Thursday, October 26, 2017

Estes Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain drives, yodeling cowboys & ghost sightings

After spending a handful of days near Colorado Springs with my Uncle Jack this September, my family said goodbye to Crockett the dog and Whiskey the horse, crammed ourselves and our luggage into the rental car, and drove the almost-three hours to Estes Park. For the last four nights of our Colorado trip, we hung our hats at the Ridgeview Lodge, a VRBO located within walking distance to downtown Estes. Loved staying there — would absolutely stay again!

En route to Estes, we stopped in Nederland to stretch our legs and enjoy some coffee and pastries. The town is very small, but it's a cute spot to escape the car and walk around for a bit. 

When we got to Estes, we settled into the VRBO, bummed around Elkhorn Ave (the town's main street), and worked up an appetite for an early dinner. We headed for Mary's Lake Lodge, which my dear friend and Estes aficionado, Rachel, had recommended. In fact, we have Rachel to thank for lots of our Estes memories, as they came from her suggestions. So thanks, Rach!

Mary's Lake Lodge was one such suggestion, due to its gorgeous view from the patio and yummy beer list. Mary's did not disappoint — but make sure to bring a jacket. That mountain wind can blow a little chilly around sunset.

After a solid night's sleep, we laced up our boots and headed out for real Rocky Mountain hike. Remember to pack: Water, trail snacks, sunscreen, and layers. Following Rachel's advice for pretty views and relatively-easy walking, we took the trail that hit Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The main parking lot fills up early, but there is overflow parking with shuttles running regularly to the trailhead.

Hands down, this hike was my favorite thing we did in Estes. I can't get over the postcard-perfect views of far-off peaks, shimmering aspens, rushing streams, towering evergreens, and glassy mountain lakes — three of them! It was unreal. I understand now why some people would rather hike alone. The freedom it affords you to just pause and take it all in, to move as fast or as slow from minute to minute, must be nice. I wish I'd had many more minutes on the Emerald Lake trail — but hiking with family isn't so bad either.

Post-hike, we needed a nap. And after a nap, we needed tacos and avocado margaritas from Ed's Cantina & Grill. Tip of the hat to Rachel for telling us about avocado margaritas. They may sound off-putting, but really the avocado just brings a creaminess to a blended marg that's a little bit of heaven. Our favorite tacos: pork with grilled pineapple salsa — yum!

On our second full day in Estes, after sleeping off the margs, it was time to drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in the U.S. While we could have stopped at the Alpine Visitor Center and turned around, the fam decided to keep on keepin' all the way to Grand Lake — about a two-hour drive from Estes.

We had our sights set on lunch and bopping around another little mountain town. Unfortunately, lunch was just okay and the whole main street was under noisy construction. C'est la vie! Regardless, Grand Lake itself was gorgeous, and the town was super cute, despite the main drag being blown to smithereens.

After driving back to Estes and succumbing to more naps, it was time for our date with ghostly destiny. My mom booked us a night tour at the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King's The Shining. Was it a super-scary tour? Not really. So if that's your angle, you may be a bit disappointed.

But I'm not someone who gets a pleasant thrill from being scared, so it worked for me that our tour guide was a real hoot. He told some great ghost stories, some firsthand experiences, and let us in on the history of the hotel — all fascinating. I say it's worth the price of admission, even if you don't leave feeling spooked.

Our last day in Estes started with a parade. It was the annual Scottish Irish Highland Festival, and a huge parade of Scottish clans and musicians came bagpiping down Elkhorn Ave for a solid hour or more. The turnout was seriously impressive — who knew such Highland pride existed in the Rockies?

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon lunching and browsing at various shops — candy shops, shops with tourist swag, and my absolute favorite: a coffee and card shop called Inkwell & Brew. I think I could live there very happily. We also stopped at the Rachel-recommended Kind Coffee, an adorable spot with delicious drinks and some of the best pumpkin bread I've ever had.

