Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Madison Holiday Tradition

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

For the past 17 years, I have had the privilege of driving past and enjoying the festive row of lighted holiday trees along the 2700 and 2800 blocks of University Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin. And every year, I’ve told myself that I should take the time to photograph this beautiful scene, but never got around to it. This year, I finally took the time.

For those of you who live elsewhere, this is no ordinary display of holiday lights. There is a row of 228 arborvitae trees between the railroad tracks and Doctor’s Park, each one trimmed to about six feet tall. The entire row stretches 1,000 feet, which is the length of three and one-third football fields.

Each tree is decorated in one specific color, but there are many different colors along the row – red, green, blue, yellow, purple, white, and several other colors. This holiday rainbow contains roughly 135,000 lights, most of them being energy-efficient LED lights. These lights stay on from dusk until dawn for everyone’s enjoyment.

This wonderful holiday display, which has become a Madison tradition, began with a lot of hard work and expense in the planting of the trees in 1983 by Dr. Jack Kammer. Ten years later, he began lighting the trees from Thanksgiving through the end of January. And for the next 16 years, he spent more than $10,000 annually to support this holiday tradition. He also recruited and directed many volunteers each year who would help to put up and take down all the lights.

Last year, at age 82, Jack Kammer talked about leaving a legacy, saying, “I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to do it, but I hope I will have some people who will take over when I can’t do it anymore.” Sadly, Dr. Jack Kammer passed away on May 13, 2010. His son, Dr. Chris Kammer, plans to continue the tradition in his father’s memory. He said that the University Avenue holiday lights “warmed so many hearts beyond my dad’s wildest dreams, and that made him extremely happy.”

In 2008, Jack Kammer published a book entitled, “The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights.” All the proceeds from the book are used to help fund this magnificent annual display. You can also help by donating funds to Shorewood Hills Trust – Tree Fund, c/o M&I Bank – Private Banking, 401 N. Segoe Rd, Madison, Wi 53705. If you would like to volunteer to help put up or take down lights, you can contact Chris Kammer through his Holiday Lights Facebook page.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And, as always, Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another White Christmas

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten,
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

The famous Christmas carol, White Christmas, was written by Irving Berlin in 1942. We’ve enjoyed the song and the Christmas movie of the same name every Christmas season for years.

In the 1990’s as Joann and I began photographing more and more, we lamented the fact that we just didn’t seem to get as much snow as we did when we were growing up on the farm. Some years we were out photographing winter when there was only an inch or two of snow to be found. Winter in Wisconsin just didn’t seem right without a larger amount of snow like we had years ago.

The last few years, there has been no such problem. In other words, no dreaming required for a white Christmas. We’ve been blessed the last few years with early December snows that have lasted well past Christmas.

As soon as the roads are clear after a big snow, and we have a day off from work, we head out. Sometimes our mission is small towns, and sometimes it’s rural farm scenes. We love to find red barns against the background of all that white snow. In fact, any color of barn except white is enhanced by a blanket of snow.

In the winter, navigating changes a little bit. I can still pick a road to turn on, but we never know until we get right up to it whether or not we’ll really turn. That decision is made based on how well plowed the road looks. In all our winter travels, we’ve only gotten a little stuck and that was just last winter. A couple of minutes later we were back on the road.

Everything looks different in the snow, so we often travel roads we’ve been on before. Usually the scene looks better, since the blanket of white is covering what we often wish we couldn’t see in other seasons of the year.

As you travel down the roads this holiday season, look around at the blanket of snow and notice how different the world looks. And if you dare, when you feel a little cabin fever setting in, go out and explore some backroads. Maybe we’ll see you there!

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nature’s Camouflage

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

During the winter of 2006-2007, Ruth heard about a pair of screech owls that someone had discovered in the opening of a tree in the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The interesting thing about this pair was that one was a gray phase (gray-colored) and one was a rufous phase (red-brown colored).

