I was home from South America a few nights, not long enough, and it was time for the annual family beach vacation in South Carolina. We flew to Charleston, where Courtney, a long friend of Robin’s, was waiting for us. We piled into the rented minivan and set off for Kiawah Island, our sixth visit there. We unpacked, stocked the kitchen, and headed off to dinner. Sitting on the deck of the Osprey Point Golf Club, we spotted the first alligators of the trip. And not one or two, but six or seven, all in various states of repose along a pond by the 18th green. The island brims with wildlife – not just thousands of ‘gators, but deer, and a remarkable array of water birds, like egrets, ibises, and herons.
Courtney departed Tuesday and Jack arrived Wednesday. Not much to report here about a week of lolling. I did have some work to do, so each afternoon, after the beach or pool, I’d dress up a little, ride my rented bike to The Sanctuary, a very posh hotel several blocks from our villa, and settle in at a fancy desk in the corner of the lobby to work for a couple of hours. And as I have done every time before, I jumped on the bike before dawn each morning for 20 miles or more in the (relative) morning cool.
The trip is formulaic, and we still had not been into Charleston, a fascinating old place, so Thursday we headed there for dinner at Hominy Grill, one of my fave restaurants in all the world, well respected for their Low Country (regional) cooking. Friday was more lolling, and we were back in Virginia early Saturday afternoon. A nice time. Trip one, done.
The second of the traditional end-of-summer trips began four days later. Time once again for the Minnesota State Fair, whoopee! Flew Thursday morning the 25th to Minneapolis-St. Paul. On the descent, we glided over St. Croix County, Wisconsin, and its gentle and familiar landscape of pastures and woods, contour-plowed fields, and curving county roads (always designated with letters not numbers, like “UU”); it was good to be back in the Midwest. At the airport. I changed into shorts, rented a car, and zipped through St. Paul to the Fair. Parked on the front lawn of a family (up to $15 now; the owner said he cleared $4K last year!), and was on the fairgrounds by 11:40. At noon, met two friends-for-50-years, Bob Woehrle and Steve Schlachter, as well as Rick Dow (30-year friendship!).
This Fair foursome was last constituted in 2013, and it was good to have the team reassembled. According to formula, first stop is always the juried art show, where for 30 years I have bought lots of wonderful work. This year nothing caught my eye, though there were some splendid pieces on display (a couple that I really liked were not for sale). So we moved on, next to the Horticulture Building, then for samples at the Minnesota Craft Brewers stand. Refreshed, we headed to the animal barns, for a thorough (much longer than in the last few years) look at 4-H poultry, rabbits, sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs. We had some good conversations with 4-H kids; it was the first day of the Fair, and they were gearing up to show their animals and perhaps win a ribbon.
Rick peeled off around four, and Steve, Bob, and I wandered a bit more, grabbed a couple more beers, zipped through the Creative Activities building, and left. Bob was kindly hosting me. He hopped on his bike and headed home, while I drove the few miles to their house in suburban Roseville. Yakked for awhile with Bob and his wife Paula, ate a cheese sandwich, and clocked out. A long, fun day.
Bob and I rose at 5:30 on Friday, had a quick coffee, and headed out on bikes, me on Bob’s and Bob on Paula’s, for a 14-mile leg stretcher that reminded me of how much Minnesotans care about parks and green space – we rolled on paved trails beneath thick woods, past creeks and ponds, just a lovely ride. Grabbed a quick breakfast and was out the door. In recent years I’ve visited another longtime friend, Tim McGlynn, at his cabin “Up North” (as Minnesotans say), but he was sailing with friends on Lake Erie, so I headed up Interstate 35 toward Lake Superior and the glorious North Shore. I was making great time, so I stopped at Tobey’s in Hinckley for one of their famous caramel rolls, and instead of getting back on the freeway I “shunpiked” onto Minnesota Route 23, the aptly-named Evergreen Memorial Scenic Drive. Unlike the Interstate, 23 had virtually no traffic, enabling me to eat the gooey sweet roll without becoming too distracted by sticky fingers. Yum!
