July 2, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Days 3 & 4

Windy, cloudy, cool Cheyenne

Day 3: Custer, SD to Cheyenne, WY

After an hour-long drive around the animal observation path at Custer State Park, a filling breakfast, some tourist shopping at the lodge gift shop, and packing up camp, we departed Custer for a two-night stay in Cheyenne.

South Dakota
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect driving through Wyoming. I pictured it as a flat landscape dotted with ranches and sprinkled with cattle. During our drive, we saw little evidence of people. Aside from an occasional windbreak or abandoned farmhouse, the landscape was mostly flat, with few trees - but not much in the way of ranches or animals for many miles in the distance. We learned at a museum in Cheyenne that just because we can't see anything obvious doesn't mean there's nothing there and in fact, there are many lively species making their home in the vast plains. Pretty cool.

I was grateful we filled up the gas tank before leaving Custer because we didn't come across so much as a tiny town with a gas pump for quite a long way. When we did, we were sure to fill back up and stop for food because I wasn't sure when the next opportunity might be. Looking on the map, it's like there are towns with food nearby, but from the distant view along the highway, I found few places to stop. The view on the drive is somewhat repetitive, but at the same time, it's really unique in the way that it's so untouched and non-commercialized. I like that.

Arriving in Cheyenne, we stopped at the Bread Basket Bakery for delicious, freshly made take-out sandwiches and checked in at the roadside KOA just outside town. This stop was our break from sleeping on the ground, so we enjoyed real beds in a tiny cabin with a cute front porch.

Not long after checking in, our friends from Colorado arrived to spend a couple nights with us in Cheyenne. The kids had a blast playing at the KOA playground and reading stories to each other in the cabin.

The Cheyenne KOA is very much a stopover for truck drivers and ranchers, generally one-night stays. It's not really a good spot for tent camping, with just a few tent sites on gravel with a small fenced wind break and no privacy. The cabins are your best bet unless you're traveling with an RV. The bathrooms and showers were very clean. The pool area was well managed and the staff and owners were incredibly welcoming. Even though it wasn't the feel of real camping, it was a nice stay and I could see why that location has a high occupancy rate with an excellent location for people passing through.

Day 4: Cheyenne, WY

The weather warmed up and the sky filled with sun on Day 4, so we planned a day exploring downtown Cheyenne. Our morning began at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, which is filled with train and railroad exhibits, including an unreal second floor model train display larger than I've ever seen. I can't imagine the hours and dedication it took to recreate historic railways with such accuracy. Now I lament that I didn't take pictures of the second floor.

I did get a shot (sorry for the glare) of a handmade, wooden train. It's beautiful craftsmanship.

Outside the museum, we found The Iron Horse by Lyle Nichols:

And, back inside, there was this funky thing and the only reason I took a picture is because I lived next door to Swissvale, in Regent Square (Pittsburgh) for a couple years. It brings back great memories!

In the evening, we'd hoped to have a campfire and make s'mores but the weather didn't cooperate. It didn't rain until late in the evening, but it was cold, dark, and ominous. Nearby were a handful of strong storms. We just got rain that night, but it was too windy to even try to light a fire.

We had a blast visiting with our friends and exploring the city. There are several museums, including the Wyoming State Museum, with interesting exhibits, shops, and restaurants. Lunch was at a pizza/burger place called 2 Doors Down, also called Pizzeria Venti, depending on what you're ordering. Also weird is their Facebook page calls it Piccolo Venti, which makes it kind of difficult to figure out what it's really called. The overly friendly (overbearing) hostess urged us in from the street, before we decided what and where we wanted to go. She ushered us to a table to think about what we wanted to order even when we were ready to go up and pay and kept coming over and trying to hug a few of us. It was creepy. Food not so good either. I suspect there are a lot of gems in Cheyenne, but that lunch wasn't one of them. Our friend had a long hair in her food, which looked stale and microwaved.

2 Doors Down/Pizzeria Venti
For a small community, it's thriving and growing thanks to local military, airport, ranching, and technology companies.

