August/September 2003

Live from the North Woods

Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York

Or ..... The Great Northern BMW Chase

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We've been keeping as far north as we can, working hard on trying to stay cool.  Sometimes it even helps!  And further north is further pretty:  the countryside is universally lovely and green.  But we've also dipped back down into America's Heartland, the upper midwest.

Our last message was sent to you from International Fall, Minnesota.  Remember seeing them on the Weather Channel all the time?  Coldest spot in the lower 48?  Actually not too bad a little town.  We spent a night there in a funky little campground, did our laundry the next day, and left town after sending you that last message.  Of course, there's a tale that goes with sending the message.  Usually we are some place where we can hook up in the campground, or are visiting with friends and can use their land line.  But not so in good ole Int. Falls.  So we started our search.  The library wasn't interested in having us bring in our computer, we didn't see a computer store, etc., but we finally asked and got permission to hook up at a copy place.  So that's how you got to learn all about out adventures in Montana and South Dakota.  

Leaving International Falls, we headed back into Canada.  We had plans to spend several days with relatives who have combined households in Duluth, Minnesota and South Gillies, Ontario (near Thunder Bay and about 180 miles north of Duluth).  These are delightful follks; she is American and teaches at the University of Minnesota in Duluth; he's Canadian and has just retired from the faculty at Lakewood University in Thunder Bay.  They've been keeping company for over 17 years; but how to make it one household?  Very complicated.  So 180 miles back and forth, through customs.  Now that's dedication and abiding love!

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We joined these folks at South Gillies, where we spent a couple of bucolic days.  South Gillies is near nowhere, but not too far from Thunder Bay for a day trip to see the sights.  At night we were parked in a field of wildflowers, next to apple trees whose fruit was starting to get bigger.  We were told the bears would probably leave us alone because the apples weren't ripe yet........  

On our day trip into Thunder Bay, we were treated to some lovely country, along with lunch at a Finnish restaurant.  Thunder Bay is home to several large ethnic populations which have been encouraged to retain their own customs, and it was a real treat.  Kathy enjoyed a local delicacy; Rick found they were still serving breakfast, and the French toast looked good, and was greatly relieved.  A good time was had by all.  We spent the remainder of our day at a reconstructed fort, Old Fort William, which dates back to the days of the Voyageurs and the height of the fur trade.  This was a wonderful spot. The Canadians are very good at this sort of thing; we were reminded of last summer's visit to Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.  Rarely have we seen a better presentation of a time in history; our guide was very knowledgeable and all the people in costume really knew a lot and were eager to share their information.  For the most part they were students from the local university we decided; very bright, pretty, and full of spunk.  We had a fine time.  They had an extensive collection of the furs that were traded there, and wow!  Now we know why they were so valuable.  I had a chance to pick up a red fox fur that was incredibly soft.  The beaver pelts were less interesting than we had expected, but we were shown how they were used to make the felt hats, etc.  It was a great experience that we would recommend to anyone traveling through in the area.  Thunder Bay is in the area the Canadians call Northwest Ontario Province, although to us it was so close to the US, how could it be the "Northwest"?  How self-centered we are!

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The whole Lake Superior North Shore is incredibly beautiful.  The Lake is spectacular all by itself, and the bays and beaches are clean and friendly.  It's the largest of the Great Lakes, and by far the deepest.  You can drive all around the lake, half in Canada, half in the US; we’ve done some of it between last summer and this; some day we will go the rest of the way around.  For now, we had to make do with just going about 100 kilometers further east from Thunder Bay around the Canadian side, to the very small town of Red Rock.  We were heading for a Canadian folk music festival, and boy did we hit the nail on the head!  We spent three days in Red Rock, camped along a marina in a lovely bay, listening to some very fine music, rubbing elbows with the locals and making new friends.  Canadian music festivals, we found, are somewhat different from what we are accustomed to.  There was one main stage, and four smaller ones.  During most of each day, there were "workshops" on all five.  In most cases, this meant throwing a large group of disparate musicians (8-12 quite often) on stage together, giving them a theme, and telling them to "have at it."  We had sessions on Cars, Trucks, Trains, and Airplanes; Songs I Didn't Write (but wished I did); Songs of Angst and Woe, subtitled My Truck Broke, My Dog Died, My Baby Left; Rear View Mirror; Just the Blues; ..... you get the picture.  Then, starting about 5:00 in the evening, individual groups would take the main stage and perform, with the last session starting about 11:00 pm (remember, we were pretty far north and it didn't get dark until after 10:00).  We had a wonderful time.  By Sunday evening most people had gone, and we spent one last night parked on the marina in the quiet, leaving the next morning and heading back down into the States.  We heard lots of new music and had a terrific time.  We'll come again.