The slow route was actually quite fast (lower speed limit but shorter distance compared to I-35) until I hit road construction in West Duluth; lurching along, I was reminded of the old saw: “In Minnesota, there are two seasons, winter and road construction. Deindustrialization has shrunk the population of Minnesota’s third largest city by a lot, but the built-up area runs for miles and miles – 32.3 to be exact, from the city limits at the St. Louis River to the city limits at the Lester River. Despite delays, I was in the Starbucks on Superior Street in time to meet an old friend, Bob Ryan (he was Cousin Jim’s roommate at Notre Dame four decades ago). We had a cup and a good catch-up, then I was back in the Ford and headed northeast along the vast inland sea that is Superior.
It had been six years, far too long, since I was on the North Shore, and 59 years since my first visit. The place has long had enormous emotional pull, a combination of its dramatic scenery and happy memories as a child, teenager, and parent. We’ve had a lot of fun up there. First stop was lunch at Betty’s Pies. I waited awhile for a stool at the counter, but it’s always worth it.
Fortified, it was time for a short hike, five miles on the Split Rock River Loop, up the valley and back down to the lake (I had last done the loop in 2000). My arthritic knees held up, easier climbing than descending. Was so great to be back on the trail, beneath mixed evergreen and deciduous trees, birds chirping. Saw paw prints and scat from black bears, but no critters. Once I crossed the stream and headed back toward the car I found the first place where the trail was within a few feet of the water, removed my shoes, and soaked for 10 minutes in the icy, gurgling water. That was tonic, and my feet stayed cold for about another mile.
I was back on the road by four, zipping past the nearby yellow lighthouse and familiar hamlets (Little Marais, Tofte, Lutsen) and resorts with names I remember from childhood. A few miles from the biggest town on the shore, Grand Marais (population, 1,351), I parked at the overlook just above Good Harbor Bay, cued mandolinist Peter Ostroushko’s “Heart of the Heartland,” and thought about all that happened in the nearly six decades since the Britton family stopped at this very spot to look east across the water. It was a Friday afternoon in 1957, and a Friday afternoon in 2016. Remembering how much my dear old dad loved the North Shore, I cast my eyes up into the blue sky, smiled, and told him I was back there. The North Shore is a landscape of the heart. It is so special to me.
I drove on, to my Airbnb digs, the curiously-named Hungry Hippie Hostel and Farm, 10 miles beyond Grand Marais. It was a gravel road to the place, and the clouds of tan dust were just like what I remember as a kid. Got my room, washed my face, and drove back to town, to the rooftop bar at the Gunflint Tavern, with an open-air view of the little harbor and the enormous lake beyond. Since my last visit, they had begun brewing their own beer, and the IPA was sublime.
Better, though, was a long Talking-to-Strangers session. It started with me admiring, aloud, a black Studebaker that cruised below. I caught the eye of a fellow about my age, who said he owned a ’39 Studebaker. He and his wife wandered over: Rolf and Layne Lindquist, the retired town dentist, and just a swell couple. We had a long yak, including two small-worldisms: years earlier, when Bob Ryan lived near town, he and Rolf were in a Bible study group; and coming from Little Falls, Minnesota, he knew the Stoy family of physicians, the younger of whom, Tom, was another of Cousin Jim’s close friends a Notre Dame. Whew!
I walked along the shore to the Angry Trout Café, a place I had seen many times, but never visited. Sitting in a comfy Adirondack chair near the water, I didn’t mind waiting for a table. For the second time in five hours, it was worth the wait. I was happy to read in the menu that local fisherman Harley Toftey was still supply restaurants with his catch and the server recommended fresh whitefish – it was max-locavore, Harley’s boat moored 40 feet from my table. The meal was superb. Drove back to the farm, where a nice campfire was blazing, and met Gabriel from Liechtenstein (you don’t meet many folks from a country of 37,000) and Amanda from Warsaw, husband and wife working in biotechnology at the University of Minnesota. Another nice T-t-S experience, and above us the Milky Way. Slept hard, windows open, almost cold.
