A Taste of Laramie

Before I headed to South Dakota for my grandfather's funeral and the madness that ensues when more than 80 of his immediate family get together to celebrate his life (and yes, that was just his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and some of the kids' and grandkids' respective spouses—I didn't even count grandpa's sisters and their families in that number), I spent a couple of days in Laramie, Wyoming.

It's not the town in which I grew up, but it's where my parents live now. And it's a great place to visit—it's near the mountains, it's close to Denver, it has tons of Western spirit and Wyoming personality, and it happens to be the only town in Wyoming that's home to a university (the University of Wyoming, of course). Plus it even has stoplights, which isn't the case in a whole lot of towns in Wyoming.

The ride to Laramie was a bit rough (with five people crammed in a not-so-big convertible), but the Indian tacos we ate in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and the wildlife we saw along the way more than made up for it. Horses, cattle, deer, antelope, elk. Yep, must be back in Wyoming.

(There were even a few moose wandering around in Laramie while I was there. But I didn't come across one, unfortunately.)

While in Laramie, we worked and relaxed and drank a lot of wine. Particularly at the new wine bar/art gallery in town.

The owner has quite a lot of personality, to say the least. Case in point: The password to get upstairs to the dance floor on Friday night was "Barney Fife." And this sign was painted on the storage room door behind the table where we enjoyed our wine:

Upstairs, there's a fantastic lounge and dance floor. The perfect place to throw a party. My Mom made a point of mentioning that—numerous times. Apparently, she thinks I may need to throw a big party in the near future. Not sure where she gets ideas like that ...

I also caught up with high school friends and learned all about beverages such as Moscow Mules (vodka, ginger beer, and lime, which you drink out of icy cold copper cups) and Poppers (vodka, Clamato, and banana peppers—yum).

Of course, a stop at Bart's Flea Market was required too. I love Bart's. It's one of those places you have to see to appreciate—overloaded with a mixture of treasures, junk, and truly random crap. And two Pyrex serving dishes, which I gleefully purchased for a third of the price they cost at other thrift stores and flea markets. This is why I love Wyoming.

We also went hiking, which was probably the highlight of the Laramie trip. You'll understand why when you see the photos. But I'm saving that story for the next post, so you'll just have to return later.

(Is it mean that I disappear for almost a week and then leave you hanging? Maybe so. But I'm feeling mischievous this morning. And apparently a bit bleary-eyed, because I just spent a good minute trying to figure out how the heck to spell "mischievous.")


Unfinished Business

I have bad timing. Really bad timing. I always manage to leave town right before my flowers bloom or my veggies are edible.

Sometimes, when I'm gone long enough, they're almost done blooming when I get home. So all I have to remember them by are photos I took of them before they found all of their color.

I hope that won't happen this time.

I hope these babies will hold on for just one more week.

Come on, lovelies. You can do it. Don't let me down.

You know Conservative Boy and Butter don't appreciate you like I do.

Wait for me, please.

I said please.

Letting Butter Talk

A scene from early Thursday morning:

I saw you, Julie. I saw you pull the suitcase from the closet last night and fill it with clothes from your closet. I saw you grabbing those little toiletries that you always cram into that sandwich bag. I saw it all and I'm onto you.

That jog we just took was a ruse, wasn't it? I saw you drag your suitcase into the living room a few minutes ago. You're about to pack your computer too, aren't you?

You're leaving me. I know it. And I want you to know I'm not happy about it.

You promised me you wouldn't go anywhere for a while. You promised. We were having such a good time this week. We went on early morning walks and you rubbed my belly and you even let me help you water your plants yesterday evening.

It was all for nothing. Because now you're leaving me.

Won't you stay? Please? I promise to be a good dog. I won't bark at the mailman if you stay.

Well, I won't bark at the mailman as much. I promise.

Please don't leave me!


Last-Minute Trips and a Lifetime of Memories

I was planning on staying home until the second weekend in July. I was planning on golfing and relaxing and getting work and homework done and not much else.

But guess what happens when you plan? Life throws you curveballs.

So this morning I’m headed to the airport to catch a flight to South Dakota. Then I’m headed to Wyoming for a couple days with My Parents, Uncle H, and Auntie R. At the end of the weekend, it’s back to South Dakota to gather with an incredibly large Collins family, some of whom I haven’t seen in years.

The reason? To celebrate the life of my Grandpa Collins, who passed away Tuesday afternoon. (This is him, with my grandma. Don't they make a lovely couple?)

Ten of my grandfather’s eleven children and his beloved wife were at his side when he took his last breath. The one son who hadn’t quite made it yet was able to speak to my grandfather by phone before he passed away to assure my grandfather—lucid to the end, I imagine—that he would be there soon.

