Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Cotswolds, United Kingdom

  
Quintessential Cotswolds Cottages
  When you grow up speaking English, with all the benefits of life in a democracy, misunderstanding Shakespeare, watching Doc Martin, you will naturally want to visit the mother country. I was actually an English major way back, and a proud member of P.O.E.M.  But I had to go back for a marketable  degree to finance my foreign trips.
  Teresa and I have been talking about this trip for years. We took a trip to Scotland in the meantime, and spent a few hours in Heathrow airport once on the way home from another trip, but England is an expensive place. It was Brexit that provided the spark to get a move on. When we went to Scotland in 2007, a British pound cost $1.60 so you multiplied everything by $2. After the Brexit vote to leave the EU, the pound dropped to $1.29, so now we multiplied by one. That made a big difference.
  Twenty years ago Teresa read the James Herriot animal books and said she wanted to visit their setting in Yorkshire. I started doing research on Yorkshire. Durham  a bit further north looked interesting, and Hadrian's Wall was also within reach. After a few days there, we could head over to the Lake District where Wordsworth hung out. When I told Teresa about this, she asked if that was where all the little villages connected by footpaths are. Hmmm, no, that would be the Cotswolds further south. She had read an article about the Cotswolds in the travel section of the paper and was intrigued by the image of hiking from village to village. "And don't forget Portwenn," she said. Portwenn is the fictional setting for the British show Doc Martin. The real name is Port Isaac, way down in Cornwall.
  I'm a firm believer in getting to a place and staying there for a few days. I scrubbed Yorkshire and the Lake District and filled our three week itinerary with the Cotswolds and Cornwall. The next business was to reserve airline tickets, a car, and a B&B for the first few days in England.
  We arrived in London at noon on September 27. By the time we got through customs and rode the bus to Hertz, it was close to two. We loaded our suitcases in our sporty Honda Civic. The man at the counter had drawn us a map for getting on the road to the Cotswolds. It looked complicated, plus we had to stay on the left side of the road, plus I hadn't slept in over 24 hours. The Civic had a key fob like our car at home. You just stepped on the brake pedal and pushed a button on the dash to start the engine. I couldn't find the button though. Teresa suggested asking someone, but I felt that if I couldn't figure out how to start the car, I shouldn't be driving in traffic. The minutes passed. I looked at the fob again. It had a little button which caused a key to pop out. After a few more minutes I found the keyhole. Brmmm, brmmm. The map led us through several roundabouts. I was concentrating on staying to the left, Teresa was trying to decipher the map. There was no time to read road signs which I was soon to discover don't really point to the place you want to go. The signs are an example of British humor. We ended up on a four lane highway. Was it the right road? Who knows? At last we spotted a sign for Oxford which was on our route to the Cotswolds.
  We were heading for the town of Bourton-on-the-Water, 75 miles west of Heathrow Airport. Google maps said it would take an hour and 38 minutes. This was an example of Google humor. The car rental place urged me to get their GPS, but at $12 per day I figured we could find our way. I would come to regret this decision. Before we left home, I had downloaded maps of England onto Teresa's iPad for use offline. I had also skipped AT&T's offer of $10 a day iPhone service. This also was a regrettable economy.
  As we approached our destination, the roads got narrower and the oncoming trucks loomed larger. Teresa warned me of the stone wall zipping by her head. I said for the first of many times that I'd rather scrape a wall than run into a semi. We eventually turned off onto the road to downtown Bourton. Every English town under 5,000 has a narrow main street, or High Street as they call it, with no room for parking. But cars were allowed to park for thirty minutes to pop into the shops. So High Street was really a one lane street and you negotiated your passage with oncoming drivers by flashing your lights.  Now that I was driving slowly, the beepers that warned me I was too close to objects started going off.
England is best viewed close up and on foot
  We both thought we were on High Street, but as we passed through the town things did not compute. The Google map listed street names, but streets signs in English towns are optional, and where they do exist, they take on an infinite variety of forms. Give me a bloody post with nice green street signs please, with white lettering, if it's not too much trouble! Jet lag was beginning to take it's toll. We drove back and forth three times through the narrow High Street before we realized it wasn't High Street at all. In fact it was the street our B&B was on. We had driven by our B&B five times before picking out the sign for the Red Roof East B&B. Halleluiah! We left the car to cool its tires for 36 hours and settled into our room. We were too energized to nap so walked downtown for supper then home again for bed.
