It was a big weekend over here, reminding me that although October brings pretty leaves, cozy nights, and homemade soups on the stove top, it also brings a busy season of family gatherings, football tailgates, timeless tradition, and a pretty important birthday for our special boy. And maybe even more than usual, Monday came all too soon this morning, leaving me a little groggy, a little negative, and a little anxious about the fact that fall, like most seasons, seems to be scooting by rather quickly.
I find myself in a constant struggle to stay in the moment --- to soak up the present tense and not dwell on what needs to be done all the time. And when weekdays and work schedules get busy, I admit to having a hard time putting it away (mentally and physically) and giving my boys my full, undivided attention at night. Especially now, as the days are growing shorter and shorter, I sometimes feel like nature is leading me on a wild goose chase, laughing at my inability to catch up and fit all I need to in the hours of daylight we have. I get caught in the trap of adequacy --- measuring accomplishment by check marks on a to-do list, and sometimes having a hard time being okay when things simply don't get done. I've been this way for as long as I can remember, and am in a constant quest to find that happy medium between busy and quiet, simple and over-done, and work and play.
It seems the busier life gets, the more I've realized how important it is to be deliberate about cultivating these moments. Sure, we have moments where life seems to sneak up and surprise us with its beauty --- those rare and perfect gems that seem to be orchestrated by something much bigger than our Google Calendar --- a gorgeous sunset, an impromptu play date on the kitchen floor, a sweet, snuggly baby feeling extra cuddly before bedtime --- but more often than not, I've learned that it's up to us to be deliberate about creating these moments and memories in our lives. After all, if we seek out happiness, we have a lot better shot of finding it than if we sit around and wait for it. It's just too easy to get wrapped up in the motions and watch the seasons pass by while our babies get big and we fail to stop and see the leaves...
This weekend, we chased happiness all the way up to the Mississippi River. Tradition is a pretty big deal around here, and it was time for our annual road trip to one of Iowa's most scenic fall destinations. With Cruz content in his carseat, Mumford and Son's on the playlist, and a thermos of coffee in the middle counsel, Beau and I picked up my parents in Waverly before hitting the pavement north. We took back roads and passed through familiar landmarks: Old Amish Road in Fairbank, the big red strawberry in Strawberry Point, and 'that school in the middle of nowhere,' and before we knew it, our ears started popping as we increased speed up the hills to our own Iowa 'mountain' chain.
The colors this year were probably the best we have ever seen. And there we were, the five of us crammed in the Camry, oohing and ahhing while Mumford and that banjo of his were competing for our attention with Roll Away Your Stone. Driving around curves that reminded me of being in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, surrounded by trees on fire with color, with a crescendo of trumpets and banjos serenading us in the background, I was ready to take on just about anything. And for those of you who listen to Mumford, you know what kind of high I'm talking about right now.
There is something so comforting about revisiting past traditions in new ways. There's the familiar --- the simple recurrences that bring a sense of comfort and unlock old, happy memories of growing up and being a carefree child. And then there's the new --- reflecting on how we've changed and grown another year, and seeing evidence in our own family, another year older, with more knowledge, curiosity, and interest in the traditions that once shaped me.
Last year, Cruz sat in a leaf pile and needed help walking along the seat of our picnic table. This year, we chased him through the trails of Pike's Peak, and played defense when he got a little too close to the edge the bluff. He felt proud picking out his very own pumpkin, discovered a love of apple cider slushies and cheese curds at the apple orchard, and tried out every single boat at Stark's with Papa. He was such a good boy all day, and it was fun introducing him to the many must-sees in Northeast Iowa.
And while our trip every year seems to revisit many of the same spots, we always try and mix it up a bit --- find a new hole-in-the-wall for lunch, stop in a new antique shop, or try something new at the orchard. It's small town Iowa at its finest, and although we've been visiting for years, we always leave with new ideas to try for next year.
What topped the list this year?
...we finally tried a Pete's water burger. This little stand has been serving burgers since 1909, and typically has a line halfway down the street during the summer and fall season. There burgers aren't just any burgers, but water burgers --- boiled in water, topped with caramelized onions, and served with, well, a bun. It's simple, it's efficient, and it's been a signature spot for a century.
Surprisingly, this was the first year we tried Pete's. There we sat, on a curb in a parking lot behind main street, unwrapping this mystery burger in hopes that we had discovered the best thing since sliced bread. And although I've now learned I prefer my burger with charcoal and Lawry's, I'm glad we've had a Pete's Burger. I can now die a happy woman.
...the boats at Stark's. Stark's Liquor Store is a must-see stop every year for as long as this girl can remember. It's the home of cheap liquor, taxidermy, and cheese curds (what more can a girl want). And this year, while we waited for a half hour for our Pete's burger, Papa Curt let Cruz try out the driver's seat of every single boat in the sale garage.
He was definitely in his element (until he honked the horn and gave everyone in a 50-yard radius a heart attack). Oh, and there's the time he managed to pull a lever that moved the motor up and down...:)
...Cruz's very own pumpkin and a peck of cheap apples at Shihata Apple Orchard. Cruz loved sitting amidst the sea of orange pumpkins, and his mother hen instincts came out when we let him pick out one of his very own. He carried it around like a new mama carries her baby, and cried when we tried to leave it in the trunk of the car. Beau wondered this morning how many pumpkins we were going to go through before Halloween, as Cruz likes to carry his pumpkin around the house and occasionally drops the poor thing on its side. Last night, his pumpkin even took a bath with him.
...a leisurely hike through Pike's Peak, some ice cream treats at the park, and tackle and tickle football in the leaves. Cruz was so much fun here this year, but made us a little nervous when his little legs would get going so fast, unaware he was in fact running down hill. One of us would barrel out in front of him, arms ready to catch, to which soon became a game that Cruz definitely wanted to play.
Next year, we already have plans. Plans to finally time the St. Olaf's tenderloin place just right. Plans to spend some time window shopping along Elkader's quaint little main street, and plans to reconnect with one of my old faves, The Cannery. So for another year, I will look forward to fall, to its leaves and its brisk mornings, and our special day to get away and mix old traditions with new discoveries.
Main Street; Elkader, IA
It was a full day of breathing in the carefree goodness of small-town Iowa --- a day to focus on nothing but the present. After all, those leaves are only going to be around for a short amount of time, and there are piles that await and colors to explore.