The Things That Nearly Didn’t Happen

I almost didn’t go. I’m ashamed to admit this now but it’s true. I had never attended the Midwest Motorcycle Rally by myself and as I am not a great alone person, I hadn’t found the thought of going alone particularly appealing. My son, who hasn’t attended with me since 2015, had really wanted to go this year but he ran into an unfortunate combination of circumstances that made going impossible for him. The best pillion companion/friend I could possibly ever hope for hasn’t initiated an actual conversation with me in a couple of years now and my invitation to her was simply disregarded. We hadn’t attended since 2019. The pandemic had nixed the 2020 rally, although some people still went to hang out at the hotel. Then last year, I canceled early on after my own circumstances had given me a viable excuse to not go. But the reality was, I just wasn’t sure I could face seeing one reminder after another of all the good times I’d had with my previous traveling partners over the years. I wasn’t entirely certain anybody would really miss me, anyway. It turns out I had been dead wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Parking lot at the Settle Inn of La Crosse, WI, July 18, 2014 — my first MMR experience

Let me tell you about a series of catalysts that caused me to go this year. First and foremost, last September, a dear lady who had befriended my son and me on our very first day at the 2014 MMR, and with whom I had been friends ever since, passed away suddenly. That rocked my world because I had always assumed I would see her again sometime. There had been talk of possibly doing a memorial ride for her at this year’s rally, so there was that.

Then in the dead of winter, one of my better MMR buddies had begun petitioning me to attend this year. I still remember telling him, “that might mean going alone,” but that hadn’t deterred him and I really don’t enjoy saying no to my friends. At that time, my son was not yet out of the running so I reasoned that it would be easier to reserve a couple of rooms early and cancel later than to try making reservations after everything was booked — which happens every year now at this event. So ever the optimist, I reserved two rooms.

July was almost upon us when my son had to face facts that there was no way he would be able to make the trip this year, but in arriving at that conclusion, he made me promise that I would still go and that I would participate in the memorial ride for our friend. I had seen on the official MMR website that “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride” had been listed on the schedule of guided tours, a prominent feature of this Rally. Somehow, my being on that ride had become super important to my son, perhaps because I would in effect be participating for both of us. So I agreed and began putting the word out to my MMR friends that I would be coming out, most likely alone. Once again, the “alone” part phased nobody. All I got were words of encouragement and a few invitations from friends asking me to hang out with them during the evening gatherings. There was no turning back now.

A new pair of red leather riding gloves quickly began releasing excess dye

On the morning of Wednesday, July 13, I left hours later than I had originally planned, but that’s the beautiful thing about going to this event on Wednesday: nothing is happening that day. So no matter how late you arrive, you’re still a day early. The ride from my home in Plainfield, IL up to Winona, MN is well over 300 miles, no matter which route you take, so the general plan was to spend five or more hours alone with my thoughts, enjoying the scenery, which is plentiful once you get clear of the metro areas. Have you ever ridden through a particularly beautiful stretch of country, taking slow, measured breaths and realizing that all the trees, shrubs, grass, and wildlife are also breathing? That’s like a Zen moment for me, to become present in the moment and breathe with all the other living things as I contemplate them.

My rolling meditation was temporarily disrupted when I pulled into Janesville for a meal and some gasoline for Miss Scarlett, my bike. Why do they make Cracker Barrel restaurants so difficult to get into, anyway? As I peeled off my new leather riding gloves for the first time in hours, it became immediately apparent that an abundance of excess red dye had been leaching out of the leather and onto my hands over the past few hours. Anybody who has had this happen knows that the dye, regardless of color, will take longer to get out of your skin than it took to get in there in the first place. Ah, well, my lunch was good and fuel prices in Wisconsin are substantially lower than they are in northern Illinois. Besides, I was on vacation!

Miss Scarlett basking in the Winona sun after a job well done

Some time later, I was in Minnesota and approaching my destination as the sun had begun its descent, just reaching that annoying, blinding point in the sky as I made my final approach to the Plaza Hotel & Suites. I raised a gloved hand to block the sun while I was still about a half mile out, scanning the road ahead for my turn, when I heard a loud TAP and felt something bounce soundly off my palm. Eh, just a bug, I thought to myself as I continued scanning. Moments later, a searing, pulsating wave of pain on the inside of my right thigh clued me in that it had not been just any bug but a startled and angry wasp that I had taken out of the sky. I brushed at my leg as I continued riding, but it was too late. Fortunately, I had brought some hydrocortisone and Benedryl along. Eh, no matter, I had arrived!

I got checked in and cleaned up, addressed the sting site as best I could, and meandered out to see who I might see. I was moved by what proceeded to happen that evening. Old friends and acquaintances would see me, get this look of recognition in their eyes, and embrace me. Words of welcome, gratefulness, and affection were exchanged each time, removing any doubt as to whether I had made the right decision. It eventually reached a point where if one more person hugged me, I was gonna get choked up. But oh, what a feeling. And make no mistake, I was grinning ear to ear, every bit as happy to see each of them as they were to see me.

Each day was as good or better than the one before. Historically, the MMR begins on Thursday evening but every year, a group of people, mostly regulars, would show up a day or more early and take unofficial rides. The organizers eventually began listing the early excursions on the website. I went on the “Early Arrivals” tour, led by a couple of whom I have come to grow very fond. They used to live one town over from my own, but I first met them in La Crosse at the 2015 MMR. Anyway, the “Early Arrivals” promised a relaxed pace (trikes welcome), which suited me fine because my annual bike miles had been in a steady decline since 2019 and I wasn’t looking to be challenged. Our group had an awesome day on the bikes, I got to catch up with my friends over lunch, and as if that weren’t enough, we enjoyed fresh pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan. I returned to the hotel pleased with how well the day had gone. Moments later, I was making plans to join some friends for supper, which turned out to be a hoot in itself, and then our Thursday evening, like every evening at the MMR, concluded with much camaraderie and laughter down in the parking lot.

On Friday, I opted to go on “The Grand Tour,” led at both ends (ride captain and tail gunner) by another couple of whom I have become extremely fond. This may very well have been the first ride of theirs that I have done and in very short order, I felt terrible for having waited so long. Their level of expertise, attention to detail, and genuine care for their group made their tour that much more enjoyable. After having been delayed for a couple of hours due to inclement weather (erring on the side of safety), we went riding in Iowa as well as Minnesota and never saw another raindrop for the rest of the day. I even got to rescue a damsel in distress whose posterior had grown sorely fatigued by our ride captain’s scant pillion. She proved to be a most pleasant passenger to carry and even tolerated the “uncommon variance” of my music collection.

