Friday, February 28, 2014

Day 292 - Getting a Manicure

I have never received a manicure. Quite honestly, I had absolutely no intentions of ever getting a manicure before I began my “I have never...” year. The idea of paying someone to beautify my fingernails simply had no appeal to me, and as far as I was concerned the manliest thing about the practice was the first three letters of the word. As a result, a manicure wasn’t something I ever anticipated I would experience, and, frankly, I was absolutely fine with that being the case.

Despite my perspective, getting a manicure and a pedicure was an experience several people insisted I tackle during the course of my “I have never...” year. Like many of the other experiences I had no interest in gaining before it, the recurrence of the idea ultimately caused me to add “getting a manicure” to my “I have never...” list of potential new experiences. Although I intended to keep the experience on reserve for a sort of back-up event should I find myself in need, Rachael recently made me aware of a manicure deal she encountered online. After a bit of persistence and persuasion on her part, I reluctantly committed to the experience several weeks ago. In turn, I found myself walking through the doors of Brio’s Hair Salon on the eastside of Madison after work this evening wondering what my first experience with a manicure would bring.

Here goes nothing...

With the salon door swinging closed behind me, I was relieved to see Rachael had decided to meet me for the experience. After greeting her briefly I turned to a small counter on my right and greeted a woman sitting behind it. She promptly introduced herself as Sarah as she typed a few things into her computer and stood up. Smiling, she welcomed me to the salon. “Well, I understand this is your first experience with a manicure.” I nodded my head in confirmation as she continued, “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you. I have plenty of experience with this kind of thing.”

The salon


Her confidence was reassuring as we moved toward the center of the salon, which was surprisingly empty with the exception of our presence. “Take a seat,” Sarah said pointing to a small table resting before a rack of nail care supplies. Still a bit hesitant, I slowly sat down at the table opposite of Sarah and did my best to get comfortable. “OK, let’s see those hands!” Sarah said, doing her best to chase off my obvious uncertainty. In response, I lifted my hands and set them face down on the table. Sarah picked them up and gave them a quick glance before moving to prepare a few supplies. “They look pretty good,” she said looking up at me, “This should go really smooth... Now, put your right hand in there.”

Sarah set down a small bowl of water fizzing from the presence of white, marble-like objects resting at the bottom of the container. “In the water?” I asked somewhat put off by the apparent chemical reaction happening in the bowl. Sarah smiled at my question and did her best to quell my obvious confusion. “Yes, the small balls are more or less a cleaner and moisturizer. It helps prepare the hands.” In response, I slowly lifted my hand and placed it into the bowl, where it was immediately enveloped by the effervescence rolling over in the bowl. The feeling was strange and unique at first, but it became somewhat soothing as I familiarized myself with the sensation. All in all, it wasn’t a bad start to the experience.

Buff it!

After letting my hand soak for several minutes, Sarah lifted it from the water, dabbed it dry, and took a close look at my nails. “Yeah, we’re ready,” she said grabbing some more supplies from the table. Then, in a flurry of activity she applied a white cream to the base of each of my nails, rubbed it in, and began working on the surface of each nail with a series of tools. The speed with which she set to work made me wince at the prospect of forthcoming pain, but my fear passed almost immediately as her scraping and clipping action on my nails produced no ill effects. In fact, in a matter of moments she worked over my nails in a series of smooth, deliberate motions, leaving my nails as vibrant and lustrous as I have ever seen them. I didn’t know how I felt about it, but there was no denying they looked better than when I came in to the salon tonight.

The final touches
As Sarah touched up the nails on my right hand she asked me to begin soaking my left. As before, she removed my left hand from the solution and repeated the process she had completed on my right hand moments earlier. Once finished, she worked over my nails with a file and did some final touch up work before leaning back and looking at my hands together. She paused momentarily as she looked closely at some of the details of her work. While she did, I followed her eyes closely wondering what she was looking for on the surface of my hands, but before I could ask she popped her head up and said, “Alright! That’s a manicure!”


After declining on a coat of nail polish, I turned to Rachael and let her give my nails a once over. She nodded her head in approval at the work, which made me look closer at my nails in search of the differences the two of them were noticing. There was no denying my nails looked clean and uniform, but I didn’t necessarily understand the point of having such work completed on a pair on typical man hands like mine. It was an interesting experience, but I can’t say it is one that leaves me feeling I should revisit it in the future. I’m sure if I took better care of my nails to begin with it would be a much different story, but I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future. With that in mind, I can rest knowing I sat through a manicure once. I guess there's something to be gained in the experience, and if all that came from it was a good story, that still makes it worthwhile in my book. 

