Not us, but the people who built this place. Wapsipinicon State Park, just outside Anamosa, Iowa, has a unique history. It was created when citizens of Anamosa, concerned about logging on this beautiful piece of land, raised money in 1921 to purchase about 180 acres and donate it to the state to create a park. It has about doubled in size since then with interesting trails and caves which we intend to explore today. During the Thirties, when a number of Iowa's parks were being improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps, prisoners from the state penitentiary in Anamosa built the roads, bridges, and shelters at Wapsipinicon.
This was a spur-of-the-moment trip when our camping friends decided to camp here this week because of a granddaughter's softball tournament tomorrow. Although the campground is small, there were plenty of spots available. This is no doubt because the campsites are desperately in need of improvement. Level is not a word used on any of the site descriptions on the state park website. There was much gnashing of teeth yesterday as we tried to achieve that condition with blocks, jacks, etc.--not totally successful. Roger Rabbit was here to greet us and supervise, although I'm sure he was thinking if we were content to dig a burrow in the ground, we wouldn't have to worry about all of that leveling stuff.
The scenery is beautiful and one would hope as the centennial of the park approaches, the legislature would release the funds necessary to improve the campground. The Ranger tells us that there was $30,000 designated last year for such work but it was snatched back before it could be used.
Our current front porch
We bought our first house in 1967 for a whopping $11,500. That got us three bedrooms, a bathroom the size of most bedrooms, a minimalist kitchen, and an enclosed front porch. The porch was paneled with knotty pine paneling and had windows on three sides.
My husband was taking a load to the town dump one day, and someone had just brought in a wicker hideabed. Butch paid the dump overseer $1 for it and brought it home. I spray painted it and recovered the cushions. Since the $11.5K did not bring us central air conditioning, many hot nights our family slept on that hideabed. We also had lots of social gatherings on that porch, especially after fast pitch softball games.
Our next house did not include a porch and we sorely missed it. A couple of years after we moved there, we added a deck on the back and couple of years after that, screened in that deck.
We lived on that porch from April until October. The house had hot water heat so the cost of installing AC was prohibitive. We just moved to the porch. It was furnished with used pieces and hand-me-downs. Fresh paint and cushion covers sort of tied it together. We ate every meal out there, played games, read, and napped--all approved porch activities.
Next we built a house in the country that included a large deck and screened porch. When we were getting estimates from builders, one suggested we could cut costs by leaving the porch and deck off. We said we could leave the house off but we needed the porch and deck. Studies show that spending even a short time outdoors relieves stress and all kinds of ills. Maybe on a porch you are only halfway outdoors but to me the results are the same.
About ten years ago, we bought a one floor bungalow to flip. It not only had a great enclosed front porch complete with a wicker swing, but also what was known as a sleeping porch off one of the bedrooms in the back. I had a lot of fun decorating that porch and added some stenciling around the top conveying why I love porches.
Which brings us to our present home. It is a 1910 Craftsman and came with an enclosed front porch and a large deck on the back. The deck was added by the previous owners and is huge. We spend quite a bit of time out there but then there's the bugs.
The porch is not heated and I generally clean it up good in the fall but decorate it for Christmas and if we have overflow from Christmas dinner (like the grandchildren) a space heater makes it usable.
After Christmas, it sits unused for about three months. Late March or early April, I wash all of the windows, remove the spider webs, and generally make it ready for summer. It's actually one of my favorite cleaning jobs--if such a thing exists-- because it's a sign of spring. This year, circumstances prevented me from this task until this last week. But as usual, it was a huge boost to my spirits, Opening all eight windows is breath of fresh air, not just to the body, but also the soul. All of the green out of every window brings renewal. I think there should be a law that all homes have to have a porch.
Our current back deck.
Friday night, Allen High School in Texas graduated their largest class ever--1681 students--including our grandson Jack. It is quite a spectacle, held in the multimillion dollar high school football stadium. The seniors march in from all four corners of the field.
Because of the size and distance, it is impossible to see, or sometimes even recognize, your own graduate so the photos and names are displayed before the ceremony on the Jumbotron at the end of the field. This programming was done by Jack and of course with 1681 names and photos, the chances of errors are mega and there was a lot of redoing. Notice that the score is actually the class year and the time at the bottom is the number of students. Of course, I missed getting a photo of Jack's picture. Jack was part of the animation class that created the senior video as well, also shown on the big screen.
