The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois

Figs on a tree

Yesterday my son and I buried our fig trees for the winter. Well, we buried one and removed another that had been struggling for two years now. Most people look at me funny when I talk about burying trees. Some people look at me funny when I talk about growing figs where I live, because they don’t believe one can grow figs in this latitude. I can state from experience that yes, you certainly can grow fig up here, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

When I was growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Blue Island, many of the “old Italians” kept fig trees. My father had kept three or four going at any given time. My grandfather across the street had a couple. My uncle “below the hill” (Blue Island’s east side, which was predominantly Italian at the time) had some, as did some cousins and assorted paesani. As you might imagine, fresh figs were abundant among my extended family during the growing season.

Wait. Can you imagine? Do you know what a fresh fig looks like? Perhaps I’d better back up a little.

Another maleFigs are a tree/shrub fruit that grow throughout the tropics, Asia and the Mediterranean. They have been around for a while. Indeed, fig trees are mentioned numerous times in both testaments of the Bible. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you know that after having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity. The gospels of mark and Matthew include accounts of Jesus cursing a barren fig tree, which proceeds to wither and die.

FemaleFigs themselves (i.e. the fruits) are considered aphrodisiacs and their unique shape and characteristics are representative of both the male and female sex organs. Without getting too graphic here, the whole fruit is thought to resemble a man’s family jewels, while the cross section bears a resemblance to the female… um.. that is… oh, my. Well, anyway…

Presumably because of their thin bark and high water content, fig trees were not designed to withstand our harsh Midwest winters. I have no idea who first had the idea to preserve fig trees by burying them during the winter months, but the practice clearly works. As I said earlier, the process isn’t easy. It isn’t even particularly fun. And the larger the trees grow, the more difficult the process becomes, until finally it becomes impossible, at which point the tree remains standing during the winter months – and dies.

burialSo how does one bury a fig tree? I’m glad you asked. In mid-to-late autumn, after all the leaves have dropped and there is little to no chance of another warm-up before winter arrives, you prepare the tree for burial by pruning and bundling the branches into a narrow, manageable package. Then you dig a trench from the base of the tree outward. The length of this trench must be equal to or slightly greater than the height of your tree. I should also mention that each year (this is an annual process), the trench will be dug in the same direction.

The idea is to bend/pivot the fig tree at the roots level, beneath the soil surface. Mind you, the tree will not want to lie down. It will help to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and gently rock the tree back and forth until it is willing to lie down for a winter nap. I should also point out that in the spring, this same tree that resisted laying down will also not want to stand back up. Such is the stubborn nature of a fig tree.

buriedOnce the tree has been convinced to lie down in the trench you’ve dug, you must cover the trench with boards, corrugated metal, etc., forming a sort of protective tomb for the tree. Then you pile dirt on top of the covering, closing off air flow and providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements of winter. In order to let moisture escape, my father would fashion a breather vent from an old section of downspout and some window screen material. Worked like a charm, so I began using them, too.

The first time I tried this process, I failed. My father had given me a shoot from one of his mature trees and advised me to take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered and see what happens. The shoot took – under the right circumstances, fig trees are very prolific (must be all that sexuality with which they are associated) – but when it came time for winter burial, either the tree had not yet been established enough to withstand the process or my methodology was somehow off. In any case, the little tree died. I felt terrible.

The following summer, my dad handed me another shoot, its base wrapped in a ball of newspaper containing a quantity of the tree’s native soil. “Try again.”

“But Pop…”

“Try. See what happens.”

I’ll tell you what happened. I failed again. The shoot threw roots and sprouted a few new leaves, but did not survive winter burial. By this time I had become quite willing to give up and leave the fig tree cultivation to people who knew what they were doing.

My dad had other ideas. The following summer, he once again handed me another shoot, nicely wrapped in a ball of dirt surrounded by newspaper. “Try again.”

