Travel: My Therapy, My Drug

Playground

The map you see above, encompassing parts of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, represents my intended playground for the next couple of months, based on the road trips that I have planned. Some are day trips; some are overnighters. Most, but not all, involve my motorcycle. This has gotten me to thinking, once again, about my love affair with traveling and the open road.

Whether I look forward or back, I spend a lot of time thinking about my travels. Over the years, I have been on some fantastic journeys—some of them alone, but most of them with other people, and nearly always with people who matter to me. There is a relationship at work there, between me and one of the things I love to do most, and between me and those who matter most to me. Is it so surprising that I endeavor to weave these together?

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Family… Friends… Loved ones, all… I strive to share with them the things that matter to me most, just as they themselves matter to me. Both of my kids have had a taste of my wanderlust and each now develops their own in their respective ways. My wife, she had it at least as bad as me before we even met. So in some ways, our kids never had a chance. Ha!

Yes, there is an element to this that is all my own, even when I have others with me. I’ve said many times that I do not consider myself to be a good “alone” person. Sure, it’s beneficial at times, even necessary, but I just don’t care for it. I love sharing experiences. So even shen I take the ocassional solo trip, I inevitably find myself looking for things to share on future journeys.

I have made new friends in the course of my travels, and I have also drawn old friends into my wanderlust experience. Surely some folks look at all this and wonder whether I’ve gone off the reservation, taken leave of my senses, etc. And my answer to them will always be, emphatically, yes! This is who I am. This is what I do. And if you want to get a taste of something really neat, follow me just once.

The open road is my therapy; the journey is my drug. Those I take along for the ride are the ones who matter most to me. Thanks for hanging with me.

My Daughter — My Hairdresser


I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time talking about my son John because of our shared passions for motorcycling, cooking, wine, women and song. But I have a daughter named Teresa, of whom I am equally proud and passionate.

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Teresa is my eldest child, born about a year and a half before John. And much like her brother, Teresa’s hair was blond when she was very young, but turned darker as she got older.


It was Teresa who first began riding with me when I got into motorcycling. And when I participated in my first large fundraising ride, the Chicagoland Ride for Kids, she was there with me—and has attended that charity run with me every year since 2003. That’s something I have cherished every single year because (a) not every dad is fortunate enough to have a daughter who still wants to do things like this with him throughout her teens and into adulthood, and (b) I know the year will come when this can’t or doesn’t happen any more.


Teresa has worked for a local hair salon since she was in high school. After earning her undergrad degree in psychology, she completed cosmetology school, earned her license, and now has a chair at that same salon, where her skills have become increasingly in demand.

She became my personal hair dresser after she got her own chair. As I write this, my next hair appointment is less than 24 hours away. What will we do with it this time? Only my hairdresser knows for sure.

No worries here. I’m in good hands… and I am very proud.

Stress Is but a Response

I often need to remind myself that stress is not a stimulus. It’s not something “out there” that happens to us. Rather, stress is a response to external stimuli—actually one of multiple responses that are possible. So while it may be easier said than done (and practice makes perfect, though your mileage may vary, insert another cliché here), if you want a less stressful life, choose a different response. I want to share three recent instances where something happened that elicited a stress response from me that was not necessary.


Within the first half hour of waking up this morning, I dropped my phone from roughly waist height onto my kitchen floor. The phone landed face down, loudly. The last two times my phone fell to the floor, I ended up having to replace my Zagg Glass screen protector. They come with a lifetime warranty but the customer pays shipping each time and must return the damaged shield.

After the second time, I reconsidered my choice of cases and gave up my ultra-thin metallic case, a classic example of form over function, in favor of a Pelican brand product, similar to one my son had been using for months with excellent results. I should have considered this before allowing my gut to clench up as I retrieved my phone from the floor. The phone was quite intact, as was the Zagg Glass shield. Even the Pelican case was like new, not a mark on it.

So you see, my stress response was unfounded. Going forward I will try to be more careful with my phone and little less concerned when it falls again, as it surely will happen. I will also be a fan of Pelican brand phone cases.


Stress issue number two actually predated the first one by three days, which means it had time to ferment and grow. Last Saturday morning, following my triumphant return home from an epic road trip to Oregon and back, I had taken my motorcycle up to Randy’s Cycle in Marengo. By Saturday afternoon, I noticed something quite new in my garage: a fresh oil stain. I could not tell with certainty where on my bike the oil was leaking from, but my initial thought was that the oil was leaking at the drain plug and finding its way to my gremlin bell before dripping onto my previously oil-free floor.

