In the Kuna household the Christmas season brings more than sweet treats and gifts, it brings my two college-aged daughters back to Naperville. For a few short weeks, our family is reunited, and family seems as it should be.
Our Kathryn returns from her college in the Southwest, our Grace comes back from hers in the Midwest. It is always exciting to see how they have changed, but it is more rewarding to witness that deep down, they are the same beautiful people that left us in the fall.
Old traditions, like Cooking With Dad Thursday resume and new traditions form. This year our Kathryn introduced us to “The Great British Baking Show,” which she reports as popular among her peers. She convinced Grace to watch it, then Julie, then me, then Will; we were all hooked.
The show is of the reality TV variety with a format that consists of 12 amateur bakers who are challenged with three difficult tasks and then judged on their efforts. All of the contestants are very experienced bakers, and to make things interesting, they are given short time limits that push them to be as productive and efficient as possible. Under such pressure, the results range from outstanding to disastrous. In reality TV tradition, one baker is eliminated every week, and one gains the exclusive title of, Star Baker. The difference between this show and a typical Food Network contest is that everyone is civil. The bakers help each other, and the leaving baker gets hugs instead of insults.
Kathryn returned to school, but Grace’s holiday continued, which opened up the opportunity for the two of us to have an adventure or two.
“Dad, let’s make Macarons,” Gracie said. After a moment I responded, “OK, but I don’t think that I ever tasted one.” “That’s OK, we can figure it out together,” commented Grace. Not that many years ago I didn’t even know what a Macaron was and when they started to become popular, I thought that people were talking about Macaroons, the sweet soft coconut lump cookies that you can buy in the cookie aisle; now we were going to make them! Grace was quick to find an “Easy Macaron Recipe” on the Internet, and I said that we could give it a shot after lunch.
When I was growing up one of my favorite memories was sitting with my mom and watching The French Chef on Saturday afternoons. I liked the fact that I was doing something with my mom, but I also loved the way that Julia Childs approached cooking. She was precise and scientific in her approach, and her methodology was something that I could admire. She did things for a reason, and she understood what that reason was. My mom never made a recipe featured in the show, but I have used the cooking knowledge that I gained from viewing it my entire life.
“Let’s look at the recipe,” I said. We were lacking in a number of the things necessary to complete our task. “Almond flour, I wonder where we get that,” I said. “Let’s try the Jewel,” Grace responded. “We also have to get some pastry tips and a sieve. Hmm, it says that the eggs have to be room temperature. I remember that from watching, The French Chief. I also remember that we can’t use a plastic bowl when we beat the egg whites because even a trace of oil will prevent them from forming peaks,” After a few more moments of pondering I said. “Let’s go shopping!”
We figured that the closest place that would have special baking equipment was Michael’s, and that was our first stop. We found the baking aisle, and we were confronted by a wall of pastry tips, coloring gels, and silicone baking mats. Neither of us knew what to buy. I decided to go with plastic pastry tips, as they were less expensive and I wasn’t sure if this macaron experience would be of the “one and done” variety. In addition to our piping equipment, we opted to get some food coloring gels to use instead of regular food coloring as it seemed more bake-worthy for such an exotic treat.
Our next stop was the Jewel. We entered the baking aisle, and I was astounded to find that they actually had two different brands of almond flour. I have been down baking aisles hundreds of times, and I have never seen this stuff. I guess my brain has always been in selective filtering mode. We went down another aisle and I grabbed an overpriced sieve.
Now back home, and I was on the hunt for the Kitchenaid’s whisk attachment. I found its hiding place in a bottom cupboard, and we assembled our tools and ingredients for the task at hand. With 4 eggs reaching room temperature we decided to reconvene in 30 minutes.
Step-by-step we followed the recipe, and although we had never made macarons, instructions are instruction. “Let me show you how to fold the flour into the egg whites without deflating them,” I instructed Gracie; another lesson from Julia Child. I added what seemed to be a tiny dot of blue coloring gel, and the cookie dough became the color of denim jeans. Note to self: food coloring gel is potent stuff!
We did our best to pipe out the batter into neat circles, but it was clear that our “star” tip was inadequate for the task. Since we had no other option, we pushed forward hoping for the best, but willing to accept the worst. Into a 300F oven our little cookies went, then cooled, then filled with buttercream icing.
