Sunday, July 24, 2011

Medora in the Summer

Living in western North Dakota, the first thing anyone told me anything about when I arrived was Medora, the little town where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is, the town that is all that is left of where Roosevelt lived while ranching here. It had essentially become a ghost town until a wealthy entrepreneur moved in and saved it (I think in the 1960s?). Most of the town is now owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and, I mean this is the best possible sense, has become a quality tourist trap. Because of when I relocated out here, the first time I visited Medora was in the dead of winter when one restaurant and one shop are still open. The rest of the people, quite wisely, have flown south for the winter.

I missed last summer's season as I didn't have any visitors come and Medora in the summer just seemed like I needed to have someone with me to brave. So, the next time I went was during my parents' visit in October of last year. Because of the oil boom in the area, more businesses stayed open longer and I got to hit the stores as they had their end of season sales. Other than that, I have driven in Medora simply to get to the national park, nothing more.

So, when my sister decided to come out in July this year, I was excited. I'd at least have someone to finally go to this Medora Musical I'd heard so much about. So, the day after I'd survived my first trail ride and hit the lunch rush at the Cowboy Cafe, my sister and I headed back to Medora for the Pitchfork Fondue and Medora Musical.
Pitchfork Fondue. Photo: Ally Thomas

The Pitchfork Fondue is not actually a I'm not sure where the fondue part of the title comes from. There was, sadly, no cheese involved. That said, this is far and above the best meal I'd had in a very long time. The Fondue occurs next to the amphitheater where the musical is, high up above the Chateau De Mores. You have a killer view overlooking the Little Missouri River from where you sit. When dinner is ready, they ring the bell and everyone herds into line. As the dinner starts so early (two and a half hours) before the musical, there is no need to rush. We were eating on an absolutely perfect night (if a little breezy) so my sister and I waited around for the line to get down a bit. Once in line, you hand in your tickets, grab a tray and fill her up. I skipped the beans (not my thing) but loaded a tray with coleslaw, garlic bread, fresh fruit and vegetables and a baked potato before getting back into a line to pick up my steak. Now, they cook the steaks on actual pitchforks (hence the name), and whatever they season them with, they should sell. This was the tastiest 12 oz rib-eye I've ever had. Nice and juicy, if a bit unevenly cooked, it is the reason to go to the Pitchfork Fondue. The meal also includes lemonade and dessert (super yummy mini cinnamon doughnuts and really chocolatey brownies).

So, my sister and I took our time eating, had multiple desserts and enjoyed the view and still had an hour to kill before the show. We walked over to the Medora Musical Welcome Center and perused the gift shop of a while, which also has displays on the history of the musical (which started out as Old Four Eyes in the 1950s if I recall correctly), dealt with a minor issue with our tickets and then headed down to the theater. The theater is impressive as is the stage which consists mostly of movable buildings re-creating the Medora of Theodore Roosevelt's time. For an amphitheater, on a perfect night, with the added bonus of some wild elk just hanging out behind the stage, it gets you excited for the show. Then the musical started. Now, I wasn't expecting greatness and I figured it would be more revue than musical but to me, they need to work on the flow a bit more - it doesn't quite work at times and also, the corniness level is alarming in sections. What did surprise me was the level of commercialness involved. The Medora Musical is one giant commercial for North Dakota which I found interesting since you're already in North Dakota when watching it, I would assume you're sort of preaching to the choir.  I will forgive the actual commercial done twice regarding buying concessions before the show started and right before intermission, mainly because I'm still in shock they do that (but my sister took a picture so it must be so).

The Burning Hills Singers of Medora Musical. Photo: Ally Thomas
Now, for the most part, the show is half revue and half a history lesson about Theodore Roosevelt. The singing portions of the show are enjoyable and fun; the crop of guy singers this year is much better than the girls and the dancing was well coordinated and fit the style of the show. The clogging (which is actually tapping because they were not wearing clogs) was the best part of the dance sequences though I am still puzzled as to why there is clogging in a western show. I must look up the history there some time. The history lessons were actually a lot of fun especially the "re-creation" of the Battle of San Juan Hill. The use of horses in that scene was particularly effective I thought. I was actually quite impressed with the use of horses throughout the show - they added something to the brief stories rather than just being novelties to bring out on stage every once in a while.

