Eating Our Way Through Austin

It started with an email to business dude and podcaster, Noah Kagan, “I like a great donut, and wondered if you know any awesome bakery or breakfast spots where we can start our tours of the Austin area?”

He nicely replied how he wasn’t a donut guy, but Voodoo Donuts was “famous on 6th Street”. I thought, “Who doesn’t like a good donut?”, but to each their own I suppose. I kept reading, “… for diners hit up a greasy mexican one like ciscos or joe’s bakery. either will serve ya dirty.”

The quest was on!

Austin in February?

Who goes to Austin in February, anyway? It wasn’t supposed to be that way. My wife and I had planned to visit about six months earlier, but a bum knee caused a cancellation of plans. A knee was bummed, and we were bummed as Austin was one of those places we just wanted to visit. You know, you hear good things and want to experience good things, so we wanted good things in Austin.

Adios Snow!

As the season of fall came to Chicago, and the dreadful thoughts of winter began, discussions turned to a long weekend getaway that would be needed for some rejuvenation from the seasonal affective disorder that was sure to arrive. Maybe the Caribbean? How about the Florida Keys?

What about Austin?

The weather might not be perfect, but it sure will be better than the cold depths of hell Chicago will probably be experiencing in the middle of winter.

Here Comes 91 Degrees!

Austin it was!

Turns out it was the perfect weekend to be in Austin. Austin would have a record high temperature 91 degrees, and Chicago would just be escaping from a polar vortex with -22 degree temperatures and wind chills of -50. Sweet!

A Quick Note

This story is mostly about food. Austin has a boatload of other stuff to do, and while we did eat a lot over the course of our visit, we did enjoy other aspects of Austin, eventually got the courage to ride one of those scooter things, and relaxed. Those things are stories for another time, let’s get to the food!

Lunch, and It Turns Out, Dinner

Arriving on a Wednesday, by the time we checked into the hotel we were hungry and tired. The tricky part was that it was already past lunch and on the way to dinner time. Not wanting to drive anywhere, my wife and I ventured across Lady Bird Lake to the downtown area, settling on the first place we could find, 2nd Bar and Kitchen.

Short Rib & Mushroom Cheesesteak and Avocado Fundido

It wasn’t the fanciest of meals as we shared the black truffle pommes frites, Avocado Fundido, and Short Rib & Mushroom Cheesesteak. The truffle fries were not too greasy, which is nice, watch out for the jalapeño peppers on the cheesesteak, they’ll sneak up on you, but the star of this show was the Avocado Fundido, a tasty queso you won’t want to pass on.

2nd Bar and Kitchen was a nice, first step on a culinary journey for the next five days!

Long Walk. Wrong Shoes.
Notice the Wooden Shutters

Who decides they should walk 3/4 of a mile following a good meal to visit The Texas Capitol in shoes that aren’t really made for 3/4 of a mile of walking? My wife and I. Yup, the capitol building beckoned us, seductively sitting there at the end of Congress Street, and at the time it didn’t seem that far away. The weather was nice, what the heck, let’s walk!

God bless my wife, and I suppose I’ve subtly noticed this before, but her concern for cleanliness truly came through as, while we were coming upon the capitol, she noticed the wooden shutters on all of the windows. She smartly commented wondering who cleans them, and what thickness of dust must be on said shutters.

The Texas Senate

I am happy to report that as we did our own tour of the building, the senate chambers had the cleaner of the shutters when compared to the representatives side, however, my wife was impressed that they were both much cleaner than she expected. Congratulations Texas, your tax dollars are being put to good use, at least in terms of clean shutters.

What is He Doing?

It was a neat visit, complete with a fountain that looked like a little boy playing with, well, what little boys might play with, but suddenly the realization we had to walk another 3/4 plus mile back to the hotel came upon us.

Being older folks, the thought of using the scooters frightened us, so we hoofed it back to 6th street, walked the wrong direction on 6th to the normal looking bar life instead of the more fun looking bar life (Head east young man!), and we both gave up. It was time for an Uber.

An Uber driver with a Dodge Charger arrived, and he was nice enough but failed to realize that the Charger back seat is nearly unlivable if you have giant bags of snacks hanging on the rear of the front seats. With our knees pressed into our chests as to try not to crush his offering of snacks, he got us back to our hotel where I proceeded to somehow fall asleep from exhaustion. My day was done, much to the surprise of my wife.

The Best Breakfast of the Trip
A Fun Cowgirl Mural

With a busy day ahead of us I convinced my wife that my guy Noah wouldn’t steer us wrong on food, so we drove to Cisco’s.

Holy crap was this a great idea!

Rolling up on the corner of East 6th and Comal, a blue building with a mural of cowgirls with plant life covering their private parts greeted us on one side of the building while flying pigs and a mariachi band greeted us on the other.

Inside Cisco’s

Inside was the kind of place I had hoped for, and exactly what Noah described, a classic diner that will “serve ya dirty.” In my world that really means “is no frills and has some awesome food.”

A Great Breakfast!

Sitting at the counter where we could watch the cooking magic happen, I opted for the Huevos Rancheros because, well, the menu mentioned “The man who made Huevos Rancheros famous.” My wife chose the Potato / Egg Taco and the Migas Taco. My Huevos Rancheros were yummy, but after trying my wife’s choices, I now understood the joy of a breakfast taco.

Let me simply say that breakfast at Cisco’s was a treat. From the food to the atmosphere, both of us, upon reflection of our trip, wished we had revisited Cisco’s for another breakfast.

Moon. Hills. Dam. Beer.
Should I Get My Nails Done, Get a Tattoo, or Get Coffee?

An upcoming afternoon of travel required some caffeine, so why not try something different, something Austin, and something recommended by my sister-in-law. That something ended up being Summer Moon Wood-Fired Coffee, made with this other something called Moon Milk. I ended up with a Wintermoon, described as, “Our signature iced latte blended with Moon Milk: seven secret ingredients to bring you sweet, creamy goodness!”

