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Valley Orchard

29 Sep

Our little family of four (!) ventured to Valley Orchard in Cherry Valley, just east of Rockford, on Saturday afternoon to pick some apples, get our hands on some apple cider doughnuts and a caramel apple and enjoy the autumn summer weather.

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We picked a little less than 10 pounds of apples—Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Jonamac, Senshu and Snow Sweet varieties. We also picked up a half-dozen cinnamon-sugar apple cider doughnuts and a caramel apple.

The orchard is large and very family friendly. (The owners are parents of grown twin boys.) There’s an area for kids to play on hay bales and families to pose for photos. There’s rows and rows and rows of apple trees and a large patch of raspberry bushes. There’s a small store, too, filled with apple goodies from butter and cider to doughnuts and pies.

We opted not to bring the stroller, and instead to keep the girls in their carriers. I think it might have been nicer to have them in a stroller or to have each of them in a body wrap/carrier, but we didn’t really know what to expect or how to plan. Either way, we had a nice time, and the girls slept soundly as we traipsed through the orchard.

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Monroe, Wis.

27 Nov

Christopher and I met in Monroe, Wis., in 2006. He was a sports reporter and I was a news reporter for the Monroe Times, a small six-days-a-week paper in a small, rural town in southwestern Wisconsin. We left the area for bigger and better things and haven’t been back in quite a while.

Monroe is quintessential Wisconsin. Its lush, rolling countryside is dotted with dairy farms and cheese factories. Its signature festival, Cheese Days, which is held only in even-numbered years, is a celebration of all things Swiss, cheese and beer. It oozes gemütlichkeit.

On a whim, Christopher and I returned to our old stomping grounds this past weekend.

We started with a spin through the Christkindlmarkt, an old-world-style holiday marketplace, at Turner Hall, and bought an adorable Wisconsin-shaped cutting board.

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We walked around the downtown square and popped into Chocolate Temptation for coffees and chocolates.

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We took the tour at Minhas Craft Brewery, the second-oldest continually operating brewery in the country.

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The tour, which costs $10, starts in the Lazy Mutt Lounge, where we enjoyed a couple samples and some popcorn. We watched a 10-minutes video about the brewery, then we followed our tour guide through the brewery, from the brewhouse to the bottling, canning and packing building and back to the lounge.

Minhas

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The tour includes access to the Herb & Helen Heydock World of Beer Memorabilia Museum, too. We enjoyed looking through the three rooms of advertisements, coasters, growlers and steins, knick-knacks and other beer paraphernalia.

We left with our gift packs, which included four beers, a root beer and the glasses we used for tasting during the tour. Hell of a parting gift, eh?

We ended our trip with a stop at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern.

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The is tavern is a local legend, open since 1931. It’s famous for cheese sandwiches and locally brewed beer. It features Swiss-themed murals and sassy signage all over the walls; dollar bills dot the ceiling.

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Christopher was brave and ordered the limburger and soft salami sandwich, while I stuck with a favorite and got the hot pastrami and Swiss sandwich.

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Christopher and I had such a wonderful afternoon in Monroe. We saw many of our old haunts and even did something new. We aren’t going to let five years go by before we go back the next time.

Biking on the Dixon trails

2 Oct

We are blessed with a beautiful trails and parks near our house.

We have used the paved Lowell Parkway Trail many, many times during marathon and half-marathon training. It is paved and well maintained, partially shaded and has a water fountain and outhouse along the way.

We only recently “discovered” the gravel trails (meant for horseback riding, cross-country skiing, biking, hiking and snowmobiling) in The Meadows Park but used it several times during half-marathon training. It is hilly and winding with varied terrain.

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Now that racing season is pretty well over, we’re getting back to other forms of fitness. Christopher is working on building his push-ups and sit-ups, while I’ am working on overall consistent strength training. We’ve played tennis a few times already, too.

And with the change in the weather, we’ve been itching to dust off our bikes and explore our beautiful surroundings a bit. Christopher surprised me yesterday by pulling my bike out of the corner of the garage, filling the tires and taking it for a test spin. And I fulfilled my end of the deal today by taking it for a 9-mile ride on the trails.