IHN Bonus: Makin' the news!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Day 291 - Volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank

I have never volunteered at the Second Harvest Food Bank. When I decided volunteering for a new organization each month would be a part of my “I have never...” journey, volunteering at the food bank was high on my list of potential locations to donate some of my time. Although that was the case, other volunteer opportunities seemed to fall into place during the first nine months of my year. As a result, I pushed back my intention to volunteer at Second Harvest as the months passed, thinking I could volunteer at the location when I encountered any sort of snag in locating a one-time volunteer experience. Fortunately, I never found it challenging to find volunteer opportunities up to this point, which ultimately made me decide to finally act on my intent of volunteering at the food bank by offering my assistance this month. In turn, I booked a volunteer shift at Second Harvest this afternoon and headed to the location to follow through on my tenth volunteer experience of my “I have never...” year.

The facility

When I arrived at the food bank this afternoon, I was greeted by a gathering group of people in the lobby of the building. A mix of food bank employees and volunteers from the local Lions club, each them promptly offered an introduction as I took my position among the crowd. With that, one of the volunteer coordinators took the opportunity to provide some background on the food bank for each of us volunteers. Explaining the food bank served as the central location for food pantries within a 16 county radius, the woman detailed how our work this evening would help in the food bank’s effort to distribute nearly one million pounds of food each month. As the facts settled in, I was struck by the enormity of the tasks Second Harvest take on each day. Knowing I could help contribute to that effort in the slightest way mad me glad I had finally acted on my intentions to volunteer at the food bank, and it made me excited to start our volunteer shift for the evening.


My sorting station

After our introduction to the organization, one of the food bank’s warehouse employees guided us to the back of the facility and explained our shift would focus on packaging bulk chocolate treats for distribution. The task was straightforward enough that our group began the process of organizing, weighing, and packing the candies at our independent stations shortly after arriving in the room. Within minutes, each of us was finding a groove in the process and setting marks for our progress by the end of the night. The interaction and common goal gave us all a lift as we worked through our first bags of the chocolates and stared down the work before us. With nearly a palette and a half of cased candies to work through, it was clear we had a big task before us.

Over the next three hours our group worked steadily as we chatted about the process and our independent reasons for donating our time. As I listened to the stories of others, including a fellow volunteer who was literally days away from giving birth, I couldn’t help but recognize the caliber of the individuals surrounding me. Each of them had busy lives filled with more than enough events and obligations to occupy their time, but they saw the need to help the local food bank as important enough to set aside all of those things for several hours this evening. Their collective perspective was admirable and humbling, which made me want to give my all during the rest of my shift at the food bank.

I don't mean to brag, but... I'm pretty much a sorting expert.

As the late afternoon crept into the night, members of our volunteer group slowly peeled away from the group to head home for the evening. Eventually, that left only me and one other volunteer, an older gentleman named Jeff, who quickly made a pact with me to work through to the food bank’s closing hour. Together, we carried on in conversation as we worked alongside some of the food bank employees, doing our best to whittle away at the remaining half of a palette of chocolates waiting to be processed.

In time, our effort resulted in a full palette of stacked boxes filled with goods ready for distribution, which gave both Jeff and I a sense of accomplishment as we pressed forward in our efforts. Equally committed to the idea of leaving as little work behind as possible by the time the food bank closed, we refocused and heightened our pace as the clock crept toward our finishing time. Although that effort didn’t result in Jeff and I getting through all of the candies that required sorting and packing by the time our shift drew to a close, we stood before a waist high pile of unworked boxes that paled in comparison to the work we had found when we arrived.


Looking over the remaining work along with me, Jeff offered a simple comment about our effort. “Well, I’d say we made some pretty good progress,” he said turning to me with a smile. I shook my head in agreement and looked back at the stack of boxes we had packed over the hours we were at the food bank. “Yeah, that’s a good night’s work if you ask me,” I said as I gestured toward the boxes of food ready for distribution. In response, Jeff smiled and stuck out his hand. I promptly grabbed it for a shake as Jeff continued, “It was good working with you, Caleb. Thanks for sticking this one out with me.” The kindness and sincerity in his words were impossible to ignore, but the thanks he offered threw me a bit off guard. “No thanks necessary, Jeff,” I said wondering where the comment was taking me, “This is what we came here to do, and I wasn’t about to leave until they told us it was closing time.”