It was creamy, the coffee was tasty, and it was goodness. It is a tad sweet, so if you want it toned down a bit go for the “half” version of the Wintermoon (iced latte) or the Summermoon (hot latte).

Damn, It’s a Dam!

With my caffeine need satisfied, it was time for wandering aimlessly through the countryside. We found a place called Buda, a town called Dripping Springs, and made our way to Lakeway, which I kept calling “Lake-Away” for some reason. Why the driving tour? To see the Austin countryside, and a dam, of course.

“You need some deodorant!”

Okay, it wasn’t really to see a dam, but to see the results of a dam, namely Lake Travis.

It was a warm day but overcast, so the impression of Lake Travis didn’t have the impact I thought it might, but what did impact me was the amount of hilliness that was prevalent in our drive. Winding roads, hills, and scenic views abounded. I don’t know why I found it weird, I suppose mostly because when us northerners think of Texas we imagine flat, oil fields and sprawling cattle ranches, but the area south and west of Austin is anything but flat, it’s downright beautifully scenic.

Lake Travis

Needing a little grub before our big dinner that night, we found ourselves at Oasis Texas, a complex of shops and restaurants situated on Lake Travis. Much of the complex was shut down for the winter season, but happily Oasis Texas Brewing Company was open. It was happy hour, I had a beer that paid homage to the Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, a barrel-aged wee heavy beer right up my alley called “He Gone!” The chicken slider was very salty, but the wagyu slider hit the spot.

I could see why Oasis Texas is considered “The Sunset Capital of Texas,” situated above Lake Travis with what is probably a spectacular sunset view, but there would be no sunset for us as the cloudy skies and our fancy dinner reservations had us back down hilly roads to downtown for some freshening up before dinner.

Why Did Dessert Have to Let Me Down?
Ready for Olamaie!

It being Valentine’s Day, and both my wife and I liking fancy dining, we found ourselves at Olamaie, a house converted to an acclaimed restaurant, and ready for a food experience and biscuits. I say, “and biscuits” as Olamaie is known for their biscuits, so much so that the biscuits have their own spot on the Olamaie web site, with special ordering for just biscuits. These must be some pretty darn special biscuits. Time would tell.

Gulf White Shrimp & Jefferson Rice

Their Valentine’s Day menu was of the prix fix variety, offering various choices of an appetizer starter, main course, and dessert.

We both had the Gulf White Shrimp & Jefferson Red Rice as the starter, with a large helping of shrimp and my first taste of red rice. Things were off to a great start.

The Olamaie Beef Tenderloin

With the main course my wife opted for the snapper, while I enjoyed a perfectly prepared beef tenderloin. The sauce wasn’t overpowering, you could almost cut the beef with a fork, and snapper was nicely done as well.

Yay for part two!

Many a time my wife and I will skip dessert at a restaurant because, unless a restaurant is known for it’s dessert, things will fall apart. For this dinner our dessert was part of the price, so angel food cake was the choice for my wife, and as I am a chocolate lover, the dark chocolate cake made its way to my table setting.

Yes, the Olamaie magic shell on top of the cake was fun, but maybe too magical as you really needed more than a spoon to crack it open. The black cherry ice cream was a complete necessity as the cake was a dry disappointment, and for once a chocolate dessert let me down. Maybe it was the anticipation that it should have been wonderful and wasn’t, and even my wife’s angel food cake was, as she put it, just okay.

What a bummer because the rest of dinner was up there with the best of them, and yes, the biscuits are that good to warrant their own spot on the web site.

No Food, but What Would An Austin Trip Be Without Music?

Austin is known for its music scene, and when my wife and I planned this trip we wanted to experience some of it. Little did we know that we would see a little band of musicians on a street corner in an unplanned music event, but on the planned side we bought tickets for Bob Schneider at The Moody Theater, home of Austin City Limits Live.

Bob Schneider and The Moonlight Orchestra

While I do try to stay on top of the music scene, I had never heard of Bob Schneider, nor the Moonlight Orchestra who was with him. That didn’t deter us as we did some listening to his music online and said, “Sure, he sounds like a good time. And heck, he’s playing the famous Moody Theater on Valentine’s Day. How bad can it be?”

It wasn’t bad at all even if it was a night of music I really didn’t know, short of a few covers like Barry Manilow’s, “Mandy” in tribute to the TV show “The Bachelor.”

The show was fun, included sing-a-longs, and introduced me to a musician now in rotation on my music playlists.

Decent Coffee. Skip the Taco.
Good Coffee, Okay Taco.

Jo’s Coffee on Congress was another recommendation to us by someone who had been to Austin, and looking at their menu showed they also served breakfast tacos. They do a decent marketing ploy as on their menu it states, “We offer house made tacos daily starting at 7AM until they’re gone.”

“Damn, those must be some in-demand tacos. I hope they don’t sell out by the time we get there.” Sadly, it wouldn’t have been so bad if they did sell out because there was no comparison in Jo’s Coffee breakfast taco to the likes of the fantastic Cisco’s taco the morning before.

I Love You So Much, Austin!

I opted for their “Iced Turbo” latte which kind of reminded me of the Summer Moon coffee in terms of sweetness from the day before. It was tasty, and would have been more tasty with a better taco.

Also a great marketing ploy on their part, they join in the “You have to take a picture at their mural” craze with their “i love you so much.” painted on the side of their building. Yup, a picture was in order.

Let’s Skip the Driving and Get some BBQ?

Another day of aimless driving took us north to the town of Georgetown where both my wife and I kind of agreed, “What the heck are we doing driving around aimlessly? Let’s get some barbecue.”

Terry Black’s BBQ

Heading back to downtown the choices were many, but we quickly realized that Terry Black’s BBQ was within walking distance from where we were staying, and with a record high temperature on its way to Austin, we should really enjoy the weather and the path by Lady Bird Lake.

