Bourbon,Caves and Ozark Country

After hearing so much about the Bourbon Trail from Neil for the past four or so years, Rob and I finally had to check it out. I can pretty much tolerate a couple sips of the hard stuff; Rob likes bourbon, but prefers whiskey. So, naturally we figured that some bourbon education would be good. We left Indianapolis a bit late and despite the wonky time zone lines, we just managed to make it to Four Roses and Maker’s Mark before they closed for the day. Since we were a bit short on time, a nice lady at Four Roses gave us the abbreviated history tour, which amounted to about 3 min of founding story, 4 min about the recipes and 8 min of tasting. Their single barrel was a good value so we picked up a bottle forewarned that Mammoth Caves is a dry area. Then, we caught the last tour at Marker’s Mark, which was much smaller than we imagined. They let us sample the distillers beer directly out of the fermentation tanks and then we tasted their recipe- un-aged, aged, cask-strength, and aged extra with french oak staves. All the other visitors bought bottles that you could hand dip in the gift shop. Back in the car, we ended the night in the Mammoth Caves Campground.

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Tasting the 3 day fermented distiller’s beer. Just stick your finger in.

We kicked off the next day with the 4 hour Grand Avenue tour of Mammoth Cave. Unfortunately, this tour did not go to the underground river/lake to see all the eyeless fish (which I recalled from a childhood visit), but it did tour a bunch of distinct sections. The Mammoth Cave is made up of channels through the limestone carved by underground rivers. As the outlet river downstream cut a deeper and deeper channel, the water table consequently dropped and the underground carved riverbeds made new deeper levels. Our tour began in an old, dry river channel section. The slow flow created a wide oval shaped tunnel. Further in the cave, narrower sections were created by faster flow. The water-impermeable cap rock kept most of these sections dry preventing stalactite and stalagmite formation. The final section of the cave did not have this barrier and had beautiful formations, including cave bacon – that’s a technical term.

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A wet part of Mammoth Caves with fun formations

When the tour finally finished, we jumped in the car and headed for Bentonville, Arkansas via Illinois (very briefly) and Missouri. Stopping the car in Bowling Green for cell signal, we figured out that we could camp along Ozark National Scenic Riverway and see the Blue Spring before making it to Arkansas the next day.  We got up early to hike along the river a couple miles to this spring known for it’s beautiful blue color.

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We had Blue Spring all to ourselves. I loved the verdant grasses growing all around.

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Super blue!

As Bentonville is the home of Wal-mart aka Wallyworld, the heirs to the Walmart fortune have invested in making it nice. Crystal Bridges is an amazing new (and free!) art museum founded by Alice Walton. It has a neat collection including a spider-like sculpture, the twin of one we saw outside the Louvre, Rosie the Riveter, and a number of fun modern pieces, not the mention, the architecture of the building is also distinctive. There are walking paths all around the grounds and a mountain bike trail with fun obstacles follows alongside one of the routes. Eventually, the museum closed and we headed on to dinner with Rob’s cousins in Rogers (a suburb).

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Crystal Bridges Entrance with a familiar sculpture.

Ashley and Scott took us and their two little kiddos out for some Mexican food, which was a fabulous change from the American-on-the-road-diet of mainly sausage and sandwiches. We had a great time seeing the life they’ve made in Arkansas and hearing about all their Halloween plans. The next day was rainy so we spent the morning hanging around the house with Ashley and Calla installing their shiny new microwave. Then after an tasty Indian buffet, we visited the Walmart museum (free!+cheap ice cream) for more history of Walmart then I ever wanted. It did a good job of putting a human face on the empire.

By the time we finished there, Scott had gotten off of work early and we packed everything up for a short hike. Kyle, age 5, joined us, too. The weather had improved since the morning showers with just a bit of lingering dampness. The leaves were beginning to turn to their autumn hues.

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Rob, Scott and Kyle taking a break from hiking (and rock collecting on Kyle’s part).

Kyle couldn’t quite understand/enjoy the joy of hiking, but we managed to get him into it by challenging him to climb/descend steeper sections (sorry about cutting some switchbacks) and exploring some cave-like alcoves. Returning to the house, Kyle taught us all how to play freeze tag and we ran around until everyone was tried/frozen. Finally, Rob and I had to hit the road for Dallas to make it in time for the Red River Shootout.