Understanding my perspective, Jeff gave me a nod as we headed toward the front of the building. There, one of the employees gave us our final send off and thanked us for our time before guiding us to the door. Slinging my coat over my torso, I walked out into the bitter cold of another winter night. With the night silence of a city grown still around me, I reflected on what I had learned this evening and on the time I had put in at Second Harvest today. In the broad scope of the food bank’s enormous undertakings my effort seemed incredibly small, but I knew the significance of today’s experience rested in knowing that the work I did will help people in need find a brief moment of joy in the candy treats I had helped prepare this evening. Although those moments are incredibly fleeting, the knowledge my work might help deliver that outcome makes every part of this experience worth it. There’s something to be said for helping people, even when their names and faces are unknown. In an odd way it makes me feel more complete and, in some ways, more alive. Considering my goal is to figure out what it means to truly live, that’s a conclusion that carries weight. I just might be starting to figure this whole thing out.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Day 290 - Dog Sledding

I have never been dog sledding. As a person with an unfettered love of dogs, the idea of coasting over the snow guided by a team of Huskies has been something that has drawn me in for as long as I can remember. Although my exposure to the sport has been limited to clips of sled teams on television and in movies, I have longed to experience the bond formed when working with a team of dogs and to feel the rush of the experience since I was a child. Dog sledding has been one of those things I simply needed to experience, but up to this point in my life I never acted on that desire.

Given that reality, I knew my “I have never...” year offered me the perfect opportunity and motivation to finally experience dog sledding firsthand. As a result, I set to work finding a location to learn how to mush at the first signs of winter this year. Ultimately, that effort resulted in me finding a dog sledding outfit called the Siberian Outpost in east-central Wisconsin, which offered full mushing lessons and half day excursions over 30 acres of trails. Realizing the offering was my best outlet for finally gaining an experience I had dreamed of for most of my life, I promptly contacted the location and narrowed down a list of days that would work for the event. With a little coordination and planning, that resulted in owner of the outfit, Jim, and I landing on today as the best time for me to make good on my lifelong goal of learning how to mush.

Acknowledging the experience was one I didn’t want to gain alone, I spent the weeks leading up to the event doing my best to convince my friends to join me for the event. Although most of them were unable to make it, my friend, Wes, was quick to commit when I told him about the opportunity. In turn, the two of us drove to the Siberian Outpost early this morning and prepared for an experience we both knew we would never forget.

The welcoming crew...

Jim was quick to greet us when we arrived at the Siberian Outpost this morning. Through the frigid, -10 degree air he called to us from the opposite side of a massive dog pen containing nearly two dozen of some of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen. Curious about our arrival, the dogs followed us closely as we moved around the pen and met Jim at his location. Busy loading firewood into a massive wood burning stove, Jim advised us we could our way into a large pole shed  connected to the dog pen to prepare for the day’s events.

Happy to heed Jim’s direction, Wes and I found our way to the interior of the building and prepared ourselves for a few hours in the cold. As we did so, Jim joined us in the building and explained the day would start with some training on how to manage a sled, which would be followed by some runs around the fields and forest of his sprawling property. Eager to get started, Wes and I quickly finished up our preparations before Jim guided us into the back of the building and introduced us to a pair of his sleds.

The Siberian Outpost

Over the next 30 minutes, Jim walked us through the basic principles of dog sledding, which included dog commands, steering, balance, and operation of the sleds’ key components. Although the instructions were relatively simple, Jim was forward in warning us of the power and challenge presented by a dog team in a full run. “These dogs can pull 1,000 pounds apiece. When you get going the sled is going to want to turn over,” Jim said firmly, “You’re going to have to get physical with it; lean into turns, twist the sled, and tell the dogs their pace. They run, but you are in control. Remember that.” The words were not lost on Wes and me as we listened on. “Your safety and the safety of dogs, those are number one,” Jim continued, looking at the two of us for confirmation of our understanding.

