Surprise Visit to Chicago

Sometimes airlines really screw things up.  They have you board the plane, get settled, and then make you get off the plane again.  The delay your flight five times.  They give you food vouchers and send you away to spend it while your plane takes off.  Sometimes they even do it all in one day!

Poor customer service up front.  But after the fact they put us on the next flight to Rapid (the next morning), gave us more of those food vouchers that got us into trouble, provided us with a hotel for the night, and gave us some flight credits.  They were nice after they decided not to hold our plane until the time that they had told all of the customers to return by….

The customer service rep told us we’d be staying in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, since the Hilton O’Hare was full.  I got giddy, since this is the same hotel that I had stayed at years ago during our youth group conferences.  Some things, like the glass elevator, were just as I remembered.  Other things, like the flat panel televisions and granite counter tops seemed new.  We got to the hotel at around 5 PM.

Jordan had never been to Chicago before, and it had been since 1999 for me.  That was Chicago pre-bean.  I’ve been wanting a bean picture.  I get jealous every time I see someone’s new facebook picture of the shiny bean!  So we decided to take the “el” to downtown.

In case we had any delusions that we live in a city, city, Chicago reminded us how quaint Knoxville can feel.

I got plenty of bean pics in Millennium Park.  Here’s the bean far away.

Here’s the bean with our reflections.

And then here’s the view underneath the bean.  I felt like I was melting into a Dali painting or something of that ilk.

Here are my last bean pictures for your viewing pleasure.

We walked through the rest of the park and stumbled upon a free orchestra concert in the pavilion.  I love, love, love the architecture of this thing.  It reminds me of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA (not that I’ve ever been to LA to see it in person…)

The audience stretched itself out among the seats and the lawn to the west.

Jordan lasted for a whole song before pushing me along.  :S  Don’t worry, though, I found the library shortly after!  Thumps up for libraries!

After all of the food vouchers we wasted in the airport, you wouldn’t think we’d be on a mission to find food.  But you’d be wrong.  One night in Chicago?  What would you eat?  Yeah, us too.  Jordan called Glenn who googled some food options for us. We ended up at this small place.

We thought we needed a medium pizza, even though neither of us were actually very hungry.  And we were in denial about how intense the deep dish pizza really is.  We went with the spinach pie.  Very tasty.  Very thick.

A full Jordan is a happy Jordan.

We didn’t finish the pie.  Not really a surprise considering it constituted as my fifth meal for the day or something like that.  We took half of it in a to go box, deciding that we’d give the rest to a homeless person if we came across one on our walk to the train stop.

We actually only saw one, and he was more than happy to take the pizza off our hands.  I caught myself before asking if the guy liked spinach.  I am guessing he wasn’t too picky.  When we offered him the pizza, his face lit up and he said, “I know a five year old boy who will love this!”  I guess that pizza brought joy to four people in total.

And with that, our surprise visit to Chicago came to an end.  We said goodnight to Chicago.

Cabin Fever | Black Hills Part IV

The final post about the Black Hills for now.    I don’t think anyone actually suffered from Cabin Fever, considered we left often and had plenty to while at the cabin.


But I still have plenty of pictures that weren’t taken on the hike, at the picnic, or on Needles Highway.  And it’s obvious by now that I don’t plan on letting up on the photos, right?  Right.  Please check out the pics below to see pictures of our game-playing, a trip to Deadwood (and a couple pics of the No. 10 Saloon where Wild Bill was shot) our chatting, thumb wars, Walter and Isabella (Jenny and Luke’s sweet little babe), the cabin, and the garbage tower we created throughout the weekend.  Enjoy!  Or pretend you did!Chi_Black.Hills 274

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The trip was short, but really was great.  I enjoyed being with everyone, but missed Leah and Kirsten.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I wish we could all go back every year to the Hills.

Driving Needles Highway | Black Hills Part III

I’m really hoping no one is sick of my SoDak pics yet!

Jordan and I didn’t fly out of Rapid City until 2:00 PM on Monday, meaning we didn’t have to be at the airport until around 1:00.  Ahhh, small airports with short lines (of course, lines do move slower in smaller airports).

The lot of us had to be out of the cabins by 10:00 AM, so that left us with a few more hours in the Black Hills before heading home.  We thought about hitting up Bear Country, but ultimately decided to drive Needles Highway in Custer State Park.  Laurie and the girls caravaned behind the Graesser van.

