On the Straits of Mackinac

My family and I decided we wanted a beach to visit for our family vacation this summer, and we chose to take the road trip to St. Ignace, Mich., and the beaches of Lakes Huron and Michigan. We also took the ferry across the lake from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island.

Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-i-naw) offers a unique opportunity to visit a place that is steeped in history and fun. A vacation destination for more than a century, the Island provides the experience of a place with no motorized vehicles. All transportation on the island, except for emergency services, takes place via horse or bicycle.

Two ferry companies take passengers out to the Island from St. Ignace on one side of the Mackinac Bridge and from Mackinaw City on the other side of the Bridge, Shepler’s and Star Line. Our hotel in St. Ignace, Cedar Hill Lodge, offered discounted tickets and shuttle service to Shepler’s, so that’s the ferry we went with. Both companies offer the same services at reasonable prices.

When we arrived, we made our way from the Shepler’s dock down the main street to the Mackinac Island Carriage Tour company, across from the Star Line dock. We wanted to see everything, and the tours are a great place to start, especially if you have some kind of mobility issue. Our driver, Kiki, introduced us all to our horses, Mona and Judy, to start the tour, and provided commentary as she took us on the first leg of the tour from down town, down the historic second street where the original fur traders’ homes can still be seen and visited, and out past the Grand Hotel to the stables and butterfly conservatory. From there, we took the second leg of the tour, behind a team of three hours and a new driver, through the State Park, to Arch Rock and Fort Mackinac.

My six-year-olds loved riding behind the horses, went into raptures over the butterfly conservatory, and ran all over grounds of the fort, which offers daily demonstrations of military life in the 19th century as well as a tea room, children’s play space, and living museum. Its history is connected with Fort Michilimackinac, which originally existed on the mainland in Mackinaw City and now has been largely reconstructed in its original location there. We were all fascinated by the living history the forts represented.

On the island, we walked down the bluff from the Fort to the main street again after lunch in the tea room, and browsed the shops, buying ice cream and fudge to take home. We watched fudgemakers in the windows along main street, dodged bicycles, and took a ferry back to St. Ignace late in the afternoon.

The next day, we drove over the five-mile Mackinac Bridge to visit Mackinaw City and Fort Michilimackinac, and there, we enjoyed leaning about the fort through the costumed presenters, and about its archaeology from the working archaeologists on site. They’re currently digging the site of a fur trader’s home, and they have been for about nine years. The on-site archaeologist said they’ll keep digging until they find nothing else to pull out of the soil, and that the cellars appeared to be used as storage facilities, so there’s lots to find.

As a side note, it’s possible to buy tickets to both forts at one time; I wasn’t sure we were going to make it to the mainland fort so I only purchased Fort Mackinac tickets the day we were there. However, when we did get the opportunity to go to the mainland fort the next day, we were able to pay only the difference between the two kinds of tickets at Michilimackinac, which saved us some money.

Fort Michililmackinac also has a large playground and access to a beach on the Lake Michigan side of the strait, and our girls were able to run off some energy before rain threatened. We headed back across the bridge to find pasties for lunch. We ended up at a St. Ignace staple: Lehto’s Pasties. This storefront has been around for more than fifty years, and it offers outdoor seating. The pasties are twelve ounces, pastry stuffed with steak, potatoes, onion, and rutabaga in a hand pie that’s perfect for lunch. We got three for the four of us, plus beverages, and headed down to the American Legion beach in St. Ignace to eat and collect rocks .

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay, and our only regret is we couldn’t stay longer.

If you go: Make sure to check out everything you’d like to see in advance and budget accordingly. While nothing was unreasonably priced, everything did cost something. The ferry and the carriage tour were the most expensive parts of the trip, but they were utterly worth it. Also, pay attention to COVID restrictions; we masked up at indoor spaces for safety’s sake.

On visiting Green Bay, Wis.