One of our sleds

Getting schooled by Jim

Wes and I immediately offered statements of affirmation to Jim’s remarks, which set him to work grabbing a variety of rigging from a nearby container. “Alright, I’m going to be running a team of 16. The two of you will be alternating on a team of four,” Jim said concisely as he returned to the sled and made a few adjustments, “Are you feeling ready?” Wes and I excitedly confirmed that was the case before moving toward the door near Jim’s side. Jim smiled at our response and offered a simple reply, “Well, then let’s get ‘em rigged up!”

At Jim’s instruction, Wes and I helped move the sleds out to the pen where the dogs were waiting and worked the sled near the gate. Our actions caused an excited response from the dogs, who watched on with wagging tails as they leapt around in anticipation of the forthcoming run. The sight was enough to put a smile on my face as we continued through the process at Jim’s direction, which led us back into the pole shed and straight into the dog pen.

Passing through a door between a massive row of dog runs, we were greeted by the pack of dogs as they massed up around our legs. To my surprise, their excitement at our presence didn’t cause a single one of them to forgo their manners. Instead, each of the casually wagged their tails and looked up to us for attention while we prepared the harnesses for each of them. They were kind and gentle in a way that was almost unexpected given their enthusiasm and strength, which moved me to comment on their behavior.

“What good dogs,” I said petting several of them as they approached, “They are so well mannered.” In response, Jim finished placing a harness on one of the dogs and looked up at me with a smile. “You know, almost all of them are all rescues,” he said proudly, “...Dogs that they said couldn’t find a home or were unfit for families.” Stunned, I kneeled down and pet a large white Husky that had been by my side since we entered the pen. The dog responded by licking the side of my face and wagging his tail happily. “That’s Alex,” Jim said pointing to the white dog, “He was scheduled to be put down the day I picked him up. They said he was unfit to live with a family. He looks unfit doesn’t he?”

Gearing up

Some of the best dogs I've ever met... and almost all rescues

Shocked, I replied to Jim’s remark with the only thought that crossed my mind. “Him? Not one bit,” I said petting Alex once more. My comment caused Jim to pause for a moment. “...All he really needed was to run,” Jim said breaking his silence, “Now that he can, he’s one of the best dogs I’ve ever known.” Continuing in his work, Jim grabbed another harness from a nearby container and looked back at me. “I guess that’s part of the reason I do what I do,” he said conclusively. In his remark, I saw the passion Jim had for the pack of animals stirring around us. It was all I needed to know I had come to the right place for my first experience dog sledding.

Once we finished fitting each of the dogs with harnesses, Jim walked Wes and I through the process of securing the dogs to the sleds in preparation for our departure. As we did so, the dogs happily howled and played in their side-by-side positions at the front of the sleds, causing Wes and I to curiously smile at their playful behavior. “Do they normally do this?” Wes asked as Jim as he made final adjustments to the rigging. Standing and moving toward the sled Jim replied casually, “Yeah, they know what’s coming, and they can’t wait for it.” With that remark, he gave one last look over the setup and looked to the two of us. “OK, Wes you get on the race sled. Caleb you hop in the front of the cargo sled. We are ready to go.” Wes and I gave one another an excited glance at Jim’s comment, realizing the experience we had come for was finally upon us.

Ready to go!

With Wes and I in our positions, Jim slid open a massive gate at the opposite end of the dog pen and moved to the rear of the sled I had taken a seat in. “They’re ready,” he said firmly, “Now, I’m going to release the chain keeping the sleds in place, and then we’re going to go. You guys ready?” Wes and I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes,” causing Jim to shift his arm slightly and drop the safety chain to the ground with a metallic clatter. The movement was almost immediately accompanied by a single word belted over the winter air. “Hike!” Jim bellowed as he leaned into the handles of the sled. In response, the dogs tore forward through the open gate and onto a prepared trail. Wes followed suit with the same command and fell in line immediately behind us as we gathered speed. Within moments we were spiriting into the frozen terrain surrounding Jim’s home and darting toward the forest at the rear of his property. As the dogs worked in unison, I found the speed of the sled surprising, even following Jim’s earlier lesson. Regardless, those first moments of the trek were absolutely exhilarating and incredible. I would come to find those feelings wouldn’t fade until well after our time on trails came to an end.