I could not refuse. I took the shoot home, stuck it in a patch of cultivated soil, kept it watered, watched it take root, etc. Then, when the last leaves had fallen, I dug a tiny trench, for a tiny tree, laid the little guy down, as I had been instructed, covered the trench with a length of plywood, covered the plywood with an ample amount of dirt, then crossed my fingers and waited until spring.

At the appropriate time, I unearthed the entombed little tree, my third attempt at a craft that my dad had made to look so easy. Weeks went by… nothing. Still I waited. More weeks went by. Then one morning I walked past my kitchen window and glanced out toward this stick standing up in the middle of my garden… and saw something green. Green!

I ran outside to confirm it. Yes, that speck of green was indeed the start of new leaf growth! Then I ran back inside and called my father just as quickly as my shaking fingers could dial.

“Pop!”

“Hey.”

“Pop! Guess what! The little sonofabitch is alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My fig tree!! It’s alive! I did it!”

“See? I told you…”

Thus began my love affair with the common fig tree. A month or so later, my father proved his faith in my ability by presenting me with yet another shoot from one of his trees.

“Here,” he commanded and he thrust the carefully wrapped bundle into my reluctant hands. “Take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered…”

early figsBy then I knew the drill. But even more importantly, by then I knew it could be done! A year later I had two thriving trees. At first they yielded only a handful of undersized (but delicious) fruit, but a few years later, I was collecting enough full-sized figs to warrant giving some away. I was happy. My father was proud. Life was good.

In the few years leading up to my father’s death in 2011, I began taking over the burial and resurrection of his fig trees, which were much more mature than my own. During those years, two wonderful things happened. First, my dad was able to watch and counsel me on the finer points of this craft. But at the same time, my son was able to begin learning, first by watching us and then by actively assisting my father and me.

Today, at the age of 22, my son knows as much about this process as I did when I was 20 years older than him. More often than not, we work the trees together. I believe my father would have been proud. I know I am.

FIGS

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Close Encounters of the Thanksgiving Kind

roast-turkey-1566802-639x479   My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.

how-to-make-italian-food-2-1566265-1280x960The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.

On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”

olivesWhen I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.Turkey

The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.

As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”

We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”

Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.

I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.

I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.

So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.

One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.

To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

A Matter of Life, Death, and Motorcycles: A Brief Glimpse into How I Got This Way

StevenHis grave is tucked away in a far corner of St. Benedict Cemetery in Crestwood, Illinois, not far from Blue Island, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t easy to find, but from all appearances, it hasn’t been neglected, either. Several youth-oriented Christmas decorations were left near his headstone the last time I stopped there, presumably by his mother (his father’s grave is now beside his) or perhaps his siblings. Regardless, the love and affection for this boy has withstood the decades.

His name was Steven and he died in 1975, exactly one month before his 14th birthday. Also just a few months before he and I were to graduate from the eighth grade. Steven and I had pretty much come through grade school together. I remember one time, when we were in sixth grade, he came from out of nowhere when some other kid had thrown a wild punch at me for no apparent reason – he was showing off his kung fu prowess or some stupid thing like that – and Steven basically came between us, asked the kid what he thought he was doing, and then proceeded to stare him down until he slunk back into the woodwork. Why had he done that? I don’t know for sure. I think I might have gotten him out of trouble once and he was repaying the favor. In any case, I appreciated what Steven did and still remember his gesture of friendship to this day.

My classmate died from what we refer to today as a pediatric brain tumor. A brain tumor diagnosis in 1975 may as well have been a death sentence. I do not recall all of the details, but I know that Steven’s troubles seemed to have come from out of nowhere, very quickly. I know that surgery was performed and I know my classmate did not survive. I’m not sure I believed the news at first, but was soon to be convinced.

His was the first wake I had ever attended, the first dead body I had ever seen in person. There Steven lay, a classmate the same age as me, whom I had known for about eight years and who by all rights should have still had an entire lifetime ahead of him. The top of his head was wrapped in a flesh-colored bandage, where his long, straight, black hair should have been. His skin had this unnatural pink hue to it, instead of the usual brown. He was dressed in his altar boy garments. None of this had a calming effect on me in the least. That kid showed up in my dreams for weeks afterward.