I'll leave you with a bunny photo. Our campsite was home to dozens of adorable bunnies who live under each cabin. Here's just one of our tiny, furry friends:

June 30, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Day 2

Day 2: Sioux Falls, SD to Custer, SD

We woke with the sun and enjoyed a quick cereal breakfast before packing up our campsite and heading out. Traveling across the entire state with hopes of stopping along the way, we left not too long after breakfast. This was the view during the first half of our drive:

Driving through South Dakota
Along the way, we stopped at 1880 Town, about two hours east of Mount Rushmore. It's a ghost town, with some original buildings and some reenactments, a memorabilia shop, and a diner inside an old train. We enjoyed a simple and leisurely lunch in a dining car, a nice break from driving.

Though I planned to keep this stop fairly quick, we decided to explore the site, spending more than an hour walking around the grounds and taking pictures like good tourists. There were a few pieces of old Wells Fargo stuff, including this old wagon and some signage in town buildings. 

Some buildings are totally open to walk through and others are preserved. My guess is it's based on what is real from the late 19th century and what is staged for fun.

We considered stopping at Wall Drug since there are so many signs screaming at us, "stop at Wall Drug!" but figuring it's probably a lot like South of the Border, we focused on getting to Mount Rushmore before dinnertime. If we'd had a little more time, I might have driven through the Badlands loop, but we were able to get a sense of the Badlands from Highway 80. We'll plan a drive through next time we visit western South Dakota.

Driving into Custer State Park was beautiful. Observing the elevation climb, the beautiful trees, the green, the craggy hills, and the sounds of birds and crickets, and the fresh air is worth the drive. Our campsite was somewhat isolated off the main road by a large, "raging" stream, surrounded by tall trees and gorgeous views. We pitched by the water, set up our space and immediately drove back up to Mount Rushmore, a 30 minute drive along winding mountain roads.

Campsite at Custer State Park
Penny was most excited for Mount Rushmore out of all our trip plans. She took many photos and ran up and down the amphitheater stairs. For dinner, we ate at the Mount Rushmore visitor cafe, which for a cafeteria, offered plenty of variety and decent quality.

Taking pictures at Mount Rushmore
As rain set in around 8pm, we took a longer drive home, encountering hundreds of bison along our path. We spent quite a bit of time stopped to let them pass, such majestic creatures.

Bison grazing near our car
Bison roaming through Custer State Park
Late into the night, a storm blew in and raged with thunder and lightening and pouring rain. Miss P slept through everything but I was pretty darn scared of either being washed away or struck by lightening. Thunder shook the ground, but we made it through without even a leak. 

Breakfast was a simple buffet at a nearby lodge at the park, where we learned there had been some pretty bad hail overnight. I was grateful for those giant trees! 

We lingered in the morning, looping around a driving path for viewing animals, though we saw none that morning. Close to 11am, we packed up and headed on our way to Wyoming, planning our halfway point as lunch. I didn't want to leave. Of all the stops on our trip, Custer was our favorite and we're even exploring the idea of buying some land to build a small vacation cottage in the future.

June 29, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Day 1

Big Sioux Rec Area campground
As part of my goal to bring my daughter to each state by the time she's 18 (in a somewhat meaningful way, no airport layovers), we packed up and enjoyed an 8-day road trip through five states, camping in tents all but two nights.

It was an awesome trip, filled with adventure, storms, mosquitoes, friends, historic sites, and quiet moments without cell reception. My next few posts will capture the spirit of each day of our trip. Feel free to ask questions about where we stayed and what we did. There aren't a lot of tent-camping review sites to reference when planning this type of vacation, so I'm happy to offer feedback based on our own experiences.

Day 1: Southeastern Minnesota to Sioux Falls, SD

We made a last minute decision not to visit the Laura Ingalls site in Walnut Grove on our way to Sioux Falls. There are times of year when there's more going on, so we're saving that for another time. That meant we could take a longer morning to load the car and get ready without rushing out early.

Lunch was in Albert Lea, MN, a stop perfectly timed as there was an old car show going on. We enjoyed checking out some of the cars, reminding me of times as a little girl with my dad visiting Cape Cod.

