Owls and Squirrels and Peace of Mind

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My view this past week. Many thanks to the property owner who allowed me to hide among the trees and renew my soul.

Twelve days of vacation; I needed it more than I knew.  And it was glorious.  I had no real agenda.  There were no exotic travel plans. My greatest desire during my scheduled time off was to spend as many hours as possible sitting in the woods, waiting for a deer to wander past.  If my view was good and my aim was true, I would come home with meat for my freezer and a story to tell my family. Fully decked out in camouflage, I had my bow, warm gloves and a great hiding place.  I was ready.

However, I suspect the deer were on to me.  They spread the news.  They sounded the alert.  And much to my Bambi-loving friends’ delight, I didn’t see one deer during my entire vacation.  I didn’t see one in the woods, or beside the road driving back and forth, or near my neighborhood, or even in my dreams.  So, when people ask if I went hunting, I have to respond that I am anything but a hunter.  I’m just a guy who enjoys looking at trees and nature…and I’m okay with that.

In truth, while unsuccessful at the hunt, the experience was unparalleled in it’s impact on my heart and my soul.

Each morning I would leave my home at 5:15 and drive the hour-and-a-half to this fantastic piece of property that boasts deep woods, rolling prairie, cornfields, marsh and pond.  I gathered my belongings from the car and stood in the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the black.  I would then hike into the woods, allowing at least forty-five minutes before daylight.  Finding my spot on the bucket next to the tree, I would prepare my space, set my bow, hang my pack, and lean back against the strong Maple, ready to listen and wait.

One morning, in the darkness of those woods, I enjoyed Barred Owls calling their familiar “who-cooks-for-you” as it mixed with the Eastern Screech Owls calling back and forth.  Finally, with the brusqueness of an old uncle and as if to tell them all to quiet down, the Great Horned Owl made his presence known.  The woods once again became quiet.

The light rising over the Randolph County farmland illuminated a rainbow of colors on rain-dappled leaves and dew covered grasses.  It reflected beautifully off the small, lily-covered pond, as steam rose gracefully off the surface and into the chilled morning air.  The breezes blowing over the cornfields and up the hill created a song, a chorus of sound; a rustle of dry corn, the clicking of limbs high overhead, the rhythmic drum of the windmill as it turned in time with the wind.  The birds flying from tree to tree, branch to branch entertained and dazzled with their aerial acrobatics and enthusiastic calls and songs.  It was magical.

As the sun came up over the horizon, the rest of the woodland world came to life.  Squirrels chased one another and investigated the forest floor.  Two Pileated Woodpeckers called to one another and met in a grove of trees just forty yards from my position.  They shifted up and down large Hickory and then flew off in a rage, only to return and repeat the performance.  Canada Geese passed overhead in V-formations, honking furiously to one another as they prepare for their long flight to warmer climates.  Chickadee, Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Dove and Nuthatch dotted the landscape, searching for breakfast and making quite a show.

No, I didn’t see any deer.  But in the end, I realized I didn’t need to.  This vacation was a retreat for my soul.  It heightened my senses.  It awakened my spirit more than I could ever have imagined or hoped.  Each day was a blessing and I’m so grateful for the time.

I’m a Mountain Man

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Mount Rainier, 2014.

If you were to give me a choice between a vacation on the beach, lounging on surf and sand, or a vacation in the mountains, hiking hill and dale, I would chose the mountains, hands down, without question, every single time.  It’s not that I hate the beach.  I love the ocean, the surf, and the birds.  But there is something about the majestic beauty of the mountains that calls to my soul. Perhaps it is the way they change in shape and form with every angle.  It might be the way they hide in a mist of cloud and fog one moment yet suddenly tower above you in the bright light of day a moment later.

A mountain is visible from hundreds of miles away and appears to be so close you can touch it, but the harder you try to find it, the further away it feels.  And, while climbing a mountain gives me the sensation of a slight heart attack, it also fills my heart with  joy: Flora and fauna surround.  Ice and snow turn into babbling brooks and gurgling streams.  There is no sound but that of the mountain, its inhabitants, and the wind blowing through the pines.  Ah, be still my heart.

Over the years we’ve found ourselves in the mountains all across this great country.  We’ve poked along the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains.  We’ve traversed the Rockies, scaling the Flatirons on Green Mountain and cogging our way up to the top of Pike’s Peak.  We’ve lounged in the Adirondacks, lost our breath in the Tetons and celebrated beauty in the Cascades.  Even with these adventures, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the possible heights we can explore.