Most people think of the Green bay Packers when they think of Green Bay, Wis. But not everything in Titletown has to do with the Packers. I recently took my young children there for a long weekend visit with family, and we found plenty of things to do that didn’t have anything to do with football.

That said, if you are a football fan, you’ll want to visit the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. I’ve been there a few times now, and I’ve been to a game at Lambeau Field, as well, several years ago. Green Bay is probably best known for its affiliation with the Packers, and as a lifelong Packer fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. However, families who aren’t into football will enjoy the Zoo and Bay Beach. While we didn’t go this time, my cousins tell me the Children’s Museum and the Wildlife Sanctuary also are a lot of fun.

Our first day in Green Bay, we went to the NEW Zoo and Adventure Park. The Zoo still requires masks for some exhibits, such as feeding the giraffes, but everything is open to air and many folks didn’t bother with masks outside of those specified areas. We started our day there in the farm area, which features some animals for petting. While feeding stations were closed, we were able to see, talk to, and enjoy several different farm animals, including sheep and alpacas. We walked the loop there, and came back to an entrance that took us past African lions and up into the park proper. We waited in line to feed the giraffes, masked up, and then waited some more when our giraffe decided she wanted a drink of water between feedings.

We saw many different animals as we wandered through the rest of the zoo, and the children with us really liked trying to stretch their arms out to match the painted wingspans of the many birds featured there. The Zoo has big signs with the wings painted to be outstretched, and we spent some time trying to see how long our arms are in comparison. The oldest child with us, Clare, had a “wingspan” the same size as a snowy owl. I almost had the wingspan of an American bald eagle.

After a stop for a reasonably priced lunch in the center of the zoo and a walk around the Northwoods loop to see the moose, we finished our stay with an extended viewing of the penguins and a trip through the gift shop.

On Day Two, we went to a place that remains a perennial favorite of the locals: Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Bay Beach offers rides, concessions, and a very nice playground, all set right next to the bay of Green Bay. While the day we went was hot, the breeze off the water made the shady spots tolerable, and quick access to snow cones and water made it possible for us to stay for longer than we originally intended. The park boasts several different rides for people of all ages, and it includes a substantial selection of just-for-kids rides that C and A adored. The park, which is run by City of Green Bay, offers tickets for rides priced at 25 cents each; each ride is between one and four tickets. The children’s rides each took one ticket. We were able to ride all of the rides twice–and our favorites three times–at that price.

We also enjoyed a train ride by the bay, and we had lunch in the pavilion, which is a beautiful building, once a dance hall still pressed into service for receptions and events, that houses an air-conditioned dining area. We ate excellent cheeseburgers on bakery buns and shared cheese fries to go with our bottled water, and spent less than $15 for the three of us to eat. Frankly, I’ve gotten used to higher-priced concessions in the Twin Cities that don’t taste as good as these did, and I was very impressed with the quality of food and service.

We also spent some time in the excellent playground attached to the park, which was, thankfully, shaded.

It was a great weekend away, and the first we’ve had since our last trip to Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri in March, 2020. We’re looking forward to exploring more this summer. Stay well, everyone.

If you go, plan ahead. While everything seems to be open again this summer, some sites are requiring advanced reservations and tickets to ensure a contactless form of crowd control. This wasn’t the case at Bay Beach, but the Zoo required advanced tickets. Double-check the web site of the place you plan to visit in advance to see what their restrictions are for a smooth experience.

On Considering Race and Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’ve been thinking deeply about race as it relates to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her works, lately, and I’ve made some observations that I’d like to share.

For those who don’t know, Wilder wrote the wildly popular Little House series of children’s books upon which the television show, Little House on the Prairie, was based. Recently, PBS aired a new documentary biography about Wilder, and I was pleased to see that it paid attention to the controversy surrounding the books, which have episodes of racism. In fact, the argument could be made that the entire series is racist, though it’s most evident and apparent in Little House on the Prairie, the book that tells the story of the Ingalls’ squatting on land in the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas and their subsequent departure from it.

