Sunday, June 30, 2013

Day 49 - Shearing a Llama

I have never sheared an animal. Admittedly, this is not something I ever sought to do, but I knew I would likely gain a lot from hands on experience with one of the most traditional and enduring aspects of livestock farming. As such, early in my “I have never…” journey I began research on the seasonality of animal shearing in an effort to pinpoint an opportune time to seek a chance at following through with the experience. I was pleased to find that shearing often takes place in the early summer months to help the animals through the heat of summer, which prompted me to investigate possibilities to help shear livestock as soon as possible. With knowledge a co-worker of mine, Deb, has several llamas, I offered my assistance to her roughly a month ago. Deb was happy to take up my offer and provided me some rough details on the process. With weather a significant factor in the ability to shear, Deb and I made tentative plans to shear a llama when the persistent rains of late broke for a few days. With some luck over this weekend, Deb informed me we had the perfect opportunity to shear, so I headed to Deb’s farm this afternoon to tackle an “I have never…” experience unlike any other to date.

The barn
With absolutely no background in any aspect of shearing, I pulled into Deb’s driveway unaware of what to expect from the llamas, the process, or the experience. With Rachael accompanying me, I vocalized my curiosities and uncertainties as we exited the vehicle and took in the sight of the peaceful farm before us. As if on cue, Deb exited the house to our right just as my last hesitant word escaped my mouth. Deb greeted us with her familiar smile and took a few moments to get caught up with Rachael before introducing us to her husband. As I expected, the welcoming feeling was apparent as we talked briefly about the forthcoming experience. With Deb walking me through her history with the farm, we started slowly walking toward a barn nestled midway down the small hill running the length of the property. Eventually, Deb guided us around to the back of the barn and through a small gate where we were greeted by a small herd of llamas casually basking in the summer sun.

Deb walked through the names of each llama standing in the fenced in area as we made our way to a back door on the towering red barn. She explained Tanzin, Gandhi, and Dusty comprised the group standing outside and that we would likely find her fourth llama, Michael, inside the barn. As we entered through the old wooden door in the barn’s fieldstone foundation Deb’s prediction proved accurate. Inside the barn stood a massive white llama whose head approached seven feet tall. As my first up close encounter with a llama, I found it hard not to feel intimidated by the presence of the animal in the confined space of the barn’s interior. Clearly comfortable in the environment, Deb exclaimed, “This is Michael!” as the three of us took positions in the barn. Deb proceeded to explain that, while Michael doesn’t like to be touched, he enjoyed giving kisses to people. Amused by this idea, Rachael made a puckered her lips and made a kissing noise in the direction of Michael, which prompted the animal to take two sweeping steps forward and plant his lips lightly on the side of Rachael’s face. The act caught me off guard, causing me to let out a chuckle and the fact the animal understood the concept at all. It was clear we were before and intelligent being, and I was about to cut all of his hair off.
Michael

Moments later Deb went into action preparing some rope and a harness to guide Michael into a chute for shearing. Michael carefully observed Deb’s actions as she worked, becoming more aware of her intentions with each new step of the process. With all of the items prepared, Deb moved back toward Michael and said, “Alright! Let’s go!” as she raised the harness toward Michael’s head. Now fully aware of our intentions, Michael raised his head out of Deb’s reach and made a few quick movements toward the door. A second later Michael had pushed the barn door open, maneuver flawlessly between Rachael and I, and slinked outside. I let out a smile at what I just observed as Deb rushed toward the door and called out Michael’s name. “What now?” I asked as Deb acknowledged the unlikelihood of Michael returning and turned back into the barn. “We’ll just wait for another one to come in,” Deb said with confidence in her voice. Continuing, she said, “Tanzin likes people, so he’ll probably make his way up here now that the door is open again.” In response, the three of us stood in waiting for another llama to walk into the barn. Less than a minute after Deb’s last comment a smaller, brown llama came into view a poked his head into the door. “There’s Tanzin!” Deb said as the llama walked into the barn and looked around at the three of us. Amazed at how well Deb knew her animals, I shook my head in disbelief. As I stood watching on, Deb picked up where she left off with Michael without skipping a beat. With Tanzin cooperating nicely, she harnessed his narrow snout and started sweeping the animal’s coat with an oddly shaped tool. Deb explained she was removing the grass and large debris from Tanzin’s coat as she completed the task to her satisfaction.  After setting down the tool Deb looked up and handed the leading rope to me. “OK, are you ready for this?” Deb said smiling. I looked down at the rope in my hand before locking eyes with the llama that was no more than two feet in front of me. Hesitant, I said the only thing that came to mind, “Sure.”

Following my response Deb advised me I would need to walk Tanzin through the chute behind me “with some influence.” She explained once the animals neck was through a cross structure positioned near the back of the chute we would hitch the harness to the chute on three sides and begin shearing. Heeding her words, I started working my way backward through the chute guiding Tanzin with the stretch of rope between us. Becoming more aware of my intentions, Tanzin began to resist slightly in response to my efforts. With his feet planting firmly into the barn floor, I began pulling with more force with some encouragement from Deb. Luckily Tanzin gave up his resistance quickly and followed my lead through the chute. With the animal in position, I tied his leader to the front of the chute as Deb clipped ropes to the side of his harness. With moderate effort I had convinced a llama to enter a confined space for shearing. Feeling slightly more confident in my efforts, I looked at Deb and said, “Alright. What do we do next?”


Guiding him in...

Deb proceeded to explain the next phase of the shearing process was to blow the dust and dirt out of Tanzin’s hair. She advised me this step was a messy necessity to ensuring the shears remained sharp and fluid during the shearing process. Understanding, I helped Deb get the small blower set up and ready for use. I watched briefly as Deb began blowing Tanzin’s hair with the small black nozzle. Clouds of dust and light hair flew into the air en masse with every inch of coat the air touched. Realizing the air was quickly becoming saturated with debris, Deb handed me the blower and moved to open the barn door. With the door open Deb turned back to me and said, “Alright, your turn... Start from the front and blow backwards.” Following her direction I turned toward Tanzin and lifted the blower in the air. Without hesitation, I moved the air back across the animal’s body and picked up where Deb left off.


Dust. Everywhere.
Over the next few minutes I worked the air over both sides of the llama’s body as dust and hair continued filling the air. I could feel the debris settling on my skin and clothing as I worked, causing me to periodically wipe my face during the process. Eventually, the amount of dust entering the air began to wane, which provided me some indication we were nearing the next step in the process. Taking a step back from Tanzin, I held the blower at my side. “Alright, that’s good!” Deb said walking back toward the llama. Acknowledging her remark I turned off the blower and set it on the ground. Deb and I quickly cleared the blower from the space before Deb walked me to another room in the barn. Stating it was time to shear the animal, Deb opened a case and began piecing together a large shears that looked much like a massive hair trimmer. She explained the function of the blades and the need to keep them oiled during the process before lifting the shears from the table before us. “I’ll do the first few cuts, and then you can take over,” Deb said walking toward Tanzin. I nodded my head in agreement as Deb plugged in the shears and turned on the device. After applying bead of oil to the buzzing shears Deb moved toward the animal and buzzed one long line of hair off of the llama’s back. The hair came off in massive chunks that Deb scooped up and threw into a basket resting on the floor. Once finished with the first swipe, Deb proceeded to make two vertical cuts down the animal’s side. Again gathering the massive clumps of fur tumbling from the shears, Deb held a handful of the hair up before me. “Feel how soft it is,” she said smiling. I grabbed the fur and rubbed it between my fingers. In response to the silky texture of the fur I let out a surprised remark. Deb responded simply, “That’s why it makes good yarn.”


