Jun 212013

When we stayed at Backbone State Park last week, we didn’t spend the entire day in the cabin or on the trails. Once a day, we drove to town to pick up whatever we needed for the cabin. We also used these trips to catch up on e-mail or phone messages using our iPhones. Backbone State Park, after all, is where cell phones go to die.  That meant a trip into Manchester for groceries and firewood at the local Fareway, a drive-through at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone, and visits to the local Ben Franklin store and The Quiltmaker Shoppe, just for fun. Technically speaking, Manchester is not the nearest town, as Backbone State Park is sandwiched between the towns of Dundee and Strawberry Point. However, those towns are not exactly centers of commercial enterprise.

While Manchester is larger than either Dundee or Strawberry Point, it has small town charm of its own. Not many homes I know have a totem pole in their front yard.


Dundee (population 174 as of 2010), located at the southern end of Backbone State Park, takes about one minute (maybe less) to drive through. One year that we stayed at Backbone, the residents were lined up on lawn chairs on either side of the one-and-only main street to admire some vintage cars driving north to Strawberry Point, where a car show was being held in a farm field. At the tail end of those cars was our decidedly more up-to-date 2001 Ford Taurus. We waved  at everyone, and they waved back.

Dundee Collage

Strawberry Point, north of Backbone State Park, is a little bigger with 1,279 residents according to the 2010 census. The town does have a picturesque shopping area with some sandwich shops and a grocery store named Strawberry Foods that we would not have known about if there were not a sign announcing it just outside the road leading to our cabin. I suspect the people who own the house are being paid to have this sign posted in their front yard.


To the left of the above sign are these two characters who guarantee we won’t miss the sign.


Strawberry Point also has the world’s largest (fiberglass) strawberry. Standing in front of the city hall, it measures 12 feet wide by 15 feet tall and is a great source of local pride.

The first year we stayed at Backbone, we didn’t know where else to shop, so we visited Strawberry Foods and were recognized immediately as outsiders.

“Staying at Backbone?” we were asked as we pushed our very full shopping cart through the checkout line.

Later we learned that most local people shop in nearby Manchester, which sports both a newly-remodeled and expanded Walmart and a Fareway grocery store. Still, the folks at Strawberry Foods were friendly and helpful, and the store was stocked with the basic items you might need during a week’s stay at a cabin, if you aren’t choosey about brands or price tags.

For the most part, Strawberry Point is residential with unmistakable reminders of its rural setting.


Once a year, I make an annual pilgrimage to Manchester’s Quiltmaker Shoppe. The staff there recognizes me by now, asking me if I’m staying at the same cabin again. I’m not sure if I should be flattered that they remember me, or embarrassed because I leave with a pretty full shopping bag each time. We do have very nice quilt shops in the Des Moines area, but that never stops me from finding lovely fabrics, books and sewing notions at the quilt shop in Manchester (or anywhere else, for that matter).


I probably spent about two hours in the shop, adding bolts of fabric to the cutting counter where a nice clerk named Jean cut my fabric and added it to a growing stack of purchases. Every so often, John sent me a text message, asking if I was ready to be picked up. Eventually he parked in front of the shop and played games on his iPhone while he waited for me.


I have a fondness for sewing bags, so on this trip to the quilt shop, I picked up several patterns with matching fabric. Likely these bags will become future Christmas gifts.

Fabric Collage

On another trip to Manchester,  John and I spotted a Ben Franklin store that has sat there the entire eight years we’ve visited Backbone State Park, yet we never noticed it. You may not get very excited about a Ben Franklin store, but to the best of my knowledge there isn’t one in Des Moines, and I only occasionally run into one elsewhere. They always have a crafts department, which is where I make a beeline. John swears I have a string attached to my eyeballs that is connected at the other end to any crafts in the vicinity. The cute storefront window certainly helped.

Ben Franklin Storefront

In any event, the Ben Franklin store did indeed sells crafts and needlework. I picked up a pair of dressmaker’s shears that I really don’t need, but couldn’t resist because of the vintage look. In fact, I picked up two of them because John said he could use a pair for cutting cardboard, twine and the like. The blades announce that they are Griffin Creek scissors, while the handles have “funnersteel” and “Meerut” imprinted on them, suggesting they were made in India. All I could find out about Meerut is that it is a town in India known for its scissor-making community. The blades are likely hand-forged, and you can find them in just about any tailor’s shop in India. Whether these scissors are replicas or not, they are heavy, sharp and cut very well. And they were priced economically at $13.99 a pair.


The left side of the Ben Franklin is devoted to a colorful little gift shop that runs the full depth of the store and attracts nearly every tourist. It amused John that I never noticed it because I was fixated on the crafts department. Eventually, however, he did manage to distract me long enough to try on a pair of sunglasses in the gift shop.


