Sarah and I have been very busy the two weeks.

The last weekend in July, I rented a car and drove out to Watertown to visit my parents and help them with a few projects. For a change, I drove through northern Iowa on State Highway 9. As a general rule, I find Interstate travel really boring, so I often try to find a few highways and byways to spice up the trip a bit. Since Watertown is a minimum of nine hours from Madison, plenty of spicing is necessary.

I can’t say northern Iowa is most scenic place I’ve ever been. In fact, it’s not even close. However, it forces central Illinois to bend over a take a kick in the rump. You don’t know boring until you’ve driven an Interstate highway through central Illinois. At least I got to see interesting towns like Decorah, Carasco, and the like on the trip. Many of those small Iowa towns have obviously spent no small amount of time, money, and effort keeping their downtowns from completely dying by sprucing up buildings, lightposts, and sidewalks. I even got to see the home office of the company we all know and love, North Iowa Boar Semen.

Once I was in Watertown, I spent a fair amount of time helping my father with the computers at his business. In addition, I replaced the bike tires on my mother’s bicycle (the tires were so drived out that they were probably one good bump away from completely disintegrating) and gave it a general tune-up. We shopped at the Watertown Farmer’s Market, watched a few Twins games on TV, and generally kept things low-key.

I stayed in Watertown until Sunday afternoon, at which time I climbed behind the wheel of my rental car and pointed it east towards Madison. That was earlier than my original plan but I was ready to get back to Madison and I wanted to surprise Sarah. I tried a different route back to Madison on my return. I drove the Interstate highway south out of Watertown and east out of Sioux Falls. Just before I-90 turns north to go through Rochester, MN, I started traveling state and county highways southeast through Minnesota. I was aiming for the bridge across the Mississippi River between McGregor, IA and Prairie du Chien, WI.

As I traveled SE through southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, I traveled through some fantasically pretty country. The sun was casting a warm, cool glow across the land, the air temperature was pleasant, the the surrounding country was rolling. Though I occasionally passed a hog barn or two (the smell is unmistakable), that only seemed to add to the ambience.

About 23:30 I rolled back into Madison. I rang the door bell, and Dalla came flying out of the bedroom in full roar. She isn’t used to someone ringing the doorbell that late at night and gave me the full alarm bark routine. Sarah wasn’t expecting me until the evening of the next day, so she was mildly surprised as well. In the end, it was good to be back because we were dog-sitting for another dog starting early the next morning, and Dalla needed to get her cut checked out at the vet.

We had just a few days to get our house in order because Sarah’s parents, Mike and Tina, were coming to visit on Thursday afternoon. We did prosaic but necessary things like mowing the lawn, weeding, laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.

Wednesday night, Sarah and I took in a Madison Mallards game at Warner Park in Madison. While attempting to order tickets for Sarah, her parents, and myself to see the Thursday game, I stupidly ordered tickets for the Wednesday night game instead. So, Sarah and I attended the Wednesday night game, rather than let the tickets go to waste. The weather was quite hot and humid, but we had good seats and the beer wasn’t too expensive. The Mallards nominate one opposing player each game to be the so-called Great Dane Beer Batter (the Great Dane is a local, popular brewpub). If the Great Dane Beer Batter strikes out, all beer is half-price for the next half-inning. That night, the Beer Batter struck out twice, so we had plenty of opportunity to cool off with half-price beers.

Thursday, Mike and Tina arrived. We made fish tacos on the grill before heading out to the Mallards game. While the Beer Batter that night failed to strike out, the game was exciting and the Mallards won. A good time was had by all.

I should mention that Mike and Tina arrived on a plane and rented a car to get them around town. They ended up with the last car on the lot, a 2005 Dodge Magnum. I have to admit that the Magnum is a stylish car, but I would never buy one. The transmission, first of all, transmitted no power to the wheels when the car was put into reverse and no feet were applied to the gas pedal. That was pretty much the opposite of every car I’ve ever driven. The back window is not just small, but far away from the rear view mirror. That made looking in the rear view mirror somewhat like looking through a ship’s porthole. In addition, all the windows except the windshield and the two front windows were deeply tinted. That made the back seat and cargo area really, really dark, even when the sun was out. That was somewhat disconcerting to see when I looked in the rear view mirror. Neither Mike nor I was able to find a comfortable position for the headrest on the front seats. It’s as the headrests were designed for a different species of animal. The car had plenty of power, even with a V-6, but it also had its share of hesitation on the highway when trying to move quickly in a passing situation. All in all, I now understand why I don’t see many of these cars on the road.