Friday evening unfolded with more and more riders returning from their tours and laughter once again filled the air, as friends old and new milled about the MMR parking area sharing hugs, toasting the day, and just basking in the whole experience. Friday night is outdoor movie night at the rally and this year, after the sun went down, we were treated to a screening of The Road to Paloma, a low-budget ($250,000) film that debuted in 2014, the same year my son and I debuted at the MMR. It was co-written and directed by Jason Momoa, who also stars in the film. It’s definitely not a “feel good” movie but was well-made, I think.

Then Saturday came, the last full day of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, and of course I went out on “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride,” which was being guided front and rear by Diane’s son Ken and her grandson Ritchie. Having spent years living in the area, Ken is intimately familiar with all the good roads and backroads, some of which look like narrow ribbons of asphalt winding through the hills. The riding was good, the stops significant in that each of them had been a favorite of Diane’s. I had only been to one of them prior to that day, Soldiers Walk Memorial Park in Arcadia, but each place we stopped at was wonderful and it was easy to understand what Diane had loved about them. At Elmaro Vineyard, a lovely winery outside of Trempealeau, Ken and I drank a toast to his mom as we looked out over the acres of grape vines. The first time my son and I met Diane, she asked us if we wanted to follow her group to a pizza farm. I had never even heard that term used before. We opted to stay closer to the hotel, but I never forgot that invitation from that most friendly stranger, who quickly became my friend. Our last stop of the day was to Suncrest Gardens, that pizza farm, where we dined on wood-fired pizza in an alfresco setting, telling stories and laughing ourselves silly. Life is good, especially when moments like this are shared.

Biker Games!

Saturday night at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally is all about the Biker Games, sponsored and hosted by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA. With events such as loudest bike, slow race, weenie bite, and balloon toss, this is a perennial favorite. The games conclude with a limbo contest, open to anyone willing to don a plastic grass skirt. It’s all good clean fun, of course. As I watched the games with friends, talking and laughing the whole time, I thought about the true nature of the MMR. This isn’t about badass bikers or extraordinary attendance numbers. This is more like a family reunion with motorcycles of all sizes, makes, and models. And you either love it and become a part of it or you don’t. I do love it so.

Sunday morning at the MMR is a bittersweet one for me every year. There are hugs and much talk of next year but it’s also goodbye for now. Many people had already left by the time I got my tired old self packed up and ready to roll. Still, I had no regrets and much to look forward to next year.

As luck would have it an extraordinary thing happened as soon as I got within a quarter to a half mile down the road from the hotel. I was riding along when all of a sudden I heard a PING as an inch-long black and yellow wasp bounced off my bike’s windshield and landed square in the center of my faceshield, right in front of my nose! Before I could ascertain which side of my faceshiled that bastard was on, it hopped off and I never saw it again. Still, for that brief instant, my heart froze. I mean, what are the odds? Surely there must be a nest of them somewhere near that point on US 14/61.

The ride home was uneventful, save for finding myself accompanied for a few miles in Wisconsin by an MMR buddy who happened to be going the same way as me. I stopped for lunch at an old A&W restaurant in Boscobel that still had an old table telephone ordering system in use. By early evening, I was home again.

You know, I talked about my MMR friends welcoming me back and hugging me and all when they first saw me, which was both wonderful and humbling, and it didn’t stop there, either. People also went out of their way to make sure I understood that my past riding companions would also be welcome with the same open arms if I were to them back again. Even my son, who hasn’t been seen there for seven years, they still remember him and how he took to the MMR just as as I did. I was grateful to know that my companions are loved there, just as I am. Of course, whether either of them returns or not is their choice. Me, I will keep on inviting them every year and I will continue to attend this wonderful little rally for as long as I am able. That’s my choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Bits of 66

Part of a mural at the Rt 66 Museum in Pontiac

I was surprised when my phone dinged one Friday evening in late September, alerting me to an unexpected text from my friend Mark.

“You riding tomorrow?”

“I don’t have a plan… Whatchagot?”

“Nothing except looks to be an exceptional day to ride.”

Mark and I are both seasoned motorcyclists who appreciate how quickly the riding season can conclude as the fall season progresses toward winter. We texted back and forth a few times, sharing possibilities, and then decided to meet up near my home for a familiar run down old Route 66.

Technically, the Mother Road began at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Me, I’ve always picked it up from Joliet and turned around in Pontiac. It’s a nice little day ride for motorcyclists. I’ve written about various aspects of this little stretch of the Mother Road before and for the sake of not being redundant, I strive to share some different angles each time. Please, enjoy the ride…

After meeting up with Mark and part of his family near my home in Plainfield, we picked up old Route 66 in the city of Joliet, as part of modern day Illinois Highway 53. As we rode out of Joliet and south toward Elwood, I thought about my mother-and-father-in-law, who drove out to California via Route 66 on their honeymoon, back in the late 1940’s. While on their trip, Jack (my father-in-law) shot some footage using an 8mm move camera that he had. Some years ago, as a gift, my wife and I had the films transferred onto VHS tapes, the modern technology of the day. I enjoyed watching all that footage and listening to my in-laws tell stories about their trip. That experience is what sparked my genuine interest in the Mother Road. Prior to that, Route 66 was just the name of a TV show from the 1960’s when I was growing up.

The first time I ever ran this part of Route 66 was via motorcycle, following a gentleman named Jim, who had ridden the entirety of the Mother Road on an organized tour. Jim took great pleasure in sharing this local portion of Route 66, from Joliet to Pontiac. He frequently included a stop at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, to which he referred as his future home. We briefly rolled through the cemetery on this run, but did not stop and took no photographs. I will say it’s a solemn site to behold.

Where we did begin taking photos was in the town of Gardner, which is home to two structures of historic significance. One is a two-celled jailhouse that was built in 1906 and used until the 1930’s. The other is a streetcar-style diner that has been preserved and donated to the town. I had been to the jail once before but for some reason hadn’t walked over to look at the diner. Both structures are worth stopping to see.

We also stopped at a restored Standard Oil station outside of Odell. This is a must-see for anyone into historic filling station architecture. I should also point out that there is another significant gas station in Dwight. Although that one isn’t as architecturally interesting as this Standard station, it holds its own place as the last operating Texaco station on Route 66.