Aside from a quick stop for snacks and drinks, we went straight from Albert Lea and checked in at Big Sioux Recreation Area in Sioux Falls, SD for the night. Big Sioux is tucked behind a newer subdivision with giant power lines running through it. They cater more to RVs than tents, but the few tent sites were conveniently placed around the playground - perfect for kids! I'd feared a lot of late night or early morning noise, but everyone was respectful and we got a good night of sleep.

Sioux Falls itself has a small town feel with trendy elements. The thriving downtown offers delicious independent restaurants, cute shops, and interesting art sculpture. The area is beautiful, peaceful, and seems to be an active community. I may not choose Sioux Falls for a vacation destination, but I'd definitely consider living there.

The first day was pretty uneventful. Aside from clean bathrooms, a nice playground, and a flat partially shaded campsite, Big Sioux was pretty nondescript. We didn't get a chance to explore what else the rec area has to offer, so we'll save that for next time we travel west!

June 2, 2015

Straw Bale Garden for the Win

This is my second year using straw bales for gardening. I've expanded with more bales, plus I'm growing food in dirt beds around the property. The dirt beds received a lot of amendment to make them viable, but I'd say my bales are still the most robust.

Behind the house, there's a small 50 sq ft raised bed. In past years, everything failed. It's packed clay with zero nutrients. So I worked hard to amend the soil to accommodate more root veggies and grow something successfully. This bed houses radishes, beets, carrots, radicchio, mesclun greens, romaine heads, and peas.

The greens are growing strong. I can barely keep up eating enough, so soon they'll be shared with family and friends. The onion tops look healthy (though I doubt I'll see full bulbs at harvest time), and carrots, with some thinning, look healthy. The photo above is early in the season.

The beets grew for two weeks and then disappeared. The radishes looked like they were thriving but in the end, I had two tiny radishes and a bunch of greens. Even with extensive thinning, they just couldn't work with our soil. Root veggies in dirt - not going to happen in my garden.

The bales host several varieties of heirloom, hybrid, and grafted tomatoes, all looking strong and flowering. My peppers are taking some time to grow, but I remember that happening last year. I suspect I'll be flush with jalepenos and sweet bells by August. Unsurprisingly, my cucumbers and zucchini are rocking. This year as bush plants, they're hopefully not going to take over the entire garden.

We have herbs in containers and bales, three containers of potatoes that love all the rain and a very happy set of peas in the bales. Strong corn stalks are thriving on the side of the house near the garlic.

Overall, a very successful year so far, aside from the loss of two root veggies.

April 28, 2015

Class Laundry: Attempting Embroidery

At my daughter's school, families take turns doing the class laundry. Several times a year, we take home a bag of towels and smocks, and Miss P takes care of the load while I supervise. The bag itself usually needs a cleaning too. The teachers hang a tag on the bag to remind parents to bring the bag of clean laundry back on Monday, but after a while, the paper tag gets torn and worn out. I'm sure it's been accidentally washed a few times with the bag.

The tag was on its last legs, so I tried my hand at embroidery over the weekend, copying the paper tag message on cotton. There's a fabric backing as well, to keep the knots in place (hopefully).

It's not my prettiest work, but it does the trick, and now it's attached to the bag, so the laundry bag can get tossed in the wash, tag and all, and hopefully it will last a little longer than the old paper tag.

These are the times I wish for a fancy embroidery machine!

April 19, 2015

English Paper Piecing for Relaxation

a pile of paper-pieced hexagons
A friend recently posted how she embarked on 100 days of Zentangle, which is often used as a stress-reduction or meditative exercise. In high school, my circle of friends often carried around a black pen or Sharpie, producing similar doodles during study hall. We didn't have a name for it, but it seems that pattern doodling is taking off.

As an adult, I haven't been able to get into Zentangle, mainly because I more other artistic or crafting activities more. Last summer, a good friend of my sister-in-law enthusiastically tried to turn me into a knitter. At the time, I thought it was a perfect way to have a portable, repetitive activity for travel, watching TV, or at the playground, but I just couldn't get into it. I found knitting stressful, rather than relaxing. Sometimes I bring a big tote of sewing projects, cutting patterns and basting fabric on hotel room floors, but that's really inconvenient and not so good for playdates and crashing on the couch.

