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.

Oodles of Beauty and Joy – The Gardens at Ball

A Garden in an Industrial Park?

There are surprise discoveries in one’s life that can bring even more oodles of beauty and joy to one’s perfect, summer day than just, well, a perfect, summer day. Thanks to my cousin, Ron, and his wife, Vicky, I got to experience more oodles of beauty and joy, on a perfect, summer day.

The Gardens at Ball 2017

It was also a day of “Who knew?”

Where was this surprise discovery with the blue skies and wonderful summer breezes blowing on a Sunday afternoon? It was a place called The Gardens at Ball, located at the West Chicago, Illinois headquarters of Ball Horticultural Company, which for the sake of my typing I will simply refer to as “Ball” during this little writing episode.

Ball Horticultural CompanyYou may have never heard of Ball, but I can almost guarantee you have experienced some aspect of their work as they have, through the years, bred, sold, and distributed the seeds that become many of the beautiful plants you want in your flower garden, or planted around your house. The Gardens are a showcase of the plants they breed and develop so that the folks that grow and sell them in mass can see them, in all of their glory.

The surprise part? The Gardens at Ball are meant mostly for industry professionals. My cousin is in the business, and he visited a few years ago with his wife. They let me know about the place, about how beautiful and interesting it was, and I have been intrigued ever since. As The Gardens are for industry folks they generally aren’t open to the public., however, on a Sunday in July, thanks to Ball Horticultural Company and The Garden Conservancy, the public was allowed to walk around experience the latest Ball has to offer.

“Let’s Go See Some Plants!”

Reaching for the Sun!As my wife and I had some free time on the Sunday of the event, and the weather was beautiful, I said, “Wife, let’s go see some plants!” She found herself skeptical, but on that recommendation of my cousins we were off.

Nestled in an industrial park this is not really the place one would expect a garden, however, as you drive past the building and start to see the variety of plants, you know you are at the right location, pulling in and heading towards the gardens.

For this event there were tour guides, many from the University of Illinois Extension program for Master Gardeners, as well as Ball employees to answer questions, and upon being offered a guide we were paired with Logan who asked our interest in the gardens. We mentioned we had a clean slate of landscaping around our house to populate, were looking for inspiration, and also how not to kill Lantana, my specialty.

The Gardens at Ball

Wonderful color at The Gardens at Ball.Beginning our walk around the over 10 acres of plants, Logan did a wonderful job of explaining the various parts of The Gardens at Ball which are separated into different classes of plants. There are shady areas spotlighting plants that do a little better with less sunlight where begonias and coleus abound, areas dedicated to just PanAmerican Seed with Easy Wave petunia, millet, ornamental peppers and more. There are rose gardens, a giant, perennial area, hostas for everyone, and a long row of nearly every color geranium you can imagine, all interspersed among the paths that take you in a logical circle, eventually getting you back to the entrance.

Walking through The Gardens it occurred to me that the selection of plants I would see at my local big-box hardware store kind of sucked. The shear variety of color and variation of the standard “here are some petunias” you find at those stores pales in comparison to the beauties you will spot walking around the winding paths and trails around the grounds. I will say this, both my wife and I came up with a plethora of ideas for around our house, and I’m hoping that Canna Cannova, at least I believe that’s what it was, can be incorporated to naturally attract some hummingbirds. I just hope we can find them all to buy somewhere, but in a worst case I suppose I could make a call, “Hey, cuz, any chance you can order me some SunPatiens, the Tropical Orange variety? How about some Rex Jurassic Pink Shades Begonia?”

The Rex Jurassic Shades BegoniaThe Rex Jurassic was one of those “Who knew?” moments while walking around The Gardens, as Ball developed a begonia to similarly mirror the skin of a T-Rex. It kind of reminded me of my grandma who would take her different colored violets, say her dark blue and white ones, somehow mix them together, and get cool things like a blue violet with a white border. I believe, however, that the folks at Ball are a little more scientific than my grandma!

With our walking around the gardens finished, and I believe I heard it was the first time they did this, Ball allowed tours of their facility which brought many more “Who knew?” moments apart from the ton of “Who knew?” while just walking around the gardens.

Like a Brewery Tour, Only No Samples

Seed coating at Ball Horticultural CompanyThe tour we were given focused on a variety of aspects of their business, from seed coating (Who knew the folks who mass-planted the little suckers into those trays needed coated seeds?), to seed pellets (Have you ever seen those SimplyHerb gardens, with six or so herbs in one pot? No, they don’t plant six individual seeds, Ball combines them into one pellet, the planting people shove one in some dirt, and ‘Voila!”, six plants in one pot! Who knew?), to how they pre-germinate seeds. When you sell seeds you also prefer to count them so you know how many you are selling. Count them by hand? Nah, invent a seed counter so you can go crazy with up to 2000 pellets of seed in a second. Lastly came some quality control. Turns out that in the seed business you also need to tell your customers what kind of yield to expect, and to improve your own process to get better yield. Do you want some human to make this judgement call? Nope, we want lasers! So did Ball, and they developed a laser and photo system to analyze trays of just-germinated seeds.

Color at The Gardens at BallReally, who knew there was so much to seeds? I just remember taking a dried up marigold, trying to plant the seeds, and hoping a few of them would grow. I guess when you are selling millions you need a little bit better process.

I know this blog post has gotten long, and I apologize, but I was fascinated by the entire Gardens at Ball experience. Going there was kind of like being let into that secret room in the back of the bar that only the cool people get to get into, only instead of beautiful drinks and beautiful people you get garden heaven.

More Pictures Next Year? I Hope So!

Hopefully they will have this event again next year, and I’ll be setting a reminder to check The Garden Conservancy website next Spring. Now that the wife and I have all kinds of ideas for our yard, next year I’m hoping to be able to get even more pictures and share more oodles of beauty and joy of a summer day with you.

Beautiful gardens in the middle of an industrial area? Who knew?