There is another interesting stretch during which you will see segments of an older road running parallel to the current two-lane blacktop. That’s the original Mother Road and there is at least one spot where you can legally pull onto a piece of it and take photos. There is an old barn off in the distance with a Meramec Caverns ad painted on the side of it. We didn’t stop this time but it’s there and you’ll see it.

I frequently conclude my excursions on this portion of the Mother Road at the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. It’s worth stopping for, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. With two floors of exhibits inside and a few goodies outside as well. Check out the VW bus as well as the hippie land yacht that once belonged to the late artist Bob Waldmire. Or the 1960’s radio station replica. Or the 1940’s home display. I just eat this stuff up every time I go there.

It’s not that there isn’t more to see further downstate — or across the rest of the USA to California, for that matter. I’ve seen other bits of historic Route 66, including an excellent museum down in Lebanon, MO. But the stretch of it that I’ve described here is my little bit of old Route 66.

Acres Inn on the square in Pontiac IL

Before heading back toward home, my friends and I walked over to the square in downtown Pontiac for a bite of lunch at the Acres Inn. Although the dining room was closed due to pandemic precautions, they did offer curbside ordering and outdoor seating. For a relatively small café and beer bar, Acres Inn offers a nice variety of items on their menu. I thoroughly enjoyed my smashed double cheeseburger, accompanied by house-made potato chips — I’m a sucker for homemade chips — and washed down with a lovely craft lager.

The sun was shining and there was much laughter in the air as we enjoyed our meal together. After that, we walked back to the bikes, rolled out toward Interstate 55, and headed for home. Before the rest of my group peeled off, a couple of exits before mine, I immersed myself in the sensations of riding the open road on a sunny and warm afternoon realizing that Mark had been right all along. It really had been an exceptional day to ride.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Something Worth Doing

 

As I indicated I would do last week (see For the Love of Poopy’s), I met up with a couple of friends last Saturday morning and rode out to Poopy’s in Savanna,  This post is going to be short on pictures and videos because (a) the only pillion photographer who matters was not on board to take the road shots, which I only wish I could share with you and (b) it never strikes me to take advantage of some photo ops when they arise. But in lieu of excellent visuals, I will share my story, if only because it seems to be worth telling.

IMG_9050

The two gents I rode with are experienced riders whom I got to know from two different facets of my life on two wheels. “Johnny B” is a retired music teacher who lives in the next town over from mine but whom I met as a regular attendee of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which is held hundreds of miles from our respective homes. Still, I’m glad we met. John has a knack for knowing which roads to take and where the good food is to be had. this is something that comes from experience. He may not be one to smile and pose for the camera but John is an asset to any riding group and has helped me out on more than one occasion.

IMG_9049

Mark and I go back, not only in terms of years but also in terms of our previous lives. He was a motorcycle mechanic — and a darned good one — at Fox Valley Cycles, the best Honda motorcycle dealership in west suburban Chicagoland and also the sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, of which I was once president. Mark and I have both moved on since then but have somehow managed to remain friends for the decade-plus that has since followed.

IMG_9048

We met up at a gas station, where I introduced my two friends to each other, and then headed out on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, toward the Mississippi River and Savanna, home of Poopy’s Pub and Grub. Skies were sunny and the temperature was seventyish, with just the slightest cool breeze.

Folks, this was the first ride of any real distance I have taken this year. I could get into why but that would detract from the real story here. Just know that I went, that I needed to go, and that it was wonderful. There’s just something about being out on the road with friends. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly my day-to-day concerns faded away as I motored on, cool breeze in my face, iTunes blasting out on my sound system. As I am known to do, I greeted all the farm animals as I rode past..
“Hello, dairy cows!”
“Hi, horses!”
“Well hello there, beef cattle!”

There was this one point along US 30 where a group of turbines from an upcoming wind farm seemed to have been set up perfectly along our line of sight as we approached, the huge blades moving to some unheard symphony of flowing air mass. As much as I wish I could share photos or a video clip with you, I was equally glad nobody was there to hear me moments later when I’d caught my self singing along at the top of my lungs to whatever song had been blasting out on my stereo. I probably wasn’t singing in tune but what can I say, I’d been caught up in the moment.

IMG_9056

In what seemed like no time at all, we’d run the 115 miles or so to arrive at “Illinois’ Biggest Biker destination.” Interestingly enough, Poopy’s wasn’t all that crowded when we pulled in, right around the 11:00 hour, which made it easy for our merry trio to claim some prime seating along the main outdoor bar. Perched upon our padded toilet seat bar stools, we ate, drank, traded stories and people watched. It just felt so great to be alive!

 

IMG_9054

All the while, more and more bikes were pulling in, but the area never felt overcrowded, mainly because there is a lot of room outside (and even in) at Poopy’s. Nobody was wearing a mask but then again, nobody was in my face, either. I was okay with that.

IMG_9052

As we sat there chatting and admiring the young, beautiful bartenders who were working harder and harder to take care of everybody, I spotted Andy Pesek, who had organized the “Poopy’s COVID Relief” event, enjoying what looked like a fine cigar while seated at a card table that had been set up by one of the big garage doors, all of which had been opened on such a pleasant, sunny day. I walked over and introduced myself before dropping my donation envelope into the bucket on the table.

That’s pretty much it as far as the “event” goes. There was no big, formal parade, no raucus anti-tyranny rally, no political ranting of any kind that me and my half-deaf ears could pick up. What I did hear was plenty of laughter. I think most people understood why we were there — to enjoy the day and enjoy life while supporting a unique business that we had come to love and appreciate.

IMG_9055

One highpoint of my day occurred while I was walking across the premises and spotted a face that I had seen before, on the news as well as social media. He smiled as I look at him and so I felt compelled to ask, “Are you Poopy?”

His smile grew as he nodded at me, responding, “I’m Poopy.”

We chatted briefly and I thanked Mr. Promenschenkel for having shared my last blog post the week before. He seemed pleased to give me a moment of his time and came across as being quite genuine. Just as we were about to head our separate ways, I asked if we could get a quick photo. Poopy clapped an arm on my shoulder and exclaimed, “Sure, let’s do it!” The resulting selfie came out a little blurred but mere words can’t express how much I appreciated our chance meeting.