That was an ending, a rather unpleasant one, too. Forty years have gone by since then, but I have never forgotten about Steven. Through the decades, especially during some of the lower points in my life, I have found myself wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age and why I was left to continue on. The answer to that question has not yet been fully revealed to me.

Now there is no simple way for me to transition smoothly from what I’ve just told you to what comes next, but if you’ll just be patient and walk with me a bit, I promise you will see the connection. For the record, I went on to high school, then college; I graduated, got a job, got married, started a family, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, I took a fancy to writing. All of this is well and good, but there is a different beginning you need to know about, and this also originated in Blue Island.

Once when I was about four years old, my family had gone visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins, all older and cooler than me. Like many Italians at the time, they lived “below the hill” on the east side of town. The two families visited each other very often, but this time stands out in my mind because it turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. One of my teenage cousins had bought a motorcycle and was showing it to everybody. At some point he and several others present asked if I would like to go for a ride. I must have nodded or something, because I was suddenly lifted off the ground, placed in front of my cousin – more or less on the gas tank – and shown where to hold the sides of the handlebars. Then we turned around in my uncle’s driveway and headed off, among shouts of “Hold on tight!” and “Be careful!”

I can still recall the sound of that one-cylinder engine and the vibration through the handlebars as the engine rose and fell, going between first and second gears. At one point, we came to a stop and my cousin asked me which way I wanted to go. I pointed and off we went, cruising through the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A few minutes later, we pulled back into the driveway. People were asking me what I thought as somebody lifted me from the bike and set me back on terra firma. I turned around, pointed to that motorcycle and exclaimed, “I want one of those!” My mother began yelling something in Italian and I don’t think she stopped for another fourteen years.

In the years that followed, I went for many more rides with my cousins, as they acquired bigger and faster bikes. Every so often I would be foolish enough to utter the word “motorcycle” in my mom’s presence and she would begin hollering again. It was great fun. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, had kids… It seems I had neither the time nor the money to get that motorcycle. I’m sure my mother was very happy, at least for a while.

The year was 2002 and I had turned 41 years old. Chalk it up to middle age crisis – why not, my wife did – but somehow that long-dormant desire had reawakened and I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford a bike of my own, but I reasoned that it would be satisfying enough just to see that “M” classification added to my drivers license. So I did it… and I failed. That’s right. I had gotten a perfect score on the written exam, but lost my nerve on the riding range and gave up too many points to pass.

I was crushed. Didn’t these people know I was destined to become a motorcyclist? Apparently not, except for one particular instructor who had seen that gleam in my eye and understood how much it meant to me. On our way out, she pulled me aside and advised me to come back in August, because although all the MSF classes are booked solid by March, the end-of season classes end up with vacancies and I could likely just walk in and register.

I spent the rest of that summer mentally repeating the range exercises over and over again, until I was executing every maneuver flawlessly. When August came, I walked into one of the scheduled classes and was able to register, just as that instructor had said. I took the entire course over again, asking more questions and getting much more out of it than I had the first time. The range exercises were less intimidating, because I had performed then all hundreds of times in my head. When testing day came, I went first and came within one point of a perfect score. At last I was a motorcyclist!

Turns out I had been sorely wrong about one thing: Getting that “M” on my license wasn’t enough. The motorcycling bug had bitten me hard. Less than a year later, I had acquired a gently used two-tone Honda Shadow A.C.E. Like most new riders, I started out by riding through my neighborhood, gradually going farther and farther. But I was riding alone, and I am not a good alone person. Because none of my friends at the time were motorcycle riders, I began seeking out opportunities to ride with other people. After doing a little research, I came across a local event called the Chicagoland Ride for Kids®, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Pediatric brain tumor? Steven!

