Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Book Signing

A long, long time ago, late 2006, to be more precise, I decided that I needed to expand my literary horizons, on the input side. I was reading three or four novels per month and was running out of authors.
I have this habit of finding writers of serial novels and reading the entire series, then finding another, similar author or genre and so forth. This has inherent limitations though. I was reading mostly crime and geo-political fiction, that sort of author tends to be white and male. I figured I needed to expand my intellectual scope to include other types of authors, else get stuck with a mindset/worldview that was a bit too narrowly focused.
So I declared 2007 to be the year of the female author.
Of course I started by looking up female authors of that same genre. I didn't have a lot of luck. Then on NPR. . .  yes I listen to NPR, I heard an interview with an author who was talking about one of her recent characters. A Norwegian, lesbian, badass character, no less.
She had me at 'Norwegian'.
The author admitted that she had very little first hand knowledge of Norway, but that was part of the fun, part of the challenge of writing a series of novels.
The Author, Nicola Griffith, liked research, was almost obsessed with it.
I get that. . I too find research to be very challenging and, well, fun.
I'm one of those guys that will overhear something in a conversation, like "I can't remember what the TV show was, but it had Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. . . and maybe that little guy from Mayberry RFD. . ."
By the time they get to the question mark, I've already Googled it. ('F Troop', by the way.) I thirst for knowledge, mostly the more obscure and rarely relevant kind.
Even when I pound out one of my nearly weekly lame and silly restaurant reviews, I will look up a fair amount about either the establishment itself, or a dish offered there, or maybe just an ingredient. . . I simply love that part of the process.
So I figured that this writer and I had something very basic in common. Then again, maybe it was her voice that captivated me.
Nicola is British by birth and even though she'd lived in the U.S.,(Seattle), for several years, she still had a distinct accent. There are many different flavors of British accent, hers was not the street urchin 'Cockney', hers sounded to me more like the accent of a more well-bred, university polished, more 'sophisticated' style, the kind we Americans hear and get the impression that the person speaking must be very, very intelligent, very in-the-know. It's a BBC news reader sort of accent.
Whatever it was, I was looking for female authors, crime fiction preferably, and it had just been handed to me on a Chablis and Brie platter.
So I ordered the series.
Sure enough the voice in the books was completely different from what I was used to. It's hard to pinpoint the difference exactly, but this was new for me.
The main character, Aud Torvingen, was quiet, reflective, strong and fiercely independent, all qualities I
aspire to myself. Unlike many of the protagonists in male-driven novels, Aud didn't hunt down trouble. She didn't just rush into a room and start screeching and punching and shooting. Each time she found herself in a corner or in vicious circumstances, we heard what was in her mind. Her conflicts and decision process, as if the millisecond of time between discovering imminent trouble and engaging it were cerebrally slowed down. . as happens often in certain real life circumstances.
She required no big, strong, handsome men to rescue her or even to assist, no comedy sidekick. . .
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire series and wanted more.
I looked up Nicola on Facebook and sent a friend request. That's not an unusual thing for me to do. I often reach out to or link to authors. I like to get updates on what they are working on and occasionally I'll post a note of appreciation for their work. Usually, the more well known authors will have a page you can subscribe to, rather impersonal, Nicola actually accepted friend requests.
Within a few days, she accepted. I was impressed and flattered.
I sent a post, or something, which included a request for more Aud books.
She was working on something else though. But I wasn't the only fan begging for more.
Some of the fans wrote admiringly about an earlier work of hers, science fiction, 'Ammonite.'
So I ordered it.
I can't honestly say I enjoyed it. It lacked the pacing and the characters I'd enjoyed in the Aud series, add to that the fact that I only rarely read scifi anyhow, it's just not my thing.
It was different though. Once again it spent more time inside the head of the characters than I was accustomed to. Not much actual action at all.
Which is funny, that I don't find that more interesting, since I am terribly cerebral myself. I spend a lot of time thinking, thinking about thinking, revising and editing my thoughts, rehearsing my lines, mentally poking and prodding at things around me. . . feeling, yeah I do that too. Don't laugh, I really do have feelings, despite an abundance of rumors to the contrary. I have swirling mental anxiety storms, exaggerated fears and triumphs, even a laugh track and a theme song.
That I don't talk very often, or much, is merely reflective of all the thinking going on, the constant editing and filtering. . .
If I determine that I have little or nothing interesting, articulate, useful or amusing to add to a conversation, I'll probably just sit there with a blank, detached expression on my face and quietly bide my time. Just ask the guys I occasionally go to lunch with. At some point it always devolves into a discussion about sports, a subject I have very little interest in. If it goes on for a while, I'm off in my own little world and the next thing I hear is "Yeah, he's gone, we lost him again."
It's not personal, I just don't like to fake interest in certain subjects.
So a few female-authored books went by, I found a few I quite enjoyed, as well as many I didn't care for at all. I even read every one of Janet Evanovich's 'Stephanie Plum' books which were at the time growing in mass popularity. Why, I am not very sure. . . The first book, and maybe the next one or two, were enjoyable, funny, quirky. The rest of them were heavily repetitious and formulaic. I could not distinguish at all between 'Three to Get Deadly' and 'Hard Eight'.
Early on I had also subscribed to Evanovich's newsletter, something that I now seem to be unable to unsubscribe from, despite several overt efforts.
Admittedly I am a rather fickle fan. I have subscribed to several authors, male, female, alive and dead and subsequently unsubscribed from many of them. As soon as they start getting formulaic, enslaved to the strict form and characters that previously 'popped', I lose interest.
But I hung on to Nicola. Occasionally I'd comment on a post, a couple of times those comments were acknowledged, mostly not. I didn't want to come across as pushy or stalky.
Last week, I noticed in a post from her that she was St. Louis bound, a leg of a promotion trip for the recently released 'Hild'. She was going to make an appearance at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.
I knew of the place, it has a great reputation among we upstart, struggling, local writers. I'd just never been there.
When I saw the subsequent Facebook post that was broadcast from a hotel in St. Louis complaining about the freezing temperatures outside, I replied with a 'Welcome to St. Louis!' response.