 

 

 

(Mostly) Midwest Part II

Leaving NJ kicked off a segment of our trip visiting friends from Rice University. Washington D.C. was our first stop to see Meg and David. Unfortunately, Dogfish head brewery was too far out of the way, so instead we decided to stop by Victory brewing for some tasty hops. We turned out liking their cherry gose and picked up a growler (our insulated growler didn’t fit in their fancy automatic growler filling machine, so they had to fill it the old-fashioned way). They had some big beers, however, with each one, Rob said it would taste better barrel-aged. Next, we stopped in Intercourse, PA for some wonderful soft pretzels and a factory tour. We saw the warning horse-and-buggy signs, but couldn’t believe how many we saw out in the miserable, rainy weather. Then, braving D.C. rush hour, we made it to Takoma for a fun, indoor night was Meg and David.

Rob enjoying some tasty soft pretzel at Intercourse pretzel in Lancaster County, PA.

Rob enjoying some tasty soft pretzel at Intercourse pretzel in Lancaster County, PA.

Meg

Meg!

In the morning, we set out across Maryland headed for southern Ohio were somehow a cluster of our Rice friends landed Crashing with Barron and Olivia in the cookie-happy Dayton Towers, we checked out Dayton craft beer/distillery scene, composed many a rhyme helping Barron and Olivia prep for a night of “Dining in” as the Air Force calls it where you must be prepared to defend yourself in rhyme, spent a fun night with the Jerkinses playing board games/darts/watching Eurotrip, visited the ginormous National Air Force Museum and day-tripped to Cincinnati to tailgate the Bengals vs. Chiefs game with Neil and his girlfriend, Asia.

Ohio beer with Barron and Olivia.

Ohio beer with Barron and Olivia.

Smoked wings, football and 24oz cans (with free 24oz can-sized koozies) with Neil at 'Nats in Cincinnati.

Smoked wings, football and 24oz cans (with free 24oz can-sized koozies) with Neil at ‘Nats in Cincinnati.

After the crazy fun in Ohio, we dropped by Indianapolis to see Mimi and Matt, who landed there for their residencies. They have quite the wet bar in their basement and Matt was kind enough to mix us some neat cocktails.

Mimi

Mimi!

Clean, refueled and laundered, we set off for Kentucky Tuesday morning.

New York, New Jersey + a bit of Canada

Rob and I reached the commercial strip that is the Canadian side of Niagara Falls just before dusk. Driving in, Rob was astounded by his first glimpse of the falls and its associated massive spray cloud. Luckily, we were late enough to find a free place to park and enjoy the view. The timing was perfect as we got to see the falls by daylight and then an hour later, watch as multicolor spotlights illuminated the water.  We then crossed over to the USA (no $ spent in Canada) and splurged for a $26 KOA campground so we could spend the morning checking out the American side.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Bundled up for the journey into the falls on Maid of the Mist

Bundled up for the journey into the falls on Maid of the Mist

The next day, we visited the American side suited up in our Goretex rain gear for the Maid of the Mist tour. This is pretty much a boatload full of tourist clad in transparent, blue plastic ponchos that is driven by the American Falls into Horseshoe Falls and back, soaking everyone on the deck in the process.  It was pretty neat to witness the force of the spray and wind from the falls up close. I can’t imagine what the falls must have been like before they started to regulate the flows and divert water for hydropower (they turn the falls down at night and during the off-season). After quick stops at Whirlpool State Park and a dam visitor center (amazing displays about electricity that Rob loved), we headed to upstate New York to visit Bill, Cat and their 1.5 week old daughter, Emily.

Bill, one of Rob’s college roommates, and his wife, Cat, moved from Austin to upstate NY about a year ago and we’d been meaning to visit them. Even though they had just become parents, they still invited us for a visit. It was great to meet adorable little Emily and she behaved while we were there (so apparently we’re welcome back). Since we had been on the mid-west diet (lots of sausage) and they had been on the Bill’s cooking diet (pizza/pasta), we decided to mix-up it up and make them tacos for dinner (+leftovers 🙂 ). With Emily down for a nap, we managed to fit in some Bell’s beer tasting before hitting the sack.

Bill with his daughter Emily and Rob. I love the expression on Emily's face.

Bill with his daughter Emily and Rob. I love the expression on Emily’s face.