A brief walk in the summer-like air found us in a line that took about 30 minutes, impeded mostly by tourists who couldn’t seem to make up their minds at the buffet of sides. As both my wife and I really don’t like the buffet concept, watching too many people with not so great hygiene scoop gobs of mac and cheese, potato salad, and green beans, we should have bypassed most people in line and headed right for the meat counter. We waited patiently, however, analyzed the menu, and settled on no sides, just meat by the pound with a mix of pork ribs, beef ribs (I always forget how big a beef rib is as most of Illinois barbecue just offers pork ribs), and brisket.

Skip the Sides, Get the Meat

Most people will comment that there really isn’t any bad barbecue in Austin, and while we didn’t try a lot of it, I will say that Terry Black’s BBQ was pretty damn good. Well seasoned, not too spicy, and juicy as you would expect, we were glad we skipped the sides and stuck with just the meat. I remember making the mistake of filling up with salad and sides at a Brazilian style restaurant once, and not having room in my belly for the meat, so I didn’t want to make that mistake again. Do yourself a favor, and unless you really must have mac-n-cheese or beans, skip the sides – you are at a barbecue place for barbecue. Enjoy.

Hold the Salt, Pass the Ice Cream
Mandala Spring Rolls

After two days of consuming more salt than our bodies have probably had in years, my wife and I needed something that wouldn’t cause our blood pressure to reach new heights. Okay, maybe a bowl of ramen wouldn’t really solve that problem, but luckily Ramen Tatsu-Ya on S. Lamar had a line around the building so we wandered around and found ourselves at Mandala Kitchen and Bar, a Vietnamese & Thai restaurant at this nice little restaurant/entertainment complex on S. Lamar.

Really Good Chicken Pad Thai at Mandala’s

With the rest of my family hauling their way from Houston to visit us in Austin later that evening, we didn’t want to over-eat as there would be more food later, so we opted for their spring rolls with tofu and some chicken pad thai.

Wow, that hit the spot. The spring rolls were fresh and crisp, like you want a spring roll to be, and the tofu wasn’t mushy. The pad thai had perfectly prepared noodles, and we both agreed it was some of the best pad thai we have had in a while.

Actually, our initial thought for a little less salt began with a desire for ice cream, and as luck would have it, right around the corner from Mandala was an ice cream shop called “Lick Honest Ice Creams.

While yes, they do have some fairly normal ice cream flavors, Lick is really about mixing up tastes to create unique ice cream. I mean, when was the last time you opted for a scoop of Lemon Poppy Seed or Roasted Beets and Fresh Mint ice cream? I stayed relatively safe in my choices with a scoop of Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil & Sea Salt, paired with Hill Country Honey with Vanilla Bean, and after the last taste, was happy with my choice, as well as happy that I didn’t need a gallon of water to balance out the salt.

Let’s Skip Dinner and Get Right to Breakfast

Migas Plate with Bacon at Joe’s Bakery

With my family’s late arrival, we opted to just hang out at the hotel, grab some grub and a few drinks, and catch up after not having seen each other for three years. The food was, well, hotel food, so let’s move right on to breakfast the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, a second breakfast recommendation was Joe’s Bakery, and I must say that Joe’s did not disappoint. We appeared to have timed it perfectly as Joe’s was able to accommodate our party of eight, and everyone proceeded to dive in. Migas plates, breakfast tacos, and Chicharrone filled the area, and when it was noticed that a lot of patrons were buying this cake with pink icing, we asked our server,

Go to Joe’s Bakery, Get Pink Cake

“What is that cake with the pink icing everyone is buying?” She nicely replied, “Pink cake.”

Sold!

My family was impressed I knew of a good breakfast spot (Thanks, Noah!), so I was the star of the day, and if you want a solid piece of cake with pink icing, may I recommend the pink cake!

Ping Pong and Beer
My Ping Pong Pose

The bummer part of the morning and afternoon with my family was not that I had to spend the morning and afternoon with my family, but rather the fact that as opposed to the day before, with a high of 91 degrees, the weather folks seemed to have no clue as to how to forecast the weather as three days earlier they said Saturday would be in the mid-70’s, but suddenly it was a day mostly in the 50’s, with a decent breeze, and no sun. So much for all the outdoor fun we were planning.

Alas, to entertain ourselves until our fancy dinner that evening, it was decided that for a little bit we would try to hit each other with ping pong balls at Spin Austin to work off our breakfast, and then, since Jester King Brewery is really a better place for the outdoors, or so I’m told, we found ourselves at Austin Beerworks for some cold ones and an eight person game of Yahtzee.

The beer was tasty as I went for the beer flight with a holder that looks like a giant set of brass knuckles, and of course I stuck with the higher ABV stuff, with the likes of Gold Fist which is a Belgian strong golden ale, the Fire Eagle, because who doesn’t like a solid IPA, and Moon Shovel, a double IPA, wasn’t too shabby, either. Happily I wasn’t driving!

It was kind of a bummer about the weather, but hey, I kicked everyone’s ass in Yahtzee as I got Yahtzee not once, but twice. Yay, me!

A Food Quantity With a Good Vibe

When it was decided we were going to Austin, and it was further decided that my family was coming up from Houston, there was a lot of discussion about a restaurant that was up to the fancy standards of my wife and I, yet with a menu that would satisfy family members who aren’t so adventurous when it comes to their dining choices.

We decided on Launderette.

Launderette “Toasts”

Nicole was our server, and she was very concerned with our vibe, while all of us were concerned with how much to order. Encouraging sharing, and not sure how large the portions were, Nicole suggested we decide on our Snacky Bit and Toasts before we decided on our Wood Grill, Vegetables, and Specialties choices.

Yummy Branzino

The nice thing about having eight people and a lazy-susan in the middle of our round table meant that we could share a lot of the menu choices rather than settling on one thing. After deciding on Snacky Bits of the Fried Shrimp and Burrata, with Toasts of Crab & Avocado and Pastrami Salmon, Nicole guided our group through the perfect amounts of Pork Ribs, Hanger Steak, and a Whole Branzino off of the Wood Grill option, paired with Grilled Broccoli, Sticky Brussells Sprouts and Frites, a.k.a. french fries to most of us.

