After you visit someone it’s nice to be able to return the favor and have them come and stay with you for a while. So when Richard, Magnus, and Ginny said they might be able to spend some time with us this summer after we had been with them in England last year, we were all for it. It ended up being a bit on the last-minute side, as things often are in this hectic world we’ve built for ourselves here in the modern age, but it all worked out well and we had a grand time with them.
The trick is, of course, what to do. It’s not like we have an abundance of castles, seaside towns, or other similar things here in the midwest. But there are a few things of interest in southern Wisconsin and we enjoy just spending time together as well. It's all good.
For one thing, we introduced them to Fran.
When we got back from the airport Fran and Sierra were visiting. Fran was heading back to Belgium the next day, and they had come over for one last evening with us before she left. I’ve always liked when people from disparate corners of my life meet – we used to have parties in my college dorm premised on exactly that idea, in fact, and they always turned out well. Everyone ended up playing Werewolf and eating grilled cheese sandwiches and that’s just how a summer evening goes is all that is.
For another thing, they got to know the County Fair pretty well (as noted in the previous post). Being outdoors is a good way to get over jet lag quickly, apparently, so it had that advantage as well. We spent several days at the Fair, because it’s a fun thing to do.
We also took them on something of a Wisconsin Weird tour.
High on any list of that description is the House on the Rock. I’ve described that in earlier posts on this blog, but it’s just one of those things that has to be seen to be believed and even when confronted with the evidence of your own senses you will probably still have doubts as to how such a place could possibly exist without folding in on itself and creating a Singularity Of Weird. It’s a standing testimony to what happens when you have too much money and not enough medication and it’s glorious that way. The House on the Rock features in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and I just know that when people read that book (or watch the series on television) they get to that part and think, “Wow! What an imagination! This is truly what SF/F is all about as a genre!” when actually it’s just journalism.
Trust me on this.
It starts off innocently enough, with a placid Japanese-style garden, and you think to yourself, “Well, all those warnings of gratuitous weirdity are just so much hype, really.”
And then you go inside.
There’s a little museum there now where you pay your entry price – it’s tasteful and informative, and you can buy all the House on the Rock tchotchkes you want. Don’t weigh yourself down though – you’ll be routed through the gift shop at the end of the tour also, so you can buy them then.
Then you go into the House which is, as advertised, on a Rock. Imagine what would have happened if Frank Lloyd Wright had married Elvis in 1974 and they’d set up house together and you won’t be too far off, but don’t forget to add in the occasional full-sized pneumatically-powered orchestra (operated by tokens, which you get free with your ticket and can purchase more of in the House). It’s, um, uncomfortable. Cluttered, low-ceilinged, dark, damp, and a fine example the kind of hoarding that’s acceptable only when surrounded by enough cash, it’s easy to forget that the guy actually lived there because really trying to imagine someone living there is an exercise in incredulity.
The cool part, though, is the Infinity Room. Cantilevered over a ravine, it’s built to look like a perspective drawing and it is, objectively, a lot of fun.
By this point you are lulled into a false sense of confidence. It’s weird, but weird within tolerance. You can handle this without alcohol of any kind. You’re doing fine. You blithely go down the exit path back toward the museum, meet up with the docent who had helpfully pointed you toward the House, and get pointed in a different direction toward the Collections.
And then it falls in on you. Room after room after room of So. Much. Stuff. There’s a room with hundreds of doll houses. Another with dozens of model circuses. An entire Victorian street full of psychotically overstuffed shops. More orchestras. A madly spinning carousel with some 300 animals on it, not one of which is a horse (there are hundreds of horses on the walls). A room that looks like Tim Burton’s last therapy session, entirely done up in black and red, complete with a wreath of kettle drums, a ship’s propeller, a collection of oversized beer steins, and a pipe organ. A room with a life-sized model of a whale being attacked by a squid. On and on it goes.
It’s an experience. I think they enjoyed it. They seemed unscarred.
Toward the end of their visit we took the second half of the Wisconsin Weird tour and went to see Doctor Evermore’s Forevertron.
For those of you not up on your steampunk found-material statue gardens, this is pretty much the cream of the crop. It’s probably not something you’d make a special trip for, but if you happen to be in the area (as we were one day) it is most definitely worth a stop. You can profitably spend an hour there, maybe more if the weather isn’t beastly hot as it was that day.
It’s just off the state highway, and good luck figuring out where to park since there are no signs or places that look like where you should do that. Eventually you just pull over to the side of the grassy entrance and walk over to the main area, where you are confronted with this.
You’re allowed to wander at leisure and examine the statutes up close and personal. There’s a lot of them. Some are the size of your forearm. Others would tower over your house. Imagine Dr. Seuss with a welder’s torch and a drug addiction and there you go. It’s utterly fascinating.
There’s a lady sitting at a small table tucked away in a corner of the place, and she’ll sell you souvenirs. You can even buy a small statue if you want. Wings are extra.
If Wisconsin doesn’t have the sea it does have lakes, so we found an Air B&B on one up in the central part of the state and spent a few days not doing much of anything there, which is what vacations are all about. It was a peaceful sort of place that way.
For those interested there were kayaks and a canoe – Ginny, Magnus, and Lauren were out on the water before we even got unpacked, cruising up and down the lake. We were on a small arm of the lake, and to get to the main body of water they had to go left from the dock and paddle a bit.