IMG_9053

All the while, more and more bikes rolled in. We departed well before mid-afternoon. Part of me wanted to stay and check out the live music, maybe see if the bikini pool bar next to the stage area would liven up, but a larger part of me wanted to ride home sober. And that’s what we did.

My only regret? I did not reapply sunblock before making the return trip. My face, neck, and especially my arms got a little burned but not so bad. I think John, Mark and I had a nice day together. Things being as they are, I’m just not sure what the rest of this riding season holds for me but if I can get even a few more rides in like this one, I will be so grateful.

Thanks for hanging with me.

For the Love of Poopy’s

Located on Illinois Route 84 near the southern edge of the city of Savanna, Poopy’s bills itself as “Illinois’ Biggest Biker Destination” and for good reason. The place is huge. The place is fun. And the place has earned its reputation as a worthy venue for motorcyclists to visit for food, beverages, and a wide variety of entertainment. Its owner, Kevin Promenschenkel, earned the nickname “Poopy” at a young age when a wayward bird let him have it, twice, during a Little League baseball game. The name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dubuque26

Well it seems history is being made again. Promenschenkel has been busy doing everything in his power to keep his business afloat during these trying times, including participating in a lawsuit against the state, asking his loyal customers to support him by ordering Poopy’s merchandise online, and most recently, opening the venue for Memorial Day weekend — a major weekend for his business, filled with events and entertainment. This was a violation of our governor’s current stay-at-home order, but with the support of county and local authorities, not to mention many loyal bikers who came from miles around, Poopy’s did indeed open. In addition to all this, a motorcycle fundraising run has been organized to provide direct relief to Poopy in this time of need.  I intend to participate in that fundraiser, assuming Mother Nature cooperates and I have people willing to ride out to Savanna with me. I am doing this not because I have excess cash to give away but because I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Promenschenkel, am sympathetic to his situation, and feel compelled to help him out in this small way.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve been stopping at Poopy’s since September of 2011. That’s the year my son went away to college in the Quad Cities area. A week or two after he left, I found myself missing the kid something awful and so decided to pay him a visit. My ride at the time was a silver metallic 2007 Honda ST1300, a sport touring rig that made short work of my 130-ish mile run out to the Mississippi River. After picking up my son, I asked if he had any interest in checking out this “Poopy’s” place that we’d heard others talk about. At the time, he wasn’t yet old enough to have anything stronger than a coke but the allure of visiting a real biker bar must have pressed his button that day. “Sure!” my son exclaimed and within minutes, he was onboard and we were headed north toward Savanna.

I should pause here and mention that Poopy’s is anything but a typical biker bar. Poopy’s is a destination, an experience unto itself. Sure, it has a bar — several, in fact — plus a restaurant featuring numerous namesake-themed items (e.g. “The Big Poop”), a gift shop, a parts counter, and more. They even had a tattoo parlor on the premises back when I first began going there. The outdoor portion of Poopy’s includes a sizable entertainment stage with overhead catwalk, a pool bar, even a campground. They host vehicle shows, combat sports events, and many, many concerts. As I said, Poopy’s is an experience unto itself and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for this venue — and the man who built it — from the first time I set foot on the premises.

My son and I had ourselves a grand old time that day. Using my phone, our waitress took a great photo of us while we waited for our lunch. We walked the premises, admired the unique decor and ambiance, bought a few souvenirs, including my lucky Poopy’s bottle opener, and vowed to return.

And so we have returned a number of times. Not nearly often enough, because I don’t live nearby, but whenever the opportunity presents itself — and always with friends. I’ve made lunch stops, brunch stops, and “you just gotta’ come and check this place out” stops. And Poopy’s never disappoints.

My last trip there was a few years ago. My most favorite pillion companion in the world and I had ridden out to Iowa over Labor Day weekend to meet up with some friends from a few different states. During a wonderful all-day ride that we took, the group  had planned to visit Poopy’s for a mid-afternoon lunch. As we approached and entered the parking lot, my beloved friend rolled video, creating a very nice memento. We sat outside for quite some time, enjoying the live music, good food, and each other’s excellent company on that fine late-summer afternoon. Indeed, it’s been too long since I have enjoyed such a time at Poopy’s.

99098496_1570356153113364_3819369057459634176_n

And so on Saturday, June 6, 2020, I hope to join whatever companions I can assemble and ride west for the day. My motives have been questioned on several counts by different individuals. Without naming names, here are their questions and my answers.

  • Aren’t you afraid of getting sick… or worse?
    No. As the result of having worked in an essential service industry, I never stopped working during this pandemic. I have taken reasonable precautions, both at work and at home. And yes, I wear a bandanna face covering every time I go to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. I will not likely go indoors on this trip and if I do, I’ll just don my bandanna. Also, as an avid motorcyclist, I am accustomed to tolerating a certain amount of risk. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t care whether I die. It’s that I dread not living during whatever time I have left on this earth.
  • But Poopy is a blatant Trump fan! Are you one, too???
    Does it matter? This is a fundraiser event for Poopy’s, not a political rally. Okay, here’s the plain truth: As an admitted member of the exhausted majority, I despise both the Democrat and Republican parties with a passion and in all candor, my opinion of “45” is less than glowing right now. But I am a real Poopy’s fan and therefore a fan of the man who has put so much of himself into that institution. Although I have never met Poopy in person, I like him and I suspect that if we drank together long enough, we would depart as friends. In short, I respect Kevin Promenschenkel and given that I, too, would not have been prepared to go more than a few weeks without an income stream, I am inclined to help him.
  • You’re just a badass biker with no respect for authority. I hope you get sick!
    Good day to you, too, ma’am! Yes, I am a biker. No, I am not. Okay, it depends on whom you ask and how that person defines the term. I am an avid motorcyclist and I have ridden across the country. My current ride is a 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a big-inch “full dresser” American V-twin, and I am no more loyal to any one motorcycle brand than I am to any political party. So there we are. If you fault me for riding a motorcycle, for respecting other riders regardless of what they ride, or for advocating for motorcyclist rights in general, then I am guilty as charged and your opinion does not move me.

In the end, I think it would be a dirty shame if Poopy’s were to disappear as the result of this horrific pandemic event and the shut-down of our economy — indeed of our society as we know it. I’m sure many businesses will not return as the result, through no fault of the independent owners themselves. So if I can help out one of them, this one in particular, by riding with friends for a few hundred miles on a Saturday and dropping some money in the till, I will gladly do so.