I couldn’t imagine Grandpa going in any other way. He wasn’t in a hospital. He was at Uncle J’s home, surrounded by the people he loved most in this life.

Still, it’s incredibly difficult to fathom when somebody who has been a constant for your entire life, whose story stretches on long before even your parents’ lives began, is gone. It’s a hole that’s never filled, only taken over by memories almost as sweet as reality.

A failing mind took my mother’s father away. A failing body has taken my dad’s dad. But one thing is certain: the memory of this man—devoted husband, caring father and grandfather, proud American—will not fail. A piece of him is present in every one of his eleven children and all of their children and their countless children too. And, undoubtedly, it will continue on from there.

From now until long after my grandfather is laid to rest on Tuesday, in a national cemetery befitting the war hero he was, the Collins family will celebrate his life. Sure, there will be plenty of tears. But if I know one thing about this family, it is that there will be a lot of laughter too. And fond memories. And maybe even a bit of dancing. Because that is what the Collins family does. We cry and laugh and remember and dance. And rejoice that we were blessed to know and love and be loved by such a terrific man.


Golfing Barefoot

Yesterday evening when we started pulling our golf clubs out of the back of Conservative Boy's vehicle for our usual quick Monday evening 9, I realized I was missing something. My golf shoes. And my golf sandals. And any form of footwear, except the worn out flip flops I'd donned before leaving the house.


There wasn't time to run home for golf shoes, and I didn't really want to mess with driving home anyway. So I just hopped in the cart and off we went. (Usually I walk during the week, but it was almost 100 degrees and I wasn't exactly wearing appropriate footwear!)

Most shots, I kicked my flops off and hit barefoot. I'm sure there are rules against barefoot golfing. In fact, I'm positive there are. But I watched where I stepped and was fully aware of the hazards. And golfing barefoot is a heck of a lot easier than trying to keep your feet in a pair of flops, trust me.

I'm no stranger to golfing barefoot anyway. In high school, many nights at practice I'd take off my golf sandals, strap them to my bag, and play 9 barefoot. I love the feeling of cool grass between my feet. Besides, shoes—even golf sandals—can be so constricting. If I had my way, I'd be barefoot all day. (Oh wait, I usually am ...)

That cool grass felt particularly nice last night. It was steamy. Really steamy. (And quiet—apparently not many people like golfing when it's that hot out.)

I can't really complain about my round either. I shot a 45, barefoot. And I hadn't played in quite a while. And I blew up on the last hole.

Oh, and did I mention I beat Conservative Boy? That always makes a round that much sweeter.

(He'll say I didn't though. He'll say I cheated. That's what he always says if I play from the women's tees and beat him. Somehow, I can't seem to convince him that it's not cheating if you're a woman playing from the women's tees.)


M.C.'s Pie Crust

After I lamented about the fact that I was in a hurry and had to use a store-bought crust for my last pie adventure, the lovely M.C.—she was the guest of honor at this tasty dinner and is the source for this bread recipe I shared—sent me an email with a recipe for a homemade pie crust.

In the past, I've relied on a basic Better Homes & Gardens crust recipe. But now I'm smitten with this version, particularly because it makes enough for three pie crusts. Use one, freeze the other two, and you'll never have to rely on Pillsbury to supply your crusts again.

Here's what you do:

Combine 4 cups flour, 1 tbsp sugar, and 2 tsp salt in a bowl.

Add 1 3/4 cup shortening and get to work on it with your pastry blender.

In a small bowl, beat one egg and 1 tbsp vinegar. Add enough water to make 1/2 cup of liquid.

Combine the two mixtures and mix well. (Use your hands. Come on, don't be shy.)

Divide the dough into three or four parts. I did three, at M.C.'s recommendation, to ensure I have nice, thick crusts.

Roll one out for a pie crust right away (yes, this is required). Then wrap the other two and stick them in the freezer.

(The reason for this pie crust? I was attempting the strawberry pie again for Father's Day dinner. It was still runny, but less so than last time. I didn't pour all the strawberry sauce on and sweetened the berries with extra sugar to compensate, so it actually looked and tasted like pie, albeit slightly runny pie. And the crust was absolutely delicious.)

Weekend Fun

I love summer weekends at home. I really do. We're gone so much during the summer that I savor those weekends when we're actually in L-Town to enjoy some downtime. Not that it's really downtime. We always manage to keep busy—but it's a relaxed busy. An enjoyable busy.

This weekend our usual golfing was thwarted by a wet golf course on Saturday and a certain Conservative Boy's neck pain on Sunday.