She actually replied to that:
"Will you be there?"
Gulp. . .
That gulp is not a reflection of narcissism, that a real, live author had actually invited me to an event, no, it was darker than that.
What immediately popped into my head were dozens of reasons, excuses, that I couldn't be there.
It's just my instinct. My primary reflex is to go out of my way to avoid social situations, especially in unfamiliar places and among people I have never met. A situation like that, for me, is like hell on earth. Any other living nightmare of that amplitude involves the lopping off of limbs, or wild, swirling flames lapping at my facial features.
I know it is completely irrational, that's why it is so scary, it defies all logic and reason. A lot of people are afraid of speaking in public, I am as well, but my fears start at a point well ahead of actually standing at the podium, it starts at the door.
I was torn. I would really like to see and maybe actually meet Nicola and there wouldn't ever be very many chances.
I responded with a safe, calibrated "I'll try." It would be the next night, Friday, at 7 P.M., nearer my place of work than home, with plenty of time to leave work, pick up a bite of something and be at the bookstore.
I told Angel about it, then went and found, among the hundreds of books I have shelved and boxed, my hard covered, dust jacketed copy of 'Always'.
I knew this presentation would be about her newer book, 'Hild' but I thought I'd beg for indulgence and get a signature on this old one as well.
I knew about Hild. Nicola had been posting updates for at least a couple of years or more.  It never sounded like anything I would want to read.
The work is historical fiction. Saint Hild (or Hilda) did exist. She was born in England in 614, yeah, seventeen hundred years ago. All we really know about her is what the Venerable Bede wrote about her in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Bede was the premier chronicler, and many would say chief propagandist, of the early Christian faith in England. Whereas he details major accomplishments of Hilda, that she was sought out by kings for counsel, headed up several abbeys, and had attributed many miracles to her, including turning snakes into stone, very little is mentioned about her early life.
This lack of back-story fascinated Nicola.
Nicola knew very little about seventh century England. She recalled learning about the wars and battles and conquests, and she inherently knew that the seventh century was not a high point, anywhere, in any way, for female humans.
So she had questions. How does a peasant-born female in seventh century England break out of the chattel-like role certainly foisted upon her by the times and culture, to become, at a fairly young age, a teacher, a sought-after counselor, a renowned head of large institutions?
In order to build a plausible thesis, Nicola would have to learn as much as she could about that place and time.
She polled experts and amateur historians. She needed to know about the food, the economics, the daily lives, not of the kings and priests and princes, but the peasants, the farmers, the laborers, for this was where Hild was from.
In her presentation on Friday, yes I did attend, she absolutely glowed, radiant with stories of discovery, of hidden truths revealed about this research.
I was jealous.
I know that feeling, when you work, read, query, then finally reap the reward of new found knowledge. The assembly of dusty, nearly forgotten fragments into a tapestry, a texture, a landscape and a timeline.
For example, she told us that at one time she thought the young girl Hild might have a dog. But what kind of dog? What kind of dog would even be in England in 620 A.D.? Surely not a Pekingese, probably not a poodle. . .
So she queried the net, trolling for advice from experts, amateurs and historical records.
I find things like that nearly orgasmic. I too have done that sort of thing about Eastern Missouri in the later 1800's. What was grown in the garden at the county poor farm? How was madness, mania and dementia handled by society and medicine at the time? What happened to the paupers that died?  What kind of buggy and horses would have been common, family farm appropriate? What did they teach the kids? How was news spread?
All of these things we might have some rough ideas about, but as a writer, you have to make sure. As sure as you can be, at least.
We'd hate to see our labor of love be stripped of all credibility simply because we assigned someone like young Hild a dog whose breed had not even been developed yet. Pile on three or four little inaccuracies like that and your book is bound to be tossed away in its entirety as fraudulent or amateur.
Historical fiction is tough. You have to confine yourself to the physics, science, geography, technology, biology and geo-politics of the time and place. Unlike science fiction or fantasy, where you get to fully define your own universe, historical fiction requires one to paint within the many borders already well established.
During her readings and discussion, Nicola filled in some of the story she had built for Hild. As she presented, her hands actually formed shapes around the various objects she was describing, the lance, the fruit, the stones. I recognized this as well. In a writers mind the story and the objects in that story must actually exist as real. She did not merely write that Hild threw a stone at an animal, she had to feel the texture, weigh the heft of the stone as if it were as real as those found along an actual woodland path.
Most writers also know that it is rare that a character ends up exactly as initially planned. Characters grow, learn, evolve, adapt as their story unfolds. This is part of the fun as well. Start with a narrowly described human and watch it grow. You can't control it any more than you can a real child. Your job is to point it toward goals, give it what it needs and then let go so it can bend with the twists and curves, finding its own path.
The event.
When I finally arrived at the bookstore, which took more effort than it should have and eventually involved
figuring out how to punch a street address into the recently acquired, hand-me-down GPS machine in my car, there were only a dozen or so people inside. One of which, though her back was to me, I immediately recognized as Nicola.
That's not as difficult a deduction as it may seem. Since I had been following her posts for several years, I was familiar with her close-cropped hairstyle, her general frame, and of course, the crutches.
Nicola has Multiple Sclerosis. If you'd read her bio or followed her on social media, or even just heard that NPR interview (or many others) a few years earlier, you'd already know that.
I walked in and approached, swinging a wide berth so as to come up from the side. Angel is always accusing me of sneaking up on her, people at work have said the same thing. I apparently possess stealth-like qualities that I am not consciously aware of. When I do remember, I make sure to make a more overt, even noisier approach.
Of course it also gave me an opportunity to confirm that it was indeed her, I'm nothing if not in constant self-doubt.
There was no mistaking it though. She looked up at me, I detected a detached recognition in her face, I was someone she'd perhaps met before, or saw before, but little more beyond that. That was expected. She has hundreds of 'friends' online that she's never actually met. I had no presumption of overwhelming personal charisma. I introduced myself. My name, she recalled. We had just exchanged greetings the day before.
Then I hugged her. A greeting hug, like more socially adept people are wont to do. I hoped it was appropriate, not forward and creepy.