To cap off our final night in Colorado, things got campy. We'd booked a table at the Lazy B Chuckwagon & Show. What's that? It's a cowboy dinner theater where you eat brisket, pulled pork, baked beans, buttermilk biscuits, baked potatoes, and peaches from a can. The night is emceed by cowboys telling dad jokes, and in the middle of the show you can dress up in cowboy garb and snap some pics.

Told you it was camp! But it was also plenty entertaining. Yes, the jokes were silly and some were at the expense of young whippersnappers (anyone under 35), but the music was legitimately good. The troupe played a slew of cowboy standbys, yodeling, foot-tapping, and fiddling away — with lovely voices to boot. It was pretty remarkable to find such real talent in a cowboy dinner theater — who knew!?

Bottom line, if you can check your pretensions at the door, then the Lazy B is a terrific way to bid a fond farewell to Estes Park. Add it to the memory bank! Happy trails, y'all.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Canyons, mountains, goats & giraffes — and cake! 

Back in September, the family and I had a weeklong date with the wide blue yonder. We spent eight days in Colorado, staying near Colorado Springs with my Uncle Jack — and his horse Whiskey, dog Crockett, and cat Steve — for the front half the trip, then trekking to Estes Park for the tail end.

On our first night in town, we piled into the rental car and drove to Old Colorado City, a charming town on the west side of Colorado Springs. There's a quaint main street, Colorado Avenue, lined with boutiques, galleries, and watering holes. We bopped around for a bit before heading to the evening's main event: the Sky Sox.

The baseball game was a hoot, mainly because my Uncle Jack is one of those uncles with a seemingly never-ending stash of antics. As my brother Kevin pointed out though, whoever built the little stadium got it all wrong — the view from the bleachers faces the parking lot, not the mountains. Welcome to Colorado, hope you didn't want to look at it! Food and drink, as one might expect at a ballpark, is overpriced. But despite the lack of view or affordable eats, we enjoyed ourselves, and the crowd sure got into it.

On Day Two, we hit up Castlewood Canyon State Park. We hiked the trails, stopped in the shade to share snacks, water, and reapply sun screen, and even got to freak out with fellow hikers over a rattlesnake sighting.

Speaking of being spooked by the local wildlife, have you ever seen a wolf spider? I have. Cross my heart, it was the size of a mouse. This one was sitting on Uncle Jack's front stoop one night. The shrieking that ensued (from all members of my family), Uncle Jack fumbling for the keys to get in the front door, my dad eventually whacking said wolf spider with a broom — it was a truly slapstick, hysterical scene. But only because we lived to tell the tale. 

Day Three was actually Labor Day, and we decided to spend it with pizza in Idaho Springs and a winding drive up to the top of Mount Evans. We first tried going to Echo Lake, but the parking lot was full, so we were outta luck. Next time: Go early. Really early.

We consoled ourselves with pizza at Beau Jo's — pizza everyone on the interweb raves about. We left feeling that the pizza was good, not great. The big selling point is that the thick crust becomes a breadstick that you can dip in honey. Perhaps a novel idea on paper, but...Shrug! Call me when there's cheese in the crust!

After pizza, we wound our way up to the top of Mount Evans, the kids in one car, Uncle Jack and my parents in another. Though we spied scary-beautiful views and a family of mountain goats en route, the drive sadly did not agree with my mom. A note on elevation: Stay mega hydrated and take preventative Ibuprofen. Even still, Mom was a trooper and found her smile for the family portrait.

Day Four was a big one. We started at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, then climbed the Will Rogers Shrine, then ate life-changing almond cake, then toured the Cave of the Winds, then finally basked in the golden hour at Garden of the Gods.

The zoo is pretty amazing, as it's set in the mountains. The highlight, hands down, was feeding the giraffes. What a goofy-looking bunch of flirts! Can we do this every day?

A trip to the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun is actually included in the cost of zoo admission, so you'd be a dope not to take a short jaunt up the hill to the lookout tower. The view is worth it, and the tower is surrounded by a sea of trees and wildflowers.