The shears

With the clump of fur still in my hand, I looked back and Deb. She directed me to throw the fur in the basket and handed me the shears. “You can take over now. Just continue where I left off.” Ready to take on the task of shearing a llama, I grabbed the still running shears and turned toward Tanzin. I took my time as the shears entered the animal’s fur and began dropping hair from Tanzin’s body. Fearful I would hurt the animal, I moved slowly down its side, watching my trim line very closely. After a few swipes at this pace, Deb came back to my side and told me it was ok to move a little faster as I cut. Explaining I was afraid I would hurt the animal, Deb lifted my hand containing the shears and placed my opposite hand against its surface. Shocked at first, I quickly realized nothing happened as a result of Deb’s actions. Unharmed, I pulled my hand away and looked closer at the shears. “They can’t hurt you,” Deb said smiling.


Shearing!

Relieved, I set back to work shearing with knowledge the threat of injury was removed from the process. In turn, I quickened my pace as I worked down Tanzin’s side, collecting masses of hair in baskets on the floor around me. With my comfort growing, I made quick work of the llama’s right side before beginning to shear the left side. In a matter of minutes I sheared away pounds of hair along Tanzin’s left side. As I worked I was surprised at the thin animal appearing as the thick hair disappeared from its body. Finally back to Tanzin’s rear leg, I took a step back and turned off the shears. I quickly brushed myself off and looked over at Deb and Rachael. “I think I’m done,” I said looking over my work. Deb approached my position and looked Tanzin over, taking a few swipes with the shears to clean up a few spots on his body. Turning off the shears Deb looked at me and said, “There you go! You sheared a llama!”


Finished!
I took in the scope of my work as Deb and I cleaned up the area and unhitched Tanzin. After guiding the llama back out of the chute, I guided him toward the door. Deb proceeded to unharness his muzzle before Tanzin galloped out of the barn toward the rest of the llamas. Baskets in hand, the three of us exited the barn and watched the llamas briefly. Rehashing our efforts, we walked out of the fenced area and walked around the farm. Eventually, Deb took time to point out all of her gardening efforts and show us her fiber stocks and weaving projects made possible by previous shearing. As we walked, I thought about how my efforts were only a small working part of a much more complex farm system. I was amazed at the process of llama hair becoming yarn becoming fabric, and I was glad I had the chance to contribute to that process. With my task complete, Rachael and I ultimately worked our way back to our car and gave Deb our thanks before we headed home.


Today I sheared an animal. While it is still hard for me to grasp that fact, I took a lot away from the experience, and I learned a lot about the process of working with animals to make usable material. Having never served as a farm hand before, the whole experience was something new and unfamiliar, but something about getting dirty and working with livestock proved very rewarding. Like many of my “I have never…” events, I don’t know if or when I will get a chance to shear and animal again. That stated, I’m glad I made this experience a part of my “I have never…” journey. Hard work just feels good.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 48 - Biking the Green Lake Loop

I have never biked the Green Lake Loop. For those that are unfamiliar, the Green Lake Loop is a bike trail that rings the shores of Wisconsin’s deepest inland lake, Green Lake. In total, the road and trail path covers 27 miles through beautiful communities, countryside, and natural areas. Like many things on my “I have never…” list, biking the Green Lake Loop is something I have wanted to do for years but never made the time to do. With knowledge both of Rachael’s siblings and their significant others like riding, I figured this weekend would be the perfect opportunity to get a group together to complete the Green Lake Loop journey. With everyone on board, Rachael, her sister Sarah, her sister-in-law Audra, her brother Daniel, her brother-in-law Zeke, and I prepared to make the trip this afternoon.


The map

Given Sarah and Zeke were visiting from Illinois, we decided to rent bikes instead of having them haul their bikes all the way to Green Lake. This decision ended up being a wise one after Rachael’s bike experienced a flat tire almost immediately after we arrived in Green Lake yesterday. In turn, Dan, Audra, and I loaded up our bikes and the group drove to the rental company from which I rented a Waverunner several weeks earlier. There we easily obtained three rental bikes and prepared to start our journey. With knowledge of the nearly 30 miles before us, each of us expressed some concern over the effort that would be required to make the trip a success, particularly given the threat of rain that continued to plague the area. As a result, we decided we would play it safe by renting the bikes for a period of four hours. With our rental bikes secured and our trip in order, we geared up and hit the road to start our first leg of the Green Lake Loop.

The crew

The trip started with a jaunt down one of Green Lake’s longest city roads winding along the east end of the lake. As we found our pace, our group traveled in a single file line down the bike path running on the shoulder of the busy street. We traveled until we hit a county highway that directed us to head south, where we stopped briefly to make a few adjustments to the rental bikes and talk about our plan of attack for the remaining trip. With knowledge the bike route would lead us to the less busy roads running along Green Lake’s south shore, I assured everyone we would be able to ride in a more comfortable group setting once we tacked on a few more miles. In turn, the group continued on, passing by boaters and fisherman making the most of the lake to our right. In time we made it passed the body of water and climbed a steep hill before finding our turn to the south shore of Green Lake.

Still in our single file line, we wrapped around the turn onto a sleepy road that cut through groupings of small lakeside cottages. In a moment our environment changed from a heavily trafficked highway to a peaceful, quiet expanse of asphalt turned gray with age. Quickly coming to terms with the change, our group fanned out and began taking advantage of the open road around us. We traveled down the road at a leisurely pace, shifting positions to talk with various members of our group as we continued on. In high spirits, we laughed over word games intended to help us remember our upcoming turns and chatted about the sights passing by.  With the sun now breaking through the clouds above us, each of us relaxed in the comfortable summer air hanging next to the beautiful lake guiding us.


Farmland scenery
After some time on the south side of the lake, we met a county road that took us further south to avoid some dead end streets. After a quick check of our map, the group traveled down the road with the lake at our back. We pedaled on, climbing a hill that led into a wide expanse of lush green farmland. With Dan at my right, I looked around at the sun soaked plants that covering the ground to the horizon. I smiled to myself before making a few remarks to Dan about the countryside. “This is God’s country!” I said with a half-hearted Southern accent. “It sure is!” Dan said as he increased his speed into our next turn. With the rest of the group behind us, Dan took the lead and maneuvered near the center of the long, empty country road in front of us. Unprompted Dan removed his hands from his handlebars and stretched them out to the sides of his body. Continuing down the road, the T-shaped form of Dan’s torso resting on the set of his bike was the only sight to be seen. With the rest of the group now catching up to me, I made a few comments about Dan’s “flight position” to Rachael and Zeke. With Dan continuing ahead of the group, the rest of us rode together down the remaining stretch of the country road until we met Dan at our next turn.