You can keep your theme parks and big cities.  You can have the waves on the beach.  You can forget fancy hotels and high-end boutiques.  I’ll stand on a granite peak every time.  Sure, the air is thin and the climb takes effort; but isn’t that the truth about everything worthwhile?  We have to work to get there and in the end, when we take a moment to look down from the summit, it takes our breath away.

 

A State Fair To Remember

There is nothing more enjoyable than a visit to the State Fair.  This year’s trip was later in the run but it wasn’t any less enjoyable.  We saw all the sites and tried most of the food and were pleased by every minute of the day.

The Gift of a Friend

Ben and Elliott have been friends for more than 9 years.  During that time they have played games, designed shirts, created music, and much more.  They’ve changed from little boys to young men.  Their friendship endures because of their many similarities but it thrives because of their many differences.

This past week we spent nine days together flying from Indianapolis to Houston and back.  Along the way, the boys/men met mutual friends, played more games, explored and discovered new places, walked the streets of Houston, ate amazing meals and learned even more about one another.

I believe it will be a trip they will never forget.  It was our goal to enjoy ourselves, experience new and exciting things, and connect with old friends.  I think we accomplished our mission.  In the words of Gary Sinise, playing Ken Mattingly in the Houston-based movie, Apollo 13, “It (was a) hell of a mission.  One for the books.

Never Enough Space Food

Hundreds of space ice cream packets line the shelves of Space Center, Houston.
Hundreds of space ice cream packets line the shelves of Space Center, Houston.

As a young boy, I had a strong desire to be an astronaut.  There were two very important parts of the space program that had an impact on my desire:  Tang and Space Ice Cream.

A visit to Space Center, Houston didn’t do anything to reduce that desire.

Standing in the gift shop, looking at cheesy t-shirts and coffee mugs, I came upon my muse and stood there, mouth agape.  Row upon row of space ice cream stood there, taunting me; calling me to don a space helmet and do the moon walk.

I have a good life.  My dog loves me.  My family understands me.  My job is challenging.  My coworkers are entertaining.  But, as I stood there, gazing at the sweets, I realized I would give it all up for the opportunity to drink the orangery, sugary Tang and eat that powdery, sugary ice cream and bounce along the lunar surface.  And in that moment, I determined that I would look for the nearest astronaut recruiting station.  There HAD to be one in this fun-house/museum.

But before I walked out of the gift shop, I realized I could just buy a pouch of the astronomic confection.

It’s that level of critical thinking of which NASA would have benefited.  Thankfully for my dog and family, $6 kept me on the ground for now.

The Detail of the Brush

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’ve ever visited a large, well-funded art gallery, you’ve had the opportunity to view amazing works from some of the most historic artists.  If you are like me, you  stand back a few feet and gaze at the masterpiece, taking in the colors, shapes and movement.  But yesterday was different for me.  While viewing great works at Houston Museum of Fine Art, I tried something different.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst, I stood back to get a sense of the artwork and its subject matter and scope.  I took in the range of hues, the story and composition.

Then I stepped closer to the canvas in an effort to examine the different sections, the variety of styles and perform a detailed analysis of the work.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally, I moved in even closer (so close that the museum attendants asked me to step back).  I poured over each stroke within an inch square, looking at the brush stroke directions, the weight of the artist’s hand, the width of the brush and the amazing variety of color and the layers that made this painting possible.

And I did that for painting after painting.  I wanted to see the paintings from the artists’ point of view.  I wanted to be in direct contact with the medium.

At the end of my journey through the expansive exhibit halls, I truly felt that I was in touch with the artist, the canvas, the purpose of the paint.  And when I was done, I fully believed I understood the art and the artist in a way I’ve never understood before.

A Great Day, Once Again

Growing up in Indiana, we have the privilege of beautiful state parks.  They boast beautiful waterways, lovely walking trails and a wide variety of wildlife, including deer, squirrel, rabbits, fox and coyote.  But even in the best parks, Indiana lacks something that Texas offers.  Alligators, Ibis and Ahninga’s abound at Brazos Bend State Park.  Thankfully, we were able to experience them all in just a few short minutes along the well-worn paths around one lake.

It was another great day in the park and I was thrilled to see the wild-life and even more thrilled to spend it with two quality guys.

26 years and counting…

Moving to Wilmore, Kentucky in 1987 brought about some change for the new Austin Family.  Anita was a Registered Nurse for the first time, I started Seminary and we met Lynn and Wendy Lewis.  This was in the days before children and we were younger and life was more simple.