When you're hungry for lunch in Colorado Springs, I can tell you this much: Go to Shuga's. It's where we dined after the Will Rogers Shrine and sweet heavens, it was divine. The place itself oozes eclectic charm, and the offerings leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed at all the deliciousness available to you.

For drinks, we went for ginger lemonade, sweet mint iced tea, a strawberry lemon fizz, and a coconut ginger fizz. And there were about ten other equally tasty-sounding sippers on the menu. For food, we mostly got sandwiches — mine was the Phellini with tomato, goat cheese, and basil pesto on grilled rosemary bread. More please! And I couldn't say no to the house-made almond cake, which truly changed my life. I will find a copycat recipe, and that recipe and I will live happily ever after.

After lunch we drove over to the Cave of the Winds, which was nice enough, but a little pricy if you ask me. Also, I think maybe I'm just not really a cave girl — not when there are mountains and open sky to be seen above ground. But if caves are your thing, then you'd probably get a kick out of the Cave of the Winds.

Our final stop of the day was Garden of the Gods, where majestic red rock formations shoot out of the ground. It's like you've landed on another planet. Seeing them silhouetted in the dramatic, golden lighting of a sunset sky only amped up the otherworldly experience.

I would recommend visiting the Garden at magic hour for sure — but I'd also say you could easily spend a handful of hours walking around and taking it all in. While the paths are paved and very family-friendly, you can also go off-roading and climb some (not all) of the formations themselves. The Garden of the Gods was a seriously awe-inspiring way to end our stay in Colorado Springs. Next stop: Estes Park! 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Florentine Opera presents "The Merry Widow"

Lehár's delightful operetta romances Milwaukee 

As a sometimes-self-identifying Millennial, it may come as little surprise that opera is relatively new territory for me. I’ve grown up as a lover of musical theater, but classic opera is a whole other ball o’ wax. Mainstream media doesn’t exactly drop Verdi, Mozart, Lehár, or even Gilbert & Sullivan into one’s lap. I’ve had to seek out the experience of opera, going into it knowing that there’s a risk involved. A risk of disappointment and of the experience affirming what current trends seem to have decided for me: that opera’s rightful place is in the past. 

But thanks to Milwaukee’s splendid operatic offerings, I can now trumpet what I've experienced firsthand: that opera doesn’t have to be a dated, stuffy, or dying artform. If done well, classically-performed opera can move, excite, and delight today’s audiences — and that’s exactly what’s happening with the Florentine Opera Company’s production of Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Founded in 1933, the Florentine Opera Company is Wisconsin’s oldest professional performing arts organization and the sixth-oldest opera company in the U.S. Every year, the company stages three grand productions at the Marcus Center in downtown Milwaukee, while also performing more intimate engagements in nearby Riverwest. The Merry Widow indeed falls on the grand end of the scale, with stunning Art Nouveau set design, lavish costumes, heavenly voices, and a thoughtful collaboration with the Milwaukee Ballet for both dancing and orchestral accompaniment. 

I’m personally wired to be partial to any narrative that takes place in Paris, and The Merry Widow does one better: it’s set in the Golden Age of Maxim’s with that idyllic “vie Parisienne.” Turn-of-the-century Paris is, in our collective nostalgia, a time of easy romance, the ruffled whirl of Can-Can skirts, and coquettish women in feathered hats & harem pants. What makes the Florentine’s Merry Widow so successful, before the singers even open their mouths, is the way in which this French essence springs to life on stage. In each of the opera’s three acts, eye-popping scenic and costume confections keep the audience riveted.

And then those aforementioned singers do open their mouths, and the sounds sweep you away all the more to another time and place — a time where the titular merry widow, Hanna, played by the radiant Alyson Cambridge, has inherited 20 million from her deceased husband and is now the most sought-after woman in all of Paris. The story is one of love and folly — one of those rather silly, surface-level comedies of will-they-won’t-they end up happily ever after. The music matches the story, with gorgeous arias, stirring duets, and jolly ensemble pieces to draw plenty of laughs. Cambridge embodies the effervescent widow, her eyes dancing as she delivers breathtaking notes of music with palpable magnetism. 