Dan in flight
Nearly a quarter of the way into our trip, the group gathered together for a brief water break before heading back toward the lake. Atop a bluff, we took in beautiful views of Green Lake’s opposite shore before we descended back toward the shoreline. We wound our way past massive homes and wooded areas as we climbed several more hills and rode a curved road into a cul-de-sac placed oddly in the middle of a wooded area. I slowed down as we entered the cul-de-sac, prompting the group behind me the stop. A few statements of confusion floated into the air as we discussed the next leg of the journey. Pointing to a small trail running off of the cul-de-sac and into the woods, I explained to the group the next leg of the trail ran a gravel path along of portion of the lakeshore.

Although hesitant at first, each of us made our way through the narrow trail one by one until we all emerged on the other side of the tree line. There we found a small gravel road leading through a campground near a portion of the lake known as Sliding Rock. We rode on, making short work of the gravel road and surfacing on another quiet street on the southwest side of the lake. A little more than one hour into our trip, I started to realize we were nearing the halfway point of the loop as familiar sights came into view. A few miles later we were passing Green Lake County Park and traveling down streets in the west end neighborhood where the lake house resides. Completing the first half of our trek, we pulled into the lake house driveway and took stock of our progress. Much faster than expected, our group had traveled nearly 15 miles in less than one hour and 20 minutes.


Half way there...

Upon arriving at the lake house, we refilled our water bottles and stretched a bit during a brief break. Shortly after arriving, a rain shower moved through the area for a period of a little bit longer than 10 minutes, which proved perfect timing following the completion of the first half of our ride. During the rain we relaxed beneath the overhang of the lake house roof and talked about the rest of our journey. With the rain ebbing, we geared back up for the second part of our trip and hit the road. After a brief trip down the nearby highway, we rounded the last portion of Green Lake’s west end and honed in on the last leg of the Green Lake Loop.

The second half
Over the next 30 minutes we passed through Sugar Bluff and traveled down a rolling county highway. Eventually, we found our way into the Green Lake Conference Center, a pristine area of forest and grasslands littered with historic buildings. Our group remained close on the narrow, winding roadways that traveled through the natural areas around us. The towering trees, flowering grasslands, and scenic views rejuvenated each of us and helped keep our spirits high. After some time we worked our way through the woodland paths to the Northeast entrance of the conference center. The familiar sights of the highway leading to downtown Green Lake came into view as we exited the massive stone gates at the entrance and turned east. Minutes later, we our path crossed the main street leading to Green Lake, which provided us a prolonged downward slope to coast back into town. Together, we worked through the trickle of Green Lake traffic until we saw the rental company from which we rented the bikes come back into sight. Anticipating the end of our journey, I bore down, pedaling to gain as much speed as possible. Just as I hit my maximum speed I saw the rental company driveway over the crest of a small hill. I turned in with the wind at my back and came to an abrupt stop just behind Daniel. The rest of the group quickly followed suit with cheers and celebration at the fact we just completed our 27 mile ride. In a little more than two hours we traversed Green Lake, and that was something to feel good about.

Ice cream!!!
Following the end of our ride, we decided some ice cream was in order. In turn, we found a local ice cream parlor tucked next to a small roadway in downtown Green Lake. Over our treats we talked about our journey, the sights, and our overall physical conditions. Surprisingly, we all felt quite fine after the extended trip, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. As I sat nibbling at the last parts of my ice cream cone I thought about the day’s “I have never…” event. As I sat I recalled the beautiful sights, the laughs, and the experience I was able to enjoy with a group of awesome people. In my mind there was no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon, which made me realize this was an “I have never…” event well worth the effort.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Day 47 - Kraft's Hot Corner

I have never been to Kraft’s Hot Corner. While most people will not recognize the name of this establishment, the small eatery located in Randolph, Wisconsin has always been a point of curiosity for me. Formerly the Galaxy Drive-in, Kraft’s Hot Corner was one of those places I encountered growing up but never had the chance to try. In fact, as a kid I remember driving by the little walk-up restaurant each time my school would play Randolph in a sporting event and wondering what kind of food they offered. This thought continued well into my adult years as I would drive past the restaurant periodically on my visits home. Although I thought my chance to stop at the restaurant had passed when the Galaxy closed several years ago, I knew I had to make a visit to the restaurant when it opened under the new name Kraft’s Hot Corner little more than a year ago. This evening I was afforded that opportunity as Rachael and I made our way back to Green Lake to spend a weekend at the lake house with Rachael’s siblings.


Kraft's

Our visit to Kraft’s Hot Corner started simply enough. Before leaving for the lake house, Rachael, her sister Sarah, her brother-in-law Zeke, and I decided we would make a stop at Kraft’s for dinner this evening. In turn, we drove a little more than half way to the lake until we came upon the small brown building tucked neatly into the corner of a city block near the heart of the Randolph community. Upon arriving, Rachael and I pulled our car alongside Sarah and Zeke’s car in one of the restaurants few parking stalls. Looking forward to a meal after a busy afternoon of packing and driving, the four of us exited our respective vehicles and rounded the corner of the building.


Ordering...
Each of us quickly set to work reviewing the menu items painted on a series of white signs attached to the building’s face. As we stood discussing the menu items a woman’s voice gave a spirited greeting from behind a small screened window. “Hello there! How are you?” the woman asked with a smile. After returning the gesture the four of us began asking short questions about the menu and the establishment. The woman responded to each and asked us some questions about what brought us to Kraft’s. Sarah immediately began explaining my “I have never...” objectives and my curiosity about the establishment before us. Acknowledging my role in the conversation, I stepped closer to the window as the woman explained Kraft’s emergence following the closure of the galaxy drive-in. With a sense of pride in her voice, the woman explained the restaurant was a family affair with a focus on making good meals for local residents and visitors alike. She stated the group running the restaurant, three in total, made all of the menu items from all-natural, fresh ingredients in their effort to meet that goal. Surprised at the level of commitment and passion held by the restaurant’s owners, our enthusiasm for trying our first meal from Kraft’s Hot Corner grew. As a result, our group quickly settled on our menu choices after a little more discussion and contemplation. With that, we placed our orders, took a seat at a nearby picnic table, and waited for our meals to be prepared.

Briefly after taking our position at the picnic table, the familiar sound of the woman’s voice called from the small screen window. Only minutes after placing their order, Sarah and Zeke’s bacon and bleu cheese burger and stuffed six pepper burger we ready. Sarah promptly walked up to the window and grabbed the white paper bag containing their food before returning to the picnic table. Rachael and I watched on as the two of them laid out their respective meals and divvied up the hand cut French fries one of them had ordered. I looked over the fresh ingredients and high quality bread that made up the individual sandwiches in anticipation of my meal. Based on my initial observations, it became clear to me Kraft’s was anything but a small town greasy spoon.


So good...
A few minutes after Sarah and Zeke received their food the woman returned to the window again and called me over. I jogged over to the window as the woman open the window and placed another white bag on the counter. I thanked the woman as I took the bag into my arms and returned to the table. I opened the bag just before sitting down and handed Rachael her chicken sandwich. Digging deeper into the bag I grabbed my cheddar burger and French fries. Finally, at the bottom of the bag I located Rachael’s order of jalapeño poppers. After handing out the food I opened the container housing my burger and gave it a once over. Everything about it looked delicious. The meat was light and lean, the cheddar was a beautiful golden color, and the bread was soft. Even before taking my first bite I knew I was in for a treat.