For those who don’t know, Needles Highway is not far from Sylvan Lake, where we started our Harney Peak Hike a couple days before.  It doesn’t take long before you reach an alluring stop.  We crawled out of the vans and wandered around with the other tourists.


Eventually, we knew we had to leave if we were going to finish our drive on time.  So we left through this tiny tunnel.

We turned off and headed back to Keystone via Iron Mountain Road.  At least I believe so.  Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, Bev!  This afforded us with views of flower fields and that good old Mount Rushmore.  We didn’t even make an effort to see Mount Rushmore while visiting the Hills.  But it found us anyway!

Picnicking in Spearfish Canyon | Black Hills Part II

Sunday was a little more low-key for us that Saturday.  There were no serious hikes.   Only serious meals.

We slept until 9 or so, when our six-year-old butler came to notify us that “Breakfast is served!” before jumping onto the bed.  The Fortunas were in charge of breakfast.  I hear that the biscuits and sausage gravy were amazing.  The pancakes weren’t too bad either.  Sliced strawberries and peaches were ready for topping.  Walter seems like a pancake kind of kid.  Jordan tried to give him the peaches too, but he seemed a little more into the cakes.

While everyone was getting ready, I baked my tofu in bbq sauce.  Bob (Jordan’s grandpa) said it looked good enough to eat after seeing the finished product on a roll.  Eventually, everyone got ready, and we caravaned to the Roughlock Falls picnic area in Spearfish Canyon.

The younguns and Rod G. ventured over to the falls before eating.  You cannot walk down to the the bottom of the falls, only view them from the walkway.  Not that the view isn’t nice…

We hemmed and hawed about which picnic area would be best, but just stuck with the first one we had picked.  The view at our picnic spot was great, but it didn’t provide much shade.

The rest of our time here was spent bravely wading into the ice cold stream, blowing bubbles (which I swiped from the wedding at Sylvan Lake the day before), and chasing butterflies.  Oh yeah, there was eating too.  I’ll just unload my bundle of pictures on you here!

And the teaser photo I used earlier (our only shot with everyone who was there for the weekend)…

I’ve still got a Needles Highway post and a Cabin Fever Post coming your way!

Sylvan Lake to Harney Peak Hike: Black Hills Trip Part I

We had oodles of problems getting to Rapid City.  United Airlines made me grumpy.  (More on that in another post on another day).  But 27 hours later than expected, we did eventually make it.  Jordan’s parents, along with Em and Nolan, picked us up at the airport, made a pit stop at Quizno’s for lunch, and delivered us straight to the trail head at Sylvan Lake.  Who needs time to ease into things anyway?

We started the hike as eight.  Our hike started at about 3 PM.  Round trip, this hike is just under 7 miles.  A respectable distance, in my opinion.  The sign said we should plan for 4-5 hours.  But we aimed for three.  Well, most of us.  It didn’t take long before Emilee and Nolan decided trail-running was the way to go.  I’ll stick to trail walking for now.  Running isn’t exactly conducive for taking photos.

The scenery along the way was remarkable.  The wildflowers spread along the top of the grass, contrasting the purples and yellows with the shades of green.

We spotted some other flowers along the too.  Rod spotted an orange flower on the way up, but I didn’t get a photo right way.  So the crew, mostly Rod and Josie, I guess, made sure to look for the elusive flower on the way down the trail too.

There were glimpses of rock “needles” throughout the hike too.  These glimpses baited us to continue on up the trail, hinting at the better views that were yet to come.

So often, when hiking, I get stuck looking straight ahead, not back behind.  But during the middle section of the climb, Jordan pointed behind us at Little Devil’s Tower.  Appropriately named, huh?

Along the trail, you will come across a sign that lets you know you are entering Black Elk Wilderness.  I was happy to see the sign, and to know the exact moment when I crossed over into the Wilderness.

Last year, I chose Black Elk, a Sioux Medicine Man, as one of my ethical theorists during an Information Ethics course.  I read his stories and learned to see the value in many of his beliefs.  That assignment only augmented my desire to climb Harney Peak some day.  Thus, the excitement of crossing into the wilderness.

We took a break during the climb, and some in the group considered whether or not to continue to the top.  I felt very conflicted.  I have really been aching to climb Harney Peak, and I did not want to stop on mile from the summit after flying six hundred miles, driving forty miles, and hiking two.  On the other hand, we came to enjoy our time in the Black Hills with family, not to push our hiking agenda upon those family members.  Wasn’t the point to reach the summit together?