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It was breeze blowing, leaves crunching, squirrels chirping, crickets humming, branches rustling perfect…

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My legs were tired and my bum was sore, but my heart was so happy just being outside and soaking up the sunshine and surroundings.

Fall is so wonderful—perfect for playing outside during the day and snuggling up inside at night.

Christopher and I are planning to go to the pumpkin patch this weekend to pick up pumpkins and apples. We’re also thinking of brewing a batch of beer. And we’ll probably get out for a ride.

It should be absolutely perfect.

The Eternal Indian and Lowden State Park

21 Sep

The Eternal Indian sculpture that towers over the Rock River in Lowden State Park in Oregon, just north of Dixon, is perhaps one of the most recognizable “attractions” in the Sauk Valley.

Christopher and I had only seen it from Route 2, so we took the opportunity of showing my aunt around the area to see it up close via a hike through the park.

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The statue, also known as the Black Hawk statue, was created by Lorado Taft in 1908. Taft was the founder of an arts colony of Chicago painters, sculptors, poets, architects and other artists, who summered in the area that now is the state park from the turn of the century to the early 1940s. The majority of the statue is hollow; only the head and shoulders of the chief are solid concrete. It is said to be the second largest concrete monolithic statue in the world.

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The statue stands 125 feet above the Rock River, and the bluff on which it is perched offers a beautiful view of the area.

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Lowden State Park is among the most picturesque spots in the Sauk Valley.

Christopher and I got a taste of the area during the Run-A-Muck in July, so we wanted to “hike” through the park while we were there.

The park sits on more than 200 acres and is named for a former governor. It was founded only a few years after the art colony vacated the land. It offers camping, picnicking and fishing, as well as almost 4 miles of good foot trails through the woods.

We walked some of the Black Hawk Trail and some of the Heckman Trail, for maybe about a mile total. We navigated some steep grades, where crude stairs had eroded away, and plowed through some narrow paths, where bushes and trees crowded the walkway. We all enjoyed the scenery (We even stumbled upon three turkeys!), and Dexter loved the nature walk.

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We hope to do a lot more exploring this fall, as we’ll be done spending Saturdays in the garden and Sundays on long runs.

Dixon Beer Festival

28 Jun

Dixon is a relatively small town, so we (try to) go to almost any place, event or festival that has that big-city feel we crave since we moved here.

Christopher, my dad and I checked out the first-ever Dixon Beer Festival this past weekend.

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The festival, sponsored by The Crystal Cork wine shop, was held on the riverfront. Beer vendors from across the country poured samples and local restaurants served up eats under a tent, and festival-goers drank, ate and made merry at tables set up under the tent and outside on the riverfront plaza.

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We got our 12 tasting tickets (one beer sample was one ticket, and one food sample was either one or two tickets) and commemorative beer glasses and made the rounds.

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I tried:

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Christopher and Dad sampled:

We also got food from:

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  • Gilbert’s Craft Sausages: I tried “the Catalana,” a pork smoked sausage with chipotle, mozzarella and lime, as well as “the Shebeergan,” a beer bratwurst. Christopher had “the Ouisconsin,” a beef smoked sausage with bleu cheese and “the Froman,” a sirloin beef hot dog. Dad had the Catalana and Ouisconsin sausages.

Sausages

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My favorite beers were the Goose Island Pere Jacques, the Great River Redband Stout (which tasted like a strong latte) and the Shiner Blonde. And my favorite food was, hands down, the Gilbert’s sausages, which were juicy and flavorful. (I wish we could find these Wisconsin-made sausages around here!)

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We had a great time at the festival and were really impressed with the event for such a small town.

I hope the wine shop decides to put it on again next year and thinks about ways to grow it. I would suggest recruiting more Midwestern breweries (I can think of several in Wisconsin and Michigan that would be a perfect fit!) and a few more local restaurants to offer a wider variety of food (like tacos and burgers and fries).

