Springtime Snowbird: Red Wing, MN & Golden Lantern

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The travel content in my blood had gotten pretty low so I decided it was time to get away for the weekend.  I booked a getaway in Red Wing, MN, home of the Golden Lantern.

While I love travel immensely, sometimes the travel part of travel can get mighty tedious.  My father has an interesting hobby in that he likes to look at atlases to plan his journeys or simply to learn more about the cities that I visit.  When I told him I was heading to Red Wing, I half jokingly asked him if he could plot a route that would be light on interstate.

Dad rose to the challenge and plotted a route.  I asked him how much time this would add to my trip and he asked what time I had planned on getting there.  When I said 3pm, he said I could leave at 6am.  I didn’t particularly relish the idea of tacking an extra 3 hours onto the drive so I figured it would be back to the interstate for me.

A few days before I left, I realized that the route to Minnesota takes me very close to my old hometown of Fort Dodge, IA.  I checked to see how much more time would be added if I went that route and found it would only add an extra hour to the drive.  I contacted my best friend, Josh Kudron, and asked if he wanted to meet me for lunch.  He said yes and I now had a much more satisfying drive on my hands.

It was a very pleasant drive as I drove the route I knew so well, passing through numerous small towns on my way to Fort Dodge.  It had been quite a while since I had visited the old burg and noticed a lot of changes to these small towns.  Just outside of Rockwell City, I found that they were tearing up the highway and had to take a detour which routed me through the tiny town of Rinard and I appreciated adding a new small town to the journey.

I ended up arriving in Fort Dodge about a half hour before I was to meet Josh.  I decided to take a quick jaunt down memory lane and actually get a picture of my first childhood home.  I still remember every nook and cranny of the place.  The house and property had once fallen into quite a bit of disrepair in the years since my family had moved out.  My dad’s lovingly maintained backyard had transformed into an overgrown jungle due to a dispute between the house owners and the owners of the convenience store next door.  At one point, the house had been condemned until it was bailed out by a new owner.

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My childhood home. It’s seen better days, but it’s also seen worse.

The new owner made the house look a lot better with a new siding job and I was stunned to see the backyard restored to quite a bit of its former glory.  I snapped a photo and drove off to my old elementary school.

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This was my old elementary school

The school had once been a Catholic school and church called Holy Rosary, but had been sold off many years prior.  It had been a rehabilitation center for young girls suffering from drug and alcohol addictions before being bought out by an evangelical church and renamed Community Christian School.  Though I only got one photo, a flood of childhood memories washed over me as a lot of the good times spent there ran through my mind.

Then it was time for lunch.  I met Josh at my favorite fast food joint, Taco Tico.  It’s a pity that there are only 16 of these restaurants in the United States because these are the best tacos ever made.  Josh picked up the tab and we spent a long lunch catching up on old times and filling each other in on recent events.  I ended up having to call an end to lunch as I had to get to Red Wing to check in and bad weather was looming.  Keep that last point in mind.

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Ah, Taco Tico!! Yum!!

Now it was off to the interstate to complete my drive to Red Wing.

I arrived in town about 5pm and made my way to the Golden Lantern.  I was greeted by the inn’s owner, Sioux Christensen, and led to my room, J.R.’s Suite.  The room had an incredible calming quality and is very. . .red from thee burgundy curtains and easy chairs to the red blanket on the king bed to the carpeting to the towels.

 

The Golden Lantern is a Tudor Revival mansion that was originally the home of Jesse R (J.R.) Sweazy who was the president of the famed Red Wing Shoe Company which is still in operation today.  The house remained in the family for several generations before his grandson sold the property in 1992 at which point it was renovated into a B & B.

 

I did my normal explorations and helped myself to some cheese and crackers in the living room.  After settling in, I headed to the main drag to have dinner at Bev’s Café.

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Bev’s Cafe

Bev’s is normally only open for breakfast and lunch, but stays open for dinner on Friday nights.  I ordered an Inferno burger with some crinkle cut French fries and I enjoyed a leisurely dinner as I continued reading Ten Little Aliens, a sci-fi retelling of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

I returned to the inn after dinner where I put my Jacuzzi tub through the paces, even adding a splash of pomegranate to the water because. . .why not.  I don’t know if it added to my relaxation, but I felt pretty sedate when the bath was over.

From there I posted pictures before going to sleep for the night.

Earlier I had mentioned that bad weather had been looming.  Well, I woke up the next morning to. . .wait for it. . .A SNOWSTORM. . .IN MID-APRIL.  I’m talking a full blown, wind whipping snowstorm which canceled all of my exploration plans for the day.

There are worse things than being forced to stay indoors in a comfortable inn.  Luckily I had arranged for even more relaxation by opting to have breakfast in bed that first day.  A tray was left outside my door at 9am and I enjoyed a long breakfast of bacon, fruit, orange juice, apple cinnamon roll, and a frittata/omelet entrée.

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Afterwards it was pretty much reading, a little TV, and working on the computer for the day.  I did take my car for a brief spin to keep the engine warm, but the wind was whipping around the snow so much that I was only out for 15-20 minutes.

About 5pm, I walked the block to St Joseph’s Catholic Church to attend worship services.  For a small town, the church was surprisingly big.  Almost as big as the church I attend back in Omaha.  The storm had mushroomed into a full blown blizzard threatening to dump up to a foot of snow by 7am the next day.  Due to the storm, less than 50 people attended the service and the sermon and songs were clipped a bit to get us back home.  Still, it was a good service, if a bit edited.

