Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 1 of 3

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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.

A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

Surf & Turf & Local History

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It had been some time since I’d been to the Wilmot Stage Stop, an historic eating and drinking establishment—billed as Wisconsin’s oldest tap and dining room—located at the corner of highways C and W in Wilmot, Wisconsin. This establishment began as the Wilmot Hotel, an actual stagecoach stop, in 1848 and has been owned by the same family ever since.It was my wife’s family who introduced me to this place in 1984 or ’85, after Karen and I had become engaged. Known primarily for its charcoal-broiled steaks and lobster tails, the Wilmot Stage Stop had long been a favorite place for my in-laws to celebrate special occasions, entertain visitors, or simply enjoy a special meal.

There was a period during which I feared I would never enjoy eating at the Stage Stop, when the restaurant abruptly shut its doors last year—July 29, 2016 to be exact—but an article appearing in the Kenosha News last January, announcing that the popular steakhouse would be reopening that very month, put a big old smile on my face.

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The Wilmot Stage Stop is not a highbrow establishment, but a family-owned steakhouse with a tremendous history and no small amount of atmosphere. Area families have been dining there for generations. It’s a three story affair. The dining room and bar are on the ground floor. A central staircase leads up to what was once the hotel ballroom. The ballroom now houses a collection of artifacts in a museum-like setting. A much narrower and steeper staircase leads up to the third floor, where the original hotel rooms now serve as viewing areas for even more artifacts. The short beds, low ceilings, even the rooms themselves, are a reminder to us that people were generally shorter back then than they are now. And from all appearances, cross country travelers were not accustomed to having anywhere near the creature comforts that we so take for granted today.

Still, the real reason people go there is for the food, mostly steaks and lobster tails, both charcoal-broiled. A baked potato spiked with a huge slab of butter accompanies your selection, as do a salad and rolls. The bar has a nice variety of drink offerings, the servers are warm and friendly, and the seating, if a bit dense, can be arranged to accommodate quite a range of party sizes.

Our party arrived at 4:00 PM,  while there were seemingly many open tables. By the time we departed, less than 90 minutes later, the dining area and bar were both brimming with humanity. The Wilmot Stage Stop is a popular dining destination and reservations are probably a wise choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs

In 2016 astronomical fall began on September 22, with the autumnal equinox, while meteorological fall began, as it does every year, on October 1. In the minds of many, though, the fall season pretty much gets underway the day after Labor Day. When I was a kid, shortly after the mastodons died out, my school years generally began either right before or right after Labor Day weekend, which is probably why to this day my mind turns to fall on that first Tuesday in September of every year, even though the astronomers and meteorologists see otherwise.

As an avid motorcyclist, I see both good news and bad news in the arrival of fall. On one hand, here in the Midwest, the first part of fall offers nearly ideal riding conditions. Temperatures are cooler, but not yet cold, so that one may comfortably wear gear when riding. The countryside gradually becomes painted in fall colors. There’s a sense of abundance in the air as farmers are harvesting crops, wineries are making wine, etc.

On the other hand, it won’t last. I have long likened motorcyclists to bees and wasps. Both become more active in the fall because they can sense that the end is near. Days become shorter. Wet or dry, fallen leaves on the pavement present their own hazards. Bees and wasps really are more prevalent, and they sometimes get sucked behind one’s windshield, into one’s shirt, or up one’s pants leg (don’t ask), where they may become agitated. Whether gradually or suddenly, even the daytime temperatures become less conducive to riding. And then there is the matter of snow and ice.

But as the saying goes, we must make hay while the sun shines and get some riding in while the riding is still good. That’s pretty much what Ann and I have been doing since we got back from our Labor Day weekend run to Dubuque, which I still considered to be a summer trip. There is a direct, bittersweet relationship between the hours of daylight and the duration of our rides together as the fall season plays out. Those autumn rides can be so pleasant, so beautiful, I find myself wishing they didn’t have to end so soon. Inevitably the days and the rides become shorter, but we make the most of what we are given.

