so good.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hauling In the Grain

The day I finished up my garage project, I got the call from my parents asking if I could help them for a couple days hauling in the corn from their farthest fields. With so much corn to harvest and the fields being about six miles from the grain bins, it takes a lot of people to keep the operation going so that the combine never has to stop and wait for anyone. So the following morning I was up and on the road before dawn heading towards the farm. I don't often get to see sunrises since they are blocked by trees where I live so it was a treat to watch the sun come up as I drove along.

A lot has changed since my days on the farm. Gone are the days of tiny wagons with regular hitches that required two or three trips out of the cab of the tractor before you got the holes to line up and the hitch pin in place. Back then, extendable tongue were the 'new' technology but you still had to get the hitch holes in a straight line to get the pin in. These days my dad has invested in quick hitch technology which means I can hook and unhook wagons without ever leaving the tractor cab. This frees up time when I reach the fields but with much larger wagons that weight a lot more, it takes a lot more focus to haul the loads down the roads safely.

The first order of business is to 'open up' a field. Farmers plant rows of crops around the perimeter of the field called end rows. It allows the combine to harvest corn there without getting into the fences, trees, or roads around the perimeter and also gives them an area to turn in when harvesting the inside rows of the field. Once the end rows are all harvested, the field is considered open and it makes harvesting it a lot easier and faster. The picture above is of a field that has been opened.

Once opened, I can see the rows going through the middle of the field which makes me want to hop down and take a few pictures. For the most part though, I didn't have time to get out of the tractor much. When I brought the empty wagons to the field, I would place them close to where they were harvesting but not in the way when they were turning around. The combine runs non-stop and a person running a large catch wagon follows the combine around so when it gets full, he pulls underneath the unload auger and they unload the grain from the combine while it is still harvesting. This is called unloading on the go. Once the combine has been emptied, it continues on and the catch wagon will go unload the grain into the wagons that I bring to the field. I then hook onto a full wagon and haul it down the roads to the grain bins where my father unloads them into the proper bins to be dried and stored. I pick up the empty wagons he has ready and haul them back to the field and the process starts all over again.

I did this all day long from sunup to sundown for two days to get the farthest field harvested and brought in. It was a lot of work and I slept well both evenings but it is one of my favorite things to do. For us, it is almost equivalent to watching the balance of your bank account increase like the debt clock in one constant circling of dials. After a year of preparation, the fruits of our labor are finally coming to fruition.