Friday found us in said Magnum on our way to Dodgeville, WI and the annual Lands End warehouse clearance sale. Lands End is based in Dodgeville, and once a year they fill up a local hockey arena with all their unsold samples, catalog returns, and the like. Everything is priced with bargain basement prices and people drive from hundreds of miles away to shop there. When I was there, I found out that I wear the same size shirts as those ordered as samples. Sample clothes were the most deeply discounted, so I was able to get a fairly large number of clothes for a reasonably small sum of money. I got shoes, a terry cloth robe, a sport jacket, new swim trunks, and a passel of shirts. Some of the shirts sold for as little as $5.00 after discounts.

After the sale, we traveled back towards Madison along Highway 18/151. We stopped in Mount Horeb to see the world famous Mustard Museum. If you’re ever in the area, I encourage you to stop and see this unique attraction. Perhaps the best part of the Museum is tasting all the various mustards. We tasted a reasonably large number of mustards while we were there and left with a few mustards for the road. The Museum itself is one of the least self-conscious places you’ll ever visit. It may be corny, but it is unabashedly so.

What naturally follows the consumption of mustard? The consumption of lefse, of course! For those of you not familiar with lefse, it is a Scandanavian flatbread made out of potatoes. My mother makes a mean lefse and she usually shares some of the fruits of her labor with us around Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, once those holidays are gone, it can be a long dry spell before I get to taste good lefse again. Grocery store lefse doesn’t taste anything like homemade lefse, so I’ve given up on that source.

As we discovered on Friday, Schubert’s Old Fashioned Cafe and Bakery in Mount Horeb makes a mean lefse. Their lefse is slightly bigger than that made by my mother, but considering the cost, that’s a good thing. If you eat smaller lefse, you simply eat more of them to make up for the difference. Schubert’s lefse is about as close to homemade lefse as you’re going to find short of the real deal. Spread with butter and sugar it was a real treat and worth every penny.

Our bellies temporarily full of lefse and mustard samples, we headed back to Madison to ponder the eternal question: what to have for dinner. Given that we had more than a few jars of high-quality mustard in the car, naturally we decided on mustard friendly foods: bratwurst and Bavarian pretzels. We stopped at our local purveyor of fine German foods, Bavaria Sausage on our way back to the house. Once there, we bought some pretzels that had been made in Germany, 1/2 cooked, frozen, and then shipped to America. We also bought a array of wurst to fix on the grill.

So, for dinner, we had wurst, pretzels, kraut, mustard, German-style pilsner, German weiss beer, and a Reisling. It was a truly excellent Teutonic dinner.

Saturday, we jumped in the mighty Magnum again and headed west once again towards Spring Green. Once there, we had lunch at the General Store Cafe before heading off to our tour of Taliesin.

Taliesin is an interesting study in contrasts. Quite frankly, portions of the building were never meant to last and they are doing their best not to. You can see light under some of the walls (especially in Wright’s bedroom) where the walls and the foundation don’t really meet. The mitered glass panes that Wright invented in many cases no longer meet. The building has no heat so for all intents and purposes, it closes in the winter as temperatures inside the building reach 0°F. In addition, plenty of racoons, squirrels, and other varmints and rodents move into the house in the winter. After all, Wright spent his winters in Arizona, so why should he invest his time and money in winterizing his Wisconsin place? One of the other people on our tour kept badgering the tour guide to find out why the Taliesin Foundation didn’t install heating, insulate the walls, replace the windows with double panes of glass, etc. In short, why wasn’t the Foundation turning Taliesin into a modern building? The answer, of course, is that if you turn Taliesin into a modern building, it would no longer be Taliesin. Taliesin was never built to last forever.

