Thursday, June 23, 2011

#33. Crown Hill Cemetery

Cemeteries get a bad rap. They are seen as places to be avoided, creepy areas that one only visits in times of mourning or in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. If you tell someone that you are visiting a cemetery, they will look at you with concerned eyes, cock their head, and smile while slowly backing away, thinking "Get me the hell away from this person!" Unfortunately, pop culture has ingrained a fear of cemeteries in our minds. Because books and movies use cemeteries as settings for murder and zombie attacks, we have an irrational aversion towards them. American culture is very uncomfortable with death, and cemeteries are the one place where this reality cannot be avoided.

Buffy chillin at the local cemetery
In my experience, cemeteries are peaceful places that spark important reflection. Surrounded by so many headstones, the inevitability of death is not frightening, but ordinary. Knowing that so many humans preceded me is humbling. I enjoy looking at the dates on the tombstones and pondering how life has changed since then. I always come to the conclusion that at its core, nothing has changed. Plus, it's fun to look at the weird last names and headstones.

I love tennis, but not this much
I realize that some reading this are thinking that I am a cemetery obsessed melancholic who hangs around tombstones on a regular basis. The truth is that I much prefer humans to corpses and have wandered around a cemetery fewer than a handful of times. This post, however, prompted me to add another visit to the list.

Crown Hill Cemetery, located across from the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), is the third largest cemetery in the nation. Its 555 acres are filled with gently rolling hills, expansive trees, and the graves of Indiana's most notable people. President Benjamin Harrison, the founder of Eli Lily Co., and the infamous bank robber John Dillinger are just a few of the recognizable names buried there. Entrance to the park is free and thousands flock to the grounds annually.

An example of the beauty to be found within Crown Hill
Because the cemetery gates close at 8 p.m., my 7 p.m. arrival was not well planned. I started off on foot, but quickly realized that if I continued walking, I would be spending the night in the cemetery. I know that I defended cemeteries earlier, but being locked in one for the night is decidedly creepy. All of the lofty ideals of daytime disappear when the moon replaces the sun and every breeze through the trees is a serial killer who wants to slowly disembowel me. With this paranoia in mind, I returned to the parking lot and hopped in the car.

I know that the best way to take in a new environment is on foot, but I still got a lot out of driving through the cemetery. I was able to see a much greater area of the grounds and locate the James Whitcomb Riley memorial. Driving up the hill, extravagant headstones and Grecian sculptures denoted important people.

Once I parked my car at the top of the hill, I was finally able to see the fabled skyline views from the James Whitcomb Riley memorial. Above the treeline the top of the Indianapolis skyline can be viewed. Although the Indianapolis skyline is small and not especially impressive, seeing it from this vantage point made me appreciate it more.

View from James Whitcomb Riley Memorial
While I enjoyed the city view, the panoramic view made a greater impression on me. Treetops stretched for miles. It gave the impression that Indianapolis was a city surrounded by a grand forest, an urban area isolated by miles of nature. Until that moment, I had never realized how much I take the green space in Indiana for granted. Sure, there are loads of developed areas, but there is always a park or open area to counterbalance the urban sprawl.

As 8 o'clock approached, I regretted having to leave the cemetery. The expansive trees, quiet evening languor, and miles of varied stone markers made for a setting of quiet beauty. My friend and I encountered very few other people, and a feeling of blissful isolation prevailed. To complete the magical aura, a prancing deer frolicked among the scattered tombstones. (I am not kidding, this actually happened.)

Crown Hill is utterly romantic, and the vista from the James Whitcomb Riley memorial is a must see.

Statue in the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial
If you decide to go and have some spare time, the IMA is right across the street. I suggest wandering through the 100 Acres exhibit. It is definitely worth a look, and like Crown Hill, it is free.