A Lazy Susan of Food

You would think that might be enough, but adding the Chicken Thighs and Bucatini, which is a fantastic duck and pork ragu with pecorino and pasta, turned out to be the perfect amount of food vibe.

Nicole seemed pleased with our choices.

The Launderette Apple Streusel Tart

The food proved just different enough to keep my family hesitant yet intrigued, and I was happy to introduce branzino to the group, which everyone thought was fantastic.

Unlike Olamaie where dessert fell flat, Launderette did not disappoint anyone in the group. The Chocolate Dirt Cake, an Apple Streusel Tart, Hibiscus Poached Pears, and some ice creams were enjoyed by all.

Yes, I did well in the eyes of my family with my food choices on this Saturday.

Secrets Belong on the Menu
Torchy’s Taco

The Austin Marathon was taking place the morning of our departure, so trying to get the family to Cisco’s for breakfast seemed like a challenge none of us were up for. Instead, another recommendation we received was to get tacos from Torchy’s.

More like a chain restaurant, I discovered something in my research on Torchy’s and that was that they have secret menu. Go ahead, Google “Torchy’s Secret Menu” and you will find a range of options not on their menu with secret code phrases like “Jack of Clubs,” “Mad Cow,” and “The Matador.”

As I ordered the “Jack of Clubs” (Fried egg, potatoes, black beans, crisp corn tortilla strips, shredded cheese, cilantro, sour cream and Diablo served on a flour tortilla) the guy behind the counter gave me the look of “Yea, you know your Torchy’s.”

The taco was tasty enough, but man, it was no Cisco’s.

Donuts Only a Couple of Blocks Away?

While I had enjoyed a myriad of great recommendations from Noah Kagan and others about food choices, there was still one thing missing on my trip, a good donut. Yes, he mentioned Voodoo Donuts, but I wanted something more Austin. Who else might help? A man named Google Maps!

The Gourgough Airstreem

Knowing we would be at Torchy’s on South Congress, I asked Mr. Maps if there were any donut spots nearby. Sure enough, only a couple of blocks away, was a refurbished airstream travel trailer housing the likes of Gourdough’s Big. Fat. Donuts.

The Flying Pig from Gourdough

They were big. They were fat. And they were donuts with flavors like Mother Clucker (Fried chicken strip with honey butter), Fat Elvis (Grilled bananas & bacon with peanut butter icing and honey), Baby Rattler (Fudge icing & fudge oreos with a gummy rattlesnake), and my donut of choice, the Flying Pig with bacon and maple syrup icing.

Mama’s Cake Donut

Did I mention these were big, fat donuts? Holy crap! While I could have probably tried to eat my Flying Pig with my hands, I opted for the more dignified method of knife and fork. The maple syrup icing wasn’t too sweet, the bacon was, well, bacon, and the donut, even though gigantic and made in the trailer, wasn’t overcooked nor too doughy.

Mama’s Cake (Yellow cake batter filling with chocolate fudge icing) was enjoyed by my nephew, and for something a little more simple, go for the Naughty & Nice, a donut take on the classic cinnamon toast enjoyed by my wife.

A Belly Full of Goodness
Goodbye, Austin!

And so, Austin, you treated us well, and served us some wonderful food choices. I must say that the recommendations from a variety of folks aided nicely in our research of places to try, and while there were some items that didn’t live up to our hopes, there really wasn’t anything we tried that seemed like a complete waste of our caloric allotment. Okay, there wasn’t a caloric allotment on this trip, but happily there was enough walking to offset some of the, well, not-so-healthy food choices.

Go to Austin. Hear music. Eat food. You will not be disappointed. Yes, Austin is full of good things.

Is it Wrong to Swear While Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica?

It began with wanting to see the fires from hell. It ended with God. It began Oct 14, 2017. It ended May 19, 2018. It began with feeling like a fat loser at age 50. It ended with swearing while visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, and feeling like, well, I swore while visiting the Vatican.

Italy or Hawaii? First up, Hawaii.

The beauty of Hawaii
The Beauty of Hawaii

Back in mid 2017 my wife and I wanted to take a vacation, and October seemed like a good time to work it into our schedule. Since we met there were two destinations on our immediate vacation list, Italy and Hawaii. She had been to Italy previously and knew October might not be the best of times to go, but it seemed like a great time for Hawaii. The flights were booked, Airbnbs were secured, and there were four months to get in better shape, especially for a vacation destination that exudes “cool things await those who hike, or at least walk a lot.”

Me, I had one goal, to see the lava flows of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island.

Kīlauea Volcano Crater
At Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

Back then Kilauea Volcano was fairly quiet and lava flows were hit or miss. This is in contrast to the explosiveness of today, with the lava fissures in Leilani Estates and the action at Overlook crater at the Kīlauea summit. Thinking back, maybe things were too quiet at the volcano when we visited. In any case, as we arrived one thing was certain, I didn’t get in good enough shape to have any chance to make it to where lava might be flowing.

Warning signs if you want to see the lava flow at Volcano National Park in Hawaii.
“Andy, You will die if you pass!”

The signs that were posted, I joked, all read, “Andy, you will die if you pass.” It was about a 10 mile hike, you should take at least 3 quarts of water, and you should have food and even flashlights. It was also hot on the day we visited, about 85 degrees. As much as I wanted to get pictures of lava flowing I knew I wasn’t in shape to do it. I tried to make myself feel better as a ranger mentioned there didn’t appear to be any visible lava flow that day, but in my heart I knew I really couldn’t make that hike because, well, I was still a fat loser.

Hawaii was over, but the thought of that failure lived on in my head.

Then came Italy.

With Hawaii behind us, my wife was immediately in “Let’s go to Italy next year!” mode. I was in. I mean, Italian food and gelato everywhere. Sure, I’m Polish, but I love me some good pasta!

In the back of my head, though, was the Hawaii failure.