  Of course we're wide awake at midnight. At home it's six p.m. You've had a nice afternoon nap and are ready for an evening of sightseeing. Unfortunately everything's closed now here in England. I pop a sleeping pill and read till I get drowsy at two a.m. Teresa just reads.
  The next morning, Kate, the proprietor, cooked us a full English breakfast. Why do they put all the toast in wire racks so it goes cold before you can slather on the butter? We chat with an Australian couple who are hiking through the Cotswolds, stopping each night at a different B&B. A van hauls their luggage on to the next stop ten or twelve miles down the road.
  We too are going hiking today. We're taking the public footpath over to Lower Slaughter which is one mile away. That's nothing compared to what the Aussies were doing, but we were going to continue another mile and a half to Upper Slaughter. It had rained last night and Kate said the footpath would be muddy, but it wasn't as bad as we expected, just a bit slick. There was a sign on Kate's front door and on many other shops as well asking patrons to remove muddy boots.
  We set off on our first public footpath on a sunny Thursday morning, headed for Lower Slaughter. No one knows why the towns are called "Slaughter," but they do know it has nothing to do with blood and guts. The system of footpaths in England and Wales is amazing, covering over 140,000 miles. There's an association called The Ramblers that organizes hikes and keeps an eye out for landowners who try to close the paths, some of which have been in use for hundreds of years.
One mile down, 139,999 to go
  Lower Slaughter was a perfect little English town. The mill no longer ground flour, but was now a museum, a gift shop and a café. We stopped for a break. The path to Upper Slaughter was mostly across a sheep pasture. The pasture sloped upward as you'd expect. There was an ancient church in Upper Slaughter and some stone houses, but nothing else for the tourist. We checked out the church, chatted with the woman vacuuming the pews and threw a pound in the collection box.
Lest we forget
  We got back to our B&B a little after one. Five minutes later we were downtown via a newly discovered footpath shortcut. These paths cut across towns and cities as well as the countryside. Last evening the town had been deserted. Now it was filled with hundreds of Japanese tourists armed with selfie sticks. Tourist coaches run out from London every morning, sending their passengers out shopping in Bourton, then head back around four p.m. for supper in the big city. Bourton is undeniably cute. The narrow Windrush River is contained in a stone channel and is spanned by several foot bridges. If you're going to travel all the way from Japan, you must shoot some iconic selfies from England and Bourton is just the place.
  Despite all the tourists, the town did not seem overcrowded. The place maintained its Old England look to cater to swarms of visitors. It was fun watching the variety of poses struck by these interlopers. And as I say, the place cleared out by tea time.
Hanging around Bourton
  On Day Two we got back on the road. Instead of taking the straightforward highway up to Stow-on-the-Wold, our map suggested we take the very narrow roads through the Slaughters and Swell. We did get to Stow, but the trip was harrowing. My trusty Rick Steves guide said there was free parking at the Tesco supermarket, a ten minute walk out of town. Free parking is almost unheard of in England. I carefully scrutinized the signs in the big parking lot. It looked like we could leave the car for up to 24 hours. Free! Amazing! Also, the supermarket had free restrooms. Remarkable. There was no sign on the front door saying  "Restrooms for Customers Only."
 Stow-on-the-Wold was a cool place. The library in the center of town had a strong Wi-Fi signal, also free, so I could peruse my phone while Teresa checked out the charity shops. Every town has at least one charity shop, often more, raising money for cures for all the diseases of body and soul. Teresa loves thrift stores and these filled the bill. She's always on the watch for some perfect piece of clothing selling for a sliver of its original price, so she doesn't buy much. I too checked the stores, for  mid-century English novels to help me fall asleep at night. We hiked over to the church, the back door of which was said to have inspired an episode in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I struck a Gandalf pose in front of the door, posted it to Facebook, and got a ton of likes.
  Teresa was in the mood for a footpath. Mr. Steves mentioned a mile and half path to the village of Broadwell.  "We can have lunch there," we agreed. It was a fine walk under the overarching trees, but once at the pub we discovered the practice of village pubs only serving meals at specific hours. We were in between serving times, but did have a drink and a rest before our walk back to Stow.
Flowery kingdom
  We had to move the next day. I had only booked three nights in Bourton, not knowing if we'd like the place, and now it was Saturday and Kate was booked up. So I found a B&B 15 miles up the road in the town of Broadway. Fifteen miles! That's nothing in Roseau County. But for me, here in England, slipping behind the wheel was like entering one of those Halloween houses where they try to scare the bejeebers out of you. Looking at the map, it was impossible to tell whether the A424 would be relatively wide like the A429, or the white knuckler it turned out to be. Rick Steves claimed these Cotswolds backroads were delightful, and they would be if I could have  driven at 30 mph, but the speed limit was 50 and most people wanted to rip along at 60 or more. Rick said pull over and let the train of cars pass you. But I had noted the little pull offs were mostly wicked looking mud holes.
