Thursday, September 25, 2008

Picnic at Tampier Lake


Ever since we drove across it last summer on the way to White Fence Farm, I've wanted to return to Tampier Lake. 131st Street runs on a bank that divides the lake, which gave me the feeling of floating across the water's sparkling surface. It was a gorgeous day, and it looked like the perfect place for a picnic. Finally, on Saturday, we found time to return. I brought the blankets, candle, and utensils, we picked up mostly vegan food at Heritage Health Foods, and away we went.

J. thought I would like Wolf Road, and he was right. While there were signs of development—old farmhouses and tiny fields planted with crops hanging in next to newly built condos, for example, on the road we took over to Wolf—it looked more like rural Pennsylvania than anything I have ever seen here. We even passed a farm stand (no time to stop, alas), horse crossing signs, old barns, fields, trees, and even a ranch (it was hard to tell whether it was open or closed). I would love to take a more leisurely trip down it and to stop at that stand—the first I’ve seen here.

I had dreamed of an idyllic summer day—sunny, light breeze, a few clouds, warm enough but not hot. This was it. The weather could not have been better, and the only drawback was that, with sunset at around 6:50 p.m., we had less than two hours to eat, relax, and take a walk. More time would have been wonderful, but as I should know by now things usually work out.

J. wanted to watch the boats (rowboats) to the northwest, while I preferred the weeping willows and glimpses of water to the southeast, so we compromised. I picked a spot, not close to the water's edge where the grass was longer, so he could face one section and the street and I could face the other.

I love dining alfresco, on a blanket in the grass, sandwiched between green below and blue above. If I could, I would eat every meal outside, where the ambiance is more tranquil and conducive to good digestion than crisp linens, clanking glassware, clattering silverware, clamoring voices, and jarring music played too loudly. Simple food, natural setting, the only music the twittering of small birds and the occasional honking of passing geese—that's all I need. And it's affordable.

We weren't the only ones taking advantage of summer's last hurrah; there were several groups picnicking and many people fishing. One young man must have mistaken my citronella candle for a cooking flame; he called out to ask if we were eating our catch fresh.

I loved it all. I think J. missed the more crowded and less bucolic picnic area at 63d Street. Not me.

Afterward we cleaned up and walked around. The large white birds I had seen earlier were gone, and most of the boats had come in for the night. A movement in the grass caught my eye; it proved to be a grasshopper willing to pose for J.

We started in the southeast, heading northwest. Already the sun was close to the tree line (visually), and we were a little surprised by how rapidly it disappeared, signaling the end of my perfect picnic. Later, we discovered an ant in J.'s shopping bag—it wouldn't have been a picnic without one. Poor thing, torn from its home.

On the way back, we both spotted a restaurant that looked like it was growing out of the forest—Devono’s Ristorante—noted for a possible visit.

Sunday I got up early and picked up goodies at Bonjour. The occasion was "brunch for the ladies" at a co-worker's house in Riverwoods. Another co-worker picked me up at the train station and exclaimed as we passed a house, "Oh, my—it's real!" Stupidly, I looked back for the architectural or landscaping feature that had provoked this, and she added, "It's a deer." I caught a glimpse of one in the middle of a front lawn. It did resemble a lawn ornament as it stood with head up, perfectly still.

Another lovely day, perhaps a bit warmer—the last day of summer. We sat on the deck until called to partake, talking about grown children, weddings, and embarrassingly comprehensive Star Wars memorabilia collections. The hostess's little white dog, Gizmo, was so happy that he frolicked off into the distance of the next yard and had to be called back. Inside, I ate with one hand and scratched his ears with the other, hoping the sanitation police (the three nurses) wouldn't notice.
 
Most of us without previous obligations went for a walk in the Chicago Botanic Garden, which was more crowded than I had ever seen before. There were the usual weddings and a party or two, but mostly the hordes were there to pay tribute to an exceptionally fine last day of summer. The gardens were spectacular, on the cusp between the seasons.
 
Through prior arrangement, at 3:00 p.m. I parted ways with the ladies and returned to the bridge by the visitors center. A pair of snow-white trumpeter swans drifted in, periodically looking up curiously at the people on the bridge and obligingly posing for photos. It's fascinating how their dark eye is camouflaged by a dark band that breaks up that flawless soft white.
 
After we picked up my friend's husband, we ended up in the Buehler Enabling Garden, built with raised beds and other features designed for volunteers with disabilities. I don't think I'd been in it before, but it's a jewel, alive with plants and animals. We were greeted by a big grasshopper, which my friend carried over to a bench with us, and every now and then we would see movement and chipmunk tails disappearing under the foliage. The bird feeders were dominated by goldfinches, mostly female. One goldfinch couple staged a showdown around the cylindrical feeder, finally coming beak to beak with no clear winner.
 
I thought the hummingbirds had departed around Labor Day, but two female rubythroats came along to feed from some of the flowers undoubtedly planted for that very purpose. Seldom do I get to see these little jewels, so it was a pleasure to watch them buzzing about only a few feet away.

J. had made the mistake of offering me a ride home due to the inconvenience of the train schedule, but I couldn’t see him traveling more than 100 miles round trip just for that. Instead, I bribed him with the offer of dinner at La Casa de Isaac, a Mexican restaurant owned by Mexican Orthodox Jews.

After much calling back and forth, we met him at Village Square and headed to the restaurant. Although they didn’t have the King David’s quesadillas (lox, cream cheese, onions) advertised on the Web site as a new special, he did enjoy something fishy, while I opted for something cheesy. I’ll take his word that the fishy something was good, as I can’t eat seafood.

After parting with my friends, it took only about an hour to get to Hyde Park, where we aided our digestion with cranberry-blood orange tea.

I spent a lot of time on trains, and J. did a lot of driving, but the destinations were worth it. If you can’t escape Chicago, you may as well find something to like about it—Ravinia, the Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and, of course, food.

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