Saturday, August 20, 2011

#35. Mount Baldy at the Dunes

Family vacations are a strong tradition in my family. Nearly every summer, four of my father's siblings and families caravan alongside ours to the shores of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The drive is long and treacherous--nearly 16 hours of my uncles speeding through the hills of the Smoky Mountains. Every year we begrudge the trip, but once we reach the beach we always forget the miserable commute.

Because of these annual drives to the beach, I always assumed that it was necessary to travel hours to get to a decent beach. I mean why else would we put ourselves through such torture every summer? Thanks to this blogging expedition, however, I uncovered this lifelong scam. Just three hours away lie the Indiana Dunes, a treasure trove of beautiful beaches on Lake Michigan, a body of water large enough to be passed off as an ocean when standing on the shoreline.

My trip to Mount Baldy, a 126-foot high sand dune, followed my trip to the Shipshewana Flea Market. After an hour and a half drive from Shipshewana to Michigan City, the dune loomed large in front of me.

Posterior of dune, as seen from parking lot
As if the sheer size was not enough, a sign at the beginning of the trail to the dune warned of the difficult hike that lay ahead.

Needless to say, I was intimidated. Surprisingly, however, the hike was pretty easy. Paved paths and stairs aided in the ascent; the only difficult part was at the end and lasted for maybe twenty feet. And the view at the top is so beautiful that the last twenty feet are completely worth it.

Looking down at the gorgeous water and feeling the soft sand on my feet, I hardly felt like I was in Indiana. Then I looked to the east and saw a giant coal factory. Oh well, I guess one can't be too picky.

Factory aside, the beach at Mount Baldy was picturesque. I visited around 5 pm, so the beach was largely empty save a few families.

Sand castles left behind by a family
At the shoreline, the sand of the dunes gave way to tiny smooth pebbles. I found the pebbles to be preferable to sand as they are easy to shake off and don't leave one with the annoying lingering graininess of sand. My friend and I waded to our knees in the cool clear water. Once we returned to shore we napped on a sun-dried log, worn out from the long day of driving and shopping.

Basking in the sun on the nearly deserted beach was utterly relaxing. The distant cries of seagulls, soft breeze, and warm sun made for cliched tranquility. After a couple of hours of taking in the beach, we departed for the much less exotic streets of suburbia.

Friday, August 19, 2011

#40. Hunt for Treasure at the Shipshewana Flea Market

Bonnet-topped Amish women and $1 sunglasses may seem completely unrelated, but at the Shipshewana Flea Market the two are harmoniously juxtaposed. Located about 3.5 hours northeast of Indianapolis in the heart of northern Indiana's Amish country is the sprawling Trading Place of America, or Shipshewana Flea Market. From the beginning of May to the end of October, the flea market is open from 8 am to 5 pm. During this time thousands of people come from all over come to take part in this one of a kind shopping experience.

Typical crowd at the Shipshewana Flea Market
This past Wednesday I made the long drive and joined the flea market crowd. The drive was pleasant and pretty, but that is to be expected when driving through Indiana farmland. Nothing was especially notable until I entered Shipshewana. I was surprised to find myself edging toward the center of the lane to make room for galloping horses pulling buggies in the shoulder. Men with full beards and wide brimmed hats sat in the buggies, unperturbed by the cars zooming uncomfortably close to them. Having never visited Amish country, it was very interesting to see the archaic Amish culture side by side with the modern amenities I take for granted on a daily basis.

I began the trip by strolling through Yoder's Meat and Cheese Market. Samples of cheese and meat cubes were available and even encouraged. I happily sampled the offerings and immediately warmed to the flea market.

Fortified by the makeshift h'ors d'oeuvres, I began snaking my way through the more than 900 booths. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and breads tempted visitors upon their immediate entrance. Beyond that laid an overwhelming variety of some of the most random, useless, but inexplicably necessary knick knacks known to man. Dog clothing, tacky lawn decorations, and creepy crying baby dolls could be found in addition to actually useful things like beautiful quilts, athletic socks, and economy-sized shampoo.

Handmade quilts were a common commodity
I really enjoy thrift and antique stores for the hunt involved, as well as the low prices. Luckily one of my best friends shares this affinity and together we were perfect shopping companions. We took our time, stopping in a variety of booths and carefully considering our purchases. Our approach was leisurely; we had nothing specific to search for and instead enjoyed the lazy wandering. I may be biased, but I feel this is the best way to tackle a flea market. Hidden gems are much more likely to be uncovered when one slows down.

My favorite stalls were those peddling jewelry and antiques. I love vintage jewelry and glassware, and the flea market was filled with both.