  Anyway, we made it to Broadway, named not for its theater district, but for its wide High Street. It was too early to check in so we found a pay and display parking lot and set off to check out the town. These parking lots have a central meter where you feed in coins and get a slip which you put in your front window, and you better be back before the printed time or it's a £100 fine. This town was also cute, filled with British rather than Japanese day trippers.
  We checked into Brook House B&B on the edge of town and looked for a hike.  We found we could hike up to Broadway Tower, two miles away.  The tower is a five story folly sitting all alone on top of a high hill. A folly in England is a useless structure built a long time ago by someone with too much money on their hands. The first half of the hike was across an immense horse pasture. Then it turned up a steep path through the woods. We asked a group coming down how far to the top. "About a half hour." I hoped they were exaggerating, but they weren't. There was a parking lot by the tower full of cars of the people who had missed the advantages of a vigorous hike. It cost £4 to climb the tower so we settled for some postcards plus a visit to the adjacent café. One of the best things about Britain is how a café always pops up when you're in need of a cup of tea and a scone.
The Folly on the Hilly
   On our way up, we had passed an ancient church at the base of the hill and decided to check it out on the way home. St. Eadburgha's was built in the 12th century. There's nothing like these ancient buildings to locate yourself in the grand scheme of things.
On the way back to the B&B we made a reservation at an Indian restaurant and went home to recuperate. British cuisine is as Indian inflected as ours is Mexican. The food that evening was tasty and all five waiters made sure we were happy.
  On Sunday we made our obligatory visit to a "Great House." I wanted to see at least one mansion à la Downton Abbey, and Sudeley Castle would be it. It was only nine miles down the B4632. I was worried because, in my short experience, B roads were usually one lane passages with frequent pull offs so oncoming cars could pass each other. But the B4632 proved to be a fairly pleasant drive.
  Before our visit to England, I had tried to read the history of the country but had only gotten as far as Henry VIII. I was intrigued to see that Henry's sixth wife, Katherine Parr, was buried at Sudeley. The castle at Sudeley had been built and wrecked a couple of times over the centuries. It's mostly in good shape now and the owners have opened it to visitors to help pay the bills. The family is related to Camilla Parker-Bowles and there was a picture of her and Charles prominently displayed in the living area we were allowed into.
  But back to Katherine Parr. There's a rhyme to help keep Henry's wives straight, "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." Katherine was the one who survived, but not for long. A few months after Henry's death, she married an old boyfriend. She was only 36. The following year she died at Sudeley as a result of childbirth and was buried there. The place was wrecked during the Civil War of the next century and in the following century became a place for romantic rambles. During one of those rambles, a group of women discovered a white stone in the floor of the church and had a local farmer remove it. They found a casket below with Katherine's name on it. A wealthy merchant bought the whole place and restored Sudeley to its present splendor. Katherine got an above  ground tomb with a fine statue of herself, recumbent.
Curst be he that moves my bones
  The next day was earmarked to visit the boyhood home of a famous English writer. And they don't come any more famous than Shakespeare. Mr. Steves warned that Stratford was touristy, but since it was only sixteen miles away, it would be a sin to miss it. Marianne, the owner of our B&B, used to work in Stratford and gave us directions for the back route into Stratford. It involved passage through several small towns, but we arrived safely at the gigantic car park just outside Stratford, got our display ticket for the dash, and hiked across the Avon River. There were swans swimming around the longboats people rent to cruise the canal down to Bath. We could see the gigantic Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the left. It was ugly but supposedly nice inside.  Judging by all the statues along our walk, the birth of Shakespeare mania was in the mid to late 1800s. But our century had kept everything spiffed up and added several new touches. There were three main sites to see in town plus two more on the outskirts. I appreciated that the man selling tickets advised that attempting all five in one day would be a little much. First we headed to Shakespeare's birthplace. By some miracle this building has survived five centuries of fire and demolition. Shakespeare inherited the place, but turned it into an inn after building a nicer place down the road. After his death in 1616 the house remained in the family until it was purchased by the Shakespeare Trust in the mid-nineteenth century and restored to its original look.
Shakespeare slept here