We never know if we should “chase” this type of photo because we don’t know if the subject will still be there when we get there. In this case, however, they had been there for several days and we couldn’t resist the chance to see them and maybe photograph them.

As soon as the weekend arrived, we headed out in the pre-dawn hours so that we would arrive in Oshkosh at dawn. On our way through the older part of the city, we stopped to photograph an old grist mill and then a historic fire station.

Then we headed over to the place where the little screech owls had been seen. There were two or three very large oak trees and we had no idea which tree they might be in. So we grabbed our binoculars and started to search. We looked and looked but couldn’t see them. Ruth had seen a photo that someone else had taken a few days earlier, so she was looking for the notch in the tree like she had seen in the photo. She did find the notch, but there were no owls (that she could see, anyway).

We were really disappointed that we had struck out. Our plan, however, had been to spend a good part of the day photographing on the backroads of Winnebago County. So that’s what we did. Then we returned in the late afternoon to try one more time to find the owls.

I started scanning the tree near the road and Ruth went back to the tree that had the notch she thought matched the photo she had seen. After some intense searching, she suddenly said, “Well, I’ll be! There he is!” There was only one screech owl and it was the gray phase one, so he blended right into the gray oak tree. I went running over and looked up into the notch, but I couldn’t see the owl. Ruth kept saying, “He’s right there,” as she pointed to the notch in the tree. After much straining to find him, my eyes finally broke through his clever camouflage, and I was able to see him peacefully sleeping in the tree.

There are so many things camouflaged in nature that we unsuspectingly walk or drive past every day. In October, 2006, Ruth and I were out looking for fall color in Richland County, Wisconsin, and we drove past a rock formation that had a small cave-like opening. On the “roof” of this opening, there were some very interesting fungi intertwined with wispy, cotton-like webs. It looked kind of like the pattern you see on traditional camouflage clothing.

We left there and headed over to Steamboat Rock, a huge rock formation that looks like a petrified ship. As we were standing in front of this looming rock structure, I started to study the various patterns in the rock. As my eyes scanned from one end of the rock to the other, I noticed a hornet’s nest that was camouflaged on the rock. The swirls and pitting on the hornet’s nest were almost an exact match to the swirls and pitting on the rock to which it was attached.

The next time you’re out on the back roads or in nature, stop and look closely. You’ll surely see something you didn’t know was there.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

3 Miles Ahead, 50 Years Behind!

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

You might remember our previous blog entitled “I Think We’re Being Followed” about being followed in Arkansas. Part of our reason for visiting Mountain View, Arkansas, was to visit Mellon’s Country store.

We love the old fashioned country stores. This one was built in 1991 by Don and Suzie Mellon in the style of a 1940’s general store. The slogan of the store is “3 miles ahead, 50 years behind!” And as you pull into the parking lot surrounded by an old split rail fence, you can feel it.

As we walked from the car across the gravel of the parking lot, we glanced down and saw many, many bottle caps worked into the gravel. And on a small walkway up to the store, Joann noticed a heart-shaped stone.

We walked around outside the building taking photos of all of the old memorabilia. There are many old signs on the sides of the building. We love all of the old drink and gas signs and always stop to take photos when we find them, so when we find a place like this with an abundance of signs, we have to take a lot of photos.

When Joann finished taking photos of the outside of the building, we went inside to investigate. It was a quiet evening at the store, and soon we were the only customers. We walked around looking at all of the old time items.

When Joann found the display of old time candy, and it contained candy we had as children, she was very happy about it. As usually happens, I started to pick on her about something, and soon we were laughing over in the corner. Since it was just us in the store, the clerk picked up on what I was doing, and soon she was teasing Joann as badly as I was. It was like she had known us for years.

Joann picked out some old time toys and our new friend demonstrated them for us. We bought some old fashioned hard candy for the road and then we decided that we had to get some of the fresh roasted peanuts from the small roaster in the store.