St. Peter’s Basilica Dome

Initially it wasn’t that big a deal. I knew there would be a lot of walking in Italy, but nothing seemed completely out of reach for my fat self, that was until I learned of the cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica is, simply put, the outside of the top of the big dome. From the cupola you can get the greatest views of Rome, but to get to the cupola you have to climb stairs, a lot of stairs, 551 stairs from the bottom to the top. As taking pictures is one of the things I do, I wanted the best pictures, and to possibly get them I knew where I had to be, I needed to be at the cupo, St. Peter’s cupola, the hottest spot west of the Piazza.

Two choices to get to the cupola.

My wife is the one who mentioned the cupola to me, and the stairs. She also mentioned that there is an elevator to get to a terrace level that can give you a nice view, and a wonderful view inside the dome, but that elevator didn’t go all the way to the top. Sure, you can cut the stairs down to 320 by taking the elevator, but, if I was going to do this, I wanted the complete experience.

I now had a goal.

How, though, was I going to get this fat loser into any kind of shape to climb 551 stairs?

My “cupola climb” training tracker.

There was some preliminary weight loss as the year began, some extra time on a treadmill, but walking flat on a treadmill wouldn’t really be any preparation. Also, where was I going to find stairs to train on? Sure, I could join a gym with a stair-master, but I really don’t like going to the gym. It occurred to me, “We have stairs! Why don’t I train at home?”

At home we have two little flights of stairs, a total of 14 stairs. For shits and giggles I decided to see how many flights I could easily do, and there it was, four flights of stairs. “Crap, that’s only like 56 stairs.” I was curious, however, if it were possible to add one additional flight of stairs every day.

The most normal stairs on the trip to the cupola.

The plan was hatched. I even made a chart. I was going to use our stairs to train for the big day. I would start with four flights of stairs, and every day I would add one flight. By starting on March 14th, if I stuck with this plan of adding one flight of stairs a day, by the time we would leave for our trip I would be able to climb upwards of 896 stairs. I wanted to be over-trained, and I also didn’t know what the effect of walking up and down stairs did (I only counted the stairs going up), versus climbing stairs continually up as I would have to do at the cupola.

Every day I did my flights of stairs, at least for most of the days. I even decided, as my legs became stronger, to actually add two flights to the daily total, giving some extra training every day just in case there was a chance I couldn’t do the stairs for a day or two.

A clogged bathtub drain.

My training was going great, I was up to 602 stairs, and some bathroom cleaning was going on about 3 1/2 weeks before our trip. Our bathtub drain was getting a little slow, so hey, why not use one of those yellow “get the hair out” thingies. I’m leaning over the edge of the tub, pushing and pulling this “unclog your drain” gadget, when suddenly a sharp pain hit my right ribcage. The good news is I cleared the drain, but the bad news was that I was fairly certain I just gave myself a rib injury.

I didn’t think anything was broken, but my ribs were sore, sore enough to effect my ability to take full breaths, which in turn, I was certain, was going to effect my stamina to climb 551 stairs. I was not happy. Worse yet, I was worried that although I wouldn’t be as fat, I would be a loser again at another goal.

The line to pay to get to the cupola.

This was not good because I did not want to be a loser.

I took a few days off of my training, resting my ribs, but worried my legs would quickly lose their stamina. A training set was done a few days later, I made 47 flights at 658 stairs, but it was hard. There were a few more days off of training but, come the beginning of May, decided I needed to figure out a way to kick the training back in gear. I made it a couple of days, but my ribs were still sore. How the heck was I going to pull this off?

I tried a few days rest, a few days training, and yet my ribs still hurt, especially towards the end of my set when I was having to take larger breaths to supply my body with the oxygen it needed. This “adding one flight of stairs a day” seemed like a good idea early on, but with sore ribs it proved to be a chore.

One of the doorways on the stairway trip!

Then came a true test. It was one week before our visit to The Vatican, I was up to 854 stairs in my training at home, the up and down of the flights of stairs, and my ribs were still sore. Suddenly an opportunity came to climb to the eighth floor of a building, a total of about 300 stairs. Should be a piece of cake, right? Well, I made it, my ribs were killing me, I was totally out of breath because I couldn’t really breathe, and now I was simply thinking, “I can barely do 300 stairs with these ribs. How in the hell am I going to do 551?” I almost wanted to cry.

I decided my last course of training had to be lack of training. If I wanted to climb these stairs to the cupola I needed to be able to breathe, and even though my stair tracker had a few days left of training to go, I needed to rest my ribs. No more stairs, no more exertion, I decided I would try to limit things, get to Italy, and see what would happen.

Buongiorno!

I really didn’t need extra stairs while on the Vatican Museum tour.

The day arrived. It was a beautiful Saturday in Rome, and we made our way to The Vatican. I hadn’t really done any exercise for a week, my ribs were feeling pretty good, or at least not sore, but another test was first, our tour. Yes, before even attempting the stairs we booked a tour of The Vatican so we could beat the crowds. What was I thinking? I had 551 stairs to try to climb, and here I am on a three hour tour, walking around The Vatican Museum, standing in the Sistine Chapel, and walking, low and behold, up and down stairs.

I will say the tour was great, interesting, and informative, but with every step and every stair all I could think was how I was using up the energy I was going to need to climb to the cupola. Did I overtrain enough? Isn’t this tour over yet? Not another flight of stairs that aren’t part of my cupola stairs! Ugh!

This way to the 551 stairs!

Finally the tour was over. Holy crap, I had already walked about three miles according to my Apple Watch, but the time had come. My ribs felt fine, I made my way to the line to the cupola, and there was the sign, “Andy, you will die if you pass.” Okay, it was a warning that there were two ways up, all stairs or you can cheat with the elevator for part of the way. If you intended to try to get to the cupola there were still a lot of stairs, but another sign was a little more direct, “Warning! Individuals with serious heart or circulatory conditions or with major physical disabilities are not advised to walk up to the cupola (551 steps). The strain may have very dangerous consequences to your health.”

I had my ticket!