Whether you agree with me or not, I respect you for having read this far. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

More Culture Than Shock

81926983_10213357381249142_2710798699411275776_n

I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.

I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.

We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.

One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”

“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”

“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.

We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”

I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.

As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.

IMG_4064

During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”

“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”

In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.

I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.

Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

IMG_9662

As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

Our Last Ride of Summer

36867579861_9a7ae99a3e_oWhen a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger of choice live over 100 miles apart in two different states, they tend not to take their outings for granted. Such is the case for my friend Ann and me. While we absolutely have gotten together on the spur of the moment, we usually put some thought into scheduling our rides based on mutual availability, weather outlook, etc. We had both been hoping to go riding together sometime over the 2017 Labor Day holiday weekend; we just weren’t sure which day it would be. After all, we went riding for three days during the 2016 Labor Day weekend. Surely we’d be able to get a simple day ride in this year, right? Well, it almost didn’t happen.

36737811802_a94173bea1_oMy current employment situation might have put any multi-day excursions on ice, had we planned any, but would not have stopped Ann and me from taking a day trip together. When my wife took an unplanned trip to the hospital the weekend prior, however, a visit that turned into an extended stay, everything else in my life became tentative—including my career search activities, scheduled meetings, and leisurely motorcycle excursions. Such has been my practice for decades, so no big surprise there. When I say family first, I mean family first.

Four days later, Karen was back at home with no physical restrictions, life was quickly returning to normal, and everything that had been put on hold was suddenly back in 21389322_10213547112773090_2064896616_oplay. The very next day, I resumed job search activities, had an awesome meeting with a former colleague of mine, and with a favorable weather forecast in place, I reached out to Ann and made firm plans to take her out riding.

The morning of Sunday, September 3 was a cool one in central Wisconsin. Foggy, too. Ann set out some breakfast goodies and two mugs of fresh, hot coffee. We took our sweet time sipping coffee, looking at potential routes on Ann’s map app, and watching out the window as the fog gave way to a beautiful sunny morning. Once that happened, Ann added her gear to mine on the bike and we set out together for what would surely become our last ride of the summer.

It may have been just a simple day trip, but wow, what a ride! We opted to run north and do a simple loop through the Northern Unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. 21363237_10213547112653087_1549845227_oWe ran north on Wisconsin 67 and then took a few county roads—A to T to G, which rejoins 67 and then departs again—to make a loop within the Northern Unit.

We made three relatively quick stops while touring the Northern Unit that day. Our first stop was at the Ice Age Visitor Center, which we had visited last fall (Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs, October 26).  As we pulled into 36819817166_b9c3a7fa8a_othe parking area, Ann spotted a small bicycle rack positioned on the sidewalk leading to the Visitor Center. Leaning forward, she murmured into my left ear, “I dare you to pull Miss Scarlett up to that bike rack so I can get a picture of you there.” Naturally, I did what any other red-blooded Italian American man would have done after having received such a dare from a beautiful woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle. I sighed audibly, gunned the bike’s big V-twin engine for emphasis, and then rode in a sweeping circle around the parking lot and up to the bike rack, much to the delight of my conspiring passenger, who hopped off and took the photo as promised.

The purpose of this stop was not so much to reminisce as to finalize our route, set up Ann’s video equipment, and take advantage of the restrooms that we knew were available at the center. We did also venture onto the viewing deck out back and managed to take the selfie that appears at the very beginning of this article. While that photo does display the beautiful blue sky above, it really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful scenery that lay behind us, from the deck rail all the way out to the horizon. Such is the natural beauty of the Kettle Moraine.

16593983853_1dd7937408_oOur next stop was a quick memory maker on our way back down a portion of WI 67 near the shores of Long Lake. On our way up, I had pointed out a place to Ann where a few years earlier—June 1, 2014, to be exact—my son and I had stopped on our way home from a weekend of watching AMA Superbike races at Road America to grab a selfie with the lake behind us. On our way back, as Long Lake came into view, Ann suggested stopping in the same spot FFEE5F27-896C-4B0B-B9D2-3F0382AF329Dto grab a quick photo that I could send to my son, who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, having recently completed his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Having enjoyed Ann’s last suggestion so much, I pulled into the exact same spot and paused while she hopped off the bike, snapped her photos, and hopped back on. This is one of many things I love about my friend Ann. While I am astounded that more than three years later, I was able to stop in nearly the exact same spot that selfie was taken in 2014, I am equally astounded that Ann saw the value in doing so. Plus she set up that shot in seconds and quite frankly, but for the ugly gent in the saddle, I think she took an excellent photo.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our last stop was of sentimental value to me alone. There is this little State Forest Headquarters facility that I have stopped at from time to time on my way home from the bike races over the years. The first time was in 2005, traveling alone with my new 2005 Honda ST1300. I’m sure I stopped there with my silver 2007 ST1300 as well, but I have no photographic evidence. On more than one occasion, I have dragged my son to this nondescript place and he still wonders why I like to stop there. It’s hard to explain. There is nothing special about it, but this place is special to me. I wanted Ann to see it and while she understood John’s puzzlement about the place, she also understood how this rather nondescript parking lot in the middle of a state forest could hold meaning for me.

From there we stopped only once more. on our way back from the Northern Unit, we pulled up in front of the Don Ramon Mexican Restaurant in downtown Mayville. Ann had a build-your-own combination and I had tacos al pastor. Both were good and the service was not only warm and friendly, but also lightning fast.

From there we headed back to Ann’s place where, after an unscheduled (but apparently necessary) nap on her living room couch, I bid my dear friend and her son goodbye and headed home to Illinois. The holiday weekend traffic was understandably heavier than usual, especially south of the border, but it never really slowed down. Although I no longer had Ann sitting behind me, I had some terrific memories of our day together to keep me company during my journey home.

Our next trip will be the first of the autumn season. It may be another day trip or perhaps something more epic, depending on my employment situation, but wherever we end up going, I am pretty sure of two things: it will be awesome for us and you will likely be able to read about it here. Thanks for hanging with me.