On the trail

Over the next 20 minutes I happily rode along with Jim as Wes found his bearings on the race sled behind us. Winding through the trees and over the fields at a steady clip, we made our way around the property before Jim slowed to a stop and asked Wes and I to switch places. Excited by the prospect of gaining the experience I had come to gain, I sprang to my feet and met Wes as he called his four dog team to a stop behind Jim. Minutes later I was in position behind the handles of the sled and ready to test the skills Jim had taught me earlier. In that moment, the anticipation I held was the greatest I have felt since I was a child, but, in a way, that made sense given I was about to live a dream I had held onto since my youth.

Taking the helm!

After Wes took his position at the front of the cargo sled Jim looked back at me and gave me a nod. “You ready?” he asked bluntly. “Yeah,” I said in return, “Let’s do this!” With that, Jim called his dogs to action, leaving me behind on the trail. Within moments they pulled some 20 yards ahead of my location, which gave me the cushion I needed to fall behind Jim’s sled. “You ready, guys?” I asked as I tightened my grip and gave a quick check of my feet. Confident my position on the sled was correct I lifted my head, took a deep breath, and belted out a single word, “Hike!”

The call barely escaped my lips before the dogs dug deep into the snow and pulled my sled from its resting point. Under the force of their paws we were immediately gliding over the terrain and narrowing the distance between us and Jim’s sled. Noticing the dogs were eager, I encouraged them to continue in their effort with the commands Jim had given me earlier. “Let’s go! Pick it up!” I called, “Run, run!” In response, the dogs heightened their speed as we moved into a turn, which sent my sled sliding toward the edge of the trail. The force was strong enough to put the sled up on one rail, which forced me into action twisting the sled and leaning into the turn as Jim had instructed me earlier. Almost immediately, the sled responded to my actions, slamming back into the snow and regaining forward momentum in the tracks left by Jim and Wes. With the frigid winter air rushing by me, I laughed at the intense and amazing feeling of the moment. It was wonderful and rousing in a way that is hard to describe, which made it impossible to wipe the smile from my face.

A little frosty after 30 minutes on the trails

The euphoria caused by the experience on the sled didn’t fade for a moment as Wes, Jim, and I continued over the trails for the next few hours. With Wes and I taking turns running the race sled, we had plenty of time to get comfortable in the sport, which helped us more readily connect with the dogs and move the sleds into faster speeds. By the time we reached the end of our outing, Jim felt confident enough in the progress we had made that he gave me a chance to lead the cargo sled team of 16 dogs, which provided the perfect cap to an already amazing experience. Under the power of 16 eager Huskies I drove the sled through the woods at amazing speeds and ended today’s new experience with a rush of excitement. There’s simply no other way to describe it, today was amazing.

Ready for a post-trek snack and a nap...

In our final time at the Siberian Outpost Wes and I helped Jim remove harnesses and give the dogs some well-earned food and water. As I watched the dogs settle in after their hard work on the trails, I thought about Jim’s rescue work, his commitment to the dogs, and his love of the sport. It was clear his heart rested in every moment with the animals and his joy came from seeing them on the trails. Recognizing that reality, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelming respect for his efforts and devotion. That takeaway was the last thing I expected to gain from today’s experience, but its occurrence made an already incredible day that much better. Today was one for the books in my “I have never...” journey, and there’s a lot to be said for coming to that conclusion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Day 289 - Attending a Lecture by an Inca Spiritual Messenger/Meeting Willaru Huayta

I have never been to a talk by an Inca spiritual messenger. Normally, attending such an event wouldn’t be high on my list of things to experience in life, but my “I have never...” sub-goal of experiencing unknown elements of the world’s religion has left me open to new ideas and perspectives in faith as my year of new experiences has progressed. As a result, I found myself intrigued by the idea of attending a talk by Willaru Huayta when I became aware the globally known Inca spiritual messenger would be visiting my hometown of Madison. At minimum, I figured such an event would give me a look at a belief system that was entirely foreign to me, and I recognized there was likely something to be gained from exposure to such an experience. As a result, I committed to attending the lecture by Willaru Huayta this evening at Mimosa Books in hopes the decision would yield some valuable insights.

Mimosa... Sounds like a good place.

When I arrived at Mimosa Books this evening, I was surprised to find the lecture was being held in a small room above the store. In the room, tightly packed rows of chairs lined the half of the confined space, facing a narrow pocket of open carpet against a series of frostbitten windows. Realizing the limited scope of the seating for the event, I promptly found a chair when I arrived and shuffled through soma materials on the event as the room filled up around me. Eventually, that led one of the organizers of the event to acknowledge it was time to begin, which prompted her to greet the audience and provide a brief introduction for Willaru Huayta.