All in all, I am glad the tickets were given to me by a friend at work. I do not think the musical is worth the price you pay to see it if I'm being honest. The Pitchfork Fondue though absolutely is - I'm quite sad I have no more visitors coming this season to give me another excuse to go!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Glamour of Train Travel

From Goodreads
I love traveling by train. We took it down to New York City for my 18th birthday and I fell in love. On my first trip to France, a few months later, we did the overnight train from Paris to Toulouse and even had a berth on that train, sleeping three high in the tiniest room imaginable. It was like an adventure and we had so much fun trying to shove our 6 almost to bursting suitcases into the compartment. When I studied abroad, the train was our way of getting around England and we even took the train to Paris from Waterloo (though the Chunnel was less than cool - I mean, it is just one long tunnel after all). I often did the overnight train from Chicago home during my years in Ann Arbor. This was mostly brought on by cheap train fares and my need to avoid air travel for a bit after several really bad flights in and our of Baltimore during my undergrad years. Plus, there is something so wonderful about the train. Settling into your larger seat with leg room, plugging in your lap top and watching episodes of West Wing as you cross Indiana and Ohio. You can see the landscape too, traveling at Christmas was wonderful; seeing the decorations on the houses, catching glimpses of the trees lit and parties happening as the train goes through people's backyards. There is something wonderfully voyeuristic about train travel in that way.

So, imagine my excitement when I was looking for my Travel/Geography book for the summer challenge when an internet search led me to Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux gets on a train in London and goes all the way to Japan and back traveling as much by train as possible. He does this in the early 1970s so the book is quite dated but the magic of train travel never gets old. Theroux is quite likeable as a traveler and willing to speak to his fellow passengers and conductors, to learn as much about where he is as he can. Something the reader must appreciate because the entire book then feels like you're traveling alongside Theroux.

He crushes a few dreams of mine. Apparently, at least in the 1970s, The Orient Express has lost a lot of the glamour you think it should have and that decades of fiction have saturated it with. You learn that the idea of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world at over 6,000 miles is a better idea on paper than in reality. Or I wonder if doing the Trans-Siberian in the dead of December on your last leg of your journey when all you want to do is get home was perhaps Theroux's problem at that point. Because for the most part, he's an enthusiastic traveler who braves the unstable railways of a Vietnam not quite out of the war yet, who willing goes off the beaten path to see what he can find. He's a lot braver than I would be so as a reader, I get to experience things I wouldn't if I'd tried this trip myself.

I did find myself wondering what this trip would be like now, almost forty years since Theroux made it. Are the cars on the Indian Railways still as posh? Are the dining cars still just noodle booths throughout much of Southeast Asia? What are your companions like on the Trans-Siberian now that communism has failed in Russia? It would be a fun experiment - a lot more expensive these days I imagine than in the 1970s when it seems to have been fairly cheap to travel by rail (and still is in Europe so maybe this holds true everywhere?). Perhaps some day I'll have four months to spare to try to navigate two continents by train. One can only hope. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Story of the Little Company that Could

From Upcoming Pixar
Now, after Super Size Me, I realized I should probably steer clear of food movies for the duration of this illness, whatever it is (My first migraine or a really weird sinus infection...the jury is still out on that), so I looked through my instant watch list after I was becoming bored out of my mind from just lying around and found I still had The Pixar Story in queue. Nothing can make you happier than a bunch of people who clearly love what they do producing some of your favorite movies - you even hate that you have to stop watching to run yourself to the emergency room because your body is rejecting pain medication that is supposed to help you.