Ups and Downs – Part 3 of 3

Wait

Continued from Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3

You may recall from reading my Rendezvous Run posts last June (Days One, Two, Three, and Four) that while the decline and fall of my day job as I knew it was unfolding—indeeed, weeks before I’d gone frolicking with my friends at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally in La Crosse—my son John had journeyed from his current home in Portland to the Quad Cities of Illinois in order to take his first professional theater gig with the newly formed Mississippi Bend Players in Rock Island. On Friday, July 21, which turned out to be our collective day of termination for my now-former colleagues and me, I was scheduled to lead a small group of friends on an overnight motorcycle ride to see my son’s professional debut at the premiere of Wait Until Dark. And that’s exactly what I did.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By the close of business Thursday, July 20, I had dotted my i’s, crossed my t’s, bid my farewells, shed my tears, exchanged hugs, turned in my key, and walked away. Within hours, my friend Ann had come down from her Wisconsin home to prepare for the following day. On Friday morning, Ann and I packed up my bike and headed out to Yorkville, where we would rendezvous with two more friends, Eddie and Vern, who would be riding out with us on their respective Gold Wing touring bikes. My wife Karen, who does not ride, had gone to work that morning and would be meeting us in Moline later that day.

As long as it didn’t rain, our plan had been to meander, rather than travel via Interstate 80, the fastest, most direct route to our destination. It got plenty warm and humid, but it never rained during our ride, so we meandered. From Yorkville, we took Illinois 71 southwest through Ottawa, over the Illinois River and west along a brief but fun set of twisties past Starved Rock State Park. Just for fun, I took the group up Illinois 178 to North Utica, past the west entrance to Starved Rock, back over the river and east along Dee Bennett Road, along the north bank of the river, to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, overlooking the lock and dam directly across the river from Starved Rock. Everybody and their brother regularly goes to Satrved Rock, myself included. Far fewer check out the observation deck across the river. The Visitor Center provides some interesting information about the Illinois Waterway, past and present, and if you hang around long enough, you can observe commercial and recreational watercraft locking through.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our next stop was in Princeton for lunch and a visit to an historic covered bridge just outside of town. We decided to take a chance on Rodeo Tacos and did okay there. It wasn’t anything fancy or over-the-top, but the place was clean, the food was freshly prepared, and the lady who took care of us was pleasant, if a bit laid back. While walking there from where we had parked the bikes, we came upon Myrtle’s Pie, formerly Myrtle’s Cafe & Pie. We would have had lunch there, but there was a notice on the door proclaiming that Myrtle’s no longer serves lunch, “unless you are having pie for lunch.” While eating our Mexican food up the street, we all agreed to save room for pie. What an awesome decision that turned out to be! Eddie and Vern split a slice of banana cream while Ann and I split a slice of strawberry rhubarb, warmed and served with a scoop of ice cream. It was all I could do to not lick the plate clean. I raved about Myrtle’s for the rest of the weekend, even though Ann thought our pie had been a litttle too sweet for strawberry rhubarb.

The red covered bridge is just off Illinois 26 north of town. Originally built in 1863 and rehabbed in 1973, this bridge is still in use today. We pulled off the road to walk around and take a few pictures. Only two or three vehicles passed through while we were there, which made it easier for us to take our time and look at everything. Before we left, Eddie decided to take his Gold Wing across the bridge and back, just for grins. Being the shutterbug that she is, Ann immediately positioned herself to capture the crossing on video, so I captured her doing so. This was just one of several fun moments our little group had enjoyed throughout the day.

Stage Set - Teresa photo

The reminder of our journey was less than eventful. In fact, it was slightly miserable. By mid-afternoon, the temperature and humidity had both risen considerably. Because we were already north of Princeton, we opted to take Illinois 92 west to the Quad Cities. This turned out to be not the greatest idea I’d hatched that day. Highway 92 is extraordinarily straight, a characteristic that grows boring rather quickly when traveling by motorcycle. In effect I had condemned us to traveling on a road no more interesting than Interstate 80 would have been, only at a lower rate of speed with the hot sun beating down on us and our sweat glands working overtime. Under these conditions, it becomes all too easy to succumb to road hypnosis. We made it to the hotel alright, arriving almost immediatley after my wife had pulled in with her minivan, but we were all pretty beat and in dire need of freshening up.

Because foul weather had made its way into the forecast, we all opted to go over to the Brunner Theater Center together in the air conditioned comfort of Karen’s minivan. Once inside the center, we ran into Phil McKinley, the Broadway director and Augustana College graduate who played no small part in the founding of the Mississippi Bend Players (he was also a long-standing director the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Karen and I knew Mr. McKinley because he has directed our son John in a magnificent-yet-disturbing produciton of a play called A Green River, first in 2012 at Augustana College in Rock Island and again in 2013 at the historic Pabst Theater for the for the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region III in Milwaukee (see story here). We also got to reconnect with Jeff Coussens, who directed Wait Until Dark. A professor at Augustana, Mr Coussens also directed John in a number of collegiate theater performances.

What can I tell you about the experience of being able to witness my son’s first-ever professional theatrical performance? Everything else I’ve covered in this Ups and Downs sequence pales by comparison. That performance was the culmination of a process that had begun when the kid was in middle school. Then came the high school performances, followed by the college performances, each milestone dwarfing the last. A theater minor became a theater major—I could write a small book about that turning point alone. Then came his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory, over two thousand miles from home, a two-year program during which I was not able to see even one of his performances, each of which was surely heads above his already impresssive college performances. So there I sat, watching this thriller unfold with my son playing the nastiest villain in the story—and quite well, I might add. It was a proud moment.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After the show, we ran up the street to Legends Corner, a nice little bar and restaurant, for a late-night meal and drinks. John rode his motorcycle over to join us and was the center of attention, fielding everyones questions and savoring the glow. The boy made my night, though, when he announced that he would be free for a period of hours the following day, if we wanted to get together for a ride. I was all smiles at the very suggestion.

