Friday, July 28, 2006

Road Tripping

Mark Twain Lighthouse - Hannibal, MO

Home again, home again ... we're back home in Maryville after a week's worth of traveling, having left last Friday on a road odyssey/vacation that took us through Mt. Vernon, IA, to Marseilles, IL to visit Lauren's parents and family, to Urbana-Champaign, IL, to visit Lauren's friends whom she hadn't seen in several years, to Hannibal, MO, boyhood home of Mark Twain (and now tourist attraction du jour ... everything in the town either had Mark Twain's name attached to it or was related to the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn mythos in some way ... we guessed that Clemens would probably be rolling in his grave if he knew what his name was now attached to).

Along the way, our journey took us to several bed and breakfasts, including Blythe Cottage Inn in Mt. Vernon (a nicely appointed basement and cottage house), and Lulabelle's in Hannibal (now a very well run B&B and restaurant-bar next to the river. It plays off the noteriety of the building's former use as an, ahem, brothel, in earlier days).

We also found a selection of coffeehouses in various locales ... Fuel and Brewcasso in Mt. Vernon, as well as another in downtown Champaign (sorry, we forget the name), and Java Jive in Hannibal (where we found out that even Mark Twain frequents the place for coffee ... one of the local faux Clemens was there in the morning). As Lauren observed, "looks like even the local characters stop here."

Brewcasso Exterior and Fish Boil

Mt. Vernon found us stopping at Brewcasso last Friday night for a different reason: their take on the "Door County Fish Boil". The summer hosts at the coffeeshop had been throwing several special reservation-only dinner nights; the previous Friday's meal had been an Ethiopian one, but the one we attended was a Door County, Wisconsin tradition from the days of Norwegian fishermen where whitefish and potatoes were cooked over an open fire (in particular, the fish were boiled to remove the "fishy" taste from the fillets). The hosts, a nice couple from Wisconsin with 10 kids (5 adopted Ethiopian), had decorated the dining area with Packers memorabilia and were playing football-themed music.

Brewcasso Interiors

While we watched the preparations and chatted over appetizers (Wisconsin cheeses and summer sausage, accompanied by a chilled raspberry soup), the hosts performed the ritual of boiling the fish and potatoes (apparently, the important part of the boil is the boilover, which removes the starch and also helps put the fire out). Needless to say, the meal was excellent, accompanied by several varieties of fresh bread, and topped off by fruit pie a la mode from a local church bake sale (trust me, it's Iowan fruit pie ... having lived there for six years, I've found there's none better).

The Boilover

After a light breakfast at the B&B, the following morning found us stopping by Fuel, another equally eclectic coffeeshop in town, for tea. (If you do make it there, be sure you arrive there early after opening for their berry scones ... hot out of the oven and crumbly.) We had to get back on the road shortly thereafter, but not before we sampled prune and poppy-seed kolaches at the local farmer's market.

Lunch found us at the "original" Iowa Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport, where Lauren was quite amazed by the decor (I think it was the hayrack/tractor rides they give in the parking lot that really impressed her).

With that, it was on the road to Marseilles and a stop at Lauren's parents for a few days of visiting her family, including meeting her Aunt Peggy and her sister Lisa's family, some walking "down near the river" during Marseilles Fun Days, a trail walk and sightseeing at Buffalo State Park (complete with buffalo), followed on Tuesday by breakfast and some sightseeing at Starved Rock State Park (named for the historical massacre of a band of Illini Indians by a band of Potawatami where the Illini were chased to a bluff, surrounded, and "starved") ... I'm given to understand that in more recent days, the park has its share of accidents (falls), often caused by stupidity, where people fail to realize that the law of gravity applies there as elsewhere in the world ;-).

Below: the Great Hall of the Starved Rock Lodge

The Buffalo at Buffalo State Park

On the way back from Starved Rock, we did some wine tasting, and Lauren also introduced me to Polancic's tenderloins ... she has often commented that the tenderloins done in her area make the best tenderloin sandwiches out there, so of course, we stopped for lunch so she could prove this to me. After that stop, she was proven right.

