Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thanksgiving week plus in review

In his travels, J. had spotted a sign for Settlers’ Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, so off we went last Sunday, the 22nd. Traditionally, this event is held the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Settlers’ Day is a little hard to describe. We missed most of the planned activities, which I’d guess were geared toward families. When we arrived, we checked out a wall of photos from the event 35 years ago, featuring Girl Scouts and the dual names of the now-married women. The photos looked familiar—the glasses, the hair, the way the color had faded—and I told J. that those girls are now about our age, give or take a year or two. It struck me again how like a lifetime ago that period seems to me, yet sometimes how like the most vital part of my life.

Much of the visitor center’s back room was devoted to vendors, including wildlife photographer Joe Nowak. I bought an amazing pencil holder from his neighbor while a horde of little beasts delved into crafts at a long series of tables across the way.

Outdoors several tents and stands had been set up. At one, people dressed in what seemed to be an odd mix of Revolutionary War-era garb were roasting long spits speared through numerous birds over a pit, while pots in another pit simmered with what one man, obviously not the cook, thought were succotash and other vegetables.

For some reason, nothing else grabbed me until I arrived at the Civil War, a small display of replica guns (with one original, a carbine), shells, balls, swords, Bowie knives, and paraphernalia such as binoculars. And, of course, hard tack. One of the men was talking to a boy about balls, cannons, canisters, and the like, so I suggested he describe the virtues of hard tack. When he mentioned weevils floating to the top of the coffee in which the hard tack had been dipped, the boy scrunched his face and turned away. A few harmless insects were more horrifying than all those mangled and severed limbs and decapitated heads.

I found that these guys recounted the horrors of war with great relish, gloating over the technological advancements that made it possible to maim and kill more and more men in more and more terribly efficient ways. He described the effects of canisters with tremendous enthusiasm, as well as the effects of soft lead bullets on bone; instead of breaking cleanly, which could be set, the bone shattered or split along its length—hence, as he pointed out, the necessity to resort to amputation.

While I was there, I checked out three rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in a nearby cage and heard the story of how a female with a damaged wing escaped, crawling along the ground until a staff person nabbed her with a sweatshirt. I know why the caged bird doesn’t fly.

As the program was being shut down, we went for a very brief walk and discovered tombstones along the trail—part of the day’s “wagon train hikes.”

And so, after some fruitless driving around and discussion, we backtracked and ate at Outback.

For Thanksgiving I roasted a 2.75-pound turkey breast and steamed/heated a few basics, while J. caught up on sleep during Some Like It Hot. I am pleased to report that, to date, no one has fallen ill, not even Hodge, who knocked over the trash so he could lick the turkey breast package.

Saturday the 28th dawned in the 30s, but heated up into the unseasonably warm 50s. At last we made it to Lincoln Marsh in Wheaton. The people who live nearby are fortunate to have this perfect spot for walking, with a bike path at hand. Within moments of heading down the trail, I regretted not bringing binoculars as I watched birds flit in the trees and bushes ahead.

Lincoln Marsh is not big, which I think made it feel manageable to J. He was fascinated b y the rustling of the grasses in the wind and other small sounds that are now out of the range of my damaged hearing, so I left him behind to enjoy them. Except for the occasional passing train or jet overhead, the area is surprisingly quiet, with very little ambient traffic noise—quite the idyllic spot, lovely even in the starkness of late fall.

I came to a place at the water’s edge across from which a pair of mallards was floating. The moment I sat, the pair changed course and set sail straight for me. My guess is that some visitors ignore the “do not feed the wildlife” rules. I’m not one of them, so my disappointed ducks had to resort to dabbling in the water.

Another duck had hit the water further out with a splash, then had started to quack harshly, sounding very like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in the old Batman TV series. The original pair seemed startled by her abrupt arrival. By the time J. caught up with me, they had disappeared into the offshore grasses. I was whispering this to him and wondering what had become of the third duck when a mighty row of splashing and quacking broke out from the direction of the offshore grasses. It sounded like quite an altercation, and I half-expected a duck corpse or two to float out belly up at any moment. Gradually, all three reappeared, alive and well, the pair still inseparable and the third putting distance between herself and them. I couldn’t help anthropomorphizing based on what I’d observed—the second female was obviously a spurned mistress, desperately making one last attempt to break up her lover’s union. But the first female was standing (swimming) by her man, who was undoubtedly horrified that he’d ever let that harridan into their lives. Their discomfort at her arrival was palpable, and the tussle in the grasses sounded fierce. It was not an amicable split.