To say that I became stressed over this discovery would be an understatement. After all, I had brought my favorite shop a motorcycle that did not leak oil and they seemingly sent me home, 57 miles away, with one that did. On top of all that, the shop had already closed before I made this unsettling discovery, and it was a holiday weekend, so the shop would not be open again for three days. So there I was, set up with a holiday weekend and no bike to ride because mine was busy marking territory in my garage—something that this brand is not known for.

But here’s the thing: I already knew, with certainty, that whatever the problem, whatever the cause, the folks at my shop of choice would make it right. They had done so before, even when the issue wasn’t their doing. I’ve been doing business with Randy Weaver and company for over three years now. They are known to be the best Victory dealer in all of Northern Illinois and in my opinion, that reputation has been well-earned.


So I got up this morning and rode Miss Scarlett back to Marengo. It was a bit of an inconvenience, but not the end of the world, and in point of fact, I had a rather nice ride. Upon arrival, they took my bike in and fixed the problem, which appears to have been unrelated to any work they did Saturday. It seems that on my way home Saturday, a seal where the shifter linkage passes through the engine case popped out of place, causing a slow but steady leak.

I rode the bike home, stopping a few times along the way to check for a leak, parked her in the garage with a dry piece of cardboard underneath the engine case, and checked again every few hours. No leak.

Episode three… I don’t know for sure what prompted me to go looking for my riding vest, but when I did so, I could not find it. No big deal, right? I probably put it down in an unusual place when I got back from Randy’s this morning… Oh, wait, I hadn’t worn it this morning. Well then surely when I had gone over there Saturday… Nope, I wore my jacket Saturday. Perhaps on Friday, when I had concluded my epic road trip? No dice. It had been cold in Minnesota that morning and pretty cool in Wisconsin, too, so I had worn my leather jacket all day.


Alas, I had not worn that vest since last Thursday, when I rode from Rapid City, South Dakota to Worthington, Minnesota. But surely I had brought the vest home… right?

My wife, Karen, called the hotel, but no vest had been turned in. She also called Randy’s, but I could have saved her the trouble, had I known. I messaged my sister, who had been on the trip with us. Then Karen and I took turns going through the van, the motorcycle, all our luggage, and every room in the house, turning everything upside down and inside out like frustrated DEA agents. Nothing.

I plastered the situation across Facebook, with photos. Almost immediately some of my biker friends began spreading the word. I should note that their response was instantaneous and impressive. I began to wonder what might happen if some of my brethren had come across my vest on the back of some unwitting teen. I must confess, that thought made me smile a little. But inside the space between my ears, stress had been building up big time.

At some point, stress had given way to resignation. That is, I had become emotionally resigned to having lost not only my leather vest, but all the pins and patches that I had added to it over the past few years, some of which were no longer replaceable. The effect was immobilizing me and I hated that, because despite whatever emotional and financial attachment I might feel about that vest, it was still just a thing. And things shouldn’t wield that kind of power over us.

The vest had been in my house the whole time. While passing through my bedroom—which had already been ransacked once or twice—something or someone possessed me to check the top of my wife’s dresser one more time. Then, on an apparent whim, I reached around and behind the dresser, thrusting my hand into the narrow abyss between that chest of drawers and a wall… and felt my fingers brush against something leathery.

“Eureka! I found it!” Similar messages were shared in earnest across Facebook and in text messages.

Again the stress—indeed the anguish—had been unfounded, but I didn’t know it at the time. If I could have even delayed the stress response for a while, I’d be better off.

A few parting thoughts:

  • Whether we exercise it or not, we have the power to choose our response to various stimuli.
  • If you’re going to be emotionally charged, like me, consider leading with positive emotions.
  • Pelican phone cases: good stuff.
  • Randy’s Cycle: good people.

Thank you for hanging with me.

Postscript to the Post-Trip Service and Safety Check


A few hours after I had gotten back from my favorite Victory shop, I noticed an oil drip on my garage floor. Up until now this bike has never given up a drop of oil. 

I’m hoping this is something simple, but regardless, I’ll be at the dealership on Tuesday morning, when they open, to see if they can make it right in short order. Given my past experiences with Randy’s Cycle, I’m sure they will take care of me. 

More to come.

Epic Journey Day Six — First Full Day in Portland


In all candor, after five consecutive full days on the bikes, over 2,000 miles worth, I was ready for a day off. That day was today. John rode his Honda over to our hotel, a 15-minute trip, and then parked it in the underground garage, next to mine and Eddie’s, for the day. Then we all piled into the minivan and John took us into Portland proper for the day. 