The front porch of the store had several benches for relaxing and an old barrel topped with a checkerboard. There was a game laid out just waiting for someone to sit down and play. Of course, the checkers were bottle caps as well.

Also on the front porch next to the door was an old wringer washing machine. It was slightly older than the one our mother had and it brought back some not so fond memories of taking our baths in the old washtub out in the porch.

When we finally left, we had some great nostalgic items, and some fond memories of another old general store. We hope to stop back some day when our travels take us back to Arkansas.

On your next vacation or shunpiking adventure, see if you can find an old country store. We think you’ll enjoy it as much as we do.

Happy shunpiking!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Twas the Month Before Christmas (at Summers Christmas Tree Farm)

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

‘Twas the month before Christmas, and on Summers' farm,
Everybody was working to create Christmas charm.
The Christmas Shop was filled with gifts, wreaths, and bears,
Ornaments and snowmen and other kinds of wares.

The Head Elf, Simone, was training her elves
And Brenna, Elf in Training, was checking the shelves;
With Judy in her workshop and Bill in command,
The place was becoming a Christmas wonderland.

With just four days to go before opening day, I visited Summers Christmas Tree Farm, located a few miles west of Middleton, Wisconsin. I was on a mission to capture some images of the Christmas Shop before it opened for the season. Inside the Christmas Shop, everything was all in order. Outside, though, there was still much to do.

There were saws to hang on the poles for the adventurous; trees to cut for those who are less adventurous; baling machines and the refreshment stand to set up; wreaths, garland, and boughs to make and display, and many other last minute to-do’s. Everyone knew what their job was and they were busy doing it. And Judy, of course, was singing merrily as she went about making wreaths and lending a hand.

There’s work to do all year long at a Christmas tree farm, but things really come alive the closer it gets to Thanksgiving. Simone, the Head Elf and manager of the Christmas Shop, told me that it reminds her of Brigadoon. For those not familiar with the musical, two Americans hunting in Scotland become lost and discover a mysterious village called Brigadoon that isn’t on their map. This village appears out of the mist and comes alive for only one day every hundred years. Summers Christmas Tree Farm comes alive with Christmas magic for only a short time at the end of each year.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Ruth and I, along with our sister, Linda, and her family, did what we do every year – we made a trip to Summers Christmas Tree Farm to cut Christmas trees for each of our households. We had fun finding just the right trees and then Linda’s husband, Mike, kindly cut them down for us. After having our trees baled and loaded into our cars, we spent some time in the Christmas Shop enjoying all the wonderful ornaments and gifts they have available.

Judy and Bill Summers describe their business as “a family farm where memories grow.” They should know – they’ve been doing this for a long, long time. It’s been sixty years since Bill’s parents planted the first seedlings to start their Christmas tree farm. Last week, I selfishly asked Judy how much longer she and Bill planned to manage their farm. Judy told me that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and that she planned to live to be 100 years old. That’s good news for us!

If you’re looking for a great place to establish a fun family Christmas tradition, head on over to Summers Christmas Tree Farm. It’s located about three miles west of Middleton, Wisconsin, at 4610 Rocky Dell Road. For more information, visit the Summers Christmas Tree Farm website.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Humor on the Backroads

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Joann and I really enjoy our trips on the backroads. We always find a lot to laugh about. Sometimes things seem really funny at the time, and later, when we have time to think about it, we wonder just what made it so funny. Sometimes it’s probably our long days and lack of sleep that make everything funny and sometimes it’s probably just our weird sense of humor.

One of the first mills we ever visited in Wisconsin was the Red Mill in Waupaca County. We have visited this mill many times over the years. On our most recent visit, as we walked towards the gift shop inside the mill, we passed this sign on the side of the building. Even though we have seen the sign before, it always makes us smile.