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One unusual tradition:  instead of the announcer saying "Let's give a nice hand to....." they say "Give it up for......."  Fun.  And one startling moment:  Sunday morning we were talking with a couple of the musicians.  When they heard we were from California, they said they had just been watching the news and had heard that our Governor had resigned!  Now that was a real surprise.  We spent the next several days trying to find news articles that would tell us more (just try doing that in an out-of-the-way place in Canada), and it wasn't until mid-week that we definitively knew that they had made a mistake and that good old Gray Davis was still fighting for his place in the sun.  By the way, Californians are really the butt of a lot of jokes all around the country right now.  Commonly we hear "Well, you got out just in time, didn't you!"  I just say that California is always where the action is..........

When we left Thunder Bay we headed back down the shore of Lake Superior and back into Minnesota.  The road is beautiful, going along the lake and filled with pretty views.  There is a bikeway along much of it, for the walkers and bicyclists; and also the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, which evidently goes around the entire lake, through both countries.  We stopped in Grand Marais for the night, and shopped for the local delicacy -- Grand Marais Donuts, billed as the best in the world.  Not far off!  This is a nice resort town, and there was lots of activity.  There is a nice family beach there, and it was quite busy.  We walked on the sand.  Did you know that Lake Superior is the largest body of fresh water in the world?

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We stopped for several days in Duluth.  Our goal was to attend the Aerostich Very Boring 20th Anniversary Celebration.  We actually ended up leaving prior to that event, but stopped by their headquarters a couple of times to purchase (of course) things we absolutely needed.  Aerostich is the maker of some very fine motorcycle riding gear and accessories.  They have their headquarters in a funky warehouse in an iffy part of town, but it was great poking around and buying stuff.  We didn't stay for the celebration because it was getting very hot again and we had itchy feet.  But large beer parties aren't our thing anyway, and we know we got out of the visit just what we had desired.  While in Duluth we also visited the Maritime Museum, which was a little funky but still enjoyable.  Probably the neatest thing there was a relief of all the Great Lakes.  This gave a much better representation of their positions, relative depths, and interrelationships.  We enjoyed that a lot.  There was also a display on the history of the Army Corps of Engineers (this was their museum, for whatever reason), which has always intrigued me.  Who knows why, but it always has.........  Duluth is, of course, a very important port town, down at the lower left end (Note: This is Kathy, our navigator, speaking. She means the southern tip) of Lake Superior.  Stuff is onloaded there and goes all the way out the St. Lawrence Seaway and thus out to the world.  The museum was built right beside the bridge that allows shipping to move back and forth.  It's an aerial bridge, and it goes up and down as needed.  We got to see it perform a few times.  I was amazed at how often it had to go up a bit, just to let sport fishing boats go back and forth.  Seems pretty inefficient to me.  The bridge was first built around 1902 and has been modified and retrofitted several times since.  There are people living on an island across the bridge, and it seems that when they are late for work they say they have been "bridged," and no one chastises them.  Duluth has pretty areas, and the view from the bluffs above the city out over the water can be quite spectacular.  Unfortunately, when we were there it was very hot and steamy, and there was an inversion layer, so we couldn't see much.  This was a big factor in our decision to move on a couple of days early.