I loved the garden stone below, mainly because it reflects my level of gardening expertise (black thumb).


John insisted that he needed yet one more mug for his cappuccino addiction. For some strange reason, he didn’t pack a mug for our cabin retreat and only this Irish-themed mug would do.


We both agreed that since our garden (such as it is) has no flowers (because we can’t grow them), we  need to put other items in it, such as these two frogs.


As you can see, we made good use of our time in the Backbone area and contributed to the local economy.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

May 312013

John and I are not all-day or all-night travelers. At most, we drive five or six hours at a time because we like to get out of the car and stretch our legs, and to admire the sights as we encounter them. As a result, we took two-and-a-half days to get to Knoxville, Tennessee when we volunteered at Destination Imagination Global Finals this last week (see previous post). We took three-and-a-half days to return home to Des Moines simply because we wanted a day to rest, give our sore feet a break, and do a little exploring.

When we arrived in Knoxville last week Monday, very few Destination Imagination® (DI) teams had arrived. For the most part, it was Instant Challenge Head Appraisers and Affiliate Directors who checked into the downtown Hilton Hotel on West Church Street. After we got our identification badges and officials’ shirts, we took advantage of the unscheduled time to have dinner at the Downtown Grill & Brewery on South Gay Street.  If you enjoy craft-brewed beers, then this is the place for you. And even if you don’t drink (which pretty much describes me), you’ll love the copper-and-mahogany bar and the hardwood floors that create a warm, casual dining ambiance. The food is appetizing and filling, and the service is great. From the look on John’s face, you can see he is having a good time.


After dinner, we split a decadent brownies-and-ice cream dessert. We weren’t too worried about calories because we knew we’d be spending almost 12 hours a day on our feet for the rest of the week.


We also knew that we’d be taking a long walk after dinner. We spent the next two-and-a-half hours wandering through the downtown/campus area, which is really lovely. The temperature was 82 degrees, and the humidity was in the low 40s. Who could complain? Market Square, the local pedestrian shopping district, sports a city park next to it called Krutch Park. The park, with its gentle stream, play water fountains, flowers and shrubs, is the result of a bequest left by Charles Krutch, a photographer-turned-benefactor who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. When he died in 1981 at the age of 94, his will stipulated that $1.3 million be used for  “a quiet retreat with trees, shrubs, flowers, and other planting for the pleasure and health of the public.”


At the entrance to the park, engraved in the sidewalk, is a short biography of Charles Krutch. Around the edges of the sidewalk engraving appear the words of Charles’ younger brother, Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer, critic and naturalist:

We need some contact with the things we sprang from. We need nature as a part of the context of our lives. Without cities we cannot be civilized. Without nature, without wilderness even, we are compelled to renounce an important part of our heritage.

Sidewalk Engraving

Besides flowers, Krutch Park is strewn with large-scale outdoor sculptures that can be sponsored or purchased through Art in Public Places, a Knoxville program of Dogwood Arts, whose mission is to promote the region’s arts, culture and natural beauty. The origin of Dogwood Arts is kind of amusing. In 1947, a reporter named John Gunther from New York visited Knoxville and wrote, “Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England. Its main street is called Gay Street; this seemed to me to be a misnomer.” In 1955, members of the Knoxville Garden Club set out to disprove Gunther’s words with a public beautification project called the Dogwood Trails. The spirit of their efforts is alive and well today in the non-profit organization known as Dogwood Arts.

As John and I walked through one of Knoxville’s public beautification projects, Krutch Park, I noted especially “Madame Butterfly,” designed by Mike Sohikian, which earned 2nd place in the 2012-13 Art in Public Places Knoxville public voting contest. Each sculpture has a plaque with a QR code that viewers can scan with their smart phones, and then use to vote for their favorite outdoor sculpture. “Madame Butterfly” is made of steel, concrete, aluminum and wood.

Madame Butterfly

“Love Arch,” designed by Andrew Denton and made of painted cast aluminum and steel, earned third place in the same contest.

Love Arch

As we strolled on campus, we discovered other outdoor sculptures that are part of the Art in Public Places effort. You can view many of the sculptures, in fact, by visiting the Facebook page HERE, and discover how the sculptures were moved and assembled for exhibition purposes. The sculpture below, “Oak Leaf Horizon,” can be found in front of the Knoxville Convention Center. Designed by Jim Gallucci, it is made entirely of galvanized steel.

