My Summer Vacation – 2020 COVID Edition

While waiting for my COVID results when I went in for what was thought to be a urinary tract infection that just turned out to be some weirdness down below accompanied by a slight fever, my wife and I needed somewhere to visit that would be safe in the social distancing realm.

What about a farm that is now a forest preserve?

Scenic view of St. James Farm Warrenville IL


But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should start at how a planned vacation was almost ruined before it even started.

Weirdness 2020

There is so much weirdness these days, which is fine in a weird way because that which makes life weird can also make life more inventive.

Take a summer vacation.

Any other year, for my wife and me, traveling wasn’t an issue. Neither of us are worried about flying, both love foreign travel, and this year would be the trip of a lifetime, Tokyo, Japan, for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Then came the ‘rona,” or the “vid,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days, and travel plans went out the window.

Sure, I know there are folks right now who are convinced that things are a hoax, that COVID-19 isn’t that bad, and think that “flying with a bunch of strangers who must not have COVID because they are flying so it must be safe for me” might be out there, but my wife and I aren’t any of them.

Go ahead, call me chicken.

Anyway, as we had vacation time, and my day job wouldn’t let it roll into next year, and she really needed a break from being with the dog 24-7, we had to figure out something to do.

A week of short getaways became the plan.

The getaways almost didn’t happen.

What’s Going On Down There?

It’s the Friday before vacation, and I’m at the day gig looking forward to getting out of there. I’m not feeling bad, but things down below are feeling kind of weird. I won’t go into much detail, I believe we have all had weird feelings down there, so I’m guessing you can all understand.

I get home, take my temperature because that’s the thing to do these days when you feel any kind of anything, and all is well. Dinner comes, I’m feeling run down, a temperature check reveals ever so slight a temp around 99.5, and all I want to really do is go number one and sleep. The former completed, the latter achieved, and the next morning my temperature is down just a tad, but things still feel weird.

I end up at the immediate care to test some things, better safe than sorry, and I’m negative for anything pee related. The doctor can’t really come up with a diagnosis, but then says something like, “You did have a slight fever, want a COVID test?”

Ah, what the heck, shove the stick up my nose.

With the nose-probing complete I get my orders, something like, “Okay, now stay away from people until you get your results.”

“Crap, I’ve got plans! What do I do now? Those results better come quickly.”

So, being the good boy, Sunday was isolation day. I was following protocol, however, I was feeling tons better, and dammit, the weather for Monday looked perfect. What do we do?

Stay Away From Me!

So there it was, a perfect weather Monday, I’m feeling fine except for the utter anxiety waiting for my test results, and a decision was made: We need somewhere to go that is outside in the nice weather but away from people. We also wanted someplace we hadn’t gone before, a general theme set for the week.

Picture of St. James Farm sign.

I pondered places and remembered the large, St. James Farm sign that you can seen from the road nearby. A quick Internet search showed it had plenty of open space, a nice walking path, so it was decided that we would just go for a family walk on this, our first day of vacation.

The Milking House - St. James Farm

It turns out St. James Farm, according to the website, was a, well, farm, dating to the early settlers of the area back in the 1800’s. Eventually the McCormick family got their hands on it, yes, relatives of the reaper inventor McCormick, and set up some horse stuff. As wealthy people might also have in those days, the McCormicks had award-winning, Guernsey cows, so they also turned the land into a dairy farm.

Horse statue at St. James Farm

Eventually the horse side of things won out, more stables, competition areas, and just a lot of things horses ended up there, and eventually the whole lot got sold to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Trail at St. James Farm

Enough history, I’ll just say that the place is really nice, has some great walking trails, and once all this COVID stuff is taken care of I’m looking forward to going back when the horses return. The best part? We were able to stay far away from everyone, which was nice, so I could sleep knowing I didn’t infect anyone.

Please let me get my results! Please let me get my results!

So it’s Tuesday, another beautiful weather day, and our plan pre-COVID test was to go to Wisconsin. With part of our quest this week being to visit new places while enjoying the weather as much as possible, there turns out to be a nice, botanical garden up there in the land of cheese. They also appear to have more custard per capita than the rest of the United States. Okay, that may not be true, but from my quick research, they have a lot of custard. And I like custard.

The problem? I still didn’t get my test results.

What to do?

Let’s roll the dice!

From most sources, testing results from where I had mine completed were taking a couple of days. With that I should find out, on this day, if I’m screwed for the next ten days as well as if my wife would need to get a stick up her nose. We decided to risk starting the drive, hoping and praying the results would come before we got to our destination.

We begin our drive through the not-so-winding highways of Illinois, waving “Hello” and “Goodbye” to Rockford, and headed to Madison, Wisconsin.

Then my phone rings.