On Saturday, that meant Butter and I had time for a trip to the farmer's market. We found all sorts of treasures, like fresh blueberries. And Romaine.

And this absolutely wonderful homemade granola, which I'm actually eating as I type this.

Plus this caramel pecan breakfast bread, also known as heaven. I warmed it up when we got home from the market and most of it was gone within an hour. Oh wait. I just remembered there's a piece left. Why haven't I eaten that yet?

The same woman makes the granola and the bread. She's incredibly sweet and I imagine her husband must weigh about 600 pounds if he eats the stuff she makes all the time. I know I would be if I married her. Not that I would marry her. But you know what I mean.

Butter loves going to the market with me. He gets to walk all the way downtown and parade around the park and wait for people to pet him. Sometimes they even offer him drinks of water. And this weekend he was super duper lucky and I bought him some homemade doggy treats, even though he's supposed to be on a restricted diet because of allergies. But hey, it's the weekend. I make lattes at home on the weekend and I'm allergic to milk, so Butter can enjoy a doggie treat on the weekend and not worry about his allergies. Right?

But enough about the farmer's market. Saturday afternoon, Conservative Boy and I headed to Clinton with Twigs, one of C.B.'s best friends since they used to pretend to be WWF wrestlers in the Conservative Family basement. (I know what you're thinking, and I mean when they were in elementary school. Not last year.) His parents have a boat and they invited us along to boat at Clinton Lake.

It was perfect boating weather—and, at least for Twigs, skiing weather too. Next time I'll get out and give it a try, but I was enjoying soaking up the sun too much to mess with water skiing on this adventure. Plus, he made it look so easy. But we all know better. Water skiing is hard.

Sunday was a busy day—for me at least. Butter and Conservative Boy were pretty darn lazy. But I managed to do a whole-house cleaning, weeded over at the Conservative Family residence, and even snagged this lovely bouquet of flowers from the Conservative Family yard.

Oh, and we hosted Father's Day dinner at our house for Conservative Dad, which involved a wedge salad, stuffed burgers, sweet potato fries, green beans, and pie for dessert.

I'll share more about that soon. But I just realized as I wrote this that I set the sweet potato fries back in the oven (after I turned it off) so they would stay warm after dinner and they're still in there. Oops.


A Happily Ever After Homeowner Tale (Almost)

Once upon a time not that long ago in a land not that far away a damsel in distress wept over the state of her dishes.

"Somebody please help!" she cried. "The glasses are so cloudy you can't even see what's in them, the bowls are so stained no one can tell what color they are, and the silverware are so nasty no one wants to dine with us!"

Her knight in shining armor was not much help. Had the dishwasher been broken because of a fatal design flaw, he could have sued the pants off the manufacturer. But as a knight who wasn't all that handy around the house, his options for assisting his dear damsel were limited.

So he tried to blame it on her Seventh Generation dish detergent ("it's because of that hippie detergent you use," he said). When his "heavy duty" dish detergent failed to produce any better results, he threw his hands in the air with disgust and said, "It's a piece of [expletive here]. We're going to have to buy a new one."

As distraught as the damsel was at the thought, she nodded in agreement and began looking for dishwasher sales (because she wasn't going to buy a dishwasher until she could find a reasonably priced, stainless-steel, Energy Star model—even damsels in distress can be finicky sometimes).

Alas, weeks went by and she still hadn't found the deal she was looking for. They dealt as best they could with the horrible state of their dishes (after the dishware succumbed to the atrocity of the wash cycle, even hand-washing wouldn't help get rid of the aftermath, so they kept using the dishwasher despite its ineffectiveness).

And then disaster struck.

The damsel awoke one morning to a not-so-good sound from the basement. She went down to investigate, armed with her trusty sidekick Butter, who would protect her should the danger involve rabbits or postmen, and discovered that the water softener wasn't working. At all. Well ... it was trying to work, but all it was doing was producing a most painful clicking and clattering sound. So the damsel did the only thing she could do. She picked up the phone and made a call.

Culligan Man to the rescue!

The handy Culligan Man, armed with his water-problem-fighting tool belt, discovered that a number of parts in the water softener needed replaced. And probably had needed replaced for months—perhaps even for as long as the damsel and her knight had lived in their little brick castle.

So the heroic Culligan Man gave the damsel a list of parts to order and, when the parts arrived, he came back to install them.

Then the water softener was working. And the damsel could go back to worrying about the dishwasher.

But wait.

What was this?

Little by little, load by load, the dishes were getting clearer. Maybe the dishwasher didn't need replaced after all. Maybe, just maybe, the water softener had been the problem all along.

