Accidental Wanderlust has been “On Tour,” visiting 7 major metropolitan cities (loosely defined) in just 8 days, while traveling through 5 states! In Part 1, I took readers to the Twin Cities, visiting the stunning Guthrie Theater, after being welcomed to the city by colorful public art, at the MSP Airport. I indulged in artisanal cheeses at Cosetta Italian Eatery & Market, and on the way out of town I stumble upon Four Daughters Winery.
On relatively short notice, I was asked by my employer to take my training classes “on the road”. Seeing it all, and often making it up along the way. . . that’s life on the road, for someone who travels for work, on a regular basis. This lifestyle is also at the root of “Accidental Wanderlust: the Art, Adventure & Attitude of a Work Traveler”.
In Part 2, the Quaker Oats production facility in Cedar Rapids, IA took center stage. I didn’t get to eat any oatmeal, but many childhood memories, from my father’s days working there, came flooding back. I saw the city’s towering stained glass memorial, designed by Grant Wood, the artist behind American Gothic, and discovered fine dining, and amazing seafood, in the most unexpected of (landlocked) places.
Next Stop: From there, my tour’s pace would increase. I’d teach one class, eat one meal, and spend one night in Rockford, IL. The next morning I’d enjoy apple pie in a brown bag at The Elegant Farmer, while making my way through Mukwonago, WI (aka Mucktown), then I was off to my college town of Milwaukee, WI. My final stop, before getting on a plane headed to the John Glen Columbus International Airport, was the Windy City. For me, this is home, so it’s a chance to take a breath, and reflect on the trip, while raising a glass at the Old Town Ale House.
“The Forest City” – Rockford, IL
It was clear that there wouldn’t be a lot of time to explore Rockford, or discover first hand why it is known as “The Forest City”. Checking in, after my trip, I learned on the official city website’s FAQ page that early settlers called it “Forest City” because of the river valley’s verdant woods. Huh, imagine that! I’d never have guessed.
Update: “Today, it’s being called the “City of Gardens.” Rockford has 7,000 acres of parkland, tree-lined streets, an exceptionally green downtown, a riverside trail and several magnificent public gardens. Look in the phone book…you’ll discover two whole columns of businesses named “Forest City,” “Forest Hills” or “Forest View.”
I was tired from a day of work and driving, so my only aim was to find somewhere local to eat, to support the local economy, and hopefully find a glass of wine and find something unique in Rockford to write about. I found both, at Stone Eagle Tavern. The city’s marketing campaign is “Real. Original. Rockford, Illinois USA.” We’d see about that. . . Stone Eagle’s website advertises “Bar – Restaurant – Bocci”. Okay, . . . bocci? I was intrigued.
When I got to the tavern, not only did I find a bocci ball court, but banners showing the Pope engaged in the ancient sport. The sand was neatly combed, and appeared open to guests of the restaurant, but this isn’t a one-woman endeavor, so I thought I’d eat on the patio, in hopes of a catching a “pick-up game”. The outdoor patio, which overlooked the court, was partially covered, with a roaring fire pit at one end. This went a long way to make up for the fact that the view beyond the bocci court was a strip mall parking lot.
When I dine alone, sometimes I imagine I’m just a fly on the wall, sort of invisible. That night I noticed that there was a lot of machismo in the early evening air, with a table of eight rather stiff suits, seated at a large, round table, just to my right. They had just finished a long day in the boardroom; they were reliving the day’s financial highlights, and were more than ready to indulge in drinks and thick cuts of steak, cooked to their individual specifications.
Page 4 of the menu reads: “HUNGRY FOR A HUGE SUPERIOR GRADE STEAK? Be sure to ask your server for a copy of Our Famous Steak Menu.”
The waitress was clearly intimidated by the table’s atmosphere, and the size of the egos that were trying so hard to make a display of their exaggerated status, accomplishment, and apparent “power”. I wasn’t impressed, from behind the pages of my latest book on Buddhist meditation, and my vegetarian, wood-fired pizza.
But the waitress’s nervousness resulted in a stack of plates crashing to the patio floor, and management was quick to show up at her side, help her clean up, and smooth things over with surrounding guests. When their cuts of steak from Eickman’s Butcher Shop arrived at the table, along with the 2nd and 3rd round of drinks, the businessmen didn’t seem to notice any of the commotion.
Eickman’s is a 4th generation, locally owned, family butcher shop, and the menu declares it the “Best Beef in Illinois”! This is a bold claim, as anyone who’s driven through the Chicagoland area can tell you. You know you’re getting close when you start seeing Italian beef on just about every other corner, alternating with Chicago-style hotdogs and pizza!
I was impressed with my meal, enjoyed my wine, and would return to the place the next time I’m in Rockford, to check out the oyster bar. Founder Jimmy Vitale opened the restaurant as Jungle Jim’s Oyster Bar, in 1975. Combined with the restaurant’s rather unique décor, of architectural antiques, Stone Eagle Tavern seems to fulfill the city’s promise of finding an “Original”.