They certainly did not look like the ones we saw on TV. They tasted OK, but we wondered if they tasted like macarons, as neither of us had ever eaten one before. The next day Julie answered the latter question by purchasing 3 cookies, each a different flavor at the Standard Market. Those cookies looked perfect, and they had just the right amount of filling. I was shocked that she paid almost $5 for three of them, and did a quick mental calculation on what a dozen would cost. At least we now had an idea of what macarons should look and taste like. Five dollars was the price paid to acquire information to improve our next macaron bake.
Yesterday I was driving Grace back to college. As we drove we talked through a research paper that she was reading on a mutation of an adenovirus strain. Reading a research paper is not that different from reading a recipe. In both instances, you needed to know the lingo first before you can understand the content.
She is going to participate in a research project next semester and she will be doing lab research on adenoviruses. I told her that baking and running experiments are very similar. Methodology and accuracy in both are critical if you want to get reproducible results. “Learn your protocol, refine your method, and repeat. That’s all there is to it.” I advised.
My friend Tom often teases me when I ask him why he is using a specific tool, or why he is approaching a construction project in a particular way. “Mike, this is useless knowledge for you, you will never use it.” I feel that all knowledge can be useful or useless. It is up to the end user of that knowledge to determine its utility. I have never acquired a piece of information that I felt was useless. It is all useful, I just haven’t used it all yet!
Julia Child helped me be not only a better baker but also a better research scientist. Understanding science has made me a better cook. Circular, no?
In 1961 we lived in a neighborhood called Gage Park. Gage Park is a blue-collar community on Chicago’s Southwest Side that consists of small, tightly spaced bungalows that are placed on narrow lots in tidy rows.
Like most Chicago neighborhoods we had our own busy shopping streets, which were located down the alley from our house. They consisted of two blocks along 55th street which were bisected by California Avenue.
Grocerland Foods, Wooley’s Five and Ten, the Cinderella Beauty Shop, Reck’s Hardware, Amoco Gas, Walgreens Drug Store, the Pixie Shoppe, plus restaurants, a branch library, and, of course, several bars. This type of local shopping is typical for Chicago, which was built on the neighborhood concept. You could buy anything that you needed without the benefit of a car. It was common for my mother to send me to the grocer to buy food for dinner, or for me to walk to the branch library to research a school topic.
My sister Nancy was in the 7th grade at St. Clare De Montefalco school in 1961 and spent a lot of her free time hanging out with her girlfriends. On a fall day, she was walking with two of them westward on busy 55th street towards California Avenue. Suddenly she heard screeching tires and honking horns. She looked up to see a jet black creature running across the street, clearly terrified and confused. She looked again and saw that the little beast was a puppy. She went into rescue mode.
The three girls coaxed the puppy to them and hatched a plot. This little puff ball needed a home. Nancy’s friend, Nancy Klimczak was the first to claim her. She pleaded her case to her mother, but it fell on deaf ears. They moved on to their backup plan.
My mother was in our kitchen wearing the mom uniform of the day, a housedress. For those of you who are unaware a house dress is a casual dress that is often in a small floral pattern. It is structureless, loose fitting, and has ample pockets making it both comfortable and practical. A housedress is usually pulled on over the head allowing a mom to get dressed in 10 seconds flat.
My mother was cooking dinner, and I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her work. I was eight years old at the time.
Nancy entered the kitchen through the backdoor. She appeared to be in a panic. My mother looked up at her and Nancy started to speak in a rushed, compelling way. “She would have been killed if we didn’t save her. She is so cute, and she is only a puppy. She looks hungry and afraid. Can we keep her?” “Absolutely not!” my mother said. We had several attempts at adopting strays, and they all had been disastrous. I recall one instance of my mother chasing a crazed dog who was running in circles around our dining room table.
Nancy moved into tears mode. “Please, Please! I’ll use my allowance to buy her dog food. I get up early every morning to let her out. I’ll walk her every day. You won’t have to do anything. You won’t even know that she is here.” My mother could not resist my sister’s tears. “We can try, but that dog is on 90-day probation, and she has to stay in the basement, she is not allowed in the rest of the house! If anything happens, she goes…understood?” Nancy replied, “Of course, thank you! You won’t regret this.”