Back in ’75, when a tearful teacher told her classroom full of stunned kids what had caused Steven’s death, she hadn’t used the word “pediatric”, so it might have taken a second for me to understand what I had found – an organization formed to fight what had killed my classmate. I knew I had to do this. So despite having not one minute of group riding experience, I showed up at the Allstate Insurance corporate facility on July 14, 2003, for my first escorted charity ride. There we were, just me, my then-11-year-old daughter and roughly 3,000 casual acquaintances.

RFK_CHI2012Was I nervous? Not at all. I was scared. But we did it! And together with all the other motorcyclists, we raised $325,092 for pediatric brain tumor research that day. Thus began a new tradition for Teresa and me. My daughter and I have been raising money for pediatric brain tumor research by actively participating in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids every year since 2003.

Now a funny thing happened in 2005, when my son, then age 12, began expressing an interest in our efforts. A motorcyclist companion of mine learned of his interest and offered to carry my son on his bike at the ’05 event. I graciously accepted and in so doing, incurred the ire of my daughter, who had come to think of the ride as “our event.” Oh, the shame of it all!

Of necessity, for the sake of keeping peace in the family, our tradition then expanded and I began participating in two Ride for Kids events per year. Each July, my daughter and I would ride in the Chicagoland event and in August, my son would ride with me in the Wisconsin Ride for Kids, which was held in Middleton. Both of my kids were happy with that arrangement, an accomplishment in itself.

Last year, for the first time, the Chicagoland and Wisconsin Ride for Kids events were held concurrently, out of Lake Geneva. Lucky for me my son, now in his twenties, has a motorcycle of his own and his sister no longer sees it as a supreme insult for him to participate in the same event as us. Even my wife, who does not ride, showed up at last year’s event, making our endeavor a true family affair.

RFK 2015 Group ShotAnd so it continues, year after year. Me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And now you know why. Thanks for listening.

If you would like to support our efforts with a small donation, please visit my fundraising page at http://pbtf.convio.net/goto/daversa. We would be grateful. I even have a No Shave November promotion going on, where the amount of my beard that gets shaved off will be determined by the donations made via my page this month.

Let Me Tell You Something About Joe

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that.

image1This guy I used to know from Blue Island passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on October 30. His name was Joe Mangione and he was a close friend of my older cousins in town, whom I idolized when I was growing up. He was in the Army during the Vietnam era, as were a couple of my cousins. He also rode motorcycles, as did my cousins – they were the ones who got me hooked before I even started grade school. Our knowledge of each other would have been limited to that – seeing each other at my uncle’s house in the 1960’s and early ’70’s, and perhaps at a few of my cousins’ parties thereafter – except that Joe and I had the pleasure of working together for a short period of time.image2

It was the summer of 1978 and I was 17. That in and of itself was magical, but I was too young to realize it at the time. My cousin/godfather Frank had bought a small gas/service station on the east side of Blue Island and he brought me on to pump gas and do some light mechanical work, like fixing flats and changing oil. I got to move cars around, too. Joe was a full-time mechanic there. Just being a part of this scene was cool for a young kid like me. Besides learning my way around the engine compartments and undersides of cars, I got to meet interesting people, learn crude jokes, run errands around town (I loved driving) and, the east side of Blue Island being what it was at the time, learn how to carry myself like a young Italian American, which at the time had become a very cool thing to be.

This was where I got to know Joe, and vice versa. Joe was not taller than me, but he was about twelve years older than me, so I looked up to him. As far as I was concerned, Joe had been around and he was cool. He had served in the Army, although he didn’t talk about it a lot. He knew how to work on cars. He had a modified Kawasaki KZ1000 with a Windjammer fairing and Pioneer Super Tuner stereo. He had a steady girlfriend. Joe also had poise, a genuine smile, a calm demeanor and a warm, friendly tone of voice. And he was very good at doing the young Italian American thing.

image4I had none of the above. But between Joe, Frank, my other cousins and a handful of other east side regulars who frequented the station, I had my role models – at least for one magical summer.