The next morning, we set off for NYC for John and Jess’ wedding that night. Leaving the Volvo in a park and ride in Seacaucus, we boarded a bus through the Lincoln tunnel then the subway to Brooklyn. Rob’s cousin, Emily, and her husband, Josh, live near Prospect Park. They are awesome and it’s always great to visit them when we’re in the NY/NJ area. Their wedding was the first big Smith family event that I attended. We caught up a bit with Emily, who was busily working on plans for a large wedding, before leaving for ours.

John and Jess had a beautiful outdoor wedding near Columbia University where they met during undergraduate. We had a great time seeing them so happy together, catching up with our friend, Ted, a Rice/Seattle friend who now lives in the Bay area, and busting some moves on the dance floor. Rob and I briefly hit after party at the “Columbia undergrad bar” before calling it a night. The only casualty of the night was Rob’s suit pants, which caught some late-night gooey pizza cheese.

Ted, Amanda and Rob with John at his wedding in NYC.

Ted, Amanda and Rob with John at his wedding in NYC.

Sunday morning, Rob’s brother, Brian, who lives in Manhattan, joined us along with Emily and Josh out in Brooklyn for a family brunch at the Prospect park Smorgusburg. A number of food trucks and restaurants set up food tents in an area of the park, so we brought picnic supplies and tried some different things. The only bad item we had was the teriyaki balls, which turned out to be tempura batter covered, deep-fried hot dog pieces drizzled with fancy mayo.

Brunch with the NYC Smiths

Brunch with the NYC Smiths

Returning to our car afterward, we managed to get out of the lot despite losing our parking ticket stub then got on the NJ turnpike south for exit 8A. My parents were happy to see us and has a number of projects for us to work on.  My mom’s birthday was a few days prior to our visit, so with my sister, Margo, Rob and I cooked a Greek feast (greek salad, pita bread, tzatziki,  spanakopita and chicken souvlaki) to celebrate.

The next night, we met up with Lili, one of my best friends from HS in NJ who’s now doing neuroscience grad school at Princeton. A few of her Princeton friends were excited about the prospect of dosas, too, so we had a good group for south Indian food in West Windsor. Our group was the only non-Indian group in the restaurant and most of Lili’s friends hadn’t had dosas before so we ordered a wide variety of dishes (dosa, idly and a pancake-like dish I can’t remember the name of). So good! After, we ventured to the Princeton grad “De-basement” bar for some foosball, Euchre and cheap beer. The night ended with some group karaoke to “Hey Jude” and a ride on the Princeton U night shuttle back to our car (pouring rain).

Hanging at the Debasement bar

Hanging at the Debasement bar

For our last day in NJ, I started an ambitious cooking project while Rob attempted to update/fix my mom’s and sister’s computers. My dad has always loved sticky rice. My great-aunt would make it all the time for family gatherings in the Chicago area when my family lived in Racine, WI. He’s made it for himself on occasion and will get in a restaurant if it’s on the menu. I’ve always meant to try making it, so I went for it as an early birthday present. (Here are two recipes that I mashed, http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Sticky-Rice-Dumplings-Wrapped-in-Bamboo-Leaveshttp://forums.egullet.org/topic/88644-pictorial-joongjongzi-sticky-ricebamboo-leaves/). They took so long that we had them as a late night snack. They were pretty good that night, according to my dad’s quality control, they were even better the next morning. I might have to make more next time.

The first sticky rice packets from the steamer moment of truth. I though about putting a birthday candle on top.

The first sticky rice packets from the steamer moment of truth. I though about putting a birthday candle on top.

On to Washington D.C….

Midwest Delights: Lambeau Field, Chicago and (southern) Michigan

Rob and I departed Conover for Green Bay on a warm, sunny Sunday for the Seahawks vs. Packers game. Our plan was to hit a library to print the standing room only tickets that we acquired on Craigslist, then hit the Northwest Packer Backer and family friend’s extended family’s tailgate before the game itself. Turns of the library was closed so we had to find a Kinko’s before picking up some tailgate supplies (more kringle and squeaky cheese curds).

Lambeau field is really close to a bunch of neighborhoods and the NW Packer Baker/San Diego Packer Backer tailgate was located in one of them. Since it was 7 hours until kickoff, parking was plentiful and folks were getting ready for gameday. Tailgates were kicking up in a nearby parking lot. Since we were early, we wandered through the early tailgates drawn to the large waving 12 flag in the enormous parking lot. A number of other Seattle fans had flown in for the game and we had a couple beers with them before heading to the first tailgate.