26 years have passed since that first meeting.  Over that time we have enjoyed seeing one another during an occasional summer vacation or family trip.  Facebook has offered a renewed connection, but it’s been more than thirteen years since we’ve been face-to-face and enjoyed one another and comfort that comes from like-minded friends.

The Lewis Family are wonderful people and I’m happy to call them friends.  Lynn is a brilliant man who dreams big dreams and trusts that God will make them reality in their perfect time.  Wendy is a passionate defender of the downhearted and her beautiful children.

Imagine my joy when I learned that they live less than 20 minutes from our hotel room here in Houston.  The opportunity to spend time with the dear ones was too much to pass up.  Saturday supper, Easter morning church and a wonderful Sunday Lunch were welcome opportunities to celebrate our nearly three-decades of friendship, catch up on life’s journey and reminisce about old times.

Despite the fact that they are from the deep south and we are cold northerners, we still love deeply.  Although Wendy is a died-in-the-wool conservative and I’m a Obama-lovin’ Democrat, we can tolerate time together at the same table.  When we are together, these things no longer matter.  All that matters is our love for one another.

Our long-standing friendship has stood against the test of time and when we see one another we exchange tight hugs, laugh easily and often, and occasionally shed tears of sorrow or joy.

The trip to Houston has been worth every mile traveled, if for no other reason than the opportunity to share moments with friends like these.

The Start of Something Good

Houston Sunrise 2013.03.31Every so often you need a break.

This week will be one of those breaks as my son and his best friend and I travel to Houston, Texas for six days of fun.

We’ll see the Space Center (Thanks Katie).  We’ll experience the Aquarium.  We’ll be terrified by the traffic and thankful for green grass and flowers already blooming in March.

Most of all, my son and his friend will be thankful for their time with on-line friends seen face-to-face for the first time.  That’s really the reason we are here in the deep south.

My joy is found in getting to spend time with two great young men for six warm, sunny days.

We all need a break from time to time.  But the break doesn’t always require travel to distant places.  In fact, there are times when the break can be as simple as finding a respite during the hectic day, discovering a quiet evening during our busy week, experiencing time with dear friends that renews and rejuvenates our souls, rekindles our spirits, refreshes our souls.

What will you do this week to enjoy a break?  Will you attend a yoga class?  Will you enjoy a cup of tea in a quiet corner of your house?  Will you go for a short walk away from your desk?  Pet a dog?  Listen to a child laugh?  Marvel at a sunrise or sunset?

What will you do for a break?

 

Winter Wonderland

For those of you in the midst of the snow storm, these will be of no interest.  For those of you in warmer climates, these might give you an idea of the fun we are having in Indiana.

My Last Day Off

The view from my new desk location. I love it.

This is my tenth straight day away from the office and to be honest, I really don’t want to go back.  This is the last day of my Thanksgiving Break and I am just not ready to get in the car and drive back down town for work.

But I know that my Christmas Break is just around the corner and I will have another opportunity to another long vacation.  So between now and then, I’ll suffer through the 15 days of work that await me.

The good news is that this time off hasn’t been wasted.  In the 10 days I’ve enjoyed at home, I’ve experienced much rest and rejuvenation.  I’ve filled my days with reading and writing.  I’ve spent quality time with family and friends.  I’ve cooked up a storm:  Everything from banana bread to beef bourguignon, roasted chickens and mashed potatoes, stirred soups and tossed salads.

I’ve walked with my wife and chilled with my children.

I’ve watched West Wing and also witnessed Sandhill Cranes on the wing.

In short, this has been the perfect break.

Heading West, Part One

Another beautiful Indiana sunrise.

We climbed into the car, started it up and then decided to head west.  We didn’t know what we would see or how far we would go.  We didn’t have an agenda other than spending the day together.  And in the end, we did that very well.

We drove through Sheridan, Indiana and took State Road 47 out the other side. We hadn’t traveled more than 30 miles from Sheridan until we saw it.  We knew we had to pull into this little town with the wonderful street signs and so our first stop was in Darlington.  Honestly, there wasn’t a reason to visit this little burg other than we liked the name and the city signs.  And honestly, once there, we determined that there isn’t much to the place beyond the street signs.  It is an old village located along the Sugar Creek with old buildings and quaint homes.  In many ways it reminded me of some of the scenes from the movie Hoosiers.

Stopping for a snapshot in front of the Darlington Covered Bridge.

But on our way out of town we did see a sign for a covered bridge and, given that we are suckers for covered bridges, we followed the signs that led us to a beautiful structure in desperate need of paint.  The Darlington Covered Bridge is a fantastic bridge in which the floor is made of wooden “bricks”.

A view of Sugar Creek from the entrance of the Darlington Covered Bridge.