But I didn’t necessarily find myself lost in the particular woes and wishes of the characters themselves. Rather, I found the trick lies in allowing yourself to be caught up in the overall romance of the experience. It’s said that the Bel-canto style of singing — what the average ear thinks of as that classic, soaring, operatic tone — is all about the sensuous beauty of the human voice, and not “truth of expression.” That is to say: annunciation.

There’s a reason why even an opera performed in English, such as The Merry Widow, also has supertitles flashing on a screen above the stage. I admit, at first I found it rather distracting. They’re singing in English — shouldn’t I be able to understand it? I kept glancing at the supertitles and missing the nuance on stage, unsure as to what was more important — the content of the lyrics or the actors’ delivery. 

I eventually landed on delivery as a way to embrace the bel-canto singing model and appreciate the sounds in all their beauty, rather than in their ability to perfectly narrate the story. Dance interludes performed by members of the Milwaukee Ballet also served to pace the singing, adding another layer of enjoyment to the evening. I left The Merry Widow feeling light and, well, merry — a testament to the Florentine Opera’s mission: “If our song has stopped one heart from aching we have not lived in vain.” 

*Photos courtesy of Kathy Wittman

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bayfield, Wisconsin

Family vacation, Fall 2017

My family's yearly trip to Bayfield on Lake Superior always feels like coming home. We know the shoreline, the main street, the walking paths, the eateries — they're comforting, familiar, and constant. We've been lucky that what changes are made to the town feel small and not earth-shattering. I mean, there's still no stoplight in Bayfield, and I pray it stays that way forever. 

Of all things, the Bayfield restaurant scene (that's a generous term!) is the one that's been growing and evolving in recent years — and that's something I can't complain about. We finally tried the relatively-new Fat Radish for dinner, and the place charmed us so, we also came back for breakfast. At dinner, we enjoyed a mix of trout tacos, pork skewers, macaroni & cheese, and fish chowder — all scrumptious. Note to self for next year: Go for a fish dinner instead of the tacos, just to switch it up. 

For breakfast, it was buttermilk pancakes (a crowd favorite), a breakfast grilled cheese oozing with greasy goodness, and simple eggs, toast, and winning house-made sausage. We joked that maybe next year we should only eat at The Fat Radish — but it wasn't really a joke. I think we found our new favorite spot.

We also stopped at our old stand-by, Maggie's, for Sunday night dinner. On Sundays, lots of places are closed in Bayfield, so you have to plan accordingly. Maggie's has a funky-kitchsy atmosphere that we love, but you gotta trust me when I say: Stick to the pizza and the burgers. And know that even those might clock in just a notch above pretty good. "Why do we keep coming here?" we asked ourselves. Because: flamingos & tradition. 

Another new tradition may be pizza from the Manypenny Bistro, formerly the Broad Street Eatery. This year we sat in the drafty diner-inspired space; next year I vote we get pizza to-go and chow down over a board game. I'm also hopeful that Big Water Coffee Roasters will be back up and running by next fall, as we greatly missed their hot chocolate this time around. 

Okay, so foodstuffs change, but walking paths and apple orchards stay the same! We love driving over to Erickson Orchard to pick up fresh cider, warm apple donuts, and bags upon bags of cinnamon apple chips. Then, to walk off all the eats, we head to the Brownstone Trail, Iron Bridge path, and even just wander the hilly streets in town. Bayfield has more of a New England vibe than a northwoods vibe, with lots of cute houses to peep and scenic views to snap. 

When in town, we always have to bop into our favorite haunts — shops that have been there for as long as I can remember. There's Roxanne's, a gift shop with a bunch of nothing, but my mom has to go in as a matter of principle. Sweet Sailing is where we stock up on saltwater taffy, sea salt caramel fudge, raspberry honey mustard, and mulling spices. There are also art galleries like Stone's Throw. But my favorite gift shop is the Scandinavian Joanne's, where I splurged on a red tea pot this year — eep! 