 

I still needed to eat and ending up finding a Perkins nearby where I started reading a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Red Tower, while I ate a Country Club Melt.  After dinner, I noted with relief that the snow had tapered off which gave the city plenty of time to clean up.  This meant I would be able to head for home tomorrow as extending my stay had been a very serious possibility.

I enjoyed another bath and began writing this article before retiring for the night.

When I woke up the next morning, I peeked out my window and noted that the streets were very clean.  Red Wing only got 5 inches of snow, but had I been just an hour west, I would have been buried.  The Twin Cities received a whopping 10.5” of snow and it was still falling.  At this writing, they are up to 18”.

I joined two other couples for breakfast where we enjoyed strawberries and cream, sausage patties, chocolate crepes, and Eggs Benedict.  A nourishing, tasty breakfast indeed.  Some interesting conversation followed and then I made the long drive home.

I’d like to give the city of Red Wing a redo at some point so I can truly experience the city, but the Golden Lantern is a fabulous inn and definitely gets a recommendation for a visit.  From the large rooms and bathtubs to the gourmet breakfasts, you will certainly have a grand and relaxing time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

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Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

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Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

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Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

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Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

A Grand Holiday Experience: Grand Anne, Keokuk, and Nauvoo

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Hello readers and Merry Christmas!

It’s December which means it’s time for another holiday B & B review.  To be honest, I was not sure I was going to be able to do a holiday review this year due to the timing of the family Christmas gatherings, but I managed to get lucky when I checked out the reservations site for the Grand Anne of Keokuk, IA and found they were wide open for the month of December.  I quickly snagged a room and prepared for another Christmas jaunt.

Keokuk is noted for being the southernmost city in the state of Iowa.  So southern is the city that the states of Illinois and Missouri are mere minutes away.  It also has quite a bit of history nestled in its environs.  Howard Hughes’ grandfather, Rupert, was the mayor of this town once upon a time and, at one point, Keokuk had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Keokuk was notable to me for one reason.  When I was a strapping lad the town of Palmer, IA was an unstoppable powerhouse in high school basketball having gone undefeated for 4 years.  Keokuk’s basketball team ended up being the giant slayer as they stopped Palmer in that year’s state tournament and Palmer BB was never quite the same again.

But I digress.  It was a frozen Friday that I began my journey.  I was very excited as I could make the drive using nothing but one highway so I figured the road would take me through a lot of small towns.  I was surprisingly wrong on this score as I did go through a few small towns, but far fewer than one would expect for a nearly 5 ½ hour drive.

I arrived in Keokuk a little earlier than expected and looked for something to do until I could check in.  As I traveled towards the inn, I spied a little salon called Laura’s Hair Company and decided to stop for a haircut as I had left town before getting a much needed trim.

Laura was a very interesting barber who knew quite a bit about the town, even sharing the story of an allegedly haunted house on Grand Avenue where Grand Anne was located.  She also gave me the best haircut I’ve had in years, trimming my hair to absolutely perfect length.

After the relaxing haircut, I popped in at the local library (nicely stocked for a small town) and skimmed a novel until I could check in at Grand Anne.

The Grand Anne, owned by Kent and Cassie Barrett with caretaking done by Rick and Cretia Hesse, is the very picture that pops into your head when you think about B & Bs.  It’s a 22 room Grand Anne mansion designed by George F. Barber who built his fortune designing mail order homes.  He would send people the plans for the house with sheets of graph paper and ask for a rough sketch of any changes to be made to be drawn on the graph paper and mailed back to him.  He would then draw the changes to scale and go back and forth until the people buying the home were satisfied.  At that point, the buyers could either build the homes themselves or Barber would sell them the materials and rent out the help to build the home.  For a fun bit of trivia, Barber had no formal training in architecture, yet 2,000 buildings he designed are still standing today.

Barber designed the Grand Anne for Clyde Royal Joy, a managing director of SF Baker and Company, a pharmaceutical firm, in 1897 for the astonishing price of $12,500 (modern day equivalent of nearly $360,000).  The house is worth much more than the modern day equivalency as Joy spared no expense on the home.  To give you an idea of its modern day value, the wood used in the parlor costs more than $12,500 today.

When I arrived at the inn, I found a piece of paper and a key for my room sticking to the front door.  I walked into the foyer and instantly felt at home.  The Grand Anne is easily one of my favorite inns that I’ve stayed at as it is a classic B & B, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since the Victorian Villa.  I headed upstairs to Clyde’s Retreat, the one time master bedroom and my base of operations.  It’s one of the most spacious rooms I’ve had with some very comfortable chairs and a plushy bed.  All I needed was a fireplace and a sidekick and I’ve would have felt like Sherlock Holmes.

After unpacking my gear, I wandered around the mansion, enjoying the Christmas trees and decorations, especially a Christmas village located on the Steinway piano in the music room.  I then donned my coat and took a walk around Grand Avenue.

Grand Avenue was once the Millionaire’s Row of the city as that is where the expensive and ritzy homes were built.  I later learned that a 72 room mansion once filled the six blocks next to Grand Anne costing an eye popping $1 million back in 1887 (modern day equivalent of $25 million!!).  Regrettably, that home only lasted for 30 years and not a trace of it exists.