All of our food at the ready, the four of us began pecking away at our meals between conversations. As a sucker for soaking in the experience, I was the last in the group to take a bite from my meal, and I found it to be everything I expected. The sandwich melted in my mouth as the perfectly done beef blended with the cheese and the slightly buttered bun to make one of the best tasting burgers I have had in years. Enjoying each bite of our meals, everyone in our group periodically commented on how delicious they found every aspect of the meal. Eventually, Rachael and I traded some French fries and a jalapeño popper to round out our experience with the food. After grabbing a popper from the small paper bag in front of Rachael, I threw it in my mouth and bit down. The crisply fried, fresh pepper snapped in my mouth as the hot flavor rolled across my tongue. Like everything else I had encountered at Kraft’s, it was delicious.


How good was it? This good.
With the evening sun casting the last races of light across the front of Kraft’s Hot Corner, Rachael, Sarah, Zeke, and I wrapped up our meals and continued our trip to Green Lake. As we pulled away from the restaurant I commented on the surprising nature of our experience at Kraft’s. Rachael replied, stating everything about the meal was unexpected. After a brief pause she continued, “...honestly, that was probably the best chicken sandwich I have ever had.” Although surprised by her remark for a brief moment, I understood her comment as I thought back over the meal. “Well, we’ll have to stop there again, huh?” I asked with a grin on my face. In response, Rachael let out a succinct “Definitely” as her eyes turned toward the phone in her hand. After a brief pause she continued, “With food that good there is no reason not to…” Realizing I couldn’t sum up my first experience at Kraft’s any better than that, I turned my focus back to the road. The rest of our journey before us, I thought about the wise choice in making Kraft’s Hot Corner a part of my “I have never…” journey. It was a long time coming, but somehow it was worth the wait. Needless to say, this experience will be a repeat occurrence in future trips to my haunts of days gone by.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Day 46 - The Ale Asylum

The Asylum

I have never been to the Ale Asylum. As a long-time Madison resident, this is actually something I’m ashamed to admit. Given the Ale Asylum’s position as one of the premiere microbreweries in Madison, this has been something I have wanted to do for a long time, but I simply never made the time to visit the brewery. My procrastination to follow through on my visit has come despite consistently hearing about the company’s beautiful new facility, hearing rave reviews about their new offerings, and having enjoyed a few of their beers in the past. As a result, I made plans to visit the brewery as a part of my “I have never…” journey. After roping a few friends into tagging along, I made the short trip to the Ale Asylum tonight for a few beers, a few laughs, and some good conversation.


The Asylum
The evening began with some friends of mine, Patrick and Angelica, picking me up at my house. Given neither of them had visited the Ale Asylum either, we took some time on the drive over to talk about what to expect when we arrived at the brewery. Rehashing the comments we have heard about the Ale Asylum previously, we all spoke with an overtone of anticipation for what we were about to experience that night. Hopeful we could sneak in a brewery tour on our visit, we speculated about what the interior of the facility might look like when we arrived. Ultimately, those curiosities were short lived, as our drive to the brewery lasted little more than five minutes. As we pulled into the Ale Asylum parking lot we took in the sight of the brewery’s open, two story patio space and the building’s commercial, yet vibrant exterior. Looking forward to the Ale Asylum experience, the three of us were quick to enter the building and get to work on the beer menu.

Interior
As we passed through the building’s heavy wooden doors Patrick, Angelica, and I paused to take in the sight of the vocal crowd occupying the building. Walls painted in varieties of appealing orange colors and lined with Ale Asylum effects surrounded us as we looked around the building for the first time. We stood silent for a brief moment before I broke through the sound of many conversations filling the air around us. “...Grab some seats at the bar?” I said over the sound of the crowd. Signaling agreement, Patrick and Angelica walked with me toward the end of the bar. We grabbed three seats and sat down as we were greeted by a female bartender. Attempting to take in the wide selection of beers offered by the brewery as fast as possible, Patrick and I stumbled over our words as we attempted to make our selections.

Acknowledging our obvious uncertainty, the bartender indicated she would return a little later to see if we had made our decisions. With the bartender walking away, Patrick and I mulled over the offerings displayed on a menu of backlight signs sprawled across the wall behind the bar. After a few minutes, the two us settled on some selections that we thought appealed to our palettes the most. With a motion of my hand I signaled the bartender we were ready to order our drinks. A moment later, the Patrick, Angelica, and I cycled through our requests, prompting the bartender to go through a flurry of activity the serve us. Given the warm, humid day, I settled on the Overshadowed Hefe-Weisen, which surprised me with its opaque golden color. Without hesitation, I grabbed the beer as soon as it was placed in front of me and took a drink. Its smooth texture and semi-sweet flavor suited my tastes well enough and permitted me to start sinking into a state of relaxation after a long workday.

Overshadowed
Over the next 15 minutes, Patrick, Angelica, and I sipped on our drinks and caught up. We chatted about my recent “I have never…” events and the things I looked forward to trying the most. In casual conversation we let the minutes pass by unnoticed. We were just there in those moments without a concern in the world, which was a welcomed feeling to me. Eventually, Patrick reminded me to check into a tour of the brewery, which a quick inquiry to some nearby staff determined was only possible on Sundays. Although disappointed, I didn't let the inability to take the tour affect my mood. Some time later, another friend of ours, Massiel, walked through the Ale Asylum’s front doors and came over to our place at the bar. Expecting her arrival, we all greeted her with smiles and boisterous remarks before ensuring we had room for her to sit with our group. After shifting the positions of our seats slightly, Massiel sat down next to our group and got comfortable. I quickly caught up with her and discussed an upcoming interview she had for a new position with her company as she settled in. Moments later, Patrick leaned over to confirm the rest of the group intended to eat while we were at the brewery. Confirming our desire to do so, Patrick looked over our sole menu before passing it down to the rest of the group.

Our group carried on in conversation until our bartender offered to take our food orders and refill our drinks. In response to the offer of our orders, the bartender happily assisted us and followed through on our second round. Upon receiving our drinks, our group continued in our small discussions, finding it hard to speak as a group among the swelling sound of the crowd occupying the space around us. Eventually determining we were in an auditory battle we couldn’t win, the group decided we would spend some time on the patio once we finished our meals. With that conclusion our meals arrived, which prompted each of us to make quick work of the food before us. After a quick, simple meal the four of us made good on our agreement to head out to the patio. In turn, we grabbed our drinks and took the short walk through the building to the exterior doors.

Time on the patio...
The patio space provided an immediate refuge from the noisy condition of the Ale Asylum’s interior. Finding a table near the patio doors, our group settled into the cool evening air and reengaged in conversation. Over the next two hours we shared in plenty of stories and laughter as we prolonged the life of the drinks before us. It was hard not to feel in high spirits as I took stock of my surroundings and the company I had. With the sunlight fading, I noted the subtle aspects of my first experience at the Ale Asylum and simply let myself remain in the moment. I knew then my choice for the day’s “I have never...” event was a good one.