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So we moved on to Wisconsin (fight, fight, fight, fight, fight........)  We love that state!  Their road seatbelt safety sign says "Give Yourself A Hug -- Buckle Up"; Minnesota's says "Click It or Ticket"; which one do you like better!  Pretty farmland, rolling hills, back to the rows of corn again.  The barns and silos in Wisconsin seem prettier than they do in other places.  Lots of sweet little towns, neat and tidy, full of friendly people.  We crossed the pretty St. Croix River going into the state, and it just got better and better from there.  We hit a detour which took us on smaller and smaller country roads, which suited us just fine.  We stayed the night in a little park outside the tiny community of Sand Creek, and you couldn't have found a lovelier spot.  Every little town seems to have one, and they are universally delightful and clean.  

We went through Rhinelander, home of the Hodag (you tell me.....), passing by the Lublin branch (probably 200 people) of the State Bank of Gilman (probably 1000 people) Now we were way up along the northern edge of Wisconsin, almost into the Michigan Upper Peninsula.  As we moved north it was increasingly forested, not surprisingly; but more deciduous trees than Minnesota, and fewer pines and firs.  We were just beginning to see some leaves turning, and it wasn't even the third week of August.  An early fall coming on?  

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We were headed to see some friends way up on the northern edge of the state, outside the little town of Florence.  So far north that all their shopping is done in Michigan.  These are folks we met in Mexico last winter, delightful people who had invited us to come visit.  And we had a really good time.  They live out in the middle of nowhere, with two "ponds" (actually small lakes) on their property, one for swimming and one for boating.  This is beautiful country.  We had fresh-picked berries for breakfast, homemade jam, you name it.  Our friends' home is about an hour and a half from Lake Michigan, where they keep a sailboat at the port of Escanaba.  One day they took us for a sail, although we didn't stay out too long because of large wave action.  One of us got pretty queasy.  But we had a ball.  One evening we went to the local roadhouse for a northern Wisconsin specialty -- hot beef sandwiches.  Okay but kinda boring.  While we were there, they had us park our coach facing one of the little lakes, under the trees; what an incredible spot.

When we left Florence, we were making a bee-line for Door County, an area out on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan northeast of Green Bay.  We stayed outside Sturgeon Bay for several days, and had a delightful time.  Door County is justifiably famous for its wonderful vistas, rolling farmland, cherries (although they were all gone by the time we got there), syrup, artists, sunsets, wineries, etc., etc.  It was swell.  We could have stayed forever, and will certainly come back.  We rode the bike up to the tip of the peninsula, buying cheese and jam and syrup along the way.  We also stopped in at a cute little classic car/motorcycle show in Sturgeon Bay which reminded us of all the ones we've seen over the years -- except the license plates all said Wisconsin!  Amazing!  The area is home to several very large enclaves of ethnic groups that had settled there in the 1800s -- Belgians, Swedes, and Icelanders, for starters.  This is a unique area, with lots to see.  Door County is home to a large artists' colony, and we were able to attend an exhibit of a local watercolorist that was quite excellent.  He had just died the previous week (at the age of 100 and still painting up until the end), so we felt very lucky.  There are several music festivals in the area as well; the arts are well supported and there is lots going on.  A real treat.  We'll be back.

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One thing that kept us moving along at this time was that Rick had the hots to go look at BMW motorcycles.  Rick will now explain why he wanted a new bike, after promising me we would keep the Valkyrie for at least two years, about 14 months ago...... Well, I see that I'm on the spot again, so here goes.  You may recall that we traded the Gold Wing last summer in order to get something a little smaller, easier to get in and out of the trailer, etc.  The trade was fine as far as it went, but the Valkyrie was still a very big motorcycle. We hadn't wanted to downsize too much all at once, still wanted hard saddlebags, etc.  But in the long run, I really just felt the Valkyrie was too big and heavy although it had worked out just fine for us in many ways.  There are also times when we think it would be nice to be able to travel without the trailer, with the bike on a rack on the back of the Trek, and we could never do that with something as heavy as the Valkyrie.  Another item I just could not adjust to was the lousy gas mileage the Valkyrie gets; I've done better with an Accord.  So, for the past six months or more we’ve been talking about and looking into getting something smaller and lighter, but still comfortable and with hard luggage for all those trips to the grocery store.  In June we visited friends in Oregon and they graciously let us ride their BMW.  I really liked it, Kathy fit fine on the back, and the bug bit.