I was told they would only call if the results are positive.


I was actually afraid to answer the phone so I let it go to voicemail. The notification came up, and I listened.

“Hi Andrew, this is the immediate care center. I’m calling to tell you that your COVID test was negative blah, blah blah.”

Thank God! I won’t have to spend the rest of my vacation days having to quarantine, my wife won’t have to get tested, and also, thank God there wouldn’t have to be that discussion, “Umm, boss, yea, I got the COVID. You might want to have the office people tested. Have a nice day.”

Nope, the rest of the week was clear for fun!

Custard and Gardens and Custard and Custard

Michael's Frozen Custard - Madison WI

Medically cleared to now be in the presence of people, at least as present as we should be nowadays, the timing was perfect as our first stop was upon us, Michael’s Frozen Custard in the lovely city of Madison. Lunch was needed and this was the first stop on the Mini-Custard Tour of Wisconsin portion of our trip.

We opted for a cheeseburger which was good, nothing super-special, but really we came for the custard. I opted for the basic sundae, and I have to say it was a nice custard, the hot fudge wasn’t too sweet or funky, and the pecans were decent. My wife had the “Michael’s Famous Turtle Sundae” which she enjoyed. Michael’s was a great start to our journey!

Walking paths at Olbrich Gardens

With full bellies it was time for nature, and in Madison a great place for nature is the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Admission was free, which is nice, and lots of things were still in bloom. Of gardens I’ve been to they rank up there towards the top. The paths are laid out nicely, and they have this stunning Thai Pavilion and Garden area.

Thai Pavilion

Unfortunately, the Bolz Conservatory was closed due to the virus, as happens at times these days, but it was nice to stroll through nature, see lots of happy bees and butterflies, all while enjoying the sun on a perfect summer day.

Thai Pavilion picture of elephant statue.

But, there was only so much time, and we needed to get to Milwaukee so it was “Goodbye, Madison!”, and we were off to to our next destination in the custard tour, Gilles Custard.

In our research of custard in Wisconsin three names came up the most, Kopp’s, Gilles, and Leon’s. As both my wife and I were familiar with the goodness that is Kopp’s, we continued with our “something different” theme. Sadly we should have gone to Kopp’s instead of Gilles.

I really wanted to like Gilles, I mean, I really did because I just want to like all custard. Sadly I was let down.

Gilles Frozen Custard Sign

Whereas the custard was fine, the hot fudge topping was a disappointment. It wasn’t that it was too sweet nor to chocolaty, but it just had some funkiness that neither my wife nor I could put our finger on. There was that disappointment, but also the disappointment in inquiring if there was any way they could pack their famous Jameson Irish Whiskey custard (they had it in pints) in ice so it would make the trek to Illinois. The youngin’ looked at me like I was crazy, came back with one of those “I don’t really understand what you want nor want to take the time to figure it out” attitudes with his reply of, “No,” so sadly I ended up with no whiskey custard and funky hot fudge on my sundae.

Luckily, though, Leon’s was a short drive from Gilles, and it was there that both of us finally felt we hit the custard jackpot.

Leon's Custard Building

The location still looks to be straight out of the 1950’s when it was remodeled to what it is today. It comes complete with staff wearing the cool, ice cream shop hats, and people all around who just looked so happy to be getting something tasty.

I have to say that the custard was creamy, the pecans were the best of the three, and the hot fudge was damn near perfect.

Yup, our custard dreams had finally come true on this day, but there was still something decadent to find, and that would lead us to Kenosha.

Pop Tart?

Our vacation stop in Kenosha was before the craziness arrived that put the town on the national stage. Even before all the hubbub, there would generally be a “Why would you go to Kenosha, anyway?” Well, let me tell you about a place called “Elsie Mae’s Canning and Pies.”

My introduction to these wonderful pies came from our local farmer’s market where Elsie Mae’s sets up a booth selling their little pies. They are cute, the perfect size for one or two people, and of the nearly dozen flavors we have tried to date, none of them has let us down. They aren’t too sweet, the crust is perfect, and even for the pickiest of pie fans, well, they probably have a flavor for you.

And don’t get me started on their lemonade mixes (may I recommend the Blueberry Lemonade with gin?).

And so, with Kenosha falling between Milwaukee and home, we decided to stop at the Elsie Mae mother-ship!

In my head I envisioned wall-to-wall pies, but alas, it was just a nice storefront selling pies, their wonderful jams, lemonade mixes, and then I saw them – pop-tarts.

Elsie Mae's toaster pastry

Fine, they aren’t really “pop-tarts” as some giant conglomerate has the trademark on that term, but there they were, a tray of toaster pastries, and fine, you probably don’t want to put them in a toaster with the icing on top, but as my eyes popped out of my head, the pastry had to be had.