I have to admit there was part of me, with the decision between elevator or all stairs in front of me, to chicken out and take the elevator, but I said, “You can do this. This is what you trained for. Suck it up, save the two euros, and get walking!”

So I did. I paid my eight euros, got my ticket, and proceeded to begin the climb.

That’s Not So Bad

Normal stairs to the cupola.

The first batch of 231 stairs wasn’t that bad. While circular, they tended to be larger stairs, decent in width, with some ledge style stairs where you actually take a few steps between stairs at times. In fact this batch is kind of a tease. I’m all like, “La de da! This is a piece of cake!”

I emerge from the first batch at the terrace, some construction is going on, but there it is, the real entrance to the journey to the top of the dome. As you enter you are first treated to a view most never see because they either don’t want to pay for that first batch of stairs, or the elevator for that matter.

St. Peter’s dome selfie!

You get a view of the inside of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, from up high. It is a stunning perspective of the basilica, looking down on the vastness of the church, and looking around at the grandioseness of the dome itself. Beautiful mosaics adorn the walls, and for this the few euros is just about worth the expense, even if you don’t want the outside view that awaits up the rest of the stairs.

Welcome to the Funhouse

Me, though, I wanted that outside view, but you don’t get that view without what can almost be described as a funhouse of a climb to get you to the top.

Climbing is like a funhouse at times.
Wacky stairs at the cupola.

First off the stairs have now become narrow as you are essentially climbing in an area between the walls of the inside of the dome and the walls of the exterior of the dome. It’s also fun because the stairs will slope one direction while the walls are sloping in the opposite direction, giving you a walk that has you tilted in various angles.

More spiral stairs.

Then there are the spiral staircases. Spiral staircases seem to be here, there, and just when you think there aren’t any more, bam, more spiral staircases. I’m climbing, some young, punk kids, and I only call them “punk” because they are in shape and running up the stairs like it’s a jog in the park, catch up to me so I let them pass, I catch up to someone who looks in decent shape but is fairly winded, and we both stop for about 20-30 seconds in a little alcove out of the way of others who want to pass.

I have no concept of how many stairs are left because, well, I didn’t count them as I was climbing, but I hoped I was fairly close. You see, during my training, as I was getting to the end, whenever I had four flights of stairs left I said a mental “You were able to do four flights of stairs when you started this training. Finish this!”, and for most of the balance of the upper portion I kept telling myself, “There can’t be more than four flights left!”

You might like the rope on this spiral staircase.

Here’s the thing, as you are climbing the funhouse stairs in the actual dome, there is a spot towards the end where you suddenly get to some metal staircases. They are normal, you are happy, but ahead marks what you will think is the worst spiral staircase of them all. Climb, hold on to the rope, because there is one, and like me, you will emerge, and maybe you might say…

“Holy shit, I made it!”

Yes, I dropped the s-bomb at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I made it to the top, and I swore.

It was a feeling of complete elation! I did it! Should I see if Pope Francis would hear my confession? At least it wasn’t an f-bomb!

I was also overwhelmed, and I really wasn’t sure what to do next. Do I Snapchat my view, text my wife, take pictures, shoot video? So, at first, I just tried to soak it in, which was kind of tough because the cupola was packed. Sure, this 51 year old schlub made it, was ecstatic that he made it, but there were plenty of folks up at the top like,”What, that wasn’t so bad?” I didn’t care, though, because for me it was it was a little bit of redemption for not making it to the lava, or even trying, that day in Hawaii.

Here’s the thing, though, I enjoyed the view, took a selfie, took the proverbial pictures, I didn’t text my wife because I was saving money on our phone plan, but then it was time to go.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Going down the spiral stairs can be scary!

All of the stories I read, and videos I saw of climbing to the cupola mentioned the challenge of going up, but none of them talked about going down. I will say that as kind of freaky it was going up all of the spiral staircases, going down actually was worse. Why? Going up you can kind of see where you are placing your feet, but going down was more like lower foot, feel for the step, hope you are on enough of the step to hold you until the next step, and continue. Oh, and there are no handrails to hold, just a wall and the center post, both of which are there mostly to maintain your balance and lean against as opposed to grab.

You have to walk back down after the fabulous view.

After navigating the super-tight, spiral staircases, things get more weird as the trip down is also one of the best thigh workouts, or will put the most stress you have ever felt on your quads and knees ever, as most of the steps are pitched down. Picture walking down a giant hill, one step at a time if the hill were steps.

On the way down the stop on the terrace level is nice, and you can get a nice view of where you were at the top of the cupola. There is a gift shop, which sadly doesn’t have any t-shirts “I walked to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica!” There’s a little cafe and views of the backside of statues where, if you look closely enough, you will see how they keep the birds from landing on the statues.

The end of the cupola trip.

Finally, you are heading down the last batch of stairs, and there it is, the exit, depositing you into the basilica where you can head back to the altar, look up, and point, “I was way up there!”

I found my wife where she said she would meet me. I hugged her, and my eyes welled up with tears. I could tell she was proud of me because she hugged me back, even though I was a sweaty, stair climber.

I had done it. After tormenting myself since our vacation to Hawaii and feeling like a fat loser, there I was, a chubby winner at age 51. Now I just needed to find the Pope and confess my swearing, and plan a future trip for a new goal. I hear Australia has a big bridge you can climb!

The Front or The Back

I’ve been slowly working on editing my myriad of concert pictures that I put on my Flickr site. Some of my favorites are Green Day. It was a concert back in 2005 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. (I still need to clean up my old concert review pages – sorry for the bad formatting if you go there).

Two of my favorite pictures from that concert are of Billy Joe Armstrong.

One is his front:

Billy Joe Armstrong - Green Day

The other is his back:

Billy Joe Armstrong - Green Day

Leave me a comment of which you like better.

Drippy Goo – Heliconia bihai cv. Lobster Claw One

Looking through some of my Hawaii pictures on my Flickr pages recently, mostly because I’m freezing my behind off here in Chicago and would rather be there, I’m still fascinated by the goo cascading off this plant. It kind of looks like icicles, but definitely is not as the picture is from the Hawaii Botanic Tropical Gardens. I believe it might be a Heliconia bihai cv. Lobster Claw One, but don’t quote me on that.