“Muktown” – Mukwonago, WI
At this point in my trip I was working my back towards the cities I grew up and went to college in, so there were some familiar, favorite stops I just had to make. The first was at The Elegant Farmer, in the small town of Mukwonago, WI. (How to Pronounce “Mukwonago”: https://www.howtopronounce.com/mukwonago/ )
The town is referred to a ‘Muktown’ in the online Urban Dictionary, though this isn’t a term that locals are thrilled about, because it usually comes along with some derogatory remark about the city being a dreary dead end. But The Elegant Farmer makes Mukwonago a destination!
Headed north, towards Milwaukee, WI, I felt as if I were headed back to the excitement, anxiety and accomplishment of my college years. Since my sweet tooth never quite developed, I hadn’t thought about The Elegant Farmer in many years. But I had fond memories visiting every fall, memories of hay rides, apple picking, and indulging in sweet apple cider and pastries with my college girlfriends. The farm offers typical Midwestern fall activities for families, including corn mazes, games, and lots of candy!
But the big draw is as wholesome as apple pie! Well, it is the apple pie that’s the draw, but this pie is baked in a brown paper bag, and folks come from surrounding states, just for a taste. Well, my parents drove up from Illinois, and we often stopped there for the pie, on the recommendation of all the locals. With colorful signs along the road, advertising the pie, and a barn painted bright yellow, with a smiley face, you can’t miss The Elegant Farmer.
Since I was making my way back towards Chicago, I stopped to pick up an apple pie and a 2nd pie that was a Carmel Apple Crumble version of the original. These did not both make it out of my hotel room the next morning. A slice of pie, warmed in the hotel microwave, with a hot cup of black coffee, makes a wonderful breakfast on the road.
“Brew City” – Milwaukee, WI (Lake Michigan Lakefront)
Pulling into Milwaukee, and having several hours of office work to do before teaching my afternoon class, it was tough for me to decide where to set up shop. When your “office” is little more than a portable laptop and mobile hotspot, all you really need is a table with access to an electrical outlet, preferably near a window, and plenty of coffee.
I set my GPS to take me down to the lakefront, to hang out at Colectivo Coffee. I thought I’d check out their special edition coffee of the week, “Co-Optiva”, an organic fair-trade farm blend. Colectivo sources much of its coffee from Latin American countries, and their company “mascot” is a sugar skull, or calavera, a Dia de los Muertos symbol. The skull symbol decorates the special addition packaging, in orange and black, and can be found throughout the café.
“Co-optiva is a celebration of the small-scale farmers who are committed to growing high quality coffees. We’ve combined organic, single-origin coffees produced by Fair Trade-certified cooperatives to highlight the coffees sourced through some of our long-standing relationships.” (Colectivo website)
Colectivo describes the coffee as having flavors reminiscent of chocolate and molasses, which sounds like a great craft beer combination. What’s great about this quaint coffee shop, on the lakefront, is that if work runs long, you can switch over from coffee, to one of several local beers on tap. Toss in soup and a sandwich, and what reason is there to leave?
There was plenty of outdoor, patio seating, even with the abundance of college students parked for the day on their laptops. It would be a treat to find a table there during their outdoor summer concert series.
Purchases are made easy, with Colectivo’s loyalty program, which ties your credit card to a Colectivo Café Card, which can be reloaded online. With over 15 locations, including locations in Madision, WI and now in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, it’s become even easier to enjoy the atmosphere. Or, as with so many small businesses, just order online!
Colectivo’s Lakefront location is a Wisconsin Historical Marker, the Milwaukee River Flushing Station. Café patrons can learn a little bit about the building’s history, thanks to plaques and displays throughout the building. The station, build in 1888, is still in use today, with the use of an electric motor, pumping water from Lake Michigan, into the Milwaukee River, maintaining the river’s current and reducing pollutants.
With my training classes, and several mugs of Colectivo coffee behind me, I was headed to Chicago! I’d visit with family, ride my Dad’s bike around my childhood neighborhood streets, and allow myself a little time to relax, and reflect on the past week of travel.
“The Windy City” – Sweet Home, Chicago, IL
On the far wall of Chicago’s Old Town Ale House (the “Best Dive Bar in Chicago”) is a sign that reads: “Bruce – You are NOT PERMITTED to touch the thermostat when customers are present. – Tobin” The next time I’m in, when bar owner Bruce Elliott is seated in his usual spot, at the end of the bar, I really need to ask him what the story behind that sign is.