It was still mighty cold outside so I headed back to Grand Anne to warm up for a bit before heading out to dinner.  I decided to give the Hawkeye Restaurant a try.  This eatery is known for a pork tenderloin sandwich that was deemed best in the country by USA Today.  If I could have preserved one I’d have taken it back to Omaha as that is my pop’s favorite sandwich.

The restaurant is quite popular as it was jammed to the rafters when I arrived.  I managed to get seated in the lounge where I ordered jerk chicken with a cup of their “World Famous” Wisconsin cheese soup and a side of fries.  The soup was remarkable.  It had a bit of a kick to it and truly was the best cup of Wisconsin cheese soup I had ever tasted.  The fries were crisp and the chicken was served on a bed of rice with fried jalapenos.  It was pretty good, but I expected a lot more spice for a Caribbean dish.  It had the hint of authentic jerk chicken, but needed to go a bit further with it.

After the meal, I decided to drive around the town to see what they might have for lighting displays and was surprised to see that very few homes actually set up anything on the outside.  I drove to the farthest end of Grand Avenue and then saw the mother of all lighting displays.

The display was in a place called Rand City Park and it was called the City of Christmas.  I drove through the park in awe of the incredible display which was sponsored by many of the local businesses.  I saw Biblical displays, winter displays, and a section dedicated to the beloved Christmas specials of my childhood.  Definitely worth a visit if you are in Keokuk around Christmas.

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City of Christmas

Once I had traveled through the City of Christmas, I returned to my room where I watched a DVD and then curled up in my cushiony queen bed and slept the night away under the soft glow of my Christmas tree.

The Grand Anne is famed for its 4 course gourmet breakfasts and I was very much looking forward to it the next morning.  At 8:30 I went downstairs to the dining room where I enjoyed Cretia’s fine cooking which included a freshly squeezed special orange juice blend of the inn’s, a lemon muffin, grapes & yogurt, and chili egg bake with baked bacon.  I had fellow guests this time and spent a rather enjoyable few hours sharing conversation.  Afterwards we went up to the Billiards Room on the mansion’s first floor where we learned we all had the same level of skill in pool.  That is to say, we all stunk.  But it was still fun to play.

When the game was done, I bundled up, hopped into my car, and drove to nearby Nauvoo, IL.

Nauvoo is a Mormon settlement built by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints, and his followers.  When they first arrived, it was a malaria ridden swamp land and they built it up to a bustling community of 50,000, the second largest city in Illinois at one point before the assassination of Joseph Smith ended up scattering the Church of Christ.  Today the town only has a population of 1,100 but it does an impressive job of preserving its history.

I stopped in the Joseph Smith Visitors Center where I paid for a tour of Old Nauvoo.  My tour guide was Don who was a fount of knowledge about the history of the area as he showed me around the old homes of Joseph Smith and told me about the history of the area.  One thing I learned it aside from the history was that those old homes were built to last.  The old homes kept the cold outside without virtue of any of our modern conveniences.

The tour ended in the Red Brick Store which sells books, old fashioned candies, and even a famed “home brewed” root beer.  The quotes are because it’s actually made in Ohio, but it is quite tasty nonetheless.  After my tour I drove to the top of the city to look at the rebuilt Mormon Temple before returning to Keokuk.  Nauvoo also has year round wagon rides and nightly shows.  In the summer there’s quite a bit more to do, so if I’m in the region again during that season, I’ll be sure to give it another visit.

I returned to the inn and relaxed for about an hour before heading to worship services at the Church of All Saints.  This church was like stepping into a time warp as the inside reminded me of Sacred Heart, a church I sometimes attended back in Fort Dodge, IA with a priest that reminded me of my favorite pastor, Father Richard Kielbasa AKA Father K AKA The Rock.  Yep.  Before Dwayne Johnson, the original Rock was Father K and they both shared the same charisma.

Originally, I had planned to go back to Nauvoo to eat the buffet dinner at the famed Hotel Nauvoo, but discovered they stopped serving for the season in mid-November.  Instead I visited Beef, Bread, and Brew in Keokuk.  It’s a small, quiet restaurant known for its weekend buffets (seafood on Friday, Prime Rib on Saturday, and a Grand Buffet on Sunday).  I opted for a filet mignon with a side of lattice fries and included a trip to the soup and salad bar.  I tried a cup of their Wisconsin cheese soup, but it was just OK.  It needed to be a little hotter and lacked the zip of the previous night’s soup.  The salad was excellent as was the filet mignon which was cooked to perfection and was nice and juicy.

When dinner was done, it was back to the inn where Rick gave us a 2.5 tour of the mansion.  He was a great storyteller and knew every intimate detail of the house and quite a bit about the town’s history.  He has quite a few interesting stories including the “Story of the Bullet Hole”.  One amusing story I’ll share is that of the golf ball riddled door.  The inn’s second owner was Judge Huiskamp who was an avid golfer (also a good friend of Bing Crosby who often came to Keokuk to play golf with the judge).  Back in the day, the third floor was a ballroom and the judge set up a net to practice his hitting.  He never missed the net, but his children often did pelting the walls and door of the now Tower Suite with golf balls.  The door to the Tower Suite is the original and is just riddled with golf ball divots.

When the tour was done, I returned to my home to begin writing, but a stuck e key curtailed that so I decided to call it a night.

I slept right through the night.  When I awoke the next day, I checked my e key and found it to be working again so I drew a relaxing bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.