We’d tried a place in Minneapolis that carried both Hondas and BMWs, and wanted to see if we could make a good trade, exchanging our Valkyrie for a new 1150R.  Well, that dealer had not been interested in the Valkyrie at all so basically was not willing to make a deal; but south of Green Bay just a bit in the town of DePere is a brand new BMW exclusive dealer that started up just this spring and is trying hard to sell bikes and build their customer base.  The facility was new and lovely, they had lots of new bikes, and the folks were very friendly.  More importantly, they gave me a very fair offer on the Valkyrie, we made the deal and we are both really enjoying it.  Just for comparison, the Gold Wing weighed about 850 pounds, the Valkyrie about 750, and the BMW is only about 500.  

So because the arrangements for the new bike were taking us back to Green Bay, we decided to trailer the bike down and then, after all was finished up, move on.  It was still waaay hot, and muggy.  We wanted to be further north.  But Green Bay is a stitch.  Packer-mania permeates Wisconsin, but in Green Bay it virtually oozes out of peoples' pores.  All the waitresses in the restaurant were in green and gold, signs were everywhere, mall decorations were the team colors, etc.  You couldn't miss.  We went by the newly redone stadium, which is lovely, but couldn't get into the Hall of Fame stuff because it was closed, being readied for the rededication the following weekend.  But we'll see it all another time.  We like Green Bay; it's a fun town, and a much prettier area than we anticipated.  After years of hearing about the "frozen tundra" we'd expected GB to be fairly bleak, but not so at all - of course, this was August.

As you may know, speaking of motorcycles, Harley Davidson celebrated its 100th anniversary over the Labor Day weekend.  The entire previous week, we saw zillions of bikes headed for Milwaukee, where the party was being held.  During the peak traveling time, we saw an average of 200 bikes per hour headed for the big bash; and that on a rural route across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; we can't imagine what it must have been like on the interstates down in the mainland.  And Harleys don't go by quietly!  It was quite a sight, just like we saw a month ago in South Dakota with the Harley Hordes heading to Sturgis.  While not Harley folks ourselves, we really admire them in some ways 'cause they do seem to get out and ride.

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Heading out of Green Bay, we were heading for "mainland" Michigan.  We had two choices, either to go across Lake Michigan, or go around it.  If you've been faced with this dilemma, you know there is a ferry that crosses the lake; but it's way, way expensive.  We were going to have to pay over $300 for ourselves and our rig.  So we chose to go around.  Then, you can go up and over, or down and around.  Down and around takes you through industrial Milwaukee, Chicago, etc. (and all those bikes); going over the top takes you through the Upper Peninsula, one of the prettiest, most undeveloped areas we've seen to date.  Guess which way we went!  And for once it was a lovely, clear, cool day and couldn't have been nicer.  We enjoyed ourselves very much, stopping at rest areas to enjoy the views of Lake Michigan, and then the Mackinac Bridge as we prepared to cross back into "lower" Michigan.  

Storage locker place in the UP:  No-See-Um Storage.  Garden stuff place:  Birdbath & Beyond.  They aren't without their sense of humor!

When you cross back over the Mackinac Bridge, you enter another lovely area, northwestern Michigan, home of Traverse City (and its cherries), Petoskey, and other resort towns along the lake.  Very nice.  We had a nice riding day wandering around on the new bike, through rolling hills (and more corn, of course), Christmas tree farms, wildflowers still, amazingly enough.  It was nice, and bucolic.  We revisited our old stomping grounds, Mesick, home of Rick's favorite breakfast of all times.  Approaching, we discussed what we would do if "Sparks Eatery" was no longer there, and decided we would survive, but just barely.  Fortunately, all was well, although the name of the place has been changed to "Sparks Restaurant" (she said people didn't know what an eatery was -- could they bring in their food and sit there and eat???), and we had another wonderful breakfast, bought jam and bread, and fully sated, moved on to Grand Rapids to see some more friends.

Oh, yes, near Mesick is the small town of Cadillac, which has one in the lobby of the local golf and country club.......