However, after you've gotten that taken care of and are at least back to where you were before the experiment with Vicodin, you come back and settle down and watch John Lasseter's contagious enthusiasm fill your screen and you're bummed you gave up on that dream to become an animator on that dark day in 4th grade when you realized you had no drawing ability whatsoever. Because, basically, The Pixar Story is the story of this one little computer animation company that could. That wasn't willing to say something couldn't be done and that was willing to sacrifice everything for a good story. It is a movie of triumphs, of these rebel computer scientists and artists proving to the world that 3D animation could be done and done well. It is clearly a movie of a company that knew they shouldn't have succeeded so quickly once they got their name out there but they did so they ran with it and just kept beating the odds. Completely re-working Toy Story 2 over a weekend when they realized the story just wasn't working. Making up the rules as they went when it came to new techniques needed for Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. If nothing else, The Pixar Story is a testament that if you pay attention to the story and the craftsmanship of the film, the bottom line takes care of itself. A lesson animation studios are still learning years after Pixar has proved it time and again.

The films wraps after the success of The Incredibles so there are no mentions of the Pixar successes since such as Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3,  perhaps the best of the Toy Story trilogy. I wonder also how it would handle Cars 2, arguably the weakest film to ever be released by the whiz kids up in Emeryville. A film that is still heads above the competition but does present a little worrying fission through Pixar devotees. Until one watches the trailer for Brave and you realize every studio gets its one off. Even when that one off is still wildly successful, fun, engaging and leaves you wanting more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not a movie to watch while ill...or if you like McDonald's French Fries

Sigh, I am sick of being sick with some mysterious illness. My new plan is to ignore my headache and carry on as if it doesn't exist. I'll either succeed in ignoring it into nonexistence or ticking it off enough that it sticks around for my sister's visit. I always pick the most inopportune times to be sick. I mean, this couldn't happen during a month when I have nothing going on? I have reams of those around, time to kill but no, I get sick as I have someone actually coming to see me! Whatever body, you're not getting out of the planned outdoor movie, trail ride or outdoor musical complete with pitchfork fondue before hand.

From The Political Film Blog
That said, when one is suffering from nausea brought on by medicine that you have no business taking, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is not the movie to watch when you can't seem to fall asleep. But, it was going to go off Netflix Instant soon and I didn't think it could be that bad so I watched. And progressively got more green as the movie continued. Honestly, it's really two scenes that seem a bit much. When you eat a super sized Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal in less than 30 minutes, you can imagine what your body does with that much processed sugar and fried foods. It doesn't take a genius. And then also, the scene where they show a gastric bypass surgery in all its wonderful glory. No thanks.

That said, this movie was quite eye opening. Granted, I try to keep my McDonald's intake down (but I do love their fries) so I might get it once a month? Even that is probably more than I get on average. I always get a medium (who would need more?) and I figure that isn't sending me to an early grave. Spurlock goes all out - seems to often get the largest size he can and the amount of soda the man consumes is alarming in itself. Soda is one thing I noticed I drank too much of in college so I took that out of my diet early. Now it's more of a treat I buy on special occasions or get when I eat out if iced tea isn't a valid option. Overall, it's disturbing to watch a healthy, normal male live on McDonald's for a month and basically destroy the health he's acquired over the first 30ish years of his life. Because he does manage to destroy it. Notes given after the movie say it takes his vegan girlfriend 8 weeks to get his blood work back to normal and it takes him months to return to his normal weight. Months when it only took him a single month to put on 25 pounds.

Now, this is an extreme experiment and like I said, Spurlock does seem to make matters worse on himself by his menu choices but that's sort of the point so I let that slide. I found the reason he came up with the idea fascinating as well. Two teenage girls were suing McDonald's for their obesity and subsequent health problems. Now, I guess I see this as sad. McDonald's is a part of the American problem; I'll be the first to admit it. But is anyone forcing you to eat there? Spurlock does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument and looking at the American food lifestyle in general and how those two young girls could perhaps come to see McDonald's as the source of their problems (I have to wonder though what their parents were doing when all this was occurring though).