  There's a multimedia exhibit on Shakespeare's life in a large building before you enter the birthplace. Touring the house was fun and it was illuminating talking to the docents about life in Tudor days.  In the garden out back, three actors performed snippets from the plays. There were two other related houses in town that were less interesting, but we checked them out because they were included in our ticket. About then I realized our three hour parking ticket was almost up, so I left Teresa and speed walked across the river to feed more money into the meter. After checking out the other buildings we walked to Holy Trinity Church to see Shakespeare's grave. He's buried under the floor in front of the altar. They knew back then that he might be a big deal in the future. Also he had the money for a front row seat.
Falstaff and me
  We had lots more to see in the Cotswolds, but only one more day to do it. Everyplace seemed  beautiful; how to decide where to go?  One thing I definitely wanted to see in England was some trace of the Roman occupation of Britain during the first four centuries A.D. As we navigated the narrow roads I saw that Cirencester was only ten miles down the good old A429, one of the area's wider roads. I knew that Cirencester was built atop the Roman town of Cirinium, so we headed the chariot south. Finding Cirencester was easy. Finding the museum took some doing, but we found a parking spot near the museum. The museum was very well done. The Romans had had a full fledged city here with forum, amphitheater, and flush toilets. Everyone got to go to the amphitheater. Only the rich got to flush their toilets. It all collapsed around 410 when the army returned to protect Rome from the barbarians. The Saxons and the Angles took over, then the Normans and Vikings and it's been wars and rumors of wars ever since.
  The next morning after breakfast, we bid Marianne farewell and headed south for Cornwall, but that's the subject for another post.
It's the little touches


Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Day on the Lake


Let's Go Fishin'


 Our friend Linda emailed recently to invite us on an eight hour boat ride on Lake of the Woods. She had won this trip for six at a charity raffle and thought we'd enjoy coming along. I imagined the boat would leave Warroad in the late afternoon and we'd enjoy the sunset as we cruised up to one of the island resorts for dinner. For the trip to last eight hours we'd have to go to the posh resort with the eight course meal. I said yes, of course. Linda's mother Helen, her husband Larry, and their son Mike would be joining us.
  But it was not a sunset cruise at all. Rather, it was eight hours of fishing starting at eight a.m. Our boat would be leaving from Arneson's Resort at Rocky Point, which would mean getting out of bed at five a.m.  We had taken Linda and Larry for a day of lobster fishing when they visited us in Boston a couple of years ago. That had involved a four a.m. rising, so maybe this was payback. When I asked Linda about this she just smiled and said "You two seemed like the perfect couple for this. Larry said so too."
  It was quite cool when we arrived at Rocky Point, about 57 degrees. It was only blowing about 10 mph so the lake should have been calm, but the waves were out of proportion with the lightness of the wind, a notorious trait of this big shallow lake, The resort has several boats that it sends out with guides all through the summer. Our guide, Captain Tim, said he had clients almost every day between fishing opener and Labor Day. We looked to be the only boat headed out on this mid-September Monday. Tim said we'd head to the northeast for about twenty minutes then troll to the east with the wind behind us.
  The boat was a thirty-five foot cabin cruiser with a pair of powerful inboard engines. We took off at high speed, pounding into the waves. Most but not all the spray missed us. Right away Helen and Teresa wanted life jackets, more for warmth than from fear of sinking. Tim cut the engine so we could dig out the lifejackets. The resort radioed Tim to ask if he had broken down.
  We pounded off again till we reached the fishing grounds and Tim mercifully shut off one engine and throttled the other down to a stuttering 2.5 mph. The boat rocked gently in the swells and the temperature rose a couple of degrees. This might be okay. One thing I had learned from the lobstering trip was that the best way to ease the hours along is to eat steadily throughout the day. We had brought along a good supply of sandwiches, fruit and junk food.
  The boat had five downriggers pointing off the stern. These looked like miniature cannons with an eight pound lead ball hanging from the end. Tim set a regular fishing rod and reel into a socket attached to the downrigger. With a practiced motion he let out 30 feet of line looping the near end into a clip attached to the lead ball. He then lowered the ball till it was four feet off the bottom. Now the lure and hook would be thirty feet astern and just off the bottom where the walleye feed. The weight of the ball bent the rod as though there was a huge fish on it. Once a fish was actually hooked, the line pulled free of the lead ball. We knew we had a fish because the rod went straight for a second or two until the fish started to fight. We took turns taking the rod out of the socket and reeling the fish in. Once you had a fish reeled in you stood a good chance of losing it in the netting process. At first Tim did the netting and even he lost one. Our crew soon took over that job and the number of lost fish went up. We were catching a fish every 15 minutes or so. We had to throw back several big ones because they were over 19 1/2 inches. The big ones were the breeding stock and Tim admitted that since the throwback rule went into effect, fish numbers have gone up. However, if you catch a fish over 28 inches, you are allowed to keep one "trophy fish." Otherwise we were each allowed four walleyes and two saugers, the walleye's taste-alike cousin.
  Tim said when fishermen come from Iowa or North Dakota they expect to catch fish, especially after paying $720 per day. With the downriggers, they are guaranteed to catch fish. "But downriggers take all the skill out of fishing," he said.
  Mike does more fishing then any of us, and after a few hours asked if we could try spinning, or using the rod and reel with live bait. Tim motored over to a spot a little east of the resort and put worms on our hooks. I'm not afraid to put a worm on a hook, but Tim has baited several hundred thousand hooks in his 16 years as a guide and his worms tend to stay on the hook while mine fall off. Fishing was much slower now that skill was involved. With the engine shut off we wallowed in the waves. My potato chip consumption went way up. After an hour someone suggested we go back to downrigging, which we did for the rest of the day. We wanted our limits.
  Tim told us that over the years most of his clients have been easy to get along with. He said they used to take mixed parties to make up a boatload of six. This didn't always work out so well. He once took out a husband and wife and their young son along with "two older four-fingered gentlemen: four fingers of whiskey, no ice." Once oiled up, the gentlemen began using inappropriate language. After two or three such incidents, the resort banned mixed parties. A group of fewer than six gets a discount.
  More boats joined us on the lake as the day turned warm. Tim gave us an extra 45 minutes of fishing to fill the cooler. Once ashore, we went up to the resort restaurant for cocktails while Tim fileted our fish. If you're going fishing, this is the way to do it. Keep those charity raffles coming, please.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