Growing up, my family were not huggers. Physical contact with other people, anything more intimate than a handshake, was almost completely foreign to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it was just our way. Over the course of my rather bland and unremarkable adulthood though, I've developed a more relaxed, dare I say, outgoing attitude. It still feels awkward, but the occasional welcoming or consoling hug no longer sets off klaxons and sweaty tremors quite like it once did.
Rather than object, she introduced me to a man with a nice camera. Mark, her close friend and part of her traveling entourage for this tour. Then she introduced me to Kelley.
I knew of Kelley. Once again if you'd read the bio or read about her on the internet. . .
Kelley Eskridge is Nicola's wife. She is an accomplished writer in her own right. I was honored, flattered.. They then led me to the room adjacent to the main entry and pointed at a small bar offering beer and wine.
Noticing Nicola holding a dripping brown bottle of Schafley's, a local brew, I followed suit and grabbed one for myself.
I hadn't had a sip of beer in months. I'm more of a wine guy. I also have a fairly low reaction point to the 'medicinal' properties of booze. I had to drive later, so I would not be drinking very much at all, of either. I don't drink beer often, but when I do, I like good beer, not that thin, pale, industrial American stuff, so Schafley's was just fine. It at least didn't taste like old furniture polish and it had a tangible, earthy texture to it.
I thanked them and took my leave to explore the store. I'd heard about it, I knew it dealt with many local and regional works and was generally liberal and rather esoteric in theme. I saw a few interesting works that might find a way onto my Christmas wish list. . .
More people wandered in, I went up to the counter, picked up a copy of 'Hild' and paid for it. It's the first time I'd ever bought a book while buzzing a little on booze.
I was now packing around the big hardback I'd brought in, the smaller paperback I'd just paid for, and my E-Tablet, which doubles as a camera. I asked the lady at the counter about the WiFi password, found a seat and checked email and social networks. Nicola had settled in a chair behind a small library table at the front of the room. I snapped a few photos, no flash, no fake camera sound. . . I call it non-intrusive photography, Angel would probably say it was sneaky. I didn't ask permission, I just assumed that it would be okay since Mark was going around taking crowd shots anyhow. I don't usually ask permission to photograph things but that's because I mostly photograph dogs, gravestones, food and weeds. I seldom get objections from any of them.
The seats behind me started filling in and soon enough Nicola, apparently not fully understanding the unassuming and bashful nature of midwesterners, had to cajole them to fill in more chairs in the front. I felt personal gratification that I was already in the front row, if only because I didn't want a bunch of heads blocking the sneaky photos I was taking.
She began her presentation, two readings, one from the beginning of the epic, then a break for Q&A and followed by another reading from the later stages of the book. This book only covered the Saint's very early life, up until very early adulthood. This book was to be the first of three. The real Hilda lived to a ripe old age, in her sixties, so the trilogy would chronologically separate the three major life phases.
Her reading of it was enchanting. She deftly shifted from contemporary English narrative to old Anglo dialog, with all the guttural clicks and buzzes of that archaic form. The text was highly descriptive, even more so when read by the author. Sometimes when you read something you have to assume rhythm and inflection, this was much better, the words and sentences being read aloud exactly as they were intended.
If it sounds like I'd never been to a book promotional event before, you'd be wrong. I've been to . . . two, at this national/international release level, if you include this one.
The other one was sometime in the 90's by a former fighter pilot who had written a few military/political novels of his own. I had read the first one or two of his books, saw in the paper that he was going to be in town, then made an effort to show up for that and get his autograph. . . I won't mention his name since unless you were reading lots and lots of second tier geo-political techno-thrillers in the 90's you wouldn't recognize it anyhow and also for the fact that his later books were simply awful, in nearly every respect.
So no, I do not go to enough of these things to fully grasp the protocol and decorum, nor too often to be non-impressed with hearing an author put voice to their own work.
At the end of the presentation I was first or second in line for autographs. Nicola graciously signed both books then said, holding 'Always', that she hadn't seen one of these in a while. She told me that when questioned people will generally recall 'The Blue Place' and  'Stay' but rarely the third in the series. A twinge of personal pride swarmed over me. I had a real keeper in my hand.
I can't say I lusted to rip open the new book and start burning my way through the pages of 'Hild'. . . but I certainly enjoyed what I heard and was motivated a little more to actually read it. Middle Age British historical fiction has never, ever been on my bucket list. . . but I respect the effort and the work and realized that I probably wasn't exactly the target demographic anyhow. So I might read it. . . maybe. . . but I did not just buy a copy out of guilt or to sit collecting dust on my bookshelf. . . I've bought a few books by local authors that I never finished, a couple I've never even started, in  a vote of support of local writers. This was not one of those purchases though.
This was in fact a Christmas present . . .  for my mother. . . Whose name happens to be . . .  Hilda.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


When it comes down to it, that is the one-word summary of the first weekend in October, 2014.
We had planned it for a few weeks. Well, not exactly planned, beyond naming our destination and the dates and reserving a hotel. For us, that's a lot of planning.
The destination, the reason to go to Spring Green, Wisconsin was The House on the Rock.
I won't be able to describe it in deserved detail, such a thing is simply not possible in a reasonable, timely manner.
Angel had been there before. A few years back she and one of the dogs headed up to Dubuque, Iowa for an intense and comprehensive dog training class. She's returned a couple of times since then for shorter followups.
On the first trip, there was time for the group to check out local sights of interest. There's really not very many, at least well known ones. This is farm country, lots and lots of farms. They visited a convent in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, a cheese store in Cuba City, Wi. Went shopping and dining in nearby historic Galena Il.
She had lots of nice little stories about these places, but hardly anything that would put me in the mood for a seven hour drive.
Then she told me about The House on the Rock.
She had pamphlets, pictures, a book, and it looked, well, weird and quirky. The pictures, like those I've attached here, did not really capture the experience, she had said.
I thought little more of it at the time.
About a year later, I heard an author on NPR and he seemed to be interesting, so I bought one of his books. Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods.'
Hardly my usual style of read, but I read it and actually enjoyed it.