Although I made a wide variety of purchases, my favorites are the vintage jewelry that I bought. I was able to buy two necklaces, a bracelet, a pendant, and a pair of earrings for $15.

There are other cool things about the flea market besides what I brought home. Chatting with the shopkeepers, enjoying the pleasant weather, people watching, and trying on wigs in a wig store were all memorable parts of the day.

After several hours of shopping, my friend and I were ready to eat. We ate at the Auction Restaurant, an Amish eatery. The lunch was not especially great, but the piece of blueberry pie that I split with my friend was. Warm pie crust filled with fresh blueberries and whipped cream was the perfect end to a lovely day at the flea market.

Weird lighting, excellent pie

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

#49. The Indiana State Fair

Usually the Indiana State Fair is something best remembered for its horrifying fried creations (first Twinkies, then butter, now Kool Aid) and pungent livestock. In a cataclysmic and devastating tragedy, this year's fair will go down in history as the year when five people died and many more were injured when a stage collapsed during a storm. This freak accident definitely left a somber mark on this year's Fair as people everywhere prayed for the unfortunate victims.

Fair officials did an excellent job dealing with the disaster and a memorial fund has been instituted. Although the hearts of Hoosiers go out to the families and victims, the Fair is continuing to its arranged end.

While several concerts and events were re-scheduled because of the accident, the popular $2 Tuesday took place today as planned. The Indiana State Fair can be very expensive as the admission, parking, food, and rides quickly add up. As an impending college student, my budget is limited and $2 Tuesday allowed me partake in every fair activity that I desired.

The savings began as soon as I entered the fair. Before arriving at the fairgrounds, I called ahead to ensure that free infield parking was still available. It was, and I attribute this to the fact that many schools are already in session, thus significantly reducing the number of potential fair goers. This allowed me my first savings of the day, as parking is usually $5 or more outside of the fairgrounds. Frugality continued with a printed-out $2 admission voucher.

Once inside, my friends and I were delighted to find that all Midway rides were $2, which is still pricey but much better than the normal rates.

We rode the Crazy Mouse, a spinning roller coaster that we all loved as children. It was just as cool as I remembered.

After the Crazy Mouse, we rode the Freak Out. It was a claw-like ride that spun in the air while oscillating back and forth. It was exhilarating and really fun, but way too short. The ride was over within a minute and a half. I guess that's what you get for $2.

Our time at the Midway ended after the disappointing brevity of the Freak Out. We instead made our way to the Ellison Bakery Home & Family Arts Building. Inside was a collection of quilts, photographs, paintings, and clothing. There was also an impressive Lego display of both Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Colts football team) and the Indianapolis 500.

Lucas Oil on left; Motor Speedway on right
Once our "artsy" appetite was satiated, we catered to our actual appetites. Because it was $2 Tuesday, many food vendors offered $2 specials. The smaller sizes were perfect for us because we wanted to sample a variety of foods without feeling too guilty. I started with a half order of fried green tomatoes with ranch. It was excellent and just as good as the movie.

Fried food really does not photograph well
After some more wandering, I had a pepperjack grilled cheese, one of the entries for the Official Indiana State Fair Food Contest. It was also delicious and a $2 special.

After the food fill, we entered the "Willkomenn to Germany!" exhibit. There was a replica of the Berlin Wall and a man dressed as St. Nikolas, although we momentarily thought he was an overly hairy Pope Benedict XVI. In all honesty, this exhibit was a let down. Last year's Japan exhibit was much cooler, as it boasted an oragami making station, cute anime-ish hand outs, fried sushi, and green tea ice cream. The stereotypical German exhibit felt like a cheap attempt at a biergarten, something one would expect from a Midwestern state fair.

Berlin Wall replica

Once we left the German exhibit we got more food because hey! it's the State Fair! We split a smaller $2 portion of fried ice cream, the 2011 Indiana State Fair Signature Food. It was sweet and cinnamon-ey, but the few spoonfuls I had were more than enough for me.

 A few hours later, we were back on the food stretch and split a $2 half order of fried cookie dough. I am usually averse to most things fried, especially dessert, but clearly this year I abandoned such snobbery. I must admit that it was worth giving up this dietary limitation, if only for the day. Otherwise I would never have experienced the delight that is fried cookie dough.


I think I ate enough fried food today to avoid all things fried until next year's fair, if not longer.

Surprisingly I did not go into food comatose and was able to enjoy the rest of the Fair's offerings. A short walk from the food strip was the DowAgro Sciences Celebration Park, the location of the Peking Acrobat show. For half an hour (although it seemed much longer), the best stars of the Chinese acrobatic troupe amazed the crowd with their mind boggling strength, coordination, and artistry.