With my mom’s OK the little puppy became part of our family. In 24 hours, her domain went from the basement to the entire house. Sweet and smart, she was easy to love, and she had only one bad habit, barking. When anyone would approach the house she would start a rapid staccato, “Wow wow wow, wow, wow,” until she felt that the perimeter was secure. My father hearing this said we should call her Wowser and the name stuck, at least temporarily. Soon Wowser became Bowser, a boy dog name for a girl dog.
Bowser grew to be a medium-sized dog, black with a white chest and some white markings on her nose and paws. Being a mutt, her lineage was unknown, but she appeared to be part Border Collie and part Cocker Spaniel. She instantly bonded to my mother, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear my mom shout “Bowser!” because she had once again tripped over her.
Bowser’s passion was chocolate, and we often gave her little pieces of the tasty stuff. This was before anyone knew that chocolate could kill a dog, and thankfully Bowser was never worse for her indulgences. If I wanted her to come running all I had to shout was, “Chocolate,” and she would soon be at my side. In those days you could find chocolate scented dog toys, including ones that were rubberized versions of favorite candy bars.
In high school, my sister Nancy was dating a boy named Jim Brown. At Easter, Jim gave her her very own Easter Basket. This was a first as at our home we all had to share one basket, and my two brothers usually got all of the good candy. We were heading out to church, and Nancy decided to hide her basket under the bed, and away from my brothers. When we arrived back home, we were all confused as we saw shredded silver foil all over the house. Suddenly, Nancy screamed; Bowser had found her basket and proceeded to eat its entire contents. The foil was from Hershey Kisses’ wrappers that were licked completely clean of any chocolate residue.
Once when we were camping my mother tied Bowser to a small folding table and then went to the camp’s community bathroom. After a short time, she heard shouts coming from the other stalls. The source? Bowser had found her way into the bathroom and was dragging leash and table. Being a logical dog, she was going stall to stall to find my mom, much to the chagrin of other women who were using the facilities. Once found, Bowser was at peace. My mother commented “That dog!” but she was charmed by her efforts.
It is human nature to think that our kids and pets are the smartest, and I felt Bowser was pretty quick. She seemed to understand complex language. Bowser loved my mother, but hated baths. She was resting under an end table in the living room when my mother sweetly called to her from the basement. “Bowser, where are you?” Bowser tore through our shotgun-style house towards the basement stairs which were located at its back. I was next to the stairs when she arrived, and in a flat monotone I said to her, “She is going to give you a bath.” Bowser stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and ran back under the table. I was amazed that she understood what I was saying. My mother was less amazed by my actions.
Although Bowser’s primary loyalty was towards my mother, she had plenty of love to go around. For me, she was my family connection. My siblings were doing their thing. My parents were older and had already raised four other kids. Bowser was my friend and confidant. When I was having a bad day, she would sit with me. When I needed someone to talk to, she would listen. When I was cold, she would warm me up. The bond that I felt for her was great, and that bond continued as long as she was alive.
I was away at college, and my parents said that they were coming up to see me to take me out to dinner. This was highly unusual, and I was pretty excited. They also told me that my two maiden aunts, Mary and Lill, were coming along. I liked my aunts and I was amazed at my good fortune.
My parents arrived with my aunts, and we all went out to eat at “The Junction,” a family-style restaurant decorated in a train theme. Just as the food arrived my mother blurted out, “We put Bowser down.” My father must have noticed the horrified look on my face and started to spurt justifications, “That damn dog couldn’t hold her urine. Her breath smelled terrible. Mike Lawler (my brother-in-law) held her when we took her to get the shot, and he said her breath made him sick.” Dear reader, these are not the right things to say to someone who just lost one of their very best friends.
I was trapped. My parents knew that I wouldn’t make a scene with my two aunts present. That is why they brought them along. However, it was a terrible time for me. I couldn’t express my grief. I couldn’t express my anger. I couldn’t eat. I had to make polite conversation. I was dying inside.
I remained upset about that incident for years, but I couldn’t understand why. Deep down I knew that Bowser was old and that the quality of her life was no longer good. She was a proud dog, and I am sure that she was embarrassed by her inability to control her bodily functions.