Was up at 5:30 again, out the door, into Grand Marais for gas and coffee, then north on the Gunflint Trail to Northern Light Lake, a place we fished (seldom with success) when I was a kid. I didn’t think I needed another hike, but the sign in the parking lot read “two miles, roundtrip,” so off I went. Well, okay, the sign also mentioned “steeply,” and that was true – about 300 feet of rise in a mile, which was fine going up but hard coming down. But it was so worth it, a splendid view of the lake at sunrise. Wow.
Drove back to town, had a caloric breakfast, then a nice walk on the breakwater at the mouth of the harbor. Headed southwest on Highway 61, through patches of rain, back to Duluth. I had a little time to poke around, so headed to the touristy Canal Park area, snapped a couple of pictures, then headed west to a quick lunch at Subway and a visit to the Lake Superior Brewing Company, Minnesota’s oldest microbrewery (1994). Two of three co-owners, John and Karen, were there, and I had a great yak with both. And more small world: John Judd was a longtime city planner for the City of Duluth, so was not surprised that he knew Bob Ryan; but I was very surprised that his LSBC partner was the son of a UMD geography prof. I knew back in the 1970s. Karen Olesen was born Karin Margrethe in the mostly Danish village of Askov, 50 miles southwest. Sampled some beer, listened to plans for their upcoming “beer tourism” journey to Belgium, bought a T-shirt, and peeled off, pedal to the metal for St. Paul.
Last big fun of the day was dinner with Bob and Paula, and my 12th Grade English teacher, Mr. Jensen (still hard to call him by his nickname, Bud) and wife Jinny. We’re all craft beer fans, so we headed to the new and enormous Surly Brewing Company taproom in southeast Minneapolis. The place was packed, but we grabbed some pints and yakked happily for 75 minutes, then tucked into burgers and fries, with more great conversation. There’s a reason I’ve stayed Bud-connected for nearly half a century: he and Jinny are among the finest folks I’ve ever met. If you looked up humane, committed people in the dictionary, you’d see their faces.
Sunday morning, Bob and I were again up before dawn and out the door on the bikes, riding 11 miles, including a nice loop around Lake Gervais. Paula kindly cooked us a frittata for breakfast, we yakked a bit, and I headed back to the airport and a nonstop to Washington. Trip two, check and done.
The third in the trio of late summer journeys began on Friday, September 2, early. Like eight days before, I hopped the bus and Metro to National Airport, this time flying to Dallas/Fort Worth, bound for my 26th consecutive year as a judge in the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off in Brady, Texas. The night before, I set my summer cowboy hat by my wallet, and that morning I thought, “it’s kind of a hassle to bring it,” so I left it on the table. Happily, I came to my senses after walking 100 feet toward the bus stop, turned around, and fetched it. Hat in hand, I continued the journey, wearing it (mainly for effect, for the stares) across Northern Virginia to the airport.
Landed DFW early, picked up a rental car (taxicab-yellow Hyundai Veloster, whew), and motored a few miles east to the Taj Chaat House, an Indian restaurant in Irving, to meet longtime friend Nisha Pasha; we worked together on American’s international planning team in 2000-01 and I visited her parents in Chennai (Madras) in 2010, but I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. We got caught up over a yummy and filling vegetarian lunch.
At 2:15, I picked up Jack at the other airport, Dallas Love Field, and it was pedal to the metal to the site of the competition, 230 miles southwest (it was his 9th consecutive year). Traffic slowed us a bit, but soon we were at 80 mph on I-30, then south and west through Stephenville, Dublin, Comanche, Brownwood, familiar places all. Abundant summer rains turned pastures emerald, some of the greenest I had ever seen. We had a good yak, and were in our motel room by 6:20, reading the local paper and news of the 43rd annual championship. Chilled a bit, then headed to a nearby barbeque joint that had recently morphed from The Spread to Fat Boys BBQ. But the food was the same, wonderful, juicy turkey, peppery sausage, beans, cole slaw, white bread (locally pronounced something like “wot bray-ud”!). Sated, we repaired to the room for some college football on TV. Lights out by 9:15.
