I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year pining for LA.
Southern California was the first place I truly felt at home. Yea, I “moved away” for college, but I lived in the dorms all four years and had to go back to my hometown (however briefly) once per year. Grad school in California was different. Moving in with Jay was different. This was my permanent address. I changed my license. I registered my car in-state. I voted in person, at the local fire house, instead of absentee for Massachusetts.
I don’t know if living in LA caused major changes in my life, but the changes took place there nonetheless. So, suffice it to say, leaving was hard. For the last year, I’ve deeply missed the mountains and the ocean, the palm trees and the endless sunny days. I’ve missed the trails of the San Bernardino Mountains and the mom-and-pop restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve missed the feeling that, at any moment, I could drive over the horizon and discover some natural wonder in the immensity of the West.
By comparison, Illinois seemed hopelessly dull. Sure, Chicago was kind of cool, but all of its appeal seemed man-made, imported, artificial, expensive. The running trails were crushed gravel that turned to slush in the frequent rain or paved bike paths that were little better for running than regular streets. In every direction, corn fields. And where there weren’t corn fields, soy beans. Oh boy.
But, after Jay got his new job in downtown Chicago and started saying things like “I guess this is really my home now,” something shifted. We had been holding our breath for the last year: would he stay or would he go? Was Chicago a temporary stop due to unforeseen circumstances or a new phase in building a career? Now, these questions were answered. This was home. It was time to stop wishing it were otherwise.
Like the song says: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. For the rest of this summer and moving into the fall, the goal is to explore the Great Lakes region and more, through day trips and weekend excursions. Instead of constantly aspiring to big vacations and longer escapes abroad, we’re looking closer to home and learning from the kindness, hospitality, and resourcefulness of those around us.
For example, this past weekend we took a day trip to Madison, Wisconsin. Nothing too crazy, nothing too stressful, but still one of the best days Jay and I have spent together in months.
We left at 6:30am and started driving north along the 90. By 9:30am, we reached our first destination – Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
The outdoor gardens are free to the public and the conservatory has a small fee of $2/ticket. We spent a couple of hours strolling around the grounds in the morning before it got too hot. The highlight of Olbrich is the Thai pavilion, donated by the Thai government to the city of Madison and the only pavilion of its kind in the US. Every botanical garden I’ve been to in the past has had a Chinese or Japanese garden, so the Thai theme was a welcome change of pace.
After the gardens, we drove into downtown Madison for breakfast at Short Stack Eatery. The place was busy on a Sunday morning and the line to order wrapped around the block, but service was fast, the decor was adorable, and the food was awesome. We hadn’t been out for brunch in a long time, so we scarfed down sweet potato oatmeal pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I also got the blind special of the day, half-off if you don’t ask in advance what’s in it, which turned out to be a delicious salmon croquette topped with a fried egg and a side of salad frisee.
We finished eating earlier than expected, and spent a little time wandering around lovely downtown Madison, around the State Capitol. The area has tons of cute, independent shops and clothing stores to cater to the UW-Madison community. I picked up a wraparound skirt and crop top at Ragstock. We also got gelato (depsite not being at hungry at all) because gelato is always a good idea.
Next, we headed out of the city and over to Hinchley’s, an operational dairy farm in southern Wisconsin that supplies milk to Dean Foods. In addition to a herd of over 200 cows, the Hinchley family also manages 2000 acres of corn, soy, and alfalfa, much of which is used to feed the herd. Tina, whose husband and brothers-in-law inherited the farm from their father, runs farm tours to give the public a real look at farm life and share the farmer’s perspective on hot-button topics like animal welfare, GMOS, and farm subsidies.
Much of what she said on the tour challenged my default liberal-progressive views on agribusiness. For example, when she told us that the farm neighboring Hinchley’s was recently sold to a Japanese corporation for $35 million, I expected Tina to dislike foreign encroachment on US farmland. Instead, she seemed sympathetic and welcoming. Some Japan’s fields were contaminated with radiation after the tsunami destroyed Fukushima, she noted, and Japanese people need food too. She repeatedly said that regardless of the tax status of the enterprise, all farms were family operated: People with families live and work there. Maybe it was the clever businesswoman talking, or maybe she really feels this. Either way, I love hearing different perspectives and I’m looking forward to reading more about these topics.
In addition to being thought-provoking, the farm tour was good old-fashioned adorable, chock full of cute animals. First, we met the cows (and even got to milk one because of course – it’s a dairy farm!). Then, we met the babies: recently birthed calves and kittens that will grow up to guard the hay in the barn from mice. Next, baby goats, sheep, chickens and geese. What more could you ask for?
After the farm tour, Jay and I drove home, but not before stopping at Crisp in Lakeview for ChiTown’s best Korean Fried Chicken.
Next up: a weekend in Minnesota for the State Fair.
See, the Midwest isn’t so bad! 🙂