The first courses were similar to the previous day’s though the fruit was kiwi and the muffin was cherry.  The main entrée was a delicious egg soufflé with cheddar cheese, chives, and mushrooms with some more baked bacon. Once more I engaged in pleasant conversation until it was time to get back to work and head for home.

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Egg souffle with baked bacon

Another splendid visitation is in the books.  The Grand Anne was truly a grand experience and I highly suggest a visit if you find yourself in town.  You’ll experience a classic bed and breakfast with some truly superb meals and can take a dive into history at the same time.  Have a blessed and happy Christmas!

Return to the Rising Sun, Day 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

It was a journey 4 years in the making.  After the end of our escapades in Japan (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), my friends, Mat O’Donnell and David Sundberg, and I decided we would one day return to experience it anew.  With Mat’s impending wedding in November, it was decided that the adventure would take place in August 2016.

After months of planning and preparation, the day finally arrived to begin our return to the Land of the Rising Sun.

It takes a lot of time to get to Japan and I mean a LOT of time.  On August 16, Dave and I awoke at 2:30am.  Our first flight of the day would leave at 6:20am.

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Dave is bright eyed and bushy tailed for the day ahead.

My good friend, Jeff Bevirt, picked Dave and I from my home and drove us to Eppley Airfield where we met Dave’s niece, Amy Joy, who would also be joining us on the excursion.

We would be using United Airlines.  This was my first time utilizing their services and it was pretty good all the way around.  When we arrived at the nearly empty airport, a friendly desk agent took our passports and quickly checked us in and checked in Dave’s suitcase.  Using the “gussie” system of packing, I would be checking no luggage so I’d have one less thing to worry about.

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Transportation to Japan provided by United Airlines.

United likes to board early and we started getting on board nearly an hour before our flight started.  I happen to think this is a good business practice as if everyone manages to get onboard early, we can leave a little early which is exactly what happened.

After a brief flight, our little group laid over in Denver for an hour, where we scarfed a quick breakfast from McDonald’s (oh, how I hate to rush a meal) and boarded another plane set to take us to Los Angeles.

At LAX, I made my only miscalculation of the trip.  I decided to change my dollars over to yen while I was there.  I got a pretty good deal, but would learn that I should have waited until I reached Narita International Airport in Japan as they give you a much better deal.  My dough would have netted me an extra 15,000 yen had I waited.  So take my advice, if you go to Japan, always exchange your money at Narita.

We waited through a 2.5 hour layover at LAX before finally beginning the long haul of the trip.  I love to fly, but 12 hours is an awfully long time to be on a plane.  They do their best to distract one with a wide variety of entertainment from movies to music to TV shows.  To pass the time, I read a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche, began a new Nero Wolfe novel, watched a little TV as well as the films Money Monster and Insomnia.

There was something profound about this trip, especially as I was taking it in the daytime and could look out the window.  There’s something deep about looking down on the majesty of the Pacific Ocean and seeing nothing but blue as far as the eye can see.  We also went from day to night to day in a flash as we crossed over to the other side of the planet.  And there was something about flying over the edge of Alaska that put a smile on my face as I looked down upon it.

The food wasn’t too bad on the flight.  United prides itself on its 3 course meals and served us a lunch of teriyaki chicken, rice, vegetable medley, and salad with southwestern rice.  For dessert, they served us a wonderful vanilla bean gelato which was some of best ice cream-type food I have ever eaten.  Before touchdown, they served a breakfast of Udon noodles, though Dave had to be a rebel and order the scrambled eggs.

As I said the journey was long and I only napped for about an hour as excitement fueled my body.  Upon arriving at Narita, we waited for Mat who was delayed as everybody on the planet decided to land at Narita at the same time he did.  This slowed down his going through customs and immigration which my little group blew through in about 15 minutes.

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Japan, I have arrived.

We collected our resident expert, then got our J-Rail passes so we could travel through Japan.  Then we hopped on the Narita Express for a 90 minute journey to Shinjuku to arrive at the first house we would stay at through Air BnB where we met Mat’s friend, Mauricio, and his girlfriend, Allison, who would be joining us on a part of the adventure.

Despite being beyond the point of exhaustion our little group went out to dinner at a place called Pronto’s which is a bar/restaurant.  I normally don’t like to eat late, but one thing I appreciate about Japan is that we share a similar size appetite as all servings in Japan are small.  I had some juicy fried chicken with a splash of lemon.  After dinner we stopped at a mini-mart to get some things for breakfast.  I grabbed an orange juice and some of the famed pancakewiches of Japan.

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Pancakewich

I passed out and I mean passed out on my tatami mat to end this day’s adventures.

Cotton Patch Redux, Days 3 & 4: Cotton Patchless

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Thornton Inn

I imagine you saw the title and thought, “Huh?”  Unfortunately, it is true.  Have you ever had one of those days where fate seemed to conspire against you?  Well, I had that day on Friday and that conspiracy caused me to miss Cotton Patch Gospel. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The drive to Arlington was a shorter trip though somewhat marred by bumpy roads, construction, and heavy Friday traffic.  After weeding through the obstacles, I finally found myself in the town of Arlington where I would be staying at the Thornton Inn owned and operated by Sunny and Terry Graham.