However, the rest of the series isn’t exempt; negative references to Native Americans as well as the story of a performance in blackface by characters in the books also highlight the problematic nature of the works, which led to the American Library Association removing Wilder’s name from one of its major awards in 2018.

As an historian, I have said, and I will continue to say, that I think it’s important that the books continue to be studied and discussed, despite their flaws, and the discussion does need to be more encompassing than race. These books remain one of the few series that provides historians and others a feminine perspective on the pioneers’ movement West in the nineteenth century. Wilder gives women and girls in that story voice, and suppressing her work would also wrongly suppress that voice.

The challenge, of course, is that many want to suppress the painful truths of history. As someone put it to me recently, “Why can’t we just ‘get over it’?” My answer then, as now, is that we can’t just “get over” trauma, either personal or collective. The collective trauma of Native Americans being driven away from their homes and forced in many cases to suppress their cultural identities by white authority isn’t something the people are going to get over. The collective trauma of being dehumanized, thought “other,” enslaved, and demonized in popular culture isn’t something any Black person is likely to get over.

These peoples still deal with the remnants and ripple effects of these traumas every day.

When PBS aired the Wilder special, I Tweeted as I watched. At one point, someone on air said the books provided “emotional comfort food.” I retweeted the statement because that’s what the books are for me, too: emotional comfort food that reminded me as a girl that I had value and that my story and my voice meant something. Yet, not all responded positively to my retweet. One clearly said, “Not for me.” And that’s not only valid, it’s worth broader discussion.

My last observation is this: As a girl, I never noticed the books had racist overtones, and that is, in part, because I was a regular and avid watcher of the Little House on the Prairie television series, which expanded on the fictional Laura’s story. In that series, a number of respected African-American characters dealt with a variety of issues on race; the disability of Mary Ingalls was highlighted, and the show paid special attention to inclusion and diversity. I think my perceptions of how the books treated race was softened by simultaneous viewing of the television show.

We have a long ways to go in these discussions. I think it’s more than OK for those of us to have enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works as “emotional comfort food” to continue to do so. But we need to remember, too, that her works aren’t inclusive, and for some, could be outright damaging. Don’t expect anyone to “get over it.”

See me discussing Laura: https://youtu.be/va03L58fA28

On remembering at Thanksgiving

I don’t even know how old this pot is. It’s a roaster. Big enough for a 20 pound turkey. Big enough for a family feast of fried chicken at the Fourth of July. Big enough to feed crowd.

This one belonged to my grandma Elsie. My childhood surfaces every time I bring it out, memories of this very pan filled to the brim with whatever she was serving to the crowd in her kitchen when we visited. Thanksgiving was always at Grandma’s, even after she downsized, left the farm, moved into a trailer, and then to an apartment in town. Often, more than 50 of us—family and extended family alike—gathered in the community room in her building for Thanksgiving dinner.

We’d have at least two turkeys. The menu also reflected the whims of whomever was bringing sides. There was always mashed potatoes, and gravy, and stuffing. My mother’s baked beans, sometimes sweet corn, and sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows sat at the table next to occasional treats brought by cousins who lived further afield than rural Wisconsin.

We ate. We gossiped. We played games of all kinds. We’d have a cribbage tournament sometimes. Other times we’d find the Macy’s parade on the little TV in the corner, followed by whatever football game was playing. (Bonus points for days when the Packers played the Lions.)

This year looks a little different. None of us are traveling, to keep us all safe. This pan is out in my kitchen, ready for the turkey, which I fully expect my small family will be eating for the next week. I have lots of little treats for us to nibble on over the course of the day, and the parade is already on. We’ll connect with other family members later today over the phone. And as we give thanks, we’ll remember we have food, we have shelter, and we have love.

Best wishes to all of you on this Thanksgiving.