We worked hard, but we had our fun, too. Like the time Frank had a car up on one of the lifts and had been working underneath it with a cutting torch, while wearing a brand new pair of work shoes with perforated tops, for better ventilation. Joe and another mechanic named Al, who only worked on Saturdays, were looking on as Frank did his masterful work. Sparks were flying everywhere from beneath the vehicle and as luck would have it, one such spark – apparently a really hot one – found its way into one of the vent holes atop Frank’s new shoes.

I was working in the next bay over when I heard a loud “AAAAaaaiii!” coming from beneath the car on the other lift. Pausing from whatever job I had been doing at the time, I turned to see Joe and Al clapping their hands in unison and beating time with their feet as poor Frank hopped about on one foot while simultaneously trying to hand off the still-lit cutting torch, so that he could then remove the one shoe into which that metal spark had flown – and was still smoldering. I may have learned some new English and Italian swear words that day.

FranksYes, that was pretty good, but let me tell you my favorite Joe story. If this doesn’t illustrate how cool Joe could remain under pressure, I don’t know what would. We had been bleeding the brakes – a necessary step to remove any air bubbles that may otherwise remain in the lines following a brake job – on an early ’70’s Chevy Chevelle. It’s a simple enough operation. I went up with the car on the lift, while Joe tended to the brake lines. He would tell me to pump the brakes or depress and hold the brake pedal, as he opened and closed each line accordingly. Once the job was done, the car would be lowered and started, at which point the brake pedal would need to be depressed and pumped up one more time, as the power steering pump restored brake pressure. Simple, right?

So after the brakes had been bled, Joe lowered the lift and once the car was back on the ground, I got out and headed back outside to whatever job I had been working on before. After a moment, Joe got into the car and went to start her up. I can still remember the sweet sound of that Chevy’s V8 engine cranking over, followed suddenly by a momentary roar of exhaust and the scream of peeling rubber. Then utter silence. I spun around to see the back of that Chevy, now a good two feet forward from where it had been, and Joe, still in the driver’s seat, with his left hand still holding the steering wheel and his right on the gear shift lever, which was now up in the “Park” position. I walked back in to see what had happened. The front of the Chevy had stopped less than an inch away from the red metal cabinets and the cinder block wall immediately behind them. In the space of maybe one full second, Joe and the Chevelle had come that close to going right through the shop’s back wall.

After another second or two, Joe released his death grip from the steering wheel and shift lever, eased himself out of the car and just looked at me. I could only think of one thing to say.

“What happened?”

“The car was in gear. The indicator said neutral, but it was in drive. I’m feathering the gas pedal to get her started, but as soon as the engine caught, that bitch was leaving town.”

“But the car won’t start in gear.” Joe just looked at me, apparently weighing my statement against the reality of what had just happened.

“The safety kill switch must be bad, too.” He continued, “I went to hit the brakes and the pedal went right to the floor. There was no time to pump it back up, so I grabbed the gear shift and threw it into ‘Park’. That must have killed the engine.”

I may be paraphrasing here, so forgive me. It’s been over thirty years. But still, pretty quick thinking in the space of a second, don’t you think?

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I just looked from Joe to the car, to the wall, to the car, and back to Joe. Then I thought of the sight of Joe sitting there in the driver’s seat, rigid, and began laughing uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop.

“Not funny, Mike,” was all he offered. Joe never once raised his voice over the ordeal. In fact he was smiling at me the whole time, probably from relief that he had not created a new rear entrance to the garage. Such was the demeanor of Joe Mangione.

That summer had been a magical time for me, and Joe was a part of that magic. I saw him less and less in the years that followed, especially after I left Blue Island myself. But I never forgot the times that we shared and the few times that Joe and I did see each other over the years, we always smiled.