On Wednesday, we set out for Urbana-Champaign, arriving at about 10:30 that morning for a slightly rainy walk downtown and some shopping... among the finds were (for me), a 1st ed. copy of the Star Trek Concordance, and for Lauren, a Christmas gift. Later on, a find for the parents was a Senseo pod coffeemaker at the local Habitat for Humanity store.

The afternoon brought lunch with Mariellen, one of Lauren's Quaker friends, and a small tour of the UIUC campus, which I "almost" attended back in 1996 (and in one more case of "almost but not quite", I would have missed Lauren by about 3 years, as she had departed in 1993 for upstate New York). One stop was Espresso Royale in Urbana Lauren noted, the back room space was reportedly once a bar that was George Lucas' inspiration for the cantina in Star Wars.

The evening brought dinner at the "best Thai restaurant in the Urbana-Champaign area" with friends from Lauren's former "Saturday Night" group (from left, Ken Sarno; the group's informal mentor, U of I professor emeritus Les Savage; Chris Mayer and Mike Barkley; followed by Lauren and myself), followed by a stayover at Ken's "new" house out in the country 25 mi. south of Urbana (which provoked a small amount of house envy ... especially when Ken showed us the new addition which will eventually house the hot tub).

Lauren's Friends at Dinner

Thursday afternoon and this morning brought us to Hannibal, where besides the aforementioned Lulabelle's (staying in the "Gypsy Rose" room), we occupied ourselves at the local stops, scavanging for scrapbooking supplies for the wedding guestbook/scrapbook, dropping in for ice cream at Becky Thatcher's, earning survival certificates for climbing the 244 steps up to the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse on top of Cardiff Hill (and making it back down again), as well as stopping at Jam Session, the local pipe and bowed instrument shop, where we both tried a bowed psaltry and Lauren added a new tin whistle to her collection.

At Java Jive, we lamented with some of the local customers a recent city council decision to remove the trees from the downtown area because they thought that the tourists would be offended by the bird poop. The crews with the chain saws were out even as we watched.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Wedding Planning

Once again, it's very, very, very hot in Maryville (95 yesterday, 91 today, 97 Saturday, 98 Sunday) ... but not at our place ... thankfully, the HVAC crew passed their certification test and finished up the heat pump installation, and we've been in cool comfort for the last few days (especially since the storms that came through yesterday evening). We're hoping we can go to the local county fair sometime today or tomorrow.

On other fronts, Lauren and I finally started doing wedding planning (budgeting, getting reservations, checking with family, etc.). It's been a little stressful at times (paring down the guest list, for one thing), but slowly but surely we've been making arrangements (church, officiant, and reception), designing our invites, pouring over websites for cost-conscious wedding ideas, doing our budget planning, selecting attendants, and coming up with something nice out of it for all of us. We'll have more details later as we go. In case anyone is wondering, we're registered at Wal-Mart, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and ... just do a search on either Leach-Steffens or the reverse, and you should find us.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Sleepy Sunday

Today's been a sleepy Sunday ... 4th of July is fast approaching, and it's been really warm again here (temps in the mid 90s Friday, and a 100- degree day yesterday), so apart from church this morning, both of us have been keeping indoors under the a/c, with the exception of a walk Saturday morning (while it was still a little overcast) to the local Farmer's Market. Between the walking and going on a diet, Lauren's lost about 8 pounds so far ... she doesn't think it's noticeable, but I do. And for me, it's good for my health, as well.

We'd planned to go camping out at the lake Monday and Tuesday for the 4th, but the threat of storms for the next few days has ruled that out, and a road trip to central MO wine country got postponed (Just as well, given the 10 cent a gal. price hike in the last few days).

Over the weekend, we took a break from the Babylon 5 marathon of the previous week and finished watching the last half of the anime series "A Vision of Escaflowne" ... quite enjoyable, except I still wonder what happened with the ending, which to me made no sense given the characterizations of the two leads, Van and Hitomi. We suspect a last minute (and poorly written) rewrite or editing cut (or maybe a badly translated dub). Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that if you are a romantic, you'll likely be disappointed (and tempted to write your own fan-fic ending to replace it). Note: this is the series version of Escaflowne, not the movie reimage which, in the opinion of my fiancee, got everything wrong.