On prepping for Thanksgiving at home

Today I started making things that we normally cook in the oven ahead of our Thanksgiving meal at home Thursday.

I started out by making my mom’s baked beans. They’re a dish that takes quite a lot of time, and a lot of oven time, and it just makes sense to make them ahead. We will probably sneak some to eat with our supper tonight. What you see in the picture above is my bean pot, the key to the whole dish. I am not sure why, but they just don’t turn out right if you cook them in anything else.

Each day this week, I will tackle one thing that takes oven time that I want to save for my turkey on Thursday. Tomorrow, it’s pie day. Wednesday, it’s bread day. On Thursday, all I will need to do is make turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole. Sometimes, it’s the classics that make us the most happy.

Wishing you all the best this week!

On Spooky Stories

When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.

Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.

Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:

Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.

It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.

Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.

Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago. 

He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.

Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.

He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.

“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.

“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”

The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”

Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”

Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her. 

The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”

“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.” 

Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”

Martin felt faint.

“She can’t be! She can’t!”

“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”

Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.

The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”

“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.

“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.

“Master?” The servant asked.

“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.

“Master!” The servant called out.

“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”

A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.

Perhaps the Hills left.

Perhaps they stayed. 

But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.

Listen to me tell the story:

on-spooky-stories.mp3

Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”

October snow reminds me of The Long Winter

In the last five days, we’ve gotten several inches of snow in Southern Minnesota. Some of it has melted off as fast as it arrived. But the early arrival of the white stuff has made me think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, The Long Winter.

Of all the Little House books, The Long Winter is the one I’ve read the most. It was something of a comfort book for me when I was growing up. That might seem a little odd; the book details how the Ingalls family survived the winter of 1880-1881, during which months of successive blizzards kept trains from running to the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. By May, when the first train came, the town had run out of food. Many had been surviving on sourdough bread made from crushed seed wheat. They had no wheat left to plant for crops in the spring.

I think the reason this one was my favorite is because it deals with the struggle. It shows how the family was resilient, how they pulled together to survive, and how even when the days were darkest, they could sing to bring cheer to the long nights. It’s about survival. It’s about rising up to meet life’s challenges. And in my own darkest days, it’s been a comfort to see the Ingalls thrive despite the length of that terrible winter.

The mantra Laura uses in the story is one I’ve come to use myself. “February is a short month, and March will be spring.” It’s a reminder that we can get through anything, and there is light, and spring, on the other side.

I truly hope that my own October snow does not indicate a winter that lasts till May. Even if it does, I will remember that February is a short month, and March will be spring. This, too, shall pass.

On comfort food: Semi- homemade chicken pot pie

I’m sad. The weather is turning, we’re mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the pandemic is in its sixth month. I felt the need for some comfort food today. So, using a little help from the grocery store, I made a comfort food classic: chicken pot pie.

This is the first time I tried this concept out, but it turned out so well, I think I will be making this many more times.

Things you’ll need:

One deep dish pan. I used an 8 in. square brownie pan, but if you have a deep dish pie tin that would work too.

Frozen chicken tenderloins.

One can mixed vegetables.

One can cream of chicken condensed soup.

One roll refrigerated piecrust.

Seasoning to taste.

Preheat your oven to 400°. In the pan, spread half the can of soup. Layer 3 to 4 chicken tenderloins over the soup. Spread half the can of mixed vegetables over the chicken. Add another layer of soup, another layer of chicken, and another layer of vegetables, finishing with whatever soup is left. If you wish, use a little onion powder, and a little salt and pepper, on each layer. Thaw and unroll the refrigerated piecrust, and then spread over the top layer, and crimp the edges. Cut holes in the top of the pastry to vent. Bake at 400° for one hour. Make sure the internal temperature of the chicken is 180° minimum before you take it out. The crust will be golden, and sauce will be bubbling. Let stand for five minutes before cutting into it with a big metal spoon. Serve in bowls.

This made enough for four people for lunch. Stay well, everybody.