Eventually, I figured out why I remained so upset. Once again, other’s feelings were more important than mine. My parents wanted to do the right thing by telling me, but they didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of their disclosure. On some level, I understood this and gave them exactly what they wanted from me, no grief, no anger, just polite conversation. They got to go home feeling like they were good parents, I once again had to deal with my sadness alone.
Events like this have strongly impacted me, but not just in a negative way. Knowing my feelings made it possible for me to understand the feelings of others. Recognizing my hurt allowed me to build on my empathic skills. Having such a strong bond with an animal helped me understand that connections in life don’t have to make logical sense to be relevant and important.
We learn by our victories, but we grow by our disappointments. I will never put my children in a position where they feel that they can’t express their anger to me, and so in some way, the restaurant incident made me a better parent.
Every day we are given lessons, we can choose to learn from them, or we can choose to ignore them. I am learning every day.
By the way, I believe that my sister honored her doggie obligations for less than a week. Bowser was fed, and cared for by my mom. No surprise, I know.
I grew up in a 1920s style bungalow before living in such a house was chic. My parents moved into our Chicago home on Francisco Avenue in 1951 and did a minimal amount of redecorating at that time. Interestingly, most of that work actually destroyed some of the house’s natural charm. For instance, the living room fireplace and its two companion stained glass windows were removed to make that room more modern.
The kitchen had undergone the most basic of renovations then and remained the same until we moved to the suburbs almost 25 years later. The floor was redone in red and green tiles that were arranged in a checkerboard fashion, and one wall received “tile work” from its baseboard to its midpoint. The “tiles” were, in fact, a single sheet of linoleum that was molded into a yellow square tile pattern. An example of remodeling on a minimal budget.
My memories of the kitchen are from the 1960s, and at that point, the prior effort to update it just added to its hodgepodge appearance. By then the floor tiles were dull and broken, and the linoleum wall was aged and worn. Against that wall was a 1950s style chrome kitchen table with matching tube chairs. Its grey Formica top had the look of one from an old diner booth, with parts of the surface rubbed off after thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Above the table was a small cheap wall lamp, which was secured by a single screw 2 feet above the faux tiles. The room was illuminated by a bare circular fluorescent ceiling light that gave the space a cold bluish tinge. Directly across from the table was a white freestanding cabinet, its surface enameled steel. On top of the cabinet was an old Sunbeam Mixmaster that my mother used every day to bake the family a variety of treats. To the right of the table was a farm style sink with a built in drainboard. It was mounted to the wall and supported by two cylindrical porcelain legs. The old vessel had a worn down finish. Across from the sink was our single door Coldspot fridge and our Crown gas range, both purchased when my parents moved into the home in 1951.
The Crown range was a point of displeasure for my mother, who was a skilled cook and baker. My father purchased it without her approval, and it was apparently the lines “base” model. It was a 36” wide appliance finished in basic white. Its enamel backsplash featured a small clock in its center that had long ago lost the ability to keep time. The front of the range was split in half, but instead of featuring two side-by-side ovens, it only had one. The other side was for pot storage.
The top four burners were lit by two pilot lights, perpetually burning gas during a time when natural resources were cheap and endless. Its surface scratched by a past run-in with a steel wool pad.
Lighting the oven was not for the faint of heart as the operator had to turn on the gas, light a match, and insert the match into a little hole on the oven’s floor. Being late for even a second would cause a giant whoosh of flames and heat.
The over-temperature was always off by 25 degrees on the Crown, and we all knew to make the correct adjustment. Being the base model, its walls were not adequately insulated causing it to bake unevenly, which was my mother’s chief complaint, the other being the oven’s small size.
The stove had significant imperfections, but it worked. It was the heart of our kitchen, and the kitchen was the heart of our home. There was always a supply of fresh percolator coffee on the stovetop and some sort of freshly baked treat from the oven. Family, relatives, and friends gathered in the kitchen to sit on the old chrome chairs and sip, eat, and talk.
I bought my Naperville home in 1989, and I was fortunate that the prior owner left a stove and fridge. There was nothing wrong with these appliances, but I wanted something more modern, and after a few years I moved them to the basement to be replaced with expensive stainless steel ones.