Like most graduations, the speeches could have been fewer and shorter, but they still managed to get this marathon done in under three hours. I was glad I was able to be there for Jack, but I also told my son and daughter-in-law that I am glad that they don't have six more kids to go through this!
So this morning, before we headed for Texas for our grandson Jack"s graduation, I chuckled at this post on Face book and just had to share it. Talk about tempting fate. Temperatures were to be in the high 80s with lots of humidity and we were driving through Tornado Alley.
Eastern Oklahoma has received more rain in the last few days than they normally get in a month. People have been stranded and whole towns have been evacuated. We began to see evidence of flooding in southwestern Missouri into Oklahoma. Every river and creek was well out of its banks. Our target was Muskogee, OK and as we pulled into town shortly after 6:00 p.m. the tornado sirens went off. Not exactly the fanfare we expected.
The first hotel we stopped at was completely full. Guests were milling around while the desk clerk tried to direct them to interior rooms--the closest thing the hotel had to a storm shelter. The second hotel was also full so I asked the clerk if something special was going on in town and she said most of the people had been displaced by the flooding! The third hotel had a room, so after unloading and grabbing supper at a nearby restaurant, we were ready to kick back and watch a little TV. But everything had been preempted by the coverage of several tornadoes moving acroos the area we had just passed through a few hours before.
I think tomorrow I'll leave my ruby slippers in the suitcase.
After a fashion. The weather Wednesday was not stellular but it didn't rain all day. Just most of it. We did manage to get a couple of walks in in the morning and after lunch we tried out a new game that I was introduced to the week before: Back Up 8. Ken braved the elements to smoke a fresh ham and we feasted that night on pork, sweet potatoes, green beans, and a berry crumble dessert. Starvation staved off for another day.
Thursday morning the rain moved out and the chill moved in. The Ottaways went mushroom hunting and Harriet and I hit the trails. In spite of the still-gloomy skies, the early spring green of emerging leaves and moss made the crevices and ravines glow. Many of the board walks were repaired last year when the park was closed for most of the season. We were also amazed by the patching job on the rock that supports the Balanced Rock. We didn't go the whole distance along the trail, but when we turned back, we spotted a stone cabin up above us that piqued our interest. We later found a path that led from a picnic area down to this mysterious structure. I was especially intrigued because an old cabin is a part of the plot of Bats and Bones, and in the camper tips I stated "There is no old cabin or tunnel that I know of" but apparently there are at least two. Near the cabin was a gazebo of sorts that didn't appear to have any particular use.
It was our night to cook, but although we had the makings of a full meal with us, we had warned the group that if the weather was not conducive to cooking outside (we can't use the gas stove because of the oxygen), that we would take the group out to eat. That decision was made, and after exploring the options online, we were excited to try the Decker Hotel--a historic building with a reputation for good food. Alas, their website lies and they are not open on Thursday nights. Our next choice was PerXactly's, a local bar and grill. While the decor was fun and unique, the noise level was too much for our old ears. We did wonder what the story is behind 'Paul and Larry's Seat' which was under our table. So we each had a beer and continued on in our search for food. See what pioneers we are? We ended up at the Great Wall, a Chinese place and ate our fill. Not great but good.
Today we will pack up, head home, and put this trip in the books. It's been a fun few days in spite of the weather, and we are once more convinced that we are of stout stock.
After a very long nine months, this week we have our camper out, about an hour and a half from home at Maquoketa Caves State Park. It has been so long that we forgot to level the trailer front to back before we put the jacks down. A little do-over there.
The bad news? The forecast is rain for every day we are here and so far this morning, the weather guessers are right. Last night was dry but cool, and we did manage to get a campfire along with a hearty supper of taco soup and enchiladas, followed by fruit filled tortillas warmed over the fire. Weather does not dampen this group's enthusiasm for meals!
There are at least three black cats here--there could be a thousand and they only send out three at a time--but they obviously feel a real sense of ownership. Neither of us are cat fans but one has taken possession of one of our lawn chairs.
We are prepared for inclement weather. We have a new game and at least one movie that some of us haven't seen. Nearby Maquoketa offers diversions; there's even a winery close by. Of course I have books to read and three to write. After all, this park is the scene of the first Frannie book, Bats and Bones. Hopefully by Thursday, we'll get enough dry hours to hike along the beautiful caves.