Park of the Laments by Alfredo Jaar

"Igloo" where last summer two people lived self sufficiently for a month. Read about it here

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

#26. Take a Dip in a Quarry Hole

Indiana is known for a number of things including: corn, basketball, James Dean, racing, limestone, and... that's about it. The lattermost item on this list is the one that is most relevant to this post. Indiana limestone, a  calcium carbonate rock, was formed by the accumulation of marine fossils. Yes, that's right--marine fossils in Indiana. Some 300 millions years ago, a shallow inland sea covered much of the Midwest. These crustacean deposits compacts for millions of years and eventually created the very distinct and beautiful Indiana limestone. 

James Dean. Sigh.
At the height of its popularity, limestone was used in buildings nationwide. The Empire State Building, Pentagon, and Washington National Cathedral are just some of the well known buildings that were constructed with Indiana limestone. Due to its high demand and price, quarries are relatively common in the southern part of the state.

Okay, so Indiana limestone is beautiful, popular, provides jobs, and stimulates the state economy. Great! But what happens to the quarry once it is empty? Is southern Indiana riddled with monstrously empty holes in the ground? The answer, thankfully, is no. Once the cutting company is finished with a quarry, the equipment is removed and pumps, used to remove spring water, are turned off. Due natural rainfall and the absence of pumps, the quarry fills with water and voila! a natural swimming pool is created. 

There are many abandoned quarries around the state, but according to the "Indianapolis Monthly" article, many of them lie on private property. The article suggested visiting the swimming quarry located in Logansport's France Park. After checking out Google Maps and realizing that it was nearly two hours away, I decided to search for closer options. I came across White Rock Park in St. Paul. The drive was just over an hour and the park boasted infinitely cooler attractions. This quarry is more than just a swimming hole--it is practically a mini waterpark. There is a 10 meter jumping platform (aka 32ish feet for those uncomfortable with the metric system), two lower platforms, rope swing, zip line, and large area for lounging on rafts. I was sold.

Upon entering, White Rock strategically accosts their visitors with a slew of handpainted wooden signs bearing the rules of the park, among other things. The signs ranged from warnings like "SWIM AT OWN RISK" and "SAFETY FIRST!" to rules like "NO GLASS BOTTLES!" and "UNDERAGE DRINKING WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!!" These are common enough, but the number of these signs was a little excessive. I stopped counting after 24. It wasn't an especially warm introduction.

Luckily things soon turned around. A worker came up to our car and welcomed us like old friends. After paying the $10 admission fee, we explored a bit of the park. After checking out the trails and Flat Rock Creek, we could no longer resist the quarry. My much braver friends opted for the two highest platforms while I lounged in the raft area.

White Rock jumping platform
When my friends returned from the jumps, they were in pain. As novices, they did not know that experienced jumpers wear shoes. This is done so that the shoes, not the body, take the brunt of the impact. I must admit that I am glad that I did not learn this through experience.

To get a taste of what the jumps are like, watch this video. Don't mind the crappy "hardcore" music and note the jumpers' shoes.

In spite of the discomfort, my friends were not discouraged and convinced me to try the zip line. I refused to go first, but after seeing my friend successfully complete the zipline, I was ready to try it. At least I thought so. Once I grabbed the handles and was about to jump off, I froze. Most of my fear stemmed from the unsturdy conditions. Because I am somewhat short I could not reach the handle without a boost. The park's solution was to cut off the bottom of a large plastic barrel that could be stood on when the height-challenged feel the urge to zipline. After about five hesitatant attempts, I said a quick prayer and pushed off.

It was exhilarating yet strangely peaceful. Gliding suspended through the warm humidity made me forget my initial fear. I was so thankful for my friends' encouragement and my jump. Before the experience turned transcendental, it was time to let go. I relaxed my grip, plugged my nose, and fell into the turquoise water below. Coming to the surface, I was beaming. I swam over to the edge, climbed the steps, and did it again.