The next morning, Eddie and Vern took off early for home. Karen, Ann and I had breakfast, checked out, and waited for John to ride over to our hotel. Once he did, we headed for the river, to a small park I used to enjoy visiting while John was a student at Augie. Whenever I had time to kill by myself, I would end up there. It was cool to see it again because I hadn’t expected to. From there we headed west on U.S. Highway 6 for Geneseo and had lunch at Raelyn’s Pub & Eatery. It seemed like a popular place, the staff was very friendly and helpful, and the food was good as well as abundant. I had their Voodoo Burger and was very satisfied. My best advice is to go there hungry.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. John hopped on his Honda and headed back to Rock Island; Karen pointed her van east and took I-80 home the fast way; Ann and I meandered back aboard Miss Scarlett and were the last to arrive at our destination. In hindsight, that wasn’t the brightest idea, as Ann still had a long drive ahead of her to get back to her own home. Still, it had been an awesome weekend, a true high point among all the ups and downs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So, I did it again the following weekend, only with a different group of motorcyclists. I didn’t even have to lead this time. My friend John took us south of the Illinois River and out to LaSalle for lunch at the Uptown Grill. It was a good pick for “polished casual American cuisine” with a somewhat upscale atmosphere, digital tablet menus, friendly (if a bit sparse) waitstaff, and nicely prepared food. On my recommendation, we saved room for dessert and took an indirect route to Princeton for—you guessed it—pie at Myrtle’s. This time I had the Dutch apple, served warm with a scoop of ice cream. I do not recall what everyone else had, but there was a lot of eating going on. I am reasonably sure that was not my last trip to Myrtle’s.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So as not to repeat my mistake of the prior weekend, we took U.S. 6 from Princeton all the way to our hotel this time. Highway 6 is simply a more pleasant road than IL 92, but it also didn’t hurt that the temps were cooler and the air less humid, too. We arrived at the hotel with plenty of time to freshen up before heading over to the Augustana campus. This time we went to Legends before going to the theater. It was nice to kick back with friends and enjoy a couple of drinks together. Meanwhile, my wife Karen drove in from Kenosha, where she had gone that morning to take her mom to a funeral. My eldest sister also came in with our nephew and his ladyfriend. Another friend of the family, who had attended Augie with John, had also driven in for the show. We all met in the lobby before going in. Yes, John had a pretty decent group of fans in the audience that night.

The play was even better the second time around. I enjoyed it thouroughly. Some of us stuck around for the “show after the show,” an extra bit of fun held in the black box theater upstairs that night. John did a little song and dance there, quite a departure from the dark character he had played in Wait Until Dark.

The only downside of that second weekend was that I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with my son as I had the first time around. But life is that way. Ups and downs.

The story doesn’t end here—John still has more tech work to complete before his gig is over, my search for the next big thing is still gaining momentum, and this magical summer is far from over—but this is where I choose to to conclude my three-part perspective on the recent ups and downs of my life. As I look back on these recent events, I realize two things about these figurative hills and valleys. First, despite outward appearances, these circumstances that have come to pass are not really ups and downs in and of themselves. Life, death, taxes, heat, cold, and so on are in essence neutral. We attach certain values that make otherwise flat terrain seem to ride and fall beneath our feet. That’s how ups and downs come into being.

The other, perhaps more important thing is that these ups and downs are neither detours nor detractions from the journey that is life. Rather, these ups and downs are the journey that is life. What a shame it would be to realize this only after we have drawn near the end of that wonderous journey.

Here’s to the ups and downs. To life! Thanks for hanging with me.

Ups and Downs – Part 1 of 3

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Literally and figuratively speaking, the past few weeks have been filled with ups and downs for me. Life is like that sometimes. Take July 12, for instance. It was a Wednesday, a work day for many, but for me it was the start of a five-day vacation weekend—a major up. I was out early and on my way to La Crosse, Wisconsin for the 10th Anniversary Midwest Motorcycle Rally, an extended weekend of two-wheel recreation with some of the nicest people I have ever met—many of whom I only see once a year. Along the way that morning, I was to pick up my pillion companion and long-time friend, Ann, and I was quite anxious to do so, but Mother Nature had other plans.

Having seen that I would likely encounter rain before I got as far as Milwaukee, I had donned my rain gear and a full-face modular helmet before I even left home. A little rain is no big thing to an avid touring rider. If you travel by motorcycle long and far enough, sooner or later you will encounter weather. After I had passed O’Hare International Airport, I did indeed encounter rain, which started out light and got progressively heavier as I continued toward Wisconsin. By the time I got to Lake County, the skies had become quite dark, the wind had picked up, and elaborate lighting displays had begun to crisscross the skies around me. I opted to take shelter at the Lake Forest Oasis.

All things considered, I had made the prudent choice. Torrential rains, accompanied by copious amounts of wind and lightning, continued for some time. When it seemed like the weather had lightened up a bit, I texted a meteorologist friend of mine, just to make sure it was safe to continue. The news was not good. A second line of storms had been intensifying and was about to sweep in right behind the first. I would not be going anyplace soon. I had been messaging Ann all along and she was very supportive of my staying put, but I was not too choked up about my 90-minute layover.

Of course the rain finally cleared, never to be seen again during that trip. About 90 minutes later, I picked up Ann and after packing up the bike, we meandered on to La Crosse. Once there, after checking into our respective rooms and freshening up, we went for a swim and then caught up with some other early arrivers. Four years ago, I began going to the rally a day early on the advice of an experienced rally-goer. It was good advice because getting there a day early means having all day to get there and no scheduled activities to worry about immediately upon arriving. That suits me well.

Before the rally officially got underway on Thursday, July 13, Ann and I did a little riding of our own, mainly to test a little video cam that Ann had acquired. This device is capable of capturing tons of raw footage, making it an excellent addition to Ann’s existing photography/videography arsenal. Between that little gadget and our mobile smart phones, we were pretty much ready to capture our rally experiences that weekend.

Gary RudyAnd what a rally it was! We got to see plenty of old friends and made new ones as well. A number of us paid our annual visit to Rudy’s Drive-In, a La Crosse institution since 1933. I always enjoy kibbutzing with Rudy’s third-generation grand poo-bah Gary Rudy because he is just a great person to be around, but also because he rides a Victory Vision motorcycle, as do I. Rudy’s is a classic drive-in with roller skating carhops, top-shelf root beer floats, the whole nine yards. It’s where I go when I’m in La Crosse at the right time of year.

35811082052_a7ce08f3ee_oAfter hanging out at Rudy’s, we went back to our hotel and waited for sundown, so that we could partake in another MMR tradition, the Bug Run, a local jaunt to the top of Grandad Bluff, which overlooks the entire city and surrounding area. It’s a breathtaking view, especially at night. But that left me wondering, what does Grandad Bluff look like during the day? I had only ever been up there during the annual Bug Run, in the dark. Hmmm…

It turns out I hadn’t needed to wonder long at all because the following day we were scheduled to do the “Sweet Temptations” ride with my friend Dave Keene, author of Cruisin’ The Back Roads, a guide book to some of the best rides to be found in west central and southwestern Wisconsin. Dave is a very capable ride guide and even if I had known nothing else about the day he had planned, I could still be confident that we were in for a great day of riding. We started out with a fantastic ride along some picturesque Wisconsin back roads that led to Sweet Temptations, a positively delightful cafe and bakery in Whitehall. Their baked goods are their centerpiece, of course, but their menu items are also noteworthy. The Reuben sandwich I enjoyed there has got to be among the best I’ve ever had. Ann and I hadn’t really saved room for dessert, but we had some anyway. The place is that good.