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We had a grand visit in Grand Rapids.  More friends made in Mexico last winter.  Nice couple who retired almost 25 years ago, and who spend their summers in Grand Rapids and their winters traveling all over the place.  She plays the accordion, and took us to a performance of their group in a lovely city park, which was received as a mixed blessing.  Neither of us likes the accordion, but I took the occasion to enjoy watching the folks enjoying the concert.  Rick endured.  The best part was when the group that was performing (about 35 total, mostly accordions - can you imagine this in California? - but with guitar, trumpet, bass, and a couple of other oddities) played "The Chicken Song" and bunches of people in the audience did the chicken dance.  Now this is a phenomenon that I don't think ever made it to California, at least not to where I come from.  But those folks were having a fine time, old and young, squawking, flapping their arms and dancing around.  What a stitch!

We were taken on a tour of Grand Rapids, which we enjoyed a lot.  It's a nice old city that has recently refurbished its downtown, mostly as a result of "the Amway boys," as they are referred to by our friends.  Amway is headquartered here, with a very large presence, and they are busy buying up chunks of real estate to tear them down and build new hotels and parking garages; they want to be able to have their huge conventions here.  Interesting.  But the city is filled with lovely old homes, huge trees everywhere, and a very nice feel to the place.  They have a very famous Calder stabile downtown, which was truly appreciated by one of us.  Fifth Third Bank is a second large presence in the area; that is the oddest name for a bank I've every encountered.  

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After a couple of days with our friends, we moved on to Lansing, where we visited the state capitol (lovely, but not open regardless of what the guide book had promised) and the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, a nice collection of Oldsmobiles and REOs.  It was nice, not huge, but well done.  We learned that Ransom Olds was actually forced out of his own company very early - 1905 - and went on to immediately found the REO (Ransom Eli Olds) company which built cars up until about 1936 when the depression did them in, along with a number of other auto makers and other businesses.  They also built commercial trucks - REO Speed Wagon and Diamond REO all the way up 'til 1974.  Later on, in the town of Warren, in eastern Ohio, we also visited the National Packard Museum, where they actually let Kathy cross the ropes and sit in a lovely old Packard.  The Packard company was formed in Warren and manufactured cars there for just a few years before moving to Detroit.

All this brought us to Labor Day, which we spent parked at Camping World outside Detroit enjoying a quiet rainy day of computer catch-up and reading. We were there for an appointment the next day to have our satellite dish replaced.  It failed back in Sturgeon Bay and the company that made it sent us a new, updated, model as a replacement.  It has been kind of a tough last month with computer viruses that took a lot of time and effort to recover from (thanks, Charles!), no TV, an ongoing hiccupping problem with the diesel and a few other things we've been working on.  I throw this in just so you won't think it's all just a bed of roses out here on the road - well, it is actually, but that doesn't mean it's always perfect.

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Post Labor Day rains, after the new satellite dish was installed, we decided to head down into Indiana to a diesel place to get the hiccupping operated on.  We were able to get this handled in Muncie, very close to our old buddies Wayne and Judy Donnally, so we were able to spend some time with them as well.  The area had received a lot of flooding over the holiday, and was digging itself out; the rivers were very high, there was a lot of water in the fields, etc.  Our friends had emerged unscathed, fortunately, and we enjoyed our visit.  The diesel doctor was successful in his handling of our problem, so we had a very positive visit in the area.  Leaving our friends, we spent a few days in the Elkhart area; Elkhart, Indiana, for the uninitiated, is a mecca for RV people who are looking to replace stuff or check out new models (which we weren’t).  We spent a nice day cruising around trying to find a better microwave/convection oven for me (couldn’t); stuff like that.  Best part of the deal was that the campground where we stayed was outside the small town of Howe; we fully intended to take some cool pictures, or at least send postcards, but of course didn’t do anything of the sort.  Good intentions and all that…..  

On our way to Howe, we passed the small village of LaGrange; it was a Sunday and very quiet.  But then it turned 12:03, all the churches let out, the town exploded, and you’ve never seen so much erratic, lousy driving.  Then we realized the football game was about to start………  Sign outside a church (one of many here in the Midwest), which gave us pause:  “Eat the bread of life or be toast.”  What do you think of that?