Watch this video to see a man do the "ziploc" for all his "bitches and hoes"

Completing the zipline gave me the confidence that I  desperately needed. After this, jumping off the (lowest) platform  was not much of a problem. Soon I was on my way to the second highest platform when a staffer informed me that the quarry was closing and I could not jump. I was disappointed but knew that nothing would likely top the zipline.

I am so glad that I gave White Rock a chance. The first impression was not great, but I plan on returning soon with more friends. Maybe they will be brave enough to try the rope swing, because I definitely am not.

#29. Deal a Game of Euchre

For years I avoided euchre due to its strange spelling and intricate rules. This was difficult considering that my mom regularly hosted a euchre night for approximately 20 giggling high school girlfriends. Euchre seemed to surround me, whether it was at family functions, at home, or even hanging out with friends. I could not escape it, so I finally caved in and learned the game. It was a good choice.

Before I get any further, a bit of explanation is in order for those unfamiliar with the definition of this odd word. Euchre (pronounced yoo-ker) is a four person card game. The four people split into teams of two and compete against each other. The goal of the game is to be the first team to win ten points. Like many card games learned after 'war,' euchre has a complicated set of rules that are best learned by playing. I am not especially skilled at giving directions, so if you are unfamiliar with the game and really clueless, continue to this link before I confuse you with my bumbling attempts at instruction. Or check out this video by a store clerk on his lunch break:

Once one gets over the initial overwhelming learning stage, play euchre is tons of fun. In Indiana, it is basically required to know how to play. Real life evidence: yesterday at my New Student Orientation for Indiana University, my group was playing one of those horrifically mind-numbing icebreaker games. The instructor was really peppy and sweet, but the apathetic silence of my peers was starting to dampen her enthusiasm. No words or emotions passed between the group members until one brave girl told our group that she enjoyed playing euchre. Every face lit up and energetic chatter broke out as we traded our euchre stories. Everyone, that is, except for a girl from St. Louis. When she asked what euchre was, scoffs and cries of disbelief erupted from nearly every Hoosier group member. As children of euchre, we Indiana natives simply cannot fathom those who not only do not know how to play, but have never heard of the game.

Icebreakers: Awkward Embarrassment for Everyone!

I can trace the roots of my euchre snobbery to family vacations. Nearly every year, my dad's side of the family vacations together in South Carolina. Days are spent on the beach and nights consist of board and/or card games. It was in South Carolina, not Indiana, that I first learned to play euchre. Continuing the tradition this year, an intense euchre game broke out amongst me, my mom, and cousins. I was partnered with my 21 year old cousin Morgan. Our power duo took on my mom and 13 year old cousin Nick. 

At first, the outlook was grim for me and Morgan. We took few risks and luck was not on our side. The score reflected this: their 9 points to our 2.  Out of nowhere, Morgan became a euchre maverick. She took risks that a base jumper would envy. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but her recklessness was rewarded; before our opponents realized what was happening, Morgan and I came back from a seven point disadvantage to win the game. It was truly a game for the Euchre Hall of Fame, if such a thing exists.

Even in South Carolina, I was able to bring some of Indiana with me thanks to the convenient portability of euchre.

#1. Sit at the Counter at Zaharakos

In the "Indianapolis Monthly"article, an ice cream sundae accompanied the exotic Zaharkos. The quintessential American dairy product seemed completely unrelated to its juxtaposed Greek word. Despite this multinational anomaly, Zaharakos is in fact the name of the old fashioned ice cream parlor located in downtown Columbus. I was able to conveniently combine the architectural tour of Columbus (#28) with this most delicious of ventures. For those of you thinking that Columbus is even more appealing now that ice cream is in the mix, you are reading the right blog.

Located in a Historic Landmark (what else would you expect of this town?), Zaharakos is housed in a grand 110 year old building. Upon entering the Tiffany-style stained glass door, a sprawling marble counter and mahogany woodwork immediately impress. Vintage soda pulls line the counter and the staffers wear white button downs, black bow-ties, and dorky white paper hats. The uniform was uncomfortably reminiscent of my former days as a waitress at Steak N Shake. Despite this unfortunate parallel, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the scene.