Compared to Chicago, Portland seems far less big-city-like. The buildings aren’t as tall and what tall buildings they have aren’t as dense. Traffic can be slow, but drivers on the whole seem more courteous. Vehicles from both directions will stop suddenly if a pedestrian steps into the street. Try that one in Chicago sometime. Or even the Chicago suburbs. You’ll probably make the news. Portland is also greener, in every sense of the word. For whatever it’s worth, according to my son, Portland tops the list of cities to which people are moving. Even the maintenance man at our hotel, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast, told me that he prefers Portland to Southern California, where he had lived before. 

Unfortunately, Portland also has a substantial and highly visible homeless population. This may be the result of tolerance as well as climate. But for whatever reason, they are there, they are human beings, and just like anyplace else, some are very nice, some aren’t very nice, and some appear to have substantial problems beyond being homeless. 


We got a tour of John’s studio apartment, which is currently being used as a set for a web series about a highly disturbed individual. Worry not. Despite indications from his interior decore, my son is not a psychopath. 


We visited Powell’s Book City, a bookstore on steroids, that takes up an entire city block in a four-story building. This place is incredible and perhaps a bit overwhelming, but we spent a couple of awesome hours there and, predictably, came away with a fair number of books. 


Next came our tour of the Portland Actors Conservatory, the whole reason John is out here and subsequently, the whole reason we have taken this epic road trip. 

John seemed very pleased to be showing us his school, and we were positively tickled to be there.


Next came supper and drinks at the Rogue Hall. We had copious amounts of food and several beers, and nobody complained. Seriously, it was quite good. 

That brought us back to the hotel. After helping us get our belongings into our rooms, John took his motorcycle and returned to his apartment. It was an excellent day! 

Epic Journey Day Three — Cheyenne to Salt Lake City (Suburbs)


I started off my day collecting a few items in the entryway of the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne, where we opted to eat breakfast. Since the only other Little America location we’d heard of was the original Little America Travel Center on the other side of the state, we weren’t expecting anything quite as opulent as the place we walked into this morning. I felt resigned to eating a $100 breakfast as we were seated, but was pleasantly surprised at how fairly priced our seemingly high-end breakfast was. After gassing up at the Little America Sinclair Station, we were on our way. 


In no time, we found ourselves climbing in elevation as Interstate 80 took us  through a portion of the Rocky Mountains. I happened to be leading—we trade off leading after every gas stop—and pulled us into a scenic rest area with extensive tourist information as well as a monument to the Lincoln Highway. It was a great stop, but ate up time. Turns out this would become a recurring theme this day. 


The chase vehicle—also known as the blue Grand Caravan containing my wife and my eldest sister—actually did chase us today. The good side of that is that our group got to do everything together. The down side is that it took them every bit as long to reach today’s destination as it did the rest of us on our bikes. 

As we continued on, the natural beauty of south central Wyoming had gradually turned into a rugged beauty. Green gave way to more and more brown. The majority of plant life seemed to be scrub, stuff that can grow around rocks. The wind was harsh and sustained. Dust, sand and gravel seemed to get blown everywhere. Wherever we got off the highway, intersections and parking lots were all partially covered with the stuff.  Gas stops, our lunch stop, everywhere the same. Still we had our fun. 

And the wind never let up. My son’s bike, a Honda 750 Shadow Aero, was the smallest and lightest in the group, so he felt it most. At times John was going straight down the highway heeled over at a substantial angle, and at times, he could not reach the speed limit (usually 75 or 80) due to the strong headwinds and crosswinds. But even Eddie and I with our heavyweight full-on touring bikes found ourselves wrestling an 800-pound gorilla because of the wind. 

We made more stops, mainly for gas, but also just to get off the road and see things. We had fun together, but of course this ate up time. 


Our last stop in Wyoming was at the original Little America Travel Center, where my son had stopped when he drove his old Chrysler sedan to Oregon last year, to begin attending the Portland Actors Conservatory. We shopped, looked around, ate ice cream and refueled. I collected a couple more fiberglass animals. We had much fun, but it ate up time 


As we continued farther west, things got green again, and beautiful. When we crossed into Utah, our surroundings were downright lush. Again, if only I’d had my favorite photographer on board, I could show you some of what I’d seen. 

At last we made it to our hotel, in Park City, a suburb of Salt Lake. It was quite late, too late to do much of anything, but still, we’d had a great day together. 