Eventually, our time at the Ale Asylum drew to a close like any other experience. That stated, tonight provided a new experience with great people at a venue of note in the Madison area. After Patrick and Angelica dropped me off at my house I took time to think through my first experience at the Ale Asylum. The beer was good, the building was warm and welcoming, and the company was great. With that in mind, I thought about how lucky I was to have such great people and memorable places in my life. Sure, today’s I have never...” was a simple experience, but it was damn near a perfect evening.

Day 46 IHN Bonus! I have never owned one of these before....

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Day 45 - Visiting the First Unitarian Society Meeting House

I have never been the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. In fact, I was completely unaware this building existed until I started my “I have never…” journey. During my research of things to see and do around Madison, the building consistently appeared in lists of recommended places to visit. Curious as to why this was the case, I finally decided to search for some more information on the building. I was surprised to find that the First Unitarian Society Meeting House was a building designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s and built during the last decade of his life. Further research also indicated the building is now classified as a National Historical Landmark and is widely considered to be one of the most innovative examples of church architecture in the world. Intrigued by these findings, I knew I needed to make a visit to the First Unitarian Society Meeting House a part of my “I have never…” journey. After all, I was already a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and the building’s location was only a few miles from my home. With some relief from the seemingly endless rainy weather we have had as of late, I decided tonight was a perfect night to visit the First Unitarian Society Meeting House for the first time. Little did I know the experience would provide me an intimate experience with one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in quite some time.

The hall
Today’s trip to the meeting house began immediately after finishing my workday. Looking forward to the experience, I hurried home after completing my tasks for the day to make sure I had time to complete my “I have never...” objective for the day. Anticipating the building would not be open into the evening hours, I rushed around the house grabbing a quick snack and my camera equipment before I hopped back in my car. Minutes after arriving home I was en route to the Shorewood Hills area of the city to make good on my intentions to see the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. On my way to the building I drove through downtown Madison taking note of the unfamiliar clement weather. With my car windows down, I ran my fingers through the passing air and focused on the warm feeling of the sunlight striking my skin. It was clearly a beautiful evening, which boded well for my intentions to experience a piece of architecture known for its outward appearances.


The plaque
The cornerstone

After a short trip through town I arrived at the meeting house. I pulled in and parked next to a small group of vehicles in a corner of the parking lot. Upon exiting my car I turned to face the building and was immediately struck by its unique features. On my right a low, angular roof resting atop stone walls jutted toward the sky. On my left a long, sweeping arc of windows supported a two-tiered flat roof that served as a flowerbed for groupings of small plants. Together the features came together in a central point to my front, tying the whole of the meeting house together. At first finding it hard to take in the subtle details of the beautiful structure before me, I stood in the parking lot for a minute and looked over the exterior of the building. After snapping a few pictures of the sun resting heavy over the center of the building, I decided to walk the exterior of the building face. Looking over the structure one more time, my eyes were drawn to a small stone supporting a plaque near the building entrance on my right. I walked over toward the feature, inspecting the plaque as I approached.  Attached to the stone, the plaque provided a brief history of the meeting house and its landmark status. I read the paragraph quickly before a small red square in the wall to the left of the stone caught my eye. I leaned forward to take a closer look at the glossy red surface and noticed the letters “FLW” engraved on the block’s surface. Much by accident, I had located the cornerstone of the historic structure before me.

The Atrium
I ran my fingers over the engraved letters before taking a few steps to my left and peering through the set of doors just beyond the cornerstone. Appearing to be locked, I decided to cross the parking lot to the opposite side of the building nearest the group of parked cars. A sign labeled “Atrium” came into view as I walked up to the doors and grabbed the handle. I pulled the door open and entered into a small vestibule that smelled of old, rich wood. With the faint sound of voices on its other side, I grabbed a second door in front of me and pulled it open. I was greeted by an open two story space with a small walkway running over a large meeting space beneath me. A small group of people milled about in the lower room as I walked through the building, taking in the natural elements of the expansive space around me. Windows lined the ceiling and walls of the massive room, with natural timber supports and simple metal fixtures holding the structure together. The evening light poured into the facility as I slowly walked across the second story platform toward the center of the building. Acknowledging my presence, one of the people in the lower portion of the room looked up at me and smiled as if understanding my purpose for being in their assembly hall. Unimpeded, I proceeded down the walkway’s slow arch and found my way to doorway near the heart of the building.

Inside the Atrium
After passing through several doors, I entered the opposite side of the building and came upon a long hallway. Angular points accented the hallway as part of a zigzag wall on my right that was lined with watercolor works of art and simple seating. Walking down the hall, I glanced at each painting hanging on the wall and periodically looked out the rows of windows on my left. Eventually, the hallway opened to a large congregation space with a large, peaked ceiling climbing high above me. On the furthest wall a collage of triangulated windows occupied the entire space, letting light flow freely into the otherwise unlit area of the building. I spent a few minutes taking in the space before I began working my way back to the atrium, making sure to take in subtle features of each room I passed. Everywhere I looked there was something worth noting, which gave made me feel as though my choice for the day’s event was a wise one.


The Congregation Hall 

Eventually making my way back through the atrium, I exited the building through the same doors I entered some 30 minutes earlier. Realizing the wall of windows I saw in the congregation space had to have an exterior face, I walked back across the parking lot and around the right side of the building. Following a brief walk along an exterior wall, a towering wall of glass came into view. I continued walking as my eyes remained fixed on the bifurcate windows climbing high into the sky and culminating at the sharp point of the building’s highest roof. With the evening sun shimmering off of the wall’s surface, I found myself captivated by the simple beauty of the glass and wood that made up the uncommon feature of the building. I walked back and forth in front of the structure as my eyes followed the shifting lines of the triangular fixture. The appearance of the structure seemed to change with each new vantage point I encountered as I walked across the meeting house lawn. It was as if I was looking at a new building, albeit with a similar design, each time I stopped to look. The genius of Frank Lloyd Wright before me, I struggled to understand the foresight and artistry required to make such a masterful design. It was strange, beautiful, and well worth the evening trip.




I spent a few minutes more examining the exterior design of the building before returning to my car. On my drive home I thought about the building and the experience I had exploring its grounds. Realizing I was lucky to have gained access to the building during my visit, I retraced the interior design of the structure and recalled the intricate details that came together to make the highly unique space. As I worked through the details of the experience in my mind, I knew it would be a challenge to accurately describe the features of the building when I wrote about it this evening. As a result, I decided I would let many of the pictures I took of the building do the majority of the talking in my blog entry. While I still made an effort to describe some of the features I encountered at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, I know full well my efforts (and even my photographs) don’t do the building’s presence and beauty any sort of justice. I can only say this was a worthwhile “I have never...” trip to a place well-deserving of its National Historical Landmark status. I haven’t been many places like the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, but I definitely hope I encounter more like it in my ongoing “I have never...” journey.
One last look...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Day 44 - Making a Casserole

I have never made a casserole. Another bout of nasty weather meant I had to get creative with my “I have never...” plans for the day, which led me to the idea of making a casserole dish for the first time. While it is not the most exciting experience in the world, I figured giving this basic culinary practice a try was likely a good idea. After all, there are some basic cooking skills everyone should have, and knowing how to throw random ingredients into a dish and bake them is an act that is probably on that list. In turn, I tracked down a recipe for Zucchini Rice Casserole with some help from Rachael and set to work making my first ever casserole.