Soooo impressive

How many Chinese acrobats does it take to ride a bike?
Once the performance ended, we wandered around the 4H exhibition hall. While inside, I saw that one of my friends and his brother both had insect collections. This was quite an accomplishment to make it to the State Fair, and his brother even won a blue ribbon!

Congrats Collin!

When 3:30 rolled around, we settled in for the Blue Monkey Sideshow. Elaborate juggling, an eerily flexible "Rubber Man," and a man who lifted a bowling ball with his earlobes were odd enough to justify the sideshow moniker. Unfortunately I did not see any sword swallowing like I did at last year's show, but the narrator explained that each show was different.

For the remainder of our time at the fair we wandered around the livestock barns, saw the world's largest boar, and a draft horse competition.

It was a full, fun day that only cost me $12 (I split the cost of food with friends). Ah, how I love $2 Tuesday!

Monday, August 15, 2011

#36. Hickory Ridge Fire Tower

Although implemented years ago, FDR's New Deal still affects modern America. For better or worse, there is no denying this fact. One of the many impacting segments of this plan was the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. Founded in 1933, the CCC "brought together the nation's young men and the land in an effort to save them both."  Thousands of unemployed young men enlisted to fight erosion and deforestation, planting more than three billion trees over the course of the CCC's nine year history. In addition to planting trees, the CCC fought fires, controlled insect populations, and built more than 3,470 fire towers. This last duty is that which is relevant to this post; the CCC constructed the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower located within the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area just southeast of Bloomington.

Standing at 110 feet, the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower was used to spot wildfires until the 1970s. Today the lookout is seemingly isolated; it is located on a six mile drive down a lonely gravel road.

Hickory Ridge Fire Tower
The 133-step ascent to the lookout cabin was initially daunting, but I found it surprisingly invigorating.

Once I reached the cabin, the view was well worth the climb. The small wooden cabin is covered with graffiti, peeling paint, and scribbled signatures. This grittiness contrasted well with the 360 degree panorama of greenery.

Apparently a good place to raise the THC levels

Situated above the treeline, one can see multiple ridges of forest. The view stretches for nearly 20 miles on a clear day, but I would estimate that my view stopped around 15 miles out due to the cloudy day. The cool, overcast day lent the sky a steely tint; the juxtaposition of evergreen and grey was beautifully melancholic.

Although I appreciated the summertime greenery, I would love to return to the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower in the fall. I can only imagine how brilliant the view would be with the infamous Brown County autumn foliage.

The nearby Lake Monroe

I snapped this deer on the way from the fire tower to my grandparents' lake house

Sunday, August 14, 2011

#7. St. Elmo Shrimp Cocktail

As a child there was no one I wanted to be more than my mother. (Although Britney Spears took that role for a few months in third grade.) Her life seemed so exciting and I could not wait to grow up to have a life like hers. While my reasons for idolization were long and varied, my desire for mimicry was strongest on the nights of her annual work party at St. Elmo Steakhouse, a ritzy restaurant in downtown Indianapolis.

My mother is a beautiful woman in any situation, but she always stunned me on those nights. When she walked down the stairs, her heels clicking and perfume wafting, she was the closest thing to a model I had ever seen in spite of her barely 5'4'' frame. The St. Elmo nights are some of the few times that I remember both of my parents dressing up and going out without me and my brother. Because of this, I knew that St. Elmo's was a magical place where beautiful parents ate steak and laughed with friends. It was a world so incredibly foreign, and therefore alluring, to an 8 year old whose social life was at its wildest during Girl Scout meetings.

Why this personal revelation of my childhood? It explains the odd reverence that I hold for St. Elmo's. Although the restaurant is nationally renowned, my regard for the restaurant is absurdly high. Before this post, I had never actually entered, let alone eaten at, St. Elmo's. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I was always weirdly impressed when anyone told me they had dined there. Whenever I would drive past it, I would peer longingly into the windows, trying to scope out the clientele. I was less curious about the cuisine than what the restaurant represented: the glamour of adulthood. So when I entered the restaurant for the first time a few days ago, the impending weight of maturity hung heavily upon my shoulders.

My friends and I entered the restaurant at 10:30 because I stupidly waited until 6:45 to make a dinner reservation. This was a poor choice because it was: a) a Friday night, b) Devour Downtown, and c) St. Elmo's. Although I was kind of bummed at first, it worked out perfectly because we were able to go swing dancing at Fountain Square Theatre for an hour or so before dinner, giving me an even better excuse to get dressed up and fulfill my 8-year-old-girl St. Elmo's fantasy.