One Man's Screen is Another Man's Brain


Be glad you're somewhere else

  A friend of mine, when writing of his overseas travels, writes only of his journey to the airport and of the flight itself. I just returned from a three week trip to England and am overwhelmed by my impressions, so I'll adopt my friend's method.
  We left Minneapolis at ten p.m. bound for Heathrow. I had paid extra for a non-stop flight and once we reached cruising altitude, I settled in for a long night of insomnia. Our jet had seven seats across and Teresa and I were in the middle section.  We were in the second to last row giving us a panoramic view of our fellow 200 passengers. An hour after takeoff, the stewardesses began the meal service pushing their bulky carts down the two aisles.
  That's when the turbulence began. We always expect a little turbulence, but this increased in violence, like when a rough gravel road turns into a plowed field. The captain ordered us to keep our belts fastened, but the meal service continued. Then the bottom dropped out and the plane fell for I don't know how long. Two seconds is a long time when you're falling. When we hit solid air again the plane lurched sideways and many people screamed. Teresa didn't scream. She was busy boring three inch holes into my two inch biceps. "Cabin crew return to your seats," the captain ordered. One stewardess got her cart back to the galley. The other abandoned hers. The stewardesses plopped into the seats behind us as the turbulence continued. It was not reassuring to hear the stewardess behind me muttering "Jesus Christ" as we bumped along.  Gradually things smoothed out. Meal service was resumed. Cheese tortellini, extra dente. The crew issued generous pours of wine.
  The sun was well up when we landed. Teresa asked one of the stewardesses if that turbulence had been unusual. She said that in forty years, this was her first flight with screaming passengers. Maybe she says that after every rough flight, but it made us feel heroic. She said she felt most sorry for the man whose glass of red wine had been splattered over his shirt. Note to self: white wine only on aircraft.
   After driving around England for three weeks (more about that later), we returned to Heathrow. Hurricane Ophelia was battering Ireland that day and Ireland was along the route to Minnesota. "We'll fly over it," the ticket agent assured me. She also told me I was exactly thirty years and one day older than her. Nice. We got up and over Ophelia without a hitch. People were dying down in Ireland. I don't understand how people manage to die in  hurricanes these days. I felt safe in my metal cocoon as I turned on the little screen in the seat back in front of me. These screens are a wonder. You plug in your earbuds and can watch TV show and up to a dozen recently released movies. But the movies were dumb and the TV shows dumber. I switched to the flight tracker screen to follow our path across the Atlantic and opened my book. About then, the woman in front of me turned and said, "Stop hitting the seat." She had a thick accent I could barely decipher. "What, I'm not kicking her seat," I said to myself. A minute later she turned again. "Stop hitting seat." I wanted to oblige her. She had an ogre-ish, man-eating look about her. Finally it hit me, my tapping on the screen was being transmitted into her skull, irritating the heck out of her. From then on I gently touched the screen as needed, and there were no more complaints. Later Teresa found a funny TV show. She started her screen from the beginning and we watched it together. It was very funny, but I worried my chuckles would awaken my adversary. I wondered if she would have screamed on the flight over. I doubt it, but I'll never know for sure.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Just Looking Around

Destination, anywhere

I thought I knew all about the Roseau City Center. The center, a crazy mish-mash of design ideas which we've gotten used to, was built after the great flood of 2002, so it's been around ten years or more. I'm familiar with the building's museum and library, it's capacious public areas, home to galas, receptions and mega rummage sales. I've passed its smaller meeting area where nervous high schoolers await their driving tests. "Hope I don't get the guy with the mustache, he's the grouchy one." I've been upstairs to the city offices and looked through the remote learning classrooms. But today, as I walked to the mens room tucked behind the library, an elevator door popped open and a rider strolled out.
  I had known since I moved here 40 years ago that Roseau had grain elevators. And I'd heard of the elevator at the bank which is  used by employees only, to take the bank's bullion up to the observation deck for its daily sunning. But finding this new elevator gave me a mild shock. I chastised myself for being so unobservant. Now, as I walk the streets, I scrutinize every nook and cranny, half expecting, half hoping, to find perhaps an escalator running down to a subway platform, with fine tile mosaics...and rats.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Fair

 
New this year! World's largest portable Ferris wheel.