Motorcycle Sunday Stories

Sunken Garden AMFThe 16th annual Motorcycle Sunday took place at Phillips Park in Aurora last Sunday. I’ve been going to this event since roughly 2007—I’m no longer certain of the exact year. I do know that I had thought about attending this event for a couple of years before I actually went. I just wasn’t sure if it would be right for me. This seems ridiculous in hindsight, but at the time, I wasn’t sure if a Honda-riding Catholic boy would be welcome there. So I stayed away. But then a friend of mine told me the event was great, that I would indeed be welcome there, and that Fox Valley Cycles, my favorite Honda dealer and sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders (aka my local Honda Riders Club of America chapter), was a regular exhibitor at the event. So I went, I loved it, and I and haven’t missed one since.

I’ve gone on bright, sunny days. I’ve gone in nonstop torrential rains. I’ve gone in the steel gray miserable chill that can sometimes grip Chicagoland at this time of year. I enjoy going. Sometimes I drag friends along and I see a number of friends, old and new, at Motorcycle Sunday every year. I’ve collected some pretty cool stories along the way, too. Let me tell you a few.

In 2010, probably feeling like an idiot about my unfounded former fears, I sent a Facebook Message to the event founder, Pastor Randy Schoof of Warehouse Church.

Hi Randy, I felt compelled to share this with you. I only began attending Motorcycle Sunday a couple or three years ago, mainly because I ride a Honda and wasn’t sure if that would be okay. But also because I’m Catholic and I wasn’t sure of that was okay, either. Came to discover all denominations are welcome, in more ways than one. Now I wouldn’t miss Motorcycle Sunday for the world.

The only thing that could keep me away would be if my dad’s health takes a turn for the worse. He is 88 years old and has been in failing health for some time. Otherwise, see you there!

Best regards,
Michael G. D’Aversa

Randy n Me older MGD

Pastor Randy replied…

Michael, thanks so much for writing…. it’s so cool that you are now a MCS regular! I ride a
Honda too – a VTX 1300 Retro… And it’s cool that you’re a brother in Christ. God’s family is big… and we’re committed to making it even bigger.

I’ll be praying for your dad too!

Blessings in Jesus,
Randy

Randy never said a word about our differences, nor has he done so in any of the six years that have followed. Rather, he pointed to our common ground, and in so doing, he earned my respect and struck up a friendship. We are brothers in Christ as well as biker bros, brethren of the open road.

I love telling that story. Here’s another…

My friend and fellow past president of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, Eddie Cullins, loves to tell this story. As sometimes happens, we found ourselves at a cool, damp, rainy Motorcycle Sunday one year. It seemed as though the rain would never let up.

Attendance was better than one might have expected for such a rainy day, but then Motorcycle Sunday has its diehard fans. I should know; I’m one of them. Hours went by. Phillips Park was quickly turning into a mud field. Then came time for the centerpiece of Motorcycle Sunday, the bike blessing.

We all meandered, stumbled and trudged over to the parking lot and stood by our bikes. A number of area pastors were on hand to assist with the blessing and pray with attendees. Randy Schoof took to the music stage, grabbed the main microphone and began to pray.

Now you have to understand, Pastor Randy is very good at what he does. When he prays over people, as he does every Motorcycle Sunday, Randy doesn’t recite words; he pours his entire self into it, with feeling. It’s a very positive experience in general, but more so on this occasion. As Eddie likes to tell it…

It was pouring rain when Randy started prayin’, but as he went on, the rain just got lighter and lighter. By the time he finished his blessing, the rain had stopped, the sun came out, the temperature rose, and everything (and everybody) began to dry out. And it never rained again that day.

That story gets told every year and it makes people smile every time. Nobody brings down a blessing like Pastor Randy.

Ann n Me MGDLast Sunday I added a new story to my collection. My dear friend and riding companion Ann had driven down from Wisconsin so that she could experience firsthand this Motorcycle Sunday of which I speak so highly. I had so badly wanted Ann’s first experience with Motorcycle Sunday to be one of the sunny, warm variety, but it didn’t quite go that way for us. It had poured rain all day Saturday, but I had it on good authority that Sunday would be dry, if a bit cool.

MGD + VFS by AMFTemps were in the low-to-mid 40’s when Ann and I left Plainfield, and it never got past the low 50’s all day. We were dressed for the weather, so we stayed relatively comfortable for the most part. Once on site at Phillips Park, we did our best to stay warm by moving a lot.

We walked the vendor booths, listened to some live music, ate a little, drank hot coffee, and otherwise managed to enjoy ourselves, Plenty of friends were on hand and I enjoyed introducing them to Ann. Most of them said the same thing, “Well, at least it isn’t raining!” Ann and I soon discovered that any time we stood still for very long, we got chilled. What to do?