Some background
Following his introduction, Willaru appeared from behind a divider tucked into one corner of the room and took his position before the gathering of people. Speaking softly, he introduced himself and explained that his efforts to speak about faith and spiritualism were not any form of channeling or other claimed skills. Rather, he explained, his guidance came from study on world religions, from elements of his Peruvian roots, and years of meditation designed to help him achieve a higher state of consciousness. As he spoke, he made many references to the idea of a Father Wisdom and a Mother Love, which corresponded to touches on his forehead and sternum, respectively. As he spoke of them, he was clear to explain the ideas were rooted in Incan religious beliefs, but that the message was universal among all prophets and Gods in all religions. Although it was clear his views and messages were heavily influenced by aspects of Incan faith, the universality of the principles across all forms of religion provided an enlightening approach to spirituality.

Delving deeper into the intention and purpose of his message, Willaru took these basic concepts and tied them into a concept of an internal God that exists in all people. Speaking specifically to the commonly known seven deadly sins, he stated the idea of externalizing God and faith ignored the role individual decisions and personal betterment play in fulfilling life’s purpose and achieving spiritual enlightenment. He summarized this concept with a simple remark that had a meaningful impact on my perspective. “The idea that God is out there is wrong,” Willaru said, raising his hands toward the ceiling, “God is inside everyone and everything. It is our responsibility to find that and move closer to it through meditation and enlightenment.”

The thought was not entirely unfamiliar to me, but the perspective on what it meant was something new and different. The concept bound all the fundamental principles of all of the world’s faiths together and provided a personalized view of the idea of God, which was very different than the external views of God I have encountered in my experiences with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Instead of seeing God as an entity looking down from some unknown place, Willaru saw God as a guiding light and a physical trait inside all people and living things. He sought to live up to God’s will through internal reflection guided by his Father Wisdom and Mother Love. He wasn’t living up to an idea of heaven or the afterlife. He was living to create those concepts in his mind and in the world around him. The approach was equally unique and admirable, and it gave me a lot to think about as the event moved into its final phases.

The post-class gathering
During a question and answer session that followed the core of the lesson, Willaru guided the class through the concept of enlightenment and the steps needed to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Acknowledging he too had plenty of work to do to achieve this ultimate objective, Willaru used Inca symbolism to demonstrate the three steps necessary to achieve true spiritual enlightenment. Recalling early comments, he spoke specifically to the disconnection of the human tendencies to the seven deadly sins, deepening the bond to wisdom and love and permitting the mind to become intertwined with God. The ideas were simple in concept but notably challenging when considering them in practice. That alone was telling, but it provided me a new outlook on how I can strive to be better for myself and for others. The takeaway wasn’t about living and doing to live up to the expectations of some distant God, it was about finding the idea of God within and using that to affect the world around us.  That concept had power and meaning, and it left me with plenty to ponder as the event with Willaru drew to a close.

At the conclusion of Willaru’s talk I stayed in my chair for a few minutes as I thought over the content of his message. As I did so, people around me slowly filtered out of the room or drew in to Willaru for some personal interaction with the messenger. Realizing I had already gained much from the experience, I simply stood and offered Willaru my thanks as I headed for the door. With my feet guiding me down the creaky stairs leading to the city street, I thought about how my first experience with Willaru would affect my outlook going forward. Although it was impossible to determine if it would have any immediate impact, I knew the idea of internalizing my connection to whatever guiding force may exist in our world was a task with undertaking. If anything, it will help me be a better person for myself and others. In my mind, if that’s all that comes of it the idea is still worth pursuing. After all, if this life is all I have, I might as well make the most of it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Day 288 - Judging a Mixology Contest

I have never judged a mixology contest. In fact, I had never been to a mixology contest before today. This occurrence in the course of my “I have never...” year was largely a chance happening, as I was unaware a mixology contest was being held in Madison until just a few weeks ago. My discovery of the event, titled the Madtown Shakedown, came as a result of a rather random post of in my Facebook feed, which spurred me to do a little more research on the event. That effort led me to the Madtown Shakedown website, which showed the event would include some of the Madison area’s best bartenders and would provide anyone the opportunity to judge for a $10 donation to the R.E.A.P. Food Group. Realizing the opportunity was a unique way to gain a new experience and to help a good cause, I immediately decided to make time to attend. In turn, I made my way to The Wise bar and restaurant this evening for some fun and relaxation after a busy weekend of travel.