We just returned home from our annual visit to the Minnesota State Fair. We love the fair. It's amazing! Fantastic! But then, I had very low expectations to begin with. My earliest impressions  of fairs were unfavorable. As a child, I identified with the little pig who built his house of brick. The wolf is frustrated by his inability to blow our house down so he invites us to go to the fair with him. "Sure," says the little pig. "What! Are you crazy?" I say after the wolf is gone. "Don't worry," says the pig. "The wolf is coming at two to pick us up. We'll go at noon, check the place out, and be back home before the wolf gets here."  Just as I feared, when we get to the fair the pig screws around, going on rides, eating taffy, etc. To top it off he buys a butter churn which he makes me carry on my back. We're almost home when we spot the wolf coming up the road.  "Quick!" say the pig. He crawls into the churn, pulls me in behind, and claps on the cover. He's laughing so much we start rolling down the hill until we bang into our front door. No wolf. Turns out he thought we were some kind of monster out to get him. I swore off fairs after that.
  Later in my childhood when I was in college, I went up to New Hampshire with some friends to do God knows what. We heard about a backwoods country fair just across the border in Maine. It was quite a hike through the woods from where we left the car so the locals could say we had come out of the woodwork rather than vice-versa. The entertainment of the day was two tractors pulling against each other. We watched for half an hour then gave it up.
  So when Teresa and I got married, she had to force me to go the State Fair in St Paul where we were living at the time. She had exhibited her 4-H cows at the fair in her youth, so the place had happy memories for her. I was shocked that you had to pay an entrance fee just so you could spend more money. They also charged for parking, but if you parked far enough away and walked half a mile, parking was free. Did I mention I'm a notorious cheapskate and tightwad? Teresa must have been reconsidering her choice of mate at this point, but fortunately she's thrifty too. One thing that did impress me was the tiger run. People don't believe me when I tell them about the tiger, but this was back in the early seventies when you could still do crazy stuff with animals. You paid a few dollars to the tiger's keeper and he gave you a heavy hooded coat and a head start before releasing the tiger who always caught up to the customer and brought him or her down in the dust.
  After we moved north, we forgot about the State Fair and Teresa made do with the Roseau County Fair. After the kids were grown and we were rattling around the home place, Teresa suggested we check out the State Fair on a weekend. So we did. I was now a mature adult and could appreciate the pleasures of watching the ever changing parade of my fellow citizens. The full panoply of human types was on display, from youthful models for Greek statuary to the stars of My 600 lb. Life. There were  tee shirts to be read: "Grandpa's my name, spoiling's my game," or "You are the product of a billion years of evolution. Act like it!"
  We've been going to the fair for the past several years, sometimes with family or friends, but mostly just the two of us. It's difficult to move through the crush of people with more than one companion. Every year there are a few new things. There was a small black "Black Lives Matter" tent that seemed to silently say "Shame." I only saw one openly Trump supporter, a young man wearing a big Trump-Pence button and smoking a cigarette in a prohibited area.
  One place we always visit is the Arts Building, filled with two or three hundred paintings and sculptures. Most of the works are straightforward, some are weird, some are wonderful. We try to get there early in the day before the crowd grows massive. There's a gentle slope across the fair and as you descend it, you can see the heads of thousands and thousands of happy people bobbing up and down in the afternoon sun, while fragrant clouds of grease from the Blooming Onion stand waft across the scene.
  If the earth is purgatory, the fair has more of the paradisiacal than the hellish. But I still give butter churns a wide berth.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Theory of Brewing



 A man will not believe how easy it is to break a French press until he breaks one himself - Voltaire

I'm becoming a scientist in my later years. I've been inspired by a book a friend gave me about the North Woods written by a scientist who's spent his life trying to figure out why things happen the way they do. Why does a moose eat one kind of moss instead of another? When the voles go up, do the beaver go down? Who cares, right. I'm ok as I am, but no, I need to move beyond my primitive thought processes, satisfying as they may have been. Nature is very interesting, very intelligent, after all it came up with us. Now it's our turn to figure out how we got to this state.
  All the answers are right in front of us, but it's hard work figuring them out. You make a guess, then do an experiment, and if your guess is wrong, that's valuable data too. Then other people have to repeat your experiment and get the same results. Then you have a theory, which can always be disproved.  Absolute truth remains out there as a goal. Once we reach absolute truth, the game is up.
  My contribution to science should get us a bit closer to the perfect cup of coffee. Coffee drinking has done much to advance science. I will be using the French press in my experiments. There are numerous ways to make good coffee,  but the French press is cheap and simple. You can make rough French press coffee which is perfectly drinkable, but absolute perfection requires measurement. The thing I like best about doing science is watching other people's experiments on YouTube. Apparently the water temperature is important. Some people say wait 30 seconds after the boil. Others say 200 degrees F is the perfect temperature so I stick a little thermometer in the whistle hole of the kettle as it cooks. Another key factor is the amount of beans. I bought a little scale to weigh out the beans. The videos were putting in way too much coffee. I'm a cheapskate so I cut back on the beans. Tasted good to me. Gave me the boost I need to write up my notes, plus I have money left over for a muffin. The last factor is the grind. Medium coarse is needed. Some videos insist on an expensive burr grinder for an even grind, but another site said just pulse the beans in a blade grinder to get an even grind.
  The one thing I didn't like at first about the French press was cleaning the thing. There's always a thick clump of grounds in the bottom. After some experimentation, I learned to run water over the plunger while lifting it out of the carafe. I fill the carafe half way with water, give it a good stir, then pour it around the plants by the front porch. Please check the publication Science in a couple of years for my final results.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Old Nellie