But we won't starve, and for now we are snugged in. I think both of us are reassured about our ability to do this kind of thing in spite of my husband's cancer. For the benefit of anyone who uses supplemental oxygen and wonders if it makes camping out of reach, go for it! We have my husband's concentrator in a corner of the living area and it isn't as loud as I thought it might be. For outdoor activities and trips to other campers, the portable concentrator works quite well. Of course, getting one of those is slightly more difficult than getting Russia's military secrets but that's another story.
For twenty-seven years, while our kids were growing up, we lived in a big old house on Calhoun Street. Our large lot backed up to the city park, and across the fence was the public pool. On the other corner of the block stood the elementary school and a half a block away was the high school. A perfect location for kids to grow up. But what really made it perfect was the neighborhood.
There were lots of kids, especially boys, for some reason. And the adults were a crazy, creative, supportive bunch who would do anything for each other. Our kids knew that if there was any kind of emergency and we weren't available, they could go to anyone on the street for help. Lon and Lyn Burr lived directly to our north. I just learned with great sadness that Lon, in his nineties, passed away yesterday.
Lon was a one of a kind. His pranks and jokes were notorious, Our dogs loved him. Before he retired, he sold feed, and every day when he got home, they would whine to be let out. They would race over to his truck and he would give them chunks of pig-starter. Then he would send them back with a note in their collars or one paw stuck in their collars. The next day they would be right back there.
Once we were on a family vacation out West. My cousin asked, "Do you have someone watching your house?" We said "Yes, unfortunately." Sure enough, when we got home, there was a For Sale sign in the yard and the kind of flags you see in used car lots strung from the eaves to the nearest trees. Inside, led by Lon, the neighbors had turned all of the downstairs furniture upside down. His wife, Lyn, told me later that she had stopped him from boarding up the windows.
He came to a yard party that had a western theme dressed as an Indian with a squirrel tail tied to his glasses and fastened over the top of his bald head like a Mohawk haircut. He once planted gourds between the rows in my garden and then pointed them out after they sprouted, asking me why I had planted them there. He would tell me that I had the towels hung upside down on the clothesline. He had nicknames for all the neighborhood kids and they called him Geezer. He would offer to set up a divorced neighbor with some wealthy widowed farmer, assuring her "He's in his eighties. You won't have to put up with him long."
But Lon wasn't all jokes. He could build or fix anything. When we were doing any kind of remodeling project, if it passed Lon's inspection, we were good to go. Once we had a sinkhole open up in our front yard caused by a leak in an old water main. We got the water shut off but it was the weekend and we couldn't find a plumber. Lon came over with a tube of gunk and a clamp, climbed down in that muddy hole, and fixed it. That was over thirty years ago, and as far as I know, it hasn't leaked since.
He carved delightful animals out of wood. He could paint. He bought old furniture pieces, fixed them, and refinished them into beautiful pieces.
Lon was part of the Greatest Generation. He fought in Italy and France, part of one of the second or third waves into Normandy. He worked tirelessly for the community and would do anything for anybody.
Rest in peace, Lon Burr. When you get to heaven, I hope someone ties your shoelaces together or puts extra wax on your wings. While you're at it, could you fix this awful weather we've been having?
It's nearing the end of February (Thank Goodness!) and I am humming:
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray.
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
But if I was camping
I wouldn't stray
On such a winter's day...
...and thinking of this lovely spot at Lake Lurleen State Park in Alabama where we spent part of Easter weekend last spring. Our plans for this spring are up in the air but we haven't given up. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the last six months, mostly connected with my husband/driver/houseboy's cancer treatments. But things have gone well lately, so we are daring to think about some plans.
Am I prepared? Well, I have my new camping shoes. Butch got a new battery drill for Christmas for lowering the jacks. And we have a new calendar especially sized for a narrow spot on the wall. But the bedding, towels and pillows are still stored in the attic and the condiments in the basement refrigerator. And there will be a lot of restocking to do.
One useful task is preparing and freezing several meals. I picked up a number of recipes a couple of years ago for crockpot meals that can be bagged up, frozen, and ready to throw in the crockpot. And I also am always looking for easy skillet meals. The oven in the camper is a pain to light, and when we travel in the spring or fall, cooking outside doesn't always jive with Mother Nature's plans. So I use the electric skillet frequently. The dish pictured is just potatoes, summer sausage or kielbasa, red peppers and corn. I use unprocessed turkey sausage and, with a green salad, it's even fairly healthy. The plus side to this activity is that if our plans fall through, I still have ready meals in the freezer.