Hotel Red - The Wise

Feeling much the same I did after our nine hours of travel time yesterday, Amanda and Megan decided to join me in my “I have never...” experience for the day. After arriving at the location of the event, we were quick to grab a table in the judge’s area and settle in for the event. There we chatted for a bit as we waited for the event to begin, wondering what the experience would entail. In time, we learned the contest would include five mixologists that would be tasked with creating a unique drink using standard bar stock and a series of mystery ingredients they would not know until they took up their position behind the bar.

Let's do this!

Intrigued by the prospects of the event, Amanda, Megan, and I turned our attention to the small portable bar positioned at the front of the room just as the first mixologist approached to start the event. As he looked over the bar supplies a bit of surprised, and announcement indicating the event was ready to begin rolled over a small set of speakers positioned in the corner of the room. On cue, the bartender quickly set to work filling and rimming glasses with a variety of syrups and liquors. To my surprise, he showed little hesitation working with the mix of known and unknown materials. In a matter of minutes he had a concoction of citrus, honey, and liquor at the ready, and he was ready for the group to try his invention.

The first competitor

After letting the special guest judges take the first sips of the drink, the bartender promptly made large batches of the drink for the rest of the judges in attendance and took a position at the back of the room. Eager to get a taste of the first contending cocktail, Amanda, Megan, and I were quick to grab some samples of the drink and return to our table, where we happily sipped away at the sweet and somewhat tart drink.

Round four

Round five

As we did so, the next competitor made her way toward the bar and almost immediately set to work stirring up a drink of her own design. Comparable to the first competitor, her comfort and confidence behind the bar resulted in her completing her mixture in a matter of moments. With a little bit of flare and a lot of expertise, she worked her way through the drink before explaining her approach and drink design to the crowd. Like before, we watched on as the guest judges took the first sip before returning to the back of the room for our samples. Our first sips of the drink forced smiles onto our faces and drove us to compare notes on its quality almost immediately. Given the pace of the event and the deliciousness of the first two submissions, it was clear it was going to be a good night.

Our judging crew

This pattern continued as the remaining three bartenders each took to the bar and displayed their mixology skills. Using oils, syrups, herbs, and a little bit of fire, each of them created a unique drink that stood out against each of their competitors. As the competition drew to a close Amanda, Megan, and I acknowledged our decision in judging the competition would be a tough one, but we ultimately agreed one competitor stood out among the rest. In turn, we submitted our votes as the contest peaked with a final round of samples and a flurry of votes.

Soooo many drinks...

Putting in the vote

With all the votes submitted, Amanda, Megan, and I took up conversation over our remaining drinks as we waited to hear the results of the competition. In a pleasant surprise to cap the evening, Rachael and our friend, Katrien, decided to join us for the tail of the event, which sent us hunting for more samples to provide them. The result was a table laden with contest submission samples that carried us well beyond the announcement of the Madtown Shakedown winner. Although our choice for the best drink of the night only came in second place, we reveled in the excitement of the contest and the enjoyment of the cocktails that had emerged from the night’s competition. By the time the event was ready to draw to a close, our spirits remained high and our excitement remained undiminished. That outcome was all I needed to know attending tonight’s event was a wise decision.

The winning announcement

When I arrived home after the event tonight, I sunk into my sofa and smiled at the outcome of an entirely unplanned new experience. Although I had no intentions of making a mixology contest a part of this journey, the fun, laughs, and good drinks I shared with some amazing people tonight made me happy it had found a way into my “I have never...” year. Sure, we didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for after casting our votes. However we did get to see some amazing talent in action, we were able to taste some drinks that stood out among the cocktails I have experienced in my life, and the money we donated to participate is going to a great cause. With that, I have every reason to say tonight’s experience was one worth having.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Day 287 - The Apostle Island Ice Caves