  
What's wrong with this picture?
  There have been new cars in my friend and publisher Steve's family, but he let his wife drive them, then his daughter, while he always made do with junkers and hand-me-downs. His latest vehicle, a 1997 Ford Escort wagon, had 150,000 miles on it when his daughter gave it back several years ago. The car was just under a quarter million miles when he retired from the Polaris Snowmobile factory last month. Steve had nursed this vehicle along, replacing parts and changing oil as needed. It took him to work through summer heat and winter blizzards and also on jaunts to the recycling center down in Thief River Falls. He even went camping in the Badlands with it once.
  The very first time he drove it as a retiree, the engine blew up. Rather, the timing belt broke which allowed the pistons to bend the valves. He could get the engine fixed or install a rebuilt, but the car is not worth it. The local junkyard offered him $100. I counseled Steve to grab the cash and be done with it, but Steve said not so fast. He reasoned that the headlight assemblies he had just installed were worth something. And the alternator and the heater blower motor were both fairly new. Plus the exhaust system only had a few thousand miles on it. The fancy Alpine CD player must have value. Steve proposed to haul the Escort home and part it out, as the pros say. He could advertise for free on the local sell and swap site on Facebook. I warned him that his parts would get lost amidst the baby clothes and suggested craigslist, but he said craigslist is for predators. I fear the Escort will join his stable of ancient wrecks under the oaks along the creek, which is entirely his business.
  I am always happy to help Steve in his endeavors. He said he'd be able to get the Escort home on his own, but would appreciate my moral support. Last Thursday we drove to Jerry Solom's machine shop to borrow a trailer. The trailer was behind a tractor that we did not expect to start (it didn't). We removed the sides from the trailer, then Jerry used his loader and a chain to swing the trailer  away from the tractor. Steve had driven his '94 Toyota 4WD pickup to get the trailer, because the pickup contains every tool, chain or jack you would ever need to get a car onto a trailer.  But the truck was missing its right side mirror which Steve thought he'd need to back up the trailer to his car at the shop in Roseau. We pulled the trailer to Steve's place and transferred it to his '95 GMC conversion van. This van's not much to look at, but inside it's as plush as a Vegas bordello.
  We loaded all the tools we thought we'd need from the truck onto the trailer bed along with a set of ramps and tied them all down. Twenty minutes later Steve was backing up the trailer to his formerly faithful steed. The next time we load a car onto a trailer we'll do a couple of things differently. Number One: load the the front end of the vehicle first, so that most of the weight is over the hitch. The Escort had been parked front end first but we could have pulled it away from the fence to load it. Number Two: be sure the car is lined up straight with the trailer. It's really hard to make adjustments as you winch the car up the ramps, especially in reverse. We learned these valuable common sense lessons during the hour it took to get the car onto the trailer. Steve's puny lawnmower ramps impressed me by not collapsing under the weight of his car.
  Now it was time to chain the car to the trailer. It's embarrassing to have things fall off your trailer.  A jacket or a bucket of oil is one thing. But a red station wagon? Not good. Steve has this unusual chain for tough jobs. It's about 40 feet long, with two different sizes of links. There are hooks at each end and an extra hook welded on in the middle, plus a large steel ring welded on in the other middle. Steve has worked magic with this chain many times in the past, but I always stand aside when he gets down to it. Once the load is chained, you use a chain binder to take up the slack and prevent any movement. Steve had borrowed a binder from Jerry, plus he had bought another at Lee's Store on the way to town. You hook each end of the binder to the chain then throw the lever over and presto! your chain is tight as a tick. That's the theory. Steve struggled with this thing, but like Rubik's cube, it got the better of him. He tossed it to me and I scurried off to YouTube which only had videos of improved versions of our binder. Using more primitive technology, Steve finally got his car attached to the trailer and we drove home at 45 mph, hoping the State Patrol was elsewhere.
  Once home, we recruited Jackie to steer the Escort as Steve, his grandson, and I pushed it off the trailer. So if you need a headlight assembly for a '97 Escort (wagon or sedan) or your muffler is getting noisy, please check out the Roseau Area Sell and Swap on Facebook. Thank you.