Over the years, these bricks have been covered with asphalt but thankfully, much of the asphalt has worn away, leaving the bricks exposed and allowing the visitor to marvel at the original construction.

Cross-cut boards make the wooden “bricks” of this amazing bridge.

Completed and ready for traffic in 1868, this bridge still stands as a monument to craftsmanship and proper planning.  The bridge was in full service up to a few years ago when they closed off the entrance and made it an attraction.  Of course, modern materials and engineering provide a more reliable means of crossing Sugar Creek just a few yards away from this location but the history and the beauty of the bridge make it worth the visit.

The Darlington Covered Bridge

Having grown up less than a quarter mile from the Emmetsville Covered Bridge in Randolph County, I have a love for the structures and this visit was the perfect start to our day together.  We’d been on the road less than a half hour and already discovered one of Indiana’s great treasures.

Visit us again and see what else we discovered along our journey west!

Oh The Places You Go

Ben and Anita enjoy the trip.

Summer vacation is not just about where you go or what you see but who you share the time with.  But that isn’t what today’s blog is about.  Today, we only care about the places we went and the things we saw.

Here’s the list of where we went and what we saw.

1. The Dunes.

2. Chicago.

3. The Bean.

4. Big Legs.

5. Soldier Field.

6. Shedd Aquarium.

7. A Light House.

8. A Junk Shop.

9. The Nina and The Pinta.

10. The Light House.

11. Millennium Park.

It really was a great time.

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It’s Who You Know

Catching a movie is an Austin Vacation Tradition!

While on vacation last week, we went to two movies at the Portage 16 IMax.  This is a very nice theater that offers free refills on your soda and 50 cent refills on your popcorn.  The place is clean and very colorful.  Of course the movies were over-priced and the snacks were even more expensive than the movies.  But it’s a tradition for our family to see a movie during our summer holiday and so on Monday we viewed the newest Batman movie and on Friday we took in the latest Bourne film. To be honest, neither movie was fantastic but the experience itself was amazing…and here is why.

We were lucky enough during both visits to be assisted by a very lovely and energetic worker named Tyler.  Tyler is a beautiful young lady who had a perpetual smile on her face and is happy to help you with anything you might need:  Tyler helped us purchase tickets and politely invited us to visit the concession stand for our snacks.  When the line became too long for popcorn, she stepped up to the plate and asked if she could help.  During our second visit she sold us the tickets and then was assigned to take our tickets near the theater entrances.

Tyler: Winner of the Best Smile of Portage.

And at EVERY duty she was assigned, Tyler had a smile on her face and a cheery voice to greet us.

You might not live near Portage but can I offer some advice?  If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by the theater to meet Tyler.  You don’t even need to see a movie.  It’s worth the price of admission just to see that smile.

Eating our Way Through Vacation

Our vacation this past week was all about sun and fun…and food. We ate very well while were were away and there wasn’t a meal that disappointed.

Our first stop was the well-attended Popolano’s in Chesterton, Indiana.  This wonderful restaurant provided fantastic Italian cuisine at a reasonable price.  Seated on the patio, we enjoyed a perfect summer evening under the lights and received excellent service that was the perfect compliment to our food.  The only disappointment to the meal was the cannoli that lacked substance.

In the mood for a little spice, we ventured into a menu that originated south of the boarder.  El Salto did not disappoint!  With its garlic roasted shrimp, perfect taco salads and salsa, this Chesterton option was everything we’d hoped it would be.  Perhaps the best item on the menu was the re-fried beans.  Made in the store, these beans offered a nutty, roasted flavor unlike any I’d ever tasted before.  We left the table fully satisfied by the food, even if the server seemed to be less than enthused to be serving us.

The next outstanding meal was found in Chicago.  Based on the recommendation of a 17 year old friend, we caught a taxi and made our way to Ann Sather on Belmont.  Known for their Sweet Rolls, this Swedish diner had the most amazing breakfast.  The rolls (2 for $3) were smothered in sugary goodness.  In fact, by the end of the meal, everything was covered in powdered sugar glaze:  the coffee mug, the silverware and our fingers!  My Smoked Salmon and Eggs Benedict were unbelievable.  There wasn’t a person at the table who left disappointed with their meal.

Our biggest, and most expensive meal of the trip occurred on the night of our 27th anniversary.  We made a reservation for Cafe Bionda on State Street in Chicago.  Let me just say that I’ve never had a better plate of Eggplant Parmesan.  And this establishment wins, hands-down, the cannoli award.  Throw in a glass of their Cabernet and it was the perfect meal.