The day we were there, a wedding (apparently quite a rare event) had taken place on the grounds earlier in the day. As such, we didn’t have to worry about wearing little booties over our shoes to protect the carpet and we got to take some pictures inside the studio (which is usually strictly verboten). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to take any pictures inside the house (apparently, tour groups earlier that day had gotten to do so; a nearly unheard of treat).

While I understand that Wright’s buildings have engineering problems, specifically with roofs leaking and foundations slipping, it is impossible to deny that the man was an artist. There is something about his buildings that is difficult for me to define, yet I can see it and feel it in the design. They seem incredibly well scaled to human dimensions. In addition, they seem to blend into their surroundings extremely well; better than almost any modern building I can name. Taliesin, the house, is 38,000 square feet. And yet, from various points around the hill, it doesn’t look much bigger than 5,000 square feet. From the outside, modern McMansions look ten times bigger and thousands of times less at home in their environment than Taliesin. The monstrosities that clutter our modern subdivisions are factory-produced concrete blocks compared to Wright’s hand-carved marble statues.

After touring Taliesin, we headed out for the grounds of American Players Theatre. Once where, we unpacked a picnic dinner that Sarah and Tina had made complete with beer, wine, and dessert. We sat at a picnic table in the woods in a nice picnic area enjoying the dinner before the show. We eventually walked up the trail to the theatre to see the play, The Play’s The Thing.

The show was very good. The first half the show dragged a bit, but the second half was gut-bustingly funny. It was great to sit in a nice outdoors theatre to watch professional theatre under the stars. At times during the show, a bat would zoom across the heads of the audience members in pursuit of some unseen bug or moth. The facilities that APT provides for their customers are reasonably good considering that they do all of their shows outdoors during just a few months of the year. I highly recommend catching a show at APT if you ever get the chance.

Sunday, we drove up to visit the International Crane Foundation just north of Baraboo, WI. Along the way, we rode the Merrimac Ferry across the Wisconsin River. The Merrimac Ferry is the last free ferry in Wisconsin and while the ride isn’t terribly long, it is a nice change from just riding in the car. You can get out, stretch your legs, and watch the water slide by.

We stopped in Baraboo to have a bit of lunch, and arrived at the Crane Foundation in the afternoon. All in all, I would rate our time at the Crane Foundation as something of a mixed bag. The tour guide who showed us around drove Sarah and I crazy. We thought he was incredibly patronizing and unnecessarily loquacious. In addition, very little of what he had to say was very interesting. Quite frankly, if you are going to the Crane Foundation, don’t wait around for a tour; just wander the grounds and you can see all the same things at your own pace. In addition, there just isn’t that much to see. There are cranes behind fences but that’s about it. They aren’t busying doing crane-y things; they can’t fly around. They are pretty much limited to sticking their beaks through the chain link fences, eyeing tourists, and squawking periodically. So yeah, we got to see some unique and interesting birds, but the cost of doing so was quite high.

Sunday night, we broke new culinary ground at ate at Lombardinos, an Italian restaurant here in Madison. Neither Sarah nor I had eaten there even though we’ve been biking by it and its garish mural for years. Tina and Mike had never eaten there and they had stayed in the motel acrross the street several times.

Sarah and I were both unimpressed by the restaurant on the whole. We both thought that the staff could be described as dismissive at best, and rude at worst. Sarah and I thought the calamari were good, and the pizza we had as an appetizer was good. Mike seemed quite enamored with his eggplant and spaghetti dinner. Tina didn’t seem displeased with her scallops. Sarah didn’t exactly rave about her tuna steak. My dish was thoroughly forgettable, and hence, wildly overpriced. So, the food is passable, but the service stinks. If that’s the case, why not eat somewhere with passable food that is cheaper and the service is better?

My favorite moment of the meal came when Mike asked for pepper for the olive oil. The server came back with one of those pepper howitzers that often are used in restaurants. A pepper howitzer is three foot tall pepper grinder, usually made of wood, that allows the server to dispense pepper from several feet away. This particular pepper howitzer apparently needed servicing because it hardly dispensed any pepper before completely failing to dispense any more despite the server’s efforts. What is the point in having such a monstrous pepper grinder if it doesn’t work? In the end, we got more pepper out of the pepper shaker on the table than out of the pepper howitzer.

This is one heck of a long entry, but I’ve been working on it for a few days.