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We were blessed with some fantastic weather on September 18, so I ran up to Ann’s place early that morning and, after a bit of breakfast, we headed to Holy Hill, home of The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians. I love this place and I’ve written about it before, right here on the MGD Time blog site. Indeed the very first time I carried Ann on my motorcycle was in the fall of 2014, at Holy Hill.

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My 2014 article as it appeared in Thunder Roads magazine.

She had agreed to meet me there and take some photos for me to use in an article I was writing for the now-defunct Wisconsin and Northern Illinois edition of Thunder Roads magazine. I was nervous as heck about carrying Ann. Lord only knows why. After walking the grounds at Holy Hill, I took her to lunch up the road at The Fox and Hounds—the round trip couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen miles—and Ann, having been a motorcyclist herself, proved to be a most competent pillion passenger. She also took some stunning photos, which the magazine printed with my article. So nervous as I may have been at the onset, by the time I headed for home that afternoon, I was already thinking about how cool it might be to take Ann riding again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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So it all started at Holy Hill, you see, and it seemed fitting that eventually we would return. There was no magazine article being written this time, no official reason to be there, other than to revisit this beautiful place and enjoy each others company. We had plenty of company this time, as apparently a lot of other people had the same destination in mind on this beautiful Sunday. Once we parked, we did something that I had never done at Holy Hill before, despite having been stopping there periodically for well over thirty years: We went to mass together.

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Doing mass at Holy Hill  together proved to be a pretty cool experience, actually. I came away feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long. Then we walked the grounds for a while, taking in the majestic views and natural beauty all around us.The last time we visited, we had climbed the scenic tower in one of the twin spires, where both the view and the climb are quite breathtaking. But the tower was closed this time, so we opted to move on and enjoy a late lunch.

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Ann had suggested the lunch stop in advance of our trip, a place called MJ Stevens, located outside of Hartford, along Interstate 41. What a delightful spot! This is a place that Ann’s mother enjoys and now I understand why. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is very good, and the entire staff seems warm and friendly. Ann and I opted for sandwiches off the menu that day, but from all appearances, the Sunday brunch is also a worthwhile choice. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this establishment to friends.

We rode around for a while after lunch, but the high point of this run had been our time at Holy Hill. I enjoyed going back there and attending mass at the basilica with Ann. She took most of the photos and all of the video clips you see here. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, if not for Ann, I wouldn’t have nearly as much cool stuff to show you from all these excursions.

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Our next run was on the weekend of October 9, down by me in Illinois, and it was a big one: the 30th Anniversary DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy and Food Run. Ann had come down last year for the 29th annual event and we had so much fun together, I invited her back. This year was a little different, though, in that Ann played an active role in helping me promote the event. This was my third year assisting the DuKane Chapter with PR and publicity for their flagship charity event, but this year—with no small amount of creative assistance from my dear friend—I was able to do a better job before, during, and after.

Given the hours that would be involved that day, Ann drove down the night before and stayed over with my wife Karen and me. As Karen is not physically able to ride much, we arranged for her to meet us on the event grounds, where the motorcycle parade portion of the Toy and Food Run terminates and where a full day of music, food and fun begins. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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After rising early and going to 7:30 mass at my church, we headed out to Fox River Harley Davidson in St. Charles, a remote registration point for the Toy and Food Run and a darned good one at that. After registering for the run and dropping off our toy and food donations, Ann and I (along with all the other attendees) were treated to a hot breakfast. Then after perusing the dealership and checking out all the bikes parked outside, we assembled for a group ride to Elburn, which was the main staging area for the Toy and Food Run parade.

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There were motorcycles parked everywhere when our group arrived. We were directed to a parking lot about a block away from the pre-run festivities held outside of Knuckleheads Tavern on North Avenue. More and more bikes poured in as we walked the area, listening to live music, greeting people we know, looking at bikes, and otherwise being a part of the scene—just me, Ann, and a couple of thousand casual acquaintances. At the appointed time, everyone returned to their machines and prepared to roll out. When that many motorcycles fire up together, the word “thunder” is a very appropriate term that describes not only the sound, but the vibration that fills the very air around us.