The alarm sounded at six, downstairs to the gym, Jack on treadmill and me on recumbent bike, a fine workout. Couple of cups of coffee, showers, then out the door and west 17 miles to Melvin, Texas, and Jacoby’s Café, part of a big complex of Jacoby businesses in a tiny place (pop. 187). Backslapping, handshakes, and hugs commenced, some good-natured ribbing, tall tales, the banter among good ole’ boys. There was Eddie Sandoval, Jim Stewart, Melvin Hees, Terry Keltz, and so many more. We were back, and it was so good to be back. Like the North Shore of Lake Superior, the gently rolling pastures of McCulloch County and the event venue are another landscape of the heart.
After a more-than-ample brunch (chilaquiles, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and little bites of chicken-fried steak), we paused to remember John Morthland and Mark Pollack, two stalwart judges who passed away in the past year. Then to the usual briefing, aimed mainly at the large number of rookie judges (easily identified by the goat horn around their necks!). My name was not announced during the table assignments. Uh oh. But no mistake: after 25 years of service, I had been elevated to Super Bowl Judge, one of six senior positions. The pressure was on, but I was so happy with the upgrade – the sole non-native Texan among the six.
As he has done for years, Jack peeled off with Riley King and Stewart Storms to judge Best Cooking Rig, and I bought gas in town, then zipped out to Richards Park to wander the site, yakking with old friends and making some new ones. Our blue judge shirts made us immediately recognizable, and any number of competitors offered us beer, shots, whatever!
Judging began at two, mystery meat: beef heart from Jacoby’s ranch, not exactly a common cut, but it was familiar to me, and the nine samples the Super Bowl judges received were all quite good. About 3:30, we judged the Super Bowl goat, competition only open to first-place winners in any prior year. Then just after four, we got the 2 finalists from each of 9 tables, 18 samples winnowed from 250 entrants. When we tallied the scores in each of the three categories, I was happy that my grading was similar to that of the incumbent senior judges. Hooray, I could hold my own!
We were eager to head back (Jack had more socializing to do), so after finishing my work and saying goodbye to a bunch of good ole boys, Jack and I drove back toward Dallas, stopping briefly at the Dairy Queen in Cisco, Texas, for sweet treats. On the drive back we covered a bunch of topics, and one is worth reprising here: one of the things we most love about the cook-off is that we all get along, despite huge differences in thought and opinion. I’ve often lamented (in these pages and elsewhere) the increasing tendency of people to associate and befriend only those with aligned political and social views. That’s just so goofy. At the cook-off, part-Apache Eddie Sandoval can tell Anglo Jim Stewart, “Go back from where you came from,” and everyone laughs.
We were back in The Big D by 8:30, Jack hopping out at the home of his buddy Lawson, and me continuing north to our old (1987-2007) neighborhood in Richardson and the home of longtime friends Jane and Brad Greer, and their new Labrador retriever, Perla. I hadn’t seen them in almost four years, and it was good to reconnect and catch up (their son Ben and Jack were best pals through childhood and adolescence).
Rose at 6:30, visited a bit more, and at 7:15 headed out on Brad’s bike for a look-see of the old ‘hood and surrounding areas, including a good circuit around the still-fast-growing University of Texas at Dallas, just a mile from our old house. A nice ride, 20 miles, on a surprisingly cool morning. Showered, grabbed a cup of coffee, and zipped across to the home of Adam and Kimberly Pitluk in the next suburb, Plano. Adam was longtime editor of American Airlines’ inflight magazine, and a swell fellow. His younger daughter, Lily, seven, chatted with us. Adam’s mom lives nearby, and we visited with her, then just we two guys. We talked fast, and got caught up. Hopped in the car, zipped back to the airport, and flew home. I don’t think I could have crammed any more into three days! The third trip, check and done, and summer over.