And the perfect time for that pastry? In the morning, with my caffeine of course!

And so our Tuesday carried us into our Wednesday of vacation with the wonderfulness of an Elsie Mae toaster pastry that you can’t put in your toaster in our preparation for….

What is This Silver Disc?

As we set up our vacation plans we had discussed visiting the Amish. One choice was a long drive to southern Illinois, but the other seemed shorter thanks to my remembrance of seeing signs for Amish Acres in Indiana on many a drive to and from Ohio.

Some quick investigating found that Amish Acres is technically no longer, instead re-named The Barns of Nappanee, which seemed interesting, but what the heck is “The Heritage Trail?”

Picture of Elkhart Visitor Center

It turns out Indiana really knows how to use the Amish area of Indiana to its fullest, complete with a “vehicle” tour of the entire area. Yes, you can stop at the Elkhart County Visitor Center and get, for free, a compact disc or USB stick of a tour of Elkhart County all in the comfort of your own vehicle. While you can stream the tour if you so desire, go ahead and stop at the Visitor Center, say, “Hello,” and wonder how Elkhart can have such a fancy visitor center.

Picture of The Heritage Trail CD

Compact disc inserted, even my wife was surprised her car had a CD player, and we began our tour starting in Elkhart, Indiana. Through the downtown and by the river (who knew Elkhart had an awesome riverfront?), we made our way through the streets while listening to the history of how Elkhart came to be, as well as how, up ahead, there would be a town called Bonneyville Mills.

Picture of Bonnyville Mill
Picture of the grinding wheel.

Now, Bonneyville Mills ain’t got that much, but what they do have is a mill. This isn’t just an old mill, this is an actual working, old mill. I know it sounds silly in this day and age of machinery and corporate food, but should you tour The Heritage Trail go ahead and hit up the mill, say, “Hello” to the folks in there, because, well, they are actually working the mill. Yup, they grind their own products for a variety of flours, available for purchase, and you can look at it and wonder, “How the heck did they get that heavy stone in there?”

The dork in me found this stop fascinating!

Welcome to Tourist Heaven

As the tour of The Heritage Trail continued we started to see more Amish folks, complete with horses and buggies, on our way to Das Dutchman Essenhaus in the town of Middlebury. If there is anything that screams “Tourist Heaven” on this trip, it is Essenhaus. Yup, you can stop for some food, they have more knickknacks and “Amish” things than you can ever imagine, and in the non-COVID era I’m guessing there would be tour bus after tour bus parked in the lot, or at least just a lot more people crammed in there.

Picture of Amish horse and buggy.

A late lunch eaten, it was time for a short drive to Tourist Heaven Part II on The Heritage Trail, the town of Shipshewana. Yup, here you have more dining, an Amish furniture store, a mall kind of place, and what supposedly is the largest flea market in the Midwest. Sadly, on this day, there was no flea market, and also sadly was we forgot about the time change from Chicago time to Indiana time when we got a late start in the morning.

Yup, it turns out that hour difference is huge because at 5PM everything in the Amish-land of Elkhart shuts down, and as we checked, so was everything else we wanted to see on the rest of the tour.

So there we were, 4PM home time, 5PM Amish shut-down time, and we realized our Heritage Trail tour was going to be cut short because why head to Goshen and Nappanee when everything would be closed?

It was time to head back to the modern world.

Drive Just a Little Longer

Picture of South Haven Lighthouse

I learned this lesson back in college – To avoid the places that are packed with Chicagoan’s when getting out of Chicago, drive a little further down the road when looping around the bottom of Lake Michigan. For example, there are the Indiana Dunes, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Chicago, but do yourself a favor and drive the extra 40 minutes to Warren Dunes for a few less people and, in my opinion, a nicer beach.

For our Friday of vacation we wanted beach as well as a beach town. What to do? Sure, there was St. Joseph, but everything we read said St. Joe was generally crowded.

South Haven Beach

(Those of you paying attention might be wondering about Thursday. Thursday was social distancing family day, and while enjoyable, I’m guessing most of you don’t want to read about my mom-in-law sneaking out of the conversation to cook a quick meal so we would all stay for dinner. But, I digress, back to Michigan.)

Hey, look, what about South Haven? It’s half-an-hour up the road from St. Joe, let’s try there! Sure enough, that half hour brought a nice, little beach town, complete with, well, a beach, and a lighthouse, and beer.

South Haven Pier
Seagull at South Haven Beach

This time we remembered there would be a time change, got a fairly early start, drove around the bottom of Lake Michigan, up the western shore of Michigan, and made it to South Haven. We walked out to the end of the pier and admired the lighthouse, we soaked up some rays on a large swath of beach, and I can happily report that on this day everyone seemed to be doing their part to social distance, well, at least the humans. The seagulls, apparently, have not gotten the memo about social distancing nor wearing a mask.