Drippy Goo

Lights and Ice

Lights and Ice

Barnard Griffin WineryWhile we were out in Washington state for a wedding, me, my wife, and her family had some time to kill. Sure, we were hoping for better weather, but coming from Chicago we weren’t going to let a little ol’ ice storm keep us down.

We were off to a winery!

My wife found a place, Barnard Griffin Winery, and they had a place to eat.

Pouring Samples at Barnard GriffinVenturing out into the icy wilderness, or at least the Tri-Cities, we made our way from Pasco to Richland.

Things might have been slippery, but the wine was great, our man did a wonderful job of explaining the various tastings on the history of the winery, and a good time was had by all.

Don’t forget to stop by the little restaurant. The food is worth the trip, even if they didn’t actually use linguini for their linguini in white clam sauce.

Wine Tasting TimeIf you ever find yourself in Richland, Washington, I suggest you visit. Hopefully you’ll have less ice, and more light. You will definitely have great wine.

So You’re Going to Hawaii

Words or Pictures? Why not both!

The beauty of Hawaii

So you’re going to Hawaii? Ever since we met my wife and I wanted to visit the Paradise of the Pacific, and in October we were finally able to pull off the trip. We asked people for things to do, things to see, read the Hawaii guidebooks (these were awesomely helpful), and for this blog I wanted to share many of the things we experienced, hopefully giving you ideas if you ever make it to the Big Island or Kauai.

I’m a little torn, though. Why? There is the part of me that wants to do a full-blown blog post about our vacation to Hawaii. The dilemma? A full-blown post would be pages, and pages, and pages, long. Okay, really not pages, unless you printed it out, but you would just keep scrolling, and scrolling, and probably give up around Day 3. We were there for 12 days. You would miss a lot.

So, the question came to me, “How do I shorten this thing? Would people rather read things, or see things?” Duh, seeing is easier, isn’t it?

My solution? A mostly picture blog post. Pictures are easy. You can look and keep on scrolling. Intermixed with the pictures will be interludes and links to all things Hawaii, or at least all things our Hawaii trip.

Ready? Let’s go! (P.S. There are even more pictures on my Flickr site!)

Day 1 – Let’s Fly!

It was  a travel day. We took off in daylight, arrived in the dark, and settled into our Airbnb place. I found it weird that the rental just uses a normal, manual lock-box, and I also wondered, but doubted, if they ever changed the code. Part of me wants to fly back just to see if the code is the same.

Day 2 – Let’s Drive!

We had one goal while in Hawaii and that was not to be like a monk seal and lay on the beach all day. Don’t get me wrong, we had beach time planned, but we wanted to see things, visit things, and eat fun food. We jumped right into it on Day 2 by planning a trip down the west coast of the Big Island down to South Point.

Day 3 – The Beach is Hard

Having traveled the highway and byway of the west side of the Big Island we needed a day of rest. What better way to rest than at one of the best ranked beaches in the world, Hapuna Beach. The weather was perfect at the beach, but this was also the beginning of learning that the beach is hard. Well, laying on the beach is easy, but it was a long walk from the parking lot to the beach, and worse yet, uphill going back to the car. Sadly our sunset at a different beach, Anaeho’onalu Beach, wasn’t that great, but dinner at Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill was a great way to wrap up our west side of the island trip!

Day 4 – Rain?

Kona, HI doesn’t get a lot of rain, but as the fates would allow our departure day saw the west and north side of the island get just about their month’s worth of the wet stuff on our travel day to the east side of the island. The rain hampered our hope of hiking down the trail at the Pololu Valley Lookout, but our travel around the north of the island, over to Hilo, and down to our “treehouse” in Volcano was just as adventure-filled as our Day 2 adventure along the west coast.

Day 5 – I Don’t Want to Die Today

It was time to see desolation, rebirth, and wonder all in one. It was volcano day and a trip to Volcanoes National Park. The Kilauea crater is mammoth, the Chain of Craters road takes you from lushness to desolation to ocean, and it was while at the ocean that the decision was made not to die on this day.

What do you want to see if you visit a volcano? Lava! The problem? Every sign on this day was saying, “Andy, if you try to go to see the lava you will die.” The hike to the lava was about five miles in and five miles back, in upper 80 degree heat. It was recommended that you take 3 quarts of water per person, snacks, and it would take at least 5 hours. Sure, there is all of that, and plenty of people make the journey, but plenty of people aren’t out of shape, with questionable knees, and did I mention out of shape?

There was the part of me that really wanted to give it a shot, I mean, there are worse ways to die, right? Thankfully, when asked, the ranger said there wasn’t any surface lava flow on this day. So, basically, we would just be taking a long-ass hike that might kill us.

I decided I didn’t want to die, my wife decided she didn’t want to die, so we just enjoyed the scenery on the way back up the crater.

Day 6 – I’m Not Scared Anymore

With safe adventure on our mind it was another day of seeing as much as possible. We finally got to see turtles at a truly weird site, the black sand beach of Panalu’u Black Sand Beach,  we didn’t get to see a rainbow at Rainbow Falls in Hilo, but we did get some yummy chocolate at Big Island Candies (Be sure to try the Macadamia Nut Shortbread).

It was also the day that I got over the fear of our rented “treehouse” sliding down the mountain, and we wouldn’t be killed by the Chupacabra who I feared was on vacation from his home in Mexico.

Day 7 – Our Anniversary Sunset at Hertz

Ah, our 7th wedding anniversary and it was “Goodbye, Big Island! Hello, Kauai!”

After a giant pancake and a couple of plane rides we found ourselves in Lihue on the island of Kauai. We were excited for a romantic dinner, a lovely sunset, and getting to our Kauai pad at a reasonable hour.