Our final dinner together was a simple pizza from Pizza Hut.  Carried out and eaten in our hotel room for a twenty-spot, the thin-crust vege with bread sticks and a small side salad was nothing short of beautiful.  We watched the Olympics and enjoyed the quiet of the room during our last night together.  It was a wonderful meal to end our wonderful vacation.

Doing the Dunes

Digging in and letting go, the Dunes are a great place to relax.

Just three hours from Indianapolis, the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore is a must-see for anyone who wants to experience all of Indiana.  The Dunes offer an amazing experience of beautiful sandy beaches, cold Lake Michigan water, hot sun and cool breezes.

You’ll never know what you might find washed up on the beaches.

From the top of the Dunes, one experiences a view that is unparallelled.  Couples stop to steal a kiss in the fading light of day.  Seniors pose for their portraits.  Children run full speed down the shifting, sloping sands.  It is a place for play.  It is a place for reflection.  It is a place of awe.

A perfect place for all ages!

On the beach, children build sand castles and fly kites.  In the crashing waves, little ones experience the power of nature and run laughing into the surf.  Spread out on the hot summer sand, sun bathers soak up warm rays and darken their late-summer tans.

A quiet stroll along a sandy path.

The trails around the dunes offer bird-watchers an unending list of wildlife to view.

The camp ground is filled to capacity with those who desire to be closer to nature.

The Nature Center provides guidebooks, trail maps and a volunteers ready to answer any questions.

Relaxing or playing hard, the Dunes are the perfect place for both.

The Dunes is a great place to visit and we’ll be back very soon, I’m sure.

 

Walking Chicago

Waiting for the South Shore Line to Chicago.

When traveling to Chicago, you can get from one place to another in relative ease using any means of public transportation:  Metra, South Shore Line, Taxi or Bus.  But we like to walk.

Of course, we took advantage of all the available transportation options but hitting the streets on our feet gave us the best view.

The rain added to the beauty of the busy city streets.

We entered Chicago utilizing the South Shore Line from Chesterton, Dunes Park.  It was an amazing ride that delivered us to Millennium Park and everything we wished to see.  For $7.25 per person, one way, it was cheaper than finding parking for the day and much less headache.

Always follow traffic signs.

A taxi dropped us off at a location but the RED Line took us back to the Aquarium and our feet took us nearly everywhere else.

With a fantastic thunder storm brewing, we were able to enjoy the wet, steamy streets of Chicago…up close and personal.

At the end of the day, we boarded the South Shore Line back to our starting point, just a few miles from the hotel.

Riding home.

It was a great day.

A Visit to the Shedd

A poisonous frog poses for a perfect picture.

We took a trip to Chicago this past week and made our way to the world-famous Shedd Aquarium.  Can I just say, “Wow”?

Wow.

Thanks.  I’m glad I got this off my chest.

The Shedd Aquarium is an amazing place and if you hadn’t already guessed, it’s full of fish.  But in August, before school starts, it is the wrong place to be on a sunny summer afternoon.  Because it is also full of 20,000 people packed into this fish bowl.  As a result, we waited in line for more than a 1/2 an hour just to get in the doors.  Once at the ticket booth we found 37 different options and combinations for entry (thus the long line).  We could get the basic, basic plus the movie, basic plus the jellies, the basic plus, the plus-is-more, the plus-is-more plus the jellies, etc.  It took a scientific calculator just to figure out which option would work best for our group.

The Shedd is an amazing place and I highly recommend it…on a day in February when no one else is there.  Save your pennies and spring for the Aquatic Show.  It isn’t Sea World but it is fascinating to see the handlers work with the dolphins and beluga whales.

The central tank is my favorite place to see the fish.  If you are lucky enough to be there when they feed the marine life, you are in for a real treat.

The Junk Shop

Every so often you stumble into a place that it beyond description.  The Junk Shop is one of those places.

Accurately named, this hodgepodge of junk is worth visiting if you can just make your way through the narrow aisles without being buried alive in a sudden shift and avalanche of toys, books, nicknacks, hardware and tools.  The outside of the building has a fortress of old mowers, doors, duct-work, washing machines, and augers.  If you are looking for it, they have it. Whether it works or not is another story.

The Junk Shop is located just off Highway 12, near Mount Baldy in Michigan City.  The owner is friendly and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him.  He explained that he started with a trash removal business but started gathering the good stuff that people were throwing out and soon filled the massive pole barn with his findings.  It wasn’t long before he got out of the trash business in order to keep up with his junk business.  As they say, “One many’s trash is another man’s treasure”.