Thornton Inn is quite unique in the sense that it is actually a renovated fraternity house.  The house is actually one of the oldest homes in Arlington being built in the early 1900s.  Eventually it became a frat house until a ruling by the University of Texas-Arlington decreed that all fraternity and sorority houses had to be located on campus.  The home was bought by the Grahams to be used as an office for Sunny’s real estate brokerage.  A suggestion that the home would make a good B & B inspired the Grahams to restore the house to its former scholarly glory and open it to guests in 2013.

Sunny and Terry are very kind hosts and great conversationalists.  Terry, in particular, is full of many incredible tales.  Terry led me to my room, the Remington, which housed a massive king bed which has been one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in and a beautiful modern bathroom with a shower that reminded me of the “Car Wash” in the now defunct Quill and Quilt of Cannon Falls, MN.

After settling in, Terry was kind enough to print out better directions for the Repertory Company Theatre.  After dressing for the play, I briefly toyed with the idea of arranging for a taxi to take me as I was tired after several days of driving.  In hindsight, I wish I had gone with the idea.

Under the best of circumstances, the drive from Thornton Inn to Repertory Company Theatre is about 40 minutes.  What I had to deal with was anything but the best of circumstances.

The journey must be experienced as it is very difficult to describe the roads used to travel from Arlington to Richardson.  One must use the LBJ Freeway and the George Bush Turnpike which consists of a maze of roads and exits which could easily baffle much better drivers than myself.

I was actually doing pretty well and wasn’t too far from my exit point when I saw an electronic sign flash the message that an accident had occurred right where I needed to exit and traffic ground to a halt.  I managed to get around the accident, breathing a sigh of relief that I had given myself 90 minutes just in case.  Then I faced my second problem.

My directions said one had to stay to the left in order to make the necessary turn.  Well, I followed those instructions to the letter. . .and it put me back on the freeway.  Not a problem, I got off at the next exit and got turned back around as precious minutes ticked away.

I found my road and thought I would make it in time to the show, but then I glanced at the road signs where, to my mounting horror, I suddenly saw I was somehow on a different street.  It turns out that the roads in Richardson are not unlike the roads in Flagstaff, AZ.  In Flagstaff if you turn left, the road is Apple Street.  But if you turn left, it’s Blueberry Street.  In Richardson, you need to be in just the right lane or you may find yourself on a road other than the one you want.

I desperately tried to find my road again, getting directions from a gas station.  I finally got back to my road and found the area where the theatre was located, but knew it was an exercise in futility as the show had already started.  I heaved a frustrated sigh and headed back to the inn.

I debated about whether or not I wanted to try again the next night, but there were problems with that.  I knew that each performance had less than 3 rows of seats still available before starting the trip so I wasn’t sure if I could still get a ticket.  You also cannot buy tickets online once it its 24 hours before showtime.  You can call the theatre for a ticket, but the box office doesn’t open until an hour before curtain.  Assuming I could still get a ticket, I still would have had the 40+ minute journey to re-endure.  It was too much of a gamble.  I wrote a letter to the theatre thanking them for Friday’s ticket and explaining why I was unable to make it.

The stress of the failed trip took a toll on my sleep as I woke up during the night with my body going through symptoms similar to a panic attack.  A few deep breaths brought my twitching body back under control and the comfort of the bed helped me fall back asleep.

Terry and Sunny were very sympathetic about my plight.  Terry felt guilty as he had printed out directions for me, but I assured him he could have done nothing more.  The bad luck was completely beyond his control.  But the delicious breakfast of breakfast tacos, fruit, bacon, and a hash brown helped perk me up.

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Breakfast tacos

Luckily I had a relaxing activity planned for the day.  I had arranged for a 90 minute massage at the Sanford House Bed and Breakfast and Spa.  Under Margo’s ministrations I felt my body loosen up and unwind and some cheese and water afterwards helped complete the treatment.  The Sanford Spa is definitely worth a visit if you want some pampering.

Afterwards, I headed to the Parks at Arlington mall where I wandered around briefly before returning to the inn where I watched some Elementary, finished a video game, and caught a nap.

I attended worship services at St Maria Goretti Catholic Church.  This was a beautiful church and the people were so welcoming.  It was a nice service with a good sermon from Father.

When worship had ended and under the suggestion from Sunny, I had dinner at Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.  Sunny had raved about their food and the crowd that met me certainly testified to the quality of the meal as it was packed to the rafters.  Even as the dynamic uno, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table.

But it was worth the wait.  Babe’s is better as a group as it is family style dining.  You get your choice of one of 5 meats and sides of corn, biscuits, salad, green beans, gravy, and mashed potatoes are brought on.  I opted for chicken fried steak which I managed to eat half of and helped myself to a little of each of the sides.  The mashed potatoes are the best I’ve ever tasted.  Price is about $15 per person, so it is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food.

When dinner was done, I did a little work posting photos, but found myself uninspired to write.  I decided to go to bed.

The next morning I had a filling breakfast of French toast, fruit, bacon, and sausage to strengthen me for the drive home.

I truly did enjoy my time at Thornton Inn and you cannot find better hosts than Sunny and Terry.  If you find yourself in Arlington, do yourself a favor and book a room here.

Of Outlaws, Nature, and Elegance: Excelsior Springs & The Inn on Crescent Lake

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“The road is now calling and I must away.”—Billy Boyd

The presents were opened.  The cheer was shared.  And, once more, the road was calling me to a new destination.  So it was that I found myself heading southwards on a pleasant, but frosty, Sunday towards the spa town of Excelsior Springs in Missouri where I would visit the Inn on Crescent Lake.