On our way to North Carolina this spring, we stopped in Kentucky at Levi Jackson State Park to have lunch and photograph the mill in the park. It is a small mill built in 1939 by the CCC as a replica of one of the original McHargue family mills. There is a long winding path leading to the mill and it is lined with the biggest display of millstones in the country.

As Joann finished photographing, I started to set up lunch at one of the picnic tables. When Joann joined me at the picnic table, a truck passed by proudly proclaiming “Stevie and Velma’s Furniture and Finance.” For some reason, this struck both of us as very funny. Looking back, I realize it probably meant they would finance your furniture purchase, but at the time, it seemed like you could do your banking and buy a sofa from them. Okay, so it was a long morning on the road by that time!

Last fall in Minnesota, we came across a man as he was finishing up his scarecrow display. Since it was a display of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, now playing for the Packers’ archenemy, the Vikings, we had to stop and get a picture.

This fall on our trip to Iowa to photograph barns, we came up to a crossroads. The road to the right was closed, and I told Joann to go straight. As she pulled forward into the intersection, I noticed a sign in the ditch on the side of the road. I started to read the sign, but couldn’t finish it before it was out of sight. Since what I could read sounded interesting, Joann turned around and drove back to the intersection. Once we could read the whole sign, it was definitely worth our turning around.

We hope you also find things along the roads of your life that make you smile or laugh out loud.

Happy Shunpiking!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Foggy Mountain Morning

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

I’ve always been drawn to bluegrass music. Maybe it’s because I love the pure and simple sound of acoustic instruments. Maybe, though, it’s because bluegrass has its roots in the rural areas of our country, which is where my heart leads me when I go out to photograph.

In 1949, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and the Foggy Mountain Boys recorded a bluegrass instrumental called Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which became a bluegrass standard that has been used as background music for rural car chase scenes in movies such as Bonnie and Clyde.

I don’t know where the Foggy Mountain Boys got their name, but I like the thought of a foggy mountain. Years ago, on a chilly October morning, Ruth and I went up on Wildcat Mountain in Vernon County, Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has its own brand of mountains) and we waited for first light. As the darkness gave way to the dawn, we were treated to a spectacular sight – fog in the Kickapoo Valley, engulfing the fall colors and the winding Kickapoo River.

Beyond the river, was an opening in the trees (and in the fog) where a recently harvested alfalfa field lay sprinkled with bales of hay. Since converting to digital photography in 2006, we have tried to recapture some of what we captured over the years on film. But, try as we might, we were never privileged enough to experience similar morning conditions on Wildcat Mountain.

In early October of this year, we decided to give it one more try, so we both set our alarms for o’dark thirty. Ruth, of course, has to set her alarm even earlier than mine because she has the additional drive time from her house to mine.

We left my house at 4:00 am and traveled the two-hour drive to Wildcat Mountain State Park, near Ontario, Wisconsin. As you turn off the highway to enter the park, the road immediately becomes extremely steep as you head to the top of the “mountain.” It was still quite dark when we arrived at the park, and we felt guilty as we drove past campers and tents in that pre-dawn hour.

Beyond the camping area is a small black-topped trail to the lookout point where we had taken our foggy morning photos years ago. I got out a flashlight and gathered my camera equipment and tripod. Carefully, we walked in the dark to the lookout point and I tried to size up the silhouette possibilities. A faint trace of light then began to appear, helped by the brightness of the fog in the valley below.

It was a very cold morning and I shivered as I set up my tripod and camera, while Ruth stood at the end of the trail aiming the flashlight beyond the trail so I didn’t fall on the steep, rough terrain. As the light came up and we could see down into the valley below, we realized that we were blessed with both frost and fog.

I struggled to get myself to the highest point so that I could capture both the tree silhouettes and some of the fog below. I was working as fast as I could because there isn’t much time before it gets too light to capture a good silhouette. Meanwhile, Ruth was standing down by the railing at the edge of the cliff watching the beautiful fog as it drifted from the right to the left.