The NW Packer Backers are the Puget Sound area Packer supporters group. A large number of them (and their assorted Seahawks fan relatives and friends) came out for the game. Our kind hosts had cooked up a bunch of brats and a crockpot full of cheese and procured 2 kegs. We had fun meeting other fans in town for the game including a couple that had picked up a car in the midwest and were about to drive back to Seattle. A local news crew showed up to film the NW Packer fans that turned up for the game.

Checkout the film crew in the background. The lady in yellow interviewed a number of fans.

Checkout the film crew in the background. The lady in yellow interviewed a number of fans.

Some nice tailgaters lent us some cheese gear.

Some nice tailgaters lent us some cheese gear.

After crashing in the driveway of the very nice tailgaters we met, Rob and I woke up early Monday morning to go tour Lambeau field. It was neat to walk through the Packers’ tunnel and see the opponents tunnel (less than half the width). The tour concluded with a loud “GO PACK GO! from the group. I also got a chance to take some daytime “Lambeau leap” statue photos. Some British tourists even had me pose for their photos because they wanted a real fan in them.

Then we drove on to Milwaukee to stop at Amanda’s family’s favorite burger/custard place growing up – Kopp’s. YUM! Just as good as I remembered. The local cops stopped by Kopp’s for their lunches while we were there.

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Next, we swung by Miller for their free factory tour. It took forever – a full 1 hour before we got beer (After a rousing chorus of “Miller Time”). Then when we did, the beer left something to be desired. As Rob put it, “Only Miller could put on a beer tasting where the best beer was Miller Lite.”

Miller T-shirt for sale. They did not sell a version with the roles reversed. 😦

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Rob tried on a new accessory at the Miller store.

Running short on time to make it to Chicago for dinner with my cousins (my cousin Connor’s 7th birthday), we decided to grab Kringle in Racine, drive by the house I grew up in then visit the Jelly Belly warehouse. The exit to my old house was under construction and super congested so we skipped that in favor of sugar. We grabbed two Kringles at O&H (birthday and Wisconsin flavors-the Wisconsin is way better) then made it to Jelly Belly for the last tour of the day. The Jelly Belly tour was an extremely uninspiring train ride around a factory with videos shown intermittently. Earlier, I had joked to Rob that this tour couldn’t possibly end with a yell, but it did. A shout of “Jelly Belly” was requested. At least we got free jelly beans out of the deal and were able to buy a bunch of more jelly bean mix bags and candy corn. The drive to Chicago took an hour longer than expected, but we finally made it to dinner.

We had a great time with my family celebrating Connor turning 7, heard all about American Ninja Warrior (with demonstrations) and Pokemon and played some competitive cards. The next day, we got a 24 hour Divvy bike pass and cycled the Lakeshore path stopping at the zoo, Navy Pier and Millennium Park. The sculptures were pretty neat and the zoo was way better than we expected for a free zoo.

Our friend, David, is finishing his doctorate at Northwestern, so we met up with him for beers after work. Then his fiancee, Daphne, joined us for a roast chicken dinner at a Peruvian restaurant . We stayed with them and their incredibly gregarious cat, Mystery, that night. We were re-introduced to Mario Party for the Wii and introduced to a game where you slice different objects. David bested us all in the slicing tournament.

The next morning, we left for Niagara falls via Michigan. Texting our Michigan friends for ideas, we decided on Steffen’s advice to stop at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo for some excellent brews. By the time we finished those, we realized that we wouldn’t be into Detroit until 5 pm, thus missing the Ford factory tour. We had already missed the Harley Davidson factory tour in Milwaukee, so we decided to stay overnight in Detroit area. Our friend, Mark’s family lives in Romeo, so we were able to crash at their house for a night.

We set off bright and early for the Ford factory tour. Unfortunately, you couldn’t see how all the different parts are made, but you did see the final assembly for a good deal of the F-150 truck. After that, we drove around Detroit looking at street art including the Z parking garage in downtown, saw some famous fist sculpture, purchased chips from the factory outlet that was like getting money at the bank, and got some Coney dogs.

Art in the Z parking garage in Detroit. The nerve of folks blocking the art with their parked cars.

Art in the Z parking garage in Detroit. The nerve of folks blocking the art with their parked cars.

Getting coneys are Kerby's diner in Detroit.

Getting coneys are Kerby’s diner in Detroit.

Finally, we crossed into Canada via Port Huron heading for Niagara Falls.