Gator MGDIn addition to providing a pleasant park setting for all visitors, Phillips Park also offers a zoo, a water park, and a golf course. We opted to check out the zoo, something I had not yet done, despite the years that I had been attending this event.

What a blast! The zoo turned out to be a nice place to visit and features primarily American wild animals. One of our favorite zoo stops was the reptile house. It was quite warm inside and many of the animals were quite active. They also had a couple of alligators in there, one of which was really, really large.

Private Blessing AMFNot long after Ann and I walked back to the Motorcycle Sunday celebration, it was time for the bike blessing. As we walked out toward the parked bikes, one of the ministers on hand to assist Randy offered to bless our bike. And so it came to pass that on that day, Miss Scarlett, Ann and I were blessed at least twice—first by this gracious minister who prayed over us directly, and then by Pastor Randy, who did his usual stellar job.

Ann n Me AMFDuring the 1:00 PM hour, a 60-mile ride through the countryside was conducted and Ann and I were there for it. Somebody had put together a nice route through the surrounding countryside. With the heated seats and grips on, the windshield up slightly, and my tunes playing, Ann and I remained relatively comfy aboard Miss Scarlett. We peeled off from the group during a gas stop in Newark, though, so that we could get back to Plainfield in time for Ann to head home—a 2.5 hour drive—in a timely fashion.

Despite the cold temps and relative lack of sun, Ann and I had a great time! We laughed a lot and shared some really fun moments. It was also great introducing her to some of my biker friends. Call me an optimist, but I think she’ll be back for Motorcycle Sunday 2017. Time will tell.

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

Ann & Me: Kenosha to Delavan 4/17/16

RoadIt was destined to be a bad hair day, first by virtue of helmet hair and then by the wind-in-the hair effect. But I knew this day would be magical just the same. My friend (and favorite pillion) Ann and I had been talking about going riding again ever since our last time out on the bike together, which was last November. Even a relatively mild winter in the Midwest doesn’t hold a lot of riding opportunities for two people who live 150 mile apart. So we bided our time, even getting together a few times to attend non-riding events, cook some awesome dishes together, watching the winter crawl by and talking about places we might visit when riding season came around again. On Sunday, April 17, the day we’d been waiting for came.

TrolleyWe met that morning in Pleasant Prairie, on the Wisconsin/Illinois state line, sort of a halfway point for both of us. From there we secured Ann’s car and took the bike over to Kenosha’s Simmons Island Park (http://www.visitkenosha.com/attractions/parks-nature/simmons-island-beach) on the shore of Lake Michigan. As we got closer to the lake, the air got downright crisp, but not uncomfortably so, because we had geared up in anticipation of riding in a fairly broad temperature range that day. When you travel by motorcycle, by virtue of being on the outside of the vehicle, you experience whatever is going on around you firsthand. Wind, rain, beating sun, odors, steep temperature gradients, you name it, you’re not just passing through—you’re in it.

BoardwalkBack when I was a boater, I used to “put in” at Kenosha Harbor, right behind Simmons Island, which was home to the Simmons Mattress factory long before it was repurposed as a recreation area, but that was years ago. Much of it still looked the same, but there’s a nice boardwalk along the beach now. Ann and I strolled the boardwalk in order to get to the Kenosha North Pier Lighthouse, also known as Kenosha Light. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but the Coast Guard auctioned off Kenosha Light as “excess property” in 2011 and it is now under private ownership (see http://kenoshalighthousestudio.com/).

Ann at K LightWe walked out to the end of the pier. A rather historic-looking electric trolley was trundling along the opposite side of the harbor channel at the time. We also saw a number of people fishing off the southern side of the harbor mouth. The pier itself was almost deserted, save for one or two people who came and went as we looked out across Lake Michigan. Despite it still being April, we saw a couple of boats out there, too. One was a cabin cruiser, passing just beyond breakwater. The other was a twin screw sport boat, its hull barely touching the glass-like lake surface as it flew by. Gulls flew overhead. Ann and I just stood there, breathing the crisp air and taking it all in, occasionally offering a few words about some aspect or another of the area that we respectively recalled.

Old LightBefore heading back to the bike, we walked farther south, to the historic Kenosha “Southport” Lighthouse, which stands in remarkably good condition, thanks no doubt to some benefactors who cared enough to want it kept that way. It’s a well-preserved bit of this city’s history that deserves a visit, if you are ever in that area. For a glimpse at the history of Kenosha’s lighthouses, check out http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=240.