Counter at Zaharakos

Table section of Zaharakos
The lunch menu at Zaharakos consisted mostly of salads and sandwiches, but a few choices offered unexpected additions that broke up the monotony to which so many lunch menus fall victim. I had the Artisan Grilled Cheese and Avocado with a side of fruit. I am a grilled cheese connoisseur (my taste is oh so refined) and this was definitely one of the best that I've tasted. The only grilled cheese that has topped Zaharakos' was Oh Yum! Bistro's Ultimate Grilled Cheese.

After the entree, I was ready for dessert. It would be a sin to visit Zaharakos without ordering something from the fountain. I had looked into the place beforehand and nearly every review said that the Green River float was a near-requisite signature, so I decided to disregard my common sense aversion to bubbly green drinks and order it anyway. It was not the best drink of my life, but it was not the worst. That superlative goes to a Rockstar Energy Drink. Shudder. The Green River soda was a rare flavor that I can most closely describe as sugary sweet lime. The vanilla ice cream lended a creamy taste. The combination was something one would expect from at a family reunion punch bowl; something made by the crazy aunt who flew in from the Florida Keys with lots of souvenir limes in hopes of putting a Margaritaville twist on the frothy classic.

Green River Float

Even if the Green River float was a little funky, the ambience and our adorably chatty waitress made the entire experience worthwhile. A museum and general store ala Cracker Barrel were attached to the restaurant and made for fun browsing. 

Soda counter in museum
Zaharakos' spin on a general store
Zaharakos is just another cool thing in Columbus that made the day trip loads of fun.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

#28. Tour Columbus Architecture

When one thinks of architecture tours, cities like Chicago and post-Reconstruction Berlin come to mind. Columbus, Indiana, a city of 39,000, is pretty much the last place one would expect to find work by some of the most celebrated architects of the 20th and 21st centuries. But this is surprisingly the case. I must admit that I was doubtful, but after doing a bit of googling, I came across an article by the New York Times' Matt Gross, the former Frugal Traveler. I am an avid reader of the Frugal Traveler blog, so I knew that if Columbus made the cut it would be worth my time.

A bit over an hour's drive from Indianapolis, Columbus is conveniently located off I-65. I have an irrational fear of interstates and semis, so I opted for the traffic light-riddled US 36. Just when I was beginning to hate my choice for the havoc it was wreaking on my breaks, the road opened up and rolling country landscapes prevailed. Time weathered barns, contently oblivious cattle, and open cornfields provided the perfect backdrop for my mini roadtrip. Rolled down windows allowed a warm breeze to infiltrate the car and my friend's mix CD completed the scene. The commute was a harbinger of the peaceful town that awaited me.

Entering Columbus, the town seemed almost cloyingly sweet. Picturesque old estates and a perfectly kept main street seemed to be straight from a State Farm Insurance commercial. I half expected all of the citizens to drop their business and line the streets, goonishly waving to our car full of daytrippers. Sarcastic reverie aside, the town was welcoming and the buildings were beautiful. After reading the NY Times article, I learned of the inexpensive walking tour brochure available at the city's visitor center. The center houses blueprints, history, Dale Chihuly pieces, and unfailingly kind employees. After paying for my fold-out brochure, the cashier played a 15 minute introductory movie for us.

Chihuly pieces in the Visitor Center
Chihuly chandelier
I had no idea what to expect from the movie, but it was very informative. The movie explained how the town came to be ranked sixth in the nation for "architectural innovation and design" by the American Institute of Architects. The story is actually pretty interesting. J. Irwin Miller, a citizen and owner of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, was a dedicated parishioner of the First Christian Church. The community was looking to construct a new place of worship, and Miller wanted to bring modern architecture to the lackluster town.