So you see, it’s not like Joe and I were long-lost brothers or really close friends. Nonetheless when I heard the news last week, it hit kind of hard. Maybe because I had fallen into that all too familiar trap of believing I would always run into him again, sooner or later. Maybe because a number of people who I love would surely be struck by this loss. Maybe because another part my distant past had just faded from view. Probably some combination of the above. But as the saying goes, it is what it is.

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that. But I am damned glad that our paths crossed to the extent that they did. I am a better person for it. Thanks, Joe.image3

Find Your Happy Place

What a fantastic day! So far Ann and I had toured the beautiful and historic Wollersheim Winery, stopped for lunch at the Blue Spoon Cafe in downtown Prairie du Sac, and taken a detour to visit what was once The Old School House, an out-of-the way eating place of which I had been quite fond. Now we were once again aboard Miss Scarlett, heading north on 113/DL, enjoying the sights and smells of a crisp autumn day. My touring rig’s big-inch V-twin beat out a deep, pleasant rhythm as my favorite pillion and I reveled in every hill and curve that the rolling countryside presented to us. Our day together was already half over, but my focus remained solely on the simple pleasures that remained ahead.

Surrounded by Fall Color

Surrounded by Fall Color

We were on our way to Devil’s Lake State Park, interestingly enough the first stop to which my somewhat local passenger had been to before. Ah, but I was betting she had never been there via the route I intended to take – and I was right.

Located to the south of Baraboo, this 9,217 acre state park is the largest in Wisconsin. There are two primary entrances to the park, one at the south end and the other at the north. We were riding up from the south, but I purposely rode right past the turn for the south entrance, following County DL up and around the park’s perimeter, to the northeast corner, where the somewhat poorly marked north entrance is to be found. That particular stretch of DL is a motorcyclist’s delight, featuring a series of gentle hills and curves, each decorated with brilliant fall colors to either side of us.

Approaching from the east as we did, the turn from DL into that north entrance is sharper than 90 degrees, requiring a safe, slow approach followed by a somewhat deep lean, which we executed nicely. And by “we” I mean Miss Scarlett, Ann and I. Each of the three plays a key role in every maneuver while underway, and our respective roles as rider, passenger and machine have become increasingly well-integrated, but that’s a topic for another time. In mid-turn, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an ominous-looking temporary sign at the mouth of the park entrance that said something about full parking lots, but I wasn’t overly concerned. In general it is easier to find a spot for a bike, even a big one, than for an automobile.

Like Entering A Grand Cathedral

Like Entering A Grand Cathedral

Riding into Devil’s Lake State Park via the north entrance felt a little bit like entering a grand cathedral. We made our way slowly, beneath a towering canopy of trees, surrounded by fall color everywhere but on the road directly beneath us. All along the long, winding, narrow drive, we passed parked cars and people out of their cars. Some held cameras. Some were posing. Everybody seemed to be trying to capture the essence of the beauty around us. In reverence to the moment, and so as not to attract stares, I turned off the stereo and kept my engine’s RPM’s at idle speed. Behind me, Ann was taking photos – something that she does very well, even when armed only with a smart phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she also captured a brief video from our journey in. This intuitive ability of hers, to capture memorable moments in this fashion, even while we are underway, is amazing to me, because I don’t have that ability. I could go on describing the qualities that make a given individual ones pillion of choice, but I digress.

What A View!

What A View!

After paying our entry fee, we motored into a large parking lot within view of the lake itself. And what a view! According to Wikipedia, Devil’s Lake, for which the state park is named, was part of the Wisconsin River prior to the last ice age, but now has no visible inlet or outlet. It sits in a chasm between the moraines, and the resulting scene as a whole exudes a raw, natural beauty that is unique to this place.

Occasionally we would stop... and attempt to take it all in.

Occasionally we would stop… and attempt to take it all in.