Excelsior Springs was famed for its mineral waters once upon a time and people came from miles around to bathe and be cured of their myriad illnesses.  The town pays tribute to its past with its Hall of Water exhibition in the downtown area, but it is also known as a bit of a resort area thanks to the Inn on Crescent Lake and the Elms Hotel & Spa.

Excelsior Springs is also located near several historical towns such as Liberty and Kearney as well as being a suburb of Kansas City.  In short, it has all the elements for a nice little weekend away.

I arrived in town shortly after noon and immediately headed downtown to have a bit of lunch.  Unfortunately, my initial choice was not open on Sundays.  Luckily, I found the Mill Street Restaurant and proceeded to have an enjoyable meal.

The restaurant was bustling, but I managed to find a seat and perused the menu.  Opting for a patty melt and fries, I sat back and relaxed, reading my Christmas gift, The Last Confession of Sherlock Holmes.  Within a few minutes, a piping hot plate was set before me and I enjoyed a perfectly prepared melt as well as some crisp, crinkle cut French fries.

Once lunch was done, I made my way to the town of Kearney, MO so I could visit the Jesse James Farm & Museum.

The James farmhouse.

The James farmhouse.

Jesse James and his brother, Frank, were two of the most legendary, and notorious, outlaws of American history.  They planned the first daytime bank robbery in history and embarked on a 16 year crime spree before Jesse was shot in the back of his head by Robert Ford.  Frank had retired from crime to raise a family and ultimately surrendered himself to the Governor of Missouri after being promised a fair trial and protection.  Frank and Jesse had been bushwhackers, a term used to describe guerrilla Confederate troops who attacked in quick bursts and slipped away.  Bushwhackers were often mobbed and hung and were stripped of many citizen rights after the Civil War.  The James brothers were often lauded as heroes fighting the tyranny of the Union which contributed to their legend as Robin Hoods of the South.

The James Farm is a very interesting piece of history.  The original farmhouse still stands and carries many interesting tales as related by our tour guide.  The most notable tale was the story of the Pinkerton raid in which Pinkerton agents attempted to capture Frank and Jesse (who were not at the farm at the time of the attack).  The raid resulted in the bombing death of Frank and Jesse’s 8 year old half-brother, Archie Samuel, and the loss of the arm of the James matriarch, Zerelda.

Jesse was buried on the family farm, but the tombstone erected on site is not the original.  We were informed that it was the third replica of the original marker.  The first two had virtually been eradicated by souvenir hunters who had chipped the two into oblivion to gain a piece of Jesse James’ tombstone.  What is left of the original is housed in the museum.

The James’ family was nothing, if not entrepreneurial.  Zerelda gave tours of the farm until her death.  She sold the rocks covering Jesse’s graves as souvenirs for 25 cents apiece.  When she ran out of the original stones, Zerelda brought stones from the nearby creek and sold them as “originals”.  She also was known to protect the original tombstone by keeping a loaded shotgun by her bed which faced the tombstone so she could always discourage would be souvenir hunters.  At her death, Frank took over tours until his death.  Eventually the county bought the land from the James heirs to build the museum and continue the tours.

After my visit to the farm, I returned to Excelsior Springs to check into the Inn on Crescent Lake.

I admit that I was blown away when I laid eyes on the estate.  The Inn on Crescent Lake is the most beautiful and luxurious inn I have visited since I began this project.  The 100 year old (it still looks brand new) Georgian Colonial Mansion is seated on a 22 acre property encircled by two crescent shaped ponds known as Crescent Lake.  Aside from the mansion, there is also a swimming pool with a hot tub and pool house that holds a massage room and extra suite for guests.  The property also boasts a small walking trail.

I rang the doorbell, which was attached to an intercom.  It was answered by owner, Beverly Bohnert, who told me to enter the foyer where I would be greeted.  I was met by owner, Craig Bohnert, who gave me a quick tour of the place.

My jaw nearly dropped as I gazed at the beauty of the inn.  My personal favorite was the living room which had a Christmas tree and a beaut of a fireplace.  I still marvel at the fact that the house is 100 years old because it looks pristine and new both inside and out.

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Eventually, Craig led me to the McCleary room which would serve as my home for the next two days.  The room was massive with a king sized bed gracing the center of the room.  The soft blue of the walls began relaxing me from the moment I entered.  After giving me a list of restaurant recommendations, complete with directions, Craig left me to my own devices.  I settled into the room and began exploring the rest of the mansion.

The McCleary Room.

The McCleary Room.

The Solarium.  This also doubles as the breakfast room.

The Solarium. This also doubles as the breakfast room.

After exploring the inn (and enjoying a couple of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of Beverly), it was time for supper so I decided to try El Maguey for a bit of Mexican fare.  I had a delicious quesadilla fajita and continued reading my latest adventure of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  My server forgot to tell me that I needed to head up front to pay the bill, so I spent a half hour wondering why he wasn’t picking up my check until I saw someone heading up front with their bill.  Well, at least, I got a lot of reading in.

I returned to Crescent Lake and enjoyed my whirlpool bathtub where I scraped off the beard I had been growing for the last few months and nearly took a nap in the hot, swirling waters.  Afterwards, I posted some pics while I watched an episode of A Touch of Frost.  When the show was over, I read myself to sleep on the nice firm mattress of my king sized bed.