The walls of the ale house are covered with Bruce’s artwork, which he calls his “political porn paintings.” The collection of politically-charged, X-rated, paintings grew, then grew some more, after the sudden and unexpected popularity of his painting of Sarah Palin, initially hung as a joke for his regulars. Palin is “naked, holding an assault rifle while standing on a polar bear rug with harlot red high heels on. In the background through a window you can see a beautiful lake and then mountains.” (Old Town Ale House website)
Something happened to this gritty little dive bar, with crude paintings on the wall, jazz playing on the juke box, and a cash only policy. Something happened to Old Town Ale House, when the painting went viral – for better or for worse, it gained a whole lot of attention, thanks to the World Wide Web. Then it went right back to being a place that welcomes its older, more affluent (gentrified) clientele, right alongside students of Second City (which is right across the street) and the falling-down drunks that make weekly appearances, and call themselves regulars.
So, what’s with the Jazz music? Former owner, Beatrice Klug, spent years traveling with the Rolling Stones, and would not allow rock and roll on the juke box. Bruce explains, on the bar’s blog-like “about” page, that the juke box features “lots of jazz and blues which reflected the type of musicians that hung out in the bar. A night bartender is the juke box czar and has very eclectic taste. . . One of the biggest plusses of the juke box is that punks hate the music and don’t come in often.” (Old Town Ale House website)
Bruce Elliott does maintain a regular blog, and has attracted the attention of chef, author and speaker Anthony Bourdain. The two share a similar politics – I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve included a link to Bruce’s blog, below, but please be warned that Google felt it necessary to block access to the blog, with the following warning: “The blog that you are about to view may contain content only suitable for adults. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.” I understand, and Yes, I do wish to continue!
Here are two of my own blogs, from past visits to Old Town Ale House
“Accidental Wanderlust”: Following Breadcrumbs left by Chef Anthony Bourdain: a Series of Culinary Adventures, from Thailand to L.A.
“Accidental Wanderlust”: Who Do You Love? It’s Written on the Wall @ Old Town Ale House
“The Crossroads of Ohio” – Columbus, OH
After much time spent, and many miles logged, in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and back to Illinois, I was ready to head back to Ohio, and put in some time with my cats, and my boyfriend. I wanted to ride my own bike, sleep in my own bed, and eat tomatoes grown in my own patio garden. There’s excitement in travel, and there’s comfort in the familiarity of home.
As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice” (The Innocents Abroad, 1869). There’s a deep insight there, and I’ve always felt that I’m a better person, a better citizen, because of my travels. Whether I’m wandering around cities that my job takes me to, stateside, or exploring exotic locals abroad, I’m learning and growing. Then I’m inspired to share my experience.
“The difference between the almost right word,” Twain also said, “and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.” (The Art of Authorship, 1890)
As my plane touched down, at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport, at the end of this 8-day tour, I had one thought. I thought about this blog, and I hoped that I would find the right words. My goal is to share my experiences, and take my readers along on my adventures. I hope that I’ve accomplished that, even just a little bit.
Join me on my next adventure,
Stone Eagle Tavern, Rockford, IL: http://www.stoneeagletavern.info/
Rockford City FAQ Page: https://www.gorockford.com/about/faqs/#6%20nicknames
The Elegant Farmer, Farm Kitchen Bakery, Deli & Market: http://www.elegantfarmer.com/
Colectivo Coffee: http://colectivocoffee.com/cafes/lakefront/
Milwaukee River Flushing Station: https://www.asme.org/about-asme/who-we-are/engineering-history/landmarks/166-milwaukee-river-flushing-station
Milwaukee Lakefront: http://county.milwaukee.gov/ParksandPublicInfras7720/The-Lakefront.htm
Old Town Ale House: The Best Dive Bar in Chicago: http://www.theoldtownalehouse.com/
Geriatric Genius (Bruce Elliott’s blog): http://brucecameronelliott.blogspot.com/?zx=4567b8b0dae9a831
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain quote: https://books.google.com/books?id=QBlXAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+innocents+abroad&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiV3MO9uY3XAhWKwiYKHfqkDvYQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=the%20innocents%20abroad&f=false
The Art of Authorship, Mark Twain quote: https://books.google.com/books?id=H0oJAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Art+of+Authorship&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiB7ZOVuY3XAhWM4CYKHVa4CaAQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=The%20Art%20of%20Authorship&f=false
John Glenn Columbus International Airport: http://flycolumbus.com/
Quaker Oats, Cedar Rapids: http://www.quakeroats.com/
Popoli Restorante & Sullivan’s Bar: http://popolicr.com/
Minneapolis Airport Arts & Culture: https://www.mspairport.com/
Guthrie Theater: https://www.guthrietheater.org/
Hyatt Place: Downtown St. Paul, MN: https://stpaul.place.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html
Residences at Custom House: http://www.chstpaul.com/history.aspx
National Trust for Historic Preservation: https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-adaptive-reuse-of-st-paul-custom-house#.Wd1i72eWzIU
Cosetta Eatery & Market: http://cossettas.com/
Four Daughters Winery: http://www.fourdaughtersvineyard.com