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What a blast. After we rolled onto the grounds of the Batavia VFW, located right on the banks of the Fox River, we were treated to hours of live music, provided by six different bands. As A.B.A.T.E. is a motorcycle rights organization (actually a sizable lobby), there were numerous politicians in attendance, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself a motorcyclist and active member of A.B.A.T.E. There were many, many product vendors and food vendors, too. A very touching flag ceremony took place early on. We filled a couple of flatbed semi trailers with toy and food donations that were picked up the same day by numerous local charities.

It felt so great to have been a part of this and we had such a good time again. Believe it or not, Ann and I are already talking about possible promos for next year.

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October 16 started out wet for me, but fortunately not cold. By the time I got to Ann’s place, the rain had moved on. We waited a while for the pavement to dry off, and then took a ride up into the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. At one point during our ride, on a whim, I turned in at a sign I saw for the Ice Age Visitor Center, which turned out to be a nice little find. We took one of the trails and ended up at a scenic vista overlooking some of the prettiest fall color we saw that day. There was also a large observation deck out behind the visitor center itself, but as the sign warned, there were many bees, wasps and hornets nesting and flying about, so we didn’t linger there. When touring on a motorcycle, sometimes the best places are those we find by accident. This was one of those times.

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Our last run of the season, so far, was again rather local. I left home in the dark and ambient temps were still in the 40’s when I arrived at Ann’s. Remember, motorcycling inherently involves its own wind chill factor. I hadn’t opted to wear longies and was rather cold when I arrived. But it warmed up quickly after the sun rose and we did manage to get a nice ride in, albeit a short one. We revisited a place called Nature Hill, that Ann had taken me to see last spring, before the riding season had even gotten underway. We got a good walk in that day and I think I did a little better climbing that hill this time.

I stayed long enough to partake in some crock pot beef stew that Ann had prepared before we headed out that morning. It was delicious! Still, the days have been getting shorter all season long and it was already dark when I headed for home early that evening.

Although we have no more rides scheduled, I doubt very much that we are done for the year, not just yet. Conditions are such that we can no longer plan well in advance, but I assure you that on very short notice, if conditions and schedules permit, Ann and I will ride again.

And of course you’ll read about it here. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

History, Memories and a Gastronomic Adventure

My friend Ann and I love riding together and cooking together. When we try to combine the two, unless the ride or the meal is particularly small, it makes for a long day—albeit a fantastic day. Well, you’ll see what I mean.

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As has often been the case lately, we were blessed with nearly perfect summer weather for our planned outing. Neither too warm, nor too cold, low humidity, and zero chance of precipitation from my little corner of the world to Ann’s. I was up and out early enough to pick up my favorite passenger/photographer during the eight-o’clock hour. She in turn favored me with freshly brewed coffee and a plate of fresh fruit, meats and cheeses (not a bad spread by any standards—and Ann is not even 1% Italian, so go figure). We sat out on her balcony, chaperoned by her feline bodyguards, Mona and Atlas, and planned our day. I probably ate more than I should have, but the food was really good.

Minutes later we were rolling across the heartland. I have no photos to offer from the ride itself, which was quite pleasant. Some of the greatest features Wisconsin has to offer lie not in her tourist attractions, which are in and of themselves formidable, but in her natural features, even along “ordinary” roads. Ann and I rode along Wisconsin Highways 83 and 60, plus a few lettered (i.e. county) roads in-between, and the scenery was beautiful. If you draw a rectangle around an area roughly from Oconomowoc to Cedarburg, you are capturing a portion of the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin. You don’t even have to be on the official Scenic Drive to appreciate the rolling hills and scenic views to be had on a ribbon of two-lane blacktop coursing through the area farmlands.