And you thought all ducks have to worry about are a few predators and guys with guns.

I spotted a woodpecker in the trees, but while I was trying futilely to take a photo, both J. and I heard an insistent tapping above us. Overhead, a second woodpecker intently pecked at some small upper branches. Walkers who came along paused as J. took photos, but even when they moved on apologetically, the bird remained unfazed and unmoved, ignoring all of us. When I moved around to the other side, I felt dead wood detritus raining on my head and face. At last the woodpecker flew off, but not because it had deigned to notice us.

Time was running out, so we walked to a nearby overlook with a little dock below—as it turned out, the perfect place from which to take photos of the sunset over the water. Two jet streams were being etched in the deepening blue of the sky overhead, while long, wispy pink clouds were reflected nearly perfectly in the marsh’s still waters. How could anything like holiday shopping and bustle compare to this moment at this place, where one could almost imagine the world when it was younger and less spoiled?

After a detour (closed roads having become a suburban feature here), we went to downtown Wheaton, making stops at It’s Our Earth, Graham’s Chocolates, and La Spiaza. This last is a Spanish café where the menu is written on the cabinets in chalk, and a bumper sticker says, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.” The cream and other necessities are arrayed on a vintage stovetop, artwork hangs on the walls, and coffee quotations adorn the privy. The young woman at the counter was friendly, helpful, and quirky, there’s live music on weekends, and the lighting bright enough to offset the early dark of November. I liked it.

At some point, I had observed that Geneva is 11 miles west of Wheaton. Little did I know that J., prompted by a co-worker, had developed a burning desire to visit Geneva. After a detour for photos of the old Wheaton courthouse (now Courthouse Square townhouses and condos) and a little back-and-forth (“Are you sure?”), we were on the way to Geneva, which, from the east, is at the bottom of what is called a hill in Illinois. Geneva looks like the quintessential Christmastown, USA, with frame house-like shops on streets decorated for the holidays. Outside one was an old, heavy-framed bicycle like the one my dad rescued from a junkyard when I was four or five years old, covered with large, softly muted vintage or vintage-style lights. For the nostalgic who remember Christmas less for shopping and more for the festive atmosphere, places like Wheaton and Geneva seem to be havens of respite.

Our first stop here was at the Graham’s café, which offered an opportunity to get another cup of pumpkin ice cream. When J. observed my choice, he bought me a pint for later. Mmm.

A man came in with two boys, who started to run up the stairs to the second floor with their goodies. Dad, who must have had a back or leg injury, told them to come back. “I don’t think I can make it up there,” he said. The second boy paused in his upward flight to say, “That’s okay; you can stay down here.” I did not catch Dad’s response, probably because he didn’t seem to have one. While he contemplated the independence of his young sons, we ate our ice cream by the unlit fireplace and admired the little touches that made the room interesting, like the tile patterns painted in the corners. I wonder if those two boys, and the other children and teenagers, will recall Graham’s fondly when they children of their own, and whether such places—combination contemporary café with WiFi/ice cream and sweet shop—will be around in 20 years. I wonder this because I’m guessing that so little of anything I remember remains, whether chain or family-owned shop.

We found Graham’s Chocolates a few houses down. I didn’t opt for a third pumpkin ice cream, but I did pick up a few more peanut butter cups. J. did, too, because later he told me how good they are. I could not agree more! I sense that there will be a second trip to Geneva in the future.

I hinted that a third visit to Bavarian Lodge would work for me. I think it’s the beer varieties that keep drawing me back. Our server from two weeks ago, he of the slyly left dessert menu, recognized us. He pointed out the irony of a German menu whose only soups were devoid of meat; he always has a comment. This time, he couldn’t talk us into dessert, even to go, although J. relented and asked for the menu, then didn’t order anything. Each of us is getting better about this. It’s unfortunate that our waistlines and scales aren’t rewarding our restraint (or attempts at it).

And so home, and home.

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