Well, my ambition got the best of me.  I afraid to leave without going to the top, so Jordan and I left the group, hoping that they would be continuing on with the climb, and not turning around.

After the stop, the last mile flew by.  The views became increasingly more outstanding, and the air became even clearer.  And then we reached the observation tower at the top.  Yahoo!

I cannot recall a time that I have been able to see farther into the distance while still being planted on terra firma.

I certainly felt small in such a big place.  I understand why Black Elk considered this to be such a spiritual place.  It’s hard not to understand that you’re just one part of a bigger picture when you’re standing at the top of Harney Peak.

We spent some time waving to Emilee and Nolan, who had been venturing around at the top.  See her far off into the distance?

We yelled to Nolan, who told us that Rod and the girls weren’t far from the top.  And Jordan thought he heard something about Glenn (Jordan’s brother who lives across the state), but we weren’t really sure.

I was happy that the rest of the crew decided to continue on.  I felt a twinge of guilt that we had been so quick to part with the group earlier.  Ah, well, everyone still seemed awed by the views and just as happy to have made it.

We asked Rod if Glenn was with them.  He said no, he didn’t see Glenn at all.  Maybe we heard Nolan wrong?  It didn’t seem impossible for a miscommunication to occur when yelling from large rock to faraway large rock.  But then…what’s that?  There’s Glenn!  Apparently, Glenn ran up the trail to catch us after arriving later to Sylvan Lake.  I thought it was a nice gesture to show that he wanted to experience the trail with all of us.  Running that entire thing still seems a bit unfathomable for my lungs.  We left on our hike as eight, but ended up as nine.

We played around some more at the top, scrambling over to the rocks, etc.

Always the pushy blogger/photographer, I made the whole group pose for some pictures at the top.  I had a few accidental shots while messing with the self-timer.

And then gorilla pod, the self-timer, and my running over rock skills all came together for our group summit pic.

The descent took about 1 h 15 minutes.  We made it back to the vehicles by 6:15.  I’m glad it didn’t take us the estimated 4-5 hours, since I wouldn’t want to risk the dark with our one headlamp for nine people.  This hike lived up to my expectations and then some.

Clearly, I’ve still got a lot more hiking I would like to accomplish.  But it’s always fun to reflect upon what you’ve already done.  While hiking, Rod asked what my favorite hikes were.   I said Brazil (Chapada Diamantina) and Switzerland probably topped my list.  Within the U.S., my top two were the Monhegan Island hike we did during our trip to Maine and the Mt. LeConte hike in the Smokies.  Folks, we’ve got a U.S. rival.  Harney Peak may just have to win since it was shared with family, after all.

I’ll have to start evaluating these hikes with some sort of preset rubric.  Trying to quantify breathtaking experiences….that sounds like me. 🙂

Stay tuned for Black Hills Part II.

Eating Out in Asheville | A Vegetarian’s Delight

I love the shops.  (How I have missed Ten Thousand Villages)

I love the scenery.

I love the brews.

I love the street performers.

But let’s be real.  My motivation for going to Asheville is for the food.  Everyone can find a food they like in Asheville.  And you can feel good about eating a lot of it, because the Local Foods Movement is a big deal there.

It’s can be hard to find vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurant options in the South.  Except in Asheville.  Asheville has got to be the easiest place go meat-free in the 12-state area.  So while I am sure that there are places there that do lamb, beef, and fish (local trout!) well, I had to try the veg-friendly places.

The group considered Thai and Indian before settling on good ole American.  We ate at the Early Girl Cafe, which I’d been wanting to try at some point.  Many, many things on the menu caught my attention.  I was just thrilled at the number of vegetable side options available!  It took us all a good while to decide upon our entrees.

While here, we colored away in anticipation of our meals.

So, yeah, Asheville felt idyllic at the time.  Knoxville seems a little, um, hazy and nuclear.

I went for a vegan entree.  I had the black bean burger on a grilled whole wheat bun.  My side was a vegan potato salad.  My burger had a solid amount of structural integrity for a veggie burger, but I actually preferred the taste of my own black bean burgers (read: black bean piles).  The potato salad was awesome, though.  Jordan went with the local lamb burger and a side of sweet potatoes.  I think my addiction is spreading.