From there we rode on (and up) to the Mindoro Cut, the largest remaining hand-hewn cut in the US, which also happens to be located at the highest point in the state of Wisconsin. Until then, I’d never heard of the place. But now I’ve been there, along with Ann and all of our riding companions of the day, thanks to Dave.

We enjoyed one more stop before concluding the day’s journey. You guessed it, we ran up to the top of Grandad Bluff, in broad daylight. Yes, the features above and the scenery below were both very different. Dare I say it? Separated only by about 18 hours, our two visits to the bluff were as different as day and night. Ha!

Meanwhile back at the host hotel, folks were gearing up for the Biker Games, an annual tradition sponsored by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA, followed by Movie Night, another annual tradition involving motorcycle-related movies shown outside in a laid-back-but-festive BYOB atmosphere. For the second year in a row, Ann and I did movie night in style, with meats, cheeses, assorted other snacks, and red wine shared between us.

On Saturday, July 15, we embarked on our second day-long guided ride, aptly entitled “Twisted Sister,” which was captained by another seasoned biker friend of mine, Greg Carson from Minnesota. You should have seen the smile erupting on my face as we crossed over the Mississippi and into Minnesota for a day of hills, sweepers, and twisties. Ann and I opted out of a last-minute add-on to the ride and returned to the host hotel just minutes ahead of the group, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride Greg had put together.

Following the ride, we spent Saturday evening with other rally goers at or around the tiki bar at the AmericInn located across the road from our host hotel. We ate, drank, laughed, shared stories of our newly-made memories, and speculated on whether or not we were gathered at the future location of our beloved Midwest Motorcycle Rally. Time will tell.

Dave n Maggie

And then it was over. That next Sunday morning—my first at the rally, I’d always left on Saturday until this year—was all about saying goodbye and going home. By the time I’d gotten myself up and over to the La Crosse Family Restaurant to have breakfast with Ann and some hometown friends of mine, many familiar bikes had already disappeared from the host hotel parking lot. When you spend as much time looking forward to an event like this as I do, no matter how magical the event turns out to be (as this one certainly was). the ending is always bittersweet.

That’s a bit of a downer, right? Well imagine my pleasant surprise when I looked up in response to my name being called out and seeing two rallygoers that I’d not seen in two years waving at me from the booth directly across from my table. Just seeing Dave and Maggie for those few moments washed away any trace of blues I might have been feeling up until that point.

And so Ann and I motored out of La Crosse together that morning, yet alone, free to discuss and savor all the memories we’d gathered over the past four days. We traveled east across the Wisconsin countryside on scenic two-lane blacktop, occasionally losing our intended route but never regretting it because as motorcyclists, we never really become lost; we simply discover alternate routes to wherever we are heading.

The only other down I experienced was after I had to drop Ann off at her home, say goodbye, and head on to my own home some two-plus hours further, alone. But even that wasn’t so bad because I knew we’d be riding together again soon.

As I said at the beginning, the past few weeks have been filled with ups and downs. For the most part, the ups and downs associated with this part of my story were of the geophysical sort. Over the course of four days, my friends and I toured some of the most attractive hills, bluffs, and ridges to be found in the areas we had been touring. Of course you know, there is more to this story. Thanks for hanging with me. Please stick around.

Woodstock Lunch Run

Rain

It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. There had been rain in the forecast for July 3 for most of the week leading up to that day, so I made no plans for any outdoor activities other than to hang close to home, maybe mow my weeds and do a little bit of grilling out if the weather permitted. But as of July 2, the rain chances predicted for the 3rd had diminished. So I reached out to my friend Ann and we began tossing around ideas for a short lunch run. As Ann and I sometimes do, we figured on meeting near the Illinois/Wisconsin border and then taking my bike out for a run to Woodstock, Illinois.

You can imagine my surprise when with no rain expected for the day, I noticed my motorcycle and I getting wet beneath a band of dark gray clouds somewhere between O’Hare International Airport and Kenosha. I made a mental note to thank my favorite meteorologist and pressed on, figuring that any rain I encountered would be short-lived. Even though Mother Nature continued to spit on me after I met up with Ann, a quick check of the updated local forecast revealed that dry conditions would prevail in less than half an hour. So we lingered a bit and then headed west.

Me n Ann

I am pleased to report that the revised forecast remained true. The gloomy, drippy, gray clouds dissipated as they moved on and gave way to brilliant blue skies and friendly, white, fluffy clouds. With my favorite pillion rider behind me, we motored down Green Bay Road to Illinois 173 and headed west, past the Chain O’Lakes area and into McHenry County. We turned south on Greenwood Road and picked up Illinois 120 into Woodstock. The pavement dried out as we rolled along, music pouring forth from the bike’s sound system. I couldn’t help but smile.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once in Woodstock we stopped for gas and then headed toward the town square. We enjoyed lunch at D.C. Cobb’s, a delightful restaurant and bar located right on the town square. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable and the food is good. Come hungry, though, as the portions are fairly large.

Until this day, my only exposure to the city of Woodstock had been while passing through on Illinois 47, to or from Wisconsin. Let me tell you, I had been missing out. The McHenry Couty Seat since 1843 (then called Centerville), Woodstock has a beautiful and historic downtown area featuring a classic town square and two registered landmarks. One is the majestic Woodstock Opera House, which is still used as an entertainment venue today. The other is the Old McHenry County Courthouse, which is now home to various commercial tenants.

Woodstock is also well-known as the location where the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, was filmed. I can’t tell you exactly how Woodstock, Illinois was chosen to play the part of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but I can tell you that Woodstock is still playing that up to this day (see http://www.woodstockgroundhog.org/).  Ann and I enjoyed visiting a few of the more memorable locations that were used in this movie.

By mid-afternoon, we were headed back to our original meeting point. By that time the day had grown more beautiful than ever and part of me had wished it didn’t have to end so soon. We said our goodbyes and then headed for our respective homes.

It had been an awesome day for something Ann and I threw together at the last minute. But I have come to realize that some of the most awesome rides I’ve taken started out exactly that way. Thanks for hanging with me.