The next morning I finished my novel and headed downstairs to the solarium for a hearty breakfast and I emphasize the word, hearty.  Craig presented me with a glass of orange juice and a meal fit for a king.  It consisted of two biscuits, a hash brown, two small sausage patties, a slice of orange, and a piece of casserole that contained sausage, egg, cheese, onions among other ingredients.  It was so tasty, but I ended up losing to the meal which bested me by a biscuit and an orange.  But, trust me, defeat never tasted so good.

After that wonderful meal, I hopped in my car and drove to Watson Mills State Park.  I had hoped to get a tour of the Watson House and the wool mill at the park, but found that those tours are only held during the weekend at this time of year.  It wasn’t a complete loss as I enjoyed a 4 mile hike around the lake which brought back memories of my walk through Azabu-Jaban in Tokyo several years prior.

With the completion of my constitutional, I returned to Crescent Lake where I began a new mystery novel featuring Frank Cannon and relaxed to the music of the night as I listened to Highlights from the Phantom of the Opera.

At 1pm, I headed down to the pool house for a 90 minute massage with LaVerne Gardiner.  If you stay at this inn, be certain to schedule some massage time with LaVerne.  It will be well worth your while.  This was one of the best massages I have ever received as I could feel muscles knots pop and dissolve under her ministrations.  I was loose, limber, and had full range of motion in my neck after that session.

I kicked back in my room for another couple of hours before taking another whirlpool bath and then went downtown for supper at Ventana’s Gourmet Grill, the personal favorite of Craig and Beverly.

As I went into the restaurant I was greeted by the smiling visage of a mannequin depicting a Victorian Santa Claus and another Christmas tree.  I entered the little eatery and sat down at a table.  The service was a little slow and a couple who entered after me had their orders taken before me.  But the quality of the meal made up for the misfires in the service.

I began my meal with an American salad with a slight drizzle of ranch dressing.  The vegetables were fresh and crisp.  For the main course I had the Garden Chicken plate which consisted of a lemon pepper chicken breast with grilled zucchini, mushrooms, and the fluffiest, tastiest mashed potatoes I had ever tasted.  I savored each delicious bite and polished off both my plate and my other novel.  From there, I returned to the inn, enjoying the Christmas decorations and lights along the way, to relax for a few hours before another blissful night of sleep.

The next morning, I was back in the solarium reading an old Reader’s Digest and enjoying another fabulous breakfast of honeydew and cantaloupe, bacon, and blueberry French toast.  I peered out over Crescent Lake and felt sorry that I would have to leave the inn.  I would definitely like to return to this inn, especially if they mount a mystery weekend which is something Craig and Beverly have been considering.

I give this place my highest recommendation for a visit.  If you want sweet seclusion, elegance, and fine dining then the Inn on Crescent Lake should be your lodging of choice if you find yourself in the city of Excelsior Springs.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I’ve compiled a large list of inns to visit for this project, but there are undoubtedly many, many more which I’ve yet to discover.  If there’s an inn that you think I absolutely must visit, feel free to comment on my B & B posts and I will add it to the visitation list.

Just Around the Riverbend to River’s Bend

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Why, hello again, and welcome to my one year anniversary article spectacular.

I decided I needed a truly special bed and breakfast to visit for my one year anniversary and I certainly found it at River’s Bend Bed and Breakfast; owned by Dr. Rita Schoeneman and located in the rural town of Iowa Falls, IA.

The weather was certainly cooperating with me on this fine summer day.  It had a rather springy feel to it with moderate temperatures, a sunny sky, singing birds, and clouds that were looking especially fluffy.  I was so excited about this trip that I had awoken at 4am and could not get back to sleep.  Shortly before 9am, I had hopped into my car and before I knew it I had reached Iowa Falls.

Iowa Falls is the biggest small town I have visited since I began this project.  It seems to have quite a few things to do and, as I would later learn, is jam packed with history.  It’s also the town where Kansas Jayhawks basketball legend and current NBA star, Nick Collison, began his rise to prominence.  Fun fact:  I attended school with Nick in elementary school (mind you, I was 4 years older and don’t know if we ever met) and was taught by his father, Dave, in junior high school.

As I drove around the city (yes, this city was big enough for me to drive around), I found a couple of nice scenic drives as well as a fairly impressive aquatic center that housed a decent looking miniature golf course.  I silently lamented the fact that my good friend and perennial rival, Mat O’Donnell, was not present for a duel.  Then again, the course was closed so it was a moot point.

Eventually, I parked in the town square and began to wander about the downtown area.  One of the more spectacular sights was the Metropolitan Opera House.  When first built, it was actually an opera house and had brought in some of the biggest names of the day like John Phillip Sousa.  Now it was a movie theater and I really wish I had had an opportunity to get inside the place and look around.

The Metropolitan Opera House.  This is now the local movie theater.

The Metropolitan Opera House. This is now the local movie theater.

About 2pm, I passed a boat club which had a riverboat moored on the Iowa River called the Scenic City Empress.  I saw some people getting onto the ship and I immediately parked my car and asked if I could purchase a ticket.  I would later discover that I had actually earned a free ticket for this cruise by booking at River’s Bend, but I was glad to make the $7 donation.

The Scenic City Empress

The Scenic City Empress

It was a very relaxing cruise on the Iowa River (which actually starts and ends in Iowa).  The whole journey took about an hour and fifteen minutes and I learned quite a bit about the local history from how the town was founded, to some of the powerful families who had lived there, to a lot of significant events that had occurred in the town’s history.  Once the cruise ended, I headed on over to River’s Bend.