Where's my Slap-Chop?
My first attempt at a casserole started with a flurry of activity organizing and preparing my ingredients. As I clumsily tried to find the best way to work through my preparation and cooking process, Rachael quickly offered to help me work through my recipe. Although I was grateful for the offer, I knew any assistance I received would take away from my opportunity to have the full experience. As a result, I told Rachael I wanted to try to do it on my own from start to finish. Understanding, she stated she would only assist by cutting up the onion required by the recipe, given raw onion was listed as an allergic trigger in the paperwork I received during my recent visit to the allergist. After making quick work of the onion, Rachael watched as I made a mess slicing vegetables and using a slap-chop for the first time. With plant matter and vegetable juice rapidly consuming the surface of the countertop, Rachael gave periodic statements of uneasiness regarding the disarray I was creating. My hand and forearms coated in vegetable debris, I took a step back from my mess after chopping the last of the peppers and zucchini. With only the first step of the recipe complete, it was obvious it was going to be a long and messy night.

Following the first step, I prepared a pan of rice and simmered a few cups of chicken broth as called for by the recipe. I loaded my vegetables into the pan containing the rice and eventually mixed the steaming chicken broth into the rice and vegetable concoction. Happy I didn’t burn myself in the transfer of the broth, I covered the ingredient-laden container with aluminum foil and placed it into the oven for the required baking time of 45 minutes. I felt like I was on the right track with my cooking experiment as I continued preparing the other components of the recipe, which called for a cheese sauce and cooked turkey sausage. Over the next 30 minutes I continued my trend of making awful messes as I prepared flour, milk, and cheese for a saucepan. Doused in white powder from an unfortunate incident with the bag of flour, I poured the ingredients into a saucepan and simmered it down to what I thought was an appropriate thickness.

Just as I completed the sauce mixture, a timer signaled me to pull the pan containing the rice, vegetables, and broth from the oven. With anticipation, I opened the oven door to see how my culinary creation had advanced. Upon pulling the pan from the oven and removing the foil cover, I was greeted by a mess of half-cooked vegetables and rice floating in a liquid hovering at the brim of the pan. Baffled at the sight of the unappealing slop, I extended my arms and attempted to position the pan on the stove. Liquid and small bits of vegetables poured over the edge of the pan as I set it across two burners, splattering across the stovetop, my torso, and the kitchen floor. Frustrated, I scratched my head and let out a a few choice words. “How the hell can somebody mess up a casserole?” I asked looking over my mess.

Slop, anyone?

In a state of confusion I went back to my recipe and quickly read through the list. From what I saw at first glance, it appeared I had done everything correctly. Coming to terms what I thought to be a total failure, I let out a defeated, “Oh well...” and proceeded to the bottom of the step-by-step instructions. There I found a line advising me to add the cheese sauce to the already full pan. Figuring I had nothing left to lose, I decided I would proceed as called for by the recipe. In turn, I dumped the cheese sauce into the already full baking pan and slowly mixed the contents as more liquid spilled onto the stovetop. Once finished, I took one more look at my instructions. I ran my finger across my computer screen as I read the lines immediately following my previous step. I was stunned when the recipe said to let the casserole cook uncovered for a mere 10 minutes more. “This can’t be right,” I said to myself as I looked back at the overflowing pan of cloudy liquid.

Last ditch effort...

Convinced I must have missed a step somewhere, I went back to the top of the recipe and read through it one more time. I carefully read each line as I looked for some indicator I could still rescue my first attempt at a casserole. Finally, midway down the page I saw a line tucked in the bottom of a small paragraph. My hand struck my forehead in disbelief as I read instructions to bake the pan of rice, vegetables, and broth for a second 45 minute period after the foil cover was removed. I felt a brief moment of relief as I realized I had only cooked the mixture for half of the time required to let the vegetables and rice fully cook. However, the feeling faded quickly when I remembered I had already mixed in the cheese sauce and sausage that was supposed to be added in the second to last step.

Hesitant, I placed the baking pan back into the oven and reset the timer for 45 minutes. After closing the oven door I stood still for a moment, wracked with worry that my early addition of the cheese sauce would create a burned, sticky mess of vegetables, sausage and rice. Eventually committing to letting the rest of the casserole experiment play out, I left the kitchen and busied myself with random tasks. As the minutes passed, a faint smell of crisping food began to fill the air. At first, I ignored the smell, choosing instead to get caught up with some family members and to finalize plans for the weekend. I remained in my blissful state of ignorance until about 30 minutes into the second round of baking. With a strong burning smell now filling the air, I decided I had to check on the casserole to ensure I wasn’t about to burn my house to the ground. Raising from my position on the couch, I walked into the kitchen and put on some oven mitts in case I needed to perform an emergency extraction of the baking pan. Turning to the oven, I leaned forward and grabbed the wide, white handle on the front of the appliance. A wisp of rolling smoke escaped toward the ceiling as I slowly opened the oven door. Lowering the door further, I closed my eyes until I felt the oven door come to rest at an open position.

Not too shabby...
Scared of what I might find inside, I opened one eye to check on the casserole. Much to my surprise, the dish looked good. It wasn’t on fire, it wasn’t burnt, and it even looked edible. Still concerned about the burning smell, I looked over the oven to find its source until I noticed a small stain of burned liquid on the bottom of the oven. Determining I had spilled some of the broth mixture during my earlier efforts, I eliminated the possibility of any fire hazard and let the casserole cook for the rest of its required baking time. A little more than 10 minutes later, my casserole emerged covered in a light golden brown and smelling of delicious spicy peppers. Following the addition of a cheese and jalapeño topping, my first casserole was ready to eat, and, considering the ordeal had taken more than three hours to complete, I was more than ready to eat it.

Saved it!
With the clock well passed 9:00 pm, Rachael and I sat down a nibbled away at the casserole. While it wasn’t a culinary masterpiece, the casserole was a spicy mixture of vegetables, rice, and sausage that appealed to my palette. As I ate, I reflected on the night’s events and thought about my food creation. Not only had I averted disaster, I made a edible and tasty dish that would provide Rachael and I meals for several days. Considering how the experiment could have turned out, I felt a sense of accomplishment in the wake of my first attempt at throwing random ingredients into a dish and baking them. I’m not sure when I will give it a try again, but at least I can rest knowing the task of baking a casserole didn’t get the best of me... The only thing left to do now is clean up the aftermath I left in the kitchen.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Day 43 - Volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House

I have never volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House. As mentioned in a previous post about a new volunteer experience, early in my "I have never..." journey I decided I would volunteer at one new place a month. In turn, I sat down and made a list of the top places I wanted to donate my time. With the Ronald McDonald House near the top of that list, I started researching ways I could help the Ronald McDonald House organization. Once Rachael caught wind of my research, she was quick to point out a friend of ours, Erin, volunteered at the local Ronald McDonald House each Monday. With knowledge I had a direct connection to the organization, Rachael and I talked to Erin about my goal to volunteer at the organization during a recent trip to the Milton Winery. After Erin confirmed she would be happy to let me shadow her during an upcoming volunteer shift, I made plans to meet up with her tonight and put in a three hour shift at the Ronald McDonald House.

