Hmm. Ol' Gus has been resisting (is that the word I want? Hm. No, more like "avoiding." Yeah.) or rather, avoiding, writing anything at all. What's up with that? Gus doesn't know if it's a little bit of seasonal down-ness, or what, but it really sucks. Gus has been avoiding liquor. It seems that just one beer will send him into a downward spiral of a funk, and make him Very Grumpy Indeed. I sit down to write in my notebook and just stare at it. I have a letter halfway written, and it just sits there, getting older and more irrelevant every day. Ah-yup. Just like Ol' Gus. Yes! That's it! I had a birthday yesterday. And that was fine.
I got up and made coffee, fried up some potatoes and eggs and ham, then put on my long johns and work clothes and drove out to the workshop twelve miles outside of town. The roads weren't too bad, except along the shady spots. Last week had gotten kind of nasty, and one day while I was on my way out there I had to turn around because a big UPS truck had gotten stopped by the icy hill along the way and was backing down, almost a 1/8 mile stretch. He wasn't moving any too quickly, so I cut a doughnut on the ice and went back to take another road out there. That was nearly as bad, covered with a sheet of ice that had melted the day before and then frozen overnight. But with a little patience and care, and a light foot on the gas, I made it.
Anyway, that was last week. Yesterday was warm, up in the lower thirties, and the sun was shining. I got out to the shop and grabbed the splitting maul and some wedges and went to work. It doesn't take long to work up a sweat splitting wood, and after about ten minutes I was down to a long sleeved shirt while I wrestled chunks of wood up onto the splitting stump and drove the wedges in to make some stove-sized pieces. During that time two separate flocks of geese flew overhead, pointing north. It was good to see them, and to hear their calling back and forth over the soughing of the breeze through the stand of pines behind the shop. It seems too early for them to be heralding Spring, but the weather was so mild that it felt right.
I worked until almost noon, until my arms were quivering. I'll tell ya, if you don't do that sort of thing more often than I do, it takes a lot out of you. When I had gotten everything stacked and put away, I got into the truck and my wrist was so limp that I could barely turn the key in the ignition. Yeesh.
I had been informed that I was going out with friends on my birthday. Reservations had been made. So Gus did what anyone would do if they were going out; he took a nap. And then he woke refreshed, an hour later, still holding the book he had intended to read. My ride, G, arrived at 6:30. From there we drove to Lavalle, picked up P, who was just getting off of work, and then headed out of town along the dark winding and wintry roads through Ironton and then up the road past the Carr Valley Cheese Factory and finally to the Branding Iron Roadhouse in Lime Ridge.
I've been to the Branding Iron quite a bit over the past year. Lisa and Steve raise their own beef for the hamburgers, and Lisa makes her own seasoning for the meat, and does a good job of grilling them. If you ask for rare, she gives you rare. That's hard to find around here. But the burgers are the best I've found for about fifty miles around. She tries to buy everything locally, from the Carr Valley cheeses to the hamburger buns baked at the Amish bakery down in the valley.
J was already there with a tall Old Fashion in front of him. There was a small and bearded man in black leather sitting next to him at the bar, cutting into a steak. He seemed serious about it, and only glanced up at us as we walked in. We were intentionally early for our reservation. It gave us time to sit at the bar and relax with the row of Old Fashions that Steve mixed up for all of us. They were tall and good.
Tonight, coincidentally, was Guest Chef Night. The theme was "Supper Club Steak Night," with Chef Kimberly Anderson. On the menu was home-grown ribeye steak, sweet potatoes with creme fraiche, and various side dishes. As well as the Old Fashions. Mmm.
The dining area there is pretty casual. The pool table had been pushed to one side and the area filled with tables. The tables were all filled with a nice mix of folks. Some appeared to be locals, others didn't. It's easy to spot a tourist if you're a local. G struck up a conversation with some gals from New York who had just finished up their meal and were sitting at the bar. They were transplants to the area, but that's all I heard of the conversation, except one of them commenting that "...men don't like assertive woman." Well, Gus thinks that's just plain silly. And that's all I'm saying about that. And while we were sitting there and visiting, a group of people left and they all called out to the bearded man in black leather, "Good night, Father!"
Lisa showed us to our table after a bit. There was a tray of pickled vegetables in the center. There was pickled curried cauliflower that was really nice, and some spicy pickled carrots, hot pickled green beans and a few others. They were all good, a nice starter. Lisa took our order, which was pretty much, "How do you want your steak?" while we munched on these. Then Lisa brought the salad of leafy greens topped with a vinaigrette and thin chilled slices of marinated grilled steak. Oh, man, it was good. And we were all hungry. After that, the main course, along with more drinks. The steaks were perfectly seared and mostly tender, not feed-lot tender. We were a rare to medium-rare group, and fell to it carnivorously. I was a little disappointed with the sweet potato dish. It just seemed as if something with a little more consistency and flavor would have suited the steak better. But that's a minor thing. We had choices of sides. J chose pickled beets (the pickled foods were all prepared by the chef) on a bed of dilled cottage cheese. G had the sauerkraut soup and I chose the grilled mixed mushrooms, and we all shared with the others. We all had a good time, except that the room was chilly and the big-screen T.V. was on over beside the kitchen. There was a really good music mix going on that the television occasionally interfered with. And I may have mentioned how I feel about television in restaurants before; I'm sure you don't need to read it again.
Dessert came then. J got the frosty frozen fruit squares, which kind of surprised me because it was, as I mentioned, chilly in there. The rest of us had the petit cocoa cakes with creme de menthe icing. That went really well with the bottle of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel ale that I washed it down with. Oh, man, Gus was feeling mellow by then.
There were only a few people left by this time. The chef came out and visited with us, and a couple at another table. She was interesting, and enthusiastic. It was fun to visit with her, and hear her plans for other dinners. The guests at the other table kind of know me, and they sang "Happy Birthday" to me, which was kind of embarrassing, but enjoyable anyway. From there we wandered back up to the bar, where J and I decided that some good whiskey would take the chill off. And it did. J said that he had never been a whiskey drinker, but might change his mind. It was smooth and mellow.
The booze didn't send Gus into a funk the way it has been of late. No, everyone seemed to be having a good time, and that sort of mood can be infectious. And it was. You can feel the mood of a gathering of people, in much the same way that you can feel the mood of one person. It changes the air around you, and runs through you if you let it, and maybe even if you don't. And one might be flippant and say, "That's just the booze talking, Gus!" But that's not the case, not always. It happens all the time, sometimes when you wouldn't think it's there. I've felt it in small crowds or large, as if there is a signal, some electricity that moves from person to person until it's a tangible thing, something that can bring a smile and warmth out before you realize it.
I have a memory from almost thirty years ago of going to see the Fourth of July fireworks in Lacrosse. I went along with P and her nieces. The fireworks were going to be shot off across the Mississippi River. We had to park far away and walk down to the park. And at one point I was carrying my niece on my shoulders in the middle of the press of people. There were so many people that they filled the streets as far as we could see. And I heard her laughing above me, and realized that I was laughing too, chuckling to myself as we moved down the street looking over the heads of the people and feeling the mood and the warmth of this happy crowd wrapping around us.
Yesterday I had a birthday. I was able to visit with friends and strangers. Today is cold again, but that doesn't matter because I saw the wild geese returning ahead of the coming Spring.