We debated over dessert.  Jordan loves nothing more than chocolate.  But I have been having very serious carrot cake cravings lately.  Chivalry won, and we went for the carrot.  I know he was disappointed in the carrot cake, but I think a lot of that was mental..since he knew he could be eating chocolate instead.  I loved it.  I think it may be at the top of my life-long carrot cake list.

After the meal, we went to the Thirsty Monk.  And then ate double-mallowed s’mores at the campsite.  And then we had morning s’mores.  Uh.  Enough sweet already.

The next morning, we tried to score a spot at the cafe that serves beignets.  Because we obviously needed to be eating French donuts after morning s’mores.  Unfortunately, the wait was too long, and we ended up grabbing bagels and hot beverages.

After a short time of exploration, we started out on our lunch adventure.  I’ve been chomping at the bit (of vegetable) to eat at the Laughing Seed in Asheville.  It’s an award-winning vegetarian restaurant.  The menu is creative.  The food looked delicious.  And I was getting tired of every blog I read posting about this place while I still hadn’t tried it.  We got ourselves a table.  And then we realized that they don’t serve lunch until 2:00 on Sundays.  Ridiculous.  Brunch until 2.  Brunch culture is ruining this country.  Or something like that.

We ditched out.  And I don’t feel bad about it.  I will return to Asheville, eat at Laughing Seed, and love it.  But this weekend was not the time for it.  So we wandered until we found another place.  We ended up eating at the Green Light Cafe.

Chlorophyll water was served!  I didn’t think it tasted differently than regular ole water, but some may disagree.

Why would you drink chlorophyll?  I didn’t know either.  I found an eHow article on the benefits of stepping up your chlorophyll intake.  More studies need to be conducted to give credibility to many of the alleged benefits.  But most people do seem to be agreeing on one thing: Chlorophyll helps fight bad breath.  I’ll drink green water if it means I can eat all of the onions I want.

All of our entrees came with a house salad.  The house salad was really quite generous–maybe my favorite part of the meal.  Sometimes restaurants skimp on salads and give you iceberg lettuce and one cherry tomato and call it a salad.  Not here.  We had lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, and carrots.  The actual entrees at the Green Light were just okay.   Jordan’s spinach lasagna was tastier than my black bean and spinach enchilada.

I filled up quickly and wasn’t able to finish the whole thing.  It was good, but not great.

You know what was great?!  Going into a restaurant and being able to order ANY thing off of the menu.  This hasn’t happened in many months.  This was my first time dining at a completely meat-free place.  It felt nice.  I felt like they were catering to me personally.

Now I just need to get myself to the Laughing Seed….

Beer City USA | Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville was named Beer City USA last year.  It even beat Portland.  Crazy, huh?  So, when in Rome….

We went to the Thirsty Monk, one of Asheville’s well-known public houses after our kayaking trip and refueling supper.  They serve oodles of beverages I’ve never heard of.  Don’t even think about a Bud Light in this place.  You’d probably get beat up by the patrons.

I took part in something called a tasting flight.  You get to chose four different types of beer, and then are given samples of each.  This is right up my alley, since I don’t exactly know what I love (unless it’s a Boddington’s at C&G in the Old City) and drinking four full beers is clearly not an option for me.  I went with a Pisgah Pale Ale (Pisgah National Forest is nearby), a Bryson City Brown (NC mountain town), Death by Hops, and the Great Divide Hercules.  Wow, some of these were hard to finish.  So I didn’t.  That Pisgah Pale Ale was not my favorite.

I had fun pretending to be a connoisseur.  I aerated and sniffed.  But really the only ingredients I can ever distinguish are barley and hops.  Which most people can do anyway.

The next day we watched the World Cup Championship at the “Bier Garden.” [Insert sad face here about the end result of the soccer game.]  The US didn’t hold on for the win, but I was able to cross an item of my “26 things to do in my 26th year” list.  I drank a Tusker.  Tusker is a Kenyan beer.  I’ve wanted to try one ever since I read “The Zanzibar Chest” by Aiden Hartley.


Verdict:  not bad.  And it gets points for being the only African beer I’ve tasted. I’d been thinking I might never get to cross this off of my list.

Tasting flights are fun.  I wish someplace in Knoxville would follow suit.  But now I think I should do some twisting yoga postures to cleanse the body of any stray toxins.  Or maybe just take a nap.