Meanwhile, there are other tasks that needed doing. I had my dental check up and discussed camping dreams with my dentist, who is also a camper. I had my first ever fender bender one snowy day at the hospital, and my Escape will go to the body shop for a new bumper this week. (More expensive than the dentist, by the way.) We also need to think about plans for a couple of family events: a grandson graduates from high school in May, a new great-grandbaby is due at the same time, and a granddaughter gets married in August.
So weather and health permitting--and the former is also a big issue this year--in a few weeks, we may be on our way. If not, those of you who are already out there, enjoy. Hopefully we'll see you somewhere along the road.
Holiday books are almost more common than the lights I wrote about in my last post. Most are short and of the feel good type. So whether your holiday season is frantic and you can only find a couple of hours for yourself with a hot beverage and a cookie (or more than one), or yours is a quiet season with alone time to fill, there are plenty of choices. I want to share some of the variety of holiday mysteries I have come across. If you have an ereader, many of these are free or very cheap. So grab those cookies!
A View to a Chill: A Cherry Tucker and Maizie Albright Interconnected Mystery (Maizie Albright Star Detective Book 4) by Larissa Reinhart
This book takes an unusual approach by having the main characters from two different series meet up. I haven't read any of either series but I intend to. Maizie Albright is a former child star who returns to her home state of Georgia to become a private detective. Cherry Tucker is a small town girl who meddles some in local crime solving. The book switches point of view between the two women and does a great job of portraying each character. Maizie decides to follow up on a missing granddaughter at no charge because it's almost Christmas and her search takes her to the very small town of Halo. Cherry Tucker, a resident of Halo, is confined to bed with a raging case of the flu and hates Christmas. Since Cherry observes some odd goings-on through her bedroom window and Maizie finds that many of the people she meets are not who they appear to be, the story has a bit of a flavor from the movies Rear Window and Charade. There are some hilarious moments and the characters are great.
Big Top Treachery (Circus Cozy Mysteries) by CeeCee James
Not your usual small town or English village holiday setting but a circus! Susannah (or Trixie as she is better known) is billed as the world's smallest Lady Godiva. When the calliope player is found murdered by a sword that has been missing for some time, suspicion falls on many of the circus members and Trixie must find courage and confidence that she never thought she had. A fun look at a different world.
Candy Canes and Christmas (A Pelican Cove Short Cozy Mystery Book 2) by Leena Clover
Jenny King, who has found a new life on an island off the Virginia shore, takes action to help a children's home have a Merry Christmas. But a mysterious old man, Harry, appears on the beach handing out candy canes. Jenny becomes so intrigued by him that she gives him a place to stay over the objections of her friends and boyfriend. Is Harry as harmless as he appears? What is his story and his secret? A delightful holiday story.
Final Cycle (Logland Mystery Series Book 2) by Elaine L. Orr
This book won't be released until Dec 23, but I had the privilege of doing an advance read. When the body of the most annoying woman in town is found in a clothes dryer in the local laundromat, police chief Elizabeth Friedman has plenty of suspects. Only solving the mystery will bring holiday cheer and security back to the small town. Elizabeth is a wonderful main character--a sensible and competent law enforcement officer who must juggle the local politics, a diverse force and eccentric small town characters to solve the crime.
A Highland Christmas (Hamish Macbeth Mysteries, No. 16) by M. C. Beaton
If you haven't met Hamish Macbeth, you are in for a treat. Constable Macbeth deals with a spate of Yuletide crimes, balancing the wish of some for Christmas cheer to brighten the winter and the Calvinist leanings of others opposing such holiday displays. The new schoolteacher is especially fascinated by Hamish, as he searches for stolen lights, Christmas tree, and a cat.
Christmas, Criminals, and Campers By Tonya Kappes
I'm just about halfway through this myself, but of course I can't resist a camping mystery. Mae West, the owner of the Happy Trails Campground in Normal, Kentucky and the Laundry Club ladies deal with the death of a famous author, who isn't what she seems. Romance between Mae and Hank Sharp, local deputy, appears to be heating up and Mae's life is further complicated by a visit from her foster mother--not something that boosts Mae's holiday spirit.