The cheap appliances from my parents home never failed and never needed repair. Such was not the case of my shiny new appliances. The fridge received many service calls, and the gas stove’s burners lost their ability to be adjusted. After about 8 years both had to be replaced, which prompted a trip to the appliance department at Sears.
I had been playing around with a tabletop induction burner, and I was dazzled by its utility. I knew that I wanted that technology in my new stove. The salesman at Sears pointed me in the right direction, and after an hour of exploration I pulled out my charge card and made my purchases. A Samsung fridge with French doors and a Kenmore Elite range that had both an induction cooktop and a convection oven.
The Samsung fridge turned out to be a nightmare, it was so over-engineered that it constantly broke down. I replaced it with a similar model from Whirlpool last year. The ranged faired better and sealed my love for induction cooking. However, its oven was less reliable, and the unit had a catastrophic failure last month. The stove cost over $2500 when I purchased it 9 years earlier, and now it was heading for a landfill.
My shopping habits have changed in the last decade and with Julie’s OK I bought the new stove online from Costco, based only on pictures and reviews. Being so cavalier with such a significant purchase would have been unimaginable in the past.
On Monday a delivery man took away the Kenmore and installed our new GE stove. It is similar to the Kenmore, but it has few features added, and a few others were taken away. Its backsplash is filled with computerized controls; I now look at such functions as future repairs rather than modern marvels.
My kitchen’s appearance is very different from the one that I grew up in. Modern and efficient, it has every cooking convenience that a chief could want. Instead of a percolator, we have both a Bunn drip pot and a Keurig single serve unit. Instead of a Formica and chrome table, we have one made of real wood. Granite countertops and cherry wood cabinets sit in for my parents’ old enamel one. A deep under-the-counter stainless steel sink takes the place of my parent’s worn farmhouse unit. The recessed lights in the ceiling number 12, and give off a warm and welcoming glow. The floor consists of oak planks instead of worn and broken asbestos tiles. A fancy light fixture from Pottery Barn defines the dining space in place of the dimestore wall lamp that my parents used.
My kitchen is different from the one that I grew up with, but it also very similar. Despite 60 years of separation it still has to serve the same function as the one that my mother cooked in. It also serves the same social functions that my parent’s kitchen did. It is a gathering place for my family, relatives, and friends. There we eat, we talk, we plan, we play games, we entertain. I could comfortably live without our living room, but I would be lost without our kitchen.
Shiny and modern, my kitchen should be advanced in every way from my childhood one, but it is not. Although my parents had imperfect appliances, they worked for decades. Their oven may have been off by 25 degrees, but it never faltered beyond that value. The freezer compartment in their fridge may have been small and frosty, but we never worried that our ice cream would be melted.
My complex new appliances promise fancy advances, most of which I will never use. The new stove is more computer than a cooker. I had to read the manual twice just to understand how to set its digital clock. Yes, my fridge and stove are more energy efficient, but what does that really mean to me and to the environment when I have to replace a costly unit every 7 to 10 years. Planned obsolescence is good for manufacturing companies but bad for everyone else.
I live in 2019, not in 1950 and I have to accept the reality of early appliance demise. However, I can also celebrate advances that range from practical convection cooking to silly wifi connectivity. Our new stove has both, and to initiate it to our kitchen my daughter, and I baked 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. We were both pleased with how the new oven worked. However, you may want to check back with me 7 or 8 years from now as it is likely that I will once again be in the market for a new one. That is if it lasts that long.
Stop over sometime for a cup of coffee and some homemade bread with jam. The coffee pot is always on, and the conversation is always flowing. Some things never change.
“Do you want to do it?” I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I think so. You only live once, right?”
My campervan was mostly complete, and I had already had taken it to Colorado and Missouri on separate trips, but those trips were during warmer weather.
Tom’s son wanted to go camping sometime in January, and Tom was inviting me along. This would be more of an experience than an actual trip, and we would be spending only one night in the cold. The destination, Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Tom has a fondness for Devil’s Lake, it is a beautiful park; its centerpiece being the lake which is surrounded by high bluffs.
After Christmas Tom told me that he decided to go up on New Year’s Eve. I had a concern about this date as I thought that many services could be closed, but it sounded exciting and fun. Besides, we had unseasonably mild weather, so how bad could it be?