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Sunshine and wine

19 Jun

Christopher and I took a scenic drive to tour five three vineyards in Stephenson and Winnebago counties and partake in a wine tasting at Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery in Freeport, Ill., on Saturday afternoon.

The winery sponsored a five-vineyard tour to allow people to see the grapes used in their wines and meet the growers who care for the vines.

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We arrived at the winery at almost 3 p.m. and got our vineyard map. We headed east, to the vineyard farthest to the east, and worked our way back to Famous Fossil for a few sips.

We started at Immaculata Vineyard near Rockton, Ill. John Spiritosanto, the grower, showed us around his 1 1/2 acres of grapes (55 rows of La Crosse, St. Pepin Marechal Foch and Frontenac varieties). He told us of their small start in 2007 and how he and his wife gradually have added more and more vines over the years and how they someday plan to have 1,000 vines.

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We then visited Steffenhagen Vineyard near Durand, Ill. Ed Slocum met us at the edge of his 2 acres of Marquette and Frontenac grapevines. He told us a bit about how grapes grow, what kind of maintenance they require and what it’s like to work with local vintners.

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We ended at Famous Fossil for our tasting. We selected six wines apiece, working our way from dry to sweet, white to red.

Tasting collage

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We really enjoyed the wines. Christopher liked the Fossil Rock Red—Frontenac grapes in a rich and fruity wine with a hint of oak—while I preferred the Vignoles—tropical fruit flavors in a sweet white wine. We both loved the Summer Rhubarb, sweet and tart and unexpectedly refreshing.

We ordered something to sip—a Spaten Optimator (beer) for him and a Vignoles for her—outside on the patio.

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The vineyard and winery sits on 5 rolling acres. Ken and Pam Rosmann grow Frontenac, St. Croix, Petite Pearl, Marquette, LaCrescent, La Crosse, Briana, Petite Ami, Prairie Star and Lorelei grapes, and they make more than a dozen wines, including two that have won awards.

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It was such a lovely trip: The rolling Illinois countryside, the verdant green of healthy corn crops, the warm sunshine, the light breeze and the quiet of a summer afternoon.

We hope to do more things like this in our area as we get to know it better, including a trip to Monroe, Wis., where we met six years ago.

Garden talk: Growing things

18 Jun

Christopher and I planted our first garden five weeks ago Sunday, and we saw incredible progress as we weeded it this weekend!

We went from this:

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To this:

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Zucchini

 

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Herbs (Clockwise from top: chives, oregano [planted Sunday in place of the marjoram that never sprouted], parsley [also planted Sunday in place of the dill that never sprouted] and basil)

 

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Cucumber (planted Sunday in place of the previous plant that died)

 

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Green beans

 

From this:

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To this:

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Bell pepper (in the shadow of the zucchini plant) and jalapeno pepper (Not pictured: cayenne pepper)

 

From this:

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To this:

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Salad greens, including lettuce, arugula and spinach (after one cutting/harvest last Sunday that yielded enough greens for five salads)

 

And from this:

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To this:

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Cauliflower and broccoli

 

Pretty impressive, right? We have green thumbs!

We harvested a huge batch of salad greens last Sunday, after we got home from Milwaukee, and I ate a salad for lunch every day this past week. We another sizeable batch yesterday, and I plan to have another four or five salads for lunch this week. We also harvested a few herbs—chives and basil.

We should see zucchini soon (We have a baby one peeking out!), as well as green beans in the next few weeks.

Christopher and I also have been tackling, week by week, our dry, patchy lawn.

We have laid down seed three times and seen some grass grow from it, but we still have bare patches.

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Dark green is original grass; light green is recently planted grass

We planted more seed—and laid it down heavily—this past weekend. We hope the bare spots disappear after this attempt.

It has continued to be pretty warm and dry here, so we’ve been watering the garden and lawn twice daily, as we remember. It’s supposed to be hot and dry this week, with little chance for rain, so we’ll be out there twice daily for sure.

Green thumbs for the win!