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Before we rolled into “downtown” Cedarburg, we headed north along Covered Bridge Road until we arrived at our first stop, Covered Bridge Park, home of the last covered bridge in Wisconsin. What a beautiful little spot! Ann and i spent some time walking the park, examining the bridge itself, and marveling at the fact that there were so relatively few people there on this beautiful Sunday. What I had expected to be nothing more than a token stop had turned out to be a joyful discovery. When in Cedarburg, make a point of checking this place out. You may wish to bring a picnic lunch along, as a number of tables dot the park, which runs along both sides of the creek there.

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From there we motored down Washington Avenue into downtown Cedarburg. I’ve been coming to this town since my college days (shortly after the earth cooled), when my then-girlfriend (now wife of 30+ years) introduced me to this historic town filled with shops and galleries. Because, as Ann likes to kid me, I always want our outings to be perfect, I had done a little research and found many good things said about The Stilt House, a gastro bar specializing in small plates, craft beers, and wine—it says so, right on their sign. It was a pleasant enough little place, with (are your ready?) stilted tables and stools. From our perch near one of the windows, Ann and I enjoyed a couple of craft beers and a relatively light lunch. The beers were good, the food was well-prepared, and the waitstaff went out of their way to make us feel at home. I would go back there.

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We walked a few more shops. Not counting the newly discovered Covered Bridge Park, my favorite place to visit in Cedarburg is still the old woolen mill, which houses the shops of the Cedar Creek Settlement. This includes the Cedar Creek Winery, now owned by Wollersheim (my favorite winery in all of Wisconsin). That was not the case when I first started visiting there. Of course Ann and I had to stop in and sample a few wines. We both liked the Marquette red (we both attended Marquette University), made with Wisconsin-grown grapes. If you enjoy a medium-bodied, dry red, check this one out. I appreciated the pleasant nose and good flavor.

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Not long after that, we headed back to Ann’s home, where we had planned on making ourselves a little supper before I headed on to my own home. In preparation for this part of our day, I had brought up a sizeable bag of fresh tomatoes, some fresh basil that I had picked from my yard that morning, some fresh mozzarella cheese from Caputo’s, a loaf of ciabatta bread, and a box of angel hair pasta. Ann supplied everything else we needed.

Ann and I were cracking jokes, trading barbs and laughing ourselves silly as we prepared our meal. She and I cut up many tomatoes and chopped a fair amount of garlic as well, in preparation for the two dishes we had set out to make—a Caprese variation on traditional garlic bread and our own interpretation of Shrimp Fra Diavolo.

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Without getting into the entire play-by-play (that’s what my upcoming book is for), suffice it to say that Ann’s entire home was smelling quite fabulous almost as soon as we got started. Caprese garlic bread starts out much like any other garlic bread—with bread, butter and garlic—but then add slices of fresh mozzarella and tuck that under a broiler until the cheese melts and the edges begin to brown. To that we added slices of fresh tomato, shredded fresh basil, and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. Neither of us had created such a reduction before, but we were very pleased with the results.

Our version of Shrimp Fra Diavolo involved a fresco sauce, made from all the tomatoes Ann and I had chopped into little pieces. From this we created an arrabiata sauce, which relies heavily on the use of garlic, onion and cayenne pepper to produce the desired result. Ours was not so spicy up front, but produced a pleasant flavor and a nice after-burn. The shrimp itself was sautéed in olive oil with garlic, pepper and salt added. Right before removing the shrimp, we deglazed the pan with some Pinot Grigio.

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The appetizer could very well have been a meal in itself (thanks, Ma, you trained me well), and the main dish was to die for. We ate and drank our fill in earnest, congratulating each other on how well this meal had turned out.

When it was all over, I helped Ann clean things up and then prepared for my run home. She seemed concerned—no, she WAS concerned—because I had already begun showing signs of fatigue. She had been clearly worried when I took off, and remained worried until I had arrived home safe. Me, I was touched by the concern she had shown for me as I motored home that night. As soon as I had arrived home safely, I messaged Ann to that effect.

After that, I slept. And soon after I had slept, I began planning our next outing. Why? Because I live to do exactly that, and I believe Ann also looks forward to our next outiing. Until next time… Thanks for hanging with me.