The basic premise of the story is that all those minor or forgotten gods that people worshiped hundreds or thousands of years ago were actually still around, but without anyone to believe in them, the source of their power, they pretty much just wandered around, some performing little tricks to earn a meal.
One of the deities, who calls himself 'Wednesday' (Revealed later in the book as 'Odin') decides to get them all together and try a relaunch of the glory days, to pool their powers together to come back as a worship-worthy union of gods.
They chose a time and a place, this is where the story starts, the gods heading to the gathering place, The House on the Rock in Spring Green Wisconsin.
Why there?
It was described as an inherently magical, powerful place. Where forces existed that amplified the metaphysical.
The book described many of the odd, quirky sights and sounds to be found there, central to the gathering place was the carousel.
I was hooked.
I shared what I had read with Angel. She smiled and nodded. She hadn't seen the carousel, she said, there wasn't enough time on her visit.
For the next couple of years it was not uncommon for either of us to mention, in passing, that it would be nice to go there and really see it. But of course, work, dogs, life, all needed tending to. We went on, day to day, doing that which we have always done, taking care of things.
2014 was a busy year, both with good things and with bad, most things being a little or a lot of both. More dogs coming and going, more tasks and responsibilities at work for me.
Angel's brother passed away, quite unexpectedly in June, In August, my daughter brought the kids in from Seattle for the first time in many years, we had gone through a lot by the time Autumn fell.
We needed a break.
We picked the date, making a small hole in our routine schedule. We would take three days, Friday through Sunday.
Angel, knowing the area, made the arrangements.  I asked her to find a 'different' place to stay. Something other than a generic hotel, if at all possible.
Several years ago we took a couple of the kids on a vacation to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We stayed in a log cabin. We loved it. It didn't feel like a hotel. I've spent a lot of time in standard hotels, for business, just a place with walls, a bed and a TV, nothing more than a place to store the suitcase and to sleep and shower.
The cabin was not like that. It had added a sense of uniqueness, quirkiness, adventure.
The kids liked it too, Stephanie, now an adult with her own kids, has been back to that very spot.
Angel and I have not taken a vacation alone together, other than to visit family in Springfield, Mo. or Cerulean Ky, since. . .  1992. Our weekend honeymoon. We went to Joplin. I know, not exactly Tahiti, but we had young kids and couldn't afford the time or expense of a 'real' honeymoon. Even with the kids we rarely took road-trip vacations. Eureka Springs a couple of times and Washington D.C. one year. That's pretty much it.
Angel started looking at cabins in the target area.
The towns in the area that I've mentioned are not exactly cities. They are small towns suited primarily  for supporting the many, many nearby farms. Neither Hazel Green nor Spring Green has a Walmart, or even a fast food franchise. Dubuque and Galena had stores and restaurants. Both are about ten miles from Hazel Green. So she zoomed in there, and found perfection. 
It Begins:
Translated that means 'The Silo' and it is just that. I don't mean that it was built to resemble a silo, but rather a real, honest to goodness, concrete grain silo converted to serve as a one bedroom, one bathroom, one entryway, short term lodging. It was part of the 'Ambrosia Inn' in Hazel Green, hardly an inn at all. In town, across the road from the town cemetery (Bonus points! For me, anyhow.) and alongside other residences. A three or four acre lot with three or four log cabins and Le Silo.  The pictures online seemed satisfactory and it had the one prerequisite that was one of our mutual demands. A hot tub.
We used to have an outdoor spa, back when we lived outside Willard, Mo. in the 90's. We loved that thing. At the end of a busy day and with a little wine, even crisp, cold winter nights were softened by that thing. We had to leave it behind when we moved to Maryland in 2002
Though we certainly have privacy and space now, we have a water problem. Our well dispenses perfectly safe, but mineral rich water. Very mineral rich. It kills three or four coffee makers a year with deposits. We have a water softening system, but we have never been able to get it to work right. The balance of chemicals, salt and pumps and valves never seemed to be able to settle in to something usable. We don't even drink it. We keep bottled water for that, I have a small coffee pot for my morning cup that has never been fed anything other than bottled water.
A spa or hot tub would be a maintenance nightmare with this water. We had an above ground pool for a season and a half, but even that ambient temperature system clogged and ground to a halt in no time.
Le Silo had a hot tub, on the top floor. That's where the bed and TV were too. Heavenly.
She made the arrangements, it would cost no more than a standard hotel room in a big city. Two nights. 
For the next couple of weeks, quite stressful ones at that, I often drifted to thought of this short getaway, it got me through.
We made no other arrangements, we would just head to the Silo on Friday, leaving home. . whenever, drive six or seven hours, check in, try out the tub, then sleep in on Saturday till . . .  whenever, then make the forty five mile trip to the Rock, spend three or five hours there, maybe find something to eat coming or going, maybe not, then spend the rest of our time around Hazel Green doing. . . whatever. As long as we left Wisconsin before noon on Sunday, we were fine, no hurry, no schedules, we would just make it up as we went along.
I'd never been to Iowa or Wisconsin. This road trip was all new to me.
We decided to take my VW rather than her bigger, thirstier SUV.
We switched out the driving, a couple of hours each, three or four stops, whenever we felt like it, no hurry, we'd managed to get out of the house around ten in the morning.
The weather was not great, chilly, windy, cloudy and occasional sprinkles. 
As we progressed northward, it only got a little chillier, windier and cloudier. We'd brought light jackets.
Pretty soon after leaving the metropolitan St. Louis area into Illinois, I-55, the landscape started rapidly changing. I knew it would. I lived for six months in Rantoul, IL, just outside Champaign/Urbana. I knew central and north Illinois to be flat, flat and expansive farm land. Did I mention it was flat? 
My immediate thought was of that, how dull the drive would be, flat farm after flat farm, featureless, unending.
Illinois was indeed mostly that.
Springfield, to Lincoln, to Peoria.
We watched in amazement at the large wind mill farm north of Peoria. Slowly spinning giants covering more than a square mile. They were in view for quite a while.