Fat TuesdayOnce we got back to my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett, it was time to head toward Delavan, home of Fat Tuesdays Kitchen (http://fattuesdayskitchen.com/), a delightful little Cajun/barbecue/soul food restaurant that I had fallen in love with when I stopped there last July. My biker friends and I must have made a Foodpositive impression, because the people there—good people, I might add—still remember me. What a great little place to visit, especially if you are hungry. Ann enjoyed the red beans and rice. I tried their signature Fat Tuesday’s Sandwich, an awesome combination of sweet and spicy that still makes my mouth smile when I think of it. When in Delavan, please stop in for a bite and tell them “MGD” or “that biker Mike” sent you. You will not be sorry, believe me.

We bade our goodbyes and got back on the road, this time hopping Interstate 43 to Highways 11 and 142, respectively, which brought us to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/richardbong/), where we paid our $11 out-of-state entry fee and went walking. Technically we were 50/50 (Ann is a Wisconsin native; I’m the flatlander), but the nice girl at the guard hut went by the vehicle on which we were mounted, which is registered in Illinois. Ah, well…

In contrast to thAnn at Bonge cool air along the lakefront, it was quite warm out near Brighton, at the Bong SRA, a 4,515-acre parcel that was once designated to become an air base, but was abandoned before it was built. There is plenty to do here for the outdoor enthusiast, including hiking trails, horse trails, fishing, hunting, dirt bike and OHV trails, camping and even a small beach. Ann and I had no horse. It was too cold to swim and besides, we had no swimsuits. We had neither fishing tackle nor camping gear. It was not hunting season. And believe me, Miss Scarlett is not a dirt bike by any definition. So we checked out a trail map and went for a short hike.

There is a fair amount of wetland to be found here, so we did encounter a few muddy parts along the course of our walk together. But it was nice to just walk for a while. And despite the beating sun and somewhat humid conditions, we enjoyed ourselves out there. We also saw some wildlife, including ducks, geese, a beaver, a crane (I think) and two small, rambunctious kids (under adult supervision) on the sandy beach. Again we often just stopped to breathe, enjoying each others company as we took it all in.

PetrifyingWe had just a little bit of time left together, but what to do with it? We headed for Petrifying Springs Park (http://www.visitkenosha.com/attractions/parks-nature/petrifying-springs-park), a lovely area just off Green Bay Road in Kenosha County, just north of the city of Kenosha. But alas, I had forgotten the park was on Green Bay Road and headed for Sheridan Road, by the lake, again. Woah! We both commented on the steep drop in temperature, which was substantial, as we rumbled into town on 142.  Ann had a good chuckle when we realized that I had put us on the wrong road—but she remains my favorite pillion and besides, you’re never really lost when you’re on a motorcycle.

Bad HairPetrifying Springs Park, or “Pets” for short, turned out to be a real find. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, but we soon found ourselves wishing we had come here earlier. Relative to the other places we had visited that day, there were a lot of people here, and for good reason. This place is beautiful and many area families obviously enjoy going there. Ann and I strolled along the flowing waterway, presumably fed by the artesian well for which this park is named. Several foot bridges cross the stream as trails continue on either side. We had no time to follow the trails, but we couldn’t help but stop for a quick selfie on one of the bridges. It was at that moment that Ann and I both realized how unkempt our hair had become after a day of walking and riding. We may not have looked all that well-groomed at the moment, but the shared laughter sure felt good.

Ann n MGD 04172016The time to part ways and head for home had come all too soon. Ann and I said our goodbyes and exchanged hugs, both quite happy to have shared some time together and pretty darned sure there would be a next time. Roughly 90 minutes later, we were 150 miles apart again, but I have no doubt we were both still grinning ear to ear. Good friendships are like that.

Until next time…

 

Photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa

There Was Once This Beautiful Place That Kept Trying to Kill Me…

Holding KidsJust a few miles south of the somewhat better-known High Cliff State Park lies this lovely place called Calumet County Park, at the end of County Trunk EE on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. For the better part of ten years, from 1991 through 2000, I took my then-young family there, along with our boat and about a month’s worth of camping provisions, for a few days of rest, relaxation, and the occasional near brush with death.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved going to Calumet County Park during those years, despite the outward indications that somebody or something didn’t want us there. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, situated on the Niagara Escarpment—which means level (or soft) ground can be a little hard to come by across its 200+ acres. And Lake Winnebago, the largest inland lake in the state, was ideally suited to the Sweet 17, my Bayliner runabout that I had won in 1990 by looking in the bottom of a pop can at just the right time. This park had a small harbor with launch ramps as well as some decent camp sites, very close to the water. What’s not to love? We would soon find out the answer to that one!