I could ramble on and on about Bayfield and why I love it so. But the reality is, I'm sure I love it mostly because, as I said, it feels like home. Is the average Wisconsinite going to geek out over apple chips, a short woodsy walk under a big iron bridge, or pretty-good burgers at place festooned with pink flamingos? Probably not. But we all have our thing — our home-away — that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. Bayfield is my warm & fuzzy. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ghostbusters costume DIY

Who ya gonna call? This other guy 

To be specific, call the talented guy at Primer, the site my resourceful brother referenced when he made bomb ass Ghostbusters costumes for himself and his friends. (Yep, you're reading a blog post touting someone else's blog post — welcome to Inception.)

Or if you're like me and enjoy being the one person in the group who gets easily overwhelmed and can't commit to being a Ghostbuster, you can always run around Milwaukee to shops like Dime a Dance, Luv UnlimitedAntiques on Pierce, and Purple Velvet Vintage in search of a blazer circa the 1980s (Antiques on Pierce for the win!). 

Once you find said blazer & some jumbo eyeglass frames, toss your hair into an up-do, perfect your "GHOSTBUSTERS, WHADDAYA WANT?" — and voila! You are Janine, the Ghostbusters' secretary. Happy Halloween costume hunting friends! 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Next Act Theatre presents "Silent Sky"

Exploring life, legacy & where we are 

Imagine a time in the not-too-distant past — just over 100 years ago — when all we knew was our galaxy‚ our Milky Way. Imagine life before the unfathomable, infinite chasm of space. Nowadays we talk about the possibility of extraterrestrial life; then, they were still mapping the stars and calculating distance to try and determine where our small blue planet is spinning in the grand scheme of things. 

With Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky, the Next Act Theatre invites us, for a couple of hours, to orient ourselves in a place and time before the 1990 Hubble telescope, before the 1969 moon landing, before the first rocket launch in 1926, and before Edwin Hubble proved the vastness of galaxies far beyond our own in 1923. It's here that we meet mathematician and aspiring astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, played by the always-brilliant Deb Staples. 

The scene is set in the early-1900s Harvard Observatory, where stoic professors peer through their telescope while a team of female "computers" do the busy work of mapping the stars. Henrietta is one such computer, but her insatiable curiosity and passion to discover "where we are" spurs her own research. It's as Carl Sagan said: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," and though Henrietta doesn't know what that something is, she burns midnight oil for years in search of the truth.

But Sagan also said that, "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." Is it possible to find fulfillment solely in grand, cosmic work? Where do personal intimacy and love fit into the equation for a history-maker like Henrietta Leavitt? Perhaps fostering meaningful relationships and truly living, rather than just observing, offers a different kind of truth. 

To me, there's ample truth on display at Next Act's Silent Sky — the first being the aforementioned brilliance of Deb Staples. With her electric essence and singular ability to transfix audiences, whether by a simple glance or an awe-inspiring monologue, Ms. Staples' spirit and transportive ability is reason enough to see Silent Sky.

Alongside Deb Staples, Next Act has assembled a glorious cast of characters. There's Karen Estrada as Margaret, Henrietta's sympathetic sister and foil, Carrie Hitchcock as the lovable, tough-as-nails Annie Cannon, and Kelly Doherty as the warmly cheeky Williamina. These ladies share a chemistry that's delightful to behold, and knowing they represent real women who achieved great things in a man's world circa 1900 — it's all the more inspiring. 

We're shown over the course of Silent Sky that, when what you do outlasts you, that is star stuff; that's what makes a legacy. Mapping the stars led to the discovery of galaxies, a rocket launch, a man on the moon, a telescope in orbit, and who knows what next. These real-life astronomers planted seeds that grew into mighty oaks. In their own way, this remarkable Next Act ensemble is sowing their own sort of legacy right here in Milwaukee. 

Silent Sky is playing at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre now through October 22nd. Info and tickets at