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Moving on from Indiana, we traveled through northern Ohio and on into Pennsylvania, through plenty of Amish country, with open rolling countryside, little towns with big courthouses, the biggest change as we moved east being the color of the brick, starting very light and evolving into darker gray, then light red and ultimately dark red brick as we moved into more easterly Pennsylvania.  Our journey was very pleasant; northern Indiana looks a lot like Ohio; northeastern Ohio looks a lot like Pennsylvania; etc., etc.  Similar, but gradually evolving from mostly farmland with some trees to mostly trees with some farm land.  We briefly detoured through the town of Oberlin, Ohio and decided it would be worth a return trip; Oberlin College is there, with a wonderful music school, and it’s a charming, sophisticated college town.  

Coming into western Pennsylvania, we were reminded of why we like this area:  the Alleghany Mountains.  Quite lovely; we had spent time there before and had hoped to go back for more this year.  But not to be, as we had commitments and time frames to meet.  So we plunged eastward, across the mountains, and remembered why they had been a barrier to western settlement for many generations.  Those mountains are really up and down, up and down, up and down.  Hard on all of us, particularly ‘Arvey and Agnes.  Both whined a lot.  But a highlight for all of us was a short visit to a charming town called Holidaysburg; it has the most lovely, old downtown we’ve seen in many a moon.  And the town isn’t even in the guidebooks!  We are beginning to see more and more signs of fall:  leaves falling, cooler weather, a different quality to the sunshine; the crops turning yellow in the fields.  After our long, hot summer, we are very excited about the coming of fall and can hardly wait to get into Vermont and New Hampshire later in the month.  

We briefly stopped at Harrisburg for the big RV show; boring, boring; Rick finally even said he guessed we’d done RV shows for awhile (Yes !!!) and then spent a couple of days recuperating in the Pennsylvania Dutch region (although we didn’t do any of the touristy things this time); it’s a lovely area, full of beautiful scenery and neat little towns.  We went to Lancaster to run an errand, and were struck with the sense of being in the east:  more crowded towns, row houses of dark red brick, with names like Lebanon, Cornwall, etc.  

We saw a church with a sign in front saying “Don’t give up; Moses was once a basket case,” and another saying “Under new management for over 2000 years.”  Preachers just wanna have fun, too!  And then, somewhere going through some crowded intersection who knows where, we were passed by a car with a bumper sticker saying “I Poke Badgers with Spoons”; what in heavens is that supposed to mean????

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We’ve now headed north out of Pennsylvania into New York, heading for Rochester a little later in the week.  Northern Pennsylvania is an un-touristy delight, much like the PA Dutch country but without all the people.  Beautiful countryside, well-kept small towns, charming vistas, and interesting architecture.  We passed through the small village of Frackville, which apparently had a Ukranian/Polish heritage, with turrets on the churches and a different kind of gingerbread than we had seen elsewhere.  Another time we’ll stop and explore. But our goal was the Finger Lakes area, and we had a long ways to go that day.  We are now camping in a state park along Seneca Lake in some of the loveliest countryside every created.  The Finger Lakes are very special to us; we’ve been here before and are delighted to be back.  Vineyards, pretty lakes, green countryside, quiet loveliness abounds.  We’re here for a couple of days, then up to relatives west of Rochester.  We are leaving the coach and cats there while we fly to Reno for a few days for a son’s wedding.  A cousin will keep an eye on the cats and the rig, and we’ll be back after the weekend.  All this, of course, is predicated on Hurricane Isabel not tearing up the entire East Coast so we can’t get out on Friday morning.  Wish us luck!

We love you and miss you and always want to hear from you.  Hopefully you are having a great fall and it’s not too hot/cold/wet/dry to make you happy.  And by the way, in the on-going saga of the cats vs. the mice, it’s quite apparent that the mice are going to make the playoffs……..  The little critters seem to come and go at will; not often, but every once and awhile.  Occasionally the cats seem to notice, well maybe… kind of…oh, probably not.


Rick and Kathy 

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