Oak Leaf Horizon

Knoxville is not the only place where we enjoyed art. As we have done in previous years, we stopped at the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, Kentucky. According to a 2012 American Style list, Berea ranked 21 in a list of 25 small cities of fewer than 100,000 people, representing “arts destinations.” Indeed, you’ll find regional art well represented not only at the Artisan Center, but also in the town of Berea. This year the Kentucky Artisan Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with exhibits by 52 artisans who have worked with the Center since its opening in July 2003. The treasure I took home with me from the Artisan Center this year is the trivet below, although it will never be used in that way in my kitchen, but will instead be displayed on a wall or a stand. The trivet is a scroll saw sculpture designed by Louisville, Kentucky artisan Bob Diehl, who took his fascination with the German paper cutting art called Scherenschnitte to his material of choice: Baltic Birch.

Baltic Birch Sculpture

On Memorial Day, John and I took a day off from our trip home to visit Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is conveniently located near the Courthouse Square. The Monroe County Courthouse, built in 1907, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Monroe County Courthouse

Surrounding this historical icon are ethnic and vintage clothing stores, jewelry shops, a corner bookstore, cafes and restaurants, and attorneys’ offices. Nearby are the Waldron Art Center and Wonderlab science museum. Unfortunately, because it was a holiday, both of these museums and most shops were closed. However, that didn’t stop John and me from exploring the area, making a list of places we’d like to visit in the future. These include the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center on the edge of town, as well as the university, and further away—Brown County State Park and Bluespring Caverns Park.

One of the places in town where we enjoyed eating breakfast was the Village Deli, which during the normal work week is so busy that people stand in line outside it, waiting to be served. Inside the restaurant is a sign reminding people that “Eat & Get Out Specials” are available. For two mornings in a row, I enjoyed a tasty buttermilk waffle, dotted with strawberries and sprinkled with walnuts, drenched in maple syrup. Yum! I ate it so quickly that I forgot to take a photo, but John snapped a picture of me, and you can see that I am more than satisfied with my breakfast.

Eat & Get Out

For his part, John learned a new term in Bloomfield, yarn bombing, when we visited Yarns Unlimited on Walnut Street and he saw a tree outside the shop, garbed in crocheted and knitted blocks of colorful yarn.

Yarn bombing

Before we headed out of town for the final leg of our journey home to Des Moines, I persuaded John to stop at The Hidden Closet on East Kirkwood Avenue. It was the sign itself that convinced me to enter the store. “Gild your lily and your pad,” read the sign, and in smaller print another sign announced, “Semi-scientific studies suggest that people who shop at The Hidden Closet are above average in every way.” How could I resist entering?

The Hidden Closet

The owner of what turned out to be a vintage and consigned goods shop told us that the lady pictured on the sign is her alter ego. She grew up in the Bloomington area, but often visits the Southwest. As a result, her shop includes native American jewelry of truly exceptional craftsmanship. John located a lovely dragonfly pin for me, as well as a 1930s-era floral brooch that is probably resin, but looks a lot like ivory.


Floral Brooch

On our way home to Des Moines, the skies darkened and our smart phones kept sending us flood and severe thunderstorm warnings. Apparently, we missed most of the bad weather while we were away, but were greeted by rain as we entered the outskirts of Urbandale, where we live. That’s not a bad photo below, by the way, but instead what hard rain looks like from a moving car when you snap a picture!


Our next trip will involve a cabin retreat at Backbone State Park, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, I have lots of laundry to wash! Thanks for letting me share our wanderings with you.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.


Dec 012009

Sometimes you run across a shop where every product in it makes you smile. Meet Becky Kazana, whose handmade pipe cleaner dolls all tell a story.  “My art is inspired by travel and adventure, fairy tales, Roald Dahl books, every color on earth, Christian Dior, street fashion, humor, old timey music and Marilyn Monroe,” says Becky. “I have lots of fun making pipe cleaner ornaments, illustrations, greeting cards and banners every single day.” One fact is certain, and that is that everywhere you look, from Stella the Flapper Pipette to Monique Tree Topper, you are sure to find a character that will tickle your fancy.

Becky, who with her husband has traveled through Africa, Europe, China, and all over the United States, writes about her experiences in her blog, The Fab Miss B. She explains that her last name, Kazana, is actually a Swahili word which means “to make a home.” Becky and her husband adopted this philosophy during their travels in Africa, and subsequently changed their name to Kazana. “It reminds us that our home is not a physical place, but our life together,” she says. You’ll experience some of this philosophy when you visit Becky’s second Etsy shop, The Fab Miss B, which offers vintage aprons, corsages, chinoiserie (a style in art and decoration that reflects Chinese influence in design qualities or motifs), and pipe cleaner pet ornaments–among other items.


If you are like me, after wandering through the proverbial aisles of Becky’s two shops, you’ll definitely wish to visit her blog. “This blog is a sketchbook I fill with the inspiration I find around me every day,” she says. You, too, will feel inspired.