For the first time since the project began, I actually had company for the trip.  Originally, my best friend, Josh Kudron, and his wife, Malissa, were supposed to join me on the journey.  Regrettably, complications arose which prevented them from making the trip.  Luckily, my parents, Bob & Virginia, whom I’ve long tried to convince to try a bed and breakfast, said they would like to come along.

We were warmly greeted by Rita, a former national director of the US Forest Service, who gave us the grand tour.

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The Bliss Suite AKA the Honeymoon Suite

The Bliss Suite AKA the Honeymoon Suite

Garden Room

Garden Room

Evergreen Room

Evergreen Room

This place is impressive.  It’s a Greek Revival house and the biggest bed and breakfast I have visited.  The rooms are incredibly spacious with the exception of the intimate Garden Suite.  I was quite surprised that the place only had 4 guest bedrooms considering how much house existed.  We had taken the Riverview Suite, which was a combination of the Riverview room and the Library which housed an eclectic amount of reading material from forestry to manga.  I gladly took the Library because I wanted to be able to get out on the balcony in the morning and watch the sun rise.

The Riverview Room

The Riverview Room

The Library.  This also forms part of the Riverview Suite.

The Library. This also forms part of the Riverview Suite.

After getting settled, we got into my car to travel to the nearby town of Eldora to attend worship services at St Mary’s parish.  On the drive over, my pop had me turn on the radio so he could listen to the Iowa vs. Ball State football game.  There are few things as entertaining as listening to my father watch or listen to an Iowa Hawkeyes sporting event.  Dad isn’t the most demonstrative of people. . .unless he’s watching his beloved Hawkeyes.  Then he’s the most animated person on the planet.  And he had plenty to be animated about as the Hawkeyes looked like they would be upset by the Cardinals as they were leading 13-3 as we headed into the church.

Father Tony, a very energetic and animated man, attempted to set a land speed record in delivering the service.  Apparently, he was suffering from post-concussion syndrome and was feeling a little ill, so he worked through the service as quickly as possible.  All that I can say is, he must be unbelievable when he’s feeling great given how much energy he had feeling sick.

After services, Dad hesitantly asked me to turn the radio back on and he must have done some serious praying, for now the Hawkeyes were about to, and did, in fact, win by a score of 17-13.  “They didn’t deserve to win,” said Dad, the relief evident in his voice.  We headed back to Iowa Falls where, under Rita’s suggestion, we went to Porter’s on Main for supper.

The place was a little dim, but the food was excellent.  I munched on a Diablo Chicken sandwich with a side of chicken gumbo.  Dad supped on a terrific New York Strip (which looked bigger than the 10 oz it was supposed to be), a side of chicken gumbo, and a baked potato.  And Mom enjoyed hamburger steak with some superior American fries (I know because I sampled some) and a salad.

After supper, we returned to the inn where I had to help my lovable Luddite of a father with the TV in the living room so he and Mom could watch the movie “Sneakers”.  I went to the suite to post some pictures, have a long hot soak, and curl up with my latest Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “The Spirit Box”.

Mom and Dad settle down to watch a movie.

Mom and Dad settle down to watch a movie.

I grew drowsy as I read and soon fell asleep for the night.  I awoke the next morning and did go out on the balcony to watch the sunrise, then immediately rushed back inside because it was darn chilly out there in my shorts.  I grabbed my Kindle and headed down to the 2nd living room to listen to music and continue Mr. Holmes’ adventure.  Dad had gotten up earlier to go buy a newspaper and he came back just as Mom was coming downstairs so we headed into the dining room for breakfast.

With all of the fancy, gourmet breakfasts I have eaten at bed and breakfasts, it was a nice change of pace to have a hearty, traditional breakfast.  Beginning with a dish of mixed fruit, Rita brought out some wonderfully crisp bacon and a stack of small pancakes which were quite fluffy and delicious.  Cups of coffee along with glasses of milk and OJ made for delicious breakfast beverages.

Rita came out partway through the meal and began to share with us some of the history of the house.  Then she asked about my B & B project as well as my theatrical background.  When I started talking about theatre, Rita shared this amazing tale of the time Hugh Jackman visited the house.  She even had photographic proof of the encounter.

As the story went, the previous owner of the movie theater had to sell out because he couldn’t afford the new digital projectors that would be needed to stay in business.  The new owner bought the needed projectors, but wanted to have a reopening worthy of the theater’s past as the Metropolitan Opera House.  As it happened, the new owner’s son happened to be an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles and was the agent for Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.  When the owner’s son told Hugh about his dad’s desire, Hugh readily volunteered to come to Iowa Falls to make it a red carpet event.

Hugh and his family stayed in the room that my family had stayed in and Rita said he was an absolutely perfect gentleman and down to earth guy, though his entourage was annoying.  In between signing posters for the event, Hugh helped his son with his homework, played with his daughter, and even made his children carry the breakfast dishes into the kitchen for cleaning.

The time passed much too quickly and soon it was time to check out and head back to reality.  It was truly a grand event and I easily rank this place in my top three bed and breakfasts that I have visited for this project.  If you find yourself in Iowa Falls, take some time out there.  Soak up the local culture.  Take a ride on the Scenic City Empress.  Most importantly, spend a night at River’s Bend.  You’ll get a great meal and enjoy some great conversation from an excellent hostess.  Heck, you’ll probably learn something, too.