Little did we know that our experience at Hertz would be just like a Seinfeld episode where they were able to take our reservation, they just weren’t able to hold the reservation. There was that, and the fact that maybe if the one employee would have gotten off of Snapchat and Facebook on her cell phone, and did some work, we would have gotten our car in time to see the sunset at someplace more romantic than the Hertz parking lot.

Day 8 – Sites From the Sky

We had two goals on Day 8. One was to enjoy our helicopter ride, and the second was to see our first sunset at a romantic place on Kauai. One out of two wasn’t bad.

The helicopter ride was awesome and seeing things from the perspective of a helicopter is phenomenal. I had to keep reminding myself at times to stop taking pictures, put down the camera, and just enjoy the beauty.

This was also the day I learned I really like poke thanks to Pono Market, and shave ice (there is no “d” even though you really want to called it “shaved ice”) thanks to Hee Fat.

The helicopter ride filled our morning, wandering Kapaa filled our afternoon, and trying to get reservations at Bar Acuda kept me on my phone as they never answered the phone to take a dinner reservation. With some time to kill before the sunset we drove to the restaurant, I made the reservation for the wrong night, now couldn’t get through on the phone to change the reservation, and their email response mentioned they would get back to me in 1 to 4 days.

We ate somewhere else. I guess business is too good. Good for them.

Now it was time for a romantic sunset near our condo, at the St. Regis in Princeville. Another night on Kauai, another night of a non-sunset as it turns out the view from the St. Regis isn’t that great from fall through spring, with the sun setting behind the mountains. 😕

We would have to try again for our sunset.

Day 9 – Finally a Sunset, and Great Pie.

We didn’t intend to spend the entire day on the south side of Kauai, but dammit, we wanted a sunset! Our initial goal was just to see Waimea Canyon, aka The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, grab some more shave ice, and maybe drive through the Tree Tunnel.

We took the drive up the long road to Waimea Canyon, but the tricky part is the waiting because one minute it might be rainy and cloudy, but sit tight for five or ten minutes and suddenly everything is gorgeously lit by the the sun.

According to The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed (Ultimate Guidebooks), keep driving up Kokee Rd until it ain’t a road no more. You end up at Pu’u O Kila Lookout for the the best view outside of the canyon, which I admit was pretty awesome after the clouds cleared.

Back down the mountain it was time for Jo Jo’s shave ice, a tree tunnel, a blow hole, and the Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center for their Farmer’s Market with a snack of pie, soup, enchilada, and margarita.

Finally it was time for our awesome, Kauai sunset, complete with monk seals and surfers.

Whew, what an awesome day!

Day 10 – The Beach is Hard, Part II

After the busy-ness of Waimea Canyon we needed a day of rest. It was time to find a spot on the beach. We started at Anina Beach. It stretches for a couple of miles, the water is wonderful, but we found a lot of the beach a little too rocky for our liking. Bummer.

Let’s head to Hanalei!

Sure, parking can be a bitch, but our Guardian Angel of Parking Spots, Aunt Geraldine, found us a good location and it was time to vegetate for the day. Hint: Don’t forget to put sun tan lotion on the tops of your feet! Ouch!

Yea, every now and then a rain cloud would show up, but any shower passed quickly allowing us to watch a completely enjoyable family enjoy the water all day.

We had one more shave ice stop, Wishing Well, which kind of disappointed us as we heard good things about it, but any shave ice is better than no shave ice! Then it was time for dinner and a final cocktail before our departure the next day. Luckily we were treated to a saxophone player, because nothing screams “Hawaiian music” like a saxophone player.

Day 11/12 – Take Me Home, Friendly Skies

Our trip was coming to a close, but we had some time to kill before getting to the airport. What to do? My friend Catherine, in her list of things that are cool on Kauai, mentioned the Himalayan Academy. We sneaked our way onto a tour which was cool as it allowed us to see the Iraivan Temple being constructed, a marvel of craftsmanship. A very peaceful place, and fascinating!

One flight was late, there was sprinting through Honolulu airport like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz commercial, sick people in front of us who brought their own smorgasbord of sub sandwiches, chips other snacks to eat, and then proceeding to fart them all out for the last two hours on our flight from Honolulu to Chicago, an Uber driver who left us standing on the curb,  another Uber driver who paid her tolls with actual cash instead of having an iPass, and one really, happy dog to greet us as we walked through the door back home! Phew and pee-yew!

Put the Camera Down

Hawaii is a phenomenal place. If you’re going there I have one recommendation: Get your ass off the resort and visit, hike, relax, and experience. Lastly, this was our experience. It includes most of the things my wife and I did while on the Big Island and Kauai. Oh yea, I have another recommendation, sometimes put the camera down, and just let your mind create memories for your lifetime. There are images a picture can never recreate.

Watching the Sun Rise Together

Watching the Sun Rise Together

I caught a pair of doves the other morning, just sitting on the wires, watching the sun rise. Sure, they probably weren’t watching the sun rise, and just doing whatever it is that doves do together, but it was nice to think of them as a couple of lovebirds, enjoying the beauty of the start of a new day.

Sunrise at Danada Forest Preserve – Wheaton, IL – August 2017

Sunrise at the Danada Forest Preserve Wheaton, ILI saw the sun rising on the way to work one morning. I said to myself, “Self, that’s a pretty sunrise.” Then I asked myself, “Self, would I rather see a sunrise while driving my car, or while christening nature?” The next day I grabbed my camera and headed to the Danada Forest Preserve in Wheaton, IL. I arrived at an opening from the woods just as the sun was coming up over the horizon.

These are my photos of the morning sun, from my Flickr site. Enjoy!

Danada Forest Preserve - 2017

Cantigny Park – Wheaton IL – 2017

The other day my wife and I had some spare time on a Sunday so we went to visit Cantigny Park. I’ve never been there, my wife had, but the place is beautiful. It’s photo time!

Cantigny - 2017

We kind of went for their French Connection Day, but also used that as a good excuse to go. The photos in the Flickr album have nothing to do with the day, but the day wouldn’t be complete without some France.

I'm a model in my dreams. At the Cantigny Park French Connection Day.