Karen and I first arrived at the end of County Trunk EE on a Friday in 1991, which we affectionately referred to as 1 Year B.C. (Before Children). We pulled into the park with the Sweet 17, trailered behind our trustworthy (ha!) 1980 AMC Eagle 4WD sedan. Ah, those were the days! You could say we lived on love, mainly because it was the only thing we could afford back then. It was getting late on the day as we arrived—I no longer recall why we arrived so late at a destination that was only four hours from home—and immediately fell in love with our new surroundings, at least until we discovered the spider population (Karen has always been deathly afraid of spiders, especially big ones). The sun was shining (for the last time until the end of that weekend) as we set up camp. We dined on hot dogs and beans, spent hours sitting by our campfire, made the most of our private tent accommodations, and fell asleep.

DinnerBy Saturday morning, a steady rain had set up over the region. There would be no boating that day, no frolicking in the lake, either. Instead we talked, read books, and otherwise amused ourselves within the cozy confines of our tent. Sometime during that afternoon, our dear friends the Tabors arrived to check in on us (remember this was before the days when everybody had cell phones). They had known in advance where we would be staying and, having camped with us once before—when we ended an area-wide drought by bringing down torrential rainstorms and at least one confirmed tornado—they also knew it would be raining. After they arrived, we laughed about the weather conditions for a bit and then sought out the confines of the Fish Tale Inn, a bar and supper club (then) located on EE, just outside of the park.

I still remember the four of us hanging out at the Fish Tale that afternoon, having no place better to go, sipping beers and solving the problems of the world. There was a huge sturgeon mounted over the inside of the doorway. It was a monster, easily twice as long as the doorway was wide. Beneath it was a placard, providing details of the sturgeon’s prehistoric origins. My eyes were drawn to that until I noticed two raccoons, very much alive, peering into the Fish Tale from two ground-level windows that were at or above eye level inside the place, which had been built into a hillside. They were just walking along the hillside, like nobody’s business, and stopped to check out the humans on display inside the bar. Apparently I was the only one who noticed them, as everybody else in the establishment seemed oblivious to our furry observers. Sadly the Fish Tale is no more, but it was a rather interesting place in which to hang out on a rainy Saturday afternoon, at least for those two young couples, back in the day.

Eventually our friends departed and we were left to fend for ourselves. The firewood we had purchased had become quite damp, but this did not deter me. While Karen retired into our tent for a nap, I set about figuring out how to get a fire going. I arranged some soggy wood into our sunken fire ring and then set about looking for something dry to help get the fire started. The Kleenex went quickly. The few pieces of dry news paper and advertisements went almost as fast. Still no fire. I looked around for something else that would burn. Just before giving up hope, I smiled faintly as my eyes settled on a nearly full can of Coleman cooking fuel.

I doused the wet firewood soundly with the white gas, oblivious to the heavier-than-air vapors that were filling the fire pit the whole time. Fortunately for me, I struck a match from a yard or two away and tossed it into the fire pit. I never saw that match land. Instead, I saw this blue flash erupt and spread horizontally across the top of the fire pit.

FOOM!

I felt a wave of energy pass through the ground beneath my feet as the atmosphere compressed my head to a point where I could feel the insides of my ears touching each other. Then… silence. If there had been birds singing and squirrels chattering before then, they weren’t doing so any more. A meek voice called out from within our tent, “Hun…? Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I stammered, “I’m fine.” I vaguely felt around my lower forehead to see if I still had any eyebrows left, then added, “I got the fire going.” And that much was true. The fire raged on for hours and we enjoyed another simple campfire meal, undisturbed by mosquitoes or wildlife of any kind.

Karen w RopeThe following day, on our last day at camp, the sun rose and there was no more rain. For the first time during that trip—for the first time ever—we launched the Sweet 17 and took her out of the harbor and out onto Lake Winnebago. The water was like glass and there was little or no other marine traffic on the lake that morning. It was glorious. It was also bait, set to convince us to come back. And we did, with our children, foolish mortals that we were.

Harbor LaunchThe years that followed were a combination of the best and worst vacation moments of our lives.

One of my fondest memories involves Nat King Cole and pancakes. I had this portable radio that I always took along when we went camping and there was only one station that I could get clearly from Cal County Park. It was an oldies station that played the likes of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, etc. On one amazingly calm, sunny morning, I was frying bacon over hot coals and flipping pancakes on the camp stove, while Nat King Cole sang Unforgettable. I can still recall every bit of what that morning was like. My view of the lake, the smell of the forest intermingling with the aromas of my food cooking, the sound of that song playing on an otherwise quiet morning, everything. It was awesome.