Miller saw the church as the perfect opportunity and proposed the plan to Eliel Saarinen, a famous Finnish architect. Saarinen turned down the proposal (can you blame him? It was a church in the middle of a cornfield!) but Miller doggedly pursued the matter and eventually brought Saarinen on board. The church became a National Historic Landmark and provided the impetus for the lifelong friendship between Miller and Eero, Eliel's son. Eero, the designer of the St. Louis Arch, went on to design two more National Historic Landmarks for the city: the Irwin Union Bank Building and the J. Irwin Miller home.

Irwin Union Bank Building

Although the movie was helpful, I know hardly anything about modern architecture. Because of this, I felt somewhat unqualified while touring Columbus. Rather than allow this to spoil my day, I decided to stick with my untrained instincts. There were some buildings that wowed me. The entrance bridges to the city, North Christian Church, courthouse, and AT&T Switching Center were all breathtaking. The playground at the newly renovated Commons Mall made me want to revert to my diminutive 10 year old self.

Bridge into Columbus
North Christian Church
Prototype for the Commons Playground

But others were not so impressive. The building that started it all, the First Christian Church, was borderline ugly. The library by I.M. Pei (the man behind the glass addition of the Louvre) seemed outdated. Maybe this is due to my untrained eye, but sometimes uninformed thoughts are more genuine than those warped by popular belief.

First Christian Church
What's with the random tower?

Although I was not enamored with every building, I appreciated the variety. The risks taken were respectable and the motive was admirable. Miller believed that bringing innovative architecture would lead to civic improvement. His belief urged citizens to keep up their properties and take an active role in the design of their city. This involvement created a sense of strong community and pride. The thought of an architectural oasis in the middle of Indiana farmland may seem ridiculous, but in reality it is ingenious.

Columbus citizens even take pride in their minivans...

#43. Buy Something Vera Bradley

Quilting has historically been a popular pastime for Hoosier women. As someone who grew up visiting church bazaars, county fairs, garage sales, and antique stores, quilts are nothing novel to me. My bed and linen closet are filled with quilts made by great grandmothers and other elderly progenitors. Like many hobbies of yore, quilting is not as common among the younger generation. Maybe this is because now we have Hulu and Facebook to fill our time (stereotypical, but not that far off). Whatever the reason, quilting has been on the decline.

Quilting stereotype: Amish grandmothers

That is, until the creation of Vera Bradley. Two friends from Indiana decided to fill the void of "feminine-looking" luggage by crafting quilted cotton luggage, handbags, and accessories. These two women did the impossible. They turned a small time business venture in Fort Wayne, IN into a hugely successful national business.

But more impressively, they made quilting cool. Walking through the halls of my Catholic high school, one would think that the colorfully patterned quilted bags were added to the uniform code; Vera Bradley bags were almost as common as the plaid skirts.

Despite the bags' popularity, I never felt compelled to purchase anything Vera Bradley. I rarely carry handbags and when I do, they are simple leather castoffs from my mom or garage sales--I am really cheap and I like pockets. So when I saw this item on the list of 50 things to do, I was doubtful that I would actually complete it. However, thanks to my wonderful neighbors' graduation gift, I can cross it off the list.

I live in one of those idyllic neighborhoods where the lawns sprawl and the neighbors are friends and practically family. So for my graduation, my neighbors were extremely generous. Not only did they provide endless assistance during my open house, but they gave me incredible gifts. Three of my craftier neighbors coordinated their gifts. They each bought me separate Vera Bradley bags in the same Very Berry pattern. I am now the lucky owner of matching zip ID holder, sunglass case, tote, and duffle bag.

Please excuse the jaundiced Ebay-esque picture
My neighbors did more than give me cute, useful presents; they saved me some money for completing this post. So thank you Kaaren, Andrea, and Shelly for your wonderful gifts and reminding me of one more reason to love Indiana.