The Ronald McDonald House
With my plans made, I drove to the Madison Ronald McDonald House immediately after completing work today. Upon arriving, I entered the building and was greeted by a group of smiling faces behind the front desk in the lobby. Among them was Erin, who waved back behind the desk to introduce me to everyone. After some brief introductions with the remaining volunteers, the director of the Madison Ronald McDonald House, Tara, took me in her office to provide some background on the organization and the history of the Madison Ronald McDonald House. We chatted about the organization's near 40 year history and the recent 20th anniversary celebration of the Madison house before walking through some of responsibilities I would have during my volunteer shift. It was apparent from our conversation Tara cared deeply about the organization and maintained a passion for the well being of all the families supported by the Ronald McDonald House during their times of need.

After our discussion Tara and I walked back into the next room where the rest of the volunteer group remained. The group was in high spirits and laughing as they caught up and prepared for the night's events. A few minutes after I arrived back at the group Erin stated we could begin our volunteer shift by heading to the kitchen. I followed her down a short hallway and into a wide room with several tables and booths bordered by a two full kitchens that wrapped around a massive island counter top. The island was laden with fruit and slow cookers full of food that Erin explained was cooked by a volunteer group from a local business. Erin invited me to grab a quick bite to eat with her before we began our work for the night. Accompanied by a woman named Bonnie, Erin and I grabbed a light meal from the spread of food and sat down at one of the tables in the adjoining room. A moment later Bonnie joined us with a small plate of her own.

Over the next few minutes the three of us talked over our meals, discussing the volunteer history Erin and Bonnie had with the organization. The two of them explained their years or service with the organization and the surprisingly long tenure of the volunteers at the Madison Ronald McDonald House. I listened on, humbled by the commitment to the charity that the two of them shared. As we talked, tenant families at the Ronald McDonald House trickled into the kitchen and grabbed something to eat. Bonnie and Erin were quick to ensure the room remained clean and well stocked with food items as more families entered. With everything in order, Bonnie, who was already well passed the end of her volunteer shift, decided to head home for the night just as another volunteer, Vern, entered the kitchen. Like Bonnie, Vern sat down with Erin and I and talked about the Ronald McDonald House and his experience with the organization. He shared stories from his years of volunteer service and from his eventful life as he caught up with Erin and got to know me. I couldn't help but feel welcomed by the warm and caring personalities observed in those first few moments at the house. It was clear each person that volunteered was there for a reason and that heart and compassion were at the core of all their actions.

Lunch with love!
After wrapping up our meal and doing a little cleanup in the kitchen area, Erin and I made our way back to the lobby. Erin walked me to the back of the front desk where we found several volunteers sorting through contact cards to ensure tenant records were up to date. After getting a quick update from the other volunteers, Erin turned to one of the Ronald McDonald House staff members, Keegan, to ask what tasks needed to be done. Keegan pointed out a few tasks we could address during our volunteer shift, which included making bag lunches for kids staying at the house, cleaning some public areas in the building, and vacuuming heavily trafficked areas of the building. In turn, Erin and I went to work cleaning up a play room used by children staying at the house, making lunches for the following day, and doing our best to undirty the many area rugs and carpets throughout the building's many gathering areas.

Before long I was surprised to find we had burned through 90 minutes of our volunteer shift. With only one hour of my shift remaining, I felt like I had accomplished a lot to help the Ronald McDonald House staff and tenants, but the entire experience had been a relaxed, team effort. After Erin announced she had to leave a little early due to a personal obligation, I told her I would stay through the end of the volunteer shift to ensure the volunteer crew covered all the needed responsibilities for that night. With roughly 45 minutes left in the volunteer shift, I did what I could to help the crew tidy up the house and take care of loose ends before we all gathered behind the reception desk one last time. For the last 15 minutes of the night we talked about what we had accomplished and shared stories about our personal experiences. Like earlier in the night, each person I learned more about shared a common thread of care and amity that ran through all of their words and actions. After three hours of house work, everyone there, myself included, clearly felt great about their contributions to helping the families of the Ronald McDonald House.

The Ronald McDonald House Crew

Tonight was one of those volunteer experiences that leave a lasting impact. Before today I knew the Ronald McDonald House did great things for families facing medical issues, but I was unaware of the sense of duty and dedication that each of the organization's volunteers share. There are truly amazing people that give their time and effort to the Madison Ronald McDonald House, and they do it for all the right reasons. I don't know when I will have the time to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House again, but I know I will definitely make it priority when given the chance. This is a special place that does incredible work because of truly special people. I haven't done a plug during my "I have never..." blog before, but I will say this; if you are ever looking for a great place to volunteer, give the Ronald McDonald House a try. I promise you won't regret it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Day 42 - Entering an Eating Contest

I have never been in an eating contest. As someone that weighs roughly 150 pounds at little more than five and a half feet tall, an eating contest has never been on my short list of competitions to try. With knowledge I don’t have much capacity in my smaller than average frame, I figured participating in such an event would either result in me losing terribly or heaving up whatever I was trying to force down at high speed. In turn, I avoided the very limited number of opportunities I have had to enter eating contests over the years, opting instead to watch others become messy fools in the name of rapid consumption. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t likely I would enter an eating contest during my life, and I was OK with that idea. That stated, over the past month and a half my ongoing “I have never…” challenge has caused me to consider a lot of experiences I wouldn’t otherwise try. As one of those things, I knew entering an eating contest was a very real possibility during my journey. I just didn’t realize it would come this soon in my year of “I have never...”

The day began with a trip to Cedarburg, Wisconsin to attend the city’s annual Strawberry Festival, which held a strawberry shortcake eating contest. As someone that has never attended the event before, I didn’t know what to expect of the festival or the contest. I knew the event was a celebration of the strawberry harvest in the historic community of Cedarburg, but I was otherwise unaware of what it entailed. Upon arriving near the community, Rachael and I weaved our way through city streets that seemed busier than normal for a small community. As we drove closer to the city’s center, the abnormally busy streets became a compact one lane route lined with tightly parked cars and a flurry of foot traffic. As we sat stationary on a city street for minutes on end, it quickly became clear to me the Strawberry Festival was a big event for the city of Cedarburg.


The sight of the festival
Eventually working our way to the end of one of the city’s side streets, we round a corner heading into the heart of the community. Slowly easing my way into the creeping traffic, I was astounded by the site that greeted us as we came upon Cedarburg’s downtown area. The street leading through the downtown corridor, blocked off from vehicle traffic, was lined with thousands of people for as far as the eye could see. The massive crowd speckled with skin tones and brightly colored fabrics churned endlessly as people milled about from one booth to the next over the length of more than a mile. As we crept closer to the closed street and took a left turn to find parking I looked at Rachael and said, “Wow, this thing is a big deal, huh?” Rachael nodded at the obvious nature of my statement and continued directing me to a place for parking. Finally,  we were able to locate a parking space a little before noon, so we geared up for a day in the summer sun among the crowd at the Cedarburg Strawberry festival.