Swing left, head toward Galesburg then north to Davenport. The landscape changed, the flat, flat land started to change to slow rolling hills. More farms, lots and lots of farms, but no longer like Illinois.
On to  to Dubuque. Ten more miles to Hazel Green. . . but we didn't stop there. It was just after five P.M.
Galena IL. :
"Let's just head into Galena, I'd like you to see it." She said. 
I had not done my homework. I usually study up on places I'm going so I can sound reasonably intelligent when I get there. Not this time. Tom-Tom had gotten me this far, but mentally I only had a vague notion as to where I was on a map. The smaller towns, I had no clue. Angel did though, she was driving this last leg. 
She said we went right through Hazel Green, but I must have blinked. In about fifteen minutes though, she declared we were there.
Okay, interesting.
I noticed a sign that said Galena, the whole town, was on the U.S. registry of Historic places.
The main two or three streets reminded me of Eureka Springs. That period of quaint shops and architecture. We found a parking spot on a side street, there were a lot of cars. Apparently, Oktoberfest was ramping up.
We stepped out of the car and donned our jackets. My car said the temperature was around forty five degrees and the wind was still pretty stiff. 
We ducked into a couple of the little shops. One sold antiques and was quite nice, some interesting stuff, portraits, lamps, books. It was fine, but we didn't see anything we had to have.
We went past a shop that sold socks. Just socks. We went in to one that sold only hot sauce. The rules of capitalism obviously were different in this little town. We went past several eateries, pizza, steakhouses, bar and grills. The big, old style neon sign for 'Log Cabin Steakhouse' eventually
lured us in. 
It was dark, but had an air of class about it. The staff was smartly dressed in crisp black and white. Inside the dining area the tables barely seemed more than candle-lit. I was thinking of writing a review, but quickly dismissed the thought when we sat down and I tried to get my trusty tablet camera to focus on the menu. Just not enough light. Then I remembered that this was a vacation, Eat and Critique could take a break.
The menu had steaks, seafood and big sandwiches. Steak sounded good. The prices were set right about where tourist destinations put them. This was a small town, but they charged big city prices. 
We ordered the same thing. Steak and shrimp with a baked potato. The waiter said he'd bring out the bread and 'relish'.
The relish turned out to be a small saucer containing a couple of celery sticks, a couple of carrot planks, a couple of radishes and two green onions. I knew I was going to have to look up the word 'relish'. (A relish is a cooked, pickled, or chopped vegetable or fruit food item typically used as a condiment in particular to enhance a staple.)
They served it with a cheap plastic condiment cup and lid. It looked like an orange, cheesy dip. It tasted sort of cheesy, kind of like that powdery stuff you get with boxed mac and cheese. I had some celery and one green onion, Angel sampled some of the other stuff. Neither of us cared much for the dip.
The bread was okay, it was barely warm and the butter packets were cold and hard. They also didn't open easily, Angel had to stab one with a knife to get to the butter.
The steak came while I was still fighting with a butter tub. 'It looks tempura battered." She said of the shrimp. Tempura is one of those things she learned from the Food Network. It refers to a simple water and wheat flour coating, thin, not thick or  bready like corn dogs.
I tried one, it was awful. Whatever was in the breading, coconut maybe, it left a strong and long lasting impression that would not go away. Stripping the shrimp of its thin jacket didn't work either.
The steak was very tender and juicy. Until it cooled off. Then it started seeming dry and sandy. Frozen at one time, I was pretty sure. We've certainly had worse, but the meal was, because of the historical novelty and the city price, disappointing.
Not to be discouraged though, we walked around a little more then headed to Hazel Green.
Le Silo.
We were following Tom-Tom's instructions. We had a Google Map printout as well. Tom-Tom missed by more than a mile. He had us in front of a cornfield. Angel studied the map and on her hunch we turned around and went the other way. We finally saw the sign for 'Ambrosia Inn'. We pulled in and up to the front of the big house. There was a sign on the door that instructed us to 'Ring Bell for Service' So we did.
We rang it again.
Nothing. A couple of cats came toward the glass door. No people though.
"You've got their number, right?" I said.
She pulled out her phone and dialed it in.
No cell service, one optimistic, flickering bar. I checked both of my flip phones.
After about fifteen minutes, while we were deciding which of us would get in the car and drive until we got cell service, a big white van pulled in. A guy slowly stepped out, we got his attention.
"She's not coming to the door?" He asked.
He called the lady's name, opened the door and stepped in. I could only assume that this was kosher. He could have been a serial killer for all I knew. He came back out and walked us to the back of the house. A guest-type room on the house with its own entrance. A sleepy teen aged boy came to the door. 
"Brendon, why don't you take these folks down to the silo. I'll try to find your mom."
"That's where she is, I think." The boy replied. He put on a jacket anyhow.
He walked us around some shrubbery and alongside a cabin. It was dark, there were a few accent lights, but nothing to give a stranger any good idea of what was where. 
The silo popped into view, the lights were on, the door was ajar.
Brendon ran up the winding steps and came back a few seconds later. This was followed by the sound of a peg-legged captain strolling the upper deck of an old whaler. It was, in fact the lady, sporting a heavy walking cast, slowly winding her way down from the top, thirty feet above us. The entry was high ceiling-ed and contained a couple of parlor chairs and a few fake plants. It was tasteful, just useless for anything other than waiting for something.
The lady finally made it down the stairs, we felt her pain, it was hard to watch. She started talking though, the way people up there are famous for, like they've known you their whole lives. She said something about her pain, said she thought that she may have chipped that bone again. We didn't ask for details. 
She hobbled  up to the main house, we followed, both of us wondering if we should just carry her. She kept talking.
At the house she brought out a couple of papers to sign and pointed at a hidden driveway closer to the silo. 
We found it, unloaded the trunk with our two suitcases, our box of wine, and our small electric fan. Neither of us can sleep without the white noise anymore and not everyplace has a fan, so we brought our own.
Angel's suitcase made it only to the bathroom that made up the entire second floor, about twenty feet up from the ground. I made it to the third, because I'm a man and have, theoretically, superior upper body strength.
I immediately realized something a little discomforting.