I have never seen the Apostle Island Ice Caves. The formation of these ice laden coastal caves on Lake Superior occurs only infrequently as a result of the massive and unstable waters of the world’s largest fresh water lake. In fact, the last time the frozen lake was stable enough to make passage to the caves was more than five years ago, which makes the event exceedingly rare during the course of my lifetime. As a result, experiencing the ice caves firsthand became an event I wanted to tackle when I recently became aware the caves were accessible this winter. The occurrence falling during the course of my “I have never...” year was simply too good to pass up, and if I’ve gained anything during the course of the past nine months it is a heightened sense of adventure. As a result, I began talking about the idea with friends, hoping I would be able to have some company on my trek north to take in the Apostle Island Ice Caves.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to search for accompaniment long. After Rachael declined going due to weather and other obligations, I floated the idea to my friends Amanda and Megan, who immediately latched onto the idea. As a result, we started making plans that would work for the trip, which eventually resulted in us landing on this weekend as the perfect time for all of us to head to Lake Superior. The result was some coordination with Amanda’s mother that led us to their family cabin in Land O’ Lakes on Friday night, hopeful the winter weather wouldn’t spoil our plans to experience the ice caves firsthand.

Arriving at the shoreline

Following the closure of the ice caves yesterday morning, we caught word the ice caves had reopened in the afternoon during our time at the Frozen Tozen festival. As a result, we rose early this morning to make the nearly two hour trip to the shores of Lake Superior and the Apostle Island Ice Caves. Although we were a little worn out from the previous day’s events, the anticipation of the experience made the trip seem relatively short. In turn, we found ourselves at the Apostle Island shoreline late this morning with a little more than a mile hike standing between us as and the start of caves we had traveled to see.

Lake Superior... Frozen and blanketed in snow

Trekking the heaves

After taking time to prepare ourselves for the -10 degree wind chill battering the lake today, the four of us promptly began our trek onto the ice. Looking out over the frozen sheet covering Lake Superior, I was stunned by the endless expanse of snow and ice that carried into the horizon. Although there were people making the journey to the ice caves with us, away from the shore rested a desolate and hostile landscape brought to life by the arctic winter. It was brilliant and empty, beautiful and intense. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life, and the bitter cold could nothing to take away the joy that sight brought me.

Approaching the caves

As we pressed on over the snow and ice, our path eventually led to the base of towering red cliffs worn smooth from the crashing of waves over thousands of years. The obvious signs of the water forming the shape of the stone made the stillness of those first moments before the ice caves eerie in a way, but the sense of wonder that came from seeing the massive ice formations clinging to the face of the rock overwhelmed any other feeling. The ice caves were amazing to the point I find them hard to describe, and so I’ll simply let the photographs from today’s experience speak on my behalf.

One of our first encounters


These icicles were as tall or taller than a grown man

Looking up at the cave ceiling

Blue ice

Deeper into the trek

Senior photo shoot

Inside one of the caves

What's in here?

Almost through...

Amanda and I under a ceiling of ice

After spending several hours among the ice caves, Amanda, Megan, Kathy, and I pressed further along the cliffs and through the caves we encountered in our path. Although we likely could have continued our trek well into the evening, it was clear our nearly six hour drive home required us to leave well before the sun crept beneath the western horizon. As a result, we decided to bring our experience to a close as the afternoon gave way to the first signs of evening.

As we made the two mile walk back toward the shore to start our drive home, I looked over the caves once more wishing I could spend more time among them. I know in our time at the location we only scratched the surface of what Lake Superior had to offer, and a big part of me wanted to see what was out in the unknown expanse of the ice sheet we had traversed throughout the day. With the distant, icebound Apostle Islands beckoning, I had to settle on the idea of returning at another time to find what parts of frozen Lake Superior I had yet to discover.

One more for fun on the way back to shore...

I took one last look over the wind swept blanket of ice covering the surface of the lake before turning back toward the shore. There I joined Amanda and Megan on our walk back to the car. Once there we removed layers of our winter gear as we chatted about the experience and the forthcoming journey home. With plenty of miles between us and our destination, we were all eager to hit the road, but a part of me wished I had the ability to stay.

Although my first experience at the Apostle Island Ice Caves was full and complete, the draw of the unknown had gripped me and spurred a sense of wanderlust I hadn’t felt before. Perhaps it was my acknowledgment of the ephemeral aspects of the experience, or perhaps it was something more. Whatever the reason, my feeling leaving those ice caves reinforced a conclusion I have reached during the course of this year. I am meant to wander. I am meant to explore and discover. In each new place I find out more of who I am, and I discover more of the unending beauty that occupies this world. That’s enough to know I am on to something good with this pursuit. All I have to do is keep it going.