A couple of weeks later, the damsel knew for sure: The dishwasher (though rather ugly) was fine. It worked wonderfully. Suddenly she could tell what color her dishes were again. The silverware actually looked silver. And their Mason jars—oh! the Mason jars!—never before had she seen glassware so shiny and clear in her own home. It was nothing short of miraculous.

Then the knight and the damsel were happy. And their bank account was happy. And their glasses sparkled like diamond rings in the cupboard. And they all lived happily ever after.

Until the next week, when the dishwasher starting leaking.

To be continued ...


Flower Appreciation

The fact that these flowers are blooming in my backyard is nothing short of amazing.

They're lovely and colorful and I'm oh-so-glad they're here. It's been a difficult year for them, to say the least.

I planted them on Father's Day last summer, to accompany a few other plants that already lived next to our little backyard patio. It wasn't easy, because the plants that had already been in residence grew thick and had incredibly deep roots. And I had terribly cheap garden tools.

Yet I sweated and dug and persevered, and finally the Asiatic lilies, daylilies, and pretty white daisies had a new home. I enjoyed their color for a few weeks, until Butter decided he'd found a great new place to pee and the perfect path to get to the end of our yard, where he could watch the neighbors and convince them to come pet him.

So the daisies ended up pulled out of the ground. The Asiatic lilies were beheaded by his chain, one at a time. And the daylilies struggled to keep their hold in the earth.

This spring, when the brave plants started to emerge from the ground once more, I placed a little white fence behind the flowers in the hopes it might deter Butter. It did—for a few days. Then he decided he liked peeing on the fence.

Needless to say, one of the three Asiatic lily plants was lopped off by his chain. The daylilies looked so paltry I was sure they weren't going to bloom. But, because Butter doesn't walk right through the flowers anymore, the wounded beauties are surviving.

And when I got back from Vegas, they were even blooming.

So Butter promptly walked over and urinated on them.

You're so lucky I love you more than my plants, Butter. That's all I'm going to say.


A Weekend Trip

I left Illinois behind this weekend for a (very) quick bachelorette party trip.

One of my good college friends is getting hitched in July, so some of her high school, college, and grad school friends met up for a wild girls' weekend.

In Paris, no less.

It was lovely. Warm and sunny and perfect.

Only we weren't really in Paris. But we were at The Paris. In Vegas, baby.

Yes, that's right. The whole crew descended on Sin City.

We ate great food (for brunch Saturday, we dined at a restaurant in The Paris overlooking the dancing fountains of the Bellagio).

We also did a bit of gambling (I spent a whopping $6!), had some tasty drinks, danced, lounged by the glamorous hotel pool, and walked around the city a bit (here's the lion at MGM Grand, and behind that New York New York).

And that's all I'm going to say.

Because you know the rule: What happens in Vegas ...



I am a petulant child. When spring first sprung, I wanted my tulips to bloom immediately.

I wanted the plants that were sprouting up in my perennial garden to be tall instantly. (I was also relieved that there was green there in the first place—I was just praying this baby would survive for year two.)

I wanted the greenhouses to be full of plants so I could spend spare time I didn’t really have (and spare change I didn’t really have) buying veggies and flowers and more veggies to plant in my lonely pots.

I wanted it to be the height of summer, with all the yards around town in full bloom, so I could ogle them on my walks with Butter. Immediately.

I've heard patience is a virtue. Whether it is or not, when it comes to my plants, I’m not at all patient. How can you be, after spring starts teasing you?

Perhaps patience is something cultivated alongside gardening experience. If that’s the case, come back in 20 years and we’ll see if I’m OK with the slow progress of early spring. My guess? Probably not.

Only now that we're moving past spring into summer weather (kind of—what's with all the rainy, dreary days?), I've done a 360. Now I want to put the brakes on. These flowers in my perennial garden are blooming too quickly. I haven't had enough time to enjoy them yet. I'm missing my pretty plants and their peak because I've been going out of town on the weekends. It's just not right.

So I've asked these lovely ladies

And the whole darn garden actually

To stop. To freeze (but not literally—that would be bad) until I get back on Monday. And then I'll have almost a month of uninterrupted time in L-Town to enjoy the perennials and the pots and everything else.

That's not too much to ask, is it?


Watching Butter Wait

You already know that Butter gets restless when it's quitting time. But he also gets pretty darn excited when he hears the garage door open at lunch and after work. That means Conservative Boy is home.

No matter where he is in the house, Butter takes off at full speed for the door in the kitchen that leads to the garage. He stands there patiently and waits, cocking his head each time he hears a sound that may or may not be Conservative Boy coming into the house.