We did not come back in 1992, the year our Teresa was born, or 1993, when John was born, but we made up for lost time in 1994, when we returned to Cal County Park with our new family. This was the year I sliced open my right-hand pinky with a brand new (and very sharp) Swiss Army Knife, while setting up camp. This was also the year we were treated to record cold temperatures. Karen checked on our son in the middle of the night and began heaping all of our bath and beach towels into his portable crib, because she had discovered the boy was turning blue.

The following year brought record high temperatures, when Karen sought urgent relief for our kids by tossing them into Lake Winnebago. It was then that we discovered how much water a standard disposable diaper is capable of holding. This is also the year that our young son potty-trained himself, having decided, after having had his epiphany in Lake Winnebago, that he no longer wished to wear diapers. And true to his word, he never had to again. As we drove toward Appleton on Saturday afternoon, seeking relief from the extreme heat, a news report came on over the radio detailing local livestock losses due to the extreme heat. Our Teresa became very upset at the news of cows dying from heat exhaustion. We eventually tried to interject humor into the issue by adding wisecracks about chickens exploding. For some reason this seemed funny at the time. But we were punished for our mirth by picking a Burger King at which to have lunch, only to discover that their air conditioning had broken down.
Kids eating

You would think this next experience might have scared us off for good, but no. Another set of friends of ours, the Shermans, and some friends of theirs, joined us at Cal County Park, and believe me, we all had the time of our lives. Things went well enough by day. We frolicked in the sun, we cooked over our open fire. We fished from the shores of lake Winnebago, where I caught a fairly impressive (and very angry) walleye. Then the storms rolled in.

We had settled in for the night, but the storm continued to build. Sometime during that night, I was awakened from a sound sleep by my loving wife, who had grown concerned because the once-vertical walls of our tent were being bent horizontally by winds of extraordinary magnitude.

“Michael…”

“Hmmm…”

“Michael!”

“Huh… what?”

“Look!” By this time the walls of our tent were bending horizontally toward my face and our entire world was being lit up by continuous lightning in strobe-like fashion. We were literally in the storm.

“Should we stay put or get out?”

“Let’s get in the car,” I reasoned. I didn’t think the tent would hold out much longer. We gathered everything together and woke the kids up.

Teresa woke up in a flash and then helped her brother wake up by screaming into his face, “John, get up now! We’re gonna’ die!!!!” I guess she didn’t want him to miss it. My son played his part perfectly, first opening his eyes and then screaming for all he was worth.

After a moment of frantically searching for our car keys, only to discover they were already in my hand, we lined up and prepared to exit. As soon as I unzipped our tent, the storm took it. As we drove toward the main (read: the only) park building, the storm sheared our tent pegs clean off at ground level and flattened our tent, our battery-powered lantern still glowing from within.

We arrived at the park office, we saw the maintenance garage doors were open. Turns out they had been opened for us. We parked facing the lake, gathered our kids in a handful of beach towels and headed up toward the building. From somewhere behind me, lightning struck the lake with a blinding flash followed by an immediate explosion of thunder. With my daughter wrapped in my arms, I ran for all I was worth. Even more amazing,Karen was right behind me, with John bundled into her arms.

The following Sunday morning, as we prepared to head for home, I discovered some tee shirts at the camp store proclaiming, “Experience nature’s peace.” Laughing hysterically, I bought two of them, one for Karen and one for myself. Amazingly enough, those who were friends of ours upon arrival, remained friends of ours, even after this experience.

You would think that would be it, but we are slow learners. We cae back, one more time. The year was 2000, Teresa was eight years old, John was six, the weather was uncharacteristically perfect, and we had been caught well off of our guard. Sometime that Saturday afternoon, Karen and the kids had decided to go down to the lake. I was doing something at the campsite, intending to join them shortly, but I never got the chance.

I remember Karen running toward me, cradling Teresa, who had been screaming in pain. She had slipped on a moss-covered rock and smashed her front teeth onto the same rock. I took John with me and got supplies out of our first aid kit for the girls. Long story short, one of my daughter’s adult teeth had been damaged in the fall. We called our family dentist, packed everything up and headed back to Illinois, never to return.

There is more to the story. Calumet County Park is more than just a campground, situated on the Niagara Escarpment. The land also includes a number of effigy mounds, Indian burial grounds, up on the escarpment. Does that play into this story? I don’t know.

I haven’t gone back since summer of 2000. I have often thought about taking a motorcycle trip back to the park. But dare I do so? I welcome your thoughts.

Until next time…

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