Friday, June 26, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 5

Cave of the Mounds – Let me tell you a little story about a man named Ebenezer Brigham, the man who discovered Wisconsin’s famous Cave of the Mounds. Mr. Brigham and his cohorts were blasting up a limestone bed in the 1930s when they stumbled upon this gigantic underground cave, some parts of which were twenty feet high. It opened up into two different directions, and after wooden walkways and handrails were installed the geological oddity was opened up to the public, and millions of visitors later, the rest is history.

My brother and I—both Brighams—had no idea that the gentleman responsible for this road trip attraction was himself a Brigham. Brighams still own property in the area and there’s even a Brigham Park nearby. It would be nice if I could shrug this all off as a coincidence, but there are things at play here bigger than myself. You see, when Ebenezer Brigham became the first permanent white settler in Wisconsin’s Dane County in 1828, he did so by traveling from Massachusetts. Why is this important? Because my very own grandfather, Mr. Charles Brigham, also came from Massachusetts.

What this means, obviously, is that Kyle and I, in a way, discovered the Cave of the Mounds. You’re welcome.

Being likely descendants of the same Brigham clan as Eb (that’s what we Brighams call him), the workers there treated us with the expected fanfare. We were given a private tour of the caves, sharing our guide with only one small group of fifteen first-graders on a school field trip, and were charged the low, low price of $14 for our excursion. We only had to wait one hour for the tour get started, and—here’s the kicker—in honor of presence, every worker in the place wore matching green polos. Truly, it was nice to see the gang all dressed up. I don’t want to say it was like we were royalty or anything, but it was like we were royalty.

The caves themselves were pretty awesome. Compared to our only other spelunking experience (Doesn’t “spelunking” mean exploring caves? We’re going to say “yes” for now) at Iowa’s ridiculous Spook Cave, this was a pretty roomy tour. I for some reason worked under the assumption that we’d discover the stalactites, etc. via boat, just as we did at Spook, but there were a series of walkways to traverse instead, making the whole ordeal much less calming.

Geological formations within the cave sprawl from every single possible angle. Long, icicle-shaped rocks drip form the ceilings, while other sections of rock curl and twist into themselves. Sometimes the ceilings were so high you couldn’t even imagine touching them, but in other places the squeeze was so fit that you sort of had to touch the walls, even though there was a strict “no touching” policy in place there.

Our tour guide treated us exactly like one of the first graders duck-walking alongside us. She kept making sure the group was all together and actually kept a closer eye on us than she did the children. I’m not sure if she thought were going to touch something or drink beer or deal drugs, but whatever the case she eyeballed us the way an old man eyeballs teenage hooligans walking down the avenue.

Pretty amazing experience for the most part, and especially amazing considering it’s now such a rich part of my family heritage. Assuming that we’re related to the great Ebenezer Brigham (which I, of course, and going to go ahead and do), it’s kind of like finding out you’re a distant relative of George Washington or George Washington Carver or Chelsea Clinton. It was a real honor, and I’m proud to consider myself part of the Cave of the Mounds Family.

Jake’s Deli – Corn beef has always quietly been one of my favorite foods, dating back to my time as a childhood parishioner of St. Patrick’s church, which held a corn beef and cabbage dinner every March to celebrate St. Patty’s Day. For being an unnaturally pink slice of meat it just speaks mouthfuls to me, and on a sandwich with a little bit of sauerkraut and mustard/thousand island dressing, there’s little more one could do culinarily to make me smile.

So, when looking for a good Milwaukee restaurant for the ride home, Jake’s Deli and their world famous Rueben sandwiches stood out to me. See, Kyle lived in Milwaukee for a summer and when I would visit the two of us enjoyed a pretty fair sampling of the city’s cuisine, which of course consists mostly of beer and cheese and bratwurst. For some reason, though, neither one of us had ever previously heard of or visited Jake’s. As we would discover upon locating the restaurant, that reason had everything to do with the shabby neighborhood in which the storefront is located.

It should be noted, however, that a good corn beef sandwich is worth potentially getting shot over, so we braved the questionable hood and made our way into the deli to get ourselves a sammich.

The results, predictably, were delicious. Never in my life have I enjoyed corn beef so delicious. It helped, of course, that we were all starving, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered. This was straight-up good food—so good that Craig called it the greatest food of the trip. Yes, even better than the Fly Trap. None of the rest of us agreed, but there was no doubting that at the very least it came in second place.

Sure, the neighborhood sucked, but sometimes the shiniest diamonds can be found in the rough. Just ask Aladdin about that. He got judged by his cover, too, and see how it turned out for him? A genie and a hot princess. Exactly like Jake’s Deli.

Jelly Belly Warehouse Tour – When Amy and I visited the great state of California last year we were able to tour the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, where the famous jelly beans are actually manufactured. That was a legitimately cool tour.

In Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, where the beans are centrally located in a warehouse, to be shipped to the rest of the country, the tour is significantly less cool. In California you traverse the entire factory, watching all the processes of jelly bean making, but in Wisconsin you hope into a little train and drive in a circle around the circumference of the warehouse, watching videos about the California tour along the way. In other words, it was lamey lamertons.

But we didn’t go to the Jelly Belly warehouse for the tour. We went for the Belly Flops, which are the little screw up beans that aren’t regulation size or shape, so they get sold for pennies on the dollar. For example, you can get a two-pound bag of assorted flavors for $17 at any participating location, but six pounds of Belly Flops go for the comparatively low price of $18. I bought three two-pound bags while were there and pretty much filled up the gumball machine in our basement. That alone was worth the trip.

Conclusion – I can say this: Day 3 of this trip, the one through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was easily the worst day in road trip history. There was like ten hours of driving through rain to see some of the lamest things we’ve ever seen on the road. I’ve worked very, very hard over the years to make these trips as fun as possible, but Day 3 was an utter failure. It pains me to say this, but I failed in that regard. I just did.

Of course, the U.P. sucks, so I can’t take all the blame.

As far as the food is concerned, it was by far the best road trip we’ve ever had. Last year’s barbecue massacre in Tennessee offered quite a few num-nums, but it is absolutely true that too much of a good thing can result in nausea and long hours on the toilet. This time around the food was varied, delicious, and well spread-out. Delicious. Absolutely delicious. Cozy Corner BBQ is still the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, but the Fly Trap is definitely in my top five now, too. Food was definitely good.

Who knows what future years will bring, but the four trips I’ve taken in the last five years have been legendary. The videos have been awesome, the food has been awesome, and the company has been awesome. I love these trips. I just do. No matter where we all go in our lives from here on out, I hope the other guys I’ve been running around with the last half-decade feel the same way.

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