The other concern was my homefront. I knew that Julie wouldn’t mind me going on a camping trip, but on this one, I would be away from her on holiday. With that said, I’m usually in bed by 11 PM on New Year’s Eve. I’m hardly a party animal. I asked for her thoughts she said she didn’t mind it if I went.
My friend Tom had to work the morning of the trip, and he suggested that I go up early to secure a campsite. Tom imagined a party like atmosphere with the campground filled to the brim with happy campers excited to bring in the new year, and he wanted to make sure that we had a spot. Only one of the park’s multiple campgrounds is open year round, and that one didn’t take reservations.
Traveling the 3 hours to Baraboo WI solo was not an option for me. In the summer of 2017, we traveled separately to the same campground. I got turned around and wound up at a different site at the opposite end of the park. T-mobile cellular service at Devil’s Lake was almost non-existent, and it was nearly impossible for me to reach Tom. He had arrived hours earlier with both his son and my son. Eventually, we connected which is when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full. Exhausted from a full day of work and a drive to Wisconsin, I loaded William into my car and drove 3 hours home. It was not a warm and fuzzy memory.
I still have some finishing touches to do on my campervan, but it is functional. However, I had removed most of its storage boxes, as we were in the process of building out a large container that would reside under the camper’s platform bed. I debated if I wanted to return the contents to the camper. After all, I was only going for a day. At the last minute, I tossed the bins into the van. “Better safe than sorry,” I thought.
We left together, me in my campervan and Tom and his son in his 4×4 Dodge Ram dually. It was around 35 F, and it was lightly raining. We started our drive north, and the rain got progressively worse. I kept looking at the outside temperature readings on my Promaster’s dash. Thirty-five degrees, then 34F, then 33F, then the dreaded 32F. Thirty-two degrees, the point where rain turns to sleet. Thirty-two degrees, when the wet pavement turns to black ice. Initially, the van seemed to handle the change in conditions, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
We turned off the Interstate and onto a county road. Google maps said we had about 26 miles to go until we reached the park. By that time the sleet had turned to snow, and it was coming down hard. We were on a 4 lane road (two lanes per direction) that was winding up a hill. I could see that Tom was having a bit of trouble as the back of his truck was wiggling. I could feel that my traction was also slipping. There was no option, so we moved on.
As we turned a curve, the traffic suddenly slowed down to a near stop. In the middle of the right lane was a sedan with its flashers on. I thought that the owner was having car trouble, but I wondered why he had foolishly stopped directly in the middle of the right lane. I drove a little further and saw another car in the right lane, its flashers blinking. Then another, and another. The higher I drove up the hill, the more cars I saw parked in the right lane. I could see Tom’s truck ahead. He was moving forward, but his Ram has 6 tires of traction. The sedan in front of me was lurching forward, sometimes sliding sideways, sometimes almost stalling. I could feel my traction failing, and I started to panic as I imagined having to spend the night in my van as it sat directly in the line of traffic. By some miracle, I made it up the hill, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The road narrowed to a single lane, and the snow continued to fall. It became impossible to determine if I was in the correct lane. I made a conscious effort to stay in the tire tracks that Tom’s truck made, using his four rear tires as my personal snow plow. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was getting dark, my van was struggling, I was feeling sick to my stomach. My doctor’s training has made me good at handling crises, but I was still feeling the stress. I willed myself to move forward.
Tom pulled into the broad entrance to Devil’s Lake State Park, and I followed. The road past the entrance went down at a steep angle and instinct told me that I should stay put. I told Tom that I was not going down. He felt that his 4 wheel drive could do the job and said that he would make the loop drive to explore the park and then come back to pick me up. He gave me an alternative route to the campground, just in case. Time ticked on, and I thought about the possibility of staying put at the entrance for the night. That option would certainly be better than getting stuck in the middle of a road.
Tom returned and said that my van would not have made it down and back. We took the alternate route to the campground. We traveled another quarter mile and took a right turn on an unplowed road with a slight incline. I could see that Tom traction was struggling again and I could feel my van straining. The only way I was able to move forward was by running my engine at 30 miles per hour. This constant acceleration moved the van at a jerking 5 miles per hour. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to stop as I knew that I would not be able to move forward again.