The bathroom was wide open to the stairs. WIDE open. Two sinks, a shower stall, and the throne, right there out in the open. There was a door between the first floor and the bathroom floor, but not between it and the master suite one flight up. This could make for some awkward moments.
Sure, Angel and I have been together for nearly three decades, but there are still certain limits to our openness. We value certain 'privacies' at certain times. We were going to have to set up a communication system of some kind.
The bathroom was nice though, tastefully decorated, clean and substantial.
The master suite was cozy, if not a bit tight.
A queen sized bed, a high-on-the-wall, mounted flat screen TV with a shelf and DVD player below it. To one side was a gas fireplace, lit, and alongside it a decent hot tub. 
Once again it was all tastefully decorated. The ceiling was domed, the way the tops of silos are. The carpet was not fancy, but it was clean and new-looking. The wallpaper was bright white with little flowers. There were two large windows, one above the tub and one directly across from it. 
I brought another load or two up, locked up and we settled in.
This was certainly cozy. Just Angel and me, and no walls to separate  us.
Don't take me wrong. Like I've said, Angel and I have been together a very long time. It's just, this was different. At home we have our bedroom. It has a king size bed and there's no TV. There's only a weak lamp to light it up. We pretty much don't do anything in there other than sleep. We watch TV in the living room where we have two large recliners and a sofa, and most often a dog or three.
In this situation, the small refrigerator, the TV the microwave, the fireplace, the hot tub and the bed were all in the same small room. There was no room for chairs. This was indeed going to be intimate.
We turned on the TV for some background noise while we settled in. I scanned the channels, all five of them. No cable. Lots of High school football though. Two of the channels were snowy, this was coming from an antenna. We checked our cell phones, still, no bars. I lit up my tablet, no WiFi either. Yup, intimate. Angel fired up the tub. It filled very slowly. There was plenty of flow, but not much pressure, kind of like the water had to climb the stairs as well. We were after all, thirty feet off the ground. It did fill though, eventually, further use of it would require advanced planning though. The water heater on the ground floor was adequate, it never ran out, but the pipes ran against the wall and the first few gallons had cooled considerably in the long-reaching pipes. Good to know if you were planning to take a shower. 
We found a true-crime murder investigation show on TV and soaked up some wine and hot tub. 
As for the bathroom situation, we kept it simple. If you just said 'I'll be in the bathroom', it meant 'Stay away, you've been warned'.
The House on the Rock.
We slept in on Saturday morning. We knew the House would take about three hours, plus it was forty five minutes away, no need to rush. We made coffee in the pot below the microwave, found two enormous homemade blueberry muffins in the little fridge and watched a bit of the hokey and useless weekend  'Today Show'.  After we cleaned up we just went ahead and took off about nine-thirty. We had  one stop to make.
The aforementioned cheese store. Located along the way to Spring Green in Cuba City (Pop. 2000). It sells
Wisconsin cheese. We had to get some of that. We stopped, shopped around for a while, picked out some aged cheddar and aged Swiss. We asked the lady proprietor about the location of the nearest WiFi spot, a fast food place or something like that. I don't think she knew what we were talking about. Cuba City was like Hazel Green, no franchise . . . anything. No 4G, no WiFi, Angel was starting to go a little batty. She needed to message one of her clients. 
Somewhere along the drive, around Platteville (Pop. 11k) I noticed a tight array of cell towers, a repeater. Sure enough her phone bleeped and for a little while was able to communicate.
The drive up highway 151 was quite pleasant. Less wind, the clouds were breaking apart in spots, highlighting the rolling farmland. I had by then decided driving through farmland wasn't boring at all, it was quite relaxing and beautiful.
The House on the Rock is not actually in Spring Green (Pop. 1628). It is eight miles south. There are a couple of signs though and a few unrelated establishments nearby using parts of the 'House on the Rock' name. Otherwise, it's in the middle of an expanse of hilly woods. The road to the house was built for the house.
As we turned onto the road we passed some very large vases adorned with lizards and dragons. Several of them. In the parking lot there were several more. Ten feet or more high around four feet across. The lizards and dragons were the size of retrievers. Quirky.
There were several large buildings connected by winding and covered walkways. We followed the path to the entrance.
We paid for a couple of 'Ultimate Experience' ($28.50) tickets. They handed us eight 'tokens'. I didn't know what they were for, but I took them anyhow.
You can purchase individual section tickets, which I would recommend if you have the time to split it up over a couple of days and especially if you have kids that might get fidgety.
We were going for the full tour though.
We went to the first of three sections, which included the 'Infinity Room'.
The original 'house' featured this feat of architectural daring-do. It was built to extend out over a sizable drop to the valley below. The shape is a long, narrow, sideways pyramid. When you step into the entry and look towards the point, it does indeed look like it extends to and beyond an invisible horizon. Part architectural marvel, part optical illusion. At the point where it becomes almost difficult to stand upright, there is a skylight on the floor allowing you to look straight down. The wind was shaking the structure a little, making it a little disconcerting. We looked, quickly. There were other rooms, a pit-sofa'd make-out room, a library and a few others. Very low ceilings and doorways and narrow passageways. It felt like a cave dwelling, hardly handicap friendly. Big stone fireplaces, room after room, back-lit cobalt blue glass walls, stained glass, very, very impressive. This was the first structure built by the house's eccentric creator, Alex Jordan. He wanted a place on this site to get away from it all and be 'inspired'. It worked. As impressive as all this was, it paled in comparison to the many, many splendors he was inspired to create. He obviously subscribed to the philosophy of 'Go big, or go home.' 
Section 2 jacked it up several notches. In the 'Streets of Yesterday, an entire town's main street is created with dozens of shops filled with odd and beautiful antiques. A dental office, an ice cream shop, furriers and milliners, you name it.
In 'Tribute to Nostalgia', old cars, airplanes and a multi-story Rube Goldberg device.
One of the cars, a full sized Lincoln with suicide doors, had been covered, stem to stern, with small blue tiles adding  a ton or more than its original weight, then capped on the front with a cut-down Rolls Royce Grill. Overhead, large model airplanes, kites, and hot air balloons. Everywhere you looked your eye was filled with the interesting, the quirky, the downright inexplicable.