Ann and I walked a portion of the lake’s perimeter together, sometimes talking, but many times not saying a thing. Occasionally we would stop for a period of time and just stand there, or sit, and attempt to take it all in. There were people all around – individuals, couples, families and groups, many with children and dogs of all sizes – yet there was no feeling of crowdedness. And the further out we walked from the boat house, gift shop, concessions, etc., the quieter things became, this despite that there was still a somewhat steady stream of people and dogs walking the same path as us, in both directions. In fact we were sitting out on a boulder, watching people go by, looking at the scenic beauty around us, when we realized that the sounds we heard – or couldn’t hear – did not match up to the population or the activity that we had been observing. The lake, rocky hills, and trees somehow came together to dampen whatever noise was being made by all that humanity.

Genuine Smiles

Genuine Smiles

Eventually we were forced to acknowledge the passage of time, which was not in our favor. We had a bit of a ride ahead of us in order to get Ann home, followed by another two-to-three hours to get myself back to from whence I came. Still smiling genuine smiles, we headed back to the motorcycle. We had found a happy place here. Perhaps we already sensed that we would return? I don’t know. But there was more satisfaction than sadness in our departure.

The sun was still high enough for neither Ann nor me to feel any sense of rush to get back. We took 113 south to Merrimac, where we caught the free ferry across the Wisconsin River.

Although this river crossing was not a destination in itself, it was planned. I had made this crossing before, on two wheels as well as four, but had never realized that motorcycles are to proceed to the front of the line prior to boarding. This is because, when in small enough number, the bikes get parked between the rows of cars. Thanks to the advice of a fellow biker, who happened to be in a truck that day, we eventually proceeded to the front, where we got priority boarding on the next available ferry.

While waiting for the next boat, I took the liberty of calling my wife, to fill her in on the events of the day. Though not an avid rider or passenger herself, Karen has always been completely supportive of my own immersion in the hobby, which began roughly 17 years into our marriage (again a topic for another time). In similar fashion, Karen had blessed this planned outing with our friend Ann, along with the few that came before and the many that have not yet occurred. She was overjoyed to hear that the trip had gone so well so far and wished both of us safe travels home.

It Was Beautiful

It Was Beautiful

Maybe it was the time of day. Maybe it was the charm of the Merrimac Ferry. Maybe it was the experience of sharing such things with a dear friend. Whatever it was, Ann and I both agreed that it was beautiful. We had traveled some miles from Devil’s Lake, yet we we still found ourselves in a happy place.

Priority Boarding

Priority Boarding

Before long, we were back on the bike and rolling down the ramp off the ferry. We still had a fair number of miles to go together – and for that I felt grateful, because all the sightseeing we had planned for the day had now been completed. And so we rode, first on two-lane, then onto the Interstate, back to civilization. The bike’s stereo was back on, blasting out an iTunes playlist that I had created called “Rides with Ann,” more or less a compilation of music that I thought she would like, sans a lot of material that she might not, mixed in with some of my own less objectionable favorites – roughly six hours worth of music in all, easily three times what was needed. But that’s my nature.

We pulled into Ann’s place and made sure that we each had our proper belongings. When we embraced and exchanged our goodbyes, there were more smiles than tears, from both of us, and this was significant, given my tendency to feel post-departure/event letdown in a major way, no matter the circumstances. I knew this would likely be our last ride together, of any consequence, until the 2016 season. That’s merely a factor of the 150 miles that lie between our respective homes – obviously not a barrier, but still a valid consideration. But no great letdown set in as I rolled out and headed for my home. Why? Again, perhaps just the certainty that there will be a next time.

And so it ends here, sort of, the third installment of a trilogy that encompasses a single day’s ride with my dear friend and favorite pillion. Not bad for a cool, sunny day at the end of October. A few more degrees of warmth would have been welcome, ditto another hour or two of daylight. But then there would have been no challenge, and as many people know, a worthwhile goal should be realistic yet challenging.

If you’ve been following along through all three parts of this one, thank you. I has been my privilege to have you along. Will there be more stories like this on my blog? Oh, yes, I certainly hope so. Because after all, we don’t call this MGD Time for nothing. Ha!

– MGD

All photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa
Video by Ann M. Fischler