Although we only traveled a few blocks on that road, it seemed like miles. I’m glad that Tom was so familiar with the park, as I would never have seen the entrance to the campground. He pulled in, and I followed. The campground was completely empty, and its roads were unplowed and deep in snow. I thought, “Find a spot close to the entrance,” but he continued to drive as if he was looking for the perfect campsite. He eventually stopped, and so did I. When I tried to move forward again it was clear that I was stuck. Stuck in the middle of the road in an empty campground, and it was definitely getting darker.
I signaled Tom, and he said that he would loop around the campground and come up on my rear. I wasn’t sure what his plan was, but I was grateful that I wasn’t alone. He got back into his pickup and drove out-of-sight. My mind moved into solution mode, and various ideas and contingency plans flooded me in multiple data stream. I wondered if I could rock myself back then forward. I tried to back up, and surprisingly I was able to do this. However, I could not move an inch forward, as the road ahead was on an incline.
I got out of the van and scanned my surroundings. Despite the heavy snow, I could see the boundaries of level places, which were intended for the camper’s cars. I made some quick calculations and came up with a crazy plan to back up my van several hundred yards in reverse and then turn into one of the almost invisible parking slots. If successful I could take that move into a three-point-turn and point my van in the opposite (and downward) direction towards the campground’s entrance. I felt that I had nothing to lose.
I could feel my tires slipping as I started the backup, but I continued. I made another mental calculation and decided that I should be close to a flat spot and quickly turned my wheel to the right as I wanted to keep my momentum. The van tracked into a parking spot, and I had a sigh of relief. After a 10 second pause to catch my anxious breath I shifted the gear selector into drive and gently pressed on the accelerator. The van moved forward!
I was now going downhill and towards the entrance to the park. Tom was nowhere in sight. I could finally see the entrance, and then I saw Tom. He had been delayed because he got stuck and almost slid into a tree.
We were committed to camp, and frankly, we had no other options. Tom pulled into a spot, and I asked him if he would park my van next to his truck. I was exhausted and didn’t need any more challenges.
Tom had brought a wheelbarrow of firewood in the bed of his pickup, and he set about the task of starting a fire with a Bernzomatic torch. While he was doing this, I spotted the sites power pole and wondered aloud if the juice was still on. “They use GFI outlets, why don’t you check,” Tom said. I walked over and lifted the heavy metal shroud that covered the outlets. A tiny green LED blinked back at me. Being a good Eastern European type I had brought enough food for at least two days, now we also had power. I was jubilant. I opened the back of the Promaster and started to search the storage boxes that I had tossed in as an afterthought. Yes, here was the 30 Amp power cord, and there was the 30 Amp extension cord. In another box, I found the $18 little black electric heater that I bought at Walmart months earlier. I called Tom’s son to be my gopher, and in about 5 minutes I had AC power in my camper. I plugged in the little heater and turned it on. The temperature was quickly dropping outside, and I wanted to capture every BTU that I could.
Tom was busy setting up a tripod stand to hold the cast iron Dutch oven that he brought. In it, he had chunks of steak, onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. The fire was now blazing, and he was adjusting a chain that was supporting the Dutch oven. Lower into the flame for hotter, higher away from the flame for colder.
We had food, electricity, some heat, and a fire. I was content and my panic from earlier in the day had washed away. I was now in my 12-year-old boy mode and was feeling like a great explorer in an unknown wilderness. I asked Tom’s son if he wanted to go on an adventure walk with me. He did, our main discovery was that the pit toilets were unlocked! Now we could definitely weather the storm. I had a down coat from Cabela’s, my rubberized Bog boots, and a new pair of fancy Gordini gloves that Julie had given me for Christmas. On my head sat a red stocking cap. Over the hat was my jacket’s hood. The fire plus my outfit kept me surprisingly warm.
The three of us stood, then sat around the fire talking. Despite being an introvert, I have no problem talking to Tom for hours. With that said, I can’t honestly remember much of what we were talking about. That’s the way it sometimes goes with best friends, the contact is more important than the context. At one point Tom decided that he was going to pick up a bottle of wine to help me relax after my harrowing drive. Although I initially protested his plan, I eventually gave in. I am not much of a drinker, and Tom doesn’t drink at all, but he got into his dually and drove to a local gas station that had liquor service. I had seen a plow go down the street in front of the campground and I was anxious to get a road report. If anyone could navigate in the snow, Tom could with his 6 wheels of traction.