I occasionally quilt, but always have pieced and quilted by machine, thinking hand quilting is too time consuming. It can take 1200+ hours to hand quilt a bed covering. Needlepoint and embroidery came to mind, but I wasn't interested in investing money into supplies for a new hobby. I wanted to try something fairly easy with what I have on hand. Then, I came across a few websites about English Paper Piecing.

English Paper Piecing is a way to produce small fabric shapes that are hand stitched together to make beautiful, complex quilt tops, or other craft projects (bags, placemats, pillows, etc). While, it is very time consuming, producing each piece is rather quick and doesn't require a lot of thought, so there's opportunity for a quick win, a feeling of success immediately.

I don't have a project in mind, which means I'm not worried about how many pieces I need to make or whether they are perfect. I found a pattern that says I'd need 3500 pieces to make a queen quilt, so I'm sure I'll never use these for bedding. It's the simple, repetition that I like. That, and being able to make pieces wherever I am. Just today, I made a few at the mall playspace and then again a few while my daughter was getting washed up for bed.

Right now, I'm making hexagons. It's pretty simple. Here's how:

finished hexagons
I've found there are different approaches to making a hexagon, but this is what works best for me. I printed a few pages of small hexagon shapes (100 of them) and glued the pages to construction paper, cut the little hexagons out. Some people pin the hexagons to fabric, but I just used a glue stick.

Then I loosely cut around each paper, leaving enough fabric to fold over the paper. As long as you have at least 1/4", you'll have enough fabric to work with. No need for perfection here.

Next, fold fabric over one edge, and then another to form a nice corner.

Using needle and thread, stitch through the corner (fabric only, don't stitch the paper), and pull tight. Stitch this same spot a second time to secure. I've read that some people baste through the paper, which I'm sure works just as well, but since I don't feel the urge to pull out the stitches later, I'm happy to make more secure stitches and just avoid the paper.

Stitch the next corner just like you did the first, and continue all the way around. Once you get the hang of it, you can get through each hexagon in about a minute.

TIP: When you're likely to have to knot several times in a sewing session, you can ball up the end of the thread with your fingers. Just kind of rub it around and it will form a simple knot. No tying needed.

When you get back to where you started, just make one last stitch and cut off the rest of the thread. Now you can set this hexagon aside and start another.

Here's what the front looks like:

Since I like to make hexagons on the go, I keep cutouts, thread, needle, and scissors in a bag in my purse. Ignore the big shears. I couldn't find my little clips. I'll use some of the hexagons to make a bag to carry more hexagons. It's kind of fun, relaxing, and not at all stressful.

April 17, 2015

A Recipe for Delicious Meatballs

My daughter is pretty adverse to meat, but when I offer spaghetti for dinner, she'll usually request meatballs. Rather than serve frozen, pre-cooked meatballs, I prefer to make them from scratch. It's pretty easy and you can make a big batch to freeze for later. This way, you pick the meats you like and can adjust the meat-to-bread ratio to taste.

First, gather your ingredients. I try to keep a few containers of chopped veggies in the fridge for moments like this, as a time-saver. If you are starting from whole vegetables, it may take about 10 minutes to prep. If you have pre-chopped vegetables available, you could probably have everything mixed in about 5 minutes if you work quickly.

  • 1 pound ground chuck (or 1/2 lb ground beef and 1/2 lb ground pork)
  • 1 shallot or 1/2 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1-2 carrots, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup spinach, chopped (optional)
  • 1 slice of stale bread
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 eggs, lightly whisked

The Process
  1. In a bowl, mix the shallots, carrots, garlic, cilantro, and spinach.
  2. Cut the bread into small pieces. In the photo above, I used pieces that were too big. You'll want at least half that size or some meatballs may fall apart while simmering.
  3. Add the bread, meat, and egg, and mix everything together. You may need two eggs if you're using lean meat.
  4. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Form golf ball sized meatballs and set aside.
  6. Heat a dutch oven or saucepan with a small amount of oil and brown the meatballs.
  7. Drain excess fat, if you'd like, and add your favorite spaghetti sauce.
  8. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked to at least 160 degrees.
This recipe makes approximately 4 servings.