We brought all sorts of games to play and books to read and things to eat and drink, and I spent a fair amount of my time doing all of those things – there was a deck overlooking the lake where you could sit and watch the world float by. And there was a fire pit that we made very good use of while we were there. There were enough fallen branches around us that we just had to gather up what we needed to get a good fire going, and most evenings we were all there, watching the flames and talking. Good company and good conversation is all an evening needs, really.
Richard, Ginny, and Magnus like to go hiking out on the trails so they did that one day while Kim, Lauren and I wandered over to the local county fair – a bit smaller than ours, but with the usual assortment of livestock and projects. There was also poutine, a thing that qualifies as food only because it isn’t immediately lethal but which is tasty if you’re into that sort of thing.
On the way home we stopped at Parfrey’s Glen.
Parfrey’s Glen is a lovely little spot – you have to hike up a winding trail along the creek, and eventually the trail peters out and those who wish to do so (i.e. not this city boy) can cross the creek on the rocks and go up to the glen itself. I hung out at the crossing, where I met an old friend from Home Campus as he and his friends were hiking back from their visit to the glen. It’s a small world. I also took a bunch of photos, since the lighting at the crossing is marvelous.
We visited Madison one day and walked around State Street. In one of the shops Magnus found a game that is apparently hard to find in the UK and worth hauling back across the ocean, so that counts as a win. The Capitol Building was also open and eventually we found ourselves out on the observation deck, up by the dome. It has a nice view of the lakes and the city.
We went to a local minor league baseball game as well. They actually won, which is a rarity when we go.
We had our Biannual-Or-So “We Dare You To Eat That” Party, wherein people come by with all sorts of things that are legitimately considered food in some places and we see who is brave enough to eat them. There were some very entertaining field trips to the local Asian and Mexican grocery stores (as well as the main grocery store in town, since no one culture has a monopoly on such foods) in preparation for this, and we ended up with a pile of leftovers because it it, but hey: interesting food. There was no surstromming this year – for which we and everyone in a half-mile radius were thankful – but there were friends and foods and a raffle that required you to share a joke to win valuable prizes.
A skeleton walks into a bar. “Bartender!” he says. “Get me a beer and a mop!”
Eventually their visit came to an end, as all good things do, and they flew off to Virginia to see some family there. I think they’re actually back in the UK as I write this now.
It was a lovely visit, and we so enjoyed having them stay with us.
EDIT: Things that should have been in this post and now are:
The problem with trying to recall a lovely but busy time in the middle of other busy (and varyingly lovely – from “very” to “not at all”) times is that you forget things, and there were a couple of things we did with our friends that I want to put down here, mostly for my own memories.
One is that we had a tasty picnic at the home of our friends Heidi and Travis, up in Madison. It was something of an exercise in logistics, but the picnic itself was a lot of fun.
This was the day that Richard, Magnus, Ginny, Tabitha, and I were up at the House on the Rock, while Kim was busy at the Fair and Lauren had to work at the museum. My group drove there from the House on the Rock – no small matter, given the construction that has engulfed the state now that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) has been booted out of office and the new governor has actually decided to pay attention to things like infrastructure and education, much to the outrage of our viciously gerrymandered and mindlessly partisan legislature. But good roads are good roads, so we put up with the delays.
We also stop for sustenance on the way to a picnic, because it’s Wisconsin and we need to introduce our foreign friends to things like deep-fried cheese curds and frozen custard and Culvers. Away with your In-and-Out and your Five Guys and your Whataburger – we know where the real king of fast food burgers lives and his palace is blue and white. Thus fortified, wound our way to Madison for the picnic, where we ate heartily even with the previous stop. Because we're professionals.
Meanwhile Lauren drove down to the Fair, surrendered the car to Kim, and hung out there with her friends doing Fair Things because it’s Fair and that’s what you do. Kim drove up and met us at Heidi and Travis’ house.
There was good food. There was good conversation. There may be a “comfy couch” in Richard’s future now that Ginny has experienced Heidi’s and knows how they tempt a person.
There was also a lightning bug hunt. They don’t have lightning bugs in England, apparently, and they’re pretty much everywhere in Wisconsin. Heidi and Travis have one of those back yards full of dark, shady recesses where lightning bugs hang out. It was a natural fit.
Getting home was another fascinating experience, again because of the road construction thing. We split up into the two cars – the teenagers in one and the parents in the other – and headed off toward the Beltline, which should have been a desperately simple thing except that every single entrance onto the Beltline was closed and all the city felt obligated to provide in the way of advice to motorists unfamiliar with the area was “try another route.”
There was much vocabulary.
We got home eventually.
Another thing I forgot to include was that we went to Local Businessman High School’s summer theater production of 42nd Street.
The thing about LBHS’s theater program is that it is in many ways professional grade. There are some seriously talented kids here, they pull in others from a fairly wide radius (sometimes as far away as Chicago), and their budget is higher than the entire amount my high school spent on theater in the seven years that my brother and I were involved (including the one-year overlap).
Needless to say it was a marvelous show.
Neither Lauren nor Aleksia were doing the spotlights this time around – the show conflicted with the Fair, after all – but their friend Ally was the lead actress and she did a great job, as did their other friend Nolan, who always gets the comic parts and can steal pretty much any scene he’s in any time he decides to do so (his version of the chef in The Little Mermaid has become canonical in my mind for that part).
It was strange to go to one of these shows and not sell 50/50 raffle tickets, but there you go.
One final thing was a visit to the Cheese Shop. It’s not in Our Little Town – it’s significantly west – but if you’re going to have cheese this is the place to get it. We ransacked the place.