Tom return, and I opened the bottle with my Dollar Store corkscrew. I bought it for a $6 camper supply “buying frenzy” several months earlier. I poured some wine into a stainless steel camping mug and took a sip. We continued to talk. Eventually, it was deemed that Tom’s stew was done and he pulled the Dutch oven off the fire. I contributed some paper plates, bread, salt, and a black garbage bag. Not much of a contribution, but at least I felt the I was doing something.
There is nothing quite as delicious as hot food when you are standing out in the cold for hours. I felt like I was dining at a 4-star restaurant. I ask for and received seconds.
Tom’s son was starting to fade and wanted to go to bed. Tom set up a bed in the back seat of his truck’s cab and off he went. Tom and I continued to talk for several more hours as even a single glass of wine can turn me into a philosopher. At some point, I started to talk about the existence of God. Eventually, we both felt the need to call it a night. Tom set up a place in his truck for him, and I fluffed the blankets in my camper van for me. My Walmart heater was definitely warming the van, and I was grateful, as I knew that it was going to drop to 19F during the night. Bedtime, 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.
I can’t say that I slept perfectly, but I did sleep reasonably well. The morning came, and I could hear Tom’s diesel running. He started his truck at 2 AM, as the cold was beginning to make his feet numb. It was time to break camp. The firewood had done its job, and all of it had been consumed. Without the fire, we would have never have been able to spend hours the night before standing in the freezing cold
“Breakfast?” Tom said. “Of course,” I replied. It was now the moment of truth. Would the Promaster be able to navigate the snow and drive out of the campground? Tom backed it out, and then I climbed into the driver’s seat and shifted the gear selector into drive. I lightly, but purposefully, pressed the accelerator and the van moved forward. Down the snowy path I went. Soon we were back on the road that had been so treacherous the night before. However, it was now plowed and sanded. Off to Baraboo.
There is a little breakfast joint in Baraboo that resides in an old diner. The diner building was once located somewhere in New England. Apparently, it was disassembled and stored for decades in a warehouse in Ohio. It was discovered there and reassembled in Baraboo, piece by piece. The inside of the restaurant is in a classic diner style, replete with green vinyl upholstered booths and an abundance of chrome. We have eaten there in the past, and I knew that they served a hearty breakfast.
We pulled up to the diner, and I was happy to see that it was open on New Year’s Day. Inside we found an open booth, which was easy as only one other table was occupied as was one chair at the counter. Tom and his son went to wash their hands as the waitress came over. She reminded me of Flo, from those Progressive Insurance commercials. The back of her T-shirt proudly proclaimed, “Body By Bacon.” I knew I was in the right place. Tom and his son returned, and we placed our orders. Both of them ordered omelets. I went for eggs over easy and sausage links. By the time our order arrived, I was well into coffee, but I had to consciously control my consumption as I would soon be on the road. I didn’t want to have to stop every 30 minutes. We confidently noted that we were the very first people to use a campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in 2019. We did this with the vibrato of Lewis and Clark explorers.
With our bellies once again full it was time to start the journey home, and after a few directional missteps, we were on the newly plowed and salted Interstate heading south. Tom called me and noted that he was going to exit as his son wanted to explore the sporting options at Cascade Mountain. I wished him well and drove on.
I made a call to Julie to let her know that I was safe and heading home. I traveled the rest of the trip in silence and entertained myself with memories of the last 24 hours. I was grateful that I brought the right clothes, enough food, and the right van equipment to weather the storm. I was thankful that I had traveled with my friend, Tom. He thought to bring some things, I remembered others. Together, we had enough.
The nausea of the drive in had long passed, and the pleasure of the trip was present in my mind. I don’t think I would have gone if I knew that I would have had to travel in a snowstorm, but that was behind me, and I was left with the sweet memory of a crazy camping trip where only three people filled a huge campground with their adventurous spirit. It was a great way to start the New Year and to kick off my impending retirement.