In section 2 there were a few music machines. Actual musical instruments wired and rigged to be keyed mechanically. I stood fascinated by the precision of the crudely rigged system. My mind was starting to buzz from potential overload. The tokens went in a slot and the machines started. You could hear others down the aisle.
The different buildings/sections were linked by interconnected walkways, indoor and outdoor. Inside, the displays were in  multiple levels, aisles and passageways wound erratically up, down and around. This was not a mall walk, it was a trek. At the end of the section was the first sign of real creature comfort. A food court of sorts. Plastic chairs and small tables, a few booths. The food offered was not complicated, pizza and sandwiches. Drinks were in bottles. No deep fried or active grill, no salad bar. It very much looked like an afterthought. The prices were about what you would expect in a tourist attraction with a captive audience. As far as I could tell, the nearest alternative to eating something there was at least eight miles away, and I was
just guessing that Spring Green might have something. We gave in and each had a slice of pizza, rather big slices, and water. It was fine, about a half point above frozen, but at that point, after walking up and down for about one hundred thirty miles, we had certainly ached and pained off a few hundred calories.
It was satisfying, refreshing, we foolishly thought it would get us ready for the third and final section.
It didn't
Section 3, the wheels come off.
Back in section 2, among the hundreds of large ship models, the big, pointless machines, and the solenoid actuated music, and the two hundred foot long fiberglass whale fighting a thirty foot octopus, we were pretty sure we had seen it about as big, bawdy, outrageous and eccentric as it could get.
We were wrong, so very, very wrong.
Bigger music machines, entire mannequin orchestras and showboat musicians. Hundreds of them, the music, horns, drums, strings, filled the massive rooms with wall after wall of layered sound. Bottles, bells and jars swinging form striker hits, cello bows flying, banjos plucking, bassoons, calliopes and pianos going mad. It was impossible to see the whole thing in a single look, or hour or week.
Somewhere along the way, my jaw fell into an infinite drop. I had used up every expression of awe and amazement. 'Oh My God!' was too weak.
It went on and on and on.
Hundreds of high quality doll houses, rooms with walls covered by glass encased antique weaponry, crowns, tiaras, I was worried that my measly 1GB memory card would hold much past the hundreds of photos I'd already taken. (Fortunately I had a spare with me). I could go on. But since I do not have anywhere near the vocabulary, limited as I am with mere human words and thoughts, to adequately describe it, there just doesn't seem to be a reason to try very hard.
And all of this was before we got to the carousel. I read a much better writer describe it, even he fell short.
It was of course, larger than life it self. Sixty feet across, more than 250 animals, not a single one of them a horse, no riders allowed, it never slowed down, it never stopped. The creatures, fantastical, mystical and impossible whirled around. Bright red, bright colors,
180 chandeliers and overhead mannequins and dolls dressed in colorful angel garb, hundreds of them. The music came from everywhere, every chord, every note, every possible instrument. Bold, loud, colors, mirrors, wild creatures, angels, it went on and on and on, filling every sense, overpowering them all, then even more and more. It was like exploding into a million pieces. I could not see the whole thing, my brain could not make what I was seeing be only one thing.
If such a thing were predictable and allowable and in better taste, I would ask for my last few hours of mortal breath to be spent sitting in front of this magnificent machine. It was as alive as any machine can be, it was as close to magic or spirituality as I had ever personally experienced.
It was damn near metaphysical.
 At this moment, staring at this moving monument to excess, eccentricity and taking the concept of over the top, way over the top, I got it. Why Neil Gaiman chose this very place to be a cosmic magnet, hallowed ground for his old gods.
From 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman, Chapter Five:
Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.
And then there was the carousel.
A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in gothic profusion, and forbade anyone from climbing on it or from riding on the animals.
And such animals! Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized

creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different – he saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly coloured and more than real: each rode the platform as the waltz came to an end and a new waltz began. The carousel did not even slow down.
“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no-one ever rides it.”
“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”

It was mesmerizing, haunting, too much, way too much to be understood.
We finally peeled ourselves away form the carousel and moved on. We were tired, exhausted. Another room another carousel, not as wide, but five tiers high. On any other day it would have been the boldest attraction. 
The last doorway led us to where the whole thing had begun, the main entrance.
Without pausing, we left. We were done, through and through. In all, about five hours of light, color, motion and wonderful noise. The egress was similar to leaving a massive rock concert or a wall to wall action movie. Ears ringing, eyes twitching, searching for new focus.
The drive back was quiet. We chatted some, Angel occasionally replayed pieces of the video she had taken with her smartphone. The clouds were starting to break, the temperature was inching toward fifty degrees.
Back at the silo we dropped to the bed and rested. Napping, actual sleep, was out of the question. Our aging bodies hurt, our heads hurt. About fifteen minutes later we started fidgeting and sat up. It was nearly five, the time of day on weekends when we usually go out to eat. 
"Where do you want to go?" I asked. We had planned on taking on something fancy. I didn't know if I really wanted to though.
"WiFi." She answered. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all."
WiFi is available at most franchise burger places. Fancy restaurants? Not so much. Back home we have satellite internet service. It's not terribly fast and we are metered, so many GB's per month. If we need to download something or stream something, we head to McDonald's or Hardee's. When I do this I usually grab a small coffee and an apple pie, just to mark my place as a paying customer. 
We headed down the road toward Galena, turned in at the first thing we saw that might have WiFi. A Culver's. We pulled into the parking lot and I used my tablet to reach for a signal. There it was.
We went in and scanned the overhead menu, skipped the burgers and both ordered the cod meal with fries and slaw. We found a quiet booth and started WiFi'ing. It was the first time I'd checked my email and social networks since we left Missouri. I had messages. Angel had some too, from clients and potential clients. We worked and ate quietly, independently.
I excused myself after reading a message from my saintly sister. It was a day old and said that she couldn't find my cell phone number and would I please call her as soon as I could. 
I took my phone outside and called.