So, interesting film, really, and it made sure I won't be subsisting on McDonald's anytime soon though I'm still baffled as to who would want to do that. However, not a documentary to watch while you're feeling ill. Or on a full stomach. Or if you plan on eating at any time during or after the film. Give yourself some recovery time because he eats a lot of Mickey D's in front of you and I think some of the processed sugar leeches out into the audience.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Cranky Founding Father

From Amazon
For my history movie, I decided to finally watch the entirety of John Adams. I'd caught one or two episodes back when I was in DC in the summer of 2008 but had never seen the entire miniseries. I started it on July 4th after I'd watched all the other "patriotic" movies I own (namely Independence Day and Live Free or Die Hard - I figured start with the explosions and move on to the diplomats). The story of our nation and its origins never ceases to impress me. It never should have worked; we were the ultimate underdogs and yet somehow, we pulled out of it victorious (thanks in no small part to a heaping dose of help from France). I was glad the miniseries kept the cerebral side of our independence, it is the side I find infinitely more interesting.

America, the Great Experiment, comes out ahead in this particular re-telling though they do not shy from the politics and underhanded dealings that resulted in her. I was sad the series skipped over the disaster of the Articles of the Confederation but as Adams was abroad at the time, it made sense in terms of plot though I find it fascinating that the first try didn't take and we were still stubborn enough to try again. If nothing else, the miniseries makes you think on parts of history that were lines on a study guide once upon a time. The years Adams is president make much ado about the Alien and Sedition Acts. I had a vague memory learning a definition for them before my AP American History exam in 11th grade but it was fascinating to watch the consequences of signing versus not signing be argued out by Adams, his wife and his cabinet. They are mostly scorned in American history class if I recall correctly - acts that reduced civil liberties and put a gag on the American people and yet within the context of their creation, I understood why they seemed like a good idea at the time. If nothing else, the miniseries always portrays America as young, impulsive, and still testing her limits in the new world she created. While I can not condone the Acts themselves, I can better appreciate the reason Adams signed them.

However, John Adams is not only a history lesson; it is a series which portrays some of the most remarkable partnerships our country has ever known. Adams and his wife, Abigail. Adams and Thomas Jefferson, exact opposites in every sense whose friendship spans decades. You see the brashness of Alexander Hamilton (and come to understand why they wrote the Constitution specifically so he couldn't become president) and the sage quietness of General George Washington. The kookiness of Benjamin Franklin is especially well portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. If nothing else, the miniseries made characters of names I had read in my history books a thousand times but have never connected them to anything other than their proper place on my timeline. And make me wish to see men and women of their ilk among us again. I feel we had need of them more than ever as we enter our 235th year, a birthday perhaps they could not fathom when they signed a declaration of independence so many years ago.

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Infinite Playlist I wish I'd had

From Goodreads
So, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is true high school fantasy. They are cooler than one could ever hope to be and yet you can't hate them for it. You're too busy hoping, if you ever met one or both, they'd think you were cool enough to be friends with.

What I liked about this book was how different it was from the movie. It had to be different of course. The book is told mostly as Nick and Norah's inner thoughts and how they feel their way through the date to end all first dates. These characters are more raw than we like on our movie screen and make lots of mistakes along the way. Also, because of the two dialogues, supporting characters are less important than the main characters which works for a book but may bore in a movie. However, the book is wonderful - vibrant, funny, and heart-wrenching. These are two people you are rooting for from the moment you read the first page.

I also love the character of New York City in this book. She is showcased in all her raw, gritty beauty that few can appreciate. I find I do prefer reading about it more than experiencing it in all honesty but I've seen this character in my fleeting visits to the City. Nick and Norah almost make me want to get to know her better at her core, away from the tourist areas I've usually frequented to find these corners they roam through or even to better appreciate the midtown areas that they themselves wonder why they are drawn to them. Old NYC comes off quite good in Cohn and Levithan's tale.

I also dare anyone to read this and not come away with a greater appreciation for music. Nick and Norah are both characters that feel music deeply and are able to express their feelings about music in clear, interesting ways. It is a book with a soundtrack always playing in the back of your mind. Norah calls them "music soulmates" at one point in the book, a line which made it into the film, and I think it fits. Nick and Norah use music to catalog their lives, to relate to the world around them, on a level I'd never seen before. It comes across more in the book than the film but even in the film, you understand that what initially brings these two people together is that somehow, in some way, they are both listening to the same song in their head, they just haven't realized it yet.

I would recommend both book and movie as two different stories with two different main characters who happen to share similar traits and problems. Both will not fail to entertain and at the very least, they come with their own killer soundtracks.