If Conservative Boy is slow, Butter races (at full speed again) out of the kitchen and around the corner to his window to see what the hold up is. Of course, he can't see the garage from there, so he has to hurry to get back to the kitchen door as quickly as possible.

Come on, Julie. Where is he? Butter asks.

And then he hears the first door open. And then the door he's standing at opens. And he's there to greet Conservative Boy with a crotch sniff.

That's true doggie devotion.

(Random side note: Isn't the pink tile particularly horrifying where it extends all the way to the floor? Who wants to come help me demolish it?)

Strawberry Pie

As you may have heard, this is strawberry week in these here parts. And by these here parts I mean our house, which contained 10 pounds of strawberries as of Saturday afternoon. Yes, you read that right. Ten whole pounds!

Needless to say, after eating strawberries for a snack every day, putting them on my cereal, stirring them in my oatmeal, tossing them in our salads at dinner, and making fruit smoothies with them, we've made a considerable dent in the strawberries.

Making (Not So) Conservative Grandmom's famous, delicious, oh-so-lovely strawberry pie helped too. And that's what I'm going to share with you today.

Only first I have a confession. I botched it. Big time. Instead of eating a beautiful strawberry pie, fresh from the fridge, set up to perfection, we ate strawberry soup with crust after I made the pie Sunday.

It still tasted good, to be sure. But it wasn't really pie.

There's no use crying over runny pie though. So I'm sharing the recipe with you here because, despite the fact I may be fired from strawberry pie making, it's a darn good recipe. And I think you should try it. Then, when you succeed where I failed, share a picture of your masterpiece with me. Or, better yet, share a slice with me. That would really make me happy.

Here we go ...

Cook 1 cup water and 1 cup strawberries until soft.

Whirr the strawberries and water in a blender.

Failure one. Make sure you hold down the lid. I mean really hold down the lid. I sort of held down the lid and this was the result.

Clean up mess.

Add a cup of sugar and 2+ tablespoons corn starch and stir until thick.

(I know what you're saying now. Well, silly, you probably didn't add enough corn starch and that's why you had strawberry soup. But the thing is, I know I used the tablespoon instead of the teaspoon. And I added 2+++ tablespoons because I noticed it wasn't thickening. Is it possible to buy bad corn starch? Can I get away with blaming it on that?)

Let the strawberry filling chill.

Bake your pie shell. (Yes, I used a store-bought shell rather than making one from scratch. Perhaps the runny pie was punishment from the baking gods?)

Spread a little of the strawberry filling on the baked shell. Take blurry photos.

Then fill the whole darn shell with fresh berries. Come on now, don't skimp on them. The more berries, the better. (Officially, you're supposed to use a quart. But when you have 10 pounds of strawberries on hand, you just load 'er up.)

Spoon the remaining sauce over the berries and pat down. Watch in horror as the sauce runs everywhere and makes a big mess of your shell. OK, don't do that please. That's just what happened in my kitchen.

Refrigerate until you're brave enough to serve it. Then top with whipped cream and watch people ooh and aah. (Or shriek in horror, if you succeed as well as I did.)

(And no, I am not going to share photos of the pie after I served it. You can picture it. Remember, it's strawberry soup with crust.)

Don't be discouraged by my failure. Go make this pie—and do it right for my sake! Pie failures are so sad and only a beautifully made strawberry pie will get me through this trying time ...


Illinois Adventures

Are you sick of me telling you to go check out new websites yet? Yes no maybe? OK. OK. I'll give you a break soon.

But first I have to tell you about my new endeavor.

It's an online travel magazine I created (with the help of a talented Peoria web designer). It's called Illinois Adventures, and it's all about exploring Central Illinois. Because this part of the state is actually pretty darn cool.

Here's what it looks like (the site, that is, not this part of the state):

Why bother?

As I write on the site: "It may not have the reputation of its cousin Chicago up north, but this part of the state has plenty to offer residents and visitors alike—great restaurants and entertainment options, gorgeous vineyards, history-packed sites, plenty of events, and all the Illinois hospitality you could ask for."

If you live in the area (or ever pass through ... or just want to see what I'm up to), I hope you'll check out illinois-adventures.com.

The first "issue" includes a picture of the World's Largest Covered Wagon (right here in L-Town), a feature on the cuisine and comedy you'll find in Mason City, and more. Plus I'm adding new Central Illinois events to the site as fast as I can, so you know where to go when you're on the hunt for something to do.

But enough shameless self-promotion. I'm off to photograph a giant statue of Paul Bunyan eating a hot dog. And retrace Abraham Lincoln's footsteps for the town that was named after him (yes, that would be L-Town). Oh, and maybe if I get lucky, I'll sell a few ads while I'm at it.