With knowledge the eating contest sign-up began at noon, Rachael and I found our way to a festival information booth to learn more about the event. Two women at the information booth informed us the sign-up station for the contest was located at the opposite end of the festival in the historic Cedar Creek Settlement of town. With less than 10 minutes until the sign-up process began, Rachael and I thanked the women and started a hurried walk to the other end of the festival. In rising temperatures and humidity, the two of us became more aware of the day’s heat with each step we took. Through a haze left by the previous day’s storms, the sun bore down on us as we maneuvered through the massive crowd of people. We passed one block after another of booths with food, drinks, art, and other products hoping we would find our way to the settlement quickly. I could feel the fabric of my clothing start to grip my skin as we continued through the intense summer heat in a stuffy crowd of people. It was hot, and I was ready to find some shade.


Let's do this
After 15 minutes of walking Rachael and I finally saw the Cedar Creek settlement sign appear on a corner near the end of the festival. We worked our across a street and into the alley between the old brick and stone buildings that occupied the settlement. Searching for the eating contest sign-up area we peered into booths and asked workers for directions to the sign-up location. To no avail, we continued looking around the settlement for some indication of where the eating contest sign-up and event were being held. Eventually, I round a corner and saw a modified hay wagon with a “Eating Contests” banner cast across its back rail. With no people on or around the wagon, I approached it hesitantly wondering if I had missed some obvious sign-up location along the way. Uncertain, I glanced back at Rachael as I took a few slow steps toward the wagon. Turning back my eyes toward the wagon I noticed a few items lying on the hay wagons wooden base. There, attached to a small blue clipboard, was a piece of white paper with “Strawberry Shortcake Eating” scribbled across its top. Taking a closer look, I noticed a series of heats listed with four blank spaces below each. Taking note five people had already signed up for the contest, I quickly grabbed a nearby pen and wrote my name into the first line under the “Heat 2” heading. With the stroke of a pen I was locked in for my first ever eating contest. All I had left to do was wait for the contest to begin.

The strawberry brat line
With more than one hour before the contest was scheduled to begin, Rachael and I worked our way back into the festival crowd so Rachael could grab something to eat and drink. We walked passed multiple booths with a variety of offerings searching for something new to try. Ultimately, we stumbled upon a small white tent offering a variety of Silver Creek beers brewed in the city of Cedarburg. Rachael decided to give their lighter Hefe-Weiss a try given the broiling summer heat. After taking a few sips, we wondered on searching for a Strawberry Festival staple, the strawberry brat. Considering neither of us had tried the food oddity previously, Rachael figured it would be a good choice for an afternoon meal. In turn, we made our way to the booth selling the brats, only to find a sprawling line extending back through the bustling crowd of people.

Given the contest was not scheduled to begin for another 45 minutes, Rachael and I decided to wait in queue so she could give the strawberry brat a try. Over the next 20 minutes we shuffled our way toward the booth selling the brats in the midst of the midday sun. With our beer and our bottle of water nearly tapped out, we finally made it to the front of the line. After placing her order, Rachael was presented a sauerkraut-laden, bright red sausage that was jutting out of both sides of the bun. After a dousing of strawberry sauce, Rachael started munching on the brat as we worked our way back toward the eating contest stage. Curious about the brat, I was hopeful I would have room to try one myself later in the afternoon, but first I had to get through the eating contest unscathed.

Shortly after arriving back at the eating contest area, a group of teenagers announced the competition was ready to begin. We watched on as the competition began with the first heat. For people climbed up to a folding table placed in the middle of the modified hay wagon and took their seats. The event organizers placed a bowl overflowing with strawberry shortcake in front of each participant before explaining the rules. Although the hands-free aspect of the challenge left something to be desired, I was relieved to hear the contest was a speed competition and not a contest of quantity. For the first time that day I wasn’t worried about the consequences my stomach would face as a result of my participation in the crazy little event.

Seconds after the rules sunk in, the first heat began with the four contestants smashing their faces into the bowls before them. Eating as fast as they could, I quickly realized I was out of my league. The winner of the first heat ate a fist-sized piece of cake covered in strawberries in less than 11 seconds. I knew there was simply no way I would be able to accomplish that feat. Coming to terms with my likely defeat, I heard my name called to start the second heat. I climbed the small wooden stairs on the hay wagon and took my position at the table as my competitors took their positions at my flank. With my hands held tight under the table before me, I waited for the contest to begin.


Going for it!
With everyone seated at the ready, one of the organizers turned to us and made one last check of everyone’s position. With all the contestants in satisfactory positions, the man raised one arm and yelled, “Ok, ready? 3, 2, 1, Go!” Without hesitation, I plunged my face into the strawberry soaked cake before me and started eating as fast as I could. The seconds flew by as I struggled to inhale the cake and fruit as fast as possible. With roughly half of my piece of cake gone, I felt like I could see the finish when a voice called out. “That’s it! Everyone stop!” I looked up, confused by the sudden ending of the contest. With strawberry and cake debris dripping from my face, I looked to my right and noticed cake and fruit in both competitors’ bowls. Realizing they had not finished, I looked to the sole competitor to my left and noticed a bowl so empty it looked as though it had been licked clean. Baffled, I listened on. “Here’s our winner! He took it out in a little less than eight seconds!”



Destroyed by the guy on my left
Trying to grasp how quickly the competition was over, I stayed in my seat for a moment before rising to find something to wipe off my face. As I grabbed a paper towel, I tried to wrap my head around what I had occurred. I knew I was going to lose the competition, but I couldn’t wrap my head around someone putting away what was likely a pound of food in less than eight seconds. Just as quickly as my first experience with an eating contest had started, it had drawn to a sudden end.

After a quick cleanup I worked my way back down to ground level. Stained with dribbles of strawberry juice, I slinked away from the eating contest area to greet Rachael in the crowd. We talked about the competition briefly before deciding to find our way back to the car to get out of the oppressive heat. With room still to spare in my stomach, I told her I wanted to stop by the strawberry brat stand before we left. In turn, we made our way back through the crowd of fellow festival-goers to stand in line for a second time. After a brief wait, I had my strawberry brat in hand. With anticipation, I loaded it up with strawberry sauce and took my first bite. The taste was something different. I found it good but altogether hard to describe. While I won’t try to explain exactly how is tasted, I will say I think a strawberry brat is something everyone should try. After all, it is probably one of the only “dessert meats” out there.


The strawberry brat

With my brat gone, Rachael and I walked back to the car and starting making the trek home. Exhausted from the summer heat, I had Rachael drive the second leg of the trip home. Stomach full of strawberries, cake, and brat, I quickly dozed off in the passenger’s seat as I soaked in the cool, conditioned air. Upon waking, I had time to reflect on the day’s events. In all, Today’s experience helped me learn a few things. First, summer is definitely here. Second, I’m just not cut out for eating contests. That stated, the Strawberry Festival and my first eating contest were memorable events. Although I doubt I will enter another eating contest in the future, I’m glad I gave it a try. This is something I wouldn’t have tried in any other circumstance, which means that my “I have never…” objective of exploring new things is keeping me motivated and driven to put myself out there. As a result, my first attempt at an eating contest assisted me in gaining another new experience and in crossing off another event on my “I have never…” list.