Lunch at Taste in South Haven

I can only say so much about a beach, I mean, it was a nice beach, but it was time for grub. We made our way to a restaurant called Taste where we were delighted to find a place serving “small plate” fare. Our sampling included Crispy Artichokes, the Korean Chicken BBQ, and a wonderful mac and cheese. I must say this is a wonderful restaurant, the service was great, and they lived up to their name.

Bad Donut, Good Beer

If you have read some of my other writings you may know one thing about me, namely, that I like donuts. Okay, “like” is the wrong word, I love donuts to the point that I will finish just about any donut even if I don’t like the flavor, but sadly South Haven is the first place that I didn’t finish a donut.

Across and down the street from Taste was a bakery. I’m a sucker for bakeries, and an earlier, quick stop to Bunde’s Bakery Cafe proved to be a gem of a little shop. With that experience I was excited about stopping into the Golden Brown Bakery. Having just eaten lunch you would think there wasn’t much room for donuts, but, well, as I’ve said, I love donuts, and my go-to is the basic, glazed donut.

Donut in hand, then in my mouth, and suddenly I was sad. This was it, a bad donut. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they were having a bad day, but the donut seemed old (it wasn’t that late in the day for donuts to taste old, yet), the glaze wasn’t tasty, and dammit, I threw out half a donut. Yes, I gave it a few bites, kept trying, kept hoping, then gave up and said, “Honey, I need to wash my mouth out with something. The brewery is right over there.”

Harbor Light Brewing Company

Luckily South Haven has a batch of breweries to choose from so the first stop was Harbor Light. I must say they have a plethora of beers, in all makes and tastes, and their strong scotch ale, Moral Flexibility, proved to be a decent choice to get the taste of the bad donut out of my mouth. Harbor Light is strictly beer but you can order food, if you desire, from local restaurants, and they’ll bring it to you at the brewery.

With time winding down there was more beer to find so a short walk was taken to South Haven Brewpub where, since they do serve food, you are more likely to see a few families hanging out. It’s a little cramped, especially for these days of the virus, but they were doing a great job cleaning between customers, and the beer was good.

Three Blondes Brewing

Why stop at two when you can go for three? Yup, happily my wife was driving so a hop, skip, and a drive took us to what ended being my favorite beer place of the bunch, Three Blondes Brewing.

Three Blondes was started by three sisters and is a warehousy looking location. On this day they had a smaller selection of beer and a fairly extensive food menu. This was fine for me because, as I’m a barrel-aged junkie, all I was really looking forward to round out my afternoon of beer was The BBA Team, a wonderful barleywine. We opted for some food, choosing the Margherita Pub Pizza, which proved to be a good choice, and with my beer taste buds now satisfied it was time for me to take a nap and trust my wonderful wife to get us home.

A Day That Felt Like a Saturday, On a Saturday

The weird thing about this vacation was that it constantly felt like a Saturday. Every evening felt like the Friday evening before a Saturday, you know the evening, when you sort of plot out what you might do over the weekend, then you have your Saturday adventure, then you repeat planning for the next day which ended up seeming like a Saturday.

Picture of Grill Setup

Yup, you didn’t have a departure and a return date a week or so later. Nope, it had been five days of departures and with the same five days of returns, so it was nice to have an actual Saturday even if all it meant was that the end vacation week was winding down and the new “normal” would begin again in a few days.

But, what to do?

What to do was relax all day and cook the thickest steak I’ve ever attempted.

Yes, along with donuts I love steak, and when the opportunity arose for me to pick a steak that the butcher was going to cut, I opened my fingers wide and said, “This thick!”

End of Vacation Dinner

My wife looked at me like I was nuts, but I was giddy like a schoolboy!

Nice weather was plentiful, the grill performed wonderfully, and a long week was concluded with a wonderful steak, potatoes with pesto, and a barrel-aged beer.

Let Weird Rule

A selfie with a horse statue.

Look, times are weird. Would I have preferred seeing the USA women’s soccer team win the gold medal during the summer Olympics? You bet, but I suppose that wasn’t meant to be. What was meant to be was the weird, the weirdness of wondering if I had the “Vid,” the weirdness of thinking it might be fun to go horse-back riding, the weirdness of wondering how much custard I could actually eat, the weirdness of being fascinated by an old, working mill, and the weirdness of every day of the week feeling like a Saturday.

These days you’ve got make the best of any situation you might find yourself in, even when it comes to figuring out things to do on vacation. I think we did a weird, good job, although I do think I could have eaten a lot more custard. Maybe next vacation!