As she watched, the fog began to move very quickly. “You’d better get down here and capture this before it’s too late!” she said as she leaned over the railing. So I headed down by her and shot very quickly into the valley below. It was amazing to watch how quickly the scene changed as the fog drifted over the trees and the river. Also to our amazement was the fact that the alfalfa field was still there and it was once again dotted with bales of hay. This time, though, it was also frosted over.

Finally, I had taken all the different shots I could think to take and the fog was beginning to lift. As we headed back to the car, we passed two men who were heading out to the lookout point. They asked me if I had gotten some good shots and I told them that it was breathtaking.

As I was putting my camera equipment back into the car, I realized that one of them had come back. He introduced himself and asked if I was a professional photographer. He then explained that he and his friend had gone canoeing on the Kickapoo River the day before and they had accidentally tipped their canoe over. One of the things they lost in the mishap was their camera, so he was wondering if he could see what I had captured.

I gave him our business card and, as I explained to him that we travel the backroads in search of rural and historical scenes, he suggested I read the book, “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a book of one man’s 13,000-mile journey along the back roads of rural America. The funny thing was that I had just put that book by my bedside a couple days before. A friend had given it to me years ago and I never got it read. I vowed that I would read it this winter…and I will!

Happy Shunpiking!

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lost in Iowa

By Ruth A Ringelstetter

I hate to admit it, but sometimes Irwin is right. In September of 2009, Joann and I took our semi-annual trip to Iowa. We used Irwin to find the addresses of some farms we were trying to find, but for the most part, I left him turned off and just used the map.

Early on the second morning of our trip, we left our motel intending to find a round barn for first light. I set Irwin for a town to the north, along the route to the barn. Once we cleared town, I turned him off as I usually do. Joann and I must have miscalculated our drive time, since it was still pitch dark when I stopped Irwin from giving us directions. Studying the map under the small overhead light, I thought I understood where we needed to turn, but when we found the same corner twice, I should have known we had a problem. (Do you hear Irwin laughing?)

The corner we kept coming back to was supposed to have an old log cabin, but all we saw was a gas station and another newer building. Joann pulled into the parking lot, so I could study the map. If we had an address for the round barn, I would have plugged it into Irwin to let him give it a try. As it was, I studied the map until I could figure out where I had gone wrong, and we tried again.

When we finally found the round barn, there was plenty of light to photograph the barn, and we thought maybe the best of the morning light had passed.

Leaving the round barn, I picked a direction to travel that would take us towards some barns we planned to photograph that day. As we headed down the road, we came upon this windmill scene.

We wondered how it could have seemed so light at the round barn and yet, we had this beautiful orange sunrise color with these windmills. This was especially nice since I had made us miss most of the morning light.

As Joann was putting her camera away after the windmills, I asked if she wanted to check out something I had marked as “stone man” on the map. I couldn’t remember where I had read something about him and gotten directions, but since it was close, we decided to investigate.

Following the directions I had, we drove to where the stone man should be – and right by. After going about half a mile more than my directions indicated, we figured we had missed him, so we turned around and went back, driving slowly and watching the side of the road he should be on.

And when we found him, all we could say was, “That’s it?”. We decided to take his picture anyway, just to show that we had seen him.

Preparing to write this story, I searched the internet for some history on this strange character and found a book containing a little information. Not much is known about the stone man. Local historians have done extensive research and have only come up with theories. The most interesting theory is that the stone man served as a boundary marker between early settlers and Indian lands. They did find some historical accounts of him being used as a meeting spot and guidepost for travelers as far back as the 1880s. Families would meet at the stone man before heading into town for church or shopping. If one family decided not to wait for the others, they’d tie a necktie around his neck or put a bonnet on his head as a sign that they had gone ahead.

Too bad we didn’t know this about him at the time, or we might have borrowed something from Joann’s bag of extra clothing to decorate him with before we took his picture.

It just goes to show, you never know who or what you’ll find along the backroads.

Happy Shunpiking!