Mom was in the hospital, this I already knew. She had fallen in her room at the assisted living facility where she lives and broken her leg near her hip. I also knew they had to wean her off of blood thinners before they could perform surgery to set the leg. This would take five days.
Kathy informed me that there had been a new development, that mom's heartbeat  had suddenly spiked and she had been taken in to critical care. That was when Kathy had sent the message. Since then she had stabilized and there were no more occurrences of that anomaly. Now she was just in traction, in serious pain waiting for Tuesday's surgery.
"So they need the surgery to set the leg?" I asked.
"They need to put in a rod." She answered.
"Not good enough." I answered. "She's in great pain. A simple rod will not do the trick. Tell her doctor to put in a rod and a staff, that will comfort her."
I don't often use Bible references (Psalms 23)  in my quips, but I thought my mom, a retired minister, might appreciate it. 
We chatted a little more, Kathy, also retired, has been spending a lot of her time taking care of Mom's needs, medical, real estate, financial, etc. It wears her down from time to time and I often feel quite guilty not being able to live closer to her and mom. I was planning to head down for a visit in the coming weeks
anyhow and after this call, the urgency intensified. However, in the parking lot of a fast food franchise, over 500 miles away, there just wasn't much I could do at the moment but worry. 
The fish was pretty good, quite filling. I updated Angel on Mom's situation, then we chatted and surfed for a few more minutes. When we were done we headed to the nearby Walmart. Knowing the TV channel selections we would be stuck with, we had decided to pick up a DVD, of. . . something. We wouldn't be going out again, better to find something to settle in for the long haul with. We picked up some crackers, to go with the cheese we now had, and a DVD containing the entire first season of the TV Series 'Justified'. We love that show but it had been a long time since we saw the first season. We'd talked about picking it up sometime anyhow. A series instead of a movie was perfect for our situation. We could watch one episode, or two, or more, do something else and maybe watch another later.
Le Silo, 2nd night.
We took our stuff back to Le Silo and sighed and sat on the bed for a while.
About eight thirty, one and a half episodes in, Angel fired up the hot tub. At home we don't really settle in for the evening until nine, but we were pretty tired, muscles stiff, joints complaining. While the water ran she prepared a cheese platter, I prepared the wine. I had been browsing through the pictures I took, nearly four hundred of them. Not all of them were good, on some, the lighting was off. The House is mostly dark with spot lights illuminating the displays and contraptions. My on-camera flash is pretty good, but several times it super-illuminated something near the lens, leaving the real target in the dark. There were plenty of good ones though. However, none of them, regardless of how sharp or perfectly lit, could come close at all to capturing the epic scale of the place, the vastness and volume and madness of things in their actual context.
The tub finally filled, temperature adjusted, new episode started. It felt divine. 
We didn't talk a lot that night, we were tired, yes, but also reflective and at peace. Angel and I get along great, we pretty much always have. For many years, neither of us feels the need to fill a silence. We can sit together for an hour or more, without conversation. This was a very rare and precious thing though, the two of us, alone, away from our jobs and chores, just being together. We both knew this, and also we knew that another moment like this may be a long time coming.
We did chat about that a little, that we should go out of our way to make sure we do this, a couple of times a year or so. It would take effort, we're very good about just settling into the daily grind and not looking forward past the job at hand. We needed this though. We must do this again. Not in Wisconsin necessarily, anywhere. 
We also joked for a bit about which of our five dogs would fare well or not at all if we actually lived in this silo.
We agreed George would be the worst. When George came to us ten or eleven years ago, he had to be taught how to go up and down stairs. He's never liked them. Even now when it's time for him to go downstairs, the same stairs he's been going down every day for eight years, he pauses and requires a little urging, like he had never seen them before. He's getting older and his hips probably give him some problems.  Blue has leg muscle issues too, about the same age, but he would gladly take on the spiral stairs if there was food, or his mommy at the other end.
Pip does fine with stairs, but she's short and a bit too wide. Going downstairs for her has always been more of a barely controlled tumble. Deedee, no problem. She's an athlete. All we have to do is toss a ball and she'll go to the ends of the earth, at full speed, to get it, again and again and again.
The real mystery would be Rudy. He's young and healthy, but has several, perhaps hundreds, of anxieties. Boxes, ceiling fans, noises. . . all of these are serious concerns for the poor boy. Certainly he's capable of taking on the stairs, plenty of energy, a long legged, wiry little mutt. He even prances. Whenever he comes indoors he goes through a routine of stiff-legged leaps and bounds and bounces around the couch a few times before he finally settles in.
We did not talk about work, or problems, or emotions, or anything else that might bring down this glorious ride. We sailed through it with laughter, sighs and personal whispers.
We slept in again, no alarm. No need. As long as we left by noon, we'd be fine. 
We'd picked up some frozen sausage biscuits to have instead of just a big fat, sweet muffin. They nuked up nicely. We'd asked the lady for an extra coffee packet as well. It was a wonderful morning. The clouds had mostly cleared and it promised to be a warmer, if not only a less chilly day. We were casual in our packing up, triple checking everything. We cleaned up, pack-muled the bags down the stairs for the last time and then,  around ten thirty, said so long to Le Silo and Hazel Green Wisconsin.
The drive was pretty, quiet and unremarkable. I ended up driving the whole way, Tom-Tom waking up occasionally to spit out a new set of turns. The first hour seemed to take forever. We stopped at a rest stop somewhere in Iowa. I topped off the tank, we picked up some road-snacks, checked the WiFi and left.
We stopped a couple of more times, leisurely stops, no need to rush. We needed to cover around 350 miles, but we had a good car, good weather and great company. Somewhere in Illinois the car seat started grinding into my lower back, the price you pay for a trip this great.
Sadness sunk in as soon as we passed the Gateway Arch. We would be going home from there using the same path I use for my daily commute. A commute I hadn't even thought about since Thursday evening.
It was over. We got home a little before six. I pushed my laundry through the cycles like I do every Sunday, Angel tended to the dogs, like she does every day. Seen from that point on, it would look pretty much like every other Sunday for the past eight years.
We settled in at nine P.M. watched our usual Sunday shows, Food Network, of course and went to bed almost as if nothing had happened at all.