And while we're on the subject of camping (see how I did that?), I can't neglect to mention A Campy Christmas by yours truly.
Frannie and Larry Shoemaker are facing a Christmas alone and decide to join Mickey and Jane Ann Ferraro on a camping trip south. But they get caught in Missouri by a wayward snowstorm and end up snowbound in a campground for the holidays.
When I was writing this three years ago, I put a question on several Facebook camping pages: Have you ever been snowbound while camping? I was amazed by the number of affirmative responses. People who ran out of propane and spent the night in a visitor's center or lost communications and even one who rescued a stranded man! So it's not as farfetched as you think.
So find a book and curl up and enjoy. Don't forget to leave the author a review (a very cheap but appreciated present!) And have a great holiday!
We've all been there. The holidays are approaching so we haul the boxes of decorations from the attic, or the basement, or wherever they have resided the bulk of the year. Maybe we turn on a Christmas CD and hum along while we heat up a cup of hot chocolate or cider or other seasonal drink. We get out the lights and try to string them out on the living room or garage floor. The difficulty of this task depends on how OCD we were the year before--carefully winding them on a spool or wadding them up in a sack or some organizing technique in between. If we are wadders, we face the gargantuan task of untangling, and we may switch from hot chocolate to a glass of wine. Just a small one.
Once they are untangled, we plug them in, one by one. They don't all light. Ever. That is a rule about Christmas lights. We get a little more wine and set about checking for empty sockets and misfunctioning bulbs. This day and age, all light sets say "If one or more bulbs burn out, others will stay lit." That is a lie. After replacing some bulbs, tightening others, and shaking the string (gently), the lights come on. Success!
The next job is to hang them. Maybe they go on a tree, or along the eaves, or above the kitchen cabinets, or along a railing. Wherever their destination, the task is usually not a piece of cake. It involves ladders, wire ties, masking tape, a good sense of balance, and greenery--artificial or otherwise. Regardless, once the lights are hung and we plug them in, voila! One section does not light. Or maybe more than one. Right in the middle. Always. Sometimes a little jiggling will remedy that situation, but then the middle of a another string goes out. More wine.
Strings of lights have become so ubiquitous that they aren't just for Christmas any more. So even if you are of a different religious persuasion, or none, you have still had this experience.
I bought three new strings of lights for our 9 1/2 foot tree two years ago. This year, only one string lit up completely before they went on the tree. The other two only lit halfway.
I decided I didn't care--one whole string and two halves would be enough. I strung the whole string back and forth, top to bottom. I added the other strings and wadded up the unlit sections, tucking them back into the center of the tree where they can't be seen. It wasn't the most even lighting job but looked okay. I proceeded to hang fifty-five years of collected ornaments--more if you count the silver-painted pine cone from my grandmother's tree--and finished off with real tinsel. The aluminum kind that I carefully save from year to year, not that new plastic kind. We both approved the final look and sat down to enjoy our evening and the tree.
Two hours later, the top third of the tree went dark. That was the first string that earlier in the day lit completely before it went on the tree. The string that went on before the other two, all of the ornaments, and the tinsel. The next day, I bought another string to fill in, took the tinsel and ornaments off that part of the tree, carefully wove the new lights through the branches, and replaced the decorations. However, I am not foolish enough to believe that all of the working lights will continue to light until after New Year's.
What's the point?
This whole light fiasco can be seen as a parable for our lives. No matter how carefully we buy, store, and test our lights, some will go dark. Usually in the middle of the string. And we are faced with making do or redoing or changing our expectations. Probably all three.
This summer we made plans for the fall that included several camping trips and a grandson's wedding in Mexico. Then my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. We jiggled those plans and replaced components, but finally had to change our expectations and cancel each plan, one by one. The treatment is going well and we are hopeful for next year. That is what is important in this moment.
We are aware that we are not alone; we know several others with serious glitches in their strings of lights. Some more serious than ours. What we are all left with is the need to enjoy and appreciate the lights when they are on.
Another lesson from the lights is that even though the tree is beautiful, there are those hidden wads of lights gone dark. Just as many of our friends and neighbors are dealing with dark spots that may not be visible in the flashily lit tree. This is the parable of the lights: Hold your loved ones close and be aware of lights gone dark.
Some random thoughts about writing, camping, and eating.