 By the time we arrived, the restaurant was mostly cleared out. Our waiter quickly served us a bread basket and took our order: shrimp cocktail and King crab macaroni and cheese. Before I begin on the ordered food, I must pay homage to the bread basket. Three varieties of grains were cradled in that wonderful basket: pumpernickel (meh), onion rolls (heaven), and cheese bread a.k.a. gourmet Cheez Its (even better than the onion rolls). Seriously, visit St. Elmo's if only for the bread basket. It is unparalleled, and free!

Once the shrimp cocktail arrived, I was forced to set aside the gourmet Cheez Its and face my fear. In addition to luxury, I associate St. Elmo's with tearfully fiery cocktail sauce. My parents always returned from the dinner parties with cocktail sauce anecdotes and I always made a mental note to avoid it at all costs. Before I left my house last Friday, my dad told me that even my grandfather, a connoisseur of all things outrageously spicy, cried while eating the sauce. But that could be because he spooned it up plain.... Anyway, I was definitely hesitant to try the shrimp cocktail.

My hesitation was well warranted. I hated the shrimp cocktail. Sure, the shrimp was amazing and deliciously plump, but the horseradish-ey sauce ruined it for me. Even after trying to scrape off the devilish sauce, my sinuses were still on fire. The only time I can imagine appreciating the cocktail sauce would be in a time of sinus infection. Call me crazy, but I don't particularly want my food to make me cry and/or experience excruciating burning of the nasal cavity. I suppose it is an acquired taste, but one that I will gladly never acquire.

My picture was fuzzy, so this is one from St. Elmo's website
After cleansing my palette with an upscale Cheez It, the macaroni and cheese arrived. It was a behemoth portion topped with breadcrumbs and tender crabmeat. My friends and I eagerly ate to clear our mouths and memories of the cocktail sauce. This was the mac daddy of mac and cheese (excuse the pun) and easily compensated for the appetizer.

Same goes for the King Crab macaroni and cheese
Although I was disappointed with my reception of the shrimp cocktail and the doggy bag our waiter forgot to deliver, my overall experience was great. It was fun to finally partake in a bit of the ritual that embodied my parents' adulthood. Finally I was the one looking out rather than looking in.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#8. Shapiro's Corned Beef

After a long hiatus from the blog, I am finally back. For the past few weeks I was preparing for, enjoying, and recovering from a ten day service/adventure trip to Costa Rica. It was life changing and indescribably perfect,  a wonderful experience to have before going off to college. Now that I am finally caught up on sleep, I am ready to return to blogging.

Playa Rajada in Costa Rica

My first blogging adventure post-return was that of the culinary variety. After 25+ meals of rice and beans (which are fantastic, but I appreciate diversity), I was eager to try something distinctly un-Costa Rican. Shapiro's corned beef definitely delivered.

I met a high school friend and her father for lunch at the popular downtown Indy deli. It was a chance to catch up before going off to school, and Shapiro's cafeteria style service seemed oddly perfect for the farewell. Somehow it felt right to say goodbye to her with a lunch tray in hand.

Shapiro's dining room
While catching each other up on our respective summers, we stood in line and debated what to order. I decided on the classic corned beef sandwich with Swiss and spicy mustard, as well as a serving of macaroni and cheese. My friend ordered chicken salad and chicken noodle soup. Both of our sandwiches were gargantuan and her father graciously paid for our meals.

After selecting an empty table, we hunkered down with our fist-sized sandwiches. The corned beef sandwich was phenomenal: twenty, yes twenty, layers of thinly sliced corned beef, two thick slices of Swiss cheese, and a smattering of spicy brown mustard encased in two slices of fresh rye bread. The zestiness of the rye bread and mustard paired well with the salty corned beef and mild Swiss cheese. Despite the incredible flavor, I could hardly finish half of the sandwich and was glad to bring home leftovers. The macaroni and cheese was a well executed classic version--just what one would expect from a cafeteria style deli. Although nothing novel, I am a sucker for homestyle mac and cheese so I was satisfied with the choice.

While I had great success with my meal, my friend was not crazy about her chicken salad. While not bad, she described it as "chalky." Lesson: when eating at Shapiro's, stick with the corned beef. You can't go wrong.

No matter how full I may be, I can almost always find room for desserts. My friend and I made our way to the pastry case and I ordered a strawberry bar and two rugelachs--one cinnamon and the other chocolate.  While they were not as memorable as the entree, I enjoyed the sweet treats.

Dessert case
Keeping Kosher has always baffled me, as I struggle with even the decidedly less strenuous Lenten sacrifices of Catholicism. A visit to Shapiro's, however, always reminds me that Kosher food can be delicious, too.